The Divine Feminine, Cultural Appropriation and Post Lineage Yoga

The Divine Feminine, Cultural Appropriation and Post Lineage Yoga

March 2019, Kamakhya, India

I’ve never been the handstand in front of a sacred site kind of yoga girl and generally my work has not inspired a great deal, or in fact, any offence.  I am authentic and have integrity in what I do.  I do my homework, my sadhana and offer to the world work I can be proud of.  I am also a very compassionate and loving teacher and don’t often stir up negativity around me, in fact the reverse.  However, I must have been so naïve not to consider that the work I have moved into, around the topic of the divine feminine, would not at some point generate let’s say ‘differences in opinion’, especially when I am not attaching myself to a specific tantric lineage with a long established history.

After just reading ‘Burning Woman’ by Lucy Pearce I am also keen to add that maybe it is time to start not ‘pleasing everyone’ and fitting into the ‘good girl’ mould.  The world is burning, women have burned and I am in a very privileged position of actually being able to do something about reclaiming the feminine.  It scares me a lot to know that the further I go into this work the more I will be receiving critique.  Isn’t it time not to please everyone?  Although kindness and compassion are treasured values and must remain.

I was recently approached by another yoga teacher (who has never met me) who questioned me on a really wide range of issues related to work with the divine feminine.  I don’t want to say much more, but I took it as an opportunity for reflection.  In the world of yoga, I have always assumed that we all live with deep layers of ignorance that are peeling back and there’s no doubt many things to learn and explore here, including my own naïvity and standpoint but at the same time to really own my own truth and truly own my own work.

Reducing Shakti to the feminist agenda

The first issue raised by the teacher was that the new feminist agenda, the focus on yoni shakti and her practices was ‘reductionist’ or a misunderstanding of shakti and the essence of shakti.  As a simple way to look at it, in the yin yang symbol, the essences of shakti as creative life force energy is genderless and exists in a dance with consciousness.  This is clear to me intellectually and experientially.  In fact, the experience of union (such as the rise of energy through the central sushumna nadi) is both the goal and experience of yoga in a human body.  (Note a girl just stood in front of me with a yin yang tattoo on her arm, how serendipitious).  Any yoga teacher who has travelled deeply into the path of yoga will have digested this on multiple levels.  I have named our global event to celebrate women and the feminine rise as Shakti Celebration, our retreat as Awakening Shakti, as historically this is where we are and what is needed and this is the path that has opened up for me.  My own teacher Uma Dinsmore-Tuli often uses a bhakti mantra (Ya Devi from the Devi Mahatmyam) where we recognise all aspects of shakti in her diversity which has opened my eyes to the plurality of the essence of Shakti.  Working with one aspect of yoga or gender or practice or focus is not reductionist.  I would also profess that shakti is unreducable she is such a plurality of manifestation.

Shakti is wisdom,  nidra (sleep), hunger, relection, thirst, forgiveness, modesty, peace, faith, beauty, good fotune, activity, compassion, contentment, mother and delusion

Posing provocatively

The second issue was that I posed ‘provocatively’ in front in front of Kamakhya temple (one of the Shakti Peeths, or 51 important goddess temples, if not the most important). Although the exact image was never shared, I believe that the issue was this one with yoni mudra I held in front of one of the goddesses of Kamakhya.   I had not taken this to be offensive, but then it is clear that it was for the person in question.  I rarely picture myself in yogic practices online, but cannot go as far as to say that I never do so.  Should I have more carefully considered this?  Ironically, one of my main motivations for the images taken (by a young male Assamese photographer) was to capture the essence of the ecstatic and mystical experience I had just had within the temple walls (another blog!)  I’m still open on this one.  I’d like your thoughts and responses noting that this is the exterior of the temple where photos are taken all day long by domestic and international visitors alike.  But is the mudra and justaposition with the Devi offensive? Clearly not to my instragram community with very many Hindus, but still.

Seated below the goddess with Yoni Mudra, Kamakhya Temple, Assam

The Goddesses go mainstream

The work of Uma Dinsmore-Tuli has broken a lot of ground in terms yoga in general and of tantra and the divine feminine, as well as the publication of Sally Kempton’s Awakening Shakti amongst others.  The Hindu and other goddesses are now firmly in the mainstream, with workshops and meditations and dances and festivals based around different aspects of the divine feminine and associated goddess energy.  The Bali Spirit festival featured a shakti tent with a huge Kali backdrop this year.  Those offering insights into the different energies are not necessarily people who have cultural affiliation with the source or host culture of the particular goddess or with years of lineage study.  This opens up the field to accusations cultural appropriation.

The Maha Vidyas go mainstream

 The Maha Vidyas or the 10 wisdom goddesses have moved from being part of the religious practices of a very specific region of Assam to now being very well recognized in contemporary yogic circles.  Uma Dinsmore-Tuli’s modern day Yoga for Women bible ‘Yoni Shakti’ is responsible for this huge shift and one I had not appreciated the magnitude of and its impact.  When recently questioned on ‘cultural appropriation’ in a training I attended with Uma, she revealed that she has received a lot of negative response from the establishment in relation to her new framing of the goddesses, as energy manifested in different parts of the female life cycle.  Her work is quite plainly ‘post-lineage’.  She does not offer a version of the Maha Vidyas from the establishment such as the temples of North East India, more from her own direct experience and her collective and extensive knowledge and studies.  Now, people like me are sharing these concepts and learnings in classes around the world.  Yantras, Mantras, Yoga Nidras and so much more are now accessible via Yoni Shakti or in a (beautiful) deck of cards which has been released by Uma.

