It was 2003, right after the U.S. invaded Iraq. A student came up to me after class to talk.
“Both of my boys were deployed,” she said sadly with a sigh. “And this class was exactly what I needed. I feel so much more relaxed. Thank you SO much.”
“It must be really hard for you as a mom of soldiers. . .” I responded. And before I even realized it, the words “especially for such a pointless war” unfortunately tumbled out of my mouth.
At that her jaw and fists clenched and her eyes narrowed.
“What?!” she spat at me through her teeth. “It’s not a pointless war! My sons are patriots serving their country!!” With that she turned on her heels and marched out of the room. I got served humble pie and she never came to class again.
Last time I checked, my job description as a yoga teacher did not include foisting my political opinions on my students. Clearly I needed a lesson in keeping my mouth shut.
Don’t get me wrong, politics affect people’s lives in some very personal and difficult ways – I’m not talking about not being political – I’m talking about keeping it out of the yoga class experience.
My husband is a psychotherapist. After Trump won the election, the chief complaint of his clients became anxiety, particularly for women who had a history of sexual assault. They didn’t feel safe and were worried that Trump’s policies would put them at risk. In those first few days, my husband’s phone was inundated with texts and voice messages from people desperate for help and reassurance.
I heard similar concerns from my students – but not all of them. Some were quite hopeful and encouraged. My husband works with individuals, I work more with groups. While it may be fine to listen to student’s complaints one-on-one, before or after class, it was super clear to me that I would not be broaching the election subject – I would simply continue to lead my classes.
As a yoga teacher, it’s okay (in fact I think it’s important) to be up on the news, to have political opinions, to share those opinions with friends and family (if you really want to), to post them on your “friends only” Facebook page (if you like), to attend rallies, write emails, make phone calls, and/or whatever else you want to do.
However, when I’m teaching, my job is to help people learn to become better friends with their bodies and to encourage feelings of compassion, acceptance and gratitude. My job is to help my students regulate their nervous system and optimize the function of their brain, to help them improve the function of their respiratory musculature/apparatus, to contemplate and operationalize their ethics, and perhaps to develop a better relationship with their higher power – all of that is hard enough without feeling called to provide political commentary as well!
Success for me as a teacher is in helping my students access the tools they need to feel grounded and centered. Then, if they choose, they can take right action from that place of empowerment and inner knowing.
If I can help people self-regulate and internalize their locus of control, then I’ve done my job.
Who knows, perhaps if I had listened better and given the military mom more space to allow the practices to work, she may have taken all sorts of action to diminish the conflicts (within herself and the world) and it’s a shame that I missed that opportunity. But I try to learn from mistakes. I realized she has just as much a right to enjoy yoga as anyone else without feeling shamed or excluded – and talking politics will always make some folks feel that way.
Yoga practices can help release intrinsic holding patterns in the body – patterns that are not simply physical, but are psycho-emotional – somatic patterns that tend to ensnare narrow beliefs about self, others, and the world in general.
My job is helping my students to disentangle those patterns.
And if that is a political or even a subversive act. . . then let it be so.
Check out my free class video Subtle Yoga for Greater Nervous System Resilience and Brain Function with a script and stick figure cheat sheet.
That’s wisdom …knowing when and what to say…in any given situation and when saying nothing is best. We’ve all “opened mouth and put foot in”..
Hopefully learning along the way the power of the pause….
yes we have! It’s so important to learn these lessons so I’m grateful for all my students, regardless of their political opinions.
“a word fitly spoken in due season is like apples of gold in settings of silver” – King Solomon
Wisdom is knowing when & where to utilize knowledge, which cannot be taught – it must be learned
Yes well, I also think that wisdom come from making lots of mistakes and reflecting on them. Hopefully we can all do better at making folks feel included.
I couldn’t agree more. One of my favorite Krishnamacharya quotes is: “The physician wears neutral clothes.”
As yoga therapists, guiding our client’s practice to allow them to realize who they are is our job. Nothing else. Sometimes this can be challenging if their values differ from ours. Their dharma is their dharma. Life is a mystery. My son’s life completely turned around for the better after serving in Afghanistan for 18 months.
That said, we have all made mistakes and had a client never return. Sometimes we never even know why. All we can do is continue our own practice and have faith that we are clear and taking action from that place of clarity…in our own lives, and in the guidance we provide others.
sa tapo’ tapyata sa tapastaptvā
Yes it’s such a great quote isn’t it! And I agree that all we can do is learn from our mistakes and try our best to follow our dharma. Thank your sons for their service for me please.
