A Transformative Workshop
at the 2017 Steamboat Move Fest
Written & Photographed By: Catlin Seavey
“If you don’t go after what you want, you’ll never have it. If you don’t ask, the answer is always no.
If you don’t stand tall in your truth and step forward, you’ll always be in the same place.”
The Shakti Journal is no stranger to printing articles about the dance between masculine and feminine – the sacred dance of Shiva and Shakti or Krishna and Radha or our masculine and feminine energies. By now, we have come to recognize from articles like Alan McAllister’s (hyper link to his article) that these are simply polarities that dance inside us all, no matter what gender we are embodying currently.
After arriving in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, a gorgeous mountain town nestled along the Yampa river, 6,000 feet up in the pristine Rocky Mountains, we settled down onto our mats and were met with the smiles of our vivacious instructors: Valerie D’ambrosio, also a couples counselor, piercing, open and full of excitement, and Christen Malia, sunny and sweet.
Not only was I struck by the vibrant personalities of our instructors, who urged us to gather closer together, but also the diversity, strength, playfulness and openness of the powerful women, mothers and athletes surrounding me. Christen and Valerie played off each other so seamlessly, in no time our group quickly began to share and blossom with their facilitation. I felt like I’d known these women for years.
We dove brain first into the topic; “What is the Divine Feminine to you?” Our group launched into characteristics of the feminine: “Receptive, care-taking, compassionate, accepting, nurturing…” Valerie added with passion: “Stormy, chaotic, ever-changing and wild.” Then one of our participants chimed in with insight, breaking down the term: “We all have divinity within that is neither feminine nor masculine.” I could not help but think about pictures I have seen of Shiva as Ardhanarishwar – half man, half woman.
I began to think of Ohso’s Vigyan Bhairav Tantra, Vol. 1 where he introduces the qualities of a disciple:
“You need not be a woman to be a disciple, but you need to be in a feminine attitude of receptivity… Sex is not only a difference in the body; it is a difference in psychologies also. A feminine mind means receptivity – total receptivity, surrender, love… A disciple needs a womb-like receptivity… It must grow in you; it must become blood and bones in you…”
With an infectious smile, Christen shared with us her understanding of the Nadis, a network of subtle channels which carry life force energy, called prana or Chi, along the spine and throughout the body. In many eastern healing practices including yoga, the left channel is considered the feminine channel and the right the masculine. Energies associated with our feminine left channel include water, earth, dark, nurturing, grace, creativity. The masculine right channel is considered a source of fire, air, light, ideas, thought, logic, consciousness. We were invited to practice the classical pranayama exercise Nadis Shodana, in which one constricts one nostril during an inhale, and then exhales through the opposite nostril, continuing in a sequence which enables us to feel these Nadis and their varying attributes in our own bodies. These opposing energies are intrinsically connected, yet create inevitable tension and necessity for movement.
In a similar dichotomous nature, she mentioned the only direct reference to asana in the thousands of sutras that exist on the subject, “STIRA SUKUM ASANAM”, which translates literally to “relaxed and steady be the posture.” In this context, it followed that feminine and masculine be the posture, that “balance and contentment can be found in the constant dance of inhale and exhale, form and flow, feminine with masculine and the divine.”
To the right: Valerie D’Ambrosio & Christen Malia delivering their pre-festival divine feminine immersion
We pondered the next discussion question: “How does this dance come up in our lives? In our relationships? How do you respond to it?” As our group shared personal experiences, there was a sense of relief and fierce compassion in the room, as if some of these women had been waiting years for the opportunity to share the effects of their femininity, both positive and negative, on their lives.
At this point Valerie transitioned to a more scientific, evolutionary perspective. “What is conditioned by our environment and what is our unique essence? Our instinct vs. our spirit?” She delved into the more than 40,000 years of evolution in our DNA structures, specifically the connectivity of the brain, and how in that time, the most significant change has been our development of language. Her comment implied that we are essentially still cave people – that we all respond subliminally to our environment as hunters (male) and gatherers (female). She also noted that our specifically female behavior is “diffused” and characterized by an “inability to focus”, which served an evolutionary purpose in planting and gathering foods, multitasking and caring for children.
Christen playfully urged us to meet this energy with compassion, to accept that it may not be as relevant in this modern age, and to let it go. Instead of allowing our inner critic to rattle off a multitude of “should’s and could’s,” she asked us to meet our inner gatherer with compassion, to acknowledge her evolutionary purpose, and to recognize and honor vulnerability.
