The idiom “going around in circles” doesn’t usually carry a positive connotation, but that’s the shape our movement took during a recent “Dancing Mandala” 5Rhythms workshop. If it’s hip to be square, then it sure is satisfying being a circle.

A combination of dance, breathwork, and artistic expression, the event was touted as a three-part journey into our soul, using the five rhythms, five elements, and five points on the mandala (four around the perimeter, one in the center) as gateways into our essence. From the website:

While bridging the five elements—Earth (Flowing), Fire (Staccato), Water (Chaos), Air (Lyrical), Ether (Stillness)—with the 5Rhythms, we will subconsciously create a moving mandala. As a culmination of this experience, we will pause in the last rhythm of Stillness for a breathing meditation, then conclude and refine the energies by creating a visual mandala you will then take with you.

Woah. I registered for the workshop before reading this heavy-duty description, eager for any kind of dance and art combo. Meditative movement opens up all kinds of creative portals in me; I kept thinking back to my yoga teacher training at Kripalu, when, after days and days of nothing but yoga, meditation, and pranayama, we were handed large sheets of paper and crayons and asked to draw what our future looked like. Everyone was in some other realm of consciousness at the time, so the artwork that came forth probably contains about 12 layers of psychological interpretation. Six years later, I still don’t know what mine means but yet somehow I feel like I’ve been living in the middle of it the whole time:

Hands, feet, arrows, footprints, hearts, spirals…. Makes sense, right?

Well, the event was way more than a little dancing, a little painting. The workshop’s organizers—Nancy, Stavros, and Johanna—created such a sacred space that I was reluctant to even bring my cheap plastic water bottle into the transformed grade-school auditorium. Ivy-like garland lined the room’s perimeter, each corner containing an altar dedicated to one of the elements. Fellow dancer Phil consecrated our quarters by offering a fragile, authentic, handmade mandala thangka from India as decoration with a purpose:

Before class, we were asked to bring in a small object that represented one of the elements; as we walked into the space, we were encouraged to visit each of the elemental altars and find one on which to place our object. My object (a polished heart-shaped stone) represented earth, but I was very attracted to the second altar, accented with a tall glass vase filled with water. I kept thinking back to the Rilke quote that “chose me” during my recent Kripalu workshop: “May what I do flow from me like a river, no forcing and no holding back, the way it is with children.” So it was there next to the water that I lay my earthen heart.

I fell effortlessly into the dance once the music began, but I noticed one thing was really bugging me:

Yes, this beautiful centerpiece—which so perfectly represented the fifth circle of a mandala, the ether—was making me anxious. Now, at the time of our dancing it did not have the candles or paintings, but it was still a giant piece of real estate on which we could not dance.

Or could we? Now that I think about it, I honestly don’t recall the instructor telling us whether we could or could not dance within the circle. I think we all just assumed that this ring was revered, and it would be an act of profanity to step over the white line. Many times I caught myself wanting so badly to leap into the circle; I flirted with the ether, every now and then allowing one leg to hover over the edge during a spin. I wasn’t even fully sure whether there were rules, but I seemed to have imposed my own…and then challenge them.

Fortunately, we had an opportunity to work with these restrictions and challenges. Working in pairs, one person faced the center circle as the partner stood facing back, acting much like a gatekeeper to the treasures and freedom that the flowing white ring represented. One person danced her struggles, falling into a repetitive movement that the partner, serving as a witness, eventually copied.

Then came the uncomfortable part—the mover stood still and watched her dance being played out, a mirror image come to life. What a surprise to step back and see your movement through your own eyes, like reading an old journal entry. There was a bit more to this exercise, a transformation element that involved breaking through the struggle, and for most people the end result was a feeling of relief, like we had just crawled through a long and dark cave and finally stumbled on a pocket of light. Nancy’s next choice of music following this exercise was Michael Franti’s upbeat “I Know I’m Not Alone,” and with it came a dance of celebration. The energy among the entire group had shifted profoundly, and I remember bopping along, smiling like a goofball, feeling like we had all survived something big together, we made it through, so let’s just dance and have fun.

This partnering exercise was the pinnacle of the dance portion of class, a time that I could energetically and emotionally feel my individual self merge with my classmates. We had started as separate circles, our own little individual planets, and then BOOM! Suddenly we were not just stand-alone celestial circles anymore but part of a massive universe, everyone joining the same orbit, a cohesive, spinning mandala.

This mandala only tightened over time, especially during Stillness, as everyone stood around the circle’s edge. Even those I stood across from—separated by a ring of cloth and stones and other small objects—our dance was together. I was engaged in an intimate pas de deux with my stone heart yet at the same time participating in a much larger group dance prayer.

At the very end of class, each of us was given the chance to step inside the circle and do our own personal dance. It was an intensely moving moment, and many people’s expressions brought me to tears. I bit my lip and gripped hard onto those hands I held on either side of me.

The breathwork that proceeded the dancing was anything but your typical belly-breath pranayama—more like 20 minutes of non-stop kundalini breath of fire. Good thing we were lying down, otherwise I may have toppled over! Stavros had warned us beforehand of the effects of such breathing—heaviness/tingling in the extremities, a panicky feeling in the gut that can lead to an emotional release. He was spot-on: The hyperventilating rocked my body, and I vacillated between wanting to sob and laugh hysterically. My hands and feet felt like they were all individual centrifuges, spinning spinning spinning with such intensity. At times they went from feeling like each finger and toe weighed 10 pounds to me not feeling them at all. Nancy (bless her!), feeling the need to support me but not entirely sure what to do, rubbed my feet, held my stomach, and placed a rock in my palm, which I swore was going to levitate from the energy pulsing in my hand. The vibration coming from my palm was so strong that I watched in amazement as the stone ever-so-subtly slid from the center of my hand out toward the edge.

The whole time we were panting and buzzing and crying and laughing, Johanna was secretly setting up individual painting stations for each of us, so that by the time we rolled up off the ground and opened our eyes, there, like magic, were canvases and brushes and a rainbow of paint blobs for us to experiment with. The original intention was for everyone to paint their own mandala, given the subject of the workshop; however, we were all in such a state of woo-woo after that wild breathing that everyone just started doing their own thing and Johanna was reluctant to interfere with the creative process. I tried hard to stay in the semi-hypnotic state and let my heart and gut do the painting rather than my head.

The results (displayed in the previous photo) were still beautiful, a tangible extension of the deep emotional work we had done on the dance floor. It was nice to have a “take-home” element by which to remember the event, although I’m not planning on hanging my creation on my walls anytime soon. My art therapist friend would have a field day with this one:

It was a long afternoon—nearly 4 hours of delving deep into our minds and bodies. In a sense, we were a bit like the monks who spend days, even weeks creating the most intricate sand mandalas, grain by grain. When their elaborate creation is completed, the monks essentially destroy it, brushing the sand together and letting it run off into the air or water, a symbolic act representing impermanence while also spreading forth the blessings and energy of the artwork to which they had committed so much attention and mindfulness.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user waltarrrrr

Each of us was a grain of sand, the workshop a means of coming together into one brilliantly colorful circle. During that final moment of Stillness, as we stood close and held hands, we were that completed mandala. And breath by breath, brushstroke by brushstroke, we gradually separated from each other—the monk’s hand sweeping over our collaborative art—becoming individuals again, yet with a new sense of spirit, energy, and wisdom.

Like the mandala’s sand flowing back into the river, we each went our separate ways after class but yet somehow feeling like we were now part of a much larger picture.

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