by Karin L. Burke
I’ve become one of those studio owners, common by now, who has decided to close up shop. In a very few days, I’ll be teaching my last class in a space I put countless hours and effort into creating. The walls smell of incense. They have footprints all over them and have been brushed by a thousand hands. The blocks and blankets will live quietly, privately, in my basement until I decide what to do with them. Sitting there this morning, watching snow fall, I felt voices and bodies drifting in the room. As much as snowflakes drifted outside. It feels like part of my heart is dying.
Yoga seems inevitably to return to the question of its own meaning. Which is a bit like Alice in Wonderland, turning ups into downs, answers into questions.
I never liked Alice in Wonderland. I am uncomfortable with answers becoming questions. I always preferred the numb me out drugs to the open my mind, ones. But here I am, looking at an accomplishment that is about to disappear. Here I am asking: What is yoga, who am I? I am riddled by questions whose answers are moving targets.
These days, yoga isn’t taught by men in robes, living in caves. It’s taught by institutions. Yoga is taught by colleges, research centers, the medical industry, and the fitness industry. I’m not saying this is wrong. I’m saying this is the context out of which confusion comes. The questions of certification and registration, qualification and accountability, science and spirit, measurability, sales, all have this unspoken prerequisite: ancient yoga was taught one way, modern yoga is being taught in some other way, and there are ramifications. This means something. But we don’t seem to know what.
We can’t replicate the traditional gurukala system. We shouldn’t. It’s dissonant with modernity itself. Attempts to recreate guru student relationships are at the heart of modern day yoga catastrophes.
And yet, we haven’t figured out how to replace it. You can see this in the way professionalized yogis refer to their pupils: some say clients, which lends a clinical veneer; some say students; some say customers. More and more, they are “followers” on Instagram and Facebook, or a “tribe.”
If students are numbers on a mailing list, then teacher is a euphemism for recruiting agent, sales person, or evangelist. Parallel this: if students become patients, teachers become healers. Treatment (or do we mean learning?) is dependent on accessibility and health insurance. Prognosis and measurable outcomes will trump inquiry and on-going, ness. Let alone, student teacher relationship.
I’ve been struggling with these questions since the beginning of my practice. There is a frustration in having to ask them, still. The frustration is like an acid, burning and staining the fabric of things like throat.
Just over seven years ago, I founded a non-profit. I was teaching in half a dozen different studios of the boutique, flow, and fitness variety. On the side, I taught in church basements, domestic violence shelters, and youth crisis centers.
Often, while volunteering, there was paperwork involved. I had to tell these places who was offering the yoga, and me personally as an individual wasn’t always the best answer. I learned an organization would streamline the whole process. So I founded a non-profit.
Then I hit a point of being unable to stomach teaching in commercial, studios. There were many reasons. The John Friend scandal, my being told to ‘align’ with one of the studios I taught at, and my refusal to do so pushed me to a final break. It felt like a renunciation.
This renunciation became, completely without my knowing what I was doing or any planning whatsoever, the opening of my own studio, under the aegis of the non-profit. Its motto was “yoga is not a business.”
I had a vision—if I can say that without sounding facetious or giving the impression I’d been vision boarding my dreams into reality. I wanted a space open to all bodies; a space specifically working with underserved populations both in studio and in outreach; and I wanted “real yoga.” I don’t know what I meant by “real yoga.” The definition is only a definition by negation. I didn’t want to teach for numbers, for example, or for fitness, or as an entrepreneur. I had and still have theories about personal transformation, integrity, and authentic interaction. I had and still have a belief that our teaching needs to both situate itself in the tradition and make modern day scientific sense. I had an incorrigible suspicion that part of what made yoga transformative was its ethical backbone. I had sincerity. But again, these concepts are better described by what they are not than by a mission statement.
Yet I had one, a mission statement. I wrote it up in drafting the non-profit. It reads:
The mission of Return Yoga is threefold:
a) to teach the skills of yoga and meditation to under served communities,
b) to collaborate service opportunities and qualified yoga teachers, and
c) to offer high quality public yoga classes at a real life cost. Yoga is not a business. Yoga is a revolutionary practice on both the personal and the community level.
It worked. People came. The studio outgrew two locations and settled into a third. It started training teachers.
Except that it didn’t, work. I was never able to make an actual salary, let alone buy health insurance, and I had no money to pay other people with, either. It went on in an idealistic, by the sweat of my brow kinda way. Sometimes I could buy groceries, sometimes I couldn’t.
To maintain a store front I’d have to sell out.
The vision may have made it, in a different community. By donation studios are popping up in metro areas, and by donation drop in classes have been a standard, outside studios, from the get go.
It couldn’t make it, in my community. Saint Cloud is either a relatively small city or a relatively large town, depending on how you look at it. It’s a sharply divided demographic either way, a little mirror image of Minnesota as a whole. Minnesota is, after all, both Michelle Bachman and Paul Wellstone. There is diversity. But it’s not a diversity that is celebrated. Block by block the town is visibly Somali, or white. Schools struggle. Storefronts and restaurants, and residential cul-de-sacs, are sharply divisive, not diverse. Public places—parks, malls, churches and mosques—are sketches of contrast. And if you are struck by the presence of a Somali/white split, you might realize that other demographics are completely invisible, though present. Questions of visibility, identity, representation, and inclusion are palpable.
