Enjoy this excerpt of my interview with Michael Aaron of Psychology today. Click here to read the rest!
Danielle Blunt is the creator of Dasya Yoga and an NYC-based Dominatrix, full-spectrum doula, yoga teacher and sex worker activist. She studies power dynamics through kinesthetic modalities and her work and play explore the intersections of tenderness and pain.
Q: You have created a new form of yoga called Dasya Yoga, in which you combine elements of traditional yoga with BDSM. I imagine most people would be puzzled about what this combo may look like. Can you describe a typical session?
A: Every Dasya Yoga session looks different. Each session is tailored to an individual’s’ particular interests, desires, and fetishes. A session can take the form of a more asana-based practice in a traditional yoga studio, or the form of a more meditative session in my private dungeon space. The purpose isn’t that the practice looks any particular way but rather that it addresses an individual’s wants and needs while expanding their understanding of kink, yoga, meditation and one’s relationship with their body and with other. I use the asanas (postures), mudras (hand gestures) and mantras to cultivate openness, vulnerability, and devotion within a unique framework of power, surrender, pleasure and pain — this is the core focus of the Dasya Yoga practice.
Q: In your bio, you state that you work as a dominatrix and utilized BDSM as a healing modality. How did you find BDSM to be healing?
A: Many activities within a BDSM experience are heavily reliant upon negotiation, intention, and consent — all of which provide an ideal environment and ample opportunity for healing. In many ways I think of BDSM as a form of ritual work. Learning to ask for what you want, articulating desire and putting pre-established rules of limits and consent into practice are all integral to the operation of a good BDSM experience. Such protocols can create a deep sense of security not often found in most interpersonal interactions. This can be healing in and of itself. In a society where so many people feel powerless and stressed, consensually giving up control to a trusted and experienced individual often gives people permission to surrender, relax, submit and access a different part of their brain that they don’t get to in other aspects of their life.
While I believe BDSM to be therapeutic and healing, I want to make it clear that I am not a therapist. I encourage everyone that is working through something intense to see a kink-affirming mental health professional in conjunction to their work with me. Manhattan Alternative is an amazing example of an NYC-based resource for people looking for kink-affirming therapists. There is a definitely a need for more kink-affirming, knowledgeable and non-judgmental health care professionals.
Q: A great deal of your work is focused on pain. Specifically, pain as a form of salvation. It’s a very different approach than our natural instincts of seeking to avoid pain. In your view, what role does pain play in psychological development?
A: A lot of what we are taught in the west is that pain is something to be avoided, but many religions and practices across the world utilize elements of pain, devotion, and suffering as a way to reach the divine and tap into altered states of consciousness. Rituals involving pain emphasize the importance of intention and creating space to process an experience, to move on and grow into a new way of being. They also provide a first-hand experience of exploring pain in a confined and intentional capacity; helping to teach an individual on a moral, as well as chemical level, that ‘this too shall pass’, while simultaneously fostering a sense of resilience and pride in individuals and communities. I believe that the physical exercises with movement, breath and rhythmic movements in both yoga and BDSM teach the process of how breathing steadily through pain and creating the space to process an experience can help foster elasticity within the brain and alter an individual’s response to chronic pain and earlier trauma. Introducing the chemicals and hormones involved in pain perception to an individual in a controlled and intentional manner allows the autonomic nervous system to regulate the parasympathetic nervous system and return to a ‘rest and digest’ mentality. Research suggests that creating a space for the autonomic nervous system to return to its resting state helps to create new neural pathways in the brain. I often think of BDSM ritual work as a hacking of the autonomic nervous system, working to create neurologic resilience and control.
As a chronically ill woman, I am intimately acquainted with pain. I found BDSM at 18, the same time I was diagnosed with a chronic illness. My illness has continued to shape and affect my relationship with my body. BDSM gave me an outlet to be an active participant in choosing when and how I received or dealt out pain and also gave me the platform to learn about my boundaries, limits, and how to create relationships that worked for me, including a relationship with my body. BDSM has also given me a way to take control over my mental health and consciously work through my relationship with pain and power dynamics.
Q: Let’s talk specifically about submission, as ‘dasya’ is the Sanskrit word for servitude. You state that Dasya Yoga “offers care to masochists and submissives by creating space to explore submission as a path to self-care and personal growth.” What does submission specifically have to do with personal growth?
A: The core tenants of many religions are focused around the idea that true enlightenment and faith can only be achieved through an acceptance and submission to the divine. I incorporate this idea in my practice, as well as archetypes of the divine in Dasya Yoga. I believe that devotion through submission has abundant potential and creates a fertile field for personal growth and I have a very broad interpretation of divinity. Through creating space to confront, engage intentionally with, and accept pain and suffering many are able to find purpose and find renewed meaning in life.
