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When I scribbled “Laughing lunch” into the January 16th square on my calendar last week, I had no idea how valuable 40 minutes of chuckling in my office’s courtyard conference room would be. I had done Laughter Yoga before in a studio setting, and now one of my classmates—also a coworker!—was certified to teach. And what better place to start than an office building, where the majority of our daily smiles are actually just e-mail emoticons proceeding sarcastic sentences?

🙂

Talk about perfect timing, too. Although I normally walk for 30 minutes during my lunch break, today was Day 6 or something of a streak of grim Seattle-like sun-lessness, and you can just tell everyone is losing their sanity from the depressing sequence of little gray clouds pictured on The Weather Channel app. The opportunity to laugh with others seemed so much more appealing than sitting at my desk and trying to laugh at random YouTube videos of puppies descending stairs or the latest crime eyewitness-cum-autotune star.

In less than an hour, our facilitator Karen had done the work of a personal trainer: Getting us to exercise muscles—most noticeably our facial muscles—that are severely underused and in need of some strengthening. How sad is it that smiling and laughing actually began to hurt after just 10 minutes? Do we really spend that much time with clenched jaws and pursed lips that a few minutes of lightheartedness feels foreign to our faces?

😦

Now, none of the exercises actually felt like work—they were silly and fun! What I love about Laughter Yoga is that it’s not about comedy or trying to be funny. No knock-knock jokes allowed! Laughter Yoga is more about awareness of breath, using fun and engaging exercises to initiate the physical act of laughing and, as a result, experience the joy that comes from full, belly-deep breathing; getting heavy doses of fresh oxygen; and soaking up the endorphins that flood the brain after letting the lungs, throat, and lips loosen up.

(Read about my previous Laughter Yoga experiences here and here.)

For example, in one exercise we scrambled around the room shaking hands with our classmates as fast as we could, laughing with each connection. In another, we navigated the room, bowing to each person we encountered—a deep and intentional bow complemented with a laugh, of course. Between each exercise was the standard Laughter Yoga clapping/vocalization pattern: Ho, Ho, Ha-Ha-Ha!

The class was non-stop action, and Karen did a great job keeping a comfortable pace—no awkward down time or pauses for anyone to slip back into “serious” mode.

The only time I felt it grow slightly serious (for me) was at the end, when we sat with our eyes closed and began a laughing meditation (i.e., laugh and then laugh some more and then just keep laughing until eventually it becomes genuine because the person sitting next to you sounds so stinkin’ cute when she laughs that it’s infectious). Halfway through this exercise, I could feel the laughter take a turn, and suddenly I had an overwhelming urge to cry. And not crying from laughing so hard but that deep, solar-plexus-based Oh God, Clearly All This Laughing Has Unlocked Something in Me kind of cry. Luckily the meditation ended before any sobbing commenced, but what a testament to how emotion can move freely once breath comes into the picture.

After sitting in stillness for a bit, I realized the class was very much like a massage, working muscles that really need to be worked but making me painfully aware of how stiff and rigid I am. Every time I let out a guffaw, I could feel it not just in my face but my neck, my chest, my back. It was uncomfortable at times, but I imagined myself a giant slab of stone in front of a sculptor, exercise by exercise chipping away at the hard edges.

I wasn’t exactly Venus de Milo by the end of class, but I definitely felt softer and just a little more human.

GettySculpture

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My fourth-grade teacher had a saying when she wanted her students to take her words seriously:

“That’s a requirement, not a request.”

Back then, it referred to remaining quiet during a test, putting the classroom hermit crab back in its cage, or ending the latest battle of spitball warfare. When you heard that phrase, you shut up and did what Mrs. Goettelmann said.

Lately, however, I’m hearing those words echo through my head about something greater: yoga and meditation.

And it’s not my fourth-grade teacher talking, either. It’s my aching, stiff body. My deprived lungs, which never seem to get enough oxygen. My heavy, scatterbrained, impatient mind:

“Do yoga. Meditate. This is a requirement, not a request, Jennifer.”

Yoga and meditation used to be a very integral part of my life. I had the schedules of every local yoga studio stuffed into the side pockets of my car door so I knew exactly where I could ashtanga, kundalini, or yin on any given day of the week. If I wasn’t at a studio, I was upstairs in my yoga room, following along to a podcast or simply cobbling together my own practice.

Group classes became more challenging once I hurt my hip, but I persisted, knowing my limits, modifying as necessary, simply enjoying the hour or so set aside for nothing other than focused movement and breath.

