Five years ago, Lynda opened a yoga studio in an inner city neighborhood in a big East Coast city. Shortly after she opened, two teenaged girls showed up for practice. They brought friends. Within a few months, her afternoon classes were packed with young women from the local high school. One day, as Lynda guided roomful of teens into the Warrior sequence, she was inspired to tell them the story of Goddess Durga. The girls were entranced. One of them asked Lynda for a picture of the goddess to take home. "I want to make a tee-shirt," she said. "That lady is my hero."

"When she said that," Lynda told me, "I realized that it was true for me too. The image of Durga had been showing up in my dreams ever since I opened the studio. She's the image I carry with me when I have to tackle my landlord, or talk down a girl who's acting drunk or crazy. To me, she's the icon of strength."

Lynda is not the only woman I know who identifies with Durga. The image of this goddess, beautifully sinuous, mounted on a lion, her eight arms holding weapons and flowers, might be the avatar for empowerment and protection. Women who juggle families, jobs, and yoga, who step up to support the environment or travel to storm-torn cities to help build housing for displaced families, look a lot like contemporary Durgas. For men as well as women, meditation on Durga can bring forth both warrior strength and protective compassion. When you bring her image into your inner world, she can empower your most radical aspirations and guide you through your most conflict-ridden life dramas. More than that, Durga embodies the inner power to transform yourself—to let go of addictions, obstacles, and the illusions and fears that hold you back.

When I set out to write my book about the yoga goddesses, Awakening Shakti, the main question that came up for me was this: Why goddesses? How are these mythic beings, who come from another time and another culture, helpful to a contemporary yogi? There are a couple of answers to that question. First, these goddesses are true psychological archetypes. They personify subtle but powerful energies that we need to make conscious in our psyches as well as in culture. For centuries, the Indian and Tibetan tantric traditions have taught meditation on deities for bringing higher energies into the body and mind. Goddesses personify Shakti, the power that enlivens this world. (In Indian cosmology, the divine source of all—God—is described as having two interconnected aspects, which are described as Being and Becoming, Awareness and Power, or Shiva and Shakti. The Awareness aspect is called Shiva, the cosmic masculine. The power aspect is known as Shakti, the supreme feminine. All creativity and power, then, emerges out of the feminine aspect of the supreme reality.)

Practicing with the stories and mantras of one of these mysterious and powerful figures is a way to invite transpersonal energies into your life. Though this may seem counter-intuitive to a modern mind, goddesses are real. They exist in subtle forms, invisible to us, but actually present when we know how to invoke them. We can learn to sense their presence, and as we do, they bring us very palpable inner gifts and blessings.

In Indian culture, and increasingly in the world of yoga, Durga is the Shakti you call on for strength, protection, and transformation. As a warrior goddess, Durga carries a spear, a mace, a discus, a bow, and a sword—as well as a conch (representing creative sound), a lotus (symbolizing fertility), and a rosary (symbolizing prayer). In one version of her origin, she arises from the combined strength of the male gods, to fight a demon king called Mahishasura.

Ever since, Durga has been the deity to call on when you're in deep trouble, facing obstacles, or fighting your inner demons. She is also the power behind spiritual awakening, the inner force that unleashes spiritual power within the human body in the form of kundalini. She is literally the power of evolutionary transformation.

Aurobindo Ghose, one of the great 20th-century spiritual visionaries, believed that the Shakti, the sacred feminine power that Durga personifies, is the real force behind the evolution of human consciousness. He wrote that she is always trying to evolve our awareness, to help us create a world in which we live in balance with each other and the earth, and with our own sacred masculine and feminine natures. But he believed that to access her transformative power, we have to call it, ask for it, and pray for it. It's as if the protective, transformative power of the divine waits, just out of reach, unable to intervene until we summon the courage or the desperation to throw ourselves at her feet, literally or metaphorically, and ask for her help.

This is true not only in our battles against external obstacles. The transformative journey is next to impossible without help from the subtle realms. If we are going to be able to see through the illusions that trap us—the genetic patterning, the imbalances of intellect and emotion, the warring desires, the fears, the cultural biases, and the sheer weight of our physical senses—a transpersonal form of strength is needed. Durga personifies that force.

The mighty battles between Durga and the demons is the inner struggle that invariably begins when we undertake real transformative practice. Like the demon king in the Durga myth, the ego enters into spiritual practice with a secret agenda. Egos seek control—control over circumstances, control over the body, and control over the people around us. Power and mastery are what matter to the ego. So naturally, the ego will resist surrendering to higher powers, letting go of its agendas, or giving up control on any level. But the evolutionary Shakti has a different agenda. She wants to move us away from egocentric consciousness to the recognition of our non-difference from each other and the cosmos. To do this, she must put the ego in its place and ultimately dissolve it. The ego, however, will fight her to the death.

