Mark Whitwell Interviewed by Audrey Billups
In 2019, international Yoga teacher Mark Whitwell and a group of students traveled to Mysore, India to acknowledge the birthplace of the modern Yoga tradition. It was within the palace of the Maharaj of Mysore that Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888-1989) first began his life’s mission of bringing Yoga to the world.
For ten days, students immersed themselves in the heart of yoga and the principles of practice that Krishnamacharya preserved from the ancient world. Mark’s message is simple: “There is a right Yoga for every person. If you can breathe you can do Yoga.”
During the training, I sat down with Mark Whitwell in a small café off a side-street in Mysore to ask him a few questions about his personal life and his Yoga journey.
I ask Mark Whitwell what first brought him to India in the 1970s; how he met his teachers; what’s gone wrong with modern Yoga; and his ongoing mission to make Krishnamacharya’s teachings accessible to all people.
Audrey Billups: Can you begin by giving us a nutshell definition of what Yoga actually is?
Mark Whitwell: Yoga is the practical means by which any person can embrace their own reality and enjoy their own wonder, beauty, power and their harmony with life. There is a right Yoga for every person no matter their body-type, age, health, or culture. Yoga is the means and it is important now that we share the secrets of actual Yoga. I say real Yoga for real people.
AB: Why did you first leave New Zealand and come to India in the early 1970s? What did you find here? What was different about meeting Krishnamacharya compared to the other Gurus and masters that you met?
MW: What moved me to leave New Zealand in my very early life was this matter of duhkha which is a beautiful word that means the feeling of restriction around the heart. Krishnamacharya called it the unavoidable motive of Yoga practice; that you feel restricted and you want to do something about it. This is what Yoga is: to reduce restrictions.
I was born in the suburbs of New Zealand and was being dished up the usual education that was preparing me for university and the factory. For me, it was very inadequate. I was a pushy, flowering daisy in the field who was getting as much life as I possibly could. I felt very restricted in the usual offering of high school and the usual life that is offered to young people in the West and now in the East too.
What really prompted me to look to India was the information that arrived in Aotearoa through The Beatles who went to India to explore life; to find out what life is and what this world is all about. The wonderful explosion of consciousness that came through their music affected me deeply. Their personal discoveries had a profound spiritual influence on me and of course on this world. In that music there is a communication of beauty, love, power and hope. At first their interest in meditation and Eastern philosophy was perhaps naïve but it was nevertheless an interest, and an interest from the most famous people in the world.
I happened to meet Paul McCartney in Los Angeles and I said to him that the Beatles single-handedly changed this world by staying ordinary. It’s okay to be who and what you are; that a working-class hero was something to be.
We don’t have to be chasing the hierarchy of imagined future perfection. We don’t need to try and become an imagined Buddha or get close to the king or the Pope. It’s okay to be what you are which is life itself.
Meanwhile, in India the most sublime potential of the human being was blooming even during the dark period of Europe. There were these sublime lives being lived in India. We know these names: Shirdi Sai Baba, Ramakrishna, and Ananda Mai Ma, Amma the hugging saint, and Bhagavan Nityananda. These extraordinary people are of our time. Krishnamacharya himself died only in 1989.
And just to bring it back full circle, the Beatles gave us access to that world by showing the world their personal interest in spiritual ideas and practices and getting free of the traumas that were imposed on them by the society they were born into. So I’m all for The Beatles! And The Kinks and The Rolling Stones.
AB: Once you arrived in India, I’m sure you met lots of teachers and people trying to sell you things? What was that like for you? What was different about meeting Krishnamacharya?
MW: I wandered around India for a year and a half and I was very naïve. I fell for everything. I actually came first in 1970 and then I spent a longer time here in 1973 wandering around meeting the famous people like Sathya Sai Baba. I met many famous gurus and famous yogis and many not famous yogis and gurus. It was a wonderful time; a very wild and confusing time.
And then I was at the ashram of Ramana Maharshi, one of these great personalities of our own time who was living a sublimity of a human life in India. He died only in 1950 I think and I was born in ’49. I was at the Ramana ashram and it was there that I met students of Krishnamacharya and Desikachar.
I took a three-hour drive to Madras met Krishnamacharya and Desikachar at their family home. I could see right away that they were bright people who were serious about their own tradition and their own lives. They weren’t selling anything, they didn’t have a spiritual business and they weren’t playing the guru game.
