Dive into the subtle energy of shakti with Austin Richman as he kicks off a blog series in this week's installment of Yoga Living Project. Read below to explore this transformational energy and for tangible advice in putting it to practice. Does this prompt an idea you'd like to share on the blog? Email
A Pathway To Personal Power Pt. 1
The Search For Shakti With Hatha Yoga
The term shakti is something that you may have heard get thrown around in a yoga class but do we know what it means and more importantly why it relates to yoga? A few years ago I was in a workshop where the teacher was asked what the difference between shakti and prana was, and I realized that not only had I never thought about this question myself I had never really noticed the two terms held apparently interchangeable meanings in my own mind. The answer the teacher gave didn’t really quench my curiosity and so I tasked myself with the question of what the actual difference was. This, I did not realize at the time, was a fairly difficult quest because simply just throwing in “what is the difference between prana and shakti” to a Google search seemed to only obfuscate the matter. I have always felt I had a simple comprehension of what prana is: life force. Prana is the stuff that brings things to life, unmeasurable by most scientific standards but still not so abstract a concept. Shakti though, this was a different story, it has to do with the stuff of life force too but needs a more description to really tease out its special and important nuance.
So What is Shakti?
Shakti, meaning “energy”, in a traditional model represents the ultimate female energy in the universe. Shakti is the feminine counterpart to Shiva. Shiva is the force that is known to be stable, stoic, and of consistent temperament (unless disturbed from a meditation, then watch out for his wrath!). I often times think of Shiva embodied like the imagery used to depict him, meditating undisturbed far from society alone high up in the cold mountaintops of the Himalayas. By comparison Shakti is everything else, all of the frenetic action of the mind and all of the frenzied motion of the world. It is all of the color we see, smells we experience, tastes we delight or despise, all of those wonderful and tantalizing sensations of the physical world. Shiva and Shakti compliment each other and their opposites define one another. Shiva is the ruler of the spiritual world and Shakti the ruler of the material world.
In modern yoga the concept of shakti is less personified as a deity and was somewhat de-anthropomorphized through the teachings of hatha yoga and in turn when shakti is spoken of in modern contexts it is less in the literal, traditional sense but more in the sense of energy, especially that energy that animates and illuminates not just the flesh but implies a power beyond just the physical realm. This is where I was beginning to get dumbfounded in my own search for a simple answer describing the difference between prana and shakti. How could shakti represent the physical world and that of the energy within akin to the life force that is known as prana? It seemed to be a contradiction in terms the way that pre-classical yoga defined its origins and then by way of the use of shakti in post-classical yoga seemed to evolve. Yet, there also seemed to be some underlying understanding that the old-school embodied Shakti and the newer school less intimate experience of shakti were still somehow one and the same. So down the rabbit hole I commenced.
Why Shakti Matters
Shakti is the aspect of yourself that is equal to your personal power, from the way in which we are tired or wired or just right this all has to do with our shakti. When I was younger and many years before I started yoga I would wake up in moods that were outside of my own control and seemed to have no rhyme or reason to them. I felt like a slave to the experiences my body was experiencing, it was as benign as the weather sometimes cloudy, sometimes sunny, but always lording over me in a way that started to give me anxiety. The truth was I had no personal power over my own energy, this thing that was happening to me felt foriegn and though sometimes I was able to witness it from a somewhat detached place so it wouldn't completely consume me other times it was an all day battle that created anxiety and always ended in frustration and defeat. It wasn’t until I started yoga that things began to shift and slowly over many years the force acting upon me was no longer the bane of my existence. I actually started to see and feel the ways in which I could work with it, harness it to use for my own purposes without fighting with it.
The best way I can explain it that it was like owning a dog who had a terrible temperament and there was nothing but struggle between the way I wanted my dog to behave and the way it wanted nothing to do with any of my designs and then the yoga practice was like a dog training school which gave me a way to communicate with the dog so that it got its needs met and so could i, though none of this happened over night and even years down the road there would be moments of major discontent between me and the dog but if it were plotted out on a line graph the general trend over the years has been upward. For me it’s not about being the master. It’s more about not being the slave, being a co-conspirator, establishing a healthy boundary for interdependence to be fostered and thrive. If you are not steadfastly proactive in cultivating this energy, you will soon see that there are a multitude of forces outside of your power that are vying to gain control of it. If someone or something is in control of your shakti then they are in control of you but if you are in control of your shakti than that is the very definition of empowerment.
Putting It Into Practice:
Mindful Reflection on Cultivating, Conserving, or Depleting Your Energy
Write out on a piece of paper a list of all the ways in which you use your energy over the course of a day. This list can include but is not limited to: the food you eat, the job you have, spending time with a friend, walking the dog, watching television, reading, etc... Then categorize the choices you make throughout the day into whether these tasks ultimately cultivate, conserve, or deplete your energy. This simple form of mindful reflection can start to chip away at the veneer of the way in which we do things and start to ask us how we do things. How do you walk the dog? Is it done in a way that you could benefit by enjoying it, or actively occupying the mind with gratitude, or have you decided it is a chore that you preoccupy yourself with only wanting and waiting for it to end? Simply taking time to write and look at the ways in which we have chosen whether consciously or unconsciously to interact with shakti can be eye opening and empowering. Even over the course of just one day this practice can create a mindful intention that can bring a sense of purpose and benefit in the way we perform even simple mundane tasks and increase our enjoyment of the things we really love to do.
Still have questions about the difference between shakti and prana? Don’t worry I do too and hopefully by the end of this we will get a little closer to understanding. Keep an eyeout for next week’s article where we will begin to learn about the 3 types of shakti and explore some approaches to work with them in your own practice.
Continue Reading the series: