Powerful, sensual, untamed, bold, and fearless. These are just a few characteristics of the yogini. Yoginis are more than just devoted female yoga practitioners, as the word might suggest. They are a fluid embodiment of the scared, divine feminine.
Because of their wisdom, yoginis are deeply revered figures in many different lineages. In fact, they are mentioned across various languages, scriptures, religions, and philosophies – from Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, to the languages of Sanskrit and Marathi.
We are going to be doing a deep dive into the yogini, looking at:
- The Yogini Meaning & Why It Is Disputed
- Yoginis in Tantra
- Yogini Temples
- Reclaiming The Yogini
- A Note on Essentialism
The Yogini Meaning & Why it is disputed
The idea of a yogini can be interpreted in various ways. In modern times, it’s mostly used to simply refer to a female yoga practitioner or tantric initiate (someone that initiates another person into tantric practices).
For example, we see lots of yoga Instagram accounts with a handle that call themselves a ‘yogini’ as a way to reference the fact they are a female yoga teacher or practitioner.
However, if we trace this term back to the origins of yoga and a little later, things start to get very interesting! In Puranic literature, the sacred literature of Hinduism, yoginis are referred to not just as yoginis, but as dakinis, shaktis, or bhairavis.
Miranda Shaw, a scholar in Tantric Buddhism, describes them as having a great deal of power and wisdom, possessing ‘life-enhancing energies that bring about fertility, growth, longevity, abundance, and material and spiritual well-being.’
It’s also true that many perceive yoginis as witches. In this interpretation, they are still a figure with supernatural powers, but are seen to use these powers in a more negative way and are therefore not considered divine.
For example, in the Lankavatara (an early Buddhist text), they are shown as semi-human human flesh eaters! There is also a Rajasthani oral folk story, Devnarayan, that describes yoginis as ‘blood-thirsty’, ‘whores’, ‘hags’, and ‘witches’.
Something that may be considered witch-like is a yogini’s ability to fly (without a broomstick). In Hindu depiction, yoginis are shown as being able to grant men the ability to fly, and the dakinis of Buddhism are depicted flying in paintings too.
Yoginis were often portrayed as sorceresses or witches, ambiguous, powerful, and dangerous figures that only a heroic male would dare approach, let alone attempt to conquerKiss of the Yogini: David Gordon White
Some historians believe yoginis to be some of India’s oldest deities, however, the words ‘witch’ or ‘sorceress’, which many people associate with them, can have negative connotations. Ultimately, this may be down to the fear of a yogini’s power and dependent on one question:
Will the yogini use their power in a way that may upset, alter or threaten the dynamics of patriarchy that has controlled society, including many yoga lineages, for centuries?
The yogini is diametrically opposed to the domestic image of a devoted wife or obedient housewife, which certainly endangers the status quo and therefore makes her a dangerous threat to it.
It is hardly a surprise, then, that patriarchal forces have politicized their bodies and demonized these powerful women as ‘witches’ and ‘whores’, exactly comparable to what we see today and throughout history.
Yoginis are yoginis because they refuse to define themselves according to the bounds and limitations of societal stereotypes, accepted culture, conventions, and traditions.
Hence, the yogini meaning may change depending on who you ask!
Yoginis in tantra
In tantric yoga, yoginis are considered to be spiritually advanced practitioners who have attained a high level of mastery over their own consciousness.
The tantric tradition has many different practices and lineages, and as such there are many different paths for a yogini, past and present.
In the Kaula tradition, for example, yoginis were considered living, semi-divine human beings. They were Goddesses or demi-Goddesses that were led by Siva-Bhairava and his consort, the Goddess. They were used as a focus for the lineage’s ritual worship practice.
Yoginis were thought to be the special deities of the Kaula paths as they were human manifestations of divine Shakti.
They are portrayed as divine female servants of the Goddess Kali (a manifestation of Durga) and were worshipped to attain powers. Male consorts of yoginis would be granted siddhis (supernatural powers) through interacting with them.
The eight Ashta Matrikas, a group of mother goddesses, created 8 Divine Shaktis (yoginis) each, which totaled 64 Tantric Yoginis. Although, other Hindu texts reference 42, 60, and even 81 Yoginis.
In Tibetan Buddhist Tantra, a yogini was known as dakini, or ‘sky dancer’. Part of her role included initiating monks on their paths to Buddhahood and transporting the souls of those who have died into the sky.
