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I came home from a birth early morning yesterday. Two hours from the first contraction to the last, its speed required me to be extraordinarily receptive to what was happening moment by moment. Timing was everything. The trust my client and I had in each other made it work. I had been with her for the births of her first two children and I truly knew her. I’ve been connected with hundreds of women in this way now. Invisible threads link us together in a fantastic web. Two nights ago, the thread with this client was taut and glistening; I had packed my bag, laid out clean clothes, done my yoga and gone to bed early. I was ready for her. Two hours later, her husband woke me. From my place to theirs, to the hospital parking lot, triage and finally the labour room, we moved with focus and calm. In a birth so fast, the intensity of what’s moving is immense and we had the strength to receive it.
Grace poured down. I did very little. My client didn’t need my touch or voice. We barely spoke. She already knew how to give birth. And yet she wanted me with her. So did her husband. Why? My feeling is that it was for the connection we have. She trusted it with her life. In the web of it, she was free. Real intimacy is generally absent in ordinary society and yet it’s essential for birthing and dying and any other time of healing. As a culture, we don’t understand this and so we set up barriers to it with the expectation that then we can’t hurt each other. In the “health care” system, the idea of “professional distance” only keeps us aloof from understanding and the compassion that comes from it. A similar situation exists in the yoga world. In flight from the authoritarian or manipulative guru, students still practice these same gurus’ techniques. Throwing away the relationship but keeping its dysfunctional container makes no sense. The abusive teacher is not a random accident but the product of the broken masculine paradigm s/he was created in. The paradigm is the root of the problem. Denial of life is in everyone’s background, so we all walk with wounds. Whether they bring us deeper into our humanity or send us further away from it, depends on our relationship with ourselves. When the feminine principle of receptivity is brought in, we have a complete container. Our integrity is guaranteed because we are whole.
Autonomy is the natural response to intimacy. At the most primal level of existence, this is true. Only after nine months in complete union with our mother, can we penetrate the world. Two nights ago, my client stood alone while we stood beside her. In her solitude, she did the most intimate thing possible.
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.
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.
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