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Kavaca : The Shield

Hot off the press! I’m thrilled to be able to share a powerful set of teachings this Fall in upstate New York with Douglas Brooks. The idea for this retreat started a few years ago when I was in my early months of sleep deprivation after the birth of my son Jasper. My morning meditations at that time were particularly lucid, full of color and light and diverse emotion. And one morning I started to learn a practice that kinda, just like, CAME to me through the ether. While meditating, I started to hear sets of words and phrases in sankrit. I’m no sanskrit scholar and I’ve barely scratched the surface of this complex and magical language so I didn’t really trust what I was receiving. The next day there was more: my teacher’s teacher who we affectionately call Appa came to my meditation and explained more about the practice to me. This was a meditation first for me, to receive complex teachings while seated with my eyes closed. I was like, um, this is pretty weird. And cool. And a little bit scary.

I asked my teacher Douglas about what I was hearing and he said nonchalantly, “Oh that’s the kavaca. We’ll learn more about that someday soon.” What? Well, I started applying the mantras I had learned to my daily practice and all I can say is that they made everything more vibrant, more juicy. I’m so thrilled to learn and share even more of these special practices this Fall. Douglas just sent me a description for the retreat we’ll host together at Lake Rahasya Retreat House in Bristol, NY on October 27, 28, 29, 30. Save the dates. More details to come soon.

In the Shadow of the Ferocious Light: Tantric Meditations on Siva Bhairava

(That curly haired fellow with the dog above is Lord Bhairava.) 

There are practices of meditation in Tantra that take us deeply into the realm of the shadow, that place in our experience where we must turn holding as much courage as we do fear so that we might find the all of our selves.  Rather than become averse, suppress, or claim a transcendence of the experiences of negativity, the Tantra teaches us how to create boundaries that are permeable, boundaries that allow us to traverse in constructive ways through the complexities and fears we all share as human beings.  In this retreat we will learn a practice of mantra called kavaca, the “shield”, which the Tantrika wields not merely to protect or prevent the assault of feelings and thoughts but rather to engage the shadow with an active and focused effort.  These meditations are practical; they resonate with the issues of real life, loss, fear, death, sex, and survival; they encourage and empower us to address our experiences with candor and compassion, with a clear mind and a resolute heart; and they teach us that our human soul is healthy and capable of a deeper happiness when we learn to encounter the whole of our being.  No previous experience or understanding is expected or required.  Come willing to learn, to listen, to experiment, and to meditate: you are in safe and experienced hands, and this is a real opportunity to go deeply inside and see the world basked in new light.

Dashamahavidya Bagalamukhi : The Paralyzer

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.

Dashamahavidya Chinnamasta

written originally April 10, 2011, revised and posted April 28

This afternoon my home was filled with a brilliant constellation of yogis who came over for an Indian lunch and teachings drawn forth from my tantric lineage of Sri Vidya, or Auspicious Wisdom. My wife and I have come to celebrate this monthly ritual as a time to seriously tidy up the house – I get down and dirty with my toilet bowl for a deep, deep clean. We also prepare by immersing ourselves with extra dedication in the days prior to these Sundays in the contemplative practices of mantra we’ve come to love over many years of dedicated study. This weekend’s topic was Chinnamasta, the Self-Decapitating Goddess. Always a crazy, sexy, cool topic for yogic inquiry. I’ve been pretty obsessed with Chinnamasta of late.

I’ve written about her before here on this blog, but to summarize – she stands for the capacity to self-reflect so sharply, so profoundly, that she is no longer willing to listen to old, limiting beliefs. She has given herself permission to move beyond her ordinary thoughts and instead affirms the inherent power inside her so radically that she’s willing to cut off her own head to drink it up. Yum.

We spent a lot of time this afternoon digesting not only our lunches, but more than a little technical history of tantric thought as it’s evolved in time. Chinnamasta is an important character for the Shakta (Goddess) lineages of tantra because she proposes a vision of empowerment that happens from the inside out. Traditionally, Shaktipat is defined as the “descent of power” and a process of initiation by which a guru empowers a disciple’s spiritual practice. Chinnamasta radically subverts that traditional approach. Instead she embodies a process by which one relies not on an outsider or guru for such a gift, but rather, one’s own power of self-inquiry and self-reflection. The sword with which she removes her own head is that blade of inquiry. Chopping off her very own head is not a violent, injurious act; but rather an outcome of desire and self-permission. My teacher Douglas has said about her, “We all feel things profoundly and deeply and Chinnamasta is that presence in us – the desire and permission to experience the whole of ourselves. She is the longing we all have to imbibe the power of our own direct experience.”

