Yoga, Women, and Tantra: What would a ‘feminine’ yoga practice look like?
I’m writing this from the midst of a women’s yoga, ayurveda, and bellydance retreat in Bali, that I am running with my two dear friends, Carla Simone and Lakita Lynes. Every day the sun is warm and golden; the view from my villa at Nirarta Centre For Living Awareness overlooks rice paddies, a sacred mother river, and the spectacular Mt Agung. It’s far from the tourist hustle bustle of Ubud. Far enough away that when we bathe in the cool clear river, the local villagers still peer with fascination at white skin and fair hair.
The Nirarta gardens offer delightful ponds with bright lotuses, tree ferns with fronds begging to unfurl, slinky yellow-throated lizards bustling about, and colourful Balinese offerings placed in almost every nook and cranny and doorstep each day. Every morning, I return to my room from class with delight to find different kinds of fragrant flowers lovingly placed on my bed, my desk, the bathroom sink, even adorning the statue of the voluptuous, bare-breasted woman carved into the outer stone wall. It is a place overflowing with natural beauty, and enhanced by the touch of the Balinese, who know the power of beauty, of the feminine, and are not afraid to celebrate it.
It is the perfect place for us to come together as a group of women of all ages to take time out of daily life, to practice, to dance, to learn together, and to lush it up in Bali’s natural beauty. But most importantly, simply to be women together. To share personal and collective wisdom, to explore what it means to be a woman in today’s Western society, and to simply support one another as sisters, unreservedly, wholeheartedly, and with full acceptance.
So in this space I’ve been spending a lot of time reflecting on and sharing what yoga has to offer women, what yoga has to offer the experience and expression of the feminine – because most yoga as it is understood and practiced in the West today is very masculine, very ‘yang’. It seems like we’re all hooked on power yoga: turn up the heat and sweat it out, push harder, breathe louder, move faster, jump higher. You know the type… the type that has us injured and exhausted and limping home once the initial thrill has worn off.
So what would a ‘feminine’ yoga practice look like?
Yin yoga is recently being touted in studios everywhere as the feminine counterpart to power yoga: it is ‘receptive’, passive, still. It contains the principles of letting go, of non-action, of surrender…
But this understanding of a ‘feminine’ yoga keeps us confined within our painfully constricted Western view of the feminine as passive, inert, and submissive – and the masculine as active, powerful, and willful. These limited concepts hardly help us understand the dynamic expressions of the feminine that we find in contemporary Western life – the multi-tasking devoted mother, creative artist, yogini, focused businesswoman, and passionate lover. And they hardly help us develop a yoga practice that has the ability to bring us into balance, help us lead a skillful life, and guide us toward radical freedom and union: the goals of Yoga.
So how can we expand our yoga practice so that it is not a mechanical yin or yang ‘workout’, but a truly transformative practice that cultivates in us at once strength, yielding, power, devotion, surrender, wisdom and love. All held within the all-seeing embrace of blissful, crystal-clear awareness that is Shiva, the masculine.
Enter the teachings of Tantra. Not the bastardised Western sex practices kind of Tantra. The traditional Tantra that teaches that there is no hierarchy, no division between the physical and the spiritual. No differentiation between the world of humans, nature, and ‘God’. That everything – every sinew, every cell, every thought, every dust particle, every emotion, all the upheaval and all the beauty – is infused with the divine, is the direct expression of the divine. And that divine power is the feminine, is Shakti, the energy out of which everything comes to life.
In Tantra, we are offered tools and practices that bring us into intimate connection with the Hindu goddesses that Tantra celebrates as the personified expressions of the feminine energies that exist within all of us*. Amongst the most celebrated, there is Durga, the protectress and fierce warrior of love; Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, wisdom, music and the arts; Kali, the terrifying force of destruction and transformation who wildly destroys our inner demons and illusions to bring renewed life and clarity; and Lakshmi, who imbues both the worldly and the spiritual with beauty, virtue, abundance and nourishment.
From this perspective, a ‘feminine’ yoga practice is one that gives us the capacity to experience everything: the fullness of life in both the worldly and the sublime, the delights and sufferances of the body, the mind, and the emotions; the beauty and terrors of human existence, relationships, politics – and to celebrate it all as sacred, as divine, as nothing but the incredible expression of consciousness itself. It is a practice that teaches us to honour this sacred human existence with deep attentiveness and celebration.
So let us move slowly enough to pay deep attention; to build strength, endurance, devotion, wisdom, and love; to truly experience the flow of breath as the river of life that sustains and nourishes us; to celebrate the dance of body and mind with all our individual quirks and perfections and imperfections; and to develop the capacity to embrace and to be everything, without judgement and without restriction: limitless, whole and free. This is the call to action and the real potential of a ‘feminine’ yoga.
* Last year I was fortunate enough to undertake a retreat with renowned meditation teacher Sally Kempton – a fount of knowledge, wisdom, experience, and transmission on Shakti and the Goddesses of Yoga. She has recently released an incredible book, Awakening Shakti: The Transformative Powers of the Goddesses of Yoga, which will open you to the rich world of traditional Tantra, the sacred feminine, and the goddesses. This post is offered in deep reverence and gratitude to Sally and the rich offerings of her teachings, both in person and in writing. If you are inspired or simply curious, I encourage you to dive in and explore!