Mark Whitwell on How to Survive a Pandemic | A Soft Message for a Hard Time
Mark Whitwell shares his thoughts on dealing with such tough times.
For many friends around the world, ongoing lockdowns are causing chronic stress. In the U.K., psychologists are now reporting what they call ‘Lockdown Burnout,’ with more and more people suffering from overload and uncertainty. In the context of real suffering, it is heartening to see teachers reaching out to communicate the healing power of Yoga in their communities.
I was talking recently with a friend in the U.K. and she described how teaching Yoga was no longer a hobby or a job for her, but a matter of survival for her students. “Everybody is under so much pressure,” she said. “People are desperate for the connection, nourishment and the fortitude that Yoga gives. We meet on Zoom twice a week, practice together and then share in each other’s company. I have no choice but to be there for my students.”
Our conversation got me thinking about care and the function of the Yoga Teacher within the broader ecology of nurturing that holds society together. In the Vedic lineage of my teachers, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888–1989) and his son TKV Desikachar (1938–2016), the Yoga teacher was considered essential to the health and wellbeing of the community.
Principally, the yoga acharya was there to help any person (no matter who they are) to merge with their body and their breath. Out of this daily merge, facilitated through a tailored asana and pranayama practice, come many gifts that are physically, emotionally and spiritually healing. Practice of intimate connection to body and breath is the Yogic means to enjoying intimacy with world beyond ourselves: our experience, our relationships and Life as a whole. There is no substitute for the regenerative power of breath.
“My father taught us more ways to approach a person in yoga than I have found anywhere else,” Desikachar writes. “Who should teach whom? When? And what? These are the important questions to be asked in beginning a practice. But underlying all these is the most important question of all: How can the power of the breath be utilized? That is something quite exceptional; nowhere else is the breath given so much importance, and our work has proven that the breath is a wonder drug, if I may use this term.”
At the level of physical health, the practice of deep, whole-body breathing coupled with body movement, cleanses and strengthens the respiratory system. It also improves all other vital functions of the body: the immune system, the health of the mind and digestion. On every exhalation, the lungs are emptied completely. On every inhalation we receive the refreshment of the breath into an expanded lung cavity. We empty what is full and fill what is empty. Or, we release what is old to receive what is new. There seems to be no part of the system that the breath does not influence.
The great gift of Yoga however it not just health for its own sake, but how it positively affects our relationships. In particular, the breath powerfully supports our ability to respond to difficulty and stress in our relationships in a caring way. Our daily delight of merging with our body and breath masterfully facilitates our ability to be intimate with our loved ones: to really listen, support and receive them no matter what is going down.
Deep in the traditions, it is understood that it is not what we experience but how we react to it that determines its effects. If we react to our experience and contract, then blockages or rubbish forms in the nadis and the muladara chakra. The prana can no longer flow unhindered through the system as it wants to. If, on the other hand, we merge with our experience, even it is disturbing or difficult, then prana continues to flow.
We all have difficulties in life and we all react from time to time. There is no idealism here, especially during a pandemic. When we notice reaction we can apply intelligent means to release the blockages that may have formed. In fact, “Yoga is 99% waste removal” Desikachar once said, and by removing everything that is not necessary, the natural energy of life, pranashakti, soon flows again. Ultimately, the goal of Yoga is to not react in the first place.
If you are put off by Sanskrit terms, the simple language of biology is suffice to communicate what our ancestors were talking about. The psychologist Maurice Hamington, for example, describes how our natural physiology is “built for care” — the soft feeling frontal line from crown, face, chest, belly and genitals, to our wonderful sense organs and our ability to focus our attention — are there to support us to receive. On the other hand, the strong base of the body — legs, pelvis, back and spine — support our capacity to give and take action in our relationships.
Yoga is nothing more or less than our participation in the relational intelligence of the whole body. We move and breathe in the polarity of strength (linked to the exhale and described in the traditions as the masculine principle of life) and receptivity (linked to the inhale and the feminine principle). All bodies, no matter what gender or sex, contain the union of strength and receptivity. To live out that union is enough to base life upon.
The beautiful insight of Hamington is that caring for one another implies the whole body. This becomes obvious when we think of what happens physically when we close ourselves off from other people and from life: our shoulders hunch, our chest muscles harden, there is tension in the face; we generally fold in as a body. Conversely, when we feel free and easy in our relationships our bodies reflect this with a physical openness and softness: our spine straightens, our chest opens and softens, our gaze relaxes, we are both more upright (strong) and softer (receptive) as we give and receive in the natural polarity of life.
Although many try, this is why we cannot force ourselves to be more caring or sensitive to another with mental ideals alone. More often than not, cultural ideals of love and kindness without the practical means to let these innate qualities flourish in the body-mind causes stress and disappointment. There is a gap between how we are and how we want to be. What we can do is our Yoga practice. In the traditions, it is known as sadhana: that which you can do. My teacher would say, just do your asana and just see what happens.
We are not getting out of life or away from others here. “Yoga is relationship,” Krishnamacharya would say, a statement that holds weight given his profound understanding of the religious cultures of India. It was the profound view of my teachers that relationship itself was the principle healing for the human life and the heart of a spiritual life. When I was speaking with my friend about her classes, she confirmed Krishnamacharya’s view and expressed how simply being with each other, within the bhavana (mood) of friendship and respect, generated its own nurturing influence.
“People often arrived with a feeling of heaviness or depression,” she told me. “But as we sit together and as they feel seen, listened to and loved, then something happens: a lightness enters where perhaps previously there was darkness or restriction.”
In my early life, I was able to observe Desikachar embodying this principle during private lessons. He would do many things: take the pulse of his student, enquire about the family, check on the diet, teach various asana, all manner of intelligent means. Yet, what made these tools truly relevant and alive for the student, was the context of friendship and care that they were communicated within. Students reported that it was the relationship itself that they drew the most sustenance and motivation from.
“This personal connection cannot be replaced by books or videos,” Desikachar said. “There must be a relationship, a real relationship, one that is based on trust (sraddha).”
I want to thank everybody out there who is teaching their hearts out on Zoom and in-person around the world, making sure that the mother’s milk of Yoga gets to all people no matter their race, religion or financial means. We pick up where Desikachar and his father left off and continue their mission of giving the whole world a Yoga education.
It is everybody’s birthright to breathe well and to be intimate with their Life. Sahana Vavatu. May we get the job done together.
- If you feel curious or moved to learn more about home practice you can join me and my friends at the heart of yoga online studio for live classes and conversations from the heart.
- Why is intimacy and relationship so neglected in the spiritual traditions of the world? Last year we put out God and Sex: Now We Get Both (2019) to examine this question.
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