by Lisa Alpine
Le’ema Kathleen Graham teaches yoga and is in the process of creating a new form tailored to women’s bodies/needs. She calls it Snake Yoga.
Le’ema’s interest in snakes began as a child growing up in the Southwest, rattlesnake country. Ten years ago she became a snake keeper and began dancing with snakes as part of her work with the Goddess. Her fascination led her to explore the healing implications of serpents in various cultures. Through years of working with the symbol of snake in religious contexts such as the Old Goddess Religions, Sufism, Christianity, and Native American spirituality she has come to embrace the serpent as her own personal power animal and as the universal totem for all women and healers. In 1991 she danced with her snakes and was a guest speaker at Time/Life’s touring photographic exhibition The Power to Heal in Toronto. Le’ema has also danced with her snakes as a guest artist for benefits to raise funds for Donna Read’s trilogy of films The Goddess Remembered.
Currently she offers workshops for women in Finding the Inner Serpent: Becoming a Snake Priestess. Women are given the opportunity to commune with snakes in a sacred circle, dream with snake through shamanic journeying , and enliven the spine and chakras through snake yoga. The workshop culminates in a Snake Priestess Power Dance and Initiation. A snake priestess is a woman who is dedicated to personal and planetary healing through living authentically in her female body. Modern Snake Priestesses comes from all walks of life. Most lead ordinary lives such as wives and mothers, secretaries, nurses, advertising consultants, psychotherapists, body workers, and lab technicians. By using her instinctual wisdom and kundalini (sacred sexual life force energy) and psychic gifts the snake priestess becomes a conduit for the Divine Feminine energy of the Earth Mother herself.
How did you get involved with yoga?
I come from a classical dance background of 20 plus years, encompassing everything from ballet and modern, to East Indian dance, flamenco and belly dance. I’ve also studied the body alignment techniques of Alexander and Feldenkrais. During this time I also practiced yoga as an adjunct to my dance. As I moved into mid-life and let go of the classical dance, I still wanted a classical movement form. Yoga is a classical form. I believe the holy spirit is present when we discipline the body in a classical form. I needed a container to give me a sense of spiritual practice. I started intensely studying yoga.
Most of the studios I was studying at were teaching a standard brand of Hatha Yoga related to Ashtanga. It was very rigorous practice containing lots of sun salutations. My body was overheating and I was so tired afterward I couldn’t do anything else for the rest of day. I let my ego and my teachers push me beyond my limits as I tried to become a great yogini.
I eventually realized this form of yoga was not good for a woman in mid-life. The ugayi breathing technique they taught is a heating breath. I experienced hot flashes and severe discomfort because I wasn’t breaking into a sweat. Nothing was working to cool me down, including acupuncture. I began having thyroid problems. After two years my thyroid went out. The thyroid is the thermometer in the body. Even though I was in good shape and could do most poses, I couldn’t practice the same heat-producing postures over and over again. I began praying for the perfect yoga teacher, but no one appeared.
I had to develop a form that worked for my body. That is when the Snake Yoga began. The serpent energy started coming through me when I came to the mat to do my own solitary practice. It came to me in specific breaths and poses with a focus on the kundalini. It was very strengthening for the lunar or yin qualities and it became apparent it was designing itself for the female body.
Do you mainly teach Snake Yoga?
I teach a variety of classes and workshops related to women’s spirituality. Snake Yoga is close to my heart as my personal practice, but I am just starting to teach it. I know I am on the right track because of what happens in my own body and what has happened with my group of Snake Priestesses. I’m finally cooling down and balancing out. Several of my students have noted a sweet sense of opening in the chakras, particularly the heart, throat, third eye and womb centers. I also noticed them really rejoicing in their breath.
Do you do the yoga with live snakes?
The information to create a new form of yoga came while I was doing yoga with my snakes. I was improvising a dance/yoga/snake/meditation and had an inter-species communication. I don’t teach classes with the snakes, but I teach snake wisdom which is finding the inner serpent in your body.
How does the snake interpret itself in yoga?
The first pose I developed was the Ouroboros, the shamanic symbol of the serpent swallowing its own tail. With the soles of my feet together, the legs open like a butterfly, the hands on the ankles, the head goes to the feet and the third eye is touching the toes. This pose unified my polarities and the positive and negative charges in my body which triggered an amazing kundalini experience. I was completely in a closed circuit of energy with no leaks. I sat there shaking with the current and knew it was totally healing. Then I began to explore what this merging of polarities meant for me on a cellular and somatic level. A higher energy took over and guided me through a practice that is mostly consists of floor poses with specific mudras (hand gestures).
One of the poses I call the “Diamondback” is the Pigeon Pose in regular yoga. I added a mudra. In this pose the hands on the floor with the right and left index fingers touching and the right and left thumbs touching, forming a diamond shape which is placed over the third eye. This pose is a resting and opening pose. It opens the intuitive intelligence. It is a good pose for visioning and stimulates the autonomic nervous system.
The pose of Caduceus is a shoulder stand. The Caduceus was Hermes’ staff with two snakes spiraling up it. This is a very lunar, cooling female pose. Women in mid-life need a lot of inverted postures. The inverted postures give room to the organs and increase blood circulation, especially to the throat chakra and thyroid gland.
I have another inverted pose called Two Snakes Mating. The legs are up the wall with ankles crossed, the back resting on the floor, and hands meet over the head with fingers interlaced. This pose merges the polarities of masculine/feminine. A third energy of non-duality is born out of merging the two opposites. It is very tantric. Snakes actually mate by coiling the ends of their tails around each other.
There are some traditional poses where I have changed the names to enable the mind to relate to the pose in a totally different way. For example, the Rainbow Serpent Pose is a bridge, backbend, or bow pose. In this pose we can reflect on how we are living our lives as a rainbow. Are we living the full spectrum of all our colors? Then there are the traditional poses which are already snake poses like Cobra pose and Sphinx Pose. The Sphinx had a woman’s head and breasts, a lion’s body and a serpent tail. She is the Egyptian goddess Hathor who holds the keys to the wisdom gates and is the guardian of horizons. When we are in the Sphinx Pose we can embrace the riddle of our challenges and vision for our future.
What else has Snake Yoga led you to?
Snake Yoga has taught me a new breath. It showed me how to breathe with a deep inhalation through the nose, mouth closed, then exhale through the mouth on a slow hiss. When we exhale on a slow hiss, like letting the air out of a balloon, we release more toxins and tensions. To hear the audible sound of the breath gives permission to release. It is a letting go rather than a controlling breath, cooling and very relaxing. Exhaling on the hiss takes one into a deeper level of meditation. A group becomes unified as one organism when we are hissing together. It creates a lot of harmony. This breath is innately a more feminine way of breathing.
Do you only work with women?
Yes, for right now. I am very committed to women’s health. It is a real passion for me. Yoga designed for the female body is crucial in these stressful times. I’m not interested in the militaristic , workout style yoga practices that are becoming so popular in America today. My yoga practice is my meditation where I want to connect with my sacred female juice.
Snake Yoga has taught me there is so much wisdom from the ground. These poses are done on the floor, on the belly or the back, with back bending and inversion. This is the way the snake energy wants to move in the body. The spine is like a snake, and a strong, supple spine is vital for radiant health. Snakes breathe with their entire body. When they breathe every muscle and bone moves. I think that is a really good place to start yoga. I want my yoga practice to be strengthening, yet restorative, sensing into cellular knowing like my teacher, my sister — the snake.