I am so grateful to read your words about leaving politics out of the yoga class and keeping my political opinions to myself within the yoga class. I have countless times as a student had to shut my ears during a class because I’m in yoga for all of the internal journeys. I don’t want to be lectured on or hear the teacher’s opinion about anything, not politics, not dress, not vegetarianism. My job as teacher is to create a safe space for all who come to yoga, not just those who share my opinions. Thank you
agreed. thanks for sharing your experience Paula – I think it is an unfortunately all too common one.
Teachers also need to moderate when fellow students try to lecture other students. I had to ask a fellow student to PLEASE respect my boundary that I do not come to yoga to discuss politics. Safe space.
ouch. yeah, boundaries are important.
Thanks for sharing that. I am friends with some of my students and I have had to ask them not to talk to me about politics before or after class when others are around. Although we agree on politics, for the most part, I feel we need to maintain a safe and neutral space for everyone.
Hey Wendy, that’s a great policy I think. Safety is key.
Thank you for sharing your experience with this…I, too, have had many opportunities to keep my mouth shut, and, while telling myself just to shut up I didn’t! One of the most important lessons we learn as students and teachers is timing — when to do what — right action and right timing. Having said that, I do remind my students that everything that happens externally will land on our doorsteps consciously or unconsciously — affecting our health, well being, and nervous systems — and it’s important to acknowledge that no one is immune from this. Another reminder of the importance of our practice, daily, on and off the mat!
Thank you! Om Shanti………..
All sorts of interesting samskaras land on our doorstep all the time, don’t they? Makes life quite an interesting journey. I agree that no one is immune from external forces, and that’s why taking right action is essential – but timing is everything.
Your frank admission and lesson seems to me to be a humble offering that might spare me regret or at the very least embarrassment. Thank you for this honest story. I admire you all the more for it.
.I love your article and the way you mentioned you where served humble pie. Connecting with the students attending my class has been a wonderful experience and for now on, I will remember humble pie for breakfast and at the beginning of each class. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and experience. NAMASTE
Thanks Claudia – yes it is a great breakfast dish. LOL!
Thanks Kathryn. Oh these things are not easy to talk or write, folks will be offended no matter what! But that doesn’t me we shouldn’t try.
in the great equation book of life, you WERE right!!😀if that’s any consolation
Of course I agree with you Tim – it’s just that my “rightness” is besides the point I guess. 😆
I have recently purchased a book called “Lost Connections” by a famous British journalist Johann Hari. It discusses depression and anxiety and claims that it has to do more with environment than our predispositions to these conditions. In other words, he contributed the condition so many of us are suffering from at least at some point in our lives to the workings of society. Politics, as you might all agree, has a lot to do with the world we live in. As you said, Kristine, people react with fear or at least a feeling of uncertainty to political changes. We are born to be tribal beings. Sharing political or other point of views is a way humans try to deal with anxieties surrounding those issues. It’s my take on this situation that you were emphatetic when expressing something you felt this woman must be going through. However, sometimes no matter what we say, people react too swiftly because of their own elevated sensitivities and inner fear. We, teachers are also human and thus sometimes reactive but it is our continuous svadhyaya that keeps our words and actions in check. However, compassion is an important element of being both a yogi and a well adjusted human. You were merely practicing compassion when you spoke those words. This woman may not have come back not because of your comment but because she had deeper wounds than she was ready to admit to herself. Her svadhyaya lays somewhere else, perhaps. In any case, I believe that not bringing the outer world into the classes are a good idea but still I’m convinced that the advice “leave your issues outside the studio door” is next to impossible. We cannot hide in caves and expect to be enlightened. Obviously, don’t drag a dead cat in but sometimes stuff bubbles up when in the states of deep searching for the truth and part of that is putting things into perspective. Well, I guess I have rambled on too long. I highly recommend the book! Cheers to all!
Sounds like a great resource Nora! Have you read Bruce Alexander’s book, The Globalisation of Addiction – similar premise actually. Yes, I agree, we are human, we try to meet others with compassion, we sometimes say things that offend people that really have nothing to do with us or our intentions. I heard somewhere that just about everything is projection – we project all our own thoughts and feelings and assumptions, good, bad and neutral, onto others. It’s an interesting perspective. Many things have bubbled up out of me while teaching and it’s been a process to learn how to filter that stuff that’s for sure! And who knows why she couldn’t come back, I can only share how it felt! Thanks for your contribution here.