But—once a dancer, always a dancer—as soon as I discovered 5Rhythms and YogaDance and Nia and all other forms of conscious dance, my appreciation for traditional yoga and seated meditation dwindled. After all, 5Rhythms is described as “movement meditation.” I’ve never liked sitting still. I’ve always walked around on my toes. You mean I don’t have to stay perfectly poised on my little rectangular rubber mat to get a decent mind-body-soul workout? I can leap and stomp and glide and dive into dubstep and still consider that meditation?

It felt so right, too. My hip rarely ached after a 2-hour 5Rhythms class, and I usually walked away with a pretty clear mind, too. Over time, my collection of yoga mats became like old world maps, tightly rolled up and tucked away in a corner, collecting dust.

Yoga Garden-mats

Dancing was my new yoga, my new meditation.

What I was failing to realize, though, was that the clarity and comfort attained through dancing is just simply NOT the same as that achieved through yoga and seated meditation.

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Yes, there are incredibly deep meditative moments in 5Rhythms—Stillness is almost always a time of prayer and revelation for me—but it only appears after a vigorous Wave of dancing all over the room like a lunatic. Flowing, Staccato, Chaos…they shake things up. Move the gunk and junk through the trunk. It’s a relatively active process, like water boiling on the range.

Skelton_DanceFloor3

Don’t get me wrong—I love the simmering, the vibrating H2O molecules, the hot and foamy water cascading over the side of the pot and sizzling on the stove top. That kind of transformation is necessary, changing from solid to liquid to vapor. The things I’ve learned through moving would have never presented themselves through tree pose or 20 minutes of alternate-nostril breathing.

But there’s a reason it was so easy for me to “leave” yoga and meditation: It’s hard! Remaining still, sinking into a pose, practicing patience and concentration is not easy. Because really, who actually wants to follow someone else’s direction about how long to stand on one foot when you could be dancing to the beat of your own drummer?

And that is precisely why yoga is so important: It forces us to pay attention. Be still. Listen.

When you stop doing that, things go haywire.

— You become irritable, complaining about the weather, work, anything and everything out of your control. Coworkers, who once you saw you as the “perpetual optimist,” are perplexed at these out-of-character sentiments.

— You become impatient, especially on the road, so much so that you need to squeeze a few drops of impatiens flower essence into your water bottle before hitting the highway so that you don’t grit your teeth to the gum line as you drive from Point A to Point B.

— You seethe when things don’t go your way, usually about stupid things, like a car pulling out of a driveway during your morning walk. (“God, it’s 6:30 a.m., why does THIS car have to leave RIGHT now and make me STOP?!”)

— You realize your flexibility in a simple seated forward bend is diminishing, that holding onto your ankles may be more reasonable than grasping for the toes.

At first, I requested myself to get back into yoga. Which at the time meant nothing more than doing a few paschimottanasanas and spinal twists after my morning walks.

Then, two things occurred that made me think of Mrs. Goettelmann, shifting the request into a requirement.

First, during a yoga/5Rhythms combo class to celebrate the winter solstice, I mentally fuh-reaked out during the yoga portion. I hadn’t done a group yoga class in months, and I was frustrated with the way my wonky hips wouldn’t let me shift from one pose into another. In the past, I would’ve found my own way to work through it without any problem, but that night I was so acutely aware of the discomfort and difficulty, and I HATED that everyone else was able to sit like little cross-legged Buddhas while I struggled to find a comfortable seated posture. I was angry and sad and basically lost all mental composure, feeling seconds away from bursting into tears and running out into the hallway.

As a result, I didn’t start the dancing portion on a very balanced note. In fact, I may have cried during almost all of Flowing.

Second, I got blood drawn last week. I take thyroid medication, so labwork is routine. A regular yoga practice has always helped me through these kinds of medical procedures, but this time no signs of yoga were evident. I had trouble taking deep breaths. I could feel my body temperature rise. I got panicky, feeling the need to escape. I kind of wanted to throw up. My sympathetic nervous system kicked into overdrive, despite having very easy veins and an experienced phlebotomist.

In short, the nickname my friend Carrol had once bestowed on me—ZenJen—is losing all meaning.

You know, I was a teacher’s pet back in elementary school, and I always listened to Mrs. Goettelmann. Now I realize it’s time to listen to a different kind of teacher: my body.

Jennifer, it’s time to do some yoga and meditate. That’s a requirement, not a request.

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I am usually gung-ho about attending any form of yoga-like dance classes, but I found myself growing nervous and nauseous as I drove to my local yoga studio this past Friday for a Nia class.

I have nothing against Nia. My first class was in 2008, when I danced in a large room with a beautiful Black woman at the front, leading a group of various bodies and abilities through expressive movements ranging from yoga to dance to tai chi to tae kwon do. I danced with a woman who was 8.5 months pregnant, a man in a motorized wheelchair, a focused 12-year-old with the desire to dance in her blood, and an older woman in her 70s.

