Examples of Women in Yoga History

Aug 31, 2018   //   by Betsy   //   Uncategorized  //  No Comments

Reverence for the female creative energy appears throughout yoga’s long history. Parts of the Vedas forbids men from performing any Vedic sacraments without his wife, and forbids men from performing the sacraments once widowed.

Another example of women’s longstanding central role in yoga history is the role of Para Shakti, the Cosmic Mother, or universal feminine creative energy in pure form. This is referenced in the Vedas, the Tantras, the Puranas and the Upanishads according to the text Bhavani Nama Sahasra Stutih (The Thousand Names of Bhavani):

Worship of the Divine as Sakti, the Supreme Mother, creative puissance, is as old as the Rg Veda. It is not an alien graft as held by some… It is a fact that is often overlooked that the major Deities with feminine appellations in the Veda are not there as ‘wives’ of Gods. Illa, Mahi, Daksina are Divine Powers in their own right. Actually there is no question here as to who is superior, the male or the female Deity. The truth is that both are the same Reality, the same consciousness in two poises. The unique position of the Divine Sakti continues in the Upanisads. Uma Haimavati, Teacher of the Gods, She who opens their eye to the truth of existence, is lauded as Supreme. The Tantras continue the tradition though in certain lines of development they install the Sakti above Siva. The Gita speaks of Para Prakrti which is none other than Para Sakti. The Puranas register a change in approach. Their nomenclatures undergo a modification, their symbolism is more opaque. Even there we have Puranas that place the Devi in a special relationship with the Deva. At times the Gods are obliged to merge into the personality of the Saviour Mother. Aditi continues to be supreme in one form or other.

From the book, Yogini, Unfolding the Goddess Within, by Shambhavi Chopra:

In Hindu thought, the Yogini represents the Yoga Shakti herself, the Kundalini, as well as the resident powers or female deities of the different chakras. The Yogini possesses the power of Yoga herself and can awaken that in others, not only generally but at any point or place in the body or mind. A man’s ability to achieve the higher states of Yoga can be facilitated by his association with such a female companion who reflects this energy…

This spiritual energy is not something that a man can extract or take from a Yogini at will. She chooses when and on whom to bestow her blessings. Her ability to enhance a man’s spiritual development depends upon her innate divinity as awakened and brought to fruition by her own yogic practices, which include envisioning herself in the forms of various Goddesses and investing herself with Their appearances and ornaments, tender and wrathful expressions, and supernatural powers for liberating beings. By conferring energy and grace upon a man – ”blessing ” or ”empowering” him – she is not weakening herself but rather sharing her energy voluntarily with one who has won her favour by meeting the various requirements that she may impose…

The Goddess is a great Yogini, devoted to Shiva, yet matching His powers. She is the embodiment of pure energy, the Mother and matrix of all manifestation, the source of all time, space and creation. As they practiced Yoga together, Shakti accepted Shiva as her Guru, and he taught her the ways of transcendent being to guide her to her ultimate liberation. Shiva in turn also accepted Shakti as his Guru, and she initiated him into his ultimate liberation through putting him in touch with the supreme power of consciousness.

Gargi Vachaknavi, a female ancient Indian philosopher who some credit with writing many hymns in the Rg Veda, is another figure confirming women’s long-standing importance in the yoga tradition. In The Yogayajnavalyka Samhita written by Sage Yajnavalkya around the 8th century BCE, Gargi challenges Sage Yajnavalkya’s understanding of the soul. Desikachar, whose text Heart of Yoga you may have read by now, translated The Yogayajnavalyka Samhita into English.

Scholar and author Vidya Dehajia cites another example of reverence for women in the form of worship of the 64 Yoginis:

The worship of 64 Yoginis is seen commonly between 800 and 1300 AD and temples dedicated to Yoginis were built during this time… In most of the well-conserved temples, the sculptures of Yoginis are intact and none of them are erotic as in other temples. This is because this cult did not believe in sex as a path to self discovery.

An example in more recent times, Ramakrishna’s wife was regarded her as an incarnation of the goddess Kali. His disciples addressed her as divine mother. If you’re interested in learning from living female yogis who some believe are embodiments of the divine feminine, please look into Mother Meera, Sri Mataji Nirmala Devi, and Amma the Hugging Saint, to name a few.

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