Updated: Apr 9, 2019
At the risk of committing cultural appropriation, I'd like to introduce myself as... a Yogini. Why the hesitation? What's the big deal? The big deal is that this word, Yogini, is a BIG DEAL. It is a longing and an invitation; both intriguing and intimidating; a challenge and a spiritual calling.
In contemporary yoga jargon, the Sanskrit word, Yogini, is most commonly understood to mean a woman who practices yoga. And yes, that is what the word literally means as the feminine form of Yogi, a man who practices yoga. However, this over simplified explanation highlights one of the challenges with the western perspective on this rich, ancient tradition. I recall the first time I saw the word Yogini use in an Instagram post and thought, "oh, this must be the famine way of self-identifying as a yogi...cool!" I began to throw the word around lightly with no cultural or historical perspective. Yikes.
When I took on the challenge of exploring the often mysterious, usually contradictory, and sometimes downright scandalous connotations of the word Yogini, I was lead down a rabbit hole of convoluted myths, rumors, historical references and cultural perspectives inviting me, ultimately, to draw my own conclusion. The following is my endeavor to dip one dainty toe into this deep well of information. Bare with me as I humbly make sense of it all to the best of my current ability.
"The word Yogini carries a powerful charge of meanings. Yogini are ferocious and terrifying Goddesses with astonishing and alarming supernatural powers..." Uma Dinsmore Tuli
There are many layers of meaning ascribed to the word Yogini. Since ancient times, Yoginis appear in texts and in temples both as accomplished female practitioners and in more supernatural forms. The Yogini is sometimes perceived as sorceress or witch. She inspires a combination of devotion and terror: she may bestow great powers upon those who worship her, but such worship may be performed out of fear that the unappeased Yogini might use her power to cause suffering or death..." A Yogini can be a powerful protectress, but much like her counterparts, the wise women and witches of the world, it is common belief that you may also wish to protect yourself from her. In this sense, the word Yogini carries immense power that extends far beyond its literal translation.
"The Goddess, strong woman, nurturer and warrior, benevolent and fierce, is an exciting, invigorating and challenging way to conceptualize the divine."
The trendy Goddess culture, which derives primarily from depictions of the Goddess in the western world, would have us believe that the Goddess is all beauty, grace and light. When we examine these qualities, we find yet another portrayal of the feminine through the patriarchal lens - a picture of what an ideal woman should be (often subordinate to her male counterpart). Yogini natures are fluid and cannot be pinned to one particular quality. Some are beautiful, graceful and nurturing, yes, but they are also much more. "Wrathful and sensual, ferocious and seductive, furious and graceful, they express the full-embodied expression of human experience."
Yoginis have long been associated with great power, sexuality and love. If we look to pre-orthodox traditions all over the ancient world, we find evidence of Goddess-centered cultures that celebrated sexuality and creativity for millennia. However, in the 2nd CE, the Laws of Manu came into effect in South Asia, stripping women of their right to own property. Patrilineality replaced matrilineally, widowhood became a societal death sentence, and women were made into submissive objects rather than equal subjects within domestic marriage. Goddesses and human women alike were forced to surrender their fiercely sensual and independent natures and become spousified. The Yogini temples and rituals seem to be one domain where women maintained some trace of their power, autonomy and choice around their sexuality.
Collectives of female deities have a long-standing place in South Asian history, mythology and legend. An entire spiritual tradition has been formed around them. Many of these Yoginis have elemental energies or influence over the natural world. Others emulate the powers of the female body, including sexual and reproductive cycles, as well as stages within a woman's life. They carry tools and weapons, symbolic of what the practitioner needs on their path - a knife to sever attachments, a goad to nudge us along when we are stuck, a bell to clear negativity, a spear for penetrating insight, a bow and arrow for focus. They have individual and collective powers and together they represent aspects of Durga, the great Tantric Goddess, often referred to as Queen of the Yoginis. In Sout Asia, Durga is described as the one and the many. "She appears as Devi, the Great Shining One in Her infinite manifestations and as collectives of numerous Goddesses."
