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The War That No Yoga Teacher Can Run From — A Fightingly Happy New Year To All

in YD News, Yogitorials

This post is part of our YogaDork State of the Union series sharing reflections on 2014 and holding intentions and predictions for 2015.

terrain

by Matthew Remski

When yoga is reduced to a self-obsessed, bourgeois lifestyle distraction, people who are so poor they would never have time to take a yoga class actually die in collapsing Bangladesh sweatshops. So a bare-minimum goal in yoga work should be to keep things real.

In preparing for a few upcoming discussions of the Bhagavad Gita, something inescapably real occurred to me. I began by considering the question: “What war is about to begin for me, in this hour?”

It’s not a new question in Gita studies. Commentators have forever personalized the old book in this way. Non-dualists abstracted the battle at Kurukshetra into an attack on the illusory self. Tantrics turned the war upon the fragmented psyche that cannot bring itself to love life and delight in the present moment. Some Indian freedom fighters heard Krishna rallying them to slaughter the British; others heard a pacifist message.

I resonate with all of these approaches a little. But they don’t really bite hard. It always seems like there’s something missing. The question nags: What war is about to begin for all of us, right now?

We can take our pick of wars, given the countless forms of oppression that surround us, live through us, benefitting few and wounding many. Racism, sexism, classism: so many wars.

But the inescapable war, which both exacerbates and transcends every socio-political inequality – a war as inevitable as Arjuna’s war against his nihilistic cousins – is the war that human civilization is waging upon terrestrial life.

Everyone is trembling on this battlefield. For most of us, there is no God to talk to, to instruct, encourage, and comfort us. We must make the most of speaking with each other.

Arjuna had it easy in a sense. At least he could see the approaching absurdity with his own eyes. He didn’t have to interpret the horror of climate scientists muted through the equivocations of economists. He could actually see his enemies on the stormy horizon: uncles and teachers waiting with a million foot soldiers, ready to loose their arrows upon the innocents. We have to make do with articles, hockey-stick graphs, pictures of receding glaciers or 10,000 walrus stranded with no sea ice. There is so much data.

Arjuna fully cognized the story of how this moment had arrived: the battle over inheritances, the echo of ancient and stubborn vows, insults and deceptions, the paralysis of a blind king, the psychopathy of Duryodana. Arjuna could see his inescapable position, as well as his own role in creating it. When he falls weeping to his knees, his conflict is as tangible as the earth beneath his armour.

But can we see the war waged by human civilization on terrestrial life? Can we taste it in every sip of imported coffee from every takeaway cup? Can we hear it in every rumble of every oil furnace in every home, whether mansion or trailer? In general, we cannot. Technologized, industrial, fossil-fuel-based, capitalistic war against terrestrial life does an ingenious thing: it makes the humans that spread it feel safe, good, even loved.

My two year-old son has a red plastic front loader he takes to bed with him like a teddy bear. Like most teddy bears today, it was probably made in a Majority World country by a child six or seven years older than him. He’s fascinated with construction sites, which are deceptively named, if you think about it. We didn’t encourage this fetish, other than to delight in his delight.

As I watch him play with his toy construction vehicle, it’s clear that the enemy of terrestrial life is inextricable from our pleasure at extracting primary colours, moving things, changing things, clearing things away. So often, our exuberance expresses itself through creative actions we cannot conceive of as destructive.

I’m sure of it: Arjuna definitely had it easier than us, because he was convinced that war was inevitable. His problem was in understanding how he should participate. Our problem is in seeing how deeply we are participating already.

Plus, nobody was gaslighting Arjuna. Nobody was telling him it was all going to turn out alright. His enemies were not tempting him to distraction with a new car or smartphone, or with vague neoliberal hopes that free markets or technology will save us, that eating sustainably harvested salmon will halt the collapse of ocean life, or with the insinuation that being a good citizen with your recycling can rationalize the expansion of the tar sands.

In the battle the Gita sanctifies, Arjuna’s half-brother and tortured enemy Karna deploys an invincible weapon, a bow called Vijaya. Strung by the war-god Indra, Vijaya cannot be destroyed. It never misses its mark, delivering unbreakable arrows that slice the air with lightning.

Today, civilization has an even more powerful weapon of mass destruction than Karna’s. This weapon is the propaganda that says there is no war at all. Every red plastic front loader and yoga-ass advertisement sends an arrow, Cupid-like, into the heart. It seduces our discrimination, our ability to see beyond our daily balances, with a simple lie: personal salvation will come through more gratification at cheaper prices. Everything is okay.

We have projected, embodied, fallen in love with, married, and merged with human civilization, the enemy of terrestrial life. In some hidden part of us, we know that something is not okay. With every banal purchase, we delay the bracing thought of divorce.

