By Suma Varughese
Dance is a universally powerful form of self-expression that releases emotional and physical blocks, unleashes our creativity, and above all, enables us to mine a passage through the depths of the body to spirit.
‘There was an urge in her body to dance.
She began to move, slowly, then with increasing rhythm. Vast spaces began to open out in nano-seconds. She was entering a new landscape of the body. The body seemed to know what it wanted. Something began to grow in it, like an assurance. Something which she had never known she could become. Her gestures acquired a fluidity.’
Parallel Journeys by Anu Mazumdar
Dance as a path. As a way of mining a passage into the very depth of the Self itself. Dance as a way of releasing oneself of all the petty considerations of the small self and flowing into the Infinite. Surely, all of us have pulsed to this prospect and longed to break through whatever it is that stops us from achieving this union? We sense its infinite possibilities: as a way of disciplining and mastering the body, as a way of expressing our emotions and state of mind, as an art form, where it fuses body, mind, emotion and spirit into an explosion of beauty, grace, power and harmony, and finally, as a way to the infinite quietitude and bliss of the Self.
Tripura Kashyap, dance therapist and author of the body, My Body, My Wisdom, defines dance thus: ‘It is a unique physical discipline in which emotional, psychological, spiritual, intellectual and creative energies are unified and harmonized. Most dancers would say that our bodies can feel, thrill, speak, memorize, express and communicate effectively through movement.’
She adds, ‘Dance prompts people to have a dialog with their bodies. It nourishes the body in the way that reading or meditation nourishes the mind.’
And yet sadly, dance is one of the least used forms of human expression. Most of us simply don’t dance, not even in the privacy of home, leave alone at a social function. It’s such a basic human instinct, to sway to music or simply whirl with abandon. Yet who among us enjoys this freedom of the body?
Indeed, the ability and willingness to dance is virtually what separates the inhibited from the uninhibited. When burdened with a poor self-image or self-consciousness, when we have little touch with our feelings or self, when matter is heavy and dense within us, for the life of us we can’t dance.
Yoga teacher at J B Petit School, Mumbai, Anahita Sanjana, recalls, ‘I used to learn Indian dance as a child and I was very good at it. But as I grew older, I lost that instinctive rhythm. I couldn’t flow with the music even at a disco. Then I did a gestalt therapy workshop where, as part of a session of dynamic meditation, we had to dance blindfold. It brought such a sense of release in me that after that, I could dance confidently. I felt as if something in me that was longing to dance was freed. I found myself more fluid in my speech too, and in the way I walked and even in my ability to be close to people.’
The ability to dance is tantamount to breaking through all the fetters that hold us back – unexpressed emotions, unfelt feelings, unassimilated experiences, unconscious traumas, all of which manifest as frozen bodies and expressionless faces. As these fetters dissolve, our movements loosen up, grace takes over and life assumes an altogether silken flow. In the most essential way, dance attunes us to the rhythm of life itself and makes us whole.
Says the admirable Osho, who respected dance as a way of breaking through the density of conditioning so much that he introduced an element of it in every meditation he created, ‘Have you watched somebody dancing? What happens? …Dance seems to be one of the most penetrating things, in which one falls into a harmony. Your body, your mind, your soul all fall into a harmony in dancing.’
Wonders seeker and former entrepreneur, Bharti Nirmal, ‘Could it be that dance dissolves the misalignment between us and the universal force?’
Because of its combination of movement, celebration and aesthetic appeal, dance forms a unique gateway to the mind and the spirit. Ma Amrit Sadhana, editor of Osho Times says, ‘When the body moves, the mind stops working and conversely, when the mind works, the body stops moving.’ She adds, ‘Through dance, my energy has shifted from mind to body. I used to think a lot. Now am in the space of timelessness. And each evening during the meditation, I let myself go in dance with total abandon.’
So how can you and I, stuck within unresponsive bodies and self-conscious minds, avail of the magic power of movement?
