The yoga world needs to clear out the old patriarchal paradigm of men in a dominant position above women. Ironically, some modern day teachers (such as the embattled John Friend) rose to their fame and acclaim through the effective hijacking of a goddess tradition.
Sometimes, goddess traditions align with a corresponding post-feminist movement. Working under the guise of goddess tradition gave teachers like Amrit Desai, Friend, Kausthub Desikachar, and others the perfect ersatz sheen of fairness. I would argue that this was an abuse of power and stature. Underneath this glossy veneer festered secret lives that were held in opposition to the teachings. The aftereffects of these selfish pursuits hurt many people, caused economic hardship for the most devout of teachers, undermined yoga communities, and damaged the legitimacy of yoga as science, art, and practice.
One common feminist argument with respect to goddess worship is that when women are elevated to a superhuman stature, it in effect excuses men to live in a manner that is less than decent. This is an apparent pitfall for placing anyone upon a pedestal. Effectively, we don’t do enough to reach that pedestal, we will never reach, or we desire to reach in an effort to place ourselves above others, yet fail.
The upside of goddess worship is that it is empowering to delve into the power, beauty, wisdom, vulnerability, and definitive humanity of women. When I visited South India this past January with Douglas Brooks, I was able to witness a culture enriched in the goddess tradition. I found so much joy and comfort in experiencing a culture which portrays the value of women–even in the face of historical misogyny present in India.
I walked into a temple completely devoted to a particularly potent version of the goddess Kali, called Thillaikali. There are perhaps only a handful of scholars in the world who could authentically tell you what this temple holds, what takes place there, who all the deities are and the significance of their placement within the temple. Interestingly, even those who run the temple may give pat and superficial answers when you ask about a particular deity. What I am able to offer, based on my experience, is a description of certain aspects and of how the temple profoundly affected me.
Entering the modest Thillaikali temple, I found myself in the adbuta state of speechless wonder when I realized we were walking on a floor that appeared as a sort of red marble, yet was not. Covering the floor was dissimulated blood, a stain of kumkum powder thick enough to attach itself to your bare feet for the rest of the day. This blood in one sense represents Kali’s violent aspect as explicitly revealed in her most widely recognized form. In her 4-armed form, she is typically adorned with a necklace of skulls and a skirt of arms, holds a sword in one hand, a severed head in another–often with a bowl to collect the blood, and an open handed varada (gift) mudra (seal) in the other. Many of Kali’s devotees describe her gentleness and motherhood, yet by looking at her image this might not be your first impression. Further reflection on Kali’s ferocity may allow us to understand that her wrath springs from a deep care for her loves, and by extension for the world itself. I experienced what more all this blood might mean beyond the popular Kali lore.
After milling around the temple for several minutes, we received darshan and caught a glimpse of the inner sanctum. We stood in two lines, facing a set of closed doors concealing a larger than life Kali murti (statue), waiting for the offering ceremony to begin by the priests of the temple. When the doors opened, I felt the barriers of time fall away, and what stood before me was an image of womanhood, of all the blood ever spilled by women, every cycle, every birth, every abortion, every miscarriage, every stillbirth, every violence ever perpetrated on women, every violence perpetrated by women. She was every triumph, and every failure. She was incredibly raw and unabashedly sexual. She was covered–I mean completely covered–by kumkum powder. Before this temple, the most kumkum I had seen was a small heap in an offering bowl, where we would receive a tiny dot dabbed upon our foreheads. The utter extravagance, the abundant pouring on of the powder stunned me. It broke me open. I realized that every day, the naturalness of women is celebrated through this goddess. The sheer creative force of woman itself loomed and swelled in my mind’s eye. My imagination swelled, expanding full to spilling over with the imagery and symbology of Thillaikali that cracked my heart open. Womanhood, sisterhood, and motherhood were all there, held to overflowing in this one simple temple. I will never forget the impression that Thillaikali left upon my consciousness.
I call the mythology of overt women’s power and vulnerability forth into 2013. I will no longer accept the old conventions of patriarchal leadership. Furthermore, I am unwilling to ignore corruption of our yoga. We must not allow the merits of yoga to be sullied by the selfish whims of a few. May we draw our private sororal tendendencies forth into the world. May we bring the sorority of this culture into fruition that will bear more tolerance, more fairness. We can do this. If we don’t, who will? This is our yoga. What are we going to make of it? Join me. Men are welcome. Pull your dreams out from the internal shadows, soak them in the sunshine, shape them into a reality where you can thrive.