Davy Jones is a Brighton-based yoga teacher, who qualified through the British Wheel of Yoga and Life Centre training programme in 2009. He has also just been selected by the Green Party to stand as their parliamentary candidate in the Brighton Kemptown constituency at the next General Election – as far as we know, the first yoga teacher ever to stand for parliament. Here, he reflects on the issues raised by the mixture of yoga and politics.
You are probably wondering: “Why on earth would a yoga teacher want to stand for parliament?!” I sometimes ask myself the same question! After all, politicians are distrusted even more than estate agents, journalists and bankers(1) – some achievement! And how would a yoga teacher reconcile the meditative calm of yoga with the hurly burly of parliamentary politics? Doesn’t introducing politics into yoga risk being divisive and destructive? Isn’t the job of yoga teachers simply to be on their mats?
I have been politically active throughout my adult life. And I have sometimes found it hard to reconcile politics and my love of yoga. Like many others, I have found yoga immensely empowering. In my professional work, I promote ways in which local communities can also feel more empowered to have control over decisions affecting their lives. Instinctively I feel that connection between personal and social empowerment. Fundamentally I feel that the real core of yoga philosophy is compatible with a radical, humanistic and green approach to politics.
Within the yoga tradition and its current practice, there are starkly contrasting approaches to the relationship between social activism and self-realisation. On the surface at least, yoga may appear to encourage withdrawal from earthly and socio-political matters, to give priority to personal liberation and to focus attention on the self.
Surprisingly, very little has actually been written directly on the subject of yoga and politics. This article will explore these issues and attempt to justify my own conclusion that personal and social liberation are inseparable.
Yoga and politics – contrasting views
Shortly after my initial “conversion” to yoga, I was recommended to read Mircea Eliade’s, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom. Its argument places him firmly at one end of the spectrum of views about yoga and the socio-political world.
Describing the yoga journey as the “attainment of perfect self mastery”(2), Eliade argues that the end of the road recommended by Patanjali is: “to emancipate man from his human condition, to conquer absolute freedom, to realise the unconditioned. The method comprises a number of different techniques (physiological, mental, mystical), but they all have one characteristic in common – they are anti-social, or indeed anti-human. The wordly man lives in society, marries, establishes a family; Yoga prescribes absolute solitude and chastity”.(3)
Elsewhere he argues that there is but one route for the sage to attain freedom and bliss, “withdrawal from the world, detachment from possessions and ambitions, radical isolation.”(4) This is an extreme interpretation but one which symbolises a particular viewpoint within the yoga tradition.
Elsewhere, Swami Satchidananda argues in his commentary on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, that: “Yoga does not bother much about changing the outside world. 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”(5).
We would probably all see some truth in this statement from Swami Satchidananda. But it also makes me very uneasy – especially the first sentence about “not bother(ing) much about changing the outside world”. You can interpret his approach in one of two ways: a) that whether you involve yourself in external socio-political life or not, how you respond internally is critical to how you respond; or b) that internal liberation is all that matters and we should not bother too much with the “outside world” as it is all transient. I agree with the first but disagree with the second.
When I was writing my essay for the BWY/Life Centre course on this subject, Buddhist monks were being violently suppressed in Tibet and I couldn’t help but feel that the second interpretation of Swami Satchidananda’s statement was unacceptable. Try telling the Buddhist monks it was all in their minds!
At the other end of the spectrum, Rod Stryker recounted an interesting story on a one-week intensive that I attended as part of my BWY/Life Centre course. He explained that yoga teacher Aadil Palkhivala had been upset at criticism from the audience that he had introduced contemporary social issues into his talk at a large yoga conference in the USA. “But yoga is politics!”(6), he had proclaimed. Rod himself went on to bemoan how “the Bhoddhisatva tradition had been lost when yoga was introduced to the West”(7) and referred to the need for “a bonfire of narcissistic selfish yoga teachers”(8).
The views of Mircea Eliade and those of Aadil Palkhivala & Rod Stryker are diametrically opposed, yet both are commonplace in the yoga world.
Can Patanjali’s yamas and niyamas help?
Some are clearly relevant to the topic of this article, and have inspired historical socio-political figures such as Gandhi. Space requires that I focus only on the most relevant.
Ahimsa: The concept of not causing pain or harm lies at the heart of most progressive social and political thought. It challenges aspects of contemporary social and political behaviour, especially those associated with disregard for others less fortunate, and the plundering of the natural environment and the animal kingdom. In some commentaries on ahimsa(9), there is reference to its practice meaning also to “rise above anger” and “living in perfect peace and harmony”. I find this more problematic as I believe that passion is a natural and legitimate motivator for change and for an end to oppression and suffering.
