Led by High Prieztezz Or Nah
YO! YOGI HIP HOP YOGA RETREAT
This year during the annual Yo! Yogi Hip Hop Yoga Retreat in barefoot jungle paradise I led a procession for Kali Ma, the Black Madonna of the East on the summer solstice just following the full “Thunder Moon” July 16th. Inspired by pilgrimages for Black Madonnas Sara-la-Kali, Kali, Yemanja, Our Lady of Częstochowa and Virgin of Guadalupe (the Goddess has 1,000 of names and forms), our Yo! Yogis carried a bust of Kali and chanted her mantras through the balmy jungle in a ceremony culminating in the ocean. Alien bruja *Kelly Shaw Willman* joined us in sharing her proud devotion to Yoruban Orishas Ochun, Yemanja and Oya, whose connection to Kali and the Black Madonna archetype we’ll explore later.
Invoking Kali is no joke. Kali is the Black Warrior Goddess who decimates the ego and dances on the breast of eternity. Mother of primal yoga, Black Warrior, Shakti-Slayer, Destroyer of fear, Deity of Death, Time & Change. Kali is the Protectress, the Mother 🐉🔪. She will cut off your head, rip out your heart, pull out your guts, lick your brains, drink your blood, eat your flesh, and gnaw your bones. We all got served with the ego decimation this year at the Hip Hop Yoga Retreat, during hyper emotional cancer season nonetheless. The island where we retreat at, Koh Phangan, also known as the “Crystal island” is literally a big hunk of quartz and deeply healing in this respect. As a power place, whatever you are going through at the time is amplified tremendously, including your thoughts themselves. By the end of the ten days, having exhausted ourselves with sacred twerk, ecstatic dance, sunset savasana, juicy cyphers and astral beast yoga on the crystalline sands of Why Nam Beach, we were all ready to crab crawl back home and integrate all the freaky, ethereal feels.
Kali shines with the brilliance of a million black fires of dissolution and her body is swathed in sacred ash (vibuthi). Kali appears dark due to her infinite, unfathomable depth. Black like the cosmos, and the ocean at night. The deeper meaning of Kali deals in the wheel of time and timelessness. Kali is “the Black One” and also “Time” (kala) and “Beyond Time” (MahaKala). With time comes death. Yogically speaking, prana (the breath) is life. Vital breath as practiced in yoga is a microcosm of cosmic time. Kali begins in the inner realms of living beings, whose lives turn the wheel of time through the seasons. With deep meditative practice comes not only relief from reincarnation, but the experience of transcending time into samadhi or “timelessness.” The dance of Kali begins with the inner rhythm of the vital breath and expands to embrace the body-cosmos. Kali in her dance spins the Universe, spiraling its axis back into timelessness where the yogini eternally dwells.
Kali is Lord Shiva’s consort, but not his wife. Theorist Sarah Caldwell speaks to distinctions scholars have made between “goddesses of the tooth” and “goddesses of the breast.” Kali not only appears in white and black form, she is on the more rugged side of dichotomies ascribed to goddesses who are either “tenebrous” or “luminous,” meat-eating or vegetarian, virgins or mothers. Goddesses who dwell outside the boundaries of the city or within. Black Goddesses such as Kali, are “virgin” in the sense of not having close ties to a male God. In other words, they were never demoted from Queen Bitch to bride or wife. Her perpetual maidenhood makes her uniquely powerful and at the same time, relegated to the periphery of the cultural imaginary and the far reaches of the city, she dances upon burial grounds across smoldering funeral pyres (1).
Shiva-in-action is shakti, the energy that creates and nourishes the manifest universe.
Without shakti, Shiva is shava, “corpse.” Many of us can conjure up the archetype of goddess Kali dancing on the inert, corpse-like body of Shiva, wielding strings of decapitated heads, bones and bowls of blood. Kali flaunts the potency of the manifest universe that is fully hers, at the same time, always verges on spinning out of control. Only by dancing on Shiva does she balance her force (2). The two are intricately intertwined, a metaphor at the deeper level for the masculine and feminine energy in the body that once stirred, rises like coiling snakes from the base of the spine to the crown of the head as the yogini approaches nirvana.
