Shiva and Shakti: balancing the masculine and feminine within

Much of the yoga that is practiced today, particularly in the west, is grounded in a more masculine style with their focus on strength, alignment and physical challenge. More recently there is a rise in more feminine styles of yoga.  See my previous blog:  What is Feminine Yoga and why do we need it?

I have practiced a range of styles of yoga over 35 years. In my early 40s I discovered Tantra, in particular Shakti, which was incredibly healing for my burn out from years of working in a patriarchal, and distorted masculine corporate world. Interestingly, within this new wave of Feminine yoga, I have also observed in some schools and practices a very one sided, and distorted feminine approach to yoga, that in its own way, disregarded the masculine.

More recently I have been bringing both the masculine and the feminine into my  personal yoga practice and teaching.

In this blog I retell a story from Indian mythology of Shiva and Parvati and unpack the meaning of Shiva and Shakti and what wisdom it can bring to our yoga, our individual growth to wholeness and our relationship.  I include some simple yoga practices for you to do at home to awaken and embody the divine masculine and feminine within.

Shiva and Shakti

yin and yangShiva and Shakti are personifications of the great powers of Yoga which reflect the higher realities and energies that are behind, and beyond, all universal forces. They are the manifestations of divine consciousness where the ‘whole’  is made up of two opposed but complementary forces. Like yin and yang, they represent the duality behind all energies in the universe.  These energies are present in our internal worlds as they are in the external cosmos: as reflected in the aphorism:

As above, so below, as within, so without, as the universe, so the soul

It is said that at the advent of creation there was a splitting of the primordial principle,  and so duality within our lives came into being, together with a strong force that is constantly striving to re-unite the different parts of us.

Shiva and Shakti can be seen as the guiding deities of yoga offering us the power of transformation and liberation. They are the great God and Goddess; also known as Mahadeva and Mahadevi.  Importantly, they are not just abstract principles, rather they are the archetypes of Yoga within us. and can offer us a perspective on our personal reality.

Shiva, the Divine Masculine, represents consciousness and awareness; and Shakti, the Divine Feminine, represents activating power and energy. Shiva and Shakti represent the primary complimentary forces in nature, including mind and emotion, mountains and valleys, the sun and the moon, fire and water and all other innumerable variations within a dualistic world.

Shiva and Shakti exist as personal potentials within us as well as the cosmic powers outside of us at every level of consciousness, from the macro to the micro: yang and yin, the masculine and feminine; steadiness and dynamic change; awareness and bliss; stability and transformation; being and becoming. Together these energies complete and complement each other.

In Indian mythology the story of Shiva and Parvati is an archetypal romance that is rich in symbolism and meaning and provide us a window into understanding the energy and wisdom of Shiva and Shakti.

Shiva and Parvati’s marriage is the great cosmic partnership: the union of Shakti, in the form of Goddess Parvati, the supreme yogini with Shiva her yogi husband.

The Story of of Shiva and Goddess Parvati

As the story goes, Shiva is supposed to be functioning in his cosmic role as the great destroyer, bringing about endings so that there can be new beginnings. However, after the loss of his first wife, Sita, in mourning, he retreated to his Himalayan mountain cave, and immersed himself in a state of unbroken, deep meditation.  Living the life of a recluse, Shiva immersed himself in the stillness of the void, revelling in absolute freedom, that he became utterly unconcerned with the affairs of the cosmos. During this time, his cosmic tasks are not done and his teachings are not heard.

The other Gods realised that something needed to be done to reengage Shiva into his cosmic role. So they asked the great goddess to incarnate again, to bring Shiva back to the world. The eternal Shakti took on the form Parvati, or daughter of the mountain.

She is divinely beautiful, cosmically adorable and from the moment she can speak, she talks about Shiva. When she is 16, she goes to the grove where Shiva sits in meditation. She brings him food that he never eats, she lights candles that he never sees, and she longs for him to open his eyes to see her.

Brahma, the creator god, recognised that Shiva’s desire needed to be awakened, so he enlisted the help of Kama, the god of pleasure and desire. Kama, sent soft spring breezes with the scent of jasmine to the grove that Shiva and Parvati were.  Parvati becomes  more enchanted and her love for Shiva grows.

Kama waited until Parvati was directly in Shiva’s sight of vision, and holding his bow, he let loose the irresistible arrows of love: the Inciter of Desire, Inflamer of lust, Exciter of Infatuation. As they strike Shiva’s heart, he is aroused by the most un-meditative feelings of desire. Shiva opened his eyes and saw Parvati and a stirring arose in his heart. When the sensations moved down to his groin, Shiva realised what had happened, and opening his third eye, he sent out a beam of fire that incinerated Kama. Shiva returned to meditation.

Parvati, now deeply in love with Shiva, knew that he is touched by her but not willing to give in to his feelings. She knew that she couldn’t ‘have’ Shiva unless she cultivates in herself the qualities of stillness, stamina and devotion. She realised she will need to earn his love through yoga.

Parvati goes to the mountain and for a long time (hundreds of celestial years!) she dedicates herself to her yoga practice. Eventually the fire of her yoga begins to penetrate the upper worlds. Shiva in his meditation began to feel the heat, and remembering Parvati’s beauty, he sensed his unwavering devotion to her. He recognised that whilst solitary mediation has its own joy, he was now awakened to the bliss that comes from relationship. and he realises that she is his eternal lover.

shiva and parvati

Shiva and Parvati

And so Shiva and Parvati marry and consummate the divine marriage.  After years of marriage and lovemaking, the teachings of yoga emerge from their spiritual conversations. In their domestic bliss and love for each other, and in their arguments that arise, Parvati and Shiva maintain a tension of opposites.

Parvati asks Shiva questions and in doing so draws out Shiva’s insights.  Her presence inspires him to turn into himself to find words and to express truths that come from the place beyond words. In making love with Shiva, Parvati draws the transcendent formless absolute down to earth. The endless conversations are consciously offered as a gift to human beings who long for the secrets of enlightenment.

Ardhanarishvara as the Inner Archetype

The two primal powers of Shiva and Shakti are also represented in the androgynous deity Ardhanarishvara who is depicted with one side as female, and one side as male. Ardhanarishvara represents the ultimate union of Shiva and Parvati into the one unified ‘being’.

Ardhanareshvara

Ardhanarishvara Illustrator Ekabhumi Charles Ellik

The right side of this androgynous ‘being’ wears a tiger skin, has matted locks and carries a trident. The left side has sinuous curvaceous belly,  full breasts, wearing a delicate skirt lotus flower.  In this way, the left side of the body represents the feminine (Shakti) and the right side the masculine (Shiva).

Symbolic Meaning of the Mythological Archetypes

The mythology of Shiva and Parvati can be understood at many different levels as an inner archetype and as a role model for relationships.  In this way the stories offer us an understanding of wholeness, completion and union within ourselves, as well as a model for understanding dynamics within relationships.  As the guiding deities of yoga, Shiva and Shakti gift us the power of transformation and liberation.  They offer us a  path to union whether we are looking at it from the individual path of the yogini/yogi, or the path of relationship.

Balancing the Masculine and Feminine within

The Parvati and Shiva love story and Ardhanarishvara deity symbolise a powerful stage of embodied enlightenment. They represent the inner journey to wholeness. It is a metaphor for the cosmic truth that reality is a duality and that in unity it is a dance of polarities.

