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Beginning November 7th, I will be teaching two yoga classes on Sunday mornings.  What I offer is not widely available.  I pass on the yoga technology that moves you easily and efficiently into the heart of yoga, into a clear feeling of your natural state.  I have gotten this technology from Mark Whitwell, one of the world’s “teachers of the teachers”.  This is a technology that links you to the life energy that got you born and that keeps you alive.  It is thought of as feminine; she is the source of everything and curiously,  Mark says, she has been left out of western yoga education.  In reintegrating the feminine principle back into how we practice, we remarry Yoga to its non-dual Tantric origins and in the process, bring the fragmented aspects of ourselves back together again.

The result is a feeling of wholeness and a way of moving and breathing where breath initiates, guides and completes our movement.  We are soft and strong.  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.

Advanced Yoga for Everyone
Beginning Sunday, November 7th and running for six weeks until December 19th
(no class on Nov. 21st)
from 9:45am to 11:15am
at Eight Branches Healing Arts Centre (formerly Kokoro Dojo)  

358 Dupont Avenue (just west of Dupont and Spadina) $20.00 to drop-in; $108.00 for the session of six.

Prenatal Yoga  

A way of practicing that connects you directly to the force that will get your baby born.
Beginning Sunday, November 7th and running for six weeks until December 19th
(no class on Nov.21st)
from 11:25am to 12:55pm
Same location and fees as above.
Contact crescence@heartofbirth.org

 

 

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I am a woman who practices Yoga.   That’s a simple statement but not always a simple situation to navigate.  Despite the social and political victories that women have achieved, the Feminine is still deeply suppressed.  I bear witness to this in the hospital, where almost nothing is set up to support a woman in giving birth through her own power.  It is only because of the kindness and wisdom of some individual nurses and obstetricians that I and my clients are free to let the birth process, the Life process, express itself and lead the way.  And I would say the same dynamic exists in the Yoga world.  There are individuals who recognize that connecting to the Feminine, the movement of Life, is necessary for an experience of Yoga but this recognition is just beginning to penetrate the general understanding.  So I get my inspiration where I can.

And I found a wonderful source of it in the life story of a great Yogini, Yeshe Tsogyal.  She was born into a noble family in Tibet in 777 A.D..  Usually the stories of ancient, spiritually gifted people are about men and their lives have been turned into myths that no one can relate to.  But this story touched me and it is a woman’s.  As a young teenager, Yeshe was brutally raped by her first suitor.  She ran away from her second suitor and was placed in the King’s harem.  When she was sixteen, she was offered as a consort to the King’s guru, Lord Padmasambhava.  He freed her and she became his disciple and then his spiritual heir.

One winter, a few years later, she found herself living alone in a cave.  Her soul mate and “mystical consort” had left her there because he couldn’t take the cold, having grown up in the milder climate of the Kathmandu valley.  It was then that her earlier trauma came back and she came into relationship with her psychological demons.

Visions rose up before her in her meditations, full of hideous and terrifying intensity.  Hordes of phantoms advanced upon her: fearful, seductive, malign and evil.  With these, the products of her own traumatic passions, she wrestled, while remaining unmovable in her vajra-like samadhi, the immutable poise of impartial contemplation.  For days the onslaught continued until finally she was left in peace.  This was the trial of her final spiritual catharsis.

Granted, this is a rather heroic description of her healing process!  But the acknowledgment that the demons were a manifestation of her own trauma is insightful, I think.   A thousand and a half years ago, women were successfully dealing with the effects of the wounded Masculine.  After her horror had passed, the Masculine and Feminine in Yeshe merged and she felt whole.  I see women go through this in labour.  The pain of opening can ignite your memory of past pain.  Because Life is moving so strongly during the birth process though, the opportunity for integration in the present is particularly ripe.  The birthing room becomes your cave.

But to finish the story, Yeshe and her man got back together and continued to practice Yoga with each other.  She travelled all over Tibet with Padmasambhava, her guru, burying texts for the benefit of future generations.  When she was twenty- eight, she became a fully enlightened Buddha.  It is guessed that she died in her early fifties.  As was the case with Yeshe, we don’t have to literally give birth in order to give birth to ourselves.  Yoga offers us a way to enter our lives renewed.  When demons dance, we can receive them, watch and wait.

Link to the site with Yeshe Tsogyal’s story.

An ancient path has brought me into a virgin landscape.  There’s no map.  Can never be one because this place is a living thing that shifts its shape.  The thing is me.  The thing is freedom.  Vairagya.

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.

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.”

When it was Monica Voss’ turn to speak during the opening remarks of the Yoga Festival of Toronto’s Roundtable on ‘Yoga and Death’ last night, she said she knew nothing. She hadn’t died yet. None of us who were there had either, she noted. Her response stayed with me. Teachers and practitioners who would never normally find themselves together did. Out of this interaction, I see myself and the work I do more clearly.

My experience of Yoga brings me into the mystery of my life and leaves me there. It is a place of complete unknowing. I can’t talk about my experience and I can’t teach it and in moments of doubt I wonder if I should be able to. When I was eight years old, my mother gave me my first Nancy Drew book. By the time I was twelve, I was devouring Agatha Christie mysteries all summer long.  Life and Death were tidily illuminated by the end of a few hundred pages. A few weeks ago I dreamed of Miss Marple. I’m smart like her and we both knit so there shouldn’t be anything I can’t explain. But there is.

