The esoteric meaning of the Story of Sati is the Yogic intention of raising Kundalini energy to become one with the soul. The process involves mixing life airs up through the chakra centers, and dying to live in sound, essentially annihilating the identification with the lower self and the identification with our personal story, the ego. We burn up through tejas so that the true spirit can come through. This meditation offers a sense of peace, resurrection, and renewal and is a taste of the culmination of the exploration of consciousness. The radical discovery of the true, eternal self is Jiva Mukti.

The goddess Sati's self-immolation had immense significance in shaping the ancient Sanskrit literature, and each of the places on Earth where Sati's body parts were known to have fallen were then considered as Sakti Peethas and were deemed places of great spiritual import. The Shakti Peetha (Sanskrit: शक्ति पीठ, Śakti Pīṭha, seat of Shakti) are significant shrines and pilgrimage destinations in Shaktism, the goddess-focused Hindu tradition.

Shiva Lingam paintings

Sahaj Kaur interviewed by Grace Jackson.
First of all, could you introduce yourself and share how you first became involved in Vision Lab?

My given name is Shelley Loheed but I also have a spiritual name, Sahaj, which I use when I'm teaching Kundalini yoga and also doing healing work. I met Kythe through teaching yoga about ten years ago. She’s also a Kundalini yoga instructor and I made an instant connection with her. I remember the first time I met her, she was sticking out her tongue in a really playful way outside the door. And I just thought, who is this woman? Our relationship has just ever unfolded. She’s a dear friend and also a collaborator. I’m a painter and we did a collaboration where she created a poem about my work and performed it during one of my shows. It was really beautiful. She’s like the glue that holds this really high-wire sparked community together. I love her energy. I think so many people love her energy. That’s really why I’m involved.

What have you personally taken from the phoenix?

The phoenix is such a deep, transformational image across cultures and traditions. My tradition is Hinduism, I'm a Vaishnava, and so the story of Sati is the story that I want to tell. Sati is an amazingly accomplished yogi and she teaches transformational yoga. In the story of Sati, she self-immolates and transforms her body. But she is none other than the goddess Durga, so she has a lot of potency.

That’s great. Are you working on a phoenix project related to that?

I’m going to do a performance piece just before the US election, with the intention of collective catharsis and transformation. We’re going to have a meeting where we get together and do some yogic practices from the Kundalini tradition, using particular mantras. I'm looking forward to facilitating that.

Could you say a little bit about the mantras?

There is one particular meditation that uses the mantra harang. In it, you’re calling on Shiva the Destroyer. He gives you entrance into the higher realms, he’s the gatekeeper in one sense. So, with this mantra, you’re asking him, “Please remove all obstacles to my highest divinity.” And your highest divinity is already imprinted on you, it's already imprinted on every individual. The divine knows. Shiva knows. So, if you go for the highest, that prayer will be answered. It might not be answered this life, but it will be answered. You just need to put that prayer for transformation out there. Even just saying it once is a huge effort on your part and generates untold response from higher powers. This mantra is extraordinarily powerful. It’s the destroying energy, but destroying what? Destroying all that blocks us from our highest being.

That’s fascinating. I’ve been talking to Kythe a lot about the role of self-inquiry in spiritual progress. I’m curious if your tradition and your practice contains that kind of self-interrogation.

The main practice in my tradition is chanting the maha-mantra, the Hari Krishna mantra, which is about meeting and separation, meeting and separation. It’s feeling connected to the divine and then feeling separation from the divine – both are included in the experience. It’s a kind of churning, like when you churn milk to turn it into yogurt, you’re separating the parts. The mantra is the churning mechanism. All you have to do is commit to the practice because what you need is already in you.

In my tradition, the Bhakti tradition, the highest expression is pure love of the divine, where you become selfless and everything’s expressed through your love. So, you keep getting yourself out of the way, the “I” keeps getting removed so that it becomes a selfless offering. When you become the selfless offering, your life becomes elevated and pure. And at the same time, you're nothing, and you always have to remember that.

My next question is about your creative process. What does it look like? How has it evolved? What is it like right now?

I’m a painter and I work with drawing and ink and paint. It’s a highly evolved aesthetic, highly abstract. I talk about sound as the churning mechanism, and sound as a yantra [a mystical diagram found in Tantric traditions of the Indian religions]. Sound is a form, sound creates form, and you can take it down to its most elemental. We see mantra and pattern reproduced in many ways, like the tree of life. Islamic patterns are really good example. That's where I started. I started with Islamic pattern and I learned to draw them and then I started dissecting them to their most elemental. And I came up with a form that has dissolved even more. It’s still in the embedded in the substrate of my work, but it's more implied now.

