“Working Out My Karma: Struggling to Find My Dharma On and Off the Yoga Mat”

Here is another guest post by writer, friend, and yoga student Sarah Militz-Frielink.  You can read the first post she wrote for LYJ entitled The Illusion of When.

Sarah was inspired to write this post after becoming disillusioned with the corporatized yoga that is currently playing in the modern American yoga scene.

If you like Sarah’s style, contact her at sarah (at) leavingdark (dot) com if you need a writer.  Sarah said that she is finally getting back into spiritual writing and is thinking of starting her own online non-profit magazine.

Enjoy, and comments welcome!

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It seems like just yesterday, I signed up for my first yoga class at the local park district down the street from my house.  That was eight years ago, and I have been practicing pretty much regularly to this day.  At the time, I had no idea what I signed up for or what a genuine yoga practice should look like.  I never anticipated all the challenges I would encounter along the way.  Probably motivated by the wrong reasons to try yoga, my underlying goal was to shed 30 pounds of baby weight that still clung to my body.  I had just given birth to my third child.  I was definitely lacking the spiritual discipline a true practice actually involved.  I just wanted results.  I did not know that a beautiful path lie before me where I would have to confront my own karma and struggle to find my dharma.

I guess I bought into the corporatized version of yoga: hot, sweaty, skinny, bodies on a mat glowing with a renewed sense of beauty, a calmer demeanor, and a compulsion to eat vegan.  When I use the term “corporatized yoga”, I am referencing the images that dominate all things yoga in magazines, commercials, DVDs, props, mats, and books.  Media and pop culture bombards us with a plethora of images—pictures of hot, upper-middle class blond females, doing handstands with ease.  And then there are the magazine photos boasting post-practice smiles plastered on flawless porcelain faces as the “model” promotes a new sport drink or yoga pants line. These images do not reflect a genuine yoga practice, one that seeks to unite the “human with the divine—all within the self” as the ancient yogis instruct us to do.

During my journey, I realized that these images conveyed a false sense of hope, one based in consumerism, vanity, and prejudice.  As if all bodies on yoga mats should look the same, as if all people who do yoga are skinny, blond, vegan, and Zen-like.  What’s worse is that these images brainwash Americans into thinking what yogis should look like or act like. If someone does not fit the norm, they are questioned along the way.  This is what I call a “yogaism” a belief that those who practice yoga should conform to the norms of the corporatized yogi image and a discrimination against those who do not.

For example, I was once asked why I didn’t act enlightened all the time.  My coworker thought people who do yoga and meditate were like Buddha every second of the day.  “How come you aren’t calm all the time? I don’t get why you do yoga and are not in a continuous state of serenity.”

“That’s one of the reasons why I do yoga now,” I told him. “Because I have recognized over the years how much anxiety I had that I wasn’t even aware of; I know I’m not calm all the time.  Enlightenment is a process; it ebbs and flows.”

My coworker then responded that he disagreed with my statement about enlightenment. The people he knew who had a true yoga practice were always that way.  They were never anxious and always enlightened.  My practice then must be a sham.

I laugh now looking back on this. Who were these yogis he knew who were in a constant state of enlightenment?  Maybe he confused the ones in yoga magazine for real people in the flesh.  Maybe he knew yoga masters who practice in a monastery on a mountaintop because last time I checked we were all human and subject to moments of fallibility.

Yet on and off the mat, I am still working out my karma, struggling to find my dharma as I continue to question what a genuine practice should look like.  I now know a bit about what a genuine practice does not look like.   A genuine practice is not limited to hot, skinny, blond females, who are in a semi-drugged state of yoga bliss.   A genuine practice does not come easily.  It isn’t about increased flexibility or weight-loss.  There are times when you confront your own demons on the mat.  You realize that you have unforgiveness stored in your heart chakra.  You learn to love yourself and in the process love others as you slowly release pain from this life and (at times) the pain from previous lives.