Ardhanarishvari  - Art work from Exotic India Art

Ardhanarishvara: Union of Shiva and Shakti Art work from Exotic Art India (www.exoticindiaart.com)

Shiva and Parvati (Shakti) represent the ‘divine masculine’ and ‘divine feminine’ as cosmic energies that are within us, both men and women. The ‘concept’ of Shiva and Shakti can take us beyond the polarities of gender as well as the limited and skewed cultural definitions of masculine and feminine. It can take us beyond gender wars to understanding the divine feminine and masculine within men and women.

It shows that if any one side of ourselves remain in the shadow, we do not live a life of fulfilment. As many of us know, when we fall in love, there can be a mirroring of falling in love with those qualities that we haven’t as yet discovered or grown in ourselves. If there are imbalances in the masculine and feminine within, the potential is for this to play out and project into our relationships with others.

The Divine feminine – evolutionary power. 

Tantra, unlike the majority of contemporary religions, has a deep respect for the feminine as a spiritual authority. Interestingly, Shiva is often referred to as the ultimate man, symbolising the ultimate masculinity. However, Ardhanarishvara shows us that half of him is a fully developed woman, showing that it is essential for men (and women) to consciously nurture and celebrate the feminine (and the masculine) (Sadhguru, 2014).

The Parvati and Shiva love story shows that Parvati (Shakti) is Shiva’s capacity to express himself in action and that without her, he is inactive, inert. She is the divine feminine that is behind action – the force of evolution in the cosmos as well as internally in our own bodies and lives. Without Shakti, the awareness of Shiva remains transcendent, and does not engage nor help us in the ‘worldly’ plane. His spirituality has no role in worldly affairs. Parvati on the other hand is grounded in the world.

Shakti is the transformative energy behind all evolution. Shakti is fluid, flowing and powerfully flexible. Shakti energy can be wildly sensual, raw and expressive.  In the process of transformation, Shakti takes form as a passionate urgency that inspires us to step beyond apparent limits and expand our consciousness.

Shakti can play out as thoughts, emotions, ideas and inspirations. In mediation, she manifests as visions and insights and feelings of bliss. It is Shakti who helps us embrace (not suppress!) our human desires and our sexuality as an important aspect of our spirituality.

Shakti not only compliments Shiva, she completes him.

The divine masculine: conscious awareness

Shiva represents Absolute Consciousness or Absolute Reality. He is the transcendent aspect of consciousness. Shiva, remains outside and beyond all worldly affairs, and is the unchanging knower, the witness-awareness that both observes and contains the dance of life.

The nature of Shiva energy is steadfast, stable, peaceful, strong and totally unmoved with complete presence. Shiva represents the state of being unmoved by pain or suffering brought on by the external world. He is centred, grounded and compassionate.

Shiva’s consciousness can bring us the divine masculine qualities of stability and calmness, inner strength and spaciousness, direction and freedom. When we sit in meditation, cultivating clear presence and purpose, we are resting within our inner Shiva nature.

Shakti without Shiva is uncontrollably wild.  Shakti’s energy is focused by the masculine qualities of awareness. Awareness allows the feminine to see herself and give containment and direction to her energy. Without Shiva, the power of Shakti has no support or receptacle to hold its energy within us.

Balance and union of the masculine and feminine 

If we don’t see how to make both the masculine and feminine find equal roles to play in our lives (and society) we will live incomplete and unbalanced lives. Shiva and Parvati stand for the union of stillness and power, wisdom and bliss – the yogic merging of energy with spirit.

It is only when the masculine and feminine are in balance within can a human being live a life of fulfilment. For full creative empowerment the masculine and feminine polarities need to come together. Only when Shiva and Shakti combine can action, movement and creation arise. Shiva holds space for Shakti to move through; Shiva gives direction to Shakti’s shape-shifting energetic flow. We need the stability of linear focus of the masculine to merge with the inspiration and aliveness of the feminine.

When the god and the goddess come together in the individual and the collective psyche we experience the inner sacred marriage: the integration of spirit and feminine heart; intellect and feeling; freedom and fullness.

Awakening the Shiva and Shakti, the God and Goddess, the Yogi and the Yogini within us, we can set in motion all the dynamic currents of inner growth and transformation allowing their energies to spiral within us along their natural ascent into the Infinite. Frawley, 2008: 37-38

A Role Model for Relationships

Shiva and Shakti offers us a role model for contemporary relationships. This can be important as for many of us we do not necessarily have role models of successful relationships in our lives. It also offers a model for those who want to live a spiritual life in partnership. It is not limited to heterosexual relationships. It can be can be lived out in same-sex couples and in relationships where partners interchange their masculine and feminine roles.

The Shiva Parvati story represents the union between the fully realised feminine and the fully realised masculine. When Shiva and Shakti are alive and well in our internal world, when two people meet, they don’t need to project their life force (Shakti) or their consciousness (Shiva) onto the other.

The story highlights an important outcome for romantic love. It describes a relationship in which yoga, inner knowing, and self-cultivation are natural to the lovers. Both are complete in themselves, yet they also complete each other. Free to come together from a place where the masculine and feminine, awareness and energy, are incarnated and embodied equally. This in turn allows for deeper relationship and for greater fullness in each individual.

The story also tells us that the task of the inner life is not to separate spirit from its body and the world, as many mystical and religions traditions teach.

In traditional Indian life there has been an opposition between the ascetic yogi and spiritual seeker who withdraws from the world in order to realise his nature as spirit versus the householder who entangled in domesticity. Traditionally the demands of the world, epitomised by family life are diametrically opposed to the spiritual path and the path of the artist. It is often said that the mystic and artist need solitude and disengagement for the practice of their discipline.

In traditional religions, sexuality has not only been not embraced, it has been actively suppressed. Unlike these duality-based spirituality, where the human and the divine are separated, Tantra holds that both body and soul is made of the divine and thus embraces all of our bodily desires.

The story of Shiva and Parvati is a tale of learning to live a spiritual life in unity with another, whilst dancing out the ecstasy of relationship, an ecstasy that is a rhythmic dance between unity and separation, passion and detachment, movement and stillness.  The ultimate marriage of spirit and body, wisdom and love, detachment and adoration so that the spirit and body can exist in in harmonious balance and infuse divine awareness into the worlds.

Shiva is the eternal drive for freedom, the yogi/yogini’s need to disentangle him/herself from the world. Parvati/Shakti on the other hand is the drive toward expressive fullness- emotion, rhythm, endless creativity (Kempton 2013)

Tantra Yoga the Union between the Divine Masculine and Divine Feminine.

Bringing a Tantric perspective to our daily life and yoga practice we can become aware of the dance of the divine masculine and divine feminine within and between us,

Ardhanarishvara Shiva Shakti - Artwork from Exotic Art India

Ardhanarishvara: Union of Shiva and Shakti Art work from Exotic Art India (www.exoticindiaart.com)

The deities add a richness to Yoga practice, both in terms of knowledge and energy. Once we establish a connection with Shiva and Shakti as deities inside ourselves, they can become our inner teachers and can guide us directly along our path. We begin to see their workings in all of life and nature which can bring great healing and awareness.

Yoga practiced in this way can bring greater balance to the two sides of our whole nature. We can marry the Shiva/God/Masculine and Shakti/Goddess/Feminine within ourselves. Being aware of and awakening the Shiva and Shakti in our yoga practice enables us to unite the masculine and feminine qualities of our nature.