YogaDork kindly asked me to craft a prediction or wish for yoga culture in 2015, so here it is. I direct it not at the general practitioner but at the professional class: those who teach or administer studios for a substantial part of their income. These are the people who are responsible for holding and guiding the mood of practice moving forward.

I predict/wish that from this day forward, teachers will recognize that they are on this battlefield in every moment of every day. I predict/wish that they will be acutely aware of the constant tension between action and inaction. They will realize that calming themselves or resolving their personal traumas to a manageable degree through yoga was a kind of basic training for the larger battle of interdependent renewal.

I predict/wish that teachers will recognize that the enemy of terrestrial life is global, structural, pervasive and tenacious, and that neither asanas nor meditation can attack it directly. Only boots-on-the-ground activism can. Then they can recognize the true target of teaching: that human civilization is the macrocosm of basic human drives like rāga and dveṣa.

I predict/wish that teachers will accept that it is a sign of obsessive narcissism to long for these drives to be erased in a blaze of private enlightenment, and to spend countless hours practicing towards this end. However, they will know that addressing things like attachment and aversion pragmatically in the brief and privileged laboratory of practice can allow the higher yoga of activism to proceed with greater sustainability.

I predict/wish that every single teacher can start to make this work in simple ways first. Like tithing their monthly income to a warrior cause they publicize through their newsletters. Or by modeling activism for their communities by serving populations without access to yoga. Or by tying access to “advanced-level” practices with strategic (rather than symbolic) environmental work. Or by letting students know that asana and meditation can grant the insight to see that they are in a war that can finally be heroic. By letting them know that practice can give the strength to fight with grace, even though — or especially because — the outcome is unclear.

~

Matthew Remski teaches Yoga Philosophy and Ayurveda for YTT programs worldwide, and is the curator of the WAWADIA project. He’ll be presenting on the Gita at Willow Street Yoga in Tacoma Park on 2/16-17. He lives in Toronto with his partner Alix Bemrose and their son Jacob, and blogs here.

——

Earlier

Brave New Yoga World

29 comments… add one

  • I want to share something from the Charaka Samhita (Ayurvedic source text-BCE era), which has always struck me as insightful vis a vis the problems we face today. I think it makes an accurate assessment… the word ‘dharma’ is being translated as ‘virtue’ here… and the loss of virtue is at the root, as the writing explains below… most translations into English suffer from being born in the Victorian era, and modern ones are still similar to that time (!!!), so terms like ‘divine law’ (Rtam), ‘gods’ (devas) and more do not really comport with what a native reading is like. With that in mind, here it is…

    In the Primal Age, men and women were endowed vitality equal to that of the progeny of Goddess Aditi (Unbounded), exceedingly blameless and unhampered in their powers, had direct knowledge of the gods, the godlike sages, the divine law, sacrifice and ritual, possessed bodies that were compact and firm, had clear senses and complexions, speed, strength and prowess like those of the wind. They were devoted to truth, rectitude, compassion, charity, self-restraint, moral discipline, spiritual endeavour, fasting, continence and religious vows. They were free from fear, desire, aversion, infatuation, greed, anger, despondency, pride, disease, sleep, indolence, fatigue, languor, sloth and the spirit of acquisition; and lastly, they were imbued with unlimited longevity. For the benefit of these people of heroic minds, qualities and deeds, the crops were replete with wonderful taste, potency and virtue, for the earth during the dawn of the golden age was charged to the full with all excellent qualities.

    As the First Age wore on, those who were better circumstanced gave in to lassitude. Lassitude gave rise to indolence, indolence created the need for the accumulation of goods, accumulation necessitated acquisition, the spirit of acquisition engendered greed. All this came to pass long ago, in the First Age.Thereafter, the bodies of human beings failing to receive sustenance as before from the progressively deteriorating quality of food and afflicted by the heat and wind, soon succumbed to the attacks of fevers and other diseases. Thus, there was a gradual decline in the span enjoyed by successive generations.

    Thereafter, in the Second Age greed brought malice in its wake; malice led to falsehood; falsehood let loose lust, anger, vanity, hatred, cruelty, aggression, fear, affliction, grief, anxiety, distress and the like. Consequently, in the Second Age, virtue found itself deprived of a quarter of its plenitude. From this quarterly loss in virtue, there followed a similar deterioration in the duration of the succeeding Age and in the beneficent power of the Earth. It is in consequence of this deterioration that there took place a corresponding deterioration in the sap, purity and potency of herbs.

  • Yoga is supposed to foster a certain direction of self-development. There are many descriptions of this. One of my favourites is from the Isa Upanishad which says of the illumined person “She sees herself in all creatures and all creatures in herself.”

