Originally published on everup (February 2016)

It's not about mind-control, trances, or loss of consciousness. 


Have you ever wondered whether you had a past life? Whether you were a Russian tsar from the seventeenth century, or a courtesan during the Ming Dynasty? Don’t you sometimes experience an eerie déjà vu as you approach a place you have never been before (at least in this life) and think, Why is this so hauntingly familiar? A flicker of recognition, a sense of premonition sends your mind to another time.

While I’ve never had any vivid flashbacks about a past life, I found myself intrigued by a notice at a downtown Manhattan yoga studio for a workshop called “Past Life Regression – Through Yoga and Guided Meditation.” I enlisted my spiritually inclined but deeply centered friend Kate to join me, and we trundled in mid-winter twilight to the creaky second floor of the SoHo studio. About a dozen demographically diverse people sat on yoga mats while our instructors, Gro Engelstoft and Daniel Ryan, welcomed us to the two-and-half-hour session.

Gro, attired in loose white clothing, is a yoga instructor and karmic astrologer and has spent more than decade exploring soul-body-mind techniques. Her soft smile radiated warm energy as we settled down on our yoga mats. Daniel, more formal in bearing, calmly observed the group, then introduced himself. He told us that he is board certified in hypnotherapy and regression therapy. He began by explaining that memories of our past lives are deeply integrated within us and become available on a more conscious level under a state of hypnosis. In a modulated and scientific manner, he further told us that hypnosis is not about mind control, trances, or loss of consciousness, but rather a way to tap into our inner power and create a sense of wellbeing. It’s a way to free ourselves from unwanted habits and become more productive, creative, happy people.

“Every past life regression is a new window into the self, and into the present, and is unique to the person having the experience,” he said. “Some people discover the origins of phobias or fears, others explore their relationships. Most often the experience is relaxing, creative, and naturally restorative.”

It sounded like a wonderful adventure, though I questioned whether I was being sold a big basket of wishful thinking. Don’t we all want to believe that we carry deep wells of fascinating history in our DNA as we upcycle through our existence? I wasn’t sure where my hypnotic state would take me.  I was certain, however, that my friend Kate, a lithe and elegant Broadway choreographer, would discover that she had once been Salome.

The idea of past life regression is nothing new, but the 1980 publication ofMany Lives, Many Masters by Yale trained psychiatrist Brian L. Weiss brought it from the fringes into the mainstream. In his bestselling book, Weiss writes about one of his patients, a woman battling depression, anxiety and phobia, who began recalling past-life traumas in her therapy. He was totally skeptical until the patient offered private information she’d have no way of knowing about Weiss’s family and his dead son. The book has continued to fascinate readers, though the scientific community dismissed it as nothing more than the renderings of a mentally disturbed individual and a celebrity-loving doctor. (Daniel makes clear that though he believes that Many Lives was a groundbreaking work, his position personally and professionally is that he does not know what happens in the afterlife.)

I was curious as to whether any of Weiss’ theories would have a place in this setting.

To prepare for our mind journey, Gro led us through a series of gentle yoga poses punctuated with moments of sitting in silence. The once restless group followed along with relative ease. In a down dog, I checked out a few of my fellow time travelers: a thirty-ish goateed hipster, a pretty young woman with bouncy ringlets and a sleeve tattoo, a bespectacled bear of a man whose gracefulness belied his size—all breathing deeply, solemn, anticipating news from the past.

After about 45 minutes of yoga, Daniel told us we should sit comfortably, listen to sound of his voice and follow along as he guided us. His voice was soft but inflected with a commanding power. Things get a little fuzzy here, but my recollection is that Daniel instructed us to imagine ourselves entering a room or a hallway.

He counted down from ten, nine, eight … and told us to follow his prompts. At first I felt as if I were operating two minds: The rational one that rose above the woo-woo chatter and found this exercise literally beyond belief; and my second mind, which whispered to just go with it. Follow along. Believe in the process.

We were told to see or imagine passing through a doorway. What was on the other side was left to us, to our unconscious, perhaps our true past life. At this point, I did not feel entranced or in another world. I was still in this room, with these people, at that moment. But I did begin to let my imagination take hold. And this is what was on the other side of my doorway: I was a nun standing on a high green hill. It was a brilliant spring day, the breeze flicking my veil. At the bottom of the hill a stable and a nunnery with a large rusty lock summoned my attention. It was a familiar setting. There was another nun locked behind the door. I had the distinct feeling that I wanted to stay but I wanted to go, and I had to make a choice.  In my mind, this scene felt like a story I was telling myself as one would spin a fairy tale. The emotional sense of indecision, however, was more powerful and more real than the scene itself.

Daniel guided us out of the scene and brought us back to the present. Still there was no sharp contrast between my “story mind” and the moment we were called back to the second floor of a yoga studio. Gro asked us to share our experiences, and we went around the room. A woman in her twenties with short-cropped hair described how she was naked, covered in tar-like goo inside a cave under the sea; a man described being on a crowded beach with his grandfather and having a wonderful time; another person was traveling on a nineteenth century railroad train. My friend Kate reported that she neither saw nor heard nor imagined anything at all. She was simply resting.

I wondered whether Kate’s non-experience was unusual. Daniel explained later that everyone’s experience is different. “I would not say there are people who just ‘can’t’ do it. Though there is a broad spectrum of people who are more or less likely to experience a past lifetime. Oftentimes, too, something is mistaken for nothing. The conscious mind will dismiss the first breadcrumb that would have led somewhere if we had followed the trail.

As the rest of the participants revealed their experiences, I found myself feeling very compassionate toward them. In between their words and images, very human emotions seeped through—desire, fear, longing, regret and love. There were no tales of queens or knights, galley slaves or interplanetary travel. Initially I thought I would find the stories amusing, strange, laughable even, the by-product of overactive minds. That was not the case, especially as Gro listened to each person’s story and found them rich in symbolism and meaning. She assessed the objects and settings described as allegories for our present life. Her insightful responses seemed based more in therapeutic healing than any notion that we could literally see our past in living color.

When I told her my nun story, she said that the convent has traditionally been an allegory for escape. It is a place where women could retreat when the world overwhelmed them. The key and lock were further signs of being imprisoned and wanting to run from the demands of life. She struck a nerve. Or perhaps I had struck my own. My life at that moment was filled with many demands and frustrations—from childrearing, medical issues, professional setbacks, and a creative logjam. I was indeed the nun on the hill wondering whether to lock myself away or run away and risk it all. One could argue that this wasn’t my past life at all but my present one. What the workshop had accomplished for me was an understanding that I had to figure out how to clear the way into my future.