by Karin L. Burke
Yoga was, in fact, discovered. I assert that Yoga could no more be invented or owned than electricity, gravity or respiration. – Leslie Kaminoff
I sell mirrors to the blind. – Kabir
When Iyengar died, I felt an absence in the world. Absence came, as blood clusters to bruise or rain appears in the sky. Absence formed and was felt. It hadn’t been there, before. Ghosts appear out of nowhere.
I started to look for a teacher.
I wasn’t looking for another certification. And I wasn’t looking for a different slant on the yoga tradition, as if the one prior had somehow not been right for me or I’d matured past it; I’d done all of that before. I’d done enough to know floating from teacher to teacher, relationship to relationship, day to day, is more likely avoiding the path than walking it.
That’s not what I mean.
I mean I started looking for a guru.
I warn you: this is probably not a sentence you ever really want to say out loud. I’m not sure it’s something you should ever lay money on. And yet there I was, all in, a suitcase and a maxed out credit card. I ended up in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. The or hooked me. The fulcrum, the unanswered question. Either this is real, or it isn’t. I’d begun to suspect the hinge comes down to teachers.
I know this: If you’re looking for a teacher, or a teaching, or even a tool to hang up pictures or chop vegetables with, you’ll come across both charlatans and craftsmen. Most promise a version of happiness. They promise power, a miraculous life, all that you desire appearing. Like a ghost, but backwards.
Meanwhile, a few will offer you truth. This doesn’t sound as nice. In fact this sounds downright threatening. You aren’t sure you want it. You’ll catch yourself wondering if you really need to hang pictures or chop vegetables, after all.
If you don’t go for truth, though, there will eventually be some suffering. There will be some, if even only a little, hell to pay.
When I was a little girl, the neighbors had horses. One was a palomino named Sugar. The girl who rode the horses used to stand at the gate and call: shuugeeeer, shuger shuger shuger. The mare would come with long, heavy steps. In the yoga tradition, we call it sukkha. Sweetness. Promise. Easy Freedom. Out of the sanskrit comes our indo-european: refined and bagged and hawked.
Too much sukkha, goes a quip, causes truth decay. All stability falls out and the path dissolves, sugar into water. And all you’re left with is a high, a self absorbed and immature high. And after that, you’re left with nothing at all.
Truth is slippery. It is not a thing. Not in the way table or plant is. And it isn’t quite god. Maybe it’s a pull. A force. Like gravity.
Whatever it is, it is somehow related to men like Iyengar. And Jois and Desikachar. It’s probably the thing that made Jesus what he was. St. Francis for all I know.
I’m saying this as a woman who never met Iyengar.
But when he died, I realized I was standing alone amidst the bullshit. The forefathers are gone and all we’ve got are stepchildren and bastards. Although they are related to the practice, they are not the practice. Not quite.
So this is how it happened. I flailed about, taking up this word, guru. And I ended up buck naked in southern New Mexico.
The sky could kill you in New Mexico. The Rio Grande is the smallest, reddest little river I’ve ever seen. I come from the land of the northern Mississippi, where water is power and fat and black at the bottom. The Rio isn’t impressive in itself, but meager and thin. What awes is the swath it cuts, miles deep, through stone. The hardness of the stone is the proof, the visible track, of thirst. Sky did that. Earth was cut. But I was the one who felt it.
The desert on my skin was real enough. Wind chimes thread the breeze in New Mexico, a glittering sound that is gone before you’ve really heard it and back again so often you forget it’s there.
Still and all, soul is something like the desert. Pilgrims have always wandered off there. Soul is to desert as voice is to wind. We can doubt soul. We can lose our voices. But you can’t much deny an atmosphere with so little humanity in it. You can see time on the mountains. You can feel what heat is, and night. Things fade in the rarefied light and yet other things survive centuries, leaving churches and cave dwellings and cowboy ghost stories trailing in the wind. Chiming it with tinny stories. Landmarks slip. The only animals around are the scrappy ones. Plants have the fibrous quality of thirsty vein. Stone and dust are so clearly the same thing you know ashes are ashes and dust is dust. You could die in New Mexico. Or go mad. Therefore, you know humanity.
