My latest women’s yoga blog introduces the ten Mahavidya Goddesses of Tantra and describes how their powerful archetypal energies can be embodied into our yoga practice and lives, bringing us great boons, including greater Self-awareness, empowerment, creativity, joy and abundance.
As this is my first blog on these deep mystical and profound teachings, it is rather chunky with a lot of the background including:
- my personal discovery of Goddess archetypes
- who are the Mahavidya Tantric Wisdom Goddesses and why include them in your yoga practice
- what is this thing called Tantra?!
- the importance, particularly at this point in human history, of awakening and empowering the Divine feminine
- what is shadow and how to embracing the dark and the light
I then cover in more detail the first of the Mahavidya’s – Kali, the Goddess of transformation. I share seven practices for your own home yoga practice. I also include some personal reflections of working with this powerful Goddess of yoga, from one of my students as well as my own life journey (so far!).
My discovery of Goddess archetypes
I was first introduced to the goddess archetypes in the 90’s through Jean Shinoda Bolen’s book Goddesses in Every Women. I discovered how the goddess archetypes, in this case the Greek Goddesses, can represent energies in our lives. I loved how the mythical symbolic realm played out in the synchronous weaving of my conscious and unconscious worlds, bringing me greater awareness and significant healing and growth.
More recently I have had the delight to discover the eastern goddesses of the Hindu pantheon, initially through Sally Kempton book Awakening Shakti and then in my yoga teacher training Sacred Journey into Yoga with Lorraine Taylor. I learnt that through the practice of yoga we can embody the wisdom of the Tantric Mahavidya Goddesses. I have found that practicing with these goddesses can lead to profound healing, transformation and awakening. I was so inspired by these teachings that I now include them in my own devotional home yoga practice as well as my Tantra Flow Yoga classes and workshops.
What is Tantra?
Most people in the west when they think of Tantra think sex! Whilst Tantra does embrace sex (unlike, in my experience, most religions and yoga traditions) it is only a small proportion of what it is.
There are many translations of the Sanskrit word Tantra. One common definition is: Tan: ‘to expand or develop’; tra: ’to liberate or redeem’. This definition embraces my personal experience of Tantra as an art and practice of transformation and liberation.
A core feature of Tantra is the principle of non-rejection, where nothing is considered outside of the Divine. Another meaning of Tantra is ‘weaving’. Tantra embraces the world as a tapestry of energies, all of them aspects of the energy of the Divine, and all of them sacred. Thus Tantra can be a powerful path for ‘householders’ looking for a path that merges spirituality with life in the ‘real’ world.
One of the unique aspects of Tantra is how it recognises, acknowledges and embraces the power of the Divine feminine. Goddess practices are a key means of doing this. Tantra perceives the Divine feminine as the source of power, life force – Shakti in contrast to the Divine masculine – Shiva, which is consciousness.
Tantra offers us a framework to understand the energy and the dance between the Divine feminine and masculine, both within our bodies and lives and with others in relationship. Tantra also helps take us beyond the limitations of the duality of gender, whereby men and women can embrace both the Divine feminine and masculine within their lives.
I believe that there is a great upsurge of Tantra teachings and offerings in the west as we are living in time where we need to heal and reawaken the Divine feminine, in both men and women.
These teachings and my writings, are not limited to women, although this is currently who my classes and workshops serve as there are many women in need of a safe space to heal and awaken the Divine feminine.
Who are the Mahavidya Wisdom Goddesses?
The Mahavidyas are a special group of goddesses that arose in certain Tantric circles in the Middle Ages in South Asia. These Deities represent Divine consciousness at all levels of the universe, including our inner and outer worlds, as energies in culture, body and mind. They include 10 goddesses, who each represent a particular approach to self-realisation.
