The truth about ‘Ecstatic Dancing’ at The Yoga Barn in Ubud, Bali… (warning, this post may smell)

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Everyone in Ubud knows the Yoga Barn. It’s a sort of second home for eager expats, all of whom are quite happy to spend an extraordinary amount of money for the right to bend and stretch with one of the most beautiful views in Bali. There are numerous classes every day and I’m sure I’ll get to those later, but I should probably tell you that the yoga is not the best thing about the Yoga Barn. Not by a long shot. The best thing is the Ecstatic Dancing.

People here, I’m discovering, have a habit of doing the sort of things I’d normally do drunk, without an ounce of alcohol in their bodies. It’s amazing. For example, in my usual surroundings I’d never dream of prancing round a room waving my limbs about like a bush in a hurricane unless I was powered by wine. But last Friday night, as my friends in faraway cities were no doubt settling down to a bottle or two of Cabernet Bordeaux, I took to the dance floor in a bikini top and flowing skirt propelled by nothing more than a beetroot and ginger smoothie.

Let me be clear about something: on wine (red or white, doesn’t matter) I’m the greatest dancer in the world. My friend Gaby and I have a routine which involves taking over the entire floor of whichever bar we’re in, usually under the guise of fairies taking their first fanciful flight. In that moment, in the middle of our routine, pop song pumping and neon lights flashing, everyone in that room is enamoured. Half of them want to be with us. Half of them wish they were us. We’re beautiful, graceful and free as we spin and whirl and glide. On wine, we own the world.

On beetroot and ginger, even Gaby wouldn’t come near me with a barge pole. I’m alone. Everyone’s watching and they’re not looking pleased. No-one wants to be me because I’m the worst dancer to ever have been born with feet. And no-one wants to be with me ’cause I’m sweatier than an athlete’s bellybutton and I smell like vegetables.

Well, that’s how I feel, anyway.

The idea behind Ecstatic Dancing is that rather than remain constipated with the things we just can’t say, we feel them, work through them, shake them out through body movement and stamp all over them. With freedom of expression comes inner peace and harmony. We can do whatever we want to do to reach this stage of wellbeing, except drink wine. In ninety minutes of music, from hip-hop, to R&B, to Bollywood, right through to chill-out Zen, you can do exactly what your body wants to do and leave all inhibitions at the door. It’s a beautiful concept. But, oh my … the smell.

As if fighting a sober battle with self-consciousness isn’t enough, there’s the smell of Ecstatic Dancing to contend with. I don’t know why some people have such a resistance to deodorant, do you? I’ve thought about this before but it’s always been fleeting: on a train carriage, in a supermarket queue, in line for the loo at a music festival. I’ve never had to swirl among the stench while trying simultaneously to clear my mind. It was like performing La Bayadere in a sewer.

I’m not entirely sure who the offenders were exactly; Ecstatic Dancing takes place in a darkened yoga studio with only the light of the moon and a few dim bulbs above you (think being at a disco for the blind). I’ve a feeling one bare- chested, dreadlocked travelling man might have been the main contributor. At one point, after bopping about for ten minutes, we had to lie on the floor and ‘think about the sky’. A majestic cumulonimbus was forming in my mind when all of a sudden it got pretty wet. Rain’s on the way, I thought, before realising that no … no … I was just lying with my left arm in a seeping pool of malevolent fluid seeping slowly across the floor from a semi- naked hippy.

The other person competing for the Stinkiest Person in Public award I’m pretty sure was the good-looking young man who appeared to be dressed as a chimney sweep from 1917. He was wearing a cream shirt tucked into baggy pants, braces and an airtight flat cap. I’d have to cover my nose of course, but I harboured hopes that Chim Chiminey, Chim Chim Cher-oo might come on so he could really let loose. It didn’t.

I was about to leave … but then the vocal unravelling started.

This bit’s good, but you need to be prepared for it. I wasn’t. I was quite happy just to keep bopping quietly on the spot, you know, not attracting any attention as I worked through my issues but the petite, middle-aged lady next to me felt the sudden urge to scream at the top of her lungs. With no-one else in the room making any sound at all, she made me jump by deciding, somehow, that it was time for her to writhe on the floor at my feet, yell at my ankles and then get up and beat the walls of the yoga studio like a bloodthirsty zombie in a horror film. Seriously, she was doing things I wouldn’t have even done on wine. Even the cheap wine, that’s mostly chemicals. Obviously, this lady must have been very stressed.

I skipped away from her on several occasions and even attempted the fairy dance, albeit half-heartedly, across the floor, but the screaming continued. Others joined in from time to time, perhaps communicating in some lost language of freedom I have yet to learn. Some howled. I think it was a full moon.

By the time the slow songs came on, I’m pleased to report the initiator looked much better. She’d stopped banging on the walls and her screams had diminished to erratic, loud moans during moments of silence. No-one else felt the need to join her by then. They were all sufficiently free of despair. She was obviously what I have come to call an Ecstatic Try-Hard.

At the end of the class, we sat in a circle and held hands. We were encouraged to say a word that we felt in our hearts and squeeze the hands of the people on either side as we said it. I made sure my place in the circle was as far away from the stinking dreadlocked man, the chimney sweep and the zombie woman as possible. When it was my turn, I chose the word ‘relieved’. Everyone smiled and nodded, relieved to be free from energy blocks and issues. In all honesty, and with all due respect to them, I was definitely more relieved to be heading out to meet my friend River, and a glass of wine.

I found the whole thing excruciating. But … if I’m honest … really honest, perhaps part of that was due to the realisation that like most of my friends, pretty much my entire twenties was spent in a warm, fuzzy, alcohol-enhanced stupor believing things about myself and my abilities that simply weren’t true. Sure, confidence carried me through, but how much did I ever really benefit from dancing like no-one was watching, when most of the time I was too pissed to care? Hmm.

As I left the studio, the Ecstatic Try-Hard was still lying on the floor moaning. I’ve no idea how long she stayed there, emitting little zombie sounds on her own. Perhaps the cleaners ended up sweeping around her as she begged them not to sweep what was left of her broken soul? Perhaps they wound up locking her in, heading home for the night, only to find her still there the next day? Perhaps they had to lie her gently over the seat of one of their motorbikes and take her back to her house and remind her she had an entire expat family to feed and that she probably shouldn’t be so ‘Ecstatic’ for so long in the future?

I should mention there’s also Sunday Dance at the Yoga Barn, which causes me similar fear because it’s held in broad daylight on a Sunday morning when most people are in bed with a hangover. There’s a lot of clapping in this one. Sunday Dance when combined with Ecstatic Dance is a movement that would put Hare Krishna to shame.

I think I’m actually a little bit jealous that I can’t seem to dance Ecstatically. One of the things I’m slowly coming to notice, as the days go by here in Bali, is that I seem to have an almost crippling fear of letting myself go. Am I that conditioned by western society, that shallow, that bothered by what people think of me, that guided by my stupid ego that I simply can’t do it? I guess I am…

I can still do an awesome drunk fairy routine, though.

This is an excerpt from Balilicious – The Bali Diaries – now just 99p on Kindle.


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