moving into joy

soakin' in the shakti

Middle English joie, from Old French, from Latin gaudia, pl. of gaudium, joy, from gaudre, to rejoice

Erich Schiffmann told us that it took him 12 years to write his book, Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness.  It took us only 10 hours to move into joy in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

Erich’s book was one of the first yoga books I bought when I started my yoga journey and I had not looked at it for quite some time.  His Moving Into Stillness workshop was this past weekend (his11th in Yellow Springs), so I pulled it off the closet shelf to remember to take it with me for his autograph.  I wasn’t looking forward to a 6 hour ride to Ohio by myself so I thought reading some of it again would re-energize me for the trip — I ended up reading some excerpts to my class last week and I was right…I was rarin’ to go to Ohio and finally practice with Erich.

I must say that after all these years of yoga-ing, I have never attended such a joy-filled yoga weekend, and that’s saying a lot.  My long time readers know with whom and where I study yoga but this weekend was very different.  I’ve been to many trainings that are heavy on technique and philosophy but there hasn’t been a lot of pure unadulterated joy.

I recalled the trainings and sits I’ve done with Buddhist teachers and I can’t say there has been very much joy involved in those teachings either.  While I am grateful for the buddhadharma in my life and it has liberated me more than I can explain, there is so much emphasis on suffering.  Yes, I get it: life is suffering, pain is optional.  In Buddhist meditation retreats, there is usually a lot of crying in the small discussion groups that one is always a part of — those tears are those of fear and grief and pain.  I’ve never heard the word “joy” uttered in those situations and I almost feel guilty for embodying joy.  But as for this weekend, it has been a very long time since I cried soul tears of joy in a yoga class — unless it’s my own solo practice at home.

Erich’s Freedom Style Yoga is described as “an intuitive approach to life and yoga that can be summarized as, ‘Do not decide in advance about what to do or not do.  Instead, listen inwardly for guidance and trust into what you find yourself Knowing.’  This is not an inherently strenuous practice, but it is advanced. It requires that you be brave enough to follow your deepest impulses about what feels right and what doesn’t.”

Erich’s classes consisted of: him talking, meditation, a guided asana practice, a free form (“freedom style”) asana practice set to cool music (everyone from Alicia Keys to Pattabhi Jois chanting OM SHANTI), then savasana or more meditation, your choice.  Choice!…instead of rules and “shoulds” and enough technicalities to choke a sacred cow.

Erich studied with both Iyengar and Desikachar and said that over time he morphed into his “freedom style” yoga.  I loved that because the same has happened with me over the years for my own personal practice.  I told Erich that I think I channeled him without ever having practiced with him or watching a video.  Erich said that at first  he did not know how to teach Freedom Style in classes, that when he asked people to do their own thing they were stuck and didn’t know how to do something that felt so natural to him.  That was my first blown away moment during the weekend because as I later told Erich, the same thing happened to me.  Once in a workshop I invited people (who were not beginners) to do their own yoga and everyone stood there and stared at me.

Erich does not throw out alignment rules but he believes that where your yoga training should culminate is where you flower into YOUR OWN YOGA.  All the techniques and rules of yoga should lead you to YOUR YOGA.  He compared learning yoga to learning music.  Just like a beginning musician learns the rules of music and the notes and then creates their own song, so should we learn the notes of yoga to create our own practice.  Make your yoga as simple as possible but that is easier said than done.

I laughed when Erich said that “advanced poses are overrated” and that we should be happy where we are in yoga, wherever we are at a certain point in time.  He believes that yoga is about “being in your own space” and that we “need to get as strong as we need to be to be able to SIT.”  Because yoga is not some type of “exotic P.E.” — yoga is and always was a spiritual discipline and some of the greatest yogis had little asana practice.  For Erich, Yoga is an “inquiry into truth and the nature of life.”

