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Day_the_Dead

              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.

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When it was Monica Voss’ turn to speak during the opening remarks of the Yoga Festival of Toronto’s Roundtable on ‘Yoga and Death’ last night, she said she knew nothing. She hadn’t died yet. None of us who were there had either, she noted. Her response stayed with me. Teachers and practitioners who would never normally find themselves together did. Out of this interaction, I see myself and the work I do more clearly.

My experience of Yoga brings me into the mystery of my life and leaves me there. It is a place of complete unknowing. I can’t talk about my experience and I can’t teach it and in moments of doubt I wonder if I should be able to. When I was eight years old, my mother gave me my first Nancy Drew book. By the time I was twelve, I was devouring Agatha Christie mysteries all summer long.  Life and Death were tidily illuminated by the end of a few hundred pages. A few weeks ago I dreamed of Miss Marple. I’m smart like her and we both knit so there shouldn’t be anything I can’t explain. But there is.

What if I’m not responsible for knowing? What if life is not a problem? Yoga is not a route to solving the mystery of my life; it is a way to live intimately in the mystery, to be the mystery in all its fullness. Mark Whitwell says the solutions doctrine propose assume there is a problem in the first place. Practices that have you striving to reach spirit assume we are separate from spirit. We are not. We are Life in all its power and intelligence. One woman last night said she had a simple thought to share. Her Yoga brought her into connection with the ground and she knew that this is where she would return when she died. To feel the earth beneath your feet, to surrender to the downward force of gravity, to know where you stand, is to be connected to the Feminine, our source. To be securely linked to Life is to be free in life. It is only in the belief that separation is possible that we cling.

“Truth is, no teaching, no teacher, no taught.” These words strike a chord in me. They are from the Avadhoot Gita, a non-dual text.¹ The people who have been my teachers have not taught me anything. Rather than give me a structure, they have nurtured my strength to move into a place that is wide open, without boundaries, a place where I know nothing. Birth is such a place and I imagine Death is too. Yoga gives me a way to move into the unknown by giving me the ability to receive my experience rather than close off from it. To be given nothing is something. It is complete trust. It is pure love.

And it is in relationship that this love moves. I know this in the marrow of my bones. Gitta Bechsgaard began the evening by reading a poem by Rumi. I will end with another.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make any sense. ² 

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¹ Mark Whitwell, Yoga of Heart (New York: Lantern Books, 2004) p.15

² Open Secret, Versions of Rumi, trans. John Moyle and Coleman Barks (Vermont: Threshold Books,1984) p.8

Unexpectedly, in the wake of the Yoga Festival Toronto‘s Roundtable on ‘Yoga and Birth’, my mind has been mulling about death. The other half of this Roundtable event will take place on May 2nd, and its topic is exactly that. It’s clear that Matthew, Dennison and Scott have created a wonderfully natural structure for us to delve into what is at the heart of Yoga. Birth and death are two aspects of the same process. They interpenetrate. We found ourselves in this liminal territory by the end of Saturday night, at the place where opposites merge.

We spoke of how in order to give birth, our concept of who we are and where our boundaries lie dissolves. What is inside? What is out? What is me? What is not? We  die to who we were and are reborn as mothers. We encompass everything.

We spoke of maternal death and abortion and afterwards, in private conversations, of miscarriage, stillbirth and infant death. They are a part of Feminine experience and yet so often, they crouch in silent places full of grief and shame. As a Yoga teacher, I was once forbidden from referring to the Goddess Kali and how she reigned over birth and death. Saying the word “death”, I was told, might upset women who had had miscarriages. In the denial of the Feminine, in the denial of life, we also deny death. Between one in five and one in three pregnancies ends in miscarriage. It is such an ordinary, if I can use that word, part of being fertile and yet the social taboo around speaking about it remains. Additionally, the abortion rate in Canada is approximately 20% of all pregnancies. To speak of death in a group of women is to acknowlege what many have already experienced and what all face in potentiality. Speaking the “unspeakable” is to make our lives whole.

We spoke of how vital it is for a woman to be nurtured and nourished in the weeks after birth. While the form of that nourishment changes through time, the need for it never leaves. I’m reminded of Germaine Greer’s words that living in a body that isn’t nurtured yet is responsible for nurturing is a form of female madness. Some related statistics… 70% of the 1.2 billion people living in poverty are women; 80% of the world’s 27 million refugees are women; only 1% of the world’s land is owned by women… you get the picture. Here in Toronto, I’m aware of an emotional starvation even among women who are not lacking materially. On this level, fathers need nourishing as well. Men need men, a tribe of men, who know that loving and honouring women and children is what makes them strong. Nurturing the Feminine in all of us, we give children what they need to live and love. We get it back. Children are, quite literally, our life.

My thoughts come back to Yoga practice. Just as breath envelops movement, so life contains death. Yoga  gives us the strength to receive life and everything in it. We can embrace our beginnings, our endings and each other with less fear and more love. We can stand on the threshold with our heart wide open.

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