The Yoga service organization Off the Mat, Into the World recently garnered some heavy criticism (see: It’s All Yoga Baby, The Babarrazi, Nathan Thompson on Elephant Journal & Salon.com)  for co-organizing and participating in the Huffington Post’s “Oasis” at the Republican and Democratic Conventions. Receiving a hefty sum of $40,000 from the HuffPo, Seane’s yoga group spent a year organizing and co-curating this “Oasis,” a super plush center in the midst of the “madness” that provides “private and group yoga classes, massages, mini-facials, makeup refreshes, sleep consultations, meditation and healthy snacks.” Why? They “want the politicians who are making decisions on our behalf to be centered and well-rested, not harried and sleep deprived.”

While I certainly understand the concerns raised by the numerous bloggers I think the issue is more complex than it has been made out to be.

Why the Frustration?

For those in the yoga community who didn’t understand why so many were angry with Off the Mat’s presence at the political conventions I want to name few of the main concerns I saw expressed about their efforts.

The first reason I believe so many were upset is because their visit to the RNC and DNC came at a time when trust in the political establishment is at an all time low. In this post-occupy era, any organization who pampers the elite with spa like services will draw a certain amount of animosity and anger from the 99%. The bottom line is people are fed up with the lies, scandals and lack of accountability in Washington and OTM’s presence at these conventions gave the general impression that they stood with the 1%. It should also be pointed out that they were there enthusiastically, which may have given Republicans and Democrats more credibility than many think they deserved. They spent a year organizing the Oasis and were co-founders of this venture. Meanwhile they were completely silent about any of the crucial social or political issues that were being discussed. This undoubtedly contributed to the frustration, especially as people were in the streets protesting these conventions. Perhaps, as OTM claims to be a “grassroots” organization, designing an Oasis for both the Occupy and Tea Party movements would better fit their mission.

Secondly, Corn and OTM believed that the Oasis may actually have an impact on the political process. As Corn states,

I hope we brought meaning. I hope we modeled compassion. I hope we represented something positive and unified. Whether or not “they” got our messaging, i guess, is beside the point.

For many it was simply naive on the part of OTM to believe that feeding kale to elite politicians or teaching them yoga would actually communicate any particular political, spiritual or socially conscious message. There are no “values,” either Republican or Democratic associated with half-moon pose or breath work. Thus, some felt that OTM was ignorant and deserving of criticism for trying such a simplistic and misguided effort to bring about change.

 

Off the Mat isn’t a Progressive Activist Organization

I think it’s important to clarify what type of organization OTM is. Many yoga practitioners like to think they are a progressive/liberal one, or that they should be. They view Seane as progressive spiritual activist leader fighting the good fight. This confusion in part led to the frustration over their actions. Some of those who condemned OTM for their efforts at the conventions applauded their efforts during the Occupy movement. They believe OTM is actually on their (i.e. left wing/liberal) side and thus abandoned the cause by allying with the Republicans or corporate bought Democrats. But what if Off the Mat isn’t a progressive organization?

In his reflection on the whole scenario, Julian Walker suggests that rather than registering people to vote as OTM is attempting to do, “a more this-worldly approach to politics would be more in line with the other amazing missions they enact in support of the disenfranchised, poor and oppressed peoples of the world.” It should be noted that none of these Seva challenge efforts are necessarily progressive or liberal. In fact, many evangelical Christian groups go on “missions” every year all over the world to help “poor and oppressed peoples” and are doing similar things that OTM does. One could argue that much of the charity, volunteer and service work being conducted around the globe is done by religious organizations, many of them whom are right wing conservatives in their politics and theology. Just look at Mother Theresa. She was no left wing liberal.

Seane Corn spoke at Occupy Wall Street saying, "This gathering is not about being 'against' something or someone. It is about being 'for' unity, freedom of speech, and justice."

Another example is Seane Corn’s speech at the Occupy rally. It was completely vague and politically neutral. She never mentioned any real issues that people were facing. Rather she spoke about the right to freedom of speech and freedom of expression. She stated, “What is happening here is yoga! We are for, not against 100% of love. 100% of truth. 100% of justice. 100% of unity. 100% of the time.” Her speech could have been delivered to a Tea Party rally and received the same warm reception. Love, truth and justice are terms used by both political sides and are almost meaningless unless contextualized with specific beliefs about policies, ideas and actions.