Satya: Truthfulness and honesty are prerequisites in the struggle for social justice. Often those in power use manipulation and deceit cynically to maintain their own privileges and to prevent others from challenging their rule. For those seeking justice, the banner of truthfulness is a powerful motivator.
Asteya: this goes beyond “thou shalt not steal” and appears in some religions as “do unto others as you would do for yourself”. This has wide application in social and political affairs – both in terms of social and economic inequality, but also on long-term environmental sustainability and our responsibility to future generations. Contemporary commentators in the yoga world have cited this as a strong argument for sustainable living.
Aparigraha: abstention from greed and hoarding implies a modest and equitable lifestyle. The Sivananda teachers’ manual cites aparigraha over the non-accepting of gifts or bribes, which certainly seems relevant to politics! The non-attachment aspect of aparigraha is sometimes associated with non-attachment to any earthly things or relationships – social, personal or political.
Saucha: usually translated as purification, cleanliness and simplicity. It is also sometimes associated with the spirituality of the company one keeps (the concept of “satsang”) – keeping ‘good’ company is uplifting whilst that of rogues certainly isn’t. Politicians and yoga teachers both have a responsibility to avoid “bad company” and the flaunting of wealth, consumerism and corruption.
Santosha generally understood as contentment, acceptance of things as they are and living “in the moment”, rather than trapped by the past or the future. This can be interpreted as a justification for not challenging the status quo or seeking to improve the lot of the oppressed and those suffering. Swami Satchidananda’s commentary on the Yoga Sutras has echoes of this approach: “We are not going to change the whole world, but we can change ourselves and feel as free as birds. We can be serene in the midst of calamities…”(10). Retaining a degree of peace with oneself is one thing, but tacit agreement through passive acceptance of the status quo is quite another, in my opinion.
It is perhaps now clearer that differing interpretations of the Yamas and Niyamas may be part of the reason for the apparent conflict of the yogic path with that of social and political activism. So, what do the leading figures within the main yoga traditions have to say, if anything, on the subject of yoga and politics?
In Light on Yoga, Iyengar discusses the yamas and niyamas, referring to earthly and social duties. Describing ahimsa, Iyeangar argues that: “The yogi… believes that he is born to help others and he looks upon creation with eyes of love. He knows that his life is linked inextricably with that of others and he rejoices if he can help them to be happy.”(11)
Perhaps more interestingly, referring to the remedies to overcome the (nine) obstacles which hinder the aspirant’s practice of yoga, Iyengar highlights the key role of karuna: “It is compassion coupled with devoted action to relieve the misery of the afflicted. The yogi uses all his resources – physical, economic, mental or moral – to alleviate the pain and suffering of others.”(12) Iyengar is of course well known for his charitable works and foundations particularly in Bellur. He practices what he preaches.
Pattabhi Jois’ Yoga Mala has relatively little to say on the purpose of yoga or on its relationship to social/political matters. And his interpretation of the yamas and niyamas is very narrow. He is also unambiguous on the centrality of God within yoga philosophy and fatalistic about the role of human beings: “Nothing happens in the world according to our will: that is definite. Everything in the universe occurs in accordance with the will of the Universal Self.”(13) There is no reference in his written works to the role of the yogi in social or political matters.
There is more on philosophy within the Sivananda tradition. Swami Vishnu-Devananda explains the concept that “the whole Yoga and Vedanta philosophy is based upon the theory of oneness.”(14) Discussing Vedanta philosophy further, Swami Vishnu-Devananda argues that: “Vedanta does not mean that we should live a life of inactivity. A real Vedantin has more love towards his brothers than the so-called humanitarians. He sees himself in everything and feels himself to be one with everything. It is not merely a philosophy but a living experience for him. He cannot tolerate the suffering of other beings, as they are all as his own self.”(15)
What this means is open to interpretation: some read it as meaning that the yogi merely feels this suffering but is not encouraged to do much about it; others argue that if you accept oneness as the condition of life, then you cannot live your life truthfully and in an enlightened way if you identify suffering yet you do nothing about it.
Famously Guatama Buddha was brought up as a prince, but it is said when he saw poverty, disease and death he left his wealth behind and went on a spiritual search for enlightenment. One could argue that such a search takes the seeker away from earthly and political matters. On the other hand, it could be said that it makes the seeker into a more rounded and effective person when s/he does interact socially and politically. Certainly, in my own experience, when I was politically active before I “found yoga” (or it “found me”!) I felt more “one-dimensional” and unbalanced in my approach to politics than I do now. I believe that I had more anger and less compassion than I do now.
