by Julie Buckner
In 2009, after a twenty year career in politics and public affairs, I opened a yoga studio in the suburbs of Los Angeles.
My idea was to share this thing called Yoga that has been so powerfully transformational in my life with others. And I did. Together with a talented team of instructors, loyal staff and devoted students, InYoga Center quickly became a respected and beloved space for studying yoga. It was a thriving community center, a gathering place for sadhana and sangha.
Seven years later, InYoga is closed. Our lease was expiring—I could not renew, extend or option it, despite willful effort and great expense to save it. With a month’s notice, we shut the doors a week before Election Day. Boom.
Writing this piece now, all that feels like forever ago.
When people heard about my background, they were curious. Dubious. How could someone into yoga work in the public arena of politics? Yoga is pure and blissful; politics is nasty. And why the yoga business? Politics, commerce. They’re so…unspiritual. Yoga and politics are polar opposites, they said. Being a new owner and trying to attract paying clientele, I didn’t want to lecture people about non-dualism. So I just smiled, and sent them to class.
It was not at all my intention to drop the political profession and take up yoga as my vocation. That’s what happened. I’d worked in nearly every election cycle from 1990-2010, at the national, state (California) and municipal levels. I’d served as a campaign strategist and spokesperson for presidents, senators, governors, mayors and city and school board members, as well as wealthy businessmen and women who ran as outsiders, challenging the status quo. I did it because I cared deeply about people and issues; I believed elections were a way to make our lives better. Politics was transformational.
Stating the obvious, the worlds of yoga and politics have changed dramatically in the last 30 years, more dynamically so in the last 15. As institutions, their foundations have been rocked to the core; as disciplines, principles have eroded; as ideals for the common good, aspirational influences are waning.
Yet, before I continue, I’d like to share my concern about choosing this theme—the politics of yoga. My concern isn’t what you might think: we don’t talk about politics in yoga, we might offend. No, that’s not it. It’s that as yogis, we’re taught to let go of the past, not project into future. The practice is about being present, right?
Admittedly, at almost 50, I find myself grasping, coveting, even claiming ownership of the yoga and politics of the past—the ‘olden times’ as my son, a college freshman, said in the third grade doing a project on ancestry and family trees, when he suddenly had the insight that his parents existed before he was born.
This, though, is more than nostalgia. Indeed, I am concerned about the current state of yoga and politics. I’m not whining about the wicked commercialization of yoga, the co-option of our democracy by the alt-right, wishing it wasn’t happening. (It is.) Instead, I want to contribute to an ongoing discourse on two subjects very much occupying our attention, stimulating reactions and directing responses as practitioners and citizens. For we are both. That we’re interested in this kinda stuff on YogaDork is evidence of our engagement.
Yoga and politics are undergoing crises: suffering from dominance by monied interests; an incapacity to communicate cohesive, aspirational, motivational messages; misportrayal and misappropriation by media (mainstream, such as it is, and social); the takehold of opportunism, cynicism and celebritization; lack of transparency; lack of leadership and role modeling; an erosion of basic values; and ultimately a weakness of participation in studentship and citizenship. Generally, we don’t recognize or demand that it can, and should, be better.
Of course, what’s happening in the worlds of yoga and politics are not isolated trends. It’s a reflection of our culture: a crisis of consciousness characterized by globalization without understanding or respecting differences; high expectations of others without taking personal responsibility our actions (or our thoughts); the need for immediate gratification, sense of entitlement without willingness to do our part. Our humanity is in question. Our posterity.
It’s not YogaWorks’ fault. It’s not John Friend’s either. Not Trump. Not Hillary (although she’s been blamed for almost everything else).
For those who believe that yoga and politics are polar opposites, entirely other, and should be kept separate from our teaching and students’ practice (or even in our own lives) it’s worthwhile to review some history.
