An Interview with Mark Whitwell: Yoga as Direct Intimacy with Life
At the Bali Spirit Festival this year I had the honour of meeting Mark Whitwell, author of Yoga of Heart, and a travelling Yoga teacher spreading the rare message of claiming your own direct intimacy with life and not pedestalizing anyone. The Yoga world has often been rife with teachers using teaching as an instrument of power, claiming spiritual superiority and instilling deficiency stories in the minds of their students/followers. One has to be careful who one chooses as a teacher. As Mark says, the teacher is ‘no more than a friend, and no less than a friend’.
Mark studied for two decades with T. Krishnamacharya, often referred to as the “father of modern Yoga” and teacher to B.K.S. Iyengar, B.N.S. Iyengar, Indra Devi and others. In Mark’s words: Trying to get somewhere, as if you’re not somewhere, as if you’re not the wonder of the cosmos, is not Yoga. Yoga is not the passing on of patterns. 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.
In this conversation with Mark, we talk about the place of Asana in Yoga, how the Yamas and Niyamas arise, how to live with a lot of pain, the link between sexuality and spirituality, and the role of breath and alignment in Asana. A wide range of topics, and I hope you will feel as enriched by the conversation as I did. And if you’d like to experience Yoga the way Mark describes, the iPromise App available on the App store will guide you through it.
My first question to you is about the role of Asana in a Yoga practice. We see a lot of people obsessively chase it, making it a measure of self-worth, a measure of how “good” they are at Yoga. And then there are many who look down on Asana saying it’s “just physical”, which I think is the other extreme. I don’t agree with the disdain for Asana and I don’t see the need to obsess or chase it either. So I’m interested to hear what you would say is the role of Asana in a Yoga practice.
MW: Well, thank you for this important question. You’ve defined the problem very accurately. Krishnamacharya had a humourous statement – There are 2 kinds of people. Those who don’t do enough Asana and those who do too much Asana. So you can fall into justifying whatever your position is. The spiritual types of people saying – Oh Asana is just gymnastics – and then there are other people in gymnastic cults popularized in recent decades in the West, in the US in particular, who’ve even gone back to India, and they are fraught with male patriarchal authority as if they are the founders of those styles, the avatars of Yoga, but then they are not. There are people who will fall for anything. Krishnamacharya was a communicator of actual Yoga Asana designed appropriately for each and every person according to their body type, age and health. This is a deeply important consideration from the great tradition that he was a scholar of. Asana allows for Pranayama. And Pranayama allows for clarity of mind which is meditation. And he would say meditation arises naturally as a Siddhi or a gift of your Sadhana. Sadhana is a word that means that which you can do. You can do your Asana but you cannot meditate or put yourself into a state of Samadhi as a wilful idea. But Samadhi, meditation certainly arises when the conditions are made right through your Sadhana. And Sadhana is simply intimacy with all ordinary conditions, and Asana itself is intimacy with the tangible and the intangible conditions of reality itself, of life itself. In particular, Asana is the participation in the union of the strength that is receptive – of the inhale with the exhale – which is the union of the male-female polarities of life. And this is deeply ingrained in Indian thought: that life comes as God and Goddess, as male and female, in perfect union, in perfect intrinsic harmony. And Asana is the participation in that intrinsic harmony and power and intelligence that is life. That’s what Asana is, and it’s a vital requirement for a life that is obstructed or stressed in any way. There must be a Yoga Asana practice as the primary spiritual practice, the primary meditation practice. That the principles of meditation are in Asana. They make it possible for Pranayama and the more passive aspects of Yoga to arise. They make it possible for meditation to occur naturally, without struggle. Just like you cannot put yourself to sleep as a wilful idea. Trying to meditate without Asana and Pranayama is like trying to go to sleep without turning off the light and lying down. It’s as important as that. And when people learn Asana in the way that it came through the great tradition, the way Krishnamacharya in his scholarship presented it, it’s very powerful, successful and immediate for a person. It does put them in a state of well-being, of clarity of mind. It puts them in a state of meditation naturally.
I see, and that is the point of the practice?
