Activism and the Trajectory of Modern Yoga

To a layperson, the phrase “modern yogi” often conjures an image of a physically fit and Instagram-friendly Caucasian person. And the phrase “ancient yogi” often conjures an image of an underweight Indian man in a white wrap sitting equanimously in meditation. But how can we add more layers to these images? How can we set a better blueprint for a modern yogi and hence improve the trajectory of modern yoga for the future generation of yogis?

Mahatma Gandhi is a good example of a modern yogi of great stature who has hardly received the recognition they deserve within the yoga community. Gandhi in fact matches much of the description of an ancient yogi. He was the leader of the successful Nonviolent Resistance campaign that led to the end of 90 years of British colonialism in India. When it comes to ancient Sanskrit scriptures, Gandhi frequently referenced Bhagavad Gita as “the greatest single influence on his life”.

Bhagavad Gita covers various yogic concepts, including Jñāna yoga (yoga of knowledge), Bhakti yoga (yoga of devotion), and Karma yoga (yoga of action), through the storytelling of a conversation between Arjuna and Krishna at the time of an imminent war. Krishna urges Arjuna, who is torn between fulfilling his warrior duties to follow his “Dharma” and upholding Ahimsa, to take an action and to do it with love and care, regardless of the outcome. He reminds Arjuna that not taking an action is indeed an action in itself:  “One who sees inaction in action, and action in inaction, is intelligent among men.” [Chapter 4, text 18]

The Gita’s call for selfless action in the 2nd century BC is just as valid today in 2022 AD. But when it comes to deepening the image of a modern yogi, much like old religious books, we need to go beyond searching for answers in the past. And rather create a framework suitable to our current circumstances that redefines the superficial image of a so-called “modern yogi”. In the author’s opinion, the root cause of this shortcoming is the lack of fluidity between different roles and contexts as well as a peculiar obsession with self (not to be confused with the Self). The modern neo-spiritualist yogi seems to completely dismiss the importance of community in the process of hoping to commune with the Self. Gandhi was not sometimes a yogi and other times a lawyer and a leader; he simultaneously fulfilled those roles in a state of fluidity.

These concerns manifest themselves, even more, when it comes to the human rights crisis in the world and the extent the yoga community is willing to be involved in them. Our advocacy for peace cannot be limited to closing our practice with the ‘OM shanti’ chant. Rather we need to complement this with more tangible actions that set an example for our students and the world. A recent example is the eerie silence of the online yoga community concerning Iran’s revolution. 9 weeks of protests, strikes, and numerous atrocities against the people of Iran got artists, athletes, politicians, journalists, lawyers, comedians, musicians, and just about any global community but the yoga community to use their voice and platform in solidarity with the people of Iran.

As a community, we need to step up and live the example of the humanitarian change we want to see in our world. Yogis are the perfect candidates for being activists who are committed to working towards a better reality for mankind. While it’s much more comfortable and perhaps safer to stay in our yoga bubble, this bubble needs to burst. We need to keep chanting “OM shanti” not just on the mat with words but off the mat

By Hasti Yavari

Hasti Yavari is a Kurdish-Iranian-Swedish women and minority rights activist. She is an asana and pranayama teacher as well as a PhD candidate in Physics at University College Cork. Hasti teaches Hot yoga, Vinyasa, Yin, and Mobility classes and has studied yoga with schools in India, Sweden, and USA, and taught in Sweden, Iran and Ireland. Find her on Instagram and LinkedIn.

Photo by Craig Melville on Unsplash