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tribe

One of the most fulfilling elements of my 5Rhythms practice—other than the gift of meditation through movement it provides to me—is the sense of TRIBE that comes along with being a part of a community of like-minded individuals.

I’ve written before about the energetic bonds created during classes and workshops, how dancing boldly and authentically among others creates an almost transcendent state of togetherness—I am everyone, and everyone is me.

In fact, some of Adam Barley‘s final words to our class during his Philadelphia workshop this past March were: “Look closely at these people you’ve danced with; you are all of them and they are you.”

Some people may have yoga tribes, running tribes, coffee shop tribes, postpartum depression support tribes. What’s important is to find those individuals

who accept us as we are without reservation and gladly accompany us on our journeys of evolution. Among them, we feel free to be our imperfect selves, to engage unabashedly in the activities we enjoy, and to express our vulnerabilities by relying on our tribe for support. [source]

The power of the tribe becomes even more apparent in moments of vulnerability, when we find ourselves standing naked in a room of peers, our souls sweating onto the dance floor, our hands reaching out for contact and connection.

Being able to be so open can feel empowering, and you know you wouldn’t have been able to get there on your own, even if you locked yourself in a room for 24 hours straight and danced until your feet bled.

For example, back in April I participated in a 3-day workshop with a “cousin” 5Rhythms tribe in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was my first time really away from my home turf, staying with a host dancer and her family. I arrived on Friday evening, and by Sunday evening it took a lot of effort to pull me away from that group of dancers. I cried before I even left the venue parking lot, so reluctant to start the car and drive away from this group I had bonded so comfortably with.

“It’s not fairrrrrr!” I exclaimed. “I was just getting to know these people. We do all this incredible, opening work with these people, expose our hearts and souls to them, and then just like *that* we are supposed to say goodbye and leave?! I need more time with everyone!”

(That said, guess where I am now as this blog entry posts? Back in Charlottesville, for an extended workshop—5 whole days with my tribe! We’re actually at a retreat center, eating, sleeping, dancing, and dreaming together—exactly what I was longing for when I left Virginia two months ago.)

The 5Rhythms practice relies very heavily on this notion of tribe; in fact, one of my favorite teachers from New York—Douglas Drummond–held a special workshop in Philadelphia on this very topic:

Embodied Tribal.

Here is Douglas’ description of the work:

The real measure of a leader lies in their followers. At the core of this power is the relationship between the Leader and the Follower. In these modern times, we are asking so much of everyone with respect to demonstrating leadership skills even when not the formal leader. Sometimes this is hard to understand and hard to demonstrate. So we’ll MOVE with it!

To emphasize this point, Douglas had us get into a few large groups and to NOT designate a leader. The direction was for everyone to continue to dance but then—through an unspoken, organic unfolding—somebody starts doing a repetitive movement. With luck, everyone eventually picks up on this movement, not quite knowing who the leader is but being able to “feel” the leadership and sense it out, as the individuals in the group conform one by one.

A great visual demonstration of such a phenomenon can be seen in this video:
{Watch 32 discordant metronomes achieve synchrony in a matter of minutes.}

The exercise was a bit symbolic of our greater work as a tribe: everyone being in discordance, doing their own thing, and eventually all coming together for a few moments. The repetitive movement was to be something simple, too—nothing too complex—just like how the simple act of dancing together builds such cohesion among our collection of ragtag individuals.

In another exercise, Douglas split our class into three groups of at least 10 people each, each “tribe” facing each other in the center of the room.

One person from each group took on the leadership role—standing front and center—engaging in a simple movement that everyone could follow.

Douglas had us speed it up, slow it down, experiment with different tempos. We looked like three tribes about to go to war with each other, or perhaps even three military units ready to sweep in and fight the same enemy.

Eventually, Douglas made both the leader and his followers pause; the leader then turned around to view his tribe behind him. In all instances, most of the followers were standing in the same position, arms poised in same place, stances all uniform.

I was fortunate to serve as one of the “leaders,” and let me tell you, turning around and seeing my tribe standing there in unison, poised exactly how I had led them was exhilarating.

It wasn’t even a sense of power or dominance, but rather, Wow, these people have my back, we’re all in this together. When I need them there the most, they’re there. I thought about how many times I’ve really needed them, just their presence for 2 or 3 hours; they’re my family, it’s my tribe.

In an active listening discussion afterward, Douglas made us answer the question: “What does the dance of the tribal mean to me?”

Some of the words I shared with my partner were support, family, and love. Sometimes I’m not even certain of everyone’s names or what they do for a living or where they live and what they believe in, yet I still feel a deep connection with them.

"Stillness in Motion" group. Charlottesville, VA, April 2013.

“Stillness in Motion” group. Charlottesville, VA, April 2013.

On the surface, your tribe may seem to be nothing more than a loose-knit group of friends and acquaintances to whom you ally yourself. Yet when you look deeper, you will discover that your tribe grounds you and provides you with a sense of community that ultimately fulfills many of your most basic human needs. [source]

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Fear, Power, Beauty installation

Fear, Power, Beauty installation

The other day I wrote about England-based 5Rhythms teacher Adam Barley and his workshop back in March in Philadelphia: Fear, Power, and Beauty.

People outside of the conscious dance world get confused when I talk about “dancing fear,” because I guess they imagine ritualistic theatrics involving creepy masks and blindfolds or sitting around in circles sharing stories we would only confess to our priests or rabbis.

Maybe they envision a dictator-like teacher barking commands at us, scaring us intentionally, making us dance on our knees until they bleed, breaking us down.

That isn’t the case.

The process begins with an intention.

I remember one of my teachers commenting that a workshop truly first begins not at the designated start time but rather that moment when the student has RSVP’d. It means the individual has checked and set aside time on his calender, that he has secured the finances, that he is saying to himself, “I am committing my time, money, and energy to this occasion.”

With that commitment, the brain’s neurons begin firing—perhaps subconsciously—about intention. What was it that guided me to pay $200 to explore fear? Why did I carve out an entire weekend to do this work?

The answer might not be obvious. Some people have very clear intentions, for example: “I grew up fearing intimacy, and I want to move beyond that” or “I fear never being ‘seen.'”

For others, there may be no “elevator statement” on their reason for attending; nevertheless, the months/weeks/days leading up to the workshop involve a huge, simmering crock pot of “mental dances,” the brain working behind the scenes, knowing something big is coming up and beginning to direct energy accordingly.

As my therapist always reminds me, “Energy follows intention.”

The teacher usually helps with this process.

Here’s what Adam sent workshop registrants a week or so before the event:

Dear Dancer,

So you’ve got this workshop coming up where we’re working with fear, huh? 

Watch out!

Fear is scary. It’s particularly scary to your mind, and your mind is a tricky customer. Watch it come and go, create stories and scenarios that probably will not bear much resemblance to reality. 

Your best prep for the weekend is to do what we’ll be fundamentally doing there: stay aware of your body and your breath, because those two aspects of you will stay reliably present, unlike your mind. Stay present. Breathe deep often. Take steps so you can feel your feet. And watch everything else come and go, rise and fall. 

So, what happens when you first walk into a workshop on Fear?

You DANCE, of course! Throw your bags and belongings to the side, exchange hugs and kisses with your fellow dancers, tape up your toes/bandage your ankle/slip a brace on your knee, and find your way into Flowing.

Belongings

In fact, the Friday night portion of a big workshop is mostly dancing and is mostly fun. It’s establishing connection with others, getting in touch with the body, warming up for the bigger work to come.

I had so much fun on that particular Friday, that I didn’t even feel an iota of fear flutter in my heart.

(Which is a bit ironic, because then the “fear” was that I was entering a Fear workshop without any connection to the main topic!)

Then that night I had a nightmare, waking up in a cold sweat. The dream was terrifically realistic and basically flung all of my real-life fears smack in my face.

That said, on Saturday I had “material” to work with.

And so the process began.

* * *

> We don’t only dance Fear-–Adam also instructs us to strike a pose of Anger, Sadness, Joy, and Compassion. We hold these postures, then find a repetitive movement to embody the emotion.

Repetition is an effective exercise because eventually our patterns emerge, clear as day. When we become aware of our patterns on the dance floor, it becomes easier to identify them in the real world.

In addition, after exploring all of the emotions above through movement, Adam asks us, “Which one felt the most authentic to you?”

I hated to admit it, but I really enjoyed the sharp vocalizations and precise martial arts-like movement I was expressing in Anger.

In fact, for most of the workshop, I continuously made the mistake of confusing Fear and Anger, bearing my teeth and flexing my muscles like a tiger when the intent was really to feel more like the prey, not the predator.

(I guess it’s clear what my “shadow”/defense mechanism is.)

> Adam is firm about not wanting us to “check out.” For example, when you feel the need to get water, before you scurry off to get your bottle, pause and see if you’re honestly thirsty and need hydration or whether it’s a built-in routine—a mechanical reaction (“Chaos just ended, so obviously it’s water time”) or perhaps something deeper (“This song/partner/rhythm makes me uncomfortable, I will ‘take a break’ now so I don’t have to face the discomfort.”).

It’s not that Adam wants us to be parched or hungry—he’s just reminding us to be aware of the unconscious mind games that unfold when we’re faced with something we’re not 100% comfortable with.

“Be aware of thirst, tiredness, music you don’t like, a partner you can’t connect with…go with it, that’s when stuff happens. Don’t check out.”

We dance each rhythm across the room several times, reminds me of going “across the floor” in dance class, when we’d practice the same steps from one end of the room to the other until perfection.

This time there are steps but not choreography, just a long path from Point A to Point B for us to dance a Flowing Fear, a Staccato Fear, a Chaos Fear, a Lyrical Fear, a Stillness Fear.

Again,” Adam says with a simple hand gesture in our direction, compassionate fierceness in his voice. He never lets us check out.

There are chairs on the side of the room, but we are asked only to sit if we’re dealing with injury or pain. “If you’re tired, dance a tired Chaos!” Adam says.

