“Something strange happened in my Ashtanga class last week,” Roger wrote me. “We were on round five of a vinyasa sequence. The teacher kept saying, “Let go of effort. Let the body move itself.” My mind was talking back to her, going, “No way. The body doesn’t move itself!” Then, this very unusual thing happened. It felt like a wind started moving my body. I was moving, yes, but there was something behind me, like an energy flowing through my whole body. What was that?”
Roger had tapped into an experience of his own Shakti, the subtle energy that’s the true secret sauce of yoga. Anyone who practices yoga for a while will have had these ‘Shakti moments’. Perhaps your movements seem to flow on their own, or you sense what the teacher is going to say before he says it, or you come into class with a problem and find that it dissolves by the end of the first sequence. Maybe your body fills up with prana, or your heart with bliss.
What you may not realize is that these experiences are signs that your asana practice is fulfilling one of its main purposes: to raise your ‘felt sense’ of Shakti.
Here’s a radical truth: True yogic transformation actually depends on your ability to find, feel, and harvest this subtle inner power. Not only that, the Shakti that you kindle in your yoga practice can spill over and enliven every part of your life.
Not every yoga teacher talks about Shakti, at least not by name. But if you read yogic texts like the ‘Hatha Yoga Pradipika ‘ ( ‘Light on Hatha Yoga ‘), you’ll find verses that point to the significance of this powerful interior force. Some texts say that without Shakti, no form of liberation is possible. In other words, yoga’s capacity to expand your awareness, to strengthen your will, and to attune you to extraordinary levels of intuitive knowledge are all due to Shakti.
Shakti means power, energy, or force. Mythologically, Shakti is always described as feminine, often personified as the goddess, Devi, the divine feminine consort of the divine masculine god Shiva. But at the deepest level, Shakti transcends gender. Metaphysically, in Indian tradition – as well as in Taoism (where they refer to Shakti as “chi” or “qi”), Shakti is the name given to the fundamental creative dynamism that gives rise to universes. She is considered the source of both matter and physical energy, as well as of just about everything else. Her dance is the dance of the cosmos.
It makes sense then, that there are different forms, levels, and expressions of Shakti in the universe. If you sit next to the Columbia River in Oregon, outside Portland Oregon, you’ll get a visceral sense of power flowing as the current. Following the river downstream, you’ll discover an enormous hydroelectric plant, converting the waterpower into electricity. That same electricity flows through the wiring in the local restaurant, runs the refrigerator, keeps the lights on, and lets you connect wirelessly to the Internet. These energies seem different and serve different purposes, but they are all forces, powers. They are all forms of Shakti. And, beyond the observable physical power is something much subtler and more multileveled: Shakti is the innate creativity at the heart of all living things. She’s the life force energy that makes the river flow just as she powers your breath, makes your heart beat, and fires your muscles and neurons. She is often equated with prana (the force within the breath), but she is also the subtle energy that gives rise to prana.
In essence, yoga teaches that Shakti is the energy within everything. And yet, there’s an aspect of Shakti that is particularly significant in the practice of yoga. This aspect of Shakti specifically governs our spiritual evolution, and normally it remains hidden, in the sense that it is not available to us. This aspect of Shakti – sometimes called YogaShakti (because she unfolds the state of union, or yoga, between body, mind and spirit), or Kundalini – is the secret force that evolves your consciousness and opens the doorways into your soul. In other words, this aspect of Shakti is the subtle force behind spiritual awakening.
Shakti and Gender
In recent years, contemporary woman’s spirituality has tended to co-opt inner Shakti, and even to equate it with women’s sexual energy. But this is a misunderstanding. Shakti is neither gender specific, nor simply sexual. , and it is in men as it is in women. A Shakti-conscious yoga practitioner of either gender is likely to exhibit qualities like ardor, juiciness, inner attention, flow and feeling, in his or her yoga practice. And yes, one sign of the awakening of inner Shakti is a heightened sense of flow in the chakras, including the sexual chakra.
Yet, Shakti can also manifest as deep quiet. One of her gifts is the capacity she can give us to experience the inner Witness. She awakens in different ways – through pranayama, chakra practice, mantras, meditation, and through contact with someone whose Shakti is already awake. She can also activate more or less spontaneously, as a natural part of your inner growth process.
