Hindu Deities 101

By Katie Vincent, Conference Blogger

HINDU_GODS1While singing and reciting mantras can be fun, on this side of the Pacific Ocean we usually do not have the frame of reference to fully understand Hindu mythology. Sure, we are welcome to pick what resonates for us and and it weave into our own story, but in this freedom it is easy to innocently pick up an asana practice, song, or mantra without fully understanding the inherent energy or context behind it.

Some choose to interpret the Indian gods and goddesses as tangible entities (physical or energetic), while others may prefer to think of them as symbolic archetypes or aspects of the self and the natural world. Translating this to a yogic practice, understanding the myths and archetypes can allow for a deeper understanding of the energetics or intention of a pose. Take matsyasana, or “fish pose”, for instance. What some may think of as a mere lymph-moving or chest-stretching position carries with it the energy of Vishnu—one of three Supreme gods—who incarnated as a golden fish to tow a boat packed with flora and fauna (a la Noah’s ark) through a monstrous flood that nearly destroyed the world. Bringing this story to mind, a practitioner might play with embodying Matsya the Fish and notice twinges of strength emerging in themselves.

hindutempleIn this way, accessing the pantheon of yourself need not require asana. To call upon or honor a divine energy you might repeat a mantra, sing (as in kirtan), meditate, perform a ceremony, or maybe even just dance. In the reverse, if a particular mantra or pose resonates strongly for you, consider researching the mythology of the god or goddess energy you are invoking. To get you started on this mysterious, mythical path of self-discovery, below is a sampling of the divinities most commonly encountered in the yogic tradition.



Shakti: Goddess of Feminine Energy & Power

Derived from the Sanskrit word shak (meaning “potential to produce”) Shakti is the divine feminine, the powerful potential energy behind all creation. She is embodied in many forms: Parvati, the loving and devoted consort of Shiva; Kamakshi, the world mother; Durga, the unconquerable; Kali, the “Dark Mother” of fierce anger and destruction.


Shiva: Supreme God of Destruction and Resurrection; Asceticism and Sensuality

Certainly a complex figure, Shiva is one of three primary cosmic life energies. While Brahma represents creation and Vishnu preservation, Shiva is the god of destruction and the transformative creation that occurs out of death. He is the tapas energy, or fire, that can burn out of control if not contained by feminine energy. Usually Shiva is depicted wearing a snake coiled around his arms and neck to symbolize power over reincarnation; holding a trident to represent his role in the trinity; holding a skull to signify samsarathe cycle of life, death, and rebirth; and riding a white bull to show his control over sexual impulses. Often worshiped as a lignam, an ovoid phallic shape. Shiva is the father of Ganesha.


Vishnu: Supreme God of Preservation, Peace and Truth

The second of the divine trinity, Vishnu is the protector of the world and restorer of moral order. Supposed to derive from solar energy, he is often associated with lotus flowers, holds a conch shell to represent the first sound of creation (“OM”), flies on the back of a giant eagle and uses a mace as a weapon, signifying the elemental force from which all physical and mental powers derive. Vishnu’s consort, or female counterpart, is Lakshmi. He famously has ten avatars, or embodiments, in myths, some of which include Matsya the fish, Rama, Krishna and Buddha.  


Brahma: Supreme God of Creation

Along with Vishnu and Shiva, Brahma is the first of the Supreme triumvirate and is credited with the creation of the world and all creatures. He is said to have birthed himself from the lotus flower that grew from Vishnu’s navel at the beginning of the universe. He is depicted with four heads, faces and arms with none holding a weapon. Instead, he bears a water pot representing the all-encompassing nothingness from which evolution came, a string of malas to keep track of universal time, the Vedas and a spoon to pour holy ghee.  He rides a divine swan that can discern between good and evil. It is important not to confuse him with Brahman, who created the universe and is the Supreme god force present within all things.


Ganesha: God of Obstacles and Success

A popular figure, the elephant-headed Ganesha is renowned as the remover of obstacles. Born and spiritually conceived when Shiva was away, Ganesha didn’t recognize his father when he returned home and lost his head defending his mother from this “intruder.” When Parvati told Shiva about his son he felt remorse and negotiated a replacement head from a wise elephant. Worshippers of Ganesha invoke him when beginning a new business, ventures, home or work of art to remove any obstacles in the way. He also holds an elephant prod to steer souls away from ignorance and illusion. Depicted with a prominent potbelly, Ganesha’s appetite for sweets reflects his underlying celebration of life’s pleasures and beauty.


