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A piece of fiction that is true. Everything was made in shades of green and blue. She stood and leaned against the wall or over a bed, hips circling. Hot blood dripped onto the cold floor, circles within circles. The head pressed deep. The nurse asked her to come onto the bed. She said I’m coming. Another nurse arrived and set up obstetric tools. The resident looked like a twelve year old, the husband said after. His wife’s lips part, wet hair revealed. No one but mother and child are ready. Panting mixes with primal sound. Do you still imagine giving birth is sexless? Smell the ocean here. A world is breaking. Breathe earth and iron. Stop now. Let yourself soften to this, wet and warm, burning open, rising up. And she slips free, a fish swimming in air, unaware that the elements are rearranging themselves. Hush. Who are you? Silence. Then the clang of metal on metal, breath on breath. And she penetrates.
In the wake of the disintegration of John Friend’s authority and empire, William Broad’s recent articles in the New York Times and Mark Singleton’s book a year or so ago, the question that everyone with even the mildest interest in yoga seems to be grappling with is, “What is yoga?” In the responses I’ve heard, the answer is absent.
Assumptions need to be put aside because without understanding what yoga is, attempts to practice and teach it won’t work and people will continue to get hurt. Whether they are in physical alignment or not, lying down or leaping through space, using props or just the bare floor, in heat or in cold, in an intimate group or a mass of hundreds, chanting Sanskrit or never letting a word of it pass their lips, studying ancient text or ignoring it, moving to music or in silence, working their edge or staying clear of it, eating vegan or raw or pure or whatever they feel like, paying fees or getting instruction for free, working with a teacher who socializes with students or stays aloof, who has thousands of hours of certified training or none, who is part of an ancient lineage or who gives no credence to the idea of spiritual authority, who has the anatomical training of a physiotherapist and the psychological insight of an analyst or who thinks only of light and love, none of this matters. What does is that you practice in a way that gives you the strength to receive… an inhale, a feeling, the movement of life. Its movement is yoga. Its movement is you.
This is obvious when you give birth. Then the vast intelligence of life pours through you in waves, bringing new life to light. Any distinction between you and what’s moving you dissolves. Coming into unity with your experience is the consequence of giving birth and it’s what yoga practice should give you too. Both activities return you to your natural state, sahaj samadhi, pure love.
In love, polarities merge. The polarities of spirit and sex and pleasure and pain are particularly fierce in a world that denies the inherent sacredness of life. Birth reveals it. We need to speak about the insight women’s experience gives us. It shatters dogma. What brings a person inside you is what brings them out: sex. The hormones that bring men and women to orgasm are the same hormones that control the birth process. While pain is part of birth, so is ecstasy. To give birth autonomously, you must leave your mental framework and enter the unbounded territory of primal experience. Then sexual energy moves, unconfined by cultural definition and the manipulation of self and other that comes with it. New life moves too and the sexual body and the spiritual body are known to be one. Every cell in blood, bone and brain vibrates in harmony with life’s descent. We are the source and the force of life, what yoga calls Shakti, so using yoga to make you somehow more spiritual is nonsensical.
Culturally, we are so very confused about love and sex. We set up huge obstacles to being in relationship and it starts at birth. The medical paradigm doesn’t understand how life works, only how to intervene when it doesn’t. In the face of drugs and surgery, mother and child lose touch with each other and their ability to be as one disintegrates. In a similar way, when yoga is misunderstood as a series of interventions that transform us into something else, something more beautiful, something more spiritual, they disassociate us from what we already are and become an assault on our integrity as life itself. We lose our selves.
It looks like we are beginning to recognize the violence and betrayal. But I don’t think the source of it is yet understood. Denial of life runs deep. It’s old and its craziness infiltrates every bit of us. Without a technical understanding of how to develop the strength to receive your life, any attempt to “do yoga” is not going to work. Adding beautiful words and concepts onto dysfunctional technology won’t help. It makes things worse, intensifying the sense of lack and longing that grows in the discrepancy between how things feel and how we imagine they should be.
Mark Whitwell has been an enormous help in my understanding of all this. What is missing in our collective understanding of yoga is a connection to life in all its beauty and pain. When UG Krishnamurti realized this, he called it his Calamity. It hurt to have his mind let go of its grip on his body, just like it hurts to give birth. UG insisted there’s no higher state to get to. We are yoga. Coming into love is heartbreaking. And the only sane thing we can do.
On her blog ‘Shivers up the Spine’, Priya Thomas writes about her interview with Mark Singleton, author of Yoga Body: the Origins of Modern Posture Practice. The interview was held before an audience (I was part of it) at the Yoga Festival Toronto a few weeks ago and was an exploration of how we are framing and re-framing yoga as it moves more deeply into world culture.
