Yoga, Mutual Aid, and The Promise of a More Dignified World

Words by Kass Degus
Photos by Andrea Westerlund

We know the catastrophes of our time are not going away. The weather patterns we’re seeing, the abuse of our Black, brown, LGBTQIA+ and disabled neighbors, the huge wealth disparities, are all clear indications it will only get worse from here. But this sense of urgency motivates people – it’s what keeps us engaged and mobilized, what keeps us from giving up completely. We’re grieving and we’re horrified, but we’re also committed to each other. We’re living in an incredibly unstable, volatile world, but we’re in it together. The only way any of us survive is if we ALL survive. The answer to these imminent disasters is community, and the rapid growth of the Mutual Aid movement is evidence of that. 

Sharing yoga with my community is my greatest act of Mutual Aid – to hold space for my students, guide them through movement, pass along skills for calming their nervous systems, and creating a private refuge within themselves is the most valuable resource I can offer. I don’t believe money should decide whether or not someone can practice yoga. I do still have to teach for a living – thanks to the capitalist system we’re currently living under – but I teach yoga classes for free whenever I can. I share classes on a “pay-what-you-can” basis, where no one is turned away due to lack of funds. The beauty of this model is the community helping to support itself. The folks who can pay, do, and that allows us to take care of our friends who can’t. That’s mutual aid, baby!

The word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit word yuj which translates to “union” or “yoking” – joining the parts together to create a new, more complete whole. There are many tenets along the yogic path, (including non-violence, non-possessiveness, and contentment), with the goal of living a fully integrated, fully conscious life. If you believe in the unity that exists among all things (as I do), then no single human can achieve full and blissful integration unless we can all obtain it.

These same concepts also apply to Mutual Aid – none of us can live a full, free, and dignified life until we can all live that way. When someone reaches out to Rochester Mutual Aid Network (RMAN) because they need help feeding their family, we don’t ask why or what their household income is or if they’ll take a drug test. We ask about food allergies and if the kids like fruit snacks. We engage with our community, lift each other up, and work to help each other survive. This revival of Mutual Aid – our movement – will be built in this way, by all the folks who need the same things we do, and believe that they deserve these things, simply because they exist.

As an organizational theory, Mutual Aid has been around for hundreds of years. It had its first big resurgence in the 1960s when the Black Panthers started offering free breakfast programs, medical services, and legal aid in their communities. The COVID-19 pandemic kicked off yet another revival of the concept – when it became clear that the governmental and societal systems in place weren’t going to care for us, hundreds of local Mutual Aid groups popped up across the country. In Rochester, that group is RMAN. So what is Mutual Aid?

Mutual Aid is NOT charity. Charity comes with strings attached: “You can’t be on drugs to sleep in this shelter, you may not purchase prepared foods with this benefit card, we only offer assistance to those we decide are needy enough. We need to fix you before we can help you.” 

Mutual Aid treats all humans as inherently deserving: “You are a human being and you should have everything you need – and only you decide what that means.”

How can Mutual Aid help you? Mutual Aid starts with an awareness that our current systems fail us and will never meet people’s needs. In response to that, Mutual Aid’s answer is community – coming together to care for each other through voluntarily trading skills, resources, knowledge and services, for the benefit of all.

We want to build fellowship and capacity within our own communities; be able to provide for ourselves and care for each other; control our access to basic necessities like food and utilities and housing. We want all of those things to be accessible, sustainable and affordable for everyone. To quote every working class, leftie activist I’ve ever had the pleasure of organizing with, “We take care of us.”
It’s easy to look around and see nothing but chaos and crisis – what we don’t often see are the opportunities for hope and the ways we can face the oncoming chaos together, working alongside our neighbors toward a better, more just world. This is the promise of Mutual Aid – a world where we can live together in community, relying upon each other and ourselves to create and sustain a dignified existence for all.



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