Editor’s Note: Since this article was published, several accounts of sexual harassment and assault have been made public by Mark Whitwell’s female students. We do not in any way condone Mark’s behaviour. You can read more about the accounts here.
by Rosalind Atkinson,
“If you want to teach people, you have to love them,” said the tall figure seated near me on the floor.
Shit, I thought. What am I doing here, then? I don’t love people… I hate them! I feel them frozen in fear and radiating phoney bullshit, and I can’t bear it!
I looked around the room at the other bodies. No-one else seemed to be freaking out.
The apparently casual comment began the Heart of Yoga teacher training in the Chief’s Meeting Hall on the island of Taveuni, Fiji, and the down-to-earth speaker was New Zealand-born yoga master Mark Whitwell.
How had I ended up here? Despite practicing many styles of yoga in classes and at home over the years, I’d stubbornly resisted what I felt was the bourgeois stereotype of going somewhere exotic to do teacher training. I’d developed a reactive cynicism towards “yoga,” seeing it as a self-absorbed attempt to get somewhere, one that inevitably denied the beauty and intelligence of what is already here.
In other words, I’d bought into tryhard yoga, pursuing flexibility and “peacefulness” with the same achievement mindset I’d habitually taken to everything — and then abandoned the whole thing in disgust.
Two things happened to end my prejudice against one of the world’s most ancient and profound traditions.
Firstly, I’d hit a wall in my own spiritual practice. Despite growing in many ways, I’d fallen into the trap of using spirituality to reinforce the illusion of lack we’re saddled with by society. I needed a solid somatic practice to feel the perfection of life on home territory, not just as a nice idea, an elusive future possibility, or as something my teachers had that I didn’t. And I could see this need in others, too.
Secondly, while feeling this I came across a scruffy book on the second-hand bookshelf at our local shop. I flicked it open, expecting another attainment-based message telling me I needed to do X, Y, and Z to become a perfect person. I opened the book at random, and read the following:
“The only reason we choose to do yoga is for the pleasure — the literal pleasure — of our systems relaxing and filling with energy. It is not some struggle to enjoy a future result.”
What! Yoga was possible outside of the toxic search to get somewhere and be someone? I was sold. The book was Yoga of Heart, and the author was some guy called Mark Whitwell. I paid $2, took it home, read it cover-to-cover, read it again, carried it around, discussed it, bought another copy for friends, scribbled objections, and three months later, found myself on a plane to Fiji.
Busting the Myth of Perfect Knowledge
Having read that Mark studied for twenty years with T. Krishnamacharya (the teacher of B.K.S. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, Indra Devi, and others) and his son, T.K.V. Desikachar, and had edited and contributed to Desikachar’s classic text, Yoga of Heart, I was reluctantly prepared to absorb a big info dump of everything yoga.
It quickly became obvious that Mark’s study was completely integrated into who and how he was, rather than an oppressive heap of disembodied information, or a neatly packaged brand or style. Real yoga was all there — but as a genuinely caring person, not as a pile of dry philosophy.
To some people’s consternation, each day was structured so that everyone would have time for wandering around — first priority, “enjoying yourselves.” Rather than 6 a.m. starts or lengthy tests on names of muscles, we swam, relaxed, bathed in sublime sitar and sarod music from master musicians Joanna Mack and Bruce Hamm, and listened as people revealed themselves.
Over and over again, I heard Mark thwart the ingrained cultural effort to get somewhere that many of us had inevitably arrived with. “You’ve already heard everything I have to tell you!” he told people.
I could hear that the mission was to encourage people to stop looking and start living, and to empower them to teach on that basis. It was so helpful to engage alongside the other insightful, curious, and sincere humans from around the world who, like me, had sensed something worth investigating. Appreciating this rich tapestry of people was the most important thing I would learn.
As the days unfolded, we easily learnt Krishnamacharya’s simple principles of practice, which bring softness and receptivity back into asana and pranayama. I realised that most yoga I’d encountered was subtly or not-so-subtly about trying to improve or attain something, and that this attitude directly affects the movement and breath. For example, initially many of us (even the most flexibly “advanced”) had a strong exhale, but a compromised inhale. We could be forceful, but not softly receptive.
We felt how when you’re trying to improve yourself, you’re rejecting what’s already here, based on the pervasive influence of religious doctrines that have taught spirituality and God as apart and above the world, rather than one with it. And we felt how the receptive inhale needed to be engaged in order to tangibly feel the richness of our nature, as nature, which is always already there.
The simplicity confronted my unexamined belief that yoga had to be complicated and required vast amounts of knowledge in order to teach. No wonder I’d been put off.
I’d assumed that you needed physiotherapist levels of knowledge to safely look after students, but Krishnamacharya’s principles demonstrated how the breath can be engaged to act as the internal teacher for everyone. In doing so we all reclaim our autonomy, breaking the dependence on the external “teacher” or on studio classes.
