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              On Hallowe’en night, I was called to a birth.  As the mother moved her hips in spirals and released what she was feeling on long oooh’s and aaah’s, children rang the doorbell, unaware that across the threshold, spirit was moving into form.  On a night that plays with Death, we were part of a dance of Life.

The boundaries between sex and spirit dissolve in this dance but because our mind separates these realms, we fear their fusion.   In a woman, Life and Death are one.  When this is obvious, we call her a witch.  Ancient cultures called her the Goddess. 

In South America, the Dia de los Muertos celebrates Her paradox.  In the early hours of November 1st, I was witness to the birth of a little girl.  Later that day, I was invited to a traditional Day of the Dead ceremony.  Wearing white, I lit a white candle and placed a white rose and carnation on the altar.  I honoured those who have gone and those yet to come and I honoured my own fear and love.

visionLife is one.  That’s the message I got from Ina May Gaskin last Friday night in Ottawa.  It’s the message of Yoga too.  The action of Yoga is to surrender your breath to the Whole/Ishvara.  Your whole body participates in the flow of Life.

It was a clear fall day when Isabel Perez and I drove from Toronto to Ottawa.  Blue sky touched red and orange leaves and the pink stone cliffs beneath them.  The vivid colours reminded Isabel of the great quantities of brightly dyed sawdust she helped her family make when she was a child in Guatamala.  People bought the material at Christmas time to decorate their handmade nativity scenes.  Isabel’s memories have merged with the Canadian landscape and have added another layer to my perception of it too. 

Isabel and her family came to Tennessee in the 70’s so that she could train as a midwife with Ina May.  Our journey to Ottawa was a brief reunion.  Ina May was the final speaker at the Breech Birth Conference.  It was billed as a storytelling event.  Ina May is a wonderful entertainer.  I spent most of the evening laughing.  Her stories were of the link between childbearing women and other mammals.  How we share the one process of Life.  

Ina May said she loves old books.  They are often sources of lost knowledge and alternate frames of mind.  In an 18th Century medical textbook , she found suggestions for relieving milk engorged breasts that included an “intelligent maid” and a cooperative goat.  This was in an era before the invention of the breast pump.  Intelligent, cooperative husbands were the standard solution on the Farm, she said.  In the weeks before his baby was able to latch onto the breast, Ina May told of one skinny vegan man who blossomed in his efforts to build and maintain his wife’s milk supply.  Breast is indeed best.

In order to give birth, the primal brain stem, the part of the brain we share with all living creatures, must be freed from the tyranny of the modern, rational brain.  In order to give birth, we must surrender to our animal selves.  It is in this surrender that we experience love.  Images of the direct connection between animals and us are in the media now.  Perhaps we are remembering our link with Life.  Ina May mentioned the photo of Tori Amos suckling a piglet.  I happened on the less provocative but very beautiful mixed media exhibition of Gregory Colbert, entitled ‘Ashes and Snow’ which opened in Venice in 2002 and has been touring the world since.  The photo of the boy and the bird at the top of this post is one of Colbert’s. 

The audience for Ina May on Friday was a young one.  I felt quite ancient in its midst and quite delighted.  I have hope.

orchidWhen we give birth, we open so completely that our centre dissolves.  Our cervix melts.  Our belly becomes utterly soft.  In this receptivity the boundaries between our baby and ourself are magnificently transparent.  Breastfeeding sustains this unity while helping our body to regain its strength and realign around an expanded centre.   While the uterus needs about six weeks to return to the size of a pear, connective tissue needs about a year to regain its pre-pregnant state and the transformation that happens in our heart is forever.  In the most literal sense of the word,  post-partum isn’t a limited period of time after birth but extends through the rest of our lives. 

An uncomplicated birth initiates us into an awareness of our wholeness.  Obstetrician Michel Odent says women enter an altered state when they give birth.  We experience  a physiological transformation that ensures we are able to give and receive love.   When the process is interrupted by major medical intervention, the integration is also interrupted.  A woman experiences the spiritual aspect of birth without being able to process the intensity of it through her body.  In the case of a ceasarean section, dis-integration happens not just because of the physical trauma of surgery but because a woman loses touch with herself, with her source. Integration will need to take place after the birth rather than through it and the early weeks of motherhood will likely be a particularly vulnerable time.

