What the Divine Feminine Can Teach Us About Patanjali’s Yoga
The season of Navaratri has recently ended, and by spending nine nights with the three primary aspects of the feminine I entered into a softening in my perception of practice. It was as though the Divine Mother moved my body and sense organs for me toward the anchor points of practice that somehow I keep forgetting exist: the Sutras. Not often thought of in connection with the Divine Feminine, the Sutras suggest concrete means of active practice which are expressions of the Divine Mother’s qualities and aspects.
The feminine is revered not only in the embodied forms of Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati, but the qualities of Mahakali, Mahalakshmi and Mahasaraswati, also known as the gunas– tamas, rajas and sattwa. Her force is measurable in the inertia of our gross body: the dense, hungry, woundable layers of flesh and bone. She is also present in the agitation of prana: circulation, breath and thought waves. She is also sattwa or harmony, in the delicate balance of stability in the midst of change we call yoga.
To worship her, one might begin with a statue or a tapestry of her gross form, such as Kali. Often depicted as demented, always holding a weapon, painted black or dark blue, the visual is visceral and lands the practitioner in a state of particular awareness. There are qualities that I sense when I see Kali, and those qualities become my meditation. At a certain point, I can move on to a yantra, a geometric representation of the deity, which is a move toward “other,” and requires a softening of the ego. Then to mantra practice. The focus becomes subtler and subtler, moving through the elements until the “form” is what’s left in the mind. When the mind is established in a gross physical object, it is an encouraging first step until there arises more of a willingness to focus. Eventually, the object can be removed, and the mind can begin to untangle itself from the thought loop of prefrontal cortical analysis. This is described in Sutra 1.17, which describes the four stages of concentration: gross, subtle, bliss-filled and finally an awareness of Self.
Now the feminine forms each have their shadow aspect, or intrinsic paradox. I have begun to experience this shadow in the hyper-purification and over-manipulation of my body. For some time, the mechanical understanding of my joints did, in fact, allow me to refine my physical practice. At this point, however, I would argue that all of my hyper-anatomical training has become a hindrance to my practice and that juice cleansing has zero to do with feeling closer to God and everything to do with feeling guilty about fill-in-the-blank.
The physicality of an asana practice should serve a Kali-esque purpose- to cut the cord of ego. That is tapas. The real time feedback of a muscular tremor or deep internal release is the kind of sensation needed to land us in the present moment. There is nothing more present than the here and now of the physical body, which is why so many of us have favored asana – it feels good! I want the yoga high. But that is not the same thing as directing your attention toward the focal point of 1:1 breath held in trikonasana, or a contained 30 minute asana practice and 30 minutes of meditation. The fire of this kind of discipline- which can be scary, overwhelming and fierce, is what lights the way for svadhyaya to occur.
At a certain point, we have to give up the chasing after “feeling good.” Kali dissolves the world. She is the moment of reckoning, who reminds us that, while this might not feel like your favorite thing right now, I promise it is for your own good (Thanks, ma.). The practice ultimately aims to settle the mind rather than rehabilitate our rotator cuff or blast the endorphins, and we have to move through the body in order to access the mind; they are, from a physiological and metaphysical standpoint, intertwined.
As Panditji Rajmani Tigunait explains it, “Our core being, although all-pervading, omniscient, and beyond want and need, can move only with the help of the body, can perceive only with the help of the senses, and can cognize only with the help of the mind.” The practices outlined in all the Yogic texts, whichever you ascribe more authority to, ultimately end with Isvara Pranidhana – the ultimate surrender to that immutable source of being-ness. If you’re not willing to see your alambana, whether that’s your physical posture practice, or your mantra or your intellectual prowess, you’re not seeking samadhi but the little ‘s’ of self-gratification.
Lakshmi invites us into a slightly subtler phase of practice through the concept of sustenance, the give and take quality of practice. The more I meditate, the more I want to. The longer I meditate, the longer I can. The softer my practice, the more receptive I am to it. By softness I don’t mean complacency or a lack of commitment, but where Kali is the progression of Sutra 2.1 (tapah svadhyaya ishvara-pranidhana kriya-yogah), Lakshmi is the “loosening effort” of 2.47:
prayatna shaithilya ananta samapattibhyam
The means of perfecting the posture is that of relaxing or loosening of effort, and allowing attention to merge with endlessness, or the infinite.
Soften. Receive. Nourish. Adore. Let it go.
As we continue to practice, the sustainability of our efforts can be measured by invoking Lakshmi; her aspects of abundance and gifts can either be distorted into, “I’m not enough, I don’t have the strength, I can’t do that pose, OMG I need those pants,” or refined and nurtured into, “tadah drastuh svarupe vastanam” (1.3). Translation: Then the Seer abides in Itself, resting in its own True Nature, which is called Self-realization.
By attending to our practice and all that it involves (sleep, diet, relationships, finances, etc.) with reverence, we unyoke our identity from the chaotic nature of the bodymind and begin to tap into its strength and power. The reason Lakshmi is portrayed as the most effulgent, voluptuous and generous woman is to remind us that we ARE effulgent and abundant here and now. Everything we need we already have. But in our forgetfulness, chakras become bracelets and doshas become excuses for being late, and we keep wondering when we’ll arrive at the moment of Oneness.
