Should yoga be political? I used to say, without a doubt, no. But in actual fact, I didn't question my reasoning, or lack thereof, when asking myself this question. For many, yoga conjures the image of a tranquil studio space, lit by nerve-stroking candlelight that bounces off the many crystals scattered around, scented with mellow incense, with the sound of possibly appropriative music in the background, playing far too softly for you to realise. I think the main reason I used to say no, is because I very much bought into that image, and when I looked at the messy world and absolute turmoil of the socio-political landscape we have today, there was no way I could consolidate that with this safe, crystal lined haven. So I said no, and I carried on sage-ing my crystals.
But something wasn't right. The more you practice yoga, and I mean really the yoga, not just poses, not just chanting, not just looking great in Lululemon, but actually letting the fullness of the practice and all its 8 limbs permeate your life, it becomes harder and harder to separate the practice from that very life. If I pledge to be fully conscious and therefore compassionate and honest in all I do on my mat, how can that then just cease to be when I step off it? Truth is, it can't. Yoga has a way of getting to you, by which it infiltrates every aspect of your being no matter how much you try to separate the inner work from the handstand. It actually becomes your lived experience. It makes you want to live better, not just for your own benefit, but for the world around you.
It softens you to others, yet strengthens your resolve. It awakens you to the nature of your privilege and propels you into action to use that privilege in a positive way that helps those with less. Because of yoga, my life is a gift, because of privilege, I can share that gift by working as a yoga teacher in London. I remind myself that I have this privilege every day, I express gratitude in the form of teaching day in, day out to the best of my abilities, to serve my students. Not all my students are able to practice in the studios I teach, because of time and financial restrictions, so they come to my community classes, they pay what they can, or they get free access to my tutorials online. Someone commented recently that they felt it was unfair that they paid full price for my private sessions, whilst a student on disability benefits got a substantial discount. When I explained, the client said that she "hadn't realised X was disabled". This is why we need yoga now. There is a woeful lack of consciousness in the world, so it is my intent to raise it the only way I know how.
For those of us fortunate enough to come to class at a studio, why are we coming? London studio prices are expensive even on a larger salary, and there's a wealth of free online resources whereby you can practice from the comfort of home, but yet still we come to class. It's because people want community, and whats more, they want a loving community, brought together by a shared positive interest. When I walk into a class these days I feel the exact opposite of what's going on just outside. Instead of people banding together over who and what they hate, or how their beliefs are superior to someone else's, they're instead sharing a space with others, regardless of race, gender age etc. Now, admittedly yoga studios do attract large numbers of white, middle class people, and there is much more work that needs to be done there to foster inclusivity in these spaces, but I do believe that this work is being done by some studios. Some, certainly not all.
If you are someone lucky and privileged enough to get to practice in a studio regularly, and therefore be part of a vibrant community, then it is part of your yoga practice to take that ethos outside into the world with you. The principles you so beautifully embody when in a yoga class can be of benefit to the wider community, to those who can't afford an expensive studio class, and who therefore can't get a front row seat. How can you be an ambassador? I appreciate that I sound very naive imploring a bunch of yogis to go out and change the social and political landscape with some good vibes and healing, but it's more than that. With the heightened consciousness that yoga gives you, whether it's through asana alone, or pranayama, and/or meditation, you automatically become more open to communication.
Clear communication is severely lacking at the moment. If you watched the recent political debate, you would have seen it was mainly soundbites full of lies and empty promises made to those who don't have access to the truth. There is no clarity or honesty, and how can there be? Because people simply aren't talking to those who aren't in their camp. Social media drives a wedge between people, not only with its irresponsible sharing of false reporting and sensationalist journalism, but also, it has helped us to disconnect from one another entirely. We have no empathy. Empathy is cultivated in consciousness.
As a result of this, we call each other out online, when there is a clash of opinions. 'Calling out' an individual is a phenomenon of the internet age whereby we 'expose' a misstep to an audience of potentially millions. Whilst this highlights the many murky shadows of this world we live in today, what results is often hostility and deepened divisions between opposing schools of thought or moral views. Calling out by its very nature is exclusive. Like everything in daily life, I like to bring it back to the yoga. If you were in my class, and you saw another student practicing a pose in a way that might be harmful to themselves or to those around them, would you expect me to shout at them or make an example of them by throwing them out? Or would you expect me to carefully assist them to find a way to do it that was more beneficial to them and those around them? I know most if not all of you would choose the latter. If this is the case, then why can't that translate to the outside world. If ever there were a time to foster a culture of calling in as opposed to calling out, this is it.
It must be noted, however, that not everything within the environment of the yoga world is all peace and love. Some of the failings of power structure that we see within politics get mirrored back into our yoga world. A good example of this is when a pioneer of a particular style of yoga disparages another style, denigrating it based on falsehoods that complement their agenda. Politicians do this in order to win votes. Are our modern day 'gurus' trying to politicise schools of yoga? Let's hope not, but I do believe that when foul play and ego trips within the yoga world become public knowledge, we generally do something about it in order to foster change. The making of the Bikram documentary on Netflix is a great example of this. Whilst there have been many conversations within the yoga community about foul play, none had thus far reached the mainstream, so the making and distribution of that particular documentary was ground breaking. As with any sphere, there is some resistance to change amongst the old guard, but the overwhelming feeling in response to documentaries such as this is that there is a sea change, and a proactive one at that.
If you look at our society at large in this present moment, no one can deny that it isn't working. In the last decade things have gotten worse and worse, and worse. Surely then, purely on an evolutionary level, regardless of political leaning, it's time for a change, both one we accept and push for. I can admit I have avoided explicitly talking about politics anywhere near my yoga classes, but by example of what I teach my stance is clear. And that is enough. It doesn't have to personal, it doesn't even have to be all that specific, and in the same way you can't hold your body in standing splits forever, we can't go on like this.