    Whether or not postures, breath work, meditation are part of the process of getting there is not as important to the Yoga tradition as getting there. It gives lots of adjuncts, but which can become fixations if the goal is not kept clear. It is always about self-development in the direction pointed out above.

    Matthew writes brilliantly about all the things that get in the way of real-izing our better intentions and visions, things having to do with reality maps, social structures, economic structures and also the personal dimension, all interconnected. I think activism has a better chance of flowing out towards the world if the goal is kept clear.

  • Probably some oblivious uncle gave the kid a red plastic front loader.

    Because the best way to stop the war of human civilization on terrestrial life is to resist the urge to make more humans, and if we must make more humans, then for goodness sake don’t give them bulldozers.

    Remski is wonderful at reminding us not to take shelter in an inward quest for personal awakening, to the neglect of activism in the world, but there’s also a risk in engaging in shrill activism that looks only outward, telling others how they should be doing better without sufficiently considering oneself. He says, “I predict/wish that teachers will recognize that the enemy of terrestrial life is global, structural, pervasive and tenacious, and that neither asanas nor meditation can attack it directly. Only boots-on-the-ground activism can.” But boots-on-the-ground activism has been spectacularly ineffective for 50 years, probably because it has been waged by people who direct their energies outward without ever confronting profoundly enough their own contributions (including baby making) to the war machine. But I know many yogis who have been led by asanas and meditation to vegetarianism, for example, which is probably the second most profound action—after having no children—that an individual can take to stop the war of human civilization on terrestrial life. 70 billion animals are tortured and killed every year to make food for humans, and in the process the global meat industry produces more greenhouse gases than the transportation, energy, and industrial sectors of human civilization combined. One of the commenters on Remski’s blog post points out that the Isa Upanishad says of the illumined person, “She sees herself in all creatures and all creatures in herself.” It may be that asana and meditation fosters that seeing in a way that is as least complementary to boots on the ground activism, and perhaps more effective. It’s no small step to step away from the global meat industry. I don’t think it should be minimized.

    I also know yogis who have been led by asanas and meditation to access a source of bliss that allows them to step out of the cycle of addictions—meat, alcohol and caffeine consumption but also the consumption of stuff—that drives the war of human civilization on terrestrial life. At one end of the war machine people are stuffing their unhappy selves with poisons and external objects, while at the other end the war machine is raping and pillaging nature to produce and distribute more poisons and stuff. It’s no small step to step out of the cycle of addiction and consumption, and I don’t think that should be minimized either. It’s too easy to remain within it while outwardly demonstrating boots-on-the-ground activism. I think Matthew wants us to not be complacent in any bliss we may find through asanas and meditation, and for that I applaud him.

    I think these actions could possibly be more effective than tithing some warrior cause. Matthew urges us toward strategic environmental work. I hope he means tactical. Michel Foucault gave us insight into why tactical activism, conducted intentionally and innovatively by individuals, can be effective where strategic activism, which is institutionally and socially regularized, cannot. We can see this point most recently in the Occupy Movement, which has ceased to be effective to the extent it has became strategic, that is, opened offices, opened accounts for tithing, printed T-shirts, and otherwise joined the capitalist economy, which is itself nothing less than the war of human civilization on terrestrial life.

    Also, Matthew refers to “the horror of climate scientists muted through the equivocations of economists,” but according to Michael Greenstone, the Milton Friedman Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, consensus on addressing anthropogenic climate change is even higher among economists than it is among climate scientists. The equivocating is done by politicians who are beholden to a public comprised of individuals unwilling or unable to embrace personal, individual change.

  • Thanks for taking the time Jeff. If it wasn’t an uncle, it would have been a neighbour, or enjoyed in the pool of toys from the play centre. Very difficult to exert total control over the child’s toys, and ill-advised. Parents make choices which for the most part are challenged and in some cases overwhelmed by the intrusion of the culture. Talk to any single mother who feels conflicted about using an iPad to help with child-soothing and the conundrum is clear.

    I don’t know which environmentalist-boots-on-the-ground folks haven’t confronted population and vegetarianism. The latter issue is fiercely debated and far from resolved, especially when you factor in the carbon numbers from grain and pulse agriculture. Which brings us back to the population question, and fact that we are very likely overshot.

    I’m not minimizing personal development practice in this article. I’m contextualizing its use and triaging its importance. You write: “It may be that asana and meditation fosters that seeing in a way that is as least complementary to boots on the ground activism, and perhaps more effective.” I would agree that contemplation can change views. I’m saying that this nowhere near enough, not to mention the fact that practice is no guarantee whatsoever of improved ethical behaviour. There are many dedicated practitioners who are terrible citizens.