I think we need to be careful about what we label as ‘political’ and then keep our mouths closed about as yoga teachers. Things like human rights shouldn’t be considered political (in my opinion). Speaking up for the rights of lesser privileged groups, and fighting for accessibility, equality, etc., should be part of our path as yoga teachers. If we are not embodying the not so glamorous, not so ‘nice’ parts of the practice, should we even call ourselves yogis?
Nice points Amberly and I agree. I’m talking here not about personal activism but how we interact with students in classes. I think we have every right to be opinionated about politics and to take whatever action we feel is important to make the changes that we need to make in our society. And my hope is that yoga practice gives us as teachers, as well as our students, the inner fortitude to do just that.
I deal with the opposite. I am a female yoga teacher who voted for Trump and I have to be in the closet because of all the vitriol from the left. I used to be a lifelong Democrat and I am a “walkaway” due to the left-wing vitriol. God forbid I admit that I voted for Trump, or that I think bathrooms and locker rooms should be segregated by biological sex characteristics and not internal feelings – I could lose my job as a yoga teacher, and I fear being blacklisted permanently. I could also be doxxed, have my home address published, and have people on Twitter encouraging others to email the yoga studio I work at, urging them to fire me.
This has happened to a friend of mine in another, completely unrelated field that isn’t even generally considered progressive – so I’m not exaggerating my concerns here.
On the other hand, if you are a tow-the-line D-voting progressive yoga teacher, at worst, you risk alienating a closeted conservative in your class. But frankly, I’ve noticed more and more that progressives don’t really want to “convert” conservatives or reach out to them anymore – the general trend is to blacklist, spit on, shame, and try to ostracize and shun anyone right of center. I’m quite grateful that you are advocating a more measured approach in your article, as it is very much needed.
Even so, the conclusion in your article implies that your job as a yoga teacher is to try to open a mind (i.e., get people to believe what you believe) rather than respecting that people have different opinions. It’s all about “fixing” people instead of trying to see things from another perspective. Ultimately, you’ve determined that being “progressive” is better – that the conservative in your class has ” somatic patterns that tend to ensnare narrow beliefs about self, others, and the world in general.”
This is fueled by a lot of hypocrisy. The very fact that you called out Trump in this article for alleged sexual assault, while ignoring the alleged sexual assault allegations (over decades) against Bill Clinton (with Hillary allegedly intimidating said accusers and enabling his behavior) shows the unconscious and pervasive bias I have to deal with. For what it’s worth, this is one of the main reasons I did not vote for Hillary in 2016 – after excusing her and Bill and supporting her in the past. If a Republican has an accusation, he’s evil incarnate. If a Democrat is accused, it’s a right-wing conspiracy.
Right now the leading contender for the Democrats is Biden, and you can find any number of videos of him online behaving very untoward towards young girls, not to mention adult women…but “women” feel unsafe with just Trump. That’s the bias that you just presented in this article. It’s a “given” that Trump is guilty, but we’ll forgive anyone with a D after their name. And these biases fuel the justification that the Trump supporter is an aberrant who needs to be repaired or fixed – rather than a thoughtful person who looked at both sides objectively and determined, just as one example, that the sexual assault allegations against Bill Clinton (over decades and not just popping up right before an election) are probably far more credible. It’s my opinion. I could be wrong, but I believe Clinton is guiltier than Trump. I’m saying that after voting for Clinton twice (which I regret now, honestly).
Don’t even get me started on the “racist” narrative. ALL of my friends of color are actually closet Trump supporters too, and don’t believe Trump is a racist whatsoever, but if I mention that to my white progressive friends, they’ll insist they know better than my black and Latin friends about Trump’s intentions. The pressure non-white Trump voters have to stay in the closet in their blue cities is enormous.
In this environment, we cannot have any genuine dialogue – because the “enlightened” progressives and yogis feel they need to fix us deplorable Trump voters. We’re broken, wrong, and supporting “evil.” Yet, the main problem I see here is that progressives have been so busy fighting a bogeyman that they haven’t realized that a lot of it is their own internal projections and hypocrisy – and it’s not the reality.
Just remember – Trump voters may be sitting and teaching yoga right next to you, wisely keeping our mouths shut, all the while knowing it’s not our job to “fix” you. We just hope you “wake up” and stop painting half the country as evil and irredeemable just for seeing things differently.