Finally, as mentioned above, Off the Mat’s latest project “Yogavotes” is specifically non-partisan. Thus, as a large percentage of yoga practitioners in the U.S. are conservative, OTM is undoubtedly supporting Republicans to get out and vote.

Why then do people perceive them to be a progressive or liberal activist group? If they were accurately seen as the non-partisan (equally Republican and Democratic) service organization that they are, I don’t think people would have been that angry.

I’m actually not upset with Off the Mat going to these conventions. Why? Because I’ve never viewed them as the type of organization that wouldn’t belong there. Do I think it was a wise use of resources? No. Furthermore they’ve never taken any positions on candidates or political issues. Off the Mat has never actually made any effort to differentiate themselves from Republicans, so why would I think it’s strange that they show up to their convention? Moreover, when they say they want to bring “yoga values” to the political sphere this is as meaningful to me as someone saying they want to bring pilates values to the political sphere. Why should anyone believe their “message” is different than what is already heard at the conventions? People express both Republican and Democratic “yoga values” and without specifying which side they are on, I’m not making any assumptions about them.  As I mentioned above, even when Corn spoke to the Occupy movement she refused to name any social issue that she stood for. She stated, “This gathering is not about being ‘against’ something or someone. It is about being ‘for’ unity, freedom of speech, and justice.” Which political party would say they are against freedom of speech, unity or justice? This is entirely ambiguous. Nothing has demonstrated that Seane or OTM is either liberal or conservative.

 

The Republican State of Yoga

Across the nation the yoga landscape is actually much more conservative than many may believe. Just look at the predominantly white, middle/upper class makeup of the community. Yoga is taught in high end gyms, spas and studios everywhere. Elsewhere, yoga is found in the highest echelons of the corporate world – places like Goldman Sachs & Merrill Lynch for example. Lululemon founder Chip Wilson, a huge supporter of Ayn Rand is also part of the yoga community. Much yoga is found in predominantly conservative towns across the country. Thus, Republicans are a very important part of OTM’s constituency. It’s just another reason why I make no assumptions about any yoga celebrities political ideologies.

Sally Zelikovsky is a Marin resident and Tea-Party activist who was at the Republican National Convention to be “a part of history, and to formally nominating the Romney-Ryan ticket.” She’s also a fan of the asana, claiming to “do a lot of yoga.” Sally even once organized an event for Michelle Bachman. I’m sure she loved the idea of the yoga Oasis at the RNC.

There are also blogs like The Conservative Yogi, with posts titled “Bullshit Obama Quotes: My Top 5.” The blogger also has posts with beautiful yoga poses and quotes like “Nothing outside of ourselves can be taken too seriously. It is all a metaphor for the work being done within.”

We can’t forget about the quickly growing Christian Yoga movement. Not that this is an automatic political signifier but when a class is held at a southern Baptist Church in Alabama it doesn’t take too much guesswork to figure it out. Don’t miss Outstretched in Worship, Christoga and Holy Yoga (part of the Holy Yoga Ministries).

In case there was still any doubt about the large presence of conservatives doing yoga, a recent study showed that an equal number of Democrats and Republicans do yoga.

All of these examples above reflect Off the Mat’s constituents. If you step into their shoes do you think they’d be upset about OTM being at the Republican National Convention? I highly doubt it. Plus, of course there were Republican yoga practitioners who left encouraging and supportive comments on OTMs facebook page.

From an organizational perspective it is particularly advantageous to Off the Mat to remain politically neutral. If they were some left-wing radical group they’d alienate more than half of their prospective constituents. Not to mention drastically decreasing the amount of branding opportunities they could participate in.

 

Confusing Presence with Justice

Zen teacher Angel Kyodo Williams taught meditation at the Republican National Convention. http://transformativechange.org/

The Zen teacher Angel Kyodo Williams, who helped lead the meditations at the RNC defended OTM’s presence at the convention. She acknowledged the potential limitations of the effort but emphasized the need for something visionary and radical in a time of such divisiveness and polarization. She states, “It’s an opening where we have nothing but closing. how many of us practitioners were once closed to all manner of things that our mindfulness and yoga practices have opened us up to?…I have to trust that my practice and it’s values has something to offer that may transcend even my own understanding…These are solid people entering with open hearts & curious minds to at least look.”

