A Friend in Yoga: Mark Whitwell

Andrew Raba
8 min readJul 7, 2020

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A non-patriarchal framework for understanding teacher-student relationships in Yoga

“The head is not the tyrannical ruler of the whole body”- Mark Whitwell

In this short essay I want to offer a non-patriarchal framework for understanding the teacher-student relationship in Yoga. A perspective that I learnt from Mark Whitwell, which restores to modern Yoga the ancient ethics and principles of the Guru function.

What is a Guru? It is the function of nurturing. A person who knows about life in the form of themselves. Who can help you relax into the unchecked intelligence, beauty, and pleasure of life, arising now as everybody. The relationship between the teacher and the student is private. The Guru demands nothing and offers everything. Nurturing. The student is acknowledged as the power of life arising, already. Relevant practices are given. The student is revealed to be their own teacher: autonomous, self-sufficient, already free. The ‘teaching’ function dissolves.

We have all met Gurus in our lifetime. They come in many forms. I heard recently the words of the Scottish writer Andrew O’Hagan who, at the passing of poet Seamus Heaney, remarked that:

“Some people have an absolute native gift for making you better than you are. And I would describe that as the ultimate definition of friendship. Someone that can enlarge you. Every time you encounter them. And every time you encounter their work. And of course, it is enormously rare to encounter that level of commitment and that talent that can transform your sense of what your potential is. I think that your friends are not just people that echo back what you want to hear about yourself. But they hold the key to your potential.”

This is the Guru function. It is not one of criticism from a presumed place of authority but one of recognising all that is good about you in dear friendship. In the friendship, imagined limits dissolve. The modern day guruism of endlessly analysing shadows, egos and limitations is a twisted modern permutation of medieval Christian enslavement, seeking to climb out of sin and get to heaven. It creates communities of people convinced of their flaws and analysing themselves for progress — this is society.

Meeting Mark Whitwell

I first met Mark Whitwell in the summer of 2018. I was 26 and struggling to find my way as a young man in this topsy-turvy world. I had left university with a sharp intellect — well-equipped to criticize, deconstruct, and penetrate the world; what the Australian writer Helen Garner described as the ‘blowtorch’ of her post-university mind. Of course, though, the flame turned inward as much as out. And I was miserable. One day my friend Rosalind introduced me to Mark and we had lunch together. Later that evening, we drove to a new yoga studio perched above the windswept harbour. Mark introduced himself and invited the room to take up the practice of authentic Yoga — the non-dual tantra of direct intimacy with reality itself.

I had always thought of Yoga as a form of strenuous exercise. My friends and I had been to a few classes at the local hot yoga studio, but quickly lost interest. It was all so painful, and too hot. But that evening, Mark introduced me to Yoga as a devotional practice of pleasure: the pleasure of mind, body, and breath moving as one erotic process; the pleasure that comes from respecting the body’s natural limitations; the pleasure of letting self-improvement ideologies dissolve.

‘Yoga is making love with life,’ Mark said halfway through class. ‘The body loves its breath.’ That night, as we moved and breathed together, I felt a softness return to my life that I had lost touch with long ago. I drew my breath smoothly in, and a hard pain began to ease in my chest. As the breath left my body, some of that pain left too. I felt myself receiving, and it felt really good.

What is patriarchal culture, embodied? It is a habit of relating that disavows receptivity. In Yoga, a reversal of perspective. ‘The point of life is to receive,’ Mark says. ‘We are turning culture on its ear.’ The Natural State? A strength that is soft and sweet, that can relax in the charged pauses, that inhabits the place where the scripts are attenuated, and two bodies get the chance to speak.

After class we went out for dinner to a South Indian restaurant on Cuba Street. Over dosa and curry we gossiped and talked politics. My partner and I were heavily involved in student activism — we ran reading groups at university, attended protests for human rights, and leafletted the railway station every Friday night. I remember feeling awkward, embarrassed even, talking about this work. Despite my revolutionary rhetoric, I was a fearful and meek person. But Mark was encouraging, ‘That’s your Yoga,’ he said.

Hierarchy in the Yoga world

What even is Yoga? There is a visible fault line running through the yoga world now as two understandings of the practice pull apart. On the one side, the popular brands taught all over the world, in which Yoga is understood as a form of patriarchal gymnastics, taught within master-slave hierarchies. Everybody knows these practices are inherently abusive. These practices come out of patriarchal cultures and do not break with it, whether they are taught by women or men.

On the other side, the tradition in which Yoga is understood as a discipline of pleasure, shared among friends, tailored to the individual. This is the Yoga that Mark taught me. We teach Yoga as each person’s direct participation in the given sublimity of their life. We are concerned with everyday life, not fantasies of transcendence. The possibilities and intensities contained within the ordinary, and nothing else. Relationship, Sex, and the empowerment of monogamous mutuality. The refinement of real pleasure, which is rightly understood as the only compass we need. We teach Yoga as the practical means by which the sublime and the everyday are felt to be one.

