You Can’t Be an Activist Without Some Type of Mindfulness Practice
"Without having some way to stay sane, you won't make it."
Carlos Jesus / Afonso Cotinho
"Yogis and meditators are disruptors," says Paige Elenson, an American yoga instructor who's been living and teaching in Kenya for the past ten years. "They don't take things at face value. It's because yoga is about getting to the root of a problem—like not, 'let me go take an Advil,' but 'why am I getting headaches?'"
Elenson's Africa Yoga Project is a community partner for Lululemon's Here to Be initiative which aims to bring yoga and meditation to places where they might not ordinarily exist—such as Langata Women's Maximum Security Prison in Nairobi, where she does sun salutations and handstands (a favorite) with women who are HIV positive and serving five-year-plus sentences. They also take a break from crappy jail food periodically to cook and eat more nutritious meals together. And while Elenson points out that in those moments, sitting in the clink with 20 women who are cutting kale with machetes might feel strange, "humans are humans. We like to connect, cook, eat, laugh, get quiet and get loud."
Self-proclaimed disruptors such as Elenson thrive on connections—with their teammates as well as those they're advocating for. But activists of all types seem to agree that having some way to stay sane in the face of seemingly insurmountable systems of oppression is key—and it starts with quiet moments of reflection. We asked organizers with different causes what their version of meditation is and why mindfulness is integral to their work.
Paige Elenson, 39, Nairobi, Kenya
Founder of Africa Yoga Project
Activists need meditation and yoga because we're not always so right. And we get stuck on being so right about a cause or a position and life unveils that every situation is complex. Yoga and meditation give us an opportunity to pause, to be in inquiry and to listen. And oftentimes when I'm in that space I actually have to say sorry. And see that I'm not so perfect either.
They say only hurt people hurt people. Yoga and mindfulness are an access to the softness of humanity and being an activist is an outward facing thing—you have to have a kind of hardness to move forward. It gives me so much access to understanding other people's points of view.
Kleaver Cruz, 28, New York City
Black Lives Matter activist and founder of Black Joy Project
When I wake up in the morning, my alarm is on my phone, like most people's. I really try not to check all the nonsense. Now when I look at my phone in the morning, it's only five apps and one is a mindfulness app. Also, I take some deep breaths and I look into a full length mirror to be present to who I am that morning. Just look at myself and be present and cool with who that is.
There's an awesome nine-minute video that a close friend has been listening to for 50 days. It's all about listening. If you take the time to listen, you can hear what it is that you need to be in the world. That's really helped me—especially with The Black Joy project—in remembering to pause in the moment.
Mindfulness can help you center on what you're supposed to take on, because we can't take on everything. I think it also helps you be present to your body and brain. There's a physical impact that's also occurring. And so I think to me it's also a reminder of how to take care of myself if I'm short of breath. Sometimes you're powering through things and you don't even realize you're hungry or thirsty or that kind of thing.
Lara Americo, 32, Charlotte, NC
Advocates for the rights of transgender people and people of color
Part of the reason I do this work is because I know that my thoughts and intentions and words affect the space around me, so I have to literally be what I want to have around me and what I want to be surrounded by. I have a mantra I say all the time: I say 'I am the love that I am searching for.' I just made it up one day. Because I'm always looking for something outside [of myself] and I have to keep reminding myself that I don't have to look outside because it's already here on the inside.
People who work to liberate marginalized people, they see—personally and often—the effects that oppressive systems and discrimination have on people in real life and they see the suffering surrounding them—especially when it's groups that share the same identity or situations. Not being able to shield yourself from the harsh realities can be very taxing, and it's really easy to get burned out. Without having some way to stay grounded and to stay sane, you won't make it.
Carlos Jesus, 20, New York
President of Young Progressives of America
Playing soccer really helps me with the stress. It helps me recover and gain energy for the fight. I started playing when I was four and was actually scouted to play in Europe when I was 17.
It's part of my identity. When I play, I feel like nothing else in that moment exists but me and the ball in the field. It's also self-expressive, like art. It feels incredible being free. It feels like nothing else in the world exists. The world becomes simple.
As a political activist, there's so much to always think about as far as organizing, especially right now...when I play soccer all of that disappears for a while. It helps a lot with the stress. Mindfulness is crucial to the health of any political activist. Burnout is very real and sometimes you can feel overwhelmed with what you have to do day to day. You see the urgency of these issues. If you don't have the that time for yourself, then it's difficult to keep going.
Samara Gaev, 36, New York City
Founder of Truthworker Theatre Company and prisoner rights advocate
My daily mindful routine is to remind myself that I deserve a daily mindful routine. Working inside of a movement devoted to interrogating injustice, it can be easy to abandon yourself first in the name of caring for others. To forget to drink water. To forget to move my body.
I breathe deeply, practice gratitude, hydrate, try not to be so hard on myself, honor my own trauma and allow myself to be who I am now because of it...I also try to cook every single day. It's my meditation.
For those of us on the front lines of advocacy, social justice, and movement-building, if we don't practice mindfulness, we will undoubtedly burn out. We will no longer be in service to the work, to our communities, to creating change and cultivating communities that are accountable to one another with compassion, rigor, and fierce vulnerability. We lose our capacity to listen deeply and appropriately respond.
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