I learned to meditate in a loft in Chelsea, with the young fencers of New York stampeding overhead.
“The footsteps are like our thoughts; they come and go. Bring your attention back to the breath,” my Teacher* would say.
The single most salient feature of my original Yoga Teacher Training was not the pressure to advance my physical practice – although that was there. Or the challenge of developing the neural circuitry to “direct traffic” on the mat. “Inhale and take your right foot forward. No. Sorry. I meant your left foot, the other right foot.” That was there too.
The most salient feature of my original Teacher Training was that my Teacher plunged us in to meditation every chance she got.
Yoga as a Portal into Meditation
It was in savasana, after a deep physical practice – my body, completely relaxed, sounds arising and subsiding in the spaciousness of a quiet mind – that I first tasted meditative states. (For many of us, the physical practice of yoga takes us out of our heads and into our bodies. We shift our awareness from thoughts to the breath and to sensation which quiets the mind. In that way, yoga becomes a portal into meditation.)
Later, when we sat to meditate, my mind slightly anesthetized from the chanting and the incense, I got the hang of training my awareness on the breath and repeating mantra which dissolved thoughts.
In that Chelsea loft, I found blessed quietude – and space – between breaths, between “me” and the thoughts that were arising and subsiding.
The question that arose: Who (or what) was this “me,” this spaciousness, that thoughts dissolved into?
Awakened Meditation Energy or “Shakti”
Meditation naturally deepens when your meditation energy, your Shakti, which literally means “power,” is awakened.
In the Yoga traditions, this awakened Shakti is represented by a panoply of goddesses. Some are fierce. Others are gentle. Yet another group are considered “the wisdom goddesses.” Collectively, these goddesses represent aspects of our own awareness. And there’s a reason they wield deadly weapons and wear garlands made of skulls.
The goddesses represent the liberating power of yoga. And the skulls they wear represent the demons they have slain: the egoic contractions, the limited identities, the residue of traumas and grief that has been stored in our body/minds. The goddesses – awareness – liberate us from whatever causes us to suffer. They free us to know ourselves as sat, cit, ananda, being, consciousness and bliss.
As our Teacher, who had been training Yoga Teachers for four decades, once remarked, All Yoga is a cure for our mistaken identity.
Everyone’s True Identity Revealed
In our Teacher Training, many people experienced the awakening of Shakti and the beginning of this yogic clearing out process. If, for example, there is grief you haven’t fully processed, it may surface so it can be fully felt and released. Afterwards, you feel light and free but short-term, it’s not a process for the faint of heart. Before long, we started looking at our Teacher lovingly – and a bit suspiciously – as one of the fierce goddesses of yoga, the kind that wears a garland of skulls.
At the end of my two-year training in June of 2008, I was walking down West 28th Street on a warm summer evening and was excited to see headless mannequins sprawled on the sidewalk.
At home, I sent a tender email to my Teacher. “Dear Rudrani,” I wrote, “I saw mannequins that had no heads on the sidewalk and thought of you! Just wanted you to know I was thinking of you. With love…”
Not missing an opportunity to teach and confirming what we’d suspected all along about her true identity, she replied: Next time get the heads.
*Rudrani Farbman Brown, Director of World Yoga Center, was my first Teacher of Yoga and meditation. I am eternally grateful to her for transmitting the Shakti and the authentic core of yoga to me and to so many.