The Breath is the Guru to the Asana. Obey your Breath. Obey the Guru. A Conversation with Mark Whitwell

written by Anjula May 30, 2014
Yogi, Mark Whitwell

Yogi, Mark Whitwell

We had the recent honor of talking with Yogi, Mark Whitwell. Mark is interested in developing an authentic yoga practice for the individual, based on the teachings of T. Krishnamacharya and his son TKV Desikachar, with whom he enjoyed a relationship for more than twenty years. Mark’s teachings clarify the profound passion and relevance of ancient wisdom to contemporary life. Mark has taught yoga for over twenty years throughout the US, Asia, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. Mark was the editor and contributor to TKV Desikachar’s book, The Heart of Yoga.

Levitating Monkey:  What motivates you to do the great work you do?

Mark Whitwell: Because the public doesn’t know about it, that’s all. It’s an extreme advantage to know an actual yoga. It’s the primordial religious practice. Religious in the most positive sense – “re-ligare – relink, reconnect,” to link to that which is life itself, reality itself and to be intimate with life. As you know, there’s very little of that in the human world. We are disassociated from our own reality and humanity is suffering it deeply. I have no real particular choice in the matter, it’s just the obvious thing to do. The advantage that I have received from my teachers, ie, Krishnamacharya, is something that needs to be shared, so that’s why I do it.

I share it and there’s so much joy in that because all over the world I now know friends who have begun to practice and I see the very tangible and very immediate results it has in people’s lives.

There’s a community aspect, as well – one of creating friendship and intimacy with these new friends all around the world. It transcends all nationalities and all religious groups in this common grasp of what is actual yoga.

Krishnamacharya - Mark Whitwell

Krishnamacharya

LM: There are so many yoga schools and teachers out there today. How would you describe your method of teaching? What differentiates you from all the others out there?

MW: My teacher is Krishnamacharya, and also his son, Desikachar. Based on what Krishnamacharya brought forth with his yoga…he was a scholar, not a yoga businessman. What he taught is based on actual scholarship (technical, logical information from the Vedic tradition, which he was a master of). What I teach is from his scholarship. Now unfortunately what happened is that his student and family member, BKS Iyengar left Krishnamacharya at the very young age of 21 and never had any further time with him. So Mr. Iyengar developed his own thoughts on yoga that were disassociated from the full blossoming of Krishnamacharya’s teachings. This is a bit of a paradox, because Mr. Iyengar acknowledges Krishnamacharya as his teacher, but what he teaches is not what Krishnamacharya taught so this is the differentiating fact of it. The same story applies to Mr. Pattabhi Jois.

Krishnamacharya taught a technology of how to do postures that is missing from the popularization of yoga today which is pretty much based on Mr. Iyengar or Mr. Pattabhi Jois’ work or just derivatives of their work all over the place and it’s been turned into business, stylized and sold. So what’s been popularized in America and around the western world, and now even back into India, funnily enough, is dislodged from the great tradition because of that disassociation between them and their own teacher, Krishnamacharya. Indians in India are now susceptible to western teachings on yoga, and although it reflects a fusion that began in the 19th century, it’s kind of a “re-colonization” of India that these commoditized ideas are being popularized there. So what we do is that we put in the principles of Krishnamacharaya and what I say is that they simply need to be there. What needs to happen is that the full spectrum of yoga be practiced and understanding be provided and put into these popularized systems that have been going on for the last thirty or so years. Then, people will be playing with a full deck of cards and have yoga in all its aspects. The point is to put the principles that Krishnamacharya brought forth into the yoga that you know and love, and that then makes it entirely your own. It makes it efficient, powerful and safe. And furthermore, it turns it into actual yoga and that is each person’s direct intimacy with life itself, reality itself. And I say ‘direct’- it is not a linear process towards some future impossibility, it is direct intimacy with what life is, what the universe is in all its aspects.

LM: Having enjoyed a relationship of more than forty years with the teachings of T. Krishnamacharya, as well as his son T.K.V. Desikachar, can you tell us how you first came to know them?

