Last summer I took a workshop at Halima’s Bellydance School in Eindhoven about Sufi Whirling. I didn’t quite know what to expect but it was something new to experience so it was harder to say no then to go ahead and enter. The workshop was part of a set of three workshops that were given to pass the summer whilst lessons were laid off until the end of summer. I never heard of Sufi Whirling before but little did I know I was about to experience something that’s quite literally a life changing experience for many people. As I walked into the room the teacher invited us to sit down on the pillows and armchairs in the Morrocan styled room. Christmas lights were sparkling brightly, soft humming music in the background. And she started to explain what we were about to do.
Sufi whirling (or Sufi spinning), (Arabic: الرقص الصوفي) is a form of Sama or physicaly active meditation which orginated among Sufis, and which is still practiced by the Sufi Dervishes of the Mevlevi order. It is a customary dance performed within the Sema, or worship ceremony, through which dervishes (also called semazens) aim to reach the source of all perfection, or kemal. This is sought through abandoning one’s nafs, egos or personal desires, by listening to the music, focusing on God, and spinning one’s body in repetitive circles, which has been seen as a symbolic imitation of planets in the Solar System orbiting the sun.
As explained by Sufis: “In the symbolism of the Sema ritual, the semazen’s camel’s hair hat (sikke) represents the tombstone of the ego; his wide, white skirt represents the ego’s shroud. By removing his black cloak, he is spiritually reborn to the truth. At the beginning of the Sema, by holding his arms crosswise, the semazen appears to represent the number one, thus testifying to God’s unity. While whirling, his arms are open: his right arm is directed to the sky, ready to receive God’s beneficence; his left hand, upon which his eyes are fastened, is turned toward the earth. The semazen conveys God’s spiritual gift to those who are witnessing the Sema. Revolving from right to left around the heart, the semazen embraces all humanity with love. The human being has been created with love in order to love. Mevlâna Jalâluddîn Rumi says, “All loves are a bridge to Divine love. Yet, those who have not had a taste of it do not know!”
The quote above kind of says it all.. but I didn’t know that back then. To illustrate in motion what it is that I’m talking about, here’s a link to a youtube video: Sufi Whirling Dervishes
Prior to the workshop we’d gotten the information to bring 2 sets of clothes; one completely black and one completely white. Bit of an issue for me because I usually don’t wear a lot of whites but after some effort downtown I managed to obtain a lovely set consisting of a long white skirt and a wrapped top. The black was alright; it didn’t have to be quite all black so I just had to reach into my closet and take something out.
So there we sat with our clothes at hand. As we enjoyed some homemade delicacies and tea we got to understand that what we were about to do could look a little bit weird at first but it would be worth the experience. Some women in the group had already been to the workshop once before and nodded their agreement. The teacher explained it was a spiritual thing to do that could reach into the deepest of your soul and bring out all emotions if you were able to let go and go with the spinning motion and the music that would play in the background.
Then she explained the rules of the game we were about to play. Half the women in the room had to wear the black sets; these were going to be the accompanists, watching over the other half of the students dressed in white as they took their first steps into whirling.
We dressed up and got into appointed places, one accompanist matched with one spinner, neatly arranged across the floor. What the accompanists were supposed to do was help the spinners stay up straight. With both hands held out wide and facing towards the spinner they were going to send their energy and directions to support the spinner and help them to continue.
The women in white were explained what was expected of them too; they were told to hold one hand faced up towards the skies and one hand faced down towards the earth. As they would advance spinning, their focus should be on a ring on a finger or any other spot that would make focusing on one spot easy. And to find their own rhythm in the music. They didn’t have to be afraid but they did have to make sure they were doing it in their own pace for as long as they felt comfortable.
Reason for the teacher explaining this is that Sufi Whirling is a way to release stress or reach far into your deepest sense and emotions. Some people experience quite hefty emotions when they start spinning. Some may be merely impressed or in awe, others may be very thoughtful for a while. At the workshop I saw a woman who was completely distraught after a while. So distraught she broke out in tears and sat in one of the armchairs for a good half an hour just trying to recuperate. Heavy stuff, right?
Once everything was said and done the women in white started whirling carefully but quickly grew accustomed to their spinning trances. I say trances because it really is just that. Once you let go and start trusting your accompanist to guide you through, you can let go of fears and inhibitions. You concentrate on one spot on your hand and the world around you starts to face to grey with every so often a black spot flashing by in a clear moment. When you continue spinning, the entire room will become visible after a while quite brightly and though you won’t be looking at it, you will be aware of everything that’s going on. And at the same time, it will not matter. All that will matter is the motion of spinning, of the trance you find yourself in and how wonderful it feels to turn around so often and keep turning, keep spinning.
I spun for about 10 minutes after I gave up; I wasn’t entirely able to let myself go. My usual tendency to keep control at all costs interfered, unfortunately. But I tried it a few weeks later at home and it went a bit better there.
My friend whom I was accompanying spun for about 45 minutes. She didn’t feel it was that long, at all. That’s the strange thing in being in that trance; you don’t notice time anymore. You just get lost and let go.
The longest a woman spun in that class was one and a half hours. When you look at a video of Sufi Whirling it’s hard to imagine that this motion is so strong and captivating but to every one that is interested, I completely recommend visiting a workshop. Please be careful when you want to practice this at home though; without at least the first few times being accompanied, you might genuinely hurt yourself. It can be real hard not to slam into a wall.. Especially when you try to stop spinning! The women who spun for one and a half hours had serious issues stopping the whirling. She just couldn’t figure out how to do it. I know it sounds weird but that’s another truth of it; she genuinely couldn’t do it by herself and had to be helped by two others to come to a stand still. Partially because she’d gotten so used to the whirling motion but I think also because she simply didn’t really want to stop. Feeling good is addictive.
Once everyone had stopped and we’d all gotten our turns we sat down in the armchairs and on the pillows again and spoke about what had just happened. Unanimously we decided that this had been a mind altering experience. Words like “amazing”, “liberating” and “emotive” were used and we just couldn’t really grasp how it had played around with our beings. Once the daze of the trance had faded we drank some more tea. And eventually we returned to our homes again, feeling content and relieved of our stress.
Whenever I practice Sufi whirling at home these days I dance to “Semaname” by Mercan Dede (link to youtube). Obviously it’s not as quick paced as the music in the video I linked earlier but you have to use whatever you feel most comfortable with and I feel that if I’d use quicker music I’d literally spin out of control. I love how the narrator explains what Sufi Whirling does to him; it reminds me to why I do it too. His entire album “Sufi Traveler” (2004, link to amazon.com) is a wonderful musical journey to take. As I am not Turkish I don’t know about a lot of native Turkish music and I’m sure that some of my friends in that side of the world would be able to direct me to far more songs just as beautiful or far more beautiful. But until that happens I’ll recommend this! Coming year I’ll definitely join this workshop again to practice. I can’t wait.
If you are looking for more info on the history, the use and the idea behind Sufi Whirling please find out more on this wikipedia page.
One video to close this blogpost with: Sufi Whirling. Do you see the smile on her face and how relaxed and at ease it makes her feel? 🙂