What is the end is also the means. Dance itself can release us of the very issues that hobble us. If we would but make a start, and begin the process, we will find the path unfolding within us and our issues unravelling. One option is dance therapy. The importance of movement in these mind-dominated times is so pronounced that dance therapy is a flourishing discipline, enabling people to come to terms with blocks or stops, and lead their lives with greater assurance.
Most dancers endorse the view that dance has profound healing and redemptive powers. ‘Dance is the most natural way to express yourself and to dissolve emotional blocks. Why are discos and dance floors so popular? Because people can completely let go of themselves and be who they are. If people don’t have an avenue for self-expression, they have breakdowns,’ says artist and dancer Nehal Shah (33).
In her book, Tripura confirms this viewpoint succinctly, ‘When we dance, the body’s most natural urge to move is satisfied, special neurotransmitter substances in the brain called endorphins get increased thus creating a sense of well-being, the blood circulation gets enhanced, the body releases certain toxins as it sweats, stress and tension accumulated in different body parts are relieved and people stop thinking for a while. Most important of all, dancing relaxes us and serves as an outlet for suppressed feelings or thoughts and makes the body alive and alert.’
Mohini attam dancer, Mandakini Trivedi, boldly states, ‘Some form of mind-body discipline is absolutely essential for the health of a human being. The greatest loss in urban society has been the loss of community dancing or folk forms where people can dissolve their differences in exchange of sheer positive physical energy through dance. I am sure there would be much less stress in our urban lives if, at the end of the day, people just got together and danced rather than watched TV.’
The American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA) defines dance therapy discipline as … ‘the psychotherapeutic use of movement as a process that furthers emotional, cognitive and physical integration in individuals. It effects changes in feelings, cognition, physical functioning and behavior.’
How it Works
Tripura, a trained bharata natyam dancer based in Hyderabad, was attracted to dance therapy when she saw that her brother Pavan, who was wheel-chair bound with polio meningitis, would use his upper body and hands to bang his wheel chair and almost slide out of it when he heard his favorite songs.
Later, she trained in dance therapy with Dr Grace Valentine at the Hancock Center in Wisconsin, USA. Since then, she has used dance and movement as therapy in various rehabilitation/treatment centers, special schools, educational settings, halfway homes and with normal functioning adults and children.
In her book, she writes that she and other therapists have observed how their ‘clients improvised and expressed themselves through a natural movement language already ingrained in their bodies… material from the person’s unconscious was being manifested in a physical form… and clients could now express suppressed emotions, dreams, fantasies, nightmares and defenses more easily.’
She adds, ‘Our bodies are like canvases on which the essence of our history is inscribed. Movements, gestures and postures reveal our passions, insecurities and emotions, the kind of love and affection we have received, abuse we have suffered, as well as our hopes and attitudes.’
She cites the case of a workshop she held for Catholic nuns and priests involved in social work from numerous institutions all over India. She writes, ‘Initially, one could sense… disconnectedness with their bodies… They were especially wary of making eye contact or doing even minimal movements with the opposite sex.
‘…As they went through a range of ice-breakers… they became like children, discovering and exploring the pleasure of their bodies in motion… they expressed relief at being freed from the shackles of what they had been conditioned to believe about body expression.’
Tripura uses an array of physical disciplines like creative movement, contemporary dance techniques, ideas from yoga, elements from classical and folk dances, martial arts, theater exercises, relaxation techniques and mime. These disciplines are used either in combination with each other or independently to address the body-mind linkage and build up individual patterns of motility.
Dance can also heal at the physical level, opines A V Satyanarayana, a Bangalore-based bharata natyam and kathak artiste who ventured into dance therapy six years ago. He has helped people heal from diabetes, stress and hyper-acidity. He also assists women undergoing pregnancy to achieve a safe delivery. Using the vocabulary of classical dance, he encourages pregnant women to enact the role of Yashoda, Lord Krishna’s mother. He says, ‘At an emotional level it builds attachment with the child and at the physical level, many of the movements, like fetching water for Krishna, causes the bowels to strengthen. Acts such as pounding or grinding, while making sweetmeats for baby Krishna, are all calculated to prepare and strengthen the body for delivery.’