Hanuman: Monkey God of Mischief, Courage and Loyalty

Technically a demi-god, Hanuman is the child of Shiva and a forest-dwelling woman who was desperate for a child. As a hybrid being, Hanuman represents a mixture of the divine and the impure; as a child he attempted to eat the sun, which he thought was a fruit, and was struck down by a divine thunderbolt that injured his jaw. In fact, in Sanskrit hanu means “jaw” and man means “disfigured or prominent.” Hanuman is most famously known from his heroic role as Rama’s skilled and devoted general in the Ramayana epic. He is invoked for playful strength in the trials of own life, for protection against sorcery and bad luck, and to counter bad karma.


Rama: The Ideal Man

As the seventh embodiment of Vishnu, Rama is the protagonist of the Ramayana epic in which his journeys led him to kill the demon king, Ravana. Bow and arrow in hand, Rama is a hero representing the qualities an ideal man: Perfect son, loving brother, faithful friend, loyal husband, flawless citizen, ideal king and  honorable adversary. On his adventures, Rama walks the metaphorical path of dharma that leads to righteousness. His wife is Sita, an embodiment of Lakshmi, and together they represent marital devotion and purity.


Durga: Goddess of Power and Strength

When divinity itself was endangered by evil demons, the highest gods came together to create a secret weapon. The result of their combined radiance was Durga, a manifestation of the invincible power of feminine energy. In some traditions, Durga and Shakti are synonymous. A virgin figure, she rides a tiger and carries all of the gods’ weaponry to slay the most evil of evils. She is a reminder that the divine always conquers even the worst of evils and can be invoked when powerful demonic forces create imbalance and distress. She is the mother of the goddess Kali, an angry, imbalanced and destructive manifestation of Durga’s power and strength.


Lakshmi: Goddess of Wealth, Beauty, Fertility and Fortune

Derived from the Sanskrit word laksme, meaning “goal,” Lakshmi asks us to aim for a balance of physical and spiritual abundance. She is the consort of Vishnu, showing how both kinds of wealth are necessary for body-mind-spirit preservation. One day, Lakshmi grew tired of human greed and corruption and, in protest, dissolved herself into an ocean of milk. The world lost its luster and the gods began to churn ocean, begging her to return. Eons later, she finally emerged from the foamy oceanmuch like Aphroditefull of rasa (life-giving essence) and joy to bless those who approach wealth with nobility, beauty and compassion.


Saraswati: Goddess of Wisdom, Learning and the Arts

Often associated with the sunrise, whose rays dispel darkness of ignorance, Saraswati lives above pleasure in a space of ascetic knowledge. Often depicted in a white sari and riding a swan to represent her purity, she symbolically resists cravings of the flesh and finds joy in the power of the mind. Schools and libraries are Saraswati’s temples, and musical instruments, books, pens, paintbrushes and other tools of art are her implements. Her energy enlivens creation and she is attributed as the mother of the Vedas. As the consort of Brahma, her knowledge helped him form the plan to create the world and her arts give value to life.


Krishna: Embodiment of Divine Love that Destroys Pain

Famously known as the eighth embodiment of Vishnu, Krishna is heralded much like Jesus in the Christian tradition and some even worship him as the only Supreme Being. Even though his personality changed over the course of his life, from mischievous child to amorous cowherd to noble warrior to Supreme being, Krishna usually represents the loving, compassionate and righteous being inside all of us. Sometimes in mantra or kirtan he is referred to as Govinda, which means “protector of cows.” This is an important role in Hindu culture, as cows represent the divine mother nature who gives life.

Photos courtesy of the Sanatan Society.

At the NWYC, you can look forward to related workshops like Yogic Lore Flow: The Goddesses with Kimi Martin and Rob & Melissa Lundsgaard, The Holy Trio with Clara Roberts-Oss and Rob & Melissa Lundsgaard, Chanting 101: Bhakti Yoga with Janet Stone, and a rocking evening of Kirtronica! with Jaya Lakshmi and Ananda.

New Workshops for the New Year

By: Jill Rivera Greene, conference blogger

Happy New Year, yogis! It’s January, and the conference suddenly feels just around the corner. As if our schedule weren’t exciting enough already … we are thrilled to announce a few late additions to the line-up:

Lynn Jensen, a registered yoga therapist and founder of the Seattle-based Yoga for Fertility, is offering Yoga for Women’s Health: Balancing Chakras, Balancing Hormones. This workshop will explore how your yoga practice can support the hormonal system and address many common symptoms of imbalance, including PMS, cramps, fertility issues, hot flashes, adrenal depletion, and more. Participants will learn concrete tools for teaching or tailoring a personal yoga practice.