The Mahavidya Wisdom Goddesses are known, respected and in some cases feared, for their wild, independent, liberated, sexually empowered and autonomous expressions of consciousness (Frawley, 1994)
Below is a list of their Tantric names and some key aspects of each goddess. For some of the more commonly known goddess I also include the more commonly known Hindu goddess names.
- Kali: the Goddess of transformation and liberation. Later in this blog, as I describe in more detail Kali, the first of the Mahavidya’s, including 7 yoga practices to support change and freedom.
- Tara: the Goddess of compassion, sound and breath
- Tripuri Sundari: the beauty of the ‘three worlds’, pure perception, and the Goddess of erotic spirituality
- Bhuvaneshvari: the Goddess of infinite space; the queen of the universe
- Bhairavi (Durga): the warrior Goddess of protection, courage and inner strength
- Chinnamasta: the Goddess of radical self-transcendence, consciousness beyond the mind
- Dhumavati: the crone Goddess of disappointment and letting go
- Bagalamukhi: the power of hypnotic silence and stillness, self-observation
- Matangi (Saraswati): the Goddess of creativity and the spoken word
- Kamalatmika (Lakshmi): the Goddess of abundance and good fortune, including material and spiritual wealth
Whilst the 10 Mahavidya’s are traditionally listed in the above order, Uma Dinsmore-Tuli (2014) discusses how these Goddesses energies are cyclical, and can shed light on and support the different life stages of a woman life. For example, Tripuri Sundari celebrating Menarche, Bhuvaneshvari supporting pregnancy and birth, Bharavi embracing our power, and Dhumervati welcoming the wisdom years.
Whilst all of the goddesses are always present as a part of our energy fields, some are more familiar to us, some less, and some we might not even be aware of, in our ‘shadow’. At different times of our lives different goddess energies can awaken and bring their gifts or boons to you.
Shadow: embracing the dark and the light
The shadow, is the unknown ‘’dark side’ of our personality. Dark because it tends to consist of negative, primitive, socially or religiously depreciated emotions and impulses, including sexual lust, power strivings, selfishness, greed, envy, anger or rage. These aspects of ourselves are often obscured from consciousness.
Essentially everything about ourselves that we are not conscious of is shadow. Aspects which we don’t like about ourselves, pains and traumas that are buried. It can also the hidden potentials, that may have been or not nurtured, or even actively suppressed, in our childhood.
Jung saw that the failure to recognise, acknowledge and deal with our shadow is often the root of problems for individuals as well as within groups, organisations and society as a whole. Therefore any healing, growth and self-realisation work needs to include the incorporation of our shadow natures.
Becoming familiar with the shadow and integrating the dark’ ‘negative aspects’ of our selves and the ‘positive’ un-lived potential of our higher Self is an essential part of growth and individuation and of becoming more rounded, more whole.
The Goddesses archetypes can help us to explore the hidden aspects of our psyche. Through meeting ALL sides of these Goddess energies we can to embrace and integrate the dark and the light aspects of our Selves.
At a more superficial layer of Goddess practice, we can be tempted by the allure of the qualities of the different Goddesses such as bliss, wealth and power. Whilst Goddess practice can be approached to gain health, wealth, fame of other more ordinary goals in life, it is important that we are aware of any selfish or egotistical intentions.
Anyone working with these archetypal energies, need to remain cognisant of the shadow aspects of these Goddesses – each have within them deeper layers and energies that we need to be be willing to open to. It is the integration of the shadow and the light of these goddesses offer greater freedom and liberation.
There are specific shadow practices for each particular Goddess. As a general invocation I find it helpful to set an intention to open to the wisdom and teachings from the Goddess for the greatest good of my highest self and the greatest good of others.
Why include the Goddesses archetypes in a yoga practice?
Gods and Goddesses are ‘real’ in that they exist in eternal forms of energy in the subtlest realms of consciousness. Within the human psyche, these beings exist as psychological archetypes.