Don’t decide in advance what you THINK you’re supposed to do.  Listen inwardly for what to do and then dare to do what your most inner impulses tell you to do in yoga.  Your practice should open you up to a willingness to trust yourself and to the realization that the Totality — the “Big Mind” as opposed to our “Small Mind” — is us.  This is similar to what Mark Whitwell (another student of Desikachar — any wonder why I naturally connect with certain teachers?) speaks about, Yoga as the connection to the Nurturing Source, the Infinite.  In yoga we learn to settle into ourselves in order to let go of our conditioning and to become the REAL YOU.  We should dare to give expression to what is bubbling up inside us and again, this involves letting go of our biases and conditioning.

Erich emphasized again and again how we should think less and listen more.  I recalled how I was chastised here for telling people to “shut up and do your practice.”  That’s just another way of saying “Silent mind it”, as Erich calls it.  Pause, ask God, Jesus, Buddha, or whomever your favorite Awakened One is for guidance, and then listen.  Our deepest impulses, our intuition, our gut feelings…all of those are our connection with the Big Mind, the Totality, the Nurturing Source, the Infinite.  Meditating is like clearing the mist or cleaning a foggy mirror, but we need to be clear that we indeed want a clearer perspective.  Because if we have an unclear perspective it will be harder to interpret things as they come into our consciousness and we will respond to life inappropriately.

I loved it when Erich told us to just take moments each day to be still, to sit, to silent mind it.  You don’t have to sit in lotus to think less and listen more.  Stop the chatter, stop the analyzing.  Just stop and engage in the old-fashioned advice of taking a minute to smell the roses.  I thought about all the people I see who are walking in nature and playing with their smart phones.  STOP!  I was struck at the age range of the students — I would say most were 40+, even 50+, and I thought that the students who need to hear this yoga wisdom were the 20 and 30 somethings starting out in yoga.

Erich’s guided asana practice was not what some would call “advanced” with fancy pretzel poses.  The emphasis was on working the spine and hips and I think the only standing pose we did was triangle.  The difference was that the poses were repeated with various changes, going deeper each time.  Just the way I like it, wringing it out.

It was in the free style practice where I blossomed.  Erich played three or four songs and it was our own practice.  Some sat, some took savasana, and I have no idea what those closest to me were doing, my intuition guided my movements.  It was the perfect combination of movement and music that caused the soul tears of joy to flow.  It has been a very long time that someone else’s class affected me like that: I was free to be me.  When I sat after the practice my body literally vibrated from crown chakra to my feet, each day I felt like one huge glowing ball of prana.  Interestingly enough, I developed a bad headache and nausea the first day which I attributed to experiencing a tremendous detox.  I needed that practice.

Erich left us with the four sentences that he repeats daily.  He said that when we wake up, before we get out of bed we should say these to ourselves in order to facilitate the connection with Big Mind:

  • “Today I will make no decisions by myself” (this recognizes our limitations.)
  • “I will make no decisions today because it is no longer intelligent to do so.”
  • “I will make decisions in silent counsel with the Infinite.”
  • “I will do what You have me do.”  In other words: THY WILL BE DONE…because THY will is OUR will when we listen deeply.

Erich’s teaching resonated with me in a profoundly potent way because it was a validation of my own core yoga values.  I have to say that the only other teaching I have felt that way about is Mark Whitwell’s: “The ancient wisdom of yoga teaches that Life is already given to you, you are completely loved, you are here now. It teaches that we are not separate, cannot be separate from nature, which sustains us in a vast interdependence with everything. The universe comes perfectly, and is awesome in its integration and infinite existence. This union is our natural state, this union is Yoga.”

I have studied with excellent technical teachers and those who can recite yoga philosophy chapter and verse, but there are few who touch the heart and the core of your Consciousness, the precious few who leave you weeping those soul tears of joy.

yoga miscellaneous: healing

A letter from Sri.K. Pattabhi Jois to Yoga Journal, Nov. 1995

“It is unfortunate that students who have not yet matured in their own practice have changed the method and have cut out teh [sic] essence of an ancient lineage to accommodate their own limitations.”

“Spiritual Madness and Compassionate Presence” — healing of mental suffering through the philosophy and practice of Yoga

“One of my patients had severe post-traumatic stress disorder. His experience of isolation and helplessness sent shockwaves through his day-to-day life. He had flashbacks and significant difficulty relating to others.

