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Are Justice and Enlightenment Incompatible? The Yoga Journal / Hyatt Controversy

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense.

From Essential Rumi
by Coleman Barks*

Yoga Journal’s recent decision to hold a conference at the SF Hyatt Regency, despite an ongoing union-led boycott of the hotel chain, has prompted some spiritual activists to pipe up — Buddhists included.

Can Crossing A Picket Line Be Right Action?

Advocating for a model of business that can “align with our deeper, spiritually-based values and ethics,” Nathan Thompson of Dangerous Harvests shares some facts and figures challenging YJ’s claim that they “couldn’t afford” to break their Hyatt contract and change locations to support the workers’ struggle.  Hyatt Hotels Corp doesn’t get a pass, either.  As an alternative, Nathan points to possibilities of grassroots conferences, maintaining that “in addition to resisting injustice, more of us have to embody and create the liberated, just world we desire.”

Writer and acupuncturist Rona Luo observes, “prob is we don’t identify as workers anymore… picketing workers are a ‘they’ rather than a ‘we.'”

Indeed, not only are many yogis workers, but some Hyatt workers also have yoga practices of their own.  They joined a group of Bay Area practitioners who took their asanas to the picket line to demonstrate compassion through solidarity.

Cyber-side, as well, scholar-activist and dharma student Be Scofield has created an online pledge to help supporters from all over encourage YJ to respect the boycott in 2014, if it is still in place.

The pushback seems to be working on some level, as celebrity teachers like Seane Corn have publicly vowed not to join next year’s conference if it means crossing a picket line.

Although Yoga Journal itself has not significantly changed its position, they seem to be grappling, at least somewhat, with the alleged hypocrisy.  How can a wellness industry undermine workers’ struggles for safer job conditions?

And yet, yoga is more than a wellness industry, isn’t it?  It’s a spiritual path.  And herein lies a deeper question; one familiar and acutely relevant to political Buddhists.  Does a spirituality of acceptance and non-preference, of liberation from suffering, have something to say about justice?  About good and evil, wrongdoing and rightdoing?

Transcendantal Demonstrations

Commentator Eric Walrabenstein, quoted in a Yoga Dork article highlighted by dharma practitioner and political comedian Manish Vaidya, lays out his take on the paradox:

Dear Yoga Friends,

Let me start out by saying that I do in fact care about the disenfranchised. I do work to see a more just and compassionate world. And if I were in charge of the Yoga Journal conference, I would very likely change venues in support of those who are seeking a fair shake from the global giant Hyatt.

And thus, I stand shoulder to shoulder with those who are voicing their disappointment in Yoga Journal for deciding to hold their conference at the San Francisco Hyatt.

But I do so in the name of this opinionated and imperfect character Eric Walrabenstein—not in the name of yoga. Certainly not.

To voice our outrage about Yoga Journal’s decision to on the basis of yoga—or their affiliation with it—is to, frankly, not understand the purpose, or practice, of yoga. And quite colossally so.

Here’s the thing:

-Yoga is not about standing up for what’s right, while going to war with what’s wrong.
It’s about transcending right and wrong all together.

-Yoga is not about aligning ourselves with those who do good and against those who do not.
It’s about being liberated from the self all together.

-Yoga is not about standing up and fixing the problems of the world.
It’s about sitting down and seeing the innate perfection that has always already been.

This war against reality is the ego’s game, not yoga’s—and certainly not your truest self’s.

So, by all means stand up for the causes that you believe in: Rail against injustice, fight for the disenfranchised, champion the good and assault the bad. It is your right, and some would argue your responsibility, to make this world a better place in which to live.

But please don’t drag yoga into your war against God’s perfection.

Yoga is about creating unconditional stillness; yoga is about accessing the perfection of what is; yoga is about recognizing who you truly are—beyond the one filled with outrage and self-righteousness.

If you wish to truly do something in the name of yoga, sit, breathe, and smile.

Love & blessings…

P.S. I have no doubt that this idea will ruffle a great many feathers; particularly those of the spiritualized, feel-good crowd who confuse temporarily satiated egos for some sort of spiritual progress. I understand. I get pissed at things too, whilst trying to remind myself that this too is part of the inherent perfection of what is.

Sound familiar, BPFers?  It’s one of the thematic questions we’ll continue to revisit throughout the year in The System Stinks: how do we accept the world as it is, and fight like hell to change it?

