You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Personal Yoga Practice’ category.

I am a woman who practices Yoga.   That’s a simple statement but not always a simple situation to navigate.  Despite the social and political victories that women have achieved, the Feminine is still deeply suppressed.  I bear witness to this in the hospital, where almost nothing is set up to support a woman in giving birth through her own power.  It is only because of the kindness and wisdom of some individual nurses and obstetricians that I and my clients are free to let the birth process, the Life process, express itself and lead the way.  And I would say the same dynamic exists in the Yoga world.  There are individuals who recognize that connecting to the Feminine, the movement of Life, is necessary for an experience of Yoga but this recognition is just beginning to penetrate the general understanding.  So I get my inspiration where I can.

And I found a wonderful source of it in the life story of a great Yogini, Yeshe Tsogyal.  She was born into a noble family in Tibet in 777 A.D..  Usually the stories of ancient, spiritually gifted people are about men and their lives have been turned into myths that no one can relate to.  But this story touched me and it is a woman’s.  As a young teenager, Yeshe was brutally raped by her first suitor.  She ran away from her second suitor and was placed in the King’s harem.  When she was sixteen, she was offered as a consort to the King’s guru, Lord Padmasambhava.  He freed her and she became his disciple and then his spiritual heir.

One winter, a few years later, she found herself living alone in a cave.  Her soul mate and “mystical consort” had left her there because he couldn’t take the cold, having grown up in the milder climate of the Kathmandu valley.  It was then that her earlier trauma came back and she came into relationship with her psychological demons.

Visions rose up before her in her meditations, full of hideous and terrifying intensity.  Hordes of phantoms advanced upon her: fearful, seductive, malign and evil.  With these, the products of her own traumatic passions, she wrestled, while remaining unmovable in her vajra-like samadhi, the immutable poise of impartial contemplation.  For days the onslaught continued until finally she was left in peace.  This was the trial of her final spiritual catharsis.

Granted, this is a rather heroic description of her healing process!  But the acknowledgment that the demons were a manifestation of her own trauma is insightful, I think.   A thousand and a half years ago, women were successfully dealing with the effects of the wounded Masculine.  After her horror had passed, the Masculine and Feminine in Yeshe merged and she felt whole.  I see women go through this in labour.  The pain of opening can ignite your memory of past pain.  Because Life is moving so strongly during the birth process though, the opportunity for integration in the present is particularly ripe.  The birthing room becomes your cave.

But to finish the story, Yeshe and her man got back together and continued to practice Yoga with each other.  She travelled all over Tibet with Padmasambhava, her guru, burying texts for the benefit of future generations.  When she was twenty- eight, she became a fully enlightened Buddha.  It is guessed that she died in her early fifties.  As was the case with Yeshe, we don’t have to literally give birth in order to give birth to ourselves.  Yoga offers us a way to enter our lives renewed.  When demons dance, we can receive them, watch and wait.

Link to the site with Yeshe Tsogyal’s story.

Advertisements

An ancient path has brought me into a virgin landscape.  There’s no map.  Can never be one because this place is a living thing that shifts its shape.  The thing is me.  The thing is freedom.  Vairagya.

To practice Yoga, all that is required is an understanding of how to use its technology to connect to and fully participate in your own Life.  The learning curve to acquiring this know-how is very short and is equivalent to learning where the “on” button on your laptop is and that if you click  “send and receive”, you will hook into the internet.  It is that simple.

I say this after having spent the last few days reading and comparing Mark‘s, Desikachar‘s and Srivatsa Ramaswami’s commentaries on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.  This ancient text, written by a man who came to be seen as the divine incarnation of the serpent Ananta, supporter of the whole universe, defines what Yoga is and the various routes to experiencing it.  It is still what everyone who writes “seriously” about Yoga refers to.  So I thought I should look at it.  The sutras are written in a very condensed style, like poetry, and are meant to be expanded upon by an individual teacher to an individual student in a way that will be personally relevant to the student.  This must explain, at least in part, the sometimes deeply divergent tacks different commentaries will take.  In the case of Mark, Desikachar and Ramaswami, all three men have the same root teacher, Krishnamacharya, and all three have spent their adult lives in intimate connection with him and his teachings (he died in 1989 at the age of 101 years).  Even so, there are strong differences in what they communicate.  By the end of last night, my head was reeling.  I found my balance by returning to my own experience and how it is reflected in Mark’s beautifully clear words.