We began his treatment with daily pranayama. We added meditation on both the destructive and creative aspects of the mother goddess Kali. Finally, he began to meditate on his own eternal nature: “I am that I am” (Hum So). Slowly but surely, this healed his illness…”

I worked with a private student today and after 10 years of teaching I am still amazed at how transformative the breath is. She is a relative newbie to yoga and in her classes at various venues from health clubs to studios, teachers have told her to “focus on the breath” but apparently no one has ever TAUGHT her how.

I could see how tight her belly and shoulders were. We did conscious breathwork just like Mark Whitwell or Ramaswami or my teachers at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram teach.  A light bulb went off over her head. Her entire body visibly relaxed and she left my house looking lighter and brighter. In a word, transformed.

She’s returning for more instruction on the breath and wants to work with me in the vinyasa krama method:

“By integrating the functions of mind, body, and breath…a practitioner will experience the real joy of yoga practice. . .Vinyasa krama yoga strictly follows the most complete definition of classical yoga.” – Srivatsa Ramaswami, The Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga

Breath + yoga = healing.

it bears repeating

late July gardens, 2010

Last week on my birthday I listened to Mark Whitwell’s talk on the new website Yoga Teacher Telesummit. I have to admit that I did not finish listening to his talk because my birthday arrived with gorgeous weather and I was compelled to practice my other yoga — gardening. A beautiful day is wasted sitting in front of the computer even if it is spent listening to Mark. You can read my other posts about Mark here.

However, I did write some notes as I listened and what Mark talked about bears repeating: yoga is about the breath first and foremost, as Krishnamacharya taught.

Mark believes that “yoga [in America] has painted itself into a corner by a few obsessed people.” He said that exaggerated postures done by people of certain body types is not what yoga is about — yoga is about connection, our connection with the intimacy of Life.

Mark feels that the source scholar of yoga, Krishnamacharya, has been forgotten and it is “time to put scholarship into what has been popularized”; i.e., put the principles of Krishnamacharya back into what has become popular. When this is done “yoga then becomes efficient, powerful, and safe.”  It becomes the “direct tantra of intimacy”, the nurturing reality of what yoga really is.

Mark said that five things must be remembered in order to accomplish this:

1. Body movement is for the breath, not the other way around — body movement IS breath movement. Breath starts and ends every movement.

2. Inhalation is receptivity from above — the receptive aspect of life; exhalation is from below — the abs in and up, the chest secondary, strength receiving.

3. Ha-tha Yoga is the union of opposites in your own system: sun/moon, male/female, strength that is receiving, softness supported by strength, yin/yang, shiva/shakti.

4. Asana creates bandha and bandha serves the breath. Bandha is the “intelligent cooperation of muscle groups” in our system. They are in polarity of above to below, inhale/exhale, strength to receptivity

5. Asana allows for pranayama and when you do pranayama in the way that is right for you then meditation arises naturally, this is what Krishnamacharya taught.  Meditation then comes as a siddhi, it is a seamless process. Understanding that Krishnamacharya referred to the combination of asana and pranayama as sadhana — (sadhana being “that which you can do”, that is, the asana that is right for you as Krishnamacharya taught) mediation will arise as a result of YOUR sadhana.

Mark said that sleep arises naturally and spontaneously, you can not force yourself to sleep, it just happens. In the same way you can not force yourself to meditate, meditation arises spontaneously after your sadhana of asana + pranayama.

As much as I adore Mark, I canceled my teacher training with him at Omega in August.  It would have cost me over $1000 and that is the price of a plane ticket to India.  I have a chance to study yoga therapy with AG Mohan, another one of Krishnamacharya’s long-time students.

Sorry, Mark, but I will see you somewhere in 2012.  Ma India is calling me home. Again.

what is tantra?

“Tantra” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in yoga circles. It’s a word that many American yogis have become familiar with via Sting who claims that he can get it on for hours because of tantric sex (see the comments that follow in YogaDork’s post.)