Satyanarayana talks of the three Es that dance therapy embody: experience, enjoyment and expression. He says, ‘These give you the three Cs – confidence, courage and conviction.’
He adds, ‘Dance evokes reverence and sensitizes you to beauty.’
In addition to therapy, growth through dance is also facilitated through many spiritual paths that incorporate dance as an essential part of their spiritual practice. George Gurdjieff, the Armenian mystic, for instance, introduced a range of movements collectively called Sacred Dances, which constitutes an essential part of the Work, as his practice is called.
Akash Dharmaraj, a Delhi-based psychotherapist who teaches these dances, writes in her website, www.akhaldans.com, ‘The dances are highly original, charismatic and mystical. They are designed to balance the different sources of energy within us… creating a harmony between the body, the mind and the emotions, … leading to a higher level of consciousness, and presence.’
Gurdjieff’s primary concern was to awaken people from the automatism of their lives, to make them aware of how little control they really had over their thoughts, words and deeds. He imbibed these movements from his travels in Eastern Asia and believed that they were ruled by the same harmonies that governed the movement of the planet. In performing them, he intuited, they made alive some of the cosmic laws that govern our higher consciousness.
In an interview published on the Net, Pauline de Dampierre, who is associated with the Gurdjieff Work, says, ‘ …a series of new postures, proceeding from a real knowledge of a different order of laws, can open us to a different order within ourselves that would free us, unify us, and awaken us to the real meaning of our lives, so that our real being could act and make itself heard. This is the ‘science of movement’ which Gurdjieff rediscovered.’
Those who have seen the Sacred Dances being performed, extol its precision, and evocation of hitherto inexperienced harmony.
While Gurdjieff may have included Sufi dancing in his repertoire, this much-acclaimed aspect of the Sufi path must have special mention. Arising from Turkey, dervish dancing or the traditional whirling that is so much a part of Sufism, is governed by a strict protocol. Called Sema, the practitioners form circles, of which there could be many, one enclosing another, and move in increasingly fervent tempos, first in clockwise and then in anticlockwise direction. At its climax, the movement can resemble a ball, so fast is the pace. At all times, they utter the sacred name, Zikr, which is usually a chant to Allah.
The relentless rhythm of the movement, and the solemn chant, can often bring about a shift in transformation, and move the person from the head to the heart.
The Osho International Foundation in Pune, has popularized Sufi dancing, though shorn of its collective activity. Practitioners whirl on their own, and reportedly achieve many spiritual rewards. A few, however, can also get trapped in the ever- present ego. Seeker and Human Resources executive, Ajay Kalra, recalls being captivated by one man’s continuous whirling and asked him how he did it. He says, ‘Although he was whirling at an inhuman pace, there was a little stiffness to the movement. I understood that when in answer to my question, the man began to explain how difficult it was to get to that level of expertise, but that people didn’t understand and they came in the way.’
As if in concurrence, here is a quote by Osho from The Beloved: ‘If you really dance, the body is used so deeply that the whole energy becomes fluid. A dancer loses shape, fixity. A dancer becomes a movement, a process. A dancer is not an entity: he’s movement, he’s energy. He melts… And a dancer cannot retain his ego because if he retains the ego, that will be a jarring note in his dance.’
A third form of spiritual dance, which is lesser known but has its own therapeutic and harmonizing properties is Eurythmy, which arises from Anthroposophy, the Austrian-born Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy.