> We dance to wordless music all of Friday and Saturday. On Friday, it barely registers in my mind. After Saturday, it becomes very noticeable that thus far we have danced to only instrumental music.

Without lyrics, the brain is able to shut off much quicker. You can’t use the words to help carry your movement; instead, movement becomes instinctual.

On Sunday, vocals began to appear in our music. Something in the air became lighter. It was like we were being pressed under water for two days, hearing only heartbeats and muffled murmuring, and now finally hearing the sweet sounds of the world sing clearly into our ears.

Here’s what Adam had to say about that, in a separate e-mail:

The intent was to take everyone into the dark at first, to encounter fear, find power, and then to emerge into beauty; though I had no idea of the exact steps we would take to do that, or what music I would choose along the way. All my music selection is totally intentional, and each track is chosen in the moment, none more than a few minutes before it plays.

> Energy indeed follows intention, even after the workshop ends and socialization begins. At a potluck dinner party after Saturday’s grueling class, I end up randomly sitting next to a woman, get into a conversation with her about mudra meditations, and then—holy coincidence!—nearly at the same time, we say, “Here’s my favorite one,” lifting our hands into the conch shell mudra.

Of all the possible mudras out there—so many combinations of finger placements and hand positions—how can this be?!

Just like having that fear-inducing nightmare on Friday night, I believe meeting “Elaine” on Saturday night was synchronicity, our work from the earlier part of the day culminating into a deeper experience to help us through the remainder of the workshop.

Turns out the conch shell mudra (which helps strengthen the throat) is so important to us because we both struggle with our voices, her physically and me energetically. In fact, our voice-related challenges are a huge part of our fear, the very reason we are at this workshop!

Well then, it should not be surprising that during the next day’s session, after a vicious, deep trip into fear—a plunge that leaves my nose running, eyes red and wet, hair askew, a dive in which I had been thinking about my voice—Adam tells us to pause, turn to the person closest to us, and that this person will now be our partner.

I open my soggy eyelids and find myself nearly arm to arm with—of course—Elaine. Energy follows intention even when there are 40+ other dancers in the room!

Adam asks one person from each pair to face the fear of fear, to place it in our bellies, to dance it out as the other partner stands off to the side and simply witnesses.

My eyes stay focused on Elaine, even as she moves among a crowd of several others. She circles and circles, her arms rising out to her sides, her mouth agape, a silent scream caught in her throat.

It is difficult to watch, knowing we share such similar restrictions. At times, I feel as though I am witnessing myself, decades in the future.

I eventually re-enter the dance floor, instructed by Adam to join our partner and stand by her side. “Not in front or in back of them, but by their side,” he emphasizes. “Be there with them.”

“For Stillness, what feels right?” Adam asks. “Taking their hand, touching, an embrace?” My one hand clutches Elaine’s hand, the other comes to back of her neck. My arms wrap her in a hug, her snotty nose in my shoulder. We make eye contact. Her eyes are glistening with fresh tears but so open.

When it is my turn out on the dance floor, I feel Elaine embodied in me, sensations of my throat being blocked off, barely able to talk. Even my movement is constricted. Yet, Elaine doesn’t have a choice. I can speak! Unlike the physical disability she has, I am only energetically impaired. What gives, Jennifer? You can speak!

I rip at my stomach, chest, throat, as though pulling a cord—maybe even a serpent—out of my mouth. Like a magician’s colorful mile-long scarf expanding from his sleeve, the snake keeps emerging as I tug. Wide open mouth.

Finally, there is Lyrical. Adam reminds us to take steps, as it is so easy to stay locked in one place after such a taxing Chaos. Such a relief to just take steps, no dancing, just walk and see what happens.

My robotic right-left-right-left pattern morphs effortlessly into something new, and with that miniscule change of footwork, I feel free, broken out of the restriction. I catch myself softly whispering “Yes, yes, yes” as my feet gradually slow down and I enter Stillness with Elaine by my side and her hand on my heart.

> I am relieved when Adam gives us time to spread across the room and journal. Finally, the energy that has been exploding out of me can collect on paper, an ink-infused take-home gift from all of this intense work. My writing is sloppy as my hands are shaking, and in this period of rest I realize I feel quite sick, a bit nauseous, extraordinarily thirsty, a throbbing headache at my temples.

But words come effortlessly from fingers to paper, and I begin to wonder whether the “illness” I feel is really just all the gunk worked up over the day trying to purge. Writing is my mental vomiting, and my sickness splatters all over the pages of my notebook.

So with that in mind, I receive Adam’s next instruction with apprehension: We are encouraged, one at a time, to stand up in this room of 40+ people and emphatically speak out our “summary statement,” a line from our journaling that represents the essence of our writing.

For some people, what they exclaim is enough, and Adam allows them to sit down and simply breathe in their classmates’ presence and receptivity. For others, Adam uses his best judgement to decide how to proceed:

– “Say it again, this time softer.”

– “Yes, now repeat that three times in a row. Make eye contact with everyone.”

– “Add just a little more softness to you voice.”

– “Where are your hands when you say that? Show me where your hands are.”

He pushes us. Offers comfort. Gently receives with a slight bow of the head. One man’s statement was so profound and gut-wrenching that Adam stood behind him in solidarity and took him into an embrace, the student enveloped in Adam’s arms.

> After the journaling purge, Adam tells us to find someone to be with. To truly, honestly just “be with” this person, whether it’s crying or dialoguing or sitting in meditation. A female dancer from New York is seated right next to me, and we situate ourselves shoulder to shoulder.

“What do you want?” she asks, and I say I just want to hold her like this—me straddling her between my legs as she leans back into my torso, my arms around her from behind. We roll on top of each other, her weight on me; the sensation of her sliding over my back and shoulders brings me to tears. I inhale her shampoo.

* * *

The workshop ends shortly thereafter, our group assembled in a huge circle, holding hands, our eyes taking in every person who has shared our fear that weekend. We all went through some pretty intense and perhaps unflattering moments, yet at this conclusion—amazingly—we all look radiant. Our eyes speak truth.

My headache is gone, and I no longer feel ill. My eyes are puffy, but they are not “sad” eyes. I am exhausted but invigorated.

As stated earlier, the workshop officially starts when one RSVPs and makes the commitment to attend. However, there is no official end to such an endeavor. The work continues even after the studio lights go out, the parking lot is empty, and Adam flies back to England.

We’ve been cracked open; now it’s time to get cookin.’

Fear_egg

RavenFeather

THE END.

It’s an interesting phrase to start off a new blog post, isn’t it? But endings are all about beginnings, and this is the time of year where that becomes most apparent. When 2012 faded into the archives, 2013 made its way onto wall calendars and desktops. Old, unhealthy habits were cast aside, making way for new resolutions. The dying Christmas trees lining the curbsides around my neighborhood will find new life within the earth soon, and with their removal comes newfound space in people’s living rooms—room for the new toys Santa delivered, perhaps.

Even what are considered “endings” in yoga and dance—savasana and Stillness—are really just gentle transitions into beginnings. When I wake up from savasana, it may be the end of class or asana practice, but it feels more like the beginning of something awesome. My body and mind are re-charged, as though those 5 minutes lying on my back were the final moments my smartphone needed in the electrical outlet before clicking over to 100% battery power.

And 5Rhythms-speaking, Stillness may mark the conclusion of a class, but internally it’s only the beginning. Great insights come from the meditative nature of Stillness, making way for new frames of mind, new awareness. It’s one of the reasons I dislike having to go to work the next day after a 5Rhythms intensive—the workshop may have ended, but my mind is just starting to process all the beginnings, all the possibilities thrown at me.

This blog post is about three recent 5Rhythms events that began with endings and ended with beginnings…and so it begins (or ends?):

Plunge to Soar

A week before Christmas, a group of dancers gathered in an elementary school all-purpose room to get unstuck from the personal lies that plagued their souls.

“Our personal lie is our most negative thought about ourselves,” read the e-mail that confirmed our attendance. “This lie was a decision we made most likely based on a reaction we had to something. Due to circumstance, this most commonly comes from our very first surroundings—typically something our parents did, felt, or said about us, anywhere from conception, to birth, to early childhood.”

Plunge-to-Soar Installation

We wrote these personal lies on squares of paper, taping them to the wall. Blank paper and markers were left out to encourage us to continue exploring these demons as we danced. Every other minute, someone would run over to the wall, furiously scribbling, emphatically taping. By the end of the first Wave, the wall looked like some kind of twisted billboard advertising self-doubt and defeat, a haphazard shower of angry black ink. How appropriate was it that the children who used our space during the week were studying the work of Jackson Pollock—they seemed to have decorated the room so fittingly for us:

Pollock_PrincetonPollock_InMotion

Along with dance (led by teacher Nancy Genatt), breath (led by our New Jersey 5Rhythms producer Stavros Vrahnos) was used to explore these dark, dormant places, to set them in motion. It was the first time I had ever used pranayama during 5Rhythms, instructed to stop dancing, find a place of emotional restriction, add a dimension of physical restriction to it by tightening the muscles around that area, and then begin Breath of Fire (kapalabhati breath). This breath rid me of stagnation and propelled me to move forward. One of my lies was “The need to be perpetually clenched,” and breathing in this fashion would not allow that lie to hold true in the moment. My rigidity melted, and a smile may have crossed my lips.

Halfway during class, we lay down for a session of integrative breathwork, a very intense form of breathing meant to increase energy in the body and access suppressed feelings (read about another experience with this breathwork here). The process used to be termed “rebirthing,” and I can see why—tingling and vibrating sensations started in my scalp and gradually moved down into my throat, my chest, my solar plexus, and finally my legs and feet, like I was being pushed head-first out of the womb. I didn’t experience any overwhelming outbursts of emotion, but I did feel an intense urge to move, my fingers dancing in mudras, at one point sitting straight up.