Invoking the ecstatic roots of religion through a contemporary fusion of Hip Hop Yoga is a necessarily Kali-esque gesture. Although I certainly acknowledge the negative aspects of cultural appropriation, our work at the Urban Mystery Skool creating a rhizomatic network of creative radicals inclined to modern day mysticism eschews the exploitative watering down of tradition to suit the drives of capitalism. It challenges through empowering networks of artists the consistent structural inequity that makes “culture vulturing” a highly unequal exchange. Conscious, respectful integration of various spiritual traditions is a mark of what we do and embedded in the name ULTRACUTURAL OTHERS. Coincidentally, Kali is infrequently claimed as a feminist icon in South Asia, nor a symbol of the liberating powers of female sexuality. In fact, there’s evidence to suggest that she has been turned against those that worship her, which we’ll explore in more depth a bit later. That being said, I believe it’s no mistake that Kali has been taken on as a force of women’s liberation here in the West and particularly in the United States, where women now overwhelmingly dominate the field of yoga.
India’s “Orthodox” schools of yoga evolved during a period when women were banned from it. It was an elite sacred art relegated to brahmin and warriors of the highest castes in a prejudiced system based on skin color inherited from invading Aryans. British colonizers would lace yoga with an even more masculine and militaristic vibe as the Hindus and many religious folks of India created distance between the solidifying world religions and the folk cultures that still offered many variations of Mother Worship. These age-olds practices innervated the white hegemonizers. As an effort of decolonization, our Hip Hop Yoga is rooted in an experiential re-membered lineage oriented around what we could conceive as shamanic, tribe-vibe, precolonial, primal yoga. Some say it was menstruating women who created yoga. An excerpt from Saktisangama Tantra (circa 1581 A.D.) states it like this,
There is not, nor has been, nor will be
any holy place like unto a woman.
There is no prayer to equal a woman.
There is not, nor has been, nor will be
any yoga to compare with a woman,
no mystical formula nor asceticism
to match a woman.
In matrifocal prehistory Yoga must have been passed down through embodied wisdom and oral tradition pre-language. It might have been closer to dance, perhaps blended with the traditions of Ethiopians and Egyptians coming into India long ago carrying the lotus flower as a symbol sacred to the Queen Mothers of Africa, including Isis, the original Black Madonna. As yoga continues to gain force here in the West and becomes muddled with the drives of capitalism, meditating on your intuited preherstory might be more powerful than popping malasana at Y7, if not as en vogue. (3)
When I first perceived that Hip Hop and Yoga were highly compatible spiritual traditions the first thread I found tracing back to Kali was the THUG connection. Little known amidst Tupac’s THUG LYFE legacy or the trap age that birthed Young Thug, “thug” was first used by British Colonials in India to describe a group of nomadic, religious murderers. Writer Martine Van Woerkens has elaborated on how these thugs or “thuggees” ( ठग्गी) as they were called were known for looting and strangling innocent travelers whose dead bodies they offered in sacrifice to their warrior Goddess Kali 🗡. Although the divine origin of the Thuggee system was deeply entrenched in the land of India, this quirky paradigm of religious murder provoked panic in a colonial society which wished to impose its Western views of monotheism, light trumping dark, private property and liberal individualism onto India’s very much tribal system.
While the British held fast to symbols of monarchy, in old India, everybody knew they could be King and God.
