Noble by Karin Burke

Karin Burke - Noble

Yesterday, I taught yoga in a locked unit for “emotionally and behaviorally disturbed youth.”  That’s a funny label. It’s a long one. I don’t know what all diagnosis and issues fit into it, but figure the label works as a kind of umbrella. I know there was anxiety, depression, trauma. There was schizophrenia. Bi-polar disorder. Heck, nail biting and class skipping and drug taking and the deep, heavy, sadness that comes from the way a mother sighs, the rage of gun shot, the confusion of identity. I think that was there, in the label, too.

There were 17 kids, three therapists, two other staff, and myself. I sat in front of a large window. Outside the window, sat February and a courtyard of snow. It was a pretty courtyard. Beyond it was the river. The only footprints in the snow were those of foxes. One boy pointed my attention to the fox tracks, small and hidden. All the kids were inside the building and had left no tracks in the snow.

I used to work in social services. That label, too, is a kind of umbrella. Some of that time, I worked in domestic violence and sexual assault. For a while, I worked with youth. For a while, I worked with substance abuse. The thing is, I worked with all of those things every day. That’s what the umbrella social services means. It means I worked in a mess of homelessness, violence, privilege and disenfranchisement, race and identity, gender and mental health. Everyday was a crush of suffering, and a death of opportunity. I worked with the heavy, deep sadness that comes from sighs, and the anxiety that comes from hard neighborhoods, the physical strain of empty cupboards.

I left that work more than 15 years ago.

Now I teach yoga.

I run a studio. People pay money to take classes or do private work with me or to attend trainings. The money made by the studio allows me to go into such residential lock down facilities, to occasionally host groups, for teens to come in for classes on their own. It also allows me to subsidize public classes to at-risk populations like veterans, first responders and assault survivors.

Once, a woman complained. She said she was tired of hearing about all this free yoga for vets and people in jail. She said she was stressed out, sick of her husband’s bullshit and her boss’s nagging. Her feet hurt. “You know who deserves free yoga,” she said, “I do.”

Actually, this hasn’t happened once. This has happened often. Once, I had a man sending me hate mail and plastering my online pages with vitriol. “How could I claim to be running a non-profit,” he said, “and be charging money for classes?”

The other day, I said “yoga shouldn’t be in schools.” I say this, often. I said, “yoga should not be covered by health insurance, nor should it be offered by hospitals.” A woman replied, “I would love for my kids to get yoga in schools, even a watered down, westernized version.”

People are confused. How can I say, on the one hand, that I believe in this stuff, but at the same time say yoga shouldn’t be in schools? How can I say yoga doesn’t belong in medicine, or that health insurance shouldn’t cover it?

Doesn’t yoga help?

In the room over the courtyard, the intercom went off with an alarm. Staff were called, in some code I didn’t know, to some situation developing outside the room. One kid lay on his mat, pulling it to shreds in small, pinched, intervals. One girl had scars up and down her forearms, that were crusty with fresh wounds. The walkie talkies of the staff whistled and buzzed. The first time one whistled, I stopped talking. After the first time, I just talked a little more loudly and kept going.

I watched one boy, watching me. He wavered, focusing hard and biting his lip. He tried again, and again. He focused, and refocused, and at the end of class he lay on his back, his eyes open to the ceiling, his hands on his belly. His ears full of walkie talkies and intercoms. He was listening to his breath, and he was steadying his eyes.

After class, the kids went back to their rooms. Their rooms have doors that lock from the outside and small narrow windows on the door with re-enforced glass. I walked down the hallway toward the exit sign, accompanied by one of the staff. The boy was standing at his door and looking out his narrow window, with his forehead on the glass. I waved to him. The boy waved back.

Modi is teaching yoga postures in a lot of schools in India. I take issue with this. And I don’t think it should be taught in American schools, either. Unless we’re also going to start teaching the Ten Commandments.

I do think yoga is a healing modality, but I don’t think it works like Western medicine. Nor do I think it should be “integrated.”

