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Yoga Alliance Is Beside The Point

in Yogitorials

by Karin Carlson

Yesterday I had a conversation with J. Brown.

He asked how I was and I paused. I’m not sure he caught this. It was slight, so there’s no reason why he should have. Maybe I imagined it. Maybe there are always pauses, yawnings open, cliffs in the act of conversation.

My pause had politics in it, and my niece’s cancer. It wasn’t a dark pause, exactly. In fact I wanted to laugh. ‘How are you?’ just felt like a terribly loaded question.

Then J. asked where I was, and I said Minneapolis, and we moved on. We talked about Yoga Alliance, yoga teaching, humanity.

It’s hard not to be pessimistic. Hard to be hopeful. But I want to be.

There’s also a pause when conversations end. The voices disappear but a space remains, a slight but tangible hollow in the room. We can, often do, simply ignore them. But sometimes we go into them, into or under as it were, following if we can, their influence. I choose to fall into this one. It had faces in it, memories, pull. At first I thought it had a lot of pressure in it. But it was finer than that, not exactly hard as pressure is expected to be. This space had not pressure but pressure’s release.

Yoga Alliance is beside the point. Yoga Alliance is irrelevant.

YA in no way reflects the work I do, nor the wisdom – if I dare call it that, experience perhaps a better word, knuckled knowing, street cred, a measure of years, a thin but true line – I’ve come into along the way. I want to say life changing but I do not mean my life, I mean others; the immeasurable but predictable way in which I can watch lives open like ink spilled into water and what that in turn has done to my own heart, let alone understanding. I do not mean that my life has changed, though it has, but that is consequent not precedent, effect not cause. My hands are invisibly ink stained.

When I fall into pauses I alternate between laundry, writing, and floor sweeping. But these are just background, just a stage. For anything to happen, one needs to set the stage. I have a white pine to look at, so I do, between sweepings. I end up with very clean floors. This has nothing to do with tidiness of character.

I wrote memories. I took down names. I tried to render the mere facts of passing time to some kind of narrative. Or perhaps question. A question of whether this is ever really possible, or true:

Is there, when all is said and done, any such thing as hope? Do things ever pass out of mere happening to actual importance? What does anything mean, in the wider span of time? Mere happening isn’t enough; the bald having of experience is not the understanding of experience. Data does not necessarily become wisdom. Teacher training, for example, Yoga Alliance and its model of hours, is completely beside the point, hardly registers as a prelude. You come out knowing the piece of paper represents humility, not competence, and either you accept the humility and keep going though you don’t know what it is you’re looking for, keep asking though you don’t know the implications of the questions, or the paper isn’t anything at all and you go on with your life. It’s just a piece of paper.

I personally kept going, kept asking.

The narrative, the thread if there is one, is nothing but a long string of failures. And yet I can pull meaning out of it. Let me explain.

I went to training and realized training wasn’t an end but a beginning. I had to teach. 200 hours was not the thing, there was more.

So I taught, and I started a years and years long practice of astanga and Iyengar. This is what you’d find if you went looking for ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ in the 2000s. Which lead to an interesting paradox: the things I taught were not the same things I practiced. I recognized that the extremity of the astanga, the rules of Iyengar, weren’t appropriate for most studio classes, and most of the community based yoga I taught was more about exploring movement and agency than asana.

I moved away from the forms of astanga and Iyengar just as I moved away from yoga studios. I realized what I wanted wasn’t actually the practices themselves, but something more subtle. Something more psychological. I wouldn’t dare say religious, but it stunk of god.

So I started to look for a teacher. And proof, something I could understand to be real of the body and feel to be verifiable in the mind. Something better than standard.

I mean an actual teacher who could explain not just the postures or the traditions or the chants, but the reason. The spirit. The truth. I started to wander away from yoga, pure and simple, into zendos and mindfulness. I spent a lot of time wandering around in the New Mexico desert, studying with Tias Little and Vasant Lad’s Ayurveda school. Mostly I was wandering. Mostly I was torn, and frustrated, and lost.

By then I’d opened a studio and was trying to bridge the gap between the physical work outs people came looking for and the advocacy and community I knew to be the actual guts. This worked, more or less. And at the same time it didn’t. It was a brilliant experiment. A lovely space. A precious moment or culmination of what I’d learned so far and this-can’t-keep-itself-afire-much-longer. I kept wandering off into the New Mexico desert, and spent increasing amounts of time working with Michael Stone. Michael and I talked of poems, of insanity, of social justice. We planned a ceremony for my buddhist vows, over the new year, in the snow.

The plan fell through because my dog died. I didn’t go to New York to meet with Michael. I stayed home.

Later, he laughed at me. He always laughed. That seemed to be the gist of his teaching.

I don’t think you should do this after all, he said. I don’t think you are a buddhist. He pointed to my continued obsession with yoga, with the yogic texts, with the body. You’re not a buddhist, he said; you’re a yogi. Go back home.

So I did. I went back to teaching, and back wandering around in the desert, back to reading neuroscience and the Upanishads.

Then Iyengar died, and my lostness became a kind of steady moan. I realized the lineages were dying. I felt alone.

There is a space, a part of the yoga story, that has to do with absence. Theo Wildcroft speaks elegantly of post-lineage yoga. Most yoga today doesn’t refer to or seem to need anything like patrimony. But I think we’re at where we’re at as a culture, as a country, largely because we’ve never really admitted or accepted the daunting weight of the patrimony we do in fact have. Yoga is alive and changing, and we’re creating it as we go along. But that doesn’t speak to the whole story. If we don’t point to where our practices come from – or think we have any responsibility to the community – we’re negligent. Tias used to say if a teacher can’t talk about his lineage, the teaching is suspect. Which is not to say authority or credibility comes from a lineage or a guru, per se.

