Fear and Self Loathing in Karma Yoga

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My palms were clammy, my heart raced, and despite trying to breath deeply I struggled to calm my troubled mind.  The yoga class would be starting soon, and I was overwhelmed with fear and guilt.  I asked myself why I was so anxious?  I didn’t have to teach the class, or assist, all I had to do was yoga, something I did daily, but this was no ordinary yoga class.

What made this yoga class unique was it’s location, the Arlington Life Shelter, a support center for homeless individuals and families.  When I signed up to volunteer with Studio to Streets, an outreach organization (co-founded by our own Chelsea Roff) that brings the yoga experience to people who would otherwise never have access, I was excited and eager to help.  However, minutes before my first class questions of doubt overshadowed my desire to participate.

Why was I doing this?  If these people were homeless, surely what they needed was food, clothing, tangibles — not a group of “karma yogis” with good intentions!  I was terrified to see people who had, what many would define as, nothing.  How did they live?  Would they look or act any different than someone who had “stuff?”

Mostly, I was ashamed of my privileged life, and disgusted with myself for thinking a luxury like yoga could help anyone.

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Despite my desire to bury my head in the sand I mustered up enough courage to enter the shelter.  It was noisy and crowded.  My eyes darted around the room, my ears focused in on an infant crying, and my whole body ached with sadness.  My fears were confirmed; homelessness knew no age limit, race, or creed. It was a reality I’d rather not confront, but one that exists regradless.

Dire poverty exists even in my own back yard.  

I tried to keep a poker face and keep my anxiety at bay while I settled onto my mat. To my left was a joyfully boisterous white woman and to my right was a reserved younger black woman. We all introduced ourselves — volunteers and shelter residents alike — then settled into child’s pose.  Before I knew it I was chatting and giggling with my neighbors. As we moved through poses, laughed, and fell down together, I started to feel more at ease. I came to cherish my newfound yoga mates and felt connected in a way I hadn’t experienced since my early childhood.

I was completely absorbed in the class, the environment, and the company I held.  I felt like my child self at a playground making new friends, completely unaware of the boundaries defined by one’s socioeconomic status, past experiences, physical appearances, or beliefs.  Even if for only one hour, we were all equal. Despite all of our obvious differences there was a common thread that bound us and defined us as human.  What was that thread?

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Maybe, it was our desire to be a part of something, to be acknowledged, and loved.  Maybe, it was our ability to smile, and be joyful in a moment, no matter how brief.  Maybe, it was that divine self that is said to exist in all of us.  I’m not sure that thread can even be articulated, but I do think if we look past the labels it is unmistakable.

As I think back on that experience, I wonder if fear and guilt is what keeps us from truly connecting, both in yoga and with people in our communities. Yoga is an experience of yoking ourselves with something much grander, divine, something intangible.  My desire to ignore avoid what made me uncomfortable may have sheltered me from reality for a short while. But had I not overcome my fears, I would have missed out on laughing, connecting, and sharing a valuable practice with my peers.

While yoga may not fill hungry bellies, clothe bodies, or put money in wallets, I think it does help fulfill a deeper desire.

We all yearn to be a part of a loving community, to be acknowledged, and accepted.

So here’s my question for you, Yoga Modern community. What keeps you from connecting with the people that go unseen in your home community? Does fear — the antithesis of love — prevent us from seeing our fellow human beings?

Posted by:

- who has written 21 posts on Yoga Modern.

Patience Steltzer is the Assistant Editor for the World Affairs Current at Yoga Modern. She spends her time drawing, painting, sewing, writing, and practicing/teaching yoga in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas. After a lifetime of having no idea what to do with her creativity and energy, she discovered yoga allowed her to find the beauty and excitement in stillness. Since then, she has dedicated herself to sharing her love of yoga with others to help them find the joy she has.

9 Responses

  • dsunshine says:

    Great post Patience! I'm very grateful that YM is sharing this story :) Daniel

  • Carol Horton says:

    Great post! I, too, taught at a homeless shelter (although this was a daytime drop-in center for women, not a place where people sleep) and found that once I overcame my fears and anxieties, it was a great experience. In fact, I found that the women who wanted to take my class in the shelter (happily, it was completely voluntary) were in general much more open to what I feel are the deeper aspects of yoga than the average student that I encountered in my studio class. This was a very eye-opening revelation to me.

    • it's very interesting to me how receptive the group is even though they are required to take one of the classes many of them are choosing yoga, and it's just awesome! Glad you have enjoyed similar experiences in teaching yoga outside of the "studio."

  • Beautiful post and well said. I too have experienced the commonality that comes when you throw off thoughts of disparities.

    Something that has kept me from teaching people in who are suffering is that it is difficult to get to them. I taught a group of reformed prostitute and they loved it as did I but the people who ran their program said there was no way to transport them and no room at the facility to teach. I had that one rare opportunity.

    I ran into different problems volunteering at a teen center, an inner city school and a prison. I did spend a summer at a non-profit center for kids and we had a blast. The next summer there were scheduling problems so organizing these things has been the greatest obstacle.

    This is why what Chelsea has done is awesome. It's got me thinking……

    • Thank you! The scheduling and red tape issues are definitely a huge pain in the butt. I am glad that Chelsea and Karen are patient and pushy(in a good way) enough to make these classes happen.

      It's a shame that there are many people wanting to help, but are often discouraged or unable to do so because of all the regulations that are currently in place.

  • Jenna says:

    Such a beautiful post. Reading things like this completely puts things into perspective, thanks for sharing Patience. Jenna