Can yoga help you vote?

Updated: Dec 10, 2019

With less than a week to go until the UK goes to the polls, for what feels like a hugely critical vote in our General Elections, I have begun to increasingly think about how to use my vote. Whilst yoga is ingrained in me, old patterns of thought can still arise, so this is to help me as much as it is you.

It might seem somewhat click bait, or even an extremely tedious link, particularly if you have a perception of yoga as being a 'bendy Wendy'. I am always trying to promote that although the shapes made in a class can be yoga, yoga is not the postures. Yoga as a philosophy can help us in every aspect of our lives, and I include voting in that. So how can the teachings of yoga help?

1) Identity and 'I'

Yoga is a journey of discovery to our true self. As we grow from being a baby our sense of self develops, continuing through adult life. We use more ways than ever to create an identity, including our political opinions. 'I am liberal', 'I vote conservatives' and so on help us to merge into groups of others. There is an inner urge to 'fit in' stemming from being pack animals- if we were shunned by the pack we would die. Our formation of identity is our way of trying to fit in and not die. This is not our true self though. This is a culmination of our life before us and many social factors at play.

I often see arguments instead of discussions on social media. I believe a huge factor in this is our attachment to our identity. If somebody doesn't agree with our opinion that can seem like a personal attack. We have become attached to our identity- our 'I'- so defence occurs as a matter of primitive survival.

If we remove this 'I', and realise our political opinions are not us we can engage openly in discussions and debate. Opinions become less fixed, enabling us to be flexible in our thinking, which is key in critical thought. In removing our own attachment to our identity (e.g. political opinions) we become aware that someone else isn't their opinions. Even if just one person in a discussion is thinking this way it is less likely to end in a full blown argument. If both parties are carrying this awareness, a highly amicable debate can occur.

2) Physical Awareness

The physical practice of yoga helps us to cultivate an awareness of our internal state. With time and practice we can become aware of aspects such as the rising of emotions, and more importantly in my opinion, the changes in our nervous system. This is another factor in our discussions.

If our nervous system is in a sympathetic state, or fight/flight, our reactions can become defensive or even aggressive, such as making a verbal personal attack on someone. On the other side of the nervous system, in the parasympathetic state, we have the response known as freeze/fawn. This is linked to our dorsal vagus nerve, the primitive branch of the two vagus nerves still present from our reptilian past. In this state we may completely freeze in the face of decisions and feel indecisive. So our nervous system doesn't just effect our interactions with people, but also our decision making.

Our best state to be in during election time is our rest/digest state, related to the ventral vagus nerve. The more we can notice how we feel whilst in this state, the more we can notice when we shift away from rest/digest. The breath and heart rate are great indicators, a long with how we find ourselves reacting to people. In freeze/fawn state we might find ourselves not feeling sociable, or maybe just agreeing with people to keep the peace.

The 2 minute exercise below came from the book 'Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve', by Stanley Rosenberg, and is a quick way to help shift our nervous system.

3) Dharma and karma

Yoga teaches about dharma which is a huge and complex issue. There are two types of dharma; svadharma which can be seen as our personal duty; and a  dharma which is in the greater good. We also learn in yoga about karma, which can be seen as action. Karma yoga is the yoga of action, and based upon both our personal duty AND the greater good.

Dharma is incredibly complex and can require that removal of the 'I'. For example in the story of The Bhagavad Gītā, Arjuna did not want to kill anyone in battle, yet this was a battle for dharma, or the greater good. He was concerned with what would happen to him ('I) and not seeing the bigger picture in that moment.

What satisfaction would we have by killing the sons of Dhritarashtra, O Krishna? By killing these fellows, only sin would befall us.

Bhagavad Gītā 1.36

Whilst this is an extreme example it shows exactly what we all go through. To see the greater good we are required to take ourselves out of the matter and zoom out. The term śikharastha jnāna means 'knowing something while situated at the top'. We want to view matters from 'the top'. Whilst yoga and many other philosophies stress the importance of the present moment, in our search for what is right we are required to look momentarily into the future, as well as on a far wider scale. We are then required to take action, so in this instance actually go to the polling station. Again an awareness of our nervous system is required here to help take action unaffected by our more primitive response patterns.  

4) Fruits of our Labour

O Arjuna, being free from attachment toward anticipated results, being the same (same) towards success or failure, established in yoga, in this attitude, then perform action. Sameness of attitude (buddhi) towards results- whatever they are is called yoga.

Bhagavad Gītā 2.48

I'm saving potentially the most difficult until last. Yoga teaches us to not be attached to the outcomes of our actions. I'm going to put it out there that the election may well follow a similar suit to the referendum and there will be around 50% of voters disappointed or pleased with the outcome. As I say, it is an incredibly hard task, particularly when it feels that there is so much at stake in regards to the outcome. But in Karma Yoga we would vote and that is it. We take action, and then no matter the result we remain the same; because our inner self, or true self in reality does remain the same throughout. That is whether the result is in our eyes positive or negative;  we can never truly know the full effects of any outcome so how can we really know if something is 'good' or 'bad'? It's also bloody good for our sanity too!!!

With this attitude we can hope to prevent the fallouts that occurred after the referendum. No matter what happens results wise, we can stay united if we try to use yoga.

You have control only in doing action, never in its results. Do not think yourself to be the cause of the results of the action, that cause being but the Lord as embodied in the universal laws of karma (action and its result). Nor should you have attachment to inaction.

Bhagavad Gītā 2.47