Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard is serving her third term in the U.S. House of Representatives, representing Hawaii’s Second District, which includes rural Oʻahu and all of the neighbor islands. She previously served on the Honolulu City Council, and prior to that at age 21, was the youngest person ever elected to the Hawaiʻi State Legislature. Tulsi has served in the Hawaiʻi Army National Guard for nearly 15 years, was deployed twice to the Middle East, and continues to serve as a Major. We caught up with her to hear about how yoga helps to keep her grounded, focused, and inspired as she represents the Aloha State in Congress.
How long have you been
I’ve been practicing one form of yoga or another all of my life, Hatha yoga (mainly asanas and some pranayama), mantra yoga, karma yoga, Bhakti yoga, Jnana yoga, yoga diet, etc.
How do you manage to fit yoga into your busy
It’s difficult. Traveling between Washington D.C. and Hawaii is really grueling, but I have learned to take advantage of every spare moment. I am almost always able to practice some yoga asanas and yoga meditation every day—even on the plane.
I understand you were involved in the founding of International Day of Yoga?
Yes. I introduced a congressional resolution in support of establishing International Yoga Day.
Some 180 nations signed on to the UN resolution and celebrated the first International Yoga Day. I was honored to be invited to speak at the inaugural celebration of the event at the UN as well as to a crowd at Times Square in New York where over 30,000 people practiced yoga throughout the day.
So yoga not only helps individuals develop greater inner peace and happiness, but it also helps foster international peace and harmony—it brings people from all different kinds of cultures and backgrounds together.
How does yoga affect your work in Congress?
It inspires me to work in a bipartisan way, treating everyone with respect, regardless of their political party or political ideology, regardless of whether we agree or disagree on certain issues. It keeps me focused on serving the people of Hawaii and this country, and finding ways to build partnerships with others who share that goal.
You always seem so confident, centered, and grounded. Is this due to your yoga practice?
Yes, my yoga practice and yoga worldview. Many people get involved in politics as a career. But I see politics as a way to practice karma yoga. The essence of karma yoga is that we can find true happiness when we are serving God and humanity, rather than just living for ourselves. No matter what our occupation or situation in life, we can all work and live in the spirit of karma yoga, or selflessly working for the well-being of others.
The spirit of karma yoga is nicely described by Mahatma Gandhi: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
When my focus is on serving the people of Hawaii and our country,
I don’t experience the kind of anxiety that many people involved in politics experience. Most politicians are always afraid of what other people think,
with their decisions clouded by their fear of losing the next election. That’s not what drives me. I just do the best I can to be of service and that’s it.
You often equate the spirit of karma yoga and the aloha spirit. Could you elaborate?
I’ve come to recognize that love for God, and caring about others and the environment is the essence of both yoga and the aloha spirit. When I am in “yoga” consciousness, I experience respect and love for each person as a spark of God, a child of God. In my heart, I experience a deep spiritual connection with others. I experience other people as being my relatives in the deepest sense. Respect and love for others, regardless of our external differences (be it race, ethnicity,
gender, and so forth) is also the
essence of the aloha spirit—this love and caring for others and working for the well-being of others and the planet is the aloha spirit in action. It’s what it means to “live aloha;” and the essence of karma yoga. “Karma” means action. “Yoga” means union with God. So karma yoga means action in the loving service of God and others.
So do you think if more people live the life of karma yoga and try to live a yoga lifestyle, this would help reduce the divisiveness, hatred, and anger we see so much of today?
Absolutely. When we live in the spirit of karma yoga or aloha, when we see everyone as a child of God despite our differences, and we care for others and our planet, this will certainly lead to greater peace and harmony in the world. To have real peace in the world, we need to have peace within ourselves, which means that we, as individuals, should personally practice yoga meditation or some other form of meditation or prayer which helps us cultivate love or aloha in our hearts. Nowadays in politics there’s a lot of talk about the need for a “revolution.” But in my view, the revolution needs to be rooted in love, not hate. A revolution fueled by hatred would produce a government and society full of hatred. Only love can defeat hate. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it so well when he said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
What we really need is a revolution fueled by love and aloha, which are the fruits of real yoga. When we come to the point where we have genuine compassion for other people and our planet, and find happiness in working for their well-being, then we will find peace within and truly contribute to a more harmonious world.
Unfortunately, our world is becoming increasingly acrimonious and we are quickly moving closer to war with North Korea, and even Russia. We need to do everything we can to achieve peace. Having experienced the terrible cost of war firsthand, I know just how important this is.
In this connection, many people say that we should not speak to adversaries. In my view, this is a huge mistake. Peace can never be achieved if we only meet and speak with our friends. If we really want peace, we need to be fearless enough to sit down and speak directly with our adversaries.
I’ve read that you practice japa yoga, which involves meditation upon a mantra which has been given by a guru.
Yes. Just as Christians have the pope, bishops, and pastors, Muslims have Imams, and Jews have Rabbis, Hindus and those on the spiritual path of yoga have gurus.
There are two kinds of spiritual gurus: siksha guru and diksha guru. Siksha guru refers to any person who you have been spiritually inspired, enlightened, or taught by. And diksha guru is the person from whom you have received the transcendental mantra or special combination of God’s holy names.
I have had many siksha gurus in my life, including my parents, his Divine Grace Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupad, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, and all of the gurus and saintly persons in the long history of Bhakti Yoga and Vaishnava Hinduism; as well as saintly persons who have been both within and outside of the world of politics, like Dada J.P. Vaswani, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Senator Akaka, who I had the great privilege of working for in the U.S. Senate.
So is Jagad Guru Siddhswarupananda your dikhsa guru, i.e. the one from whom you received the transcendental mantra?
Yes. The central spiritual practice in Vaishnava Hinduism is meditation upon the Holy Names of God—of which there are many, such as Krishna, Jehovah, Allah, etc. The student receives mantra or special combination of holy names from diksha guru. This yoga tradition of gurus orally passing down the mantras to their disciples, and then those disciples passing it down to their disciples, and so on, has been going on for thousands of years. In yoga, this is called disciplic succession or parampara.
I received mantra from Jagad Guru Siddhaswarupananda, who received the same mantra from his guru, Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami, who received the mantra from his guru, Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, who received it from his guru and so on, going back to Lord Chaitanya 500 years ago in India, and further back to Lord Krishna, the speaker of the Bhagavad Gita—the Supreme Yoga scripture.
So, the Original Guru, the Supreme Spiritual Authority, is always God, who lovingly guides us from within our hearts, yoga scripture, and through saintly persons (gurus) whose hearts are full of aloha.
Thank you very much.
You’re very welcome. Namaste and aloha.