Women, Spirituality and Yoga

Sannyasi Divyadrishti (Inge Friedrich-Rust), Germany

An international yoga conference calling women from all corners of Europe and beyond together to explore issues related to the life cycle of women has been in the making since 1997. Its spiritual mother, Sannyasi Amarajyoti from the UK, had the vision of a gathering in an olive grove on the isle of Lesbos, Greece. As fate or karma had it, for various reasons that meeting did not materialize then and there.

Swami Niranjan's suggestion to focus on Eastern Europe infused new life into the networking activities across the European continent and culminated in an inspiring conference under the banner of 'Women, Spirituality and Yoga' in June 2001, in a place right at the edge of Western and former communist Europe, the Cistercian convent St. Marienthal.

Being a 13th century convent with a nearly 900-year-old unbroken spiritual tradition of Ora et labora (prayer and work), reminiscent of ashram culture, this place was ideally suited to the occasion. Its location at the three-country corner of Germany, Poland and Czech Republic amidst a natural reserve at the river Neisse, the architectural beauty of the baroque buildings, the purely ecological energy supply and last but not least the five sessions of daily prayers, chanting or religious ceremonies in the convent chapel all contributed to the success of the conference.

“I am very happy to be here with you, the elite of European women, women with open hearts for spirituality.” These were the opening words of Swami Shrutigyana from Bulgaria to 90 yogic-minded women who had assembled there. Spirituality not tied to any religion or school of thought was the common thread bringing women together from 22 countries, from a wide variety of religious and professional backgrounds and from three generations – women coming together to explore the role of spirituality and yoga in their lives, in society and in professional fields such as medicine, psychology and education.

An impressive array of professional competencies had assembled – noteworthy was the multiple training and work experiences of many women, ranging from cook to pilot, from mother to physician, from yoga teacher to economist, from therapist to educationalist, to name but a few. The quality of the workshops and events offered was correspondingly high and marked by high standards of professionalism coupled with that spirit of lightness and trust which facilitated the exploration of sensitive issues (such as trauma and sexuality) as well as generating that – often neglected – energy for the quest of which many women had come together.

Men and women alike must appreciate womanhood. Quoting Swami Vivekananda, a staunch supporter of women as is Paramahamsa Satyananda, without her society is at loss, morality declines and countries which do not give due respect to women do not prosper, continued Swami Shrutigyana. It comes as no surprise that Satyananda Yoga, which is the spiritual home of the organizers of the event and of a large number of the participants, has one of its roots in the tantric philosophy which gives prime importance to the feminine creative force (Shakti). To awaken this feminine creative energy and channel it into constructive, creative potential for the benefit of all is an aim of yoga.

In this line of thought Swami Sivamurti from Greece, lecturing on 'Shakti – the Feminine Energy', pointed to the great responsibility of women for today's world: “The loss of the feminine energies of caring and compassion have led to a neglect of our world and its natural resources and mother earth is today in a precarious position of neglect, decay and pollution. However, it is also a time of great responsibility for all women. We are responsible for the manifestation of the feminine in the world. It is up to us to express the feminine qualities in the fields of life where we work and interact with others.”

This was, in fact, the gist of the conference, the rationale for women coming together in Marienthal: to acknowledge and re-claim their wholeness and full energy, to support each other in the quest of maintaining their dignity and moral strength, to bring head and hands together in the service of the heart, and to express this concerted energy with love and compassion in society.

There were workshops to get in touch with the inner source of power and energy – workshops to unfold the inner strength through practices from various branches of yoga; workshops to get to know one's inner psychic forces by inviting a 'conference of goddesses' (the seven goddesses from the Greek pantheon) and having them interact in the inner space for the solution of life's problems; therapeutic work by means of the transformation process as symbolized by the archetypal figure of Mary Magdalene; there was psychotherapy for eating disorders and depression through the practices of yoga, and dream analysis and workshops on ayurveda, to name but a few. A highly inspiring talk by the prioress of the Cistercian convent about spirituality in their order brought home the universal validity of principles of spiritual life regardless of culture and religion.

A panel discussion highlighting the different life situations and issues confronting women from countries as far apart as Sweden and Bulgaria, the UK and Yugoslavia, Germany, Bosnia and Herzegovina, revealed a richness of cultural diversity and at the same time inherent strength, optimism and a stunning array of competencies in all the women present.

Daily yoga classes centred around specific themes such as self-worth, leadership qualities, menstrual cycle, fitness, relaxation, balance and peace. Satyananda Yoga was taught as well as yoga from other traditions. Yoga nidra and antar mouna were taught by Swami Prakashananda from Germany.

Yoga practices brought about a heightened state of awareness, balance and an atmosphere of openness and lightness which allowed the participants to face difficult issues together as well as joyous ones. There was a deeply moving workshop on the trauma experienced by women in the Bosnian war, and Croatian writer Lydia Scheurmann Hodak read from her book 'Marija's Pictures' about a deeply touching mother-daughter relationship in the face of violation. There were practical workshops addressing issues of the menstrual cycle and menopause by naturopath Swami Bhaktipoornananda, of sexuality by Luisa Neag and Marilena Gilca from Romania, feminine leadership style by Hanna Kazda from Germany, pregnancy and mother-baby yoga by Jignasu Arpanvidya from Kazakhstan, in the face of atomic pollution, and by Uma Dinsmore-Tuly from the UK.

Slovakian educationalists Klara Hodnicova and Monika Petrikova reported on a wonderful 'Peace School' project for children from nursery school onward. Children are encouraged to regard the natural environment and fellow human beings alike with eyes of wonder and love by means of games, sending 'love letters' to birds, trees and classmates. Internationally renowned educationalist Swami Yogabhakti from France surpassed herself in giving two workshops and a brilliant flamenco performance which put many youngsters to shame.

A number of workshops worked therapeutically with the voice, healing sound and dance. Song, dance and ceremonies were also the means to create an atmosphere of lightness and joy, the spice giving the gathering the full flavour of openness and trust and watering the seeds of honest self-exploration and budding friendships across borders. Contemporary dancer, Sheela Raj, initiated all into Indian dance while Rev. Ursula Klein from the Independent Church of Australia led an Agape ceremony, a Christian ritual of love.

The spiritual side of yoga culminated in the project of the Durga Yantra (symbolic form of the Divine Mother) in the form of a sand mandala under the guidance of Swami Yogajyoti from France. Anyone who wished was free to join in the creation of the mandala to the recitation of the Durga Mantra. Delegates from the Cistercian convent paid homage to this symbolic image of the Divine Mother. The ritualized dissolution of the mandala by four women, representing the four heavenly directions, was an impressive documentation of the equal beauty of dissolution following creation, the important message of letting go.

Spontaneous workshops and classes happened indoors and outdoors and there was encouragement and opportunity for all to become actively involved, awakening inner resources and creative potentials. Yoga and spirituality is the force that empowers women to act creatively in society.

It was a multicultural event. The Eastern European women brought their song and dance, and as put succinctly by Sannyasi Bhagavati from Belgrade: “Women from the East are guided more by their heart while Western women are more under the sway of the intellect.”

Yoga is balance and to balance head, heart and hands for the benefit of all (wo)mankind, East and West need to come together and in concerted action need to express their best. This is why Network East-West has been inaugurated in St. Marienthal and will continue weaving its threads across Europe. A follow-up meeting will be held in Krakow, Poland, in the summer of 2002 and again in St. Marienthal in 2003.