This article was originally published on lisaashyoga.worpress.com “articles and insights page” October 2013.
“Behind your heart there is courage and behind your heart there is fear.
Last week, seven teenage girls in state-issued baggy sweatpants unrolled borrowed mats haphazardly in a conference room-turned-yoga-studio and flopped themselves down on the floor, looking at me with skeptical anticipation. Their looks said to me: “I might do what you tell me to, but I’m probably not going to enjoy it.” One girl groaned dramatically at the effort it took to sit down on her mat, the whole room laughed nervously; that was my cue to begin.
We chatted for a few minutes about the history of yoga. I expected questions about the physical benefits, the psychological gains, or the philosophical underpinnings of this great tradition. They asked me: “You got any kids?” and “How old are you?” I could tell I was really getting through to them.
Tadasana. Mountain Pose. I asked them to stand tall on two feet, close down their eyes, and bring their hands down by their sides. I explained that the stillness within the asana practice is often the most difficult part of the practice: being still takes courage. Being still takes trust. When I peeked up, one of my ‘students’ was standing in front of me, arms crossed, hip cocked to the side, lips pursed and eyes challenging my every statement. Her guarded heart told me she felt too vulnerable to close her eyes. Being still takes trust.
These girls, aged thirteen to sixteen, are residents in a rehabilitation program for youth exiting the juvenile criminal justice system. Sometimes a dozen girls live here, hoping to re-enter the public education system and rejoin their families when their probation period ends. While these ladies are criminals in the eyes of the law, they are not deviant; they are young souls trapped in fear and surrounded by unhealthy influences in their home communities. Many of the girls were arrested while following their boyfriend’s prerogative.
I led the girls through beginner level asanas, trying desperately to convince them with every breath to take this practice seriously. They weren’t convinced. In utkatasana (chair pose), I reminded them that sometimes life gets difficult: we practice difficult, strenuous asanas on the mat so that when life gets challenging off the mat, we react with courage and strength, not fear and desperation. One girl nodded, clenched her teeth and bent her knees a little deeper. One girl gave up and rolled her eyes. Another girl sighed loudly in relief when we stood tall out of the pose; her reward was a courtesy laugh from the others.
I then led the class through a Warrior Series, digging deeply into their foundation of strength. I asked them to practice being present on their mat, even if they’d rather be somewhere else. All of them would rather have been somewhere else. And I realized: these girls don’t have a choice. In this program, they are told when sleep, what to eat, where to go, and how to dress. At home, they are told they aren’t good enough, that they will never be anything better than their crime, that they won’t ‘make it’ in life, and that they will never be a member of a healthy community which sees them as an individual of worth. Where can they base their foundation of strength?
So we sat down.
And I introduced Durga. Immediately, all eyes were glued to the illustration of this untamed goddess riding a lion, fierce hair blowing wildly, wielding a weapon in each of her eight hands. Durga is the Warrior Goddess of Protection and Inner Strength. She is the contemporary icon of liberation and power; she is what these girls need.
I told the myth of Durga and her epic entrance into the cosmic battle between two armies of men who wanted to control the heavens and the earth. The armies were led by two demon brothers who had (stealthily) struck a deal with Brahman earning themselves invincibility. The deal was that no man or god could defeat them in battle. These demon brothers took over. Everything. The ‘good guys’ (called devas in this mythological system) didn’t have a chance for several thousand years. Until a wise yogi visited the court of the devas and pointed out a loophole in the demons’ deal: no one said anything about a woman.
Sally Kempton writes that Durga is, “Not just a battle goddess…She is also the power behind spiritual awakening, the inner force that unleashes spiritual power within.” Durga is the accumulation of all that is admirable in the feminine force: strength, empowerment, compassion, capacity for caretaking, and unwarranted wisdom. She kicks butts and takes names.
She challenges the demon brothers and their armies in battle and crushes their egotistic perceptions about goddesses. She wins.
She wins because she recognizes that she has a duty to always stand up for what is right, not just what is easy. She wins because she is a strong woman with strong convictions. She wins because she chooses courage over fear. Durga is exactly what these girls need.
I challenged the girls to stand back up, but this time, to stand in power. To stand tall with courage. To stand up for what is right. To stand up like they are worth something.
We took the Warrior Series on the second side, and this time, the girls were transformed. Instead of sullen, self-conscious teenagers, I saw women cultivating the strength to choose between fear and courage. We practiced Vrksasana (tree pose) and I reminded them that life is not about giving up, it’s about giving in to the force of God that loves and sustains us, even when everyone else leaves us out to dry. Every girl fell out of her balance pose. Every girl got back in. This practice was a success.
I left the ladies with this thought:
“Behind your heart there is courage and behind your heart there is fear. You choose.”
I leave you with this thought, and encourage you always to choose wisely.
Sally Kempton. Awakening Shakti: The transformative power of the goddesses of yoga. Boulder, CO: Sounds True Publishing, 2013.