‘Dancing with Snakes’: Idiosyncratic Reflections on an Upcoming Yoga Teacher Training

Deepening the Practice: The Problem of Language

As a result of conscious goal-setting processes I outlined in my previous post, I have arrived back in California to do my first yoga teacher training (!) at the studio that helped catalyze the deepening of my practice while I was teaching undergraduate courses in Classics.

Back in California!

Many other yoga practitioners use vocabulary similar to this – deepening the practice, finding Being, the natural state, self-awareness, making the inner journey, softening your edges, transforming – and personally if I hear enough of it, or even speak enough of it myself, I find it can sometimes sound hollow. But representations in language do not necessarily equal the majesty or the extraordinary subtleties of the thing itself.

I have been studying ancient Mediterranean languages for a long time, and have encountered a number of challenges, delights, and mysteries in the process of translation from one language (and the window on the world represented therein) to another. But nowhere have I found a more difficult puzzle than my attempts to explain to my loved ones what I have experienced during postural or breath practices recently, and how this is profoundly different from the relationship to yoga I had cultivated over the preceding years. The more I share, the more confused I become, and eventually I just stop talking and listen.

It is a listening down, into my body, which communicates clearly, in its own, animalistic way, with which I am becoming increasingly more comfortable and of which I am increasingly less frightened. And the more I listen, the more content I become, and the less I feel the need to persuade others of the existence of my growing relationship with this unnameable thing.

My best attempt at an analogy for what the practice is doing for me currently is shining a flashlight (or a torch, if you are of the British persuasion) onto the parts of myself that have been lurking in the shadows of shame, anger, fear, doubt, trauma, or even just plain ignorance.

But when those parts are illuminated, when I can look at them without fear and listen to them without judgement, I can see that they really aren’t as scary or as worth confining to darkness as I had originally thought. And that’s when love starts to blossom.

Anticipating the Journey: Resistance and Acceptance

I feel as if it’s something deeper than my sometimes anxious, self-critical, wary mind, that has signed me up for this training. Yet, I am still feeling some resistance, coming from a variety of beliefs/arbitrary limitations: I am not advanced enough in asana practice because I do not have handstand, headstand, forearm balance, side crow in my practice yet; it’s mad to travel so far away from where I’m based in the UK; they don’t do yoga in California like they do it in the UK, and I will be hopelessly behind the accustomed Californian yogis.

But when I go into the studio to practice, and when I do my home practice, I feel calmer, and moreover I am affirmed that this is right. That I am courageous enough, after a good seven months of living this deeper connection to the practice and not shying away, to keep shining that torch into the abyss, and loving what I find. That, if I am open, the possibilities for insight, awareness, learning about myself as a student, and as a teacher (in yoga and beyond) are boundless.

Torches of another kind: as seen at Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve) in Edinburgh, Scotland

Dionysus as My Yogic Companion (Because I’m a Classicist)

I am working on a book about women in Greek tragedy, one of the realms of influence of the god Dionysus, and boy, have I learned a lot about his effect on women.

Oddly enough, though, he is becoming a kind of metaphor for that deep, subdermal thing I have been encountering in the practice. Something that, when I am at my least fearful and most open-hearted, I can dance with inside myself.

Your image of this thing may be a divine model, a teacher, an ancestor, an animal, or a force of nature.

For now, (this conception will change, like everything) mine is Dionysus. Bromios. Bacchus. The god of theater, ecstasy, wine, mysteries; the dancer in the in-between spaces. He is the god of surrender to the inner nature that lies beneath the social codes (taboos included) that normally define what we can/cannot, should/shouldn’t be or do. He is the god of losing the self and finding Self.

Yes, it must be admitted: in Euripides’ tragedy, Bacchae, we find the brutal consequences for the community of Thebes that denies the divine status of Dionysus and rejects his rituals, in the form of bacchants running rampant and murdering the king of Thebes. We can also appreciate the risks of misappropriating Dionysian-like forces in the modern context. Check out my writing on this here: http://www.byjovetheatre.org/something-witchy-on-mount-cithaeron-finding-the-bacchae-in-the-manson-murders/

Still, I find him, in his gentler guise, an appropriate model for my yoga practice. Dionysus is the smiling mask (as we learn from Euripides’ Bacchae), an amused witness to the permutations of mortal lives. He is also the face underlying the masks that define our social roles, and the innumerable ‘selves’ through which we cycle in relationship to others, self-image, profession, etc.