Buddha also spoke of the wider community, arguing: “Beyond the immediate aim of individual nirvana lies the objective of the happiness of the whole of human society, and the still higher objective of the happiness of all living things.”(16) The Bhoddhisatva tradition within Mahayana Buddhism regards the venerated Bodhisattva as a person who already has a considerable degree of enlightenment and seeks to use their wisdom to help other human beings to become liberated. It is within this tradition that the radical and politically active monks place themselves.
More contemporary views
There is much more discussion of social and political issues and their relevance to yoga among contemporary yogis, but there are few articles that deal explicitly with the topic. Swami Jyotirmayananda argues that: “The field of politics is another important area in which the world’s problems must be tackled… yogis do not become better yogis by abstaining from politics… There were great souls like Mahatma Gandhi for whom politics was an effective means for self-purification and enlightenment. Such souls have shown the way.”(17)
Recently, there has been an upsurge of interest amongst contemporary yogis about the environment. The Summer 2009 edition of Spectrum included a lengthy feature by Shonil Bhagwat, which examined the yamas and niyamas for guidance on our responsibilities to the planet and on social and economic matters. The following year, Matthew Remski published a two-part article in Yoga and Health magazine railing against the blinkered attitude of many yogis towards their environmental responsibilities: “Every week, I get about 20 email pronouncements pitching ’10 days of yoga bliss’ in places where poor people live off the garbage of the affluent… For us, in the elite yoga world, no longer should the vision of divesting ourselves and retiring to simplicity in some remote, impractical and hoary idyll. It is literally our immediate calling, if we are to rise to the silent and tortured request of this dear green earth.”(18) As someone who co-leads a few yoga holidays abroad each year, this is a criticism that I find particularly telling and difficult to reconcile.
Views on yoga and politics clearly vary within the different yoga traditions and amongst contemporary yogis. To some degree these differences are affected by differing interpretations of classical yoga “philosophy” as espoused in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Although there seems to be wider acceptance that yoga philosophy implies a clear responsibility to other beings and the resources of the planet, I feel that environmental sustainability is the “easy” end of the socio-political spectrum. It is much harder to find broad acceptance within the yoga community that being socially and politically active sits naturally with being a yogi.
My personal interpretation of yoga philosophy (and this article demonstrates that there are of course other, competing interpretations) is one that sees the journey towards “enlightenment” as inevitably a social, human one – implying compassion for others, honesty, equity and justice, and respect for the natural resources of the world. Yoga exists in the real world and interacts with it. And of course, many yogis are themselves committed to worthy causes and charities – the many 108 Sun Salutations events are testimony!
I would not for a moment suggest that yoga philosophy gives a clear message on whom to vote for in elections (though one could make a stronger argument about whom it might suggest you don’t vote for!). Nor does yoga philosophy imply that yogis must be constantly active on social and political issues. Circumstances and opportunities vary, and the balance between personal reflection and practice and other responsibilities needs to be judged, and may vary at different times in one’s life.
Nevertheless, 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!
In The Compassionate Revolution: Radical Politics and Buddhism, David Edwards quotes the Buddha approvingly: “Don’t build your happiness on the unhappiness of others”(19) and Edwards goes on to argue: “freedom and happiness can only be won when we work for the freedom and happiness of others”(20).
Davy Jones can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
His yoga website (with his partner Janaki) is at: www.inspirationyoga.net His political campaigning website is here: www.davyjones4kemptown.org.uk
- IPSOS MORI Survey on Trust, February 2013
- Mircea Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, page 360
- Mircea Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, page 95
- Mircea Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, page 12
- Swami Satchidananda, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, (page 5)
- Rod Stryker story on yoga teacher training intensive, February 2009
- Rod Stryker on yoga teacher training intensive, February 2009
- Rod Stryker on yoga teacher training intensive, February 2009
- Handout on the British Wheel of Yoga Foundation Teacher Training Course, page 3
- Swami Satchidananda, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, (page 136)
- BKS Iyengar, Light on Yoga, page 13
- BKS Iyengar, Light on Yoga, page 8
- Pattabhi Jois, Yoga Mala, page 19
- The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga, Swami Vishnu-Devananda, Three Rivers Press, page 9
- The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga, Swami Vishnu-Devananda, Three Rivers Press, page 313
- Great Thinkers of the Eastern World, page 165
- Swami Jyotirmayananda, Yoga For A Better World, International Yoga Guide 2003
- Matthew Remski, Yoga and Health Journal, May/June 2008