Integrating Ecstasy: Afterglow of Dance at Esalen

Yes, this title poses a tall order, but that is the task ahead of me, after completing my first ever workshop at the Esalen Institute, a week-long workshop based on Gabrielle Roth’s 5Rhythms dance program, conceived at Esalen and defined in part as a series of “Maps to Ecstasy”.

Last sunset at Esalen workshop, January 13, 2022

Having returned, I am to find the maps leading out of ecstasy and back into the “normal” world. The integration phase is so often talked about, and so very important to any new and revelatory life experience (an academic conference, a birth, a death, a psychedelic trip, a wedding, a music festival, a hospital stay). A hero’s nostos or homeward journey is often where the challenges begin. Yet the integration process is so particular to each person that it is difficult to distil, to define, to come up with a list of “here’s what you do”.

But here I will at least attempt (itself a part of my integration process) to share something of the workshop experience and what is helping me to integrate ecstasy as I met it at Esalen.

For readers unaware, Esalen is a learning center, located in Big Sur, California, and founded in 1962 for the study of “emergent transformation and internal exploration” (according to the Institute’s website). When the Institute was first established, this had much to do with psychological inquiry. The room where I stayed is named after Abraham Maslow. Today, there are many offerings there for retreats and workshops on all manner of topics: yoga, meditation, trauma work, plant medicine, sacred sexuality, sound healing, and some disciplines born at Esalen (Gestalt therapy, Esalen massage, and 5Rhythms, to name a few). Maybe sometime I’ll do a post on Esalen, but this is not that time…

The 5Rhythms Dance

I have been dancing 5Rhythms every week for three years, in a local group in Santa Barbara, in person, on Zoom, wherever we need to be to keep each other safe and supported through the pandemic days. Among the various movement practices I do (yoga most days, hiking and running several times a week if I can get out there), 5Rhythms is the one I have in recent months found most medicinal, the most cathartic, bearer of the highest insights.

I believe this to be the case because this practice is a balance of discipline and improvisation. There is enough structure, and enough guidance from a teacher to keep me on track and in a movement journey with concrete stages, but the particular shapes my body takes along that journey are mine to determine. They are alchemically manifest from the unique convergence of life events, muscular flexibility, emotional tone, and mental activity I show up with that day. But I always show up, even when I don’t feel like it (those days turn out to be the best days).

The principle is simple: dance from the guidance of your breath and intuitive motion to music arranged in five basic rhythms that travel cyclically in a wave, in the following manner, inspired by Gabrielle’s observation of the patterns of the waves crashing against the rocks as viewed from the grounds of Esalen:

  • Flow: like the gathering of a wave, shift the weight in the feet, curl the momentum, breed and build energy into the limbs.
  • Staccato: the wave meets the “rocks” – express, with the chest and the hips and the knees and elbows, the angles of the body that define space. Thrusting, stops and starts are the name of the game with this one.
  • Chaos: the crash, the explosion of water into air. The rivers of the mind tumble into the limbs and cause them to shake and twirl and resound with spontaneous movement. The key: keeping the feet grounded, fully release the head, if you can (if you are beginning, do this slowly, and build strength in your neck muscles over time). Allow the eyes to transmit their rays all around the space. Allow the particles of motion in your limbs to burst in energetic pulses.
  • Lyrical: the white sea foam, the birthplace of the love goddess herself…give your limbs to the dance, expand into a lightness that can only come after the explosion. Extend the limbs in generosity, in gratitude for the impermanence and the ways we are shaped and re-shaped. Light on the toes, ride the euphoria, from endorphins, or even oxytocin…
  • Stillness: the mist, barely perceptible, rising to enter the atmosphere, our nostrils, blending with the waters of our bodies. Keep moving – that’s the secret, and the essence. Allow for gentle movements of integration that rise steadily and gently. Feel all you can – it is easiest here to escape into thought, or numbness.
  • And then we start again…

Dionysus: My First Ecstatic Dance Teacher

When I was completing my doctoral work in London, I auditioned for a student production of Euripides’ Bacchae. I was terrible at the choreographed dance component, but was told that my ecstatic improvisation was what they were looking for. Though, at the end of the day, if your dance can’t follow the set instructions, it won’t get you to the stage, and I didn’t make the call-back.

But that audition awakened some energetic substance within me that felt like too much to contain in a body, but that thrived in a body. A friend and I had drinks afterward and I sat there giggling, while he laughed in my face and called me a bacchant, a follower of Dionysus, because my eyes were shining a little too brightly. I felt it was the dance. My dance. And since then I got brave enough to try ecstatic dance (a bit too freeform for me), then 5Rhythms.

Altar in Leonard Pavilion with waves crashing on the rocks, Esalen

The Esalen Workshop: And What Is There to Integrate?

This workshop involved five days of dancing, mindfulness meditation, and some partner and group work, under the guidance of Lucia Horan, lifelong student of Gabrielle Roth. Lucia is a master teacher: assiduous, present, disciplined, magnanimous, principled, with a ready sense of humor, and an earnest willingness to further her already very impressive profile of study with Buddhist and mindfulness meditation teachers as well as movement practitioners. I have great respect for the way she can maintain safety for the participants in the workshop to encounter themselves in the vulnerability of authentic movement with kindness and curiosity. She can transform a space of inertia (Day 3 and we were all exhausted and complaining of sore this and that) into a space of vibrant movement drawn simply from the dancers’ newfound readiness to ask the feet for more energy from the earth to move the waters of the body like the waves on the deep.

