mine is a dancing path

an interview with gabrielle roth on mind, dance and freedom
Gabrielle Roth writes in her book, Sweat Your Prayers, “Mine is a
dancing path. My bible is the body because the body can’t

Through her personal exploration of dance as a spiritual practice Gabrielle has developed an organic body of teachings, including her trademark 5Rhythms™. The universal rhythms, which she defines as flowing, staccato, chaos, lyrical and stillness, are a natural way to work the body and the soul. She practises and teaches through these rhythms, moving herself and her students through a process of opening and letting go.

Gabrielle has written two successful books, Maps to Ecstasy and Sweat Your Prayers, recorded numerous albums, and has her own record label, Raven Recording. Her most recent recording, Sundari, is a collaboration with the Jivamukti Yoga Center in New York City. The CD sleeve includes instructions for a yoga practice set to Gabrielle’s music. “Jivamukti uses music in the teaching of yoga, and they use a lot of my music, so it just seemed perfect to team up and put the two things together.” Gabrielle also teaches dance, theatre and movement internationally.

 I reached Gabrielle Roth at her apartment in New York City. As we talked I could hear the noises of the New York streets outside her window. “I learned to meditate in New York,” she says. “Here, you are forced inside yourself—it’s like meditate or go mad because you get swept up in the beat of the day. It becomes a matter of life and death.”

Gabrielle seems to understand the world through beat and rhythm. Her music is based on percussion rhythms that inspire movement, and her dance practices encourage breaking down the concepts that keep us blocked from our natural rhythm. Through rhythm and dance, she works toward stilling the mind, and connecting to what she calls “the vast intelligence.”

Gabrielle’s insights into the nature of the mind have a depth that can only come from years of personal practice. I think this is part of what attracts people to her. She speaks with honesty and intelligence about her life, her suffering and her triumphs.

Clea McDougall   I’ll start with the hardest question. What is the mind?

Gabrielle Roth   Well, that is such a huge question. The mind, like everything else, is energy. And there are different levels of mind. There is the chit-chattering mind of ego, and then there is the vast intuitive mind of consciousness. I see it as this vast Divine intelligence that is behind everything and within everything. So when I am talking about the mind, I’m not talking about the head, the thinking little mind or even the analytical mind. I see it more as a vast intuitive mind.

CM   And how do you get in touch with the mind?

GR   Through the dance, through my body. For me it’s all one energy—body/spirit, body/mind —and I only break them down in order to discuss them. Body, mind, heart, soul and spirit are a unified field of energy. Spirit is the vast field of nothingness that is both within us and without us. My interest in the body-spirit split has been in the fact that we don’t breathe. Most people breathe only to about the neck, which means that spirit, which is the major catalyst of life, is not being allowed inside of us.

So I only know for myself that the deeper I breathe, the deeper I live. I dance to free my breath, to liberate my breath, to be breathed as deeply as possible. Breath is an organic outcome of dancing, or at least the dancing practice that I do. At the end of that practice I am breathing very fully, and I can sit then in an emptier space within myself. If I just sit sometimes, I am not full of emptiness, I am full of stress and tension and lots of little worries and angst and insecurities. If I dance to relieve myself of these little monsters, then I have a better chance of reaching that inner, peaceful, blissful state of being.

CM   So dancing is like a passageway for you.

GR   Dance is my gateway to a deeper sense of unity and…it’s my gateway to everything. It’s my gateway to more deeply live and occupy my body, my heart and my mind. When the body, heart and mind are unified, that is the soul or an expression of what we call soul, and that soul is spirited or catalyzed by breath.

There are many people who talk about the body-mind split, and that is really very funny to me because nobody even mentions the heart. And yet many people are quite split off—their emotions are numb and disengaged from their physical being or they are thinking one thing and feeling another and doing a third in a kind of trizophrenic manic-depressive way.

So, I guess that my personal work has been to become really free. I ask myself and my students every day—do you have the discipline to be a free spirit?