MW: Yes. Sadhana means that which you can do. You can do Asana and Pranayama, but you can’t do the other limbs of Yoga which come as Siddhis, as causeless gifts. They just come, you can’t take them by storm, you can’t “get” enlightened. Trying to get enlightened creates the thought structures in the mind of you as a ‘seeker’. And that never works. There must be an actual Yoga practice. And the problem with it, of course, is that Yoga is being popularized in the West and now in India, as exaggerated gymnastics, male muscular effort on the body, and it has no result and it’s even dangerous. It can be stimulating, of course. So then that’s why people dismiss those ideas of Yoga and it’s a valid dismissal, frankly. But what’s needed is an actual Yoga education from your own recognition of how Asana works and the technology of that Asana for you.
You mentioned about the other limbs of Yoga, that they come as Siddhis. The first 2 limbs – Yama and Niyama – are mentioned before Asana and Pranayama. So what would you say about them?
MW: Thank you for that beautiful question. In my early life with Krishnamacharya, studying with him and his son Desikachar, I was astonished to find out that they were also saying that Yama and Niyama were Siddhis that came from Sadhana. The Sadhana of the 8 limbs of Yoga. Asana and Pranayama were the 2 that you could practice, and then Yama and Niyama came as a consequence of that practice. You develop these social and personal common sense attributes of life through doing a Yoga practice. Otherwise even trying to do Yama and Niyama can cause a frustration because people fail at it all the time. I joke and say I know people who can’t even clean up their room unless they do an Asana practice, and then they just get busy and clean up. Just santosha (contentment), ahimsa (harmlessness), all these things arise as a consequence of doing a Yoga practice. They arise naturally. Sure, we cultivate the Yamas and Niyamas but the ability to actually adopt them come from Sadhana which is your Asana and Pranayama practice.
Okay, so you don’t start off trying to be non-violent, truthful, non-covetous and all of that?
MW: No, you’ll never do it because we are deeply programmed by the society that we are born into and its limiting behaviours are deeply ingrained in us, in our thought structures. So it’s hard to make those changes, unless there is the intervention of an actual Yoga practice. And then it becomes easier – or even easy – to make those changes.
That makes a lot of sense! I’ve never heard this idea before. I was always told Yama and Niyama come first, so you have to start off with those. And then comes Asana and Pranayama.
MW: He would say that even though Patanjali wrote them in that order, they arose not at all in a linear process. The angas, the limbs arise randomly and unpredictably. All of them. This is what he said. Samadhi can happen anytime in your Asana practice, anytime in life and all the Yamas and Niyamas can arise spontaneously. And meditation – Dharana – the ability to have a focussed mind, arises spontaneously and not in any predictable sequenced order.
This is a whole new insight to me.
MW: And apparently this is true in other ancient Indian literature. It’s a Western scholar assumption that the order of sequencing implies a priority or an emphasis on what comes first. And apparently in Indian thought, that is not necessarily so. I found that interesting.
What would you say to people who are traumatized by a huge loss or are heartbroken for any reason and living with a lot of pain in their lives. I told two of my closest friends that I will be interviewing you, so they can share any questions they’d like answered by you. And one of them had this question about how to live with a lot of pain inside you.
MW: Thank you for another important question. And I would say that’s the situation of the whole world, we’re all living with pain and very difficult circumstances, that if they’re not upon us now they are going to be. Everyone we love dies, and we do have troubles in our lives. And frankly, this world is full of difficulties. All over the world there is strife, political unrest, and misery. And then there’s just the personal matters where there is dysfunction of male-female collaboration. The patriarchal male patterning, misogyny has caused so much grief for many many generations and there is much heartbreak when you try to have a nice relationship and just the patterns of society come up. And you find that the relationship isn’t so easy and people get into arguments and even break up. There’s all of this and so there’s a lot to deal with in life. So this is the usual life happening. Everybody’s in the same boat. Now, again I would say, if you begin an actual Asana and Pranayama practice everyday, you are now looking to life itself. You are now being intimate with your own life everyday. And I do feel in the coping with these stresses and pains of life, this is the best thing you can do for yourself. Begin a simple Yoga practice. That is a time in the day where you are embracing life just as it is, the power of the cosmos that is beating your heart and moving your breath, that brought you here in the first place. Moving and breathing, inhale merging with the exhale, strength that is receiving and resting. Resting in Savasana, abiding in your life. This is such a helpful thing in the midst of difficulties.
