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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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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

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