As postmodern practitioners, we usually prefer to take a gentler attitude toward our own dark side. Many of us long ago rejected the kind of religion that emphasizes sin and insists on eliminating the darker forces in the self. If we are practitioners of a spiritual path that emphasize our innate goodness, we might prefer to ignore the negative qualities in the self, on the principle that fighting the ego only strengthens it. If we're psycho-dynamically oriented, we might be interested in bringing our shadow qualities into the light so we can integrate the power tied up in anger or greed or pride. If we are walking a non-dual path, we may feel that all struggle has to be given up, since everything is ultimately one.

All these approaches are useful, some on the level of personality, others as part of the practice for enlightenment.

But there are moments when the only way to put our narcissism in its place is with a sword—the sword of wisdom wielded by a warrior who takes no prisoners. This is Durga's role, whether she is operating in the outer world or the inner world.

In my life, the energy of the warrior goddess with her upraised sword shows up to remind me to get my striving, performance-oriented ego out of the way, so that the deeper power can unfold my life according to her evolutionary imperative. Durga, in my inner world, is the unstoppable energy of spiritual growth. When I resist that, I often encounter an unexpected setback. She might get in my face as a kind of cosmic "No!" to my personal agendas, and then manifest as the deeper awakening that follows when I let them go. Over the years, I've been through this cycle often. At times, egoic illusions pile up, balloon out, and take over my world until, like cataracts, they ripen and become so swollen that they are ready to come apart of their own weight. Then nearly always, I hear the roar of the goddess's lion sounding through my dreams.

When you feel caught in one of those moments, when your personal will seems blocked by immovable obstacles, consider that it might be a signal from the Shakti. Then, consider sitting for a few minutes in meditation, and using your imagination to bring yourself into the presence of Durga.

EXERCISE: Accessing Durga

For this exercise, you will need a quiet place to sit, a journal, and something to write with.

Become aware of the Durga Shakti as a shimmering presence around you. You can visualize her seated on her lion (though sometimes she rides a tiger; see which animal feels right to you!). Her dark hair streams over her shoulders. She wears a golden crown, a scarlet silk sari, and golden necklaces, rings, and bracelets.

See her magnificent arms, strong and bristling with weapons: the bow, the sword, the trident, the mace, the discus. See, also, the lotus she carries.

She is watching you with an intent gaze. Her eyes are large and dark.

Offer your salutations to her.

Ask her: "What is the major inner obstacle I have to face now? What do I need to let go of? What should I be paying more attention to?" Or, ask her for guidance in a decision, or for the strength to stand up for something you know is right.

Close your eyes and turn to your heart. Ask the question in your heart.

Begin to write. Let the writing come naturally, without thought. Keep writing until you feel that there is no more to say.

Look over what you have written.

Now take the radical step of turning this over to the universal power of grace. Offer the obstacles to Durga, saying, "I offer all this to the Durga Shakti, asking that your grace dissolve all obstacles, inner and outer."

Now, with the inhalation, feel that you breathe in the goddess's energy. Exhaling, feel that you breathe it through your body and into the world.

Who Is Durga in Your Life? 

The gesture of breathing in the goddess's energy is important. Sacred energies usually don't swoop down from the mountains to resolve our dilemmas. Instead, they work through our own body and mind. Durga's presence arises as insight, the strength to carry something through, or as the instinct to win your battles. When you practice with the Durga energy, you'll often find yourself taking on her qualities of strength and resoluteness.  

The Heroine: Righting Wrongs

One way to get a felt-sense of the Durga Shakti is to remember a moment when you recognized, from the deepest place inside you, that something was wrong; that it had to change. If that recognition comes from the Durga Shakti, it goes beyond mere frustration. It goes beyond cognitive awareness of a social problem. Durga's transformative power carries a conviction that comes from deep inside the body, and with it often comes a sense of "Now!"—meaning the time is now. When that knowing is strong enough, it is followed by action. You will willingly put your body and your speech on the line to change the situation, whether it is an internal or an external one.

One of my Durga friends noticed that her son's asthma got activated during the times when local crops were being sprayed for pests. She organized a group of mothers to protest aerial spraying in her area, and after several years was able not only to have it banned in Los Angeles, but also to have the pesticide removed from circulation entirely. Now, besides her day job as a psychotherapist, she runs an environmental group focused on lobbying against airborne pesticides.

Durga as the Force of Inner Revolution

The same power of purposeful action can be invoked when you need the will to change a deep-seated habit or addiction, to carve out time for practice, or to follow an inner calling. Durga's shakti can give you the power to face the parts of yourself that are in the way of your evolution, but she can also show you how to speak up for yourself when you need to ask for a raise, face a challenge, or take on a difficult responsibility. The more you invite Durga's energy into your life, the more you'll feel her opening you to the warrior within you. Durga's power is the guardian of your highest aspirations, and she promises never to let you down.

(Adapted from Sally's new book, Awakening Shakti: The Transformative Power of the Goddesses of Yoga)