The process marked the destruction of our wall of self-loathing and the birth of new positive, affirmations. Sitting in a circle, we shuffled through the depressing pile of papers inscribed with our personal lies, reading aloud ones that spoke to us—some ours, borrowing others from our classmates. It was both comforting and disheartening to see that we all feel so very flawed and so very similarly, even in times we think we’re alone in our self-doubt.

Reading these statements took courage, caused a few tears to fall. But as we read, we also ripped and teared the paper, symbolizing the end of such thinking. In its place, our classmates wrote truths for each other, replacing the negative with positive.

Highly ritualistic but ultimately freeing, we took the scraps of ripped paper outside to burn, sprinkling rose petals in the fire as a way of adding lightness to the darkness we were shedding.

Personal lies

And then came the beginning: Learning to breathe in and fully receive my new beautiful truths, so graciously offered by my classmates.

Personal truths

Dance Out the Old

My original 5Rhythms teacher Richard’s workshop between Christmas and New Years couldn’t have been a more literal dance of endings and beginnings. Titled “Dance Out the Old,” the day included not just movement but ritualistic sharing of mementos that represented saying goodbye to one year and introducing new aspirations and dreams for 2013.

The centerpiece of the altar at the edge of the room was a raven, symbolic of 5Rhythms founder Gabrielle Roth, whose death in October was perhaps the dance world’s greatest loss (yet presented so many new beginnings—see the section below for more about this).

DanceOutOld1

DanceOutOld3
Some people spoke fondly of the past year; others placed objects on the table representing grief or loss, feelings they wanted to transform in the new year. During the second round of presentations, we offered objects symbolizing what we wanted to reach toward and achieve in 2013.

DanceOutOld4

I brought in a photo of Jeanne Ruddy, the Philadelphia choreographer/dancer whose work last year moved me to my core. I saw her perform the role of Middle Age in May’s production of Out of the Mist, Above the Real, a time when I was just beginning to explore dance’s role in my growth from girl to woman. In that performance, Jeanne represented poise, both feminine/masculine confidence, and aching resilience, attributes I don’t necessarily want all at once and jammed into this new year but that I feel are necessary for me to develop and cultivate.

Ruddy_Frame

One of the most powerful movement exercises during this workshop was dancing from one end of the (very long) studio to the other…while blindfolded. At first, those of us who were masked had a designated companion to ensure we didn’t bump into walls or people, but then Richard presented double the number of blindfolds so we could all move without sight.

It doesn’t really get more metaphorical than this—moving with caution and grace down an unseen path; not really seeing your way but feeling it, using intuition and the senses as a guide; bumping into a table or person and having to adjust your movement around it; ending up on the left side of the room when you swore you were headed toward the right.

Where are we going, and how can our body wisdom guide us?

Which brings us finally to…

Gabrielle Roth’s Memorial

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In this blog post from January 9, I was anxiously on my way to New York City, hoping to gain admittance to what was undoubtedly one of the most powerful 5Rhythms events of all time. I had never met Gabrielle Roth in person, yet her death in October coincided with a kind of birth for me, the emergence of a woman who’s got not just rhythm…but 5 of them.

My fellow tribe members and I sat in the lobby of the Prince George Ballroom well before the memorial started, amazed at how many people stepped through the doors to “celebrate the funky elegance of [Gabrielle’s] indomitable spirit.”

GRMemorialLobby

Because a teachers’ refresher course had just ended and a Cycles workshop was about to begin that week, dancers from all over the world crammed side by side. I was able to connect with some of my international readers (Hi Caroline! Hi Deborah!), as well as spend time with my own community.

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NYC dancer Joella and me.

Tribeholder Christina and dancer friend Val.

Philly tribeholder Christina and dancer friend Val.

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Philadelphia tribeholder (and road trip planner extraordinaire) Christina and I exchange loving looks.

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Me and Richard Jerram, my first 5Rhythms instructor, without whom this blog probably wouldn’t even exist.

As you can see from the photo above, I got into the ballroom. But it was nerve-wracking! Everyone who entered the lobby had to give their names, which were eventually called in groups of 25 before the ballroom reached capacity. It was like waiting for a callback at an audition.

The ballroom itself was so fitting for Gabrielle’s memorial. It was ornate but in a colorful, funky way—somewhere between Versailles and Versace.

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Being in that ballroom was like standing on the red carpet at the Oscars—so many notable teachers and friends of 5Rhythms made their way across the floor, flaunting an array of fashion from flamboyant to fancy to free-and-fabulous. Julia Wolfermann, who teaches regularly for our Philadelphia tribe, managed to Staccato in a stunning red gown, whereas Douglas Drummond sweat his prayers in a dress shirt and pants with suspenders. Others wore Spandex, some men took off their shirts, women came dressed to the nines, others came in street clothes. Just like the practice of 5Rhythms, individuality reigns supreme.

Off to the side of the room were two tables—one with slips of paper on which we were invited to write down memories of Gabrielle and the practice she brought into our lives, and another displaying hundreds of black feather necklaces, a part of the Raven for each of us. Receiving that simple black feather and placing it over my hair and around my neck felt so symbolic, like an Olympian bowing down to receive her gold medal. It wasn’t the object itself that carried weight but what it stood for.

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The Raven has flown, but her spirit lives on.

At the front of the room, an installation by 5Rhythms’ artistic maven, Martha Peabody:

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As this event was being held in memory of someone who had died, I wasn’t sure the tone it would take on. The workshop I took part in back in October—as Gabrielle was actively dying—had very somber moments, understandably, almost feeling like a funeral at times.

However, this was a celebration, inspiration, a call to move. After Gabrielle’s husband, Robert Ansell, and her son Jonathan A. Horan (now the executive director of 5Rhythms Global) spoke, Gabrielle’s face flashed onto a large movie screen at the front of the room. It was footage from one of her last public events, recorded on Mother’s Day 2012.

It would be a disservice to try and recreate here what she was discussing on screen. But in a typical workshop format, she talked frankly about the practice, applying it to all facets of life, that after Stillness there comes Flowing, because when one Wave ends, another begins, and that’s just how it is.

And so we danced, over 300 of us, moving from a moment of prayerful Stillness to finding our feet again in Flowing, Robert and long-time drumming sidekick Sangha on percussion, Jonathan offering occasional verbal guidance that ranged from pleading passion to friendly ferocity.

My movement felt celebratory that night, hardly an ounce of heaviness in my limbs. We switched rapidly from partner to partner to partner during Staccato; during Lyrical, Jonathan encouraged us to dance with our hearts open. Just that one little suggestion instantly changed my movement, my face lighting up, my shoulders rolling back and deepening the heart-to-heart connection with whomever I was partnered with at the time.

I danced with some people for no more than 45 seconds—complete strangers!—yet our intertwined energies felt like lifelong friends. I danced with myself, closing my eyes and going inside. I witnessed others’ movements and reshaped their movement to become my own.

It was the essence of 5Rhythms, finding relationship within the movement and movement within a relationship, which Gabrielle spoke of during another round of the movie screen discussion. Again, I had never met Gabrielle, but the largeness of her face on that screen, the passion and intensity with which she spoke, and the respectful silence among all 300-some of my fellow dancers made it feel like she was really in that room.

The night ended with Jonathan waving his hand like a raven flying toward the heavens: up, up, and away. Black feathers looped around our necks, we all followed along, silently sending our raven on her way.

It was an ending, but everything about the evening felt so very strongly like a new start to me. In some respect, I felt like I was back at my very first 5Rhythms class, remembering that I was just a beginner to this practice. I think others felt similarly about the memorial—and Gabrielle’s passing in general: not to sit in Stillness too long, to find the flow once again, to make a promise to seek out and be receptive to new perspectives and pathways.

THE BEGINNING.

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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

Like most children of my generation, I grew up watching Sesame Street. I loved Big Bird, I got pissed at Oscar the Grouch, and I caught on early to the fact that the cookies Cookie Monster shoved in his mouth just broke into pieces and spewed all over the place, never really being ingested and eaten.

I really loved Sesame Street. However, there were two recurring segments that actually scared me and sent me face-first into the couch cushions so I wouldn’t have to watch: (a) the “Yip Yip” martians; and (b) the shadow puppets.

I can see being disturbed by those slack-jawed martians with their hypermobile mouths and crooked antennae. They’re weird looking and speak in jibberish. But being frightened by the shadow of someone’s arm turning into an elephant or swan? I wish I could have a conversation with my 4-year-old self and figure out what exactly about that segment made me squeal in terror and cover my eyes. Why was I afraid of shadows?

Well, apparently adults are just as easily frightened by shadows as they were 20-something years ago, because when 5Rhythms teacher Douglas Drummond announced he was leading a “Light and Shadow” workshop in my area a few weeks ago, I instantly equated it with “good vs. bad,” “happy vs. sad.” I imagined us taking these five beautiful rhythms and plunging them into darkness, exposing their menacing, scary sides. I pictured my happy-go-lucky Ronald McDonald dancing transforming into Pennywise from Stephen King’s It, laughter morphing into screams. No thank you!

This wasn’t the case, of course. The workshop was called “Light and Shadow,” not “Light and Dark.” Two very different things! As Douglas explained: “The shadow should not be looked upon as a negative, rather an integral component of the bigger picture—a play with polarity.”

The five rhythms and their respective shadows are:

Flowing / Inertia
Staccato / Rigidity
Chaos / Confusion
Lyrical / Distraction
Stillness / Numbness

This wasn’t an exploration of opposites; more like an examination of our underbellies, those angles of our bodies that are difficult to see without a mirror. After all, the opposite of Stillness would probably be something more like Chaos, not numbness. We were learning to dance with the fraternal twin of each rhythm, not its evil cousin.

It’s true, the shadows listed above may, at first, seem “bad.” But Douglas was quick to explain the benefit in each of them, starting with the concept of physical shadows themselves. Ever been in the city on a hot and sunny 100-degree day? Stepping into the shadows cast by the towering buildings can be a welcome reprieve. Alternatively, stepping out of the shadows on a 30-degree day can be just as rewarding. Neither is bad; one complements the other.

