by Karin L. Burke
Mostly, yoga is bullshit.
This is breaking my heart.
One of my teachers says I should allow my heart to break. Another shrugs when I say I’m about ready to leave the path and start working retail. Leaving the path may be the path, he says. Neither of these feel helpful. I’m finding myself standing still in the middle of the room a lot, lately, forgetting what I meant to do or losing the motivation. I find myself pausing before the locked studio door in the mornings, looking at the key, asking some kind of question that doesn’t have words.
I started to write this last week. I had been invited to a party. Since I live in bare feet and messy hair, I generally thrill at the chance to put on a dress. I’ve lived in New York and Paris, after all. I am a woman who firmly believes in pretty shoes. I sat down, the pretty dress on but the shoes, not. They lay on the floor in front of the closet. I looked at the shoes and I poked around with what I was feeling. The yoga people were going to be at this party. When I say that, I mean Lululemon, Yoga Fit, and Core Power. A new yoga magazine has been launched. As a studio owner, I ought to be there. I ought, really, to advertise in it. But their rates gave me sticker shock that lasted four hours and no small amount of cussing. The party was to be artfully catered. The magazine spread boasts luxury spa retreats, a few recipes, and a solid block of pretty ads with pretty girls.
My ambiguity about the party wasn’t really about the party. It probably wasn’t even about the magazine. In my normal mood, I would have damned the pretense but enjoyed the swank music and night out. But there was too much subtext. My mood was fragile.
The yoga world has been gearing up for something called International Yoga Day. Studios are hosting special classes. They’re running sales. The internet and social media preen and belch. But no one mentions that this event is largely being pushed by Prime Minister Narenda Modi of the Indian BJP.
Modi’s government is enforcing yoga postures much in the way the third Reich pushed calisthenics. Modi is connected to a government that is selling wide swaths of his country off to global corporations – like Lehman brothers – dispossessing an already starving people living on less than 20 rupees a day. Modi is mobilizing one of the largest armies in the world against some of the poorest and hungriest people in the world. India is allying itself with the U.S. (and Israel) against China, much in the way Afghanistan was drawn into the orbit of the U.S. against Russia in a previous cold war. We’ve seen how that worked out. International Yoga Day is Modi’s nationalist propaganda. It’s then taken up by yoga studios in the west as a very good idea. I bristled. I began to write this all down.
Then the shootings in Charleston happened, and I stopped writing.
When I was a little girl, I really wanted a pony. I believed I would – someday, after I rode my pony to Olympian fame and wrote a Book – fall in Love and live happily ever after. I’ve heard that other people dream of being President. Or flying.
I’m a recovering alcoholic and the only woman I know who has two bought-as-wedding-dresses, never worn, hanging in my closet. I haven’t ridden a horse in years.
It seems to me that much of our understanding and practice of yoga is this naive. It amounts to magical thinking. Suffering begins in the mind, says the superficial reading of this stuff: think positively and your suffering will end. Doors are said to open and teachers appear. Wealth is said to manifest. We will, vaguely, thrive.
Magical thinking is self indulgent, petty, and dangerous. It’s a version of spirituality that hasn’t grown up. Most of us stopped believing in Santa Claus and many of the tenets of ‘theology’ a long time ago; the archaic structures of religion no longer seem relevant in our post-modern and post-metaphysical world. We believe in science, after all. The premises of Buddhism, yoga, and ‘mindfulness’ suck us in like Walmart’s halo over a parking lot. Convenient. It’s all the sweetness of soul, with no god in it! We can go for this. We consume it.
And why shouldn’t we? It’s so pretty. Who wouldn’t want to meditate in Costa Rica?
Who wouldn’t buy a product that packages ‘happiness’ backed by modern day science?
We’ve overlooked, or failed to appreciate, the more substantial and difficult teachings of this path. The prior ones. The difficult work of accepting pain as true. Ourselves as self-interested and completely, absolutely, contingent.
Sometimes, pain doesn’t go away. Sometimes we are rejected. We don’t thrive. How could we thrive when we don’t even live up to our own standards? Green smoothies, aside. I used to think I was a pretty damaged piece of work. But any perusal of Barnes and Noble and its oversized self-help, motivational, and DIY sections reminds me I am not the only one.
Yoga students swarm to the teachers who promise 15 day makeovers, personal power, and bliss. The modern popularity of mindfulness isn’t indicative of a healing culture. It only proves how many of us are wounded.
Today, in India, a right wing government is pushing yoga exercises. In our Western yoga culture, yogis push yoga in the schools. I am concerned.
Magical thinking is dangerous. It pushes ‘living our truth’ to narcissistic action. It displaces responsibility for doing our own work onto ‘the divine’ or ‘karma’. Magical thinking obverts self inquiry and neglects the suffering of the world.
We are dangerously loose with our stories about what ‘yoga’ and ‘India’ are. We idealize, taking what works for us while dismissing what we don’t want, a kind of buffet style enlightenment. We adopt the names of Hindu goddesses or the sanskrit words for ‘fire’ or ‘space’. We hold big festivals with reggae superimposed on Kirtan and asana teachers signing autographs to applause and sighs. We have no real idea what India is, and tend to forget that Pakistani border, let alone Kashmir and the Tamil, the Maosit uprising, megacity overwhelm and the displaced agrarian community in which IMF and microbank indebted farmers commit suicide and an overwhelming – unthinkable – number of human beings live in famine conditions. We forget that Muslims even live there. If we do remember, we remember only in the context of terrorism; we wonder what ‘kind’ of Muslims they are.