    I’m also saying, by implication, that it’s very easy to use contemplation to acquiesce to the absurdity of our condition — to meditatively “reconcile all opposites”, as the YS says. In fact, the neoliberal fog of MPY is arguably arranged to do precisely this.

    As for the personal/social difference between strategy and tactics, I think its a particular triumph of neoliberalism to get progressives to focus on self-policing personal betterment instead of class consciousness and identification.

    And — I had had “politicians” in there for “economists”, and switched it for tonal reasons — I wanted to evoke the blur of technocracy, but you’re right: they’re strangely unified! Thanks again.

  • Thank you for this insightful and provocative contribution.

    “Success goes to the unruly,” as William Gamson wrote in “The Strategy of Social Protest” (1990; 1975). Empirically we know, then, that social movements succeed which disturb the good order of exploitative systems. Let’s call this disruption “contentious politics,” following the usage of Charles Tilly and others. Peace movements, incidentally, have this dilemma of being contentious for peace. Yogis, therefore, are not alone in facing this dilemma. It’s no wonder that Mandela had an intimate knowledge of the Gita and was reported to have carried a copy.

    The second dilemma pertains to the relationship between personal and social change. In my doctoral dissertation I argued, albeit somewhat obliquely, that the growth of movements for personal change could be, as Gusfield argued, attended by the “demobilization” of movements for social change. In particular by redefining problems caused by oppressive systems as somehow related to a disease, I argued Twelve Step movements could make individuals “biographically unavailable” to support or participate in movements for social change. But if this were true, then it was important to consider the dynamics of movements for personal change alongside of, rather than apart from those of “challenging groups.” At the time I was writing there was a distinct trend away from this inclusive approach, mainly because earlier social movement theorizing argued for the “irrationality” of protestors. Theorists of the 1970s and 1980s sought to emphasize the rationality of protestors, for they themselves had been participants in civil rights, student, anti–war, and feminist movements.

    Further, that personal and social change could be inextricably linked through a “radical unity” was advanced by the liberation theologian Gustavo Guttierez. While we might not harmonize with his soteriology, I think it’s worth exploring that basic premise.

    Lastly, I want to suggest that the current trend in the literature is toward “the emotional turn” in social movement theorizing. Here emotions are cast as “collective,” evocative of John Lofland’s earlier writing on “crowd joys.” More importantly, emotions are thought to connect the inner and outer worlds. For that is here where the true disconnect lies, between the very finely cultivated inner worlds against and relying upon a backdrop of civilization in collapse. Particularly as modern postural yoga derives from the Tantrikas, who incidentally, have given us some conceptualizing around working with emotions, I think it is perfectly reasonable to portend the development of “liberation yogis.” To the challenge of overcoming Western materialism, I would most emphatically add overcoming American individualism.

  • “I predict/wish that every single teacher can start to make this work in simple ways first. Like tithing their monthly income to a warrior cause they publicize through their newsletters. Or by modeling activism for their communities by serving populations without access to yoga. Or by tying access to “advanced-level” practices with strategic (rather than symbolic) environmental work. Or by letting students know that asana and meditation can grant the insight to see that they are in a war that can finally be heroic. By letting them know that practice can give the strength to fight with grace, even though — or especially because — the outcome is unclear.”

    this is no new thing. some of us have “kept it real” for a long time, without fanfare, without being blogged about. I taught yoga and meditation at a domestic violence shelter to poor Hispanic women — the underserved — long before “yoga therapy” or “trauma sensitive yoga” became buzzwords. A portion of the proceeds from T shirts I sell go toward charitable causes.

    we’re out here, alone, unheard of, with little support. and we keep on keeping on.

  • From the comments: “…to meditatively “reconcile all opposites”, as the YS says”

    I don’t see where Patanjali says to reconcile opposites, whatever that might mean. He does say to go beyond the pairs of opposites, and in a meditation moving towards Samadhi, that indeed is a requirement. The pair of opposites that Patanjali would really like us to go beyond is that of ‘observer and observed’. This has implications on the ethical plane as well.

    Since the YS is not a Niti Shastra (teachings on how to be in diverse, even difficult life situations), like the Mahabharata and Ramayana are (and which are called ‘Niti Shastras’), it does not fit to ask the YS for that kind of instruction.

    The reduction of “Yoga” into the ‘YS’ goes against the grain of the Yoga tradition, which itself is connected to many other texts, like the epics. One must not expect all answers to everything to exist in the YS, and when not finding them there, accuse it of “acquiesc[ing] to the absurdity of our condition”. Or I did I read too much into what you wrote, Matthew? If so, my apologies, but I don’t understand what you said there, in reference to Patanjali/YS.

