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Not even 15 minutes into a 5Rhythms class this past weekend, I started crying.
At first I thought it was just a random blip of emotion, but the blip continued to burgeon. Burgeoning eventually gave way to bawling.
I had been caught off guard by a movement-induced meltdown.
Dancing is normally such a joyous outlet for me, even on days I feel like the Tin Man for the first half of class. My muscles may be achy and I may feel a bit discombobulated, but I trust the practice and know deep inside that if I commit to continuous movement, my self-conscious skin will eventually shed and I’ll be a free woman within the 1-hour mark.
I’m aware that movement can also stir up the junk in the trunk and cause some pretty spectacular emotional escapades, but—at least for me—those have mostly been reserved for workshop-based settings; for example, Day 3 of a Heartbeat-level 5Rhythms workshop based around the concept of fear. In that type of setting, however, we are intentionally pushed to test our limits, and the exercises are specifically structured to move us gradually from the physical body to the emotional realm. Tears, sobbing, and moaning are pretty much the norm, especially when we have no physical energy left to stave off whatever’s been hiding underneath all the chaos.
I’ve had teary-eyed endings in several regular classes, even one class that ended with me shaking on the floor in a puddle of sweat. But after dancing for 2+ hours, I’d expect nothing less than at least some kind of emotional release, be it crying or shaking or even just smiling uncontrollably.
The difference with this release, however, was that it was so early in the practice, so sudden.
I remember being very cold. It was a gorgeous, sunny day, but the church hall we were dancing in had been locked up all morning and felt nearly 15 degrees cooler than the outside. People were dancing in their coats; several individuals who normally dance barefoot kept their socks on.
This was strike one. A hardcore vata, I hate being cold. Logically I knew that moving would no doubt warm me up, but it felt completely hopeless at the time.
As a result, I felt unusually uninspired, uncoordinated, and sloppy. I began to view my body as a hastily drawn stick figure, limbs angular and harsh, no softness, no fluidity, no sensuality. Even in the rhythm of Flowing, which carries such an earthy and organic quality, I found no inspiration.
I tried focusing on my feet, the body part associated with Flowing, but I felt like my left foot was now my right and vice versa. I did not feel steady or balanced.
A feeling of panic began to fester in my gut, a voice telling me that I was not the sensual person I thought myself to be. If my body and spirit were a utensil, I wanted to be seen as a spoon—curved, smooth, having a space for holding, an object that could cradle both hot soup and ice cream. Instead, I felt like a pair of cheap throwaway wooden chopsticks, rough and splintered.
I noticed there were more African American women in the class than normal, and every time I glanced at one of them, the gnawing in my solar plexus intensified. As I’ve written before, I have this unexplainable attraction to African-rooted dance forms and music. I envy Black dancers’ bodies, the way their hips and shoulders roll like butter. Black women are always making their into my dreams; most recently, I dreamed about a group of Black women entering a hotel lobby I was waiting in, pulling out instruments, and starting to play jazz/world music. I could not help myself from dancing, and in the dream I moved effortlessly, dancing like I have never danced before, my body and the music becoming one. I felt like magic!
Well, I did not feel like magic on that Saturday in the chilly church hall. Perhaps the post from fellow blogger Stephanie in which she writes about her dream of “the chocolate-colored woman” was clinging to my consciousness. In this post, Stephanie elaborates on the works of Jungian analyst Marion Woodman, who described the symbolism of dreams involving dark and white women:
“The Dark Goddess has to do with the Earth, the humus, the humility, the human. She has to do with sexuality, with the sheer joy of the body, with fecundity and the lusciousness of the Earth and with the love that can honour the imperfections in the human being.
Whereas the White Goddess tends to make people idealize themselves and therefore develop a huge shadow, the Black Goddess, through her sense of humour and immense love for humanity, helps us to accept our imperfections. Not only that, she helps us to see that a lot of things that we may have considered shameful in ourselves are not shameful at all.”
Was that why I began to cry every time I looked at one of the Black women dancing, my frozen body’s way of wanting to thaw and lap up the lusciousness of the earth?
I’m not exaggerating, either. Every time my eyes crossed paths with a dark-skinned woman, I felt the heaviness in my gut grow and tears spring to my eyes. I wasn’t envious of their bodies, per se, more like what they embodied. And it was all coming to a head on the dance floor.
In response, I began to use a wall for support. It was what my body asked for, to lean against something rather than stand alone in space. The wall became my partner, and once I felt its support, I could not part with it. With the backs of my legs plastered against the wood, I bent forward, head dangling, hands in my hair, and BOOM—steady tears came flowing, then sobbing, that “point of no return” crying that crumples and contorts your whole face.
What I knew I had to do was keep moving. It’s something every 5Rhythms teacher stresses, to allow the emotion to continue to dance, even when our natural reaction is to want to curl up in a fetal position and let tears take over.