I danced Nia weekly that summer and the next, when the teacher was in town. I bought some of the Nia-issued CDs and Nia’ed in my living room.

Photograph provided by Nia Technique (www.nianow.com).

I loved Nia until 2010. I had signed up for another summer series, but then life threw me a curveball.

It was that summer—after months of hobbling around in pain—that I found out I had a cartilage tear in my hip joint. And not just that; x-rays that I had gotten as part of all my diagnostic tests had shown a mysterious “thing” in my femur. I’ll never forget the look on my sports medicine doctor’s face as he placed the black x-ray film against the lightbox.

“That’s not normal?” I asked, completely clueless about the streak of white shooting from mid-femur to my knee.

“No,” he replied, eyes wide. “I suggest you see an orthopedist as soon as possible.”

And like that, no amount of yoga or meditation or expressive dance could console me. My brain completely took over, convincing me that my leg was dying, that even though I had never experienced pain in that area before, I was now in pain. In my heart, I knew I was being brainwashed by my overactive neurons, the power of suggestion consuming me. I’d constantly fight with myself, telling me this was all in my head, but my memory kept returning to that x-ray, and just like that, I’d feel stiffness, aching, throbbing. I considered seeing a hypnotherapist to delete the thought from my mind or at least tone down my fears of my leg having to be amputated.

Convinced I was going to become Peg Leg Pete.

It would be months before the “thing” was deemed by a bone specialist as a harmless entity, but in the meantime, my dance suffered. Nia, the outlet that once brought me so much joy, began to become burdensome. Of course, the labral tear in my hip caused some pain, but with each plié and kick I did in class, I imagined my femur further breaking down, the alien inside on the verge of spreading outside the bone and inhabiting my blood and muscles.

I left class one evening crying to my teacher and then never returned for the remainder of the series. She’d e-mail me periodically to check in or to tell me about an upcoming series, but even after I got the all-clear by my doctor, I never wanted to see Nia again.

The power of association is just wild. I mean, I’ve been dancing 5Rhythms now for two years, but when I finally talked myself into attending this most recent Nia class, I felt sick to my stomach. It didn’t help that I had to look up something in an orthopedics journal for work, and that—coupled with the thought of having to go to Nia that night—made those 2-year-old feelings of soreness and discomfort bubble up in my leg again. So much for time healing all wounds. It is both frightening and fascinating just how much the body holds onto memories and traumas.

Fortunately, the Nia class this past week took place in my “homebase” 5Rhythms venue, the yoga studio in which I discovered, fell in love with, and was healed by 5Rhythms. The power of association worked in my favor this time, as it was just a few weeks ago I stood on the very same floor and danced one of the most soul-stirring dances my body has ever moved.

I saw that polished wooden floor, and my heart softened, relaxed, and opened to this return to Nia.

Once the music started, the only thing that became (slightly) uncomfortable was the notion of choreography, something that 5Rhythms does not have. For the past 2 years, I’ve been following the lead of my heart, not an instructor. However, that feeling quickly subsided as the teacher reminded us to make adjustments for our body, put our own feeling into the moves, to move the way our muscles craved to move. It was satisfying to have a foundation but also the freedom to build my vision on top of it. There were plenty of breaks for free dancing, and I sunk into familiar, delicious territory, my eyes closed, my arms spinning. (Later, after class, a woman described my movement as “distractingly graceful.” “You just looked so happy,” she complimented.)

In fact, I fell so in love with the movement that during a martial arts-like kick when the instructor encouraged us to shout “NO!” along with the choreography, I almost could not speak the word. I didn’t want to say “no”! I was having a good time; I was enjoying this. I wanted to shout “YES!” (Fortunately, that was the next part of the routine.)

Even when the kick-shout exercise ended, my body continued dancing “Yes!” throughout class.

I was back in business.

Photograph provided by Nia Technique (www.nianow.com).

I’ve been dancing the 5Rhythms for two years now, but this past Saturday’s class felt like I entered a new realm of movement and expression, as though the past 24 months have been Level 1 of a video game, and only now have I been given the key to the secret portal.

I’m really struggling to put into words the pure awesomeness of my dance this weekend. And I’m a writer, so this means I’m dealing with some intense sh*t. I just keep imagining that scene from Contact when Jodie Foster stares out the spaceship window at the golden galaxy of stars, moons, and planets swirling around her, and all she can stammer is, “They should have sent a poet.”

Yoga people, you probably understand this. You know that moment after you’ve been practicing for a few years, and then you have a yoga “experience?” And you’re like Woah. And then something even more Woah happens in your body and breath, and you’re like, “WOAH, I get this now!”

Kinda like that.

