Shaktas believe the world is Real and not an illusion. They view worldly phenomena as a veil. They see Devi as both Immanent, dwelling in the world and in time and space, and Transcendent, the Supreme Divinity beyond the world of the senses.
Some Shaktas believe the senses and emotions are not traps to misdirect us, but rather tools that enable us to function in this world of individual objects subject to natural laws. Others say that the senses can also be refined and directed internally to facilitate the realization of both the Immanent and the Transcendent Devi. The task is to use the senses to make one's way through the events of the world but also simultaneously to see the events of the world as a veil that can obscure Devi and one's true Reality and finally to view the events of the world as somehow leading one to Devi.
As one interacts with the world one must be mindful that the world, and how one approaches it, can obscure Devi if the ego and emotions prevail to induce a self-centered concept of reality. Therefore, one must be ever mindful of trying to focus on quantum reality, the deepest level of reality, rather than the surface reality. One must determine whether one's approach to the world is obscuring Devi or enabling Her grace to flow toward oneself. One's thoughts, words and deeds must constantly reflect vairagya, dispassion -- the intention to not use the world for personal gain and pleasure but to interact with the world as one would conduct oneself before with Devi Herself.
For this to occur, one must practice viveka, a constant recognition of the Divine in oneself and in one's surroundings and a constant refusal to sink to the level of the mundane. One point of view about how the events of the world somehow lead us to Devi is that those events of, including our bodies, are metaphors or codes that if read correctly guide us to Devi. For example, the physical human body has its shape and functions because of the arrangement of the other four koshas of the jiva. The endocine glands correspond to the seven major chakras as do seven major nerve plexi. The double helix of DNA corresponds to the double helix of Ida and Pingala. The breath is Prana.
The senses can be used to make one's way through the external world, or they can be sharpened and turned inward to taste the silence, see the silence, hear the silence, smell the silence and feel the silence of the quiet mind and so facilitate the sadhak's journey to Devi. The chakra/nadi system, prana, the discipline and quietening of the mind -- all enable one to attain Self-realization and the physical clues indicate this process.
In nature, the dance of the Northern Lights, the view from the top of a mountain or the beauty of the deer and the flower can all jolt one out of a self-centered existence, expand one's mental horizons and encourage the intuitive realization of something greater than the mundane. If we take the events of the world at face value without going beyond the surface appearance or going beyond their immediate sensual impact, we wallow in ignorance. It is this avidya or ignorance that is the root cause of our remaining subject to karma and living a life of short periods of relative happiness followed by long periods of unhappiness and emptiness.
In order to see Devi in the world and in ourselves, we must first purify our mind, intellect, emotions, body and ego. In Raja Yoga, this purification process is known as the eight limbs of Yoga and involves continuous effort or abhyasa. These limbs are not sequential but are interdependent.
The first of the limbs, Yama, purifes the mind, intellect, emotions and ego by regulating one's interactions with others:
1. The first and most important of the Yamas is Ahimsa, non-violence towards others and towards oneself. Depression is serious epidemic in the world today and it arises from himsa or violence toward oneself.
2. The second Yama is Satya or truthfulness. All the Yamas must reflect Ahimsa. So one cannot tell or act on what they think is the truth if it causes harm to another.
3. The next Yama is Asteya or non-stealing. To steal is to focus exclusively on the material and to estrange oneself from the Transcendental.
4. Brahmacharya, the next Yama, is continence, especially sexual continence, as way to quiet and discipline the mind.
5. Aparigraha is non-acquisitiveness or greedlessness also a way to quiet and discipline the mind, senses and emotions.
The second limb is Niyama. These are practices directed toward oneself:
1. Sauca or physical cleanliness includes vegetarian diet and the kriyas, specialized yogic cleansing techniques.
2. The next Niyama, Samtosha, means contentment under all circumstances. Here one is sure of one's Divine nature and is not tempted to be identify oneself with fleeting events or emotions.
3. Tapas or austerities, another Niyama, do not mean abusing the body but rather curbing the demands of the senses and the emotions for ephemeral sensation but redirecting them to the search for Devi.
