“I would have liked to know her. But I was just a kid. The candle burned out long ago. But the legend never did.” Elton John. I have been very touched by the outpouring of response to this post from a few days back that shows Norma Jean doing yoga asnana that she learned from Indra Devi who learned from our source scholar Krishnamacharya. It was a fun connection to be made but the seriousness of the consideration has not gone unnoticed by many. It seems that Marilyn was and is a life-sign, deity, a Christ like sacrifice for the sins of man. She revealed the problem and the changes we must make in our own life and society. Many women have told me that Marilyn’s experience is essentially their own. Born fresh and free, wild and sexual, they became inappropriately sexualized objectified, abused, manipulated, feared, threatened. Some, having been sexually exploited, learned to turn the tables and went on to exploit. Others were depressed or even suicidal usually living in compromised situations pacified by media and legal or illegal drugs. Either way, all had to go through a life crisis to claim their own life, free them selves of the sexual dysfunction of society and the predatory male and learn how to be in relationships of mutuality, the cooperation of autonomous equals. “You lived your life like a candle in the wind. Never knowing who to cling to when the pain set in.” I would like to have know Norma Jean too. I would like to have given HER yoga to her, strength receiving, inhalation / exhalation, intimacy with the power of her own life. I would like to have given Marilyn intimacy with her own life prior to potential intimate connection to others. I would like to have taught yoga to her potential intimates too; so they too could love their life; so they would know how to receive her, the wild power and beauty of the natural life; instead of the need to control, manipulate, objectify, penetrate for some brief consoling moment with the feminine. The insidious manipulation and degrading of the feminine is universal and must be corrected in our time. “Even when you died the press still hounded you. All the papers had to say is that Marilyn was found in the nude.” It is not a simple equation, like male is wrong, female is abused. It is a vast cultural mistake based on the doctrines that have created civilization. That God or truth is “other,” elsewhere” and not in the Earth, not in the miracle of appearance, not in sex, not in woman, not in man. This vast mistake is of course the cause and fuel of fundamentalist terrorism we are suffering. The only long term cure is education. God is in the Earth, God is in sex, the miracle of life arising. We can correct the imbalance. We can create collaboration, cooperation between the sexes. It is not about one teaching the other but just a matter of receiving the power of the other for the mutual empowerment of both. To reside in and as the source of both for the benefit of both and for the benefit of all creation. Please help me deliver this into the world on behalf of Marilyn, all women and all men.
Author Archives: markwhitwell
The Ancient Accord, Cooperation and Mutual Empowerment of Man and Woman
Ancient Tibet was a shamanic culture before Buddhism became its dominant culture. The powers of nature were worshipped. Its entire cultural history has been the meeting, confusion and integration of these two great cultural expressions. In the early days there were bands of wild women who had no regard for the culture and formality of the male Buddhist idealists. There was an ancient stand off. Orthodoxy considered the women to be uncouth, deranged and dangerous with their suspicious practices and strange shamanic powers. Just as witches of Europe they were deaminized by society. But something happened in history. The great yogi Padmasambhava who helped bring Buddhism from India to Tibet grew fond of the wild feminine and a relationship of mutuality developed. It was a relationship of cooperation, of mutual benefit to both. It was not one controlling the other but autonomous beings in support of each other. It was not like Padmasambhava was healing them from a superior doctrinal point of view. Rather both found the advantage in each equally, the powers of reality in each other’s company. To this day the image of a couple in wild sexual embrace is spiritual iconography of Tibet that has profound meaning and purpose. It is surprising that such images are widely seen and have cultural importance and much respect. It is known as Yab-Yum, which represents the primordial union of wisdom and compassion. The male figure is usually linked to karuṇā, compassion, and upaya, skillful means, while the female partner relates to prajñā, insight. It is naïve to imagine that this is some kind of symbolism and not about the actual practice of sexual intimacy of mutuality in which these truths are found. And that an actual yoga of strength receiving, inhalation exhalation is required to find and embody one’s male female qualities, to go beyond the social sexual dysfunctions society has otherwise put in us.
It is weirdly strange that society and religious mind still attempts to control or harness the feminine. There is fear and suspicion of the wild power that is inherent in the feminine, in the natural state. Rather than understanding the obviousness that God or reality is found in life’s natural form, the union and cooperation of both male and female power. Even in so called Tantra or Yoga teachings this misogyny is present.
My friend, birthing expert Crescence Krueger recently wrote on this subject from her own experience. “What’s become clear, as I’ve read through most of Robert Svoboda’s Aghora series on Tantra is that his teacher sees the role of the masculine as a “controller” of the feminine. He says Shiva must control Shakti and he brings this into relations between men and women. He is simply wrong. Shakti cannot be controlled, so the only thing the masculine can do is to surrender to the feminine. Then Yoga happens! Turning it around is the cause, of a deep misogyny that distorts understanding of who we are, causing so much suffering in this world.
You can become “intimate” with the feminine in the way much of current Tantra promotes, but that doesn’t in itself allow yoga to take place either. Svoboda’s teacher said, “You must catch Shakti by the hair and drag Her to you.” He’s describing spiritual rape. Penetration of the feminine is not Tantra, even when it is with the mind. What is Tantra then? It is interpenetration and mutual receptivity. The Goddess is autonomous; she is already the fusion of masculine and feminine, consciousness and its movement; as we are. When two autonomous individuals come into the vulnerability that allows them to receive each other, love explodes. This is yoga. And this is the only constructive form of relationship in yoga. Our pedagogical structures and institutions create obstacles to the heart, in their effort to correct or control things. We need each other in mutual exchange. The enlightened teacher U.G. Kishnamurti was adamant that the mind must immerse itself in the body, not control it (as much spiritual doctrine insists) and I am just trying to find my own way to express that verbally here: Shakti IS consciousness so she doesn’t need the limited consciousness that the mind encompasses. Its penetration of her is irrelevant. She needs nothing. What the mind needs however is to integrate into the vast intelligence of the body, Shakti, the whole/hrid/heart. Healing and regeneration is the result. Enlightenment too, if you want to use that word.”