We were guided to find our quiet strength and choose to react or not, therefore becoming capable in challenging moments. Two infamous deities of Hinduism feminine energy that helped us find this wisdom were the abundant Lakshmi (लक्ष्मी), whose name literally means ‘wealth and splendor’, and Durga (दुर्गा) whose name means ‘impassable, inaccessible, invincible, unassailable.’
Valerie and Christen took turns sharing these stories with us, starting with one myth which tells the story of how Lakshmi’s association with Indra caused him to pour down material wealth for all to have – releasing rain from clouds, trees from seeds, water from earth, metals from rocks. Lakshmi is the divine power that transforms dreams into reality. She is prakriti, the perfect creation: self-sustaining, self-contained Nature. She is maya, the delightful duality, the dream-like expression of divinity that makes life comprehensible, hence worth living. She is shakti, energy, boundless and bountiful.
Due to her untamable nature she is also considered to be fickle. It annoyed Indra to find Lakshmi with people he didn’t like, people he deemed to be criminals and sinners. Finally he became greedy with her, saying he believed that Lakshmi should abandon amoral and perverse people. He was afraid, for unlike Lakshmi he did not know how to create wealth; he could only procure and distribute wealth. And true to her reputation, Lakshmi, without arguing, simply left after she was insulted by Indra’s selfishness. In the end the world lost all its vigor and vitality in Lakshmi’s absence, gaining it back only when she returned.
Maa Durga was born from the energies of all the male divinities, with a thousand hands that depicted her infinite powers. The mighty warrior-Goddess is famously depicted mounted on her vahana, a lion-drawn carriage, riding off to slay the wicked demon Mahishasur. The strategic nature of demonic forces is symbolized by Mahishasur’s shape-shifting powers, used to create difficulties for Durga by distracting and misleading her with different animal forms. His constant adaptation to achieve his evil ends is contrasted by Durga’s calm understanding and solemn, dignified ambition.
With this inspiration, our instructors guided us in the practice of Surya Namaskara, or Sun Salutation, inviting us to feel our breath and dance with our own energies. Christen urged us to “feel your uniqueness in this moment, which varies all the time. Find your flow, your personal connection with the divine feminine”. The two gave us permission to find our own expression within the age-old sequence, to honor to our innately pulsating and ever-changing inspiration. They demonstrated their own flows, open and varied and full of breath, and they were indeed very different from one another.
When they completed their demonstrations, Valerie shared a profound thought on the practice of asana, which I took deeply to heart: “I used to think level 2 was being able to do more postures, and then I realized that level 2, for me, was being able to let it be my own and to breathe freely.” As we moved through our postures, we became aware of our dissonant yet compelling opposing internal energies.
Christen ushered us into Savanna on her Harmonium as wisdom poured out of her soul and into ours: “Women are powerful beyond belief; as we become aware, how do we recognize and celebrate this divine feminine energy within ourselves? Do we bend too much? How can we stand our ground without fear of remorse? Can we realize it is not a weakness to ask for help, appreciate that others love to provide, to feel needed? What is our work as modern women around receiving? Can we find the steadiness, the assertiveness in between nag and need? These myths are stories that play in our lives, offering inspiration. The Asana offers us focus and perceptivity.”
There was a gentle mood around the room as we lingered, settled and ready for a step toward receiving.
Stepping out into the placid afternoon sun, I could hear the rustle of the aspen leaves and the trickle of the river water, and I felt so happy to have arrived, to have been granted permission and encouraged to be assertive, to “Own It!” I walked quietly with my new sisters of the Steamboat Springs Movement festival, whom I would continue to see smiling strongly and courageously, owning their divinity all through the festival.
Christen Malia and Valerie D’ambrosio often teach retreats together. This year they will be hosting a retreat in beautiful Costa Rica at Costa Nua. Valerie leads incredible annual tours through India and with over 25 years of experience as a teacher and a coach, she can be found teaching at the Little Yoga Studio in Boulder, CO. Christen teaches weekly public classes in Steamboat, serves on Rusty Wells’ Bhakti Flow Yoga teacher training staff, mentors new yoga teachers and is a spiritual teacher for the Foundry Addiction Recovery Center.