Rage: how channeling the anger has become a health tool

“To the outside, it would look ugly,” chuckles Sarah Garner, an infectious disease specialist. “It’s yelling, screaming, pulling faces, sometimes clawing at my skin. Making jerky random movements. Lots of pummelling of fists.”

During the coronavirus pandemic, Garner has been releasing her anger with an unorthodox personal practice: going animalistic to rock music or drums. She is “always in control” of the process. It both is and isn’t untamed.

Garner is expressing her inner “wild woman”. She learned this “dance” during an eight-week course comprising mind-body connection practices, talks, sharing circles and rituals “to restore sexual, emotional, spiritual and mental health”.

Run by Dancing Eros, their eponymous embodiment course gets participants to express seven “feminine archetypes” (“different sides of ourselves”), including the “wild woman” through body language. Since 2013 Melbourne-based Dancing Eros has welcomed more than 1,500 women and men in 11 cities.

Dancing Eros is one of a growing number of workshops and classes exploring ways to express the intensity of anger. Go deep with a weekend “reclaiming anger”; join a monthly Rage Club; women, own your wildness. Or for a quick vent, log on to Scream Club and yell across the internet with strangers or book in a session at a “smash room” – a global trend of commercialised spaces where visitors pay to break things.

From the climate crisis to Covid-19 to racial injustice, there is plenty to be angry about at the moment. So it’s no surprise we’re looking for ways to unleash that energy.

Like Garner, I have attended Dancing Eros workshops. The archetypes you explore through the course allude to the Jungian school of thought that each of us inherit and are influenced by universal symbols. As you might suspect from the name, this is not professional or club dancing. Wild woman is unchoreographed and ugly. (Surprisingly erotic, too.) But these are not frantic tantrums. You are encouraged to connect with your senses, allow emotions to rise and go slow – what you express should feel wholesome, not damaging.

The course feels surreal. When I undertook it, 20 people – a lawyer, an astrologist, a photographer, a chef – immersed themselves in candlelight, roaring and contorting their bodies to energetic music. We had the vitality of a pride of lionesses protecting our cubs. Even with my eyes closed, it made Spike Jonze’s undomesticating perfume ad feel … domesticated. It was certainly not what Buddhism has taught me.

“I felt terrified,” admits Garner, remembering her first time. She considers herself an introvert but says since the course she’s better at speaking up “when someone else isn’t well equipped to deal with a situation”. She says she stands taller too.

The psychologist Clarissa Mosley, of Calm Mind Psychology, says: “Standard psychological practice uses the top-down method of cognitive behaviour therapy, restructuring thinking patterns to change emotions. Our culture largely lives by ‘If I think right, I’ll feel right’.”

But she says “disowned emotions like anger can be compartmentalised away from waking consciousness, which makes it hard to access through highly cognitive therapies … the body ‘remembers’.” She says facilitated anger expression courses recall “the bottom-up somatic therapy approach” – a kind of therapy that explores the mind-body connection – “which does involve embodied movement”. This practice “seeks to unlock and process what the body ‘stores’”.

Mosley explains that courses such as those run by Dancing Eros aren’t the same as professional therapy – and cannot be used in place of them. But the “practices appear to utilise the somatic experience of reconnecting to the body … allowing expression of strong and more taboo emotions like anger”.

This can be valuable. “Listening to how the body wants to move, without the inner critic guiding what looks good or not, and ‘authentically expressing’ can be immensely therapeutic,” Mosley says. “Animals instinctively decompress from traumatic experiences by shaking … Practices that help access this ‘body wisdom’ can lead to greater awareness and management of emotions.”

Embodiment practices led by Dancing Eros, 5Rhythms, Biodanza and Ecstatic Dance all aim to offer a sense of self-connection and free-form expression. Often they appear to be contemporary iterations of ancient spiritual practices. The aesthetic parallels between Dancing Eros’ wild woman and some forms of haka, for instance, are clear.

The Māori cultural adviser Matiu Te Huki says of his classes: “I’ll ask, ‘Who here gets angry?’ And everyone’s hand rises.” Te Huki has taught tribal haka and his own versions of the dance for 25 years at schools and festivals, including Splendour in the Grass, Falls festival and NZ Spirit festival.

“I encourage women to let wild – not necessarily pretty – energy come through in haka. When you’re in haka mode, you don’t care about what you look like to others. It’s a strong expression but it’s not violent. Be the dark destroyer but be in control. A good haka is a slow haka.”

Healthy expression of anger can connect us with greater power

Clarissa Mosley, psychologist

Te Huki explains the fierce expression of the body, face and voice through haka is not just about anger, rather his haka is “an effective tool to deal with life’s daily challenges”. Recognising the cultural sensitivities surrounding learning haka outside Māori communities, Te Huki only teaches those truly desiring to honour Māori culture in a respectful environment. His haka, Taku mana e, above all, is “about lifting and loving each other”.

Dancing Eros’s facilitator Ramya Jade sees her courses as primarily about empowerment. “We need this more than ever,” she says. “Society is full of disconnect because we lost our animal nature: intuition, deep listening, authentic expression … Wild woman is our inner activist.”

That has been true for Garner, who has also found that her practice helps her step away from the competitive nature of her work. “There’s a closeness between women from going into this archetype together that’s been shunned for hundreds of years.”

Still, it’s not for everyone. A musician, Frances Castley, felt it was “too much” and “shrunk” afterwards. While she “enjoyed the release”, the psychotherapist Dafna Kronental warns “it can trigger past trauma for some”.

Mosley advises: “Proceed with caution. Find facilitators with solid training in creating safety and holding this intensity level. It may feel liberating but it does not replace psychotherapy for serious issues.”

If you feel safe and enter with open eyes, embodiment workshops that express anger can be a useful tool. “If we’re not comfortable with anger, we’re stuck in passivity and therefore powerless,” Mosley says. “Healthy expression of anger can connect us with greater power.”

Neither Garner nor I signed up for “anger management”. But as it turns out, we stumbled across something useful. It may look strange to those who haven’t tried it before, but Garner says: “I went for it and got a sense of power I hadn’t felt.”