Yogini Marilyn and Man’s Primordial Religious Practice: Surrender to the Wild Feminine
Dear Yogini Marilyn, power and vulnerability of the wild feminine that man had no idea what to do with. It finally destroyed her bodily existence. I visited her grave to pay respects. In fear of death man attempts to create eternity and glory for himself through religious institution, property, rape of Mother Earth and control of women. He does not come to peace with bodily existence or participate peacefully in the mystery power of the body or its passing. He therefore does not surrender to the Earth and the great powers of the Earth, the sublime regenerative force that is 100% given and constant. He does not surrender or support the wild feminine. She is enjoyed through the great nurturing polarity of male female union within and without and is everyone’s birthright. This is the primordial religious practice before man invented doctrine that dissociated him from the feminine. Man has not yet been taught to access this power of his own reality. Instead he is afraid, has vilified sex and struggles to control it and get it. When all along it is freely given. Dear Marilyn long may you live and thrive on Earth.
PS. Marilyn learned yoga from the great Indra Devi in LA, the first western student of Krishnamacharya. He predicted that it would be women who would uphold yoga and save humanity.
The mind will never capture beauty
We see beauty. A bird in flight, the sunshine on the water. A bee on a flower. Then the mind tries to capture it, savor it, repeat it. Have you ever noticed that when the mind tries to do this the sense of beauty goes. The mind can never capture beauty or any experience. It is too slow. The point is YOU are the beauty. The same beauty as the sun, the flower the bird. When we stop trying to experience beauty we relax into what is already true and feel the beauty, the love, the one binding absolute reality that is appearing as you and me and everything. Just so, in trying to capture the experiences of the spiritual traditions we can never enjoy them. We are already what the sublime words are expressing. There is no getting to it. There is no “becoming” a Buddha, no getting “enlightened.” There is only the direct participation in what is always already given. So we can relax and do that.
When things seem to fall apart
Here is a teaching from the Dalai Lama: “Be careful not to mistake emptiness to be nothing ness.” He gives this to aspirants at the stage of their spiritual evolution when all partial identifications diminish and end. It is a dangerous stage in all people’s practice and just happens in life anyway. To be relieved of all conventional personal identity such as “I am the body, I am the car I drive, I am my family, nation, race, or religion etc,” can be entirely freeing yet also profoundly disturbing as the life we thought we had dissolves. The Dalai Lama is asking that we understand the emptiness of the Buddhists to be the absolute condition of reality, the condition of all conditions, or the power of the cosmos that is arising as every “thing.” The Hindus would call it fullness but the Buddhist are happy to describe it as emptiness because it is felt when all lesser identifications fall away. My Guru U. G. was fond of saying “The only hope is hopelessness.” In other words when all our strategies to “be somebody” have fallen through and are found to be hopeless then we can settle in to who we really are, the force of consciousness, reality itself. So don’t mistake emptiness, your life falling apart to be nothingness. It is the beginning of perfect freedom. These lesser identifications are sometimes described as the ego that must be destroyed. But it is good to understand that the ego is not a “something” to be destroyed. It is simply the minds association, called “asmita” in yoga. I am my body, my car etc. When these associations or identifications dissolve there is no ego, just realty itself arising as everything. Gloriously then we return to lesser identifications without problem. I am the body, car, career no longer a limit on reality that is pumping through us. These words say it, “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.” An ancient Zen statement and Donovan song!
To be clear the first mountain is of course absolutely fine. Growing up in a conditional world and taking it on successfully or unsuccessfully. But there is a warning implied that if you get a sense of an all encompassing power, absolute reality, or heart, your conditional reality or association with “things” as your personal identity will loose their interest and attraction as you become absorbed in reality itself. That is why the early Buddhist would say, “best not to start on the path, but once having done so, best to get it over with as soon as possible.” In all of this there is never an actual dissociation from anything. The embrace of all objects in the natural world is how we transcend them and is the means by which we know them and therefore know ourselves, consciousness or the One reality in which every “thing” is appearing. Its a good deal and can happen very quickly.
Emotional Conversation to Reality
The process of healing and realization is in relationship with actual others. It is in the mutual intimacy between two actual people who freely choose each other. Practice of intimate relationship, including sex is the process of all psychological adjustment, self discovery and understanding. In relationship we release what is not needed to receive what is needed. The natural flow of feelings from anger, to its cause, pain, to grief, to compassion and forgiveness is enacted and practiced, in that order. The next more basic emotion is predicted and permitted. Practitioners learn to speed this process, and the overwhelming whole body heart connection to all things is understood to be the point of human life. Love brings up everything that is unlove to be seen and understood. So the process of relationship can be disturbing, as all of society’s dysfunction and the pain in one’s family lineage is released. Therefore the practical means of practicing intimacy need to be given. Our world is full of spiritual and psychological processes that do not fulfill this most fundamental need. It is shocking how so many great spiritual teachers never even mention sex and relationship, or acknowledge it as the basic method of transformation. Such teachers are often seen as the model of human attainment, so their sexlessness is passed on as the norm or regarded as a superior state. On the other side of the problem so called tantric or “sacred” sex teachers sell exaggerations, false desires and public confusion without giving the practical means of a real yoga (union), intimacy with life via body, breath and relationship, in that order. Whether it is new or old world religion, mindfulness meditation, popularized yoga, dance, shamanic medicine ceremonies or the myriad offerings of our secular world, there is scarce training for successful intimacy and sexuality. Nor is there acknowledgement that intimacy with all ordinary conditions including male female (same sex or opposite sex intimacy) is the means to know reality or “God.” In fact the usual spiritual offerings teach processes for the individual’s internal reveries that result in dissociation from all ordinary conditions. Such cultures created society’s sex dysfunction in the first place. These practices belong in the context of a robust prior practice of intimate connection. Otherwise they cause delusion and separation.
Source and Seen are One Reality. Therefore God is Realized Via Intimacy with All Ordinary Conditions.
God and sex are the two most powerful words in the English language. Placed together, the use of both is purified. By separating these words, each has toxified the other. Now we bring them together and define the meaning of each through a deep, yet profoundly simple convergence of understanding both.
For most of the public, each of these words is uneasy and evokes a complicated response. God as “other” engenders either fanatical adherence to or fanatical rejection of the god-concept – or just a casual turning-away, because it is too hard to think about. Likewise, the word sex usually implies a compromise: something negative, something sleazy, or something that is fundamentally disappointing. Either there is exaggerated response, or denial, or oscillation between the two. Yet sex, the complete union of male-female polarity, is the way life renews itself, regenerates and evolves all species. Is that not God’s method on earth? The means of the creator – indeed, the basis of all creation – the union and attraction of opposites? No one enters this realm without sex. It is entirely God’s purpose; and can be enjoyed, participated in as the profundity of that purpose.