Release the acrobat within at our dynamic AcroYoga session! Robin Martin and Thomas Eagan will lead students of all levels in this workshop designed to introduce AcroYogafundamental principles and techniques of this unique style. Learn the building blocks to become a stable and supportive “base” and a dynamic and graceful “flyer.” Spotting skills will be emphasized, so that everyone feels safe trying new things. No partner necessary: Come as you are, for a playful and empowering practice!

Stephanie Sisson will take us back to basics in Chaturanga: Breaking It Down. Love it or hate it, chaturanga dandasana is a staple in most vinyasa and flow classes. It is rarely taught, however, and can become a source of frustration or even injury if not understood. The workshop will build a solid foundation for the pose through breath and the bandhas, and will explore transitions into and out of the pose. Get ready to have fun and leave feeling strong!


Lisa Black, founder and director of Baptiste Affiliate SHAKTI Vinyasa Yoga

Lisa Black , founder and director of Baptiste Affiliate SHAKTI Vinyasa Yoga, will be leading two recently added offerings: Discover Your Voice and Take Your Seat as a Teacher and Foundations of Flow. Lisa has been featured in Yoga Journal, including a March 2008 article highlighting her as one of the most “talented upcoming yoga teachers in the country.” She brings her extensive training and more than 10 years of teaching experience, and we are excited to add her to our list of gifted local teachers.

Discover the tools to stop wasting time in this wild and precious life, in Krishna’s Time Management System. Using the Bhagavad Gita and the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey as a guide, Andrew Tanner focuses on unearthing your personal dharma to help you create achievable goals and make your dream life a reality. (No prior knowledge of the texts is necessary.) At the end of this workshop, you’ll have a live dharma statement and the next week of your life planned for ultimate dharma action toward your financial and personal dreams.

In Studio Ownership: Create and Maintain Success, Andrew Tanner uses real-world examples and business strategy to explore studio ownership. Learn valuable tips for finding the right space, managing and hiring teachers, and smart pricing and scheduling. Andrew will share his know-how about what works and what doesn’t, developed through his 12 years of experience owning, selling, operating, and consulting for yoga studios. If you want to open a studio, already own a studio, or want to treat your yoga business as a virtual studio, this workshop will help you not only be successful but enjoy the journey!

Finally, if you are looking for ways to build your business, don’t miss Social Media: Harnessing Its Power as a Yoga Teacher, led by our very own Conference Director Melissa Hagedorn. Social media can be a powerful resource—if you know how to use it correctly. Melissa will share insights from her years of experience promoting the Northwest Yoga Conference. Participants will review a variety of social media sites to discover what elevates a page or profile from average to great, and discover answers to questions such as: Which platforms should I use? Who is my target audience? Should I advertise? And … How can I manage my time so that my social media accounts aren’t managing me?

Many of our workshops have already filled to over 50 percent capacity. Register soon to ensure you get the workshops you want! 

Already registered, but want to include some of these new offerings in your schedule? No problem! Make changes to your schedule any time before the end of February.

“I am always doing yoga.” An interview with Jeanne Heileman

By: Jill Rivera Greene, Conference Blogger

I caught up with Jeanne Heileman on a day when things were not going as planned. Her retreat partner had a change in plans, and she was unexpectedly left to set up and lead an intro session on her own, right after teaching a yoga class. When I called, Jeanne graciously agreed to do go ahead with our interview, despite being in the midst of a last-minute trip for supplies before the evening events began.

You have studied many forms of yoga—including Ashtanga, Iyengar, Vini, and Jeanne HeilemanTantra—and with some of the country’s most renowned teachers. Could you talk about one experience that has had a significant impact on your practice?

I would have to say it was when I started to study Tantra with Rod Stryker. That’s when I realized that all of the joy and excitement I got from working on the physical level could also be found by working internally.

As a Sting fan, I have to admit that when I hear “Tantra,” the first thing I think of is … not yoga. What does it really mean?

It’s not what people think. When I think of Tantra, I think of embracing every aspect of my life, the difficulties as well as the joys, and seeing it all as part of my yoga practice.

Every moment of my day, I am trying to live as a yogi … being stuck in traffic, finding out I have to manage this info session by myself, lack of sleep, body aching … all of these things. It’s about reminding myself in each moment: Okay, this is surrender. You’re not breathing enough. Use your mantra.

