Jul 5 2010

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


May 25 2010

Mind/Body Harmony

Matthew Foley


I had a really phenomenal experience this past Sunday morning teaching a yoga class to a dance group at the College of Charleston. About a dozen people showed up for the class, which took place in a beautiful dance room located inside the brand new Cato Arts Center on the CofC campus. In preparing for the class, I did a lot of thinking about what a yoga practice might offer people who are passionate about dance and creative movement.

One of the central aspects of yoga is cultivating a harmonious relationship between mind and body. Such harmony is of course essential to creating beautiful and graceful movement in dance. In many Eastern spiritual paths, the mind and the body are seen as equal halves of an integral whole. This is the philosophy of yin and yang: things that appear to be opposites – light and dark, tall and short, earth and sky, spirit and flesh – are in fact inseparably connected with one another.

In Western culture, however, there is a very rigid division between mind and body. In the last year, I’ve stumbled upon a number of brilliant Western thinkers who have addressed this division and the disharmony is creates in individuals.

The first is Sir Ken Robinson, an expert on human creativity, who gave a brilliant address at the 2006 TED Conference on creativity in children and whether or not educational systems around the world do an adequate job of fostering that creativity. (The whole talk is worth watching, but the part I’ll be focusing on begins around the 9:00 minute mark).

During his talk, he spoke about the fact that almost all schools around the world tend to place a great emphasis on language and mathematics over the arts, particularly drama and dance. He says: “As children grow up, we start to educate them progressively from the waist-up. Then we focus on their heads – and slightly to one side.”

He goes on to describe what type of person this emphasis on head-only education creates, particularly in the form of the stereotypical academic professor: “They live in their heads. They live up there – and slightly to one side. They’re disembodied, in a kind of literal way. They look upon their body as a form of transport for their heads. It’s a way of getting their heads to meetings.”

Another brilliant thinker I’ve come across in the past year is Alan Watts, who came to popular attention during the 1960’s as an interpreter of Eastern spiritual traditions (especially Zen Buddhism) for Western audiences. In one of his talks featured on YouTube, delightfully illustrated by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, he addresses this split between mind and body that exists in the West and how it shapes our sense of self.

“I’ve always been tremendously interested in what people mean by the word “I” – because it comes out in curious lapses of speech. We don’t say: “I am a body.” We say: “I have a body.” Somehow we don’t seem to identify ourselves with all of ourselves. We say “my feet,” “my hands,” “my teeth,” as if they were something outside me. As far as I can make out, most people feel that they are something or other about halfway between the ears and a little ways behind the eyes, inside the head. That’s what you call the “ego.” That’s not what you are at all, because it gives you the idea that you are a chauffeur inside your own body – as if you your body were an automobile and you are the chauffeur principle inside it.”

The point that both Robinson and Watts are making is that when we identify primarily with our mind and our thoughts, we disconnect ourselves from our bodily existence. The results are usually disastrous, particularly in our modern culture. We stuff food into our mouths that are deeply gratifying to the mind (products high in fat and processed sugar) but which are nutritionally disastrous to the body. On the opposite extreme, we flock to gyms in order to sculpt our bodies into an idealized mental image of what we should like like – usually based on digitalized media images of the super skinny or ultra buff.

What is lacking is a deep listening to the wisdom of the body. Oftentimes, we only start to listen when we are forced to, usually as a result of an illness or life-threatening condition. Many people then realize that they must flip their entire life-style upside down and start living from a more holistic understanding of themselves.

Many of these people, of course, find their way to yoga classes and meditation retreats. A great deal of the popularity of such practices as yoga, tai chi, and seated meditation are found in the fact that they help cultivate a holistic way of looking at the world and our place in it. These practices are based on the realization that the mind and body form an inseparable wholeness – just as each individual human being, animal, or plant is an integral part of the interdependent environment in which they live. The process of yoga, in my mind, is a process of extending the feeling of identity outwards, away from the narrow confines of our egos, and connecting with our bodies, our communities, the planet, and the universe.

In the yoga class I taught to the dance group, I continually encouraged the participants to focus on their breath. The breath is an incredible tool for helping us cultivate mind/body harmony. Mindful breathing helps us turn down the volume on our mental noise so that the wisdom of the body may begin to be heard. A yogi or dancer can then begin to truly feel his or her body. They can begin to discover where they are tight or sore, where they hold anxiety or stress, in what movements they feel confident or terrified. This deep listening to the body can give us insight into the ways we live and in what ways we may need to change.

When the body and mind begin to move and function as one, we become more effective in what we do, we become more graceful and effortless in our actions, we become less worried and anxious in our inner lives. This is obviously helpful not just on the yoga mat or on the dance stage, but in all aspects of our lives.

So the question is… What might your body be trying to tell you? And if you start to really listen, what changes would begin to happen in your life?

~ Matthew Foley