MW: I first met them in 1973, I was just a young guy seeking in India and I was very intrigued and inspired and went around and met all the famous gurus, along with the not-so-famous yogis, of all kind. I went to the great Sri Ramana Maharishi Ashram where I met a young man called Douglas Rosestone and he took me to his teachers, Krishnamacharya and Desikachar. From there, I started studying with them. I saw how practical they were, they weren’t playing the guru game. They were just sincere scholars, teaching yoga the best way they knew how.

LM: Can you tell us how you became the editor and a contributor to T.K.V. Desikachar’s book, The Heart of Yoga

MW: I went back to America after a number of years of studying with them, where I was steeped in the life of a student in India. As I came back to the West, I started looking at yoga classes and I was shocked to find that what was being taught as Yoga had none of the teachings that I had been gathering in those early years. It was kind of shocking to me. Later on, when I took Desikachar into the West, he was as shocked, he was saying, “Mark, please I don’t understand why the people let themselves be bullied in this way.” At that time, his dad was getting very elderly, I said to Desikachar, “Sir, this teaching of your father’s is not represented at all. No one knows about it, there’s no book, there’s nothing.”  In response, Desikachar said, “Well, Mark, please, if you can, please create a text. I would be very grateful.”

Krishnamacharya with Desikachar - Mark Whitwell

Krishnamacharya with Desikachar

So, I did. I spent four years gathering photographs from their archives, gathering talks that Desikachar had given, and gathered the Yoga Sutra and put it altogether as a book. Four years later, we published it with an American publisher called, Inner Traditions. This was a beautiful event for me, to take this book back to India and show it to Desikachar. By that time, Krishnamacharaya had died. He died in 1989, the book was published in 1995 and tears came to the eyes of Desikachar, because he said, “I wish my father had seen this. I wish my father could see the results of his work as a yoga teacher, because he didn’t see it in his own lifetime.” He didn’t get the full implication of what he had done.

With 101 useful years of yoga and vedic scholarship, he was so committed, he loved his culture and yoga so much. He did this great work for it, but he didn’t get to see the results of his great work. In another sense, I do feel that he sees it. I feel that he oversees all from a different position. He continues to bless the work, thrilled with the spread of yoga knowledge around the world, which is what he was told to do by his guru, Ramamohan Brahmachari – “Go and do this. Make Yoga available to the world.” That is what he did and it’s still being made available.

LM: Talk to us about the significance of breathing in Yoga and in our daily lives? Are there breathing techniques done on the mat that are also beneficial to do in our day to day lives?

MW: The secret, from a “magic ingredient” perspective of Yoga practice is the breath. The ayurvedic point of view is that the breath is the primary critical function of the organism. If you strengthen the breath, all other vital signs of health are improved and increased. The breath is the only aspect of the nervous system that you can participate in and strengthen and develop. What people don’t know is that the very purpose that one does asanas, (postures), is for the breath. I always say, “The body loves its breath. It’s a love relationship. The inhale loves the exhale.” These intense polarities of life…and you do the asanas for the breath, not the other way around. You don’t do postures and then try to breathe in it. 

The breath is the gauge to the asana. Krishnamacharaya would say, “The breath is the guru to the asana. Obey your breath. Obey the guru.” Let the breath guide you as the very teacher for how you do the asana, according to the number of breaths that you do and the breath ratio that you can achieve in the asana.

The exhale is the strength aspect of life, the sun, the male energy, the “Ha.” The inhalation is the receptive, feminine aspect, the ‘Tha,” the moon. It’s this perfect strength that is utterly strong and utterly receptive and this participation in those two aspects of life which is sort of the basis of existence – the strength and this receptive male/female polarity. That participation is the power of yoga. The breath must be there in the asana.

LM: Can you speak a bit more about the male/female qualities of breath and why that is important?

MW: The problem is with the way the west has popularized asana as just this muscular effort, that’s just male, male, male – without the female aspect. Of course, life is both equally feminine and masculine and in perfect union. That is why the breath is such a central teacher and even the purpose for doing asana. This knowledge has been left out. It’s kind of curious that we’ve ignored Krishnamacharya, even though he is publicly acknowledged as the guru to Iyengar and so on. In the west, we honor our lineages, we want to know what the teachers taught. But in this instance, for some reason, we’ve popularized yoga and ignored these basic matters, especially when there’s such power in it for each individual.

