Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Yoga Teachers with Guns

One of my blogosphere friends, a yoga teacher who lives in Nashville, had told me that in her world, it's not uncommon for yoga teachers to pack heat. I, living in my bluest-of-blue-state bubble of an uber-liberal neighborhood in solidly Democratic Chicago, was stunned. Yoga teachers with guns?!

 I wanted to do a red state-blue state blog post dialog with her on how weird this may - or may not - seem, depending on your political and cultural sensibilities. But the subject didn't interest her. Yeah, yoga teachers with guns. Lots of conservatives around here. So what's new? Not inspiring.

Now I find that CBS produced a little human interest news segment on (female) yoga teachers and moms who like to shoot:

I find this fascinating.There is so much that's so important packed into this subject, it's hard to know where to start. But I'll just mention a few:

Feminism. Bracketing the yoga teacher part for the moment, is this whole trend of women toting guns empowering to women? A recent book, Chicks with Guns, reports that 15-20 million American women own their own firearms. And they love them. "When you get outside of the blue-state cities," explains author Lindsay McCrum, "everybody has a gun.” Shit. Really?

For those of us who associate guns more with criminals, right-wingers, and survivalists than hunters and skeet shooters, that seems pretty scary. But of course, the counter-argument is that guns enable women to protect themselves, and are therefore empowering. One conservative blog on "The Changing Demographics of Gun Ownership" made precisely this point, posting these provocative photos:

Politics and Culture. Statistics show that American gun ownership is disproportionately concentrated among conservative, white, non-urban men (although, as these recent stories about the growing popularity of guns among other demographic groups such as women show, this may be changing). Here's a table reporting on a 2005 Gallup poll:

As Gallup explains, the stereotype of a gun owner being "a white male, most likely Republican, living in a rural area of the South" is essentially true. "While many Americans who don't fit that demographic profile do own guns, the likelihood of owning a gun is higher among people with these demographic characteristics."

So, as someone who's really not into white male dominated, conservative Southern politics, guns carry a lot of negative political and cultural associations - and the data show that these are well-founded.

Buddhists & Yogis with Guns. While it's impossible to say how prevalent it is, it's certainly likely that just as the number of women owning guns is rising, so is the acceptance of gun ownership in the  American (convert) Buddhists and yoga communities. When researching this post, I came across the following picture from a blog post on "Buddhists with Guns":

The blogger, Justin Whitaker, notes that "Well, for the record, that’s a yoga instructor (sister), mechanic (brother), and Buddhist scholar (me)":
Growing up in rural Montana – about 10 miles north of Helena, the capital city, neighbors had horses, dirt road, cactus in the back yard – we were introduced to guns fairly early in life. I think I skipped the “you’ll shoot your eye out!” bb-gun that many friends were getting and moved on to a pump-action single shot pellet-gun around the age of 8.
So . . . urban blue-stater that I am, I get that. I understand that guns are not necessarily evil. I think that it can be fun to shoot, say, beer cans (which I've done, and enjoyed). And while I personally would never want to hunt, I'm completely OK with people who hunt for food (as opposed to sport. I definitely have ethical problems with that).

I can also imagine living in circumstances where carrying a gun for self-defense might feel justified - e.g., impoverished rural areas where you're worried about being jumped by meth addicts and know that law enforcement or even other people are likely to be far away. 


That said, in the bigger picture, I'm not happy about the whole women-with-guns, yoga-teachers-with-guns, Buddhist-scholars-with-guns sensibility at all. Really, I think it's just another unfolding of the dismaying logic of:
  1. Yoga and meditation have become much more mainstream.
  2. The mainstream has become much more right-wing.
  3. Therefore, more people involved with yoga, meditation, mindfulness, Buddhism, etc. are folding those practices into conservative-to-right wing politics. (Witness, of course, the recent Ayn Rand promo by Lululemon.)
Some will say that yoga, meditation, etc. have their own cultural logic in which guns have nothing to do with right-wing politics. For example, when YogaDork posted on the CBS piece referenced above, her one commentator sanguinely suggested that yoga teachers who love to shoot guns is "no different then practicing aikido (a Japanese martial art) or Kyudo (zen archery)."