I wanted to look at the Sutras because I see an attempt to speak about the deeper understanding of Yoga in the media as usually being inspired by things other than a technical understanding of Yoga.  What I found so refreshing and deeply trustworthy in Mark’s book when I first read it, was how he had disentangled Yoga from religion, from psychotherapy, from New Age spirituality, from every aspect of contemporary life that it often gets lumped in with, including the Oprah state of mind that there is always something more to improve in yourself.  In doing so, Mark demonstrated how Yoga cannot be separate from anything.  Yoga is the resolution of paradox, the union of opposites.  There are moments when I think this is too damn easy.  There must be something more difficult that I haven’t understood yet.

No.  Mark’s clarity is simple and it is rooted in Krishnamacharya’s profound intellectual rigour.  Krishnamacharya had an extraordinarily broad and deep scholarly education that began with his grandfather’s instruction when he was a little boy.  When he combined it with the tangible tools of  a Yoga practice, it enabled him to describe and contain Yoga’s paradox.  This precision of mind is Krishnamacharya’s legacy and I am doing my best to continue in it!  My mind is contained within the intelligence of a woman’s body however, and I trust that I therefore offer an understanding of Yoga that adds a new flavour, a new rasa, to the discussion.  For indeed, the essence of Yoga is tasted in embracing and being embraced by the feminine aspect of life, a fact that has been denied in the mainstream understanding of Yoga for thousands of years.

Please take that in!  For thousand of years the Feminine principle has been excluded from what has been taught as Yoga in order for it to be integrated into religious doctrine.  Mark speaks in detail about this.  We are still dealing with the consequences of Her absence.  It is in the very mechanics of how much of Yoga is still taught and it causes a lot of suffering.  Without the Feminine, Yoga becomes a practice of renunciation and disassociation.  It takes us out of life rather than deeper into it.  It locates sacredness not in the very flesh of what we are but somewhere outside of ourselves.

This crazy idea is at the centre of Christianity too and I think that makes it easy for us in the west to accept it when we encounter it in Yoga.  We’re used to it.   A couple of weeks ago, I read of a rather horrifying example of the denial of Life in the Catholic Church.  The Globe & Mail reported that  “even when he was not ill, [Pope] John Paul inflicted pain on himself, a practice known…as mortification, so as to feel closer to God.”   He whipped himself with a leather belt.  Monsignor Slawomir Oder told a press conference that, “It is clear the aspect of penitence was present in the life of John Paul II.  It should be seen as part of his profound relationship with the Lord”.  Pope Benedict does see it as profound and he has approved a decree recognizing that his predecessor had “lived the Christian faith heroically”.  With this decree, John Paul is one step closer in the process of being declared a saint.  I didn’t realize this barbaric understanding of what it means to be spiritual, of what it means to love, is still officially alive and well.  How this resonates through the rest of us, religious or not, runs deep, I feel.

We make text more sacred than life, for one.  And if the text is all tangled up in religious doctrine, it can be very difficult to tease out the actual Yoga.  Mark has done the teasing.  In Yoga of Heart, he has written a succinct chapter on his take on the sacred texts.  Mark says the common translation of Patanjali’s definition of Yoga (1.2) is not accurate.  More than “not accurate”, I would say it twists Yoga inside out!  The common translation says that the way to come into Yoga is by stilling the mind.  Krishnamacharya said, no, Yoga is to merge the mind with experience and the result will be a quiet mind.  The first is a practice of renunciation; the second, one of devotion.  They lead to very different experiences of life, very different ways of living and being.

Srivatsa Ramaswami writes in spirals of learned complexity that I find fascinating and frequently entertaining but they often leave my mind feeling like mush.  What did penetrate yesterday though, was this: he writes in Yoga for the Three Stages of Life, that Krishnamacharya explained to him that Patanjali considers Bhakti, devotion, as the only means to Yoga in these times.  Ramaswami then tells a story about Lord Shiva.  He challenged his two sons to race each other around the universe.  Shiva granted the prize to the son who walked reverently in a circle around his parents rather than the one who travelled around the outer universe.  The point of the story is that devotion to the “universal parents”, to the Masculine and Feminine in union, is something we can actually do.

The fact that the heart, not the mind, is the locus of Yoga is also the point, I think.  The purpose of intellectual insight is to get you to the stage of understanding, in the words of  U.G. Krishnamurti, another of Mark’s teachers, that “there is nothing to understand”!  When my mind is in a storm cloud of confusion, I save U.G. for last.  Videos of him on You-tube, some of which go as far back as the seventies in the form of  TV interviews, and the most recent, clips from just before he died in 2007, show him as someone who was fearlessly himself.  He was recognized in India as a living Buddha and yet the person we see is clearly very human.  That’s his point and  I find it very reassuring!  The way U.G. moved in the world sent the message that being in a state of Yoga is a real possibility, right here, right now, rather than a mythological ideal that we really don’t have a hope in hell of experiencing.  There was no snake skin on his body, no hiss to announce his arrival.  He refused to teach in the conventional sense of holding formal events or writing books but he spoke with unending passion to people who would meet him in the structure of ordinary life.    Mark writes that, “The natural yoga occurs when the mind gives up this self-conscious activity of trying to know anything or work on ourselves.  And the Yogasutra says that too.  ‘A person of extraordinary clarity is one who is free from the desire to know the nature of the perceiver.’  [S/he] has felt [her] own nature (4.25).”  We are the truth we are so busy looking for.  Recognizing that is the beginning and the end of Yoga.

