Mark Whitwell, part 2: enlightenment, head yoga, and all that other stuff

“There is nothing to attain! There is no such thing as enlightenment, only Life in you as you. No need to realize God when God has realized you. It is intimacy we want and it is freely given. It is the search that is the problem. Looking for something presumes its absence. As long as we strive for a higher reality, the looking implies this life is a lower reality.”

Those words are from Mark Whitwell’s Facebook page, but he talks about this in his workshops.

Last year I heard a few gasps when Mark told us “stop meditating!”  I smiled when he said that because I knew exactly what he meant: that meditation should be part of your life 24/7.  Not the formal sitting on a cushion but if meditation comes as a siddhi as Mark claims, then this intuitive inwardness is always with you.   As I tell my students, ultimately you don’t turn it off and on like a switch.   Just like the space between asanas is still asana, you don’t turn it off and on when you move from one pose to another.   Itneeds to always be there, this mindfulness practiced as asana, this formless quietude between the shapes that we take.

Our sadhana is yoga + pranayama.  As I also tell my students, you don’t always have to sit and do a formal pranayama practice as I have seen in yoga classes so many times.  That is, structured segments of this, then you do this, then you do this.  Frankly, in all my years of yoga, I have never heard any teacher say that your conscious breathing IS pranayama, that your embodied breathing IS pranayama, that you should embrace your breath instead of being a witness to it.  The guru to the asana is breath, that is what Krishnamacharya taught.  The breath is always first, not the asana.  You don’t start the asana and then think about the breath.

Of course all the techniques such as nadi shodana, surya bhedana, chandra bhedana etc. are formal pranayama practices (kapalabhati is not considered pranayama in my lineage, it is considered a kriya), but I have never heard a teacher in a typical class at a yoga studio refer to the breathing that I was taught at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram and the breath work that Mark teaches (and that Svasti described here) as pranayama.   Sometimes I think my students get sick of me talking so much about the breath.  During class I ask them, “how’s the breath? and where is your mind?” Most times I get back, “I’m holding it, and I’m thinking about lunch.”   There ya go.   Switch on, switch off.

As for enlightenment, people are so anxious to get somewhere else other than where they are right now.  I am always amused to hear what people think “enlightenment” is.   After he sat under the bodhi tree, the Buddha merely said he was “awake.”   Awake to what?   Awake to the truth of living, the nature of reality, awake to the causes of suffering but also awake to the end of suffering.   Not running, but embracing reality AS IT IS.

Mark says it’s not enlightenment we want but “intimacy with life in every aspect; stop looking and start living.”

So how do we truly live when we’re trying to get away from life, from our minds?   People think meditation is stopping the mind, stopping thoughts — that’s just another way of trying to stop life.

When I was in teaching in Africa one of the students asked me during the dharma talk how to stop her thoughts when she sits.   I told her, “stop trying.”   She looked as if I had slapped her and I saw a flash of insight that looked like relief.   After the talk she was the only student who engaged me in a deep conversation about meditation and she said she felt like a rock was lifted off her shoulders.   I said, “You see? Your flash of insight was one step closer to liberation.   It is so exceedingly simple, but not easy.”   When the weekend was over she told me how much deeper her practice was because she stopped fighting.   As Mark says, it was her search that was the problem.   You can’t get it by trying to get it.

Mark said that we must have a connection to our embodiment of body + breath before mindfulness (and he calls it mindFULLness, which I love) can begin.   He said if there is no embodiment, if there is no asana + pranayama, dharma teachings remain abstract.

I found his comment interesting because I’m reading The Great Oom, the book about how an early 20th century yogi named Perry Baker (aka Pierre Bernard) brought body/breath based tantric yoga to his communities in the Gilded Age, something that was quite shocking at the time.

The author states how Vivekananda brought his meditation-based yoga to America as the “safe and practical way” for Westerners to dial into infinite.  Vivekananda, who started the Vedanta Society, expounded at great length on the three paths of devotion mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita — karma, bhakti, and jnana yoga — yoga from the neck up as the author of the Great Oom calls it.

