• In Memory of Raelyn Gallina

    Last night I heard about the passing of our beloved Raelyn Gallina. Raelyn’s influence on me is so huge it’s hard to encapsulate in one post. Raelyn was (among other things) a jeweler, a piercer, a body modification artist of the hight order, a powerful priestess and a plant magician. She pierced me many times. Each was a ritual of life-altering proportions. She drove the Catholic Church out of my body once and for all. She gifted me with the most powerful protection spells I have ever used. She was my single greatest inspiration for my realization that Tantra and BDSM could be the same sacred art. Here is an excerpt from my book, Urban Tantra, which tells the story of the day Raelyn taught me one of the greatest lessons of my life:

    The Needle Mudra

    I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of play piercings. Play piercings are temporary piercings. The needles are usually standard hypodermic needles, minus the syringe. These are pierced through small folds of skin anywhere on the body there is no danger to any blood vessels, nerves, or tendons. They are designed to stay in the skin for a few minutes or a few hours. Sometimes, small weights are attached to the piercings; when the piercee moves or dances, the swinging weights stimulate the needles and the body produces endorphins. The high is euphoric. 

    In the Olympics of pain, I am more of a sprinter than a long-distance runner. I love the rush of endorphins from a permanent piercing: the feeling of fire when the big needle goes into my flesh, then the wait while the needle is left in place until the endorphins kick in. And then the best part: surfing the waves of altered consciousness in the afterglow. The long, meditative astral travels that accompany permanent piercings are better than any drug I have ever tried. 

    But I had never tried play piercings. To satisfy my curiosity, I attended a play piercing demonstration by my friend Raelyn Gallina, the high priestess of piercers. Voyeuring was the whole point of the event, held on the ninth floor of an undistinguished building in New York’s Chelsea, accessible only by a cramped, battered elevator. On the makeshift stage of what appeared to be an abandoned off-off-Broadway theatre sat two women and Raelyn. One woman was very young, probably just eighteen, with short, dark hair. She wore dark-blue jeans and a dark teal, zip-up sweatshirt over a neat white T-shirt. The other was older, blonde, and casually elegant in black leather pants and a satin blouse. Both were perched precariously on the edge of excitement and fear.

    Raelyn is calm, centered, and entirely focused on her setup: gloves, alcohol, and needles in sealed blue packets. Every imaginable safe and hygienic protocol is in place. She is ready to begin.

    The younger woman removes her sweatshirt, then her T-shirt, and finally her bra. Raelyn swabs her chest with gauze soaked with alcohol. She speaks to the young woman too softly for me to hear the words. The young woman nods. Raelyn picks up the first needle. She pinches a small bit of skin on the top of the young woman’s breast near the center of her chest and pushes the needle through the flesh. The young woman winces slightly, then exhales. Raelyn waits. The young woman smiles. Two dozen needles are to follow.

    One after another, Raelyn places her needles in a circular pattern, starting at the breastbone and circling down around the outer edge of the young woman’s breast, beneath her breasts, around the outer edge of the other breast, and back to the first needle at the breastbone. After each needle Raelyn waits for the young woman to take a breath, letting the endorphins catch up with the piercings. After the first few needles, though there’s no need to wait. The young woman is clearly enjoying the effect of each subsequent needle more and more. After the last needle, Raelyn picks up a spool of elastic thread. To my amazement, she weaves the thread among the needles until the young woman is wearing a beautiful white spider web of needles and thread on her chest. 

    Raelyn picks up a thread in the center of the mandala and gives it a tug. I gasp. The young woman seems startled, then a moment later she grins. The grin turns into a giddy giggle. Then she laughs. Happily. 

    Now it’s the second woman’s turn. Raelyn does exactly the same thing to her. This woman clearly has done this before. She seems less surprised by the sensations and she knows how to use her breath to increase the effect of the endorphins. It’s not that she doesn’t feel the pain; she appears quite sensitive. It’s just that she’s learned that she can play the pain like music, changing the pitch and the tone and the volume. I enjoy watching her; I know what she’s doing. I use my breath the same way to build and move sexual energy in my body. I realize I’m breathing in rhythm with her. I’m getting high.

    Raelyn keeps on piercing—as focused and present and beautiful as ever. Occasionally, she pauses between needles to give a gentle tug on the first woman’s mandala to keep the endorphins flowing. Raelyn finishes the circle of needles on the second woman’s chest, then she weaves an identical elastic-thread mandala. She gives the center threads a tug. The blonde woman shivers and then smiles. 

    Raelyn is sitting on a chair in the center of the stage. The first woman sits facing her on her left. The blonde woman is on her right. Raelyn playfully tugs one mandala, then the other. Then she stands up, moves her chair away and asks the women to move in closer to each other until their knees are almost touching. She picks up her spool of elastic thread and my excitement grows as she ties the two webs together.

    The two women are now facing each other, their chests not more than eighteen inches apart. They’re gazing into each other’s eyes. As if moved by some instinctual drive, they gently begin to rock back and forth, first toward one, then the other. As they become more confident, their gaze grows stronger, and their breathing becomes deeper and faster. They make an ahhh sound on each exhale. The rocking becomes more and more active, until I see an endless wave of energy between them. I’m knocked breathless. I’m seeing something totally familiar and something completely alien at the same time. I know this! I have never had a needle mandala on my chest, but I know exactly what they’re feeling. This is the Tantric Heart Position! 

    Instead of each partner touching the other’s heart with the palm of their hand, these two are connected by needles and thread! Everything else is the same: the breathing, the rocking back and forth, the eye gazing. This posture can bring up laughter or tears—both of which are happening on the stage this very moment! The young dark-haired woman is smiling through the tears flowing down her cheeks and the blonde woman is simply radiant with joy. 

    Raelyn had woven a physical diagram of the energy exchange. Tonight, S/M had become visible Tantra! What a mindfuck! I wanted to run out and call every Tantrika I knew and tell them of my most amazing discovery. Both Tantra and this kind of S/M employ the same magic ingredients of sexual energy, endorphins, ritual, and consciousness to attain transcended states of ecstatic connection. This was Tantra concretized. Tantra for the concrete. Urban Tantra! My head and my cunt exploded with the possibilities

    Suddenly S/M made sense to me in a way it never had before. I certainly understood that S/M ran on sexual energy and endorphins. But until tonight I had never understood that it could be a sacred practice. But why not? The guiding principle of Tantra is “Do everything you want to do so long as you do not knowingly harm another or interfere with their spiritual growth.” The guiding principle of BDSM (Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission and Sadism/Masochism) is, “Do everything you want to do so long as it’s safe, sane, and consensual.” The defining core of both practices is consciousness and the awareness that you are setting up a powerful dynamic for erotic or spiritual purposes. When we see both Tantra and BDSM as sacred sex, we step into the totality of possibilities of sensation and eroticism. 

    Raelyn by Catherine OpiePhoto by Catherine Opie