Words and action at the Yoga Journal Conference

I’ve never been to the Yoga Journal Conference, but came closer than ever this past weekend. Some friends told me that they were planning a protest of the conference because YJ was – for the third year in a row – going ahead with having the conference at the Hyatt Regency in SF, despite an ongoing boycott of Hyatt by their union, Unite Here. I helped out by making a FB page for the action, and soon found myself in the middle of a wild few days of blogging, chatting, and education, all aimed toward getting Yoga Journal to book its conference somewhere else in observation of the boycott. Inevitably, it’s more complex than a blog post or street protest can possibly address, but I’m happy I took part. Here’s some reflections.

The basic facts and issues are well-collected on Roseanne Harvey’s blog, it’s all yoga, baby (IAYB), in a post about our Thursday action, and this recap. My reductive, biased narrative: Hyatt is a big “evil” corporation, though they think they’re great, and the union is standing up for “justice” and fair working conditions. Yoga Journal, as a self-appointed house organ for the mainstream – read bougie – yoga “community” (YJ started grassroots, in a Berkeley living room, but has been owned since 2006 by Active Interest Media, and is the largest of their many “enthusiast magazines”. AIM is also huge in the boat show world. Ok! The CEO is named Efrem “Skip” Zimbalist III… not to cast aspersions on a guy just because he has a really WASPy name, but… he’s not Efrem “Shanti” Zimbalist, you know?) puts on these huge, corporate-style events, and is accused of ignoring for years calls to reflect the liberal values of their constituency and observe the boycott. That’s the black and white story. Maybe useful, maybe not so much. But let’s dig a little.

“Yoga means Union” is a great slogan, but how much does YJ have to do with Union (as in the “spiritual” or non-dual aspect of yoga) nowadays? Like most big magazines and media presences, it’s an advertising delivery system, and for those of us who prefer our yoga ad-free, not so simpatico a spiritual practice aid. BUT – and this is where the snarky good-and-evil narrative gets to breathe a little – many teachers who write for it, and teach at the Conference, and do lots of things that could be called mainstream yoga, are in fact deeply sincere practitioners with strong, dedicated practices. And much wisdom to share. And many many readers likewise. Sincere, heartfelt practitioners of an ancient practice that has changed substantially since its origins, and continues to do so, daily, in our classes, studios, bodies, and relationships.

So for me the issue is less the details of the labor dispute (though for a look at the major sticking point in the Hyatt/Union dispute, called “Card Check”, you could start with this and this) than issues of how we understand ourselves as modern yogis. For me this falls under the limb of the Buddha’s Eightfold (ashtanga) Path called Wise Livelihood. And the unfolding of the weekend’s protest and online conversations (and even my own sarcasm in this note!) brings me to want to mention Wise Speech as well. With Wise Action, the three practices make up the sila, or “ethics” portion of the Eightfold Path, and the practices they emphasize – non-harming, honesty, kindness, sobriety, generosity, renunciation – are explicit and implicit in Patañjali’s system as well, called yama in the Yoga Sutra. We get excited about the physical and mental transformation possible through asana and meditation, but often give short shrift to these guiding fundamentals. And for good reason… if we made them central to our practice, they would upend our lives.

For me, and many of those protesting the conference this weekend, getting YJ to ditch Hyatt is a worthy goal, but the corporatization and commodification of yoga is the deeper issue – thus revolving around how we choose to spend our resources to support our inner work and our communities. This is what Wise Livelihood is all about. How can I live, eat, shop, socialize, work, and pursue inner and outer peace in a way that is consonant with my heart’s truth? For me it means lots of education – know what my resources are really supporting – and hard choices. And compromises, natch! There’s no “pure” existence, which turns out to be excellent news. Action means relationship (which is essentially identical to “yoga means union”), and with relationship there’s always going to be gain and loss, pleasure and pain, praise and blame, fame and disrepute – the “8 Worldly Winds” that the Buddha says blow through every situation everywhere.

