The Unstruck Heart: Yoga and the Election by Karin Burke

Fanny B.'s facebook shot

There are moments in the day when the particular angle of sunlight exactly hits the color of the leaves, creating a kind of loudness. At the right moment, you can feel leaves and sun touching one another. I’ve never before seen light do that. Or trees with such volition, reaching for what burns. It’s like seeing, time. It’s strange to see the invisible forces.

Beauty is always jarring, when there is such clear pain.

The whole country feels wounded.  Everything is so charged. Alternately, I hear people taking up argument or retreating. It’s everywhere.

I’ve done, both of these things. Called up my anger, and suppressed it.

I am weary. These crises happen, too often. They seem to always be, happening. It seemed, in the first years of my business, to be the right thing to do. I wrote ‘black lives matter’ in the store front window and have hosted community meditations, sent out newsletters. I thread social media with urges to vote. I believe that bodies are inherently political, insist that where injustice exists we have a moral obligation to look at it.

On Suffering and Trauma

Suffering is central to this teaching.  Just as suffering is central to our lives.  

It isn’t easy.

It isn’t easy, nor is it the way we want it to be. We’ve found refuge: to recall suffering irritates our sensibilities, our emotions, and our heart.  

My teacher, Leslie Kaminoff, once said he challenged his teacher, Desikachar:  It can’t all be about suffering, he pleaded. He wanted there to be some other, ground.

Desikachar replied in a simple, devastating way. Teaching people to look for bliss and transcendence causes suffering.

Endorsing spiritual transcendence is a direct route to disappointment. Let alone conflict. And ignorance. 

I once spoke with a woman who taught yoga to youth in a treatment facility. When I said the word ‘trauma’ she leaned backward and did something with her face, akin to smoothing a shirt front.  “I choose not to go into negative energy,” she said, and the conversation ended. I wondered: what happens when a woman works with traumatized youth, but doesn’t want to acknowledge, trauma?

What happens, when we are silent?  Or are silenced?  What happens when we silence, ourselves?

Having taught, and practiced, for years, I’m familiar with the urge to practice because it makes us feel better.  To focus on feeling, good.  But sometimes I wonder if we’re practicing because we want a better life, or because we want to feel better for a few minutes?

Yoga is often a sludge of dippy platitudes and a wash of silence about what’s really going on. And it isn’t only that the yoga industry is superficial: this is us. We want yoga to help us feel better. We want an hour or two to zone out. That’s why people do drugs, too: to get just a little, tiny, bit of space around their problems. Just one, bare, moment. A few precious seconds in which we feel some small portion of control and safety.

And, that desire isn’t wrong.

I have a dozen yoga books on my shelf with titles like ‘overcoming trauma’. The urge to include trauma sensitivity (and, hopefully, diversity) training in teacher certifications is on the rise.  

I am part of this conversation. I think it’s a tremendously important conversation.  

But I wonder about the language. I wonder if we’re trigger happy. I wonder if trauma sensitive yoga is all that different from fitness, yoga, or bliss yoga. I wonder about the consequences of teaching people to ‘overcome’ trauma or ‘manage’ stress.

As I understand it, you don’t get over trauma. And you can’t manage stress. It’s more important to realize how stressed we are, and how this is affecting our lives. Realization brings up questions, and it’s important to have questions.

Change comes from questions, not ‘managing’. 

Trauma doesn’t go away.  You only get more comfortable, gradually more appreciative of your own, and other’s, lives. I mean down to their depths. You can only do that if you have space to work with the ways you yourself have been wounded, you yourself have been are politicized, sexualized, targeted body; the ways you yourself have participated in and are bound by culture. You can only work with your pain by knowing your stress, fear, power and it’s lack, privilege, costs, and your needs and narratives of flesh.  There isn’t any space, if we are ignorant.

Without the space, there’s only suffering.

This turning toward is the only way we can reconcile the beauty of the world, and its pain.  

In a world where everything is so charged, every statement political, where every choice matters, where democratic processes and ideals of the country are criticized by a presidential candidate, it is vital that we be able to work with our own problems. If we can’t, the only thing we contribute to the conversation is our own ignorance.

We make it all about us. There’s only, suffering.

It is hard to know what to do, as yoga teachers and yoga practioners. We think of ourselves as yogic. This carries undertones of spirituality, ethics, and contemplation. There is this narrative of liberation. But how do we practice yoga, or meditate, or even use words like ‘self care’, when the world is so shitty? What does liberation, mean?