Temples to the Yoginis were built in India between the ninth and sixteenth centuries. There are fourteen known temples throughout South Asia as well as other sacred sites where worship of the Yoginis is still practiced, suggesting at least 1200 years of continuous Yogini worship. The Kamakhya temple is one of the few Yogini shrines where, to this day, daily worship and ritual is performed. It is considered the most sacred of temples and one of the most potent pilgrimage sites of the tradition.
Niches line the inner temple walls and are inhabited by Yoginis in various postures and expressions, forming a circle of power. "Some have a very commanding and formidable appearance; others are seductive, sensual and express an explicit sexual energy; and still others exude an aura of self-possession, mystery, fulfillment and contentment. Wrathful and terrifying Yoginis are also included in these circles. The different appearances of the Yoginis speak to the ways their energies work with the practitioners. For example, often the ore wrathful and fierce the Yogini appears, the more direct that Yogini's impact on the conditioned and limited mind of the practitioner."
Built centuries ago, these circular Yogini temples are noble ruins, testimony to a previously vibrant practice and worship. Even in their ruinous state, the circles of Yoginis in these temples remain the focus of great devotion. Circles are known to be magically protected areas where energy is cultivated and collected. Symbolizing the sun, moon, time, eternity, nothing and all, a circle is a shape that expresses the complementary concepts of completeness and separateness: complete in itself and separated from everything outside of it. It is a symbol of the Self as a self-contained whole. The gathering of Yoginis, in a circle, enhances their yogic power. They command more power together than they have alone.
Like the ancient Yoginis, contemporary yoga practitioners find power in numbers: the circles of yogini are gathering today in gyms, community centers, parks, living rooms and yoga studios everywhere. The resurgence of Yogini power is a global phenomenon.
Uma Dinsmore Tuli chooses to use the word in her book, Yoni Shakti, to describe all women who practice yoga now. Her choice is informed both by awareness of the fearsome powers attributed to the ancient Yoginis and by a desire to acknowledge that contemporary women ar greatly empowered by the practice of yoga. "It is a term we can use with pride, for it carries a powerful history that testifies to the immensely transformative power of yoga. When we call ourselves Yoginis, we acknowledge that our practice of yoga brings us into direct connection with the capacity to heal and transform ourselves in ways that are every bit as magical as the supernatural rites of the ancient Yoginis."
Laura Amazon offers this slightly stricter perspective: "When we consider the Yogini as a human practitioner we see a path of unconventionality. It is important to acknowledge that not every woman is a Yogini. Even if she is a practitioner of yoga asana, she may not necessarily be a Yogini as the definition extends beyond the limited presentation of yoga we often find outside of South Asia. Yoginis of past and present are women who embody a spiritual, social and cultural status that is outside the consensus patriarch culture. Yogini's are women who dare to define themselves in relation to the metaphysical rather than the social."
"For spiritual freedom, a person needs to break away from this mechanical working of symbols, values and labels into which awareness is fragmented... When all these labels and tags are removed, the world of phenomena will not imposts its perception on you anymore."
So, where do I land? As a woman living in a modern world, studying, practicing and sharing yoga to the best of my ability, do I label myself a Yogini? And can I do so free of the fear of committing unconscious cultural appropriation? That is an excellent question and one I can only begin to answer with any degree of confidence. This is how I see it, today: in essence, the path of a Yogini leads to reunion with the Divine. The practice "embraces and takes one beyond the paradoxes of life into a state of bliss and clear awareness." This is the path I am on. I do my best to define myself beyond the limitations of sex, race, religion, age, nationality. Every morning when I practice I do so with the intention of shedding this outer identity to more fully embrace the essence of who and what I truly am. As I understand, this is the goal of the Yogini, the ultimate experience. So, yes, if I must label myself anything," I'll go with that. My name is Natalie Backman. And I am a Yogini.