There’s no easy answer (which is why it’s a great question to keep coming back to!), but dharma teacher Mushim Ikeda shared some relevant insights yesterday:

The Buddha said, “Hatred never ceases by hatred, but by non-hatred alone is healed.” Gil Fronsdal, Buddhist teacher and translator, has said the word “love” in English is not a good translation of the Buddhist term for “non-hatred.” I have been meditating for many years now on how agape (Christian term) or metta (Buddhist term), which both mean unconditional loving friendliness, is a stance of non-hatred and a way of being that is nonviolent. Can we envision a love that is not in any way personal or conditioned or conditional? I believe that was what Dr. King was pointing towards; when we are able to directly tap into the realm of the Unconditioned, there is enormous, unending power and energy to keep moving forward toward what is good, what is beneficial, what is wise, and what is compassionate — and, I think, what is JUST.

When we remember how to dwell in a way of nondualism, we may find ourselves becoming intimate with unconditional love.  And though I tend to agree with Be Scofield that this unconditional love is probably ethically neutral, I think it can spur us to think and to act for what is just.  To try our best, for the good of all beings.  To keep discovering what “the good of all beings” might actually mean.  To work with the details, the minutiae, the history, nuances, the practicalities of choices and change.

Take the opening poem of this post, widely credited to Rumi.  The words are beautiful.  They speak to anatta, no-self.  To the unconditional love that can exist there. (There which is nowhere and everywhere.)  And the love I feel from this poem inspires me to learn about the route by which it comes to me.  Which, as it turns out, has to do with the controversial “translations” of Rumi’s work by the non-Persian-literate, English-language poet Coleman Barks.  What the Sufi poet Rumi actually wrote may be very different from the words I read, from the works that sell so well in the U.S. today.  And this matters.  It is political.  It relates to human history, to our ancestors, to colonization, imperialism, and orientalism.  Not saying it’s right or wrong (that would be a post for a different day), but just saying: It Has A Political Existence. One that deserves some investigation.

And skillful investigation doesn’t mean selectively scrounging for convenient examples to back up our beliefs.  As Mushim reminds us through her thought-diversity work, and as many a good scientist will tell you, investigating well means being open to data that might contradict our opinions.  Facts that might complicate our view of things.  Even in the case of the Hyatt boycott, for example, it’s not clear to me that the Unite Here union is a hero in this fight.  Unions are no panacea in class war, and counter-claims by Hyatt that this union is not interested in fully representing all Hyatt workers might have some truth to them.  While honoring righteousness, let’s not be satisfied with reductive approaches.

Perhaps the spiritual does not need to be separate from the mundane, from the political.  Perhaps the spiritual can help guide us in approaching the mundane, the political, with loving attention, thoughtfulness, courage, enthusiasm, and openness to discovering new truths within the specifics.

Beyond wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field.  This makes me wonder: was this field once a commons?  Has it been privatized in a racist capitalist land grab?

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Comments (12)

  • Craig Paup

    How unfortunate it is for one to struggle long and hard to reach the summit, only to become a hole-dwelling devil.

  • Philip Kienholz

    All the text about stillness and transcendence of good and evil and so on, it all takes place within the cauldron of the world. You still have to walk to breakfast.

    Kudos to the Yoga Journal for attempting to make some accommodation of the strike at their conference. Perhaps ways can be successfully found so that the physical presence of the attendees does not contribute to the oppression of the workers–signing individual pledges or statements of solidarity, for example, or a conference resolution expressing dismay for various reasons, study sessions on strike issues, karma yoga sessions of standing with the strikers, and so on and so forth. Opportunities of engagement, apart from quietism, abound.

    The world will not go away. After you stand up from your meditation the market awaits with its jostling crowds and dog turds. Quietism is only a refuge, not the social norm within which we exist, the sangsara in which we wander.

  • Bob

    Thanks for publishing this article BPF. I will contact Yoga Journal and let them know I support unions and consider it unethical to cross a picket line.

  • Bob

    Pertaining to the previous post, if YOU want to contact Yoga Journal here is there info…
    Contact Yoga Journal’s Communications Director ( and Yoga Journal Events (, urging them to sign the pledge and hold the 2014 Yoga Journal San Francisco conference in another facility.