Here are the tangibles: The class was held in an amazing restored warehouse with the brightest of bright sunshine streaming through the windows, warming up the expansive studio and causing our sweat to glisten like diamonds.

The guest teacher was Daniella Peltekova, a 5Rhythms teacher from NYC whose Bulgarian heritage blessed her with an exotic accent that, for me, sounded like a saucy hybrid between Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz. Every word she spoke was a verbal expression of Flowing. Her instructions filled the studio like water filling a tub for a warm bubble bath, and I just wanted to soak it all up.

The experience was surreal. When I first entered the studio, I felt like Alice walking into Wonderland. The room was warm, radiating with sunshine, the music was already pulsing, bodies were spinning and flowing around me.

Daniella played bass-filled, earthy, sensual music, punctuated here and there by loudness and softness, just the right combination of melodies and sounds and lyrics that I exhausted myself by the end of class because I wanted so badly to dance to every song.


Halfway during class, as we all sat sweating and glistening and drunk on dance, Daniella poised herself next to a shaft of sunlight and spoke of the beautiful space, the wicked sunlight around us, the full moon, Easter and Passover and things rising and coming to life. She noted that we were out of winter’s cold and darkness, the light is here (oh my it was), and that we didn’t have to do anything but be receptive. “The light is already here; just receive it,” she encouraged us in her Flowing voice.

I felt like a born-again Christian, but not quite sure of my religion. The words comforted me so deeply, I felt them rattle my soul, I wanted to believe but didn’t know what to believe in. Everything within me screamed Hallelujah! but instead of praying we danced, danced, and danced.

(cue the non-tangibles)

Daniella began a new round of Flowing from the floor, on our backs, instructing us to move just the hands, feel our flesh, explore our body’s largest organ. We roll onto our bellies, and from there I observe my loose strands of hair illuminated in the sunshine, doing their own wispy dance to the whir of the overhead fan.

The adventure into Wonderland continued, my body gliding by others, my arms intertwining with those of strangers, our audible, sharp Staccato breaths engaged in a dual of inhalations and exhalations. Palm to palm we gently push and guide and use our single hand to initiate a twisted tango.

Over and over again in my mind, I ask, “Where am I?” The light coming in the giant windows is blinding; I squint long enough to watch a woman across the street on her front porch paint a shelf, and my arms unconsciously imitate her strokes inside the studio. Up and down. Up and down.


Every song that plays is like one of Alice’s “Drink Me” bottles, and I gulp and gulp and struggle for a breath and gulp some more. Down the rabbit hole I dance; where the hell am I going? Is this a portal to reality? Or is it my imagination?

(See this video for an idea of how I felt for much of the class.)

When Florence + the Machine’s live version of “You’ve Got the Love” with Dizzee Rascal blasts through the room, I am thrust into reality because I am dancing so hard that I realize I am gasping for air, my face flushed. OK, yes, lungs. Lungs need oxygen, and this is real.

Reality stuns me again as I briefly partner with an older woman whose overarched feet, willow-like arms, and elongated neck are a dead giveaway of her former life as a classically trained ballerina, and I suddenly feel like I am dancing in front of a mirror of time, an image of me in 30+ years projected right in front of my eyes. I see her age, wisdom, the muscle memory in her calves and shoulders and torso, and I am her and she is me. For the briefest of moments I want to cry, an innocent, profound urge coming deep from my heart, one of pure lightness.

It is a wonderful encounter, and an invitation to see all of my other fellow dancers in the same light. Although my brain had trouble processing much of the class and labeled the whole experience as some kind of wacky adventure into Wonderland, in my heart, the afternoon felt like poetry, something more along the lines of this:

I want to be naked, running through the streets
I want to invite this so-called chaos, that you’d think I dare not be
I want to be weightless, flying through the air
I want to drop all these limitations and return to what I was born to be.
~ Alanis Morissette, “So-Called Chaos”

Just as Alanis Morissette’s album So-Called Chaos is not one of her strongest, when it comes to 5Rhythms, the third rhythm of Chaos is also not one of my favorites. Still, the workshop I attended last weekend revolved around that theme, so I had to take Alanis’ advice and “drop all [my] limitations.”

Chaos intimidates me for two reasons: (a) Sometimes I get way too swept up in the commotion and lose track of all the body parts I am supposed to be mindful of (e.g., my hip) and end up hurting myself; and (b) Sometimes I just cannot sink into the chaos and feel like an outsider slinking around the room as everyone around me is lost in trance.

