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
Shiva 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.
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’.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.