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.