Why you should care
Because this may be better than analyzing your childhood or taking a bunch of meds.
When Ya’Acov Darling Khan was 22, he was struck by lightning. Dazed, but otherwise unharmed, he came to on the grass where he had been playing golf as a summer storm closed in. Later he would come to see this near-death experience as his summons to the sacred path of the shaman.
After 30 years — and a grueling apprenticeship with indigenous healers in the Arctic and the Amazon, Darling Khan, along with his wife, Susannah, have built a global following for their School of Movement Medicine in England. The call to action? To reboot your life and begin healing emotional pain by surrendering to the beat of Darling Khan’s drum. This involves tuning into the silent promptings of your body and gyrating, swaying or leaping like they did in Paleolithic times.
“There’s an incredible feeling — a creativity, an energy, a life force — that’s awakened in people when they simply allow themselves to be moved by rhythm,” Darling Khan says via Zoom from his home in the English county of Devon, where drums acquired on his travels adorn the walls. “We’ve developed a very down-to-earth, practical way to connect with that innate intelligence — and be in community as we’re doing it.”
A growing community of psychotherapists believe that the key to lasting change lies not in retreating inside our heads, but in getting back in touch with our bodies.
While ecstatic dance has been around for eons, Darling Khan’s work is finding a new and expanding audience as more people question the limits of conventional methods for treating depression, anxiety and trauma.
Ever since Josef Breuer and his protégé Sigmund Freud coined the term ‘talking cure’ in the late 19th century, millions of people have assumed the way to rid themselves of neuroses is to meet with a therapist and discuss how they feel.
There’s no question that talk therapy can help, but a growing community of psychotherapists believes that the key to lasting change lies not in retreating inside our heads, but in getting back in touch with our bodies. That’s because our painful experiences don’t just exist as pictures in a mental scrapbook: Trauma can leave physical imprints in the memory of our cells. By harnessing movement, breath and bodywork, advocates of body-based therapies believe it’s possible to resolve the deepest layers of rage, terror and shame that talking alone cannot access.
Mounting evidence from neuroscience suggests they may be right. Among the most vocal champions of the new approach is the world-renowned trauma psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, who cited various neuro-imaging studies in his 2014 best-seller, The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma.
“I work as a psychotherapist, and movement is the vehicle for transformation,” says Professor Helen Payne, an authority on dance therapy at the U.K.’s University of Hertfordshire, and founding editor of the peer-reviewed journal Body, Movement and Dance in Psychotherapy.
Darling Khan arrived at similar conclusions — albeit via a far less academic route. In traditional societies, shamans learn to journey beyond the veil of ordinary reality to confer with spirits — an unexpected path for a Jewish boy who grew up in Liverpool and planned, by the age of 7, to become a rabbi.
But he veered away from religion as a young man, pouring his energies instead into anarchic political activism. One night, using bolt cutters to dismantle a fence guarding a nuclear submarine base in Scotland, he felt something shift internally — and knew that his anger with the system was distracting him from the more urgent task of confronting conflicts raging within himself.
For years, Darling Khan and Susannah studied with the late Gabrielle Roth, a New York-based “urban shaman” and founder of the 5Rhythms school of ecstatic dance. Then, looking to take the work deeper, Darling Khan embarked on a series of initiations with indigenous shamans who seemed to know him before they met. Among them, a reindeer-skin-clad figure who had visited him for years in his dreams. Bikko Máhte Penta, a shaman of the Sami people who live on the Arctic tundra, would become one of Darling Khan’s most influential mentors.
David Tucker works with the Pachamama Alliance, an organization that has collaborated with indigenous people to preserve the rainforest at the headwaters of the Amazon River for 20 years. Tucker has traveled to the region with Darling Khan and has seen how thoroughly he has been initiated into its shamanic culture.
“Ya’Acov has walked that path in long, and arduous and authentic ways, and has cultivated a ‘medicine bag’ that is very powerful and appropriate for our world today,” Tucker says. “He walks with a lot of power and integrity — and also he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s got this wonderful sense of humor: that’s actually a shamanic tool.”
Darling Khan sees his mission in global terms, confident that as individuals reconnect with the wisdom in their bodies, they will be inspired to contribute to wider social change. Movement Medicine has spread throughout Europe, to North and South America, Japan, Israel and several countries in Africa. Schools, hospitals, prisons and other institutions are experimenting with it, and a new online Movement Tribe project will allow people to try ecstatic dance in their homes.
Participants report powerful shifts — from increased vitality to new clarity around challenges dogging their families, relationships or careers. Nevertheless, experts caution that anyone who may have experienced significant trauma should always consult a trained clinician.
“For many of us, doing this kind of bodywork is so important because it opens us up to the bigger part of who we are,” says Sun Tui, a British psychotraumatologist trained in a wide range of evidence-based therapies. “But when people have severe trauma, they can block out their body, and taking them back into their body too quickly can be dangerous.”
After a lifetime searching for his innate rhythm, Darling Khan — whose new book, Shaman: Opening the Door Between the Worlds, is due out later this year — is convinced that many more people are ready to tap into something bigger, wilder and more authentic than our carefully controlled, mediated and cautious way of being and relating.
“What I found, and I think what anyone will find if they’re willing to take that risk, is that self-consciousness doesn’t last that long,” says Darling Khan, who was petrified of making a fool of himself on the dance floor as a young man. “We come into contact quite quickly with the health that lies underneath all our trauma, and we put the physical body in the hands of that part of our intelligence that knows what’s needed to heal.”
5 Questions for Ya’Acov Darling Khan
- What’s the last book you finished? Factfulness by Hans Rosling
- What do you worry about? The way we humans haven’t yet developed the emotional intelligence to recognize the threat of extinction through climate change because it’s not absolutely immediate. Dying before I’m done.
- What’s the one thing you can’t live without? My wife’s wisdom.
- Who’s your hero? David Silva, footballer for Manchester City.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? Writing my trilogy of novels called The Unbroken.