One in three women who give birth in Toronto today will do so by caesarean.  It is such a common event and yet as a society we don’t honour the immensity of the experience or the multi-layered healing that needs to take place afterwards.  Every woman needs deep nurturing after giving birth but after a caesarean this is especially so.   I met a woman a few days ago who has gone through two caesarean births in the space of three years.  She said her children are happy, her husband is happy but two years after the last birth, she is still in pain.  While not a usual situation, it is not an uncommon one either.  After talking to her and seeing how she breathed and moved, it became clear that she has yet to recover the connection to her strength that was severed in the course of two major abdominal surgeries.  As a place to begin, I gave her some simple Yoga to do every day. 

When the ujayi breath is the inspiration for movement (see previous post) Yoga engages and strengthens precisely those muscles that were most stressed during pregnancy and birth: the pelvic floor and abdominals.  In a caesarean, the abdominal muscles aren’t merely stressed, they are cut in two.   A reconnection of above and below needs to happen in order for the body to regain its fluid strength.  When it does, the spine aligns and the internal organs, including the bladder, uterus and intestines, find their place.  A linking of above and below is also necessary for our heart’s equalibrium.  When softness and strength balance each other, we feel good.  

In a caesarean birth, a woman’s body doesn’t get the opportunity to complete the full birth process and her participation is restricted to that of a witness.  Mind and body separate and “hormones of love” don’t flood through her system like they would in a spontaneous birth.  Sadness and grief are a natural part of the time after birth but they can be a particularly strong reaction to the parameters of a caesarean experience.   As the baby isn’t brought immediately skin to skin with the mother when it is born, more time and support to establish a satisfying breastfeeding relationship might be needed. 

Having someone in the recovery room who can unwrap the baby and help latch it to the breast in the first hour after the birth can be a great help in bringing mother and child together again.  I do this in my role as a doula.  It is a great source of comfort to have your newborn suckling at your breast even as your body is coping with the immediate effects of surgery.  I often see vital signs in the mom stabilize as soon as she and baby are reunited in this way.  Oxytocin and endorphins flow; Life moves and all is well in the world.  Getting consistent breastfeeding support in the subsequent days and weeks is also invaluable.  It is a mother’s relationship with her child that is her primary Yoga.  Connected to each other, both find their strength.

In traditional societies all over the world, it’s recognized that mother and baby flourish when the mother is completely cared for in the first forty days after birth.  She needs warmth on every level: a warm, quiet, space; hot food and drink; warm baths and gentle touch.  Nurtured, she can nurture in return.  While our urban, technological environment suggests otherwise, we need no less.

IMG_2721For the first time in 18 years, I am free to come and go as I please in the world.  My daughter has left Toronto to attend university.  It is a bittersweet freedom, coming as one phase of our lives ends and another begins.  What to do with it?

In speaking to the Yoga Alliance this past week, I found out that they are struggling with a backlog of 200 teacher registration applications.  It took four attempts, by mail and then by fax, until they were able to locate my paperwork.  Is there anything, in the millions of people now practicing and teaching Yoga, that I can add?

I’ve been reading Yoga, Buddhist and other spiritual magazines over the last few weeks, interested in what people in the public realm are saying right now.  My birth work happens in the intimacy of bedrooms and birthing rooms and the majority of my teaching over the last few years has been one-on-one in my home.  I feel that what happens in these private realms is not impacting the public conversation.

Here`s an example. In the August-September 2009 magazine Tathaastu there is an article by David Frawley.  His realm is Tantric philosophy.  “Wonderful!” I’m thinking, as I dive into his words.  But as I read, something doesn’t feel right.  It takes me a moment to figure out what.  “To merge one’s mind into [the] yoni of the heart is to move through all creation to the absolute beyond, to be reborn into the Supreme!”  He speaks of “higher” powers and how sexual energy is “only” an outer manifestation of cosmic consciousness, “a greater Divine sexuality which transcends all creaturely existence”   Ah, now I have it!   David separates the spiritual from ordinary life and in doing so, turns what we are into something less than what lies “beyond”.  Wherever that is, it is not here.

Disassociation is at the root of human suffering and spiritual philosophy that assumes we have to leave ordinary reality is yet another source of pain.  Our physical existence is not a barrier to the absolute but is its fullest expression.  When sperm fused with egg, the energy of Life, Shakti, God/Goddess, call it what you will, moved through your parents and took form as you.  You wouldn’t be alive if Shakti weren’t pulsing in you at this very moment.  We don’t go “beyond” to feel this.  Life is right here, right now, present in a never ending flow.  Like a river and its bed, like sunlight and its warmth, we are indivisible from our source.