Parvati shows that if our desire is strong enough, we make a full commitment to a transformative practice. Her yoga practice is not just about personal attainment or self cultivation, its all about love!

Three Practices to invoke and embody Shakti and Shiva 

1. Yoga asana practice

You can bring the wisdom of Shiva and Shakti in an asana yoga practice by being aware of and embodying the qualities of the divine masculine and divine feminine.

For the masculine, cultivate awareness of your bodies strength, structure and alignment. Observe the breath and awareness of your body in the poses.

For the feminine, a flow practice can awaken your sensuality, feelings of bliss and playfulness.  Be creative, and allow the body to follow its own creative movements that awaken feelings of bliss and pleasure.

Play music you love to inspire your practice. Here is a Shiva Shakti Playlist with some Kirtan chants to awaken Shakti and Shiva in your practice.

If you would like to learn some specific yoga and tantric practices to cultivate Shiva and Shakti in your yoga and you life, please see my Shiva and Shakti workshop.

2. Meditation

This is a really simple meditation to awaken the dance between Shiva (the stillness and presence) and the Shakti (the flow) of the breath.

  • Come to your comfortable sitting position for mediation.
  • Grounding your body, feel the connection of your base to the earth.  Lengthen the spine.  Feel the connection of the crown reaching up to the sky.
  • Bring your awareness to your breath.  Begin to notice the space between the inhale and the exhale.
  • Hold your breath for a fraction of a second between the inhale and exhale focusing on the space at the end of the inhalation and end of exhalation.
  • Let go of the hold, and now meditate on the space/pause between breaths.
  • Relax into the flow, continue focusing on the space, the void, the stillness and the space between the breaths.

3. Savasana and guided relaxation

This guided imagery is adapted from the Shiva and Parvati mediation from Sally Kempton (2013) on Shiva and Parvati.

  • Lying down in Savasana, begin to observe the different sensations in each side of the body. Begin by bringing awareness to what is arising.
  • Now, begin to visualise the left half of your body as Shakti and the right half as Shiva.
  • Imagine that the left half of your body is filled by the divine feminine as Goddess Parvati. Sense the qualities of the goddess in that half of your body: beauty, devotion, playfulness,, charm, sweetness, nourishing love, erotic tenderness, gracefulness, feminine strength.
  • Imagine the right side of the body is filled with the divine masculine in the form of Shiva. Feel his energy in your body. Sense his qualities of stability, steadiness, penetrating intellect, clarity of vision, peace, vastness, ruthless swiftness, masculine strength.
  • Let you attention move from the feminine side to the masculine side of your body. Notice the difference. Feel these two sides of the divine nature held within you. Sense them held in balance in your own body. The masculine and feminine in union within your body. The balance of masculine and feminine in your own being.

Biography

Ellik E.C. (2015) The Shakti Colouring Book: Goddesses, Mandalas and the Power of Sacred Geometry.

Frawley, D (20018)  Inter Tantric Yoga. Working with the Universal Shakti: Secrets of Mantras, Deities and meditation.  Lotus Press.

Kempton, S. (2013) Awakening Shakti: the Transformative Power of the Goddesses of Yoga. Sounds True.

Kempton, S (2013) Shakti Meditations: guided practices to invoke the goddesses of yoga. Sounds True.

Sadhguru (2014) https://isha.sadhguru.org/us/en/wisdom/article/ardhanarishvara.

Featured Image:  Shiva and Shakti Artwork by Vrindavan Das.(https://www.vrindavanart.com)

 

© 2019 Jane Mallick. All rights reserved.

 

Dhumavati the Goddess of Peaceful Surrender through Disappointment and Loss

Welcome to my latest blog on the Mahavidya wisdom goddesses of yoga. Today I introduce Dhumavati, the grandmother spirit, the old crone, and the elder of the goddesses.

In the post that follows, I will:

  • give an overview of the symbolism from mythology.
  • point out where we can see the presence of Dhumavati in our lives.
  • explore what she has to offer us on a path of yoga, including the blessings/boons that come from awakening and embodying this goddess.
  • share 5 yoga practices for you to do at home to awaken the gifts of Dhumavati.

If you would like to read my earlier blogs including the background of practicing with these goddesses of yoga, please see Kali and Lakshmi/Kamalamika.

But first, a background on what has lead me to explore this goddess

I didn’t plan to write my next feminine yoga blog on Dhumavati. To be honest, I have shied away from practicing and teaching with this particular wisdom goddess. Let’s face it, the old, lonely crone is not very appealing…at least at first glance.

In the recent months, Dhumavati (and her crows!) have flown into my life with what feels like a divine gift. Her presence has helped me navigate major life challenges, in particular the grief, that is arising from a few situations in my personal realm. Recently, I have been holding space for my 80 year old mother’s last stages of dementia as well as for my teenage son’s chronic illness and subsequent darkness of the soul.

These events have come on top of 6 years of major disappointments and losses for me and my family. In recent years, we have also suffered: my adrenal stress breakdown in a corporate career, my father’s death, my son’s diagnosis of Diabetes 1, and my husband’s diagnosis, treatment and recovery through cancer.

I have found practicing with Dhumavati to help me in many ways. Most importantly, she has helped me to navigate the layers of grief that are arising from my family’s trials. I felt a strong impulse to write this blog because of the profound experiences and support I have received from working with this goddess during this time. I have also begun to teach her wisdom in my yoga classes and workshops.

Dhumavati’s greatest gift is the transmutation of disappointment, failure, loss and grief. She is the goddess we can call on when we are navigating the ‘void’ within life’s disappointments. She is especially powerful during the big losses such as relationship breakups, chronic illness and death.

Dhumavati can help us not only ‘be with’ these challenges, but practicing with her can help transmute these experiences into wisdom and peace. In essence, through suffering we can learn compassion, patience, tolerance, perseverance, understanding and forgiveness.

I would like to add, whilst I have found yoga to be hugely beneficial to dealing with the pain and loss, it can at times be a journey. It is important to seek professional psychological support if you are embarking on exploring the terrain of disappointment, loss and grief as outlined in this blog. In the ‘yoga world’ we need to be mindful of the ‘spiritual bypass’ which can be the tendency to jump to spirit prematurely, usually in an effort to avoid the difficult shadowy aspects of being human in our earthly reality. It can of course be tricky to explore the shadow world on one’s own, as by its nature it is hidden, and has in my understanding been built up out of our our deepest fears, and a need for self-protection.

Who is Dhumavati, the Archetype, and Why is She Important to Us?

As with all of the goddesses, examining the iconography of Dhumavati can help us gain a better understanding and connection to her energy. We can then invoke her wisdom into our embodied yoga practice.

Dhumavati is the grandmother spirit, the crone, the widow. She is the elder amongst the 10 Mahavidya goddesses and is an ancestral guide for the other younger goddesses. Here she is pictured as the 7th Goddess from the left in a stalled chariot with her crow.

The Ten Mahavidyas

The Ten Mahavidyas Artist Rabi Behera (from http://www.exoticindia.com)

Each of these goddess archetypes are a part of our psyche and lives. Some are more prevalent during different ‘seasons’ of our lives and some may be laying latent and unexpressed waiting for us to discover their power when the time is right. I want to point out that we are able to awaken any of the goddesses regardless of our own age and stage of life. We do not need to be older women to invoke and receive the boons of practicing with Dhumavati, just as we do not need to be sixteen to invoke the goddess Tripuri Sundari!