I felt how when we strain to achieve an ideal body or state through “yoga,” we continue the mind’s bossy managerial role over the already-wise body — playing out the domination of nature that humanity is doing on the macro scale. This overriding of the body’s intelligence to try and get somewhere through willpower had caused me injuries in the past. I could see how helping people tune in to their own breath and body enabled people to safely look after themselves, freed from the impositions of the ambitious mind.
I didn’t need to learn enough information to replace the natural intelligence of people’s own bodies! In fact, I couldn’t. No amount of knowledge could replace the crazy intelligence of life as it is living everyone. We learned how an individually tailored practice is nothing more than a remedial tool to help people reconnect with the great somatic knowledge that is already inherent in them.
I’d thought it was humble and responsible to not teach until I’d attained an extremely high level of knowledge. But I came to see that it was self-doubt stopping me from sharing what I could offer others. Freed from the burden of needing to reach or promote an ideal state, we were empowered to share the simple profundity of moving and breathing.
Yoga of Relationship
Inevitable to any teaching situation is the danger of what U.G. Krishnamurti called “the social dynamics of disempowerment.” Because modern culture tends to dissociate us from our own authority — the intrinsic wisdom of the body — we then look to another to fulfil that role.
I watched as Mark undermined anyone’s assumption that he was special and that they weren’t, or put him on any kind of pedestal. The teacher is “no more than a friend, and no less than a friend,” he kept emphasising.
I saw how anything else only exacerbates the feeling that wisdom is something to be attained, rather than a recognition of what allows us to exist at all.
“There is a paradox in all teaching,” we were reminded, “which is that you don’t need any help. The extreme intelligence of life is fully established in you, as you.”
Krishnamacharya’s basic principles of practice, summarized from the great Indian tradition, allowed us to feel this intelligence as the mutuality of opposites — inhale/exhale, above/below, strength/ receptivity, left/right, and male/female. We were all created in a moment of opposites merging, and we all continue to embody all opposites. Rather than picking one aspect (like ascent) and trying to ride it to some extreme (disembodied) state, we were encouraged to come back to the real world — of body, emotions, and relationships.
By developing sensitivity to our own energies, we become more sensitive to another’s. So a yoga that connects us with all of our own lived experience enables us to enjoy and understand relationships, and be useful to others in this often-painful area. We understood how yoga is a transformative force right there in the most complicated and challenging areas of life like sex, food, work, and money.
The Heart of Yoga
So what about the whole loving people thing? Did I learn to smile and fake it?
“You don’t hate people,” suggested Mark. “You love them; you just hate their social patterning.”
It was true; I was obsessed with people’s imaginary limitations. As the days unfolded, I realised this wasn’t working for me as a way to relate to people. I’d been proud of my piercing insight into delusion, but had become fixated on mental habits (including my own), rather than seeing the undeniable, unexplainable beating of each unique body’s heart that even allows the brain to think whatever it thinks in the first place.
The practical tools, and their incorporation into a daily personal practice, facilitated our feeling-connection with the perfect intelligence of our own breathing bodies. Yes, our minds can be terrified, self-absorbed, dissociated, defensive, and otherwise reacting to experience according to the cultural baggage obstructing our systems.
But reality is reality no matter what the mind is up to, and we are that — and we learned the practical ways to feel and share this, using simple but specific technologies of body and breath. I felt how life doesn’t start once “union” or “connection” has occurred — it’s obviously already going for it, whether we pay any attention or not.
Practicing actual yoga of intimacy made everyone’s wholeness obvious — not as some abstract feel-good concept, but due to the obvious fact that their heart was beating and their cells were humming with life, like any other part of Nature.
Holy shit, I thought to myself out of the blue one day partway through. I actually love these people. Even the pretentious and confused ones. Which means, even myself!
Without even meaning to, I’d learned the most important requirement needed to teach: caring about others.
I wouldn’t trade this tender natural affection for people for a thousand years’ worth of technical knowledge. Yes, having the right basic information is important, but without genuine caring it will just be reinforcing people’s painful existing sense that they need fixing (and must therefore be broken).
There have been wobbles, of course — but why continue to relate to everyone as problems to be solved when they’re just slightly confused and distressed monkey-creatures who are somehow mysteriously existing? Isn’t that enough to make us fall to our knees and softly kiss each other’s faces?
Teaching occurs on the basis of our wholeness — not within the myths of lack and attainment. Yoga can function as devotion to this fact rather than the search for it. The blatant truth of our living bodies should be enough of a reminder, but old habits die hard, so asana and pranayama are the necessary means of acknowledging what’s already here.
This act of radical recognition — aka relationship — is the heart of yoga. Real wisdom embodied in real heartfelt friendship between real people.
Rosalind is a writer, editor, and fledging yoga teacher living in the beautiful Far North of Aotearoa. An ex-academic and ex-environmentalist, she is now most interested in communicating a full embrace of life in practical ways that help everybody feel more and feel better, so we can all look after each other and the Earth with tenderness and joy. She is the editor of the National Council of Women’s monthly magazine, and her writing has been published on elephant journal, HuffPost, Overland Journal, the Vessel, Greenpeace, The Healed Tribe, and some other places that she can’t remember right now.