CM   That really interests me about your work, the dance as a discipline or a way to liberation. Our classical ideal of discipline is sitting or meditating or imposing a stillness, but you are looking at it in an opposite way.

GR   I am, but you know, both ways can reach the same end. I started very young and I had too much energy to just sit. I was American, caught up in the 4/4 beat of Western culture and rock ’n’ roll. For me to sit and stare at a candle when I was nineteen was really difficult. And yet, if I danced and poured myself back into the greater dance, then I found I could sit forever. The whole idea of meditation is to still the mind, and for me the fastest way to still the mind is to move the body. Instead of stilling my body to still my mind, I am doing the exact opposite—moving my body to still my mind. And I found it works very beautifully. I still do a lot of sitting meditation, as well as dancing.

CM   Do you practise Buddhism?

GR   Well, I love Buddhism. I am not a practising, bona fide Buddhist, but I totally feel akin to the philosophy of Buddhism. I do certain Buddhist meditations and have studied with Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama. I would certainly go and sit at the feet of any Buddhist teacher I’m attracted to, as well as any other wonderful teachers, but I am not a practising Buddhist.

CM   Does Buddhism inform your own spirituality?

GR   Well, I would say that it is one with my own spirituality. I find no discrepancies. For me there is no dogma in the dance, and that is why I love it. It’s beyond words. Everything is in a pure energy state. Yes, I am sure that Buddhism does inform my work—absolutely. Almost everything does.

CM   What about yoga?

GR   I have always had an interest in yoga and I have practised it at various times in my life. I love yoga. It is the opposite of my own practice, but they go together like opposites attract. One is about control and stretching and stretching into God, and the other one is about surrender and stretching into God. In everything is the seed of its apparent opposite. Inside of the control of yoga, there is a great, deep surrender, and inside of the surrender of the 5Rhythms™ practice there is an amazing amount of control. It just depends on what gateway you are moving through.

I am all for anything that liberates us. I don’t think there is just one path. The Sufis have amazing work, and the Buddhists have amazing work, the whole yogic tradition, and the Zen tradition—there is a lot to inspire us and to guide us and inform us these days—so we are a blessed people actually.

CM   It seems that in the West all these traditions are starting to mix together—they appear to be essentially the same or share an essential seed.

GR   I think so. If we are talking about essential truth, then it doesn’t matter if you are looking at it through the perspective of a Native American medicine wheel or the Chinese five elements or the 5Rhythms™ or the Buddhist precepts. You are looking at the same creative situation: How do we Wake Up? What does it mean to be a human being?

The ego part of the mind needs to be disciplined. It’s what Carlos Castaneda calls the foreign installation. All of these disciplines are really about how to stop that chattering mind, that monkey mind.

And so for me, I found dance helps me do that. And not just dance, because I began as a dancer and I had to think about if I was doing it right, if I was doing it wrong, if it was as good as they wanted it to be. It was blah blah blah, lots of judging, lots of criticism, lots of ego. The five rhythms are a movement practice; there are no steps to hold onto, it is more about aligning with the flow of our energy, how to let the breath in, let the breath out, how to let it go and let go of letting go and then let it be. It is really more of a discipline that has a lot of spontaneity to it—it’s the discipline of spontaneity.

Each rhythm is a great teacher and each has different things to teach us. For me, entering into each rhythm each day is a totally different experience. I bring a different Gabrielle to it and I receive different teachings from it—so it’s a very alive practice. It requires a lot of me. I have to bring my whole self to the table. In my world, God is the dance, and in the practice I am only offering myself back to the dance. I offer my head, my shoulders, my elbows, my hands, my spine, my hips, my knees. I offer myself back to the dance. I empty myself out back into the dance, back into the flow so that the greater dance can move through me.

CM   So you bring an art, the practice of dance, to a different level by offering it back to God, or to the Divine.

GR   Yes. It’s about the position of the mind, what your attitude is. You can go and dance in a club and your attitude can be one of great self-consciousness or you are there to be seen or to find Mr. Right. But in spiritual practice you are just showing up like a question mark always to find out what is going on and to transform it into nothingness.