One the one hand, yogis have asked me what this has to do with anything. Isn’t yoga, after all, about essential unity? What’s wrong with a white person wanting to practice mindfulness? Or people wanting to exercise?
On the other, it drives home a point: yoga is not so inclusive as it claims or wants to be. While yoga uses the language of inclusion and self study, the practice itself is one of privilege and self-distortion. My studio remained a space of white, entitled bodies, even though its expressed intention was one of service. While the mission was to teach real yoga (again, I fully accept the ambiguity of that concept), the reality of getting enough bodies into the room meant I was teaching exercise.
I think these words are important, being so central to yoga teaching and tradition, even to yoga neuroscience: intention, service. When words don’t mean what they’re supposed to, we’re sliding into Alice’s wonderland again, tangled into delusion. Delusion is an important concept in yoga, as well. Delusion being, essentially, the reason we need practice and the thing practice is intended to change.
The presidential election a few weeks ago proved that we are a much more divided and dangerous country than we had believed. The co-incidence of closing with the election sticks a finger in the wound. But the studio has been failing for over a year. They aren’t related.
And, I’m not so sure they’re unrelated, either. Donald Trump isn’t really the problem; a culture in which he’s voted into the presidency, is. A yoga studio needing to sell out isn’t a problem, either. Except that it reflects a wider undercurrent. An open, disorienting question: What is this culture in which neo-liberal care-of-thine-own-damn-self is so prevalent that the yoga industry is booming, while democratic processes fail?
I am opening questions, rather than answering them. The results burst a bubble: it’s not enough to have liberal ideals. It’s not enough to take care of ourselves.
Of course, we do have to take care of ourselves. Saying self-care is not enough hardly devalues self care.
It does, however, open the question to what self care is.
So here we are, back with the question: what is this, yoga? What is happening? What do I do?
Yoga appears to be a set of postural exercises. It appears as studios, gear franchises, festivals and teacher training programs. Yet we realize, after a little while, that yoga is something other than that. It’s is something we didn’t expect and can’t quite put words to. It is intimate. It is subtle. It changes; what it was at the beginning isn’t what it is to us, any longer.
To say yoga means union—euphemistically or etymologically —is wrong. Yoga doesn’t mean union: it means ‘to join’, to relate one thing to another. Yoga is relationship. To say yoga is what happens in a studio is like saying sex is what happens in bedrooms, with the lights off and the timing right.
Sex is complicated. And when we really fall in love, or really feel sex, it tends to happen all over the place, under brightness. Yoga isn’t what happens on our mat, but the way we start to make changes in our lives.
I am sad to close the doors to a room where people gathered, where they related to their breath, their bodies, to themselves and to each other. I am sad to close the space where I related, to others. But I don’t want to conflate that space with the relationships. Nor can I really say that my heart has died.
There have been very important floors, and doorways, and addresses in my practice. I remember looking up at certain ceilings and having gut wrenching or euphoric insights. I remember the weight of certain doors against my shoulder or hip, in different seasons, at different turning points in my development. In Brooklyn, there was a thin industrial carpet covering a cement floor that shook when the subway passed below. It smelled of tea tree oil and eucalyptus. In Chicago, I fell in love with a stained glass window. In Santa Fe, I needed to drive for miles after sitting for hours. But it wasn’t exactly the place, the door, or the carpet that mattered.
It was, always, relationship. If a relationship can’t survive a change of venue, it’s unhealthy.
The nature of knowing you’re on to some truth is the way whole paradigms shift and become unsteady. When you’re really in the heart of a question, dancing on or thrown by the pulse of it, there aren’t any answers. There’s only heart. Pulse, and release.
Yoga used to be taught in traditional contexts. It’s now some kind of research, something of a commodity and something of a status symbol. We’re not sure if yoga is science or spirituality. We’re not sure if it’s fitness or therapy. We’re not sure what yoga teachers, are. I think this is okay.
I think some of the best yoga teachers are leaving the fold and exploring new spaces. Text. The internet. Interdisciplinary body work. Scholastic work with ur texts. Asana are becoming open ended questions, rather than contortions. We’re exploring the thresholds of physiology and psychology, the bleed of personal growth into wider lives. My teachers have become people I talk to, ask questions of, turn to and bring my best and scariest questions. I left taking 45 minute sessions years ago; so why would I go on, teaching them? Some of my teachers encouraged my opening the space, years ago, pointed out it was truer to my sincerity and closer to the experience I was having. And some of them have supported my ending it. None of them ever gave me any clear cut answers. The only ever supported me in going more deeply into experience. They ask me, questions.
There is a frustration to the way these questions persist. The persistence is like a pulse.
Karin L Burke has been called a Master teacher, a teacher’s teacher, and a revolutionary. These days she’s deconstructing asana, teaching to folks who’ve been disillusioned or injured by standard yoga fare, and learning Sanskrit. She’s writing and she’s teaching online. She can be found at returnyoga.org.