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When you think of birth, what comes to mind?  What feelings move through you?

In an American study that midwife and filmmaker Elena Tonetti-Vladimirova told me about, 95% of women felt that giving birth had been a traumatic experience for them.  Their babies experienced that trauma too since a baby receives its mother’s flow of hormones and the emotions that go with them.  So most Americans born today experience their entry into the world as a very frightening thing.  The flow of Life is associated with terror.  It makes sense then, that  contemporary culture is so resourceful at keeping us disassociated from ourselves.

The thing is, terror and trauma is not what nature intends for us.  When a woman feels safe and her process is not interfered with, she and her baby meet each other in a state of ecstasy.  They are filled with the hormones of love.  Peace and joy are an integral part of birth and all of life.  Peace and joy are our natural state.

Yoga, in its original expression, understands this.  Yoga connects us to the essence of what we are: the joyous movement of Life.  Two mornings ago,  I witnessed this movement in a dramatic way in the 2 hour birth of a 9 1/2 pound baby boy.  It was the mother’s third child and the third time I was with her and her husband.  As with her second, she had dilated quite effortlessly to 4cm the week before.  We knew that when strong contractions came, the birth would happen quickly.  The memory of her amniotic waters gushing from her is clear in my mind.  And the open armed gesture of her son as he lay between her thighs in the moment before she gathered him to her, umbilical cord still attached.

I got an email from a pregnant friend yesterday, thanking me for the birth preparation session I had done with her.  She wrote: “I feel calmer than I have in quite a while.  It was important to look at birth from a normal, natural, healthy, joyous perspective rather than discussing all the things that could go wrong.”  We’re here in order to feel joy.  We’re here to pass it on.

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Yoga is your direct immersion and integration with Life.  Since we are Life, Yoga isn’t about achieving anything but about participating completely in what already is. Thousands of years ago, people took the principles evident in the creation and sustaining of Life and applied them to simple practices of breath, movement and sound.  In this way, they deepened their intimacy with themselves and each other.  We will do the same.

These principles got left by the wayside as Yoga became something that womenless men did in their attempt to transcend the world.  Intimate relationship, sex, birth and caring for children were avoided in the quest for enlightenment.  The irony is that rather than being at odds with our spiritual life, these ordinary aspects of life are precisely the means to realize it. 

Krishnamacharya, the teacher of many of the most influential teachers who brought Yoga to the west, spent seven and a half years in Tibet studying with his teacher, a Yogi with a wife and children.  Krishnamacharya promised his teacher that in payment for what he had been given, he would raise a family of his own and bring Yoga out into the wider world.  He did this within the confines of a rigidly patriarchial society, however.  Today we can go further.   Today we can practice in a way that expresses the Feminine and brings it into union with the Masculine.  The integration that happens is immensely healing. 

There will be ample time to address your understanding and experience of Yoga, to talk about teaching and how we can transmit a real understanding of Yoga to each other and to explore how sex and birth can bring us into deep intimacy with Life and its renewal.  We’ll then put this into our body and breath and move with it, making our practice accurate and powerful, practical and relevant.

crescence-kruegerYoga with Crescence Krueger:  An Ontario Yoga Association Workshop

 Sunday, October 18th, 9:00am to 4:00pm at Pegasus Studios, 361 Glebeholme Blvd.(Danforth and Coxwell)

$85.00 ($65.00 for OYA members)
 Registration is limited to twenty participants. 
 
To register, please call the OYA at 416. 646. 1600, Ext.25 or info@ontarioyogaassociation.ca  Click here for the OYA page and registration form
 
Yoga Alliance CE credits will be offered.

3981-allegory-of-wisdom-orazio-samacchiniAlmost 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.

IMG_2721For the first time in 18 years, I am free to come and go as I please in the world.  My daughter has left Toronto to attend university.  It is a bittersweet freedom, coming as one phase of our lives ends and another begins.  What to do with it?