An archetype is a subtle blueprint that both transcends individual personality and lives in it, connecting our personal minds to the cosmic or collective mind. (Kempton, 2013)
The Goddesses can personify energies that we feel but may never have thought to name both in our selves and in our worlds. They offer a powerful means of understanding the capacities of our own psyche as well as the world around us. And by actively practicing with the goddesses, we are in effect, working to bring parts of our psyches/Selves into consciousness.
Yoga practice with the Goddess is a form of Self-inquiry, a means of acquiring knowledge. Practicing yoga with these Goddesses help us embody the subtlest power of the universe which can affect us psychologically, spiritually and physically, and collectively.
Deity meditation has powerful psychological benefits. When a practitioner invokes these Goddess energy through asana, meditation, visualisation, mantra we can uncover psychological forces that can transform and awaken. It can help unlock psychological blocks, including issues with power or love. Invoking the appropriate Shakti, as represented by the ten Goddesses, can open up, heal or transform stuck energies.
As a spiritual practice, it opens up transpersonal forces within your mind and heart. Practicing with these Goddesses gives us direct connection to an inner life force that can powerfully transform consciousness itself.
The transformative power of the Goddess energies can untangle psychic knots, calling forth specific transformative forces within the mind and heart. It can cleanse our mental and emotional bodies, put us in touch with the protective powers within us, and deeply change the way we see the world. It can shift the way we see ourselves, giving us the power to see the Divine qualities we already hold (Kempton, 2013)
Including the Goddesses in asana practice has the added benefit of embodying these energies. Women’s health and vitality is very much governed by our cycles, our monthly menstrual cycles, the moon as well as our life cycles, of Maiden, Mother, Maga and Crone. Yoga when practiced with these Divine archetypal energies honours the changes in our cycles, calling us to be more present in our womanly bodies, and in my experience has brought a whole new dimension to yoga.
Collectively, we live in a time where there is a great need for the re-emergence of the Divine feminine. Goddesses come alive when they are invoked and worshiped. Human consciousness and imagination are so powerfully creative, our attention to these forms can have a powerful effect on our own life experience, and can also affect collective consciousness.
Awakening and Empowering the Divine Feminine
These Goddesses offer us great wisdom for our current times. Many of us can feel disempowered by the current structures, governments and systems.
Many contemporary writers have pointed out that our survival as a species may depend on our ability to re-engage with the feminine (Sally Kempton, 2013). And that despite women (particularly in the modern world) enjoying more freedoms and opportunities than in the past, very few of us actually live from our intrinsic feminine strength and intelligence.
Goddess practice is a form of sacred feminism. In contrast to political feminism, sacred feminism it is a feminism for the soul. In the west we are used to seeing the feminine as essentially receptive… even passive. The wisdom Goddesses offer us a much wider and more diverse (and even radical) spectrum of feminine possibility. Sacred feminism looks at true feminine power. It embraces everything that is beautiful in the feminine, as well as everything that is terrifying.
Tantric sages have always seen, respected and revered, the power of the feminine. In Tantra, the feminine is the life force, the Shakti, behind all evolution and change.
I have personally found that practicing yoga with these Divine feminine energies has been deeply healing and empowering, awakening my innate and fuller range of feminine qualities.
Goddess practices are not merely an adulation of feminine forms or qualities. It may start with the image of the Goddess, but reaches far beyond the limits of name, form, and personality to the impersonal, the Absolute (Frawley, 1994)
Personal reflections of practicing with the goddesses
One way to demonstrate the power of practicing with these goddesses is through personal stories and experiences. In this blog, as I cover Kali in more detail, I thought I would share with you a couple of personal Kali stories from myself and one of my students.
Over the 4 years of practicing and teaching with these Goddesses I have experienced many times over Kali’s power of transformation and liberation. Kali has certainly been a Goddess of my 40’s! (which I have observed can be for many women during peri-menopause). Practicing with Kali has helped me through my (multiple!) midlife crises including my and my families health, relationship and career crises. I have experienced profound transformation on many levels including a transformation in career identity from working in leadership change roles in the corporate work world to now teaching yoga.