In the ancient world, the warp and weft of the cosmos were found in the dual concept of puruṣa and prakṛti. On one hand was awareness itself, masculine, pure and prior even to the finest grain of existence; on the other, existence itself, substantial and feminine, birthing all life from the most subtle hint of the promise of being to the weightiest and most expansive expressions of earth, sea, and sky. Creator and creation were thought of differently as the two aspects of reality. Each possessed its own integrity and identity, and provided one of the two fundamental components of being in this world in which mundane and sublime were crucially related. While puruṣa and prakṛti continued to form the cosmological basis of the philosophies that followed, over the centuries they were separated from each other and recast in an isolation that would restructure and redefine religious practice, taking enlightenment out of earthly life at the expense of human sensuality. The masculine puruṣa would be privileged over the feminine, mind placed above body, as philosophers reasoned the goal of existence out of existence. In order to reduce reality to a single principle, or to assert the supremacy of one God alone, feminine prakṛti was seen as less than real, a nettlesome illusion, or a blemish on the face of wisdom. To reach God meant to transcend and deny life – or sex in all its affective manifestations: love, family, community, food, birth, death, touch, music, joy, sorrow.
The pain and confusion generated by the resulting struggle to somehow escape this embodied reality – the reality of human being – has been documented for over two thousand years and has given impetus to technical and exclusivist philosophical discussions. Yet these elite philosophies of mokṣa, liberation from the “aimless wandering” (saṃsāra) of creation, too cannot reflect human life. If anything, they have added to the struggle, and alienated God from this world. A fraught situation has emerged in which figureheads of religion and philosophy urge us to seek direct experience of reality outside of this reality which we already live and breathe. We are taught to resist the temptation of our own lives! A holding-pattern arises as we vacillate, desiring both God and sex, but fearing what they have become.
Puruṣa and prakṛti speak of duality, of two forces at play in all the universe and neither reducible or subordinate to the other. In fact, puruṣa and prakṛti cannot be separated. Here is distinction without separation, for whilst puruṣa and prakṛti – our God and our sex – each possess their own independent and autonomous integrity, they are not opposed. Rather, they are deeply complementary, and they each constitute the meaning of the other through their state of mutuality. Each is defined through its autonomy in relationship. There is no conflict or competition between them. According to the earliest expositions of this cosmology, it is the sheer presence of God that inspires the universe to unfold. Life, as such, is the only means of knowing God. There is no mokṣa without prakṛti. There is literally no sex-without-God. Freedom from aimless wandering comes with the understanding that reality is our being. We are liberated into our own lives. It is this natural state of affairs that is allowed to rise when we bring God and sex together and see that their meaning is always already defined in relationship.
From the forth coming God and Sex: Now You Get Both
Why Yoga Is neither Physical nor Spiritual Gymnastics
Heart of Yoga teacher from Zagreb, Croatia
My teacher Mark Whitwell is fond of saying that, Yoga is neither physical nor spiritual gymnastics“, and is very passionate about explaining the reasons why this is so, focusing especially on the popular American brands of (Hatha) Yoga, and expounding the principles of practice and methodology of teaching that make Yoga what it really is: a devotional personalized practice and spiritual discipline of pleasure. Modern styles of Yoga that focus on Yoga postures, or yogasana, seem to understand (or rather don’t understand) Yoga as a form of physical gymnastics and knowingly or unknowingly reduce Yoga to mere (or predominantly) physical exertion. On the other hand, the so called “spiritual movements” originating from India or inspired by various Indian religions and/or philosophies often seem to be reducing Yoga to some sort of exotic or simplified spiritual gymnastics, almost invariably and quite arbitrarily connecting Yoga with all kinds of manipulative ideologies and confounding worldviews. All this, over the years, brought a bad name for Yoga (and, paradoxically enough, was instrumental in popularizing Yoga all over the world) and averted (as much as attracted) many people from practicing Yoga, which is so sad and so unnecessary. Not to mention thousands of unfortunate people who got hurt, physically or psychologically, through inappropriate Yoga practices or got exploited in all imaginable and unimaginable ways in the name of Yoga. In this article my intention is to show, as clearly as I possibly can, that Yoga is not any kind of body gymnastics, although some postural practices of Yoga do resemble some forms of gymnastics, and that Yoga is not a spiritual gymnastics of any sort, although Yoga has been associated with a wide variety of quite different and often conflicting ideas developed both in India and elsewhere in the world where Yoga took its roots. I think it is necessary to get the record straight and keep doing it as long as all these, or at least the most dangerous misconceptions about Yoga are uprooted and “the greatest gift that India gave humanity” (T. Krishnamacharya) is actually given to all interested people, as well as to those already practicing the extremes of either “postural Yoga” or “meditative Yoga”.
1. Why Yoga Is Not a Form of Physical Gymnastics
Most of Yoga practiced today anywhere in the world looks like a specific form of gymnastics and the other way round: some forms of gymnastics, both of Western and Indian origin, look a lot like Yoga. The overlapping of the two in some of the modern amalgams of Western gymnastics and Indian Yoga, or even Indian gymnastics and Western Yoga, or any similar combination, can really be confusing even to an expert in the field of Yoga and physical culture, let alone a lay observer or a naïve consumer of these “Yoga products”. Of course, most people don’t care about such “subtle” differences and are more or less happy with their routines or practices, whatever their name is. And surprisingly enough, most Yoga teachers are not even aware of it. However, a distinction, no matter how indeterminate or insignificant it may appear at first sight, must be made because the quality, methods and purposes of doing Yoga, and the benefits it gives are quite different from those connected with gymnastics, regardless of how it is conceived and practiced.