Says Mumbai-based Aban Bana, who, together with sister Dilnawaz, are the only two trained in the subject in India, ‘Eurythmy is the art of movement and is also called visible music.’ This fairly obscure definition can be clarified when we understand that it seeks to embody vowels and consonants through appropriate movements. Aaaa, for instance, is symbolized by widespread raised hands, while Ooo would be an enclosing circular gesture of the hands.
Eurythmy functions at three levels, as an art form, as a group activity and as a healing devise.
Aban Bana says that as an art form it can achieve heights of grandeur and beauty such as when 30 or 40 performers attempt to bring to movement one of Beethoven’s symphonies. As with Gurdjieff, precision, harmony between the parts and a certain spiritual quality, emanate from the performance.
Schools, work places and other areas of collective activity benefit from eurythmy. Says Aban, ‘Some children can be very aggressive and others too timid. The dance form helps to contain the first lot and to draw out the second. It improves concentration, focus, dexterity and coordination. Above all, it enhances rhythm and rhythm is life. We, in urban India, are badly out of sync with rhythm.’
Regarding healing, Aban says, ‘The vowels and consonants act as doses of medicine.’ She cites the case of a friend who healed of a frozen shoulder through using certain movements. However, Aban modestly admits that as a healing measure it is to be seen as an adjunct, rather than a self-sufficient healing measure.
Then, of course, there is the lofty majesty and incomparable beauty of our own classical dances, most of which are conceived to honor the divine. Whether it is mohini attam, bharata natyam, or Odissi, the dances revolve around sacred themes. Their grid, or the framework on which they operate, is decreed by the Natya shastras, and is not just aesthetically rigorous but also aligned to the universal grid. Little wonder then that the performance is so graceful, chaste and elevating. Says Mandakini Trivedi, ‘When the perfection of the body geometry unites with the choreographic geometry, an inner dance body emerges which effortlessly connects to the cosmic energy grid.’
Yoga is closely aligned to dance because of its slow and precise movements. Artistes like Mandakini stress the correlation between the two, while others actually craft an art form out of it. Yoga teacher Anahita Sanjana makes her students perform an annual yoga ballet based on subjects like the life of the Buddha or Sri Aurobindo. She says, ‘Asanas can be made to flow one into another. And the children have some memorable experiences. One of them told me that she was so absorbed in the segment on the Buddha’s enlightenment that she forgot to change her step!’
Dance Through Modern Masters
The central appeal of dance as a path is its ability to energize the body and thereby give the mind a chance to process its feelings and thoughts. Little wonder then, that modern meditation masters have incorporated it into their own spiritual practices. Says seeker and former entrepreneur, Bharati Nirmal, ‘At Swami Sukhbodhananda’s Life programme, it is mandatory to dance. In fact, you have to dance your way to receiving the certificate at the end of the program.’ She herself practises the Nataraj meditations crafted by Osho, and says, ‘Whenever I practiced it, crystallized emotions that manifested in the body as stiffness and in the mind as adamancy, would loosen up and be released. I would feel fresh, and then quietness would spread.’
Art of Living and Siddha Samadhi Yoga both have invigorating satsangs where singing, and to a lesser extent, dancing, are de rigeur.
But no modern master has used it as effectively and exhaustively as Osho has. In the book, Ancient Music In The Pines, he says, ‘If people can dance a little more, sing a little more, be a little more crazy, their energy will be flowing more, and their problems will by and by disappear… Dance to orgasm; let the whole energy become dance, and suddenly you will see that you don’t have any head…’
Says Ma Amrit Sadhana, ‘Every one of his meditations has an element of dance. We have the Nataraj, the Kundalini, dynamic meditation and Sufi whirling. From the body to the heart is Osho’s way.’
Ajay Kalra says, ‘What stops you from dancing are your inhibitions. Your fear of what people are going to think of you. I shed my self-consciousness when I spent six days at the Osho International Foundation. There is a space within me that dance uncovers, an absolute sense of freedom and joy. I have discovered some exceptional energy within me that surfaces even at company get-togethers. I could be all alone on the dance floor and it wouldn’t matter if anyone else were watching me or not. A colleague remarked that there was a spiritual quality to my dance and a few seem to find it liberating.’
