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orchidWhen we give birth, we open so completely that our centre dissolves.  Our cervix melts.  Our belly becomes utterly soft.  In this receptivity the boundaries between our baby and ourself are magnificently transparent.  Breastfeeding sustains this unity while helping our body to regain its strength and realign around an expanded centre.   While the uterus needs about six weeks to return to the size of a pear, connective tissue needs about a year to regain its pre-pregnant state and the transformation that happens in our heart is forever.  In the most literal sense of the word,  post-partum isn’t a limited period of time after birth but extends through the rest of our lives. 

An uncomplicated birth initiates us into an awareness of our wholeness.  Obstetrician Michel Odent says women enter an altered state when they give birth.  We experience  a physiological transformation that ensures we are able to give and receive love.   When the process is interrupted by major medical intervention, the integration is also interrupted.  A woman experiences the spiritual aspect of birth without being able to process the intensity of it through her body.  In the case of a ceasarean section, dis-integration happens not just because of the physical trauma of surgery but because a woman loses touch with herself, with her source. Integration will need to take place after the birth rather than through it and the early weeks of motherhood will likely be a particularly vulnerable time.

One in three women who give birth in Toronto today will do so by caesarean.  It is such a common event and yet as a society we don’t honour the immensity of the experience or the multi-layered healing that needs to take place afterwards.  Every woman needs deep nurturing after giving birth but after a caesarean this is especially so.   I met a woman a few days ago who has gone through two caesarean births in the space of three years.  She said her children are happy, her husband is happy but two years after the last birth, she is still in pain.  While not a usual situation, it is not an uncommon one either.  After talking to her and seeing how she breathed and moved, it became clear that she has yet to recover the connection to her strength that was severed in the course of two major abdominal surgeries.  As a place to begin, I gave her some simple Yoga to do every day. 

When the ujayi breath is the inspiration for movement (see previous post) Yoga engages and strengthens precisely those muscles that were most stressed during pregnancy and birth: the pelvic floor and abdominals.  In a caesarean, the abdominal muscles aren’t merely stressed, they are cut in two.   A reconnection of above and below needs to happen in order for the body to regain its fluid strength.  When it does, the spine aligns and the internal organs, including the bladder, uterus and intestines, find their place.  A linking of above and below is also necessary for our heart’s equalibrium.  When softness and strength balance each other, we feel good.  

In a caesarean birth, a woman’s body doesn’t get the opportunity to complete the full birth process and her participation is restricted to that of a witness.  Mind and body separate and “hormones of love” don’t flood through her system like they would in a spontaneous birth.  Sadness and grief are a natural part of the time after birth but they can be a particularly strong reaction to the parameters of a caesarean experience.   As the baby isn’t brought immediately skin to skin with the mother when it is born, more time and support to establish a satisfying breastfeeding relationship might be needed. 

Having someone in the recovery room who can unwrap the baby and help latch it to the breast in the first hour after the birth can be a great help in bringing mother and child together again.  I do this in my role as a doula.  It is a great source of comfort to have your newborn suckling at your breast even as your body is coping with the immediate effects of surgery.  I often see vital signs in the mom stabilize as soon as she and baby are reunited in this way.  Oxytocin and endorphins flow; Life moves and all is well in the world.  Getting consistent breastfeeding support in the subsequent days and weeks is also invaluable.  It is a mother’s relationship with her child that is her primary Yoga.  Connected to each other, both find their strength.

In traditional societies all over the world, it’s recognized that mother and baby flourish when the mother is completely cared for in the first forty days after birth.  She needs warmth on every level: a warm, quiet, space; hot food and drink; warm baths and gentle touch.  Nurtured, she can nurture in return.  While our urban, technological environment suggests otherwise, we need no less.

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.”

img_2755How were you born? Do you know the story of your birth? Has the tale been woven repeatedly or do you live in its stark absence? In imagining our beginning, we touch both the mystery of our existence and the obvious reality that we are an integral part of life. We didn’t enter the world alone but in total fusion with another. No one exists who didn’t emerge from the warm, fluid centre of a woman.

It is a simple truth and a profoundly intimate one. I want to give voice to this intimacy and to the wisdom that nurtures it because our ability to love and be in right relationship with the world depends on it. Science supports this understanding. Research gathered by the visionary French obstetrician Michel Odent  links psychological and physical disease with our time in our mother’s womb, how we were born and how we were cared for in the first year of life.  Clear links have been made between rates of violence towards oneself and others and the circumstances of an individual’s primal period.  A mother is her child’s universe. For the first time in history, the majority of women are giving birth without releasing ‘hormones of love’. Odent asks what our future holds if the capacity to love continues to be restricted? We are part of the whole and that whole is in crisis.

To speak of birth is to speak of fear. In its grip, the Feminine voice is silenced. Quietly, one in every three birthing women in Toronto is cut open to her core. Every year, in this same silence, 24,000 women in Afghanistan die after giving birth. There the Feminine has been pushed so far underground, fear is so thick, ignorance so deep that in many places there is no one able to assist at births. Both the deadly absence of medical skills and their aggressive use point to a world devoid of wisdom.

Birth is a part of a woman’s sexual life. I believe this is why we try to control it. To give birth freely is to feel life moving through us. Birth requires our receptivity and strength, our passion and wisdom. In the process of connecting to these, we meet our restrictions and our lack of knowledge about ourselves. I read of a recent Australian study in which one out of three (that statistic again) women had never, or rarely, experienced orgasm. How easily do these women give birth and suckle their children? The full release of oxytocin, the  ‘hormone of love’ , is necessary for all events in the continuum of a woman’s sexual experience: orgasm, birth and breastfeeding. 

Birth sheds light on Yoga. The light comes from life, the flow of the Feminine force, rather than two thousand years of doctrine. The principles of Yoga are found in life and bring us back to life. Mark Whitwell’s clarity about Yoga supports my experience. Birth is Yoga, when the waving and pulsing of Shakti through a woman’s body is an utterly tangible experience for her and her child. Shakti is not a metaphor or a philosophical concept but reality.

Participating in reality is the purpose of Yoga practice. It is in everyone’s reach, of course, because we are what we seek. We are real. We are the manifestation of Life in all its mystery and power, in all our mystery and power. In the repression of the Feminine, the understanding of how to live and love has only been whispered. Listen to these tales! They are written out loud.