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Yogini: a female yogi, someone who practices yoga. While this seems simple enough, add a feminine ending to any word in English and you diminish it. This wasn’t always so. Words like tigress, poetess, and mistress originated without any derogatory intent. Today it’s implicit, if we use them at all. The Sanskrit ‘yogini’, however, stands somewhere in between its hashtag image of a nearly naked woman seducing the camera on a beach and the collective presence of mythological Indian sorceresses, real rishikas (female rishis, sages and seers), and the revered female teachers of Tantra in India, Nepal and Tibet. Why not retain the awe then, call myself a Yogi, and be done with the discomfiting feminine tail of ‘ni’?

 

Dropping the feminine in how we as women interact in the social world can feel like gaining a kind of strength, necessary in some circumstances because it gets us more respect. But the price is the loss of our integrity at its most essential. Something goes missing. More than that, something that only arises when male and female live together in us is never realized. When we grab hold of the feminine again, what’s gained is not just that. Something new is born. It’s the power— I want to say spiritual, and it is, but that’s not all of it— of our true humanity. Disintegrated spirituality causes pain. We see so much of it in the world right now in fundamentalist and nationalist religious movements and in individuals who have sacrificed what is most precious for a “spiritual” life. The power of our humanity manifests in us when we bring together the things that don’t seem to fit together: our hope and our despair; our generosity and the anguish of our lack; our idealistic drive and our impulsive reactivity; our reverence and our hate…and most importantly, our authentic sexual and spiritual expressions, for they are the ground of all else in us. When we stand on the native land of our humanity, love and its compassion is born. Not sentimental feeling and its “being nice”, but a visceral passion for ourselves and others.

 

In claiming the name of Yogini, I take ownership of the Feminine. She has presented a fractured presence in the world through thousands of years of misogyny. I am whole and it’s time I am heard. Take the Feminine away from me and you take away not only my heart, but the very heart of Yoga. She is missing in most of how yoga is being taught and practiced today. Bring the inhale and exhale together, body soft in its resilient strength, and every polarity in the universe collaborates to create the whole human being you were born to be in all the feeling of its passion. The nurturing source and force of life animates you. It is the Mother principle and potential in everyone. Without it, sex and spirit are split apart, not least in women ourselves. It is the complete collaboration of male-female, our creative and procreative power, at once sexual and spiritual. Yoga calls it Hridayashakti. ‘Hrid’ means heart, not our beating organ, but the whole of what we are.

12-inch wooden carving of a naked Yogini with a serpent coming out of her yoni, representing shakti, the life-force energy. South India c. 1800.

Yogini with serpentine energy from her yoni. South India, c. 1800; wood h. 12 in. The Art of Tantra by Philip S. Rawson

 

The intersection of sex and spirituality has been the place of my work as a doula/traditional midwife and a Yoga teacher over the last 25 years now. Its relevance isn’t limited to women’s health, or feminist spirituality, but to the core of human longing. Whether expressed in ancient texts, popular culture, or political rhetoric, we want freedom and love. Confusing them with polarized ideas of God and Sex, we’ve been strategizing about how to get one or the other for literally ages.

 

In areas where the Feminine is assumed to be present and active, we manipulate it, repress it, or out rightly deny it. Hospital ‘labour and delivery’ units are one example, where depending on where you are in the world, 30% to 80% of women give birth through major abdominal surgery (the WHO says higher than 15% does more harm than good). Wombs aren’t just sliced open, but the neuro-hormonal flow of love hormones that accompanies our life force is severed in the process too. Without our bodies and our babies’ being saturated in it at the time of birth, our ability to love both self and baby/other can be compromised lifelong (see Michel Odent’s Primal Health Research Data Bank). Being sexual-spiritual, it is responsible for both the birth process and everyone’s orgasm. For this reason alone, I think it’s fair to say that many of the world’s women have become separated from our own Feminine. Research on orgasm rates supports this: in one large study 10% to 20% of women reported never having experienced an orgasm, and 30%+ of women rarely, if ever, orgasmed during sex with a partner. Not that that should be the only judgement of pleasure. A recent multinational study reported heterosexual men took 5.4 minutes on average to ejaculate after penetration, testament to a common lack of “not knowing” in both men and the women they have sex with. Less research has been done on same-sex partners, but what has, showed no significant difference for men, and a significant positive one for women, who orgasmed with each other more consistently. A test of basic knowledge of body parts in American women under the age of 25 found 50% of them couldn’t locate the vagina on a diagram and 30% didn’t know where the clitoris was. From my experience teaching couples, I would expect young men to fare even worse. Add on the physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner that up to 70% of women worldwide endure (UN statistic), and you might want to lie down and weep.

