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.
16 thoughts on “Digging My Well by Joyce Zonana”
Beautifully written and profound, Joyce.
When studying Hinduism a few years back, I came to the conclusion that there are renunciate strands and life-affiming strands all mixed up together. The life-affirming strands probably stem from earlier Goddess traditions of the Neolithic, and the renunciation strands from the Indo-European Brahmins. But the life-affirming strands have been patriarchalized (the good wife) and even the village traditions have been permeated by renuciation.
I think this is probably true of all the patriarchal religions.
Moreover, if women are transforming yoga or some interpretations or forms of yoga from being body-escaping to body-affirming, well, I say: more power to us!
Thanks Carol. What you write makes so much sense. Patriarchy has a way of distorting the most beautiful things! More power to us as we find the way back (or forward)!
Thank you for this rich post, Joyce. We (humans) it seems have always looked for wholeness, having a sense that somehow we are fractured. The variety of religious traditions in the world point us toward “salvation,” “emptiness,” “nirvana,” “oneness,” something that ultimately promises to give us peace. One of my colleagues tells me to “embrace it all, it’s yours” when I pour out a experiential story of distress or woe. It’s always healing to think in terms of embracing everything that happens “in the body” and not look for ways to bypass all that happens to us–embodied creatures that we are. Agree with you regarding yoga practice. I find it to be a great way to help unify what often is referred to as “mind and body.” In my experience, yoga pushes me gently towards wholeness. Your description and explanation of the practice are quite apt.
Thanks for your response, Esther. Yoga is indeed the experience of wholeness! And from my understanding of the teachings, the “peace” we seek is already within ourselves.
I don’t really know much about yoga, but your experience sounds wonderful. Thanks for sharing it with us. Are you going to go there again? How often?
I go there all the time! — or, at least, several times a year–for retreats, workshops, just to hang out. It’s a very lovely place in all seasons.
I love the title “digging my well.” So beautiful in the context you’ve used it, thanks Joyce Zonana.
We do yoga and various forms of meditation, zazen too is fabulous in its ability to lift us beyond all woes. But if you do crafts or make art of any kind, you can lose yourself in it, in the same way, and reach moments of great joy. I came across a self-portrait recently by Mary Cassatt, and that I had never seen before, and that she had painted in 1880. It sort of mesmerized me, so profound and full of sensitivity and enlightened being. I had tears in my eyes looking at it. I put the painting on my website (near the bottom of the page), if anyone is interested, an amazingly sensitive work of art. And it’s Cassatt painting herself all by herself, all on her own. Absolutely wonderful.
I love Mary Cassatt’s work and will seek out that portrait. Thank you. Yes, the creative process is precisely parallel to the “work” of yoga and meditation. Blessings, Joyce.
Wonderful, Joyce. And perfect timing for me to read, as I have just emerged from a 2 week retreat. Ah, the wisdom and and beauty and reverence in the silence!
Thanks so much Donna! Yes, silence is absolutely precious. I could live in it always, I think. (But . . . also looking forward to seeing you soon and talking!) – Joyce
Beautiful post! Is it the Satyananda Yoga lineage the one you practice in? My wonderful local yoga teacher is from that lineage. I’ve never experienced such blissful yoga classes!
Relating to what Carol was saying above, some modern feminists, such as Laura Amazzone and Uma Dinsmore-Tulli, are reclaiming the matriarchal roots of Indian Goddess culture.
And what a beautiful insight that you were digging the same well all along. Perhaps all of us as spiritual feminists are digging a beautiful, welcoming well where others might find refuge. I bow to you and Carol and everyone who helped weave this beautiful pattern. Om shanti, shanti.
Thank you so much for your beautiful comment Mary. Yes, it’s the Satchidananda (Integral Yoga) lineage, which goes back to Swami Sivananda . . . bliss is indeed the heart of it all. And I bow also to you, and look forward to reading your books. Please do greet your yoga teacher for me!