U.G. says, “We don’t seem to realize that it is thought that is separating us from the totality of things.”  We can’t heal our separation by trying not to think, however!  Krishnamacharya defined practice, sadhana, as “doing what can be done”.  We can heal the separation by welcoming our mind into the wholeness of what we are.  We can bring our attention to our breath and body and let them take our mind for a ride!  We can hook into the force of Life.  Simple.

I began to write a comment on Nadine Fawell’s post but I realized I had too much to say, so I am writing here instead.  Nadine lives in Australia and counts Mark Whitwell as one of her beloved teachers.  A student of hers had asked her for her understanding of Mark’s statement that “Yoga is Strength Receiving” and she bravely took up the challenge.  Here’s my response!

If you move and breathe as Strength Receiving, you are functioning in the same way the universe functions; you are in harmony with everything.  You embody the principles that philosophy talks about and they are easily understood because they are a tangible experience.  The Yoga technology that allows you to do this is not taught in most Yoga classes.  As you and Grace share, Nadine, injury, or disintegration, is the result and it can take time to drop the habits that are in your body from prior training.

In breathing and moving in a way that actually allows you to experience Yoga, “the challenge is within the breath limits, not the musculature”, to quote Mark.  Hands are open and soft; shoulders, elbows, wrists and all joints are relaxed.  Yoga practice is about receiving the breath and the Life energy that moves on it.  “The importance of asana is its energetic function, not what it looks like.  What the practitioner actually feels is primary”.  Switching my focus from form to feeling was one of the changes I made in my practice when I met Mark.  It completely trans-formed what I was doing!   To trust the inner fluid source of my form is an ongoing, challenging and beautiful process for me now.

Feeling.  What do we feel?   When we breathe on ujayi, we must use our whole body to breathe.  This turns breathing into an activity that opens and strengthens all of us.  On a ujayi exhale, we naturally engage our core musculature; we actively participate in the release.  But first and foremost, an exhalation needs no effort on our part.  I think it is helpful to look at what is happening in daily life breathing because it sheds light on what is fundamentally soft and strong in us.

To exhale is to let go.  The diaphragm is the main muscle of respiration and when we exhale, it relaxes.  As it does, it moves up against the lungs which return to their unstretched state.  The decrease in volume increases the pressure in the lungs and breath flows out of us. (This is why open sound is a release rather than an effort and why it is so resonant and pleasurable!)  When the diaphragm contracts, it moves downwards, creating more space in the lungs which breath moves in to fill.  So an inhalation engages our strength and that is why the test of whether we should stay in a posture or not is whether a full, smooth inhalation is possible in it.  Our strength is necessary in order to receive.  This is true on both the most basic physiological level and on the most subtle levels of human connection.

The tricky part is that we tend to believe the opposite!  We think that giving is work and that receiving necessitates personal surrender.  We put our strength in the wrong place and then are bewildered when everyone gets hurt.   Receiving and surrendering are two different things.  The Concise Oxford dictionary defines surrender as 1 tr. hand over; relinquish possession of, esp. on compulsion or demand; give into another’s power or control. 2 intr. a accept an enemy’s demand for submission. b give oneself up; cease from resistance; submit.  Mark’s statement is that Yoga is Strength Receiving, not Strength Surrendering!

Nadine, when you wrote about relationship, you mainly used images of surrender rather than of receptivity.  They particularly struck me because I have just recently recognized how I can confuse my own self-abnegation with being a loving person.  I’ve been insane!  But I’m not alone in my craziness and I think our collective confusion speaks to the loss of power we assume is necessary if we are to love and be loved.  Surrender, in the sense of giving up our idea of who we think we are or who we want others to think we are, or of letting go of resistance, may be an appropriate response when we receive another but it is not the action of Yoga.

Receiving is.  Receiving someone is engaging our strength and taking them in.  Seeing them, hearing them, enfolding them.  Then there is no difference between us.  Then we are in Yoga.  Then we are in Love.

Yoga is your direct immersion and integration with Life.  Since we are Life, Yoga isn’t about achieving anything but about participating completely in what already is. Thousands of years ago, people took the principles evident in the creation and sustaining of Life and applied them to simple practices of breath, movement and sound.  In this way, they deepened their intimacy with themselves and each other.  We will do the same.