These fears are easily translated to life outside of a formal 5Rhythms class. Sometimes I take on too much at once–pin too many responsibilities to myself–and before I know it, I am forgetting to pee, forgetting to eat, forgetting to breathe—ultimately hurting myself. That’s a real-life example of the first fear above. A real-life example of the second fear is walking the streets of Manhattan and being unable to meld with the chaos of NYC, being scared of the loudness, the bright lights, the throngs of people, the smells, speeding taxis, and towering skyscrapers, seeing everyone around me mysteriously immersed in the chaos but myself unable to get swept up in the chaotic flow.

So I was ever-so-grateful when the workshop teacher had us approach Chaos from gentler origins, asking us to enter Chaos from a more flowing perspective. We stood on one side of the room and danced our way across the floor, beginning with flowing movement and then–as the music intensified–gradually transitioned to more Chaos-inspired movement while still maintaining a Flowing undercurrent. She challenged us to stay connected to the Flowing, not to let the more jarring Staccato dominate the body.

Coming from this perspective, Chaos felt wonderfully natural and actually enjoyable. I liked being mindful of the transition, breathing into the more quick-paced movement. When my dance had actually achieved an authentic “Chaos” status, I was still connected to my body and didn’t feel so wildly out of control. I was still letting go but very aware of everything around me.

I had to remember this instruction later in the class during a regular Wave. The music transitioned from a Staccato into a Chaos song, and it wasn’t long before everyone around me was thrashing, spinning, eyes rolling into the back of their heads. But I was stuck in neutral and just couldn’t move myself into the Chaos. Again, it was like standing in Times Square, petrified that I just did not fit into all of the urban commotion around me. I wanted so much to be part of the chaos but didn’t know how to let go.

That’s when I remembered the instructor’s guidance from earlier, to enter Chaos from Flowing. So I undulated my spine, my arms. I sneaked in closer to my chaotic classmates, trying to feed off their energy. I weaved in and out and around of their bopping bodies, deeply breathing in all of the madness. Soon enough, I felt the energy rise through me, and I became part of the Chaos. I was swept up naturally in the energy around me, and my body was satisfied to enter its chaotic state without being forced.

The workshop was perfectly timed, because the following week at work, I got sucked into a massive project that basically had (and still has) my entire office in a state of chaos. I had been resisting the responsibilities for a while, but with my newly learned wisdom from 5Rhythms, I allowed myself flow into the tasks, settling comfortably into my chair, plugging my earbuds into my ears, and swaying along to my favorite songs as I sunk into the chaotic database work that consumed most of my days.

Resistance is futile, so why not just breathe, unclench your fingers and toes, and dance mindfully into the chaos?

Bonus link: Just a few days before this workshop, the blog Zen Habits featured this post, entitled “The Unpredictable Freedom and Sweetness of Chaos.” 🙂

Several weeks ago I was contacted by a rep from Beachbody, asking if I’d be interested in voluntarily browsing through some of the company’s in-development products. I really dragged my feet on this one, mostly because, personally, I have no interest in the company’s existing catalog.

There’s no doubt that Beachbody’s products (e.g., P90X, Insanity) are wildly popular and effective, but for someone like me who is trying hard to explore more of the “mind” and “spirit” elements of the mind-body-spirit trifecta (aaaaand who has a torn hip labrum), the notion of groaning and grunting my way through something titled “The Asylum” seemed to fall just slightly beyond my boundaries of comfort.

(No offense to Beachbody sensation Shaun T., a fellow Rowan University alum. I’ll admit it’s kinda cool to see someone you danced with in college rise to fitness stardom.)

However, of the three Beachbody programs in the pipeline that came into my inbox, there was one that stood out for me:

Tai Cheng

I clicked the link cautiously, afraid that what I hoped was going to be somehow related to tai chi would actually end up being some sweaty, teeth-grinding hybrid of my beloved low-impact martial art and, say, the muscle-ripping CrossFit.

I was pleasantly surprised. One of the first quotes on the website’s accompanying video, from who I am assuming is Beachbody CEO Carl Daikeler, is “What about training that’s NOT about extreme?”

Not extreme? You mean no veins pulsing through my forehead, no teeth gnashing? My interest was piqued.

Daikeler went on to tell an anecdote about his father, who had hip replacement surgery. “I had nothing in our catalog I could provide to him,” he confessed. With that concern in mind, Daikeler aimed to develop a program that both seasoned athletes and once-sedentary individuals or those recovering from injury could benefit from, a program using one of the oldest fitness regimens in the world: tai chi.

As Daikeler spoke, Tai Cheng’s namesake/creator Dr. Mark Cheng–a martial arts master trainer, traditional Chinese medicine practitioner, and physical therapy-based corrective exercise expert–demonstrated the Yang style of tai chi in the foreground. His movement was utterly hypnotic and dance-like. My first reaction was, “I wanna move like him, sign me up now!” I know I’m only in the sixth week of my own weekly tai chi class, but I had this silly impression that I moved with grace. Then I saw Cheng’s demonstration, and now I feel more like a cactus tumbling through a sandstorm than seaweed dancing through water, which is what Cheng appears to be.