Softening is not highly prized in Western culture, but is often named as the culprit. Astrologer and author Rob Breszny has an illuminating take on the feminine quality of receptivity:
Receptivity is not a passive state. Nor is it a blank, empty waiting around for whatever happens to come along. In urging you to cultivate receptivity, I don’t mean you should become a lazy do-nothing bereft of goals, reacting blindly to whatever life throws in front of you. Receptivity is a robust readiness to be surprised and moved; a vigorous intention to be awake to everything you can’t control.
When you’re receptive […] you have strong ideas and a powerful will and an eagerness to disseminate your unique blessings, but you’re also animated by the humble certainty that you have a lot to learn.
Our effort can never become stronger than our willingness. The practice has the capacity to refine our rough rationale into discernment – both functions of the intellect. But humans have a particular skill set when it comes to intellect: we can employ it to dissect truth from untruth, and we can wield it to perpetuate the lower, clouded, ego-based knowledge. In the Devi Mahatmya, the narrator explains mahamaya, that aspect of the feminine that is our downfall and delusion, with this passage:
“Truly, humans are endowed with the power of perception, but they are not alone, for cattle, birds, wild animals, and all other living creatures also perceive.
That awareness which humans have, birds and beasts possess also; and their awareness, humans have, too. In other ways also the two are similar.
Look at these birds. Though feeling the pangs of hunger, out of delusion they still busy themselves by dropping food into the beaks of their young.
Illustrious sir, humans long for offspring, surely expecting gratitude in return. Do you not see this?
In this very manner they are hurled into the whirlpool of attachment, the pit of delusion, by the power of Mahamaya, who produces the continuing cycle of this transitory world.” (1.51-53)
With a cultural samskara of such magnitude as “having it all,” it’s no wonder so many of us make such a seamless horizontal transition from our addictions, greediness and narcissism to our practice. My first teacher, Hala Khouri, describes just this kind of “faux-yoga” here.
In our “advancement” of yoga we’ve not only come to understand the biological science of behind the ancient art form, but have hyper-scientized the practice so that the study becomes not of the mechanics of the kleshas, but the minutiae of the gross body. We don’t have to go past our greed or grip (the shadow aspects of Lakshmi), but, as Swami Jnanaeshvara Bharati says, instead, “dodge the true meaning of Yoga so as to present it as being something other than a spiritual path, such as only health or fitness. It also allows people to avoid any sense of conflict with limited religious views that have no place for such high direct experience.”
In every yoga practice, we must eventually come to terms with our own complicity in our suffering or our success. In other words, what have we actually created for ourselves? This wisdom is the shakti of Saraswati. The process of awakening is, like the biological processes of breathing and eating, inherently feminine. It is dynamic and fluid and requires a container. This quality of balancing the physical effort with soft-eyed observance and inquiry can lead us to the serenity and creative power of Yoga. Saraswati is that creative muse, and also the embodiment of steady, sustained effort, called abhyasa. Sally Kempton describes her as the expression of “the inner work we do to hone the mind, to study, practice – the careful, rigorous effort that allows us to become a container for wisdom and inspiration.” It is in the dedication to the mundane that inspiration arrives, like the sweet flesh of a coconut. If not from years of dedicated effort, the nut is cracked by the razor-sharp edge of your knife, and sharpening a knife also takes time.
This is why Patanjali names faith, sraddha, as the first and therefore most important step for the seeker. Faith not in a blind obedience kind of way, but a deep, inner knowing that the speed bumps have value and the practice is trustworthy. For it is in the chaos that we may find the eye of the storm, the counterpoint, the awakening. As Devadatta Kali says, “she, the blessed goddess, Mahamaya, seizes the minds of even the wise and draws them into delusion. She creates all this universe, moving and unmoving, and it is she who graciously bestows liberation on humanity. She is the supreme knowledge and the eternal cause of liberation, even as she is the cause of bondage to this transitory existence, she is the sovereign of all lords.”
We must reassert the pursuit of yoga each day to establish a peace of mind which engenders adaptability and ease. The result of which is a sustained, single pointed awareness of that unchangeable place within. Tapah svadhyaya isvara pranidhana kriya yogah. And if sanskrit or the sutras aren’t your thing, the Serenity Prayer might just be the mantra to the feminine (allowing for some gentle edits): Goddess Lakshmi, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Goddess Kali, the courage to change the things I can, and Ma Saraswati, grant me the wisdom to know the difference.
By inviting the feminine into what can often be quite an austere approach to practice, there is a wave of willingness that lifts us up when “real life” cuts into our routine or softens our body, or in one way or another highlights the fact that our practice needs to change. Panditji says, “In samadhi, we know exactly who we are, in isolation from our mind as well as in association with it. We know our relationship both with the external world and with our inner world.” It is not because things are static that we know our practice is working, but because our lives are as graceful and powerful as the ocean adapting to the push and pull of our earthly existence and our cosmic capacity. Khalil Gibran wrote, “Your reason and your passion are the rudder and sails of your intellect.” In the same way, the commitment to practice and the wild wave of the Divine Feminine are the rudder and sails of your life. Jai ma.