Now as to the difficulties, I feel there’s a sequence of emotions that everybody goes through. First of all, there is numbness, where you just can’t feel anything because you’re so shocked at the conditions of the world you’re born into. And then there is naturally fear, that arises. Which is a natural emotional response to what you observe and how you observe the world to be functioning. So the world is a fearful place, so that’s valid. And then there’s anger, which is also valid. Because the natural emotions here that life has to protect itself, the organism has to protect itself. So sometimes you need to be angry to take care of your safety.
Oh yes, for sure.
MW: And then below all that is pain, just painful circumstance, you know? I think it’s important to allow yourself to be in these valid emotions of even numbness, fear, anger and all together the pain that is below all of them. The organism is in pain because of how the world is functioning. So I’m saying go through the natural sequence as quickly as you can and allow it to be valid. It’s a real experience that you’re having, it’s not enemy. The emotions are not the enemy. Allow them. Allow them to arise in the sequence and finally get to grief. And get to grief because that’s the culminating event, or the culminating emotion of all the emotions. In grief, arises naturally the Siddhi of compassion. The natural result of grief is that you can start feeling kind to yourself and everybody involved. So I say, as quickly as you can, get to grief. And then from grief to compassion. Grief for the whole shoddy deal that’s been dished up to you and everybody else. And in that grief, you can start feeling compassion for even people who behaved badly towards you. Because they’ve been dished up a shoddy deal too. Which has made them behave the way they have behaved. We’ve all inherited a dysfunctional society which is causing dysfunction in relational life and circumstances. Our parents and all of us have been dished out a shoddy deal. The resolution of this is in compassion and even forgiveness, where you go beyond it and you see that everybody is being imposed limits upon that cause them to behave in this way and then it gives you a position of freedom relative to all of it. It’s all predicated on an actual Yoga practice, the principles that Krishnamacharya brought forth. Which unfortunately has not been popularised. We must change that now.
So your grief keeps your compassion growing?
MW: That’s right and I just think that pain and grief are the underlying honest emotions that we need to get to. Just staying fixated in fear or anger is not so helpful. Senior to anger is the pain, and then senior to the pain is the grief.
But some people can get stuck in grief, and they keep slipping lower and lower into the abyss?
MW: That’s right and that’s why I started by saying this is predicated on the fact that you’re doing your Yoga practice of intimate embrace with life. And I wouldn’t be speaking that necessarily without the context of Yoga. I ask people, do your Yoga, that is the primary matter. Now if there are difficulties, if there is heartbreak, then consider this. Go through this progressive sequencing of fear, anger, pain to grief. Go through those emotions as quickly as you can. And people get quite adept at doing that, at passing through the sequence and getting to compassion. So they’re not getting stuck at any one overwhelming emotion.
So an Asana practice is something that will anchor them and keep them feeling their connection with life.
MW: Yes. Agan I’d say, a real Asana practice is actual and natural, and not obsessive, in the correct way that came through your great tradition, and given to the modern time by Krishnamacharya.
Can you tell us about the link between sexuality and spirituality, because the former is often degraded, and considered to be base or of ‘lower realms’ and latter is considered ‘superior’ or of a ‘higher realm’.
MW: Thank you for this most vital question. As I said before, the denial of life, the inability of people to enter into intimacy with life and intimacy with each other, including sexual intimacy with each other with ease and continuity. This is the main reason for heartache. And a daily Yoga practice can correct this dysfunction that is now being put on humanity and all societies, everywhere, India included.