Krishnamacharya was very critical of India’s business of selling spirituality to people. He was against all the shoddy spiritual goods that were and still are sold in the marketplace to a gullible public. As a family, they were determined in a scholarly way to understand their own world and their own sacred history. Both to live it themselves and to present it as teachers to their sincere students.
I remember going to the home of Desikachar and Krishnamacharya and eating on the kitchen floor with them. Just kids and elderly people all around the floor. They were very humble people. I liked them and I began to study with them.
In my very first lesson I got some secrets delivered to me immediately: the body movement is the breath movement; the power of breath in the whole body; the power of inhale merging with exhale.
I can remember being on the rooftop in Madras under a full moon and practicing what they taught me. I thought,
“Oh my god. The breath. It is all in the breath. The power of life is in the breath. God is in the breath. God is actualized with the breath.”
Krishnamacharya would say,
“If you are with the breath, then you are with that which is breathing you.”
So I experienced the accuracy of their learning and it gave me a framework. It was not abstract knowledge. It was affirmed by their own experience. This is what was authentic about it. And then I was able to affirm their learning by my own experience. An important point in Yoga is that you must know it from your own experience.
Krishnamacharya would say there are three agamas or means of transmission. They are:
- The teacher speaks it.
- It is written in sacred text.
- It is your own experience.
Of the three, the third is the most important. You cannot rely on the first two if you haven’t experienced it yourself. It is your own experience that affirms and makes useful the first two.
By bringing the body of knowledge that they brought forth through their scholarship, including their scholarship of how to do Yogal how to do asana and pranayama; how to do sadhana; I was able then to understand the spiritual circus of India that I was otherwise aimlessly wandering through.
I would still go to my favourite gurus. There were some extraordinary people in India in the North and the South that I would love to be near in the places of their residence and the temples and so forth.
But after being with Desikachar and Krishnamacharya I had this framework from their ancient world within which I could make sense of the whole situation. I could make my own discerning decisions as to what was exploitative and what was ridiculous and what was wonderful. And I was also able to discern what was just business.
Krishnamacharya gave me the academic discernment but also the discernment of my own experience.
AB: Why do you think the principles that Krishnamacharya learnt were largely lost from yoga as we know it today?
MW: For whatever reason, the young men who studied with Krishnamacharya left him very early on in their education. They took what they learned and they turned into exercise and gymnastic bravado. They loved the athletic grandeur that they could do as young men.
They were very ambitious young men who created branding and styles that played right into the Western psychology of effort; of striving for some sort of future perfection that we are all conditioned to do.
What I’m saying is that all of that habit of mind is the denial of the wonder that is your own life: the power of this cosmos that brought you here in the first place and that presently sustains you, and is you. This power that is a pure intelligence, that is the unspeakable beauty of life itself. It is the natural world. And everybody is of the natural world because they are life itself. We are held within the perfect harmonies by which Mother Nature is functioning.
AB: It is so hard to break those patterns! I’ve been practicing for a year. Maybe I’m more able to see the patterns now.
MW: Yes. I think you can experience it suddenly where you go,
“Woah, I am the power of the cosmos.”
It’s a sudden insight. It’s sudden and then it’s gradual, and then it’s sudden again. Yoga produces an unpredictable process of ridding yourself of these thought structures that have otherwise gone into us like a virus. My teacher would describe it as an intractable virus.
Thank you for your honesty about that. It’s good to see how this social programming is sort of intractable. As a young four year old mind we absorbed the idea that we were not good enough and that we had to try hard in the arbitrary criteria which society provides. We are measured and measuring within the idea of a social hierarchy—a chain of being where are supposed to try and become like somebody else; somebody who is superior to you, which means you are less than them. It is a hideous social contrivance and a social power structure that has been put on all of humanity through religious hierarchy and religious teaching as well as the collusion of political power structures between church and state. It’s in the West and it’s in the East.
So it’s deep programming in us that we are less and that we are second to some beautiful big idea. It is usually a very charming idea sold by a charming person who is presumed to be perfect. We tend to get seriously busy within career, arts, politics, and sport in a fearful struggle to try and become something as if we are not something already. It takes a lot to see through it and be free of it.
