Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
Growing up, I first became curious about witches on frequent visits to a metaphysical shop just a few miles from my home in upstate New York. Small and inconspicuous, it was tucked away in a typical semi-rural strip mall along with a convenience store. I often drove there after high school to tumble down the rabbit hole of interdisciplinary healing. I took in the sounds of singing bowls and wind chimes, the smells of incense, and devoured books on everything from the Yoga Sutras to meditation guides to tomes on astrology, plant medicine, and witchcraft.
Back home, I spread my treasures out on my bedroom’s green carpet in front of my two girl cousins. And we explored the different traditions gleaned from that bookstore’s shelves. Together we chanted mantras and intoned spells to call in self-love. We learned about the chakras and wore colors that corresponded with the energy of each. We tied quartz crystals to six-inch pieces of yarn and gave each other “energy readings.” We learned that we could consider and call upon our ancestors for support. All these techniques were gleaned from the different traditions found on that bookstore’s shelves. It was a multi-faith, self-study exploration.
We were building an altar to our budding spirituality. We were celebrating the mysteries of the world, seeking meaning and agency against the rising tumult of adolescence. And, as girls growing up in a world of patriarchy and other damaging power structures, we were claiming connection to our own power before we lost it.
In her memoir, Initiated: Memoir of a Witch, Amanda Yates Garcia, aka the Oracle of LA, calls attention to this seeking and questioning. “Left to their own devices, most teenage girls are natural witches.” That certainly sounded like us.
By the time I was an adult, I’d turned instead toward yoga. There I also found rituals and refuges, ways to connect to spirituality and feel strong not just in spirit but in body and mind. I found in yoga a home. But before yoga claimed me, there was a time when I explored the path of a witch.
When did everybody become a witch?
A casual social media scroll conjures a world of healing, yoga and, alongside this, witches. The hashtag #witchesofinstagram currently has more than nine million posts on Instagram and #witchtok has more than 80 billion views on TikTok. Suddenly there are witches everywhere, sharing financial advice, offering workshops on self-empowerment, leading others in activism, offering poetry. Even The New York Times has inquired, “When Did Everybody Become a Witch?”
Of course, witchcraft is nothing novel. Historically, witches were typically women who had been accused of dealing in “dark arts.” In medieval and early modern Europe as well as the colonies across the Atlantic, witch hunts and witch trials led to the persecution and punishment of thousands of women accused of witchcraft. Many of the accused were later confirmed to be simply midwives, healers, and spiritual practitioners working outside of organized religion. In many cases, the term “witch” was applied to any woman who chose an alternative path or practiced earth-based spiritual practices.
The contemporary witch community is diverse and vibrant: there are Latinx brujas and Ukrainian witches and witches born into lineages of mothers and grandmothers who cast spells. There is a recognition of witch traditions in almost all cultures. Today a witch can be someone of any gender and includes practitioners of all stripes. There’s the Hoodwitch, a BlackMexican woman whose Instagram promises “everyday magic for the modern mystic,” and Edgar Fabian Frias, a nonbinary indigenous Mexican-American visual artist who offers educational and inspirational video talks.
“Witch” might be a moniker for any empowered woman, or a man, or a nonbinary practitioner who taps into their feminine power, and wants to channel that power as a healing force in the world. That may be one reason why we’re seeing more people identify as witches lately.
Contrary to what many books and the big screen would lead us to believe, a witch is quite often someone working to shift power toward the benevolent, often challenging the status quo–and those benefiting from it. For eons, witches have often been the ones rallying against oppressive systems, including the patriarchy. When inherited structures of power and meaning aren’t working, there’s a longing for different ones.
“The witch is the ultimate feminist icon because she is a fully rounded symbol of female oppression and liberation,” writes Pam Grossman in Waking the Witch: Reflections on Women, Magic and Power. “The fact that the resurgence of feminism and the popularity of the witch are ascending at the same time is no coincidence…The two are reflections of each other.” Grossman suggests the way we react to witches may say something about how we react to feminine power. “Show me your witches, and I’ll show you your feelings about women,” she says.