I like that Beachbody is promoting this program for a full spectrum of fitness abilities and not stereotypically equating tai chi with older or less active individuals (Daikeler reports that his focus groups included people ages 18 to 80). The videos here are short snippets about how Tai Cheng can benefit Insanity, P90X, and TurboFire fans, as well as everyday gals like me who want to move with precision, grace, and control, while also reaping the mind-calming effects of the ancient martial art. Soundbytes that stood out for me in the introductory video were “developing exquisite control in proprioception” and “better stability, better control, and better performance.” Sounds a little like yoga, huh?

Tai Cheng is slated to become available sometime in this first quarter of 2012, and while I am impressed with the product and commend Beachbody for expanding its demographics, this isn’t to say I’m going to follow through and invest in it. I am a much better student when part of a live class, and unless I’m trying to soothe a backache through Viniyoga, DVDs just aren’t my thing. I feel a bit ADD when standing in front of a TV screen, and since Tai Cheng is a comprehensive 90-day “program,” it is very likely I would never steadily stick to the 3-month plan. However, if it’s something one could do, say, once or twice a week, then perhaps I’ll be more open to the concept. For people who crave routine and a “graduation” from a fitness program, then Tai Cheng could be their theng…err, thang. 🙂

Speaking of tai chi, did you know that Saturday, April 28 is World Tai Chi Day? My sister and I plan to attend an event at a local fitness center that will feature demonstrations and group participation activities, plus some tai chi sword forms!

Note. I was not paid/compensated or asked to write this post and have no vested interest in Beachbody or Tai Cheng.

I was supposed to attend an African dance class this afternoon, as I so excitedly gushed about last week, but I ended up on my living room floor doing this instead:

This is what happens when you’re in your 30s. You spend a Saturday shoe shopping–bending down, standing up, lugging a heavy bag around DSW–and the next day your shoulders and back are all f**ked up and you have to decide whether to take the dance class and risk hurting yourself further or stay home and do an hour of therapeutic yoga instead.

While I’m on the subject, let me just say that the above DVDs have my 100% total approval, and if you have any issues with your low/upper back, sacrum, hips, neck, or shoulders, these are most definitely something to have in your media library. My first experience with Gary Kraftstow was about 1.5 years ago, when I was looking for some kind of relief for my bum hip. I was browsing Netflix’s selection of yoga DVDs and read several good reviews about the low back/sacrum/hips workout, and let’s just say that I watched that DVD so many times that I probably have ownership rights to it now. I eventually returned the disc to Netflix and bought the DVD online, later buying the upper body one to complete the collection.

I recommend these DVDs all.the.time. If you tell me you have a back problem, you can bet I will be throwing Gary Kraftstow’s name in your face. The thing about Viniyoga is that it’s designed to be therapeutic, kind of like a physical therapy regimen but with yoga postures. Each of the DVDs has three routines, ranging from 20-something minutes to about 50, and each workout is crafted specifically to help the affected area; the postures are meant to be done in the order they are presented. There is nothing fancy about the workouts, no bells and whistles, no music, no candles, no om’ing in and chanting out, no studio full of yoga models sporting the latest Lulu. It’s either a man or woman doing the postures and Gary’s voiceover giving the instructions. It’s boring as hell…but very effective, just like physical therapy.

If you are diligent about the practice and do the workout(s) regularly, I can almost guarantee you will feel progress/relief (however, I am not a health care practitioner, and this is just my 2 layperson’s cents). I did the low back one almost daily for about a month, because at the time my hips were all kinds of crooked and my sacroiliac joint was always popping one way or the other. I didn’t always feel relief immediately after doing the workout, but throughout the day I would feel things settling into place. Like today, I do a workout anytime I feel “out of sorts,” when my body feels like a car that’s driven over one too many potholes. Nine times out of 10, something in my sacrum/neck/spine always gives a desirable pop or crack of relief when I rise from savasana.

So, no African dancing for me this week but I had a nice, long date with Mr. Kraftstow (did both a low back AND shoulders routine!) and did these dancey-dance things instead:

• Subscribed to Conscious Dancer magazine.

• Discovered Nia and Dharma Dance teacher Susan McCulley’s blog, on which she posts some excellent playlists that have made their way to my Grooveshark menu.

• Discovered the music of Cryptex, which made me dance so much that now I’m certain the floor in our 80-something-year-old house is going to fall through.