Let’s start by defining gymnastics in the broadest sense of the word: gymnastics covers a wide range of physical exercises performed in many different ways and for many different purposes, sometimes as a preparation for some other practices and sometimes as an end in itself, but the basic idea of gymnastics is some type of body development or body fitness in terms of stamina, strength, health, agility, flexibility, dexterity, coordination, balance, endurance and the like. However, not one form of gymnastics, however complex, “spiritualized” or evolved it may be, includes the element of devotion (unless the cult of a perfectly shaped or perfectly trained or perfectly strong or perfectly healthy or perfectly supple or perfectly capable body is considered devotional), not one of the existing systems of gymnastics structures the body movements around the breath as its central feature and none of the multitude of the gymnastic exercises is spiritually oriented, although some forms of gymnastics or “physical culture” do talk about “glorifying God” through the development of the human physique, encourage team cohesion, advocate “harmonial development” of personality, some ethical values and healthy life-styles. Furthermore, almost all forms of gymnastics are highly standardized systems of physical exercises, and most of them are very aggressive, competitive and goal-oriented. Unfortunately, the same is true of most of the circus called “the yoga industry” that is going on in the globalized modern world, in which the Indians are now importing American Yoga brands and practice Americanized versions of „Yoga“ as part of their on-going westernization: they are adopting Western gymnastics (or their own Indian gymnastics mediated by the Western one) in the guise of “Yoga” losing any sense of Yoga being part of their cultural heritage and missing the deep benefits of authentic, truly effective Yoga. The Westerners, on the other hand are totally confused about the real meaning and purpose of Yoga. It seems that nowadays almost nobody understands the simple facts that Yoga must be continually adapted to the practicing individual, that Yoga is not a narrow standardized physical practice, that it is a holistic approach to the mystery of Life, that progress in Yoga is made slowly and judiciously, that it is breath-centered, that it’s never goal-oriented, but primarily relaxing, that it secures good health, vitality and longevity, and that it essentially consists in appreciating the beauty and depth of Life, including and especially devotion (religious or spiritual).
My extensive personal experience in competitive artistic gymnastics, traditional Japanese martial arts and Yoga as I have learnt it from Mark Whitwell, a student of Krishnamacharya’s through his son T. K. V. Desikachar, convinced me that there are important differences between artistic gymnastics limbering exercises and martial arts warm-up exercises on the one hand and Yoga practices on the other. Furthermore, I had been doing “Yoga” in a gymnastic way for more than ten years until I met Mark, who explained clearly to me that the essence of Hatha Yoga is (stationary) pranayama, whereas asana is basically dynamic pranayama. This means that body movement in Yoga is used to enhance the breath in a way that is the most appropriate for each individual practitioner. In this way the body movement and the breath movement become one unitary process of ever increasing self-awareness that deepens into meditation. So, asana, if carefully chosen and properly adapted for a particular practitioner, synchronized with the breath, modified to accommodate the natural elasticity of the body, practiced with the idea of relaxing into one’s limitations and performed with complete attention, is meditation in movement. This meditation simply deepens through stationary pranayama that in time deepens into meditation proper or dhyana. The regenerative power of Life generated through the practice of Yoga then spontaneously overflows into our everyday life contributing significantly to our relational life in society and our sense of connection with the Whole of Life, whatever That is. So, the “technical” principles laid down by T. Krishnamacharya and taught by Mark that unambiguously distinguish Yoga from any form of gymnastics or “Yoga” gymnastics for that matter, are the following:
1. The breath movement is the body movement, and the body movement is the breath movement, which means the whole body, especially the torso, must be engaged and participate in the process of breathing.
2. The breath initiates and envelops the body movement, which means that both the inhale and exhale are initiated slightly before the movement is started and they are finished slightly after movement is finished.
3. The inhale is receptivity from above, the exhale is strength from below, which means that we inhale softly into the chest, and exhale strongly from the base of the body.
4. Consistent use of the (hissing, throat) ujjayi breath establishes a central focus for asana practice and prepares for pranayama; it calms the organism and helps the practitioner coordinate the breath with the movement.
5. Asana creates bandha, and bandha serves the breath. Namely, the three most important bandhas (jalandhara, uddiyana and mula bandha) channel life energy into the core of the body, tone the internal organs and make pranayama fully effective.
6. Asana allows for pranayama, and pranayama allows for meditation. This means that mediation naturally arises when the power of breath clears the mind and softens the Heart.
7. Asana, pranayama, meditation and life are one seamless process, and so Yoga is direct participation in the wonder of Life that we utterly are as autonomous living beings in our total interrelatedness with Everything.
Yoga simply cannot be done in a gymnastic way or vice versa. Something is either Yoga or gymnastics (or anything other than Yoga), and it depends mostly on how the postures are done, no so much on which postures are chosen; it primarily depends on the ethical motivation, psychological subtlety, spiritual orientation and actual result of the practice, which is, quite distinctly, a truly harmonious development of the whole human being, not just the body or any other fragment isolated from the whole, usually at the expense of the whole. So, my recommendation is to be clear what it is that you really want to practice; a form of gymnastics or Yoga, and then make sure that what you are actually practicing really is Yoga. And that basically means finding a good teacher. The rest of the text can therefore serve as a reliable practical guide in that direction.
