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“You Don’t Need to Meditate” is the title of a blog post J. Brown wrote last month. It’s a provocative premise to throw out into the yoga community and the comments on it reflected that. J. and I both have Mark Whitwell as a teacher. That doesn’t mean we have the same experience of Yoga but it does mean we share principles of practice and trust the experience that arises from their application. So I thought J.’s post would be a good place to jump off of to share my understanding.
Here’s what I know: meditation isn’t something that can be done; it’s something that happens when the conditions are right. Meditation is the gift/siddhi we get when we immerse our mind in the intelligence that moves our body and breath. Meditation is not to become “conscious” because consciousness is what we already are and is something that is impossible for the mind to contain. If we try never- the- less, consciousness’ free flow becomes restricted. This happens when we aim to witness our experience, constructing an “other” that we can then observe. However, when we move fully into our experience, the boundaries we set up between ourselves and the rest of the world become irrelevant in the face of our essential limitlessness. This unfettered energy that is our life is the creative power of the Feminine. When I gave birth, it became clear to me that there was no difference between me and what was moving through me, utter strength realized in utter openness. I was the receiver and the giver of life, both. All of us, male and female, woman and child, are this source and force. Trying to separate from ourselves in order to become “aware” is a brutal act of disintegration and our integrity is lost in the violence of it.
Mark says that it is not enlightenment that any of us really want but intimacy. Intimacy is enlightenment though, not in the heroic ideal of being outside of experience, but in the real meaning of being at one with everything, even with what is unloved, our fear and dread, our sense of unworthiness and our shame. Intimacy honours darkness and the wisdom found when words fail and even the idea of love loses its meaning. Still, intimacy remains. It is our natural state, what Yoga calls sahaj samadhi. We give birth in it; we are born in it and we die back into it. Intimacy is love divested of the mind’s parameters. This love is what Yoga practice is meant to offer us, not unending bliss but a heart that is whole. Pain is a “given”, necessary for our security and growth. Imagining that we can live apart from pain, and not cause harm in the process, is craziness and yet this idea is at the root of all transcendent philosophy, to which conventional yoga belongs. Recognition of the sacredness of our simple existence is essential to our sanity and the preservation of our humanity. Spirit isn’t absent from blood and bone and the fire that burns in the deep of the earth.
The challenge for all spiritual traditions now, including Yoga, is to let go of the dream of enlightenment and fully embrace our lives and each other. This means embracing the Feminine. I read yesterday here that for the first time in history Tibetan Buddhist nuns are being allowed to write exams that will grant them the title of “Geshe” and give them full access to the teaching monks have always received, which includes “ethics in their entirety”. As if ethical action can exist when we stand removed from others and deny their equal worth! I didn’t realize that the nuns have continued to be so overtly oppressed. They “have to obey the monks, can’t give them advice, and even the most senior nun still has to take a lower seat than the greenest rookie monk.” This is in a tradition that has at its root the knowledge that perfection is the nature of all things and that meditation is effortlessly present when we come into Yoga. That knowledge though, has been obscured in the misogyny of Tibetan culture.
A similar obscuration of wisdom took place in India. Krishnamacharya did what he could to restore the Feminine to its essential place in Yoga practice. Technically, he understood that it is in the union of polarities that life moves. But he didn’t realize the full implications of this, that love and its clarity is our natural state. His former student and lifelong friend, U.G. Krishnamurti, did and explained that Yoga practice is only useful, if it is an expression of our innate power. Krishnamacharya admitted to U.G. that he had no experience of what he had realized, a complete surrender of the mind to life. I think it’s vital that our idea of Yoga includes U.G.’s understanding, otherwise we are functioning within the limits of a hundred year old Brahmin’s worldview. He had a brilliant mind but it never let go its grip on him.
In the pervasive denial of the Feminine that still exists in Yoga, meditation as an escape from ourselves will hurt sooner or later. As the revelation of ourselves however, meditation is life, sex and spirit weaving us into the heart of the world. “Real silence is explosive”, said U.G..
The winter session of Sunday morning yoga for everyone begins this coming Sunday, January 9th at 9:45am. Looking forward to seeing everyone again! And welcoming new people!
If you don’t know me, what I offer is a way of practicing and a teaching structure that are not widely available. In small classes of ten or less, you let the breath initiate, guide and complete your movement. This is authentic yoga that brings you easily into your Natural State, into the healing connection with your own Life force. It is for everyone because everyone can breathe and it is the breath that leads you to an experience of yoga, not any isolated proficiency of physical strength or flexibility. It is an advanced practice because it is profoundly simple, direct and efficient.
If you are new to yoga, you will come easily into the practice and if you have been studying for years, you will be challenged to move and breathe within a new paradigm of yoga understanding.