 

Correspondingly, when female teachers stand in the image of Yogini and use patriarchal paradigms and power mechanisms to our own advantage, we are not teaching Yoga. Having a vagina is not enough. The integrity of women and the Feminine has been broken. In its place, we perform our womanhood, and sexiness becomes a construct of self-manipulation long before it manipulates others. For some, our sex is literally dirty; blood and vaginal fluids disgust us, and our pleasure, or its lack, humiliates us. The pill can be used simply for the convenience of avoiding having periods. A friend told me seven million women use the period tracking app, Flo, which recently had an ad selling a “secret way” to delay or eliminate menstrual bleeding. The parallel is in women’s periods spontaneously stopping during fast-track yoga teacher trainings in India due to some combination of inadequate diet, weight loss, lack of sleep, dissociative and/or otherwise inappropriate yoga practices, and the stress of culture shock. Several women have told me when this happened to them, they believed the yoga was “purifying” them. I’ve seen marketing for women’s “sacred sex” trainings promote the same, saying reducing the days of bleeding, or stopping them altogether, is spiritually advantageous. The fact is: how much you bleed is determined by how much estrogen you produce. If it’s low, the lining of your uterus will be less thick, and so when it’s released, your bleeding will be lighter and shorter. Average length of bleeding is from three to five days; some women bleed for two days, some for a week, but having a significant decline from your own normal is a sign of a hormonal imbalance, not impending enlightenment. The first action of an effective Yoga practice is to promote and sustain physical health and fertility. Ayurveda, the healing paradigm that is a sister to Yoga understands and supports this.

Wooden carving of a naked squatting woman with a gush of menstrual blood pouring from her yoni; in the Yonitantra menstruation is designated the 'flower'/pushpa. South Indian c.18th century.

In the Yonitantra menstruation is designated the ‘flower’—pushpa. South India, c.18th century, wood Kali the Feminine Force by Ajit Mookerjee

 

Patriarchy has put the unlimited intelligence and power of our female selves outside of ourselves in the ghostly form of the Goddess, which means we as women are outside the very thing that makes us alive. Men are too, searching for the Feminine in an “other”. Looking to transcendent spiritual practice and the men and women who teach it to get what remains at the centre of our existence is crazy. We are “beside ourselves” in this insanity.  Only by nourishing our procreative functioning in its evolving stages throughout our lives, and participating in it—Yoga practice, sex, giving birth, and being with birth are the most direct means— is its source revealed. We are it.

 

Wooden carving of a standing naked woman in a half-squat giving birth to a child with their palms together above their head. South Indian c. 18th century.

Human birth symbolizing the universal phase of creation. South India, c. 18th century; wood Kali the Feminine Force by Ajit Mookerjee

 

I love what yoga teacher, Emily Kuser, who is based in Bali, posted on Instagram (13 July 2017 @highvibeyoga) after attending a birth: I gotta say– for most of my life I didn’t understand this stuff. I was spooked by birth and death. I had to unlearn a lot and am still at it. How bizarre to recognize again and again that birthing a baby happens naturally, and dying happens naturally too– that things just happen when they’re ready to…

 

Our movement in and out of existence and our life in between cannot be manipulated, forced, or controlled. This has profound implications to what we imagine spiritual practice to be. It also explains why a society that fears life would want to control the people it most directly comes through: women. Our silence banishes us from ourselves. Our shame is our enslavement.

Starburst shaped yantra embodying the expanding and contracting currents of vibration of the cosmos moving from and to the One.