In the next section, I will unpack some of symbolism and meaning of Dhumavati including: her name ‘the smoky one’ and the portrayal of her as the crone – an old ugly widow who is alone, with just a crow for company, sitting on a stalled chariot with a winnowing basket.

Dhumavati – ‘The Smoky One’

dhum means smoke, hence, Dhumavati means ‘smoky one’, the one who is composed of smoke. The symbolism of smoke is paradoxical, as is the power of Dhumavati.

At one level, the experience of hardship and suffering, or the ‘smoke’, can cloud our vision and understanding. Her smoky darkness can take us into the clouds of pain and difficulty that accompany disappointment, loss, ageing, illness and death. These circumstances can seem to block out the light causing us to feel lost and bereft.

On another level, her smokiness is a gift. Dhumavati’s gift is obscuration. By obscuring all that is known, she reveals to us the depth of the unknown and the un-manifest. The smoke offers us the capacity to reveal a deeper truth beneath the illusionary world of our current state of awareness. Dhumavati helps us to let go of attachments to perceptions by looking through the smoke screen and revealing what is underneath or beyond. When we can finally see what is hidden, it can bring us great freedom and a sense of deep relaxation.

Uma Dinsmore-Tuli reflects that Dhumavati can help us to see all angles of a situation, and through cultivating a sense of detachment and perspective we can gain a deeper insight. We can “see the light in the cloud… and can appreciate the power of time as a healer” p414

The Symbolism of the Crone, a Lone Widow with a Winnowing Basket on a Stalled Chariot

Most imagery of Dhumavati portray her as old, ugly, disheveled, and skeletally thin. Half of her teeth are missing, her wild hair is matted, and she wears dirty old rags. There is a sharp look on her wrinkly face. She is, in essence, a bag lady.

Below are some images of Dhumavati that I share in my yoga classes. I find using black and white images can be helpful in minimising any cultural overlay of meaning.

Dhumavati’s ugly, fearful appearance is not intended to frighten us, but instead to reveal the danger of considering sensory pleasure as bringing fulfilment. She teaches us to look beyond apparent beauty to inner truth. Teaching us the negative side of life, she liberates us from the attachment and unfolds the inner reality Frawley, 1994, p126

Dhumavati

Dhumavati and her crow. Artist: Rabi Behra (www.exoticindia.com)

As Kempton (2013) describes, Dhumavati is seen sitting on a stalled chariot which represents “the stillness of the eternal present.” Here Dhumavati exists as a potential force until the experience of suffering awakens our consciousness and provides us with the motivating, directional focus to release her immense energy.

One of Dhumavati’s hands is held in cin mudra, the gesture of knowledge. In the other hand she holds a winnowing basket. This represents the power of discrimination whereby we can separate the grain (the ‘real’) from the chaff (the ‘unreal’).  As Frawley points out, the winnowing basket represents the need to discern the inner essence from the illusory reality of outer forms.

Without passing through Dhumavati’s winnowing basket, we remain trapped by our dreams of success, our fear of loss… With her grace, we can mine the exquisite wisdom hidden in the heart of life’s most difficult moments. Kempton, 2013, p222

The basket represents her power to teach us discrimination through suffering, and how we come to understand what really matters in life. As Uma Dinsmore-Tuli describes, at the end of the sorting process we discard the chaff in the same way we learn to discard thoughts and beliefs that no longer feed life and the growth of spirit.

Dhumavati is Kali as an old woman. She is time that has passed. She gives us the wisdom to recognise that change, transience and impermanence are the only constants in life.  She give us the power to live with our presence, and the focus on what truly matters free from attachment.

In the mythological stories, Dhumavati is portrayed as a lone old woman, a widow with no male consort. She represents the power of solitude. As Sally Kempton says, Dhumavati brings great comfort in being alone, so much so that we can find that we crave time alone. It is an aloneness that is not gripped with loneliness, rather an aloneness that brings a kind of solitude that is very happy to stand outside from the game of life.

When I was 45 years old, I first experienced the wisdom of Dhumavati in my yoga teacher training. I felt the comfort and peace in being alone, holding the many deep emotions that I was experiencing with my husband’s cancer diagnosis.  I also observed that the younger women in the course (I was the oldest) did not seem to embrace this particular goddess. As Sally Kempton reflects, most young people have too much bubbly energy and an urgent desire to surrender to a path of giving up and letting go.

Dhumavati is a widow, with no male consort. This has significant meaning. In Tantra, goddesses are understood to be half of the Shiva/Shakti pair representing consciousness (Shiva) and energy (Shakti).  Dhumavati, on the other hand, is solitary. She is the only goddess of the 10 Mahavidya wisdom goddesses who does not have a male consort. In this way she can represent the unsupported feminine.

“Dhumavati is the feminine, devoid of the masculine principle. She is Shakti without Shiva, as a pure potential energy without any will to motivate it. She contains within herself all potentials and shows the latent energies that dwell within us”  Frawley, 1994 p122

Traditional practices in India advise that married or household devotees should not practice with Dhumavati. I assume that it is believed that invoking her power will dissolve marriages and relationships. However, it makes me wonder if this is yet another aspect of patriarchal culture that represses the wisdom of the wise woman.

By denying or suppressing this archetype, we sadly miss out on her profound teachings.  Now that contemporary tantric texts are available to us (including David Frawley (1994), Sally Kempton (2013) and Uma Dinsmore-Tuli (2014), the teachings of this crone goddess are readily accessible. We can more readily awaken and embrace the wisdom of the grandmother/crone into our lives and society.

The Crow

The crow is Dhumavati’s animal emblem. The crow can be seen either sitting beside her or as portrayed on a flag attached to her chariot.  In Hindu belief, crows are considered ancestors as seen during the practice of Śrāddha- the ritual that is performed to pay homage to one’s ‘ancestors’, especially to one’s dead parents. This imagery has personally brought me great meaning during this time of holding space for my dying mother in her long and drawn out experience of dying from dementia.

Below is an overview of symbolism of the crow from shamanist traditions, including that from my medicine cards (Sams and Carson, 1988). I am struck by its parallel symbolism with Dhumavati and how the archetypal symbolism of both crow and crone from different traditions bring a similar medicine and message.

The crow is associated with life, mysteries and magic. Crows are considered to be the keepers of the Sacred Law/Lore. Nothing escapes their keen sight. Just like with imagery of Dhumavati, they are often portrayed with sharp, clear eyes. Crows are also symbolic of hearing the ‘unheard’ sounds, as they can hear very low sound frequencies, that which the human ears cannot hear.

The crow can be seen as the archetype of the trickster. If you see a crow, it is thought that you should be aware of deceiving appearances.  Again, we see a parallel with Dhumavati’s ability to see through the smokescreen of illusion.

Other traditional meanings associated with the crow include: death, inauspiciousness, darkness and decay. The crow can also be a deeply powerful symbol of transmutation or transformation through death as well as the void or core of creation.

When we meditate on the crow and align with it, we are instilled with the wisdom and knowledge beyond the limitations of one-dimensional thinking and laws.

Where Can We See Dhumavati in our Lives?

As with all the goddesses, we can see Dhumavati in different aspects of our internal and external world. The more we practice with these wisdom goddesses, the more we come to see and feel their Shakti energy everywhere. In the recent months as I have practiced with Dhumavati, I have been astounded by how visceral and real the imagery has become.