Yoga’s relationship with language is an intimate and long standing one. The Sri Yantra has the entire Sanskrit alphabet embedded in it. The first letter, ‘A’ , represents Shiva, the masculine principle. The last letter, ‘Ha’, arrived at simply by aspirating ‘A’, represents Shakti, the feminine. When ‘A’ and ‘Ha’ embrace, all of life is embraced too.
We can get physically tangled up in language though, bound tight by the cultural mind. Asana practiced as an imposition of mind over matter is the patriarchal legacy yoga culture is struggling with, whether it’s delivered in terms of spirituality, religion or exercise. In mind’s stranglehold, language loses its relevance. It no longer expresses our experience but controls it. Mark’s research documents the many permutations of mind’s imposition, present worldwide and through time.
An effective yoga practice untangles body from mind by digesting it. Words dissolve, vowels and consonants vibrate in our very cells and we speak the truth.
A full understanding of Yoga gives you not just a way to feel good in your body, not just a way to relax your mind, but a way to participate wholly in the birth process. You are Mother, the very source and force of Life. Connected to your fundamental power, you will know in your very bones how to give birth.
The yoga technology that gives you this connection is not widely available. I have gotten it from Mark Whitwell, one of the world’s “teachers of the teachers”. Curiously, Mark says, knowledge of the Feminine has been left out of western yoga education. In integrating her principles back into how we practice, we remarry Yoga to its non-dual Tantric origins and in the process, bring the fragmented aspects of ourselves together again. We move easily and efficiently into the freedom of our natural state.
In our practice, breath initiates, guides and completes our movement. We are soft and strong. We are like a wave in rhythmic flow where breathing, moving, meditation and life are a seamless process. We have the strength to receive Life and give birth. We are in true relationship to ourselves and our babies. We are love.
Beginning Sunday, November 7th, from 11:30am to 1:00pm and running for six weeks until December 19th (no class on Nov.21st)
at Eight Branches Healing Arts Centre (formerly Kokoro Dojo)
358 Dupont Avenue (just west of Dupont subway)
$20.00 to drop-in; $108.00 for the session of six.
Beginning November 7th, I will be teaching two yoga classes on Sunday mornings. What I offer is not widely available. I pass on the yoga technology that moves you easily and efficiently into the heart of yoga, into a clear feeling of your natural state. I have gotten this technology from Mark Whitwell, one of the world’s “teachers of the teachers”. This is a technology that links you to the life energy that got you born and that keeps you alive. It is thought of as feminine; she is the source of everything and curiously, Mark says, she has been left out of western yoga education. In reintegrating the feminine principle back into how we practice, we remarry Yoga to its non-dual Tantric origins and in the process, bring the fragmented aspects of ourselves back together again.
The result is a feeling of wholeness and a way of moving and breathing where breath initiates, guides and completes our movement. We are soft and strong. 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.
358 Dupont Avenue (just west of Dupont and Spadina) $20.00 to drop-in; $108.00 for the session of six.
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
To register, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 416.994.4566
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.
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.”
Having attended a long birth a few nights ago, I’ve come back into daily life where I’m living by the rhythm of the sun again. I’ve been writing today, winding my way through a logical sequence of thoughts and images, moving through a vinyasa of words. Writing is Yoga where the invisible takes shape, where silence becomes sound, where thought becomes vibration. It is a creative act that mirrors the original one of Birth.
The sensation of following the thread of my thoughts reminds me of the Greek myth where Ariadne holds onto the end of a ball of thread that her lover, Theseus, unspools as he enters into the heart of a labyrinth. There he meets and kills a half- human beast. The thread guides him back out. He begins and ends his journey in love. On the way, he loses his fear.
Giving birth is like this. You go to the centre of what you are. You touch the heart. In fact, there is an ancient yantra (a Tantric symbol of cosmic unity) given to labouring women that is in the exact form of a labyrinth. It’s called a Chakra–vyuha but it is identical to labyrinths drawn for thousands of years on the walls and floors of caves, temples and churches worldwide. The pattern is woven into baskets in South America. It is carved into the grassy ground in England. It is built out of stones in Scandinavia.
In a Hindu birth ritual a yantra is traced in saffron. The birthing woman mentally walks through the yantra and then the saffron is washed away with water. The water is collected and given to the woman to drink. Her body absorbs the substance of the rhythmic pathways of her mind and she is free to move into the uncharted territory of Life. There is no difference between her and love.