All cultures of the ancient world worshipped the principles of the Mother, Shakti or Devi. Although it has been called by different names, the concept of a force which bestows life, nourishes, loves, comforts, supports and transforms has always been present.

In Christianity, we know her as Mother Mary. In Japan, she is Amaterasu, the sun-goddess and in Greece, she is Demeter, the corn-goddess, Aphrodite, the goddess of passion and Gaya, the Earth Mother. Buddhists call her Tara and the Chinese call her Quan-Yin?, both representing compassion, love and self-truth. In Egypt she is Isis, the river-goddess. She shows acceptance and patience yet strength. She spins the web of life and kneads the earth with life-giving sap. She also brings death and the chance for rebirth.

The Goddess in all her aspects is called the Universal Mother. She is the life energy or "Shakti" that sustains the whole universe. If we are without Shakti, the body cannot move and the mind does not operate. She is our breath of life.

In our recent past, however, this feminine form and its associated spiritual powers has been repressed and we have lost touch even with our own breath. We see examples of this subjugation throughout history: witches were burned at the stake, women prevented from taking sannyasa or following spiritual ideals and pagan earth rituals were outlawed. A materialistic and patriarchal society which leaves little time to explore the subtle aspects of ourselves has been left to dominate. The once powerful traditions that honoured the sacred feminine, the life force itself and the Mother Earth have been overpowered by a male-dominated worldview. This denial of our essential nature which is inherent in all of creation, has led to the current imbalance that is being felt on Earth. It increases the sense of separation we feel from nature and our own selves.

In the last fifty years, the tides have again begun to change however and women have been re-emerging and reclaiming their spiritual inheritance. In India, great yogis have led the way. Ramakrishna Paramahamsa for example, worshipped his wife Sarada Devi as a form of the Cosmic Mother, and Swami Sivananda initiated women into Sannyasa. Swami Satyananda carried this further, placing women in all the important roles of his mission, initiating hundreds of women into Sannyasa despite societal resistance and uplifting the downtrodden girls of remote Indian villages with education and Shakti worship. Other spiritual traditions have also joined this new renaissance and are supporting women to rise up and again lead a spiritual revolution of honouring the life force as expressed in different forms of Shakti. Buddhist nuns are an example of this, gradually rising in prominence. This shift is necessary for the emergence of a new society which is more balanced and includes the best of both men and women.

There are many tools in Yoga and Tantra that help one to rediscover the sacred within - qualities that already exist in each and every woman and man. There are many depictions of Goddesses in Yoga and Tantra and these represent different aspects of our internal nature. Concentration on the Goddesses allows for an inward discovery of how the qualities which they represent are unfolding or blocked within our own life. For example, what blocks abundance or allows it to flourish in life? When is power, confidence and compassion expressed or withheld in life? The Goddess images and their associated mantras can be used as inspiration to overcome difficulties that arise in the path and to promote learning and wisdom. Mantras or specific sound vibrations can have an effect on the physical and mental body, allowing for blocks to release and prana to flow. The more we know ourselves through self reflection, Yoga, meditation and ritual, the more aspects such as abundance, strength and wisdom shine in our lives.

Rituals such as fire ceremonies also give an opportunity to tune in with the sacred feminine. For example, offerings such as incense, water, grain and candles allow us to connect with the elements (air, water, earth and fire respectively.) Rituals can have an important role to play in spiritual development. The aim of ritual is to allow access to certain states of consciousness. Ritual activity helps one to maintain conscious awareness of the laws of nature and find one’s place in the cosmic scheme. It expands and intensifies participation in the activities of the universe and provides a way in which we can bypass the analytical mind and connect directly with consciousness via the heart. Some people confuse this with religious practice and think that the purpose is to pray to a higher power. If that suits a person's nature, then by all means use them in this way, however, for many it is easier to relate to rituals as a way to focus the mind and draw up to its surface the qualities represented by the different expressions of the Goddess. The mind is vast. It is described as a huge ocean and to see the other shore is impossible. In order to cross the ocean, a person needs navigational equipment, a boat and a guide. Utilising a form such as the Goddess images to focus the mind is like the boat that helps one to cross this vast ocean. Any form can be used but on the path to rediscovering the sacred feminine, the different aspects of the Goddess as expressed around the world have something to teach us.

While each depiction of the Shakti energy from around the world has different teachings and aspects, here are a few that have inspired me personally:

GAIA (Mother of all)
Gaia from Greek mythology was considered the great mother of all. For me, the teaching of Gaia is to extend my sense of "mother" beyond just my own daughter and to begin to include equally those around me such as the people who live in the retreat centre, my friends' children and anyone in need. I am gradually feeling the sense of care, love and nourishment I would give my daughter for all I come in contact with. Even for strangers.

GAYATRI (Mother of the Vedas)
Gayatri is the female counterpart of the sun and the mantra for prana. The literal meaning of Gayatri is “that which frees the senses”. She is considered the mother of the Vedas which expound ancient wisdom.

Swami Satyananda says, “Gayatri mantra is like the rising sun on the horizon of the human consciousness, illuminating not only the external world, but also the inner world. Our inner world has many beautiful things, but we do not know them, we cannot see them…. Gayatri mantra flashes light on the different realms of our consciousness.”

Gayatri reminds me to take care of my vital energy and to use the light to gradually increase clarity, intuitive knowledge and wisdom.

DURGA (Remover of difficulties)
The energy of Durga relates to removing difficulties from the path. She is depicted holding different weapons which are symbolic of cutting away challenges. She represents the latent and usually unconscious power in all of us. If we can invoke this power, then we can align with our own higher being. This is the big, strong, luminous part of us which is the antidote to our self-created darkness. The energy of Durga inspires me to develop inner strength and the ability to face whatever situation arises.

LAKSHMI (Goddess of prosperity)
Lakshmi is the energy of prosperity, auspiciousness and wealth at all levels - mental, physical, emotional and material. She represents the beautiful and bountiful aspect of our nature and inspires the energy of fortune,power, pleasure and prosperity. In order to continue to experience this abundance, one should share one's wealth. The more we give (whether knowledge, care, physical support, food or money) the more enriched we become. Swami Sivananda’s teaching of “serve, love, give” is the teaching of Lakshmi.

SARASWATI (Goddess of knowledge)
Saraswati is the goddess of wisdom, learning and speech. She is the symbol of the intuitive intellect which is born of the cosmic intellect. Saraswati brings art, music, dance, literature and culture into our lives. The vehicle of Saraswati is the swan because the swan has discernment which gives one the ability to establish right from wrong. Saraswati teaches us to connect to our innate wisdom and creativity and to develop viveka or discrimination.

TARA (Goddess of compassion)
Tara is often called the “mother of liberation” or the “Goddess of compassion” She is depicted in Buddhism as well as Hinduism and also can be traced to the Druids and ancient Finnish and South American legends. In Buddhism, there are 21 forms of Tara. She can be understood as different qualities such as enlightened activity, compassion, wealth, prosperity and power. A Buddhist monk who gave me a thanka painting of a Green Tara when I was trekking through the Himalayas 20 years ago was the first to expose me to her. At the time, he told me she was the Goddess of compassion. I received my name Karuna, also meaning compassion, shortly afterwards in yoga initiation. Living this name has become my life path. Therefore for me, Tara represents that aspect of caring for others, stepping into their shoes, feeling where they are at and acting from their point of view so that I can be of the greatest service.