“Vedanists and Theosophists shared the view that hatha yoga’s body-centered practices were queer and dangerous. Blavatsky [founder of the Theosophical Society] warned that pranayama was ‘injurious to health’ and useless to those seeking spiritual liberation. Vivekananda dismissed hatha yoga’s asanas as ‘nothing but a kind of gymnastics,’ and later put a finer point on it for curious followers. ‘We have nothing to do with it…because its practices are very difficult, and cannot be learned in a day, and after all, do not lead to much spiritual growth.’…

‘Body and soul are co-existent.’ Bernard insisted. ‘One is but a manifestation of the other. The best way to perfect the soul is through the body and the senses.’

The Great Oom, pp. 72-73

Mark referred to the swamis who came to the West as doing “Hindu missionary work” instead of bringing yoga.   The author of The Great Oom writes:

“In India, hatha yogis were forced to the margins of society, as they had been for centuries, not only by the British colonizers and their Indian sympathizers but also by Christian missionaries from the West, who saw such practices as the embodiment of heathenism. As a result, the generation of educated monks who came to America around the turn of the century were essentially a coterie of Theosophical-leaning Tantric-deniers and hatha haters.”

The Great Oom, p. 73

Hatha yoga IS tantric yoga, according to Mark, because tantra is the direct participation in life. HA = the masculine, THA = the feminine, and if breath is the reason for asana as Mark believes and we become directly intimate with life via asana + pranayama, then hatha yoga is the pathway to the Universe that is in us.   No more discussions needed on “what is tantric yoga.”

Without our embodiment of asana and pranayama, the teachings, the dharma, are abstractions that are not realized. “Yoga from the neck up” is DISembodiment.

In my opinion, the embodiment that Mark talks about is similar to what Buddha taught in his Four Foundations of Mindfulness — unless we are fully embodied in breath and body, how can we know the dharma of the nature of reality which is impermanence?  And fully knowing this truth, via the body/breath/mind, will we run from it or allow it to liberate us to become fully intimate with life?

Does this full knowing of the dharma of reality, the truth of impermanence, then allow us to fully embrace the juiciness of life from day to day, the intimacy with life that Mark speaks about?

I choose to be a rasa devi.

Love your body’s embrace of reality and truth.

11 Comments Add yours

  1. sweetmango says:

    It amuses me no end to hear and see the in fighting between the various yoga devotees. It is the same in all of society, judgement based upon condtions. If only everyone just practiced *their* version that resonates with *them* and allow all others the same privilege then they would truly understand enlightenment in the present moment.
    There is no right or wrong in the end. After all it is only ego that views the world with a measure stick that records only in opposites…right/wrong up/down back/front this way/that way.
    Through the true eyes of love there only exists many people doing what resonates with them in a search for peace from within. As diverse as we all are in so many ways so is the diversity of the paths that we travel to reach the same destination… happiness through peace within……and in this manner we are all linked and therefore it does not really matter what we travel towards out destination it is only important that we are travelling with eyes wide open and heart wide open….awake.
    Namaste my friend.
    I do enjoy your writing very much.


  2. VMR says:

    Awesome. Thank you. 🙂


  3. svasti says:

    The more I read about Mark, the more memories of my own weekend workshop with him come back. It's so very blissful! He is so very blissful!

    I agree that Hatha yoga is Tantrik, in it's transformational qualities. Breathing and moving and sensing your experience does have the power to wake us up, melt our hearts and create strength in the body and mind.

    Really, we need more Mark Whitwells in the world. Hence my plan to study with him further eventually 🙂


  4. Linda-Sama says:

    yeah, I'm pretty sure I'm going to his week teaching at Kripalu in September…give me more….;)


  5. Claudia says:

    Hmmm, i just came across your blog and I am glad I did. This article is very interesting, I like how Mark puts it, I kind of already intuitively guessed that I was suppose to keep my meditation at all times, but putting it that way “stop meditating” gives it the shock effect it needs (working wise) so that it sinks in quickly, great note. Thanks


  6. barbara says:

    a breath of fresh air ❤


  7. allise rhode says:

    YES, YES, and YES.
    This is why I’m ready to head to Fiji and be with Mark and just BE.


  8. allise rhode says:

    Not that I need to be in Fiji –to BE.
    I am that.


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