quote from the 15th century Hatha Yoga Pradipika

‘A yogi desirous of success should keep the knowledge of Hatha Yoga secret, for it becomes potent by concealing, and impotent by exposing’

As the 20th century and 21st century have unfolded the barriers and layers to who receives yogic knowledge and the lineage ways are facing great changes.  The biggest one for humanity being that women were given access to practices that were secluded from them for centuries.  Even the invention of the world wide web has opened practices that we couldn’t dream of having an insight into.  The big question of how spiritual knowledge should be passed down is way beyond the scope of this little blog.  Students need gurus, who know, who have had the experience to guide them on their path.  This is the ABC of yoga in many ways.  But in the 20th century, lineage has seen the huge issues of power abuses manifest all over the spectrum from Pattabhi Jois of Ashtanga Vinyasa to Satyananda to Bikram to Anusara Yoga.  We are no longer so keen to follow the rules and authentic parampara is now a real minefield.  This is not a ‘side issue’ but at the very core of the heartland of yoga and it’s followers.

The withholding of knowledge may also be just as significant as the spilling of it in terms of the history of yoga.  The democratization of yoga in terms of who ‘received it’ is relatively recent and the gurus who did so are praised and held up as shining lights (Krishnamachyra being the most obvious example) even though female disciples such as Eugene Peterson/Indra Devi were really few and far between.  The withholding of knowledge may also have created the contemporary spiritual vacuum in hatha yoga we read so much about. This is pretty much a PHd alone.  Peewee Sanchez of Yogafirst has had many discussions with me and helped shape my opinions on these points and I hope she says more on this publicly.

Spiritual knowledge and the female body

In my interpretation, one of the key offerings of Yoni Shakti is that for women, the lineage model of spiritual learning kind of ‘misses the point’ somewhat.  Housed in a female body, we have access to revelations that are on offer by nature of being female.  This is a big one.  For example, the menstrual cycle is reimagined as a source of potent knowledge and divine revelation.  Without a doubt, this is controversial as these very notions question patriarchy as a whole, and no doubt yogic lineage to some extent (the suggestion in Yoni Shakti being somewhere along the lines that all hatha yoga is just an attempt to meet the siddhis of womanhood! OK PHd no 2.

Spiritual Knowledge, study and revelation

 One of the big points of reflection here for me has been on knowledge.  As a cultural studies masters and having studied epistemology (the theory of knowledge) as part of my BA, all knowledge is definitely not equal.  When it comes to the energy of the goddess, that which truly is an aspect of the self, this raises huge questions.  The Maha Vidyas often reveal themselves to those who are deserving regardless of study time, lineage, background, gender of whatever else.  My colleague has direct experience of this.  Spiritual knowledge is not confined or restricted by years of experience, age, nationality or anything else.

It also leads me to the question of who is able to access spiritual insight and quote unquote ‘downloads’.  For sure, there are no limitations.  We may be born into samadhi (Anandamayi-ma) or be blessed with the mystical experience at any point of our lifetime.  We cannot disregard or disrespect sandhana and study, but I have noticed how my own ‘teachers’ are those that I genuinely trust have access to the gifts of spiritual knowledge not tied to a supposed lineage.  This is intuitively, something that is felt.  So, for example Uma Dinsmore-Tuli has the greatest respect for her students of any teacher I have ever met.  Her access to the insights of the Maha Vidyas is astounding only if you don’t know her devotion and respect for these energies.  Her hard work and sadhana is part of the rich picture but not the whole picture for me.  It is the great love and respect poured in that makes the work truly beautiful.  Yoni Shakti is a great gift to modern yoga and is more an expansion of modern yoga than a reduction.  It expands us into the new territory that has opened up post 20th century to move beyond the restrictive boundaries of lineage, into a more internal spirituality for women.  It is powerful, controversial but not, provocative for the sake of provocation and definitely not written to be ‘fashionable’.

Sri Yantra within Kamakhya temple

Revisiting work with the divine feminine – In the right direction?

So, to revisit, my work with the divine feminine is new ground for me and is absolutely and definitively not a move to make money or to acquire more students by following a yogic trend’.  My own understanding of the work is felt by the effects on students and the world around me.  It is through that which I shall judge if I am moving in the right direction.  The astounding loud answer to this is a huge YES.  There have been so many developments over the last few years which have been great blessings as a result of the work.  I trust my inner voice and those who have supported my 20 years of spiritual development.  The Maha Vidyas and other goddesses are here to stay in the work I facilitate.  Our gifts and powers and talents are aspects of the divine energy that move through everything in the world. We can exercise them, master our gifts through effort. But they are never ours. Tantric masters recognized that fact. They understood the power of archetypal energies. Their greatest insight, however, was to realize that all power could be traced back to a subtle sacred source. They called that shakti, or cosmic power.  The work is not ‘mine’ and is not ‘discernable’ or ‘validated’ in years or ‘tapas’ points.

All of that teaches me to be more careful about how I picture the goddesses.  More humility is required, yes this is a lesson.  It is also a point to be more aware of the impact this work has on the ‘host culture’(however right or wrong) – in our enthusiasm to share it could be easily forgotten.  This issue will start to get more and more airtime as this work spreads, Yoni Shakti is sold, more workshops are held, along with the rise of the feminine. And does anyone need to be held accountable here?  How will we judge presenting the goddess appropriately?

And whilst I would be open to learning more from the tantric lineages of Assam for example, there are a number of things which stop me.  The male dominated hierarchies are not my most trusted source of loving and respectful learning.  I trust those I am currently learning from in their authenticity and direct spiritual plug, that which I have ‘felt’.

But I will keep my doors open.  Always.

Honouress of the Divine Feminine, Kamakhya Temple, Assam

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