Being Real Change with Gandhi and Friends

"Yoga and politics..." A long sigh followed those frustrated three words. My friend Matt and I were sitting in the steam room, long curls of smoke between us while discussing whatever was latest on our minds that evening. I remember something about Mississippi governor’s Haley Barbour’s racist Southern revisions, one of the many campaign promises that that John Boehner never lived up to after assuming the position of House majority leader, probably something hideously Palin. Concealed by the cloud across the room came the guffaw and sucker punch. A long silence followed.

"So, what did you think of 'Celebrity Vagina' last night?" Matt shot back in response to the unseen criticism of our discussing politics in a yoga studio. The timing was priceless, the meaning well taken. I just laughed, we continued chatting, angry man left the room. The episode highlights an uncomfortable trend: not even allowing political discussion into the yoga conversation, as if the very word was toxic. While the way that politics are practiced in our culture may indeed be poisonous, yogis are part of a community that we desperately need to be engaged in this particular discussion.

Barely a week goes by that I don’t see somewhere -- on my Facebook feed, in a yoga magazine, sketched on a studio wall -- that famous quote attributed to Gandhi about being the change that you want to see in the world. While it’s an important sentiment, the man’s words are too often cut-and-pasted from the totality of his being, like other important social figures in this digital age. While a crucial statement of Gandhi’s arsenal, this closing paragraph of his autobiography better characterizes his life and work:

"To see the universal and all-pervading Spirit of Truth face to face one must be able to love the meanest of creation as oneself. And a man who aspires after that cannot afford to keep out of any field of life. That is why my devotion to Truth has drawn me into the field of politics; and I can say without the slightest hesitation, and yet in all humility, that those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means."

Gandhi lived a complex life that has never been above criticism. The man once remarked, after all, that Jews imprisoned by Hitler should have "offered themselves to the butcher's knife" or committed "mass suicide" as a way of showing the man’s evil to the world. He admitted that violence might be necessary at times, even though he predominantly believed resolving issues was best accomplished through non-violence. Suggesting that this means shirking at political discussions, however, implies the exact opposite of what the man was about.

The ethical and moral principles of yoga are essential components of the practice. At some point we have to put those principles into action in the world. How could we possibly understand what asteya (non-stealing) means when our banking institutions, led by swindlers like Joseph Cassano and Win Neuger, first stole billions of dollars through dishonest deals and then continued embezzling via government bailouts paid for by tax dollars? What does satya (truthfulness) entail when we have verifiable evidence of global warming, and politicians instead inform us that their god will take care of everything and shift the focus on culture war issues like abortion and gay marriage? What formidable examples of santosha (contentment) are we engaging in when we allow our elected officials to wage wars wherever they want whenever they want in the name of American "progress” and "safety" -- this in a country falling behind other nations in technology, education and healthcare year after year?

Prayers are beautiful things. Even as an atheist, I can understand and appreciate the sentiment, because engaging in such a form of meditation (directed thought) cultivates compassion. I see a lot of prayers going out to Japan right now. What I don’t see as many of are donation links (though I do see some). Prayers aren’t going to rebuild housing and provide food for those in need.

What I don’t see any discussion of on yoga blogs or hear discussed in studios is regulating the American nuclear industry and its dangerous facilities, a few of which are built on major fault lines. I hear no comments about workers in Wisconsin battling to save their unions. I am seeing posts about how the US should not enforce a no fly zone in Libya, but what I am seeing is exactly that: The US government should not enforce a no-fly zone in Libya!, followed by no commentary or discussion of what that actually means, with no one engaging the possibility we perhaps have become so callous and tired of unjustified wars that when one appears that might be worth fighting, we automatically assume it’s not.

I will cook the hell out of a recipe I eye in Vegetarian Times just as quickly as I’ll check out a massage special on Travelzoo. I’m always clicking on workshop schedules being pinged about in Facebook world. Yoga and chocolate, yes. Calming my mind in meditation: check. Maybe I can’t get down with the whole dogs and yoga thing, but who really can? There’s plenty that yoga has to offer everyone, and we do have the freedom to choose which aspects we partake in. Plenty of beautiful charity projects, like aid to Africa and donation classes for Japan. Sending money there is important. But so is being aware and engaging in what’s going on within our borders, battling injustices at our doorsteps. If we don’t hear them knocking right outside our door, by the time they reach our living rooms things are going to be a lot harder to ignore, and we’ll wonder where all those freedoms we assumed natural went.

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