Shakti and Shiva: Balance between Opposing Forces
I have always walked the shadow edge between worlds of darkness and light. Before I was a yogi, I was a punk. Nowadays, I take the seat of teacher, here in the light-filled Mandir. I guide students to connect to their bodies, their breath and the universe. I encourage them to sweat, chant and wring out the habits and patterns that aren’t serving them. We do this work to make space for new energy, ideas and opportunities to come through our bodies and into manifestation in our lives.
But I came to New Orleans homeless, with nothing but a back pack. It was just another stop on a circuit I was making, hitchhiking and riding trains around the country. I specifically chose that path because I wanted to live with less stuff, to exist outside society, to truly be free. People always imagine that this was a dark and difficult time in my life, but actually, despite the struggle and uncertainty, I experienced much magic, synchronicity, kindness and support from strangers during this time.
When I first began to practice yoga, I felt very conflicted about this dichotomy between being a punk and a yogi. I honestly wondered if the two could co-exist, and what I would have to give up to make it work. I was skeptical of the perfect women in their expensive outfits that bought and sold this ancient practice. It seemed a bit too bright and shiny for me. I grew up in a subculture that in some ways worships the darkness, yet within that context, I experienced so much depth, beauty, creativity and community support.
As I began to deepen my practice and study yogic philosophy, I discovered the tools that would help me reconcile this dichotomy. Yoga is actually all about union, finding balance between the seemingly opposing forces within and around us: the light and dark, the male and the female, the individual and the collective consciousness. As Patanjali states in Yoga Sutra Book 2.46.
Sthira (steady) Sukham (sweet) Asanam (seat).
The connection to the earth should be steady and joyful. (Jivamukti)
The postures should balance effort and ease. (Iyengar)
Our culture and society try to convince us that we live in a world of either/or: white/black, good/bad, right/ wrong. The powers that be want us to over-simplify, to choose a side. This tactic divides us. It dumbs down our awareness and drains our energy. It leaves us with definitions and positions that don’t express our true complexity. It pits us against one another and keeps us from being aware of what is actually there. The good and the bad, the right and the wrong are within each one of us. We must acknowledge that if we are going to work on it.
Yoga is the practice of expanding our awareness to be in many places within the physical body at once. We spread the toes and ground down through the four corners of the feet, while simultaneously drawing the abdomen into the back body, and lifting through the crown of the head and tips of the ears. This physical practice teaches us to hold space to honor the true complexity of our experiences and the intricacies of building collective reality. Hindu Mythology recognizes that diversity is important and necessary (why do you think they have so many different gods and goddesses?). This dance between dichotomies, embodied by the primordial forces of Shakti and Shiva, creates the movement that compels the universe forward into new growth and evolution.
Shakti represents the divine feminine, pure energy that moves towards creation, transformation and form. She is born of the darkness: intuitive, playful and powerfully expressive. Shiva represents the divine masculine: pure consciousness, Being and essence. He is born of the light, steady, stable and unchanging. As Dr. David Frawley explains in his book, Shiva, Lord of Yoga:
“Shiva is reality, that which is ever enduring, while Shakti is relativity, that which is ever fluctuating, arising and returning to the real. Shiva is unitary reality or common ground of being while Shakti is the web of multiplicity, relativity, relations, or interdependence that arises from its manifestation. Every aspect of the universe has a complementary duality of Being and its Power of Becoming.”
Take the element water, for example: its essence or Shiva aspect is wetness and fluidity. Whatever form it assumes in a given moment, as rain, a wave, a river, or a tear, is its Shakti aspect, its action, and its power of becoming or expressing itself. Both aspects are required to animate and direct the universe. Shiva without Shakti is a corpse, as they say. Shakti without Shiva is an explosive disaster with no direction. In truth, they are two sides of the same coin and they compliment one another.
Divine masculine and divine feminine are not in reference to fixed genders or gender roles. These forces exist and are at play within each one of us. We all have our Higher Selves, our connection to pure cosmic consciousness. We also all have our unique and particular paths, purposes and ways of expressing ourselves as we walk through the world. The Shiva aspect, the all-knowing awareness, provides direction and intention for the Shakti energy of creation and manifestation.