  • You’re right, “reconcile” isn’t good enough for 2:48, and I shouldn’t have used quotations. It’s not that I think the YS acquiesces to anything or is somehow representative of the whole. I’m talking about how it’s used.

    I was trying to suggest that the quietistic focus of MPY — and this can be filtered through the Gita or the YS or the HYP even — often obscures the “dvandva” of dialectics, especially for students who’ve never considered that they’re actually involved in global conflict. Jeff seemed to be suggesting that quietism is more effective than activism. That’s wishful as well as speculative. I’ve seen a lot of people use meditation to simply acclimatize to their absurdity. The perfected inner life is always a tempting place of retreat, but being there doesn’t change the structural power that gave you the leisure time to get there.

  • Thank you Matthew. I thought your comment as a whole was commendable, and you make a good point here too, that practitioners could be seduced into quietism. I think this definitely needs to be addressed, as you have addressed it. One of the reasons of this potential seduction could be that the practitioner might have been given to understand that these texts you mention are to be read in isolation from the rest of the literary ecosystem in which they exist. If they are seen this way, and perhaps that is inevitable as one cannot learn of the whole ecosystem at once, but only by piecing it together, by reading more over time, then one might indeed think that quietism and blissing out is the goal. I do believe that in the 19th century, Buddhist monks were described as catatonics, but this did become corrected.

    As as aside – I think, with Jyotish in mind, that how one will express will be individualized… ketu is not the same as jupiter, as an example. Some will go to private caves, but that ought not to be the majority, and never really has been. But those cave dwellers, small in number are quite important too for the preservation of the Yoga tradition. Svadharma is a tricky thing to figure out, and the numerous discussions you initiate, and participate in are very, very helpful.

  • Joe Sparks

    In my perspective, people can only be effectively organized to participate in activism on an individual basis. Calling mass meetings, distributing newsletters, and other ” mass ” activities are an almost complete waste of time UNLESS they are peripheral to a systematic making of individual friends, who will consider an activism program if you offer it because they trust you.

  • Kurt Klingbeil

    Thank you
    I deeply appreciate this discussion

  • Bruce Kessler

    ‘War’ is a conflict between two groups that seeks resolution by killing enough people on the ‘other’ side, until that side gives up, surrenders and in the extreme is subjugated. And in the BG clearly the discussion surrounds how to reconcile oneself with committing such an evil in pursuit of one’s ends (or ‘the good’ as one defines it for oneself), regardless of how the term ‘war’ might be massaged into a metaphor.

    ‘War’ involves making the opposing group the ‘other,’ going so far as to dehumanize and paint the other as evil. The problem of the ‘other’ is solved by killing the ‘other’ — or at least killing enough of them that ‘they’ cease to be a problem.

    What exactly is the ‘war’ — or wars — that Remski identifies (racism, sexism, classism, or even the ‘war on terrestrial life’) that fits this meaning of ‘war’ such that the invocation of the ‘wars’ we face guides us to a resolution? Exactly what is the ‘call to arms’ here? Are we supposed to start killing people who work for Monsanto? Whom do we kill and subjugate to make this right?

    As Pogo said, ‘We have met the enemy, and he is us.’ How do you fight that war (apart from externalizing, and saying ‘The ‘us’ is not me — it’s THEM!’ It’s ‘Majority World’ and I’m the righteous warrior!)

    How we envision the challenges we face shapes the appropriateness — and effectiveness — of the response. And the metaphor of war invoked here for dramatic effect, as well as the text (which Remski makes use of to enlist ‘yogis’ in his cause as he frames and envisions it) is unhelpful and even counterproductive in a world in which we already have too many issues on which we need to come together rather than prosecuting a ‘war’ against the evil ‘other.’

    And while a yoga class is a place of greater consciousness, to envision it as a ‘battlefield’ subverts its very purpose. But Remski wants to define its purpose for us, according to his perspective, the moral high ground on which he has planted his flag.

  • You either didn’t read the article before commenting, or you’re intellectually dishonest. I’m clear in probing the paradox that the “other” is something that consists of us, i.e., human civilization:

    “As I watch him play with his toy construction vehicle, it’s clear that the enemy of terrestrial life is inextricable from our pleasure at extracting primary colours, moving things, changing things, clearing things away. So often, our exuberance expresses itself through creative actions we cannot conceive of as destructive.”

    and

    “We have projected, embodied, fallen in love with, married, and merged with human civilization, the enemy of terrestrial life. In some hidden part of us, we know that something is not okay. With every banal purchase, we delay the bracing thought of divorce.”