Thugs gave a percent of their loot back to local religious officials, making their wide range of “plunder dynamics” a standard fixture of the uncentralized nation’s economy. Theft, including catching a body or two, was a legal tax cementing India’s age old alliance between Kings and Robbers. In their effort to erect a new Christian Empire on top of tribal India, British officials went as far as branding the religious murderers with the tattoo “THUG” (typically under the eyes). While many of today’s modern American rap stars often rock the THUG LYFE tatt or some variation, the original meaning in relationship to Black Warrior Goddess Kali seems largely lost to the popular culture. As the thug lore spread internationally through the sensationalized 19th century fiction of white male authors, a situation already poised precariously on the borders of truth and fiction became magnified under the microscope of the perversely racist, dominator-style colonial looking glass. (4)
As Caldwell fleshes out, there is simply no text that can set the record straight when it comes to Kali. Like yoga itself, much of her tradition is oral. Kali derives in part from an ancient deity indigenous to the people of the Tamil region called “Kottavai.” Goddess Kottavai rides a tiger and tiger teeth hang from her neck like menacing pearls. She is at home on the battlefield where she devours flesh and gargles the blood of her victims with wild abandon. Kottavai embodies “ananku” an early conception of shakti – the manifest power of the universe personified as feminine. Shakti is life/death, creator/destroyer power – including the dangerous power inherent to the natural world, female humans and or course, the “angry” deities. Ananku can be found in the breasts, loins, and genitals of living women, and manifests as both violent and sexual energy. In ancient times dramatic possession performances acting out the passionate and violent nature of this supernatural energy were essential to society, and yet always verged on lawless, out-of-control madness and mayhem.
Although she remains a prominent Virgin/Mother figure the world over, Kali was already being misconstrued and maligned in the original Sanskrit texts of yoga. Written by scholars of an educated, elite caste group, Kali’s legacy would be used to intentionally marginalize the darker, poorer, tribal populations of India. European colonial disgust drew from negative characterizations of Kali apparent in elite Indian discourse. Any record of the point of view of those “others” and “fierce untouchables” who worshipped The “Black One” is sorely lacking from the Vedic and Puranic periods. “In this land where she is the predominant deity, we have a sense that the Goddess is not so much marginal as she is psychologically submerged,” writes Sarah Caldwell. (5)
What’s more, in some regions of India today including the formerly matrilineal Kerala, men have usurped women’s role as the mediums who harness Mother power. In an annual folk ritual of Kerala associated with the ancient Bhagavati cult, seering goddess-possession spectacles once the dignified role of lower-caste female shamans are now under the control of upper-caste males. This most dramatic ritual centers around the archetype of a virgin Goddess who suffers from unfulfilled desire for sex and procreation, thereby requiring blood sacrifice and engaging in most devilish thieving of “nocturnal emissions” from men satisfy her thirst. In a paradoxical inversion of female-Goddess-power today’s culture in Kerala defines female possession as “demonic” and male possession as “divine;” and has ironically made women ineligible to perform the role of the goddess due to their “polluting” menses. Today these colorful folk rituals have become an entirely male phenomenon. Male shamans don vibrant head-dresses for an all-night sacred drama in which they become possessed by the Goddess and act out the myth of her slaying the male demon (also played by a male). Caldwell remarks on the way in which modern Indian society does everything to control the female body – through dress-codes, social practices, and values; in addition to actively suppressing open discussion of sexuality. Meanwhile male shamans freely dressed in drag act out sexually explicit myths loaded with ritual violence. They can be seen shouting and chasing men wildly in the night with their big teeth and naked breasts. (6)
In Thailand during our retreat, we carried out the Kali Ma procession Hip Hop Yoga style, honoring the recent Full Thunder moon as we do in the tradition of new and full moon wellness rituals at our Urban Mystery Skool in NYC. We danced around a circular flower mandala, cyphered and set affirmations to the drum beat of holistic hip hop MC and life coach UNDAKOVA, co-leader to me on the retreat. It was beautiful, but in all honesty, bittersweet. Mainly because we experienced some interference from the men on the retreat. We discovered there was a deep-rooted fear and aversion to Kali, a confusion around her meaning and how it related to the fall of the patriarchy, heads getting chopped off, female sexual power and other classically scary and taboo subjects that taunt and poke at status quo white male privilege. Add to that, nipples were out, booties jiggling. Our female Yo! Yogis could get loud, sexy, and whatever the fuck they wanted to be without it having anything to do with male pleasure.
