An interview with Mark Whitwell
It’s hard to admit: Lately I’ve fallen into a funk with my yoga practice. Body stressed, my biceps are bulging from the million chaturangas I do per class. Mind anxious, my brain is overwhelmed by the micro-adjustments (I do what with my upper-inner thigh and pinkie toe?!). Heart unmelodious, my voice sounds like a far-off stranger when I chant.
All this searching for enlightenment has finally exhausted me. I just want—silence.
Or maybe, as Mark Whitwell explains it, I just want a deeper connection to the practice I know and normally love.
Gearing up for the Telluride Yoga Festival (www.tellurideyogafestival.com), I took a break from my masochism on the mat to talk with Whitwell, one of the festival’s featured teachers and author of Yoga of Heart (2005).
I’ve heard Whitwell described as unconventional and pure in the same sentence, an irony that inspired me to do the interview. After talking with him about intimacy, spiritual gymnastics, and his guru Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, I realized that Whitwell is both traditional and revolutionary to our modern practice. It’s not that his style is “out of the box”; rather, it’s a way to shake up, perhaps rearrange the contents that are already inside without loosing a drop of integrity.
Katie Clancy: I’m excited to practice with you in July. What keeps you coming back to the Telluride Yoga Festival?
Mark Whitwell: Well, it’s not easy to get to those mountains, and I’m touched to see people travel long distances to gather with such a sincere intention. It’s a courageous group of people who are courageously seeking what they need in terms of yoga education.
KC: Doesn’t that happen all over the country, though?
MW: Maybe, but I find here more conducive to yoga education than some other places with the more flashy downtown hotels, commercial merchandising, products, and brands. It’s relieving to have a break from that.
KC: I’ve heard you refer yoga in America as physical gymnastics. You mean there is less of that here at the festival?
MW: Yes. As yoga has become popularized in the past 30 years with styles derived from Iyengar and Pataabi Joise, some vital principals have been left out. Instead of trying to adapt the individual to fit a specific ideal or form, I’m trying to remind people that yoga must be adapted to the individual.
KC: What principals have been left out?
MW: The teachings of my guru [who also trained B.K.S Iyengar] Tirumalai Krishnamacharya.
KC: It’s true: as a westerner, I feel like the traditional eastern approach to yoga is pretty foreign to me. What was Krishnamacharya like?
MW: I met him for the first time in 1973 in India and continued a relationship with him until his death in ’89. He was a paradoxical man. On one hand, he was a stern male Brahman with all the habits of the authoritative misogynist deeply embedded into his character. On the other hand, he went against the cultural grain when he pioneered efforts to bring women into yoga and prove from a scholarly view that women were involved in yoga during ancient times. As time went on, I watched his controlling male nature actually soften and fall away. He became more honest, liberal, and vulnerable towards the end of his life, which was very beautiful to witness.”
KC: Sounds like he connected more deeply to his feminine nature towards the end of his life.
MW: I think he realized that when you try and control nature, you end up destroying it. Luckily, yoga restores us to our natural state and we can unattach from the imbalances that the over-masculinized mind creates. We balance, and begin to receive the feminine power that lives in us all.
KC: Is that what you mean when you talk about intimacy in your new book “The Promise [to be released summer 2012 and has the same publishers as the mega-hit “The Secret]?”
MW: I want people to understand that intimacy, the direct communion with Life itself, is easily available right now to everybody. We’ve been educated to believe that intimacy—with ourselves, with sex, with our relationships—isn’t acceptable. The system demonizes intimacy and sensuality, so we settle for less, we settle for alcohol and thought and commerce.
KC: So it’s time we remember Hatha’s tantric roots.
MW: Yes. It’s not enlightenment we need; it’s intimacy.
KC: Okay, but how does intimacy help us stop suffering?
MW: Intimacy creates positive thinking. Yoga helps us find this connection and receive the innate intimacy of our current reality. My teacher U.G Krishnamurti explained it best when he said: “trying to be something that you are not is the cause of human suffering.” When I’m trying to get somewhere, trying to become something other than who I am, I am denying what I already am, which is the Extreme Intelligence and Wonder of Creation.
KC: It’s like that quote: “Stop looking, Start living.”
MW: Exactly. Yoga shouldn’t be done with the intention to get anywhere. It is really the direct co-creation of the wonderful mystery of life.
KC: You have a non-profit organization called “The Middle-East Peace Project (TMEPP).” This seems like the project that puts yoga to the ultimate test.
MW: TMEPP funds yoga education and trains yoga teachers in troubled areas in the world. Our goal is to have a trained yoga teacher in every conflicted, war-torn area in the world.
I’m astounded at how transformative the project has been so far. I’ve talked with Arab women and Jewish men who tell me yoga has enabled them to go deeper into their Islamic and Jewish faith. By practicing this yoga, their religion becomes a deeply enjoyable, intimate communication with God.
KC: You are really making yoga accessible to the whole world regardless of culture/race/age/health!
MW: I teach each person how to do their own daily practice in a way that is healthy for them and allows them to understand so they can take it home and live it. When you apply the principals of Krishnamacharya, you’ll watch your practice become more efficient, powerful, and safe.
KC: Do you incorporate meditation into your teaching?
MW: Trying to meditate without asana or pranayama is like trying to go to sleep without lying down and turning off the lights. You cannot sleep willfully; it happens without effort when the conditions are right. Meditation is similar. When you find harmony between your asana and your pranayama, clarity of mind arises naturally. The yoga is the meditation; it is the direct participation with reality itself.
KC: I dig. I’m ready for this turbo boost to my practice.
MW: You’re ready for new inspiration. The world inhale literally means Inspire. We become inspired and inhale to the force of life, and exhale into the strength of ourselves. Learning how to receive in this way is truly therapeutic.