Yoga doesn’t cure depression or anxiety or trauma, either. It’s subtler than that. Yoga begins to work, quite directly, with our humanity.

Which is why it changes people’s lives, all the time.

People say, “yoga should be covered by health insurance or offered in public schools to make it more accessible.” But that isn’t making it accessible, but, rather, wedding it to a system of privilege. Yoga is already accessible, to most of us. There are such things as library cards. And you tube. And free classes, somewhere or other. Most of us have bodies, breath, a few square feet of space somewhere in our homes. Yoga does not require equipment, soundtracks, or luxury spa-like settings. It requires a moment, and a breathing body. If learning more is something we want, most of us can afford to take classes, deepen our study with an investment now and then or travel across town to attend class in a pretty studio once in a while.

If we do not recognize these things as privilege, we’re denigrating the intelligence and worth of teachers. If we think yoga should be taught in schools, we’re denying the fact that some schools have lovely classrooms while others have holes in the ceiling. If we do not realize our privilege, our privilege becomes a cruel weapon.

It isn’t that we should offer yoga in schools, but that our schools need to change. We need to change our politics so that communities are safe, teachers are paid fairly, water is drinkable, and children aren’t shot on playgrounds. We need to change our relationships so that we’re taking part in this. If we think teaching mindfulness skills in classrooms is a reasonable alternative, we’re exposing our ignorance, not working with it.

The thing is, I believe in knee surgery, physical therapy, and pharmaceuticals. I believe in psychoanalysis and cognitive behavioral therapy. If you cannot sleep, or if the biological functions of anxiety and trauma have gone so deeply into the body that you cannot track your thoughts, you should take the pills the doctor prescribes. Take the pills, so that you could perhaps go to yoga or learn to breath mindfully.

In the small space that is a yoga class, a yoga mat or a meditation class, what we begin to see is reality. As in, ultimate reality. We may not have words for it. But we begin to feel tensions or glitches, to see our racing minds and thoughts, to realize our parenting is still showing up in our middle aged lives and that culture affects the way we hold our shoulders and fists. We may cry, sweat, or favor our left side. Meniscus, mental health, education, and our most private and intimate and personal selves all start to be present in that one, small, innocuous seeming space. In that small space, we begin to see these realities and perhaps, just perhaps, begin to change our relationship to them. Yoga is not exercise, religion, or self help. What we’re working on isn’t our physical fitness or our emotions, but something else, and more, and both, synergistically.

The other day, a woman asked for private yoga sessions and said she’d decided to stop chemotherapy. The same day, I had a man tell me he wanted to drop out of therapy and do yoga, instead. After talking with each of them, I agreed to work with one and refused the other. The woman had undergone a long process of treating the cancer and was terminal. She’d accepted the fact that she was going to die, shortly, and was interested in making that transition as mindfully as she could. I agreed to teach her. The man was not interested in what his therapist told him and wanted to come to class instead. Him I refused. Yoga is not a replacement or alternative to required group therapy. I am not qualified to diagnose nor treat mental health.

We can’t supplant our realities with yoga technique. To do so confuses technique for reality. That is insane. It’s similar to thinking a cigarette will soothe our anxiety. Or that anti-depressants heal depression, or that there is a problem with global warming. The truth is cigarettes distract us from anxiety, putting it off till later when we have anxiety again and a nicotine addiction to boot. Anti-depressants change brain chemistry, which might give us a shot to heal our bodies, minds, behaviors, and therefore brain chemistry. And global warming isn’t a thing that happened in a vacuum, but a consequence of human choices and behavior over time.

To approach realities with diversionary techniques is Avidya.  Ignorance.  Inability to see, or perhaps not wanting to see. It’s denial.

Sure, yoga will affect knee health, mental health, community health, and social justice issues. But it will do so by revealing that we are aging and our knees are giving out, we don’t quite know what mental health is, we’ve caused a lot of damage with our choices and our time is running out. Yoga will affect us by revealing where we ourselves are traumatized, racist, post militarily traumatized in our bodies, minds. Yoga will hopefully show us our privilege, and our responsibility borne of privilege. Yoga may not cure our cancer or fix our knee. But it will probably break our hearts open and make our transition more, I guess I’ll say it, mindful.

