I recently returned from Bhubaneswar, India where I was studying and performing Odissi dance and teaching yoga to mostly dancers and musicians. Odissi is a classical dance that has its roots in the yogic temple rites of the tantrik priestesses of ancient Orissa or Kalinga. The dance was nearly lost during British rule because the sensual nature of the dance made the English uncomfortable.
Odissi has been reconstructed from existing traditions, the study of ancient texts like the Natya Shastra and from the study of temple sculptures. The Natya Shastra could be from 1500-3000 years old or even older according to some. It offers not only a general theory of aesthetics (often compared to Aristotle’s Poetics) it is also a detailed compendium of the technical details of the arts of dance, music, dramaturgy, costuming and all arts relating to the stage. It is often called the Fifth Veda. It describes performance as a kind of yoga or means of liberation (mokshya) for both performers and informed spectators.
This tradition of dance/music/theater/yoga has traditionally been open, unlike many other yogic traditions, to women, non-brahmins, and other “impure persons”. Though the state of Orissa is now largely Vashnaivite it was for many years a stronghold of tantrik Shiva/Shakti worship and there are a number of well-preserved temples from this period in Bhubaneswar, Puri, Konark and elsewhere. It was interesting to witness these temples with their many graphic sculptures not only depicting an acceptance of sexuality but celebrating its power in contrast to the pervasive shyness about sexuality in contemporary Indian society. It was a great gift to be learning the dance while living with a group dancers and feeling, at least momentarily, woven in to the spiritual fabric of their daily lives and practice. It seemed that many people had a practice with a strong spiritual focus or one which utilized dance and music as a means, but few people had a yoga practice which supported their physical well-being and complemented their other activities. So, I ended up being very much in demand as a yoga teacher – with students ranging from teenagers to a woman in her late 80’s. I was able to work in trade for room and board, dance study with teachers there, and a new silk costume! The overall experience was encouraging, invigorating and humbling. I can’t wait to go back in December!
Posted by: Douglas Ridings
Douglas will perform Odissi at 8 Limbs Capitol Hill on Saturday, May 15 prior to our scheduledd Kirtan with Gina Salá. He is also teaching in the 8 Limbs Yoga Immersion and will offer classes on Hindu Mythology and Home Practice.