The weapon she uses makes a horizontal cut. In this way the flow of her power swings laterally along the horizon. And so she is a powerful representation of flow and movement for the information age. I have come to reflect on my own life so much more clearly over the past few years because I’ve been reading blogs and other material written by a community of fellow seekers. To read about someone else’s insights is a lateral process of discovery. I don’t have to get privileged access to a singular being who has all the answers. The community itself is the power – and the process of reading and reflecting moves across a horizon of ever-expanding knowledge. That lateral swing then gives me access to my own power. And I get to imbibe the resonance of my own direct experience through someone else’s writing- often in the form of a silly or snarky quip that is a friend’s status update!

So what happens when a group of seekers come together in person to meditate on such an energy? In Shakta lineages, the “guru” is not a single solitary figure who dispenses spiritual power. Instead, the community of seekers itself is the guru. As I’ve already described it above, this is a great model for our time. Shaktipat is then not the thing we get, but the thing we come together to have – and share. Rather than going to a guru to get an initiation, we come together to have an experience, to share. I taught today’s group Chinnamasta’s bija mantra as it was passed to me. And then we sat and breathed and closed our eyes and took it to heart.

Lately I’ve been cueing my students to ask the particular form of deity we’re exploring in meditation, “What do I need to know from you today?” “What insight would be valuable for me at this moment?” In my own practice I’ve discovered that going into meditation, particularly deity meditation, becomes more fruitful with an open question such as this. The more we do not know, the more we can know. Ask and you shall receive. And so, having spent several minutes entering the Chinnamasta bandwidth so to speak, we asked this question, “Chinnamasta, what would you like to share with me today?” A few seconds later, a jazz saxophonist literally started to blow his horn right outside my house. It sounded like he made a home for his music on my front stoop. Now, I do live in Sugar Hill, Harlem, a neighborhood in which most of the most famous jazz musicians of NYC live or have lived. But the timing of his play was pretty uncanny and I can’t remember a time when a street musician took up residence directly on my stoop. (Or maybe it was a she? I always think of sax players as men, but soulful Lisa Simpson subverts that expectation nicely.) So this sax player moved through a wild riff of explosive notes – some pretty, some vulgar – and then culminated with a rendition of “Summertime.” Summertime, and the livin’ is easy.

The cool thing about this message from Chinnamasta is that we all got to interpret it personally. And yet the experience was collective and communal. And likely would not have happened had we not come together for the purpose of exploring this Chinnamasta this afternoon. For me, the song represents hope. And play. In my wildest dreams I could never have predicted that Chinnamasta would reveal her message in this way. Mantra can be like that if you want it to be, a playful unfolding in which anything can happen for no reason. When I hear Summertime, I am instantly transported to a good feeling. That musician just played her horn with no concern for technique or perfection or getting it right. Her riff sounded, interestingly, like one who deeply wanted to imbibe the power of a direct experience. The riffs at times were a mess, squaky and uneven. But there was also an ecstatic rendition of an American standard. And perhaps a message foreshadowing events for a brilliant summer 2011? Yes, I should think so.


And the livin’ is easy

Fish are jumpin’

And the cotton is high

Your daddy’s rich

And your mamma’s good lookin’

So hush little baby

Don’t you cry

One of these mornings

You’re going to rise up singing

Then you’ll spread your wings

And you’ll take to the sky

But till that morning

There’s a’nothing can harm you

With daddy and mamma standing by


And the livin’ is easy

Fish are jumpin’

And the cotton is high

Your daddy’s rich

And your mamma’s good lookin’

So hush little baby

Don’t you cry

Join me in Sugar Hill for another Sunday of good company, tantric philosophy, mantra meditation and lunch. Mother’s Day, May 8. We’ll explore Lalita Tripura Sundari, the ultimate Mama. RSVP to


Chitra : “Multi – Colored” – Distinctive among the set with silken garments of diverse and variegated colors to remind us that the world is full of difference, but never seperate. The goal of our yoga is to revel in diversity. Chitra is another word for FICTION. Art deliberately distorts life. May you receive your life as ART. You are the artistic expression of the Divine, so express your humanity – your divinity – as art. Be the author of your own life. You’re always authoring, whether you know it or not. And so tell a grand tale. Keep good company. Wax and wane with your own reflective process. Express beauty in whatever diverse, multi-hued way you choose! 