Um, well, sure - in some cases, that may be true. (It's also true, however, that we don't necessarily want to replicate many of the politics historically connected with, for example, Zen.) But considered as a broad cultural movement, it's not. Instead, what it means is that American yoga is starting to be "rebranded" as something that's no longer associated with cultural liberalism. (If you read the comments on yoga blogs that attract more conservative types, you'll see that there's many out there who're eager to push it in a more right-wing direction.)

Which is why I think that those who'd like to see yoga and meditation as vehicles for realizing a different type of cultural and political sensibility in North America need to step up and speak out. Many, of course, are. (Witness Seane Corn's and Michael Stone's engagement with the Occupy movement.) But there needs to be more.

I think that when it comes to feminism, politics, culture, yoga, and Buddhism, in the final analysis the most important point is that we desperately need inspiring alternatives to the dominant (and growing) view that it's just great to embrace guns as a means of empowerment. The more that people like women and yoga teachers, who've traditionally been more committed to creating other alternatives, instead shift to celebrating the power of the gun, the more impoverished our culture will be, and the more dangerous our world will become.


  1. Ha ha, yoga reality catches up to yoga satire...:)


  2. Two people were killed and five others wounded Tuesday night when a gunman opened fire at a Church's Chicken restaurant on Chicago's South Side (12/27/11).

    I don't suppose this incident happened yesterday in your bluest-of-blue-state bubble of an uber-liberal neighborhood in solidly Democratic Chicago.

    But if you had been eating in this restaurant after your yoga class last last night, would you have wanted a gun to protect yourself?

    Oh wait, you live in Illinois (the only state in the union not allowing concealed carry) where you have to rely on the police's inability to protect you when something tragic and unexpected like this happens.

    If you'd been eating in Church's Chicken last night on the South Side of Chicago, I bet you'd have been happy to "celebrate the power of the gun" instead of "creating other alternatives."

    Om Shanti

  3. Carol,

    I'm glad this topic stayed with you so long after out conversations about it.

    Though I didn't have an interest in pursuing the topic, I'm glad you did and find your latest discoveries interesting though not shocking as I live in the Red South surrounded by a small circle of Blue folk singing, yoga doing, massage giving, energy healing (you get the picture) hippie gun totters.

    I'm showing solidarity here by posting a couple of old posts that I linked to your site; http://bitchinyoga.wordpress.com/2011/12/28/stay-cool-youre-in-the-n-r-a-s-house-now-reprinted-for-carol/

    I do not agree that guns are benign. And I find it curious that a woman would look to a gun for peace or wholeness. I have argued with friends about the security they feel with a gun under their beds and they insist that they are protected. I am sick of arguing but I will keep talking.

    Good to your teeth in this. With love, no bullets.

  4. Hi Anonymous: Actually, I do live on the South Side. And two of my best friends (who are also into yoga) go to Englewood (the ghetto where that shooting occurred) every week to run therapy groups for public school kids. So it's not like I'm off in some remote elite suburban enclave far away from the realities of street violence.

    Street crime is a fact of life in Chicago.(Of course, some neighborhoods are way worse than others.) But most people who live here (and in other big cities) and are not criminals do not support this view that we're all safer carrying our own guns. Of course, there's always exceptions. But statistically, there's ample data to show that this is much more of a white, male, Southern (or Arizonian!), conservative, non-urban POV.

    Finally, even if someone does feel that they need a gun for self-defense - that's regrettable. There's a huge difference between dealing with what may be an unpleasant reality of life and romanticizing and glorifying the power of the gun. To me, the CBS clip shows moms and yoga teachers buying into the latter in a way that I find very negative.

  5. As a Canadian with an increasingly conservative government currently in power (ugh) this is a very strange cultural difference between the US and Canada. As the gun registry laws that were enacted as a result of the polytechnique shooting, wounding 28 and killing 14, are being demolished despite all the evidence showing that Canadian society is safer because of it, this type of ahimsa+gun trend is worrisome and sadly, relevant.

    Don't get me wrong, I grew up rural and am definitely not an upper-middle class liberal. I went deer hunting with my father (we always ate the meat) and have been around rifles my entire life. That said, these guns were NOT for protection of person. And there were seriously laws and barriers in place to assure that not just anyone could walk in and purchase a gun (which is what happened in Montreal resulting in the Polytechnique).