Tourist yogis who go to trainings and retreats in India send back Instagram pictures of themselves posing in temples, climbing on holy sites, and doing asana in front on the poor street children. Meanwhile, back stateside, the confluence of money and power results in sex scandals. What sells is emphasized over what is honest. Franchised studios shadow Starbucks like a kid brother. Local studios disappear. Advertising goes sexy. Youtube videos teach people to do advanced asana and suddenly orthopedic surgeons and physical therapists are treating yoga injuries as often as hockey injuries. Sweaty, enthusiastic urbanites chant ‘om’ in spa like settings but few of them chant in protests, and while we’re vaguely aware of riots in Baltimore we don’t do anything other than post on Facebook about it. Yoga ‘service’ trips amount to a vacation to third world countries, nominally advocating but really accomplishing about as much damage as Christian missionary work did. We didn’t realize a flash mob style ‘om the bridge’ event in Vancouver would insult First Nations people or inconvenience anybody.
We didn’t think about anybody, at all.
We just wanted to feel whole.
And then the shootings happened in Charleston.
In trying to hold the space of the studio open to process the shooting, I felt exhaustion. As though I were holding the walls up with my shoulders. I found myself saying what my teachers have been saying, to me. I get the irony.
What I say as a teacher is always something my teachers have said to me.
I didn’t invent the path.
But I know what it says: Now, the heart is breaking. Now, the teachings of yoga.
I say this, often, when I teach: We don’t practice for the good days. We practice for when it gets hard. I’ve wanted to say, in the national debate about mental illness, gun control, and the goddamned confederate flag, that we were racist last week, too. I’ve wanted to say Baltimore. Ferguson. I don’t know a black person who hasn’t lived with racism their whole entire lives, and if I inspect my own life I find it in there, too.
I talk about death and grief and mourning in my classes, I talk about the waste feeling of our busy lives, I talk about fear and sadness. I try to say love and strength and healing, but I say death. Grief. Ghosts. I know that in every single class I teach, there is someone who has lost someone near in the last few weeks. I know this affects a person’s practice for a year and more; I’ve seen it, even if they are so close to their own thoughts and bodies they can’t. I know that in every class there is trauma, financial fear, self-doubt, people who have been rejected, taken for granted, who are afraid to grow old.
I want, sometimes, to say ‘feel how much I love you’. I want to say hope and I end up saying look at your life. I suppose these are the same thing.
There is more, subtext. I’ve been full of piss and vinegar at the yoga world in recent weeks. But that isn’t new.
What is new is my own body going through a shift. I had thought my yoga practice and changed lifestyle ‘healed’, mostly, my fibromyalgia. In recent months, the pain has been steady. I’m laid up and a week later I’m laid up again. I feel betrayed. I feel confused. I wonder how I can teach if my body starts to give out. I wonder how seriously I can take the ‘healing’ promises, if I am losing my health. I wonder how seriously I can be taken.
There is more, still. My best friend died this spring. I wasn’t expecting it and I wasn’t expecting how deeply grief would move into my days.
And perhaps it is grief, only. Or grief and physical illness. But I’m watching myself lose my appetite, sleep, motivation. I realize I’m depressed. This makes me angry. I ask someone for a referral for a therapist.
This is the question: did my lifestyle of overwork and physically using my body as a business tool lead to a worsening of my chronic condition? Did grief trigger it? Did depression fray my tolerance of the (always has been there) yoga bullshit to the point of disillusion? What does any of this have to do with the shootings in Charleston, a pair of high heels, a continent I’ve never been to?
My teachers have shrugged. This has felt like loneliness. I keep finding myself standing still in the middle of the room, some forgotten thing in my hand. But I know they are giving me solid, and downright traditional, guidance. They are pointing me back to my own heart, asking me to stay with the question of my life, to answer not with ultimatums or theory but with as honest a next moment as I can stand.
I’ve been telling people, over and over again: yoga began as inner inquiry. Through all of its variations, history, branding. Through all of those flashy characters and Instagram super stars. Through its becoming a mass practice directly because of its association with Indian nationalism.
My writing in the last few months has been hijacked. It’s all about grief. Or perhaps, more truthfully, about friendship. Maybe there is no difference: grief, friendship. When he died, I got a tattoo. This was silly. Also, not. I lay in the back of a tattoo parlor in the East Village and listened to the punk rock we used to listen to, back when the East Village was the East Village and we were 16. I get the irony. The tattoo has words, they say ‘I know I have a soul, because you touched it’. This is what friends do for us. Make us better. Illuminate our stupidity. Give us a sense of home and self. The words of the tattoo are covered with more tattoo, a wordless black band.
The friend is gone and all I’m left with is this shitty tattoo. And when the hard days come, the only thing left is soul. I’d be lying if I said I can wrap my head around this.
It is impossible to step out of my body. It is magical thinking to think that my body is anything but the body politic, that there is not a direct sutra-ed thread between my body and nine other bodies lying dead in a church. There is a direct line between commercialism, economics, and terrorism. I am all tangled up.
It is maturity to know this, to go on loving when the heart breaks. I can’t very well leave the path, if I am it. I might as well have some good shoes. One of the teachers says: if yoga means union, what is it we are joining? And what does that union feel like? I am not writing about rage or morbid grief. I am writing about love.
Karin L Burke founded Return Yoga, a non-profit studio, in 2013. Return subsidizes every class on the schedule to Vets, first responders, high risk populations and all youth under 18. Now she’s trying to change the way training is done, opening a path to deeper practice rather than a fitness certification.
This article originally appeared on Return Yoga and has been republished with permission.