A genuine practice does not boost your self-esteem.  You are humbled at the limitations of the human condition as you practice your poses.  You become aware of how you sell yourself out every day as a consumer in cultural capitalism.  How small acts of kindness (i.e. donating a pair of shoes to an impoverished child in Guatemala) do not change the system (i.e. the child still lives in hideous poverty).

You develop an increased sense of social responsibility as you come to grips with the excesses of the American lifestyle. The eco-friendly mat and water bottle no longer seems to compensate for the size your carbon footprint.

This is what I have learned about a genuine yoga practice.  It should not be based in a “yogaism”—one that excludes overweight individuals, persons of color, or working class individuals. Yoga should embrace all kinds of people who are different shapes, sizes, and colors.  Yoga is about making peace with self and others and embracing who we are—both on and off the mat.

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7 thoughts on ““Working Out My Karma: Struggling to Find My Dharma On and Off the Yoga Mat”

  1. “My coworker thought people who do yoga and meditate were like Buddha every second of the day. “How come you aren’t calm all the time? I don’t get why you do yoga and are not in a continuous state of serenity.”

    If someone said that to me and I was feeling snarky, I would have replied, “If I didn’t practice yoga I would have punched you in the face alreay!” Just as a joke, of course.

    This is one of the most genuine personal reflections about yoga I’ve had the pleasure to read.

    • and one of my favorite Jack Kornfield pieces of advice was when he said (at Spirit Rock in CA), that anyone who thinks those on the spiritual path are not supposed to get angry, upset, fight, etc. has a kindergarten view of spirituality. YES!

      • “kindergarten view of spirituality” I agree with that too. You probably know the quote from Ram Dass (I think) who said something like, If you think you’re enlightened, go visit your parents. I would also say go visit a kindergarden class full of rowdy kids!

  2. Thank you Grace. I am honored. That’s a funny response. I’ll have to remember that for next time. Linda-Sama, I couldn’t agree more with Jack Kornfield’s pieces of advice. It is a confirmation. Thank you so much for setting such a good example of what a true practice should look like.

  3. I am NO yogaist.
    I do not brag to others about “getting into” and holding poses
    I accept my size and size diversity
    I believe that yoga is available/doable by everyone, no matter what their circumstances
    I believe that full-bore, serious yoga asana does not happen just in a studio
    I believe that yoga is not a matter of mastering and showing off “party tricks” at airports or at parties, for that matter … or on the beach with a camera snapping away
    I believe that a yoga instructor could pull me up into a posture I am two years’ regular practice away from being ready for …
    But, emphatically, should not make an issue out of it
    If it’s an inversion, not to shake the coins out of my pocket …
    If I fall for that shakedown, do not assume I want to study
    to be a professional yogaist !!!!
    Now, going from the studio to the mall:
    I believe Lulu has shown its true colors
    I’d come thisclose to shopping there … now they blew it …
    All right, all those yoga people with money enough to buy and sell me; are not going to shop there anymore, anyway
    Though there are some who would not let me post to their blogs
    [Present company excluded]
    It’s about what yoga is, not your politics or that one is their target market
    I am NO yogaist

  4. Unfortunately, WordPress will not let me change my handle from amphibi1yogini to Vision_Quest2 (if I actually log in) because I don’t have a blog on here (yet) …
    I refuse to be associated with being a “yogini” …

    It’s not only that I have a personal fusion practice and have branched out to 5 Rhythms
    [backlash, anyone?]

    I also am embarrassed at what commercial yoga has become in New York City … with the neverending ’80s costume balls and playlists where a yoga class [and its worthy teacher] once was [with that same teacher—used to love how he taught before this madness], with the yogaist posturing in advertising [thinking they want only young people—surprised when they don't show up to the studio in the first place—many are not stupid, you know]

    Even with even the Master Swami and company thinking I should be signing up for more classes … asking me when (?) [Do I have a timer attached to my wallet or what?]

  5. Hi Vision_Quest2, I like your poem on “I am no yogaist.” You make some compelling points about yoga and consumerism. Thanks for you insight. Blessings!

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