Re-imagining Yoga, Part 2: Spirituality and Social Justice


Note: This is the second in a series of articles on “Reimagining Yoga: Holistic Wellness, Social Connection, and Spiritual Revitalization.” If you like, you can access Part 1 .

I’ve been interested in the intersection of spirituality and social justice since I was very young. Without a doubt, this had much to do with growing up in a liberal suburb of Chicago in the 1960s and ’70s. One of my most vivid early memories is an experience of what I call “socially engaged spirituality” that occurred when I was just starting elementary school. Along with a big group of my fellow first-graders, I was herded into what felt like an enormous school gymnasium. Our teachers instructed us to stand in a big circle, cross arms, hold hands with those children on either side of us, and together sing “We Shall Overcome.” For those who don’t know the history, this was the signature song of the civil rights movement, and it had huge political resonance at the time.

Of course, at only 6 years old, I had no real understanding of any of that. But I did feel the intensity of the moment. I knew we were performing some sort of collective ritual that had weight and significance—even if I couldn’t explain why.

Looking back, I can well imagine how hopeful, proud, and determined the teachers, school administrators, and parents who organized this must have felt at the time. My kindergarten was the first class in the first public school district in the U.S. to be part of an ambitious voluntary (as opposed to court-ordered) school desegregation plan. It included not only busing to achieve a racial balance in schools proportionate to the distribution of white and black kids in the community (roughly 75:25 percent), but also both affirmative action to diversify the faculty and implementation of a new curriculum that heavily emphasized racial justice. Although not a big deal by today’s standards, it was a bold move at the time, attracting national attention among education professionals and civil rights activists alike.

Now, I can imagine only too well how many people today would roll their eyes (at best) if I said that singing “We Shall Overcome” in my elementary school gymnasium was a spiritual experience. In today’s cynical, bitter, and divided political climate, such a positive invocation of anything associated with ’60s idealism usually generates negative backlash. And to a degree, I can see why. Looking back now, with our current knowledge of the many troubles and tragedies that were yet to come, such sweet events can seem embarrassingly and even painfully naive.

Nevertheless, I’ll say it anyway. This little first grade ritual that I remember so well literally embodied a synthesis of what were at the time some very deeply resonant energies: the power of the then-ascendant civil rights movement, a hope-infused commitment to progressive education, and a strong (if unstated) sense of spiritual possibility surrounding both. At least for me, singing “We Shall Overcome” was definitely a spiritual experience. By this, I don’t mean that it was transcendent or metaphysical, or that it had anything to do with religion. I simply mean that it touched me in a deeply meaningful, positive, and ultimately mysterious way. It was a moment that left a deep imprint on my psyche. Over four decades later, I feel it still.

Socially Engaged Spirituality

Needless to say, both the U.S. and the world have changed profoundly since that time. Nonetheless, it’s not hard for me to connect the dots between that moment so many decades ago and what’s happening today. Issues of racial justice are once again headline news in politics, after many decades of neglect, suppression, and denial. And, much less visibly and more tenuously, new forms of physically embodied, socially connected, and politically progressive spirituality are beginning to re-emerge as a vital current in American culture.

My particular interest in this regard is how yoga (as well as closely related practices, such as mindfulness) is being reformulated in ways that point toward new forms of socially engaged spirituality. I sense enormously positive potential in this still-nascent movement. But I don’t believe it will grow automatically. Without dedicated work to cultivating new forms of socially engaged yoga and spirituality in the next five to ten years, the possibilities that now exist could be lost.

I don’t think this will be easy. As I’ll discuss in my next article, the project of integrating spirituality into yoga service and social justice work requires confronting serious questions that have neither easy nor definitive answers. Even the question as to what it might mean to make progress toward this end is one that’s only starting to be formulated, let alone addressed. Still, I believe it’s a vision worth walking toward—even if it’s still blurry, and may ultimately prove a mirage.

As the Bhagavad Gita teaches us, the practice of karma yoga involves mustering our best selves to meet the overwhelming challenges of our times with honor, integrity, and grace. What happens beyond that, we cannot control. Our practice is to accept that unpalatable reality and still devote ourselves to the work. This is difficult. But it’s a form of spiritual practice capable of generating peace, love, and even joy in the midst of the craziness and pain of our world.

As the Bhagavad Gita teaches us, the practice of karma yoga involves mustering our best selves to meet the overwhelming challenges of our times with honor, integrity, and grace.