4. Svadhyaya or self-study is accomplished, in this case, by reading scriptures and listening to or reading the works of Realized Saints and generally keeping company with the spiritually inclined.
5. Iswaraprenidhanana or self-surrender, surrendering to God/Goddess and worshipping a personal deity, the aspect of God/Goddess that is reflects one's current karmic state.
ASANA AND PRANAYAMA
The third and fourth of the limbs are Asana and Pranayama, Hatha Yoga.
According to Swami Vishnu Devananda, "Hatha yoga is the practical way to control the mind through control of the prana. The purpose of Yoga is to prevent either [brain] hemisphere from dominating the other, to create the sattvic state. Patanjali's Yoga Sutras defines `asana' as a posture that is "sukha" or "pleasant and comfortable. (II 46) He adds, "One then relaxes all effort in the posture and absorbs one's mind in the Infinite. From this perfection of posture comes cessation of disturbances from the pair of opposites." (II 47-48).
Hatha Yoga is a part of Raja Yoga and, as many have said, "There can be no Raja Yoga without Hatha Yoga and there can be no Hatha Yoga without Raja Yoga. Swami Narayan Tirth goes further and says, "Mantra, Hatha, Laya and Raja Yogas are not separate from one another. They are merely the divisions of categories of a single yoga. Through practicing these four in their respective order and attaining competency is called Mahayoga. Knowledge will not be attained by depending on only one of the four, and only by attending wholly to all four will natural yoga, that is the union of the individual soul with the supreme Self, be perfected."
DHARANA, DHYANA AND SAMADHI
The last three limbs of Raja Yoga are Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (one-pointed union with the Divine).
It is here that Mahayoga leads to Self-realization. Both Devi and Hatha Yoga point to the way to overcome the cycle of short periods of relative happiness followed by long periods of unhappiness and emptiness. They both enable one to eventually live in the world as a Transcendental Being or Jivan Mukta and even to exhaust karma and move beyond the world and body to the final two stages of consciousness, Pararthabhavani and Turiya and from there to Mahasamadhi. "Hatha Yoga" literally means "the union of Ha and Tha".
The three most significant nadis or astral tubes are Sushumna, Ida and Pingala. Sushumna runs from the Muladhara Chakra to the Sahasrara Chakra. On either side of the Sushumna and intertwined around it lie the Ida and Pingala nadis. Ida is the female deity of devotion. Pingala is associated with Surya. Normally, the Ha prana flows through Pingala, the nadi on the right side and associated with the right nostril while Tha flows through Ida, the nadi on the left associated with the left nostril. Ha is considered to be hot and is referred to as the sun breath or Prana. Tha is seen as cool and is referred to as the moon breath or Apana. Ha is rajasic, tends to move upward and to speed up the functions of the mind and body. Tha is tamasic and moves downward and tends to slow down the functions of the mind and body.
Normally, one nostril is dominant, that is, it is easier to breath through one nostril. But, after approximately two hours it is easier to breath through the other nostril. This cycle of alternating dominance is referred as the infradian rhythm and continues night and day, year after year unless interrupted by karmic influences leading to physical or mental disease.
Through Hatha Yoga practices, and in conjunction with the other practices of Raja Yoga, the breath can equalized in the nostrils, indicating a sattvic state, with the Ha prana encouraged to change direction and flow downwards while the Tha prana changes direction and flows upward. The two pranas now move toward each other and unite at the Muladhara Chakra and form a prana with a new function that is given the name Kundalini. This Kundalini moves up through the seven major chakras bringing increasing Self-realization provided the Sushumna has been purified of all mala or obstructions and defilements by Mahayoga. Shaktism has two important deities that specifically represent this process: Chinnamasta and Ardhanarishwari.
Ardhanarishwari -- the Deity manifesting as a human figure, female on one side and male on the other, represents the Ida and Pingala nadis and the Tha and Ha that flow through them. It is not possible to define Ardhanarishwari as male or female, so often the definition is often given as `neuter', `neutral' or `androgynous'.
