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How to Be Fierce

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“You need to find your Kali side,” I told Annie. You may know someone like Annie; in fact, you might have an Annie in your yoga class. She’s a manager at a local TV station, a single mom with a busy schedule, and a really nice person. She values yoga as a doorway to well-being, teaches it to troubled teens, and always stresses the importance of equanimity and other yogic virtues—nonviolence, surrender, contentment, nonattachment.

But Annie’s approach to yoga is like her approach to life: She is so conflict averse that it’s hard for her even to admit she has negative feelings. She rarely raises her voice, and she once told me that she can’t remember the last time she felt anger. But at this moment, mired in a family conflict that involves money, elder abuse, and lawyers, Annie senses that her carefully cultivated tendency to seek peace instead of conflict is not helping her. She’s called me for advice: She wants to be told how to maintain her relationship with her siblings and still stop them from cheating her mother out of her property. In other words, she wants me to give her a prescription for solving her conflict in a nice, nonviolent yogic way.

Instead, what popped out of my mouth was, “You need to find your Kali side.” I suppose I could have put it differently. I could have told Annie about that moment in the Bhagavad Gita when the god Krishna tells the warrior Arjuna to do his duty and stand up and fight. Or, I could have said that yoga isn’t just about being peaceful; it’s also about being strong, and wild, and forceful. Yoga, I could have reminded her, includes Warrior II, which is basically the posture you take when you’re aiming an arrow at someone’s heart. But my intuition was that Annie needed not so much a rational argument as an image, something to bypass the cultural conditioning of her left-brain-dominated mind. Annie, like so many people who practice yoga, had a half-conscious tendency to confuse being yogic with being nice. True, kindness and equanimity are essential yogic qualities, but people close to Annie often noticed that her yogic calm looked like a mask that covered difficult emotions, knotty feelings, and desires that felt dangerous, or at least socially unacceptable.

Annie had yet to recognize that, even though in the West we tend to emphasize the serenity-inducing, rejuvenating, and stress-reducing aspects of yoga, the yogic path is also about bringing out our strength and channeling our wildness. As you go deeper into your yoga practice, it will ask you at some point to confront those parts of yourself that may be suppressed by fear, trauma, or social conditioning and that may be squelching your joy, undercutting your confidence or passion, or sabotaging your health.

The Gift of Anger

What Annie was about to discover is that yoga can bestow gifts that are often obscured by our efforts to “be good”—like bringing forth repressed passion and purifying it into energy, or accessing sublimated anger and wisdom that, when owned and channeled, can renew the body and lead to more-skillful actions.

Tucked away in texts like the Devi Bhagavatam and the Devi Mahatmayam and strewn through the texts of Tantric philosophy are verses on deity yoga, which is a path that uses “forms” (like images or statues) and rituals (like mantras or ceremonies) that help you become familiar with and internalize different aspects of the Divine.

The deities in yoga—for example, the monkey god Hanuman, the meditating Shiva—serve as archetypes. They personify qualities that are within all of us and that we tap into in our most primal human moments: for instance, as mothers in the midst of giving birth, as lovers in the throes of ecstasy, as soldiers going into battle. Deities are archetypes of higher, transpersonal forces, forces that may not be easily accessible to us but are embedded within the psyche nevertheless.

Yoga has always offered practices for tuning in to these archetypal forces. The mantras you recite at the beginning of many yoga classes are a means of tapping into deity energy—Ganesh mantras for protection against obstacles, Saraswati mantras for literary inspiration, Lakshmi mantras for prosperity. The statues you see in yoga studios were originally meant not just as decoration but also as meditation aids, focal points for ritual, and reminders of the powers you have within. Invoking deity energy is a way of opening yourself to energies within that can support, protect, and act with a kind of numinous power.