Flowing / Inertia

Regarding inertia, Douglas used the metaphor of a garden hose with a kink in the tubing. What was once freely flowing is now blocked, perhaps only a trickle of water escaping from the mouth. I was reminded of the “squeeze-and-soak” concept of twisting yoga postures, where creating restriction in one area of the body will expel staleness and allow room for fresh blood to flow in once released, much like wringing out a dirty sponge.

Movement-wise, Douglas described inertia as trying to move while wearing a heavy backpack. This was a good exercise for me because I tend to be a dramatic upper-body mover, prone to always being one arm-flail away from dislocating my hyperflexible shoulders or elbows. Instilling that sense of heaviness in my upper body created a kinesthetic awareness that I would have never allowed myself to experience; inertia was a wise old sage reminding me to be cautious with flowing.

Staccato / Rigidity

It’s only appropriate that I had just watched The Hunger Games on Netflix before working with this shadow, because, as Douglas explained, rigidity is like the tension built up in a crossbow before an arrow is shot. Without tension, there is no directness and the target will never be hit.

Someone with a staccato personality will just come right out and say what’s on her mind: “Yes!” “No!” If that person becomes rigid, the staccato is brewing inside but is just never quite fully released, the way someone’s eyes will scream Yes or No but the words are stuck in her throat.

While dancing rigidity, I was reminded of my days studying ballet—specifically pointe—when my feet were jammed into tight block-like shoes, my ankles bound with satin ribbon, and my movement consisting of a series of straight lines. But that type of dance is also an art form, and at the time it meant a lot to me. My years of rigidity taught me discipline, direction, and poise. My current barefoot and dubstep-supported staccato is stronger because of my years in tights and a tutu.

Chaos / Confusion

Even in my wildest Chaos, I am usually able to maintain a sense of proprioception; whether I’m flailing, leaping, or spinning like a whirling dervish, I still have a keen sense of body awareness that keeps me from colliding with someone else or running into a wall.

Switch that to a confused state, and I may start to lose my footing. Step on another’s foot. Even with my eyes wide open, being confused will have me running into more obstacles than an eyes-closed chaos.

I think the difference lies in the role of the brain: In Chaos, there is minimal cerebral interference. Things are wild and loose and frenetic, but the body is intelligent and is rolling with the punches, so to speak. The body knows. In confusion, however, things are still wild and loose and frenetic, but the brain keeps trying to step in and control the situation. In confusion, the mind keeps questioning “Why? Why? Why?” instead of just letting things be, regardless of how messy or weird or unattractive they are.

Confusion can also be a gift, too. While walking in a bad neighborhood at night, switching the brain on to full-power and having a slight sense of panic may clue one into something amiss and save her life.

Lyrical / Distraction

So often I compare Lyrical to dessert, the sweetness that comes after supper, a sumptuous reward for making it through the rather strenuous and hearty rhythms preceding it. Lyrical is meant to be savored one spoonful at a time: licked, nibbled, sucked.

And then there’s dessert with distraction, devouring the slice of office birthday cake because it’s sitting on your desk, hurriedly shoving forkfuls of icing into your mouth while composing an e-mail in Outlook. Or excitedly finding the last strawberry-cream-filled chocolate in the Whitman’s sampler and popping the whole thing in your mouth at once, distracted by the object itself rather than focused on the sensory pleasure of taking it in.

I acknowledge that I have a tendency to slip into distraction (also described by Douglas as “spaced out”) more than I’d like, especially at the weekly farmers’ market. There’s usually a lot going on at once—cute dogs being walked, cooking demos being presented, plump vegetables and warm apple cider doughnuts being sold—and instead of taking a deep breath and becoming one with all this goodness, I tend to separate myself from it all, viewing it in a blurry haze. It feels a bit like walking around without my glasses, viewing things out of focus.

I was surprised, then, that the embodied version of distraction was not as “blurry” as I thought it would be. My fellow classmate described becoming captivated by his hands and all of their intricate movements during this portion of class; I too had a similar experience, becoming fascinated by the glowing red exit sign above the door. So, yes, we were “distracted” by these singular objects rather than surrendering our entire body to Lyrical; however, there was a notion of pointed, meditative focus involved in this distraction, which is certainly not a “bad” thing.

It reminds me of sitting in the church pew during my friends Erik and Anna’s wedding. Everyone around me was singing a hymn, eyes glued on the lyrics; I got distracted and decided instead to glance up at the two of them sitting at the front of the church. They exchanged cute smiles and expressions of love, probably not aware that anyone was looking up from their hymnals. My distraction gave me a few seconds of witnessing something very special.

Stillness / Numbness

Stillness is being open to mystery. Numbness is shutting down: Nothing in, nothing out.

There are moments for numbness, like receiving bad news at an office meeting. When you’re sitting around a conference table with the big-wigs and learn that the company is cutting employees’ salaries, it’s professionally wise to just hear the information and process it later, since it will most likely involve expletives or crying or fist pounding. Nothing in, nothing out (until after work, and probably at the bar with your colleagues).

Numbness makes me think of the chilly Decembers when my sister and I would crawl into a freezing car after Christmas dinner at my aunt and uncle’s house, screaming at the cold leather under our butts and impatiently waiting for the engine to warm up so we could too. Sometimes—instead of carrying on with all the “Brrrrrrs” and shivering and foot stomping—it was easier to just become limp inside our winter coats and go into silent hibernation mode. Nothing in, nothing out, just lifeless bodies in the backseat until the heat kicked in.

In those ways, numbness is protective, shutting down receptivity in an effort to save face or save energy.

Dance-wise, numbness was the most difficult shadow for me to embody. It felt like a “scary” place to me; not scary like Pennywise from It but scary like Robert De Niro in Awakenings, a catatonia that shut down my ability to express what I needed to express. I remember getting stuck in a shuffling kind of foot pattern—step forward, step back, step forward, step back—when all I really wanted to do was plow ahead. I remember wanting to extend my arm out but found it paralyzed next to my torso.

It was frustrating and sad. I’m glad we weren’t partnering at the time, because I can’t imagine standing in front of someone and being completely immune and indifferent to their movement. Alternatively, it would be equally as difficult to pour my heart out through movement and get nothing in return.

Impressions

The format of Douglas’ class worked perfectly with our environment: The light-centric portion of class coincided with daylight, and by the time the shadow-centric Wave had rolled around, the sun had set and we were dancing by candlelight. Not only were we dancing with our metaphorical shadows but our literal ones, too! Many times I could only identify someone by the outline of his or body. Even in those conditions, no one clashed or collided or ran into walls. Again, shadows aren’t necessarily “bad”!

A fascinating coincidence was that our venue—a Friends school—still had its display up from Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), a reminder about the importance of acknowledging and celebrating the shadow side of our physical existence on earth.

It brought me back to the 5Rhythms workshop I had done in October, the one Gabrielle Roth was supposed to lead. Our space was decorated in black and white, a celebration of living and dying and everything in-between.

It was a poignant event, but never “dark.” Gabrielle’s son Jonathan and her husband Robert talked about the shadows, brought them to the forefront, but never thrust us into complete darkness or misery. We danced along the continuum, at times more heartbroken than others, sometimes going from crying to laughing to crying in a matter of minutes.

* * *

I don’t know what the Children’s Television Workshop was thinking when it introduced those freaky Yip-Yip martians to Sesame Street, but I have to say, those educational researchers must have been onto something with the shadow puppets. Even though I didn’t accept it at the time, I’ve come to realize that shadows aren’t bad or scary, whether we’re talking about a hand becoming a horse or Chaos becoming confusion.

Our shadows are always with us, even (and especially) on the brightest and lightest of days. It’s about time we become acquainted with our other half so we can better understand the full spectrum of our movement, and—more important—our existence.

Light and Shadow installation

On the last Friday of October, I set out for my monthly 5Rhythms class in South Jersey. Fourth Fridays at Yoga for Living, as I had been doing regularly for the past two and a half years. It’s an event I mark on my calendar with exclamation points and spirals; it brings an anticipation that hits me full-force at around 3 p.m. on the day of, my feet becoming restless in my office chair, my body aching to move beyond the three gray walls that comprise my cubicle.

This time, however, something felt different.

Not even a week prior, I had been in New York City dancing in what turned out to be probably the biggest celebration of 5Rhythms of all times. Four days of moving, crying, laughing, stomping, rolling, exploring, discovering, sweating, and breathing with 150 individuals from around the world, sharing this practice with some of its most devoted dancers and talented teachers. It was such a massive group that one collective inhalation and exhalation sounded and felt like Mother Earth sighing. The energy was electric, as powerful as the speeding subways that ran under our feet, the megawatts of light that illuminated the island around us.

So, I wondered, how was I supposed to go from THAT to *this*, the quaint little 5Rhythms class in southern New Jersey, held in the basement of an office building, where the low-hanging ceiling prevents any enthusiastic leaps upward, where at most maybe a dozen or so people would show up? Where on earth would the energy come from? I had taken one of the deepest breaths of my dancing life in New York; could this 2-hour class with only a handful of other individuals sustain me, or would it feel like sucking through a straw?

The doubt lingered with me as I descended into the basement. But then, as I entered of softly lit, womb-like dancing space, my eyes made contact with my teacher, Richard, and then moved across the room to the altar in the corner, a framed photo of Gabrielle Roth surrounded by flickering votive candles, an illustration of a commanding black bird perched at foot-level.

Instantly, all of my hesitations evaporated. No, dancing won’t be a problem, I thought. And with that, I spread my wings and allowed the raven inside of me to take flight.

* * *

In these funky, frenetic times, we need our feet on the ground, our instincts intact and our intuition in full force. Being true to the signs and signals that come from within is our survival art, not to mention a way to move with integrity in a world in flux.