These principles got left by the wayside as Yoga became something that womenless men did in their attempt to transcend the world.  Intimate relationship, sex, birth and caring for children were avoided in the quest for enlightenment.  The irony is that rather than being at odds with our spiritual life, these ordinary aspects of life are precisely the means to realize it. 

Krishnamacharya, the teacher of many of the most influential teachers who brought Yoga to the west, spent seven and a half years in Tibet studying with his teacher, a Yogi with a wife and children.  Krishnamacharya promised his teacher that in payment for what he had been given, he would raise a family of his own and bring Yoga out into the wider world.  He did this within the confines of a rigidly patriarchial society, however.  Today we can go further.   Today we can practice in a way that expresses the Feminine and brings it into union with the Masculine.  The integration that happens is immensely healing. 

There will be ample time to address your understanding and experience of Yoga, to talk about teaching and how we can transmit a real understanding of Yoga to each other and to explore how sex and birth can bring us into deep intimacy with Life and its renewal.  We’ll then put this into our body and breath and move with it, making our practice accurate and powerful, practical and relevant.

crescence-kruegerYoga with Crescence Krueger:  An Ontario Yoga Association Workshop

 Sunday, October 18th, 9:00am to 4:00pm at Pegasus Studios, 361 Glebeholme Blvd.(Danforth and Coxwell)

$85.00 ($65.00 for OYA members)
 Registration is limited to twenty participants. 
 
To register, please call the OYA at 416. 646. 1600, Ext.25 or info@ontarioyogaassociation.ca  Click here for the OYA page and registration form
 
Yoga Alliance CE credits will be offered.

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.

3981-allegory-of-wisdom-orazio-samacchiniAlmost five years ago now, I walked from the Metro Convention Centre towards Roy Thompson Hall knowing that I had experienced Yoga in a way I never had before.  The air was cool and damp in Toronto’s novemberish way but the sun was shining through the remains of the morning mist and I felt it shining through me too.  I felt warm and soft and beautiful. 

This was my first experience of Mark Whitwell’s Yoga.  The choice of asana and pranayama were traditional and familiar and yet the feeling in me was not. There was a gentleness to what I had just been part of that touched me deeply. I couldn’t define what had happened then.  Now I can. 

Now it is my Yoga.  I practice and teach in a way that embeds the philosophical principles of Yoga into the very technology of practice, into how you breathe and move.  Rather than practice being a warm-up to meditation and profound insight, practice is your connection to what you are.  Meditation and clarity happen with absolutely no effort.  The integration that is realized is deep because the practice lets you participate directly in the force that brought you into the world and is keeping you alive.

This participation is the Yoga, the union.  It is missing in much of how Yoga is taught.  The fact that it was given to me by a New Zealander on a beautiful fall day in downtown Toronto is one of the fateful twists in my life.  Finally I had a very clear and precise way to pass on to others what I naturally experienced in my own life and work.

While you need to be taught by someone who is actually beside you listening to you breathe, I hope it is helpful to write down the basic principles here.  They will lead you in the right direction.  You can start playing with your breath in your own practice.  As Mark says, you don’t need to abandon what you know but to simply integrate the breath into what you know.  You can do this with an Astanga practice as easily as with an Iyengar one.  You will create something new that is your own.

To begin, let your breath move with a soft hiss made by narrowing your throat slightly.  I think of the sound of the surf when I do this.  This is called the ujayi breath.  When you breathe like this on both the inhale and the exhale, you engage your core musculature, the strength of your body. That strength becomes the vehicle for your breath. Your movement is a way to release and strengthen your breath, not the other way around.  This is very important. You are not pressing into a posture and then remembering to breathe.  Begin to breathe before you move and let the breath be the inspiration, quite literally, for the movement.  When the movement resolves in stillness, let the breath extend slightly beyond it until it too comes to rest.  The inhale comes from above.  It expresses the Feminine principle.  The exhale comes from below.  It expresses the Masculine principle.  They meet each other in you and become one.  This is the Yoga.  Everyone can do this.  It is not a great mystical feat.  To play with the breath in this way becomes the purpose of your Yoga now. 

Krishnamacharya said, “If you can breathe, you can do Yoga.”  “Because the great power of our anatomy is being used to move the breath, it moves with ease as we contact our depth, our source,” writes Mark.  In Yoga, our source is called Shakti.  She is the origin and manifestation of Life.  She is not apart from us, somewhere up in the sky.  She is in us.  We are in her.  And the way to know this is to move and breathe in a way that makes it clear heaven and earth are one.

Advertisements