mayi sarvāṇi karmāṇi sannyasyādhyātma-chetasā nirāśhīr nirmamo bhūtvā yudhyasva vigata-jvaraḥ
Perform all works as an offering unto me, constantly meditate on me as the Supreme Self. Free yourself from desire and selfishness, and with mental grief departed, take action and fight! – Translation: Austin Sanderson
One month before the most important elections of our lives, we must ask questions like “Is yoga political?” “should a yogi speak frankly about political views in the contexts of a yoga class?” or “should the yogi stay out of politics and remain passive and neutral in relation to hot button issues?” Questions like this have been asked by countless yogis for thousands of years. Throughout history, some yogis have turned their backs on the world, retreating into caves or tucking themselves away safely in ashrams while renouncing the conflicts one faces in a society that is political and controversial. Still other brave yogis choose to walk a different path, embracing the world and its social conflicts fully, becoming “spiritual warriors” or “spiritual activists.” This type of yogi has let go of personal motivation and egocentric desires and is willing to stand up, speak out, and fight against political injustice, giving hope to the voiceless, the weak, and the disenfranchised.
When one studies yogic scripture deeply, one clearly sees the connection between the inner journey of yoga and the outward interaction with society and the power struggles inherent in the system. The sloka above is from The Bhagavad Gita, a discourse between Shri Krishna (the Supreme Personality of God) and his devotee Arjuna, that takes place in front of the backdrop of a civil war between rival cousins in the epic tale Mahabharat.
The civil war is to determine who is politically best suited to rule the county. One set of cousins, the Pandavas, are virtuous leaders, while their cousins, the Kauravas, lack a moral compass for leadership. Arjuna, filled with grief and sadness, questions the need to fight the battle. Krishna responds by reminding Arjuna of his cousins’ lack of compassion and their poor leadership, and offers his advice in the matter. In chapter three on Karma Yoga (the Yoga of Action), Krishna teaches Arjuna to detach from his actions by making them an offering to him (God) and for the benefit of those who will suffer at the hands of the Kauravas’ rule. Krishna encourages Arjuna to calm his mind, take action and fight.
If we retreat, the world will suffer at the hands of those in power, but if we stay in the fight we can make the world a better place by shifting the power dynamic. The teachings of yoga cannot get any more political than this.
Naturally, topics such as social inequality, environmental degradation, economic inequality, racism, animal rights, sexism, voter suppression, and homophobia, just to name a few, will make some yoga students in a class uncomfortable. That discomfort with any given political issue is a sign of mental “dis-ease.” Yoga means to yoke – to be connected and at ease with one’s Self and the world around us. To teach yoga is to teach methods that can help someone overcome avidya, the ignorance that produces that “dis-ease,” which distorts one’s perception of oneself and others, creating otherness and conflict. The word politic refers to the “body”— one’s greater body, the community that one lives in. We yogis are looking to create ease in our body, not “dis-ease.” To be political means that you care about others that you live with in the greater community. Anyone who has ever been brave enough to care in a fragmented, dis-eased society knows that caring and speaking out on political matters will be met at times with indifference at best or anger at worst, but that does not mean we should stop caring or stop being “spiritual activists.”
Jivamukti and Urban Sadhu are rare gems in the modern western yoga world. The vast majority of American yoga methods shy away from this fundamental ideology that the yogi is a social and political activist within their community (this is not true in India where people see the connections between the teachings of yoga and politics). “Yoga students” who are offended by the political activists’ role that Urban Sadhu Yoga plays in the world have many options in the yoga marketplace; they can easily satisfy their need for a “yoga” class that turns its back on hard issues and allows the student to run away into a self-absorbed cave, fostering a practice that is preoccupied with personal feelings, shallow interests, and situations of ego indulgence, hiding away from the hard issues we face in the world today.
For those who are willing to embrace the world selflessly, fighting for the upliftment of others who are oppressed under the thumbs of tyrants, the teachings of yoga will support their actions.