In speaking to the Yoga Alliance this past week, I found out that they are struggling with a backlog of 200 teacher registration applications.  It took four attempts, by mail and then by fax, until they were able to locate my paperwork.  Is there anything, in the millions of people now practicing and teaching Yoga, that I can add?

I’ve been reading Yoga, Buddhist and other spiritual magazines over the last few weeks, interested in what people in the public realm are saying right now.  My birth work happens in the intimacy of bedrooms and birthing rooms and the majority of my teaching over the last few years has been one-on-one in my home.  I feel that what happens in these private realms is not impacting the public conversation.

Here`s an example. In the August-September 2009 magazine Tathaastu there is an article by David Frawley.  His realm is Tantric philosophy.  “Wonderful!” I’m thinking, as I dive into his words.  But as I read, something doesn’t feel right.  It takes me a moment to figure out what.  “To merge one’s mind into [the] yoni of the heart is to move through all creation to the absolute beyond, to be reborn into the Supreme!”  He speaks of “higher” powers and how sexual energy is “only” an outer manifestation of cosmic consciousness, “a greater Divine sexuality which transcends all creaturely existence”   Ah, now I have it!   David separates the spiritual from ordinary life and in doing so, turns what we are into something less than what lies “beyond”.  Wherever that is, it is not here.

Disassociation is at the root of human suffering and spiritual philosophy that assumes we have to leave ordinary reality is yet another source of pain.  Our physical existence is not a barrier to the absolute but is its fullest expression.  When sperm fused with egg, the energy of Life, Shakti, God/Goddess, call it what you will, moved through your parents and took form as you.  You wouldn’t be alive if Shakti weren’t pulsing in you at this very moment.  We don’t go “beyond” to feel this.  Life is right here, right now, present in a never ending flow.  Like a river and its bed, like sunlight and its warmth, we are indivisible from our source.

So our birth is not an event that needs to be improved upon.  I challenge anyone to be with a woman as she gives birth and then say that what you have witnessed is not the pure power and mystery of the universe revealing itself.  After sixteen years of attending births, I return home in greater awe each time, feeling the strength and delicacy of my own aliveness, raw and open. If I gave birth to another human being believing that I had trapped them in a state that needs to be transcended, it would turn my life into a nightmare. I would become a vehicle of suffering.  What misery for all of us!  Krishnamacharya’s statement that “We have created a hell out of this earthly paradise” describes the situation very aptly, I think.  He defined practice, sadhana, as “doing what can be done”.  Everyone can receive the reality of Life as it is given. Small “l” or capital “l”, there is no difference between them.

Which brings me to the question of teaching.   In the Summer 2009 issue of Parabola  the Taoist teacher Sat Hon says:

I think that students and teachers are in a conspiracy of lies.  My teacher used to say that students will come to you with chains of concepts and an unskillful teacher will give them another chain of concept to carry around and they’re both happy.  They think that’s what teaching is.  To really get into the core of your being, you don’t have to accumulate more.  You have to have the good fortune to meet someone like my kind teacher who whittled away everything.

In order to whittle, you must know what you’re working with.  Is it pine, oak or cherrywood that you hold in your hand?  Freshly cut or seasoned?  As my daughter  begins her time in an institution of  “higher” learning, I’ve been thinking of her path up until this point.  Certain that a personal relationship between teacher and student was essential,  I homeschooled her until she was eight.  She then entered a Waldorf school and stayed with her core teacher throughout the next six years.  High school was spent at another small school where there was a strong sense of community and a real engagement between teachers and students.  While now part of a student body that numbers over 20,000, she has chosen a program that contains only 80 students and that has her in a seminar class of eight and a tutorial class that is even smaller.  Her instinct is to seek out the opportunity for relationship.  I am fascinated by this.  And I think how much more important is the connection between teacher and student when the subject is not intellectual but of the heart?

Like Sat Hon, I too have met kind teachers.  They have met me in return with a knowing that has touched my very marrow.  In our meeting I have come to recognize that the core of my creaturely existence is love.  Everything whittled away, I am left with everything. 

