Event Recap: Space, Rituals, and Your Mind with Dr. Ioana Popa

Space Rituals and Your Mind webinar for IOCS

“A ritual is the highest form of habit” is one of Dr. Ioana Popa’s signature phrases. 

That is also how Dr. Ioana, a board-certified psychiatrist, trained spiritual director, and life coach, began her webinar, Space, Rituals and Your Mind: How to Support Sacred Habits Using Your Surroundings. The event, which Axia co-hosted for the first time with the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge, began with an excellent introduction by Dr. Elizabeth Theokritoff, who set the context of Orthodox women’s challenges and opportunities - particularly in the UK, where they are based. 

Dr. Popa then began to explore the difference between ritual and habit. “The goal,” she explained. “is for our body, heart, mind and soul to be aligned in wholeness and present in the now.” This emphasis on incarnational presence is what differentiates a ritual from a habit, which can be done without thinking - like brushing our teeth, or daydreaming in the shower. 

“We know from our theology that the kingdom of God is unfolding in the now, it’s not something outside of ourselves,” Dr. Popa explained. “So when we are involved in rituals, our mind is in the same space as our body, emotions, and spirit. We are aligned in wholeness. Our goal is to be constantly present and aware of what’s happening in our lives and embody what we do.”

As women, Dr. Popa pointed out, we often spend our days juggling many requests, problems, and needs. We want to have a community around us, and be part of helping and supporting others - but before we know it, we’re caught up in so many commitments that it’s hard to keep our rhythm. 

“If we drop our rituals, our prayer rules, or whatever we do for ourselves, we are going to start feeling a bit down,” she explains. “All of a sudden we get the inner critic chiming in, telling us we’re not the person that we want to be. That increases a lot of negative talk. Between the striving and trying to do as many things as possible, and the negative talk, all these consume energy and lead to chronic stress.” 

Dr. Popa speaks from experience, knowing first-hand that, as she says, “At the beginning, we might feel really good - like we’re keeping all those balls in the air. But we’re running on reserves. Eventually, we suddenly experience burnout.” 

What can women do to prevent this, or to recover from this reality? The good news is that our brains can help us, if only we learn how to set up our environment to cue us towards the habits and rituals that will bring this incarnational wholeness and peace. 

Dr. Popa reminded us that we have two “sides” of our brain: our logic (fast) brain, which can have ideas and intentions, and our subconscious (slow) brain, which controls our habits and automatic responses. The goal is to train our whole brain through rituals that bring us an awareness of God in the presence of our daily lives. 

A good question to ask when beginning this process is: What cues am I surrounded by? What am I drawn to? Dr. Popa encourages us to work with our natural rhythms and draws, not against them. By identifying or creating cues we already have in our environment, we can develop a sequence with whatever ritual we want to create. Many of these cues are visual, but they can also be tactile (such as wearing certain clothing), auditory (such as hearing certain music), or even scent (such as incense).  

During the event, participants took turns sharing the rituals they want to build, and what cues would help them build this. We were all reminded that when creating new goals, “Short is better than lofty.” A moment of connection with God, even just 30 seconds, adds up day after day, whereas lofty, unrealistic goals trigger our inner critic and keep us from making progress. 

Through it all, Dr. Popa reminds us that we are co-creating with God in our daily lives. We belong to God. Many of us reach towards goals and rituals in the hope to realize a certain identity - to become a more prayerful, peaceful, or successful person. The ultimate goal is to realize that we already have this identity through Christ. 

“They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream,” says Jeremiah 17:8. “It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.”

It is this wholeness, resilience, and fruitfulness that we can establish in our lives, one rhythm at a time. 


To learn more about Dr. Ioana’s work at Team for the Soul, check out the resources below: 

Thriving in Christ Podcast: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/thriving-in-christ-christian-women-self-care-balance/id1714458584

Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/c/TeamForTheSoul

Website: https://www.teamforthesoul.com/