Say a yoga teacher walks into class wearing a Bernie Sanders T-shirt. She is making a statement. Is this appropriate for a yoga teacher?
On one hand, making a political or any personal statement is not fundamentally wrong. Her quality as a teacher is not based on her political stance.
On the other hand, the context is questionable. A yoga setting should be neutral and conducive to a still mind. If politics (or religion) is introduced, it should be relevant to yoga. Wearing a Bernie T-shirt is more about the teacher’s personal agenda.
A yoga teacher’s personal opinions might be distracting, whether you agree or disagree with her. It’s also irrelevant to her role as yoga teacher. If a teacher’s responsibility is to teach yoga, every aspect of her conduct in class should facilitate just that.
Of course, a yoga teacher makes a statement the instant she opens her mouth. By her accent, her vocabulary, her turn of phrase, she reveals herself. If she mentions what she reads or where she travels, she is making innocuous little statements. By her race, ethnicity, size, and shape–factors she cannot control or change–she is affecting her message.
That said, the devil’s advocate in me can also argue, “So what?” So what if a teacher calls attention to her politics? Shouldn’t yoga be teaching students not to react, not to be pleased or displeased, not to react personally to others’ actions?
I would not have written this post without the instigation of my friend Jim, a writer and longtime Iyengar yoga student. He first brought up two examples of raised fists:
During a recent trip to California, Jim visited the Victory Salute monument, which honors African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos. In the 1968 Summer Olympics, Smith and Carlos took gold and bronze respectively in the 200m sprint. During the medal ceremony, they each raised a black-gloved fist throughout the American national anthem. They also wore no shoes, only black socks, to represent black poverty. The silver medalist, Australian Peter Norman, supported their action. In the monument, Norman’s spot on the podium is empty so that others can take a stand for equal rights.
Their gesture became known as the Black Power salute and was very controversial because the Olympics are intended to be apolitical. Smith, Carlos, and even Norman were ostracized by sports establishment and the media. Today, however, they are considered heroes for standing up for black rights and human rights.
Jim then forwarded me recent news coverage of a photo of 16 black women cadets at West Point. In the formal portrait, wearing full uniform to mimic 19th-century cadets, they are raising their fists. Some questioned whether they were making a political statement, which is prohibited at West Point. Were they expressing support of the Black Lives Matter movement? Or they simply expressing unity and achievement? Ultimately the US Military Academy deemed that they did not violate rules.
Jim challenged me to link the yoga context to these examples of political assertion in neutral settings that dissuade potentially divisive statements.
When objectivity isn’t enough
If, to me, yoga teachers generally shouldn’t bring their own politics into class, are there exceptions (such as raised fists on the Olympic podium in 1968)?
Yes, there will always be indisputable cases in which neutrality is not enough. The yoga setting probably shouldn’t become ground zero for politics, but being a yogi does include taking action. I recently chanced to read an old interview with Hunter S Thompson for The Atlantic that might apply here. Regarding his gonzo journalism, he said “Objective journalism is one of the main reasons American politics has been allowed to be corrupt for so long.”
Images: Bernie women’s T-shirt; Victory Salute monument, San Jose State University
Interesting topic! I remember before that incendiary election of 2001, our teacher who had studied with Guruji for many years said that he was so conservative he would probably vote for W if he had the choice. That came to a shock to many of us (many yoga practitioners in those days tended to be a bit left).
As a teacher, I see many students turn to yoga to get solace from our crazy world. This upcoming election is among the craziest I have seen, so to endorse a candidate with a t-shirt makes a subtle statement that if you are not in support of that candidate, you are not welcome. How would that teacher feel about a student who showed up with a Trump shirt?
Interesting story! It is true that “birds of a feather flock together,” so I agree that students consciously or unconsciously steer toward teachers who [seem to] share their beliefs.
What I like about your story is the shocking revelation: Your teacher diverged from many of his students politically, but he must have resonated with them regarding yoga. So, Iyengar yoga crosses party lines, and that’s a great thing. Often in yoga “communities” I see a lot of group think; people think alike, look alike, act alike. While I would disagree (to say the least) with a W or Trump supporter, at least there could be a dialectic, not just people affirming one another.
I don’t believe that objectivity or neutrality exists. Even in being ‘neutral’ or apathetic we are taking political action, as suggested in your final statement. Revealing subjectivities, then, is a way for others to understand our perspectives and to better judge the statements we are making. This being said, I’m not sure it is the job of a teacher to tell others what to think, or to use their position as a platform for their own beliefs, but rather to support the thinking of their students. Interesting issue, thanks for posting!
Yoga is a broad term but it describes various forms of practice that are far from being ethically & morally neutral. The yamas and niyamas (for example) lay out the ethical principles that anyone who is serious about practicing yoga should aspire to and that should certainly include teachers. To actually live those rules one would likely have to become a monk or something similar but we can still support & aspire to them in our mundane lives.
So while it might be acceptable for a yoga teacher to wear a Bernie Saunders t-shirt it would never be acceptable to wear a Trump t-shirt as his policies violate our moral principles.
I am a yoga teacher and I must say I would never wear a political shirt such as this to yoga. I want my class to feel an environment of total bliss and their own “space”. I feel it’s more about them — and would try not to use it as a voice for MY feelings. That being said, I know a yoga teacher who used her FB page to name call a political party in the worse way. I stopped “following” — and said nothing as I never do — I just scroll past — BUT it DID make me feel uncomfortable and very disappointed. Thank You for this great article!