I began attending a Shakti yoga dance class in Glastonbury,
and I absolutely love it!
The Shakti Dance Academy describes the practice as: ''a unique Yogic System with a distinctive methodic practice, created by Sara Avtar. It consists of a combination of Eight Phases, which implement insights drawn from Yogic Philosophy and the practice of Kundalini Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan. It fuses breath, motion and mindfulness, expanding and merging consciousness with infinite Being.''
To me, it is a woman's dance, it raises the energy from root to crown, and then brings it back down again in an eternal cycle. The 8 phases ensure the raising and falling of this energy, and a serene peaceful feeling after the class.
“The soul is reflected and expressed through our dance when we are in most intimate contact with that Being that animates us.”
~ Sara Avtar
I speak to Ella, my Shakti dance yoga instructor, about her life and how she began practising Shakti...
''This is nice timing for me because I started yoga 9 years ago this month.'' At the time Ella didn't know what else to do with herself. She needed something to help her find some peace and look after herself, as she had not had healthy coping mechanisms until that point. Ella felt she was ''being squeezed my the field'' of infinite possibility, and knew she had to make fundamental changes to how she navigated life's challenges.
So she stopped drinking and smoking, and a knee injury stopped her from running: the one thing that kept her sane. Ella had just split up from a two and a half year relationship, and had just changed jobs to work from home. Sitting on floor in in her house in Berkshire one day, Ella asked herself: ''what am i going to do with myself?'' Something beyond her, other than her personality and thinking mind, popped up with the word 'yoga'. Great, she thought, that would get her out and meeting people.
Ella joined a class in a sports centre on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and brought a yoga mat, which came with 30 minute DVD. The first day she was planning to go, her car broke down, so she couldn't go for the first week. But she began doing the DVDs before bed. Prior to this Ella couldn't sleep and was having horrific nightmares, meaning she was becoming afraid to go to sleep. And giving up drinking and smoking meant she couldn't use these vices to knock herself out.
For a long time Ella had been interested in Shamanic practices, so as part of her new bedtime regime, she used her dreamcatcher, crystal and candles to create a sleeping ritual. She tells me this was the first time gone to bed not being drunk or stoned for at least 11 years. She had been in crisis for a long time, and the two sides of her practice- yoga and shamanism, contributed to her recovery.
In her yoga class, the instructor was a lovely lady named Silvia, who began teaching yoga the year Ella was born! Ella was age 31 at the time, and turned up with her new mat, brick, and running clothes, and Silvia gave her a friendly ''don't you look professional darling!''
About 40-45 mins into the class a wave of realisation hit Ella: for the first time in her life her head wasn't buzzing with thoughts. While self medication had calmed down the crazy internal dialogue temporarily, Ella had never experienced this state of quiet mind and good feeling in her body, and it had been gone for 40 minutes! It was a beautiful moment, and in Ella's heart she knew this is what she wanted to do every day, forever.
So she carried on with the DVD, went to both of Silvia's classes every week, and later joined another one. Ella got a chance to do the teacher training after only 14 months of doing yoga. Usually you have to wait 2 years, but she was doing so much of it! The training took 2 years and it transformed her. It was not just the yoga itself, but having to go different places around the country, ensuring that she got out of her comfort zone and forcing her to try new things.
She was doing a beautiful form of yoga, a branch of Hatha yoga. It was very disciplined. One day, just before her final exam, Ella's friends took her to another yoga class. This one was completely different: the freedom and the music, the teacher and the atmosphere was entirely different to what she had been used to. This class showed Ella that ''through discipline I could find freedom.''
There is a Kundalini yoga festival on every year, and after Ella's training she went to one of them. Again this was a different style to anything she had tried before. There were a few workshops and things going on in the morning, and then in the afternoon Ella could choose between a kundalini yoga class, and something called Shakti, which she had never heard of before.
Ella couldn't make up my mind, and it literally came to the point where she was stood at the crossroads: and her body kept walking, taking her to the Shakti class. And she loved it! It was yogi enough for her to feel completely comfortable, but then they started dancing! It took her right back to ballet and tap classes as a child. Ella loved clubbing and dancing during her teens and early 20s, but then it became a matter of ''how can I dance unless I'm off my face?'' But in this class she felt completely comfortable, and able to express herself through dance.
Ella started going to a Shakti class with Anjali, who also teaches Shakti yoga in Glastonbury. And then she decided to take the teacher training. Again it was over a long period of time, but doing various weekends in different places. Before Ella started that course she went to Peru to explore Shamanic medicine. This may seem like a completely different thing, but the similarities and cross-overs between shamanism and yoga are much more than most people would realise. Bringing in this element of magic and nature into her practice helped Ella immensely.
While she was doing the teacher training, Ella's mother got sick, and it quickly became apparent that she was terminally ill. Ella was planning on going back to South America to do more shamanic medicine explorations, and had left her flat to live with her parents, before she found out her mother was ill. They were very close, and had always spent a lot of time together. The Shakti training got Ella through that time, enabling her to support her mother better, and ensuring she looked after herself at that time.
Ella lived with her mother and helped take care of her for 5 months. For the last 2 weeks she was in a hospice. She kept telling Ella not to miss any of her training, but on the last few days of her life she was taking so much medication, thankfully allowing her to be free of pain: she didn't know what day it was. Ella missed one weekend, but her mother never knew.
She would sit on the floor of her room, pray for her, meditate, and repeat mantras. For the last 5 days Ella slept in the big chair in her room. When her spirit left her body, Ella was able to send her on her way with love, thanks to her Shakti and shamanic training. Her family encouraged her to go straight back to the training, as they knew that would be the best thing for her.
She went back to Peru and continued the medicine training, and then came to Glastonbury. For the first few months Ella was grounding herself there, walking up the Tor every day, getting to know the place, the land and the people. She started work at a jewellery shop in Street, just to get some money in, and eventually worked her way in to yoga and Shakti dance classes. She did private sessions for people in their homes.
Ella also does classes at a home for people with Autism. A customer at the jewellery shop recommended the place to her: she gave them one phone call and they said 'yes' straight away! She called many other similar venues and got no response at all: that one was meant to be.
Ella already had experience working with mentally and physically disabled people, but found the yoga sessions with the Autistic people very challenging. Some get right into it, follow instructions, and do the full sessions, while others dip in and out. Some when they started couldn't lift an arm without someone doing it for them, and now can follow these instructions. They do a lot of going over the different body parts in a 'head, shoulders, knees and toes' fashion before the class, so when Ella instructs them they remember where their 'heel' is or whatever it is. Simple directions like 'move forward' also came with a challenge, but step by step she sees a lot of improvement.
Ella now teaches Shakti yoga on Tuesdays and Thursdays, sharing the classes with Anjali, and she does two yoga classes in different places. She loves the Friday classes, which we just finished together. ''This is now the beginning of my weekend, no more classes until Monday!''