Yantra of the evolution & involution of the cosmos; the expanding & contracting currents of vibration from and to the One. Rajasthan, c. 19th century; gouache on paper Yantra, The Tantric Symbol of Cosmic Unity by Madhu Khanna, Foreword by Ajit Mookerjee

 

 

When I was in Fiji last summer, a grandmother shared a relevant story with me. She was an Indigenous woman and she told me in her culture it is “tamboo” (written tabu, where we get the English word ‘taboo’ from) to talk about giving birth; mothers stay silent, saying nothing, even to their own daughters, so that they themselves give birth for the first time in utter ignorance. Indigenous Fijian culture has been a rigid hierarchy with women at the bottom of it. She had taken part in a workshop I had given on the Yoga of Birth the day before, and later that night she spoke to her twenty-something year old daughter about it and what it had been like to give birth to her. Their conversation left them both in tears. She said her daughter was so grateful she had given voice to the unspoken.

 

A couple of days later, she brought this daughter, a grand-daughter accompanied by her infant son, and her own best friend, a grandmother as well, to speak on camera with us. I was touched by their trust. During the discussion, she told me she and her best friend had learned a method of fertility awareness from an expat friend decades ago. Through the course of a cycle, changes in basal body temperature, cervical mucus, and cervical position give clear signs of ovulation and its passing. They had both used the method successfully to know when there was a possibility of conceiving a child or not. I myself learned how to do this when I was in my mid-twenties, and I feel every woman should have the option of such intimate knowledge of herself. It is immense power.

Diagram showing the seed-sounds for the movement of the life force. Detail of a manuscript page from Nepal, 18th century; ink on paper 2.5 X 10 in.

Diagram showing the seed-sounds for the movement of the life force. Detail of a manuscript page from Nepal, 18th century; ink on paper 2.5 X 10 in. The Art of Tantra by Philip S. Rawson

 

 

“Relationship moves the life force, nothing else.” When I first heard Mark Whitwell say this, I immediately understood it in relationship to birth. My midwife, Mary Sharpe, had trusted me and I her. Our faith in each other had provided the conditions necessary for my relationship with my breath and body to flourish and guide me. In deep feeling, I was able to give birth to my daughter at home, despite the obstacle revealed at the end. As her head crowned, her right fist came with it, balled at her left temple. It had taken great softening and patience to allow my pelvis to open for her, and great strength to push her through it. She was a large baby, 8lbs 10oz, and her scalp had a graze on it where it had scraped past my bones. Years later, I realized the waves of energy moving through me as contractions, rising higher and higher until she was born, was the same phenomenon that happens in response to Yoga practice. God and sex are indeed one. In birth, the love hormones oxytocin and endorphins flood our babies’ systems and our own, bringing us both into what Yoga calls our Natural State, Sahaj Samadhi. We don’t need training in sexual or spiritual technique to enjoy this reality, but the strength needed to truly receive our experience. Then we are moved by love. A Yoga practice, which brings masculine and feminine principles into collaborative exchange gives us its power.

 

Sex and birth are the heart’s activity. If we separate them from feeling, they turn into something painful and crudely manipulative. Broken hearted, we disintegrate. We go numb. We fall apart. Historically, society has offered us few options to pull ourselves together again: “celibate saint”, “spiritual whore”, or “wife and mother” owning neither her sex nor her spirit. A man in search of healing his own separation from the Feminine, which patriarchy demands of him, is likely to be metaphorically fucked from the get-go, if he looks to a woman who is herself separated. Her sex won’t be love and another gash in the Mother wound will be inflicted.

Stone carving of a standing couple in an embrace of sexual pleasure called a rat-asana; from Khajuraho, Visvanatha Temple, 1059-1087.