2. Why Yoga Is Not a Form of Spiritual Gymnastics
In the first part of the article we have defined Yoga in relation to gymnastics, and now we will define it in relation to what is called “spiritual philosophy” or “Indian spirituality”, and will get closer to giving an answer to the four fundamental questions: 1. What is Yoga (really)? 2. How to practice Yoga (effectively)? 3. Why practice Yoga (at all)? 4. How to teach Yoga (properly)? The very first thing to be realized is that there are many big holes in the history of Yoga and we don’t really know what traditional Yoga was or how Yoga was actually practiced before the beginning of the 20th century. We now deal only with various modern Yoga practices that were all developed during the last century all over the world and can only speculate about the origin and nature of Yoga as we have it described in the extant Yoga scriptures and artifacts. Of course, the knowledge of Yoga has been transmitted orally from teacher to student (guru shishya parampara) and many old practices have survived to the present day owing to that transmission, but a great many practices were lost for ever and many lineages broken, so Yoga seemed to be almost extinct at the end of the 19th century, the fragments of Yoga were scattered all over India and so it was consistently practiced in its totality only by a few. What we do know for sure is that there isn’t one single Yoga tradition, that Yoga has always been a spiritual discipline aiming at self-actualization, however understood, that generally speaking Yoga has always been different from numerous ascetic traditions (tapasya), which, unlike Yoga that mostly relied on moderation and introspection for achieving its spiritual goals, relied primarily on self-torture and self-abnegation. Yoga was essentially a practice (sadhana), not just an intellectual viewpoint or philosophical worldview (darshana). We also know, in spite of the apparent Yoga elitism prevalent both in orthodox (smarta) Brahmanism and heterodox Tantric communities, that virtually all segments of Indian society practiced some Yoga techniques from time immemorial for all kinds of purposes; men and women, ascetics and householders, the elite and the poor alike, that it was strictly individual, quite secretive and often connected with various religious cults. We also know that Yoga in some of its multiple forms was used by almost all major Indian philosophies and religions, including Vedism, Brahmanism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Tantrism, Indian Sufism, and even Sikhism, excluding only vulgar materialism (carvaka or lokayata darshana), and that Yoga in its classical form, as expounded in the most systematic work on Yoga, in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, was already an amalgam of possibly the oldest Indian philosophical system known as sankhya darshana and various Yoga practices that had been developed in India up to that time, that is in the first centuries AD. You can see, (Hindu, Buddhist and Jaina) Yoga has had a very complex history, especially after the ensuing Tantric revolution and Islamic intrusion, and went through all kinds of transformations until it was rediscovered some 150 years ago by the Indians themselves, who were building their national identity while they were resisting to the British colonial rule. And although the Westerners made their first significant contact with Yoga when Alexander the Great reached India with his army in the 4th century BC, or more precisely his entourage of philosophers and scientists, it didn’t take its roots firmly into the Western soil until the year 1893 when Swami Vivekananda brought the public’s attention to Yoga again, first into America and then into Europe. And this was the beginning of transplanting Yoga into the West and its spreading all over the world that mainly happened through an intense production of Yoga publications and an endless array of Indian teachers who started coming to the West, and an equally endless array of Western students going for “a search in secret India”.
Over the years, financial and sexual scandals and exploitation of all kinds, either alleged or proven in court, and often committed in the name of Yoga, and the “higher” goals of enlightenment or God-realization, have followed almost all the Yoga organizations like a shadow, and their often authoritarian charismatic leaders turned Yoga, or what they believed Yoga was, into a very suspicious thing and the very word “guru” is now bearing mostly negative connotations. The gullible followers and naïve students of various cults associated with Yoga and Yoga schools have fallen victims of many deranged “gurus” and their crazy ideas, ranging form inappropriate touching while teaching postures to all kinds of physical, verbal, emotional, psychological and sexual abuse, and an unprecedented exploitation of the unsuspecting and suffering people looking for solutions. Most of the aberrations are founded on the unrealistic and illusory ideals of spiritual enlightenment, which is the apex of this “spiritual” gymnastics. Yoga is supposed to be a solution to all human problems, from good looks to spiritual perfection, and it is often presented as a holy path to God that only the chosen ones can pass to the end, which is of course enlightenment, or some fuzzy future state of permanent happiness and omniscience.
The very concept of enlightenment, when closely inspected, is quite problematic from a philosophical point of view, and more importantly, from the point of view of common sense, however it is conceived. Anybody can say she or he is enlightened, can convince oneself she or he is enlightened and even be recognized by society at large as an enlightened person or saint, but it is always socially defined and is a cultural product, a premeditated state of “meditation”, not an authentic experience of being alive in the world full of mystery and unpredictable changes. Yoga is actually investigating if an authentic experience of Life is possible at all! Essentially, Yoga is a holistic human development of our natural resources (body, breath, mind, consciousness, emotions and relationships), not reaching a preconceived point; it is an adventure with Life, a spontaneous enjoyment of the flow of Life that we are, not fitting into a specific religio-philosophical pattern that is invariably politically motivated, and so by definition ideological and manipulative. Yoga is actually a careful inspection of our cultural conditioning and possibly going beyond it.
The important thing to understand here is that Yoga is a daily practice and it must be continually adapted to the ever-changing needs of each and every absolutely unique individual. Neither bending one’s body into a pretzel nor twisting one’s mind into a strange ideology will do the magic of Yoga. Imitating a teacher or conforming to a standardized system of exercise or belief won’t do the trick either. However, making our practice more subtle and becoming more sensitive to our own needs and the needs of the people we come in touch with will strengthen our practice and our character. Contrary to what most Yoga people believe, Yoga practice is intensified by subtilizing the breath and movement or by concentrating our cognitive powers on an object or activity of our choice. Yoga is not bodybuilding; it is character building through the awakening of our intuition and deepening our emotion. Brands, styles, schools, sects and organizations of Yoga simply are not Yoga, because there is only one Yoga, our personal Yoga practice, our own Yoga that is right for us, and therefore truly effective. The fitness industry of producing an artificial state of being fit and slim, strong and flexible, successful and good-looking is nowadays practically identical with the Yoga industry, a 10-billion-worth business only in America (and 42-billion-worth business internationally) with more than 20 million Americans practicing some form of Yoga plus who knows how many more in India and the rest of the world! It should be perfectly clear to everybody that Yoga is not any kind of exhibitionism or public performance; it’s neither contortionism nor hyper flexibility. It is respecting the limitations of our natural flexibility, or relaxing into our own body and letting the intelligence of the breath bring us closer to our Heart, our inexhaustible power of human emotivity, and so spiritualize us as cosmic beings through and through. The dignity of Yoga lies in the purity of our Heart, not in the superficiality of a distorted body shape or a sophisticated mind control. Yoga is very delicate and difficult to unravel; it is impossible to define it once and for all, and oversimplifying it as an accessory to Vedic ritualism, a pagan (Tantric) sex cult or a Neo-Hindu trick to sell itself all around the world or a disguised religion or progressive self-hypnosis or even self-induced psychosis is totally misguided and obviously wrong. The author’s personal experience in practicing and teaching Yoga (of Heart) as presented by his teacher, Mark Whitwell, is a living proof attesting to the enormous transforming potential of Yoga understood and practiced as a “discipline of pleasure”, a greater intimacy with oneself and the badly needed revitalizing power of male-female mutuality as the natural and actual care for all forms of Life on Earth.
