Deep Thoughts with Martha Graham

A few years ago, I came across this quote in the course of some random internet trawling that had nothing to do with Martha Graham, dance, or even artistic expression:

You don’t have to believe in yourself or your work.  You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate YOU.

Martha Graham to Agnes De Mille

It really struck me. So I wouldn’t forget, I emailed it to myself and there is sat, in the deep, dark depths of my inbox for some number of years. Recently, I came across the note and thought that Martha Graham would make a good topic for this blog. Of course, today’s post is more of a random survey than a thorough examination of her artistic legacy, but I am just being open to the urges that motivate me.

Did I ever tell you that there was a time in my life that I wanted to grow up to be a dancer in Martha Graham’s company?  It’s true. Although, even in those days I had a hard time visualizing myself living as a starving artist living in New York City.  But there really was a moment in time that I was willing to consider giving up my comfortable, Southern California lifestyle to be a Graham dancer.

Graham technique was very captivating for a young Cynthia whose training up to that point had mainly focused on the classical ballet lexicon.  Not wearing shoes, using the floor in such a way, sure those were novel, but the biggest difference was the power with which one moved.

You see, in classical ballet you are trained to hold your center of gravity roughly around your diaphragm. This enables the lightness and quickness of the legs and feet. Think about lifting, lifting, lifting all of your energy up from your pelvis. Then cap that lift at the shoulders and close your rib cage around it. That energy turns into a little ball that floats around in that area above your waist. You lock it in there and hold it tight, then you move around it.

In Graham technique, you drop your center of gravity below your belly button. I didn’t know anything about Kundalini yoga at that time, but now I would say that you locate your center of gravity in your svadhisthana chakra. All motion then originates and radiates from your center, initiated by either a contraction or release. It creates a very powerful way of moving.

Here is a short video of Graham technique:

Martha Graham (1894-1991) was an innovator during a time of tremendous artistic innovation. She is sometimes referred to as the mother of modern dance because of the thoroughly developed technique and prodigious repertoire that she created. Graham’s early dance training was at the Denishawn School in Los Angeles where she eventually taught before moving to New York City in the 1920’s. There she began creating her own work. She is noted for creating 181 ballets over her 70-year career. Among her students was Merce Cunningham. Isamu Noguchi created sets for many of her ballets including the 1944, Aaron Copeland commissioned, Appalachian Spring.

 Here is an excerpt of Appalachian Spring with Graham dancing the lead role:

 Ok, back to the quote. The thing about it is that in this statement, she completely eliminates the role of ego from artistic expression (at least in principle). What she is saying is that you don’t have to think you’re great (or even good) and you don’t have to like what you create. Your job is just to be open to the act of creation. There are a lot of people who have used a lot more words to express this same idea. I love how Graham is so no-nonsense about it.

Is there something creative that you’ve been putting off?  Maybe it’s time to do it.

An Intro to Chakras – Svadhisthana

“He who meditates upon this stainless Lotus, which is named Svadhisthana, is freed immediately from all his enemies…and is like the sun illuminating the dense darkness of ignorance.”

Description of the Six Centres, Verse 18

Svadhisthana – the sacral chakra

The next chakra is svadhisthana, the sacral chakra. This is the chakra of emotions and creativity.  Within the body, svadhisthana is located in the region of the sacrum, where the spine connects to the pelvis.

When svadhisthana is not activated, we exist in a psychic state where we just want to live in a carefree and hedonistic way.  Wilhelm Hauer (a Tantric scholar and contemporary of Jung) described it as, “the life we live freely and thoughtlessly, just throwing ourselves into the stream of life and letting ourselves be carried, floating on to all that comes to us.”

In modern descriptions, svadhisthana is assigned the color orange, but in the traditional texts, the six petals of the mandala are described as being of a vermillion (bright red) color.  It is associated with the element of water, symbolized by the silver crescent moon within the mandala.

The animal contained within the mandala is a makara (crocodile or sea monster).  This is the only chakra whose mandala contains a scary animal.  To Jung the svadhisthana chakra contains the idea of a symbolic death complete with confronting the danger of being drowned or devoured by the makara.  He relates this not only to the act of baptism but also to the sun myth found in ancient cultures such as the Egyptians and the Greeks.  I found his equating the whole baptismal story to the sun myth very enlightening.  Here is how he explains it,

“…the sun in the afternoon is getting old and weak, and therefore he is drowned; he goes down into the western sea, travels underneath the waters (the night sea journey) and comes up in the morning reborn in the East.  So, one would call the second chakra, the chakra of baptism, or of rebirth, or of destruction – whatever the consensus of the baptism may be.”