Rati-asana, sexual embrace; stone; Khajuraho, Visvanatha Temple, 1059-1087 A.D. photo: Archeological Survey of India Tantric Art by Ajit Mookerjee

 

 

Giving birth isn’t necessary at the individual level, but if the source of our inherent power to do so, Hridayashakti (still present when we are infertile, which is much of the time in one ovulatory cycle, and continuous in the times before menarche and after menopause), is not something we are participating in in any way, we experience the sexual and spiritual aspects of ourselves and our relationships as distinct from one another, and creativity of any kind is compromised. Society supports this polarization and feeds it. Yoga as it’s mostly being delivered into the world does so too. Neither strength of will nor good intentions will heal it. It must be addressed at the functional energetic level from where it comes.

Sri Yantra created in an electronic vibration field, an experiment in the translation of sound into vision. Still from a film by Ronald Nameth

Sri Yantra created in an electronic vibration field, an experiment in the translation of sound into vision. Still from a film by Ronald Nameth Yantra, The Tantric Symbol of Cosmic Unity by Madhu Khanna, Foreword by Ajit Mookerjee

 

In Vagina: A New Biography (2012), Naomi Wolf addresses the correlation between sexual violence against women and the resulting suppression of our psychological well-being. The complex neurological connections between genitals and brain in females is not matched in males. Our pleasure pathways are rich. So are our pain. They are the same. Because of it, in the extreme, mass rape of a female population has the power to subjugate it. Even subtle violence can shut a woman down. Part way through the book, Wolf found herself unable to write for six months, after a demeaning sexual comment a man made to her at a dinner party.

 

The delicate link of ‘above to below’ Wolf explored is essential to the birth process; feeling at the cervix, the lower neck of the uterus, is the stimulus for the pituitary gland in the centre of the brain to release oxytocin and endorphins, the fuel of labour. Within the uterus itself, the same dynamic occurs: layers of uterine muscles simultaneously draw the cervix up into its body, as their strength presses the baby down through it. The Sri Yantra, a geometric diagram of the Goddess as Source, describes exactly this with five downward moving triangles intersecting with four upward ones. The downward flow is more often labelled female against what’s considered the upward male, although the names are sometimes reversed. What remains unchanged is the primacy of Life’s constant regenerative nature, which is in the convergence of slightly imbalanced opposite forces, not their divergence. Reality isn’t an oppositional affair, and not a static one either. The imbalance creates the directional quality of movement that is Time, ‘kala’ in Sanskrit. Kala also means ‘black’, and it is the dark expanse of space-time that makes birth and death possible; the goddess named Kali embodies this. The triangle is one of the oldest portrayals of the goddess in India: a stone triangle dated 9,000-8,000 BCE was found in the Son River Valley. The Shakti yantra is one downward pointing triangle containing a downward pointing arrow, just in case you needed the reinforcement of understanding the directional import! The Shakti yantra is the primordial triangle, the creative matrix of the cosmos, as is a woman’s yoni. The Sri Yantra, like all yantras, isn’t an aspirational tool but rather a reflection of our present living state. Its vibration is ours. When you realize this for yourself, you are meant to dissolve the yantra in the river and go on your way. Inner and outer reality are one.

Shakti yantra, a downward pointing triangle with a downward pointing arrow sourced at the top centre; the yantra embodies the creative matrix of the universe, which is the yoni. Gouache on paper from Rajasthan c. 17th century.

Shakti Yantra, primordial triangle, yoni, creative matrix of the cosmos. Rajasthan, c.17th century; gouache on paper. Yantra, The Tantric Symbol of Cosmic Unity by Madhu Khanna, Foreword by Ajit Mookerjee

 

When I was living in Rishikesh a few years ago, images of Durga riding Her tiger were all over the place, painted on walls, the sides of trucks and the fronts of T-shirts. Offerings were made to Her and mantras chanted. At the same time, the suffering in India’s post-colonial society was blatant, and the strength needed to fully receive an inhale and merge it with an exhale, body soft in its prowess, was nowhere to be found. Instead, yoga as physical manipulation and force of breath was in every ashram and teacher training that had arisen in my neighbourhood. The quest for transcendence was everywhere.

