by Karin Carlson
The news is relentless. There is a sick taste in my mouth. I oscillate between avoiding news and bingeing on it. I oscillate between desperate, trembling activity and absolute apathy. I forget myself: I teach I protest I aunt I wive I write. And the self interrupts, selfish: I whine I dither I am needy lonely ugly and afraid. I want comfort. I want answers. I want change. And I want it all to just fucking calm down. I want some sweetness in my life, the celebrations, time with the folk I love, time to do something other than crisis management and grief. I dearly want to sit and watch as the sugar maple changes her clothes, gussies up, stuns, and lets go.
It doesn’t stop. The news is relentless. Now this. Now that. Heartbreak. Anger. Fear.
There are days I desperately need my practice, and it feels desperate; starving, needy, heady, grabby, longing. Then there are days practice seems utterly irrelevant, selfish, not good enough, unimportant, a waste of time. On those days, everything in my body recoils from sitting. Nothing in me wants to move. Awareness is just too goddamned uncomfortable. Nothing can tear me away from the twitter feed, the images, the debate, the body counts. Or: nothing seems so urgent as uninterrupted time with my niece, far from news, away from danger.
In recent days I’ve wanted the solace of my teacher. But he died a few months ago. I could go back to his published words or his voice in a podcast. But I haven’t been able to bring myself to listen to his voice yet. It doesn’t feel good. I can’t. So there is silence.
I wanted the release of a practice and a community so I went to a class. But I kid you not the teacher said, “feel the burn, it’s goooood” and “yoga bliss” and I wanted, a little bit, to sit bolt upright and stare at her in outrage. I quietly left. I wept in the bathroom. It was an ugly, heaving, snotty cry. Etheric music and wispy incense drifted around my head but I cried and I cried.
In the early stages of my practice, the first few years, it was all about that burning. It felt, good. I practiced, obsessively. Every single day there was some new thing learned. Every time I practiced was a revelation. It was like learning a new language, an immersion. I immersed. The words of this language were freedom, liberation, an end to suffering. It rang bells inside me. It lit fires. It seemed true.
It isn’t like that these days. The world has shifted. Those very words—freedom, liberation, an end to suffering—ring discordant.
There are times this feels like the yoga isn’t working any longer, or maybe it was always a hoax. The very definition of spiritual by-pass and self-indulgence, delusion, empty promises. I’ve heard a lot of people say very similar things: It spoke to me, but then in the light of things, what it said wasn’t true.
Another teacher of mine says: these practices have never been more important. People need a yoga practice now, more than ever.
As a teacher, I’ve been banging drums for years. Look at the world. Look at the world. Look. But recently I’ve been torn. Part of me needs to emphasize yoga as social justice. Another realizes my teaching needs to sooth. It is my job to provide the necessary intervention of care. This latter feels more urgent: come here, rest. Pause. Re-source. We need to take care of ourselves, each other, our loved ones and our students.
And, we need to change the world. Children are watching. People are dying. The maple tree rattles in the early morning dark.
Yoga isn’t enough. It isn’t an answer to atrocity any more than prayer is. Neither are an appropriate response. Prayer is not an answer to a broken democracy cracking in racial violence and underlying fear. Prayer is not an appropriate response to flood, storm, thousands of displaced and hungry and needing help lives. Prayer is not an appropriate response to domestic terrorism. And releasing our own tension, feeling our feelings, gleaning insight is not enough. Children are watching. People are dying. Do I repeat myself? Or am I making my point?
This isn’t anywhere near over. More people are going to die. Because hospitals don’t have power and there isn’t food or clean water. Because police brutality and gun violence. Because we haven’t really answered the questions of race and sex and gender or democracy, of civil rights, of justice.
Which is not the same as saying either yoga or prayer—or whatever mental health and spiritual tools you’ve got—is irrelevant. They are, relevant. They are relevant as tools. They are tools for our own sanity. They help us quell anxiety, reactivity, splitting away from our body and our feelings. They resource our autonomy, our responsibility, our inborn capacity to choose and a renewed determination to choose well. These practices light fire, tend fire, inspire hope. These practices empower the self, little as she is in the great scheme of things.
Little as she is in the great scheme of things, her empowerment is vital.
I swear, the maple this time of year seems less a tree and more a poem. I can feel the red drawing up, in my arms.
This is where paradox, the nature of two things being true at one and the same time, comes to a head: I know of nothing, other than my prayerful practice of yoga, that both empowers the pray-er and acknowledges the reality of suffering.
I call this, hope. It isn’t what we’d expected and it is not, most definitely not, the way we want it to be. Hope is surrender, and commitment. Not one or the other: both.
In the beginning, yoga was all about me. It had to be.
It isn’t about me anymore. It can’t be.
My students have asked, in the last year, over and over and over again: what, now? How do we not burn out? How can we possibly keep feeling into pain, and suffering, and injustice, when it just keeps coming? The question is on point. How do we find the energy to take up a problem that is bigger than us? How do we not lose heart in the face of such toxic realities, the unanswered questions, the big things like racism and immigration and climate change?
I’ve said: I have to remember these things are bigger than I am. If I can believe that history will judge these moments, then it doesn’t matter so much that I am tired. If I realize that future generations might take up these very issues with more grace and possibility than we do, that my frailty is irrelevant. That these questions are old, they are ancient, they are chronic like pain, simply doesn’t matter if I realize there is some small thing I can do. It doesn’t solve the world’s pain. But I sleep better. I recover, sanity. If I believe in beauty, and justice, and the preciousness of children, then my fear isn’t terribly important.
Sometimes, I have to step back and let others bang the drums. Sometimes, I listen for my teacher’s voice, even when it isn’t there. Sometimes, I speak and realize I sound like him; this gives me goosebumps. Sometimes you are crabby tired and overwrought but then a child asks for a snack; of course you make it. Sometimes, you’ll hate yoga but then some one asks for help; you’ll say yes. No one of these things is the answer, and no one of these things is not part of the answer.
It’s okay to be angry, to grieve, to burn out if you realize it isn’t about you and you’re not alone. The relative smallness of actions becomes tolerable.
Pray as hard as you can, as often as you need, with whatever tools you’ve got.
Pray, so that you can get back to work. The news is relentless, and that’s okay; that means it isn’t over. Yoga is social justice. Come, and rest. It does something like red does to maple trees. But it happens
inside your own chest.
Karin Carlson 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.
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