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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..
To practice Yoga, all that is required is an understanding of how to use its technology to connect to and fully participate in your own Life. The learning curve to acquiring this know-how is very short and is equivalent to learning where the “on” button on your laptop is and that if you click “send and receive”, you will hook into the internet. It is that simple.
I say this after having spent the last few days reading and comparing Mark‘s, Desikachar‘s and Srivatsa Ramaswami’s commentaries on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. This ancient text, written by a man who came to be seen as the divine incarnation of the serpent Ananta, supporter of the whole universe, defines what Yoga is and the various routes to experiencing it. It is still what everyone who writes “seriously” about Yoga refers to. So I thought I should look at it. The sutras are written in a very condensed style, like poetry, and are meant to be expanded upon by an individual teacher to an individual student in a way that will be personally relevant to the student. This must explain, at least in part, the sometimes deeply divergent tacks different commentaries will take. In the case of Mark, Desikachar and Ramaswami, all three men have the same root teacher, Krishnamacharya, and all three have spent their adult lives in intimate connection with him and his teachings (he died in 1989 at the age of 101 years). Even so, there are strong differences in what they communicate. By the end of last night, my head was reeling. I found my balance by returning to my own experience and how it is reflected in Mark’s beautifully clear words.
I wanted to look at the Sutras because I see an attempt to speak about the deeper understanding of Yoga in the media as usually being inspired by things other than a technical understanding of Yoga. What I found so refreshing and deeply trustworthy in Mark’s book when I first read it, was how he had disentangled Yoga from religion, from psychotherapy, from New Age spirituality, from every aspect of contemporary life that it often gets lumped in with, including the Oprah state of mind that there is always something more to improve in yourself. In doing so, Mark demonstrated how Yoga cannot be separate from anything. Yoga is the resolution of paradox, the union of opposites. There are moments when I think this is too damn easy. There must be something more difficult that I haven’t understood yet.
No. Mark’s clarity is simple and it is rooted in Krishnamacharya’s profound intellectual rigour. Krishnamacharya had an extraordinarily broad and deep scholarly education that began with his grandfather’s instruction when he was a little boy. When he combined it with the tangible tools of a Yoga practice, it enabled him to describe and contain Yoga’s paradox. This precision of mind is Krishnamacharya’s legacy and I am doing my best to continue in it! My mind is contained within the intelligence of a woman’s body however, and I trust that I therefore offer an understanding of Yoga that adds a new flavour, a new rasa, to the discussion. For indeed, the essence of Yoga is tasted in embracing and being embraced by the feminine aspect of life, a fact that has been denied in the mainstream understanding of Yoga for thousands of years.
Please take that in! For thousand of years the Feminine principle has been excluded from what has been taught as Yoga in order for it to be integrated into religious doctrine. Mark speaks in detail about this. We are still dealing with the consequences of Her absence. It is in the very mechanics of how much of Yoga is still taught and it causes a lot of suffering. Without the Feminine, Yoga becomes a practice of renunciation and disassociation. It takes us out of life rather than deeper into it. It locates sacredness not in the very flesh of what we are but somewhere outside of ourselves.
This crazy idea is at the centre of Christianity too and I think that makes it easy for us in the west to accept it when we encounter it in Yoga. We’re used to it. A couple of weeks ago, I read of a rather horrifying example of the denial of Life in the Catholic Church. The Globe & Mail reported that “even when he was not ill, [Pope] John Paul inflicted pain on himself, a practice known…as mortification, so as to feel closer to God.” He whipped himself with a leather belt. Monsignor Slawomir Oder told a press conference that, “It is clear the aspect of penitence was present in the life of John Paul II. It should be seen as part of his profound relationship with the Lord”. Pope Benedict does see it as profound and he has approved a decree recognizing that his predecessor had “lived the Christian faith heroically”. With this decree, John Paul is one step closer in the process of being declared a saint. I didn’t realize this barbaric understanding of what it means to be spiritual, of what it means to love, is still officially alive and well. How this resonates through the rest of us, religious or not, runs deep, I feel.
We make text more sacred than life, for one. And if the text is all tangled up in religious doctrine, it can be very difficult to tease out the actual Yoga. Mark has done the teasing. In Yoga of Heart, he has written a succinct chapter on his take on the sacred texts. Mark says the common translation of Patanjali’s definition of Yoga (1.2) is not accurate. More than “not accurate”, I would say it twists Yoga inside out! The common translation says that the way to come into Yoga is by stilling the mind. Krishnamacharya said, no, Yoga is to merge the mind with experience and the result will be a quiet mind. The first is a practice of renunciation; the second, one of devotion. They lead to very different experiences of life, very different ways of living and being.
Srivatsa Ramaswami writes in spirals of learned complexity that I find fascinating and frequently entertaining but they often leave my mind feeling like mush. What did penetrate yesterday though, was this: he writes in Yoga for the Three Stages of Life, that Krishnamacharya explained to him that Patanjali considers Bhakti, devotion, as the only means to Yoga in these times. Ramaswami then tells a story about Lord Shiva. He challenged his two sons to race each other around the universe. Shiva granted the prize to the son who walked reverently in a circle around his parents rather than the one who travelled around the outer universe. The point of the story is that devotion to the “universal parents”, to the Masculine and Feminine in union, is something we can actually do.
The fact that the heart, not the mind, is the locus of Yoga is also the point, I think. The purpose of intellectual insight is to get you to the stage of understanding, in the words of U.G. Krishnamurti, another of Mark’s teachers, that “there is nothing to understand”! When my mind is in a storm cloud of confusion, I save U.G. for last. Videos of him on You-tube, some of which go as far back as the seventies in the form of TV interviews, and the most recent, clips from just before he died in 2007, show him as someone who was fearlessly himself. He was recognized in India as a living Buddha and yet the person we see is clearly very human. That’s his point and I find it very reassuring! The way U.G. moved in the world sent the message that being in a state of Yoga is a real possibility, right here, right now, rather than a mythological ideal that we really don’t have a hope in hell of experiencing. There was no snake skin on his body, no hiss to announce his arrival. He refused to teach in the conventional sense of holding formal events or writing books but he spoke with unending passion to people who would meet him in the structure of ordinary life. Mark writes that, “The natural yoga occurs when the mind gives up this self-conscious activity of trying to know anything or work on ourselves. And the Yogasutra says that too. ‘A person of extraordinary clarity is one who is free from the desire to know the nature of the perceiver.’ [S/he] has felt [her] own nature (4.25).” We are the truth we are so busy looking for. Recognizing that is the beginning and the end of Yoga.
U.G. says, “We don’t seem to realize that it is thought that is separating us from the totality of things.” We can’t heal our separation by trying not to think, however! Krishnamacharya defined practice, sadhana, as “doing what can be done”. We can heal the separation by welcoming our mind into the wholeness of what we are. We can bring our attention to our breath and body and let them take our mind for a ride! We can hook into the force of Life. Simple.
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.
Mark 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.
¹ Michael Stone, The Inner Tradition of Yoga (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2008) p.x