The goddess Kali shows up in yogic art almost as often as Ganesh. Kali is the one with the wild hair, the bare breasts, and the severed heads around her neck. She usually carries a sword, and one of the ways you know it’s Kali is that she’s sticking out her tongue. (Try it as you read. Sticking your tongue out, all the way out, is one of the quickest ways there is to get in touch with your unconventional wild side!) She’s usually described as the goddess of destruction, and she looks scary, even though her face and body are beautiful. Kali is supposed to have arisen out of the warrior-goddess Durga during a particularly fierce battle with demons. The demons had a nasty power: Their spilled blood turned into more demon-warriors. Kali’s job was to lick the drops of blood from the slain demons, and she did it so well that Durga won the battle.

Destroyer of Inner Demons

As Kali’s legend evolved over time, she came to symbolize both spiritual and psychological liberation. She became one of the archetypes of the Great Mother, a protector and giver of boons, as well as the destroyer of demonic tendencies. There are many ways to view Kali, and the way devotees see her depends to some extent on their own level of consciousness.

Anthropologists note that there are two basic versions of Kali in popular Indian religion. The “village” version may be seen as a forest goddess, invoked for protective and magical purposes by tribal people in India and still worshiped in village ceremonies and seasonal dances. That Kali also symbolizes the death-and-rebirth cycle of agricultural societies.

The other basic version comes from orthodox Hindu religious practice, in which Kali is Kali Ma, Mother Kali, a benign and loving source of boons and blessings. This is how she appears in U.S. temples. In this version, her wildness is explained away as purely symbolic or metaphorical. The skulls around her neck represent the letters of the sacred Sanskrit alphabet, and she wears an apron made of hands, representing the severance of the devotee’s karma. She is a warrior, yes, but the demons she slays are the demons of the ego, the attributes of ignorance.

For yogis, serious spiritual aspirants, and awakened devotees, Kali represents enlightenment itself. At this level, Kali embodies all the qualities mentioned above. Just as reality itself can be both kind and fierce, the yogi’s Kali is the enlightening force that smashes preconceived notions, frees you from conditioned beliefs, false personal identities, and everything else that keeps you from recognizing your true identity. In other words, part of what Kali represents is the power to release that which is true in you—not only the ultimate truth but also the truth that is uniquely yours. That power often remains in shadow, hidden behind social masks and even the masks you assume in yoga. So tuning in to Kali in daily life often means tuning in to aspects of yourself that you normally don’t have access to, a power that can reach outside the conventional to become bold and fierce—fierce in love, fierce in ecstasy, fierce in your willingness to stand up to the demons in yourself and others. You don’t become free just by going with the flow. You become free by knowing when to say no, fighting for what is right, and engaging with the fiercer forms of grace.

The Liberator

As an archetype of divine femininity, Kali is miles away from the image of Mary, the sweet intercessor; of Kuan Yin crying for the suffering of humanity; even of the perfect Hindu wife, Sita. Kali is tough love. In her deepest spiritual essence, she epitomizes the demand that you become a naked warrior for truth and freedom, ruthlessly sacrificing your own pride for the sake of liberation.

Whatever version of Kali you seek out, “finding your Kali” is always about liberation. For people like Annie, Kali offers a kind of permission to find their warrior side. Kali’s discerning and swordlike eye cut through the disguises of Annie’s ego, woke her up, and showed her how much of her identity was a series of socially conditioned roles and responses and stories about herself taken on in childhood. That meant seeing into the fear that lay behind her politeness and then finding the part of her that could stand up to both her fear and her siblings.

At one point I asked her to imagine herself as Kali—strong, fearless, holding a sword aloft—and to notice how she felt in this role. Her response was a huge “No!” shouted not just at her siblings but also at her own passivity. She began doing an asana she called Kali Pose—a half squat, with arms raised, tongue stuck out—as she vocalized “Aaaaaa!” or “Nooooo!” She felt that Kali helped her hold strong as she argued with her siblings and finally persuaded them to put her mother’s money in a trust, controlled by a lawyer who was answerable to all three of them. Annie’s siblings started, for the first time, to treat her not as a little sister but as someone who knew what to do.