If you’ve ever really prodded soul, or god, or the infinite, you know already that it comes down to emptiness. Emptiness and silence. My body, itself, reeled. I swear my bones began to feel sunburnt, my blood got dry, my lungs first struggled and then met the thinness by peeling. Everything inside dilated. It was something of a gutting. The whites of my eyes burned and now I’ve got a scar on the whites of my eyes. That’s not even a metaphor. I came home from the desert with a mark on my iris that makes it look not quite whole. The word pilgrimage started popping up in all of my notebooks. The wind chimes stopped bothering me after a day or two. People need to tag the invisible, I figured. They need to put glass beads or tin on it, I figured, in order stave off the madness. The sound drifts and wavers, is only half conscious, audible imposition on all that vastness. The sound mitigates the space between the selfishness of kitsch and the authenticity of looking into the world, reverently.
The consequences of untruth aren’t lies, but anxiety. Lostness. Relativity that will go straight down into nihilism. It’s godawful lonely. The consequences of illusion are complete pettiness and the loss of reverence, the loss of meaning.
Reverence doesn’t negate the awkward, god and the devil help me. It’s hard to call Truth or Consequences a town. It’s a street, a bizarre little street, hugging the banks of the river and slid between the spines of mountain. It’s an American town just shy of being Mexico, which in itself is all kinds of brutal truths and falsehoods. Truth or Consequences is a bunch of trailer homes parked on the ridges, a few upscale spas proprietorially constructed around the hot springs. The town, if that’s what we’re calling it – it had a post office so I won’t argue – wasn’t called anything more than Hot Springs until 1950, that weird cultural decade of manliness and subterfuged revolt. Ralph Edwards, host of the NBC radio quiz show Truth or Consequences, announced he would air the program from the first town that renamed itself after the show; someone in Hot Springs called up. Edwards visited each and every spring for the next 50 years.
The question is this: how do we translate something historically passed from guru to student to a world such as ours? What is it we are trying to translate? What happens when you’re all in, naked and looking for soul, smack in the raw surface of the blanched earth of the American Southwest? Is it even possible to sit there, a toe in the water, a rock in your back, sun in your eye and take yourself seriously? Can we be fully aware of consequences and of truth at the very same time?
We can’t say that there is a true yoga. Yoga has no founder, no dogma, no word of god. From the beginning, yoga was many yogas. There are no yogic popes, there was never a reformation, there are no creeds or dogmas and there are very scattered ashrams and monasteries. The line between Buddhism and yoga is sketchy. The line between this yoga and that is gray, nuanced only by trademark. There was never an attempt to impose uniformity of doctrine so much as there was an injunction to seek. But that injunction is so quiet, so fleeting, that it’s hard to hear.
Yoga is a vocation, rather than doctrine. A listening and responding. Something calls. We can listen. This is yoga.
And yet I was sick of it. I was sick of the selfishness, the flimsiness, the way listening becomes an excuse to hear what you want to hear. In an odd and completely unnoticed slight of hand, ‘listening’ became ‘singing your own song’. As the years went on, that droning cacophony swelled and now it sounds exactly like wider culture. All of the stuff that is wrong with the world. All of the alienation. The cultured unfairness. The denial. I stumbled. I took pause. We’re not listening. Not to nuance. We’re listening to trademark and hawking and sugar, sugar, sugar until we’re stupid with our own childish energy.
Absence arrived. I got scared. I started looking. I would have gone to India, but in spite of being a very well trained and fairly successful professional in the yoga industry – I make my entire if feeble living at this, which most don’t – I would have no idea where to start on that teeming subcontinent. I am absolutely and resolutely lost. So I went to New Mexico.
I can’t exactly tell you what happened there. Taos, Sante Fe, Sedona and environs have a particular spiritual eerieness. The beauty that stuns makes it desirable. The ghosts of seers left a lore in the atmosphere, like wood smoke. Its beauty means people who can afford it lay claim to the most delicious spots. They set down ski resorts and fine dining. They wear couture sun-glasses and buy up the turquoise. They just drive through any actual Indian reservations.
I sat there in a room full of white and wealthy people practicing yoga. I had a moment of actual rage as they talked of going to the spa and then an expensive restaurant after the day ended. I had no money to go to a spa. My motel room reeked in exactly the same way motel rooms used to reek when I frequented them for tawdry, Hunter S. Thompson kind of reasons. Which would be poignant if it wasn’t just honest. Honestly, it made me wonder about trajectory; if in time anything ever changes or matters in the least.
Motel rooms don’t change, we do.
I got hot and bothered, sure. That’s what I do. But I was also there with a kind of willingness that wouldn’t let me walk away. During the day, we practiced, we sat. Mist evaporated out of the arroyos. We did the things you do in yoga. And the master teacher, was.