3. What Yoga Really Is and How It Can Be Practiced and Taught Safely, Joyfully and Effectively
Now that we have cleared out that Yoga is not what most people think it is, namely a type of physical training, a form of mental acrobatics or an exotic Eastern religion, let us ascertain, with utmost clarity, what it really is. Based on my immediate experience of it, I can say that Yoga is simply the organic unity of everything with everything, the all-encompassing interrelatedness and connectedness of all things. It is the source of all creation and human inspiration to live a life to her or his full potential. Yoga is the union of opposites that constitute the intricate fabric of our existence. It is Life Herself, the rhythmic pulsation of the breath within, the primordial vibration reverberating through the whole of existence. Yoga is the exhilarating discovery of one’s Heart, of one’s true nature as a unique and sensitive being in relationship. It is the human touch and the inexhaustible human capacity to feel and be truly alive. Yoga is Nature as a Whole, the invisible spirit behind the seen and our groundedness in us as individuals, our centeredness in the midst of everyday turmoil and suffering. It is our tenacity to persist and survive, as well as our susceptibility to the incomprehensible all-pervading mystery of silence. Yoga is peace as such, the quietness beyond all the worldly clutter. To be firmly encored in reality and yoked in goodness is true Yoga. It promotes self-awareness, livingness and independence; it is freedom through and through. In short, Yoga contains everything and everything is contained in Yoga just as we are One and everything is in us as One. Above all, Yoga is love and intimacy between two human beings, the closeness with oneself that awakens the feeling of connection with another, with the entire Universe in all its complexity, subtlety and vastness. And, of course, Yoga is a personal practice, or more precisely a highly personalized living practice that has nothing to do with either body-shaping gymnastics or pseudo spirituality.
The three basic principles of practicing and teaching Yoga that make sure your Yoga is really your own, perfectly safe, deeply joyful and fully effective are the following:
1. Practicing and teaching Yoga must never cause any kind of injury.
2. Yoga that we practice and teach must be really effective.
3. To achieve maximum effectiveness in practicing and teaching, it is necessary to establish, maintain and develop one’s/student’s daily personal practice.
Let’s clarify all three of them. The appalling fact is that unfortunately many people get hurt (and some probably even die!) as a direct consequence of practicing “Yoga”, and this fact must be fully recognized and properly dealt with, since almost every Yoga enthusiast hurt herself or himself at some point in their Yoga practice. Why? There are many reasons and each case is specific, but it seems to me that those who injure themselves most frequently and most seriously are the so called “over-ambitious over-achievers” and “misguided followers”, usually attending over-crowded group classes in which inappropriate practices, ideas and ideologies are indiscriminately applied or imposed upon them in an inappropriate setting. I used the clichés on purpose to highlight one very important point when it comes to injuries caused by improper applications of Yoga. Namely, we are bound to hurt and be hurt, physically and/or psychologically, if we approach ourselves, our student(s) and our teacher(s), and Yoga itself in the wrong way, namely if we practise/teach a Yoga that is not right for us or our student(s). So, what is the right Yoga for me/my student(s)? The simple answer is: the one that makes me and my student(s) better, happier and more independent persons. Inflicting injuries and pain upon ourselves and others certainly is not the right step in that direction. That is, in fact, what we had been doing until we turned to Yoga, and Yoga can and should help us get rid of this unhealthy, deeply engrained habit. To stop hurting ourselves and others is the very essence of Yoga, isn’t it? So, those who are hurting themselves and/or others through “Yoga” are missing the point; they are misusing and abusing Yoga to continue in their (self-) destructive ways, and they are merely, and unfortunately, wasting their lives in a more or less “fashionable”, “exotic” or “original” way. True, injuries can be very helpful in correcting ourselves, but isn’t much safer and much more productive and time-saving to avoid them altogether? In order to succeed in Yoga, or any human endeavour for that matter, we must be realistic and practical, proceed slowly, step by step; we must give ourselves some time to mature, grow and reflect. We should approach Yoga realistically, preferably with the help of a trustworthy teacher, determine our immediate and long-term goals based on what we actually are at the starting point, choose the most appropriate means to reach them safely and without haste, and then move extremely carefully towards them constantly correcting and closely watching ourselves all along the path. In this way, injuries will be minimised or completely avoided because there will be no inappropriate goals and we will non-obsessively and harmoniously develop as human beings at a pace that is suitable for us. It is, therefore, imperative that we first learn how to listen to our body, our breath and our mind, for they are continuously telling us something useful for our well-being. By doing so, we will become sensitive to our real needs and then we will not be obsessed with or addicted to our practice; we will not cherish misconceptions about what the “right” practice should be; we will move in the right direction applying the most appropriate techniques; we will recognise and give up all unrealistic and unnecessary goals and expectations; and we will carefully transcend our limitations, and perhaps have a glimpse of the immeasurable throbbing beyond the boundaries of our heavily conditioned minds.
Another strange fact is that many people who practice Yoga don’t get its (full) benefits, that is their practice may not be hurtful to them, but it also isn’t really or fully effective. It may be somewhat useful or even enjoyable, but no real Yoga benefits are reaped no matter how long or how hard a person is trying. Such people may as well do something else and have the same or even greater positive effects than practicing this ineffective “Yoga”. Reasons for that are numerous. Mechanically repeating one and the same arbitrary routine day in and day or going to a Yoga studio once, twice or a few times a week so that some instructor/teacher could guide us through a set of prearranged exercises certainly is not what Yoga is about. Of course, being led through some Yoga exercises from time to time, or even on a regular basis, spending some time in a pleasant environment surrounded with the like-minded or attending Yoga workshops, seminars and retreats can be very instructive, useful and beneficial, but that is not all there is to Yoga. On the contrary, it is only a surface, a possible beginning and/or a (hopefully) safe context for many Yoga aspirants and enthusiasts to get some inspiration, acquire the necessary information and develop their personal practice. If recreation is all that we need or expect from Yoga, all this is fine, but no deeper or lasting benefits of Yoga can be expected and experienced in this way. Practicing some form of gymnastics, competitive or recreational sports or any other type of physical activity such as walking, swimming, jogging, hiking, cycling and the like can yield similar, equal or even better results. And probably with lesser risks of injury, knowing how aggressive most of the modern Yoga styles actually are. So, a good idea is to ask oneself what we want from Yoga and why we are practicing Yoga, both at the very beginning and continually as we take to practice, and see if Yoga is what we need. Then, good decisions can be made and the right course taken. Until that happens, our Yoga will simply not be truly effective; it will only be dabbling with Yoga at best.