This post, by Matthew Remski on IAYB, describes a homegrown alternative to the slick, expensive yoga festival. I love it. A bunch of yogis just like us got together, booked a cheap space, and threw a local yoga festival on a shoestring. (I want to do one here! Call me if you’re in!) The point is that it’s the commercialization of the form that leads inevitably to conflicts like this. Do I think AIM and “Skip” the Third are going to bow to the pressure of a bunch of yoga hippies? Nah. Their other main business is running big trade shows. As Remski’s post says, “Yoga Journal hearts Hyatt”. It’s all in the family. My (compromise alert!) employers at Yoga Tree, who sponsor the conference, tell me that they’re talking with YJ to find a worker-supportive solution. I hope they do. Boy would I feel like a success then! (Hmm…)

When I teach on vegetarian practice and other thorny social issues, my main goal – as it is in my going on this week about how complex it is to live ethically – is mostly to trouble the waters for us as sincere yogis. To encourage us to not take easy routes into complacency and feeling good about ourselves, but to question our actions and the effect of our actions all the time. I have to eat my own words here, often. Sri Louise, a long-time teacher and devoted yoga practitioner, was central to the action this weekend, and is perhaps the most outspoken and uncompromising voice I know for radical ethics in the yoga world (and beyond – she’s active in many kinds of social justice work). Her style and mine differ, sometimes uncomfortably, but I do feel it when she calls us out for colluding in harmful action through our yoga – like supporting a conference that will not observe a labor boycott that even the NFL is observing. Sri troubles the water, for sure, and it behooves us as practitioners not to turn away from these issues.

This Sunday in Sweat+Study, we’ll read the last of our texts for this month, the Platform Sutra. It’s an impassioned sermon about Emptiness, or shunyata – the quality in everything of insubstantiality, impermanence, illusoriness. It recognizes that things – objects, people, situations – are so clearly just part of a never-ending flow that they can hardly be said to “exist” at all. They’re – we are – Empty. The Zen texts say, “like flowers in the sky! Why trouble to grasp at them?” Indeed. Yoga Journal is emptiness, Hyatt is emptiness, the Union is emptiness. And even “yogic” Union, as in “with the Divine”… is emptiness. In emptiness, the Heart Sutra says, there is “no ignorance and no end to ignorance”. No injustice, we could say, and no end to injustice. This recognition, and the renunciation that follows, is key to spiritual activism. We must recognize, like Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, that the situation is impossible, but action is still necessary. Unavoidable.

This means that we look closely at our actions in the light of the guidelines of non-harming, truthfulness, and generosity, being willing to change what doesn’t ring true to our values (this is the practice of renunciation, or sannyasa – the practice of letting go). AND it means we hold the results of our actions, our actions themselves, and all the inevitable compromises we face as we try to do right, lightly: in the light of wisdom. Not making them more substantial than they are. The Gita doesn’t define yoga as Union, anyway. It says “yoga is skill in actions” and “equanimity is yoga”. What I’m saying! So I happened to help organize a protest this weekend – it felt like the right thing to do, and I hope it leads to better conditions for the workers, for sure – but my primary concern is for the practice that we’re building as yogis, together, in our complicated and messy lives and communities.

I really do believe that we as sincere practitioners can find our way, with yoga, meditation, spiritual guidelines, and good teachers, within the full catastrophe of capitalist empire, toward peace of mind and heartfelt compassionate service. It means taking on discomfort and paradox along the way, as we try, each in our own way, to find the Middle Path between indulgence and self-torment (those of you who were at S+S: Buddhist, week 1, remember our discussion). Like any balance pose, it’s never stable, always falling, always in motion. May I always remember that nothing is static, and that this is both what makes change possible, and more than possible, inevitable! And since inevitable, worth not getting too verklempt about. Do your practice, in class or at home, and let your yoga and dharma, as we say at the end of class, be itself a momentum for well-being – for justice – for yourself and others, all beings, everywhere. Flowers in the sky.

2 thoughts on “Words and action at the Yoga Journal Conference”

  1. Wonderful post. I read it thinking how exceptionally smart, insightful, and honest it is, and when I finished I thought, wow, I want to follow whoever wrote this on Twitter, friend them on FB, the usual social media thing! So I checked to see who the author might be and found out that we’ve already connected 🙂 Thanks.

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