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              On Hallowe’en night, I was called to a birth.  As the mother moved her hips in spirals and released what she was feeling on long oooh’s and aaah’s, children rang the doorbell, unaware that across the threshold, spirit was moving into form.  On a night that plays with Death, we were part of a dance of Life.

The boundaries between sex and spirit dissolve in this dance but because our mind separates these realms, we fear their fusion.   In a woman, Life and Death are one.  When this is obvious, we call her a witch.  Ancient cultures called her the Goddess. 

In South America, the Dia de los Muertos celebrates Her paradox.  In the early hours of November 1st, I was witness to the birth of a little girl.  Later that day, I was invited to a traditional Day of the Dead ceremony.  Wearing white, I lit a white candle and placed a white rose and carnation on the altar.  I honoured those who have gone and those yet to come and I honoured my own fear and love.

Unexpectedly, in the wake of the Yoga Festival Toronto‘s Roundtable on ‘Yoga and Birth’, my mind has been mulling about death. The other half of this Roundtable event will take place on May 2nd, and its topic is exactly that. It’s clear that Matthew, Dennison and Scott have created a wonderfully natural structure for us to delve into what is at the heart of Yoga. Birth and death are two aspects of the same process. They interpenetrate. We found ourselves in this liminal territory by the end of Saturday night, at the place where opposites merge.

We spoke of how in order to give birth, our concept of who we are and where our boundaries lie dissolves. What is inside? What is out? What is me? What is not? We  die to who we were and are reborn as mothers. We encompass everything.

We spoke of maternal death and abortion and afterwards, in private conversations, of miscarriage, stillbirth and infant death. They are a part of Feminine experience and yet so often, they crouch in silent places full of grief and shame. As a Yoga teacher, I was once forbidden from referring to the Goddess Kali and how she reigned over birth and death. Saying the word “death”, I was told, might upset women who had had miscarriages. In the denial of the Feminine, in the denial of life, we also deny death. Between one in five and one in three pregnancies ends in miscarriage. It is such an ordinary, if I can use that word, part of being fertile and yet the social taboo around speaking about it remains. Additionally, the abortion rate in Canada is approximately 20% of all pregnancies. To speak of death in a group of women is to acknowlege what many have already experienced and what all face in potentiality. Speaking the “unspeakable” is to make our lives whole.

We spoke of how vital it is for a woman to be nurtured and nourished in the weeks after birth. While the form of that nourishment changes through time, the need for it never leaves. I’m reminded of Germaine Greer’s words that living in a body that isn’t nurtured yet is responsible for nurturing is a form of female madness. Some related statistics… 70% of the 1.2 billion people living in poverty are women; 80% of the world’s 27 million refugees are women; only 1% of the world’s land is owned by women… you get the picture. Here in Toronto, I’m aware of an emotional starvation even among women who are not lacking materially. On this level, fathers need nourishing as well. Men need men, a tribe of men, who know that loving and honouring women and children is what makes them strong. Nurturing the Feminine in all of us, we give children what they need to live and love. We get it back. Children are, quite literally, our life.

My thoughts come back to Yoga practice. Just as breath envelops movement, so life contains death. Yoga  gives us the strength to receive life and everything in it. We can embrace our beginnings, our endings and each other with less fear and more love. We can stand on the threshold with our heart wide open.

The shockingly cold wind that pushed against me as I scurried for the subway yesterday vied for my attention with internal images of water, earth, wood and flesh. They had penetrated my core and stirred emotions that were more compelling than the force of a Canadian winter. I had just seen Rodrigue Jean’s film, Lost Song. I suggest you do too.

Never have I seen the internal world of a new mother expressed so clearly. Jean’s camera is in intimate relationship with everything. Its vision bears no judgement. In its love, the truth of a woman’s life pours forth. We join this intimacy. Her experience becomes ours. This dissolution of boundries and unity of experience is the union the word ‘Yoga’ refers to. Sa’ham: I am She. She is me. The power of art to move us is the power of Yoga. In the emotional and psychological isolation of current yummymummyhood, Jean’s public exploration of what a woman encounters in giving birth and being a mother is crucial to our collective sanity. In the UK, the leading cause of death for women in the first year of a baby’s life is suicide. The grief and despair this statistic points to needs to be seen and heard. We need to know that the pain we experience is not a cause for shame but is a personal expression of our society’s repression of the Feminine.

In an interview with ‘The Globe and Mail’, Jean said that it took him five years to make the film because “it was almost impossible to finance because of the subject matter.” His persistence paid off with Lost Song winning the Best Canadian Feature Film prize last year at the Toronto International Film Festival. The panel said Jean, “has crafted a spare and uncompromising film- rife with humanity…” The destruction wreaked in the lead character’s instinct for wholeness and connection strikes a visceral chord in me. Like Kali, her chaos is in the service of rebirth. The lush fertility of Quebec’s lakes and woods draws her towards union with life. In the shelter of the roots of a fir tree, she is able to nurse her child again. Empty formula cans leave a trail like Goldilock’s bread crumbs. The question of who is the Witch is left hanging. 

Jean said he has spent the last twenty-five years exploring his interest in the myth of Medea. He said, “Canada got a blame from the United Nations about how we treat our children and our poor…When the child is actually there, and it needs all that a child needs, the society, the couple, are not there. That’s the big picture that informs the film.” The actual film is made of little pictures. The ripples made on water when a naked man dives in. The curve of a woman’s belly on summer rumpled sheets. The words of a mother-in-law and priest. The sounds of wild animals under the roof. Jean doesn’t answer why, amidst such beauty, disassociation and the yearning for union occurs. He shows us how and leaves us simultaneously sweating and chilled to the bone.

Lost Song is playing at the Cineplex Odeon Carlton (416.598.2309). The film is in French with English subtitles.