I constantly struggle with the tension between a life-long desire to change the world (still undiminished at 50!) and yoga’s ideas of acceptance and contenement with things just the way they are.
In the days since the momentous Brexit referendum result, it’s been hard for even the most detached yogi to avoid the murky world of politics. Almost every conversation I’ve had since waking up on June 24th has begun with expressions of disbelief and dismay.
Here where I live in Lambeth in south London, 79 per cent of us voted to Remain. I can’t think of anyone I know locally who voted to Leave. I guess we’ve been guilty of complacency. We’d forgotten how much we take for granted the multi-cultural brew that is Brixton and Streatham. We don’t even notice it any more.
I have to remind myself that friends, neighbours and my students have their origins all over the world, including many from the EU. We once joked that our sons’ primary school was more diverse than the United Nations – and more amicable.
Since June 24th I’ve had tearful conversations with local friends whose children wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the EU; children born of mixed partnerships between English and Spanish, Czech, German, Polish, or French parents.
The atmosphere in the playground that Friday morning was grim. Were the families of European origin no longer welcome in our previously friendly school community? And what about families originally from Africa, South America and Asia? One English mum (also a teacher at the school) told me she wanted to wave a flag saying “Not in our name”.
I’m not going to accuse all the Leave voters of racism. I believe people voted Leave for various reasons – with one thing in common. Unlike general and local elections, where voting in a safe seat can seem like a waste of time, this was a referendum in which every vote counted. So for anyone who felt their needs had been overlooked and their voice unheeded – perhaps for decades – this was a chance, at last, to be heard.
For communities in the Midlands and North of England, where I grew up and lived for more than half my life, London seems like a domineering, greedy and thoughtless older sibbling. The bankers, politicians and media people who amass there seem only to look inwards, barely noticing the lives of people in the rest of the country. And yet the decisions they make have enormous effects on everyone.
We didn’t crash the banks and the economy in 2007-08, but we’re the ones suffering austerity cuts in childrens’ centres, libraries and the NHS.
We didn’t vote to go to war against Iraq – in fact in 2003 over a million of us marched against it – but the war went ahead, killing untold numbers and creating millions of refugees, who are now desperately scouring the earth for safe homes.
We didn’t choose to close mines, shipyards and steelworks; we didn’t cover up police actions at Hillsborough or Orgreave; we don’t hide money from the taxman in offshore accounts; we don’t claim duck houses on expense accounts; we don’t hack phones.
As much as a verdict on the EU, June 23rd was a howl of anger against the outrageous abuses of power perpetrated over the last 30 years by those that have through privilege or ambition acquired it.
All the main political parties – including Labour – are guilty of being so focused on their tit-for-tat rivalry for power that they’ve carelessly ignored everyone outside their bubble in the way an older sibbling thinks their little sister is irrelevant. And a few shameless politicians have whipped up fear to serve their own ambitions.
My hope is that out of this creative destruction emerges a more consensual politics, one in which it will be impossible for a government elected by only 24% of the people to impose its will on the rest. Instead of winner-takes-all, a politics in which it is impossible to govern without listening and responding to all the people – not just those who own newspapers.
And what’s all this got to do with yoga? Perhaps nothing. But perhaps something.
Yoga – as a philosophy, not just a set of exercises – actually means union. The tools of yoga – the postures, breathing, chanting, meditation – are ways of peeling away the illusion that we are all separate from each other and the planet.
It’s very hard to treat someone badly if you genuinely feel a connection with them. Which is why people of quite harsh politics can be extraordinarily generous and kind to an individual in need.
Being a yogi doesn’t necessarily mean you voted Remain. And it doesn’t automatically mean your politics are progressive. But now that all the cards are up in the air and no one knows where they will land, we will need more than ever some of the benefits yoga can bring: calm, clarity of thought, and kindness towards ourselves and others.