It was late last year during a yoga and painting session held by Blank Canvas at Seven Wellness Center in Abu Dhabi.
I was calm and floaty from the yoga and the art, feeling centered and not minding that my painting was, admittedly, hideous. “I’m going to give it to my brother for Christmas,” I joked, to the half-dozen other people gathered around sisters and Blank Canvas founders Christina and Tanya Awad.
Then the woman across from me showed hers. She explained how she’d used both hands to paint it. As she stared at it, she realized how dark it was, and started to cry. We all just sat there, being with her. And I finally understood what it meant when people “hold space.”
There were both men and women in this particular circle, and it felt welcoming and cathartic at the same time. I had never experienced anything like it. I’d love more.
Historically, women’s circles were gatherings of women for women. Traditionally, the gatherings might coincide with the appearance of a new or full moon, acknowledging the link between the lunar cycle and the female menstrual cycle and the moon’s association with female power. They have been around since ancient times, but even before Covid-19 there was a dramatic resurgence in this time-honored practice around the world. And circles don’t have to be dedicated to just talking: the same camaraderie and openness can be felt when women are knitting, sewing, cooking or working out together, too.
The actress Jennifer Aniston has talked about the power of the practice, saying she’s been gathering the same group of friends together for a “goddess circle” before major life events for the last three decades.
Michaela Boehm explains what happens in her 2018 book The Wild Woman’s Way: “Sisterhood is not an assumed bond enforced through ideology. It is a living, breathing, always changing organism with its own innate genius. Gathering to allow a relaxed and undemanding space in which this genius can unfold is one way to address the challenges we face. The activity, however mundane, is just a portal through which we enter the deep magic of communion.”
In the UAE, circles have been held at a variety of locations. There are Facebook groups and Instagram accounts dedicated to these events. From Abu Dhabi to Dubai, platforms like Inner Seed and Magic of Being are creating hubs for women who want self care that goes beyond bath salts and face masks.
Between six to 10 women attend the regular circles held at Magic of Being in Dubai.
“Women need more safe and supportive spaces to turn to when things get tough, or when you are in need of soul searching,” said Sandy Ramzy, creative director.
“Women’s circles have an incredible healing powers,” said the 25-year-old, who was born in Egypt but grew up in Dubai. “The city functions at such a masculine wavelength that when women come together and intentionally sit down within their divine femininity, it feels like a total reset. Being around all these women is an inspiration in itself.”
Magic of Being began three years ago when 36-year-old Emirati-American Aseya Atiq Nasib was wheelchair-bound for a few months because of an injured ankle, and hooked up with Sandy.
“When we began transforming our own lives, we felt like we were in on some big secret and we wanted to share that we everyone,” said Nasib.
Circles begin with everyone introducing themselves before a quick grounding and cleansing ritual. The theme of the circle is introduced, followed by a catch-up on how everyone is doing. While sharing is not at all mandatory, the circle offers a supportive, non-judgmental setting for those who choose to, said Nasib.
There are suggestions for journal-writing on the circle’s theme, followed by meditation, breath work — all of which are evidence-based wellness practices, she pointed out — and a closing ritual.
“Women are transformed not only by the powerful energy of sitting in a circle with other women, but also by being given the opportunity to share, release, or even brag about something they’ve done, said Nasib. “As women, we are taught to minimize both our pain and our achievements and even our discomfort. Sitting in a sacred circle allows us to open up in ways that we normally wouldn’t be able to. One of the things I love most about our circles is that women can come in as total strangers, but leave feeling incredibly connected to each other and each other’s stories. A lot of women cry, because it can be overwhelming. Even I sometimes cry while facilitating. It’s such a magical thing to witness and I’m very honored to be a part of it.”
The approach is inclusive, with no preconditions or requirements. No cultural insensitivity or prescriptive demands, either.
“It’s really important to respect, honor and acknowledge where these tools came from, within and outside our culture,” said Nasib. “We don’t say you have to do this or that. We would never force someone to sit in a tent for 10 days and meditate. It’s not about using techniques to change your life in a day. It’s about opening your eyes to things that could be beneficial to one person but might not be beneficial to another.”
But the idea of a healing circle isn’t just limited to women. Rick Liddle, an American ex-military helicopter crew chief who spent three years in Iraq, is also a yoga teacher who started holding men’s circles at Open Circle Yoga in Abu Dhabi earlier this year. The work is an extension of his involvement with the Anyman movement chapter in Dubai.
Liddle knows that the idea of circles is to create a safe space for women. But he says men — trained for so long not to talk about what is bothering them — need that too. And anyone who says they don’t just prove that point further.
“The goal is to bring men together to bring a sense of community where men can open up about anything that’s going on in their lives, so we can have that sense of community, that brotherhood, without a pint in their hands, without feeling judged, that sort of thing,” he said.
Between six and 10 men come to each weekly circle. “We’ve got every nationality, every sexual identification. We’ve got local men, we’ve got everyone, European, Indian — anything you can think of, a wide mix,” said Liddle.
The goal is to focus on identifying emotions, sitting with them, not projecting them onto others — just generally building emotional intelligence and awareness.
“Where are men getting that? We’re not getting that anywhere,” said Liddle. “We’re allowed to be angry and happy and generally in society we’ve got to be tough guys and all this stuff. We’ve got issues just like women. We’ve all been affected by family, by trauma issues by lots and lots of things and this is a place where we work on that stuff.”
Liddle is planning to hold retreats that both men and women can attend, each with their own circles. For now, he has therapists on call if more serious issues arise, but generally the non-judgmental power of the circle is enough for the men who attend.
“Sometimes it just helps to open up and say things,” he said. “Sometimes you need to say things out loud. And many things that are said in this group are said for the first time, since guys were five or six years old. The therapy in that is priceless.”
• With files from Georgie Bradley
Ann Marie McQueen
Ann Marie McQueen is the founding editor-in-chief of Livehealthy and host of The Livehealthy Podcast. She is a veteran Canadian digital journalist who has worked in North America and the Middle East. Her past roles include features editor for The National, trends writer and columnist for the Canadian newspaper chain Sun Media, and correspondent for CBC Radio.