The Yoga of Social Action

Matthew Foley

I came to yoga with a strong interest in social activism. As a college student, I was active in campus campaigns, attended anti-war rallies, helped start three organizations, and spent most of my weekend volunteering. In fact, the person who invited me to my first yoga class was a man I met not at a meditation retreat, but at a campus dialogue about race relations.

As I started going to yoga classes more often and learning more about the philosophy behind yoga, I immediately starting asking questions about how yoga related to the world I was dealing with as an activist: politics, poverty, race, gender, environmental destruction, violence, and injustice. I heard my teachers speak about peace and compassion, tolerance and openness, but I wondered about the ability of yoga to be completely relevant in the messy and often tragic events of our world.

Like many people, it took me a while to shake off my conception of yoga as something otherworldly. Our image of a yogi is still often shaped by images of lonely men in caves, meditating for hours on end, their focus set on God, with no contact with communities or people. This otherworldliness still infuses the Western perceptions of many of the spiritual traditions of India & Asia, including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism.

I sought to learn about individuals who have bridged this apparent gap between social action and spirituality. I read more about familiar names like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, but also learned about heroic individuals like Thich Nhat Hanh, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Cesar Chavez. All of them saw a spiritual practice as the foundation for a life dedicated to serving others.

As I learned about these figures, I also dug into my own experience of walking these two paths. My path of social awareness deeply influenced my yoga practice. Instead of staying stuck in that otherworldliness of yoga, my practice has become a more down-to-earth path over the years. I don’t look for enlightenment or samadhi as some blissed-out haze of detachment from the things of this earth. Instead, I see my practice as being mindful and grateful for the day-to-day – even seemingly mundane – events and people of my everyday life: the brilliance of a blue sky, the sound of my cat purring while I rub his belly, the sound of beautiful music, the joy of being with the people I love.

My yoga practice has also deeply influenced my path as an activist. One thing I’ve learned is how the world of politics and social change can be filled with a strong sense of duality – a mentality of us vs. them, of absolute right vs. absolute wrong. Yoga has constantly reminded me to remember the humanity of the people I may disagree with and to treat them with respect and compassion even as we may debate or argue over what is the right thing to do. Yoga has sustained me personally, helping me keep burn-out at bay, and keeping me from getting too cynical about the world’s problems. I realized that to truly love humanity and this planet was not just to care and worry about its problems, but also to appreciate and take joy in its beauty. It is just as important to stop and smell fresh flowers as it is to attend the next big peace rally.

These interconnections have led me to see that the path of spirituality and the path of social action are not separate. They can merge together as a powerful tool for both personal and global transformation. This is because, according to yogic philosophy, the individual and the universe are not separate.

The physical practice of yoga (asana) allows us to experience ourselves as a whole organism – mind, body, and spirit. The larger philosophy and path of yoga allows us experience ourselves – ordinarily believed to be separate from what lies beyond our skin – as inherently inseparable from the entire organism of existence. This is the true meaning of yoga: union.

This united organism of existence includes our natural environment, our social environment, our political environment, and the environment of our own bodies and psyches. All of them need our attention and our compassion if we are to experience peace, both personally and globally.

I think the yoga community would benefit from a more vibrant and engaged conversation about the connections between practices of yoga and meditation and the interconnected world outside of our yoga studios and meditation halls. I’m not suggesting that yoga classes become soapboxes or group meditations become political action meetings. I simply believe that yoga and other meditative practices can be powerful forces for good on this planet if we seek ways to more deeply practice peace and compassion – both on and off the yoga mat.

~ Matthew Foley


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