I leave tomorrow for Nicaragua with a brilliant crew of yogic seekers & adventurers. And so ends our Nitya cycle. May the rest of your February be super duper FANCY. 


Jvalamalini : “Garland of Flames” – This Goddess of dreaming repose is evoked on or near water, and carries among her treasures a turtle. The turtle, for a tantric yogi, stands for one’s capacity, desire and commitment to meditate. Not withdrawn from the world, the meditator draws in to the worlds within. The yoga for such a person then looks patient, forbearing and self-contained. The inward-turning yogi is protected by her or his practice, like the turtle who draws in to her shell. She is a garland of flames because her inward turning practices have given her, in time, a capacity to express herself authentically. Her heart’s expression is like a garland of flames. The purpose of meditation is not to get better at meditation, but to bring that reflective power into waking consciousness, to be a lucid dreamer of one’s waking life.

“Love the life.” 


SARVAMANGALA : “All – Auspicious” – Decked in rubies, the sun (Surya) sits to her left, the moon (Soma) to her right, and she is lit up from within as well as from the fire (Agni) that sits behind her. Her forgiving eyes are distinctive – one is like sun, the other, moon –  and both are filled with compassion. She confers KECHERI, the feeling of moving freely in the vault of the sky. She is an expansive, unencumbered moment. Sitting up after loveplay, you see all the world auspiciously because everyone you meet belongs to some clan, some kula – perhaps even yours.  


Vijaya : “Slice of Victory” – This slice of win is easy, breezy contentment. This Goddess of repose is traditionally seen seated on a big, satisfied, yawning lion. Repose is living IN the experience of contentment. To BE content with the life you have and choices you’ve made isn’t always easy. This is a much, much more complex practice than falling in love. Vijaya here is every small, successful encounter that more deeply invites us to revel in relationship. Happy Valentine’s Day. 


NILAPATAKA : “Falling into the Blue” – Bedecked in diamonds and blue sapphires, dripping with pearls, she is the moment immediately following ecstatic release. To see through her eyes is to experience your waking life like a lucid dream. And lucid dreamers get to experience the creative power of shaping their truth.

The TRUTH is more pliable in dreams (I can fly!) than we tend to experience in our waking life. And what is a truth in waking consciousness but a belief we repeat over and over to ourselves again and again? Are you telling yourself the same old, mundane story? Or are you authoring your life and creating its truth? (You’re always doing this actually, so you may as well do it on purpose, reflectively, with power – in the cool blue of repose.)

What if your waking life could be a lucid dream? To both have your experience and shape it at the same time, in every breath? To enjoy such a life would be to invest deeply in the yoga of Rasa, the engagement of the essential flows of human feeling. Nilapataka carries among her weapons a dart, or missle. Any mark you hit can be a focal point for exploration: you are free to bring your ecstacy into the world any place where you land that dart. 

The Nitya Shoashi Tantra says that devotion to this Goddess brings to devotees “a capacity to see through walls and travel vast distances instantly!” Sounds like quite the Soverign Queen of the Information Age.


NITYA : “Forever, Eternal” – This 10th night of the Moon Goddess sadhana brings us to a moment of climax – looking up you’ll see she’s well more than half way to full. The French call this moment “Le Petit Mort” – the little death. Orgasmic moments are forever, which is both ironic and true. This Goddess carries a trident and skull, instruments usually associated with Shiva. She’s become more powerful than him and controls all moving bodies while presiding in all parts of you. In death, you will return to the eternal source from whence you came – ecstatic, pulsating, blissful and true. The beauty of embodiment is savoring THAT experience IN a body. Tonight’s practice : orgasm. It’s Saturday night, so what are you waiting for? 


KULASUNDARI : “Embedded” – The Moon Goddess this night carries among her instruments a golden pen, like a stylus. She records the moment by etching it in to a book of memories. She chronicles the beauty of being together.

A nice practice this night: take stock of the most important relationships in your life. What are some of the traits you value in your sweetheart, or other close company? Celebrate beauty by calling to mind what is affirming and good.