Of triathlons, yoga, and politics

Escape Alcatraz Triathlon
It was the Fall of 2005, the end of triathlon season.

“What are you going to do now?” my friend Alix asked.

“Not sure. Back to basketball, I suppose. Winter’s coming, so maybe some skiing.”

“Yoga,” she said.

“Huh? Lie in some dark room for a couple of hours and ohm? I would be bored to death.”

My body was a little tired after a summer of running through the hills of central California, biking through the North Carolina mountains, and swimming across the San Francisco Bay from Alcatraz.

I went anyway, to a class at Yoga Tree in San Francisco taught by a guy named Christopher Love.

(Really? “Yoga Tree”? Last name “Love”?)

Yes, really. A Southerner who had spent nearly 20 years working on presidential campaigns, even making it into a job at the White House for year, had somehow ended up in a Northern California yoga studio.

“Tell no one in D.C. and certainly not anyone in South Carolina,” I promised myself.

But yoga surprised me – one of those pleasant surprises that come despite low expectations, even suspicion about its inner workings and whether it would have any effect.

To begin with, there wasn’t a lot of lying down. Up. Down. Twist. Fold. Stand on one leg for an interminable, excruciating, gnarly 8 seconds. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

I realized after a while that yoga is an ongoing process where change happens, but usually in small ways over time. One day your fingers don’t make it past your knees. A year later you can almost touch your toes.

“Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes practice.” That’s a favorite from one of my teachers, Rusty Wells. (Really? “Rusty Wells”?)

One lesson of yoga is that you’ve got to participate. You’ve got to be present and aware of what’s happening on the mat and off the mat to really make it work.

Actually, this idea of participation is not just a lesson. It’s part of the core ethos and tradition that goes back more than 2500 years to ancient India.

Guess what? Democracy also goes back nearly 2500 years, although the Greeks get credit there.

Like yoga, your democracy doesn’t have even a chance to work if you just lie there. It’s also not realistic to expect politics to put its proverbial foot behind its head every time there’s an election or a vote in a legislature.

But change does indeed happen.

Think about the little leaps for gay rights in the U.S. since the early 1990s – only 20 years ago – when Elton and Ellen made controversial front page news by coming out publicly. Now gays and lesbians can serve openly in the military and they can even get married in a few states.

Think about the millions who took small steps to make the fragile Arab Spring possible over the last two years? A lot of them are still trying just to touch their democratic toes, but they haven’t stepped away.

We in the U.S. all have a chance to practice democracy this year, thankfully without facing a gun like many in the Middle East. There’s the high profile presidential election — (Really? “Barack”? “Mitt”?) — and important state and local elections that will determine things like school policy, funding for parks, and local job growth.

The question for you is, will you participate? Will you take the small step of voting even if you can’t be certain that huge change will come with it? Will you take the lessons — even the values — that yoga inspires all the way to the ballot box?

Not to worry. You can always go back to non-participation just like you can always rest in savasana (or “Warrior IV” as Janet Stone likes to say). You don’t even need to do every pose, just like voting doesn’t mean you’ve got to become a political activist or a candidate.

So mix up your yoga and politics a little bit this year.

Pledge to vote at YogaVotes … or do more if the prana grabs you.

Surprise yourself! You would have loved the reactions of my friends in Washington and South Carolina.

About the Author

Donnie Fowler has achieved a leading role in both political and high technology circles through his work in Silicon Valley, in Washington as part of the Clinton Administration, and on the ground helping Democratic campaigns in more than a dozen states over the last twenty years including helping to achieve a once-in-44-years victory for Barack Obama in Indiana. He has advised dozens of companies, policymakers, public advocacy groups, and political campaigns on how to successfully manage their media, policy, business development, and technology agendas. And he has made frequent appearances in local and national media on political and technology issues.

Donnie's political campaign background includes work for seven presidential candidates since 1987 -- Dick Gephardt, Jesse Jackson, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Wes Clark, John Kerry, and President Obama. He was Al Gore's national field director from 1999-2000 where he managed the in-state political operations in all 50 states, the delegate selection team for the Democratic National Convention, and was the first national staffer on the ground in Palm Beach County as the Florida recount began. After the disheartening 2004 presidential campaign, where he was state director in the winning battleground state of Michigan, Donnie ran for national Democratic Party chairman, becoming the only candidate other than Howard Dean to gain any measurable and substantial support. This was because, like Dean, he advocated changes in the national party that focused on rebuilding in all 50 states and getting the strategy-making outside of Washington, DC.

Donnie is a South Carolina native and currently lives in San Francisco.