So began the description of “Slow Moving with Chaos,” the workshop I had emphatically penned on my calendar back in the summer, when word had begun to spread that 5Rhythms founder Gabrielle Roth—who rarely made public appearances anymore due to her ailing health—would be teaching a 4-day workshop in New York City. For the longest time, there were no concrete details about the event, only dates and the fact that Gabrielle and her son Jonathan Horan would be facilitating. I checked The Moving Center’s website almost every week, waiting. TBA. TBA. TBA, all through the summer.

As a planner and stickler for details, it killed me that I didn’t have all of the 5Ws right away; nonetheless, I was going to New York, come what may. As you may be able guess from this blog, 5Rhythms is a HUGE part of my life, beginning in 2009 when I read Gabrielle’s Sweat Your Prayers. Everything I have ever felt about dancing was reinforced in that book, and it opened my eyes to a form of movement that so perfectly follows the natural rhythms of the human persona and natural world. The book is very much like a bible to me, a work that I can re-visit over and over again, sentences and paragraphs touching me in new ways with each reading as my own practice expands. The pages are dog-eared; notes are scribbled in the margin.

Gabrielle’s words, her oceans of prose from which five lighthouses guide weary sailors—Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical, Stillness—had become my mantras. The wisdom she had imparted on her teacher trainees, who then passed this kinesthetic knowledge down to students like myself, was changing my life, day by day, Wave by Wave, rhythm by rhythm.

I needed to meet this woman.

As soon all the details about the workshop were released, my check was in the mail.

* * *

Hello Dancing Loved Ones,

Over the last few weeks Gabrielle has been moving into stillness. Robert [Gabrielle’s husband] and I [Jonathan] have been deeply moved by the love and support pouring in from around the world. We appreciate each and every message and have been watching her smile when we share.

We have now entered a time when we need to focus our energy on Gabrielle. We would like to ask that you all please understand that we can no longer respond to the outpouring of beautiful words via phone and the email individually. Gabrielle has asked to take refuge in stillness and solitude, and as her family, we need to honor that.

This was the e-mail I received from The Moving Center only a few days before the workshop was scheduled to begin. Gabrielle was dying, yet people from all over the world were actively on their way to New York by planes, trains, and taxi cabs to meet her.

The news rocked the dancing community by surprise. Online, prayers and songs of stillness were shared via a Facebook page set up in Gabrielle’s honor. The outpouring of love was overwhelming.

Yet, no one ever said the workshop was called off or postponed. How could we dance Chaos when our teacher was in her final breaths of Stillness? Who would lead us as Gabrielle lay in bed with her son by her side? So many questions, but with a heavy heart and an open mind about what the next 4 days would hold, I set off to the city.

* * *

Day 1, Manhattan, Lower East Side. The mood in the lobby of the Paul Taylor Dance Company studio on Thursday night was a heavy happiness; fellow dancers excited to see each other but unsure if smiling was appropriate at this time. The doors to the main studio were still closed, so many mysteries lying just a few feet away. When they finally opened, I walked into a sacred space of Sanskrit chanting, ethereal white lights glowing on the floor and ceiling, the installation at the front of the room a black-and-white homage to Gabrielle, a clothesline strung from wall to wall, decorated with images and words representative of her work. A vase of flowers, candles floating in a bowl of water.

It was like walking into a church, a Buddhist temple, a funeral home. Heads bowed, utmost reverence. Still, we were unsure of what we were actually walking into. Was this a vigil? A memorial? A wake?

Instead of asking the questions, we danced them. There was no introductory speech or Hello, How Are Yous? Thanks to the last-minute help of NYC teacher Tammy Burstein, music played, and everyone instinctively knew it was time to warm up and flow. As we moved to Staccato and then to Chaos, it was clear that everyone here knew this language, despite the international flavor of the crowd. Just moments ago, I had been in the women’s changing room, surrounded by a flurry of accents and conversations in German, Spanish, and French. On the dance floor, there was no such thing as a linguistic barrier. Different tongues, same language.

The center of the room is like a concert pit—crowded, hot, a throbbing powerhouse of either ecstasy or anxiety, depending on one’s tolerance for lack of oxygen. I am simultaneously thrilled to be moving with so many bodies but also terrified. How can I have so many people around me but feel so alone? I feel like I’m dancing in the middle of Times Square. It’s not until Tammy instructs us to walk around the room, meet the eyes of those you pass, and then brush hands with those you pass that the anxiety dissipates. The emotional and physical contact with others grounds me; I realize then how much I have grown in my past 2.5 years of doing the 5Rhythms, having gone from being reluctant at the notion of having to share my movement to needing it to be nourished.

After Lyrical, our Stillness is sitting, ears and hearts open as Robert, Gabrielle’s husband, comes to the front of the room to update us on her condition. Somewhere in an apartment in the city, Gabrielle is dying. She is in good care, Robert assures us, and her face continues to light up whenever her son Jonathan enters the room. Never a quitter, Gabrielle had exclaimed, “I gotta do that f**king workshop!” only 3 days beforehand, Robert said. This was supposed to be her retirement party, the last hurrah.

After wiping tears from his eyes, Robert took his usual place behind the tom drum and led us through another Wave, the percussion hitting me deep and creating an easy entrance into movement. We end the evening chanting Om Namah Shivaya, Gabrielle’s favorite mantra, heading out into the night with uncertainty lumped in our throats.

* * *

Over the next 3 days, we stepped into the studio each afternoon not knowing whether Gabrielle was still with us. Robert was present for most of the program, and much to our surprise, Jonathan showed up halfway through Friday’s session and remained through our final moments on Sunday.

I remember seeing Jonathan walk into the studio as we were in the middle of a Wave; I had never met him in person before but knew his face. The magnitude of his presence hit me in the gut, adding fuel to my movement. I think we had all accepted the fact that our two leaders would not be present for the workshop, and so for Jonathan to show up—and facilitate—100-some people as his mother lay dying was truly a gift.

“The Raven still lives!” Jonathan exclaimed as we gathered around him that afternoon, a collective sigh among our group. From there, he spoke candidly about living, dying, and love, his face crumpling at times, beaming at others.

He was genuinely human, a man in the throes of living with dying, talking from his heart, speaking through his body, reminding us to pay attention to the signals we get from our body as we dance. “What are you going to do with that information?!” he prodded. How can we become our own teachers? “Jonny won’t always be here to tell you to move your hips!” he reminded.

He demonstrated a stilted version of the 5Rhythms, acting out each rhythm without intention, without heart. It was a humorous but sad pantomime, a visual reminder of the two-dimensional world we often find ourselves trapped in.

“Yeah, you can say ‘I love you,’” he said in a nasal voice. “I love you [pointing to someone], I love you [pointing to someone else], I love you!” he demonstrated, charming, but no depth to his words. And then Jonathan stood tall, took a long inhalation, and bowed forward, gesturing gracefully toward the group. “I L O V E you,” he expressed, the emotion palpable. The difference in presentation was profound, and several of us gasped or awww‘ed or sighed as his words hit our heart. Without intention and passion, our words and actions are like yoga poses held without breath, going through the motions without actually being in our bodies.

“And why do restaurant servers always ask if I’m still ‘working’ on my meal?” he questioned. “No, I’m enjoying it,” he said. “My dinner isn’t a job. It’s not work. I’m loving this food.”

* * *

Food and love went very much hand in hand during the workshop. After so much dancing and sweating, our 20- to 60-minute snack breaks were a welcome reprieve, the peanut butter-filled pretzels and gluten-free ginger snaps the crew provided tasting like food of the gods. The difference between the final dance pre-break and the first dance post-break is like night and day. Nourished, hydrated, and rested with time to pee, talk, and reboot, our movement carries a new quality, wilted flowers sprouting back to life after a rainfall. I feel reborn.

* * *

Our breaks are essential. The physical act of dancing is exhausting, but so is all the emotional baggage that comes along with the practice.

I find myself against the back wall during an exercise in exploring centeredness versus uncenteredness, a dance I will not forget for a long time. I never intended to dance with that wall for so long, but I closed my eyes and fell into one of the most powerful releases of movement my body has ever endured, the wall being tender, the wall being a punching bag, the wall being a window, the wall being just a boring old wall. Somewhere in the depths of my brain, a little voice tried to pry me away from the wall, to interact with the rest of the group, to open my eyes, but I resisted the temptation to escape; my body was giving me so much information, and as violent as it looked, it needed this freedom and time to get out.

My body surprised me again when Jonathan instructed us to dance our dance of power…and then put the brakes on that and had us switch to powerlessness. Things must have been cooking in my body, because within seconds something came to the surface out of nowhere, a sudden reminder of a time of powerlessness in my life, leaving me squirming on the ground, wailing.

And then there are all the interactions with others, sometimes brief, sometimes extended moments of giving, receiving, and sharing. Engaging in unlikely partnerships, touching the hair of someone you originally were unsure of, placing trust in another to lift you off the ground. Wordless dances that speak volumes, kinetic conversations with others that stay stored in your muscles (the heart being the biggest).

* * *

Why, when we introduce ourselves to others, California-based 5Rhythms teacher Lori Saltzman posed, are we always so quick to talk about “the bad stuff”? Why do we think sharing our traumas, inadequacies, and limitations is so appealing?

What if we celebrated the things we love? she asked.

So, after dancing one of the wildest, loudest, longest periods of Chaos, Lori told us to stop. The room went from frenetic drumming and screaming to silence. We got in groups of four. Paper and pens were passed out.

Use this energy built up from Chaos to reflect on what you love, Lori instructed. And be descriptive, she added. Don’t just say you “love dancing.” Write about the smells, sensations, and sounds that come along with this love. Be specific.

It was serious work. We went to town with those pens, writing furiously. People wrote about books, nature, pets, children, spouses, lovers, friends, mentors. We knew we’d eventually have to share them with our group; that was a given. But that wasn’t the most challenging part of the exercise.

