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  • Derek Sean Vaughn

Dueling with Dualism in Yoga: The Spiritual Politics of Opting Out

Updated: Sep 19

Sweat drips down my nose as I awkwardly shuffle to the front of my yoga mat, and I hear the proverbial “om”, feeling the room light up in its resonance. I am, of course, once again, a beat behind. The compulsory “om shanti shanti shanti” fumbles out of my mouth all in one aspirated and clumsy breath. I think class is over, I try to get up, and I hear the teacher follow up her chant with unexpected wisdoms. “ Yoga is about reconciling differences. So, may we have the clarity to see past illusion, may we have the courage to use our voices, and may we move from me to we.” The legacies of my mantra linger around me and fall flat. I realize I’ve been praying for peace, without actually paying attention to where that peace was needed. Fuck.


I am among the guilty who have used yoga and spiritual practices as an excuse to opt out of civic life. I am among the many who have at times dismissed political and cultural tensions as “noise” and “separation”, because I didn’t feel intelligent or informed enough to understand or affect the world around me. I both find comfort and concern in that I now see these attitudes expressed almost daily in others.


Whether it be in person or on Facebook, I can’t help but notice social complaints disguised as pleas for peace. The problem is that these opinions aren’t actually offering strategies or critiques to create peace, rather they are complaining about the complaints around them. *These opinions all have something in common:


  • They express a general frustration for a lack of positivity in our culture

  • They confuse taking a stand with what is actually dualism or divisiveness. Perhaps they’ll say that “we are all one”, “all lives matter, “all energy bodies matter”, or use the term “race war”

  • They dismiss the efforts of activists and those responding to injustice as non-spiritual and divisive

  • Their solutions are often broad strokes for peace, subtly implying that we should be peaceful in silence


It is clear to me that people are using the rhetoric of spirituality to trivialize our socio-political climate and maintain an unfavorable status quo. Can you blame them? Pretending to have peace is a lot easier than trying to make the social change that can deliver actual peace. Jeff Brown’s book “Grounded Spirituality” addresses this cop out, explaining that contemporary spiritual practitioners often use spirituality and mindfulness as a way to be above people instead of among them.


People come to spiritual and self-reflexive practices to find a sense of relief and community. They also come hoping to understand the world around them a little more clearly, quietly seeking for other ways to interpret world events around them and how to respond to them. If we are to live in a state of non-dualism, we need to actually understand and reimagine its role in the many spiritual and self-reflexive communities that swear by it.


Modern Postural Yoga might casually describe non dualism as the union of mind, body, and soul. However, yoga scholars argue that non dualism didn’t become canon until the 9th century BCE for a number of social and political reasons. Our understanding of non dualism doesn’t end here, though. We use this philosophical and metaphysical treatise to often define our yoga, using non dualism as the lens through which we view our world. And while we are quick to admit that we are connecting to our “higher selves'' when we practice yoga or other spiritual techniques. We are operating under the assumption that everything is inherently connected at all times. Such ideas can be reflected in contemporary new age and self-help ideas on “manifesting”, synchronicity, universal curriculum. Even in our understanding of energy, emotions, and world events.


This understanding of an all prevailing, “perfect” non dualism unfortunately falls short. This is being used to diminish the efforts of those advocating for peace and positive social change, and to ignore the suffering of underserved communities. If everything is already “perfect, whole, and complete”; then how do we respond to suffering, anger, sadness, and those fighting for change? That’s easy, we don’t. This misunderstanding of non dualism homogenizes the human experience and ignores the way in which dualism can be created and experienced by others. Such a limited understanding of this theory leaves us obtuse to how the world experiences and is experienced differently by others. It allows us to take a blind eye to structural inequalities of corrupt power structures that target some and not all.


Just as we actively practice non dualism physically in our yoga practices, so must we also practice it in society. Our understanding of non dualism as theory is correct, but incomplete. In order to start to live a more embodied yoga we need to reimagine non dualism as theory and praxis. Non dualism as theory in short, states that everything is connected. Yes, this is true from a distanced metaphysical perspective. However, zoom in and you’ll also see that while we are all one and the same, we are also incredibly distinct and unique expressions of one larger living source. In other words, part of practicing non dualism means identifying and admitting the ways in which we are different and seemingly separate on the surface. In order to practice non dualism (or unity) we need to bring what is out of balance back into balance. That first requires that we zoom in through our lenses and articulate all of the individual puzzle pieces to find out which puzzle piece is out of balance. It is only then we can make corrections and bring everything back into unity.


Let’s take yoga practice as an example. Like many, I didn’t understand safe alignment when I first started vinyasa yoga. I remember my teacher, often pointing out that my knee veered over my toes, leaving me vulnerable to injury. For weeks my practice was about paying attention to my knee and using a variety of other muscle actions and bodily adjustments to bring it back into balance. Why wasn’t I paying attention to my entire body? Why was I giving my knee special attention? Aren’t I creating dualism by placing focus on my knee over the rest of my body?


Now, I’m not saying that yoga studios and new age shops need to be overtly partisan and politically charged. What I am saying is that there is a danger to drawing from aescestical/transcendental theories without being properly informed on their social/historical origins or when to use them. Our spiritual and self-reflexive practices should offer us a tool kit for how to respond to the world around us, not escape from it all together. If you are reading this article, chances are you are not a spiritual renunciate. As such, your responsibilities, practices, and duties to yourself and the world are different than to those that are renunciates. Hammers are hella handy, but you wouldn’t use a hammer to apply your makeup, would you? We need to approach our practices in a way that makes sense for our current lifestyles and demands of our socio-political climate. This way we can create embodiment and not separation. Following along the lines of Jeff Brown’s logic in his book “Grounded Spirituality”, we need to practice in a way that embraces our humanity and connects us to the human condition. Pretending that dualism isn’t something already experienced, creates and perpetuates dualism and human suffering. Just as there is a need for general positivity, there is also a need to feel the seriousness of our traumatic times. Silencing the efforts for positive social reform and from minority groups because it’s uncomfortable and inconvenient, or “non-spiritual”, is in itself non-spiritual. It misses the point of the practice. Our practices should help us create the clarity to see beyond our own limited privileges and lenses so we can have empathy for others. This work doesn’t have to be one of anger or even immediate physical action. Rather, this work can be internal, helping you to cultivate empathy and solidarity. We need to align our thoughts and emotions with the action steps that are being taken to reduce suffering. Some of you might say, “We don’t need strategy, we need love.” These people are dualists. If we are to understand non dualism, we have to understand that we need a strategy of love and this starts with supporting action for positive social change and not pretending we are above it. At the very least, it starts by not getting in the way. In that spirit, I would like to invite you to reflect on the prayer from earlier: “may we have the clarity to see past illusion, may we have the courage to use our voices, and may we move from me to we.” “Om shanti shanti shanti”


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