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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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PeriodicTableBlackA 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.

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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.

Contact crescence@heartofbirth.org

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.

Advanced Yoga for Everyone
Beginning Sunday, November 7th and running for six weeks until December 19th
(no class on Nov. 21st)
from 9:45am to 11:15am
at Eight Branches Healing Arts Centre (formerly Kokoro Dojo)  

358 Dupont Avenue (just west of Dupont and Spadina) $20.00 to drop-in; $108.00 for the session of six.

Prenatal Yoga  

A way of practicing that connects you directly to the force that will get your baby born.
Beginning Sunday, November 7th and running for six weeks until December 19th
(no class on Nov.21st)
from 11:25am to 12:55pm
Same location and fees as above.
Contact crescence@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 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.

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.

IMG_2721For 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.”

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