He is mere presence that underlies, and can, when we listen closely enough, inform our changing ideas of the ‘self’, which we symbolically translate into a series of yoga postures. When we find, accept, and surrender ourselves to the flow of the postures, the breath that holds us in each posture and transitions us between them, we surrender ourselves to that thing. The witness. Self. Nature. Dionysus. That thing words cannot touch.

Dancing with Snakes

Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne

I sat in front of this painting in London’s National Gallery for a long time the Monday before I left for California. In high school I often used Guy Lee’s translation of Catullus’ poems with this painting on the cover, Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne (1520-1523), capturing the moment when Bacchus (Dionysus) finds Ariadne after she has been unceremoniously ditched by Theseus, left to die on the island of Naxos. Though some say that Bacchus frightened Theseus away so that Ariadne would be left alone…

This painting is all too familiar to me because of my intimate acquaintance with Guy Lee’s edition, but, especially when I see the original painting I find new and interesting aspects to it. For instance, the affectionate glance between the panthers pulling the chariot, or the passed out, ruddy man in the background being supported by revellers. Ariadne looks as if she was caught in the midst of picking a wedgie (sorry…). But the character I find most fascinating here is the naked man, a satyr by the looks of the horns very discreetly poking out of his hair, seemingly entranced by the snakes that are winding their way over his limbs and torso.

A dance with the chthonic creature of the snake that, like Dionysus, occupies the line between earth and underworld, living and dead. The man is naked, having shed his clothing, the trappings of society, just as the snake sheds its skin.

Perhaps this is another appropriate metaphor for my yoga practice as it stands: the shedding of layers of ‘self’, the emergence of new layers of selfhood that somehow feel more honest, more integral to my essence. Until they don’t, and then comes a new process of self-inquiry which can lead to more shedding. It is a cycle of discernment, discovery, release, and transformation.

Sometimes it feels like getting flayed from toe to scalp. Sometimes it feels like dancing. Like clearing the threshing floor before the harvest. Like making love.

And (especially for the classicists) if you think it’s a bit mad to lump Dionysus in with yoga, I’m not the only one who has proposed this link. In fact, I myself wasn’t quite convinced of my concept before running across Richard Schechner’s (the director of the watershed production, Dionysus in 69, and a pioneer in the academic discipline of performance studies) work on ritual and performance (Future of Ritual: Writings on Culture and Performance, 1995). Schechner associates Dionysiac ritual dance with the Greek theater (not a huge step there) and compares the trance states (as far as we know) of devotees of Dionysian mystery cult to the ritual trance states in various shamanistic traditions and in yoga (the raising of the kundalini, for instance).

Dionysus is enigmatic, channelling male and female, nature and culture, life and death, pain and ecstasy. He is the face behind the masks, and the masks themselves. He is the potential for experiencing life in the present moment. He teaches us to dance, when we encounter ourselves beneath social coding and self-diminishment.

On an individual level, Euripides’ Bacchae teaches us the consequences of denying our instinctive wisdom (again, if we look at Dionysus as a metaphor for this). We will not dance with him, so we turn away and are driven mad, or into excessive hedonistic behaviors or taboo behaviors (for the sake of being taboo) that only satisfy for a little while, and that can run the risk of overwhelming our daily functioning, despite our attempts to compartmentalize them.

We can consciously honor Dionysus, Nature, or whichever symbol of Self we seek to return to, in the space between the breath, in the silence between the om or the chant. This is the quiet, the in-between, the boundary on which this beloved part of ourselves dances, moves, shakes our souls.

And maybe this part leads us to draw mandalas, or to practice yoga, or to play Dungeons and Dragons. Pursuits that are characteristically YOU, flowing from the font of self-understanding and self-acceptance, gained from joining with the nameless, are beautiful.

And with those musings, I commence with my yoga teacher training this very evening. Preparing to dance with snakes, so to speak.

Wish me luck, and watch this space!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s