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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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Join vocalist and composer Wende Bartley and me!  In the union of inhale and exhale, movement and breath, we feel our innate wholeness.  By extending the breath into sound making, we readily resonate and open to a wide range of sound and healing frequencies.  Directing our sound into the masculine and feminine polarity points, we celebrate our union with Source.  Love isn’t something we need to find; it’s what we already are.

February 14th, 7:00pm to 9:30pm; Opensource Yoga (central Toronto;exact location given when you register); $30.00  Contact Inya: opensourceyoga@gmail.com

Yoga understands that you are Mother, the source and force of LIfe.   Connected to your power, you will know in your very bones how to give birth.  Learn the principles of breath and movement that forge this connection.  In the deep denial of the Feminine that still defines our world, this knowledge is missing from much of our current Yoga education.  Like a wave in rhythmic flow, breathing, moving, meditation and life are a seamless process.  Through it, you develop the strength to receive life and give birth… in peace and love.

Crescence Krueger passes on the beautifully simple and profound Yoga she has received from Mark Whitwell.  Her ability to integrate feminine wisdom into our current teaching and birthing environments is supported by eighteen years’ work as a Doula and a twenty year connection to Isabel Perez and Ina May Gaskin. She teaches and mentors Yoga teachers and Doulas.



Sundays, 11:30am to 1:00pm, February 13 to March 27
Eight Branches Healing Arts Centre
358 Dupont Avenue, west of Spadina and the Dupont subway station

$127.00 for seven week session; $20.00 drop-in, space allowing
Intimate class size allows for discussion and personal instruction.  Contact crescence@heartofbirth.org; 416.994.4566

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.

Day_the_Dead

              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.

visionLife is one.  That’s the message I got from Ina May Gaskin last Friday night in Ottawa.  It’s the message of Yoga too.  The action of Yoga is to surrender your breath to the Whole/Ishvara.  Your whole body participates in the flow of Life.

It was a clear fall day when Isabel Perez and I drove from Toronto to Ottawa.  Blue sky touched red and orange leaves and the pink stone cliffs beneath them.  The vivid colours reminded Isabel of the great quantities of brightly dyed sawdust she helped her family make when she was a child in Guatamala.  People bought the material at Christmas time to decorate their handmade nativity scenes.  Isabel’s memories have merged with the Canadian landscape and have added another layer to my perception of it too. 

Isabel and her family came to Tennessee in the 70’s so that she could train as a midwife with Ina May.  Our journey to Ottawa was a brief reunion.  Ina May was the final speaker at the Breech Birth Conference.  It was billed as a storytelling event.  Ina May is a wonderful entertainer.  I spent most of the evening laughing.  Her stories were of the link between childbearing women and other mammals.  How we share the one process of Life.  

Ina May said she loves old books.  They are often sources of lost knowledge and alternate frames of mind.  In an 18th Century medical textbook , she found suggestions for relieving milk engorged breasts that included an “intelligent maid” and a cooperative goat.  This was in an era before the invention of the breast pump.  Intelligent, cooperative husbands were the standard solution on the Farm, she said.  In the weeks before his baby was able to latch onto the breast, Ina May told of one skinny vegan man who blossomed in his efforts to build and maintain his wife’s milk supply.  Breast is indeed best.

In order to give birth, the primal brain stem, the part of the brain we share with all living creatures, must be freed from the tyranny of the modern, rational brain.  In order to give birth, we must surrender to our animal selves.  It is in this surrender that we experience love.  Images of the direct connection between animals and us are in the media now.  Perhaps we are remembering our link with Life.  Ina May mentioned the photo of Tori Amos suckling a piglet.  I happened on the less provocative but very beautiful mixed media exhibition of Gregory Colbert, entitled ‘Ashes and Snow’ which opened in Venice in 2002 and has been touring the world since.  The photo of the boy and the bird at the top of this post is one of Colbert’s. 

The audience for Ina May on Friday was a young one.  I felt quite ancient in its midst and quite delighted.  I have hope.

wp3b965a7e_1b Having attended a long birth a few nights ago, I’ve come back into daily life where I’m living by the rhythm of the sun again.  I’ve been writing today, winding my way through a logical sequence of thoughts and images, moving through a vinyasa of words.  Writing is Yoga where the invisible takes shape, where silence becomes sound, where thought becomes vibration.  It is a creative act that mirrors the original one of Birth. 

 The sensation of following the thread of my thoughts reminds me of the Greek myth where Ariadne holds onto the end of a ball of thread that her lover, Theseus, unspools as he enters into the heart of a labyrinth.  There he meets and kills a half- human beast.  The thread guides him back out.  He begins and ends his journey in love.  On the way, he loses his fear.

Giving birth  is like this.  You go to the centre of what you are. You touch the heart.  In fact, there is an ancient yantra (a Tantric symbol of cosmic unity) given to labouring women that is in the exact form of a labyrinth.  It’s called a Chakravyuha but it is identical to labyrinths drawn for thousands of years on the walls and floors of caves, temples and churches worldwide. The pattern is woven into baskets in South America. It is carved into the grassy ground in England.  It is built out of stones in Scandinavia.  

In a Hindu birth ritual a yantra is traced in saffron.  The birthing woman mentally walks through the yantra and then the saffron is washed away with water.  The water is collected and given to the woman to drink.   Her body absorbs the substance of the  rhythmic pathways of her mind and she is free to move into the uncharted territory of Life.  There is no difference between her and love.

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

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.

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