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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.
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.
Anger. Women’s anger directed at other women. The emotion was so tangible, so raw, I can taste it still. Memories of my own experiences of female aggression were triggered when I surfed through some of the popular childbirth websites online this past week. Common to the comment threads was an antagonism directed towards women whose birth experiences were diametrically opposed to their own. There seem to be thick walls between the 25-30% of women who have given birth through caesarean sections, the 80-95% of women in urban areas who have given birth within the parameters of epidural anaesthesia and women who have birthed with full sensation and little or no intervention. Why do we feel so threatened? Why do we lash out at each other?
I think we are individually and collectively expressing the fragmentation of the Feminine. It is painful. In the denial of the Feminine that is the structure of all contemporary societies, medical knowledge is divorced from wisdom. In this separation, both aspects are weakened and neither can receive or support the other. The current situation for women in India is an example of this. I happened on a website based around the work of Janet Chawla who founded the NGO, Matrika. Its mission is “the linking of indigenous skills, attitudes, diagnostics and therapeutics with modern allopathic medecine.” Most births in India are still in the hands of dais, traditional midwives who are often illiterate but who “read the fertile female body.” Matrika now has “ample data demonstrating a radically different understanding of the world and of bodily processes than that underlying modern medecine and public health.” This understanding is common to the Feminine the world over. In listening to the video interviews of dais on the website, I was moved by the universality of their experience. Moved too by the heart breaking position they are in of not having the medical skills, the resources or the respect essential to provide complete care. It is a tragedy that these two aspects of knowledge are separated by caste, class, money, institutional education and government policy. The polarized situation in India is highlighted by the fact that the “best hospitals” there have a caesarean rate of 80%! Both the wealthy and the poor are suffering.
Both the east and the west are suffering. Midwifery in Ontario has the medical aspect firmly in hand but the connection to the sacred understanding of birth that individual midwives may have is not tethered in a collective spiritual tradition or in a practical training in the technologies of breath and sound that are the pathways of the Feminine. Initiation into the “radically different understanding of the world” is not a given.
The radical realization is that we are already whole. There is nothing to fight for. I just learned from Matrika’s website that the Sanskrit word Yoni, referring to a woman’s vagina and womb, shares the same root as the word Yoga. Yuj means ‘union’. A woman is Yoga. In her, everything unites. Her yoni is the place where male and female merge. Where life is renewed and therefore where death is born. Where the past, our genetic history, and the substance of our cells, form the vehicle for the future. Where the unmanifest becomes manifest. Where the hidden is revealed. Where the power and the mystery of life are sourced. Connecting to our bodies brings integration, wisdom. It is only in this state of wisdom that our intelligence can function, that we can make decisions and take action based on the clear discernment of love rather than the haze of fear.
In the Sri Yantra, the ancient visual expression of the totality of existence, four upward pointing triangles, the male principle, merge with five downward pointing triangles, the female principle. The Sri Yantra tells us that the female principle is a slightly stronger force that the male principle surrenders to. The yantra is not a political statement in the war of the sexes but an illustration of how Life/Love comes into being. The work of Matrika is to honour the Feminine by listening to what the dais know and understand before giving them additional medical skills, skills that can be integrated into their work rather than be the means of its destruction. What is our path here in the west? What will be the bridge between the masculine medical model and the feminine wisdom that is buried more deeply underground here? What will heal womankind? To know we are union and the peace inherent in it is a sweet taste on the tongue.