However it happens, the awakening and unfolding of your inner Shakti has its own natural timeline. The evolution of your consciousness is analogous to the physical growth of a baby. A baby’s growth from childhood to adolescence to maturity is governed by biological systems, and also optimized by nourishing food, sunshine, exercise and other environmental forces. In spiritual growth, that same life force operates on a subtle level to transform and evolve your world-view, your sense of self, your priorities, and your way of relating to others and the world. It grows your capacity to tune into subtle Presence. It strengthens you to hold higher frequencies of energy. It catalyzes longing for truth, brings up mystical emotions, dissolves traumas and quickens your capacity for insight. Spiritual growth is natural, like physical growth, but it also requires the right nutrients: among them awareness, contemplation, meditation, self-inquiry, a supportive cultural environment, and a willingness to do what we’ve come to call “˜inner work.’ Effort is necessary – use it or lose it applies to spiritual ‘muscles’ just as it does to physical muscles and brain cells.
But here’s the gift: Once your inner Shakti has revealed herself – and many of us sense Shakti for the first time during asana or meditation – she will literally empower any practice, and lend it power. That means ‘any ‘ practice – asana, meditation, a creative project, your somatic therapy work, or your doctoral program. That’s when spiritual and creative growth accelerate exponentially. And that’s why learning to tune into your own Shakti is so life-changing.
I had been doing yogic practice for nearly a year before I began to have a palpable, felt experience of Shakti. It started as a mildly pleasurable feeling of expanding energy in my heart. Then, my sensory capacities seemed to turn on. Sounds, touch, taste, and especially sights were suddenly richer and more layered. I would hear a meditation technique for the first time and was able to work with it. Sex with my boyfriend, which had been stalled, suddenly caught fire. My tai chi practice began doing itself, as if some inner force were moving my body through the sequences. My body sometimes felt as if it were exploding with love.
And there was an uncomfortable side, too – emotional explosions, days when I woke up filled with fear or self-loathing. My unconscious sometimes felt as if it were downloading every buried insecurity, every self-critical judgment, and more than a few nuances of resistance. All this is characteristic of the releases that happen when Shakti is clearing you from the inside. But the inner storms always passed, leaving me a little lighter than before. After awhile, I learned to see them as detox symptoms, and ride them out the way you ride out a flu.
Over a period of months, I became a student of my inner Shakti. I discovered that this subtle energy could manifest somatically and psychologically in many different ways – as heat, as a physical movement like swaying, as insight. But the most significant thing was the way it revolutionized my meditation practice. I began to tune myself to the felt sense of Shakti in my heart, first by noticing which thoughts and behaviors seemed to make it expand or contract, and later by asking questions. Feeling my way into the nudges and subtle sensations from my body, I found that they could guide my asana and meditation practices. My daily practice became less about following a set technique and more about what my body and energy seemed to need at the time. The energy helped me generate ideas and work with my emotions. The more I practiced with Shakti, the more I realized that it would lend its power to any practice I did.
Over the years, I’ve pinpointed four practices that are key to bringing Shakti into your inner work – including work with difficult emotions or life issues.
First, pay close attention to feeling the subtle energy in your body.
Second, welcome it – in other words, take a loving attitude towards the manifestations of the energy, and let it do its thing.
Third, realize that energy moves. This means that any stuck feelings, sensations, or fears will ultimately release if you keep paying close attention to inner felt sense of energy in your body, while letting go of resistance and, yes, expectation.
Fourth – and this is the real secret of practicing with Shakti – learn to dialogue with the energy in your body.
Many of us learn through yoga practice how to pay attention, and even how to consciously release tensions. What we don’t often realize is possible is dialogue. Words themselves are aspects of Shakti, which is one reason why using a mantra can create such powerful results in your practice. But direct conversation is just as important. Once you try it, you might be very surprised by how responsive your inner energy turns out to be. It’s possible to experience your inner energy as a distinct presence, as an ally, a friend, or even an inner lover. Because the Shakti is innately intelligent, she responds to suggestions and even to requests. (Like, “Please cool down this heat I’m experiencing” or “Can you give me some help staying present in meditation?”) All this becomes incredibly useful when you’re trying to work through an emotional issue, when you have tightness or pain in your body, or when you want to take your asana practice to the next level.