 

This came home to me one evening at a havan/fire ceremony I attended in worship of the Goddess. A young European woman recommended that those of us who were menstruating shouldn’t throw offerings into the fire because the strong downward moving energy of our bleeding would conflict with the upward moving energy of the flames, dampening their power to reach Her. The conflict would also personally harm us, she said, something her Indian guru had taught her not in order to demean women but to protect them. I was stunned. She spoke as if we are not already spirit’s fire and holy water. Meanwhile, a few minutes’ walk away, the waters of the Ganges River flowed in the Himalayan darkness as they always had. The goddess Ganga and the river are one. She comes down from heaven through the matted locks of Shiva’s long hair. She is forever falling. He prevents her from flooding the world, while She bathes his lingam, cooling its perpetually white-hot seed. Together, Ganga and Shiva are every life, the mutual collaboration of every opposite.

Sri Yantra with mantra, bearing gurus’ thumb prints in red ink. Rajasthan, c.1800; ink and colour on paper 9 X 8 in.

Sri Yantra with mantra, bearing gurus’ thumb prints in red ink. Rajasthan, c.1800; ink and colour on paper 9 X 8 in. The Art of Tantra by Philip S. Rawson

 

If you say a yogi is a male who has the strength to receive the Feminine, the nurturing force of his own life, the same is true for a yogini. It is not reversed for her. The Masculine is the very intelligence of the Feminine, which is infinite consciousness. Therefore, the Masculine can be received amid all life. In fact, it must be, otherwise disassociation results. In receiving the nurturing force of her own life, she removes herself from the stranglehold of patriarchy. Then, if she sexually loves a man, she merges with the Feminine, which runs through his male form like the water in Shiva’s dripping wet hair. He is saturated with Her. She is at once the river and its crossing over place, Mother, Ma. Yogi and yogini come home to the heart/hridayam together.

 

Om Sri Shivayai namaha can be translated as, “Salutations to Her who is blessed Shiva!” The Goddess is consciousness and that is everyone. T. Krishnamacharya (1888-1989) had the technical knowledge relevant to this. He was the grandfather of modern Yoga, the ‘teacher of the teachers’, and he said you cannot meditate, meaning you can’t control consciousness. Meditation is simply what we are. Like Emily said, “…things just happen when they’re ready to…”

A Devi sitting cross-legged on the multi-headed Serpent of Life, Cosmic Energy, with a small Shiva sitting cross-legged in her lap.

Devi, Cosmic Energy; within Her is Shiva, the foundational Consciousness. Pahari School, c.18th century; gouache on paper Kundalini, The Arousal of the Inner Energy by Ajit Mookerjee

 

This past Mother’s Day, my daughter gave me Sheila Heti’s book, Motherland (2018). Isabella knew I was mid-stream in my writing here. Heti began her book with the hope of coming to peace with her path as a writer and a lover, which she felt didn’t include bearing a child. She framed the book as a series of questions to the Universe about whether in fact it should. I think the ensuing dialogue was her way of structuring an intimate encounter with the source of her creativity. It scared her. Early in the book she compared the confrontation to Jacob’s wrestling with the angel in the Old Testament story. One night, he crossed a river carrying his two wives, eleven sons, and all their possessions to leave them on the other shore. All alone on his personal ground zero, a creature came and wrestled with him until the dawn. By that point, his terror had turned to love, and in it he saw that the creature was really an angel, and he asked it for its blessing. It gave him a new name, Israel, “one who contends with God”. It had wounded his hip and so he walked with a limp, but what he had thought would destroy him, hadn’t. The nurturing force of our life is love’s expression. Its source is the heart, the place where all polarities originate from and return. The danger we can sense, when we get very close to it, is the nearness of our own seeming annihilation, because in love we know our unity with everything.

Wet Footprints

Footprints photo Inner Beauty, Inner Light, Yoga for Pregnant Women by Frederick Leboyer

 

Heti’s mother was a doctor who admitted neglecting her children emotionally while she poured herself into her work and into trying to save her disintegrating marriage. Our patriarchal legacy is to have our work, our marriage and caring for our children all pitted against each other. We wrestle with them every day. Given the right personal and social circumstances, we could live with them in mutual collaboration instead. In the Natural State, mother, father and child are not split off from each other clawing for love. The price Heti saw in becoming a mother was the dual sacrifice of her lover and her writer’s soul, a price she wasn’t willing to pay. She spoke of a curse of pain having been put on her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, which had then fallen upon her mother and her too. In writing her book, she felt she had broken it. She became the nurturing source, physician for them all.

