When the Yoga is Political by Theo Wildcroft

David Shankbone

There was a time when the rights of people like me were not political. There was a time when every right thinking person knew that queer people were an unnatural abomination, and people like me lived in fear. Women were property. Children who couldn’t yet talk were incapable of feeling pain. Black people were both savage and childlike. All races, in fact, had characteristics that were set in stone and justified by the science of the day – the Irish were lazy, the Jews untrustworthy. People disabled by mental illness or neurodiversity or physical impairments weren’t even to be pitied. They were freaks of nature, to be locked in human zoos and used for entertainment. The poor deserved to be poor. The rich, however they had gained their power and privilege, were sanctioned by God and above the law. Privilege – meaning private law, not subject to the law of the commons.

This was not politics. It was the reality of the world. What counts as normal is not, in fact, political. There exists in every nation state an evolving social contract in which we all are implicated, which we all submit to, which we all help to hold up. For a long time, and in recent history, people like me, and people I love were not subject to that contract, or to the rights and responsibilities it conferred. We were ‘beyond the pale’ – a term that means banished and beyond redemption outside of normal society.

It took many, many decent people who already had rights to make our status as less-than-people political, to contest the bigotry that shut us out of the social contract. It took decency, but also acts of fierce and messy rebellion, clever lawyers, and many lives lain on the line by the less-than-people, the outlaws and their allies alike. It took years. It took solidarity. It cost us dearly. And thus we transformed the social contract, in all decent, right-thinking nation states, from one in which I would have lived in fear of the asylum and couldn’t own property, one where people could be sold in chains, and one where the corpses of babies lay in gutters. In the end, we built states in which our rights to the same freedoms as other human beings were normal, enshrined in law and beyond question. Where freedom from fear was extended at least as far as that.

Of course transwomen were still dying in dark alleys, black people were still being locked up at a disproportionate rate, and one’s opportunities were still, largely, governed by class and money. An international agreement between industrialised nations on universal human rights was a great beginning, and one we were rightly proud of. But our world was not perfect. We had, to a certain extent, merely exported our worst tendencies to a global south – poisoning waters, laying waste to whole cultures, holding out the broken promise of becoming just as rich as us if only such countries would become. Just. Like. Us.

But some of us, at least, could breathe a little. Some of us even had enough to hold out a hand to those with less and help a brother or a sister out a little. We had scraps to squabble over. And as a result, we thought you understood that we were just like you. We thought that our right to life, to love, to struggle and make our way in a world still not made for us – we thought that our rights to that little at least were sacred. We thought they had moved beyond the space of political negotiation.

We knew you still held all the power. But we did not realise that for us a life of even unequal liberty was the high watermark of your indulgence. We did not realise that our right to live and love without indignity, to escape the places where we were tortured and bombed and find sanctuary, to work without fear, to basic medical care, to even piss in public spaces – we did not realise that those rights in your eyes were equal to the rights of others to deny them to us. You call it religious liberty. You call it sensible budget considerations and practical immigration policies and you talk of hard-working families and we know who you leave in and out of that picture.

It is still our bodies, our lives, our work, our families being torn asunder. We are still the property, the object on the slab, the thing to be discussed. We are still not the people who get to negotiate the social contract. Our human rights are the proud symbols of how liberal you can be. You use those rights as bargaining chips with people who believe us subhuman. A president tests the very fabric of his democracy with fascists in one ear and fundamentalists in the other. A prime minister holds his hand and refuses to condemn and I am glad you take to the streets, I truly am. But I know that some of us get to leave that protest and go home, whilst others sit in the ruins of their lives and still more live in fear of what is coming next.

I will not apologise for bringing these wounds to you. I will not make excuses when it is you, me – all of us, who have allowed these basic rights, this simple dignity, to become political again. How dare we allow this to become political again?

I remember living in fear and guilt and shame and confusion. I have sat and listened to those who have seen far worse than I. This is visceral to me. I have held girlfriends who knew torture, friends stopped at every border. I know people who beg for simple necessities. I know stateless children sleep in frozen mud in a city that once rang to the cry of ‘liberte, egalite, fraternite’, and I know, I know you know all this too, in a way, but you get to leave it behind once in a while. You treasure the spaces in which you don’t have to think about these things, and you resent the intrusion of the ‘political’ into practices of introspection and calm.