There were around thirty of us, fully vaccinated and lab-tested negative for COVID as per the current restrictions, dancing together in an outdoor pavilion.

Some of us had not danced for decades. Some had never heard of 5Rhythms and simply wanted to come to Esalen. Some like myself are old (or old-ish) hands. But there we all were, moving together, weaving in and out of each other, miraculous in the context of the pandemic, a calculated risk that felt in that moment like the most precious ordinary miracle I had perceived in a long time.

Over the five days I got to know each person’s style, their unique way of skipping, or gliding, or shuffling across the floor. I came to appreciate the myriad of ways to shake the hands, bob the head, recruit facial expressions. I got to dance in partners, in fours, by myself in the middle of the group, in the throes of chaos. I got to dance my interpretation of another dancer’s chosen “medicine word”.

Although we danced quite exuberantly, there were almost no collisions. This really surprised me, and heartened me in its suggestions for the movements of life: it is possible to dance one’s own dance, pursue one’s own intrinsic goals and passions for movement, and not compete with others for space. Maybe that’s the point. But it only seems possible with constant flow, movement of the feet. This allows the brain to become relaxed, elastic, maintaining a balance of proprioceptive self-awareness and spontaneous movement. The nervous system relaxes and the head and the limbs begin to swing with the feet, offering themselves over to what feels right to be moved.

As Lucia says, allow the feet to lead you, and the heart and mind will follow.

And where does ecstasy come into all of this? Gabrielle Roth called the space of ecstasy “where the dancer disappears and the dance remains”, or the experience of the “silver desert” (both quotes introduced by Lucia in the course of the training).

Now, I have some difficulty attributing my understanding of “ecstasy” or “standing outside oneself” to the practice of 5Rhythms. It seems to me that unlike other forms of ecstatic dance, 5Rhythms is meant to be an embodied, not a disembodied movement experience, where the body is put in charge and the mind observes the flow of energy and emotions in the body through the rhythms.

But regardless of the words I use to describe it, the experience of the workshop, and Esalen generally was transformative. Communal eating (the best food), communal bathing in sulphuric mineral baths, the migration of whales and monarch butterflies, the moonset over the water in rays of silver (the silver desert?), the scents of the herb garden, the life-affirming conversations with the people around me, their bodies and voices…

And Esalen has a way about it…intentions seem to carry some extra weight, shame-ridden self-talk gets sloughed away by the sulphur in the baths (the main “message” I received from the baths and the ocean was “let problem x take care of itself”). The place seems to draw special attention to the everyday synchronicities, splendors, and griefs that are probably always present and available, yet somehow difficult to perceive every day…

Tree and walkway (the path to the mineral baths), Esalen, January 2022

As for Integration

Lucia did the first part with us, facilitating exercises of closure: movement repetitions symbolizing opening and closure of contact with one another; a circle of acknowledgement of the elders in the workshop; a walking meditation on birth-life-death, beginning-middle-end. This all felt like essential preparation. When the final lunch service was over, I was ready to go, surprisingly: in the past I have wept in public, dragging myself away from a place where I have forged a significant bond with others in an incomprehensibly short time.

But the difference this time is that this “ecstasy” feels integratable (this should be a word).

And as for my own self-directed integration, this is what I have done. Perhaps the principles are relevant to others making their way back from an impactful, temporary way of life:

  • Self-awareness: observing the flow of sensation, thought, feeling, and practicing self-acceptance.
  • Awareness of others: maybe not everyone (including you, dear reader) wants to hear about my ecstatic dance journey. ‘Tis important to know when the conversation about the experience is getting in the way of the immediacy of connection. Knowing when to speak and when to listen is a good general tip.
  • Diet: keeping some dietary features I found at Esalen: little dairy (coconut yogurt, matcha tea with oat milk) and almost no gluten; more animal protein than I normally eat. Not sure how long I’ll keep this up – probably a week or so.
  • Movement: I have been doing short 5Rhythms waves in my living room, along with yoga, and some good swaying, shifting the weight from foot to foot, when I feel the urge – this has been the most interesting enduring habit so far.
  • Nature: hiking, or quiet morning walks; observing the birth-life-death principle in action – the coyote scat and vulture activity on and around the trails.
  • Journaling: so many insights make themselves known on those hikes…
  • Music: Gabrielle Roth’s trance music, because it’s pretty great for all activities.
  • Friends and family: making time to keep in touch with my dearest ones.
  • Mythologizing: listening to the stories that tend my newly-watered soul. My current favorite is How to Love a Woman by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, the newest addition to my self-prescribed love curriculum. See my previous post on NYE for more on that topic…
  • 5Rhythms-ing with my local group
  • Keeping the link with the Dionysian, or the essence of whoever my current patron god/divine reference point might be in the coming days.
Living room dance

That’s all I got. But it’s important. The dance is powerful. The group is precious. Timeless and time-limited. A configuration of people that will likely never occur again. That last dance with them left me with the word I spoke in the closing circle, when we each offered the word that reflected the lesson with which we chose to depart:

like the dance, like the waves, like the bodies of the monarchs that lay on the path in front of us while their fellows flitted above our heads,

Impermanence.

Altar with monarchs in Leonard Pavilion, Esalen, January 2022

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