We are like a wave in rhythmic flow where asana, pranayama, bandha, meditation and life are a seamless process. We have the strength to receive ourselves and the ability to really be in relationship with one another, the beginning and end of yoga.
at Eight Branches Healing Arts Centre 358 Dupont Avenue (just west of Dupont and Spadina) $20.00 to drop-in; $18.00/class if four or more classes are paid for at once.
Almost five years ago now, I walked from the Metro Convention Centre towards Roy Thompson Hall knowing that I had experienced Yoga in a way I never had before. The air was cool and damp in Toronto’s novemberish way but the sun was shining through the remains of the morning mist and I felt it shining through me too. I felt warm and soft and beautiful.
This was my first experience of Mark Whitwell’s Yoga. The choice of asana and pranayama were traditional and familiar and yet the feeling in me was not. There was a gentleness to what I had just been part of that touched me deeply. I couldn’t define what had happened then. Now I can.
Now it is my Yoga. I practice and teach in a way that embeds the philosophical principles of Yoga into the very technology of practice, into how you breathe and move. Rather than practice being a warm-up to meditation and profound insight, practice is your connection to what you are. Meditation and clarity happen with absolutely no effort. The integration that is realized is deep because the practice lets you participate directly in the force that brought you into the world and is keeping you alive.
This participation is the Yoga, the union. It is missing in much of how Yoga is taught. The fact that it was given to me by a New Zealander on a beautiful fall day in downtown Toronto is one of the fateful twists in my life. Finally I had a very clear and precise way to pass on to others what I naturally experienced in my own life and work.
While you need to be taught by someone who is actually beside you listening to you breathe, I hope it is helpful to write down the basic principles here. They will lead you in the right direction. You can start playing with your breath in your own practice. As Mark says, you don’t need to abandon what you know but to simply integrate the breath into what you know. You can do this with an Astanga practice as easily as with an Iyengar one. You will create something new that is your own.
To begin, let your breath move with a soft hiss made by narrowing your throat slightly. I think of the sound of the surf when I do this. This is called the ujayi breath. When you breathe like this on both the inhale and the exhale, you engage your core musculature, the strength of your body. That strength becomes the vehicle for your breath. Your movement is a way to release and strengthen your breath, not the other way around. This is very important. You are not pressing into a posture and then remembering to breathe. Begin to breathe before you move and let the breath be the inspiration, quite literally, for the movement. When the movement resolves in stillness, let the breath extend slightly beyond it until it too comes to rest. The inhale comes from above. It expresses the Feminine principle. The exhale comes from below. It expresses the Masculine principle. They meet each other in you and become one. This is the Yoga. Everyone can do this. It is not a great mystical feat. To play with the breath in this way becomes the purpose of your Yoga now.
Krishnamacharya said, “If you can breathe, you can do Yoga.” “Because the great power of our anatomy is being used to move the breath, it moves with ease as we contact our depth, our source,” writes Mark. In Yoga, our source is called Shakti. She is the origin and manifestation of Life. She is not apart from us, somewhere up in the sky. She is in us. We are in her. And the way to know this is to move and breathe in a way that makes it clear heaven and earth are one.
Keeping my daughter company last night as she packed for a canoe trip, I began reading aloud from a book that was on her camp’s reading list, The Tao of Leadership. This is what I read.
Tao means how: how things happen, how things work. Tao is the single principle underlying all creation… All creation unfolds according to Tao. There is no other way. Tao cannot be defined, but Tao can be known. The method is meditation, or being aware of what is happening. By being aware of what is happening, I begin to sense how it is happening. I begin to sense Tao… The method of meditation works because principle and process are inseparable. All process reveals the underlying principle. This means that I can know Tao. I can know God. By knowing Tao, I know how things happen.¹
I stopped and shouted, “This is Yoga!” Substitute Shakti for Tao; they are different words for the same thing. Shakti is the single principle underlying all creation. By being aware of what is happening when you give birth, you will know Her.
Practicing Yoga before you give birth will make it easier to feel what is happening during the intensity of the birthing process. A practice isn’t essential but it is very helpful. I think “being aware of what is happening” is a great way to describe meditation. Any preciousness associated with the concept is dropped. When you are aware of what is happening, you are meditating. It is that simple.
I also love how Lao Tzu says, “There is no other way.” He isn’t worried we’ll misinterpret his clarity. The painting of Tzu that accompanies this post is a co- creation of Huang Xiang and William Rock. Xiang is “one of the greatest poets of the 20thC and a master calligrapher.” He was imprisoned for twelve years in China for his advocacy of human rights and now lives in NYC using his art as a bridge between the East and West. Rock is an Irish American artist who has studied with Tibetan and Chinese monks over the last fifteen years. Together, Rock and Xiang are a voice for freedom, the only way.
¹ John Heider, The Tao of Leadership, Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching Adapted for a New Age (Atlanta: Humanics Limited, 1985) p.1