The most important fact about Yoga is that it cannot give us all its benefits to the full if we don’t develop and maintain our daily personal practice. This is natural context for your Yoga to bloom and give you all that it can possibly give you. If you don’t know how to do your Yoga on a regular basis in the actual context of your home and your day to day life, you are not really practicing Yoga. So, no deep and lasting benefits can be expected and accrued. The benefits of Yoga are basically threefold: 1. immediate benefits of feeling better during and after the practice, 2. short-term benefits of feeling oneself and other living beings better and 3. long-term benefits of deeply feeling Oneness with the totality of existence. All of them can be had, and infinitely more, if we practice Yoga that is well-adapted to our ever changing needs, abilities, aspirations and circumstances. This means our Yoga must change as we change, or even effect the changes we need in order to develop our full human potential. So, our Yoga must be pliable, it must be in service of our actual life and our deepest requirements. It can never be mechanical or repetitious; it must be rich, alive and pulsating. Practicing Yoga is actually making love with Life. And since we are that Life, whatever That is in Her infinite vastness and depth, we are actually making love with ourselves. So, Yoga is supposed to give us the courage and ability to be intimate with ourselves, to be compassionate with others and to be attuned with the Universal Whole of which we are part. Teaching Yoga is sharing that love to others, or teaching them how to be in love with Life. True, gymnastics, either merely physical or even “spiritual”, can make us feel happier and make us feel better for a while at a certain level of our being, but only Yoga can give us true and lasting satisfaction, which is the power, the depth and the intensity of a unique life lived straight from the Heart, for the Heart. Soft-heartedness or hearty softness is our human and cosmic essence, our divine birth-right, and Yoga helps us (re)cognize that and gives us the strength to develop our infinite capacity for love and freedom. This is the ancient promise of Yoga, and our personal practice, if it really deserves to be named Yoga, must be the fulfillment of that promise.
Domagoj Orlic (born in 1970 in Croatia) practices and teaches Yoga of Heart as he was taught by his teacher and Heart friend Mark Whitwell. His teaching method focuses on developing a personal practice as the very Heart of Yoga that helps the practicing individual to get anchored in her own Heart. As an invisible point of union it is the inexhaustible source of our infinite capacity to feel. True intimacy with this centre of our humanity reveals the person’s true nature as the powerful peace and peaceful power of a life lived straight from the Heart, and uncompromisingly for the Heart. This soft-heartedness or hearty-softness then becomes the basis of a creative relational life as the real and ultimate purpose of practicing Yoga in the first place. Domagoj teaches the full spectrum of traditional Yoga practices in all its applications, from therapeutic Yoga to yoga tantra and understands Yoga primarily as a way of enjoying Life and the deepening of intimacy with oneself, other human being and the Whole of Existence that we utterly are as sensitive, compassionate and spiritual beings with a Heart.
From Romance to Lifelong Intimacy in 4 Simple Steps
Despite the media love blitz surrounding Valentine’s Day, it can be difficult to unearth the reality of love with our partners. Union was the foundation for the ceremonial marriages performed by St. Valentinus, for whom Valentine’s Day was named. Valentinus was a martyr who was beheaded for wedding Christians who were forbidden to marry. He courageously acted to build the bonds of union and love through marriage. The marriage ceremony following the initial romance is merely the first gesture of a lifelong intention to love. In our beginning steps of love and romance, we find the laws of attraction powerful yet often fleeting. How do we sustain that initial spark that Mother Nature gives us, to transform the power of attraction and union into lasting love, romance, and intimacy?
For decades, I’ve been teaching yoga around the world. People tell me of the joys and struggles in their love relationships, and I find that emotional suffering in relationships is the same all over the world. In partnership, when we discover love we usually also find all the things in our lives that are obstructing true intimacy, so finding love can be a double-edged sword. It is often not an easy ride when the very force of love brings up all the limiting patterns and dysfunction that we have absorbed since childhood. In the modern world, we have few good models of healthy adult intimacy that we need in order to understand the emotional and physical continuity required for developing and sustaining it. Nonetheless, the fire of nature must have its way. Driven by natural instinct, often stumbling in the dark, we try our best to relate to one another even through the pain.
To balance our inherent needs and desires amid contemporary stresses requires a deep wisdom and practical solution to heal, and experience everlasting love. In countries such as India, China, and Japan, where spiritual traditions have been passed on orally and as text in an unbroken chain for thousands of years, there is a cross-cultural similarity of beliefs. In these cultures, the one life force that creates the sun and moon, trees and bees and humans is fundamentally described as love or unity. Sounds like something worth exploring and sharing, right? And yet this may be a difficult concept to understand, let alone feel, considering that we all experience shades of sadness, longing, and separation. We need a practical means to move from our perceived duality into love and unity. While a bouquet of flowers for Valentine’s Day will help, there’s so much more we can do.
Treat yourself this Valentine’s Day to something new, and connect to this everlasting unified love with four simple steps:
- Do Your Yoga. Yoga is the practice of unifying opposites internally and externally. The inhalation develops a feminine receptive quality, and the exhalation develops a masculine strength. I call this strength-receiving. Participating in these opposites of male and female in the internal landscape informs our body and mind to embrace them in the external landscape to an absolute degree and continuously. This polarity exists in both same-sex and opposite-sex partnerships. Yoga is making love to life. The body loves its breath, and the exhalation loves the inhalation, and feeling this love tangibly helps us learn how to love one another. When we feel loved, we inevitably give love to those around us. When we become intimately connected to each other from this place of mutual strength and receptivity, we are strong and present to each other as we receive each other. The spark of love combusts! It is a perfect love arrangement, and this is the true romance we crave on Valentine’s Day.
- Love Yourself. Personal autonomy and partnership go hand in hand. Before you can feel love and intimacy toward someone else, you first need to feel it in and as yourself. Sensitivity to your own embodiment allows you to feel sensitive to another in an extraordinary and continuous way. Doing the promise yoga practice (www.thepromise.com; you can see brief video demos here) clears the body of mental, emotional, and physical obstruction. This enables us to have an intimate experience with life as the body and breath. Yoga is the movement of the life current within us. It is our inherent intimacy with life as the body, breath and then relationship in that order.
