Yoni is a Sanskrit word for female genitals—the vulva, vagina, and uterus or womb. It can also mean a place of birth, as in the source or origin; a place of rest, as in a vessel or home; and a family or social station fixed by birth. It is most well known, however, as the female sex organ and, in India, is often linked with lingam, the male phallus embedded in its pedestal throne (pīṭha) or yoni, and worshipped especially in conjunction with the god Śiva.
Worship of the male phallus or lingam has been more extensive than worship of the yoni, and examples of its power as a fertility symbol can be seen throughout Indian culture. Modern lingam sites include the Thai shrine in Bangkok to the fertility goddess Tap-Tun, filled with phallic amulets called palad khik. In Indian sources, where the yoni may be the older of the two representations, they are often joined as Tantric symbols for the divine intercourse between Śakti and Śiva: the yoni standing for śakti, energy and immanence, and the lingam for consciousness or transcendence. While Śakti has the vital, active role, Śiva has the cool, passive role, and their interplay is that of all dualities—life and death, creation and destruction, movement and quiescence. In Tantric practice, adepts move among these dualities, raising consciousness from the material to the transcendent, a plane beyond all opposition.
The worship of the yoni is the worship of the goddess, as well as the worship of women as living expressions of the goddess. The magical powers of nudity, especially of the sexual organs, are strong and, in the case of the female, the yoni gives off healing and protective energies, and its display has the effect of a magical spell used to turn away evil forces. Such practices are known not only in India and Japan, but also in Europe, the ancient Near East, Africa, and Oceania. A phenomenon called the "yoni-maṇḍala" is an expression of the goddess within the geography of the earth, appearing, in one case, as a sacred stone shaped like a yoni within the Manobhavaguha cave at Mount Nila in Assam; it sends out red (arsenic) waters from its cleft, thought to be the menstrual fluid of the mother goddess. The mixture of male and female fluids in intercourse is considered a sacred essence, a yonipuṣpa or "vulva flower," made even more powerful when the coupling involves menstrual fluid. Drinking the mixture is thought to lead to liberation.
Indian lovemaking practices highlight qualities of the yoni. In the Kāmasūtra, for example, the "lotus woman" has a yoni like a lotus bud issuing delicately scented love waters; the yoni of the "woman of dance" is a gentle hill covered with fine wispy hair with juices smelling of wild honey; the "conch woman" has a deep yoni of thick curly hair and with a sour molasses smell; and the yoni of the "elephant woman" is a deep cavern lost in a thick hairy jungle smelling of elephant. The compatibility of lovers depends, in part, on the depth of the woman's yoni and the length of the man's penis; equal female/male partnerships are as follows: doe/hare, mare/bull, and elephant/horse. Moreover, a man's embrace of a woman is most successful when it includes touches, stabs, caresses, and squeezes of her "mound of Venus," and kissing of the yoni in cunnilingus involves nibbles, tickles, and tracings of the tongue. The Kama sutra is perhaps best known for the various sexual positions it describes and, in the treatment of the yoni, attention is paid to front and back entry; stretching the yoni opening; using yoni muscles to massage the penis; and arousal using the lover's fingers, tongue, or other object.
In Tantra, the yoni has pride of place near the first, and therefore base, cakra known as the mūlādhāra. It is a triangular space in the middle section of the body with its apex turned downwards. In Tantric texts, such as the Mahānirvāna Tantra and those on Kuṇḍalinī Yoga, the mūlādhāra is described as a red lotus with four petals situated at the base of the sexual organ and the anus. The mūlādhāra is the root of the central channel (suṣumṇā) in the body's cakra system through which the life force is guided, as well as the resting place of the Kuṇḍalinī serpent coiled three and a half times around.
In Tantric practice, the adept sets up a system of inner circulation and then draws energies into the yoni-triangle. Using a special contraction of muscles, energies are concentrated into a subtle form of the female serpent who, as energy (śakti), moves through the cakras, opening and closing them, and working out psycho-physical transformations. Using yogic postures, muscular actions, and sexual intercourse, Kuṇḍalinī is vitalized and driven upwards into higher cakras or lotuses. This guiding of the life force is also helped by the recitation of mantras, and the movement of breath. The breath that dwells in the mūlādhāra is the apāna breath ("out-breath") which naturally goes down and out the anus, but through contractions at the first cakra can be made to go up to meet the prāṇa, or "in-breath." As the Kuṇḍalinī is awakened and the breath current opens up the mūlādhāra, the Devī leaves the first lotus, having turned its flower upward and then closed down.
The practice involving the movement of yoni energies falls under maithuna (coition), one of the five practices making Tantric process towards enlightenment a quicker and more intense process. Maithuna figures are couples closely embracing or in coitum, and commonly decorate the exteriors of Hindu temples. They have parallel form and function in the Tibetan Buddhist yab-yum couple, and in the Tibetan use of the female bell (ghanta) and male vajra (also called dorje, diamond scepter) in meditation. Here, as in art objects from other cultures, the yoni expresses a basic human focus on the dynamics of life energy.
Camphausen, Rufus C. 1996. The Yoni: Sacred Symbol of Female Creative Power. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions.
Feuerstein, Georg. 1998. Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy. Boston: Shambala.
Flood, Gavin. 2006. The Tantric Body: The Secret Tradition of Hindu Religion. London: I. B. Tauris.
Ellison Banks Findly