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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.

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Nadine Fawell and I have been in conversation via email and it has been a delight.  She lives in Australia.  She teaches Yoga. I live in Canada. I teach Yoga.  On opposite ends of the world, we come together at the heart.  Nadine has studied at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, the school T.K.V. Desikachar founded, and this winter she connected with Mark Whitwell

Nadine interviewed me and has posted our words on her blog.  Her questions were simple but not ones I ask myself, so I found new ways to think about my life and my work. The gift of friendship!

Click here to read the interview!

In the early hours of yesterday morning I got home from a birth, peeled off my clothes as soon as I shut the front door, listened for the sound of my sleeping daughter’s breath (almost eighteen years after I had heard her first exhale and then the unexpected quiet of her peacefulness), shut her bedroom door, showered away the blood and amniotic fluid of a new life, ate a bowl of rice with peanut sauce, drank a cup of chamomile tea and slid into the clean sheets of my bed. I had done my Yoga.

Today my mind is still in the open and alert place it goes to in the wake of a birth. Carrying groceries home, the shadows of bare branches stripe the sidewalk. A small, black bird with slashes of red and white on its wings stands in my path and sings. Its presence is as bold and wonderous as that of the little boy who entered the world yesterday and spontaneously latched himself to his mother’s breast. The sun shines down on me. I am content. This is the gift of this work.

To really be with someone is to be with life. To be with a birthing woman, undistracted, to breathe every breath with her, to merge my sound with hers, to have my hands on her skin and my mind in her mind, is to link to the unqualified force and intelligence of life that pours through her with extraordinary power. It pours through me too. It belongs to both of us and neither of us. Yoga calls this power Shakti. She is the source and the movement of life. She is Reality. She is the woman giving birth. She is me.

Patanjali wrote that Yoga is a merging with the chosen direction or experience (1.2). “A person of extraordinary clarity” is someone who has stopped searching, someone “who is free from the desire to know the perceiver.” [S]he has felt h[er] own nature. (4.25)¹ There is no better way to feel what you are than by giving birth!  No rules apply. Life itself provides the structure. To surrender to life, Isvarapranidhana, is to let life move you. Your body moves in the way it needs to. Your breath moves in the way it needs to. Sound and silence come and go. This is the Natural State, sahaj samadhi. This is freedom, vairagya. Mark says Krishnamacharya defined vairagya as “freedom relative to all experience”. It doesn’t mean to remove yourself from experience. To be free with experience, merge with experience.

I spent nine hours at the hospital with my client and her family. In our intimacy love and peace unfolded and a new life was born. “The sun shines. All is evident…”(4.31)² 

___________________________

¹Mark Whitwell, Yoga of Heart (New York: Lantern Books, 2004) p.140

²T.K.V. Desikachar, The Heart of Yoga (Rochester:Inner Traditions International, 1999) p.213

 

Ina May Gaskin and Isabel Perez

Ina May Gaskin and Isabel Perez

 

Isabel Perez has been my friend over the last fifteen years. Her life encompasses the ancient and modern, the rural and urban, South and North America. Birth has always been at the centre of Isabel’s life. She lives within an effortless recognition that the seen is evidence of the unseen, that heaven and earth are one condition.

Isabel was born in Guatemala to Mayan parents. Her great-grandmother was a nodrisa, a traditional midwife. Her father was a shaman. After the devastating earthquake in 1976, Isabel, her husband and children were brought to the U.S. by Ina May Gaskin, a pioneering midwife, now world renowned. Isabel trained and worked with Ina May for four years on The Farm in Tennessee. She contributed to a community whose way of handling birth resulted in a caesarean rate of only 1.4% amongst 2,028 women from 1970 to 2000. Home was the environment for 95.1% of the births. Isabel then moved to Toronto where she practiced midwifery until it was integrated into the Ontario health care system in 1993. Subsequently, Isabel has worked as a doula.

What follows is some of the conversation we had in her kitchen this past May. The sounds of living accompanied our talk: splashing water running from the kitchen sink, rice being washed, boiled and stirred; tea being poured; spoons touching bowls; our swallows. Isabel cooked and shared a breakfast of rice pudding while she carried the thread of her narrative. These sounds place her story in the current of daily life. Hear them as you read!

Crescence Krueger What is the most powerful thing that you bring to a birth?

Isabel Perez Confidence. Peace. Love. And trust. Those are the words my clients use, eh? So I’m just repeating them. I have a very simple personality. And that works for me almost everywhere. It’s very simple, the way that I work. Very simple. You have seen.

CK  That’s what I love.  Read the rest of this entry »

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