In one of the most important works in the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism, the Hevajra Tantra, states
Thus have I heard at one time. The Blessed One dwelt in equanimity in the womb of the Vajra Lady, which is the enlightened body, speech, and mind of all tathāgatas.Śrīguhyasarvacchindatantrarāja (The Glorious King of Tantras That Resolves All Secrets)
In this, ‘thus have I heard’ signifies that this teaching has come directly from Buddha himself. Vajra Lady, or Vajravarahi, is a dakini working to, amongst many things, eradicate the ego of individuals. She is also the meditation deity.
So, from this text, Buddha says that blessed and enlightened ones dwell (literally) in the womb of a yogini – a teaching that is thought to have come straight from Buddha himself!
Miranda Shaw states Vajra is ‘inarguably the supreme deity of the Tantric pantheon. No male Buddha approaches her in metaphysical or practical import’.
While the exact history and origins of yoginis may be difficult to discern, their importance in the tantric tradition remains undeniable.
Temple of the yoginis
Temples are built across India to worship yoginis, there are 11 Chausath Yogini temples still in existence as well as several sacred Newar temples of Vajra Yogini in Kathmandu Valley.
Their representation changes depending on the temple; in some yoginis are standing, in others, they are dancing or standing with an animal. This is because the worship of yoginis was localized.
One of the more famous of which is Kamakhya, a temple built to worship and invoke the 64 yoginis.
It is said to be where the Yoni-Mudra (vulva) of Goddess Sati fell. Because of this, it’s said to be one of the most sacred temples and a symbol of divine feminine power and fertility.
Kamakhya is a Tantric Hindu Goddess of Kama (desire). The Kamakhya pooja (worship ritual) is said to bring harmony and bonding to intimate relationships.
Due to the fear that yogini worship evoked among local people, such as ideas about black magic and witchcraft, worship often took place in secret and this meant that there is little known about the temples.
Intertwined with this was the overarching structure of patriarchy that naturally feared feminine power, which was heightened by the British colonial rule of India. Eventually, the temples were abandoned as open practitioners of yogini worship were often persecuted.
Reclamation of the yogini
The yogini is a powerful symbol of feminine energy and strength, of empowerment and agency. She is a powerful force for change and transformation and has the ability to tap into the deepest aspects of her being. Yet, her history, power, and worship have been suppressed.
She represents the ability of women to overcome the limitations placed on her by society and to realize her full potential as an agent of change, transformation, and destruction fuelled by Shakti.
It’s no surprise that the celebration of yoginis has been censored. A celebration of yoginis is simultaneously an honoring of feminine power which is divergent to the forces of patriarchy.
As yoga practitioners (and human beings in general), we need to reclaim the historical agency of women. We can start by recognizing the power of the yogini, which many tantric lineages do well.
The Yoni Tantra, a tantric text that shows the dialogue between Shiva and Parvati, states:
Hari, Hara, and Brahma – the gods of creation, maintenance, and destruction – all originate in the yoni.
In Sanskrit, yoni is the womb space or ‘source’, symbolizing Shakti, the cosmic mother and feminine power. Therefore, similar to the tantric texts above, it shows how life and power originate in the yogini herself.
We have the ability to tap into the potent, untamed power of the yoginis before us.
When we follow the path of the yogini and are empowered and able to assert our own agency and authority, it challenges the narrative of who should hold the most power in society.
A note On Essentialism
As we know throughout the world, a woman’s body is often a contested site of power. As a feminist and yogi, this is the last thing that I want to contribute to. More than anything, I focus my work on changing the patriarchal narrative and reclaiming what it means to be a woman.
I wanted to touch on the concept of essentialism, as focusing so much on yoginis, wombs, and the pro-creative power of the feminine may seem like it is reinforcing ideas around biological and gender essentialism.
This is the worn-out, destructive idea that biology determines gender and gender is therefore a fixed, social category each with distinct qualities and attributes.
Through this lens, it may be considered that this article has problematically reduced what it means to be a woman down to particular parts of her body (having a yoni and the ability to recreate) as some lineages of Tantra have in the past.
However, I believe that the reclamation of the yogini is an outlet for women’s resistance and an effective way to challenge the patriarchy in a philosophy and practice that has been so centered around the needs and enlightenment of men for centuries.
The embodiment of the yogini is an act of resistance; you do not need to be a person that menstruates or procreates to embrace the yogini, all you need is the desire to unite against the forces of oppression.
Ultimately, yoginis give us the opportunity to question reality, to question what is accepted and why.
You can discover more about the power of yoginis, Goddesses, and women in Tantric thought in these books: