Making The Ordinary Sacred What Is Sacred Space? And Do Spaces Have A Gender?

At the start of every Kundalini Global class you will most likely, and most definitely in my classes, hear the teacher state that we will begin by opening a sacred space.

What does that mean?

I can give you my own explanation, but I’m very interested in what it brings to mind for you? What does the term sacred space bring up? What does a sacred space feel like? Look like? Sound like? What is its purpose?

For me, on first hearing the phrase, I believe my mind went to designated places of worship. Last year I read a really fascinating book called Violence and the Body: Race, Gender, and the State which explored how when we look to places of worship we will often find buildings designed and built by men with male form and geometry. It gave me pause to consider if a space was to feel sacred to me, did it require male form? And upon entering a sacred space did I feel the male gaze? Was the masculine an aspect of my relationship to the sacred? I believe it was, but that experiences I have had over the past 12 months, including attending two series of Prayer Workshops with Carolyn Cowan, have challenged, taken apart and begun to reassemble that relationship in ways I am finding extraordinary.

Take Me to Church?

If we think of rituals performed within mosques, churches and other religious buildings we will likely believe, and largely rightly, that they are most often performed by men.

Our mind may visualise a male figure when we reflect. Plus, of course, women’s access to such spaces has often been limited by rules imposed by men. Women in Islam, for example, do not lead prayer and, in larger mosques, where women are welcome, they are usually segregated, sitting at the back or out of sight entirely.

Mormon women are, to this day, expected to wear skirts or dresses to worship services and inside temples and, until recently, India’s Sabarimala temple banned women and girls of menstruating age from entering at all.

Forgive me for speaking in the binary during this post, by the way, I do not mean to exclude anyone on the basis of gender identity, and ultimately what I am interested is how the divine feminine, an energy that transcends gender, comes to play in sacred space but in general terms it’s tricky to avoid talking man/woman when we look at the concept of sacred space though history (and I, for one, hope that is something that changes!)

Women can and do create sacred spaces and always have, be they more subjective than, for example, a Gurdwara, which we may assume most would consider a sacred space, if they of Sikh faith or not and regardless of if they experience it as sacred upon entering in to it. My perception is that women’s sacred spaces, or perhaps ‘feminine’ sacred spaces, may not have the boundaries of manmade walls – they may be universal. They may be invisible. They may not have real permanence and they may move with the individual who considers them to be sacred (for example, a yoga mat).

Through time we can look at endless examples of women not as passive occupants, forced to the back of man-made sacred spaces, but as the creators and holders of them. From the home, as a place of self expression and reflection, and altars placed within them, to sites of protest, to nature itself, the feminine sacred space is an area with great potential in bringing forth positive change. At this moment in time, with the women’s movement, from #MeToo, to the Everyday Sexism Project, to the rising discourse on the topic of male privilege and through climate change, which we may consider a manifestation of the destruction of the feminine by a masculine, consumerist, society, we have an opportunity for the creation of the sacred space on an individual level, to become mainstream, and for feminine space (even ‘Mother Earth’) to be not just created, but reclaimed.

Whilst I was on my Kundalini Global Level One Teacher training I became fascinated by the concept of feminine sacred space: what it may look like, what characteristics such spaces may share. For me, with the enormous popularity of yoga worldwide, considering the role yoga teachers could and do play in the creation of sacred space and the amazing opportunity that presents is powerful.

Again, I can speak to my own experience: that I create sacred space, both personally, and for classes I teach, with the goal of facilitating safety, stillness and connection for myself, as an act of self care, and for those who choose to come and join me in class and gift me the ability to hold the space – to allow them, potentially, a new experience of themselves.

On a binary level, looking at ‘space’ we can see gender being assigned certain characteristics in polarity as male or female, to give a few examples, public or private, built or natural, heaven or earth. Despite the patriarchal histories of modern religions, and women’s lack of agency woven in to them, it is easy to see many recurring methods employed by women to create sacred space, to ‘make a home for the spirit,’ that each share characteristics that differentiate them from traditional, male dominated, worship space.

By exploring the concept of sacred spaces through a gender lens, and looking at the divine feminine manifest within them, we are able to consider such space not only from the physical, boundaried, perspective, admiring the stained glass windows in a Catholic cathedral, but to take a more fantastic, visionary and abstract look at the architecture of space. My own view could be described in part as the creation of, and stillness in, sacred space is done as a means to make manifest the indescribable. What opportunities does this present to us, then, if the space itself is beyond description too?

By embracing the feminine in the realm of sacred space we can be powerful in a movement to untie the concept of physical homes for the divine beyond the realms of organised religion into unboundaried, empowering environments that allow a stillness for experiencing the divine within us.

Making The Ordinary Sacred

By claiming or perceiving what may be described as ‘the ordinary,” Sacred spaces created by women often display characteristics that make them easily distinguishable them from male/masculine created worship space. Many could be considered subjective, considered sacred to the individual, and not outwardly so to everyone (or indeed anyone) else. Such a space can therefore be contested (“what’s the problem with me stepping on your yoga mat with my muddy boots?”) whereas, as I said at the start of this post, most traditional worship space may be more broadly respected and considered sacred by all (“of course I will cover my head and take off my shoes”).