What happened during the procession also seemed linked to a general aversion to women in leadership roles, given that as a woman my leadership was checked in an inappropriate way at an inappropriate time. If anything, it was an opportunity to stand in my power and face the music in a situation that temporarily reaffirmed the way men have made me feel small, bullied and aggressed their way into positions of power over me most of my life. But here’s the other thing – ITS NOT THE JOB OF WOMBYN OR POC TO MAKE THE PATRIARCHY FEEL COMFORTABLE. Not with our gender performance, sexuality, leadership, beliefs, faith or appearance. It’s not the prerogative of intersectional feminism to accept, tolerate, smooth over, tip toe around or apologize for the abuses of white male power. If the rise of the feminine makes anyone uncomfortable, know that people of color, women, gender fluid beings and the EARTH HERSELF are no longer available (physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually) to make the patriarchy’s old paradigm lifestyle, identity and sense of entitlement
c o m f o r t a b l e.
Kali is also the name of my son, Kali Xion Williams, fathered by my life partner and co-leader of the retreat UNDAKOVA. We brought him into this world through a series of sacred rituals, including a “Yoni PUJA” carried out while reciting the Kali mantra performed and led by the transnational, radical feminist collective Go! Push Pops. Yoni Puja can be performed with the appropriate stone bust of the Devi (such as the famous 8th century Aditi Uttanapad pictured) or with a woman as her living representative. In this ritual set to live drumming by UNDAKOVA, I perfumed as a living representative of the Goddess pregnant with baby Kali while Go! Push Pops collective poured five liquids representing the five elements of Hindu cosmology over my naked yoni. The liquid was collected in a vessel below my thighs and eventually imbibed by Go! Push Pops co-leader Elisa Garcia de la Huerta and a few others, as it was assumed to be “empowered” by such direct and intimate contact with a living Goddess.
As a yogini, I was the woman at the center of the worship ✨👐🏽✨ having been initiated into the techniques of Kundalini Yoga. The powers transferred from my yoni (aka “flame-Of-intelligence”) during this ritual of purification were designated to “raise the consciousness” of those that drank 🔥. During traditional puja worshippers offer prayers in the form of chanted mantras and our collective chanted the Kali Mantra “Om Kreem Kalikayai Namah” (ओम क्रीं कालिकायै नमः) throughout the duration of the ceremony. It was an effort to reclaim birth against a culture that has so heavily medicalized the process they have stripped from women the peak moment of their spiritual power. Natural, orgasmic birth is not something most modern women even dream about or care to fight for. The heavy shame sticking to female-identity and lack of womens and girls’ rites of passage have obliterated in many respects our modern sense of the Goddess – Virile Virgin Bitch, Birthing Mother, and Queen Crone.
The other day, back in NYC, I happened to meet a woman from Nepal who took a liking to my now three year old son Kali. She asked his name, to which he replied “Kali.” After asking me for the spelling she went on to say “Kali is an angry god in my country. She is what you call someone when they are too black.” She pointed to her brown skin and said “My friends tease me, saying I am like Kali.” I was a bit taken aback by this truth, and didn’t much feel like singing my white-Western-feminist swan song of empowerment over her lived-experience as a woman of color in southeast Asia, where Kali is as alive as the bloody sacrificial animals that still die for her tradition there. What I did feel was a sense of disturbia, knowing what I know. Knowing that as Usha Menon and Richard A. Shweder illustrate in their case studies of the tantric icon, Kali has been domesticated and undergone a “radical reconstruction” to the degree that she is now used to uphold conservative religious values encouraging women’s self-control and self-reliance.
