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Sufi Stillness

Pick a simple asana - or one that looks simple.  Imagine practicing that one asana for the rest of your life.  Imagine dedicating yourself to that one physical expression of all that you celebrate.  Imagine living a disciplined life, studying scripture, developing ethical attitudes and practices and performing just one pose that encompassed your spiritual experience and ambitions.  That is my yogic impression of whirling dervishes.  Jim and I were lucky enough to attend an Islamic Sufi Sema in Istanbul at the Silivrikapi Mevlana Cultural Center.  I apologize in advance for the details I may get wrong here, please take this as a traveller's impression, not an expert account.

We were careful to arrange for a real service, avoiding the "cabaret dervishes" that perform in clubs and restaurants just for tourists, and that meant sitting patiently through a prayer service before the Sema ceremony started.  It was the first Muslim gathering either of us had attended, so much of it we simply didn't understand.   We had visited a Sufi Tekke (lodge) museum earlier in the week, so had some understanding of the dervish lifestyle, but we were still pretty uninformed.  The community was gathered in one room, with devout men and women sitting separately, some on cushions, some on chairs on the periphery of the room.  Leaders of the community all sat on the floor. Visitors were all given chairs, and not segregated by sex.

The prayer service involved speeches by several men, chanting from the Koran accompanied by extremly simple flute and drum music, and then lengthy call and response sessions between another man and the congregation.  This was ritualistic, repetitive, on the edge of mesmerizing.  Most members rocked, at least their heads but many their whole bodies. Some wept openly.  Waiting for the devishes to take the stage, we enjoyed this precursor to rhythm and heightened emotion.  My own body, and those of many other visitors' were also gently responding to the vibrations in the room.  And then without any discernible finale, it was over.  The lights became brighter, and dinner was served.

The dinner was unexpected.  Like passenges on a transcontinental flight, we were each given a fork and napkin, a hot aluminum dish of mixed grains and lamb, and ayran- a drinkable salted yogurt.  Everyone in the room ate quickly,and our young flight attendants came around to collect up the trash.  In a gallery above and behind the main space, musicians gathered, started tuning thier instruments and donned capes and caps. The space where people had been sitting on the floor was cleared, visitors were reminded not to use the flash on cameras, and the room settled into silence.

A group of twelve dervishes, including their sheik, poised at the back of the room.  Sufi beliefs are centered on love and tolerance, as taught by Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi. Dervishes are Sufis who have completed an incredibly dedicated training process.  Their initial training is 1001 days.  You yogis who have taken the 40 day challenge, think about that!  Among other things, they learn absolute obediance to their master, immerse themselves in scriptural study and practice charitable service. They practice whirling as well, and develop the skill of effacing their egos so that God can shine through them.  Until recently only men could participate in this Sema ceremony.  As a representative of the community related the story to us, a group of women approached the sheik and asked why they are still excluded.  The sheik gave them three months to practice and show him what they could do.  At the end of that time, they came and peformed the ceremony and the sheik was so impressed with the ego-less spinning that they offered he exclaimed that they were even better than the men!  I will add that the six women involved with this group completely held our attention.

All twelve wore an earth-colored tall hat - a sikke- which symbolizes the tombstone of the ego, a black robe - a hirka - representing the ego's tomb, and a full skirted white gown - a tennure- representing the ego's shroud.  The sheik walked to the front of the room across a carefully selected equatorial line to a red carpet which was his place.  As the ceremony continued, the other eleven semazens discarded their hirkas and bowed to pay respect to the sheik and each other.  They started with their arms crossed over their chests, hands resting on their own shoulders to demonstrate the unity of God, the oneness of all creation.  As they circled the room and then started to turn, they let their hands float up, shedding their egos, and extended their rights hands upturned to God in a gesture of receiving, and their left hands out and down in a gesture of generosity to all humankind.  In between, they keep nothing for themselves.

With admirable precision, the semazens began whirling in place, with one foot fixed and the other launching the body around and then touching again the same place on the floor to push off for the next turn. With each spin, their heads hung at a blissful angle between outstretched hands, they whisper in their hearts the name of Allah. I tried to match their rhythm and that whispering in myself, but they spun so fast, and my habit is to match my movements, even a silent mantra, to my breath. Distracted in my attempt to keep up, I let it go after awhile. Over and over in exact circles, perfect and perfect and sweetly perfect they whirled. This continued on and on, the music simple, melodyless and yet easy to settle into. The whirling went for quite some minutes, interrupted three times to shift the meaning of the practice, and repeat the respectful bow. During these short transitions, the dervishes's faces stayed placid, though their chests lifted with the fullness of deep breathing. They seemed to have found that yogic target of balance between effort and ease. The angle of their arms and hands and heads never change. Their eyes stay closed, or nearly so. As a vinyasa student, I sat enraptured by this moving meditation. The effect is visually stunning and marvelously photogenic as the white skirts lift and ripple in exquisite waves. The simultaneity of all the dervishes moving together with gentle joy and complete presence of mind was something I could have sat and watched for hours, like water spilling over a steep cliff into a welcoming pool.

It's true I am a sucker for physical peformance, especially at such a skill level. I get teary-eyed watching the Olympics - of seeing an athlete at the top of their game who has practiced and trained and practiced until they distill all their concentration and muscular control into the most brilliant moment of their athletic life. The same happens watching dancers or solo musicians, the highlights of sports news, a male bellydancer in Istanbul, Rajasthani women carrying loads of bricks on their heads with such grace. All these things interrupt my breath and widen my eyes. But these dervishes enacted this skillful physical control in a way that wasn't just physical. Their ease and simplicity brought to my mind a monk mindfully closing a door, or of a loving hand fondling another's head. Erich Schiffman has written of yogic stillness that it is movement centered and focused so perfectly that it resembles a spinning top that can move with such speed that it appears to be absent of movement. This whirling had that quality of stillness in the heart of movement. It was obvious watching these people that they do embody the tolerant loving faith they espouse, that in fact they hold nothing in reseve for themselves. This was a gorgeous example of mind/body/spirit actualizing God.

One asana, one pose, one twirl. Without tottering, without dizzyness, without the smallest imprecision or even the sense of exertion. Could I ever enact one motion so lovingly, so efficiently, so skillfully that another person would be inspired or enriched by witnessing it? I suppose to some extent, this is an egoist ambition. As I practice the physical limb of yoga, I try to remember that physical control is nothing if not an outward sign of my spiritual experience, of love and light. As a teacher, I hope to invite my students to the same. Namaste.

Posted by Stravaigin 12:03 Archived in Turkey Tagged sufi dervish sema

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