– Carl Jung, The Psychology of Kundalini Yoga

Jung’s interpretation is even more interesting if considered with regard to creativity.  Think about the fear that can accompany your desire to express yourself creatively.  For example, I have a lot of fear concerning writing these posts about chakras.  I have fear every time I get ready to start a new creative project. Is this going to be too hard?  Am I going to be able to make something good enough? Do I have what I need (either the experience or the materials) to complete this?  The fear keeps me from starting.  But at some point, I have to take a deep breath and dive in.  Face the monster and come out the other side with the satisfaction of knowing that the idea inside of me has been released into the world. 

Think about it like going for a swim in the ocean.  You can stand near the shore and keep getting pounded by the break or you can take a deep breath and dive in, and when you come out on the back side of the waves, you realize how much easier it was to act than to let your fear keep you stuck where you were.

Next week we will talk about manipura – where you arrive when you are reborn after your symbolic death.

An Intro to Chakras – Overview

Today I am going to give a quick overview of the six chakras and sahasrara (the crown chakra) and then beginning June 3rd (we’ll take Memorial Day off) will begin going through each chakra one at a time.

In last week’s post I mentioned that Kundalini sleeps at the base of the tailbone and that when the chakras are activated, she rises, ultimately reaching the crown of the head.  It follows that the chakras are discussed from the bottom up.

The mandala of each chakra contains several elements:

  • One central Sanskrit syllable (or mantra) at the center and a varying number of lotus petals around the perimeter, each containing the symbol of a Sanskrit syllable.
  • A geometric shape representing an element.
  • The representation of an animal.
  • The representation of deities.
  • Various colors.  There are different interpretations of the colors of the chakras.  In the older works (Serpent Power, Jung’s lectures, etc.) the colors are very complex (ex: within one mandala one part is vermillion, another part is a smoky color and the animal is black) but in our modern interpretations they have been simplified into basic rainbow colors.

Today I will explain the location of each chakra with relation to the physical body and give a few key components of the symbolism of each.

Muladhara – the root chakra

Muladhara is referred to as the root chakra as it grounds us to our physical reality.  Its location in the subtle body is near the base of the tailbone – Kundalini sleeps below muladhara.  The element of the chakra is earth (grounding, foundation, root).  The mandala of muladhara includes a yellow square (symbolizing earth), an elephant, the syllable lam, and is surrounded by four petals. 

Svadhisthana – the chakra of creativity

The next chakra, Svadhisthana is found in the region of the reproductive organs and is considered the chakra of creativity (consider the proximity to where life is created).  Its mandala has six petals.  An eight-petaled lotus inside the mandala with a white crescent moon symbolizes water.  The mandala also contains a sea monster (sometimes referred to as an alligator) and the syllable vam.  This chakra is associated with unconsciousness and emotion and is closely connected to muladhara.

Manipura – the solar plexus chakra

Above svadhisthana is the power chakra of manipura.  Manipura is located in the solar plexus region (above the navel but below the diaphragm).  Manipura means “lustrous gem” and this chakra is associated with the element of fire. The mandala is surrounded by ten petals and contains a triangle shape (representing fire) as well as both the syllable ram, and a representation of a ram.

Anahata – the heart chakra

The word translates to “unstruck” which relates to the sounds of the celestial realm where there are no hard sounds, as well as “pure” referring to the state we achieve when we are able to become detached by activating this chakra.  It is associated with balance, calmness, and serenity. The anahata mandala is surrounded by twelve petals.  Inside, it contains two triangles creating a six-pointed star, the syllable yam, and an antelope.  The element of this chakra is air.

Vishuddha – the throat chakra

Vishuddha chakra is located in the region of the thyroid gland.  Sixteen petals surround this chakra’s mandala and within it is a sky-blue, downward pointing triangle that contains a white circle (representation of the full moon), symbolizing the element ether.  The mandala also contains a white elephant and the syllable ham.  Stress caused by the fear of speaking up can affect this chakra.

Ajna – the third eye

Associated with the pineal gland, the ajna chakra serves as our link to the subconscious and the brahman (the ultimate reality underlying everything).  Activating this chakra connects a person to her intuition. The ajna mandala is surrounded by two petals.  The seed syllable contained within this mandala is om, the primordial sound and most sacred of all syllables.  There is no element connected with this chakra, because by this point corporeal reality has been transcended.

Bonus chakra content: Sahasrara – the crown chakra (thousand-petaled lotus)

Sahasrara is included in the Description of the Six Centres, and in some interpretations is referred to as the seventh chakra.  This is the point at which Kundalini connects to the energy of the universe and pure consciousness is achieved.  Sahasrara is described as a 1,000 petaled lotus flower.  The petals are arranged 20 rows of 50 petals, so all of the 50 syllables of Sanskrit are repeated 20 times.

In the coming weeks, I will go through each chakra in more detail and get into Jung’s interpretations of the symbols in terms of archetypes.  I’m also going to work on finding some images of the mandalas that I can share with you.