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“You Don’t Need to Meditate” is the title of a blog post J. Brown wrote last month. It’s a provocative premise to throw out into the yoga community and the comments on it reflected that. J. and I both have Mark Whitwell as a teacher. That doesn’t mean we have the same experience of Yoga but it does mean we share principles of practice and trust the experience that arises from their application. So I thought J.’s post would be a good place to jump off of to share my understanding.
Here’s what I know: meditation isn’t something that can be done; it’s something that happens when the conditions are right. Meditation is the gift/siddhi we get when we immerse our mind in the intelligence that moves our body and breath. Meditation is not to become “conscious” because consciousness is what we already are and is something that is impossible for the mind to contain. If we try never- the- less, consciousness’ free flow becomes restricted. This happens when we aim to witness our experience, constructing an “other” that we can then observe. However, when we move fully into our experience, the boundaries we set up between ourselves and the rest of the world become irrelevant in the face of our essential limitlessness. This unfettered energy that is our life is the creative power of the Feminine. When I gave birth, it became clear to me that there was no difference between me and what was moving through me, utter strength realized in utter openness. I was the receiver and the giver of life, both. All of us, male and female, woman and child, are this source and force. Trying to separate from ourselves in order to become “aware” is a brutal act of disintegration and our integrity is lost in the violence of it.
Mark says that it is not enlightenment that any of us really want but intimacy. Intimacy is enlightenment though, not in the heroic ideal of being outside of experience, but in the real meaning of being at one with everything, even with what is unloved, our fear and dread, our sense of unworthiness and our shame. Intimacy honours darkness and the wisdom found when words fail and even the idea of love loses its meaning. Still, intimacy remains. It is our natural state, what Yoga calls sahaj samadhi. We give birth in it; we are born in it and we die back into it. Intimacy is love divested of the mind’s parameters. This love is what Yoga practice is meant to offer us, not unending bliss but a heart that is whole. Pain is a “given”, necessary for our security and growth. Imagining that we can live apart from pain, and not cause harm in the process, is craziness and yet this idea is at the root of all transcendent philosophy, to which conventional yoga belongs. Recognition of the sacredness of our simple existence is essential to our sanity and the preservation of our humanity. Spirit isn’t absent from blood and bone and the fire that burns in the deep of the earth.
The challenge for all spiritual traditions now, including Yoga, is to let go of the dream of enlightenment and fully embrace our lives and each other. This means embracing the Feminine. I read yesterday here that for the first time in history Tibetan Buddhist nuns are being allowed to write exams that will grant them the title of “Geshe” and give them full access to the teaching monks have always received, which includes “ethics in their entirety”. As if ethical action can exist when we stand removed from others and deny their equal worth! I didn’t realize that the nuns have continued to be so overtly oppressed. They “have to obey the monks, can’t give them advice, and even the most senior nun still has to take a lower seat than the greenest rookie monk.” This is in a tradition that has at its root the knowledge that perfection is the nature of all things and that meditation is effortlessly present when we come into Yoga. That knowledge though, has been obscured in the misogyny of Tibetan culture.
A similar obscuration of wisdom took place in India. Krishnamacharya did what he could to restore the Feminine to its essential place in Yoga practice. Technically, he understood that it is in the union of polarities that life moves. But he didn’t realize the full implications of this, that love and its clarity is our natural state. His former student and lifelong friend, U.G. Krishnamurti, did and explained that Yoga practice is only useful, if it is an expression of our innate power. Krishnamacharya admitted to U.G. that he had no experience of what he had realized, a complete surrender of the mind to life. I think it’s vital that our idea of Yoga includes U.G.’s understanding, otherwise we are functioning within the limits of a hundred year old Brahmin’s worldview. He had a brilliant mind but it never let go its grip on him.
In the pervasive denial of the Feminine that still exists in Yoga, meditation as an escape from ourselves will hurt sooner or later. As the revelation of ourselves however, meditation is life, sex and spirit weaving us into the heart of the world. “Real silence is explosive”, said U.G..
The winter session of Sunday morning yoga for everyone begins this coming Sunday, January 9th at 9:45am. Looking forward to seeing everyone again! And welcoming new people!
If you don’t know me, what I offer is a way of practicing and a teaching structure that are not widely available. In small classes of ten or less, you let the breath initiate, guide and complete your movement. This is authentic yoga that brings you easily into your Natural State, into the healing connection with your own Life force. It is for everyone because everyone can breathe and it is the breath that leads you to an experience of yoga, not any isolated proficiency of physical strength or flexibility. It is an advanced practice because it is profoundly simple, direct and efficient.
If you are new to yoga, you will come easily into the practice and if you have been studying for years, you will be challenged to move and breathe within a new paradigm of yoga understanding.
We are like a wave in rhythmic flow where asana, pranayama, bandha, meditation and life are a seamless process. We have the strength to receive ourselves and the ability to really be in relationship with one another, the beginning and end of yoga.
at Eight Branches Healing Arts Centre 358 Dupont Avenue (just west of Dupont and Spadina) $20.00 to drop-in; $18.00/class if four or more classes are paid for at once.
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.
Friday through Monday, 10:00am to 6:00pm
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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.
Almost 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.
For 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.”
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!