Spiritual self-development has been having a moment. Earlier this year, Roxie Nafousi spearheaded a trend for manifesting, when her hugely popular book Manifest took the wellness world by a storm (even Bella Hadid’s a fan). Now the buzzy new phenomemon taking the mantle is women’s circles — and if you’re not in one, you’re way behind on your spiritual maintenance.
Though nothing new — circling is an ancient ritual that has been practised by women across cultures and religions for thousands of years — it’s having a post-pandemic resurgence as many of us look to reconnect with each other on a deeper level, according to Anoushka Florence, founder of the @thegoddessspace and author of new book The Women’s Circle.
A-listers are in on it too. Jennifer Aniston has revealed that she’s sworn by goddess circles for the past three decades, partaking in the ritual ahead of major life events — such as her weddings to Brad Pitt and Justin Theroux, and to mark her 50th birthday. In practice, this means women sitting around, usually cross-legged, on the floor, in (as you might expect) a circle. Each circle has its own vibe, though cushions, throws, candles and crystals are generally encouraged (natch). Some are groups of friends while others are formed by complete strangers. Florence’s are focused on specific rites of passage, from birthdays to bridal or menopausal blessings whereas others are just a place to show up, be seen and heard.
A host will steer the session and there’s usually some sage burning to cleanse away negative energy — Aniston’s involve a feather-adorned talking stick. Proponents say that creating a dedicated space for your circle (rather than doing it down the pub — though arguably four vodka tonics is the perfect lubricant for any spiritual journey) helps to set the intention, whether you’re manifesting your hopes and dreams or simply want to speak freely about something that’s going on in your life.
Early records suggest circles would provide a supportive space for women during menstruation “to rest, disconnect from responsibilities, recharge and replenish,” says Florence. She began hosting circles for her friends and family at her flat in Little Venice in 2015.
“I’m Jewish and was brought up quite religiously and was searching for the feminine in my culture. I started connecting to Jewish mysticism and then spirituality,” she says. “When I first started, people thought I was starting a cult, you know sacrificing people in my living room!” As you might expect, things quickly took off and since then, Florence has hosted hundreds of circles and taught more than 1,500 women how to host their own.
There is lots of talk of “holding space” and “reconnecting”, which may sound cliché to some, but there is one rule of a women’s circle that is particularly refreshing. “As women, we’ve forgotten how to really be there for each other, we’ve been taught that the only way we can serve or help is by trying to ‘fix’ someone else’s problem. So when you have a conversation with a friend who is telling you their problems, we try to solve it for her, give her advice,” Florence says. A circle meeting is an opportunity to practise doing the opposite.
No, this doesn’t mean actively sabotaging your circle of friends (although, after four vodka tonics that might seem tempting). “Unlike any other form of coming together, it’s not conversational,” explains Gemma Brady, a documentary filmmaker and founder of Sister Stories. “Someone in the circle might share something incredibly powerful, but one of the guidelines of the group is that no one can respond. It’s really empowering because we’re creating an environment where we are liberated from all of the things we have to do normally in society like receiving advice we don’t want, and instead just being able to focus on speaking truthfully and being a really generous listener.”
Brady observed the cathartic effect sharing stories can have on the person sharing and those listening through her work, so opened up her Islington home to women five years ago. Now she’s on a mission to make women’s circles “as common as going to a yoga class” and says she is seeing more and more people who are just “dipping their toe into spirituality.”
Her circles provide an opportunity to talk about anything you want. “People often assume it’s all really heavy stuff, and there are some really deep emotional stories, but there’s real scope for joy and laughter too.” As well as learning to listen, it is also a great leveller, she says. “We imagine that everyone else has these perfect lives, but from sitting in a circle we find that everyone has a story that’s complex and is carrying so much more than you see on the surface.”
Leneth Witte, aka Dutch podcast host The Spiritual Feminist (@thespiritualfem), adds: “We’re so conditioned to believe that our pain doesn’t have a place at the table, that we need to be happy or find a quick fix solution, and we all think we’re alone in our problems.” The beauty of a women’s circle is also that there is no hierarchy. “I’ve had women ranging from 18 to 60 join me, and the 60-year-old will tell a story which makes the 18-year-old start crying and it’s only because we’re all there attentively listening that we find that resonance.”
Circle rituals can have a positive impact on friendships too, should you wish to gather with people you know. “The girlbossification of being a woman has led to this narrative of either competing with each other or comparing ourselves to each other,’” says Giselle La Pompe-Moore, spiritual guide, teacher and author. “These circles allow us to come as we are and just ‘be’. It’s an opportunity for us to get to know ourselves on a deeper level, but to also have compassion, empathy and connection not only for the women in the circle with us, but all people that exist outside of the circle.” There’s something about the environment change that is powerful, too. “This ritualised way of gathering slows everyone down, and you’re more likely to share things that you just wouldn’t otherwise.” adds Brady.
Still unsure what to expect from a circle? “Think of it as a place where the space to be yourself creates a lake,” says Sushma Sagar, author and founder of healing practice @thecalmery. “It’s so still, that the answers you seek will be reflected back to you like a mirror.” Looking inward is something many are doing more of right now as we try to navigate the post-pandemic world and anxiety-inducing news cycle that surrounds us. In her recent book, Take It In, La Pompe-Moore teaches practices for everyday spirituality. Why bother getting in touch with your spiritual side? “Spirituality gives us the opportunity to self-inquire and connect back to who we really are, instead of who the world has told us women should be,” she says. “ It provides solace and community during a time when we are still facing misogyny and comparing ourselves to beauty standards. It isn’t about seeking enlightenment or escaping reality, it’s a tool for making our way through tricky times and finding moments of joy, connection and meaning alongside them.” I’m starting to think Jen’s onto something.
The Women’s Circle: How to Gather with Meaning, Intention and Purpose by Anoushka Florence (£16.99, Hardie Grant Books)
Anoushka Florence’s Goddess Space ritual basket
Any type of tablecloth, piece of lace or fabric that you have. Lay this down in the middle of the circle and use it as the intentional space on which to build your altar.
Typically a smudge stick, Palo Santo, incense or a tree resin. Weaving them into our spaces is a powerful way to remind us of our innate connection to nature. I use my cleansing tools in every gathering to cleanse the energetic space and close it. Buy responsibly from sustainable sources,or try to forage your own. I now grow sage, rosemary and lavender in my garden to create my own smudge sticks.
Candles and matches
I like to keep a ‘mother’ candle in my basket, typically a pillar candle that I light first and then use to light any tea lights. I like to think of the mother candle as the light that holds us, transforms us and contains us during our gatherings. I also ensure I have smaller candles to dot around the space, and a big pack of matches.
Crystals have the capacity to bring so much healing, magic and support into your circle. Gather specific crystals that will aid and support the intention behind your circle for crystals have the power to hold, expand and amplify the essence of your space in their very vibration.