And that is a big job. When I first started working with movement practice as opposed to dance as an art form, then I did think it was just about freeing the body. But as soon as the body got really free, then the heart started to speak up for itself and all kinds of emotions started to move. I realized that all this emotional energy that we repress in our culture has to be dealt with. It doesn’t just disappear and dissolve because we say “no” when we actually want to say “yes.” It gets caught inside of us, and that needs to be emptied out.

Everything has to go—beliefs, attitudes, theories, dogmas. One cannot be attached to anything. So we have to empty the mind out.

 And it is only in this process of emptying the body, emptying the heart, emptying the mind that we can come to some real experience of emptiness that is alive and that is mindful and aware and awake.

 It’s an active practice for me of really releasing and letting go of absolutely everything and finding a place of detachment that is not just an idea but an actual experience.

I guess that was my thing—I came to spiritual practice with a need to go below the mind. When I say below the mind, I mean the thinking mind. I didn’t need any more ideas. I came to spiritual practice to let go of everything, including all of my ideas. And at some point I realized that the thing I was trying to get rid of was myself or any concepts that I might have of a self or an I. That included even any kind of need that I had to wake up or be enlightened or anything. All of it had to go, and I feel much better since. It is a continual process of letting go.

CM   Your work is so personal, it is charged with your own personal process. And you teach from that place. How did you get onto this path?

GR   Well, I have been doing this since I was sixteen. I have been developing my own work since I was sixteen years old and I am now fifty-nine. I am a woman and a mother and a wife and a daughter and a sister and a friend and lover. I take life personally, it’s not abstract. I feel it, I live it. My practice is rooted in the feminine. There’s a lot of permission in it. It’s very physical, and it is very relationship oriented, very heart oriented. It is a soulful practice. I have always considered it a very feminine spiritual practice—it’s not about hierarchies or gurus, it’s not linear like that. It is very circular, very tribal, very celebratory, and very ritualistic.

CM   And what inspired you to give back through teaching?

GR   Suffering—my own and everybody else’s. And poverty. I was a poor kid and I needed to work, and the only thing I knew how to do was dance. So I ended up teaching it to people who couldn’t dance or wouldn’t dance. And in the process of doing that I became deeply in touch with my own suffering. Through that awareness I saw that I wasn’t alone, that everybody else was suffering very deeply, too. I found this wonderful space inside of myself through the dance, and I knew everyone else had that space inside of them, and I just wanted to take them there.

Early on I found ecstatic bliss in the dance, it was just a natural organic thing. So I wanted to take everyone else with me to that place, because I knew that once they tasted that space they would always crave it and want it and that would put them on the right path. That is how it happened, and it just got more and more intricate, involved and evolved as time went on. But it was very organic. I started from scratch, made it up myself out of my own relationship to the people I was working with and my desire to serve them, and that’s how it happened—very simply actually.

CM   You say you can make a dancer out of anyone…

GR   Well, the dancer is already there, I never question that. I just have to help them get rid of an attitude or an obstacle that is in the way. It is usually some form of unconsciousness or self-consciousness that traps us into a picture of ourselves as a non-dancer or the only person in the world with no rhythm. Actually the entire show is being run by rhythm, and rhythm is our mother tongue, so we all speak it naturally. It is just a question of creating the space for people to discover that.

It is quite incredible, and it is very beautiful to see. Sometimes people get really stuck in their own disciplines and their practice becomes a limitation rather than something that is a constant opening. So I think the 5Rhythms™ have been very liberating for a lot of people, and they are able to bring back that liberation to other practices and work with that. They all work together, you know—yoga, aikido, all the physical practices—they each give us something different. And I would say that the 5Rhythms™ practice gives us freedom.

And in the end, we have to really commit ourselves. Yoga is not something you can do every once in a while, it takes daily surrender. So it is a question for each one of us to figure out the particular things that really resonate within us and resonate with our soul and then to commit ourselves to those practices.

CM   Is it the practice that changes the mind?

GR   Yes. It is all mind.

Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life