But the purpose of Ardhanarishwari is to defy definition, to show that definition is futile, and lift the mind out of the left brain penchant for order and pigeonholes and allow the right brain's intuitive and holistic processes to take over and lead one to a new understanding of how the body really works. One's consciousness is led beyond gender, beyond androgyny into the workings of Ida, Pingala and Sushumna.
This is summed up excellently by Jesus of Nazareth, in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, Logion 22: "When you make the two one, and when you make the inner as the outer and the outer as the inner and the above as the below, and when you make the male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male and the female not be female .... then you shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven."
Ardhanarishwari is Devi guiding us to Her and to ourselves.
Similarly, the dramatic imagery of Chinnamasta is an excellent, multi-layered symbol of the basic philosophy of Yoga/Vedanta and Shaktism. Chinnamasta is depicted as holding her own head that she has just cut off. Blood is spurting in three streams from her neck.The central stream in pouring in to Chinnamasta's mouth, while the other two streams on the left and right of the main stream are flowing into the mouths of Chinnamasta's two attendent dakinis or subshaktis who are on Her left and right. This graphic metaphor shows us how to come to Devi and our true Self.
The head is the center of the activities of the mind. Cutting off the head of Chinnamasta stops the mental activities. Patanjali tells us, "Yoga is restraining the activities of the mind." (Raja Yoga Sutras I.2)
Furthermore, Chinnamasta is dancing the Tandava, the cosmic dance of Shiva that leads to the destruction of the phenomenal world that is the focus of our desires. The sense organs have their focus in the head, so the chopped off head of Chinnamasta represents the stopping of the outward orientation of the senses.
Also, the dance is performed on the body of Kama, desire, while in coitus with his wife, Rati. This further reinforces the message to rise above mundane desire in order to encounter Devi. The headlessness of Chinnamasta represents conquest of the senses and the kleshas (ignorance, egoism, attraction, repulsion, and attachment to life) that are the obstacles to spiritual enlightenment.
Her headlessness also represents the conquest of space and time and the triumph over the physical laws that operate therein. People are so attached to a conventional concept of the universe and so attached to looking outward in their interactions with that universe (the veil of Maya) that an arresting image such as Chinnamasta is required to get them to consider other possibilities of existence.
The head of Chinnamasta has been chopped off but still She lives and, moreover, lives as a divine being. The question should arise, "How is Her continued existence possible?" and "What is this depiction telling me?"
The imagery draws our attention to the four other bodies or Koshas that each of us has in addition to the physical body. It is these four bodies (Pranamaya Kosha, Manomaya Kosha, Vijnanamaya Kosha, Anandamaya Kosha) that are responsible for enabling us to reach whatever level of spiritual attainment that we currently enjoy and will enjoy. These four bodies also survive the death of the physical body.
The Chinnamasta imagery reminds us of this. One of these four bodies is the causal body (Anandamaya Kosha), the seat of the soul. So, now we are explicity reminded that each of us has a soul. Furthermore, taking Kundalini up through the major chakras and experiencing the Divine, as represented by the central blood stream, shows that our true identity is that soul, and that what we originally thought of as 'our' soul is actually the same Soul, the same Divinity, manifesting in everything.
The three blood streams from Chinnamasta represent Prana (Ha), Apana (Tha) and Kundalini, the union of Ha and Tha, the prana that is necessary for spiritual enlightenment. It is only Chinnamasta who is drinking from the central stream of Kundalini. Her attendents are not yet fully Self-realized but will be with the help and example of Chinnamasta. The Chinnamasta imagery tells us that instead of looking outward and entertaining ourselves with the vagaries of Maya, we should be looking inward, purifying ourselves, enabling Kundalini to form and rise so that we become living examples of that imagery.
Chinnamasta is the Shakti that takes her disciples away from involvement with the senses and desire, and by Her Grace grants them complete control of over the mind and the primary instincts and gives them the will and vision to come to Her abode in the Sushumna. Then we will see Devi in the world, Maya will be conquered, and we will know our own Divinity. It is only be experiencing the Transcendent Devi that one fully appreciates Devi immanent in the world. As Patanjali says in the Raja Yoga Sutras, "At that time [when the thought waves are stilled], the perceiver rests in his own true nature." (I.3)