So Asana is in fact the union of strength, which is the exhale with inhale, which is receptivity. And exhale strength is the male principle of life, and inhale receptivity is the feminine principle of life. So when you do a Yoga practice, you are in fact engaging in the opposites. And there’s a profound statement of mine: Through the union of opposites, the source of opposites is revealed. The heart – in India, the ancient word is called Hridaya. ‘Hrid’ is a beautiful word. Two syllables. Da is to give and Ha is to receive. This enactment, the giving and receiving, the intrinsic harmony of male-female which is the power of life itself. It is Shiva-Shakti, it is Sita-Ram, Radhe-Krishna, it is deeply known in your spiritual traditions. This union from which all life comes, and our own life has come from there. The perfect intrinsic harmony that brings forth the power of the cosmos and that brings forth the intelligence of life and the unspeakable beauty of life that is your own condition. That is your born life, comes forth through this union. So the principles of male and female are in you. Everybody, whether you’re in a male body or a female body, everyone is born from this male-female intrinsic union and power that is life itself. It’s in all flowers, all trees, it’s the nature of everything alive on Mother Earth. So Hatha Yoga, Asana itself is your participation in this union that you are. And what I recommend is that people just engage in this practice, before they even consider trying to have a better relationship, trying to have/improve sex. This practice will automatically have that result. Because you’ve become more sensitive to your own embodiment. And you become receptive through the crown and the frontal line of the body. Not just strength, trying to acquire, trying to be successful in life. Because this is the way we’ve been programmed – to only be strong – in the modern world. For the male, the only thing he’s taught how to do is how to ‘get’ a girlfriend and hold and control. And it causes so much pain for both the man and the woman. Rather than a man being taught how to receive the feminine. Just to receive, that’s all. And Yoga practice reprograms or re-adapts the nervous system to become receptive of another, rather than controlling another. We can go into how this arose in the world, how did this fact of the male domination of feminine mystique, overwhelming social behaviours that arise. That’s another question itself. But the fact that it did arise, and that women are in a valid outrage for multiple generations of abuse, and that outrage is valid of course. It’s the anger and the pain of their actual experience. And men are in pain, because they’ve been denied the feminine – denied their feminine aspect of life. And we are all feminine, we all come from our mothers. We are all deeply male and female. So this Yoga practice allows us, men and women, to feel and become receptive of life and our experience, and become receptive of each other, in a way that’s not there if we don’t do a Yoga practice. That’s how important Asana is. So the basic question, what is the importance of sexuality to spirituality? I’m saying it’s deeply important. It is the problem we must heal, the knot we must undo. And how it arose is because of the assumption that celibacy is some sort of superior state, to go beyond your desires, is ‘spiritual’. We completely refute that. This is a cultural mistake. It doesn’t work. Krishnamacharya said in the Yoga culture there was no such thing as celibacy. In fact, in his culture, the second great Vedanta Acharya, Ramanuja, he pronounced that to realise the non-dual state of the Adi Shankaracharya, there must be a Yoga practice. He said Yoga that allows two to become one. And that there needs to be male-female collaboration in what he nicely called ‘family life’. This is the means toward non-dual realization of Advaita Vedanta. He said the saints and sages of humanity were appearing in family life, not in the life of renunciation. Now what I just said to you is a profound turn-around of India and all of civilization, in terms of the spiritual and religious attitudes, and a profound symbolisation. Because universally, our social and religious leaders have been womenless men teaching this ideal of freedom from desire. It’s in the modeling of all the modern saints and sages. And yet there’s a very clear pronouncement in the spiritual philosophies and practices of India. And even popular Hinduism is very clear in its display of male-female collaboration. Life is male and female as equals and opposites. Really equals, where one empowers the other in an endless mutual exchange. And there’s God realization, there’s the end of duality. And what I say is an actual Yoga practice allows that to happen. It’s a practical thing that you can do. If you don’t have a Yoga practice, all you have is good ideas and desires that you can’t fulfil. So that’s how important the doing of Yoga is. Krishnamacharya called it the practical means by which you actualize the beautiful ideals of culture.
It’s interesting you say that. Here in India there is so much shame around sexuality.
MW: Well I can give you some comfort, or rather cold comfort, by saying that is the case all around the world.
Why I work so hard for Yoga is because I know this is a practical healing means that is freely available to everyone, everywhere around the world. To address the matter of a lack of intimacy and dysfunction in male-female collaboration. It also must be said in this consideration, when we talk of sexual intimacy, we are talking same-sex and opposite-sex intimacy. It applies to both because we all have male and female in our basic nature. It also applies to any gender identification that is naturally arising for people, and any sexual preference at all. It applies to everybody. Hatha Yoga is profoundly helpful to everybody.