I don’t think there is anyone who has done as great a disservice to tantric yoga as Sting because of his comments. The whole sex thang is about 1% of what tantric yoga is about. Once Sting and tantra were on Oprah you knew it was going to be all downhill after that. IMO, if this culture’s attitude about sex wasn’t so f*cked up in the first place (pun intended), there wouldn’t be all the giggle-snorts with the mere mention of the word “tantra.” (“Oh yeah, you mean THE SEX!!” slobber, slobber…)

Then there is John Friend who is sometimes referred to as “Tantra Lite.” In the NY Times article about him that is burning up the yoga blogosphere it states:

“Friend’s “dharma talks” — short sermons — are based largely on simplified tantric principles (not, he stresses, the ones relating to tantric sex): students learn that they are divine beings, that goodness always lies within, that by opening to God’s will — opening to grace, Friend calls it — ‘you actually become vastly more powerful than the limited person that you usually identify with.'”

What I don’t understand is when people talk about Anusara yoga’s concepts such as “opening to grace”, etc.. I have heard more than a few yoga teachers say that they never heard those concepts before in their trainings and I really have to question that.

Isn’t all yoga about “opening to grace”? Isn’t all yoga about moving beyond our limitations? Isn’t all yoga about opening the heart, surrendering, giving it up to something greater outside ourselves? At least for me it is and always has been. John Friend isn’t the first teacher to talk about such things, he did not invent these concepts, he merely repackaged them for mass consumption.

When I hear a yoga teacher say that they’ve never heard such things before it makes me even more thankful for my non-Anusara inspired teachers and how they taught and what they taught me. I’ve been blessed to have the teachers I’ve had.

Mark Whitwell says, “asana is hatha yoga, the non dual tantra of direct intimacy with Reality that is nothing but nurturing.”

All yoga is nurturing. No one specific brand, no trademarks, just do YOUR YOGA.

So what is tantra? In his book Tantric Yoga and the Wisdom Goddesses, David Frawley writes that “Tantra can best be defined as an energetic approach to the spiritual path, using various techniques including mantra, ritual, pranayama, and meditation. It contains a devotional approach emphasizing the worship of the Goddess and her Lord, Shiva. It contains a way of knowledge, directing us to Self-realization and the realization of the Absolute. As such it is a complex yet integral system for the development of consciousness which has something for all those who are seeking the truth.”

In my training “tantra” was never separate from hatha yoga. The word is a combination of “tanoti” and “trayati”. Tanoti means “to expand, to stretch, to extend” and trayati means “to liberate or free”. Therefore tantra (tan+tra) means to expand one’s experience and awareness of everything, to extend the frontiers of apprehension beyond the material, thereby attaining spiritual knowledge and liberation.

Isn’t that YOGA, no matter what brand name it is?

I learned that “tantra” means “to weave.” Through weaving in certain breath and meditation techniques, we train up our system to become more sensitive to the subtle forces of prana or the vital life force. Through learning to control the prana in yoga you learn to control the mind.

Isn’t that YOGA, no matter who trademarked it?

Taking a deep breath….SO……

What inspired this post was a Facebook discussion that followed the above photo. It is a photo I took at the Kumbh Mela of a baba whose arm has atrophied from his austerity, his extreme tapas. My caption to the photo was “no Tantra Lite at the Mela!” because the sadhus I met at the Mela were the real deal, the down and dirty tantric yogis.

Taking part in the Facebook discussion are Carol, blisschick, and Baba Rampuri, who’s about as real of a yogi deal as you can get.

Talk amongst yourselves and leave a comment if you are inspired…..


“blisschick: and the point of that would be…[i.e., the frozen arm]

Carol: Would actually really like it if someone could explain to me: What is this form of Tantra about, and what if any relationship does it have to anything that we call Tantra in this country?

L-S: these sadhus are devotees of Shiva and the upraised arm is a form of mortification or austerity, it’s tapas. it’s a way of showing extreme detachment from the body, transcending the body. other sadhus might stand day and night,… even while sleeping, or they sit in one place and stay sitting there, till they die.