The Promise of Love, Sex and Intimacy - Mark Whitwell

The Promise of Love, Sex and Intimacy

LM: In your book, The Promise of Love, Sex and Intimacy, you talk about having an intimacy with life, how does one go about accomplishing this?

MW: With my latest book, The Promise, I was trying to write about the tradition in a way that is absorbable by the general public. The hallmark of Krishnamacharya’s scholarship is that there is a right yoga for each person, no matter who the person is. Yoga must be adapted to the individual needs of the person – ie, their age, their body type, their health and really significantly, their cultural background – whatever their familiarity is. If someone is a Christian, then it must be taken into account. Or if someone is a Buddhist or an atheist, or someone is a Muslim, Yoga must be adapted to the cultural background, understanding and language of the person. Yoga is not some alternative cultural point of view that is imposed upon a person, it is completely adapted to each person and that’s how it was in the ancient times, which is why Yoga survived from the ancient world and went everywhere and that’s why Yoga is so needed in the contemporary world because it’s completely adaptable to every situation. So if you do this Yoga as it was developed in ancient wisdom culture, it is each person’s direct intimacy with life itself and life itself as we know – is a profound power and a profound intelligence, pure intelligence beyond what Science can understand and life’s beauty, itself.

Each person is the power of the cosmos arising as pure intelligence and beauty and function – this is a matter of fact statement, not a spiritual one. Yoga is merely your participation in that, but it must be adapted to the individual, it must be dislodged from the psychology of trying to get somewhere as if you’re not Somewhere, as if you’re not already the wonder of reality, itself. That is what Krishnamacharya brought forth, and that’s why I teach what he taught, why I am so interested in clarifying what he taught and then bringing it to the public. One reality of life is that my dear teacher, Desikachar, has succumbed to Alzheimer’s. What that means for me, is that all of us who have been fortunate enough to receive these teachings, we have even more responsibility now to pass it on in a clarifying way.

The Heart of Yoga Ashram, Taveuni Fiji - Mark Whitwell

The Heart of Yoga Ashram, Taveuni Fiji

LM: I recently read that you have a Yoga Teacher Training happening in October at the Heart of Yoga Ashram in Taveuni, Fiji. Can you tell us about the Ashram and why you decided to build it in Fiji?

MW: I love Fiji because it’s a hub in the Pacific Rim. People from all over the Pacific – from the U.S., from Canada, from New Zealand, from Australia, from all around Asia, Japan and China – it’s very accessible to everyone. Even countries like Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand all have good access to Fiji, which is why I chose that location. It’s a large, intelligent Polynesian democracy and it’s also multi-cultural and the thing I love about it is that the Indian/Hindu culture is there, which makes it a very rich and interesting place. We have a Laxmi Temple in our village, in a beautiful traditional setting. I’m also from New Zealand, you see, which is very close to Fiji.

LM: Can you talk about the connection between the power of the breath and the power of life?

MW: It’s the same power – the power of life is beating the heart, moving the breath and sex. We are that power. What’s special about the breath is that you can enhance it, enjoy it, you can participate in it. If you are with the breath, then you are with that which is breathing you. It’s all very nice to talk about this, but it is only when people actually personally experience it for themselves, and this is why I say, “Yoga must be experiential. That’s why we created this app called I Promise, we’re trying to make it available through the internet in tangible ways where people can get it without necessarily having a personal meeting. So when you try it, and you discover the power of your own breath, when the body movement is the breath movement, in exact synchronicity, then the polarity of the exhale/inhale strength that is receiving — then it’s a real gift to people and they just want to do it, because it’s so pleasurable to do – it is intimacy with life – as my teacher would say, “it is making love with life.”

LM: Please share with us a bit about the great work you are leading with the Heart of Yoga Peace Project?