The term ‘Yoga’ literally means ‘to yoke’. The Dasya Yoga practice helps to yoke the wandering mind to the oftentimes numb body. This allows for the potential for a transformative experience to occur. Through physical touch, devotional asanas, and mudras, the Dasya practice works to yoke the slave’s actions to the Mistress’ pleasure. Each breath in reverence to Mistress. Each breath in gratitude to Mistress. It is through this sacred act of devotion that a submissives purpose can be found. It is the universal process of the breaking down of boundaries of self and not self and learning to identify with something greater than the self that many religious traditions, as well as the BDSM community, utilize to encourage feelings of peace, transcendence, growth and acceptance for participants. That is what submission is to me, this process.
Research suggests that an individual’s intentional suffering and relinquishing of power may actually provide them with a greater internal locus of control. For many masochists, self care can be a difficult concept to implement in their lives. I often refer to what I do as ‘forced self care’. Externalizing the command to care for the self can in some circumstances help an individual to over time learn to reestablish a relationship with their body and their mind where self care doesn’t seem like such a foreign idea.
Q: In your blog, you challenge the idea of safe spaces. You state “Creating a safe space is a beautiful ideology, but impossible to promise another when it comes to practice.” Further, you believe that those who preach “Safe, Sane and Consensual” are potentially “providing false assurances.” I imagine these are very challenging concepts for people to wrap their mind around, especially at these times. Can you explain further?
A: First of all, I think that as a society we need to rethink how we teach and understand consent and power dynamics. I do not believe consent to be a simple matter of “yes” and “no”– this can reinforce the pre-existing power structures that are in place and who feels they have the power to give an affirmative yes or a firm no. These binary ways of thinking do not take into account the complexities of choice, circumstance and coercion that take active roles in the processes of giving consent. We need to complicate the conversations that we are having around consent and power dynamics. I encourage the folks that I work with to take a critical lens to the power dynamics that affect their lives, identities and experiences and utilize this awareness to build power in themselves as they move through the world.
I challenge the idea of safe spaces, because I think that it can be incredibly presumptuous to assume that you have the ability to provide someone with a safe space. Everyone’s triggers differ and no matter how much negotiation goes on before a scene you never know what will come up for someone. I’ve seen people triggered by a glance, a word, physical distance, by being asked to articulate their needs out loud. They had no idea that this would come up, so how could I be expected to? The process of exploring self and how we relate to one another is never a completely safe space and I think that being willing to confront the things that come up is an important part of the process. I come from a background in public health and harm reduction and would like to see more of this language in how we talk about sex and consent. While I don’t think that BDSM or sex are agents of harm, I think the way that we talk about them (or don’t) can be.
I can do my best to hold space for someone and create an open line of communication and accountability if something does come up. But safety is not a guarantee, not just in BDSM play but in most aspects of life. I think that the offering of a safe space to someone is at times an overstep that can lead to further harm if something does come up and I wouldn’t want the pretense of offering a ‘safe space’ to make someone feel silenced.
I also think that it is important to note that these aren’t only challenging concepts to wrap your head around, but challenging conversations to have in general. As a society, I don’t think we deal well with conflict and often times we are encouraged to stifle our conflicted feelings about our experiences in service of not giving ammo to people who criminalize and stigmatize marginalized communities.
Q: You believe that repressing desire can cause one to lose control of their actions. In your view, shame is a social construct. What is your view of shame and what role does it play in your work with clients?
A: I don’t believe in the effectiveness of pushing abstinence based models of care, and I believe the repression and pathologization of desires to be incredibly harmful to an individual. Why should someone feel shame at expressing a part of themselves with consenting adults? Getting to play around with humiliation and shame in a confined space and time allows someone the opportunity to find relief from their insecurities without letting them consume them. Playing with shame gives someone an opportunity for catharsis through confronting their fears and beginning to understand them better.
When someone comes to me with an interest in humiliation play I really enjoy unpacking their shame with them. They want to suck a cock? Why is that shameful? They want to dress as a woman? I don’t think it is shameful to dress as a woman, why do they? One thing that I really enjoy when working with cis men who are interested in crossdressing or ‘forced-femme’ sessions is to ask them to perform masculinity for me before we begin the transformation. For many being asked to perform masculinity is much more humiliating than when I teach them the magic of femme. I take a very ritualistic approach when asking people to confront their relationship with shame.
I don’t like contributing to reinforcing violent and oppressive power structures in my work; I’d rather the people that I work with question these structures. That’s not to say that I don’t think reenacting can be powerful, just that it needs to be done with a critical and grounded eye and self-reflection. Through the inversion of shame and stigma, the sacred can become profane and vice versa; there is no differentiation. Becoming aware of the internal and external process that are constructing your desires gives you the opportunity to grow beyond socially enforced norms.