In a study of Kali’s image of supreme female power in relationship to Hindu values and social order, Menon and Shweder uncovered that out of ninety-two men and women participating in their study, only two men identified Kali as tantric. The overwhelming majority explained that her protruding tongue displays the emotion “lajja” (shame) for having stepped on her husband Shiva. The results of the study reveal a complex narrative wherein “Kali’s Lajja [is] the antidote to Her Anger.” A moralistic rubric has been imprinted on Kali by the patriarchal Hindu social order. It privileges male superiority and foregrounds domestic obligations and moral requirements as essential to female virtue. (7)
Given that American women escaped the chains of domestic servitude through collective consciousness raising techniques developed by Black women of the civil rights era, I am conveniently post-shame and approaching post-blame when it comes to my female freedom and sexual power. You know what’s powerful? Sisterhood. In the end, I am deeply grateful for the fortified sense of sister-love during our Hip Hop Yoga retreat. The wombyn were holding space for the resurgence of these ancient wisdoms and their energy proliferated in the sacred space that was held.
Kelly Shaw Willman came through with some plentiful wisdom on Yoruban Orishas of the sweet waters, pleasures of the flesh and love. You can listen and learn in our video above and also read her personal reflection on Creatrix. Kelly was instrumental on this retreat also in the form of co-signing my sacred twerk workshop by creating a set of waist beads for all of the females on the retreat. She not only lovingly made strings of pastel rainbow waist beads, she taught us how to make them ourself. In her belly-bead workshop in the lineage of Ochun, blessed by elders of the tradition, Kelly explained how belly-beads are worn traditionally under the clothes of African Women for rites of passage, sensual lovemaking, healing and rejuvenation. A long-time, personal healing ritual practiced by Kelly and many women of the African Diaspora the world over, we can associate waist beads with the 2nd chakra and connect them to the energy of The Black Madonna, mermaids and water nymph archetypes including Orishas Yemaya, Ochun and Oya.
In Italy several of the nurturing Black Madonnas are reveled as protectors of agriculture as well as the sea. Italian Madonnas of the sea or Stella Maris “Star of the Sea” (naturally connected to the Aphrodite and Venus) are celebrated in processions of hundreds of boats, stunning flower rituals, dance and mantra. (8) These traditions where an initial inspiration for our procession on the beach in Thailand.
In her book Healing Journeys with the Black Madonna: Chants, Music, and Sacred Practices of the Great Goddess Alessandra Belloni illustrates the clear connection between the musical drumming traditions associated with Goddess worship in Southern Italy and Yoruba (originally from Nigeria, Africa). In Brazil the Feast Day of major water deity (Mother of all Orishas) Yemanja closely resembles the processions in Southern Italy as both involve ebullient processions to the sea, boats, throwing of flowers and prayer. (9)
Known as a black mermaid, Yemanja “is associated with the moon, water, and feminine mysteries…curing infertility, protection during childbirth, supporting parenting and in general nurturing humankind with love and healing.” (10) In Brazil’s Feast Day for her she emerges from the frothing foam of the sea in an image reminiscent of folklore associated with Venus, Roman Goddess of Love, “her arms wide open as if to embrace us all with her love and sensuality. Beautiful shining stars come out of the palms of her hands as she stands proudly on a crescent moon (a symbol of many Black Madonnas) representing the Cosmic Mother from whom we all come.” (11)
During Yemanja’s feast day in Salvador, Bahia, townsfolk dress in white and blue as together thousands process to the water to pray to the Goddess of love through dance. They ask for miracles and hemorrhage offerings of roses. The ritual ends in frenzied ecstasy, with many collapsing in exhaustion on the sand in a visionary state of possession produced through hours of dancing and chanting to the Mother of the waters “mae das aguas” Yemanja. (12)
The Black Madonna or Black Mary of southern France is called St. Sara, or as the Gypsies say ✨Sara-la-Kali✨ 🙏🏿, and the language of the Gypsies of southern France derives from Indian Sanskrit. In this dialect Kali means both “Gypsy Woman” and “Black One.” 🔑 She is clearly connected to Hindu Kali💀. Each Year in May, gypsies travel from all over Europe to venerate Sara-la-Kali “Queen of the Gypsies” The center of her veneration is Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, a place of pilgrimage by the sea in southern France (13). If you’re interesting in learning more about the tradition of Sarah-la-Kali, you can join my Mom Jan Sara Jorgensen for a women’s retreat this September Painting with the Black Madonna in the South of France.
