Updated: Jul 7, 2020
A Glimpse of the Deities
When you walk into a yoga class, have you ever noticed the cute, fat-bellied elephant? This is the deity Ganesha. Or perhaps you’ve seen Lord Shiva, King of Dance? A deity is a god or goddess in the world of Yoga and within the Hindu pantheon.
Ever wonder why yoga teachers mention these supernatural, sacred beings in class? Who are they, where did they derive from, and how are they related to Yoga? The importance surrounds what they represent, how we can bring their powerful teachings into our yogic practices, and how we can understand the deeper meaning as applied to our everyday lives. Here are three common deities you may have already met:
The history about the birth of Ganesha can be found in the Puranas—part of Hinduism’s Vedic texts, composed from roughly 600 CE onwards. Like all deities of the Hindu Pantheon, Ganesha is the Lord of good fortune who provides wealth, success, and prosperity. He is known for being the remover of obstacles in mind, body, and spirit and is one of the most popular icons in Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. His image is found throughout India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Fiji, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and many yoga studios in the United States. He has a big potbelly to represent generosity and total acceptance, a single tusk representing one pointedness (called ekagratastated within the text of the Yoga Sutras), a human body, and pretty little eyes on his huge elephant head that embodies qualities of wisdom and effortlessness.
We all want success, benevolence, and good luck, don’t we? This is why we all love mighty Ganesha because he represents protection and power, and he helps us to realize the more subtle obstacles in our daily routines. His superhuman powers are known to ward off all the negativities from your life before beginning your work day. The first 8 beads on any mala bead necklace (a simple string of beads used in japa meditation to count mantras, prayers, or intentions) is dedicated to Ganesha. Chanting mantras contributes to success and relief from daily worries in all the new endeavors that you undertake. If you want to invoke the deity of Ganesha and need some elephant inspiration, start by silently repeating this mantra three times a day: om gam ganapataye namaha: Perhaps you could listen to a version on Spotify or YouTube to hear the rhythms of the mantra and the correct Sanskrit pronunciation. Learning Yoga is about awakening your heart, body, and spirit to live with more vitality and focus. Practicing yoga encourages us to trust our own curiosities and to navigate from within, and Ganesha helps us to recognize and remove the obstacles in life. He also reminds us to give gratitude for all that we receive.
Lord Shiva represents consciousness, and his consort Shakti represents the divine feminine energy. Together, they help create balance for our internal platform, like the equivalent Chinese symbol for yin and yang. When we balance the energy from Shiva and Shakti, we find life to be more harmonious.
If Shiva were human, he might appear to be the equivalent of a Hawaiian Jesus Jason Momoa! He is fierce and has three eyes. Sacred ash is smeared all over his body, with the ash representing burned away karma. He has snakes tucked within his dreads, dresses himself with animal skins and necklaces of skull heads, and likes to hang out in cemeteries.
Shiva is known as the god of destruction, which sounds negative, but is necessary for transformation. Although he’s known for his anger, Shiva has learned how to channel that anger by using his third eye, which is called the ajna chakra and is a gateway that leads to the space of higher consciousness that we all seek. Shiva often spends time in the Himalayan Mountains to meditate and calm his mind. Like life, Shiva’s temper is unpredictable, and we learn from him to use a simple meditation practice to help burn away anger and frustration. If you need to let off some steam, you can use this simple chant to call on the wisdom and power of Shiva: maha Shiva shambo.
Shiva is talked about in the ancient text of the Mahabrata as an icon of delight, brilliance, and honor. Although he has a reputation for destruction, Lord Shiva is known as one of the most compassionate deities because he will do anything to save his community and protect his people—that sounds like a yogi to me!
Mama Durga is the goddess of Shakti, or divine feminine energy. We all come from the divine feminine—in a literal sense, we are all birthed by our mothers—and Devi Durga is known as the protector of the whole universe. She sits astride a tiger (or sometimes a lion) and is known to have anywhere from eight to eighteen arms to fight the forces of malice tendencies in our world.
Like Durga’s consort Shiva, Durga also has three eyes, which give her the ability to see inner wisdom. In this way, she is not so different from your own mother. Think about how intuitive your mother was when you were growing up and always knew what you needed. Durga carries a lot of different weapons. The conch shell is especially sacred because it’s believed to carry the mystic and creative sound of AUM, which means she carries faith within the shell of sound. She also holds a shiny sword that cuts through doubt and reveals wisdom. Now that’s a sword worth carrying! If you ever need some extra “mama” support, perhaps take up fencing as a new sport or place a picture of Durga in your home to remind yourself that you are always loved, supported, and nurtured.
Next time you walk into a yoga studio, you can better understand the energy of studio based on the deities that are being honored. You can even create your own home devotional practice for these avatars in their various incarnations. Place a statue in your home, on your alter, or wherever you practice as a reminder that we are held up by the love and energy of these deities. Keep in mind that these deities embody qualities that we all have within us, and their stories give us a little more faith, humility, and compassion for humanity and ourselves. Together, we can embrace the blessings and subtle teachings of these archetype forces. We have a choice to apply the symbolic teachings, and we can call upon the deities to support us on our human journey through the art and heart of Yoga. Om Sri Durgaya Namaha