Politics and Spirituality
So how do you square it if you’re a yogi who prefers Twitter to Instagram?
They say never mention politics or religion at a dinner party. I’m a yoga teacher with a degree partly in Politics so I have spent a lot of time biting my tongue! But events over the last few years have made me question my reticence to speak up and get involved in the shaping of the world around us. It’s an issue that’s poked away at me for so long that I’ve finally had to face it head on.
The mixing of politics and spirituality is a contentious thing. A lot of yogis I know stay away from politics. There’s a perception in the industry that politics isn’t spiritual enough. It’s perceived as negative, depressing and in many ways lesser than spiritual pursuits. A lot of yoga teachers also stay away from politics for fear of alienating a large part of their client base. And then there’s the issue of confrontation – for the quieter among us, voicing your views can be a scary thing. Social media in particular is a world of trolls and rough rebukes and you need a thick skin to survive. In the recent US election, the issue of yoga teachers venturing forward views or even expressing their intention to vote brought forth great debate and often abuse.
Spiritual traditions have a long history of shaping politics, as shown at the recent British Museum exhibition Tantra. In fact the discipline of a spiritual practice, the moral codes that encompass compassion, truthfulness and non-harming, and the insight gained through meditation gives esoteric practitioners qualities that are well-needed in the World right now. If we want to really heal ourselves then we also need to heal our communities and society, and begin to shape a world we want to live in. So how do we reconcile the two things.
Yoga as a revolutionary act
The ancient yogis took themselves off to live in the forests or caves, away from society, in order to map the human body and gain enlightenment. But this in itself was a revolutionary act – they refused to conform to the religion of the day and challenged the dominance of the holy men. They believed in each person working it out for themselves and that through meditation one could arrive at Truth or right thinking.
Most yogis don’t take themselves off to live in caves anymore. We live in societies and in communities. We may spend time on our yoga mats or in silent meditation but we still operate in the real world. What use is enlightenment on the mat if we step out into a world of conflict, inequality and climate crisis? If we don’t take an interest in how our World is being run then there will come a moment when that World steps onto your mat, restricting your ability to teach or practice, and limiting your ability to fill your Instagram feed with photos of handstands in foreign lands.
Utopia isn’t going to suddenly happen
The so-called spiritual path is a messy business. It isn’t about crystals and candles and wearing Lululemon. That’s spiritual bypassing, superimposing an image and belief system on top of a still damaged system. The spiritual path is about doing the work – healing the body, breaking our habits, working through our trauma, holding up a floodlight and mirror to ourselves, finding our way through the boring or tough times, and striving to live a moral life. The same is true of society and the World. We’re not suddenly going to wake up someday and find that utopia has been established via a few people chanting Om. If we want a better World, we have to engage, we have to get our hands dirty, speak out and make a difference.
I’m not suggesting that yoga classes become places of radicalisation. I’m just encouraging yogis to get involved and take more of an interest in what’s going on. This isn’t about party politics, it’s about issues. I wouldn’t necessarily care which party is in charge so long as they are committed public servants (ie serving the public first and foremost), capable and advised by experts, striving to do the right thing by the population, owning their mistakes, being truthful, decent and compassionate. This is about calling out things that go against human decency, challenging deceit, proposing and supporting better solutions. And giving care and thought to what we promote. For example what’s more helpful on your Facebook feed in terms of helping people with mental health issues – a Winnie the Pooh meme telling everyone to be so positive that negative people stay away? Or supporting a campaign to protect workers’ rights as a way to safeguard mental health?
Critical Thinking not Positive Thinking
And we also need to stay informed. I have been so shocked over the last year at how many in the yoga world have been touting conspiracy theories on the Internet about the virus, vaccinations, and lockdowns. At times it has felt as though the well-being industry and the alt-right have become one and the same thing. Avoiding politics and current affairs because they’re depressing or not spiritual, leads to ignorance. And with the wealth of false information being peddled currently on social media and in the popular media, we need to be really well-informed now more than ever. We need to be able to distinguish charlatans from experts and develop critical thinking, not just positive thinking.
The opposite of positive thinking isn’t being a doom-monger. It’s about thinking critically, finding out the facts, criticising where necessary, discussing and acting. You can think critically and be hopeful. Hope is an emotion. It’s what picks you up off the floor when you’ve been knocked down and motivates you to continue. By contrast positive thinking is a narrative, the sugar-coated lemon.
Yoga isn’t a drug to help numb you to the World – we have enough of them in the form of TV, alcohol, shopping and scrolling through Instagram. Yoga wakes you up and heals you. It provides a neutral space where you realise that all emotions are equally valid. They are the wisdom from your body informing your mind. They are your friends, letting you know when you are safe and when you are threatened. The point of yoga is not to suppress these emotions. The point is to acknowledge them all, neutrally. And the point is to do something to put them right when appropriate.
If the news is depressing, it’s because we’ve allowed it be.
People who follow the esoteric traditions are well-placed to lead by example. We have moral codes that are re-enforced by our practice. Marianne Williamson ran a really dignified campaign in the US primaries, bringing to the debate issues that would not have been heard had she not been there. She brought balance and, however small, made a mark.
One thing that yoga does very well is strengthen the vagus nerve. The ventral vagus is known as the social engagement network. When we’re in meditation or practice and we activate this part of the nervous system, we experience compassion and connection to ourselves, others and the World. We realise that our well-being is linked to the well-being of others. That our true peace can only come in a world that is peaceful. In my own practice, over the years, my thinking has often shattered as great truths bubble up in meditation. The fiction of nationalism and borders. The hollowness of consumerism, The impossibility of continual economic growth. Yes, you become Woke! (There’s a reason there’s a campaign to demonise people who are starting to see through everything – they don’t fit the narrative. And in a politics of Us vs Them, you can guarantee this is going to become much more widespread).
It’s a bit like the film The Matrix – on the spiritual path you slowly unplug and see things as they are. And what they are right now is ugly. If politics and the news is currently uncomfortable, depressing and non-spiritual, it’s because we have allowed it to become so.
The yoga spiritual code includes the concepts of ahimsa – non-harming, asteya – non stealing, satya – truthfulness, aparigraha – non-possessiveness, brahmacharya – moderation and right-thinking. How many of these concepts do we see in our government today? In the governments of the World? In big business? In the way we treat the Earth?
We need to heal the World to heal ourselves
Trying to keep politics and spirituality apart is like trying to divide the head from the body. It’s dissociative and will ultimately end in failure. We need to heal the world around us to heal ourselves.
Depression often comes from not acting. It can be born out of the feelings of powerlessness, being unable to act and having a lack of purpose. Greta Thunberg famously became depressed and didn’t speak for a long time over the lack of action around climate change. Once she got involved, things radically shifted for her and the World.
We can all be part of change. But we have to do the work and speak up when we find something wrong. We need to be informed and current. We need to lead by example and get involved at grassroots level. We need to vote. We need to hold our Governments to account. We need to be clear about the sort of World we want to live in, a World that reflects the qualities of spiritual teachings, and then we need to work to make it happen. We need to heal divides and step into the power we have, lead as best we can and create a politics we would be happy to engage with. And most importantly we need to form communities and networks to support each other to speak up. Keep your balance in your practise, stay true to the wisdom of the tradition, and speak always from a place of decency, integrity, wisdom and compassion.