I had another question about the concept of alignment in Asana. There are a lot of Yoga Teacher Trainings and Yoga studios where physical alignment is hugely emphasized, the heel having to be in line with the arch of the foot and so on. What is your view on the importance of physical alignment in an Asana?
MW: Yes, this happened because Mr Iyengar left his teacher Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (my teacher) as a young man going to Pune, and he never had any further contact with his Guru. It was a family relationship, he was the nephew by marriage. Mr Iyengar was the brother-in-law to Krishnamacharya. I think there were some family issues or whatever and so he left. From the age of 21, he was on his own. He loved Yoga and he made up these ideas of alignment which have become popularized. And are now being taught as the main feature of Asana practice. This is not correct. The main feature of Asana practice is the body moving with the breath, the inhale merging with the exhale. Asana is for the purpose of the breath, the union of inhale with the exhale, the strength in receiving. Even in the Bhagvad Gita, when Arjuna was freaked out on the battlefield and said to Krishna, I’m so afraid, what shall I do. Krishna said, sacrifice the inhale to the exhale, sacrifice the exhale to the inhale. Be a Yogi, O Arjuna. So this Asana matter is using the movement of the anatomy for exactly that purpose, to merge the inhale with the exhale. And the breath becomes the central feature and the purpose of the Asana. And it is essentially the breath that does the alignment. Breath and Bandha are the aspects of Asana that align, that do the Asana. And alignment is secondary to that central process of inhale merging with the exhale. Shiva with Shakti, Sita with Ram. There’s the beautiful Hindu story of Sita and Ram. Sita is banished from the kingdom and it’s Hanuman’s job to bring Sita back to Ram. Hanuman is so close to Ram that he’s known as the Lord’s breath. So the breath is so dutiful, it gets the job done of bringing Sita back to Ram. Then there is peace in the temple, peace in the body. The breath is how you do the alignment. Modern day Yoga in America is being popularized as gymnastics where you’re doing all this alignment as is being taught in much detail. But it misses the main feature of the Yoga practice which is the union of inhale and exhale, of strength with receptivity. Asana is moving Pranayama. Then it gives the capability of stationary Pranayama which make the mind clear and meditation arises naturally. So all of that’s got to be brought through. Mr Iyengar was very interested in straight lines. But there are no straight lines in Mother Nature. No angularity in nature. Life is spirals. This whole thing of alignment is a patriarchal imposition, a place of no learning of Yoga. It’s been imposed on the gullibility of the people. I just hope that we can bring the teachings from the great tradition that Krishnamacharya brought forth and make it available to the public. Not necessarily popular, but available to the public.
So you’re saying that the breath is the key, and it has to be the main feature. But as for alignment itself, would you say there is some value to it or not?
MW: Yes, there are some gems in Mr Iyengar’s work. All I’m saying is it came from Krishnamacharya, the Guru of Mr Iyengar. In this whole matter of Indian tradition, of Guru parampara, we pay homage to the actual teaching of the Guru of the Guru of the Guru. And bring the principles from Krishnamacharya through and put them into Mr Iyengar’s work. This is what we must do now in the world. Bring intelligence into Yoga practice. And indeed, there are some principles of alignment of course that we can discuss, but they are secondary to the main principles of the inhale merging with the exhale. There’s just a few things like in standing Asana, keep equal weight through both feet, keep the heels light, weight through the front of the feet. That keeps the muscularity through the legs and the back active. No deep weight through the heels. The musculature of the body does the work to keep the spine aligned and doesn’t depend on the skeleton or the joints to do alignment or support the body, because that’s dangerous to the joints. And with Jalandhara Bandha, head lowered to the heart at the top of the inhale, pausing at the inhale, exhale with forward bends, knees softened, joints always soft in Asana. Abdominals in and up on exhale. The exhale served by the forward bend, the inhale served by the backbends. These alignment principles can be taught quite quickly and easily. But the alignment is definitely secondary to the central process of the union of the inhale with the exhale.