    I also live in a ridiculously dangerous (for Canadian standards and for the size) city where drugs and violence abound. My having a gun won't help me, as any criminologist will tell you that only 13% of all violent crime is random or committed by strangers.

    I have mixed feelings about women taking these steps to be "empowered"- as it seems to miss the point: the inequality, poverty and drugs. These roots to the problem won't go away by handing out guns left, right and central.

    It may be a strictly cultural thing, along with the intense patriotism that simply doesn't exist on such a large scale here in Canada...

  6. Yikes! Here's an article from the St. Louis area from this summer about a deranged pistol-packing yoga teacher who murdered his teacher. Stuff like this does happen once in a while...which makes the fluff piece on CBS you show here to be very chilling (at least to me)


  7. Hello Carol,
    I am sympathetic to many of the sentiments that prompted your writing this post.

    However, you write, 'what it means is that American yoga is starting to be "rebranded" as something that's no longer associated with cultural liberalism.'

    Why does yoga need to associated with cultural liberalism, or any kind of "ism", for that matter? Don't you think this is a rather self-limiting way of understanding the relevance and power of yoga? The last time I checked, yoga is supposed to be for everyone, not just so-called cultural liberals.

    I suspect that the real issue isn't guns and yoga/Buddhism/spirituality. After all, there are countless ways to inflict harm without having to use guns. The real issue, I suspect, has to do with some kind of judgmental mentality; the mentality that says, "I am a yoga teacher/practitioner/man/woman who doesn't endorse guns. Therefore I am better/more evolved than a yoga teacher/practitioner/man/woman who endorses guns."

    Well, that's my two cents', at any rate. Maybe I am being judgmental myself.

  8. that’s one way of taking care of the whiners, complainers, and show-offs in your yoga class. bust out a handstand when I said child’s pose, mofo? feelin’ lucky, punk?

  9. Hi Nobel - You raise important points. In my view, however, the real divide is between those who see yoga as part of our culture (me), and those who see it as existing somehow outside of it (you?). I take it as a given that any spiritual or religious practice is going to be integrated with the culture that surrounds it in one way or another. If it didn't, it wouldn't be meaningful to anyone.

    Therefore, it's not that yoga "needs to be associated with cultural liberalism" - the fact is that, historically, it has been (e.g., all Eastern spiritual practices became much more popular in the US after the Beatles went to study TM in India in the 1960s). During the 2000s, it's become more commercialized and mainstream, and more associated with the cultural nexus represented by women's magazines (self-care, self-help, fitness, beauty, etc.). Now, I see another shift happening, with yoga starting to become more associated with the cultural right (used to train the military, promote Ayn Rand, etc.). All that is simply empirical observation.

    When it comes to values, mine are that I'd like to see yoga (and meditation) play a progressive role in our culture. That doesn't mean rehashing the existing conservative/liberal, right/left divide, which is destructive and dead-end. We need something new.

    That said, because I care about social equity, civil rights, environmental protection, etc., that put me very much on the left-of-center side of the spectrum. But I see the Occupy movement as the start of something new. Ideally, I'd like yoga to have something positive to contribute to that. I think that what Michael Stone is saying in that regard is great. I'd like to see more in that vein.

    I don't feel that yoga is more pure or respected if we pretend that it takes us outside of our time and place. Nothing does. I believe in the marriage of social engagement and spiritual self-development as a general principle, and yoga for me is no exception.

  10. Good job ignoring the very statistics you present (including the stat that nearly 1 in 4 democrats owns a gun) when reaffirming unthinking stereotypes. Your unexamined biases shine through in this article more than anything else.

  11. I was a member of a rifle club and have lived in a town where most people owned guns (primarily for hunting - primarily). Unlike a lot of Canadians where I live, I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with owning and using guns.