A couple of years ago, on a full moon night, I held a bonfire ritual in my back paddock where I burned four large boxes of documents that I had been holding onto from my last job as a change manager in the state education department. This role was the final undoing of me and my health and a dramatic and traumatic end of my working for big organisations.
I felt it was time to let it go of these physical boxes, and my intention through the ritual was to burn the documents, and transform them into something new. I held a lot of grief, shame, regret and confusion (and attachment) to this work, and was lost (confused and angry) as to how all the hard work, both in the job and all my years of study and qualifications, was a waste of time. I needed help to transform my passion and vision for change in organisations into my world now as a yoga teacher.
So I burned it all, bit by bit, calling on Kali and her power to let go and transform. The papers took 2 days to burn, as a researcher there was a lot of dense reports and data! My dog joined me by the fire. I recall him barking ferociously around the perimeters of our property, which is unusual, as he is such a friendly happy dog. It felt like a powerful ceremony.
A week later, possibly unrelated, however powerfully related in my world and change process, the State government began a corruption inquiry into this department. After 6 long weeks, the inquiry found two of the leaders who I had worked for and with, had been stealing millions of dollars from state schools system for their own and their families gains. This inquiry is ongoing as the ‘corruption’ runs far deeper and wider in the culture of the system than these two individuals. This ritual and the subsequent unfolding of the Truth of what my change ‘role’ was up against, was incredibly liberating for me and a turning point for me in letting go of my identity in these roles and moving more fully into yoga teaching.
Kellie one of my students, works in a role in the not-for-profit women’s health sector. She recently shared with me that upon hearing that there was additional funding to continue her contract, whilst her colleagues were all relieved and happy, she noticed and felt she was not overjoyed. By listening more deeply, she recognised her Kali energy. As a young working mum, with little time for her own creative pursuits, she actually wanted more time to follow her creative path of writing. Through listening to this energy, she negotiated with her workplace a reduction in her working hours, giving her more time to follow her love and passion of writing.
Kali: the Goddess of transformation
Kali as the Goddess of transformation is strong, dynamic and powerful. She is a Goddess of revolution, of rebirth and teaches us in order to bring about the ‘new’ we must first let go of the ‘old’.
Her great power is the power that comes with acceptance and change, and the willingness to let go in order to grow. Her gift is in the dissolution of outworn structures, be they ego, thought, or relationships.
Kali is death. She is the ending of the inessentials, that which no longer serves us. In this way, Kali brings about freedom.
She is often referred to as the black Goddess: dark, destructive and unpredictable, and so is feared my many. Frawley (1994) describes Kali as dark blue in colour, wearing a garland of skulls. She has her tongue sicking out and is laughing. She has four arms and hands, and in one she holds a sword and another a severed head dripping with blood. With her other two hands she makes mudras of bestowing boons and dispelling fears.
The severed head represents the cutting away the ego and her tongue represents the power of yogic will to eat up desires and throughs so that our essential Self and awareness can reveal itself.
Kali is also the benevolent loving mother, the Divine mother Ma. She embodies Mother Nature, the goddess of life, death, transformation, destruction, endings and beginnings.
The literal meaning of Kali is time. Time is the power of change that forces all living things to grow and develop. Kali teaches us that if we give up our attachment to the events of our lives, we gain mastery over time itself. When we drop the limitations of who we think we are, we can experience limitless potential of what we can become.
Kali also offers us a doorway into our wild passionate energy. Embodying her in our yoga practice and meditations assists to awaken our kundalini energy.