Socially Engaged Yoga

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the yoga world as a whole is shifting in this direction. Most people today practice yoga simply for stretching and relaxation. In keeping with this exercise-only approach, much (though certainly not all) of North American yoga culture has been sucked into the highly commercial, individualistic, and insidiously competitive matrix of the “health, beauty, and fitness industry.” Meanwhile, many of the more “traditional” sectors of the yoga world have been devastated by a string of high profile “guru scandals,” as well as unprecedented revelations of serious injuries incurred in the course of dedicated practice.

Despite or perhaps in response to all of this, there is a small but steadily growing network of people seeking to deepen their practice by engaging more deliberately with the world—rather than escaping, renouncing, or transcending it. For yoga in North America, this is new. Of course, there have always been isolated individuals who have pursued some sort of socially engaged yoga. To see this happening on the scale that it is today, however, is unprecedented.

I’ve had numerous conversations about this with leaders in the yoga service field—people who have launched successful organizations dedicated to teaching yoga in prisons, supporting recovery from addiction, and so on.  All agree that in the last five years, there has been an exponential expansion of this sort of work, particularly in the U.S. Interest in integrating yoga practices into major public institutions, as well as in fields such as education, criminal justice, public health, social work, and psychotherapy is vastly higher than it’s ever been before. All evidence suggests that the growth of socially engaged yoga will continue to snowball in coming years.

Questions of Spirituality

As I’ve participated in the yoga service movement and watched the parallel growth of similar endeavors (e.g., school mindfulness programs), I’ve grown increasingly interested in how spirituality is understood and practiced within them. By this, I don’t mean the private beliefs and experiences of the different individuals involved. These can and do vary widely, as they should. Rather, I’m thinking of how, if at all, this emerging field of socially engaged yoga is working with spirituality on the level of commonly shared practices and understandings.

More to the point, I wonder to what extent the socially engaged yoga world is seriously grappling with issues of spirituality at all. My sense is that with a few important exceptions, we aren’t. Although people involved in this work are often guided by strong spiritual beliefs, these commitments are held privately, rather than shared publicly. In many ways, this is appropriate. Yoga, whether socially engaged or not, shouldn’t be a platform for promoting one’s own personal beliefs. The problem, however, is that we lack any common language at all for talking about spirituality in socially engaged yoga. As a result, the entire issue tends to be sidestepped or swept under the rug.

In my opinion, this needs to change. Yoga today is often described as a “mind-body-spirit” practice. Although this has become yet another overly commercialized phrase, it still signifies something important. If we focus exclusively on the “mind-body” part of the equation and try to erase the “spirit” part, it matters. Because however one parses it, the history of yoga is clear on this point: Although modern yoga offers enormous mental and physical health benefits and can be profoundly therapeutic, it is still, most essentially, a spiritual practice.

That said, I understand why people committed to socially engaged yoga shy away from spiritual issues, and I am utterly sympathetic to it. The hard fact of the matter is that keeping “spirituality” in the mix generates a lot of problems that we don’t have a clear way of addressing at the moment. If we’re able to see the challenges more clearly, however, there’s a good chance that we can evoke change. As I’ll discuss in my next article, there are at least three key problems here to consider:

1. The term “spirituality” is inherently vague, and carries a lot of cultural baggage.

2. There are legal and ethical reasons that programs in publicly funded institutions must be secular.

3. Social justice commitments involve forms of instrumentalist reasoning that tend to conflict with spiritual practice.

Before diving deeply into all that, however, I want to say more about my core idea that the time is ripe to explore new forms of socially engaged spirituality in the yoga and mindfulness worlds.

A Cultural Lacuna

The fact that I’m old enough to have a powerful memory of singing “We Shall Overcome” back in the ’60s means that I’m also old enough to have witnessed the complete cultural erosion of the sort of socially engaged spirituality this experience embodied. I still have a strong sense of the powerful mixture of socially progressive values that the civil rights movement embodied: liberal Christianity, interfaith solidarity, secular humanism, social democracy, human rights, anti-colonialism, racial justice. But during the course of my adult life, I’ve seen a split develop and widen between the (loosely defined) spiritual and political elements of this mix.

Now, so many decades later, many Americans can’t even imagine a world in which traditional religion is paired with socially progressive values. True, there are always exceptions, as we see with the current Pope. Generally speaking, however, the cultural terrain of religion and associated “traditional values” has been firmly claimed by the political Right since the 1980s. Meanwhile, the tradition of socially progressive Christianity that was so strong when I was a kid has become culturally marginalized to the point that many (and perhaps most) people don’t know it ever existed. This is particularly true among younger white Americans who were either raised Protestant or without any religious affiliation at all.