On the one hand, turning toward a yoga mat feels selfish. It’s so beside the point. On the other, the current state of things is so complicated it’s hard to know where to begin.

Everyone I know is weary. Many of my peers are spiritual leaders outside the yogic tradition, and I hear them struggle with knowing how to be ministers, therapists, clergy. Hell, we don’t know what to say as parents. As school teachers.  Regardless of who we are, our identity is suddenly quite political.  Our skin, is.  Our sense of god.  Our pussy.

We are part of current crisis, whether we want to be or not.

The Warrior and the Renunciate

There are two narratives we’re familiar with as yogis: that of the warrior, and that of the renunciate. Both have what seem like philosophical reasonableness behind them: we must, fight when things are so awful; and, we have to take care of ourselves, before we can do any good.

Both narratives miss the point.

Both, make it about us.

The Warrior stance – the anger, the passion, the reposting and vitriol- is not dialogue.

And renunciation – masked as self care – is not a political stance.

There is a danger to abstracting the language of yoga.  There is a danger to responding to situations with ideology. Situations aren’t ideological. These questions are too important, too real, and too urgent to have ultimative style answers. Situations mean there is no ‘right’ answer or action, but a constantly shifting, context. Sometimes, the right action is to bite tongue. Sometimes, to scream. It’s important that we have space to rest. And, it’s important that we not rest all the time.

We can’t supplant abhaysa (commitment, dedicated practice)’ and vairagia (surrender) for responsibility any more than we can trade savasana for family time. Your child doesn’t need your warrior self: she needs you.

The difficulty is we have to be, so many different things.  Mothers, and voters, and bodies who are judged based on gender and age. Without a space in which to realize all the different ways we’re being pulled, the effect the pull has on us, how can we do any of them well?

We have to be ideologically responsible for our dedicated practice and our surrender, rather than use them as a surrogate for ourselves. Let alone beat other people over the head with our yoga mats and namaste everybody to fucking toxic mumbling.  We cannot vote, parent, lead, or speak as yogis, just as we shouldn’t vote, parent, or lead as Christians, as Muslims, as gendered, or as democrat.   We have to vote, and parent, and lead as something, as very many things, which are more than our personal lives.

These problems go beyond gender- feminism is not a women’s issue.  They go beyond race, because race is targeted.  They go beyond indigenous land rights and the sexualization of children.  They go beyond political or religious ideology because they are questions of human rights, and the crucial truth that diversity does not imply divisiveness.  Your vote won’t count any more because of anything you post on facebook, or any hours you log on a mat. Those things aren’t political or social action, and we shouldn’t use them that way.

The Body Politic

Your vote matters because it’s a vote.  Votes – keystones of the democratic process – are a way to go beyond creed. They go beyond gender, race, and affiliation in a world that is scarred with labels, identities, and affiliations. This is one of the most important accomplishments of human history. Don’t abstract it, and don’t make it personal. This isn’t about, you.

And, of course, it is. It is so personal. We are offended, so scared, so overwhelmed. Our bodies are, politic.

Which is why we need, our own practice.  We need teachers who can hear and hold our struggle. We need spaces in which our gendered, targeted, politicized narratives can unravel, and dominant narratives can be challenged. We need our practices so that our personal lives improve.

It is so important that we be able to feel what has happened to us. 

In this teaching, heart is the center. Heart is, and is not, a muscle. Heart is definitive, central, essence, and core. It’s called anahata, or the unstruck. I have been trying to figure that out, for years. It’s related to sound, but it’s a sound that emerges, out of nothing. Heart is actions and emotions that aren’t bound by karma or the personal. Anahata means unstruck, unviolated, unharmed, unbeaten. The implication is both that we are, wounded, and that there is something essential that is, not. That the heart of our personal work is to transcend the merely personal.

Yoga is not the story of overcoming old trauma. If yoga is anything, it has to be the story of how we survive trauma, and go on loving. It’s a way to not lose the beauty that is still left to us.  Just as daylight, colored leaves, and time converge, so too do pain and healing, the personal and politic.

~You can read this article in it’s entirety where it was originally published at Return Yoga HERE.


Karin 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

Want to practice online yoga with Karin? Check out her yoga collections with Gather: A Practice of Moments and The Speed of Trust.


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