    If you don’t think that the forces of human civilization (agriculture + urbanization, organized by capitalism) are at war with life itself, I invite you to suggest another metaphor. In the meantime, maybe you could refrain from making things up, like suggesting that I’ve “envisioned the yoga class as a battlefield”. Nothing in the article says that. I’m saying:

    “I predict/wish that teachers will recognize that the enemy of terrestrial life is global, structural, pervasive and tenacious, and that neither asanas nor meditation can attack it directly. Only boots-on-the-ground activism can. Then they can recognize the true target of teaching: that human civilization is the macrocosm of basic human drives like rāga and dveṣa.

    I predict/wish that teachers will accept that it is a sign of obsessive narcissism to long for these drives to be erased in a blaze of private enlightenment, and to spend countless hours practicing towards this end. However, they will know that addressing things like attachment and aversion pragmatically in the brief and privileged laboratory of practice can allow the higher yoga of activism to proceed with greater sustainability.”

  • Bruce Kessler

    Either you didn’t read/understand the comment or you’re deflecting. It comes down to this (which you didn’t address): given the very meaning of ‘war,’ is it appropriate or even productive to frame this as a ‘war’?

    Just to quote: ” I direct it not at the general practitioner but at the professional class: those who teach or administer studios for a substantial part of their income. These are the people who are responsible for holding and guiding the mood of practice moving forward.

    I predict/wish that from this day forward, teachers will recognize that they are on this battlefield in every moment of every day. ” And evidently, the classroom in which the teacher exercises his profession is the venue in which they are meant to ‘hold and guide the mood of practice’ — the essence of which you describe as recognizing our situation as a ‘battlefield.’

    Your dramatic metaphors do not do justice to — and even misdirect — concerning the real situation. The presence of 7 billion people on the planet — all of whom are working to support and raise their children, just like you — is at the root of the problem. How do you propose to resolve that basic situation with your talk of our being ‘at war’ with ourselves?

    ‘War’ metaphors do not provide constructive answers. I don’t have to come up with a ‘better metaphor’ in order to be in a position to point that out.

  • Your complaint comes down to tone-policing, because you think I’m using the war as a metaphor. I’m not. Non-human extinctions occurring 1000x faster in the Anthropocene is not “dramatic”.

    If you’re asking me what my strategy is, that’s a whole book to itself. The last graf gives three simple bits at working towards a culture of resistance:

    1. tithing monthly income to a warrior cause they publicize through their newsletters.
    2. modeling activism for their communities by serving populations without access to yoga.
    3. tying access to “advanced-level” practices with strategic (rather than symbolic) environmental work.

    Those are constructive things, I think.

  • Bruce Kessler

    Since at least 2/3 of your piece was devoted to the Bhagavad Gita and setting up your ‘war’ terminology (which you defended in your last reply and now have backed away from) it is more than a matter of ‘tone-policing’ (which is a prejudicial term on your part, rather than answering my point).

    e.g. of stretching the dramatic point: “[Arjuna] could actually see his enemies on the stormy horizon: uncles and teachers waiting with a million foot soldiers, ready to loose their arrows upon the innocents. We have to make do with articles, hockey-stick graphs, pictures of receding glaciers or 10,000 walrus stranded with no sea ice.”

    (by the way, who are the ‘innocents’ in this situation? Arjuna’s army? And ‘articles, hockey-stick graphs etc. are tools of discussion and persuasion, presented in order to encourage a collaborative effort toward a more just and constructive outcome, not to vanquish an enemy.)

    And tone matters, too.

    Let’s look at the ‘War on Poverty’ — one of the most ridiculous and misguided terms ever coined. Followed closely by the ‘War on Terror’ — which while it actually acknowledges the central role of violence, has completely mischaracterized the situation and led to untold violence and senseless death. Let’s not forget the ‘War on Drugs,’ which has been an astounding failure that mischaracterizes the whole problem of drug abuse and addiction. The very attitude toward the problem is characterized by the ‘tone’ of the word ‘War,’ which is used to emotional effect — and works to undermine its essential goals.

    I find it telling that you too cannot help but envision our current collective situation in terms of a ‘war’ and a ‘battlefield.’ I submit that that in itself undermines your intention.

    For yes, you summarize your salient points quite succinctly. But the rest of your article (like the first 2/3, from the opening salvo onward) not only doesn’t serve your point, but rather (I submit again) mischaracterizes or subverts your ultimate constructive intent.

    To contribute time and income to a worthy cause has nothing to do with being a ‘warrior,’ though you can’t resist saying so as an emotional hook. Your three stated goals here are indeed constructive things. The rest of the piece is a rhetorical flourish that adds nothing of substance to your cause (but piles on a whole heap of conflicted emotion); but without that, I suppose, there would be nothing to distinguish your own voice and perspective from people who are already doing that work without the benefit of your hectoring.

