Using Yoga to Heal What Cannot Be Cured
A few days ago I received a voicemail from a nearby mental hospital. Oliver’s voice was hushed and shaky as he described himself to me in case I had forgotten meeting him. I hadn’t forgotten.
I met him one night when he came into the nonprofit yoga studio I cofounded. I was gathering there with members of my community to sit in contemplative prayer as we do each Sunday night before heading out to the streets to share food with our homeless brothers and sisters. But before we made our way into the peace and quiet of the studio to practice the presence of God, in walked Oliver.
The thing about invoking the presence of God is that sometimes God shows right up. Sometimes the Divine shows up when our partners or children need us to soften the edges of hard days. Sometimes the Holy One is present between two friends sharing deeply. And sometimes the Beloved appears as a homeless, swaying man who is hungry and cold and lonely. Oliver appears drunk at first glance. He sways and jerks and stomps. On a stage, with lighting and music, it would almost look like interpretive dance. He uses the word "flail" to describe the movements of his body—the movements that feel out of his control and that intensify when he is feeling anxious.
In the course of the hour-long conversation we had with Oliver, he revealed himself to be funny, self-aware, humble, empathetic, curious, and determined. He also expressed anger, disappointment, and incredible frustration. We talked about politics, war, mental illness, privilege, and yoga. He told us stories of his family of origin, waiting tables in high-end restaurants, and serving in the military under both Reagan and G. W. Bush. He held back tears as he told us about the first time his mother had a schizophrenic episode and described himself as a natural caretaker.
To cure is to alleviate symptoms; to heal is to make whole. This came to mind as I watched Oliver struggle to put his few possessions and the food we’d given him into a fresh paper bag. The constant movements of his body make it difficult for him to do anything with ease. I offered to help. He declined. As I sat there, uncomfortable and wishing he would have accepted my offer, I was forced to really face the source of my discomfort: I wanted to help him, not to ease his suffering, but my own. Feeling helpless about his homelessness and his mental illness, I wanted to fix something. For just a moment, I wanted a break from bearing witness to his painful reality.
To practice yoga is to be capable of experiencing and bearing witness to suffering, joy, disappointment, and contentment in equal measure.
So many of us come to yoga in search of a cure. Our backs hurt, our hamstrings are tight, our joints are stiff, or we are overwhelmed with stress. I came to yoga through trauma, seeking to alleviate the symptoms of PTSD, dissociative disorder, and depression. In trying to find a way out of my discomfort I discovered that yoga, like all other spiritual practices, isn’t about comfort. It’s about learning to be present and open to opportunities for healing while also learning to sit with what is, without trying to fix or cure. To practice yoga is to be capable of experiencing and bearing witness to suffering, joy, disappointment, and contentment in equal measure.
Eventually Oliver successfully gathered his things and we said our goodbyes. After an hour together we found no cure for Oliver’s homelessness, mental illness, or trauma. I found no cure for my heartache or helplessness. We hadn’t practiced what most people would call yoga. And yet mutual healing had occurred as we sat together as human beings, as we shared our stories, and as we listened intently and deeply. For that hour, we were seeing and holding each other in wholeness, practicing a different kind of yoga.
As a teacher I struggle with the tyranny of the yoga-industrial-complex. There is so much I could say about how yoga-as-industry and yoga-as-thing-to-consume is harming us all, but instead I’ll share what I know to be true after years of teaching and practice: Love is the most powerful force on the planet for personal transformation and societal change. As such, creating and holding spaces where people can simply come in off the street and experience love and connection is absolutely vital. And yoga, a science of union, is an immensely powerful tool to create that space and to facilitate not only the healing that can happen within a single person, but the healing that happens in relationship, in community.
We sit together, we breathe together, we move together, in brokenness and wholeness, in beauty and in raggedness.
Despite my frustration with the yoga industry, I am not cynical, because every day, in our tiny little social nonprofit yoga studio, as well as in the other studios where I am honored to teach, I am witness to yoga working miracles. Not the yoga of the thin and bendy or the yoga of the privileged that we see marketed in glossy magazines, but the yoga of connection, of union with all that is true and alive in my heart and the hearts of the people I encounter in those spaces. We sit together, we breathe together, we move together, in brokenness and in wholeness, in beauty and in raggedness.
A few days after I first met Oliver, and a bit before he called me from the hospital, I found a sweet little succulent plant waiting for me at the studio with a note attached, “Hello, new friend, from Oliver." The tears came sudden and hot, streaming down my face as my whole being welled with gratitude. I was grateful to have met Oliver, grateful for his example of generosity and kindness, and grateful to feel seen and heard by this homeless veteran who, cold and lonely, wandered into our space and co-created love, connection, and healing, thus making visible the hidden wholeness that binds us all.
V.K. Harber is a yogi, contemplative, and writer exploring the intersection of yoga, new monasticism, feminism, and social change. She is a co-founder and co-director of Samdhana-Karana Yoga, and has over 1,000 hours of teaching experience focused on underserved populations. She is also the spiritual director for Hab Washington, an ecumenical and inter-spiritual "new monastic" community which offers formation in radical spirituality and sacred activism.