It’s the latest term being used to describe how the search for the highest self can be bridged with social change: spiritual activism. Now more than ever you can hear yoga instructors, meditation teachers, small groups and personal life coaches speaking about the value of taking spiritual principles into the world for the betterment of the planet. Yoga Kula [formerly Yoga Sangha], a San Francisco studio, hosted a “Spiritual Activation” series in 2007 where inspirational talks by John Robbins, Julia Butterfly Hill and Jack Kornfield were followed by a yoga class. For the yogi or engaged Buddhists seeking to become involved in activism, there are numerous new organizations and opportunities: you can volunteer to teach yoga in prisons or the juvenile justice system, fly to Cambodia or Africa to serve people, create your own local service project for social change, take a yoga class for cancer and HIV awareness, or support yoga teachers in Africa. Transformation is in the air. What was once the domain for an individual’s spiritual and physical growth is quickly becoming a useful resource to harness a new force for social justice. And with over 20 million yoga practitioners in America, and as more and more people seek spirituality in non-religious ways, it has the potential to be a powerful movement. This new spirit of transformation is all wonderful, right? Not exactly.
As an activist and yoga instructor I’m all for inspiring people to make a difference in the world. And this new spiritual activism movement has lots of potential. But taking the best of what is taught on the yoga mat off into the world, as one program advertises, isn’t enough to create just and sustainable communities for social change. Nor is meditation or a personal spiritual practice. Why not? Because yoga or meditation do not teach about how power functions to maintain oppressive systems such as racism, cultural imperialism, and patriarchy. Without this perspective we stand the risk of reproducing some of the most harmful effects of them. In Acting With Compassion: Buddhism, Feminism and the Environmental Crisis, Stephanie Kaza illustrates the importance of bridging spirituality with an understanding power dynamics, “Political, economic, and personal power can serve the environment, if illuminated by awareness and social consciousness of the logic of domination. Without this awareness, the critical role of power can be overlooked by the Buddhist practitioner focusing on the beauty and miracle of interdependence.” Recognizing that our activism — despite peaceful and loving intentions — can actually cause harm with or without our being aware of it is a crucial component to a just and sustainable future. In other words the impact of our actions is more important than our intentions. This awareness is a central component of an anti-racist approach to social justice. Let’s remember that the intentions of the 18th & 19th century Christian missionaries were mostly good as they sought to help civilize and educate.
Seane Corn - International celebrity yoga teacher and founder of Off the Mat, Into the World.
One of the most prominent leaders of this fast growing spiritual activism movement is the international yoga celebrity Seane Corn. As a pioneer in the field she has successfully combined the art of yoga with motivational leadership designed to empower people to make a difference in the world. Corn got her start teaching yoga to at-risk teenage girls in L.A. and became a YouthAIDS ambassador in 2005 to help raise funds and awareness about the HIV/AIDS crisis. She received both harsh criticism and support in 2001 when she represented Nike and took part in a commercial for them called, “Nike Goddess.” She defended her actions by saying that Nike explained to her that they had made progress in their manufacturing efforts in the global south. With her non-profit Off the Mat Into the World (OTM) she is now trying to bridge spirituality and activism and train a new breed of leaders by tapping into the market of 20 million yogis in the United States. One of the central projects are their “Seva Challenge” or “Bare Witness” trips which lead people to Cambodia, Uganda and South Africa for service. As I illustrate below, this well-known spiritual activism group is well-intentioned but it produces problematic issues of paternalism, “feel-good” service, white U.S.-centric privilege and racism. Understanding how this program reproduces some of these forms of oppression can provide some insights for the future of the spiritual activism movement. And for those combining yoga — still a predominantly white middle class phenomenon — with service, lessons can be gained about the more complex dimensions of social justice.