Baba Rampuri: Wonderful photo! It is Naga Baba Amar Bharti Ji in this photo, he is a Naga Sannyasi, and a very close friend for many years. He is an “Urdhvabahu” meaning “raised arm”, but this is a description not a sect. One of the main things distinguishing traditional yoga from American yoga is austerities, “tapas.” It is a powerful means of obtaining knowledge and power. In one way, it’s an extreme form of focusing will power, almost like saying, “Nothing is going to stop me in my quest! Not pain, not discomfort, not the attraction of the world, not even death! I don’t need food, water, nor even air!” When I make disciples, and some of you know that we have 5 gurus, I always choose Amar Bharti Ji to join me as one of the five.

L-S: Carol, what is tantra in this country? In America, hasn’t the phrase been mutilated, people taking a sensationalist approach encompassing only thinking about “sacred sexuality,” with little reference to its true practice as a path to enlightenment? for me, hatha yoga IS tantra yoga because there is philosophy, meditation, and mantra and other practices. don’t forget there is also Buddhist tantra in the Mahayana tradition.

of course American yogis aren’t going to perform austerities like the Urdhabahu baba (who blessed me with his other hand!), or cover their bodies with ash and sit in cremation grounds to try to transcend their worldly attachment to life.

Baba Rampuri: Carol, these days Tantra means anything you want it to. In the West, it’s normally a marketing tag for something to do with new age sexuality, or at best, new age psychology. In India, at it’s worst, it is thought of as black magic. Yoga, as practiced in the West, has nothing whatsoever to do with Tantra as it is practiced in its high and low forms in India. At it’s best, Tantra is the teaching that Shiva gives to Parvati regarding knowledge and immortality. The practice of this involves the connection of Sacred Speech with Knowledge and the corresponding withdrawal from the illusory perception of the world.

Carol: thank you so much, Linda-Sama & Baba Rampuri! I feel so fortunate to wake up & find so many answers to my question. If you are interested, here is a link to a Yoga Journal article that I think captures how I commonly hear Tantra described in the American yoga community:

blisschick: It seems very much to me like a denial of the GIFT of this life. If transcending the body were meant to be a spiritual goal, why are we given bodies at all to begin with? (I know these statements will simply be perceived as me not getting it but I find this bothersome. I choose YES and this seems like a giant NO.)

Baba Rampuri: Christine, you are right, if it is his purpose to transcend his body, which it is not. He is pushing the envelope. He is using an extreme practice to get quick results. He is using his body in a way to acquire knowledge.

L-S: thanks for the clarification….I used the wrong word in “transcending”…yes, we have these bodies to use as vehicles for enlightenment (as the Buddha also taught about the “fathom-long body”), but these austerities (to me) show a non-attachment to the body, i.e., “non-attachment” being different from “transcending.”

Carol, I scanned the YJ article and will read it more deeply later…but as for tantra in the US…I have heard people say that they never heard of the tantric concepts or even the word tantra before they studied with John Friend.

I find that a bit hard to believe. I don’t know about anyone else, but I became familiar with tantric concepts from India from my teachers early in my yoga training. so I agree with Baba when he says that it seems that “tantra” can mean almost anything in American yoga. I also think many of the concepts have to be distilled in a different way for westerners. I mean, I’ve been to studios where the mere picture of Durga or Shiva on the wall makes people uncomfortable…how are they going to handle tantric ideas if a teacher talks about them?

blisschick, to me, tantric yoga is about “sacred body-fearless mind”. Buddha taught that the path to enlightenment is in this body, watching body/breath, watching the feelings/felt senses, watching those mind objects that are our thoughts, and embodying the dharma, the ultimate truth of reality which is impermanence. those are the four foundations of mindfulness, and that is how we can use our body, use the physical asana practice to realize deep truths.”


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.

Mark Whitwell: sex, peace, and all that other stuff

I had stopped attending the Midwest Yoga Conference but I went last year for the first time in a long time just to experience Mark Whitwell. I attended every one of his workshops and I drank the Whitwell kool-aid — if I could only study with one person the rest of my life it would be Mark.

This year I registered on the spur of the moment for the pre-conference one day “teacher training” with Mark — here is the abridged description:

“Part 1 – Yoga Is Peace –
Peace is our natural state and it is freely Given. You will learn how to practice your own Yoga, which is your direct intimacy with life in every way. The essence of life is regenerative, nurturing, healing and dependable….