I heard you say this in another interview, Yoga teaches that through the union of opposites, we know the source of opposites. It’s a profound statement. Can you explain that?
MW: (Laughs) Yes, I can. It’s the whole purpose of Hatha Yoga. Asana is Hatha Yoga, which is a deep part of the great tradition of India, considered to be the practical means to actualize the ideals of text and faith-based systems. So the high locus of spiritual realization is the heart, called the hrid, as I said before the 2 syllables. Strength that is utterly receptive, the union of the male and female principles that created life, that created one cell. That one cell is the heart, it is now blooming as the whole body. Hrid is considered like a portal, from the unseen to the seen. The source and seen are one, but the process of seeing is one cell now blooming as the whole body in all direction. So you have the Yoga, this participation in that bloom of life, that radiance of life that is infinitely blooming. It is eternal, unstoppable, it keeps bringing new life through and through and through. And we are that nurturing flow. So that’s why I say the union of opposites, of male and female, in your own embodiment, within and without, with somebody else, reveals the source of both. You feel the heart’s flow, you feel now the absolute condition of reality that is arising as nurturing. Some people would say Shakti, the Goddess flow of life that comes into all form, you feel that when you participate in the natural and intrinsic harmony which is life itself. The male and female collaboration as equals and opposites. Where one is empowering the other. It’s the means by which new life comes through, by which spirit takes form, and the source becomes seen through that actuality, that fact of existence. And Asana practice is participation in the fact of our own existence. In that the source of opposites is revealed, or the heart or wholeness of life is felt. Like the heart is now the whole body, so this participatory integration with the whole body allows us to feel our most tangible, most basic condition, which is the heart, the flow of nurture. And it’s also said that the Hridaya (heart) is the seat of the mind. The mind literally arises from the heart as a function of the heart. The mind doesn’t have any existence of its own, it is actually arising as a function of life. This allows one to feel the source of one’s mind and makes the mind clear, allows it to start functioning as a function of life or a function of the heart. And indeed a function of the male-female collaboration.
Yoga is the participation and the integration of the whole body, and the whole body with everything that exists. The body with its intrinsic intangible relationship with the rest of the cosmos, with air, light and water and the plant kingdom, and male-female collaboration that is the power of life itself. An intrinsic wholeness of life. And it’s not a joining of opposites, it’s a participation in opposites that are already in union. Left is already in union with right, above with below, strength with receptivity. Yoga is our participation in that harmony, and in that we feel the wholeness. We feel the source of opposites, the source in which all opposites are arising. Which is why, Ramanujam, 10th century India, made this statement that there must be a Yoga practice to realise what Shankaracharya was teaching. And that was kind of a radical statement, there must be a Yoga. There must be a polarity in the male and female life. We are a long way from that, because religion has been teaching go beyond desire, go beyond the need for each other, go beyond the need for the feminine, etc. Some modern day feminists are saying go beyond the need for the male, which is a reversal of the same argument. I’m saying the new feminism is in the collaboration of the male and female, where one empowers the other. That’s where the power of life is. And I have to say, you as a young Indian woman, it’s in your hands! Take it away, change the world!
About the Guru, we’re not against the Guru. The question of what is the actual Guru function. The Guru is no more than a friend, no less than a friend. Not an authority, not a senior.
Yes, and not a power structure.
MW: Yes and this is clearly defined in your great tradition. But hard to find in modern-day Guru-ism. The Gurus have toxified the very function of Guru, and I’m all for restoring that and getting it clear in the public – what ‘Guru’ actually is and what Yoga practice actually is. If we give it, then people can hear it and if we don’t give it then they can’t hear it. And then the orthodox gurus have their way.
Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and insights so generously
MW: Thank you for your great questions. Your brightness and passion inspire me.
For more on Mark, do have a look at his website Heart of Yoga or find him on Instagram sharing his insights @markwhitwell. And you can find the iPromise app on the App Store if you’d like a daily practice of Yoga as taught by Mark himself. Hope you enjoyed this conversation, and if you have any questions/suggestions do leave them in the comments below. I would love to hear from you 🙂