    Why not instead research and promote projects already underway that exemplify the values you are promoting, so that they can receive further support? That would be even more constructive than just telling US to do it. Lots of us are doing these things already (as other commenters have pointed out) — so why the stereotyping of ‘yogis’ who need to be set straight by you?

    It is not ‘tone-policing’ to question the ultimate effect of your tone and how you cast the situation. Unless you can’t tolerate criticism, regarding it as some kind of bullying encroachment upon your prerogatives as a writer. You seem to resort to terms intended to shame your critics — such as ‘intellectually dishonest’ and ‘tone-policing’ rather than recognizing that posting your thoughts — especially when expressed as you do (“When yoga is reduced to a self-obsessed, bourgeois lifestyle distraction…” — C’mon!) you expose yourself to some criticism in response, especially regarding the central rhetorical theme of the article.

    Unless the very nobility of your cause shields you from that.

  • Bruce Kessler

    On the other hand, this lady seems to embody expressing the warrior stance in a yoga class just fine:

    http://www.cbc.ca/22minutes/videos/clips-season-22/angry-yoga

  • If you look at my publishing history, you’ll see that I welcome nearly constant criticism from all sides, and I generally grow with it. What I push back against is misreading and mischaracterization, like saying I’m othering through war language when I was actually careful not to.

    I didn’t back away from war terminology. I pushed it, saying that I’m not using it as a metaphor. Between that and whether it’s a constructive article or not, what points of yours am I missing?

    To clarify: I’m reframing the obviously militarized tableau of Kurukshetra against the way in which civilization’s war upon the environment is abstracted by its global nature (hard to grasp) and its data (hard to grasp), and its magnitude (impossible to grasp), while it (civilization) itself cloaks the facts with appeals to more growth, etc.

    The Mahabharata describes millions being killed on that field. Given the class stratifications of the time, I’m convinced that the majority are innocents on both sides. Read Chapter 11 for the Lament of the Women for more.

    Some of your straw-manning is strange. I haven’t proposed a “War On…”. I’ve merely said: ecological warfare is happening right now, and we need to stop calling it consumer choice, and perhaps behave as if the attack upon the environment were as imminent as the attack of Kauravas.

    I wrote this because in general, yoga culture doesn’t do enough beyond its self-care agenda. I speak as a teacher and trainer who works for dozens of studios. Of course there are people doing fine work. I support them all the time in print and in person. Provocation is only one part of what I do. As far as tone goes, I’m sure Yogadork would be open to your own submission. It takes all types.

  • Bruce Kessler

    On the other hand, this lady seems to embody expressing the warrior stance in a yoga class just fine:

    https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=1606933109528330

  • This completely resonates. Deep and beautifully written.

    Yoga is designed to bring us out of panic so we can see and act clearly, not pacify us so that we can turn a blind eye. As teachers we need to be awakening people, helping them see what they’ve been pretending they don’t know, and empowering them to be strong enough and self-secure enough to take that actions that will make a real difference.

    This is the real gem: ‘Or by tying access to “advanced-level” practices with strategic (rather than symbolic) environmental work.’

    Thank you.

  • Matthew, so here’s the deal, many of us having been ‘fighting’ that war for decades. We’ve taught it. To the best of our ability, we’ve integrated it into all the choices we’ve made in our lives. We even did research around it. And making the right choice can be very difficult. Just getting the right information to balance an complicated equation on consuming the most basic of items can be overwhelming. And there are many, many of us who have been trying to do this work for a long time.

    And yet still the world is barreling down this path of self destruction. And despair sits right here in front of me. And my yoga does give me solace and keep me out of despair so I can get up in the morning and return to the battle for the day. And someday the right battle will show up and I will put myself in front of the guns and allow myself to be the sacrifice on Kurukshetra.

    But I won’t do that until my boys are both grown and settled and making an independent life for themselves. And there is the rub, because I am a flawed human. I had 2 children. And having 1 or no children would have been the more powerful environmental act. And yet, I look around and see others reproducing like mad, and think, why should I have limited that love in my life when other are not… Yes I am a flawed human.

    And I’m thinking of an interview of Gil Hedley I just listened (liberated body podcast). And I’m trying to puzzle together in my mind my continuous struggle to love the soft flesh of my adipose body and to overcome the aversion to adipose tissue that my culture has embedded in me, yet another battle on that field of kurukshetra. And I think, maybe this is the battle that I must try to win first. Because maybe until we love our soft belles we can never learn to love the earth enough, and our fellow creatures enough, to override our desires for too many children, and too many iPhones, and too many Lululemons….