 

The final line of her book reworks a line of Jacob’s: Then I named this wrestling place Motherhood, for here is where I saw God face-to-face, and yet my life was spared. I know this place. I’ve seen Her face and it is mine.

 

Womb. Moon. Cycles. Rhythm. Ebb and flow. Blood. Fluids. Birth and death. The female body is the most ancient of time-keepers, its pulses fast and slow: orgasm; the ripening and destruction of an egg; the long-blossoming of pregnancy and the ever-quickening thrust and penetration of birth; the sometimes-blissful thrumming in the suckling of a child; and the refined vibration, endless, when womb and woman have moved together into the open field of wisdom. Female experience is the whole-body revelation of our interdependent and infinite beginnings and endings. We are the emptiness/sunyata of Buddhist doctrine, and the fullness/purna of Vedantic. Wholeness is our reality and she has a name.

Clos-up photo of a newborn's closed-eyed face with their hands near their cheeks, palms facing forwards.

Newborn’s face and hands photo Birth Without Violence by Frederick Leboyer

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Twenty-two years ago, I bought a copy of Spiritual Midwifery at the original Big Carrot, a small wooden floored health food store on the south side of the Danforth.  The book was filled with pictures of long haired hippies and accounts of their birth stories.  It blew my mind.  When I finished it, I knew that someday I wanted to give birth at home with midwives.  Two years later, I did.  Ina May’s presence in my life has continued.  My midwife, Mary Sharpe, is friends with her, and Isabel Perez, my back-up over the last eighteen years, trained as a midwife with her and worked with her for four years before coming to Toronto.  When I was just beginning to attend births, Isabel and I drove down to Tennessee in a van filled with midwives and midwifery students to take part in a conference that was hosted by Ina May and the Farm.  I learned a ton and felt like I had had a little taste of living American history.

Isabel and I did a much easier drive to Ottawa a couple of years ago to hear Ina May speak at another conference.  There was a whole new generation of young women with their men there, some of whom had yet to have babies.  Ina May was able to connect with them and they with her.  It’s a very inspiring bridging of the generations and one that is essential to the continued transmission of feminine knowledge and wisdom.  As I have gotten older and my daughter has become a woman, I am more aware that we all need to keep passing on what we know.  We all have a responsibility to be teachers.

Ina May has a wonderful sense of humour and a very down to earth and crystal clear way of communicating.  She hasn’t been in Toronto in many years so this is a rare opportunity to hear her speak.  With Isabel Perez, Lisa Caron and Lisa Doran have organized this event.  They are doulas and mothers and healers and writers and they are doing a wonderful job of passing the wisdom on.

Who are you? You are Mother, the very source and force of Life.  Having direct experience of your own power, what Yoga calls Shakti, is the opportunity that giving birth presents.  A complete understanding of Yoga gives you simple access to this experience.

So come!  Immerse yourself in four days of Yoga!  Deepen and refine your receptivity by learning the principles of practice that let the power and intelligence of life flow.  Krishnamacharya gave precise instructions so that you can create an authentic, safe and efficient Yoga practice for yourself and those you teach.  These principles can be incorporated into any “style” of Yoga. You’ll move to the pulse of your breath, release it on sound, work with yantra and mantra and know philosophy as your own direct contact with reality. Having the strength to receive life is the point of yoga practice and the challenge inherent in giving birth. The means to this strength has been missing from contemporary culture and yoga teaching; it is the Feminine.  In integrating the feminine principle back into how we practice, we no longer separate ourselves from life but have the ability to fully embrace it.

An exploration of the physiological transformations that occur in the childbearing year and of the “neural hormonal flow of love” that is responsible for the birth and breast feeding processes will give our work a good foundation and point to a woman’s practical needs during this time.  Her psychological needs are equally strong.  Understanding the universal arc of a woman’s journey through birth will deepen your ability to respond to where she is at.  I give you the means to teach pregnant and new mothers safely and effectively and know the feminine force not as a concept, myth or metaphor but as the real life that moves through us all.

