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,


Altar with monarchs in Leonard Pavilion, Esalen, January 2022

New Year’s Eve: On Accepting Love and Sadness

This post is dedicated especially to anyone else spending NYE solo.

NYE Sunset Afterglow 2021

I went to catch the sunset today, but arrived just in time for the afterglow, bounding toward the bluffs just to show the silent eucalyptus forest I had made the effort to farewell the orb I take for granted on other days.

This New Year’s Eve, 2021, is a rather special one for me, because I am spending it alone, and on some level confronting my now-irrational fear of this I have cultivated for a long time.

It’s been a fine day, actually.

I’ve been for a run, and a long walk along streets with still-falling leaves and agaves bedazzled with dew, out to the diamond-speckled ocean. I’ve been for a yoga class in the park, sent loving messages to friends and kin, found resolution with someone dear to my tenderized heart.

I finished and submitted to an academic journal an article based on research I began in Fall of 2019, when I had little more than a general curiosity about the symptoms of women’s ritual ecstasy in Euripides’ tragedy, Bacchae.

Also today I received word that my abstract for aconference paper I am preparing on gender, ecstatic vision, and cognition in Greek tragedy has been accepted, so the next stage of this research project is already calling out to me.

And having taken very little time off from work these holidays, I am preparing to visit the fabled land of Esalen for an ecstatic dance workshop in the New Year.

So, it seems that ecstasy is becoming rather something of a specialty of mine!

I am also preparing to teach subjects that keep my heart open and my mind sharp, and working with students who inspire me with their dedication to and intrinsic passion and motivation for their studies. My family and friends are healthy, and I am very fortunate in my family and friends.

These reflections all feel like helpful bridges of gratitude and abundance carrying me over this ravine that NYE always seems to create, and into a new year of promise.

Do I wish to submit? Yes, please!

But why are these bridges required?

It is easy to say, “well, NYE is just another day, and it will be just another day tomorrow.” This is one (rather flimsy) bridge I have constructed, along with more elaborate others: planning parties with friends, making labor-intensive meals, or queuing up my favorite films to re-watch.

These all feel like strategies to forestall something, because when I have participated in them in the past I have found it difficult to be very present for any of them, while the cultural pressure is on to do something exciting, set intentions, kiss the right person, arrange for the first one over your threshold in the New Year is an auspicious presence, all in record time, before we reach midnight. It has always felt foreboding, like attending a wake before a memorial service, or before the death has even occurred. I think some years of the people who may have listened to the musicians play on the Titanic that fateful night, watching the water rise as we watch the clock.

I know, grim reflections, but these are the feelings that I seem to work so hard to avoid every year. The void. The recognition of the losses. Globally, the staggering losses to human and non-human life due to the pandemic, escalating natural disasters, police violence, school shootings, military coups, and other devastating events, and personally, the dreams that were not realized, the relationships that faltered. Marital dissolution.

I thought of this incongruently while making an indulgent meal for myself: fancy “mac and cheese” with cream, Gruyere, sautéed brussels sprouts, mushrooms, and chestnuts, and a kale salad that most of my friends probably hate by now because I make it so frequently, but I love (except when I aspirate the kale as apparently is a tendency for me…).

Nourishing my body with good, tasty food and plenty of “healthy”, non-competitive exercise (yoga, dance, hiking) has been paramount to my sanity during the pandemic, especially as I live alone. But sometimes I get rather rigid about it, bent on caring for myself in the way only I can. Several times I have asked myself why I feel the need to cook something so challenging on a given evening. Why not just make eggs? Because it shows a lack of self-worth, a lack of dedication to self-care.

There is something about the phrase “you are enough”, one of the millions of affirmations constantly circulating on the social media accounts I follow from various wellness practitioners and teachers that really gave me pause tonight.

It somehow broke through my cooking frenzy, the effort to plan an “alternative” solo NYE of yoga, film-viewing, intention-and-gratitude-list-generation, and all the rest.

So now I am here writing this.

The plain, and somehow all-encompassing satisfaction of “You are enough” allowed me to feel the weight of sadness this evening, to begin to accept its visitation and ask why it must be present, if I have so many things to be happy about.

This might sound cliché, but it is an insight I keep returning to, and a vivifying one at that.

To live is to burn, to long, to be in love. Sadness is the unfulfilled, or the lost, as I have learned from my favorite poets: Rumi, Hafiz, Sappho, Catullus, Mary Oliver, Emily Dickenson, and so many others.

Sadness means fundamentally that I am a lover.

When I think on it, this is really the number one vocation I would choose for my life.

Some loves I am good at fostering within myself. I readily fall in love with cities and flavors and spaces that shelter and direct human movement (train stations, churches, cafes, theaters). I fall in love with buoyant seas whose grains of salt have coated my scalp. I fall for languages, and their built-in views of human nature I did not know existed. And I love hands (both physical hands and the writing they yield). I fall for the oldest cemetery when I am new to a city – I visit there and thank the ancestors for hosting me. There is no city I have visited that has not charmed me with the quirks of its personality I have managed to find in a park, a museum, or a pastry. I love the wild as well, which is in all things and all people.

And the body, not just mine, the body – I love its generosity of movement, the limbs’ readiness to receive the signals from the brain: Dance! Walk! Kiss! Hold the door for that person! This I fall for, especially when I run my fingers over the vertebrae in my spine and remember that these will by far outlast the flesh and connective tissue that holds them and enlivens them.

It’s people – not friends or family or colleagues, or even strangers with whom I exchange a smile on the street – but the other, the object of amor I find to be the difficult kind of love, hence the reason it plagues ballads, paintings, tragic plays, teen journal entries. When it happens it is hard not to pay attention to the sadness. That kind of love is an ecstasy, an experience of standing outside of oneself in the presence of the beloved other, merging with them, allowing your pillars of self-protection to fall, and when they leave, whether for a day or forever, you are back in your body, shivering. It feels so cold, but you remember having this body before meeting the person, and you will adjust to it after their departure. It just might take some time, and that’s okay.

The act of loving, really loving anything is not the avoidance, but the acceptance of sadness. And for those philosopher types, according to Socrates (as transmitted in Plato’s Symposium, Phaedrus, and other dialogues), love is the desire for the form that is the imitation, the shadow of formless beauty and truth. But it is okay to be in love with forms, because they teach us about the art of truth-seeking, and the appreciation of beauty in all things.

And so tonight I will of course open the tiny bottle of Chandon I bought. I will indulge myself with a film, some chanting, some journaling.

But overall, I will ask my heart what it wants to love, what loves it wants to remember, to let go of, to invite in. That feels right, this New Year’s Eve.

May formless Love itself, ready to infuse all of my life, be the first foot I welcome through my door New Year’s Day. And may it visit you as well.

Here’s to the turning of the New Year, from my hearth to yours!

With Love