I write this from the heart of a ten-day silent yoga retreat deep in central Virginia. The peace within and without fills me as I gaze over the James River, meandering through its wide valley, thickly carpeted in green. The late summer thrum of cicadas rises and falls around me, and in the far distance I hear what sounds like a mower circling a field. Earlier today, during meditation, I watched a pileated woodpecker pry its meal from the hollow of an ancient oak. Rather than silently repeating my mantra with eyes closed, I had my eyes open, and I experienced the sacred vibration in the bird’s rhythmic taps.
Now a soft breeze touches my face, bringing with it the sweet scent of wet grass. “There is a blessing in this gentle breeze,” I remember the opening of William Wordsworth’s Prelude, and I am reminded as well of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s heroine Aurora Leigh, celebrating “the body of our body, the green earth.” Yes. This earth is my body, and I am blessed to be in it, here, at the ashram of my guru, Swami Satchidananda, silently practicing hatha yoga, meditating, breathing, simply being.
When I first came to yoga more than forty years ago my body hurt constantly, no matter how I stood, lay, or sat. My mind was a tangle of fears, regrets, anxieties, wounds. My spirit was lost. Nothing I tried offered any relief, and I tried just about everything: psychotherapy, doctors, sex, drugs, rock’n’roll. Until one day, on the repeated recommendation of a friend, I ventured into a yoga class at the Integral Yoga Institute on 13th Street in Manhattan.
For most of the class, I remained in agony. The postures, or yoga asanas, were inaccessible to my thick, stiff, pain-wracked body. I was embarrassed and ashamed. My mind was racing, and I wanted to scream. But forty-five minutes into the class, we were instructed to lie on our backs in “corpse pose,” savasana, for deep relaxation or Yoga Nidra. I did as I was told, settling onto the carpeted floor.
After tensing and releasing legs, arms, face, and torso, we were encouraged to lie perfectly still and to mentally relax each part of the body. Not quite sure what this meant or how to do it, I nevertheless followed the teacher’s voice as she led us from the feet, through the legs, to the hips, torso, arms, and head. And then we were asked simply to “witness” the relaxed body, to observe the breath and then the mind, coming to rest finally in the peace of the calm witness: “your true nature,” she said.
And I felt it: perfect peace. For the first time in my life, the anxiety, self-consciousness, and self-judgment that haunted me were gone. I simply was, fully supported on that carpeted floor in a room full of strangers, on the second story of a narrow brick building in Manhattan, with sirens blasting and horns blaring just outside. For a moment, I was pure awareness, simply present, with no attachment or desire, no aversion or fear. It was extraordinary, and I wanted more.
I returned. Once a week, for fifteen minutes or so, I experienced that peace. My body began to soften, my heart to open. Over the years, I returned again and again; even when I was far from any teachers, I followed along with my battered cassette recording of a Hatha I class. In a sense, that class–a simple, brief series of basic poses that culminates in Yoga Nidra succeeded by breathing practices–became my mantra, my (almost) daily prayer. Eventually, in 2001, I came to the ashram for teacher training, in order to deepen my practice and share it with others.
“Truth is one, paths are many,” Swami Satchidananda used to say, yet he also insisted that if you wanted to find real spiritual sustenance, you should choose one path, “dig one well.” But even as I experienced peace in the practice of yoga, I found myself pursuing numerous other traditions: the Judaism of my childhood; the Native American spirituality I encountered in Oklahoma; the Wiccan, Voodoo, and pagan rituals I joined in New Orleans. A friend once called me a “ritual junkie,” and she was right: I am as moved by the Catholic Mass as by the Muslim call to prayer; I sense the sacred in a sweat lodge as much as at the Seder table.
But most of all, I have been drawn to the Goddess, particularly as She has been celebrated by Carol P. Christ.
Participating in the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in 1997 connected me with Her, and I have felt Her presence ever since. Yet for many years I feared that the path of the Goddess and the path of yoga conflicted. Although hatha yoga focuses on the body, the ultimate goal of yoga, as I understood it, seemed to be a removal from our earthly lives into the transcendent realm of disembodied spirit. How could I reconcile that with a Goddess spirituality emphasizing that the Divine is immanent in the body and the earth?
I could not fathom how to join the two strands of my practice. Was I digging too many wells? Would I never find water?
During this retreat I have come to believe that there is no conflict, for the Goddess and yoga, as I now understand it, are one. In her most recent book, co-authored with Judith Plaskow, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, Carol Christ defines the Goddess as “the intelligent embodied love in all being.” One of my dearest friends and teachers at the ashram tells me “it’s all about the Mother,” and reminds me that Shakti, the primordial cosmic energy that manifests as all creation, is feminine in Hindu philosophy. The bird, the trees, the river, my companions, my body, my Self–all Shakti, all love.
Turns out I’ve been digging one well all along, albeit adorned with a shimmering mosaic of multiple traditions. My tool is my yoga practice, but the bucket I dip, the water I drink, is the Goddess.
Om shanti! Blessed be.
Joyce Zonana is the author of a memoir, Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, An Exile’s Journey. After participating in the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in 1997, she served for a time as Co-Director of the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual. She lives in Brooklyn where she teaches yoga at Yoga in Bay Ridge, and is currently completing a translation of Henri Bosco’s Malicroix.