MW: The only hope for the world is intimacy at a grassroots level – where people can start to connect to their own nature, to mother nature, in their own way. We have people in the troubled regions who we give a yoga education to and we have a nonprofit called Heart of Yoga Foundation. We get donations, we pay for people’s airfares and we let them come on to take courses, get a yoga education for free, then go back to their homelands, towns and cities and become yoga teachers. It’s a small program, but we’ve had some success with it and it’s a great hope for the world.

When people start practicing yoga, they don’t care about nationalities or religion or race. That is secondary to the fact that they are life, itself. You know, Israel was bombing Lebanon and vice versa and there were Jewish women teaching, along with Arab women teaching – they didn’t care, they were friends. They felt much concern for each other’s safety and the care of their families, across borders, across nationalities, across religion. It’s the hope for the world to get everybody breathing and enjoying the one life.

Hindu Godess Laxmi - Mark Whitwell

Hindu Godess Laxmi

LM: What are the benefits of the Laxmi Mantra and what are its connection to the Yoga of Intimacy?

MW: It’s a little tricky because, of course, it is Hindu in its origin. I use it because I was in India, as a young guy where I loved my teachers and they were Hindu. But Krishnamacharaya was insistent that we should use the liturgy and the language that a person is familiar with and not confuse them by introducing language from other cultures. That being said, I have a particular connection to Indian ancient culture and this is a Laxmi mantra – the nurturing source of all life, what Krishnamacharaya would call the first mother, source of all. And so people can relate to that feeling of source, of the one reality that is appearing as everything and nurturing everything on Mother Earth, (that includes the vast cosmos, the sun and the star system, this infinity of being that we are in), the source of all that is Laxmi. A mantra for Laxmi is OM SHREEM SHRIYEI NAMAHA This mantra was given to me by my teacher very graciously and formally. I pass it on to people who find it useful in connecting to this one reality that is appearing as everything. The mantra is all about love, abundance and nurturing.

There is only reality, there is nothing else. Everything else is imagined in the mind. There is only reality…even the power of limitation is only arising in reality because of reality. You can use this mantra in combination with the asanas. The mantra, at any time, can replace the exhale in asana. People find it to be a powerful practice to combine sound into their practice. Focus on the mantra itself, not the exhale – the exhale occurs as a byproduct of the mantra.

LM: Are there any upcoming events or launches you’d like to mention to our readers before we close?

MW: I come out to NY once a year, usually around September. I’m currently concentrating on my teacher training at Big Sur, CA. We have upcoming events in June at Esalen (two day and five day workshops), and September, and of course, the Fiji teacher training in October.

About Mark Whitwell:

Mark Whitwell has enjoyed a lifelong relationship with the teachings of T. Krishnamacharya “the teacher of the teachers,” notably BKS Iyengar, K. Pattabhi Jois and T.K.V. Desikachar. Having studied since 1973 in the home of Krishnamacharya, Mark is committed to communicating the timeless yoga principals with compassion and clarity. Yoga is every person’s direct intimacy with reality, which is an entirely abundant, regenerating and nurturing power. This is yoga from the heart for the heart. It is made clear in TKV Desikachar’s book, The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice, to which Mark contributed and edited. Mark’s book is, Yoga of Heart: The Healing Power of Intimate Connection (Lantern Books). Just released, is his new book, The Promise of Love Sex and Intimacy. How a Simple Breathing Practice Will Change Your Life Forever (Atria)

Mark lives in Los Angeles and Fiji. He travels throughout the world teaching the timeless principles of ancient Yoga wisdom. In 1996 Mark established The Heart of Yoga Association, a non-profit foundation that provides yoga education around the world. Having studied with many known and unknown yoga masters, Mark is most interested in revealing your most powerful yoga and how each person effectively practices. For more information, please visit www.heartofyoga.com

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The Breath is the Guru to the Asana. Obey your Breath. Obey the Guru. A Conversation with Mark Whitwell
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The Breath is the Guru to the Asana. Obey your Breath. Obey the Guru. A Conversation with Mark Whitwell
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We recently had the honor of talking with Yogi, Mark Whitwell, who has traveled throughout the world teaching timeless Yoga principles and techniques.
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