The Yoga of a Farewell Speech

Since the election for the 45th president of the United States on November 8, 2016, my in-home rural yoga studio has fielded a sweep of emotions brought to the small room by students.

Amid the November 9th despair of Hillary Clinton supporters and the euphoria of Donald Trump supporters, the media-free hour-long practices of yoga postures, meditation and breath awareness have stabilized moods and unkinked restless bodies, including my own.

Barack Obama was the fourth presidential candidate for whom I’ve cast a vote in my lifetime. During his first run, I worked a phone bank, dialing number after number to encourage American citizens to vote. The morning I read of Obama’s victory, big tears of joy splotched the thin broadsheet of the newspaper’s front page.

These past two months, along with many fellow citizens, I’m hard-pressed to keep alit the flame of hope that President Obama ignited.

But his farewell speech provided oxygen. In it, I recognize six elements of yoga that my personal practice and professional teaching have held true:

1. “And that’s what I want to focus on tonight, the state of our democracy,” President Obama said. “Understand democracy does not require uniformity. Our founders argued, they quarreled, and eventually they compromised. They expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity. The idea that, for all our outward differences, we’re all in this together, that we rise or fall as one.”

In the Bhagavad Gita, one of yoga’s guiding texts, the warrior Krishna says,

“When he sees all beings as equal
in suffering or in joy
because they are like himself,
that man has grown perfect in yoga.”

Commonly translated as “union” or “one”, with connotations of deep acceptance, yoga solicits harmony within and among difference. In the postures of asana, breath yokes with the body’s movement. In life, we bond in service with our natural and human communities.

2. In his speech, Obama spoke the word “heart” four times including, “Hearts must change.”

The heart, referred to as the heart center in yoga, is the seat of wisdom. Wisdom, from “wit,” can be traced back to an Indo-European root shared with the Sanskrit word “veda,” meaning knowledge. Sanskrit is a first language of yoga. “Veda” relates to the Latin word for “see.”

Whether we’re folding forward leading with the “heart center,” “opening the heart” in a backbend, “leading with the heart” and letting the head trail as we unwind from a twisting posture, the heart is prime in yoga.

Yoga in the family.

3. Having outlined threats to American democracy, Obama offered a course of action: participation.

“All of this depends on our participation; on each of us accepting the responsibility of citizenship, regardless of which way the pendulum of power happens to be swinging. Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power. We, the people, give it meaning — with our participation, and with the choices that we make and the alliances that we forge.”

The practice of yoga exists on paper and in videos, in online and face-to-face instruction. The poses and aphorisms mean nothing, however, without the breath and body of real people.

Yoga calls for consistent action without expectation of result.

Off the mat, we express this by showing up to the work we have in the world, taking responsibility in our jobs, our relationships and neighborhoods.

4. The President urged the people to, “Show up, dive in, stay at it. Sometimes you’ll win, sometimes you’ll lose.”

Yoga demands tenacity, to step onto the mat and try new things, to see what happens, or to take a deep breath before responding to a real-life provocative situation.

Keep up. Keep going. Demonstrate resolve.

5. Like a great yogi, Obama reminded us that life is change. Each breath is unique. Each moment holds possibility. Change is assured.

“You believe in a fair, and just, and inclusive America; you know that constant change has been America’s hallmark,” the President said, “that it’s not something to fear but something to embrace, you are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward.”

Day-to-day, yoga’s physical practice reveals the truth of change when the same pose elicits a new sensation in the same body. Through weird shapes, energetic effort and profound stillness, in yoga we tickle the feet of the gremlin of fear, and befriend it.

6.  In yoga, we choose to believe in possibility. Otherwise, we’d never keep at it.

This belief is fueled by love, love for our one precious life, love for the notion that all are one, and love for the wish that all beings may be happy, healthy and free from suffering.

“Yes, we can,” the President said. “Yes, we did,” he noted. “Yes, we can,” he exhorted.

We face uncertainty. We’re paying attention. We must honor our connections.

Thank you, President Obama, from the bottom of this yoga teacher’s heart.