Four weeks ago, I started taking a weekly tai chi class with my sister. The intention was for my grandmother to take class with us, but she just hasn’t felt up to it. Nevertheless, I’m enjoying having something permanent on my schedule every week, especially because I get to see my sister. We’ve been trying to do “after-class” socializing too, whether it’s going out to dinner at the local vegetarian restaurant, visiting my sister’s friends and their new baby girl, or getting salads to go and eating dinner at my grandparents.

And, oh yeah, the class itself is pretty good too. 🙂 The studio space is a bit “clinical” (bright overhead lights, a bit on the cool side), but I’m trying not to let those things bug me and focus entirely on the movement. Here’s what I’m digging so far about tai chi:

1. Attaining a clear and focused mind. After an hour of meditative movement and breathing (along with listening to my hypnotherapist teacher’s voice), my mind is in such a better place. I always enter the room a bit rushed and dizzied, having driven there right from work, but I’m in a totally different mindset once I leave. Any crazy guilt I have about not getting a “real workout” (i.e., sweat and breathlessness) on Thursday nights dissipates once class is over because I know that I have given my mind the workout it needs and deserves.

2. “Beach” feet. Yoga, tai chi, qi gong…whenever you’re doing an activity that requires absolute presence and mindfulness, you begin to feel very in touch with your surroundings, including the way your feet feel against the ground. Sometimes yoga makes me feel like I have tree roots growing from my soles into the earth, but tai chi makes me feel like I have “beach” feet, as though I’m standing barefoot by the ocean, my feet sinking softly into the wet sand.

3. Balance practice. Part of our warm-up is to shift from one foot to the other, balancing in place while “holding the ball” in front of our abdomen. Standing on one foot after a day of sitting at a desk or driving isn’t always easy, but it gives me a sense of attaining balance not just on my feet but in life in general.

4. The diversity. I’m 31, my sister is 26. The teacher’s assistant looks like she is in her 70s and wears orthopedic shoes throughout the class. There is a woman who has spinal issues and cannot twist and a “senior student” Asian man for whom tai chi looks second nature. The class brings in people of all different ages, abilities, and backgrounds, and there is something endearing about such a diverse group of students all learning the same thing together.

5. The flowing nature of the style. When all 24 postures of the Yang style are linked together, the result is a flowing work of choreography. We are still learning just the basic moves, but with time I hope to synchronize the arms and legs more; sink deep into the ground; and use the whole space available, not just one little spot on the floor. This woman is my inspiration:

I am so excited to be adding a new item into my toolbox of mind-body-spirit “flowtation” devices: tai chi!

Starting this week, my sister and I (and hopefully our grandmother) will be taking a 10-week series in tai chi chuan.

It is not the first time I have dabbled in tai chi. My gym offers a class (led by a master instructor), which I’ve dropped into a few times, and then in the summer of 2010 I took a 6-week series in tai chi chih. I took the chih class during a very stressful time in my life, and that weekly gathering kept me grounded. My mind was all over the place that summer, and that one hour and 15 minutes each week was my lifeline. However, as much as the practice contributed to my well-being, in the end, I definitely felt a greater attraction toward the chuan style of tai chi.

Tai chi chuan is the style most people are familiar with, the steady flow from posture to posture that resembles an underwater dance. Tai chi chih, on the other hand, is a series of 19 movements that are done more like repetitions in a set. They are just as flowing as the movements in the chuan style, but they are not linked as seamlessly and it is not considered a martial art like chuan.

My sister, her boyfriend, and I took a free introductory class last week. My grandmother–who we’re trying to encourage to attend class–backed out at the last minute due to painful sciatica flare. We are trying to rally as many people as we can to take this class; as this article describes, there is pretty much no reason not to do tai chi. It helps improve memory and balance, can lower blood pressure, and helps reduce depression. The day of last week’s free class, as if on cue, this article popped up on my Google Reader from the New York Times wellness blog, about a study touting the benefits of tai chi for individuals with Parkinson’s disease.

Even after practicing for an hour under bright florescent lights (ugh!) and an overhead fan (on a 35-degree night–brr!), I left last week’s class feeling pretty darn good. I had been trying to get my lower back to crack all day; it had felt “stuck” since 7 a.m. Sure enough, after class I pressed my hands against my sacrum and pop! Relief. I loved the class’ gentle warm-ups, the way the movements felt like a dance to me, but one in which I had to exercise concentration and control. The instructor is also a certified hypnotherapist, and I swear after listening to his steady voice for 60 minutes, my brain had shifted into a very peaceful state of mind. It was not the workout I am used to at all, but it gave me that same focused and centered mind that I usually achieve after doing yoga.

