arts, performance studies, yoga

Authentic Movement as Tandava

For many years, parallel with my training in Buddhism and Yoga, I practiced a contemporary contemplative discipline called Authentic Movement (AM). Developed by dancers and Jungian analysts in the 1970s, AM is rare in both its provenance as a contemplative art created and maintained almost entirely by women, and in its resistance to capitalism and the spiritual marketplace. Few people have heard of it. It is a beautiful and subtle form in which to undertake both spiritual and creative work, and taught me more than I often give it credit for.

The heart of the form is a profound investigation into the two archetypal roles that constitute relationships, art, and much spiritual thought, which AM calls “Mover” and “Witness.” The Mover moves with eyes closed, following impulse, and the Witness witnesses both the Mover’s actions, and her own experience while Witnessing. The Witness’s presence amplifies the Mover’s energy and focus, and the Mover becomes the Witness’s meditation subject, building the clarity of self-other discernment and compassion. Both roles are contemplative and a base for inquiry and insight.

I work with the structure now as part of the Haṭha Yoga Sadhana sequence, which arose as I grew to understand the roots of Haṭha Yoga as subtle energetic cultivation. This writing thinks through some of the yogic implications in the AM form, comparing it in its profounder depths to a mythic Hindu image of mystical dance known as Tandava, associated with the deity Śiva.

Authentic Movement as Tāṇḍava:
A Postmodern Re-dreaming of an Ancient Yoga

I. Impulse

The heart of the discipline of Authentic Movement is training in awareness of impulse.

Impulse is the embodied momentum of past experience, and feels non-volitional. It is the movement that precedes volition.

Awareness is the intimate, non-discursive witnessing of embodied experience, including sensation, feeling, thought, impulse, and action.

Initially, impulse is felt in relation to the many psychological and physiological discomforts that impede ease and clarity. Discomfort is the experience of impulse encountering immobility or not finding a clear pathway to expression.

Impulse is movement, and its force amplifies proportionate to each immobility it encounters.

Impulse can be wholesome: productive of beneficial states, or unwholesome: productive of harmful states. Both wholesome and unwholesome impulses can be habitual.

The path to liberation is through the cultivation of wholesome states, based in awareness of impulse. Awareness of impulse is the heart of contemplative practice.

II. Witness

Being witnessed by another person is extremely helpful in cultivating self-awareness, disinhibition, and confirmation of shifts in expression of impulse.

Clear witnessing of impulse and expression is necessary for healing, and matures as insight into identity and action.

The external witness teaches the internal witness, by example, to remain equanimous through changing experience, and helps discern when impulse is less habitual and more present.

Internal witness, of one’s own experience, and external experience, of another’s experience, are different only through the directionality of sensory attention.

“In this way [s/he] abides contemplating the body as a body internally, or … abides contemplating the body as a body externally, or … abides contemplating the body as a body both internally and externally.” [1]

Both Mover and Witness can be in wholesome or unwholesome states, but witness awareness is always wholesome.

When witness is absent, distraction, activation, and dissociation are unchecked, and impulse based in unwholesome habits leads to harmful action.

Ego, or the felt sense of individuality, is unable to interpret impulse except as an expression of itself. Ego expresses the present result of past privileges and traumas in distorted or clear ways depending on conditions.

As the inner witness becomes confident, able to discern and process the expressions of ego, an external witness becomes less imperative.

III. Healing

Impulse that moves in relation to past experience may be called “healing impulse.”

Healing impulse may arise out of the resonance of beneficial experience, called privilege, or harmful experience, called trauma. Both privilege and trauma must be processed and integrated before practice opens beyond personal healing.

Healing impulse arising from the resonance of beneficial experience indicates that the experience may not be fully integrated, or that the experience has come to be felt as not fully beneficial.

The expression of privilege-healing impulse may be indulgent or generous depending on the strength of present wholesome or unwholesome conditions.

Healing impulse arising from harmful experience seeks integration through self-protection, ego stabilization, and the return to safety and social connection.

The expression of trauma-healing impulse may be chaotic or restorative depending on the strength of present wholesome or unwholesome conditions.

Surface layers of disintegration mask subtler ones, which reveal incomplete developmental stages. Healing can engage with any layer, but always does so through the surface expression present in the moment.

Deeply integrated experience leaves little trace other than strengthened wholesome qualities.

When wholesome qualities predominate, active stabilization and integration of the past subside, and the system engages with present conditions without confusion.

Engagement without confusion has the qualities of ease and clarity.

IV. Source

As healing impulse moves toward integration, progressively subtler impulses may be discerned and followed, resulting in encounter with deeper layers of the self.

Tuning into subtler layers of movement impulse resonates layers of ego less busy with security and individuation.

As healing impulses are integrated, the mover may find impulse arising in relation to cultural, biological, and existential experience, the impersonal foundations of embodied life.

Contact with impersonal impulse dances the mover closer to the mysterious source of impulse, of which one name among many is Śiva-Śakti, unified Source.

Śakti, a name for creative force and created reality, is Mover, impulse, and movement. Śiva is a name for Witness, awareness, wakefulness, the knower. They co-arise, never separate.

Śiva-Śakti, co-arising Mover and Witness, shines through even the most egoistic impulse.

As impulse moves, and knots of distortion and immobility are unbound, subtle impulse is revealed in greater and greater purity, and the conditioned foundations of the self are revealed.

V. Completion

As impulses complete, disenchantment with their propagation arises, inspiring the practitioner to deeper healing through renunciation of ego-sustaining repetition.

Subtle impulse arises in relation to primal defenses, the longing for deep integration, and the urge to service through compassion.

The sweetness of subtle impulse is indescribable, but even subtle impulse must eventually be completed.

Practice conditions movement through ever subtler layers of impulse, immobility, and habit, revealing the end of impulse as a still point.

A still point ends each phase of both the healing and cultivation processes. No further expression of past experience is needed, and so none arises.

When a healing impulse has reached a still point, its imperative ends. After each still point, impulse arises less fettered by the past and tends toward creativity and service.

VI. Dance

Śiva Natarāja, a Hindu image of God dancing, performs the impulse from stillness into movement that is all creation, both verb and noun. His dance is called tāṇḍava. The feminine form, performed by Śakti, is called lasya.

Authentic Movement may be seen as a training in tāṇḍava-lasya, listening for both healing and creative impulse, moving through layers of ego and immobility, arriving at still points, then enjoying life after completion.

When there are few layers of constricted self to move through, impulses after still points arise from love, compassion, and service, and tend to be joyful, non-anxious, relational, and without personal agenda.

Contentment, wakefulness, and kindness are characteristic experiences of those who have passed through many still points.

The path of awareness of impulse, moving through healing, still point, and into creation manifests at each layer of the self as well as describing the larger arcs of practice and life.

As the end of impulse is experienced fully, discipline is revealed as inseparable from ordinary life, and formal practice is optional and celebratory.


[1] From the Theravāda Buddhist discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness, Majjhima Nikaya (10.5) tr. Ñānamoli & Bodhi, Boston: Wisdom, 1995.

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