Every one of us, at some point, will be brought face-to-face with the need to discover and integrate Kali. This does not mean giving way to tantrums or violent impulses. In fact, people who have tantrums are people who are out of touch with the truth of Kali, because her energy will always bring consciousness to the unconsciously angry parts of ourselves and allow them to be transformed.

However, it is also true that we are often drawn to look for Kali in those moments when our social face is breaking down, when suppressed anger or fear is threatening to overwhelm us, or when we’re faced with a crisis in which someone else’s anger seems to threaten our survival or sense of justice.

For me it happened during a health crisis. At the time, I was actively “working on” my anger and personal ambition through the time-honored practice of total denial. Like many people involved in spiritual self-training, I believed that any form of personal willfulness was selfish (that is, bad) and took for granted that being spiritual meant repressing, witnessing, and ideally transcending my shadow qualities. Since I have a lot of rebellious and eccentric qualities, this was not easy or natural for me, and, as nearly always happens when we disown our shadow, my creative energies went underground. I was tired all the time. My unadmitted anger tended to pop out in sarcasm or in sudden outbursts that created problems. Finally my digestion started to go south.

Talking to Kali

After a series of dreams in which I kept seeing animals trapped inside my body and eating their way out, I decided to start a process of dialogue with what I, like Annie, saw as my own suppressed Kali energy. It often happens this way: We seek Kali when we feel like we are living in dissonance with parts of ourselves we may not fully understand or know.

Sometimes people do this kind of shadow work aloud; I did it as a written dialogue. I began by writing, with my dominant (right) hand, “I’d like to speak to Kali,” and then taking a pen in my left hand. As I did so, I felt a leaping in my heart and saw these words flowing through my pen: “I am anger, I am power, I’m the girl in the corner, I’m the wild dancer, I’m you, I’m you, I’m you!” “What do you want?” I wrote with my right hand. “I want out,” wrote my other hand.”To be free! To be wild! To be in control!”

The dialogue went on for a while and ended only when I got a cramp that finally made it too uncomfortable to write. In the process, I could feel myself swinging from wild exhilaration to resentment and back again, but always with a feeling of mounting energy and excitement.

After a few weeks of this process—to which I have often come back in the years since—I began to notice the near miracle that occurs when we begin to tune in to any divine archetype and especially when we allow it to consciously speak through us. I began to find that positive Kali qualities—a natural kind of assertiveness and freedom—were coming back into my life. My health improved, but, more to the point, I began to be able to speak my truth in the moment in ways I hadn’t been able to in years. Talking to Kali had allowed me to integrate these energies.

This was one of the processes I recommended to Annie. Another was to visualize Kali standing behind her, protecting her. A third was the Tantric meditation process described in “Talk to the Goddess”. I might also have suggested dancing or drumming. I didn’t suggest that she look into the reasons for her passivity in the face of others’ aggression, though that kind of psychological help can often be useful. Instead, I asked her to talk to the Kali energy inside and see what Kali had to say to her. She’s been dialoguing with Kali ever since. I notice she’s a bit more sharp-tongued than she used to be and more incisive. There’s a freedom in her movements and her asana practice not there before. More to the point, she’s becoming comfortable confronting people. She told me that even her friends find her more authentic. Although Annie doesn’t always know how to express her newfound clarity, “I’m learning that, when I let myself feel my anger, I can usually figure out how to say it in a way that doesn’t blow up the conversation,” she says. “I actually think I’m learning how to manage conflict.”

This is one of Kali’s secret boons. In pointing you toward those parts of yourself that you have rejected, feared, or ignored, she inspires you to transform your identity over and over again, letting go of the old rigid ideas of who you are, stretching your emotional range, your mind, and life itself in delicious and liberating ways.

Extra: Unleash your inner strength through the guided exercise Talk to the Goddess.