Finding this class–convenient in terms of location, time, and cost–as well as the fact that we’ve got some family involved, makes me feel good. Really good. If only I could get the whole family to try it out, and then we could turn suburban New Jersey into a mini Beijing:

Common sight as we drove through China. (June 2006)

Friday night was another 5Rhythms class, this one just 2 hours of a traditional Wave. I was thrilled that my friend Amanda offered to take the class with me; she took a few classes back in 2010 and then fell off the bandwagon, but she is a fantastic mover, so it was great to have her back! The class drew in several new people, plus Michelle, a woman I connected with at Biodanza last year and who I have been longing to dance with again. She is one of those people who can just look at you and you feel overwhelmed with joy.

Here are some random notes from the evening:

The Watchful Hands

It is typical for the instructor to begin a Flowing exercise by telling us to dance with our hands. Before we introduce the arms, shoulders, spine, hips, and legs into the dance, we move only our hands, become fully immersed in the subtleties of the wrists and fingers. However, this time the instructor told us to imagine eyes on the palms of our hands. When we move our hands, what are they seeing?

What I saw was a sliver of everyone else’s dancing, and when we were fully given permission to dance with our entire body, I found myself tuning into my classmates’ movements, noticing a particular move they were doing, and completing a variation of that movement. Call it “copying,” but I saw it more of a form of connection with every.body there in that studio.

‘To Me’ vs. ‘For Me

To kick off Chaos, the instructor, as he has done in the past, had us join hands and form a circle, our arms shaking wildly as one form, our bodies being pulled one way and then another. Was it irritating that we were being pulled in several different directions at once or was it guidance for us to give into the moment? Is this chaos happening to you or for you?, we pondered after class. What if we shifted our perspective so that the chaos we face in daily living is happening “for me,” rather than the victimized “to me”? Is it possible to see the world that way?

This snowstorm is happening ‘for me’??

Amanda the Kite

At one point, when the majority of the class was either vibrating in place or making small steps around themselves, Amanda flew across the studio floor as though she had wings on her ankles, a Porsche speeding down a suburban street when everyone else was going cautiously at 25 mph. Her body was a kite whipping wildly on a windy day; her movement spoke joy, and it was at that point I remembered the instructor’s comment about seeing someone else’s movement and really, really liking it, so much that you want to try it out. So for that moment, Amanda inspired me to be a kite.

Shirtless

Chaos forced me to strip off my sweatshirt, and all I had on underneath was a black sports bra. Normally I really don’t like to remain “shirtless”; when not caught up in the ecstasy of dancing, having my midriff exposed makes me feel all kinds of vulnerable. Not that I have a beer gut hanging out from my yoga pants or anything, but the stomach is just a weird body part that shifts in appearance with every forward fold, backbend, side stretch, and jump. Every time I disrobe down to the sports bra, I’m reminded of the Seinfeld episode when Jerry’s girlfriend walks around the apartment naked and how he’s repulsed at seeing her clothes-less body cough, sneeze, and shake.

I had that nervous feeling for about 3 seconds after peeling off the shirt, but then I was back in the throes of Chaos, moving around every which way, the thoughts of a prana-filled, sweat-covered belly taken over by a deep appreciation of my entire being, the way it was whirling, curling, shaking, and gyrating. My hair, which I normally go great lengths to ensure is pinned back and held neatly in place, was a hot mess. Half of it had fallen out of the rubberband, a few ends were plastered in my armpit, and whatever was left was stuck in the corners of my mouth or covering my eyes. It is in those moments of naked sweaty stomachs and fly-away Medusa hair where my freedom is found.

Michelle’s Plateau Pick-Me-Up

After the pure wildness and rawness of Chaos, the Lyrical that followed was difficult for me to maintain. I was sweaty, exhausted, and had reached a plateau. My Lyrical began to feel flat, and just as I was reluctantly shifting into the dreaded “forced” movement, Michelle shimmied up to me and did a little shake-shake-shake here, shake-shake-shake there, the twinkle in her eye and smile on her lips infusing me with a new spark of energy, like I was a Super Mario Brother coming across a 1-Up mushroom. I didn’t need a new song, a caffeine shot, or a rest break to come back to life; all it took was a little exchange of energy, and I was granted a new reserve of breath and enjoyment.

Some Sweat and Sweetness

I was paired with the studio owner during the shift from Lyrical into Stillness. We clasped hands and engaged in a lovely pas de deux, our breath slowing and our movements growing softer and softer. Had I not been just utterly sweaty at that point, I would have given myself more fully, but I was afraid of pressing my glistening back all over her delicate blouse. It was still a sweet moment.

About the Author

Name: Jennifer

Location: Greater Philadelphia Area

Blog Mission:
SHARE my practice experience in conscious dance and yoga,

EXPAND my network of like-minded individuals,

FULFILL my desire to work with words in a more creative and community-building capacity;

FLOW and GROW with the world around me!

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