Job diary: I charge up to $300 for 'snake massages' that help people de-stress and reduce pain. Over 20,000 people have signed up for my sessions.
- Serpentessa (not her real name) is a former professional belly dancer and a 'snake priestess' who uses snakes to conduct healing massages for her clients.
- For 33 years, she's been facilitating interactions between snakes and people, ranging from thrill-seekers and nature lovers to people suffering from PTSD.
- This is what her job is like, as told to freelance writer Jenny Powers.
I was 29 years old and working as a professional belly dancer in New York City in 1984 when a childhood friend of my husband's gave me a boa constrictor. It was my first snake and I christened her Sophia, a tribute to the Greek Goddess of Wisdom.
Sophia was bred in captivity and used to being handled by humans, so the learning curve of getting acquainted with one another was more on my end than hers, but little by little, we began to establish a friendship.
I'm not a licensed massage therapist, but I like to consider myself a 21st century snake priestess. Over the past 33 years, I'd estimate that between private sessions, coaching groups, and events, I've given more than 20,000 people a live snake encounter. I've also been featured on shows like Entertainment Tonight and The Today Show.
Snakes are incredibly powerful animals
Snake medicine and integrating snakes into wellness activities is nothing new, in fact people have long held snakes as a symbol of healing and renewal.
As a longtime sufferer of endometriosis, when I first was given Sophie I noticed she was particularly drawn to the inflamed area around my belly as if she could sense my pain and discomfort.
Each time she made her way to my belly, entwining herself around me in what felt like a hug, my physical pain would disappear, often alleviating my need for a hot water bottle. But while I was relieved of my physical pain rather quickly, the toll of both the emotional and psychological effects that endometriosis had left on me took much longer to shed. Eventually though, as our friendship blossomed and my healing continued, I was able to regain the ability to feel joy within my body.
It may come as a surprise, but as I opened myself up to the healing process and the connection between Sophia and I continued to grow, I began to receive messages in the form of images and word fragments from her which I refer to as snake 'hisspers," so I came to consider myself sort of an inter-species facilitator with a speciality in boa constrictors.
My snakes are not a tool or prop
I am not manipulating them in any fashion; they are the ones truly doing the work. My role is to help guide them in the interaction with clients. No one has ever been bitten or hurt during one of my sessions.
As the snake's journey around the body, they can stimulate the vagus nerve, which for some can help de-stress, increase happiness, and reduce pain. It can be a very transformative experience invoking a combination of fear, fascination, and cathartic release.
In 1990, I introduced working with snakes to others. By this time, I'd brought more snakes in my life. Initially, I offered meet-and-greet encounters for children at events where I could educate them about snakes while directing them through a hands-on experience.
Snakes can be a meaningful addition in dance groups and communities
Working with women dancers, I would teach them to incorporate snakes into their performances as I had in my belly dancing. As men too became interested, I began facilitating mixed groups. A shamanic healer I know also invited me to work with some of her clients.
The sessions are private one-on-one 75-minute facilitated experiences where clients consent to allowing two to three six-foot non-venomous boa constrictors to slither all over their body. Prior to a session, I send a primer to clients so they know what to expect and at the beginning of every session I spend some time introducing the snake to the client so they become familiar with one another.
At the end of the sessions, I give pieces of snake skin that have been shed to the client as a tangible reminder of their experience. Individual sessions cost $297. I also offer group snake encounters and ceremonies.
People interested in snake massage range from thrill-seekers to nature lovers
Adventure seekers view the experience as a strategic pursuit the way they might view skydiving, fire-walking, or mountain climbing. They enjoy taking risks and the adrenaline rush they get from relinquishing control makes them feel alive. For these folks, it's kind of like checking off a bucket list item.
Being in the presence of a snake and having it freely roam your body in a contained experience forces you to remain into the present moment, a state many of us find difficult to embrace with all of the distractions in our lives. Focusing on the here and now can be very relaxing and provide a much-needed release. My regular clients are keenly aware of this and it is one of the many reasons they return.
Other clients are seeking an outlet to shed lifelong fears or find a way to heal
I've worked with war veterans suffering from severe PTSD to breast cancer survivors, and people have traveled from as far as Brazil and Africa for my sessions.
I'm now 65 years old and currently have ten boa constrictors. It's a huge undertaking to care for them in terms of space and time. I have an entire room dedicated to them because I keep them all in separate habitats divided by sex. I don't allow them to cohabit because it's too hard to find homes for their offspring and it doesn't feel in alignment with what I do to breed them and release them into the pet trade.
The snakes eat every two to three weeks. When they were young, we fed them live baby mice. Now that they're grown, we have an entire basement freezer in our home devoted to frozen rodents, each about the length of my hand. Boas are good eaters.
More people are seeking calm and relaxation during the pandemic
Unfortunately due to social distancing, I was unable to offer my services from May through July 2020.
Snake massage is not the type of experience that translates virtually.. When I finally began offering sessions again in August, we already had a waitlist.
One day I hope to create and operate a snake temple where individuals and groups can visit but until then I book private rooms in healing centers near where we live in New Paltz, New York. I also make house calls to local clients.
One thing I've learned over the years is that people are either compelled to run towards or away from me - there is no in-between. But I can tell you this: Those skeptics who do have a snake encounter always leave our session filled with bliss and awe.
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