Feminine sacred spaces is often not confined to rooms within walls, and whilst they are often physical, e.g. the home altar, they can also be transient and unmeasurable, like a connection with another person and what happens in the space between you or when you come together. The feminine sacred space is often immeasurable. The internal connection to the divine, and the space inside that allows that, may well be considered to be sacred, but can, if she chooses, exist in every place and in all time for the women who find it.

As discussed, patriarchal societies have regularly made problematic women’s occupancy of traditional, religious, sacred space. However, this appears to have allowed for attention to go inward to find space for the spiritual. Yoga is a good example to make a case for how, over time, such gendered power inequalities have led to increased female participation in spiritual movements, where the separation of the sacred and secular is not confined by doors. The explosion of yoga in the West since the 1960s, recognised (not always but often) as a spiritual practise distinct from religion, has coincided with the women’s rights movement. So women’s lack of agency within traditional sacred space, combined with their growing autonomy, has caused the sacred spaces which they created, appropriated and visited to become ‘a womb for their spiritual development’.

But even such movements are not free of the dogma inherent in male dominated religion. In Yoni Shakti, Uma Dinsmore-Tuli makes a powerful case for the empowerment of women’s yoga practise through ‘explortion, welcoming, open sharing, honouring and recognition’. This partly in response to countless stories from yoga studios of disempowerment, disrespect and disregard for the feminine. One story, for example, looks at a case of several women on a male-led retreat not feeling safe to share they were menstruating, and therefore not having an opportunity to take part in practise that would soothe their experience.

Beyond that, stories like that of Bikram and Yogi Bhajan, powerful men who played powerful roles in bringing yoga practise to the West only to abuse that power and the women who they taught, only furthers the disconnection between yoga practise facilitating a stillness that allows inner connection, and the spaces offered by those in power in which to practise, which appears to have often been far from either sacred or safe. In a practise dominated by women at a rate of 9/1, it is important to consider how a space can be made both sacred and safe for the women entering in to it. It is true, as Dinsmore-Tuli, states, that for many women the freedom to practise the yoga that nourishes their awareness can be beautifully experienced within the boundaries of a traditional hierarchy, just as many women have found connection inside themselves within the walls of religious buildings, but many women undoubtedly feel their own consciousness is stifled by structures, sexual abuses and power imbalances within the lineage hierarchies.

It feels quite justifiable, to me, to consider that anyone facilitating yoga practise for others should reflect on women’s empowerment and how to create spaces (physical, e.g. an altar, or ethereal, e.g. the offer of accessible alternative postures for peri- post- and menopausal women) that welcome it.

Another idea that Dinsmore-Tuli explores is the disconnection inherent in contemporary yoga, which is reflected in the physical spaces classes occupy, often located in a studio or gym, but traditionally taught within ‘sacred philosophical frameworks’ in the context of the temple, or, very interestingly, the forest hermitage. As she states, ‘many yoga centres feel more like a health club than a temple or a forest ashram’. But does this matter when women have long created their own spaces to name and experience as sacred? I would argue that yes, it’s very important because the power of women coming together to practise yoga creates a unique opportunity to create a safe, sacred space in which all students can explore self-inquiry through a feminine lense, with 90%+ of teachers and their students identifying as female, why should the space not be created after deep reflection on the feminine, and on how to create sacred space in which it can be expressed and explored, rather than allowing in the same dogma and walls that have the ability to stifle it. As Dinsmore-Tuli succinctly puts it – we have created forms of yoga mirroring our own disregard for our inner guide. I would argues the same has sometimes happened for the spaces we practise in.

But how do we make a change?

Many wonderful yoga teachers and women make efforts to create and sustain the sanctity of a space before, during, and after class. It will ultimately always come down to the practitioner to listen to their own inner teacher to consider what steps can be taken to best support safety, connection and empowerment for the space they are holding. But we can look to other women, and the spaces they have created too, we can discuss, deconstruct and start anew. If we free ourselves from the bricks and mortar idea of the place of worship, the possibilities for how feminine sacred space can look become infinite.

If we consider climate change as opportunity to reclaim mother earth from the clutches of capitalism, we can so too consider the increasing number of accounts of sexual misconduct, and abuses of power by men in hierarchical yoga traditions as an opportunity to reclaim yoga as a sacred and safe space for women. In an article published in 2019, Miss Rosen makes this powerful call to action: “Mother Earth, like the sea, are historically considered feminine entities – a telling truth in a patriarchal world. What Western society has sought to exploit and oppress, perhaps William Congreve said it best in 1697: “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” But why wait until it’s too late?” and just like the invitation, published in the Kundalini Global Level One Training Manual, to ‘get altars in every home…to have a place in our own world where we anchor ourselves and take stock. Where we turn inward and meet out soul. No rules, no regulations…’ it feels the time is now to truly reflect on how such practises could create massive shifts in energy for everyone. If we let the feminine sacred space thrive, free of dogma, free of walls.

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