But our credibility and our authority don’t come independently, either.

Not exactly.

Then one day Leslie Kaminoff found me. I was, ironically, in New York when it happened. It’s just downright irony that I left New York as soon as my yoga began, irony that New York is Leslie’s home. It’s a little strange that one day I happened to be back, visiting, again because someone close to me had died and I was doing the rituals of grief. I was sitting on a park bench checking my emails, and there was this message from Leslie.

I almost fell off of the bench. I was humbled- and violently moved- that Leslie Kaminoff knew my name.

This has – he has – both ruined my yoga career and saved it. Ruined: he spoke directly to my scariest questions. He validated my doubt. And once that happens you can’t very well go on teaching what is doubtful. Saved: had he not reached out when he did, I would have quit. Calling bullshit is also preservation of what isn’t dirty.

When Leslie’s teacher Desikachar died, I happened to be there. I mean New York. I mean working with Leslie. He was holding a seminar on the yoga of relationship. Desikachar died the night before it began. I watched, sat, I was there as Leslie went on and through with the weekend’s teaching. It was both devastating and a precious kind of gift.

Vi-yoga, Desikachar called it. A separating from all the things that are not yoga. A falling away of unimportant things.

J. Brown and I were both at Kripalu this early summer, listening as a host of our teachers shared their stories up on stage. I’d be lying if I didn’t mention the fact that these teachers are a generation or two older than I, and I am increasingly aware that I generally teach people a generation or two younger than me. That’s important, because it’s part of the question. At the closing ceremony, J. got up to say thank you. He said: you’ve shown me, through your lives, that it’s possible to teach with integrity. Then his voice cracked and he put his face in his hands. It’s so hard, he said. My heart opened like an umbrella in my chest, and then J. and I were in the same predicament. Devastated and preciously gifted. Both.

Oh, I’ll understand after training I thought only to realize I didn’t, couldn’t, that is not what training does. I thought: oh I’ll teach but ended up needing to leave the yoga studios because the scandals and the paucity of the commercial made me sick. And then I thought oh I’ll have my own space, and I did that, and it both worked and it didn’t. It didn’t work financially. It didn’t work on the personal, physical, I have the capacity to keep this thing in the air, ways. Nor would it work if I wanted, really wanted, to take up where the path was clearly headed.

Not with Michael laughing at me. And Tias nagging me. You’ve got chops girl, he said, use them. He’d generally scoff when I worried about keeping the studio alive, tell me to stop trying to please other people. And then Leslie, who just by being himself both proved everything I suspected and left me with nothing.

The best teachers always ruin your life. Just as art does. Or a good love affair.

The possible comes so close it makes you ache.

Then Michael died.

I haven’t dealt with that. Not really. One aspect of my life stopped, quite suddenly. Nothing came in to replace it. Not that anything ever does. The hole is there but I just walk around it. He said it himself, of death: a part of us dies, and some other part of us comes to be.

Just try to wrap your head around that: parts of yourself you don’t yet know, parts you didn’t even want, coming to be.

The chapters of my yoga career- now this, now that- often co-incided with death. I don’t know how this works, or why, except as honesty. It’s a further example of what I mean: I’m standing here looking back, realizing I’ve got nothing really to show for any of it, which by definition renders it a kind of nothing, a kind of pointless, a kind of fail.

But I’ve come to be a better person, every single time.

Which is a kind of integrity, I suppose. If a wholly unexpected one. Though yielding, made heavy with love, and hard.

Yoga Alliance isn’t important. Yoga Alliance is one small part of a much larger whole. It’s like a single needle on an old, a very old, pine.

Have you ever tried, would you ever dare, count the needles of a pine? Michael taught me that. You don’t have to be able to do a thing to understand what it means. In fact you’ll never wholly understand. And going on is important. It matters. Lives do.

Systems, like Yoga Alliance or Supreme Courts, distract from the reality they are intended to represent. And when systems fail to be representative, their legitimacy comes into question. That kind of pause, that suck of space, is not something you choose to go into so much as find yourself stranded by. But you’re standing there none the less. Devastated, and gifted; humbled and called; truth if there ever was one.


Founder of the online yoga studies program Deeper Practice and the non-profit, Return Yoga, Karin Lynn Carlson has brought yoga out of the studio to at-risk populations for over ten years. Return Yoga in a non-profit organization offering community-based yoga classes, outreach classes, and deeper courses of study including teacher training.

photo by Jarl Schmidt
85 comments… add one
  • Karin,
    All I can say is Wow. You right so clearly that the suffering , your suffering, is palpable. There is so much that doesn’t make sense in our present. I’ve been alive long enough to be considered “elderly” and I am confused, unsettled, horrified…… And still, yet, always, a yogi. Being a yogi helps me hold my place in the moment, in all the moments that are now and to be. Systems are created by others. Yoga is created by our intentions. I intend to be hopeful. Soon.

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  • “The best teachers always ruin your life.”

    Yes, this is why real yoga is terrifying but that sentence does not mean what it appears to mean as you so clearly demonstrate.

    Yoga is not about creating Union. Yoga is Union. You can create what already is.

    Yoga is not about realizing the Self. That is how yoga works. The work of yoga only begins after self-realization.

    The work of yoga, its purpose, is for us be free; free from our fears but that terrifies us because, without our fears, who are we?

    The life we believe, that we have invented, is ruined and we are left to find the reality of who we are among the pieces.

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