Would a goddess by any other name smell as sweet? Kali’s power is in making names and forms disappear. Slicing through the veils of illusion. The tradition(s) of Kali are necessarily transmogrifying. From religious murderers to blood-thirsty twerking sirens and devouring, magical-breast-mothers, Kali is a smooth criminal. Are Western feminists distorting the truth of ancient Kali? Or infusing it with new energy? Like any deity, your relationship to her must be deeply personal to be affective. If you’re curious about our Hip Hop Yoga retreat and conjuring up your inner bad bitch, watch the recap of our Procession for KALI MA. You can follow us on Instagram @ultraculturalothers
Katie Cercone aka “High Prieztezz Or Nah” is an interdisciplinary artist, curator, scribe, yogi and spiritual gangsta. Cercone has been included in exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum, Bronx Museum, Whitney Museum, Dallas Contemporary and C24 Gallery. She has published critical writing in ART PAPERS, White Hot, Posture, Brooklyn Rail, Hysteria, Bitch Magazine, Art511, Utne Reader and N.Paradoxa. She is co-leader of the queer, transnational feminist collective Go! Push Pops and creative director of ULTRACULTURAL OTHERS Urban Mystery Skool. Cercone was a 2015 National Endowment for the Arts Fellow for the U.S.-Japan Exchange Program in Tokyo. Follow her on instagram @0r__Nah_spiriturlgangsta and learn more at KatieCercone.com
(1) Sarah Caldwell, Margins at the Center: Tracing Kali Through Time, Space and Culture in Encountering Kali: In the Margins, at the Center, in the West Ed. by Rachel Fell McDermott and Jeffrey J. Kripal, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003 p. 264
(2) Diana L. Eck, INDIA: A Sacred Geography New York: Three Rivers Press, 2012 p. 160
(3) Y7 is a workout franchise that quickly popularized “Hip Hop Yoga” by pairing bouncing asanas with Drake beats under infrared lights. What Vogue Magazine calls “Yoga for people who put on gangsta rap and handle it,” Y7 is 80th on Inc. Magazine’s 2018 of America’s fastest growing companies https://www.y7-studio.com/press
(4) Martine Van Woerkens, The Strangled Traveller: Colonial Imaginings and the Thugs of India Trans. by Catherine Tihanyi, London and Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002
(5) Sarah Caldwell, Margins at the Center: Tracing Kali Through Time, Space and Culture, ibid, p. 251, 252, 254, 257
(6) Sarah Caldwell, ibid
(7) Usha Menon and Richard A. Shweder, Dominating Kali: Hindu Family Values and Tantric PowerinEncountering Kali: In the Margins, at the Center, in the West Ed. by Rachel Fell McDermott and Jeffrey J. Kripal, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003 p. 81, 82, 87, 97
(8) Alessandra Belloni, Healing Journeys with the Black Madonna: Chants, Music, and Sacred Practices of the Great Goddess, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2019, p. 211
(9) Alessandra Belloni, Healing Journeys with the Black Madonna ibid, p. 211, 213, 214
(10) Alessandra Belloni, ibid, p. 219
(11) Alessandra Belloni, ibid, p. 215
(12) Alessandra Belloni, ibid, P. 216-219
(13) Chandra Alexandre, “Saint Sara-la-Kali: A Sister to Kali Maa” MAY 2014 (online) http://sharanya.org/mandala/saint-sara-la-kali-a-sister-to-kali-maa/