He saw things in me, strange wordless things that aren’t muscle and aren’t bone and aren’t pose. A teacher, of course, sees things that we can’t. He got me to feel them. He moved them. He held the meditating and I fell into it. I wept. He saw things in me, personality flaw and personal strength and hanging question, wise, that I knew damn well were there but hadn’t done anything about. My own gumption and all my friends and doctors and family telling me so for years had not done a damned thing, yet when the teacher said so I said yes. okay. I will. without batting an eye. And I began.
They all went to the spa. I drove for miles and miles and miles. I pulled over and walked through cemeteries. I climbed under barbed wire fences and lay on my back on the red earth. I drove north, and south, and I ended up in Truth or Consequences, paying a few bucks for a few hours in a Sulphur laced spring.
And I thought this: The teacher student relationship has always been there, always has been part of the yogic path even though now it’s blown apart like a cat with a firecracker up its ass. Vows, commitment, thread the narrative like wind chimes thread air. This is a spiritual practice that isn’t attached to a god, and the vows you take aren’t like the catholic ones that end you in a cloister or the marriage ones that end you a legally different person. Although the vows might be that, they don’t have to be. In this tradition, the vows are not about the outcome of the vows, but about the making of them. A distillery of intention. Which, when done honestly, humbles you.
It isn’t what you expect. That’s the point. Nothing is what you expected. But it turns out, you aren’t what you expected, either. And this is the only possible way to make any difference. This is the only possible way we can change. Ourselves, or the world. We need the commitment of a spiritual practice not because of god, but because of our own mad nature. We need the commitments of a moment to moment, real and flesh bound practice because rage, fear, shame, and anger are hard and hot and heavy and fast. So fast. We need something to slow us down. We need commitment because even though we love our loved ones, sometimes we don’t. We sometimes hate and resent and would strangle them if we could. Or we’d quit. Think we’re better off, all alone. Vows and commitments keep us more than we keep them.
We need a teacher not because the teacher is enlightened, but because he knows we could be. Any honest transformation is a relational one. One that leaves us changed in our most intimate, most political, most human ways. Left alone, we are so drawn to our own navel that we’re blind.
Once, a very long time ago, a first teacher sat behind a great big desk in Greece while I stood meek and busted for some indiscretion in the middle of the room. Both cowed and defiant. My dear girl, this man said, you’re a brilliant young woman, fast on your way to mediocrity. I’m not young any more. Just recently I realized that teacher had died. I went on right head on into mediocrity but I swear his presence made me dig, try, scrabble for what little brilliance I’ve been able to mete out. His ghost now makes me commit to more. More gutting. More digging. More, unmediocre.
In New Mexico, my teacher gave me a metaphorical mirror. It was only having a mirror that could show me, honestly, how goddamned blind I can be. Truly, truly, this is awkward. Seeing your blindness is a kind of vision, see, but it’s as awkward as laying in the desert in the mid afternoon, soaking your bones that don’t have cancer or psoriasis or any of the other things silver and Sulphur are said to cure. Your ailment is subtle. Your bones float in mystery.
Nothing changed in New Mexico. But I came home without what I thought I knew. Teaching is the best thing I’ve ever done in my life. I don’t say this because I’m particularly gifted as a teacher, but because other aspects of my life are decidedly unskillful. But the truth of my being a teacher is I have to have a teacher. If I don’t, I become the charlatan.
I’m going to go ahead and say this. I don’t exactly know what made Iyengar Iyengar. Or Jesus, Jesus. I don’t think it’s what we’d expect. But I do think it was something. Something rare, and precious in that rarity, but absolutely true and as real life as a motel room if you’re willing to be in one. And I think there are such teachers, now. Leslie Kaminoff’s one. Tias Little is another. Michael Stone listens to me being ridiculous until I myself can hear it. Teachers are there. But most of what is passed off as ‘teaching’ is just not. And that’s okay. If you try, you’ll find the rare souls pretty easily. There are 7.3 billion of us here. One in a million is actually quite sufficient.
Listen when you’re called; you come out moved. Scarred, humbled, marked and bitten by the forces of nature. Which is a better thing, a far more sthira thing, than is culture. It’s a more humane thing, held and supported by another, than is the blind attempt to do it your way.
Karin L. Burke is the founder of Return Yoga, a non-profit studio in St. Cloud, MN. She’s trying to change the YTT model into something called the Deeper Practice Curricula, which could be training for certification, but is more like mentorship and personal study. She’s also slowly writing a book.