Part 2 – The Yoga of Peace, Intimacy, Sex and Relationship

In this session Mark will go deeper into Method and Understanding that Yoga is relationship and relationship is peace. To be very clear Yoga postures (asana) is hatha Yoga and hatha is tantra, the non-dual understanding. When asana is correctly practiced, actually and naturally, daily but not obsessively it helps intimate relationship of every kind.

You will understand that you live in a powerful regenerative force. Nurturing Source is appearing as the extreme intelligence that is Life, that is you. Mark will guide you to understand how to participate directly in this force and enjoy optimal health, intimacy and sex. You will learn the specifics of hatha yoga practice to make sure any Yoga practice is entirely your own….Mark will help you make use of real Yoga in your real life.”

I was not disappointed.  Mark is so true to the Krishnamacharya lineage that I felt recharged.

It was an intimate group of only 9 people and he started the morning by asking us why we are here and what we would like to get out his teaching for the day. One woman was very interested in the intimacy aspect of his teaching. She said she wanted to learn how to use yoga as a way to enrich the intimacy between her and her husband.

One of the reasons I love Mark’s teaching is that yoga is just yoga. The longer I practice and teach the more tired I become about the different styles. Mark believes that these yoga labels are an American phenomenon. A few people told Mark that they are “doing yoga” more than once a week, running from class to class, from teacher to teacher, and from style to style, but they felt they do not have their own personal yoga….which is Mark teaches — how to make yoga your own.

I know for myself that I am comfortable with MY yoga, and that’s what I say when people ask me what style of yoga I teach. I tell them, “my style. come check it out and if it resonates with you, nice, if not, have a joyFULL day.” I say on my website that I developed my own vinyasa style “in an intuitive and eclectic way based on Krishnamacharya’s method”, integrating elements from other schools that enhance my practice and teachings. It is “Mindful Yoga”, nothing more, nothing less.

As for those different yoga styles and lineages, Mark feels when we are stuck with one style of another, it’s a false identification with another culture and we do not acknowledge other cultures. He said the yoga lineages are not the point — the point of yoga is not to be attached or identified to something so solidly that it blinds you to the full participation in life itself.

He asked us how do we practice asana without wanting to get to the next asana because trying to get somewhere implies that we are not already here. Get it? Yoga is not about “looking for”, it’s about “participating in” the given, i.e., life. Yoga is about our direct experience with life, there should not be a stylized struggle for a future result.

Mark said he was disappointed that Krishnamacharya’s ideas have been absent from modern yoga. He said that while Krishnamacharya taught Iyengar and Jois, they did not fully utilize Krishnamacharya’s practices of non-dual tantric yoga. Mark believes that the Krishnamacharya lineage of viniyoga has become nothing more than physical therapy in this modern yoga age.

At that point I told Mark that it seemed to me that many astanga practitioners are obsessed with perfecting the physical part of the practice (and I’m not dissing any astangi!), doing countless drop backs and jump throughs over and over again until perfection is achieved. Mark said that obsession comes from feeling inadequate; again, it’s that trying to get somewhere else when we are already here. He believes that yoga should be practiced consistently, not obsessively. No time frames, no certain number of asanas, just be your yoga, and in fact, your asana practice may fall away completely when the things that are obstructing you from full participation in life are removed BECAUSE of your yoga practice.

To make your yoga truly yours Mark recommends starting with a daily 7 minute practice, and who doesn’t have 7 minutes a day for asana and pranayama? Don’t obsess, just start with a 7 minute sadhana of asana and pranayama, or even just breathing — embracing your breath, not merely being a witness to it. Mark believes that when asana is our bhakti, i.e., our connection to the divine, then meditation comes as a siddhi.

….to be continued…..

Mark Whitwell…again and again

I’ve written about Mark Whitwell before in these two posts and I’ve now finally had the chance to experience his teaching over the weekend at the Midwest Yoga Conference.

All I will say is that I was blown away. I wish I would have met him 8 years ago when I started teaching but better late than never. Besides, I might not have been in the right head space at that time because all meetings happen at a particular time in our lives when we are ready to receive. My blog pal and fellow KYM-er Nadine also wrote about him, so between the both of us you can decide for yourself whether Mark is your cup of chai. Mark is definitely masala chai.