    I do think however, that the idea that toting a gun around is somehow going to prevent bad, random or violent things from happening to you is misguided, and especially in the case of sexual violence, it's misleading. I find the images linking gun ownership to the prevention of rape very interesting. Maybe if you lived somewhere where the majority of rapists are strangers and is a regular event, this logic would at least make sense. But it is a well known fact that the vast majority of sexual violence against women in N. America is perpetrated by men they know and trust. Given this, I don't think gun ownership is a useful angle to consider. So the question for me is, if this logic is not really applicable, why is it so appealing?

    I'm sure an element of female empowerment through using firearms is simply derived from being able to gain proficiency at a tool/sport that is traditionally male dominated. However, if the idea is to gain a feeling of security solely through the potential to inflict violence upon another (or, in the circumstance that violence is actually inflicted), that kind of power is based on fear and can always be wrested away.

  12. I agree completely. What's creepy about guns in the US is not the fact that some people hunt (which, again, for food I think is totally fine), but rather this whole cultural mystique that it has.

    Guns are symbols of many things on both sides of the issue. As Anonymous notes above, I do have negative associations with them - although I'd say, like you, less so than many people who are as pro-gun control as I am.

    But I also think that many of those negative associations are well-founded. While I don't pretend to understand the pro-gun culture enough to feel like I can speak to it accurately, my sense is that it's part of American hyper-individualism. Guns give many people a sense that they are powerful, and even perhaps invulnerable individuals who don't need to depend on anyone else to protect or take care of them.

    Therefore, I think that it goes along with the whole radical right, anti-state view, which has now morphed into a anti-society view - it amazes me when I read comments on conservative blogs (not necessarily yoga related) how deeply hostile so many people seem to be to the very idea of society. The concept of a social contract is unthinkable in any form from the get-go. It's scary, as what it promises what what the classic political philosopher Thomas Hobbes called "the war of all against all."

  13. Follow up comment from Isthmus Nekoi via email (blog comment function having technical difficulties):

    I guess I found the CBS segment shallow, playing on contradicting stereotypes for shock value. But I definitely agree that aspects of American gun culture contributes to a mystique that glorifies and sexualizes firearms. Or at least, this is what I find in a lot of mainstream media from the US. It's an attitude that I suspect most Torontonians wouldn't truly understand. I also think that kind of anti-state hyper-individualism doesn't hold much sway in Southern Ontario. I don't see yoga in Toronto moving anywhere near that direction despite growing conservatism in our politics.

    But I'm straying (as usual!) from your original point. I wonder: can yoga in N. America as it is - largely a commercialized and individualistic practice - affect politics and provide (or facilitate) lasting alternatives? It seems to me that at present, yoga is more or less reflecting the political clime that it is practiced in.

  14. I was a cop once upon a time. And afterward, after a while, I let go of my last gun. Sometimes at night I miss having a gun handy. But after 20 years of yoga practice, I don't know if I could use it. The usual horror scenarios can be set up - what if a crazed, homicidal fiend breaks in to your house to kill your babies? The Chicago shooting mentioned maybe fits that mold. There's always an extreme "what if" that can be used to challenge my convictions. And that's what it always comes to - do I have the courage of my convictions? How shall I live my life? As for me, survivalism is not the best I can do.

    1. >And that's what it always comes to - do I have the courage of my convictions? How shall I live my life?

      Thank you


  15. What an interesting comment. No one can accuse an ex-cop of being naive. Maybe yoga can change at least a few people's minds about guns after all. My friend in Nashville doesn't think so . . . or at any rate, believes that it must be extremely rare. Thanks for commenting.

  16. remember this: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2011/03/the-eight-limbs-of-yoga-20-should-yogis-want-their-guns-back/

    Singleton also spent a large portion of his book "Yoga Body" discussing Yogis and their guns. :)

    Right v Left - nonYoga v Yoga ? how is "yoga sensibility" one that belongs properly to the left?

    1. "No one can accuse an ex-cop of being naive" Indeed. I have always been taught that anyone may be naive - even a retired law-enforcement officer. The central premise being put forth here is that there are only two possible mind sets for someone in regard to owning/keeping a firearm in the home for emergencies (1) live with a firearm in the home in a diminished state of mind, with an unacceptably-elevated level of anxiety, material danger i.e., hyper-vigilance or (2) live without a firearm for home protection, cross your fingers and hope for the best if you are a victim of violence and pray that escape is possible for you and your loved ones or that law enforcement arrives in time to prevent physical injury. Why no mention of the other possibility - that one may live normally with a firearm in the home and be trained and responsible enough that it does not present any significantly negative impact on anyone, either tangibly, psychologically or metaphysically?