In these moments of difficulty, I call on the Yoga Sutras. I ask myself, am I going to believe all the thoughts in my mind? Or am I going to watch them? Sometimes life throws us a little test with the challenges: How’s your yoga doing today? The quality of my mind is the mirror that shows how well my practice is going. This is living the yoga; this is the practice.

Is this an aspect of yoga that you think is often overlooked in the U.S.?

Well … I will speak for myself and say that I had not initially interpreted yoga this way. I was brought up in a very strict Catholic environment. There was a lot of “No, you should do without” engrained in me. And in yoga there’s a lot of discipline. You might think, ”I can’t have this, I can’t have that …”

When I started to study with Rod, I had just gone back to acting … and I realized I actually could do both. I didn’t have to pick one. That was so liberating!

The practices and exercises we did also helped me to realize, I am always doing yoga. I’m doing yoga right now, having a conversation with someone while trying to remember what I need at the grocery store, and hoping to get to the studio in time for my class. Or as I’m sitting and trying to meditate and my body is aching and I want to cry … that’s it, too. The question is, can I accept it, whatever “it” is?

When I do surrender to this … there’s usually some amazing shift. It’s like you can feel a loving caress from the Divine Mother.

It almost sounds like you rediscovered joy …

Yes! Although it was more like I discovered joy, because I don’t know that I ever had it before. Except maybe through coffee.

What are some things you keep in mind when putting together a sequence for a class?

I use a lot of principles from Ayurveda. For example, the weather is really Vata right now, so I’m going to sequence differently than if it was hot and full of Pitta energy. I also adjust my sequencing based on the time of the day.

Jeanne radiates joy while leading a class.

Jeanne radiates joy while leading a class.

I might keep to a similar shape throughout a sequence, to help someone go even further and deeper toward a goal, a peak pose. I also take into consideration who is coming and what is going on in the external environment: politics, financial markets, world events, as well as the state of mind/energy of the students.

In any case, I’m always thinking about affecting energy. It’s not just pose, pose, pose … what I have learned from Rod, in Tantra, is that we want to help the person remember their luminous essence. Do we want to increase that person’s energy, or bring it down and help them calm? I look at where they are and where they need to go to reconnect to their Center.

In my conference workshop [Creative Sequencing that Makes Sense], we will actually sequence a class together, considering various options. If someone doesn’t know about Ayurveda, that’s fine—I’ll cover some of that so that they can follow. Even if you’re not a yoga teacher, it’s fine. This is useful for home practice, too.

I saw on your website that you struggle with scoliosis. How does your own experience of chronic pain affect how you work with students?

Once you have any sort of pain, if it’s really good and juicy, I think it opens you up to your compassion, to realizing that other people are in pain too. As I walk down the sidewalk or drive on the freeway, I look in windows and think, “I wonder who else is in pain?” You realize that everyone’s pain is different, yet the same: it’s hard to breathe, you want to cry and give up, etc.

Helping a student with an adjustment.

Helping a student with an adjustment.

When I have a student who has an injury, I’ll ask them to describe it. I’ll try to put myself into their pain because it helps me to understand what’s happening for them and discover what they need.

At the conference, one of your workshops is a “Closer Look” at the Bhagavad Gita. For those of us who have not studied that text deeply, what is something that we might find surprising?

The book is just pure love! It’s about how to give and receive love, and how to be a yogi in the present world.

People should know that even if they don’t know the book, if they haven’t looked at it, they can come to the workshop. A lot of people think it’s going to be heady and difficult to read, like Shakespeare … but it’s so accessible and so beautiful. I will break it down in a way that people can really relate it to this present day and time. Students who take this workshop leave loving the experience, and the Gita.

I am really honored to be part of this conference and have this opportunity to share not only asana, but these other aspects of yoga.

What advice do you have for a new student of yoga like myself?

I used to teach new students … they would take a class or two and then ask what they should do, and I would say, “Promise me that you will come once a week for 6 months.” And they would say “Sure, of course” … but it’s the holidays, things happen. Stay with once a week no matter what. If you have the time and energy, by all means do more, but never drop any lower than once a week.

Then try to appreciate the experiences happening inside your body—not what’s happening on the outside, how it looks, or whether you’re hitting the pose just right. Let the yoga do its job. Don’t you do yoga, let the yoga do you. The rest will unfold as is necessary.