I have seen crows each and every day in different circumstances, calling me to reflect deeply on this medicine.  I have journeyed with crow medicine through a number of shamanic drum journeys. Each day I see crows in my garden or whilst driving through the countryside. I see them sometimes alone, sometimes in pairs, and oftentimes in groups. I have seen them eating  dead kangaroo carrion on the side of the road. And if I am not seeing them, I often hear their call, “CAW!”

I have been harnessing the wisdom of these shamanic messages by reflecting on my thoughts or what is arising for me in the moment when I see/hear the crow, which brings greater consciousness to the moment.

Despite seeing so many of them, I have found it very difficult to take a clear photo of the crow. I have heard this from several bird photographers as well. This demonstrates to me the transient nature of this medicine, the surrendering and the letting go.

Because she is an old woman, we most obviously see Dhumavati in the elderly. We can also see her in homeless people, in the ill and in the dying. We can see Dhumavati en masse in old age homes. I have been contemplating this deeply in my recent visit to my mother’s old age home dementia ward.

My mum, Jenny Mallick, 80 years old

My Mum, Jenny Mallick, at St Annes Nursing home, April 2018, 80 years old (Photo by Jane Mallick)

As I have been immersing myself in my practice with Dhumavati, I was struck on two occasions by how the physical manifestation of this goddess can present in our body.  First, I started to feel the growth of a small clump of wiry hair growing on my chin. It felt to me as if I was growing a hairy wart on my chin, conjuring up the symbolism of a witch. Whereas in the past during my days in the corporate world I would have been horrified, I have become quite fond of this growth during these months of practice with Dhumavati.

Secondly, one of my regular students, on the night of the Dhumavati class, messaged me to tell me that she had broken a front tooth and that she was very embarrassed so she would be slipping in and out of class unseen. At the end of the class, I caught a glimpse of her after the meditation with her beautiful toothless cheeky grin beaming across her face!  In this moment she was to me the perfect embodiment of Dhumavati.

We can also see Dhumavati in the natural world. In the cycle of the moon, she is represented by the end of the moon cycle – the Dark Moon. We can tune into the energy of Dhumavati in the blackness and the void on these moonless nights.  She is further represented by the season of winter and the coldness, darkness and bareness that it brings.

Winter trees in Taradale. Photos by Jane Mallick

On an emotional level, we can feel Dhumavati in our lives when we experience loss or disappointment. She shows up especially in areas of our life that we are very ‘attached’ to. Dhumavati represents the negative aspects life: disappointment, loss, frustration, humiliation, defeat, sorrow and loneliness. She is the ‘dark night of the soul’. When all that we know is gone and we can no longer see a path forward.

It is often through external forces like illness, disappointment, endings and death that we are introduced to Dhumavati. She shows up in our bigger losses when we are in mourning and in states of depression and hopelessness. We can also experience her at any point in our own lives. All of us, at some point will experience disappointment, loss and suffering. It could happen at an early age or all at once and ultimately, all of us will meet the Dhumavati energy when we face our own deaths.

You may ask why invoke this goddess? At the surface, it hardly feels enticing. But if you look deeper, you will see that she has subtle and profound boons to share.

As Sally Kempton says in her Dhumavati Shakti Meditation:

Dhumavati might not be a goddess you choose to turn to and awaken and embody. You may not need her, nor identify with her energy right now, but know that she is here and that you can call on her as and when you need her.  Kempton, 2013

Dhumavati Medicine and Boons

I will now describe some of the gifts and boons of practicing with the goddess Dhumavati, including examples from my personal journey and that of some of my students.

The Art of Surrender

Dhumavati offers us the gift of letting go. Whilst Kali is also a goddess of letting go, in my experience Dhumavati’s medicine can be felt much deeper. Kali helps us navigate the blockages in our path and is often expressed in ferocity and anger. Dhumavati’s energy, on the other hand, is expressed in stillness and surrender.

There can be so much tension and anxiety in trying to control aspects of our life.  Dhumavati can show us that when we let go of control of expectations and outcomes, we can experience a profound sense of peace.

As a highly anxious person, I have spent many years of my life trying to control many aspects of my life. This all changed during my mid-life crisis, where a whole series of events, one by one, called me to let go and surrender. I have found that the only way through these challenges has been to let go of expectation.

The first time I experienced the power of letting go is when I left my corporate job and I had to release the identity that I had spent years building. In the end I found peace in letting this identity fall away to a point where all that remained was my deeper self.

More recently, practicing with Dhumavati has helped me let go of anxiety as well as control of my son’s health. I know intellectually that it is part of his rite of passage as an adolescent to navigate his own life journey, including his chronic health challenges. But, as a mother it is one of the hardest things to see our children suffer. My practice with Dhumavati has been a key medicine for me to navigate this time of transition in our relationship.

After my yin yoga class with Dhumavati, one of my students (M.W.) shared with me how she experienced the goddess’ medicine.  As an older woman practicing with the archetype of the crone goddess very much resonated with her.  She described how in the week prior to the class, she had had a really difficult week, one in which she had held herself to unrealistic expectations.

Our practice with Dhumavati helped her to recognise and accept her own wisdom, whilst helping her to let go of the expectations and subsequent punishing thoughts.  In doing so, she felt a greater acceptance of what is, as well as a deep peace and understanding. She described feeling more room for acceptance of herself and others, and for life in general.

Dealing with Disappointment, Loss and Grief

Dhumavati is the goddess that helps us navigate the ‘negative’ aspects of life.  She represents the good fortune that come to us from misfortune – the auspiciousness that can arise from inauspiciousness.

“Disappointment is a multilayered teacher. Not many of us would choose to apprentice with her, yet sooner or later, most of us do. People disappointment us, luck runs out, status declines, strength fails us. Then the goddess Dhumavati flies into our awareness, accompanied by her crow, a harbinger of worldly misfortune, who ironically also bestows the inner gifts of detachment, emptiness and freedom. Kempton, 2013, p221

To be able to receive the gifts of disappointment and loss is a rare skill and not something that we are necessarily willing or choose to open to. This is where Dhumavati is a valuable guide, a helpful medicine for us to invoke in our yoga and our lives.

All of us have experienced disappointments and loss in some way or form: relationships break down, we or our loved ones suffer from illness and people around us die. All too often, the grief associated with loss gets tucked away, often pre-emptively, and we move on. We are often encouraged (or required) to return back to the functioning world. Grief can become lodged and stuck. This can limit our ability to grow and move forward in life. It can limit our ability to love.

Yoga asana can be a powerful tool for connecting with these deeper emotions that are held within the body. As we open the energy in the body, emotions can be free to move.

I often find that emotions are unlocked through my yoga practice. In my early days of practicing yoga at an ashram in London, I recall a class where practicing Cobra/Bhujangasana opened a huge amount of tears and emotional release for me. I also remember there was no acknowledgement nor checking in with me from the teacher, which for me established the tone that the expression of tears and emotions were not welcomed into the yoga.

Since then, after practicing many styles of yoga and feminine embodied practices, I now embrace and move with the emotions as they arise adapting the practice to what is needed in the moment. Practice with Dhumavati has further helped me to be with and enter further into the layers of grief.  Dhumavati can bring a reverence to the sorrow and disappointment that we can feel.