  • Bob

    Here is the letter I emailed to Yoga Journal

    As a practitioner of Buddhism and yoga I was shocked and disapointed to learn that Yoga Journal would not be respecting the rights of hotel workers. Finding ways to support the poor hotel employees, mostly women struggling to raise families, is a bedrock ethical and moral issue. Yoga Journal has a real opportunity to contribute positively to the lives of people who face long hours and difficult working conditions. Please honor and respect the poor and those who struggle to make this world a more livable place by canceling next years Yoga Journal convention at the Hyatt and holding it at a union affiliated hotel instead. As we remembered Martin Luther King this year, let us also remember that King passionately supported labor unions and indeed he was killed while assisting striking workers in Memphis. In order to outwardly express the ethical integrity we seek in our practice, let us honor Dr Kings dream and refuse to cross union picket lines.
    Sincerely Bob xxxx

  • Mushim Ikeda

    According to the 6 Steps of Kingian Nonviolence, Step 1 is: “Information Gathering. The way you determine the facts, the options for change and the timing of pressure for raising the issue is a collective process.”

    In my information gathering thus far, it is not clear that there was a picket line for anyone to cross, in this specific case. And the “facts” sound as though the situation is complex and nuanced. See this on-the-ground report from a yoga teacher, who says that there was no picket line at the Hyatt, none of the workers were on strike there, and the workers to whom that person spoke were frustrated and did *not* support the union: . It also says that the workers say they *have* been wronged and their situation needs to be rectified in order for them to be treated justly. I would ask, what do the majority of the workers at this Hyatt want? What supportive activism do *they* say they need?

  • Katie Loncke

    Thanks, Craig and Phillip, for your thoughts, Bob for your actions, and Mushim for your help with clarification! Yes, from what I understand, there are three useful facts to keep in mind about the situation.

    1. This is a boycott, not a strike. Workers are not refusing to work (which would be a strike), but the union, including some workers, is calling on customers to patronize hotels other than the Hyatt. This has been ongoing for some years now. I don’t think I ever called it a strike in the article, but it can be confusing because we often associate picket lines with strikes.

    2. The on-the-ground report from the yoga teacher says, “when I arrived … there were no pickets.” But I don’t think that means there are no picket lines at this Hyatt at all. Julie Wong, a representative from the San Francisco Local 2, UNITE-HERE union, has been quoted in a San Francisco paper saying, “This has been an active boycott with regular picketing for three years and Yoga Journal has not taken us seriously.” Also, from the looks of it, the signs carried by the people on either end in the photo at the top of this post are the standardized signs provided by UNITE HERE on Hyatt picket lines. So, I could be wrong, but I’m guessing there just wasn’t a line going when that particular person arrived — it’s not a 24-hour picket.

    3. It is definitely true that there are many non-unionized Hyatt workers, and many may choose not to unionize because they don’t like this particular union, or unions in general, or for various other reasons. Many may also decide they disagree with the boycott.

    As far as what the majority of workers at this Hyatt want, I think it’s also tricky to organize at an international hotel chain because in order for solidarity and pressure to be effective, you have to get workers at hotel locations all over the world involved. A boycott of one particular Hyatt would accomplish nothing; they have many others to rely on. So even if the majority at one particular store do not support a union or a boycott, do we need to ask about the workers at all the rest of the Hyatt stores, as well? And if the majority of workers at all Hyatts support a boycott, how does that affect our decision to support a picket line at a Hyatt location where pro-union workers may be in the minority?

    At the same time, I absolutely agree with an approach of building power in the hands of workers based on their needs and decisions, and I think labor organizing has a dangerous tendency to conflate union bureaucracies with workers’ self-determined struggles. Definitely something to watch out for!

  • Bob

    Wow, y’all did your homework! Thanks for the various perspectives. These issues are never cut and dried. I have worked in both union and non union environments and there are always myriad opinions. In general however, I believe that as Yogis we can safely act in solidarity with Unions. that is a value judgment. My value judgment! Sometimes Union behavior can be downright unethical, but I see no cause for alarm here. The union is asking Yoga Journal to respect its call out for a boycott. This would be a fantastic opportunity for YJ to practice Union! the words Union and Yoga share the same etymological root from indo-european. the english word “Yolk”, to join, is the ancestor.

  • Mushim Ikeda

    As a proud member of Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ, based in Chicago), I note that IWJ calls for a “global boycott of Hyatt” by all people of faith. That’s good enough for me. I believe they’ve done their homework. And I imagine that right now the Yoga Journal folks are really feeling the heat for not supporting the boycott and moving their conference to another hotel.

  • Bob

    Dear Mushim ikeda,
    Thanks for all of the great work you are doing!

  • Mushim Ikeda

    Bob, you are most welcome. Thank you for being part of the dialogue!

  • Philip Kienholz

    Thanks to Kathy for the clarification of boycott, rather than strike. And also to Bob for joining the labour union theme with the yoga union [to join] theme.

© 2017 Buddhist Peace Fellowship

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