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In the wake of the disintegration of John Friend’s authority and empire, William Broad’s recent articles in the New York Times and Mark Singleton’s book a year or so ago, the question that everyone with even the mildest interest in yoga seems to be grappling with is, “What is yoga?” In the responses I’ve heard, the answer is absent.
Assumptions need to be put aside because without understanding what yoga is, attempts to practice and teach it won’t work and people will continue to get hurt. Whether they are in physical alignment or not, lying down or leaping through space, using props or just the bare floor, in heat or in cold, in an intimate group or a mass of hundreds, chanting Sanskrit or never letting a word of it pass their lips, studying ancient text or ignoring it, moving to music or in silence, working their edge or staying clear of it, eating vegan or raw or pure or whatever they feel like, paying fees or getting instruction for free, working with a teacher who socializes with students or stays aloof, who has thousands of hours of certified training or none, who is part of an ancient lineage or who gives no credence to the idea of spiritual authority, who has the anatomical training of a physiotherapist and the psychological insight of an analyst or who thinks only of light and love, none of this matters. What does is that you practice in a way that gives you the strength to receive… an inhale, a feeling, the movement of life. Its movement is yoga. Its movement is you.
This is obvious when you give birth. Then the vast intelligence of life pours through you in waves, bringing new life to light. Any distinction between you and what’s moving you dissolves. Coming into unity with your experience is the consequence of giving birth and it’s what yoga practice should give you too. Both activities return you to your natural state, sahaj samadhi, pure love.
In love, polarities merge. The polarities of spirit and sex and pleasure and pain are particularly fierce in a world that denies the inherent sacredness of life. Birth reveals it. We need to speak about the insight women’s experience gives us. It shatters dogma. What brings a person inside you is what brings them out: sex. The hormones that bring men and women to orgasm are the same hormones that control the birth process. While pain is part of birth, so is ecstasy. To give birth autonomously, you must leave your mental framework and enter the unbounded territory of primal experience. Then sexual energy moves, unconfined by cultural definition and the manipulation of self and other that comes with it. New life moves too and the sexual body and the spiritual body are known to be one. Every cell in blood, bone and brain vibrates in harmony with life’s descent. We are the source and the force of life, what yoga calls Shakti, so using yoga to make you somehow more spiritual is nonsensical.
Culturally, we are so very confused about love and sex. We set up huge obstacles to being in relationship and it starts at birth. The medical paradigm doesn’t understand how life works, only how to intervene when it doesn’t. In the face of drugs and surgery, mother and child lose touch with each other and their ability to be as one disintegrates. In a similar way, when yoga is misunderstood as a series of interventions that transform us into something else, something more beautiful, something more spiritual, they disassociate us from what we already are and become an assault on our integrity as life itself. We lose our selves.
It looks like we are beginning to recognize the violence and betrayal. But I don’t think the source of it is yet understood. Denial of life runs deep. It’s old and its craziness infiltrates every bit of us. Without a technical understanding of how to develop the strength to receive your life, any attempt to “do yoga” is not going to work. Adding beautiful words and concepts onto dysfunctional technology won’t help. It makes things worse, intensifying the sense of lack and longing that grows in the discrepancy between how things feel and how we imagine they should be.
Mark Whitwell has been an enormous help in my understanding of all this. What is missing in our collective understanding of yoga is a connection to life in all its beauty and pain. When UG Krishnamurti realized this, he called it his Calamity. It hurt to have his mind let go of its grip on his body, just like it hurts to give birth. UG insisted there’s no higher state to get to. We are yoga. Coming into love is heartbreaking. And the only sane thing we can do.