The paradox however, is that when you are free of it you can make something of it. You can have a wonderful career in politics or social change. You can be a great artist, a great dancer, a great musician with this understanding that you are already the power of the cosmos and that you cannot be second to anyone or anything, and that you cannot be superior to anyone or anything. With that understanding you take off and you can do really well.
My teacher would say,
“Make use of the skills that God has given you.”
Don’t use your skills as part of some stressful struggle and then develop degenerative disease and then die which is the usual life. So choose!
AB: What is profound about your teaching is that I think the majority of people would say yes, that makes sense, but you’re also giving a method by which to participate in that.
MW: It’s not some spiritual idea to say that you are the power of the cosmos. It’s not an abstract idea. It’s a fact. It’s a fact like 2+2 is 4. Maybe a fact like the sky is blue. You are the power of the cosmos. It’s that simple.
We grasp that fact and then we do Yoga as the practical means to participate in that fact. It’s possible that we may forget that fact. The patterning will still be on us. But if you do discipline yourself to practice then it is your direct intimacy with what life actually is.
And when I say practice, I mean non-obsessive, daily, actual and natural, like brushing your teeth and taking a shower.
Your daily practice restores your memory or rewires your thought structures to acknowledge again that indeed you are the power of the cosmos.
AB: Back in the day this Yoga was kept secret. It shouldn’t be like that anymore right?
MW: There might have been some logic for it in its own time. Yoga began in primordial times as folk activity. It then got codified in the tantras, a vast body of extraordinary literature produced between the 5th and the 13th centuries. Yoga travelled all over the ancient world and was used by all religious points of view and all language groups because it was useful. They all used the Yoga tantra as the practical means to actualize the beautiful ideals expressed in their sacred text. And so it flourished.
There was an idea held within Buddhism and Hinduism that you had to demonstrate spiritual maturity or emotional maturity; that you had to show that you could live in relationship with others; that you could live in relationship to your teacher in a mutual accord. Then the Yoga tantras, these empowerments of your life, were shared within the context of family life, small community, or in hermitage and monastic settings and so forth.
They were considered secret and they were guarded because they were treasures. That time is over however and now we live in a world in which vast misinformation is forced upon us with great skill, on the internet and social media, and so you don’t know who to trust.
For that reason, it is important now to share the secrets of real Yoga.
How does any person, no matter who they are, embrace their own reality, their own wonder, beauty, power, and harmony? How do they do that?
This is what is badly missing out of the popularization of Yoga today. The actual technology that makes sure each person’s Yoga is actually Yoga. That it is actually each person’s direct embrace of reality itself through the union of opposites, through the union of the male-female qualities that constitute everybody’s life.
Krishnamacharya brought that forth with extraordinary technical accuracy. The Yogis and scholars of this world would do well to pay attention to how Krishnamacharya taught the practices of Yoga. Because there is real accuracy there.
AB: What is the significance for you to be here in Mysore?
MW: I wanted to complete the circle.
Krishnamacharya was born in a South Indian family. He went to the North and then onto Kailash for seven and a half years. His teacher must have been pretty amazing because he stayed there for seven and a half years!
After his studies, Krishnamacharya’s guru told him to find a good woman, start a family and bring this Yoga to the whole world because otherwise it will disappear.
Krishnamacharya returned to Varanasi and he did exactly that. He worked in coffee plantations. He had a new wife and had no money. At the same time, he was offered to be the head of a lot of glamorous religious institutions. But he wanted to be a Yogi.
Krishnamacharya was stuck with this problem that from his scholarship he knew that Yoga was the necessary and the practical means to actualize the beautiful ideals of his religious life. He was stuck with that fact. So he wanted to practice Yoga and he wanted to teach Yoga to the world.
As good fortune would have it, he came and did a public talk in Mysore and the Maharaj Krishnaraj Wodeyar the 4th was there. The Maharaj recognised immediately that he, his family and his subjects needed this. He hired Krishnamacharya as his personal teacher and made him his patron to make sure his people got Yoga.
It is a beautiful story about how the secular must serve the sacred. How the banks and the insurance companies and airlines are there to make sure that life is sacred. All people together in Mother Nature in sacred life that is not obstructed. The secular must support that. This is what the Maharaj of Mysore did. His secular power supported the distribution of Yoga to all his people.