Now, Lori said, after you’ve read your list to your group, end it by saying the following: “And when the time comes, may I say goodbye with grace.”

Tears began to pool in our eyes before we even started speaking; of all the dancing we did over those few days, this was by far the hardest exercise requested.

But it was also the central theme of this emotional roller coaster of a workshop, wasn’t it? All of us had gathered to celebrate the joy that Gabrielle had brought to our lives, our love for her, whether personal or indirect. We had come to “Slow Dance with Chaos,” and now the time had come for us to say goodbye with grace.

* * *

Of course I am sad to have never met Gabrielle in person, and I was very much looking forward to doing so at this workshop, but the poignancy of what occurred in its place is just as moving. The entire event was deeply emotional, essentially turning into a vigil/memorial/life celebration. 5Rhythms teachers from across the country stepped in to help, and I feel so fortunate to have witnessed such devotion.

I stood among people like myself who had never met Gabrielle; people who did one or two workshops with her; people with strong, spiritual connections to her; newly certified teachers who had only recently studied with her; teachers who have followed her dancing path ever since Gabrielle embarked on it herself.

Being among those people with such deep ties to the practice, those so close to Gabrielle, was a phenomenon to witness. Because I didn’t have those strong associations, I found it difficult to mourn the way others were, but I didn’t want to force myself to feel a specific emotion where there was none. I accepted being neutral, a conscious witness, taking in the tears around me without getting overly empathetic. I saw the pain and loss in Tammy, Lucia Horan, and Douglas Drummond’s dances; I heard Jonathan’s voice crack; I felt the sorrow and fear that erupted from Robert’s drumming during Chaos.

I had never met Gabrielle, but being with those closest to her during these moments of vulnerability provided me a glimpse into her spirit; through their exhalations of anguish, I sucked in the air they had shared with their mentor, mother, master, Mama G.

We ended the program by again chanting Om Namah Shivaya and “decorating” blank paper tags with our prayers, whispers, sweat, kisses, breath, and love and hanging them on the medicine wheel at the front of the room.

Gabrielle died the following evening at the age of 71.

* * *

Back to the little South Jersey yoga studio—where this story all began—I’m staring at the framed photo of Gabrielle, suddenly remembering why I’m here. No, it’s not New York, and no, there isn’t an international contingent of 100 people around me, but those aren’t reasons to dance.

We dance because we can, the way classmate Michelle so eloquently commented: “I will continue to move as long as my body allows me to, what it allows me to.”

Her words echoed what Jonathan had told us about his mother’s last movements, the way Gabrielle had danced to songs of stillness with her hands during her final days, because that was the only part of her body she could move.

If that spirit can remain with someone through her dying days, then it can sure as hell ignite movement in a healthy 30-something with nothing but a diagnosis of self-doubt.

My experience in New York was a time to memorialize, pay tribute, bow my head, clasp my hands, hold my heart. Now it was time to celebrate Gabrielle’s spirit, pay it forward, lift my head high, and open my hands and heart wide to new connections.

Sometimes the most inspiring component of a 5Rhythms class is not the music or the environment or the people but rather the guidance or encouragement the instructor shares mid-dance via microphone, a phrase that touches you just the right way, a combination of nouns, verbs, or adjectives composed and delivered in such a manner that words become energy in mere milliseconds.

For example, during Amara Pagano’s workshop last month, a simple, emphatic “There you go” would sometimes launch me from minimally energized to borderline explosive.

However, one phrase I never imagined would (a) ever be uttered during class, and (b) be such a catalyst for me is the following, courtesy of Douglas Drummond:

“Bust out your inner blacksmith.”

Now, I have imagined myself to take on several identifies and forms during a 5Rhythms class—a high priestess, a tiger, a lady in red, a collection of vibrating atoms—but never a dirty-faced dude wearing safety goggles and a leather apron, forging iron over an open flame.

But the command made sense at the time, as me and about 15 other dancers were in the middle of Douglas’ “Embodying the Elemental” workshop, and our Staccato—the element of fire—was getting hotter by the minute. We had just dug up the earth with our feet (my metaphor for Flowing; we were on a wooden floor the whole time), and now the music was picking up tempo and busting some bass, and it was our duty to transform this collection of dirt-speckled minerals with the fire churning from our bellies.

Even though I was physically dancing inside a church auditorium in Pennsylvania and a primary school in New Jersey, the two-day experience ended up being a journey into the center of the earth and on edge of the cosmos. Each class consisted of two standard Waves, but we approached each rhythm as an element:

Flowing: Earth
Staccato: Fire
Chaos: Water
Lyrical: Air/Wind
Stillness: Ether

The same elements are represented by prayer flags, like those hanging in the kitchen.

Connecting the 5Rhythms with the natural world brought a new level of understanding to this often complex dance. As much as I loved Amara’s Fire of Love workshop, associating the dance with heavy-duty and abstract concepts such as fear, love, and loss brought a certain degree of difficulty to the process. But water, sand, wind…how tangible these objects are, how primal.

We all know how pliable earth feels under our toes and how the threat of fire causes us to jump and react. Douglas acknowledged that everyone has had an experience with these elements, some positive and others not so much. While it is easy to associate earth with a flourishing garden or sandy beach, Douglas is from New Zealand, an area on fault lines where the constant threat of seismic activity makes this element a bit frightening. And yes, how refreshing it is to open the windows on a spring day and allow the breeze to rustle your curtains, but this same element of air and wind can also take the shape of a funnel cloud and wipe out entire towns.

At first I was perplexed about the element of water representing Chaos—Isn’t water always associated with flowing?—but the more it was explained, the more it made sense. Water is temperamental, unpredictable. I mean, heck, water can freeze, water can boil, water can turn to a solid or evaporate into steam. A heavy rainfall can turn into a flash flood in a matter of minutes, and a steady flow of water underground can turn into this the moment its container breaks:

Water main break in Center City, Philadelphia, the same day as the workshop.

To be able to actually visualize the rhythms was something relatively new to me. I loved Douglas’ example of how dancing in Staccato requires being aware of your environment: If you’re standing in tightly packed group, are you going to bust out a raging bonfire that’s going to burn others around you, or can you achieve the same heat with a simple and sharp strike of a match?

I’ll tell you, it was hard at times not to let Staccato become the blazing bonfire. Douglas’ playlist was heavy on the dubstep/psy-trance/electronica, music I seldom listen to but when I do—WATCH OUT! That genre already has that little electric “buzz” built it; my veins and arteries basically became live wires. And I love the brief moments of pause/suspension in the music—it reminded me of trick candles being blown out and then coming back to life, stopping for a breath (…) and then launching right back into the movement (!!!).

By the time Stillness rolled around, my mind was definitely in the ether; I was in a whole new dimension. Maybe it’s because I had just played with fire and water and been electrocuted, that the Four Winds had just resuscitated me with their breath of life, but during Stillness I hovered in a state of acute awareness and deep meditation, a bit scared by this near-possession but allowing it to move through me, because as Douglas had stated earlier, the element of ether is the deepest mystery, the enigmatic.

In Tibetan Buddhism, ether is defined as the regions of space beyond the earth’s atmosphere; the heavens. For me, Stillness is like looking in a mirror and seeing nothing but knowing and feeling that something is there. It is vibrating wildly like the smallest speck of matter, moments away from bursting and expanding into a vast universe, the Big Bang of my consciousness. It is also ending class with my limbs feeling like magnets being drawn down into the earth’s magma, barely able to rise from the floor and shuffle over to the center of the room for the final sharing circle.

And just as we have to share this planet, Douglas also gave us plenty of time to share our thoughts with each other. In pairs, we answered the question, “In the element of ___ (fill in the blank with the given element), I feel ___.” Douglas emphasized that this was an exercise in conscious listening—while the speaker spoke, the listener was simply to listen—no nodding in agreement, frowning, prompting the speaker in any way. Doing both workshops, what a gift it was to hear 10 different descriptions of these elements. I don’t recall everything that I stated, but I do remember snippets:

In the element of earth, I feel sludge, resistance.

In the element of fire, I feel electricity.

In the element of water, I feel like I am submerged, having no oxygen but hearing every little breath and sound my body makes.

In the element of air, I feel like a dolphin coming to the surface, the breath that connects me with the rest of the world.

In the element of ether, I feel a spiritual hypnosis, grasping for something that is always just out of reach, the beauty you feel but cannot see.

Honor and respect these elements, Douglas reminded us. They were here long before us and will exist well beyond our lifetime. Recognize their beauty, acknowledge their power, and feel the rhythms they hum, crackle, churn, whisper, and vibrate.

Element-inspired installation, Day 2.

I’ve sat down at my computer so many times over the past week in an attempt to document the three-day “Fire of Love” 5Rhythms workshop with Amara Pagano I attended in late September, and each time my fingers try to translate movement into words, I get discouraged. The hard, clickety-clack sensation of my metallic keyboard feels so unnatural and sterile, a device more fit for writing about a tap-dancing or clogging class, not about a program created to explore the inner workings of the body’s most fragile organ.

Opening night installation

“I wish I were a ballet blogger,” I say. “It would be so much easier.”

If I blogged strictly about ballet, I’d write about combinations we learned, steps that challenged me, the way I wobbled during my fouette turns or how I think my grand jete needs more height. I wouldn’t have to write about the experience of delving deep into the next level of 5Rhythms after Waves—Heartbeat—an act akin to going out for a run with a twisted ankle. I’ve already gleaned so much about myself during Waves practice, have faced questions that only present themselves through movement. My dance has already transitioned from mind to body to heart; dear god, did I really need to take it a step further?

Love is messy

If I blogged strictly about ballet, I’d describe the teacher by how tightly her hair was pulled back, the commands she barked, the feedback she offered on my lines and execution. I wouldn’t have to write about the way Amara Pagano could speak without uttering a word, how her fluid body conveyed more information than any encyclopedia, how her eyes connected with each and every student. I wouldn’t have to explain that when I danced because Amara said so, I was dancing for myself, not because I was trying to impress a superior. I threw myself into the movement because Amara was serious about self-realization; she didn’t care about appearance or rhythm or lines—all she pressed us for was authenticity and the courage to “let it go.”