I have found as I surrender to the feelings of grief and sadness, the wave of tears flow. The tears last for few minutes, followed by a sense of peace and stillness that arise after emotion has fully moved through. I also notice the attachments and perceptions in the stories of these past experiences begin to dissipate.

Seeing Truth Beyond the Illusion

Dhumavati as the ‘smoky one’, helps us see through the illusionary world, taking us inward to reveal a deeper truth. She invites us to be with the deeper inner reality, and can help us transmute desire leading us to experience deeper truth and wisdom.

This year, I burnt a massive bonfire for Samhain, from trees and branches that had fallen during a ferocious storm last summer. Samhain is a traditional Northern European festival that marks the beginning of winter. I made a Dhumavati ceremony of it.

As I burnt the bonfire, I was alone calling in and meditating on Dhumavati to hold me, in my holding of my mother’s dementia, my son’s illness, and the layers of grief that were coming up for me. I drummed my medicine drum. I spent time gazing into the smoke.  I watched the smoky translucent layers that dance around. I watched as they disappeared and then reappeared. I saw the dance between the flames of Kali, burning away the old, and the smoke of Dhumavati.

Photos by Jane Mallick. Samhain 2018: Dhumavati ceremony.

Through this practice I experienced deep and gentle waves of grief that moved through me, followed by deep feelings of peace. At the end of the ceremony a rainbow appeared. To me awakening the deeper beauty that lies beyond our illusionary world.

Finding Peace in the Void

Dhumavati is the void, where all forms have been dissolved and nothing can any longer be differentiated. When what we have known no longer applies.

As Sally Kempton says in her Dhumavati Shakti Meditation “In any creative, growth process or change process, there is a difficult but necessary stage of void. All efforts have been fruitless, nothing is working. You know there is further to go, but you don’t know how to get there”.

The void is often felt or described as darkness, as is the Dhumavati energy. However as Frawley points out the void can be a Self-illumining reality, free of the ordinary duality of subject and object. It is not just emptiness, but rather it is the cessation of the movements of the mind.

The black void

The Black Void. Photo by Jane Mallick   I ‘accidentally’ took this photo during my recent Samhain ceremony.

Practicing with Dhumavati can help us to sit and be ‘with’ the void, the not knowing.  She can help us to look within, into the darker, shadowy, more painful aspects of life. Her form is not pleasant or appealing, but rather shows us the dark shadow of the world so that we are no longer entranced by its superficial joys.

When we sit in the unknown, in the void, what can arise is a knowing from a deeper place of wisdom. Dhumavati can reveal to us the imperfect, the transient, unhappy and confused state of ordinary egotistic existence so that we can then transcend it.

As both Frawley (1994) and Kempton (2013) point out, if your goal is to move deeply into meditation consciousness, Dhumavati is an essential part of the journey to awakening.

From Dualistic Thinking to Greater Wisdom and Freedom.

We live in largely a dualistic world. Dualism is defined as the conceptual division of something into two opposed or contrasted aspects, or the state of being so divided. (English Oxford Living Dictionary). Dualistic thinking can contribute to great suffering in our modern world.

Non-duality, on the other hand, is a state of consciousness in which the dichotomy of I-other is transcended. Non-dualistic teachings and meditation/contemplation practices can be seen in many eastern and western spiritual traditions.

Dhumavati offers us a powerful window into the transcendence of duality. In my yoga teacher training, I recall being so inspired and awakened by the Dhumavati practice and my experience of the embodiment of non-duality through the yoga asana, meditation and contemplation practices. I had a clear vision of how much of a struggle and how exhausting the dualistic western mindset had been on me, my body and my life.

Through meditating and invoking Dhumavati, we can cultivate a sense of detachment from our possessions, relationships and identities so that we can experience a deeper truth. We can cultivate a ‘birds eye’ view from the perspective of the higher self, looking down at the parts that play out in our lives. Just like the crow’s sharp and wise perspective!

Dhumavati can also give us the paradoxical wisdom of forgetting. I was struck when I last visited my mother in her last stage of dementia,  She can no longer talk nor move and her functional memory was lost years ago. Whilst this may seem a very scary existence, on this visit I found peace in how free she was from attachments to the world.

This can be a refreshing viewpoint for us as we age, and find our sharp mind and or memory fading. In later life, when we review our many decades of accumulated experiences, we can choose to let go of or forget the aspects of our lives that bind us to a limited understanding of who we really are. We acquire the discriminative power to choose to forgive and forget those experiences and people who distract us from a purer state of being.

Summary of Dhumavati’s Boons

On the path of awakening, there will be many times when we are called to ‘die’, to let go of someone, or something.  At these moments she is there, holding out her hand to guide us through disappointment, loss and grief and showing us that there can be peace and freedom on the other side.

Dhumavati takes us down into a cave of the soul, and when we follow her, she shows us the spring that bubbles up out of the empty places of the heart. Kempton, 2013, p 227

So I would like to finish with a reflection from one of my students in her recent discovery of the archetype of Dhumavati.

“From the moment I saw an image of her, I felt a strange connection to her. I liked that she was alone, and often seen riding on a crow. Perhaps it was because I often walk alone, only accompanied by crows.

Unlike the other goddesses, she was ordinary looking (with 2 arms!) – and not beautiful like Lakshmi, or fierce like Kali or talented like Saraswati. She is the goddess of misfits, freaks, losers and outsiders, which in a time when social conformity and conservatism seems rife, sits and suits me well.

She is sometimes seen holding a winnowing basket, to sort the grain from the chaff. I enjoy this no-nonsense approach – her age and wisdom giving her the ability to cut through the crap! At this stage in my life I have found myself without any elders, and this is an absence I am keenly aware of. Dhumavati, to some extent, fills this space.

I have been through many struggles and challenges in the past decade, which seem never ending. Dhumavati taught me, that instead of asking ‘Why Me?’ or ‘What have I done to deserve this?’ or ‘How can I change these things?’ that when everything else around me break downs or is taken away it may be better to surrender and yield and instead focus on caring for my inner equilibrium.” L.D.

5 Practices to invoke the wisdom of Dhumavati

1. Mantra

The repetition of a mantra can be a way to invoke the energies of the goddesses.  I know that some feel uncomfortable with repeating a Sanskrit mantra, so maybe you would prefer the English mantra:

Let Go

Letting Go can be Dhumavati’s simplest and deepest medicine.

If you would like to use a Sanskrit mantra, here is an easy and accessible mantra:

Dhum dhum dhumavati svaha

Dhum as ‘smoke’, to obscure. This mantra can obscure or darken our perception and any false light. And then as we ‘see’ through the smoke we can gain access to a deeper inner truth.  Smoke can also invoke a protective smoke that shields us from any negativity.

2 . Meditation: smoking ritual and/or sound meditation

Smoking ritual:  Create some form of a ritual around fire and smoke.  You could burn a fire, if you have a place to do so. Create smoke or smudging.  Or you could simply light a candle and observe the smoke.

The practice could include gazing into the smoke and gently holding in your mind the sorrow or disappointment you feel.

3 Yoga asana practice

Yin Yoga is a wonderful practice for working with Dhumavati. You may like to include any of the lung and large interesting meridian postures with a focus on looking inward, surrendering and letting go. For example, open wing/scorpion pose, sphynx or seal pose, and full forward fold/caterpillar pose.

4. Exploring the imagery of Dhumavati

Find an image of Dhumavati. Maybe one of the images here in this post, or search and find an image that resonates with you.

