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What makes yoga Yoga? Here is an opportunity to get to the crux of the matter.

Learn the technology of breath and body that makes practice a movement into the heart of what you are: the nurturing force of life.

I’m one of a few teachers in Canada who is passing on this knowledge. It is a revolution in understanding that recognizes the essential power of the Feminine in everyone and everything and offers a way to live in wholeness and grace.

Yoga teachers and new practitioners alike will get what they need in a small group setting where individual needs are honoured.

November 14, 21, 28, December 5, 12 & 19
Wednesdays from 7:00pm to 8:30pm at Eka Yoga Studio, 473A Church Street, 2nd floor, Toronto, ON  M4Y 2C5

9 hours over six weeks: $120.00

Registration is necessary: effie@ekayogatoronto.com; 647.748.4884

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

 

 

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.

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.

This was Mark Whitwell’s response to a question about the use of bandha during asana, about the channeling of energy that comes as the musculature of the whole body participates in the movement and suspension of the breath. His answer takes us to the crux of Yoga, a practice that comes from Life and takes us back to Life. If what you’re doing doesn’t, it’s not Yoga.

Before I met Mark, there was a gap between what I experienced in my life and what Yoga practice gave me. I tried different strategies to bridge the two, particularly when I taught pregnant women. Something was missing. I see other teachers still grappling with this feeling of incompletion. It’s common to hear that the physical practices of Yoga are not enough to fully support us. Richard Freeman says in his foreward to Michael Stone’s book , The Inner Tradition of Yoga, that “awakening to the simple truth of impermanence, of universal death, is all that has been missing [from contemporary practice].”¹ I beg to differ. What is missing is Life.

mark01Mark gave me the practical specifics of a Yoga technology that allows me to receive my experience. The gap between my life and my Yoga has dissolved. The profundity of spiritual practice is encountered in the simplicity and complete tangibility of breathing and moving. Nadine Fawell, an Australian Yoga teacher,  has written a post that beautifully, concisely describes this experience of Yoga. She got it when she met Mark at the recent Syndney Yoga Conference. 

U.G. Krishnamurti was a friend of Mark’s who, despite being recognized by the Shankaracharya as a living Buddha, rejected the idea of enlightenment. Watching videos of him speaking or reading his words, I am comforted by his fearlessness. U.G. said, “The mystique of enlightenment is based upon the idea of transforming yourself. I maintain that there is nothing to transform… somehow the truth has to dawn on you that there is nothing to understand…Stop thinking and start living.”  An appropriate Yoga practice gives you the means to do so.

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¹ Michael Stone, The Inner Tradition of Yoga (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2008) p.x