It’s hard to say what is truly motivating Seane Corn and Off the Mat to participate in these conventions. Personally, I see OTM as engaging with things like the Occupy movement, voting registration and the political conventions because they are first and foremost PR opportunities to build their brand. They are merely latching onto the popular thing of the day. It doesn’t really matter if it is a grassroots rally or an elitist political gathering. On the YogaVotes website you can take the “pledge to vote” by giving Off the Mat your email address and contact information. I think they are much more interested in registering people to their email list and using the election season to increase awareness about their brand than they are in getting people to the polls. Their actions generally seem tied to promotion, branding and exposure. OTMs emphasize on presentation is a good indicator of what is the driving force behind their efforts.

The $40,000 payment that OTM received was probably a motivating factor as well. However, I do believe that they genuinely think this sort of RNC/DNC event can enact change (liberal or conservative change? It’s still unknown as OTM or Seane haven’t identified either way). Same goes for Williams. She believes in the practice of meditation and yoga and honestly thinks it could open up new possibilities, potentials and lead to more mindfulness in politics (whatever that means).

Seane Corn, Angel Kyodo Williams and the OTM team are certainly not the only ones who believe in the potential political power of meditation or yoga. In the documentary YogaWoman the respected teacher Donna Fahri states, “Yoga is one of the most politically subversive practices that any person, male or female, could do in our time.” In Mindful Politics (2006), Tibetan Buddhist and professor Reginald Ray argues that meditation will make someone challenge the status quo.

We must understand that meditation, the centerpiece of the Buddhist path, is itself the most radical kind of political action. Why? In meditation, we step out of the value system of the conventional world and start to look at things from a fresh viewpoint. We don’t know what we are going to come up with, but we do know we are not likely to remain an uncritical supporter of the status quo.

The belief that underlies Corn and Williams’ actions is held by other respected teachers, scholars and practitioners. While apparently no one else has done something as bold as show up at the Republican National Convention with yoga mats and meditation cushions many spiritual adherents of different stripes actually share the same core belief about the relationship between presence and justice.

However, as I point out in my chapter of the new edited book “21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics & Practice” there is a central misunderstanding about the belief that spiritual practice will lead to a particular political perspective. I state:

An expansive feeling of joy, love, or emotional freedom doesn’t equate with any particular political position. Right-wing Republicans and left-wing Democrats can benefit equally from yoga or meditation. Feeling more happy or carefree may inspire random acts of kindness, but it won’t change someone’s beliefs to reflect any particular political perspective. While a liberal yoga practitioner may say that their practice inspired them to volunteer for a feminist organization, a conservative one may be moved to work for a pro-life group. If the urge to serve people arises from some newly gained insight on the mat, it will be shaped by the context of the individual’s preconceived notions. If there’s some radical shift in deeply held beliefs, it’s just as likely that an ardent pro-lifer would become pro-choice as the opposite.

Presence, focus and mental clarity can be used for any purpose, including to improve the ability to drop bombs.

Therefore, at best spiritual practices like meditation or yoga, should be seen as politically neutral and at worst they merely provide more clarity, focus and presence when acting on one’s political persuasions, however cruel or evil they may be. Thus, for myself and many others writing about and commenting on this story it is clearly an unwise use of a year worth of time, resources and energy for OTM to try to enact change with kale, meditation and yoga. If trying to help Paul Ryan or Democratic leaders make “better decisions” was the goal of the convention campaign then it was clearly not a worthwhile endeavor. It’s like believing that one will become a better chef merely because they practice yoga or meditate. If a person is a poor chef to begin with, after doing yoga they will still be a poor chef albeit their minds may be a little less busy and they may be more present. Same goes with politics. Meditation and yoga will only help Paul Ryan to have more energy, focus and determination when trying to ban all abortions even in the case of rape.

I’ve heard time and time again from people who genuinely believe in the power of their spiritual practices to transform people and the world individually, socially and politically. It’s nothing unique to Seane Corn or Off the Mat. Her group took this idea to the next level by showing up at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, but by no way means is it unique to them. They merely followed Reginald Ray’s and Donna Farhi’s insight to it’s logical conclusion. I’m way less interested in singling out OTM than I am exploring how this idea operates in popular spiritual discourse. I think OTM was simply misguided in their efforts to enact change (although I still have no idea if this change is much different than what was at the RNC/DNC) in this case.

What is the Message of Off the Mat?