So our birth is not an event that needs to be improved upon.  I challenge anyone to be with a woman as she gives birth and then say that what you have witnessed is not the pure power and mystery of the universe revealing itself.  After sixteen years of attending births, I return home in greater awe each time, feeling the strength and delicacy of my own aliveness, raw and open. If I gave birth to another human being believing that I had trapped them in a state that needs to be transcended, it would turn my life into a nightmare. I would become a vehicle of suffering.  What misery for all of us!  Krishnamacharya’s statement that “We have created a hell out of this earthly paradise” describes the situation very aptly, I think.  He defined practice, sadhana, as “doing what can be done”.  Everyone can receive the reality of Life as it is given. Small “l” or capital “l”, there is no difference between them.

Which brings me to the question of teaching.   In the Summer 2009 issue of Parabola  the Taoist teacher Sat Hon says:

I think that students and teachers are in a conspiracy of lies.  My teacher used to say that students will come to you with chains of concepts and an unskillful teacher will give them another chain of concept to carry around and they’re both happy.  They think that’s what teaching is.  To really get into the core of your being, you don’t have to accumulate more.  You have to have the good fortune to meet someone like my kind teacher who whittled away everything.

In order to whittle, you must know what you’re working with.  Is it pine, oak or cherrywood that you hold in your hand?  Freshly cut or seasoned?  As my daughter  begins her time in an institution of  “higher” learning, I’ve been thinking of her path up until this point.  Certain that a personal relationship between teacher and student was essential,  I homeschooled her until she was eight.  She then entered a Waldorf school and stayed with her core teacher throughout the next six years.  High school was spent at another small school where there was a strong sense of community and a real engagement between teachers and students.  While now part of a student body that numbers over 20,000, she has chosen a program that contains only 80 students and that has her in a seminar class of eight and a tutorial class that is even smaller.  Her instinct is to seek out the opportunity for relationship.  I am fascinated by this.  And I think how much more important is the connection between teacher and student when the subject is not intellectual but of the heart?

Like Sat Hon, I too have met kind teachers.  They have met me in return with a knowing that has touched my very marrow.  In our meeting I have come to recognize that the core of my creaturely existence is love.  Everything whittled away, I am left with everything. 

So much of Yoga is now taught en masse.  I wonder if this reflects our collective struggle with intimate relationship?   My daughter has had the good fortune to experience real connection.  So many of us haven’t.  We’ve drifted through social and educational systems where we’ve never been seen.  If you don’t know what you’re missing, how can you ask for it?  How can you give it?

So I think there is something I can both add and take away.  I know how to teach Yoga in a way that gives you the strength to receive.  With this receptivity, your connection to everything becomes obvious and the need for conceptual complexity dissolves.  As Mark says with great understatement, “Our life as it is given is full and sufficient.”

I want to write my poems on the sky so everyone can read them…I like to recite my poems in a big voice, and I like to whisper and sometimes I like to use silence.  Silence in Eastern philosophy is a bigger voice- just one that’s not audible…My poems are about the life process on this planet because the life process never stops.  Like wind and the clouds…

                                                         Huang Xiang (see previous post)

A blizzard was turning all of Toronto white as I sat beside her.  It had taken me two hours by TTC to reach her.  She was coming out of a Demerol haze, the result of the nursing staff’s inability to cope with her.  She was 17 and in labour.  Her blood pressure was extraordinarily high.  She was over two hundred pounds.  Arrested for assaulting her baby’s father the week before,  a court date had been set.  She didn’t want me to touch her.

I asked her to imagine she was a cloud and the contractions were the wind.  When the wind blows, clouds shift their shape.  She should do the same.  I would make the sound of the wind and she could join me.  This would help with the pain.  Over the next five hours our voices merged.  I will never forget the image of her standing with her eyes closed, undulating her arms as we filled the room with sound and silence.  This is how she gave birth, a sky dancer of infinite grace.

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Keeping my daughter company last night as she packed for a canoe trip, I began reading aloud from a book that was on her camp’s reading list, The Tao of Leadership.  This is what I read.

Tao means how:  how things happen, how things work.  Tao is the single principle underlying all creation… All creation unfolds according to Tao.  There is no other way.  Tao cannot be defined, but Tao can be known.  The method is meditation, or being aware of what is happening.  By being aware of what is happening, I begin to sense how it is happening.  I begin to sense Tao… The method of meditation works because principle and process are inseparable.  All process reveals the underlying principle.  This means that I can know Tao.  I can know God.  By knowing Tao, I know how things happen.¹

I stopped and shouted, “This is Yoga!” Substitute Shakti for Tao; they are different words for the same thing.  Shakti is the single principle underlying all creation.  By being aware of what is happening when you give birth, you will know Her.