You are unaware that hatha yoga still carries the scars of political struggles by lower caste people, and later, of the Indian independence movement. You are unaware of its role in renegotiating the rights of 20th Century European women to lives outside the home. You have not heard of the radicals and revolutionaries who debated the Gita and reclaimed the tantric wisdom goddesses and meditated in occupations and used ascetic techniques in public self-immolations.

You cannot see this history, you who think I shouldn’t make the practices of my heart and body ‘political’. You have maybe never known a body written on by others, carved up to fit someone else’s idea of normal. You have minds blissfully free of the voices of those who would condemn you. You have not used the needle or the knife just to feel visible again. You have not graduated to yoga from substances that drown out the pain.

My self-care is a process of daily reconciliation with the world and lately it’s barely working. My self-care is political in a world that would deny me dignity and comfort. My self-care is contested because my right to live, to love, to travel, to breathe freely is under threat in my own country, and in the countries my government chooses to see as allies. I would not be safe in Russia or China or in Saudi Arabia. Now I’m wondering if I’d be safe in the US, and I watch my own government and the familiar fear rises.

I watch a so-called democratic leader that believes in ‘religious freedom’ attempt to remove the rights of Muslims overnight. I watch this and know my safety at home is slowly being eroded not just by the threats being casually made, but by those already fallen through the holes in the social contract. I know this because xenophobia, ableism, racism and homophobia aren’t the reason for how most people now vote in my country, but they aren’t a reason not to. The high tide of human rights is receding, and I know this above all by what you now consider to be normal, and by what you consider to be political.

You tell me yoga means union. Perhaps. I’m no Sanskrit scholar, but I’m told it also means something subtler. It means a practice, a dedication, a devotion. Yoga, from that perspective, does not describe the content but the form of one’s dedication. We know that already on some level. We know that yoga can be many things to many people, but we know you have to do it. It has to be a practice, a serious endeavour.

Once upon a time my yoga was a yoga of simple health, and it was enough to dedicate myself to that. For most of my students, that is what it is now, and I treasure that for them. Over time, for me, my daily dedication has become a yoga of inquiry, of self-knowledge and awareness, and it has brought me great joy, and not a little discomfort in the growth. Almost always now, my yoga is a yoga of devotion, a practice dedicated to love and hope and something greater than myself.

But I have always had a yoga of politics. For as long as I can remember my life has been a struggle to expand the meagre rights I have, and to exploit those privileges on behalf of those with less. It is a practice I dedicate myself to, with varying degrees of effectiveness and zeal. It is a practice rooted in a belief that a better world is not just possible, but achievable within our lifetimes. It is, like all the many forms of hatha yoga through the ages, a yoga of struggle and liberation.

Sometimes I’ve been able to breathe more easily and hear the sweet, inner voice of radiant stillness. It helps that mostly I’ve been able to surround myself with people who don’t treat my rights as optional. But never have I been able to quite forget, to leave that yearning for freedom behind when I step on the mat or sit on the meditation stool.

Lately I have reclaimed an old mantra, used by my people for not quite a century now. It holds me in comfort. It reminds me that good people exist and that there will always be those who stand up to defend those freedoms. It shines with hope, and dignity, and solidarity. There is something sacred in its syllables.

No pasaran – they will not pass.

I don’t consider it remotely political. I do consider it a daily practice. I am not the one who has made this yoga necessary. I am not the one who has made this yoga political.

Image used with creative commons license agreement by David Shankbone.

Theo Wildcroft is a yoga teSONY DSCacher working for a more sustainable relationship between our many selves, the communities that hold us, and the world that nourishes us. A lover of vulnerable people, of wild things and wild places, of all our ancestors, and of the simple miracle of life itself, she is particularly fond of rhythmic movement and gentle devotion. She is also a doctoral researcher investigating the democratization of physical practice, how it evolves, and why it matters. She blogs and writes articles on this, on social justice, on hope, and on untold stories.

For more on Theo, visit her website here: www.wildyoga.co.uk