Who am I? I teach in the lineage of Krishnamacharya from the beautifully simple and profound yoga I have received from Mark Whitwell.   My knowledge of traditional midwifery comes from a nineteen year connection to Isabel Perez and Ina May Gaskin. The union of these two understandings creates a body of wisdom that is whole and relevant to our current circumstances and life style.  For nineteen years, I have also been a mother.  I gave birth in a way that rooted my daughter and me in an enduring intimacy.  The urge to pass on this power led to my work as a doula and teacher.  Helping women access their strength and receptivity, their awareness of their inherent perfection, has been the foundation of my work over the last seventeen years.  It brings me again and again into the heart of Life.

October 29 – November 1, 2010
10:00am to 5:00pm at Eight Branches Healing Arts Centre (formerly Kokoro Dojo),
358 Dupont Avenue (just west of Dupont subway)

To register, call 416.994.4566 or email crescence@heartofbirth.org

Space is still available in what will be an intimate and responsive learning situation.

Workshop fee : $485.00
Workshop Certificate; Yoga Alliance CEU’s.

For more about Crescence’s work, see www.heartofbirth.org

Come immerse yourself in four days of authentic yoga tantra! Deepen and refine your receptivity by learning the principles of practice that let the power of life flow. You’ll move to the pulse of your breath, release it on sound, work with yantra and mantra and know philosophy as your own direct contact with reality.

Having the strength to receive life is the point of yoga practice and the challenge inherent in giving birth. The means to this strength has been missing from contemporary culture and yoga teaching. It is the Feminine.

An exploration of the physiology and neural hormonal flow of love in a pregnant, birthing and breastfeeding woman will give our work a good foundation and point to her practical needs during the childbearing year. You’ll be able to teach pregnant and new mothers safely and effectively and know the feminine force not as a concept, myth or metaphor but as the real life that moves through us all.

I teach in the lineage of Krishnamacharya through the beautifully simple and profound yoga I’ve received from Mark Whitwell.  My knowledge of traditional midwifery is from Isabel Perez and Ina May Gaskin. The union of these two understandings creates a body of wisdom that is both whole and relevant.

AUGUST 13-16,

Friday through Monday, 10:00am to 6:00pm

$485.00

Certificate; Yoga Alliance and RMT CEU’s given.

To register, please email crescence@heartofbirth.org or call 416.994.4566

I am very moved to be part of this book.  It is a collective creation about birth written from a doula’s perspective.  It will be going to press soon!

As doulas, we have an intimate experience of love in the purest sense of the word.  Love as the force that brings us here and binds us as one.  We bear witness to this force and to the obstacles that are put in her way.  Our way.  Life’s way.

Fellow doulas Lisa Doran and Lisa Caron edited and authored and nurtured this work.  More details to follow!

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.

Mothers_Love

After drawing the neural-hormonal flow that moves through a woman giving birth, I said to a pregnant couple that at the heart of the matter, what gets a baby born is love. The mother replied that that was a very romantic concept. No, it’s not! Pure love is a state of being, not an emotion or a thought process.

 It’s taken me years to put this understanding into words; it is the essence of both Birth and Yoga. I’ll repeat: pure love is not an emotion or a thought process but a state of being. Science understands that it is the release of oxytocin and endorphins into a woman’s sytem that enables her to give birth. Our bodies are flooded with these “hormones of love” whenever we are in a situation of intimate connection: sex, giving birth, breastfeeding, even sharing food with others brings us into a physical state where our minds are present, our bodies are at peace and the boundaries between ourselves and the rest of the world dissolve.  This is Nature’s way of ensuring our survival. When I gave birth to my daughter, no wave of emotion washed over me. Her birth had taken me to a place below emotions, into the very ground of Life. I didn’t have to try and be motherly.  She and I embodied love. It simply was.

