YJ Tried It: Ecstatic Dance

When Yoga Journal Senior Editor Meghan Rabbitt found herself at an ecstatic dance class in Bali, she dropped all of her inhibitions—and it changed her yoga practice.
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I’m nervously standing toward the back of the main studio at The Yoga Barn in Ubud, Bali, waiting for the ecstatic dance class to start. I have no idea what to expect, but have been told it could very well be “the most ecstatic experience of my life.” I’m sold—and stand in line a whopping three hours before the 7:30 Friday night start time to secure a ticket for this event, which is one of the most popular classes here each week.

'What Ecstatic Dance Is All About'

I scan the room and quietly size up my fellow ecstatic dancers. The tan, long-haired guy in front of me is shirtless and wearing cropped Thai fishing pants; there’s a girl in the front row in a Bikram Yoga-style sports bra and cropped shorts who’s also wearing elbow and knee pads; there’s a 50-ish-year-old woman in a long, flowy dress right next to a 20-nothing with feathers in her hair and a glittery bra top that shows a lot of side boob. It’s my first lesson in what ecstatic dance is all about: anything goes. 

The music starts and we move slowly at first, breathing deeply and warming up our necks, arms, shoulders, backs, and legs. In ecstatic dance, there’s some guidance from the instructor at the very start of class, but then no talking—and definitely no directives on how to dance. There are no cues, and no instructor asking you to follow his choreography. Just music—loud, beautiful music—that starts off slow and then builds to a faster pace. It’s a mix between what you’d hear at a trendy vinyasa flow class and a new-age hippy rave, and it definitely looks like the latter—despite being a drug- and alcohol-free event.

See also Dancing On the Mat

'I Feel Like an Outsider'

At first, I feel like an outsider, despite the fact that I’m wearing my best harem pants jumpsuit to at least try to fit in on the fashion front. It’s just that everyone around me looks so comfortable and excited—like they’ve done this a million times before and know that ecstasy awaits. As I start to dance, I wonder, What will everyone think when they catch a glimpse of my moves? How can my dancing possibly compare to the girl with the glittery bra top who looks like she was born to ecstatic dance?

Then, something awesome happens. Maybe it’s the music, which feels almost trance-like at times. Or perhaps it’s the fact that when I glance around the room, lots of dancers have their eyes closed, which prompts me to close my own eyes and start moving my body however I damn well please. Within minutes of class starting, I start dancing like nobody is watching (because, as it turns out, they aren’t!) and it feels good.

'I Am Present in This Moment'

My hips start gyrating like I was a Latin dance pro in my last life, and my arms take on lives of their own, swirling around my head and down my body. I jump. I shake. I kick my right leg as high as I can, and then my left. I drop to my knees and lie on my stomach (now I understand the elbow and knee pads!), and stretch my entire body out on the floor before rolling onto my back, undulating up to sit, and then jumping up into the air. I take up more and more space and move to more areas of the room as the class goes on—and as I do that, my thoughts take up less and less space in my brain. I am present in this moment, simply moving as freely as I like, in community with a hundred other people doing the same.

When class is over, I walk down the spiral staircase at the Yoga Barn feeling like I rode an epic wave of collective vibration. My body feels amazing: worked, stretched-out, expressive, and free.

But the next day is when things got even more interesting. I rolled out my yoga mat for a morning practice and as I started doing Sun Salutations, I noticed I felt less fidgety than I’ve been in about a year. I’ve got 400 hours of yoga teacher training under my belt, and also have the privilege of working with some of the world’s most renowned yoga teachers and anatomists on content for Yoga Journal. Along with all of the increased knowledge I’ve picked up from my trainings and these experts, I’ve also found myself thinking—a lot—while holding yoga poses. Is my front thigh externally rotating as the inner arch of my front foot presses down into my mat during Warrior II? Am I engaging—but not gripping—my glutes in Bridge Pose? What adjustments can I make to raise my arms higher while also softening my ribs in Upward Salute? These are worthy efforts, to be sure, but sometimes I just wish I could trust that my body knows what to do so I can just flow.

The morning after ecstatic dance, that’s exactly what happened. I moved through those Sun Salutations—and the rest of my practice—with ease. I didn’t throw out all of my knowledge about good alignment, but I also wasn’t as keenly focused on it as usual. I was out of my head and fully in my body.

And it felt downright ecstatic. 

See also 10 Destinations for Your Yoga Travel Bucket List