Kundalini shakti, the secret yogic power of transformation within us, works through Kali’s grace and motivation. Kundalini ascends and dissolves all the chakras, or energy centres within us, back into the state of pure unity consciousness that is Ma Kali’s ultimate abode. (Frawley, 2016)
An emotion commonly associated with Kali, is Anger. As anger can be a difficult emotion, particularly for women to embrace and express. I have found the Kali practice to be a wonderful support to access and express the emotion of anger. I recommend this TED talk the Fierce Face of the Feminine, by Chameli Ardagh to my students, for her passionate sharing of myths and contemporary stories of Kali (approx 18 minutes). Showing us that anger is not a ‘bad’ emotion, and how Kali can help us embody the power, beauty and necessity of feminine rage.
You can recognise Kali in sudden changes in life, especially those that involve disruption. Kundalini awakening is also very ‘Kali’. She is represented by storms including lightening, tornados, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions I have noticed that in the week that I teach a Kali yoga class there are often local lightening storms. I have also found that when we open to these Goddess energies we start to see them everywhere. I love hearing my students experiences, and hope to share more of these through my writing.
On a bigger picture, some contemporary writers suggest we are living in a time of Kali.
Kali is the Yuga Shakti or the power of time that takes humanity from one world age to another. She works to sustain the spiritual energy of the planet through both the ages of light and darkness (Shambhavi Chopra, 2007)
As the transforming power of time, she can usher us into a new era of global peace and understanding.
Seven Yoga Practices to awaken and embody Kali
- Set an intention before you begin your yoga practice. Think of an area of your life where you are stuck, you need to change, let go of or move on from something. Consciously invite Kali into your practice. It can be helpful to visualise an image of her, or visualise a fire or flame.
- A helpful Pranayama to include is the lion’s pose / simhasana, where you can feel into the embodied sensations of Kali’s tongue. For instructions of this general pranayama practice go to yogajournal. You can also practice this in vajrasana or rock pose, sitting on your heals.
- To invoke Kali into your asana practice, adopt a more vigorous ‘fiery’ vinyasa flow, compared with the more gentler Goddesses. She can be a wonderful Goddess to move with as she teaches us to release constriction and stuckness, blockages and any suppressed emotions.
- Practice with some devotional or kirtan music. Here is a suggested Kali Yoga play list. If you like the music, please follow, share and support these musicians.
- In Savasana (as well as before going to sleep at night) you can practice deep surrender to the end of your yoga practice/the end of the day. Empty your mind, embracing endings/‘death’, as if it is your last day. To die each day is Kali’s daily worship, allowing for the birth of each new day as the first.
- When practicing with Kali, it is important to be aware of Kali’s shadow. Anger can be a common emotion for Kali, and as many of us have grown up in society that does not embrace healthy anger, we can often see it presenting in Kali’s shadow. Shadowy Kali anger can be passive aggressive patterns in your life, both in your self and in others around you. If you are angry, notice if you are projecting it out into the world, onto others, or circumstances, and instead, try to bring the energy of anger inwards for inner transformation and clarity.
- Puja fire ceremony can be conducted ideally with a fire. You can also substitute with a candle or visualisation of a fire. Write down or verbalise some personal qualities that you are wanting to let go of and visualise yourself physically throwing these into the fire. Imagine Kali dancing in the flames, receiving what you are letting go of, invoking transformation.
Sally Kempton (2013) Awakening Shakti: the Transformative Power of the Goddesses of Yoga. Sounds True.
David Frawley (1994) Tantric Yoga and the Wisdom Goddesses. Lotus Press.
Shambhavi Chopra (2007) Yogic Secrets of the Dark Goddess: Lightning Dance of the Supreme Shakti, Wisdom Tree Books.
Uma Dinsmore-Tuli (2014) Yoni Shakti: A woman’s guide to power and freedom through yoga and tantra. Yoga Words.
Lorraine Taylor (2014) Notes from Sacred Journey into Yoga Teacher Training. For More information go to Lorraine Taylor Yoga for her 200 hour Sacred Journey into Yoga for Women, a month long ashtanga vinyasa yoga teacher training journeying with the Ten Mahavidya Goddesses.