Amara Pagano and me

If I blogged strictly about ballet, I’d post pictures of my bloodied toes, the result of being packed too tightly into pointe shoes. I wouldn’t have to explain how the purplish-brown bruise on my elbow was from throwing myself into a dance depicting grief, how the skin on the top of my foot was torn after dragging my lower body across the floor, my arms propelling my lifeless legs behind me in an exercise exploring our fear.

A ballet blogger’s description of “center work” would involve small jumps, turns, combinations of 8, 16, 24, and 32. I wouldn’t have to write about a group exercise in which we were told to trust no one but ourselves, to move as though you are suspicious of everyone. I wouldn’t have to describe how fear built up so intensely that when Amara told us to switch the fear to excitement, the outburst exploding from my body was manic, a throaty laughter I didn’t even recognize, wild, wicked, and somewhat lascivious. Back and forth we went—fear, excitement, fear, excitement—continuing the dichotomies with a partner, screaming, baring teeth, grinding pelvises, alternating from witches to whores, criminals to cat-nipped kittens. A ballet blogger wouldn’t have to explain how such “center work” pushed us into the concept of fearlessness, finding the euphoric midpoint between fear and excitement.

“I wish I were a language instruction blogger,” I say. “It would be so much easier.”

If I blogged strictly about language, every day I’d present a new word and translate it into Italian or Swahili, maybe use it in a sentence as well. I wouldn’t have to write about the surprise I felt after hearing a French-Canadian accent emerge from the mouth of a young woman with whom I engaged in an intense responder/revealer partner dance. Our movement was such a rich conversation of fear, empathy, support, and encouragement; I never once thought of her as a “foreigner.” If I blogged about nouns and adjectives, I wouldn’t have to write about how dance is a universal language; when one dances fear, you will understand it and respond to it, no matter what country you’re from or what accent you carry. I wouldn’t have to explain how when one dances love, it translates both as a whisper in the ear and a scream in your face—so subtle and personal, yet so loud and clear and public.

If I blogged about language, I’d describe how X means Y, how A means B, clear definitions for words, proper ways of constructing sentences. I wouldn’t have to write about the language of love, defined by Amara as awareness, being available. I wouldn’t have to write about allowing a partner to touch me, being instructed to just take in the touch, be receptive, before moving and responding to the touch. I wouldn’t have to go into detail about using the floor as a partner and then returning to my human partner to extend this “conversation,” or the disappointment I experienced when my partner’s movement felt tired and distant.

If I were a language instruction blogger, my post on pronouns would discuss nosotros versus vosotros, tu versus Usted, you, me, I, we. I wouldn’t have to write about the difficulties of retaining my “I” movement when dancing with a partner, the pitfalls of too quickly abandoning “I” for “you,” the connection that develops when the right amount of “I” (authentic movement) and “you” (a partner’s movement) equals “we” (a dance of revelation, response, and mutuality). If I were a language blogger, “we” would be just a two-letter word, not a concept involving a group of people ending a three-day workshop as an interconnected mass, limbs linked, hands touching, someone’s cheek resting atop my thigh, my fingers running through a woman’s saturated hair, a circuit of energy looping through our intertwined arms and legs, a current so strong that I swear I could feel the pulse of even those I wasn’t physically touching.

“I wish I were a dream blogger,” I say. “It would be so much easier.”

If I blogged strictly about dreams, I’d describe and interpret the fantastical images that play through my brain at night. I wouldn’t have to write about the stirring visions I experience on the dance floor, like when I closed my eyes and saw not just my classmates’ faces but felt their movement talk through my body, as though everyone had been squeezed into me and I into them, until we were simply a giant concoction of universal movement, no skin, bones, or muscle separating us. I wouldn’t have to write about how that experience felt like I was serving as a kind of medium for my classmates’ stories, experiencing not just their dance but the emotion behind it as well. I wouldn’t have to describe how the experience comforted me, a metaphorical experience for the realization I am not alone, that even after just a few hours of being introduced to these people, they now live inside of me.

“I wish I were a fashion blogger,” I say. “It would be so much easier.”

If I blogged strictly about fashion, a post about evening wear would discuss necklines and fabrics and hems. I wouldn’t have to write about how a little red dress serving as our installation’s centerpiece was the catalyst for my dance of fearlessness. I wouldn’t have to explain that, after dancing out “fear” across the floor—my movements heavy, reluctant, dragging, having to tug at my pant leg to propel me forward—I had no idea how I was going to follow Amara’s instruction to turn around and return down the floor with fearlessness. The resistance was overwhelming, and I stopped at the floor’s edge with no idea of how I was going to turn around and face fear in the eyes. I couldn’t. I was stuck. Expletives ran through my head, and I felt like a failure as my dancemates’ grimaces turned to smiles. If I were a fashion blogger, I wouldn’t have to explain how I stood against the auditorium stage in a panic, looked up, and saw that red dress before me—that was my cue. I want to be that lady in red, a voice inside of me said. I will wear that dress. Like that—BOOM!—fearlessness! I whipped around and returned down the floor in seconds with intensity, boldness, espresso in my cup. My speed down the floor wasn’t an attempt to evade the exercise but rather was me listening to the authentic voice that boomed forth. This fearlessness didn’t want to waste time, it wanted action. NOW.

If I were a fashion blogger, I’d write about which celebrity looks best in that little red dress. I wouldn’t have to write about metaphorically wearing that dress myself for the rest of the workshop, embracing fearlessness, stepping forward and dancing with someone who intimidated the hell out of me, being surprised at how much I gave myself to her, observing my emotions shift from fear to excitement to fearlessness in a cycle. I loved it, I hated it, I was scared, I was joyful. I was.

If I were a fashion blogger, the little red dress would be just a little red dress, not a symbol of sensuality and womanhood. I wouldn’t have to write about the way it touched me to my core, how when I observed two women in the throes of a throbbing, shaking voodoo dance, I stood beside them with my palms open, soaking up their energy, a gnawing, gripping, pounding desire to be in their bodies, feel the way that red dress enveloped their flesh, share their rawness, maturity, and wisdom.

“I wish I were anything but an overly sensitive dance/movement meditation blogger,” I say. “It would be so much easier.”

Wouldn’t it? But I am, and so I dance, and so I feel, and so I write.

The idiom “going around in circles” doesn’t usually carry a positive connotation, but that’s the shape our movement took during a recent “Dancing Mandala” 5Rhythms workshop. If it’s hip to be square, then it sure is satisfying being a circle.

A combination of dance, breathwork, and artistic expression, the event was touted as a three-part journey into our soul, using the five rhythms, five elements, and five points on the mandala (four around the perimeter, one in the center) as gateways into our essence. From the website:

While bridging the five elements—Earth (Flowing), Fire (Staccato), Water (Chaos), Air (Lyrical), Ether (Stillness)—with the 5Rhythms, we will subconsciously create a moving mandala. As a culmination of this experience, we will pause in the last rhythm of Stillness for a breathing meditation, then conclude and refine the energies by creating a visual mandala you will then take with you.

Woah. I registered for the workshop before reading this heavy-duty description, eager for any kind of dance and art combo. Meditative movement opens up all kinds of creative portals in me; I kept thinking back to my yoga teacher training at Kripalu, when, after days and days of nothing but yoga, meditation, and pranayama, we were handed large sheets of paper and crayons and asked to draw what our future looked like. Everyone was in some other realm of consciousness at the time, so the artwork that came forth probably contains about 12 layers of psychological interpretation. Six years later, I still don’t know what mine means but yet somehow I feel like I’ve been living in the middle of it the whole time:

Hands, feet, arrows, footprints, hearts, spirals…. Makes sense, right?

Well, the event was way more than a little dancing, a little painting. The workshop’s organizers—Nancy, Stavros, and Johanna—created such a sacred space that I was reluctant to even bring my cheap plastic water bottle into the transformed grade-school auditorium. Ivy-like garland lined the room’s perimeter, each corner containing an altar dedicated to one of the elements. Fellow dancer Phil consecrated our quarters by offering a fragile, authentic, handmade mandala thangka from India as decoration with a purpose:

Before class, we were asked to bring in a small object that represented one of the elements; as we walked into the space, we were encouraged to visit each of the elemental altars and find one on which to place our object. My object (a polished heart-shaped stone) represented earth, but I was very attracted to the second altar, accented with a tall glass vase filled with water. I kept thinking back to the Rilke quote that “chose me” during my recent Kripalu workshop: “May what I do flow from me like a river, no forcing and no holding back, the way it is with children.” So it was there next to the water that I lay my earthen heart.

I fell effortlessly into the dance once the music began, but I noticed one thing was really bugging me:

Yes, this beautiful centerpiece—which so perfectly represented the fifth circle of a mandala, the ether—was making me anxious. Now, at the time of our dancing it did not have the candles or paintings, but it was still a giant piece of real estate on which we could not dance.

Or could we? Now that I think about it, I honestly don’t recall the instructor telling us whether we could or could not dance within the circle. I think we all just assumed that this ring was revered, and it would be an act of profanity to step over the white line. Many times I caught myself wanting so badly to leap into the circle; I flirted with the ether, every now and then allowing one leg to hover over the edge during a spin. I wasn’t even fully sure whether there were rules, but I seemed to have imposed my own…and then challenge them.

Fortunately, we had an opportunity to work with these restrictions and challenges. Working in pairs, one person faced the center circle as the partner stood facing back, acting much like a gatekeeper to the treasures and freedom that the flowing white ring represented. One person danced her struggles, falling into a repetitive movement that the partner, serving as a witness, eventually copied.

