Badass goddesses eat demons whole: talking feminism with yogis

Kirtan is a call and response style of singing. It’s traditionally performed in Sanskrit and sometimes uses an accordion-esque instrument called a harmonium. Why are middle class white people in middle-America learning Kirtan? And what could chanting in Sanskrit possibly have to do with feminism?

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I learned a few things when I asked a yoga teacher these questions.

Kali is the Hindu goddess of time, change, and destruction. Yoga and Kirtan instructor Steph Schwartz describes her as the wave crashing over a sandcastle on the beach, destroying the sandcastle and carrying its remnants out to sea. Or perhaps more notably, Kali is, “like a tsunami.”

Kali’s purpose isn’t to destroy us, though. She’s more like the natural force of the wave; her purpose serves in lifting the veil from our eyes, exposing us directly to our fears and forcing us to deal with life beyond our comfort zone. The fear may hit us hard, but Kali is merciful, keeping our best interests at heart. Like jumping out of an airplane – one of Schwartz’s favorite activities – Kali forces us to confront fear so we can experience life to the fullest.

Kali’s unrelenting nature is like the love-hate relationship some of us experience with our favorite teachers or trainers. They push us to our limits, making us curse their seemingly cruel-heartedness. It’s difficult not to be grateful for the torture our teachers may evoke on us in the end though, because without the experience of pain, we may never know pleasure. Without expanding beyond our perceived limits, there is no growth. If we sit stagnate and wait for the next best thing to come to us, we may very well never see it. It’s up to each of us to show up to the drop zone of life.

Kali is not a simple representation of feminism, but maybe she should be. She’s known as the dark mother goddess. She drips blood. Her serpentine tongue lolls out of her mouth as she carries severed heads of demons in her four hands and wears their hands as a belt. Kali perches Captain Morgan-style on the fallen body of Shiva, the Mahadeva, or Great God. She saved the universe, explains Schwartz. She’s the epitome of a badass is what I’m getting.

What do yoga and stories from the Bhagavad Gita have to do with modern day feminism? Plenty. They transcend the ego and ideas of pairing the words “I am” with a label imposed by society, our parents, teachers, friends and lovers. Labels imposed by unsavory relationships. Labels imposed by ourselves.

Schwartz explains how we’re in a period called the Kali Yuga. It’s a period of 75 percent negativity. The demon Kali reigns supreme. This Kali is not the same as the goddess Kali, though. The demon Kali rules over this apocalyptic period. He represents suffering, grief, and confusion. This time period called a yuga, will last until the year 3102. Basically: we’re all screwed unless we change our ways.

Schwartz is a devoted yoga and Kirtan teacher, an avid skydiver, and a sushi chef. She’s an enneagram type seven – an enthusiast – and the primary goal of her work in Kirtan and yoga is to serve, she says.

Kirtan is a powerful way to transform the world, explains Shwartz. The fact that it’s typically sung in Sanskrit is irrelevant (Schwartz also mixes in some Western music, such as Bob Marley, with her traditional Sanskrit Kirtan). It brings people closer together through the power of song. Research has shown that when people sing together, their heart beats synchronize. Anxieties fall away about how your neighbor may be judging your singing voice and it’s easy to fall into the moment, explains Schwartz,. The physical act of yoga asana is the same.

These are qualities of feminine energy: of allowing, softening, and accepting. Getting into nature, embracing your creativity, and finding ways to laugh all evoke this feminine energy, Schwartz says.

Five years ago, the Dalai Lama said, “The world will be saved by the western woman.” It was a balance of resilience, hard work, and most importantly, feminine, nurturing energy that he was referring to in this controversial remark (the fact that it was controversial is mind blowing, but that’s a blog for another day). The Goddess Kali personifies this. The act of Kirtan shows us this when it allows us to show up, notice our imperfections and throw them to the wind. Yoga and any other physical activity are proof of this, allowing our willingness to show up as well.

Positive change takes effort: not only effort in community working together, but allowing our hearts to beat in synchronicity.  In doing so, then maybe, just maybe, our society can begin to shift as a whole.


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