    Okay, this is not a very organized post, but it has been stewing in me since I read your article earlier this week and I had to respond.

  • Thanks for this, Lisa. The flaw with polemic is that it can’t speak to everyone, and may chafe the converted. Choosing to have children, completing parenting duties (if that ever ends): no-one has ever had to consider these as “flaws” till now. This is so strange.

  • jo

    “I predict/wish that teachers will recognize that the enemy of terrestrial life is global, structural, pervasive and tenacious, and that neither asanas nor meditation can attack it directly.”

    You underestimate the power of an indirect attack.

  • No I don’t. It’s just that the indirect approaches of asana and meditation do not guarantee any progressive political attitudes or outcomes. Both are being used in fact to make people into more relaxed and effective capitalists. Check out the work of Be Scofield on this point. She’ll be publishing a book on it soonish.

  • jo

    no guarantees on anything. That’s why you need to keep a good sense of humor. (see the link above from Bruce).

  • jo

    and you underestimate the futility of a direct attack, as well as the amount of energy dissipated.

  • Matthew,

    Yes, strange. My own emotions as I wrote this surprised me. I found myself in tears. Mourning for the planet and for us humans. Perhaps we old warriors should retire for a while. I am fearful that the battle is already lost because the old tactics have not worked. We have lost so much ground since we joined the battle, for me in the 1970s. I’m hopeful that young warriors will find a new tactic to tilt the battle in the planet’s favor. But it is going to take a global mental shift to make that change. As my friend Jack Alpert (Stanford Knowledge Integration Laboratories) would remind me, we literally have to learn to think differently if this change is going to happen. It won’t come from polemics or from battle calls. It will come from a change to humans as species. We must evolve.

    I don’t often watch TV and don’t have one at home, but I’m staying with my husband at a conference center so this large screen dominates the room. Jay has a cold so we had our dinner in last night. We flipped on the TV. Every other advertisement was for a weight-loss method. Weight loss drugs with lists of side effects to destroy all hope. Comedy shows: making fun of fat people. The news: a play-by-play account of the terrorist attack of Charlie Hebdo and the search for the terrorists. The stock market report: an endless stream of profit analysis for drug companies. Not a word about health, neither health of our bodies nor the planet.

    So, the television remains off today. I return to the battle on the front of the body. Because, more so than when I was an academic teaching environmental science, I feel like can make an influence here. I can help people learn to love their bodies. I can help people awaken their somatic awareness. And maybe, if we can awaken the soma, we will have the strength to make the huge communal lifestyle shift that has to happen if we are to change the trajectory of environmental devastation. For, we are still stuck in the tragedy of the commons. Individual sacrifice will do little to change anything at the moment. We have to evolve and start thinking as a species. The whole of humanity must change its habits. And humans are not designed to do that, that is what Jack Alpert tried to explain to me so many years ago. Jack thinks it is further development of the cerebral cortex that will get us out of our problem. But on this front I lean toward’s Gil Hedley’s school. Perhaps it is the development of the wisdom of body, of the fat, and the bone, and gut, and muscle, and organ that will change our behavior. I’ll start experimenting on myself, it is where I always begin.

    Once again, I ramble, but it helps.

  • Nine bows, Lisa.

  • Susanna

    Well said. This should be the new manifesto for transnational yoga. If our “calm and peace” ideologies are protecting the status quo, even by inference or accident, we as teachers are implicated in the coming catastrophe. We’re rearranging the deck chairs, etc etc.

    A reading suggestion to those in trauma studies, rape culture awareness (I’m thinking more along the lines of the dire situation among refugees and war victims, but of course, every rape has significant carry on effects), and anti-racism advocates. The suffering you’re addressing often stems from the same root source: environmental catastrophe, displacement, overvaluation of real estate by international capital, increased ratios of debt in the developing world (leveraged by the developed nations, i.e. USA, UK, and Germany), mass expulsions to inadequately prepared sub/urban environments, demonization of immigrants and the poor. Between re-reads of the Sutraa of Patanjali, please read Saski Sassens’ book, EXPULSIONS. My new year’s wish: it will be on every yoga teacher’s reading list this year. Then please do like the guy says: local food movements (surprising amount of environmental impact from this), outreach to prisons and the poor, teaching our students to match meditative awareness with visible, tangible environmental and social commitments, ending your investments in coal and demanding similar accountability from your bank and local investment systems, as well as our local government.

    And finally: please stop thinking of yourselves as “poor” just because society doesn’t respect our excellent, privileged profession. I’ve heard this too many times. You need to read about what poverty is: a complete social, architectural, familial, generational surround of hopelessness. Shine a light there.

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