- Picnic in Nature today and make it a habit. In the winter season, find a place to share a meal overlooking nature. Everything that exists within the natural world is involved in a relationship of interdependency. Our survival depends on our unending embrace of nature and connection to each other! Allow your senses to open and receive the natural world, awakening to the fact that you are nature itself, interconnected with all life and your Valentine.
- Power Up. If we can admit to our lover that we are more powerful with him or her than we are on our own, and these confessions are mutually felt and expressed, something extraordinary happens. This something extraordinary is actually very ordinary. It’s the natural state, the power of reality moving through us that ensures Mother Nature’s purpose and nurturing hand. We know this is a vulnerable place to be. Although you may feel safer on your own, not risking rejection, this vulnerability is power, because you have now expressed the mutual enjoyment and equality in your partnership, jumping off the cliff of personal fear and separation into an ocean of union. It is a liberating event!
Nothing can touch the extraordinary intelligence of our own living system. Connecting with that state is deeply pleasurable. Living in a society fueled by consumerism, instant gratification, and too many cups of coffee, our natural state has effectively been hijacked. In all the fuss, we still feel that universal need to couple up, love, and be loved. To walk through life, in love with your chosen partner, requires a deeper look and daily practice of self-love. Yoga is the practical means to experience that love that lives eternally. Love life and love yourself this Valentine’s Day. Breathe the opposites within, and that love will naturally be given to the one you love so dearly.
Peace for our Soldiers at Home and Away
I just returned to a U.S base after being out with my team on a four-day mission that most definitely had us on our toes, heightened vigilance for the majority of the time. However, there was a beautiful moment of reprieve this morning as I awoke in the dirt, behind a rock wall… — Sergeant David Thomas Welker, assistant team leader in Scout platoon, 2/12 Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division
As a country, we’re in an internal battle amidst a nine-year war in Iraq and continuing occupation in the Middle East. Stay or go? While our country and political factions remain in a tug of war, the impact on our soldiers’ health reverberates throughout America. The emotional and physical embedding of stress is undisputed fact. The shame, suicides, and stress-triggered homicides are giving rise to a national outcry regarding post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). With PTSD affecting an estimated one in five of the 2.6 million service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, there are heightening efforts to dissolve the social stigma around PTSD.
It led me to ask, “How can we support the strength and healing of our service members?” This question draws me back to an emphatic statement from my yoga teacher Krishnamacharya: “There is only one illness, stress that manifests as all symptoms.” Beginning at the age of 20, I had the privilege of studying with Professor T. Krishnamacharya, the grandfather of modern yoga. Krishnamacharya’s insight on stress is now confirmed by modern science. Harvard reports that stress may “contribute to or exacerbate various health problems.”
Stress is undeniably linked to mind and body, and there must be a mind and body practice to respond to this illness. We can be grateful for pain, which he called, “the unavoidable motive of practice.” It is the first sign of a healing process at work. From here we begin yoga and move from pain to pleasure, passion and peace.
I was touched to receive a personal account from Sgt. David Welker, who began practicing breath-based yoga as given in my book The Promise. David reported after practicing The Promise yoga for eight months:
I awoke in the dirt, behind a rock wall, and I just laid there for a few minutes, observing and allowing my breath to continue moving just as it had while I was asleep (I presume). I was somewhat amazed at the relaxed state of my body, and I so thoroughly enjoyed the conscious moment of ease, especially throughout my chest and torso, as my ribs expanded as effortlessly as I’ve ever known. Didn’t forget where I was either. So, a nice little moment amidst the madness. How does one make sense of someone that blows themselves up in attempt to kill other? Its senseless and absolutely tragic.
I believe David experienced the true power and nurturing force of nature in the midst of war and anxiety. He felt his breath moving in his body with the tangible pleasure of embodiment. This act of breathing helps reduces stress in the nervous system, mental tension drops and peace permeates, creating an awareness that returned David to this most basic state of being. Yogis would call this experience of sensitivity “being at one with” the natural state, and there is biological explanation for how this occurs. Boston Universitypublished a study on the effects of yoga on the autonomic nervous system and PTSD. Through study of the vagus nerve, which is responsible for communicating the state of most organs to the central nervous system, they discovered yoga increases vagal tone. Increased vagal tone directly corresponds to the body’s capacity to process stress effectively, lowering heart rate, aiding digestion, and connecting to theparasympathetic nervous response (feed and breed response). Vagal tone is now known to increase through intentional breathing practices. As you connect with your breath, you experience the parasympathetic nervous system kick in, maximizing the function of your internal organs. From here, we relax into what ancient yogis called the natural state that is stress-free. Through this process, David embodies the human potential, experiencing peace within his body in the midst of war.
I wanted to know more about David’s yogic experience. I asked him about the impact of his practices, and he described:
My yoga practice has grown even more dear to me throughout. Several months ago, I remember describing to Jessica [Jessica gifted David The Promise] the experiences of graciousness with myself and safety within my practice — safety to allow whatever thought or feeling to comfortably arise that I would otherwise resist. She replied with a word that suitably encompasses these experiences: sanctuary.
As you can imagine, finding real sanctuary while operating in a 360-degree, 24/7 hostile zone is beyond rare. My buddies in my eight-man recon team are well aware that I derive something meaningful from my yoga. They ask me about it, and I enjoy their interest. After all, there is really no such thing as privacy, as we have spent the last seven months rarely outside of a stone’s throw of each other. Not much is capable of being kept privately. This group of guys are increasingly comfortable with the idea of yoga as something that men do too… I am happy with the thought that they now know the tools exist and are available whenever they realize a need for it.
We equip our troops with sophisticated weapons; we need to add this stress-relieving practice to their arsenal of tools. With the contemporary American adaptations of yoga into goal-oriented physical gymnastics, it’s challenging to cognize yoga’s true healing power. Without using breathing principles of the wisdom traditions, we are losing vital healing components of the practice. The Promise practice is based on the work of Krishnamacharya’s scholarship. There is now science behind these ancient rules that explain the importance of breath-based yoga. Yoga must be adapted to individual needs according to body type age, health and cultural background. There is an easy practice for everyone that is their direct intimacy with the nurturing force of life. Let’s make a promise to practice building “the sanctuary” within. Let’s use these ancient secrets that are now upheld by leading Western science!