It felt so hopeless at the time. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to peel myself from the wall, and I briefly envisioned doing an entire 2.5-hour class in that one spot. I tried every now and then to step away, but the separation felt terrifying. Back to wall I went. One of my classmates shared later that he had contemplated attempting to draw me away from the wall but then reconsidered, sensing I was where I needed to be and that I’d work it out on my own.
And it’s true, I did. Eyes swollen and face still puffy, I was eventually able to break free from the wall. I made sure to stay on the one side of the dance floor, the side with the windows where sunlight streamed through. It felt safe to stand in the warmth.
I survived the first Wave but just barely. I wasn’t satisfied with the way it ended, partnered for eternity with someone whose rhythm just didn’t match mine. I kept waiting and waiting for the instructor to call “Change partners” or “Dance on your own, ” but instead I slogged through Lyrical and Stillness half-heartedly, me doing my thing, my partner doing another thing, a lackluster connection that triggered the anxiety I had just worked so hard to vanquish.
Meltdown, part II.
As the first Wave ended and people gathered to listen to the instructor speak, I extended my Stillness in the upstairs bathroom, the need for something to lean on again a priority. I found a little space on the floor between the sink and the window, curled up in a ball, and found comfort in the gurgling, hissing radiator at my side and the blinding sunlight illuminating my face. I’m not usually one to “escape” during class, but I saw this as a much needed release, plus it wouldn’t have been very considerate of me to sob away during the instructor’s presentation. The watery, steamy radiator sounds complemented my tears, ultimately ushering me into my own version of Stillness.
When I finally ventured back downstairs to join the class, I felt paralyzed with raw awareness, awe, and appreciation, and even when the music started up again, I couldn’t rise from sitting; I just wanted to watch all of my classmates move, tears flowing down my face, like I was watching the final scene of one achingly heartwarming movie. I didn’t know if I was sad or had transcended to a heightened level of sensitivity in which every person was so divinely beautiful. All I knew is that I didn’t want to move, I wanted to watch, I wanted to witness each person in their moment.
Who knows how long I would have sat there, had it not been for the aid of one of my classmates, who approached me, leaned down with extended arms, and pulled me off the ground?
Of course that person was a chocolate-colored woman—one of my favorite dancers, Michelle—making the class and all of my related emotional outbursts come full circle.
The rest of the class was refreshingly satisfying for me, and the lump I had originally felt in my solar plexus area had completely vanished.
Below are some of my own suggestions for dealing with an emotional release that crops up during dance:
1. Embrace this information; don’t fight it! Your body obviously has something to say to you. Movement happened to be the key to getting it out of hiding.
2. Don’t be embarrassed. You’re in a supportive environment, and most conscious dance tribes totally understand these types of releases.
3. Keep moving (and breathing!). Movement created the release, and continuing to move will allow whatever is speaking to pass through you. As Adam Barley said once during a long workshop, “If you’re tired, dance a tired Chaos.”
4. Stay aware of your movement but try not to over-analyze it. Approach dancing like meditation, taking note of a particular pattern or repetition (e.g., a desire to cling to the wall, clenched fists) but don’t dwell on it or try to make it a “story.” Just allow it to happen.
5. Be aware of your surroundings. If you feel like you’re going to have wild outbursts of emotion, consider moving to the perimeter of the dance floor so you don’t accidentally hurt someone else.
6. At the same time, try to stay a part of the group and don’t distance yourself too much. It’s why I waited until the first Wave ended before I escaped onto the bathroom floor, despite just wanting to get the hell off the dance floor.
7. Keep in mind that some people may feel compelled to “rescue” you from your “crisis.” If you’d rather work it out on your own, offer a simple hand gesture or eye contact that says, “Thanks, but I’m OK.” Other times, maybe you need that support, the way I reached my arms out to Michelle so she could lift me off the ground.
8. Offer gratitude. If someone’s smile, touch, or gesture provided just the slightest amount of comfort during your release, pay it back to them, either on the dance floor with a similar gesture, or after class, with a hug or comment of appreciation. This exchange is what builds community.
9. Take time during break or after class to journal about the experience or debrief with a trusted classmate/friend. It’s important for the information to be processed, even if you don’t necessarily know “why” it happened or what it means.
10. Be happy that your practice is so therapeutic, even if it doesn’t feel so in the throes of an emotional release. I may feel utterly exhausted at the end of an emotional dance, but the fear/panic/crying/nausea/headache/solar plexus-heaviness that was so present during class almost always dissipates afterward, reinforcing the notion that movement is indeed medicine!
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:
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.
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 haven’t blogged in a while but it’s not because I’ve been living in a vacuum. Stuff has happened, thoughts and ponderings have crossed my mind, but the truth is that I’ve just chosen to censor myself and make y’all believe that I’m living some crazy-awesome-busy life and just don’t have the time to document it.