Print this out and put it on your alter, or a place at home or work that you will see the image often.  Be curious…

  • what do you see?
  • what is invoked when you see and feel into the image of Dhumavati?

5. Yoga nidra practice

We can awaken and embody Dhumavati when we practice yoga nidra, savasana and deep sleep, whereby we consciously practice letting go, surrendering and entering the void.

Yoga nidra is a particularly powerful Dhumavati practice. It is, in essence, an awake and conscious sleep where we are guided back through the layers of consciousness to the pre-creation experience of pure bliss, to a time before our consciousness became identified with names, forms, distractions and illusions. Yoga nidra can give us the capacity to detach from all that is extraneous and irrelevant and instead connect us with a deeper truth and reality.

Uma Dinsmore-Tuli suggests that including the Dhumavati energy in our yoga nidra practice can help us to face our own mortality, and in essence to prepare for our death.

Please note: if you don’t have a yoga nidra practice already, you may like to explore the many free practices on Insight App. I recently found this yoga nidra Healing Darkness for Sleep by Jennifer Piercy, that feels to me like a Dhumavati practice. 

You can use the following instructions next time you settled down to a yoga nidra practice, savasana, or  you can even practice this before going to sleep at night. I personally have found this profound practice to cultivate relaxation, and an embodied peace and acceptance.

Instructions: (adapted from Uma Dinsmore-Tuli)

  • Imagine that you are laying down your bones for the last time.
  • As you experience the heaviness, sense your dead heavy bones returning down to the earth.
  • As you experience lightness, sense your lifeless body going up in smoke, wafting high into the sky.
  • Now, spend some time alternating between these two experiences.
  • Through this process you may like to reflect on the reality that no matter how strong and healthy your body is, at some point we have to leave aside this physical vehicle.
  • It makes sense to bring this awareness of being in deaths anteroom to consciousness, and to get intimate with the inevitability of death and of our mortality.

Bibliography

Brown, J (2014) 10 ways to bypass the realElephant Journal  21 March, 2014

Frawley, D. (1994) Tantric Yoga and the Wisdom Goddesses. Lotus Press.

Kempton, S. (2013) Awakening Shakti: the Transformative Power of the Goddesses of Yoga. Sounds True.

Kempton, S (2013) Shakti Meditations: guided practices to invoke the goddesses of yoga. Sounds True.

Sams, J and Carson, D (1988) Medicine cards: the discovery of power through the ways of animals. Bear and Company.

Taylor, L (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.

Uma Dinsmore-Tuli (2014) Yoni Shakti: A woman’s guide to power and freedom through yoga and tantra. Yoga Words.

 

 

 

The Magic of Menopause and how Yoga can Support your Transition

Commonly associated with hot flushes, erratic menstruation, insomnia, exhaustion, dry skin, angry outbursts, and more, menopause tends to be a life event that we dread rather than look forward to. Not all women experience symptoms,  some women have many, or more extreme, symptoms. Only a minority of women sail through with little or no side effects.

Whilst I have experienced and continue to experience many of these ‘symptoms’, I can also say that menopause has been, and continues to be, the greatest healing and awakening period of my life.

Menopause is defined as the absence of menstruation for 12-months and peri-menopause refers to the transition preceding this phenomenon. For the purposes of this article, I will be using the term menopause to include both the peri and the menopause stages. As I write this, I am currently menopausal, having not bled now for 2.5 years. I am still very much navigating this awesome transition.

Menopause is a significant rite of passage. Similar to the adolescent transition, where a girl enters womanhood with her first bleed, when a woman stops bleeding, it is both the end of the reproductive phase of her life and a significant entrance into the second half of her life.

At her first period a girl meets her wisdom, through her menstruating years she practices her wisdom, and at menopause she becomes her wisdom

– Native American saying

For some women the passage can be smooth sailing. For others is can herald a time of great change. Regardless of our individual experiences with this inevitable journey, self-care is absolutely critical during this time.

A Time of Crisis and Awakening

Menopause can be a time of crisis. This doesn’t necessarily make menopause a terrible thing. The Chinese name for crisis is Wei-Chi and is depicted as both a danger and a time of opportunity. Viewed from this perspective, menopause can also be seen as an opportunity for growth.

Christiane Northrup, a medical doctor and menopause expert, refers to menopause as the “mother of all wake up calls” whereby anything that a woman has “swept under the carpet” will surface as an opportunity to heal and resolve. Midwife and women’s mysteries expert, Jane Hardwick Collings (2016), refers to menopause as “a labour and a birth” – a rebirth of the new wise version of a woman.

“After working with thousands of women going through this process, as well as experiencing it myself, I can say with great assurance that menopause is an exciting developmental stage—one that, when participated in consciously, holds enormous promise for transforming and healing our bodies, minds and spirits at the deepest levels” (Christiane Northrup, 2012)

Whilst menopause in its most basic definition is a change in reproductive hormones and the subsequent cessation of menstruation, these hormonal changes can have significant affects on all areas of our lives including our physical health, emotional life, relationships, careers and spirituality.

Personally, as well as professionally with women I have worked with, I have found menopause to shine the light on what is no longer working or is no longer aligned with a woman’s truth. It can be a turning point where we re-evaluate the first half of our life, looking to choose how we will live the second half. This manifests differently for each woman. I have known women who started to see their relationships break down either to end or to transform into deeper levels of intimacy; women who suddenly recalled childhood sexual abuse; women who have suddenly found their careers to be unappealing and move on to a more meaningful journey; and many women after years of prioritising others start prioritising themselves, their self-care and their interests.

My own menopause was most certainly a significant personal crisis, calling me to review every area of my life. Peri-menopause started for me in my early 40s. It was heightened, I am sure, by the adrenal overload caused by a very stressful change management job in the city. My manager, who herself had tried natural methods of managing her menopause, suggested that I would need to “go on Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) to be able to keep up with the boys”.

This moment was a key turning point for me. As a life long advocate of natural medicine, I was never going to consider taking HRT. The feminist in me was shocked that I would need to pharmaceutically drug myself to maintain a career in the patriarchal establishment.

This was nearly 10 years ago. Looking back I can honestly say that my menopause transition was one of the greatest gifts for helping me to live a more authentic and empowered life.

Medication and Menopause

In the recent past, we have been led to believe that medicating menopause with drugs is necessary. HRT was first available in the 1940s and became widely used in the 1960s for the management of menopause. Many women in my mother’s generation were medicated through their midlife rite of passage. I believe that in my mother’s case, HRT had significant consequences to her health and wellbeing.

HRT is used to alleviate the ‘negative’ symptoms of menopause, including hot flushes, night sweats, sleep disturbances, psychological issues and genito-urinary problems, as well as for the prevention of osteoporosis. On a societal level, HRT has created a way to control the natural process of a woman’s body to fit in with the societal demands and pressures.

In 2002, results from a large Women’s Health Initiative clinical trial found that HRT increased risk of heart disease, stroke, blood clots and breast cancer.  There continues to be controversy around the safe use of HRT with studies now refuting these concerns.

Many women are now questioning and looking for other ways to support their menopause naturally. We are fortunate to be living in a time where we have access to information and choices that allow us to care for ourselves holistically during the transition. Rather than simply masking symptoms, we have the tools to reclaim our lives and transition with conscious awareness into our ‘second spring’.