Such a fascinating response Katrina, thank you for writing. I am glad that you have had a chance to practice yoga, I hope that you have found some inner peace from your practice, and I’m sorry that you have felt ostracized by people in your yoga community – that certainly is not my intention with this article, and I have no interest in preventing you from projecting whatever you need to about me and my politics, however inaccurate.
Such a poignant lesson. I’ve been learning that many people’s political stances are as much a response to some traumatizing experience in their lives as are my own. I know right winged patriots and left leaning activists alike who stand on ideals created in their minds by a protectivist, physical response to fear. Asteya = my not steaming anyone’s truth from them especially in the safety of a yoga class. Thank you for your very human story.
Katrina is right on and your reply to hey comes across as condescending.
I apologize if it seems condescending. But, I am not interesting in defending myself here because I really don’t want to talk politics in the yoga space, and that was the point of the article. And I maintain that Katrina’s assessment of motivations and my political perspective is inaccurate.
I really appreciate you sharing this conversation with the yoga community. I hope it brings the conversation of compassion to our military and their families. As a military wife for 25 plus years and a yoga teacher for as long, I found myself in several conversations with similar comments from particular yoga teacher communities. We lived near for Bragg so the community there understood and were supportive. But when I traveled to the next major city to study a specific type of yoga I received judgemental expressions when I would share bits of my life, deployments, raising kids and my husbands work. Or even giving reasons why I could not attend a training. It was disheartening. I decided then that that wasn’t the community I needed to grow with and that I could find other yoga communities out there regardless of political views can hold a safe space for the military soldiers and their families. I truly hope this article you share can bring yoga teachers to put politics aside at the seat of the teacher for students connected to the military …and even those connected to different political parties or religions etc. We need to consider what is the common denominator we all have has yogis on and off the yoga mat and deepen our practice together in that direction. Gratitude 🙏🏽
I feel so fortunate that politics never comes up in my yoga spaces. I practice in several different locations and have never heard a peep. For that I am grateful.
Thank you 🙏🏽. Just would like to add to the discussion that not all military families have the same exact political views. Meeting Military soldiers and family members should not be an assumed opposing political view. Each person should be seen as an individu
Thank you for this important reminder.
this is a yes….and…..one of the studios i teach in has a carefully worded policy statement about politics — which a group of us spent weeks crafting and trying to maintain inclusivity including to those whose political views might be seens as different. that said, we also do a tremendous amount of work to be true to the roots of yoga and mindfulness — and that means an inclusivity that’s more akin to social justice — seeing that yoga and mindfulness came from east and south asia and were practiced by people of color and were not about body perfection or physical alignment but were about a radical different way of seeing the world. (i know you speak to this in other workshops and blogs and fb posts.) i tend to talk about what’s happening in our country — for instance, this week it would be hard for me as a jew, and the child of immigrants and holocaust survivors not to think about the fact that the president is using anti-semitic tropes in official press conferences and the department of justice has followed suit by circulating white nationalist propaganda in official notices to thousands of judges. i tend to tie in these comments into yoga philosophy and also into yogic practices that help us do something with the energy that being an witness or an object of this hatred does to our nervous systems and psyches. because yes, i teach resilience — LOVE that you call it “innercise” — and because resilience to me also means grit, also means critical thinking, also means know when you are being gaslit, also means knowing how to take care of yourself, also means knowing when you need to step back and when stepping up is the only option. so yes: i too have been triggered when i’ve taken classes and in savasana heard the sounds of animals being slaughtered (thanks jivamukti)….we need to hold space for all sorts of people, with all sorts of beliefs — since yoga also helps people examine what is something they’ve come to on their own and something they’ve internalized and is subconsciously driving behavior (working with the koshas should do that without much directed intervention from me). AND we need to be true to ourselves, even when teaching. thanks for letting me think out loud here and for all you’ve offered and continue to teach me and countless others!
Thank you Yael. I really appreciate your thoughtful, nuanced comments. There are no easy answers here and different people with different backgrounds and different ways of seeing/knowing interpret world events and their personal roles, well, differently. Personally, yoga has given me tremendous inner healing, deep convictions, as well as strength, courage, hope, trust, and faith. I also feel that my practice has cultivated in me a strong desire for both personal and social justice – which is even one of the 4 purusarthas! – dharma. I hope that it helps my students achieve those ends as well. (and, I really can’t believe that you were subjected to that in savasana. yikes!)