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The Yoga of Protest Politics: How to Bring Yogic Principles into the Upcoming Election Season

The teachings of yoga have a lot to offer those of us who live -- as the old Chinese curse goes -- in "interesting times", and are struggling with the question of how to involve ourselves in the current political maelstrom.
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The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a 15th century yoga text, describes the ideal setting for practicing yoga. It encourages yogis to find a "quiet country, free of political disturbance and removed from all anxieties."

Clearly the authors weren't describing 2016 election season in America.

For those of us who value the peaceful principles that yoga embodies and simultaneously find ourselves caught up in the mayhem of this election cycle -- in which anxieties are higher, tempers hotter, and old wounds more raw than they've been in recent memory -- it can be a confusing time.

How do we reconcile the yogic teachings on inner calm with the anxiety we feel at the state of the world? How do we quiet our mind when... Trump? And should we quiet it at all? Isn't our outrage at the current situation a catalyst for change? Shouldn't we be out in the streets and in the back alleys of the Twitterverse calling for a better world? Or would that be decidedly "un-yogic" of us?

The teachings of yoga have a lot to offer those of us who live -- as the old Chinese curse goes -- in "interesting times", and are struggling with the question of how to involve ourselves in the current political maelstrom.

Here are a few things to remember as we navigate this fall of reality-TV candidacy, bloated demagoguery, poisonous commentary and heated protest. And try to, as the overused meme so yogically states -- "keep calm."

First, take a deep breath.

Whatever the situation, however annoying the comment thread you just saw, however much the article that your one-time-friend posted that slams your candidate makes you want to repost a scathing article in response, however much the current vitriol makes you want to get out in the streets and start ripping up pavement stones, it is probably going to be better met with a few deep breaths.

When things get hectic, it's easy for us to get caught in a wave of anxious energy. From that place. We react without thinking. We say things we don't mean. We lash out. We deepen rifts that already exist. We blame others instead of turning our own gaze inward at how we can be better agents of peace, and none of this serves to further what we as yogis and human beings really want, which is a harmonious world.

The teachings of yoga remind us to ask ourselves: is there any situation in which being ruled by anxiety has helped me? Is there any situation that will not be better dealt with from a place of calm? In the face of ignorance and intolerance and mud slinging, does it better serve to dive into the mud pit myself? Am I "winning" by doing this? Do I need to be right on the internet? Who suffers most from my anger and agitation?

It's worth reflecting on who really gets poisoned by the acidity of our rage. Almost inevitably, we do. Rarely does our anger have an impact on the object of that anger. If you lean progressive, then most of your anger is probably directed towards the orangest of all the candidates, Donald Trump, who, granted, spouts inanities that could cause the most stoic forest monk to reconsider his vows of non-violence.

But guess what? Trump doesn't feel how worked up you're getting about him. In fact, he's usually quite well-guarded behind the TV screen or people who tell him he's wonderful or behind lines of riot-gear-sporting police officers.

When we allow ourselves to get so thrown off center by one of his Trumpisms that it causes us to be testy at work or more irritable towards those we love or more intolerant of the views of others, then who has won and who has lost? Rage has won, calm has lost. Intolerance has won, love has lost.

Ok, you may ask: but why should we be calm in the face of such hypocrisy, racism, environmental destruction, and misogyny? Shouldn't we be outraged?

To be calm doesn't mean we can't be active. And to be active doesn't mean we can't still come from a place of calm.

It is one of the deep misunderstandings of how energy works that we tend to think of calm and active as two different things. You're either a go-getter or a slacker. You're either producing something or you're lazy. If you're not worked up, then you really don't care. If it doesn't come with a boatload of drama, then it's really not love.

I mean really, calm? Calm sounds so... boring.

From a yogic perspective this couldn't be further from the truth. Yoga works to cultivate what can be called "radiant calm." This is recognizing that in the truest sense, love is both calm and active, it is relaxed and present, it allows when it needs to allow, and it most definitely takes a stand when it needs to take a stand.

Guess what? Yogis protest.

From a yogic perspective, conducting oneself from a place of calm and following the core principle of ahimsa -- non-harming -- does not mean shying away from action, involvement, and protest. Quite the opposite, karma yoga, or the yoga of action, is one of the primary methods of yogic practice.

There is sometimes a sense in the yoga world that yogis should be apolitical or at the very least keep their political views to themselves. This is not reflected in the teachings of yoga or in Indian history, which has seen many politically active yogis. 18th century hatha yogis trained people to resist the rule of the British and formed a key part of the resistance themselves. Mahatma Gandhi acted from a place of deep inner calm and also had no qualms about standing up, very directly, to injustice. Gandhi calmly marched people headlong into British cavalry charges and calmly resisted hypocrisy and oppression wherever he saw it. If Gandhi were alive today, I have zero doubt that he would be out protesting.

Non-harming does not mean not getting involved.

In fact, ahimsa means being willing to look unflinchingly into the root cause of violence and take decisive action to uproot it.

In a world that is built upon deeply entrenched systems of environmental, racial, sexist and classist harm, to resist and to protest is to practice ahimsa. To remain apathetic in such times, or to label non-action as "yogic" is to directly participate in harm.

From a yogic perspective, the support of policies that further wreak environmental havoc on the planet, that further marginalize already marginalized groups, that favor bombing over negotiation, that create divisions rather than build unity, and that glamorize the unchecked accumulation of material possessions have deep karmic consequence. We're not betraying ahimsa by shouting our viewpoint from the streets. But we may be by not doing anything at all.

What we can do is make sure that as we resist, we embody the same qualities in our own hearts that we want to see reflected in the world. We can protest and still listen, we can protest and still seek to understand, we can protest and still respect one another. We can ask ourselves, continually, diligently, "what would love do in this situation?"

Yoga has a political viewpoint.

Yoga has crossed all boundaries, and is now practiced by people from across the political spectrum, from anarchists to socialists to liberals to whatever Hillary is to conservatives.

This is a very good thing. At its heart, yoga is for everyone. But it is also very important for yogis to understand that their tradition has a viewpoint on human conduct. There is no getting around the fact that the historical teachings of yoga are pro-environment, pro-inclusivity, anti-class division, anti-war, and anti-materialism.

So if you are a yoga practitioner or teacher, and simultaneously a supporter of policies that favor the construction of big walls between us and our neighbors, you may need to evaluate if your life practice is really, at its heart, yoga.

Clearly, not every yoga practitioner has to share a common political view. That is one of the beauties of yoga practice. But it is important for modern yogis to gain some historical perspective on their tradition, which, if it had to be placed on the political scale, aligns with inclusivity rather than separation, ecology rather than destructive development, equality rather than class divide, and, yes, socialism rather than unchecked capitalism.

Practice is for when things get real.

We practice specifically to better deal with life's agitations. Hatha Yoga Pradipika aside, times like these provide us no shortage of opportunities to practice love, compassion in action, and inner calm. So rather than be discouraged, try to see this election season as part of your practice. If what Russian mystic G.I. Gurdjieff said is true, and "annoying people are the yeast in the bread of our spiritual practice", then this election season should provide us the opportunity to start our own bakery.

Take a deep breath, get involved, recognize that it deeply matters, and also recognize that this too shall pass and the breath remains the breath and love remains love.