Practicing Yoga before you give birth will make it easier to feel what is happening during the intensity of the birthing process.  A practice isn’t essential but it is very helpful.  I think “being aware of what is happening” is a great way to describe meditation.   Any preciousness associated with the concept is dropped.  When you are aware of what is happening, you are meditating.  It is that simple. 

I also love how Lao Tzu says, “There is no other way.”  He isn’t worried we’ll misinterpret his clarity.  The painting of  Tzu that accompanies this post is a co- creation of Huang Xiang and William Rock.  Xiang is “one of the greatest poets of the 20thC and a master calligrapher.” He was imprisoned for twelve years in China for his advocacy of human rights and now lives in NYC using his art as a bridge between the East and West.  Rock is an Irish American artist who has studied with Tibetan and Chinese monks over the last fifteen years.  Together, Rock and Xiang are a voice for freedom, the only way.

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¹ John Heider, The Tao of Leadership, Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching Adapted for a New Age (Atlanta: Humanics Limited, 1985) p.1

wp3b965a7e_1b Having attended a long birth a few nights ago, I’ve come back into daily life where I’m living by the rhythm of the sun again.  I’ve been writing today, winding my way through a logical sequence of thoughts and images, moving through a vinyasa of words.  Writing is Yoga where the invisible takes shape, where silence becomes sound, where thought becomes vibration.  It is a creative act that mirrors the original one of Birth. 

 The sensation of following the thread of my thoughts reminds me of the Greek myth where Ariadne holds onto the end of a ball of thread that her lover, Theseus, unspools as he enters into the heart of a labyrinth.  There he meets and kills a half- human beast.  The thread guides him back out.  He begins and ends his journey in love.  On the way, he loses his fear.

Giving birth  is like this.  You go to the centre of what you are. You touch the heart.  In fact, there is an ancient yantra (a Tantric symbol of cosmic unity) given to labouring women that is in the exact form of a labyrinth.  It’s called a Chakravyuha but it is identical to labyrinths drawn for thousands of years on the walls and floors of caves, temples and churches worldwide. The pattern is woven into baskets in South America. It is carved into the grassy ground in England.  It is built out of stones in Scandinavia.  

In a Hindu birth ritual a yantra is traced in saffron.  The birthing woman mentally walks through the yantra and then the saffron is washed away with water.  The water is collected and given to the woman to drink.   Her body absorbs the substance of the  rhythmic pathways of her mind and she is free to move into the uncharted territory of Life.  There is no difference between her and love.

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Anger. Women’s anger directed at other women. The emotion was so tangible, so raw, I can taste it still.  Memories of my own experiences of female aggression were triggered when I surfed through some of the popular childbirth websites online this past week.  Common to the comment threads was an antagonism directed towards women whose birth experiences were diametrically opposed to their own. There seem to be thick walls between the 25-30% of women who have given birth through caesarean sections, the 80-95% of women in urban areas who have given birth within the parameters of epidural anaesthesia and women who have birthed with full sensation and little or no intervention. Why do we feel so threatened? Why do we lash out at each other? 

I think we are individually and collectively expressing the fragmentation of the Feminine. It is painful.  In the denial of the Feminine that is the structure of all contemporary societies, medical knowledge is divorced from wisdom. In this separation, both aspects are weakened and neither can receive or support the other. The current situation for women in India is an example of this. I happened on a website based around the work of Janet Chawla who founded the NGO, Matrika. Its mission is “the linking of indigenous skills, attitudes, diagnostics and therapeutics with modern allopathic medecine.” Most births in India are still in the hands of dais, traditional midwives who are often illiterate but who “read the fertile female body.” Matrika now has “ample data demonstrating a radically different understanding of the world and of bodily processes than that underlying modern medecine and public health.” This understanding is common to the Feminine the world over. In listening to the video interviews of dais on the website, I was moved by the universality of  their experience. Moved too by the heart breaking position they are in of not having the medical skills, the resources or the respect essential to provide complete care. It is a tragedy that these two aspects of knowledge are separated by caste, class, money, institutional education and government policy.  The polarized situation in India is highlighted by the fact that the “best hospitals” there have a caesarean rate of 80%!  Both the wealthy and the poor are suffering.

Both the east and the west are suffering. Midwifery in Ontario has the medical aspect firmly in hand but  the connection to the sacred understanding of birth that individual midwives may have is not tethered in a collective spiritual tradition or in a practical training in the technologies of breath and sound that are the pathways of the Feminine. Initiation into the “radically different understanding of the world” is not a given.