How to Talk to Your Shakti
Most experienced practitioners know how it feels to feel your asana session take off, and to feel yourself guided in a pose by your own subtle energy as it unfolds. But this doesn’t have to end when you leave your mat. The more attuned you become to the flow of Shakti in your body and mind, the more you welcome her play within you, the more empowered and guided you’ll become off the mat as well.
Dialoguing with your Shakti can take many forms. For instance, if there’s a question you need answered, you can bring the question into your heart, and ask the Shakti to give you an answer. Then you might pick up your pen and write whatever comes – letting your words flow spontaneously, as expressions of Shakti. Or you can ask the question and then be attentive to the ways that answers come to you as you go about your daily life.
When some synchronous event seems like an answer to your question, ask inwardly, “Is this what I’m looking for?” Then pay attention to the feeling that arises. Normally, a sense of expansion or relaxation signals that an answer is in line with your Shakti, while a feeling of confusion is likely to indicate that you’re leaping to conclusions.
Shakti-dialogue is particularly helpful when you need to release emotions or discomfort in your body or mind. If you notice a part of your body feels tight or painful or stuck, you can tune in attentively to the pain, noticing how big the area of tight energy is, how it feels, (sharp or hard, prickly or achy), what its shape is. Then recognize the fact that the discomfort is a ‘packet’ of energy.
How to Dialogue with Your Own Inner Energy
Consciously welcome the energy sensations – even if they feel uncomfortable. Physical and emotional stagnation are often related to a subtle need to control. Welcoming invites relaxation, and letting go.
Now, gently speak to the energy. You might use a suggestive word like ‘Ease’ or ‘Open.’ You might ask the stuck energy what it has to show you.
Then, imagine a light-filled circle of spacious energy around the stuck places. Breathe, allowing your attention to flow gently between the energy inside your pain and the open spacious circle of Shakti. Breathe with a thought like “Ease” or “Open.”
You can do this practice when you’re dealing with a difficult emotion – anger, jealousy, sadness. You can do it to deal with a problem that’s cropped up in your life. Shakti is always present deep within you and her energy is inherently healing. Over time, her transformative current can dissolve tensions and outworn beliefs you may not even have known were present. That’s when your natural ecstasy and wisdom reveal themselves – not as qualities you have to seek out, but as expressions of your essential self.
In the secret tradition of Shakti, to live your yoga means to live in partnership with the deep interior current of this awakening force. To feel her pulsation in your body and psyche. To let her mold you invisibly into the uniquely radiant being you are meant to be.
Feel the Shakti in Your Body
If you want to get an immediate sense of Shakti’s presence, try one of these four practices:
Hold your hands 2 or 3 inches apart and feel the energy between them. Move your hands apart another few inches, keeping the sense of the energy connecting them. When you lose the connection, move your hands closer until you feel the energy between them again.
Bring your attention to the heart. Inhale and exhale with the feeling that your breath moves through the heart and out the back of the body. Become aware of a subtle energy behind you, supporting you like a backrest. Let yourself take the support of that energy, as though you were leaning into it. Feel as if the energy flows out and surrounds you on all sides. With long, slow breaths, breathe the energy into any places in your body that feel stuck or tight. Recognize that you’re breathing Shakti.
Become aware of the area at the base of the spine. Sense the presence of a subtle channel of energy running through the center of your body from the base through the crown of the head. With the breath, let your attention flow from the base of the spine to the heart, and from the heart to the crown, then back again. Be aware of the gathering awareness of energy moving in this inner channel. You may feel it as expansion, tingling, or a subtle feeling of electricity. Again, recognize that this feeling is Shakti.
While you’re doing your asana practice, bring your attention to the flow of your breath. Gently guide your focus into the core of the body, the subtle channel running from the base of the spine to the heart. As you practice you may notice subtle physical or energetic sensations – shivers, feelings of expansion, heat, a sense of lightness or heaviness, even the heartbeat.
It’s not uncommon to to notice the sensations in Savasana (Corpse Pose) because it’s easier to notice subtle energy when you’re still.