Where there are hormones of love, there is Shakti, the Life force. Of course Life is always present but it becomes much more obvious in intimacy.  So much spiritual discussion is framed in emotive and moral paradigms that restrict Life rather than free it.  The assumption is that love is an elusive thing that must be worked at.  As if we must create love rather than simply enjoy the fact that we are created by it. Disintegration, fragmentation, or downright evil emerges out of disassociation from Life and conversely, having the strength to receive Life makes love effortless.  This isn’t romance.  It’s reality!

fiercelightpostcard_9Babies and young children know deep in their bodies, and therefore deep in their hearts, that they are loved when they feel our love in its physical expression. How and how often we touch, hold, carry, sing and speak with our children is vital to their well-being. “Spirit in action” defines mothering and the Feminine force.  She is the movement of life that brought us into the world, sustains us and enables us to penetrate  the world. She is not separate from us but is in us, as us.  She is utterly tangible. She is our power. 

‘Fierce Light’ is an exploration of our individual and collective power. I saw a rough-cut of the film last spring. In “these times of turmoil and transformation”, as Velcrow Ripper describes them, he has made a film which celebrates the instinct we all have to put love into action. His subjects have merged fearlessly with their desire. They embody the Mother force.

 “Fierce Light’ will be screened at this year’s Hot Doc’s Festival running from April 30th to May 10th in Toronto. Van Jones, who has just been named an advisor to the White House on green initiatives, says in the film that we have the opportunity now to “midwife” the birth of a new wisdom essential for our survival. Birth imagery in Washington?! His words signal an embrace of the Feminine, a recognition of the power of life. It must come.

The shockingly cold wind that pushed against me as I scurried for the subway yesterday vied for my attention with internal images of water, earth, wood and flesh. They had penetrated my core and stirred emotions that were more compelling than the force of a Canadian winter. I had just seen Rodrigue Jean’s film, Lost Song. I suggest you do too.

Never have I seen the internal world of a new mother expressed so clearly. Jean’s camera is in intimate relationship with everything. Its vision bears no judgement. In its love, the truth of a woman’s life pours forth. We join this intimacy. Her experience becomes ours. This dissolution of boundries and unity of experience is the union the word ‘Yoga’ refers to. Sa’ham: I am She. She is me. The power of art to move us is the power of Yoga. In the emotional and psychological isolation of current yummymummyhood, Jean’s public exploration of what a woman encounters in giving birth and being a mother is crucial to our collective sanity. In the UK, the leading cause of death for women in the first year of a baby’s life is suicide. The grief and despair this statistic points to needs to be seen and heard. We need to know that the pain we experience is not a cause for shame but is a personal expression of our society’s repression of the Feminine.

In an interview with ‘The Globe and Mail’, Jean said that it took him five years to make the film because “it was almost impossible to finance because of the subject matter.” His persistence paid off with Lost Song winning the Best Canadian Feature Film prize last year at the Toronto International Film Festival. The panel said Jean, “has crafted a spare and uncompromising film- rife with humanity…” The destruction wreaked in the lead character’s instinct for wholeness and connection strikes a visceral chord in me. Like Kali, her chaos is in the service of rebirth. The lush fertility of Quebec’s lakes and woods draws her towards union with life. In the shelter of the roots of a fir tree, she is able to nurse her child again. Empty formula cans leave a trail like Goldilock’s bread crumbs. The question of who is the Witch is left hanging. 

Jean said he has spent the last twenty-five years exploring his interest in the myth of Medea. He said, “Canada got a blame from the United Nations about how we treat our children and our poor…When the child is actually there, and it needs all that a child needs, the society, the couple, are not there. That’s the big picture that informs the film.” The actual film is made of little pictures. The ripples made on water when a naked man dives in. The curve of a woman’s belly on summer rumpled sheets. The words of a mother-in-law and priest. The sounds of wild animals under the roof. Jean doesn’t answer why, amidst such beauty, disassociation and the yearning for union occurs. He shows us how and leaves us simultaneously sweating and chilled to the bone.

Lost Song is playing at the Cineplex Odeon Carlton (416.598.2309). The film is in French with English subtitles.

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