So much of Yoga is now taught en masse.  I wonder if this reflects our collective struggle with intimate relationship?   My daughter has had the good fortune to experience real connection.  So many of us haven’t.  We’ve drifted through social and educational systems where we’ve never been seen.  If you don’t know what you’re missing, how can you ask for it?  How can you give it?

So I think there is something I can both add and take away.  I know how to teach Yoga in a way that gives you the strength to receive.  With this receptivity, your connection to everything becomes obvious and the need for conceptual complexity dissolves.  As Mark says with great understatement, “Our life as it is given is full and sufficient.”

The Bay - AmazingThere’s an opportunity to do an open group practice with me tomorrow, Sunday, August 23rd from 10:00am to 11:30am at The Yorkville Club which is in Hazelton Lanes, 87 Avenue Road, a block and a bit north of Bloor Street on the east side.  Anyone can come; you don’t need to be a member.  Drop-in fee is $16.00.   We’ll be in the ‘Nataraj’ room.

I worked with a woman in her sixties yesterday who had tried a few Yoga classes in the past and had come to the conclusion that she “couldn’t do Yoga” because of her physical restrictions.  Well, we both got a wonderful surprise!  Yoga is linking your mind to the movement of your breath and how it moves your body.  When she did this, she felt her own aliveness and that aliveness, being acknowledged, began to pour through her with a fluid strength that was magnificent.  She was Yoga! 

My time with her reminded me that it is my job to find the appropriate way to give each person the principles of Yoga practice.  The way for each of us is as individual as we are.  Everyone on this earth can do Yoga because it is simply a way to be what we are.

Photo:  James Bay at low tide; Northwaters Bay Trip 2007.

Japanese merge of water and airWe are not like blocks of ice…We are like water flowing freely…When we are in accordance with this…it is possible for us to understand the death, the pain, the happiness of another as our own.¹

Soko Morinaga Roshi, Zen master 

   

Yoga practice gives us a way to feel our integration with everything. Pregnancy and Birth are times when our fluid nature becomes obvious. One day to the next, one minute to the next, our bodies transform. Our children grow inside us, not through our will but through our receptivity to the strength of life. They are born out of the same unwavering softness. 

We are the container and the contained. We breathe, rocking our babies in constant motion. They swim in the warmth of our waters; the beat of our hearts and the pulse of our blood have always been. When we give birth, we are born too.

Life moves to life. Water draws birthing women, simultaneously providing freedom and containment. Submerging yourself in warm water significantly reduces the pain of opening. Your own bathtub is a splendid place to be. If you are planning to give birth at home, renting a birthing pool gives you more room and allows you to keep the water temperature stable. Giving birth in water can make a spontaneous, gentle birth more likely. In Toronto, Eliana Trinaistic  is a dependable source for pool rentals. Many hospitals now have jacuzzi tubs in their labour and delivery rooms.  Barbara Harper has pioneered the modern use of water for birth. Her film ‘Birth into Being: The Russian Waterbirth Experience’ is a beautiful document of women freely giving birth.

A few days ago a pregnant client asked me what the source of her drinking water should be. While we might be able to control aspects of what we take in, ultimately there is no separation between us and the world. The state of our lakes and rivers and the air we breathe is mirrored in our bodies, our babies and the milk in our breasts. Sandra Steingraber, an ecologist, realized that when she became pregnant, “I myself had become a habitat.” ² Through the course of her pregnancy and early motherhood she wrote a book  rich in detail, scientific rigour and hope. Having Faith offers insight into navigating the toxicity present in our world. 

Inger Whist is a friend of mine who has created a visually beautiful, multilayered blogsite about current water issues. I can meander there for hours, images and ideas linking and sparking.

Water’s strength is in its softness. We are like water. 

________________________________

¹Soko Morinaga, Novice to Master, an ongoing lesson in the extent of my own stupidity, trans. Belenda Attaway Yamakawa (Boston: Wisdom Publications,2002) p.127

²Sandra Steingraber, Having Faith, An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood (New York: The Berkley Publishing Group, 2001) p.ix

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

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