What if I’m not responsible for knowing? What if life is not a problem? Yoga is not a route to solving the mystery of my life; it is a way to live intimately in the mystery, to be the mystery in all its fullness. Mark Whitwell says the solutions doctrine propose assume there is a problem in the first place. Practices that have you striving to reach spirit assume we are separate from spirit. We are not. We are Life in all its power and intelligence. One woman last night said she had a simple thought to share. Her Yoga brought her into connection with the ground and she knew that this is where she would return when she died. To feel the earth beneath your feet, to surrender to the downward force of gravity, to know where you stand, is to be connected to the Feminine, our source. To be securely linked to Life is to be free in life. It is only in the belief that separation is possible that we cling.

“Truth is, no teaching, no teacher, no taught.” These words strike a chord in me. They are from the Avadhoot Gita, a non-dual text.¹ The people who have been my teachers have not taught me anything. Rather than give me a structure, they have nurtured my strength to move into a place that is wide open, without boundaries, a place where I know nothing. Birth is such a place and I imagine Death is too. Yoga gives me a way to move into the unknown by giving me the ability to receive my experience rather than close off from it. To be given nothing is something. It is complete trust. It is pure love.

And it is in relationship that this love moves. I know this in the marrow of my bones. Gitta Bechsgaard began the evening by reading a poem by Rumi. I will end with another.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make any sense. ² 

_________________________________

¹ Mark Whitwell, Yoga of Heart (New York: Lantern Books, 2004) p.15

² Open Secret, Versions of Rumi, trans. John Moyle and Coleman Barks (Vermont: Threshold Books,1984) p.8

img_2755How were you born? Do you know the story of your birth? Has the tale been woven repeatedly or do you live in its stark absence? In imagining our beginning, we touch both the mystery of our existence and the obvious reality that we are an integral part of life. We didn’t enter the world alone but in total fusion with another. No one exists who didn’t emerge from the warm, fluid centre of a woman.

It is a simple truth and a profoundly intimate one. I want to give voice to this intimacy and to the wisdom that nurtures it because our ability to love and be in right relationship with the world depends on it. Science supports this understanding. Research gathered by the visionary French obstetrician Michel Odent  links psychological and physical disease with our time in our mother’s womb, how we were born and how we were cared for in the first year of life.  Clear links have been made between rates of violence towards oneself and others and the circumstances of an individual’s primal period.  A mother is her child’s universe. For the first time in history, the majority of women are giving birth without releasing ‘hormones of love’. Odent asks what our future holds if the capacity to love continues to be restricted? We are part of the whole and that whole is in crisis.

To speak of birth is to speak of fear. In its grip, the Feminine voice is silenced. Quietly, one in every three birthing women in Toronto is cut open to her core. Every year, in this same silence, 24,000 women in Afghanistan die after giving birth. There the Feminine has been pushed so far underground, fear is so thick, ignorance so deep that in many places there is no one able to assist at births. Both the deadly absence of medical skills and their aggressive use point to a world devoid of wisdom.

Birth is a part of a woman’s sexual life. I believe this is why we try to control it. To give birth freely is to feel life moving through us. Birth requires our receptivity and strength, our passion and wisdom. In the process of connecting to these, we meet our restrictions and our lack of knowledge about ourselves. I read of a recent Australian study in which one out of three (that statistic again) women had never, or rarely, experienced orgasm. How easily do these women give birth and suckle their children? The full release of oxytocin, the  ‘hormone of love’ , is necessary for all events in the continuum of a woman’s sexual experience: orgasm, birth and breastfeeding. 

Birth sheds light on Yoga. The light comes from life, the flow of the Feminine force, rather than two thousand years of doctrine. The principles of Yoga are found in life and bring us back to life. Mark Whitwell’s clarity about Yoga supports my experience. Birth is Yoga, when the waving and pulsing of Shakti through a woman’s body is an utterly tangible experience for her and her child. Shakti is not a metaphor or a philosophical concept but reality.

Participating in reality is the purpose of Yoga practice. It is in everyone’s reach, of course, because we are what we seek. We are real. We are the manifestation of Life in all its mystery and power, in all our mystery and power. In the repression of the Feminine, the understanding of how to live and love has only been whispered. Listen to these tales! They are written out loud.

 

Ina May Gaskin and Isabel Perez

Ina May Gaskin and Isabel Perez

 

Isabel Perez has been my friend over the last fifteen years. Her life encompasses the ancient and modern, the rural and urban, South and North America. Birth has always been at the centre of Isabel’s life. She lives within an effortless recognition that the seen is evidence of the unseen, that heaven and earth are one condition.

Isabel was born in Guatemala to Mayan parents. Her great-grandmother was a nodrisa, a traditional midwife. Her father was a shaman. After the devastating earthquake in 1976, Isabel, her husband and children were brought to the U.S. by Ina May Gaskin, a pioneering midwife, now world renowned. Isabel trained and worked with Ina May for four years on The Farm in Tennessee. She contributed to a community whose way of handling birth resulted in a caesarean rate of only 1.4% amongst 2,028 women from 1970 to 2000. Home was the environment for 95.1% of the births. Isabel then moved to Toronto where she practiced midwifery until it was integrated into the Ontario health care system in 1993. Subsequently, Isabel has worked as a doula.

What follows is some of the conversation we had in her kitchen this past May. The sounds of living accompanied our talk: splashing water running from the kitchen sink, rice being washed, boiled and stirred; tea being poured; spoons touching bowls; our swallows. Isabel cooked and shared a breakfast of rice pudding while she carried the thread of her narrative. These sounds place her story in the current of daily life. Hear them as you read!

Crescence Krueger What is the most powerful thing that you bring to a birth?

Isabel Perez Confidence. Peace. Love. And trust. Those are the words my clients use, eh? So I’m just repeating them. I have a very simple personality. And that works for me almost everywhere. It’s very simple, the way that I work. Very simple. You have seen.

CK  That’s what I love.  Read the rest of this entry »

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