One of my yoga students approached me after class. She wanted to discuss a scene from a book I’d leant her.


“You know how the author is teaching a yoga class, and one of his students breaks down crying and he cradles her head in his hands and acts as her witness? And then he shows her how to be her own witness?”


I nodded.


“Well I was wondering if you could that for me?”


Sure. No problem.



Have I mentioned I became a yoga teacher because it gave me the chance to help others at an appropriate distance? While yoga teaching by its nature involves a certain amount of spiritual advice, it’s not usually intimate to that degree.


Luckily, she was actually looking for long distance witnessing. We worked out a routine where I would “hold space” for her on certain days, checking in via text or email on how she was dealing with challenging emotions through meditation and yoga. 


In our talks, I started to introduce the imagery of the circle as a safe and neutral place from which to witness the fiery emotions at the centre. I talked about the circles —the great rounds of earth and sky—that hold us in their spacious embrace. I suggested we meditate on such imagery each morning, “setting up the circle” and remembering its presence throughout the day.


It wasn’t long before I started talking about “casting the circle,” and then using my meditation time to do just that: build an energetic structure that I imagined stretching out to hold her and reinforce her own ability to stay present amidst the storms of life. I cast, called the elements, and even invoked what I thought of as “the deities of witnessing” to hold the circle strong for my student. 


It was stealth paganism in the name of yoga, with a dash of Buddhism thrown in for good measure. I had found one of those sweet spots where all my practices met and reinforced one another.


In yoga and Buddhism, the Witness is that deep awareness that is without judgment, fear or desire. Finding this place of awareness within allows pure observation, a gaze from which nothing need be hidden or pushed away. It makes room for an expansive compassion that acknowledges our own and others’ suffering and the connection between all beings. It was because Buddha was “sitting in the place of the witness” that he could disarm his tempter Mara simply by saying, “I see you.” If we see clearly and completely, we see that our attackers are suffering, and their actions are more about them than us.


In Paganism, the Witness takes form as deity, the embodiment of transcendent awareness. We are witnessed by grand gods like Odin and Zeus, but also more intimately by watchers and go-betweens like Hermes, Agni and Heimdall. They are neutral observers, reporters rather rulers. Yet that neutrality is their own particular strength: with no agenda, no ax to grind, these figures can slip between the major plot lines of myth to play pivotal roles. Heimdall warns the world of the final battle, Agni carries everyone’s prayers to the gods, and Hermes both rescues Persephone from the underworld and guides the dying on their way. Like the angels of the Bible he is winged, and like them, he is free of the burden of judgment carried by mightier beings.


I think this witnessing role may mean more to us than we realize. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” God says in Jeremiah. “I have been with you from the beginning,” says the Goddess. Isn’t this our deepest desire, to be seen and known to the core? To have the deceptive outer coating of our conditioned habits seen through to the quivering, vulnerable, and ultimately innocent inner self that begs to be acknowledged? 


I think we desire to be seen even more than to be saved. Perhaps to be seen IS to be saved. 


Prayer, meditation, casting the circle and sitting in its embrace—there are many ways to connect with the Witness, however we conceive it. If we strip away the layers to get down to our naked, needy self, if we stand in that place, we will see — and we will be seen. In the light of that gaze, we may come to know ourselves, perhaps for the very first time.