Starting sometime last Fall, my friend and colleague (and bonus! close neighbor) Siri Peterson and I became pretty much obsessed with the ten great wisdom goddesses, or Dashamahavidya. We read as much as we could and poured through our notebooks on the subject, having spent considerable hours studying the ten great ones with both Douglas Brooks and Sally Kempton. And then we took a group of adventurous students with us to Nicaragua for a surfing and yoga retreat this past February and used this set of ten shaktis as a thematic point of departure from which to explore our week in Central America. I loved it all. And from Siri I learned how to invest in these energies profoundly in an experiential classroom setting. She didn’t just talk about these goddesses. She BECAME them. Her moonlight asana class on Kali (in which we sat dangling our legs off the edge of a 70 foot yoga deck in the dark) remains one of my favorite classes of all time. It’s fun to invest oneself in these energies, these powers – because that investment yields not only the feeling of an enhanced reflective capacity but also artful, evocative experiences. And that’s the whole point of yoga – to love your life – as art.
As I prepare for my next retreat to Peru this summer I’m particularly drawn to Bagalamukhi, the crane-headed goddess. She is thought to be one of the great healers among the set of Dashamahavidya. With the head of a crane she signals the long and narrow passageway of time that often passes between the head and the heart in the process of healing. While we may have reconciled the past in our minds (with whatever tools and coping techniques we had available to us at the time) there is often a long gap between those turnings of our mind and our heart’s healing. Bagalamukhi is the permission we can give ourselves to cultivate this healing through a narrow passage of thought and feeling.
Half bird, half human images also appear in the mythic consciousness of the Indian imagination in the form of the gandharvas. The gandharvas are a rabble of sexy characters closely associated with Lord Skanda, Shiva’s peacock riding son, who keeps their close company. Included among the crew of gandharvas are bird-headed men who are the physicians to the gods. Intriguing to me are the human/bird characters who are at the forefront of the indigenous healing traditions of Central and South America. There is some way in which ancient, shamanistic healing traditions – across cultures and continents – assume a bridge between worlds in the process of deep healing – and these bird creatures are the intermediaries between the human and celestial realms.
Bagalamukhi is called “The Paralyzer.” This delicate, crane-headed character often wields a club, a hefty blunt weapon like a baseball bat somewhat incommensurate with a delicate bird. She uses her club to nail down the tongues of demons, thereby paralyzing them and basically forcing them to shut the F up. Lately I’ve been thinking that this energy may be a key ingredient to our personal healing, especially those wounds that haunt us in the form of the stories we continue to tell ourselves about our past.
Here’s an example. When I was in 3rd grade, I started playing the violin in school. I don’t remember choosing the instrument – I think my parents inherited a violin from another relative; and thus I began a hand-me-down musical career. I HATED practicing and playing that damn thing. My violin teacher, let’s call her Ms K, was a morbidly obese, mad, screaming witch. She was the first adult I remember (who wasn’t my parent) to yell and scream at me at the top of her lungs – and I was terrified of her. But not so terrified that she scared me into actually practicing. Instead I channeled my creative practice into imagining all of the ways I might kill this woman. My favorite method was to pretend that by taping needles to the end of my bow I could pop and deflate her and she’d sink to the ground like the Wicked Witch of the West. I can’t even remember all of the other ways we must have tortured this woman, but I know that I was MEAN.
During the final concert of the year, the culmination of our tortuous year together, Ms K put me in the back row along with a few others and said to us, “Don’t play. Fake it.” What an awful, terrible woman! How dare she! I was devastated and embarrassed. Now I had a perfect story in my arsenal to prove what a wicked witch she was. And I got to play the role of the virtuous victim, forever degraded by a grown up who should’ve known better. From the raw ingredients of this moment I also got to have an excuse why I suck at music. “My teacher told me I stunk and put me in the back row and told me not to play.” The real truth is, I hated violin and I didn’t put in the work I would’ve needed to in order to play in that concert. Some further research into the subject of Ms K has revealed to me that she was literally jilted, left at the altar (!) just a short time before she began attempting to teach me the violin. No wonder she yelled at us so much! She was in pain. And she had a bunch of little monsters constantly reminding her just how mean and cruel boys can be.
Just the other day, when I wanted to belt out the lyrics to the new Lady Gaga anthem that I had on top volume during a plyometric cardio workout I hesitated – even though I was all alone. “Don’t sing out loud, you’re a terrible musician, just listen.” Two seconds later I called forth the power of Bagalamukhi. “Shut the F up! Nail down that demon!” It’s been years and years that I’ve been telling myself that story, “You’re not good enough. Fake it in the back row. Don’t play.” Man! I’m done with that shit. In order to BE done though, I need to remember to get out the club every time I put myself in that back row. It’s a process to be sure. Every day I need to get out that darn club, sometimes in the area of music, but also every time I lie to myself “I’m not good enough.” It’s been 28 years of that same old story that started in third grade – that’s a long time between a little boy’s choice to play the victim, and my grownup heart’s healing.
If anyone has ever told YOU not to play (and because you’re human I’m sure that someone has, if not in music then in some other arena) do yourself a favor. Get out a club. Pin down that demon. Tell it to shut the F up. And then sing along with Gaga:
Whether life’s disabilities
Left you outcast, bullied or teased
Rejoice and love yourself today
‘Cause Baby you were born this way
PS – Dear Universe: Please hook me up with Lady Gaga’s creative team so that I can become her personal teacher of the tantric visions of the Divine Feminine. I’d love to see Bagalamukhi make an evocative appearance in Madison Square Garden. And I definitely want a front row seat to sing along.