St. Teresa of Ávila — A Consummate Karma Yogi

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By Tasha Friedman

“How do we make love to God? How does the soul make love to God?”

Today is the feast day of St. Teresa of Ávila, one of the most well-known and beloved Christian mystics, whose non-dual vision and burning devotion transcended any boundary of religion.

Teresa was born in 1515 in Ávila, Spain, to a noble family of Jewish origin. A difficult and rebellious child, she was sent to a convent boarding school as a teenager but only became a nun at what was for this period the ripe old age of twenty-one.

Her life story can offer encouragement to late bloomers and to those who feel their progress on the path is slow. She practiced with determination but few results for twelve years before encountering a text by St. Augustine that directed her to look for God within. A simple shift in perspective, but how much time do we all spend blundering through life until we’re ready to hear the one piece of advice that can change everything?

From here, she grew wings. She frequently entered profound states of absorption—even to the point where she stopped breathing and her body seemed lifeless for days—and experienced mystical visions.

Yet, she still kept her feet on the ground! St. Teresa was (for lack of an equivalent term in Christianity) a consummate Karma Yogi. She was a living model of integration, with her whole-hearted commitment equal to her deep inner practice and service to others: Martha and Mary working together, as she would say. She always emphasized that spiritual “favors” (peak experiences) should not be taken as experiences for the ego to enjoy. “We should desire and engage in prayer, not for our enjoyment, but for the sake of acquiring this strength which fits us for service.”

St. Teresa’s life’s work became the reform of the Carmelite Order, restoring it to a spirit of austerity and spiritual aspiration.

As an author and poet, St. Teresa is best known through her own words, which express the depth and beauty of her heart.

“I found completeness
when every breath began to silently say the name
of my Lord.”

Her spiritual teachings, particularly her most mature work, The Interior Castle, show the profound depth of her realization, as well as her remarkable capacity to describe a systematic path of deepening in prayer. Like any true teacher of non-duality, her work stands as a paradox: a scientific approach to the ineffable.

Equally fascinating is the way her method aligns with Classical Yoga. As a nun in 16th-century Spain, she certainly would not have encountered the teachings of Buddha or Patanjali, but it is abundantly clear they are speaking about the same Reality. Beyond any superficial differences in language—meditation or prayer, Christ or Atman, the devil or the ego—in her text, you can find descriptions of the same deepening from concentration into absorption, the withdrawal and sublimation of the senses, the same increasingly profound states of union as the individual self dissolves into the Absolute.

“Here it is like rain falling from the heavens into a river or a spring; there is nothing but water there, and it is impossible to divide or separate the water belonging to the river from that which fell from the heavens. Or it is as if a tiny streamlet enters the sea, from which it will find no way of separating itself, or as if in a room there were two large windows through which the light streamed in: it enters in different places, but it all becomes one.”

Teresa was not only a teacher with a clear and discerning vision. She was also an ecstatic poet whose words vibrate off the page. Her poems are alive with devotion, as well as with a freedom, humor, and eroticism that you might not expect from a medieval woman of the cloth.

“When my mouth touched His, I became invisible,
The way the earth would if the sun
took it into
its arms.
The ecstatic death I know. What can touch His exquisite form
is not anything that can
be seen.
How do we make love to God;
how does the soul make love
to God?”

Tasha is a Hridaya Yoga teacher and a frequent contributor to our blog. You can read all of her posts here.

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