As I’ve demonstrated OTM and others incorrectly believe that yoga or meditation can transmit a social or political message. This idea underlies my original critique of the organization. Relying upon the values and teachings that are learned on the mat to inform activist campaigns is profoundly problematic. Why? Because nothing about activism is taught on the mat. Rather, physical, emotional and spiritual experiences are felt. Yes, people may heal deep wounds in their shadow but this won’t make them more informed activists just like it won’t make them better chefs. What this tells people is that yoga practice or acquiring some metaphysical truth is enough to make activism responsible, knowledgeable and rooted in justice. Likewise, yoga poses or meditation are not enough to transmit any particular political or social message at conventions (whether you want someone to be more conservative or more liberal which OTM still isn’t clear about). These things are unrelated. Again, it’s like showing up at a cooking convention hoping that yoga asana will turn amateur chefs into Emeril Lagasse.

Here is another great example of why an organization like OTM needs more than yoga asana, love, unity or peace to carry out responsible, justice based activism work. In a recent statement by Seane Corn she actually admits that the global seva challenges were used for dramatic purposes to build their brand:

It was very easy for me to sell Africa, Cambodia and Haiti than [sic] it was for me to sell Los Angeles. I couldn’t get people to get involved. It wasn’t that we didn’t want to. It was just that there was no interest there. Off the Mat, to really get this going we needed it to be dramatic, we needed their to be stories. Cambodia is a good story, South Africa is a good story, Uganda. We chose cultures where there’s a story that we can tell to help to get people to empathize.

Using other cultures for their “stories” to make money to build a large pop-yoga service organization is pretty much the exact opposite of responsible grassroots activism. Believing that yoga or spiritual practice somehow makes one better at activism can directly result in this kind of irresponsible use of other cultures as it distracts from the real training needed.

There never was a problem with doing activism work in L.A. as there is a lot of it going on. If Seane and the co-founders really wanted to start with activism in L.A. they could have done it. It simply wouldn’t have generated the tens of thousands of dollars that these other campaigns have. This may have needed to be much less about presentation and much more about the quality and genuineness of their service efforts. But for sure they could have started their own grassroots movement, albeit devoid of fancy fundraising contests and “exotic” touristy types of service trips.

Conclusion

In the case of the global Seva challenges, I think there is still a real cause for concern about OTM being irresponsible about issues of power and privilege (as the quote above illustrates). No American, particularly a white American should ever say “it was very easy for me to sell Africa, Cambodia or Haiti.” That invokes all sorts of problematic historical realities.

In the example of OTM at the conventions I personally think it wasn’t a wise use of time but simply see their efforts as misguided. I’ve never thought of Off the Mat as a type of organization that wouldn’t belong at a Republican convention, or the type of group that wouldn’t jump on any publicity opportunity possible. Thus I’m not disappointed with them or let down. If a conservative pilates non-profit showed up to the RNC to spread their message of fitness, wellness, healing and transformation I wouldn’t really care. Would I be disappointed with their actions? Would they be deserving of scorn? I suspect that most of the bloggers that critiqued OTM wouldn’t critique the pilates group either. It seems like they felt betrayed by OTM’s action. Is it no coincidence that the most vocal critics are all progressive-left activist oriented people?

I view Off the Mat, Into the World as similar to a Christian volunteer organization that is doing mission work worldwide. They are also a brand deeply concerned about their image, presentation and publicity. They are as much Republican as they are Democrat and as much liberal as they are conservative. Nothing has indicated that their presence at a Republican or Democratic Convention would be out of place given their track record.

If CODEPINK spent a year planning to pamper the RNC and DNC delegates I’d be really upset and shocked. However, Off the Mat is a fundamentally different organization. Thus, when they show up at a Republican National Convention, my expectations of them are already much different than others may be. I don’t assume they are any more liberal than whats found in these conventions. I’m not saying I support their efforts, I’m just clarifying why I’m not shocked or upset at what they’ve done. It fits them perfectly: brand exposure, publicity, presentation, money and networking. At the end of the day I think some view OTM much more like a CODEPINK type organization than they really are. This misunderstanding, I believe, is what led to the anger and frustration expressed by so many.

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Be Scofield has a chapter in the new book 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice. He is a certified yoga instructor, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. scholar and founder of www.beyondwhiteness.com and www.greenwisetv.com. Be is a contributing writer for the Huffington Post, Alternet and Tikkun. He also runs an online school for personal and global transformation called www.mettaversity.com


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