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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.

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orchidWhen we give birth, we open so completely that our centre dissolves.  Our cervix melts.  Our belly becomes utterly soft.  In this receptivity the boundaries between our baby and ourself are magnificently transparent.  Breastfeeding sustains this unity while helping our body to regain its strength and realign around an expanded centre.   While the uterus needs about six weeks to return to the size of a pear, connective tissue needs about a year to regain its pre-pregnant state and the transformation that happens in our heart is forever.  In the most literal sense of the word,  post-partum isn’t a limited period of time after birth but extends through the rest of our lives. 

An uncomplicated birth initiates us into an awareness of our wholeness.  Obstetrician Michel Odent says women enter an altered state when they give birth.  We experience  a physiological transformation that ensures we are able to give and receive love.   When the process is interrupted by major medical intervention, the integration is also interrupted.  A woman experiences the spiritual aspect of birth without being able to process the intensity of it through her body.  In the case of a ceasarean section, dis-integration happens not just because of the physical trauma of surgery but because a woman loses touch with herself, with her source. Integration will need to take place after the birth rather than through it and the early weeks of motherhood will likely be a particularly vulnerable time.

One in three women who give birth in Toronto today will do so by caesarean.  It is such a common event and yet as a society we don’t honour the immensity of the experience or the multi-layered healing that needs to take place afterwards.  Every woman needs deep nurturing after giving birth but after a caesarean this is especially so.   I met a woman a few days ago who has gone through two caesarean births in the space of three years.  She said her children are happy, her husband is happy but two years after the last birth, she is still in pain.  While not a usual situation, it is not an uncommon one either.  After talking to her and seeing how she breathed and moved, it became clear that she has yet to recover the connection to her strength that was severed in the course of two major abdominal surgeries.  As a place to begin, I gave her some simple Yoga to do every day. 

When the ujayi breath is the inspiration for movement (see previous post) Yoga engages and strengthens precisely those muscles that were most stressed during pregnancy and birth: the pelvic floor and abdominals.  In a caesarean, the abdominal muscles aren’t merely stressed, they are cut in two.   A reconnection of above and below needs to happen in order for the body to regain its fluid strength.  When it does, the spine aligns and the internal organs, including the bladder, uterus and intestines, find their place.  A linking of above and below is also necessary for our heart’s equalibrium.  When softness and strength balance each other, we feel good.  

In a caesarean birth, a woman’s body doesn’t get the opportunity to complete the full birth process and her participation is restricted to that of a witness.  Mind and body separate and “hormones of love” don’t flood through her system like they would in a spontaneous birth.  Sadness and grief are a natural part of the time after birth but they can be a particularly strong reaction to the parameters of a caesarean experience.   As the baby isn’t brought immediately skin to skin with the mother when it is born, more time and support to establish a satisfying breastfeeding relationship might be needed. 

Having someone in the recovery room who can unwrap the baby and help latch it to the breast in the first hour after the birth can be a great help in bringing mother and child together again.  I do this in my role as a doula.  It is a great source of comfort to have your newborn suckling at your breast even as your body is coping with the immediate effects of surgery.  I often see vital signs in the mom stabilize as soon as she and baby are reunited in this way.  Oxytocin and endorphins flow; Life moves and all is well in the world.  Getting consistent breastfeeding support in the subsequent days and weeks is also invaluable.  It is a mother’s relationship with her child that is her primary Yoga.  Connected to each other, both find their strength.

In traditional societies all over the world, it’s recognized that mother and baby flourish when the mother is completely cared for in the first forty days after birth.  She needs warmth on every level: a warm, quiet, space; hot food and drink; warm baths and gentle touch.  Nurtured, she can nurture in return.  While our urban, technological environment suggests otherwise, we need no less.

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.

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