The Trance Dance

13 Dec

Initially, I saw the words “trance dance” on the syllabus for yoga teacher training and felt an anxious curiosity rise up through my stomach. The self-conscious person does not easily become uninhibited, especially one who is hyper-aware of her body within space. Even nearly a decade removed from being obese, I am still constantly aware of how much space I am taking up when I am in crowds of people.

And it’s not exactly an easy thing to define, because like most things in yoga, how it’s defined and what it is depends on the lineage being studied, the perspective of the practitioner, the geographic region, the group of people….and so on and so forth. The best description I found online was this one from Kiara Boch Yoga:

We are creative, rhythmic, fluid beings. It’s in our cells. We are made mostly of water, which is always flowing, moving and changing. When rivers in nature are contaminated, it prohibits life from flourishing and it becomes stagnant, dis-eased, even toxic. The physical, mental and emotional rivers of our body act the same way. When people are fearful, repressed, they freeze and hold still, rejecting the life force from moving through the self. Yoga Trance Dance is all about taking back your power and reclaiming your natural harmonized state of being. It’s about exploring the eternal flow of natural spontaneous movement through yoga and ecstatic free-form movement. When the rivers are flowing and circulating, grace appears, Joy and embodied freedom ignite liberate us to move, to breathe, and to be alive!

Three weeks ago, I walked into the studio and was surrounded by the scent of sage. The yogi leading our dance explained that sage is an herb often used in purifying rituals, and since our theme for the weekend was purification, cleansing, and discipline, burning it was a way to purify the students and the space. We had a brief lecture to discuss the physical cleanse we’d be taking part in (which took place this past weekend), and then moved our blankets and notebooks aside, coming to sit in a circle. I noticed that bolsters and blankets were lining the walls.

That’s odd.

And then I saw the basket of blindfolds.  The anxious curiosity in my stomach turned sour. Not okay, not okay, not okay, a thousand times not okay. My teacher went on to explain that we would hear music from all over the world, that she and one other teacher would remain un-blindfolded in order to guide us away from any danger or help anyone who really needed to get out. But she encouraged us to stay in it, stay with the present moment, and challenged us to breathe through whatever feelings or thoughts came up. For the entire duration, we would practice a specific kind of breath—two short inhales through the nose, followed by an exhale through the mouth. No matter what changed throughout the experience, one could return to the breath at any time. It comforted me slightly. If you panic, just come back to the breath. Deep down, you know that no one in this room would ever hurt you.

And frankly, I was the one holding the blindfold. I had to choose to put it on. Years ago I had therapist named Karen. I asked her many times how I was supposed to just deal with panic. How I was supposed to just work through anger, rage, mistrust, and deep, deep darkness. Now someone was asking me to return to the darkness and it occurred to me…

You cannot purify or detoxify that which you cannot face.

And so I faced the darkness. I began the breathing pattern: In, in…ouuuut. In, in…ouuuut. Something like a dijeridoo or vuvuzela came blaring through the speakers.

I can’t do this. Please let me out.

I remembered the split-second of standing in the doorway of an airplane before I leapt forward with arms spread wide to fly toward earth. That moment that happened in less than a second—not even enough time to think—where every cell in my body resisted moving forward. Only now, my body was resisting even being within the space.

Let go.

I can’t.

You can.

I remembered the first time that I performed a synchronized swimming routine in the 12 ft. deep section of the pool. The spotlight was so bright against the black evening sky that seeing was next to impossible. The music was almost all vibration underwater, with the occasional lyric somehow finding a clear path through rows of moving bodies. “Waterproof” make-up and Knox gelatin smeared across my face, and blurred what little vision I had. In those moments, there was only trust. We could only count, breathe, and depend on our co-swimmers to reel us back toward the fold whenever one of us pin-wheeled out of control. We lived the darkness and consumed the sound, letting it fly out through limbs with no ground beneath them.

My body remembered the cold night air against my skin as we took our bows alongside the pool, and I let out an audible shudder in the studio. The dijeridoo got louder and the music unfolded into the room, spilling itself across the floor and grabbing my ankles.


At first the motion was small, only a minor sway side-to-side. I thought of the woman who led the belly-dancing class I went to in high school with my friend Audrey. She rippled her arms like a snake, making a fluid, ever-changing sideways “S” shapes. It never looked smooth when I stood doing it, judging my jiggling, floppy arms in the mirror. But, having resigned myself to doing something, I figured it was worth trying. I went by feel, seeing if I could turn my arms to liquid. You have no bones! I felt the shape and let it ripple over and over again, occasionally feeling another student brush against me or squeeze my hand in solidarity.

The wariness crept back in frequently and each time I returned to the breathing pattern. Every so often, whatever movement I was making stopped feeling right and I would stand, just swaying. My hands came to the blindfold, and each time came the temptation to tear it away and see what was happening. Maybe just a little peek to see where I was in the room.  I couldn’t understand why I just wanted to know so badly, but I did. Still, I resisted the impulse and stayed in a sea of ink and occasional sputters of kaleidoscope-colors behind my eyelids.

Every time the music changed, my body changed too. At times it felt deeply sad, slouching toward the floor and moving as though weighed down by wet, heavy clay. During some moments it was wild, like a jungle animal—I distinctly recall crouching down near the floor and imagining myself as some sleek, wild panther lurking through the darkness. Still at other moments there was a profound sense of release—at one point my mouth opened and instead of the exhale of breath came a pure, single sung note. ( I watched The Little Mermaid way too many times as a kid—it reminded me of this: And yes, at some moments there was nothing but that impulse to escape.

The sound of “oommmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm” came over the speakers, cueing our class to lay down and take a resting pose. Finally silence offered itself to the room and we removed the blindfolds, blinking eyes full of incredulous confusion and gratefulness. Slowly, we arranged ourselves back into the giant circle where we’d started.

I didn’t expect what happened next: I cried and couldn’t stop.

Here you are.

A whole lifetime happened in an hour and forty-five minutes. My body remembered itself throughout its history, and as I faced the darkness, I saw both all that I was unwilling to look at, and everything I wanted to see, but had somehow forgotten over a lifetime of “I should be” and “I should do.” My body had made strange shapes on the outside, but my mind felt color, breathed vibration, and warped like a funhouse mirror.

All I could do was try to thank my classmates for allowing me the safe space to have such an experience. I felt a depth of gratefulness that almost turned to guilt when I wondered how I could ever repay them for the journey. Through my tears I tried to explain that simply being there and feeling their vibrations around me made it possible to resist the panic, to not react to the fear, and to say YES to life, YES to experience, YES to being present right there just as I was.

To say YES to myself.

That night I wrung myself out more than any twisting posture has ever done. And suddenly there was space for more in my heart. This morning, my teacher said during class that the wonderful thing about yoga is that you develop the ability to have space for yourself anywhere, even on a crowded metro train. You create space within yourself for peace, and no one can steal that away. What a beautiful thing to learn.

You have peace within you, and it is yours to keep. Even in the chaos.

Ciao for now,


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