Yoga for Menopause

Yoga has been crucial to riding the changes in my own menopause. Because of yoga, I have been able to experience the journey with elevated consciousness and without the use of pharmaceuticals. I have turned to complimentary health practitioners several times during my transition, including Naturopathy and Chinese Medicine, but the more I develop my own personal practice and self-care routine, the less I find myself needing to rely on others for support.

I have found that the key to a healthy menopause is to support our body’s natural tendency to maintain homeostasis, as our bodies are always trying to stay in balance.  The yogic sciences including asana, pranayama (breathing exercises), meditation and Ayurveda all offer an amazing array of wisdom and practical self-care practices that can create balance during the unsettling changes that menopause can bring.

In order to maintain balance, I recommend establishing a regular daily routine that includes a selection of yogic self-care practices. You may find some more effective, more enjoyable, or easier to implement than others. The key is to start and to find in time, what works best for your body and your lifestyle.

It is important to keep in mind that self-care during menopause is not only limited to this transition. How we care for ourselves during this time sets up our habits for personal health that will carry us to the second half of our lives and into old age.

Simple Yogic Self-Care Routine

1 Align Your Sleep Cycles with the Sun

Living in tune with nature’s daily cycles and circadian rhythms is central to Ayurveda. Circadian rhythms are endogenous (internal to our bodies), but are also impacted by our local environment and external cues like day and night and seasonal changes. Aligning our own circadian rhythms with Mother Nature’s rhythms is crucial for realising optimal hormonal health. It is no wonder that western societies experience so many hormonal complications – the constant bombardment of stimuli from unnatural light, screens and devices most certainly disrupts our natural circadian rhythms. Learning to live in sync with nature’s cycles can help de-stress the mind and body and balance our over-stimulated systems.

One of the most effective changes I have found during my menopause has been to be in bed and asleep by 10pm and arise at sunrise.

A few tips for syncing your circadian rhythms with nature:

  • Try to avoid staying up past 10pm. There is an important stage of body restoration and detoxification that happens primarily between 10pm-2am.
  • It can be helpful to turn off any devices and to only expose yourself to natural light at least 1 hour prior to bed.
  • Try to wake each day with the sun and to start your day with your own self-care routine. It is best to focus on yourself before getting caught up into daily to-do lists and/or caring for others.

2 Meditation

Meditation has become an essential part my morning practice. It allows me to sit and tune in deeply to my truth and essence. Daily meditation sets me up to approach each day from a centered and connected place.

If you don’t have a meditation practice, I would recommend exploring different approaches through classes, workshops and online until you find something that works for you.

For years I struggled with meditation, as I found many approaches to be overly prescriptive or mind-centered. When I discovered a tantric approach to meditation, I felt like I had arrived home in my womanly body. The focus on breath has been a gateway into a sensual, blissful state of consciousness, which has been key for my personal healing throughout menopause. Further, my meditation practice will shift with my cycles, some mornings I will simply just sit and observe the breath moving in and out of my body.

A few tips for meditation:

  • KISS – Keep it Simple Sweetheart!
  • Practice regularly – practicing a little and often can be more effective than going to a weekly class.
  • If I am particularly distracted or agitated when I sit to meditate, I will do 5-10 minutes of nadi shadhona (alternate nostril breathing) to settle my nervous system. This pranayama technique is a very powerful stress-reducing practice and is highly recommended for menopausal women.

3 Gentle Asana Practice

Some of you may already have a yoga asana practice or some may be thinking of starting some sort of physical practice. You may find that during menopause you move away from the stronger dynamic rigorous yoga practices and are drawn more to gentle yoga styles. During menopause we are moving into the more Yin phase of our life.

A few asana practices that can be useful during menopause:

  • Vinyasa flow can be a wonderful practice for menopause to get the body moving and flowing. The strength and dynamism of the practice can vary according to how you are feeling each day and in each moment. It can be lovely to practice to feminine music to help feel the sensual flow of the body.
  • Yin yoga can be a wonderful practice for women in menopause. The stillness of the postures is a meditative practice in itself. In addition, many of the postures work with the liver and kidney meridians, which can be beneficial to support menopause.
  • Your asana practice can vary day to day. If you are no longer bleeding it can be useful to tune into the cycles of the moon, to practice a more dynamic flowing practice near the full moon, and a quieter stiller practice during the new and dark moon.
  • Whilst we can be drawn to more gentle styles of yoga during our menopause, it is important to remember that the more dynamic postures particularly standing postures build bone density, which is important for the prevention of osteoporosis.

4 Abyanga – Self Massage with Oil

Abyanga, the practice of oil self massage, is one of the most beautiful and profoundly grounding self-care practices I have found during my menopause. In abyanga, a generous amount of warm oil is gently massaged into the entire body before showering or bathing. Part of the beauty of this practice is that you don’t need to go out and buy special products – you can use commonly available oils, like sesame, coconut, olive etc. Choose organic oils where you can.

Women’s hormone expert, Claudia Welch, states that Abyanga is one of the simplest and surest ways to nourish yin energy and support hormonal balance:

“Abyanga has a profound effect of nourishing the body and calming the nervous system. The regular application of oil to our bodies can significantly allay many of the stressed and dry symptoms that can be present during menopause. Abyanga regulates sleep patterns and decreases the effects of ageing” (Welche, 2011)

On the days that I do an abyanga self massage, I feel deeply nourished, grounded and centered, and this feeling carries me through the day. Give it a try!

If you are experiencing extreme imbalances, it can be beneficial to see an Ayurvedic practitioner to determine which oil is best, and also to add prescribed ‘medicated’ herbal oils to the base oil, deepening the nourishing experience of the practice.

How to practice Abyanga:

  • Warm up a small amount of oil in a small bottle in a cup of hot water.
  • Let the oil stand for a few minutes to warm.
  • Apply the oil all over you body, starting at feet, up to your face and head.
  • Massage the oil into your entire body, beginning at the extremities working into the middle of the body. Rub vigorously in sections, with love and patience, shins and calves, knees, thighs, focusing on joints until the whole body has been massaged. Keep it up for approximately 5 to 10 minutes -the longer the better!
  • Rug up in a gown (or I like to use a Onesie!) and leave the oil on your skin for about 10 -20 minutes. I find it best to rest during this process. If I can, I will lie down and read some inspiring text. If it is a busy morning, I will make breakfast while the oil is soaking, to be ready to eat at the end of my self-care practices.
  • Enjoy a warm bath or shower. Don’t soap off the oil, just rinse with hot water.

5 Connect

Talking and connecting with others, particularly supportive women, can be very important during menopause.

A few meaningful ways to connect with others:

  • Sit in circles with women, including older women who are also experiencing menopause, can help us realise that we are not alone and that many of our experiences are shared.
  • You may find that you need counselling or therapy to deal with specific issues arising for healing and resolve.
  • Talk with your partner. Particularly if you are in a heterosexual relationship, it is important to help educate men about menopause. Let them know what you are going through, what your needs are and what to expect during your transition.

Bibliography

Jane Hardwicke Collings (2016) Menopausal Madness. Seven Sisters Workshop, Mount Martha.

Northrup, Christiane. (2012) The Wisdom of Menopause: Creating Physical and Emotional Health during the Change. New York: Bantam.

Women’s Health Initiative https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/whi/whi_faq.htm

Welch, Claudia. (2011) Balance Your Hormones, Balance Your Life: Achieving Optimal Health and Wellness through Ayurveda, Chinese Medicine, and Western Science. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Lifelong.