Yoga is the practice of honoring and bringing these opposing forces into balance. We want to become beings that can balance both—beings who aren’t afraid to exist in the dank, dark murkiness of the root chakra where Kundalini Shakti resides, or to work and travel and grow towards the light. We must be able to connect to that pure, cosmic Shiva consciousness that pours in from the universe through the crown of the head, reminding us to honor our connection to all things. But we cannot stop there. We must draw this Shiva consciousness down through the body, to direct our energy with the intention of its expansive perspective to build and create the reality we want to see, the world we want to be in.
We must remember that balance is never static. Even when poses look still on the surface, there is always a dynamic negotiation between opposing forces happening beneath it. In Vrksasana, tree pose, for example, we ground down through the standing leg to lift and lengthen through the heart and crown. We begin with the hands in prayer and press the foot and the leg together to find the stability of the midline of our bodies. The natural world provides us with many examples of this ebb and flow. Through the cycles of seasons, we experience the balance of light and dark, hot and cold, sunshine and rain that enables our world to endure, grow, and change.
In nature, there is no right or wrong, good or bad, only movement towards and dance around balance. Both light and dark, Shiva and Shakti have their strengths and their purposes. They also have consequences when they are out of balance. Within our society as a whole and yoga culture in particular, there is a tendency to devalue the darkness, the body, the Shakti aspect. The underlying assumption seems to be that the body is just a means to an end, to attain the light, that the consciousness, the Shiva aspect is somehow better or more important. These consequences play out on all layers and levels of our world and ourselves.
When we deny fear, pain, and suffering, when we turn a blind eye to these things within and around ourselves, they take root and grow in our subconscious. They become aspects of our shadow selves. They create the unconscious patterns that seem out of our control, whether as reactionary outbursts of anger on an individual level or as deeply engrained racist structures and beliefs on a collective level. When we refuse to face our demons, they grow stronger. They become black holes of denial and unconsciousness that syphon our energy away from the things we actually desire to create.
In truth, these individual and collective traumas are our greatest assets. They provide us with a lot of information. They show us exactly where our work lies, exactly where our energy is being diverted to build walls and create separation. Our yoga practice can and should take us into the deepest darkest parts of ourselves where we can face our fears, break down our walls and consolidate our power. When we reclaim this energy, it revitalizes our bodies and brings new inspiration into our minds.
We must be willing to occupy all the places and spaces within our society and ourselves. As yogis, we often talk about “being the light,” but we must be willing to be the darkness as well. We must bring the wisdom of Shakti, the receptive, intuitive, innovative energy of the instinctual body, to breathe new life into our logical and analytical minds. We need both to create this matrix, to make something different, to save the world. When both aspects are present, in alignment and union, they create magic, the synchronistic unfolding of the exact lessons and blessings that are required in each moment to promote growth and evolution.
As fall progresses and we move deeper into darkness, Halloween offers us an opportunity to do just that, to call on the gods and goddesses to restore balance. We call on them, not with the seriousness of academic rigor, but with the embodied playfulness of children. We get to dabble in the darkness a little bit. We honor Shakti as we uncover our shadow selves. We dress up, act out, and in doing so, are receptive to the new ideas that emerge as we balance and reintegrate our energies.
We can take this playfulness from the streets to the mat, by being in the flow of our practice. The movement and dance of our vinyasas, creating and shifting shapes with our bodies, honors the Shakti aspect within us.
We cultivate a balance with Shiva through the practice of holding the poses, finding stillness and steadiness. Within each breath, there is opportunity to access this balance as well. As we inhale we draw the energy in and up, to the calm center of ourselves in honor of Shiva. As we exhale, we extend energetically from the core to the periphery, shining out in all directions in an expression of Shakti. In this way, with each breath, we are a dynamic part of this cosmic dance that creates balance between opposing forces.
Written by Tyler St. Jean