Mark’s teachings have always resonated with me because he studied with Krishnamacharya and Desikachar and I study at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram in Chennai, India. His other teacher was U.G Krishnamurti who told Mark, “there is nothing to attain!”

For Mark, and also for me, yoga is yoga. I took four workshops with him where he basically said the same things in each one: yoga is yoga; that all the names and styles given to yoga nowadays is an American invention (and if you’re a regular reader of this blog you know how I feel about Americanized yoga.) Stop labeling yoga as this style or that style — it’s just yoga! I laughed out loud when he said that the yoga demonstrations at yoga conferences are merely exercises in ego and acrobatics — stop the performances because they’re about an inch deep.

Here are some excerpts from my notes:

Yoga — true yoga — is not about getting anywhere: “Yoga is not a means to get SOMEWHERE as if you were not SOMEWHERE already. It is your direct and intimate participation with Life.”

If you are striving to get somewhere in your yoga practice, that only means that you’re not HERE.

Nothing in life is not nurturing (yes I know that’s a double negative.) Pain is nurturing. Sickness is nurturing. Develop a new orientation to your pain because it is the nurturing force of reality.

If we didn’t have pain, we would not be able to change: pain is what tells us to pull our hand out of the fire, pain is what forces us to change our lives.

All our looking and searching for SOME-THING is the problem. If you’re looking for something that means you don’t have IT. If you look for God, that means you don’t already have God.

Can you say that you are the essence of an extreme universal intelligence? If so, then can you say that the unseen force is there, within us, that there is no duality?

We have been habitually taught to look for God and that has caused misery and a denial of life.

The ordinary life is not considered sacred anymore so stop looking for enlightenment because it’s already here.

It is not appropriate to separate meditation from asana (THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU, MARK!) — so STOP MEDITATING!

That last statement caused a few gasps in the room and what Mark meant was that meditation must be seamless with yoga and life. Stop separating a meditation practice from your yoga practice because if you practice yoga as it was originally meant to be practiced, i.e., body movement is breath movement, the breath starts and ends with your movement, that the BREATH IS GURU TO THE ASANA as Krishnamacharya taught, then meditation is naturally arising.

Don’t require anything from your yoga practice and don’t practice it in any linear or obsessive way because there is no place to get to.

There are only five things to remember for your practice:

1. Body movement is breath movement; the asana is for the breath, not the other way around.

2. Breath starts and ends each movement (as in the KYM way.)

3. The inhale comes down from above as receptivity; the exhale comes up from below as receiving.

4. Asana creates bandhas and bandhas serve the breath.

5. Asana, pranayama, meditation, and life is a seamless process. Don’t separate them.

Mark also has a blog and this is what he says about the essence of yoga:

“The essence of yoga, and I hope I’m teaching yoga, is to allow a person, the practitioner, to be intimate with their life. Right? So, that is the essence, to give practical practices that a person can actually do, that allow that person to feel intimate with their life, with the whole body and the breath of the whole body, which is this magical aspect of our life, as the breath that we have available in the whole body. Right? So, to give those in a way that a person can actually do, not in any linear struggle of trying to get somewhere as if they are not Some Where, capital S and capital W, but allow them to be deeply connected, to feel the Life that is in their living system … in the polarities of above and below, inhale/exhale, left and right, front and back, male and female. And then, of course, comes this great wonder of life, which is the outer polarity, our relationship to our own experience, to each other, especially and including our intimacies with each other.”

Mark is definitely not an “isms” type of teacher — he dissed Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and all other patriarchal traditions equally as being “life denying” -isms. After his last workshop Mark and I talked at length about Buddhism and other things, and I think I got him to see where my own brand of Buddhism is coming from and it’s certainly not “life denying.”

Mark and I connected during the 8 hours we spent together, so much so that he told me about me. All I will say is that I will never again question my teaching abilities or capabilities. It was no accident that we met.

If I wasn’t saving my money to go to India and Africa for two and half months next year, I’d definitely go to Fiji in December with Mark.

Damn it. Attachment feels like this.

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