It was a beautiful experience to go to that place where Krishnamacharya taught the Maharaj and his family. To see where he stood with his bare feet and his naked chest and his Brahmin thread and his dhoti.
I wanted to complete that circle of Krishnamacharya going to Kailash and coming back into South India. And I wanted to finish the job that he got started.
I hope that other people of influence within the secular power structures follow the Maharaj’s example and make sure that everyone is empowered to be intimate with their own beautiful lives. It is the first human right.
When everybody realises that they are indeed the wild of Mother Nature; when they realise that they are Mother Nature looking at Mother Nature; that they are the beauty of the cosmos looking at the beauty of the cosmos; and that they are not different from the beautiful relationships of her ecology; then we may have a chance to save this planet.
When we change the thought structure that we are separate and when we can settle into that fact en masse, then we can get really serious about taking care of our ecosystems.
AB: It was a huge revelation for me when you said that Yoga is activism. That Yoga is the first act of caring for this Earth.
MW: You as an activist could feel that this Yoga is caring for Mother Nature starting with your own body. That intimacy with your own life gives you the power and the clarity of mind to do it for everybody else and for all species.
I know that even within activism this is not understood. People do continue to feel separate from nature and from each other while they work in political structures and fair enough. There’s even valid suspicion of any idea of trying to change yourself because it’s always within the hierarchical self-improvement business of this world which is selling effort to try and align yourself to some arbitrary criteria.
So the activists see popular yoga and think it’s a lot of shit and actually it is a lot of shit. But the activists do not understand that Yoga is your direct embrace of Mother Nature.
AB: When I first started Yoga I was so excited by how much there was to learn. But now it’s the opposite. It has been a revelation that Yoga is only participation in what is already my life.
MW: I like to say that the secrets of the universe are in you, as you. The secrets of Mother Nature are your own condition. Your yoga is to participate in your own reality. Then the secrets are known to the mind. Indeed, the mind is known as a function of life that is not separate from life. That is why we say the mind is for relationship only, it is for participation in our relationship to the whole cosmos.
Yoga is your participation in body, breath, and mind as a unitary movement, that’s all. And anybody can do it.
Otherwise we are distracted in the endless thought-structures of self-improvement or self-degradation. It’s either low self-esteem or high self-esteem and we move back and forth between the two.
What we need are the Yogas of participation, the Yogas of enjoyment and the Yogas of acknowledgement of life itself. Then the mind and every other human tool becomes useful.
I want to say that there is a great blessing in these Yogas that Krishanamcharya brought forth from the traditions of his own ancient world. We can say he lived 101 useful years and he passed this on to a few people, but not many: his son T.K.V. Desikachar, A.G. Mohan, Srivatsa Ramaswami, and the great Indra Devi.
My point is that now we have the actual Yogas and it is easily communicated to any kind of person. Krishnamacharya said,
“If you can breathe you can do Yoga.”
Yoga is not religion. It is not Hinduism. It is not Buddhism. Yoga is a separate darsana from those that developed into world religion. It is universal to all people and all cultures.
May we get through this spell of the commodification of Yoga and the teaching of Yoga in these absurd power structures where there is supposed to be somebody who knows it and everyone else who doesn’t.
Everybody is the power of the cosmos. Everybody is at one with reality itself. There is no hierarchy. There is no superior person. It is all just life itself happening.
May it go out on the internet and on smartphones and may everybody enjoy their own life.
May we heal this planet and cooperate with Mother Nature.
Let’s get the job done together.
A.B: Thank you Mark.
MW: Thank you for your beautiful questions.
Audrey Billups is a filmmaker, photographer and yogini who has spent the last several years working around the world including photographing Yoga events for many clients. She is the founder of The Nomadic Filmmaker. She originally hails from Texas.
Mark Whitwell is a Yoga teacher and author with a unique ability to make the sublime tradition of Yoga available to people as a normal part of their everyday life. He is the author of four books including the beloved Yoga of Heart (2004) and most recently God and Sex: now we get both (2019). Mark was also the editor and contributor to his teacher T.K.V. Desikachar’s classic Yoga text, The Heart of Yoga (1995).
Mark Whitwell runs retreats and workshops around the world and teaches online. He currently lives between Fiji and New Zealand. You can find out more about Mark at www.heartofyoga.com and you can join the by-donation immersion into personal practice here.