POLITICS AND POSES: YOGA BALL 2013
The local yoga community hosted the Sunday-night event in partnership with Off the Mat and Into the World (OTM) and YogaVotes, two organizations that also held a nonpartisan campaign in the District in October to encourage yogis to get out and vote.
WASHINGTON — The night before Obama’s inauguration, the St. Francis Hall in the Brookland neighborhood of Washington, D.C. was filled to capacity with 150 people folded serenely into the downward facing dog pose.
The romantic stained glass windows of the hall were complemented by the whimsical, Eastern-inspired décor, and brought to life one of the most unique events of the inauguration weekend: the first-ever Yoga Ball. The ball was held in Northeast Washington on Jan. 20 and was directed by yoga instructor Ajay Bhatt.
“The focus of the Yoga Ball is to bring the D.C. yoga community and the visiting yoga community together for common practice,” said Bhatt. “We want to build energy and send positive sentiment for the inauguration.”
One of the organizations sponsoring the event, the grassroots yoga movement “Off the Mat and into the World,” has an initiative called “Yoga Votes,” which encourages sustainable, conscious activism.
“A prominent theme of the event is that civic engagement doesn’t stop at the voting booth, but occurs wherever you bring together a conscious community,” said Bhatt.
The Yoga Ball endeavors to extend the mindset of yoga to even the largest of political arenas. “We invited the president; I’m not sure if he will come,” Bhatt chuckled.
Bringing Together Relentlessly Active Yogis
Bhatt brought together an enthusiastic team of yoga leaders for the Yoga Ball. One notable yoga leader in attendance was Kerri Kelly, the executive director at Off the Matt headquarters in San Francisco, Calif., who said she is excited to be in Washington representing her organization.
“With Off the Matt, we’ve trained over 4,000 people to take the practice of yoga, find their purpose and bridge the two. And this [Yoga Ball] is part of our foray into politics; it’s a call to action for our community to really contemplate civics, vote and get educated about what’s going on,” Kelly said.
Kelly explained that there is often a misconception with the yoga community that yoga is about connection and compassion, and that politics is about separation and conflict. So Kelly jumped at the opportunity to change that mindset when Bhatt proposed the Yoga Ball.
“This event feels like a great counter-movement to the typical tux and gown event. At our event each person engages with his or herself on the inside first and then carries that mindfulness into social engagement.”
Kristin Adair of Washington, D.C. is a community builder for Off the Matt and was also a member of the team that led the Yoga Ball, but previously worked in lobbying and politics. Adair practiced yoga during her political career, but went through a personal evolution when she realized that the calm of yoga and a career of public service didn’t need to be mutually exclusive.
“I almost immediately merged the two and started working for Off The Matt, and I’ve still been working on causes are important to me because I understand politics and speak that language,” Adair said.
Adair uses her yoga instruction as an opportunity for community service; she teaches classes for kids from underserved communities.
Striking a Political Pose
Well-known Washington yoga instructor Faith Hunter was the primary leader of the ball’s group yoga session. Hunter is from Louisiana, but decided to move her practice to the nation’s capital to help the city’s residents relax.
“When I would visit D.C., I saw a lot of uptight, type-A personalities who were dealing with so much. I knew this was the exact place I needed to be; these people need support,” Hunter said.
Hunter accepted a large role in the Yoga Ball because she values political activism. “As an African-American woman, I know how much people before me have fought for their rights in the United States and I don’t take politics lightly. And I believe that if we all put our collective thoughts into one thing like at this event, we create an immensely positive political vibration.”
Blakely Schmidt, a resident of Rhode Island and former D.C. resident has been practicing yoga for three years. She discovered yoga in D.C. and was excited to practice again on the eve of the inauguration.
“There is a powerful energy with this community and with this beautiful space. The live music really gets into you,” she said. “I feel good, stretched and strong. And a little bit like Jello. Good Jello.”
There was a consensus among the attendees that more civility and empathy could flourish in politics if people practiced the mindfulness and compassion that yoga strengthens. It is important to remember that yoga is not just a physical practice, though it is commonly referred to as a form of exercise.
“Yoga is a philosophy which can exist in every aspect of life,” said Aleah Clarke, an aspiring yoga instructor. “That means the physical as well as acts of kindness, love, and service. Yoga can be anything from taking five minutes to yourself to helping someone out on the metro.”
There is a large crossover between the D.C. yoga community and the professional and political community. Many of the yogis at the event were activists, government employees and students from D.C. universities. Even a state attorney general arrived at the event to visit the group meditation session.
Sharon Salzberg, a highly regarded meditation teacher and author, gave a soothing guided meditation that put the tired yogis in a state of bliss at the end of the event.
Her words offer guidance for Americans at this time of renewal of commitment to the men and women of this nation:
“At a time like this which seems to mark a passage, I like to go inside myself and notice my intention.
Today, may you be connected to all, with no one left out.
May you be happy,
May you be peaceful,
May you live free of suffering.”