Then came the uncomfortable part—the mover stood still and watched her dance being played out, a mirror image come to life. What a surprise to step back and see your movement through your own eyes, like reading an old journal entry. There was a bit more to this exercise, a transformation element that involved breaking through the struggle, and for most people the end result was a feeling of relief, like we had just crawled through a long and dark cave and finally stumbled on a pocket of light. Nancy’s next choice of music following this exercise was Michael Franti’s upbeat “I Know I’m Not Alone,” and with it came a dance of celebration. The energy among the entire group had shifted profoundly, and I remember bopping along, smiling like a goofball, feeling like we had all survived something big together, we made it through, so let’s just dance and have fun.

This partnering exercise was the pinnacle of the dance portion of class, a time that I could energetically and emotionally feel my individual self merge with my classmates. We had started as separate circles, our own little individual planets, and then BOOM! Suddenly we were not just stand-alone celestial circles anymore but part of a massive universe, everyone joining the same orbit, a cohesive, spinning mandala.

This mandala only tightened over time, especially during Stillness, as everyone stood around the circle’s edge. Even those I stood across from—separated by a ring of cloth and stones and other small objects—our dance was together. I was engaged in an intimate pas de deux with my stone heart yet at the same time participating in a much larger group dance prayer.

At the very end of class, each of us was given the chance to step inside the circle and do our own personal dance. It was an intensely moving moment, and many people’s expressions brought me to tears. I bit my lip and gripped hard onto those hands I held on either side of me.

The breathwork that proceeded the dancing was anything but your typical belly-breath pranayama—more like 20 minutes of non-stop kundalini breath of fire. Good thing we were lying down, otherwise I may have toppled over! Stavros had warned us beforehand of the effects of such breathing—heaviness/tingling in the extremities, a panicky feeling in the gut that can lead to an emotional release. He was spot-on: The hyperventilating rocked my body, and I vacillated between wanting to sob and laugh hysterically. My hands and feet felt like they were all individual centrifuges, spinning spinning spinning with such intensity. At times they went from feeling like each finger and toe weighed 10 pounds to me not feeling them at all. Nancy (bless her!), feeling the need to support me but not entirely sure what to do, rubbed my feet, held my stomach, and placed a rock in my palm, which I swore was going to levitate from the energy pulsing in my hand. The vibration coming from my palm was so strong that I watched in amazement as the stone ever-so-subtly slid from the center of my hand out toward the edge.

The whole time we were panting and buzzing and crying and laughing, Johanna was secretly setting up individual painting stations for each of us, so that by the time we rolled up off the ground and opened our eyes, there, like magic, were canvases and brushes and a rainbow of paint blobs for us to experiment with. The original intention was for everyone to paint their own mandala, given the subject of the workshop; however, we were all in such a state of woo-woo after that wild breathing that everyone just started doing their own thing and Johanna was reluctant to interfere with the creative process. I tried hard to stay in the semi-hypnotic state and let my heart and gut do the painting rather than my head.

The results (displayed in the previous photo) were still beautiful, a tangible extension of the deep emotional work we had done on the dance floor. It was nice to have a “take-home” element by which to remember the event, although I’m not planning on hanging my creation on my walls anytime soon. My art therapist friend would have a field day with this one:

It was a long afternoon—nearly 4 hours of delving deep into our minds and bodies. In a sense, we were a bit like the monks who spend days, even weeks creating the most intricate sand mandalas, grain by grain. When their elaborate creation is completed, the monks essentially destroy it, brushing the sand together and letting it run off into the air or water, a symbolic act representing impermanence while also spreading forth the blessings and energy of the artwork to which they had committed so much attention and mindfulness.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user waltarrrrr

Each of us was a grain of sand, the workshop a means of coming together into one brilliantly colorful circle. During that final moment of Stillness, as we stood close and held hands, we were that completed mandala. And breath by breath, brushstroke by brushstroke, we gradually separated from each other—the monk’s hand sweeping over our collaborative art—becoming individuals again, yet with a new sense of spirit, energy, and wisdom.

Like the mandala’s sand flowing back into the river, we each went our separate ways after class but yet somehow feeling like we were now part of a much larger picture.

I think there’s some kind of universal phenomenon that when you’re by yourself, wearily and contemplatively driving down an empty road in the middle of the night, whenever you decide to click on the radio, the song that comes to life will be speaking EXACTLY to you. Even if it’s Nickelback or Carly Rae Jepsen or some awful modern-day remix of a song from the ’60s you used to love…somehow, in your vulnerable and delirious state of mind, that song is suddenly the most significant ballad of your current life. You nod along, yelling an emotional “Yeah!” to the deserted road, alternating between laughing giddily at the appropriateness of every word and sobbing between the bridge and the final verse.

I’m really bad at following modern music, so I didn’t know anything about “my” song the other night/morning, except that I had heard it played a lot during the Olympics. Google has since informed me that the song was “Home,” by Phillip Phillips:

Hold on to me as we go
As we roll down this unfamiliar road
And although this wave is stringing us along
Just know you’re not alone
Cause I’m going to make this place your home

OK, so, in all honestly, these lyrics are nothing amazing. Road metaphors? “You’re not alone”? Song Clichés 101. But again, at eleventy-baglock in the morning, Phillip Phillips had become my personal troubadour. Clearly, he had worked with the universe to get his song to play on my car stereo the very moment my desperate hand reached for the radio button.

A 5Rhythms class with Peter Fodera earlier in the day (a Waves class, too. See line 3 of the song. THE RADIO GODS KNOW.) had put me in this state. Peter had spent some time using new direction with us, material from a “Threshold/Gateway” workshop he’s recently developed.

His description:

Every journey begins with the first step, and often taking that first step through the threshold is the most difficult part of the journey. Gateways are often guarded by challenges or difficulties that we have to overcome in order to continue down the path. Beginnings take a great deal of faith and surrender.

As a way of getting us to take these first steps into each rhythm mindfully and with clarity, Peter abandoned the traditional 5Rhythms structure of transitioning seamlessly from one rhythm into another and instead stopped and started the music for each rhythm, giving us specific instruction for beginning each one. With his use of the word “threshold,” I kept thinking of a house, each room being one of the rhythms. What Peter was having us do was enter each room with a new perspective, maybe opening the front door with gratitude and appreciation instead of flinging it open in a mad rush.

  • For Flowing, Peter scattered rubber snakes all over the floor as a reminder of staying grounded, the way snakes are. We were to dance only with our feet—no arms—with instruction to be aware of the snakes but not to pay attention to them.
  • For Staccato, Peter cranked up a thumping, throbbing, bass-filled song and instructed us not to move. When we were allowed to move, it was only briefly, before we were asked to come to stillness again. It was torture! However, the lesson was clear: True Staccato emerges only when you give it time to speak, when its message is fully developed and ready to scream out to the world. As much as I wanted to shift into Staccato the second I heard that music, being still and giving things time to stir inside made the eventual hip-centric dance more intensely powerful than anything I would’ve done straight out of Flowing.
  • In Chaos, we were encouraged to let go of our heads, maybe even positioning ourselves on hands and knees and just letting the head go wild. I was at first resistant to this instruction, but when the wild music started, I had a vision of me standing in front of an out-of-control train, headlight blinding me, the engine roar growing louder and louder. It was so vivid that it dropped me to my knees, and then there I was, on my hands and knees, giving in to Chaos.
  • Lyrical, a rhythm for which I tend to use my whole body, was initiated with instruction to dance from the fingers and hands. Any other day, I wouldn’t have liked this specificity, but given that Chaos had rendered me a sweaty, sprawled out mess on the gritty wood floor, I was OK with letting my torso and legs remain dead weight and my fingers do all the work. I eventually got off the ground and found myself engaged in a wonderfully lighthearted ballet guided by my hands.
  • In Stillness, the focus is on the breath. Peter instructed us to be mindful of our inhales and exhales, maybe only moving on one or the other. This was a good lesson for me, because sometimes my Stillnesses are so poignant that I hold all the emotion in my throat and forget to breathe.

So here we were, crossing these thresholds in an attempt to come home in our bodies. However, even in a house/practice you are so familiar with, sometimes entering the room/rhythm in a new way or different manner throws things askew. How refreshing it is to step into your kitchen on a Sunday morning, coffee in hand, breakfast on the table? But what if you enter that same kitchen in a distracted tizzy, grocery bags flying everywhere as you attempt to put everything away in 5 seconds before you have to rush out the door again?

Changing up the manner in which you approach a rhythm can make the whole house feel like it’s falling down. I’ve always seen Stillness as the sturdy foundation of my dance but during Saturday’s class I felt more like I had descended into the heart of my home, the basement, without a flashlight. I was still in the same place—the deepest spot of my home, an earthen room of quietness where heat and electricity originate—but without that flashlight I felt lost in my own home. I got scared. The breath didn’t flow as easily, and I could feel my body tighten and tremble. I tried to feel my way around and remind myself where I was; every now and then I got glimpses of daylight, but I allowed the fear to overcome me. My Stillness shifted into uncontrollable shaking and sweating, an unnerving vibration coursing through my center like a furnace ready to blow.

It was one of the few times during a class that I wanted to exit the floor. I was facing so much resistance; emotions and thoughts were getting the best of me. However, two things kept me planted:

1. Like the song lyrics from above, I knew that everyone there with me was on an unfamiliar road. None of was alone; we were all there for each other. It was a safe place, a space for openness and exploration, a metaphorical group home for our souls and spirits to grow, heal, and learn.

2. As a Kripalu yoga teacher, I am very familiar with the practice’s philosophy of “BRFWA“: Breathe, Relax, Feel, Watch, Allow, the five steps to handling any kind of strong emotions or physical sensations. I dealt with a very similar situation during a yoga class in 2006; the recommendation is to simply ride the wave.

So I stayed in the basement that Saturday afternoon in Stillness, BRFWAing through the unease rather than running out the cellar door. If I ran away, my dance—my home—wouldn’t be complete, despite its internal tremblings and instability. I simply wanted to be there to the end.

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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