It’s not really fair for myself or for those who read my blog to write only about the good things in life, the times where I have triumphed, learned a lesson, and moved on with clarity and newfound wisdom. Because, for real, that’s only half of the picture. My husband and I recently started Netflixing Twin Peaks, and what we’re learning is that there’s more to one person than what meets the eye. Not that I have any Laura Palmer-type secrets lying around, but I do have days that I don’t do yoga, don’t dance, act cranky, and forget to breathe. I have days that I mentally scold someone for starting every morning with a complaint and then I come home to my husband and complain about all the complaining. Sometimes I just don’t want to blog, tweet, or decipher the cryptogram that is now Facebook. There are times that I start the day blasting LMFAO in the living room and dancing circles around my husband and then shun him for the rest of the afternoon for no good reason (i.e., today).
One of the take-home lessons I learned during my experience at Kripalu was to acknowledge both the light as well as the shadows. Kripalu is a popular yoga and wellness retreat center now, but several years ago it suffered a PR nightmare when the resident guru was accused of performing unyogic acts with his disciples. Instead of keeping this “secret” under rug swept, my YTT teachers were open about the scandal; they were acknowledging the darker side–the shadows–of the institution. Expanding this philosophy to a personal level, it means to sit not only in your prouder moments but to face your darker ones as well. When the sun is shining and your heart is singing, breathe it all in. When the clouds are black and your heart hurts, breathe it all in.
One of my shadows of late has been my complete and utter lack of energy. It started last month when I could barely finish a 5Rhythms class. Even with being mindful of my movement and using the wall and floor for support at times, I kept sneaking glances at the clock, wondering why on earth this 2-hour class felt like 5. I felt like I was running on fumes, and instead of floating home in a state of post-dance bliss, I kind of just trudged my way into bed. Swimming, my second favorite activity next to dancing, also became a labor of love. Suddenly my normal 30-minute workout sessions were no longer achievable, and I’d call time after 20, 25 if I had coffee beforehand.
Even Disney World, my happiest and the happiest place on earth, couldn’t snap me from my stupor. I know it’s natural to wear yourself out after a day in the parks, but a seasoned Disney World fan girl shouldn’t be caught looking like this in the middle of the day.
After a month of this nonsense as well as some other health-related issues, I finally went to my doctor. A lot of my symptoms were pointing directly at the thyroid as the culprit, and my bloodwork sealed the deal. When I got my thyroid levels tested 2 years ago, they were right on the cusp of hypothyroidism; now, they are most definitely in that territory. I know there is all kinds of controversy out there about what the “correct” reference range is for TSH levels, but mine exceed anything I’ve found online and would certainly explain the uncharacteristic feelings of blah I’ve been experiencing.
Because hypothyroidism affects mood and mental focus as well, perhaps that can explain my mini-mental breakdown last week, when I was left completely incapable of making the decision whether or not to accompany my husband to Philly for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half-Marathon expo. The day before I was all “Yeah! This will be fun! Philly! Athletic gear! Lunch in the city!” Saturday morning, however, was a different story. I knew I needed to study for a work-related exam I was taking the next day, and I was afraid going to Philly would cut into my cram time. Instead of deciding (a) OK, I should really stay home to study; or (b) I can go to Philly, study on the train, and at home when we return, my brain went like this: &**&^&%^$&#$%%&*(*&*!!!!! It was like PMS from hell, complete with crying, sobbing, and throwing of clothes (and punches…in the air). The thing was, I didn’t have PMS; it was a perfectly neutral part of the month. I had checked my calendar just to make sure and was even more upset when I knew I couldn’t blame womanly hormones for my hot mess of a breakdown. It felt like the decision-making part of my brain just shut off, and I was faced with two options that both seemed great and terrible at the same time. And I’m not talking about the latte-versus-frappuccino indecision you face on a 60-degree day in March, but rather a complete numbness of the ability to say yes or no and accept that decision.
(In case you’re wondering, after much consolation from my husband, a shower, and me “working it out” through about 30 minutes of tears, I finally decided to go to Philly and then studied at home that night.)
On a lighter note (meaning, I’m not going to blame my thyroid for this), one of my other recent shadows has been my reaction to the news of Disney planning to open an AVATAR land in the Animal Kingdom park. If it were April, I would have totally thought this was some kind of April Fools joke, but this is for real! I’ve never seen Avatar, but even if it’s super-awesome, does it really require an entire land? At first I was upset that they agreed to partner with a non-Disney movie, but then people brought up Star Wars and Indiana Jones and The Muppets, and OK, I get it, but the key difference here is attraction versus LAND. Also, Animal Kingdom is such a pure park; if Disney is really pushing for this Avatar nonsense, it should build it in Hollywood Studios and reserve any extra space in Animal Kingdom for a future Australia. I cried to Bryan that after him and dancing, Disney is my passion and that any news about a potentially disastrous business decision affects me to the core. I eased up a bit after reading this relatively positive outlook of the Avatar endeavor but then fell back into my sinkhole of misery after reading this one.
Whatever happens, I just hope Animal Kingdom doesn’t face this fate come 2016 or 2018 or whenever everyone has forgotten about Avatar:
OK, I just exposed my shadows. Anything you need to come clean about?