One could argue (and I will) that modern yoga as we know it in the West took its some of its cue from politics in the East. The emergence of modern yoga, really only about a hundred and seventy five years old, corresponds with the rise of British rule in India and and its influence on Hindi culture. At the turn of the 20th century, Aurobindo (before he became a Sri) fought for swaraj, complete Indian independence. He was known later as the “freedom fighting yogi.” But that was before he renounced politics, and wrote what’s considered – and not on the syllabi of 200 or 300 hour TT’s – his most significant and influential work, “The Divine Life,” in which he presents a theory of yoga as evolution, suggesting that the crisis of humanity leads to a spiritual transformation of the human being and the arrival of divine life on earth. That was 1939 (although the date of publication is disputed, as it always is with yogic texts). It’s also tantrica. Sexy stuff.
About the same time, another young man, Mahatma Gandhi, lived in South Africa fighting against apartheid for 21 years, before returning to India in 1916. His politics included leading the Indian National Congress, boycotting British goods and institutions, and civil disobedience (non-violent, of course). He was incarcerated, serving two years of a six year sentence; he must’ve been let go for right action. Gandhi read and recited the Bhagavad Gita daily. A karma yogi, he was assassinated in 1948.
Before we depart from history, it’s noteworthy to mention that Krishnamacharya, revered Father of Modern Yoga, and his teachings were funded by riches of the royal Maharaj (translated: “great king”) of Mysore, who at once received treatment by TVK whilst ruling the kingdom semi-autonomously under British colonialism.
Meanwhile at exactly the same time in America (and across the globe), the country waded into the Second World War (1939-1945), eventually winning (a la Mr. Trump) with the defeat of the Germans and the liberation of Nazi concentration camps.
For those who believe hatha means sun-moon, or coming together of masculine and feminine energies, I remind you that it does not. It means effort, exertion, force. Hatha Yoga is forceful yoga.
And yet yoga and politics endure. Philosophically, yuj and democractic (little d) ideals—of the American and Brexit varieties – are fundamentally the same propositions. The Declaration of Independence and the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution aren’t all that far off from Patanjali’s yamas and niyamas, the yogic guide to ethics and values, the manual for living in yoga. I’m paraphrasing: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal, endowed by the Divine Mother with certain unalienable rights, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We the people in order to form a more perfect union. Moksha.
This is the ground of yoga and politics—or at least, it’s the subtle offering.
It’s also playing out on the gross level, right here, right now. Yoga and politics are as ubiquitous and pervasive in our culture as Vira I and Anderson Cooper. Exposure to yoga imagery isn’t relegated for selfies on social media platforms; asana is used as props for selling dish soap, dog food and banks—even McDonald’s—in TV ads. Politics and its political figures, historically and appropriately subject to pointed analysis and satirical humor in news coverage and in entertainment, respectively, are considered and consumed as infotainment. Politics is reality TV. Yoga is exercise.
So can we be truthful—sat—about this stuff? And can we be discerning without violence, while maintaining steadiness and ease in our practices?
To believe that yoga isn’t political—there’s no politics in yoga—is a misperception. We’re not seeing truth. Yoga is not, and has never been, apolitical. Nor should it be.
When practiced well, yoga and politics, we question, we reframe, we get clear. Pratipaksha Bhavanam. Though this is not to be confused with mastery. Yoga and politics, democracy, are practices, ongoing, evolving, transforming. Transformational.
So it’s on us. It’s in the hands of the teachers, the practitioners, political leaders, consultants, pundits, the media, voters…Us.
More authenticity, humility and abidance with the foundational framework of both traditions are good places to start. Atha.
The state of the union is our journey. It’s our path.
My fellow Americans, humanity, practice. All is coming.
Julie Buckner has spent her life’s work engaged in transformation, initiating change, building community and nurturing balance in the lives of others, as well as her own. After a twenty year career in marcomms and management consulting, primarily in political campaigns and public affairs, Julie founded L.A.’s InYoga Center in 2009. In seven years, InYoga blossomed into a thriving community gathering place, offering a diverse schedule of yoga classes, a teacher training school and lifestyle boutique. InYoga lost its lease and sadly closed in Oct. 2016. With two seemingly distinct, divergent disciplines—the inner-work of yoga, the external efforts of politics – Julie united her entrepreneurial endeavors, dedication to service and involvement in growth mindset, cultivating a synergy of strategic savvy, steady mind and open heart with InYoga. Approaching the big Five-Oh, Julie is embarking on the third iteration of her career. She lives in L.A. and has two sons, one in college, the other in middle school.