I told the kids, the first time I visited, that I was teaching them the skills of being a warrior. Warriors of a certain kind, I said: warriors like Martin Luther King and Ghandi. Later, on my own, I thought of the work of those men and how they managed to change whole countries, whole societies, the world. King did not march or speak, I think, as a minister. Nor did Ghandi act as a Hindu. They prayed, privately. When they marched, they marched as men. They acted in the world with humanity, not their creed.

The master’s tools, it’s said, can’t be used to dismantle the master’s house.

I have a teacher training program, at my studio. On the first day of class, I typically say that they will leave with certification, but not as yoga teachers. I tell them I left yoga teacher training with more questions than I went in with. That all the time I’m having more questions, more confusion, every day I realize there is something more for me to learn. Everything I’ve learned of yoga, I learned after teacher training. I tell them of the kids. Of the cancer survivors. Of the human breath. I tell them of the thousand people in the thousands of hours of teaching I have no idea about now, whose outcomes I can neither claim nor replicate nor take credit for. I tell them that yoga gave me a kind of humanity. It sent me to teacher training, which was only really important because of the years and moments and untouchable, unknowable lives, that have come ever since. The lives that keep on coming. The life, it’s given to me.

Take the medicine the doctor prescribes, I say. Pay your taxes. Go to your church, if you’ve got one, and pray. Pray with as much courage as you can. Yoga teacher training isn’t enough. The value of this certificate is realizing there is no inherent value in the certificate. That realization is precious: it just might make you a better mother, push you into politics, or set you off on a yoga practice and study that lasts you the rest of your confusing, mottled, still aging and suffering and still imperfect, life.

Working with the kids, the boy was frustrated. He said he couldn’t do it. In yoga, I said, we try to practice the things we can’t quite do. Like skateboarding, he said. I said, yes. And then he tried, again.

I’ll only teach one more class at the facility and will probably never see the boy again. I think of how he waved to me from behind the glass that first class, how he hugged me after the second, and of the sound the big door makes when it closes behind me and I’m standing outside in the parking lot and bright February sun. The point of my being there is not to save that boy – or any of the other kids – so much as it is whether I myself go on practicing. My practice is being there. And next week, in some other scenario. My practice means I’ve taught hundreds of these kids. Three of them have walked into the studio, on their own, weeks and months later to enter teacher training. I don’t know where the other kids are.

We shouldn’t ask our teachers to include meditation skills in public schools. We should roll our mats out in our living rooms. We can’t be in denial that the world has suffering in it, politics are a mess, the oceans are turning, and mega cities are awash in storm. We can’t buy into the delusion that that we, ourselves, are past suffering because we own a mat and got a piece of paper. We can’t push other people to buy mats and get certificates and offer yoga techniques in the health care industry and think the problems of modern minds and bodies will go away.

We can, though, accept the painful complexity of this crazy world. We can realize there is more to the questions than our creed of mindfulness or the privilege of savasana. It is not yoga mats or singing bowls we should give classrooms, but support to the people who teach in them, fund them, and repair them. We can act, out of humanity.

This is noble. True.

My ears are full of alarms, social media, debating politicians, fleeing refugees. There is an under sound and wheeze that is my own whining, aging, stunningly complicated life. I’ve humble prayers, human fears. I practice, focusing my gaze and listening to my breath. I don’t know what happens to the boy. I trust it’s real enough. I saw him breathing.


karinKarin was an anthropologist, a barmaid, and a journalist before she bottomed out. Yoga saved her; she figures it might help others.  Karin’s teaching in jails, crisis centers, and church basements became a non-profit in 2007. In 2013, Return Yoga became an actual non-profit studio in St. Cloud, MN. More can be found at returnyoga.org.


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