Meanwhile, the political Left has become a spiritual desert. Again, there are exceptions, particularly among activists of color. By and large, however, left-of-center politics in North America is narrowly materialistic, rigidly secular, and excessively technocratic. The spiritually infused vision of human potential rooted in liberal democratic values associated with the civil rights movement is gone. Although the commitment to combatting racial and other forms of oppression remains, it has been decoupled from any sort of strongly positive, socially transformative vision.

Meanwhile, the New Age-y spiritual movements that have dominated the cultural landscape since the 1970s champion a hyper-individualistic ethos, asserting that the best way to better the world is to focus intensively (and though not so bluntly stated, more or less exclusively) on one’s self. Here, the presumed link between the individual and the social is one of magic and metaphysics: Changing the world simply requires raising your own “energetic vibration,” rather than actually engaging with other people, communities, organizations, movements, issues, or causes. Not surprisingly, over time this seemingly apolitical orientation has become more and more integrated into today’s dominant culture of neoliberalism.

As many have pointed out in recent years, the center of gravity in the yoga world has been very much in keeping with this trend. I’ve encountered this many times myself. For example, one of my yoga teachers once claimed that she was taking critical action to stop the BP oil spill by sending “healing breaths” into the polluted Gulf of Mexico waters while practicing at home in Chicago. (Rather condescendingly, she assured me that once my practice became more advanced, I’d understand how this worked—in a way that simply wasn’t accessible to me now.) Another time, I had a long argument with a prominent teacher that hit a dead end when I insisted he answer the following hypothetical: If you were sitting at home meditating when someone was hit by a truck in the middle of your street, would it be better to continue meditating while sending healing vibrations their way, or stop meditating, pick up the phone, and call an ambulance? He couldn’t answer, as the obvious practical response conflicted too deeply with the New Age-based spiritual beliefs he had been passionately defending.

Toward a New Paradigm

Given such anecdotes, one might wonder why I place any stock in the idea of spiritually infused forms of socially engaged yoga. To be honest, I’ve asked myself this question many times! But the answer is quite simple: If I’ve encountered a lot of spiritual beliefs in the yoga world that don’t resonate with me personally, I’ve also had many experiences that do. Although those experiences were never identified as “socially engaged spirituality,” when I reflect on them, that’s indeed what they were.

A few examples: • Sitting in someone’s living room with 25 other people at an early meeting of Chicago’s Socially Engaged Yoga Network. Our hostess has a big, beautiful brass gong standing near the front the room. Our facilitator kicks off our discussion of “Integrating Yoga into Mental Health Care” by having us spend a few minutes in silent meditation, and then slowly banging the gong three times. We sit together, listening intently until the last resonant vibration has faded. The moment ends, and the Powerpoint presentations begin.

• Sitting in a retreat center, being led through a carefully orchestrated discussion of integrating yoga with political activism. Despite the organizers’ best intentions, their material just isn’t landing. Without disrespect, but with determination, several of the young black people attending began insisting that it’s time to get real. Our conveners graciously drop their plans, step aside, and let the shift happen. We spend the next 90 minutes sharing heartfelt stories of our experiences of race and how they’ve shaped us personally. It’s raw, it’s real, and it’s revelatory. The room is electric as the power of collective love overrides our societal legacy of pain, mistrust, and fear.

• Walking past the razor wire cyclone fencing and into Cook County Jail to teach a yoga class, and once again wondering what the hell I’m doing. It seems preposterous and rather embarrassing to think that yoga is going to do the least bit of good in the face of mass incarceration, entrenched inequality, racial injustice, human trafficking, inadequate public funding, overwhelmed mental health services, and more. But after 60 minutes of moving, breathing, and “quieting the fluctuations of the mind” with a dozen or so other women, I walk out through the guard station and back onto the street with such a deep sense of inner peace that my critical mind can’t deny it. I trust my deeper experience, which tells me that this was an hour well spent, even if I can’t fully explain why.

Over time, such experiences have fueled my sense that new forms of socially engaged spirituality and yoga are emerging together, with an organic connection between them. This fact hasn’t been explicitly recognized or discussed, however, because “spirituality” is a very challenging term to work with outside of the New Age-inflected beliefs and practices so strongly associated with it. Still, the resonance between my childhood memory of singing “We Shall Overcome” in my elementary school gymnasium and my experience of socially engaged yoga today makes me hopeful it can be done.

If this interests you, I hope that you will join me in exploring how yoga might contribute to new forms of socially engaged spirituality that speak to our twenty-first century world in healthy, positive, and collectively uplifting ways.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to the many wonderful people working with the , , , and for inspiration and support.

About the Teacher

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Carol Horton
Carol Horton, Ph.D., is the author of Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of... Read more