Most dancers find that dance hones them in many unexpected ways and offers an avenue for the resolution of puzzling mind stuff. Says Tripura, ‘I sometimes dance in silence or with music that is ambient and unobtrusive for an hour or so. It’s a personal dance that does not belong to any form or style. Each time I have done something like this, I have gained clarity about some issue or conflict that has bothered me. I have seen the truth about some of my relationships and found solutions to problems that have hung around for some time. For me, dancing is a form of meditation that has guided me towards taking important decisions in life, making choices, or letting go of sad and depressed feelings and thoughts, clearing the cobwebs in my mind and relaxing myself.’
On the Path
Mandakini Trivedi, who currently oversees the ashram founded by her late guru, Swami Shri Harish Madhukar, says, ‘I could take to the spiritual journey with ease because the dance works on the same lines and when my spiritual master explained a nuance of sadhana to me, my response used to be – ah, this is exactly how it is in dance. The dance is an expression of joy and when that is lost in sadhana or life, it is dance that helps me to bring that back.
‘I can say that I am completely made by the dance and my spiritual sadhana. From appearance to attitudes to inner life, there is no area that the dance and spiritual sadhana have left untouched.’
Says Nehal Shah, ‘Dance helps me to connect with myself and to my physicality. It has taught me to be receptive to the subtle levels of life, to see the subtle emotions that are expressed through body language and the face in others and to feel them in me.’
Dance for them is a complete path, training and disciplining the body and keeping it healthy and fit, emptying the mind of all that troubles and hinders it, and in time opening it to the vastness of spirit that hides within. In her book, Parallel Journeys, author Anu Mazumdar, herself a dancer, asks if the body is capable of achieving paradigm shifts and answers the question with the experiences of her protagonist, Maitreyee. In searching for a way to integrate classical dance tradition with the calls and needs of the present, Maitrayee finds a rich lode of originality within herself, which itself becomes both her path and her salvation.
In present-day life, I encountered the lead pair of the Kerala-based dance troupe, Samudra, who too, in their exploration and fusion of various dance forms like bharata natyam, kalari payata, and rope malkhamb, have evolved a vocabulary of their own. At the Education Conference conducted at the Art of Living International headquarters in Bangalore, the troupe performed its version of visual magic. Although there were a number of performers, the lead pair consisting of curly-haired Madhu Gopinath and Vakkom Sajeev, were the undisputed stars and rightly so. Their movements, most of which were in unison, were so lithe and effortless, so fluid and weightless, that they almost seemed divested of body.
Later, the two talked of using dance as a path, and of finding their body’s wisdom. ‘Our dance is like a meditation. Our bodies vibrate after a while,’ says Madhu. ‘We dance in unison so much that we don’t even need to look behind at the other to see if we are in rhythm. Our bodies catch the rhythm instinctively.’ They affirm that while they are by no means enlightened, their levels of anger and pain are low. And depression does not affect them. ‘We have learnt to express our feelings, and get things out of our system. We could never work together if we were not in harmony.’
Through constant honing of the body, it draws closer and closer to spirit. Can it be doubted that the barricade will fall and body and spirit become one?
Recalls Tripura ‘I was once in Argentina to work with local artists. We were out on a mountain, moving and dancing in silence. It was quite an amazing experience. I felt like I was flying free among the clouds, a warm tingling sensation surging through my body. I could see the others but felt I was alone and was much in harmony with the trees, grass, boulders and breeze around me.’
So dance. Reclaim your rightful heritage and reacquaint yourself with your body. You deserve no less.
Contacts: Tripura Kashyap – firstname.lastname@example.org
A V Satyanarayana – email@example.com
Aban Bana – firstname.lastname@example.org
Samudra – www.samudraarts.com
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