  17. It's a myth that non-violent methods lead to peaceful and harmonious conditions.One may read further in Oriental wisdom to see evidence of this. Lao Tzu, Sun Tzu then further back to the Veda and Upanishads. Mastery over violence in human society is not always achieved by non-violence. Did you miss the entire Kung Fu T.V. series phenomenon? Billy Jack feature film? Even though they are pop-cultural, they reflect some profundity that seems to elude many so-called "enlightened" among us. The unconscious impulse (pacificsm) is not always a healthy, morally superior or comprehensive one. Reductionism (a force in anti-conservative circles)seeks to establish that all major problems are reducible to simplistic, generalized solutions. To wit: banning guns will reduce violence. End of story. But wait anxious citizens...the opposite is the case in all applied circumstances. A criminal population which knows there is a good chance that their targets will defend themselves with a firearm is less active, which actually reduces crime and violence over the long term. PS, for a non--political world view on solutions to violent nations and war, read R. Buckminster Fuller's "Critical Path".

  18. I used to be staunchly against firearms - and then found myself in a situation in which having one could have protected me. Once the victim of a crime, my mind was changed forever. Would you change your stance if you were victimized? (ps - I have since become both a yoga teacher & proponent of carrying a firearm.)

    1. I can't say for sure - maybe. I do known people who have been victimized by crime who remain anti-gun.

  19. "Therefore, more people involved with yoga, meditation, mindfulness, Buddhism, etc. are folding those practices into conservative-to-right wing politics. (Witness, of course, the recent Ayn Rand promo by Lululemon.)... Instead, what it means is that American yoga is starting to be "rebranded" as something that's no longer associated with cultural liberalism. (If you read the comments on yoga blogs that attract more conservative types, you'll see that there's many out there who're eager to push it in a more right-wing direction.)"

    I think your issue is you think there is something inherently "liberal" about yoga.

    The association of yoga in the US with American liberalism has always been something amusing for me to be witness to.

    1. Not "inherently" liberal, but definitely historically associated with cultural liberalism in this country - until recently, when it's become more of a 50/50 liberal/conservative split, from what I understand of the (limited) research on that issue.

    2. Yes, after I wrote that comment I scrolled up and read the comment about the 60s counter culture and how yoga was associated with that so I get it now. That explains a lot.

      My yoga orientation is from South Asia so the cultural associations are different in my mind.

      I think that "right wingers/conservatives" taking to yoga here is a great thing and I also think it might help yoga in this country become more grounded and serious.

      I'm apolitical myself though.

  20. I'm a sixth degree practicioner (and sometimes teacher) of American Taoist Yoga. White, male, Florida, Libertarian. I own lots of guns, and I love them. I consider my whole life as my practice. Including my guns. I say, the best gunfight is no gunfight. But if it comes to that, I fight to protect that which I love. Please reread the teachings of Krishna to Arjuna, on the eve of warfare, against his own kin. "You are a warrior. Go forth, and strike down evil. Even now." And yet I pray to walk in pathways of peace, love, and joy. All my days.

    1. Well said. The Bhagavad Gita is a book on Yoga. And also it clearly talks about the importance of war and self-defense. It should be the last resort, but at the end, it is a resort. If all other means have been used, it is our duty as followers of Yoga to use force. Whatever that force might be. Back then, the tools of self-defense and war were swords, arrows, spears, and etc. Today they are guns.

  21. Key point is Yoga is not pro-gun or anti-gun. Within Yoga you have two excellent teachers that taught the time to be peaceful and time to use war. Buddha was a man of peace. The king of peace. And he taught the peaceful aspects of Yoga. Krishna taught the importance of self defense as a means of justice when all other forms of peace have been tried to gain justice, you must fight.

    So Yoga teaches both the importance of peace, love, justice, and self defense.

  22. For safety purpose, anyone is allowed to keep gun. Then it doesn't matter weather its a yoga teacher or a school teacher.