I am well aware of the sexual abuse that rages under the Guru title. The statistical likelihood of any spiritual teacher being in it for their own petty aggrandisement is high. Yet I have experienced a genuine guru-shirsa relationship in which the teacher has been no more than a friend, and no less, so I feel an urge to assure anyone who cares that such teachers do exist. As Mark’s teacher’s teacher, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, wrote:

Sometimes, very rarely, like a rare flower, there are people who have knowledge of yoga and practise yoga with faith, ignoring the losses and difficulties that they suffer. Through teaching yoga, they improve the quality of life in the world. Their appearance is like a genuine diamond among imitation ones, and so they do not get noticed or recognised for their talent. Yoga Makaranda 1934, trans. Lakshmi and Nandini Ranganathan, 2006. Madurai C.M.V. Press.

I am not saying that we throw out the critical mind that sorts the fake diamonds from the real ones. But so few today can countenance the possibility of non-abusive relationship that we go so far as to disown the possibility of real Teachers existing at all. Everything is fake, this suspicious mind concludes. Every Teacher is a charlatan. And yet it is not so.

A lot of Yoga teachers have retreated completely from the Guru function. Unsure themselves of what a non-hierarchical relationship looks like, having never experienced one, many have chosen instead to naturalise a power dynamic, mediate the relationship, and adopt professional boundaries to cope with the fallout. Yoga relationships now resemble any other alienated relationship on offer within the plastic marketplace of life coaches, teachers, doctors, and therapists. Yet isn’t this the very sociality that propelled us so strongly towards spiritual practice in the first place? The desire for intimacy, with life and others. The desire to be seen and held, recognized as the unqualified perfection of Mother Nature. Not pathologized, taught, entertained, improved upon, or whipped along on some arduous spiritual circuit.

The orthodox teacher-student relationship is a scripted bind in which the range of possibilities is severely limited and always marked by the threat of humiliation. Remember high school? People who become teachers do so because they have been humiliated themselves. This dynamic finds its acme within spiritual institutions where teachers claim absurd states of enlightenment and draw sincere students into fictional programmes of ascent toward God. High creates low, less creates more.

Yet we will not heal the top-down hierarchy between mind and body within a top-down hierarchy between teacher and student. It is the same split. The head of the state ruling over the body politic. The head of the household ruling over the family. The headmaster caning the children. The head-mind which fears the power of our inborn desires that swirl in the base of the body.

Within the common vertical relationship, the student and the teacher paralyse one another. If the student thinks that the teacher holds the key to their self-realization, to some kind of future possibility, then the student will do everything they can to tailor their behaviour to what they think the teacher wants. The teacher claims to possess something that the student needs. This is the essence of passivity. Looking to someone else to create your life for you. Nobody gets to enter the spontaneous flow of ordinary relationship, the natural, carefree behaviour that we see in young children.

And as we disentangle our lives from the degrading impositions of society and religious thought, our minds at any given point are enmeshed in the patterns of patriarchy. We need the unconditional container of friendship so we can be spontaneous, speaking truthfully in one sentence then slipping into second-hand speak in the next. This process requires a relationship in which there are no mistakes, no wrong answers, no fear of humiliation.

Yoga: the steady process of relaxing into the spontaneous intelligence of the heart. The teacher too is relieved of the painful limitation of lording it over the student. And is to free to share knowledge as it applies to their friend without the fear that they might be put on a pedestal and removed from the ordinary intimacy of friendship.

The Way to Heal

Ultimately, the way to heal the Yoga world from abuse is to equalize the relationship between teacher and student. The pedestals are burnt. Equality is what prevents abuse. The teacher sees the student as they see themselves, the unqualified power of life arising. It is easy to abuse someone if you see them as less powerful than you. It is impossible if you see them as an equal.

The Guru has no position of power to maintain. They have no desire in their body to enslave another. They abide as the unqualified radiance of life. They know that you do too. They are masters without slaves, servants to all. This is not double-speak. It is a serious dharmic point. You do not arrive at equality unless you begin there. And every meeting with Mark begins with friendship.

Within a social landscape defined by professional roles (doctor/patient, teacher/student) in which barriers to free-flowing intimacy are put in place within and without, Mark has found a way to deliberately, systematically even, pour unmediated friendship into the world for anybody who wants it. This is radical activity. Cutting against the grain of patriarchal sociality and urging towards an entirely new world. This is the way we will heal the Yoga world from the imposition of patriarchy, and the world at large too.

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Andrew Raba

Andrew Raba is a writer from Wellington, New Zealand. He holds an M.A. in English Literature specialising in Philip K. Dick and the practice of Situationism.