Another answer to “why now” may be under our feet. “Witches, like those drawn to yoga, prioritize an individual’s connection to intuition and the Earth,” says Laura Amazzone, an author, teacher, and scholar specializing in the Goddess traditions. “As Mother Earth struggles, we feel renewed urgency in our very cells to help rebalance the harmony needed in nature because we are part of it.”
Different techniques, same intention
In her book Yoga for Witches, author Sarah Robinson explores the relationship between these seemingly different, but in some ways similar, practice paths. “Yoga is an embodied spiritual practice—a kind of ritual,” writes Robinson. “Witchcraft…is a spiritual practice that involves intention and focus, but also a practice of creation and connection to spiritual and natural realms and cycles.”
“Both yoginis and witches honor unseen energies,” says Laura Amazzone, author, teacher and scholar specializing in the Goddess traditions. I consider the way yoga practices engage the “energetic body,” modulating prana through breathwork, postures, meditations, and intentions. And if we look to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, we read about siddhis, defined as mystical powers that are increased through practice, including clairvoyance and mind-body control. This feels like another word for “magic.”
Of course there’s an “everyday magic” to yoga practice as well. To direct energy in yoga, a practitioner might work with postures and breathwork but also mantras, essentially repeated words or phrases that help center and focus the mind. “With a mantra you use words to craft, shape, dispel, and repel— much like what people think of as a witch’s spell,” Amazzone says.
The interdisciplinary dialogue between the witch and yoga practitioner draws on intention, voice, embodiment, the hope of healing, and resistance to systems of harm. It’s a call for a similar way of being and living.
At the beginning of the pandemic—feeling overwhelmed, isolated and watching my local yoga studios close—I searched online for healing communities. After happening upon several virtual events led by self-described witches, I signed up for a full Moon ritual on Zoom. I entered the virtual space to find a sold-out community of diverse participants from across the world. The leader began by setting an intention for sacred space, known as casting circle. She then led a talk about grounding ourselves through connection with nature and the rhythm of the seasons before she took us into meditation.
I was reminded of the way a yoga teacher might set an intention or work with mantras to open the practice or shift energy. I considered how, in yoga, a teacher might acknowledge our place in the natural world through a grounding meditation or explanation of the current phase of the Moon. And at the end, when the head of the witch circle asked us to banish what no longer served us, I thought of how many times I’d been in a yoga class in which a teacher asked us to release what we no longer needed as we exhaled.
The techniques were different from what I had experienced in yoga, but for me, it seemed that both practices offered a connection to empowerment within.
Beyond the physical postures, breathwork, and meditation, so much of yoga is invisible and energetic. A yoga practitioner is usually someone with concern for the wellness of the planet and the self in it, with a desire to live a life of service and intention by considering how they can move both into and beyond the body to be in harmony with—and of help to—others.
Investigating this crossroads has reminded me of what I intuitively felt as a teen—that I hold a sacred power in my mind and body, connected to nature and to others, that doesn’t need an intermediary like a guru to experience. Teachers are guides. The true guru is within. This reminder is especially potent given the stories of abuse that have arisen in recent years within several yoga traditions.
Learning more about the witch has brought more empowerment into my life as a yoga practitioner. I recently found a sangha of female-identifying yoga practitioners to meet with regularly. Thanks to them, I’ve been reminded to trust my intuition and question power structures that I’d previously—and unconsciously—bought into despite my best intentions. I feel a renewed sense of my own practice along the path of yoga, my own seeking. We are not a group of witches but perhaps we share something of a similar power.
After all, neither a witch nor a yogi is afraid to peer into the dark.
About our contributor
Sarah Herrington is a writer, poet, and teacher. She is the founder of OM Schooled kids yoga teacher trainings and Mindful Writing Workshops.