About 5 years ago, I began a consistent yoga practice. Right around the same time, I started a PhD program in Women’s Spirituality at the California Institute of Integral Studies where I eventually wrote my dissertation on Women’s Spiritual Leadership. Throughout my studies, I realized that the path of the Divine Feminine is an intricate journey that accentuates the mind, body, soul connection. The yogic path does the same. In late 2018, I enrolled in an intensive 5-week 300-hour yoga teacher training in India where I continued my spiritual explorations. Hindu culture reveres the Divine Feminine and Divine Masculine and yoga is viewed as a pathway into God/dess through the body. Here’s the first part of the story…
I’m in India and it’s 5:30 a.m. and an hour of pranayama awaits me. The yogis define prana as the life force that animates the entire body and yama relates to discipline. The practice of pranayama consists of breathing techniques that aim to control the breath in order to connect to the life force that resides within. Accessing this life force can invoke feelings of bliss and a connection to the Divine.
Class starts, I’m officially starving, and I haven’t had enough coffee. We are instructed to inhale in segments—first in the lower abdomen, then the chest, and into the collar bones. At the end of the inhale, we retain our breath for 10 counts. At this point, I feel like a balloon; I am very uncomfortable and deeply confused about the meaning of it all. The exhalation begins—deflating the collar bones, the chest, and then lower belly. After the exhale, I have forgotten how to breathe normally and start gasping for air. Then it starts all over again. For an hour. And this is only one technique.
Pranayama ends and meditation class begins. By the time I get to meditation, I feel like I’ve already done my spiritual work for the day because I was just engaged in seven different breathing exercises and feel a bit high from it all.
“Forget the past. Ignore the future. Be here in the eternal present.”
Our teacher begins class with this mantra as we close our eyes and embark on the inward journey. Twelve minutes into the hour-long meditation, I want to crawl out of my skin and run back home and completely forget about spirituality and the never-ending process of evolving. I want my shallow breathing back; I want mundane thoughts—no more processing and unraveling. I’m done with trying to find God/dess within me. It’s just too arduous. Thirty-three minutes later, I’ve accepted that I’m a scared, worried, partially angry human and a divine spark of Brahman whose true eternal essence is love, beauty, peace, and joy. I may not be able to live in that essence all the time (because planet earth has her way of making you forget it), but it’s in there. Always. Even in your darkest hours, days, months, years.
“Slowly open your eyes and come back. Om Shanti. Om Shanti. Om Shanti. Om.”
I turn to the other students and we all look like we’ve been to peaks of mountains and depths of caverns.
It’s only 7:30 a.m.
Teaching methodology follows. It dawns on me that I’m immersed in an advanced teacher training and that I’ll be responsible for conveying what I’ve learned here. Self-doubt voice kicks in and screams that I’m in no way fit to be anybody’s teacher on anything. I whole-heartedly agree and wonder what the heck I’m doing in India. My methodology teachers are two women who remind me that after years of training, travelling, rising, and falling, they feel the same way and still show up.
8:30 a.m. and it’s time for physical yoga. Thank goddess. Because I need a break from the mind. I need to get into my body and have a different conversation. For an hour and a half, I’m moving from one posture to the next, finding elements of strength and grace, grit and surrender, in each movement I make. It reflects my inner world. Yoga gives her an outlet.
10 a.m. and it is finally time for breakfast and copious amounts of coffee while I overlook the Ganges River and silently pray and ponder and try to let (fears) go and try to let (love) in.
At noon my philosophy teacher reminds us that yogis use a multitude of ways to reconnect to the Divine already within them. They chant, they study, they employ self-discipline, they cleanse, they retreat into caves, they ecstatically dance, they make love, they abstain, they do warrior two, they make offerings, they surrender. The goal of it all is to remember the spark of Spirit that you’ve always been and always will be no matter the incarnations. There are many ways to Return to Love.
Eight hours and eight classes later, I’m in my room exhausted, but still feeling the prana working her magic. Day after day, I realize a few key points about the spiritual journey:
- The mind and breath are old time friends. If your breathing is shallow and short, your nervous system receives a message of reactivity and anxiety. Breathing more deeply gets you clearer and calmer. As one of my yogi teachers put it, the mind follows the breath.
- Meditation and contemplation—these are required courses in life school. Without the silence, you will be ruled by thoughts and feelings desperate to get your attention. These thoughts and feelings aren’t jerks or shameful intruders. They are parts of you that need to be witnessed and integrated into the loving, wise, compassionate soul within. You may need lots of quiet time (plus counseling and healing sessions). While this may seem daunting, it is curative. Repression and denial don’t lead to healing.
- Your body is the vessel that houses your inner god/dess. The body cannot be constantly neglected or sabotaged by unhealthy behaviors. It is tricky to connect to your inner divine when you physically feel like crap. Movement and healthy habits act as doorways into the soul.
- Our life experiences shape the mud and the lotus within us. While you can get lost in the mud, remember not to live there full-time. Let yourself beautifully bloom. You are worthy and good enough to do so.
Course in Miracles says that when you heal yourself, you heal the world. I remember reading that and quickly concluding that it didn’t make any sense. Yet, India helped me realize that wherever you go, there you are. You take yourself with you to new countries, relationships, jobs, the grocery store, the voting booth. What is within you will eventually come out in all facets of life. As you heal yourself, you are able to offer more love, healing, wisdom, and peace to the people and world around you. As others heal themselves, they can offer that to you and the world too.
Vanessa Soriano holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy and Religion and Women’s Spirituality from California Institute of Integral Studies and has trained as a yoga teacher in India. Her search for the Goddess is a search to connect mind, body, and soul.