For people who are interested in the cultural and religious origins of yoga, the vast Hindu pantheon can be dizzying. With over 330 million gods, Hinduism’s rich system of ritual and tradition is something you may not hear about in your yoga classes depending on your teacher or practice style. And though asana in the United States is often divorced from specific religious or cultural concepts, a bit of knowledge about the roots of your practice can help you ignite it in new ways.
There may be a few deities you’re familiar with: Shiva, the lord of the dance, a creator and a destroyer; Rama, an avatar of Vishnu whose love for Sita was immortalized in the Ramayana (and the subject of a kirtan you may have heard on a Krishna Das album). And then there are the less familiar deities. One of these is Kali, an incarnation of the mother goddess Durga. Referred to as the Dark or Terrible Mother, Kali is a fierce warrior who heralds destruction, dancing over bodies while wearing the heads of her victims around her neck. Kali’s frenzied dance seems at first to have little to do with the quietness of mind and physical ease we find during yoga. So what, if anything, could the fearsome Kali bring to your yoga practice?
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An embodiment of Shakti, Kali is the raw power of feminine energy, the source of creative expression in the world. An emblem of darkness, she is connected to time and creation itself, as darkness existed before light. The archetypal wild woman, Kali is a manifestation of the goddess at her most enraged (read Kali’s origin story here). She slays literal and figurative demons, including inner demons that keep us trapped in ignorance. She also restores equilibrium to the world on the individual and collective level.
Kali’s archetypal qualities of creativity, power, and strength come into play constantly during a physical yoga practice. Specific poses, like Kali Asana, can get you in touch with your Kali energy. A position for child-birthing, this deep squat is similar to Garland Pose but can also include a powerful pranayama like Lion’s Breath (Simhasana). Goddess Pose (Utkata Konasana), and warrior poses often associated with Shiva, like Warrior I and II, can also stir up your Kali side. And although Kali is a fierce warrior, her feminine energy also incorporates playfulness and a willingness to see what’s possible. Kali’s raw power is thus always connected to creativity and play. In a yoga practice, this can show up as trying a new pose or variation, or pushing through fear to achieve new heights and experiences.
Getting in touch with Kali is not just for female yogis. In his book Kali Rising, Rudolph Ballentine argues that people of all gender identities need to explore their inner Kali as a way to bring balance, clarity and truth to their lives and the larger world. Kali’s connection to her husband Shiva is also essential to her story: without the clear light of consciousness that Shiva brings, Kali’s power could go unchecked and destroy the universe. Practicing poses like Dancer’s Pose (Natarajasana) is thus also an important part of a Kali-focused practice.
Kali’s destructive power is a force that, when harnessed, can bring us into a deeper understanding of all aspects of life, both light and dark. On our mats, this means facing fear, going deep, and getting playful. Next time you practice, try bringing a little Kali into your poses.