This article is an excerpt from Andrew Beath’s book Consciousness In Action: the Power of Beauty, Love and Courage in a Violent Time (Lantern Press, 2005)
Introduction by Andrew Beath
Shiva Rea is a nationally known yoga teacher who has practiced yoga for twenty years and became a nationally known teacher. Yoga and innovative yoga-derived dance are the ways Shiva helps students find liberation—a term often used in the yogic traditions. Her Yoga Trance-Dance often produces a transcendent experience. It allows frustrations to melt away, making room for divine connection. In our conversations I asked Shiva to relate yoga’s philosophical underpinnings as they apply to dance and to conscious activism. I was curious to know in what ways practicing yoga was a liberation pathway for Shiva’s students and whether or not this translated into increased concern for others and connection to the natural world. She told me:
There’s actually a Sanskrit term for it, moksha, which means liberation. And we use the idea of a path all the time, which is referred to as sadhana. Being on the path means you are tending to this process of dissolving separation and embodying freedom. So to describe it as liberation pathway is similar to how it’s understood in yoga tradition.
My experience of conscious activism is what I call embodied activism. This is a moment-to-moment choice to heal the mind/body split. It’s not as easily measured as how many old-growth trees we saved because it involves the cultivation of consciousness through embodied spiritual disciplines like yoga, shamanism, Sufism, and dance. These have been forces for change for generations.
Embodied activism requires us to address problems caused by the negative effects of technology on our nervous system. We come to terms with the impacts modern life has on something as basic as our breath. We literally re-member ourselves.
Experiencing dance forms in Africa led me to the Department of World Arts and Cultures at UCLA to study the role of dance as an agent of change. Throughout time and across cultures, it has been a radical form of activism. Dance defies authority by instigating shifts in consciousness.
There are many instances of this. In Africa and Polynesia under British colonial rule drumming and dancing in some areas was illegal until independence. In India, the ancient lineage of the devadasi tradition, which performed dances in the inner sanctums of temples, was outlawed in the 1920s. In America, the native peoples’ Sun Dance and Ghost Dance were illegal until recently and to this day you can find private schools where even social dancing is banned.
With every generation, dance has precipitated change. In the 1950s, the way Elvis moved his pelvis was the beginning of a whole new relationship to the body, gender and authority. Now you find in the electronic dance culture, we move away from partner dancing to a freeform dance collective.
The festival called Honoring the Sea was one of the ways I began using dance as conscious activism. We held a community-based celebration in the mid-‘90s bringing together twelve indigenous dance forms to a site where the storm drains poured waste into the Santa Monica Bay. Our performances brought local attention to this issue. As a result of this and many other projects to clean up the Bay, today conditions are improved.
Yoga and dance are two of the oldest paths back home. Like lovers, they can get separated. We are born natural dancers; just watch toddlers instinctually respond to rhythm. The fragmenting effects of modern life inspired me to bring together yoga and dance into the form I call Yoga Trance Dance.
Dance and yoga, particularly Hatha Yoga, call us back into our bodies. They invigorate us. In yoga, prana is the animating force, the energy of life felt through breath. From the yogic view, breath is consciousness.
Within the tradition of flow yoga, we let the intelligence of our breath lead our movement the way a sailor tacks with the wind. Trance-dance has a similar focus. Rather than emphasizing performance, the goal of trance dancing is to let creative energy move through you. Spiritus is the Latin root for inspiration, which is the place where breath and creativity meet. Thus, in Yoga Trance Dance, spirit and intuition choreograph movement.
Attention to breath is a radical change in our times. When I teach yoga in schools, I am struck by how jumbled their breathing is. They’re stressed out. Even the simple arts of relaxation and conscious breathing are radically new.
Due to the extent of our sitting, standing, driving, cell phoning and computer time, we are left with a strange combination of being physically bound up and mentally scattered, which is a body/mind split. Some of the effects are felt as stiffness, rigidity, limited range of motion, or disembodiment. The antidote is free movement.
The purpose of yoga is union. Just take it on a simple muscular level. If your posture patterns are out of balance, they eventually lead to pressure that cause the spine to compensate. Your vertebrae get out of alignment and your discs begin to degenerate. This leads to less circulation, your organs get less energy and your digestion becomes less effective.
I have a broad interpretation of what yoga is. I like to remind people that even if you have never done yoga techniques, you have still experienced the state of yoga, which is unified consciousness. For some people it’s accessed through kayaking, gardening, making love, playing music, going hiking in back-country, being with the trees, or just being.
Unified consciousness is the general term. Specific practices of yoga involve the entire cycle of life, including letting go of things that create toxicity in our body and our mind. When we regenerate our breath we recreate ourselves. This affects our relationships, including our connection to the Earth. There are places in need of preservation, for example, our wetlands. Many activists are in a desperate fight to show that these places are vital to the continuity of our environment.
Yoga originated within nature. Yoga masters in India live free in nature, often naked to absorb and reflect our original life force. The movements of yoga bring us into harmony with the Earth.
The essence of what we do is nonviolence. Through yoga, people become more joyful and connected in their bodies. Their tongues sweeten. As people start to feel this ground of love within them, it radiates out in the choices they make about food, ecology, and politics. One of the programs I am involved in is Yoga Inside, which brings yoga into juvenile detention centers and the prison system. It is as a way to create change person by person.
Sometimes we do postures that open the hamstrings. When you draw your foot toward your head, this fire of intense sensation starts to rise and we discover blocked places in the body. I think war is stored in the backs of the legs, because I have seen many men cry, not from any kind of pain, but from deep emotional release. Through yoga and dance, I see how our outlook and interaction with the world is connected with our embodiment.