Physicists come and view my work and they really understand it. It’s kind of like tapping into a fractal way of reproducing images that is infinite and reproduces itself. It dovetails with the work of David Bohm, who was a theoretical physicist who talked about the substrate of life as a river that's always flowing. And that there are splashes and blips and changes in form, but it’s all the same thing. It's all the water, but it creates different form at different points, under different pressures. This is the process of creation where things come into form, manifest and then dissolve. My work is really about that, but as it's evolved, it's become much more filled with bhakti and encoded experiences of devotion.

And is there a relationship between your yoga practice and your painting?

Definitely. They became so intertwined. I was a painter first. And then I started doing Kundalini yoga, and it's really a powerful for igniting your creativity. It's a secret tool of a lot of creative types, in many modalities. Then I started doing my meditation in my studio, before I would paint. And then I discovered a particular kriya [a technique or practice within a yoga tradition meant to achieve a specific result] that is super effective for preparing your mind for creativity.

Would you like to say anything else about Phoenix? What have you derived from that symbol this summer?

When I first started thinking about it, it seemed like the fire element of the phoenix burns out all possibility, like it dries everything up. Then I realized that fire is necessary to take out heaviness—the heaviness of an emotion like depression, or the heaviness of the earth. Fire is that transformational alchemical thing that gets us to a lighter, more subtle form. It’s is like a bridge to the air, to space, to the more etheric realm.

I see the phoenix as involved in a never-ending effort, of being constantly in process. Spiritual practice isn't temporary and it never stops, it's a continual movement towards steadiness – wait, there's a word for it in Sanskrit, nishtha, it means steadiness. As human beings, we're so changeable, we're in chaos and we're always getting caught up in emotional turmoil. And when you look at it, historically, you realize, wow, it's nothing new. We think it’s new, but it's not. So, you need to find that thread that elevates you and gives you perspective so that you realize the truth. I see the phoenix as inspiring that journey.

I love listening to you. Everything you say feels kind of still and elegant and airy. I’m wondering, where is the fight, or the conflict, in your worldview? Is there room for conflict?

There isn’t a lot of conflict in my life right now. My life is a product of churning the mantra so that I have steadiness so that I can give back. I certainly got here by having a lot of fire and anger and emotional turmoil in my life. I grew up in a tumultuous family with an alcoholic father and divorce and unrest and unhappiness and misery. There was always a part of me that was like, isn't there more? I'm a very intuitive person and I have a voice inside that guides me. My first encounter with Kundalini yoga was totally random. A friend was having a baby and had organized a private yoga session. She said, you want to come do this? It was the first time I'd ever done yoga. I did it and it seemed fine. But when I went outside—and we were vacationing on Martha's vineyard and it was a beautiful summer day, I was in my late twenties and didn't think anything was wrong—this voice said, “This will save you.” And I remember looking around like, who said that? Save me from what? I had no clue, but it soon became clear what I needed to heal. It was a very long journey to wholeness and it's still continuing, but that was the start of the process by which my path was revealed.

My next question is, what have you found to be permanent this summer amidst the turmoil and change in the environment and society?

Well, like a phoenix, I see great turmoil as an opportunity for transformation and rebirth. So, I created my online course, which I’ve been thinking about for so long. I’m teaching classes online and I do classes with swamis in India several times a week. I took a yoga training for healing trauma. I completed my requirement to be a lead trainer in the Kundalini tradition so that I can train teachers on my own. On a personal level, I've had some trauma in my family, illness, my older brother’s been diagnosed with cancer. I just don't think you could pick a year with like more intensity in it. But I found that my practice grounds me, creates that nishtha.

My husband and I have a little bit of an ashram here. He is in the same tradition and we always do our spiritual practice together and we go for long walks. I also teach healthy eating. We did cleanses and ate really well. We’ve really enjoyed being sequestered because it’s an opportunity. I think that’s where the phoenix and I overlap – seeing this great change and embracing it, going for it. Don’t hang back and don't wait.

For me, there's a little bit of Zoom fatigue. I don't really like teaching on Zoom. I don't like being in front of the computer all day, but it's the only form. And the conversations that we've been having in Vision Lab, where we've been able to express what we're going through and really share these connections on a deep level... I have more connections to more people all over the world than I would've ever had because of this. I’ve come to really appreciate that.

What are your hopes and possibly fears for the current moment?

My hope is that there will be more consciousness on the planet, that there will be a transformation. It’s referenced in the Vedas, and many spiritual teachers talk about this very bright time in the kalyug [the last of the four stages the world goes through as described in the Sanskrit scriptures]. And it’s going to come through us. This means that we all have to upgrade our consciousness. My fear is that externally it will get harder and harder. I think it’s becoming more and more challenging for people to stay balanced and we need all these tools. We need people to be steady. We need people to be strong. I want to steel up for that.

Sahaj Kaur is a fine artist and yogi, born in Middleboro, Massachusetts and raised in Indiana, Sahaj/AKA Shelley Loheed attended The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Tufts University. She is trained in kundalini yoga and been teaching for 20 years as well as a trainer of teachers to become kundalini level one certified instructors.