The radical realization is that we are already whole. There is nothing to fight for. I just learned from Matrika’s website that the Sanskrit word Yoni, referring to a woman’s vagina and womb, shares the same root as the word Yoga. Yuj means ‘union’. A woman is Yoga. In her, everything unites. Her yoni is the place where male and female merge. Where life is renewed and therefore where death is born. Where the past, our genetic history, and the substance of our cells, form the vehicle for the future. Where the unmanifest becomes manifest. Where the hidden is revealed. Where the power and the mystery of life are sourced. Connecting to our bodies brings integration, wisdom. It is only in this state of wisdom that our intelligence can function, that we can make decisions and take action based on the clear discernment of love rather than the haze of fear. 

In the Sri Yantra, the ancient visual expression of the totality of existence, four upward pointing triangles, the male principle, merge with five downward pointing triangles, the female principle. The Sri Yantra tells us that the female principle is a slightly stronger force that the male principle surrenders to. The yantra is not a political statement in the war of the sexes but an illustration of how Life/Love comes into being.  The work of Matrika is to honour the Feminine by listening to what the dais know and understand before giving them additional medical skills, skills that can be integrated into their work rather than be the means of its destruction.  What is our path here in the west?  What will be the bridge between the masculine medical model and the feminine wisdom that is buried more deeply underground here?  What will heal womankind?  To know we are union and the peace inherent in it is a sweet taste on the tongue.

Mark has just posted an audio recording of a discussion that took place at one of his workshops. I’m giving you the link to it because it addresses many of the issues that are whirling around us in Yoga studios and birthing rooms today and he speaks with such clarity about them.

What is Yoga? Really. What is it? If we ask that of teachers who have some philosophical training, we  often get answers that are contained within the structures of Vedantic or Buddhist thought, answers that propose we are not O.K. as we are. These structures twist Yoga into something that takes us away from ourselves. Pain is the result. A pain that is hard to identify and that we can’t integrate because we are already separated from it.

Mark speaks about the natural pain of being alive. I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last few weeks in relation to giving birth. The ideal of a “painless birth” can become one more obstacle to a woman being at peace with her experience. Some women give birth without drugs and without pain. It happens. But experiencing pain is not a sign of failure or a reason for shame.  And there is no valid equation to be made between the degree of pain experienced in birth and how “good” a birth is. Mark says, “To deny a mother her pain…is to deny life.”  This hit home for me.

Any kind of idealism takes us away from our experience. We lose our life that way. We get it back when we honour the validity of our own reality. Suffering can unravel in an instant. For more such revolutionary talk please click here!

The safest way to [give birth] has always been the natural way.

Tucked under my duvet this morning, The Globe & Mail  in hand, I sat, stunned by the words shaped by the tender lips of a representative of  the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada.

There’s the idea out there in the public sometimes that having a C-section today with modern anesthesia and modern hospitals is as safe as having a normal childbirth, but we don’t think so,” said Dr. Lalonde…The SOGC believes that if a woman is well-prepared during pregnancy, she has the innate ability to deliver vaginally.

I jumped out of bed in disbelief, narrowly escaping third degree burns from the scorching water that leaped from my earthenware cup of Valerian root tea. Maybe I’d done too much Yoga yesterday? This samadhi business can get out of hand. Take someone out of their mind, if they’re not careful. I continued to read.

Physicians should no longer automatically opt to perform a caesarean section in the case of a breech birth, according to new guidelines…a response to new evidence that shows many women are safely able to vaginally deliver babies who enter the birth canal with the buttocks or feet first. [In] a reassessment of earlier trials…it now appears that there is no difference in complication rates between vaginal and cesarean section deliveries in the case of breech births.

I squatted on the floor. Exhaled a steady stream of breath as if I were pouring water from a jug. Kept reading.

Breech presentations occur in 3-4 percent of pregnant women who reach term. That translates to approximately 11,000 to 14,500 breech deliveries a year in Canada.

Until today, all of them by cesarean section. I interlocked my fingers, hands at heart, then placed them and my forearms on the floor in front of me, forming an upward pointing triangle.

Caesarean sections, in which incisions are made through a mother’s abdomen and uterus to deliver the baby, can lead to increased chance of bleeding and infections and can cause further complications for pregnancies later on.

I bowed the top of my head to the ground.

[In the wake] of a serious shortage of doctors to teach and perform these deliveries…the SOGC will launch a nationwide training program to ensure that doctors will be able to offer vaginal breech births. 

In the stream of my next exhale, my hips rose; my legs floated up above me.  I was in a headstand. When the world turns upside down, I follow.