Photo: Ian Usher/Flickr
Yoga and politics: these are two words we don’t often see together.
This week Turkish riot police stormed Istanbul’s Taksim Square, where pro-democracy protestors have been demonstrating. Taksim Square backs on to Gezi Park where the protests began. Here, we have seen yoga and politics come together in a dramatic fashion as protestors held a mass yoga demonstration in the park.
As pro-democracy activists around the world seek new ways to promote non-violent protests, might this be a foretaste of things to come?
More than exercise or escapism
For many political activists, yoga may seem the antithesis of political activism: sitting cross-legged, chanting ‘Om’ and meditating while the class struggle passes you by. And there can be more than a grain of truth in such an observation. Many people, especially in the West, who practise yoga see it as just a form of exercise or as escapism from the stress of modern life.
And within some yoga philosophical traditions, you will find an apolitical stoicism. There is a Sanskrit saying: ‘As the mind, so the man: bondage or liberation are in your own mind’. If you feel bound, you are bound. If you feel liberated, you are liberated. Things outside neither bind nor liberate you: only your attitude towards them does that. Try telling that to those being tear-gassed in Istanbul!
But it doesn’t have to be like that. And for many yogis, it isn’t. I have been practising yoga for 14 years now and teaching regularly for the past six. I’ve found that the yoga philosophy is sympathetic to and compatible with a compassionate, radical and environmentally sustainable politics. In my experience, the majority of experienced yogis are broadly sympathetic to progressive and radical thinking.
Debates within the yoga world
I have noticed increasing interest from yogis to be involved in charitable and low key (non-party) political campaigns. At the same time, yoga has now become a multi-million pound business. Inevitably, this has led to more scandals about the commercialisation of yoga and of sexual exploitation by some of its well-known ‘gurus’.
The media’s focus on the growth of yoga in the relatively privileged and affluent Western world has tended to identify yoga as a very personal, even slightly self-indulgent, pursuit of physical and mental perfection. At a time of unprecedented economic and environmental crisis, it is time for the yoga community to stand together and to reassert its fundamental values – on the mat AND in society.
I have written a further article about Yoga and Politics, which has been published in the latest issue of the British Wheel of Yoga’s magazine, Spectrum. You can read more here: Yoga and Politics.