Women and Yoga: Purusha, Prakrti, and Reviving Ophelia

Of the thousand possible reasons so many women are drawn to yoga, I’ll suggest this one for today: yoga offers a forum for reclaiming the lost self. Most women, I think, take for granted that a huge chunk of their self exists completely underground, lost beneath the surface, performer-self. Any venue which offers the possibility of making contact with the fundamental self, beneath the self-impersonator, appeals directly to our experience as women.

Reviving Ophelia book cover

In the book Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, author Mary Pipher applies a useful framework, outlined by Alice Miller, to the problem of the divided self in women. She states, “(Girls can) be authentic and honest, or . . . be loved. If they chose wholeness, they were abandoned . . . . (If) they chose love, they abandoned their true selves.” The love girls seek extends from parents to peers; the self they abandon extends infinitely for the sake of this acceptance. I was 15 for most of 1994—the year in which this book was published. Reading Pipher’s analysis of adolescence when I was in its throws gave me some retrospective insight into my own process of dividing into two selves, the true-hidden, and the false-visible. Although I’ve had two decades to cope with my adolescence, my process of becoming who I am is still the process of shedding the self that was developed for the world all those years ago, and of reclaiming the self that I pushed underground. This true self, I don’t think, ever got the chance to fully know who she is. My adult experience with yoga has become the experience of finding that true self; this is what I hope women—what I want women—to feel they are doing in yoga class.

The basic tenets of yoga speak directly to the great, skewed duplication of self with which women are saddled. In yoga, practitioners struggle with a similar divide in (or skewed duplication of, depending on how you see it) reality. There is a “false” reality, prakrti, and a “real” reality, purusha. We are living with both at once. Prakrti is the material, mind-based world, constituted by the three gunas (rajas, tamas, and sattva, which are the qualities of franticness, lethargy, and tranquility, respectively). Purusha is pure, unchanging consciousness, or soul, not subject to the roiling fluctuations of the gunas. The struggle between realities arises as the gunas of the material, thinking world distract the purusha, the soul. The gunas draw the purusha into chaos—the distraction of the gunas is powerful enough that the mind (which is, remember, just part of prakrti, the “false” reality) believes that consciousness, the soul, is the same as the turmoil of thinking. In reality, the soul is not part of the churning mind at all. As you might imagine, yogis are keen to disentangle purusha from prakrti, since this fundamental error about the nature of the soul—that it has anything to do with the mind—is the cause of all ignorance and bondage.

This yogic formula slides directly onto the psychology of girls’ adolescent despair as explained by Pipher. The authentic self is purusha, and the false self is prakrti. The fluctuations of the gunas in the material world are so powerful and influential, exploiting our most basic needs in order to hide the true self beneath the great impersonator, that our authentic self goes way, way underground, letting the false self run wild. Eventually, the false self becomes convinced that it is the true self. The false, prakrtic self is a clever jester—very good at steamrolling the true self with drama, attachment, pleasure seeking, pain avoidance—all the worldly, thinking experiences that keep purusha buried. Accordingly, there is, as always, much work to be done. Our task is to shush the thoughts and the noise of the gunas, and let purusha shine unimpeded.

The fluctuations of the gunas in the material world are so powerful and influential… that our authentic self goes way, way underground, letting the false self run wild.

So, how to shush the powerful gunas and let purusha shine? For women that relate to the experience of two selves, yoga offers a path back to the true self. And to find this true self, what we’re really talking about in yoga is meditation. As Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra tells us, yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind so that the seer (true self) can abide in its own true nature. As adults, we know those fluctuations of the mind began long ago, before we understood the falsifying of ourselves that was already underway.  As Lawrence LeShan states in his 1974 book, How to Meditate, “We meditate to find, to recover, to come back to something of ourselves we once dimly and unknowingly had and have lost without knowing what it was or where or when we lost it… It is this loss, whose recovery we search for, that . . . define(s) an adult as ‘a deteriorated child.’ ” Through yoga, through meditation, women reclaim that deteriorated child. The child who is the self before it divided, the one without the trappings of the false self—the one that knew purusha.


Martha Moscowitz

Martha Moscowitz is a yoga teacher in Albany, New York, who tries to put the Yoga Sutras to good use in contemporary life. She is especially engaged by feminism, and seeks to apply yogic philosophy to the problems and privileges of life as a woman.

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