You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘moving meditation’ tag.
After waiting patiently for 2 years for Maryland-based life dance coach Michelle Dubreuil Macek to return to my home turf, this past April I was finally able to dive back into Biodanza.
With a nickname like the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia seems to be a perfect setting for Biodanza, as the practice—“a movement-based system that integrates music, dance, and authentic relationships with self, others, and the world to support health, joy, and a sense of being fully alive”—is all about exploring the capacity to connect with your classmates, your neighbors, and the human race as a whole. Bring on the love, yo.
The practice of Biodanza reminds participants what it’s like to feel human—to breathe, to move freely, to embrace the vulnerability that comes with eye contact and individual attention, to brush past another’s arm or hand without getting flustered and feeling the need to apologize profusely for—heaven forbid!—having a fleeting moment of skin-on-skin contact with a fellow human being.
When I took my first Biodanza class in March of 2011 (detailed recap here), I was just starting out on my quest to explore my kinesthetic curiosity (alliteration intended). I had been dancing 5Rhythms for a year at that point, but was still relatively new to allowing myself to be fully present with others on the dance floor. I hadn’t done any 5Rhythms workshops or intensives at that point, and the videos of Biodanza that Michelle had posted on her website intimidated me, with all of the smiling and touching and laughing and dilated pupil moments.
I was used to dancing with myself, telling my story, with others in the background or as complementary characters. Biodanza was now asking me to incorporate these other people into my story, to make them part of my world too!
The first couple of minutes were hard for me. Then things got easier. Fun, even! That class 2 years ago was the first time I met (a different) Michelle, who has since become one of my closest dancing sisters, in that our souls have a secret and profound way of communicating with each other whenever we meet on the dance floor.
I hadn’t danced Biodanza since then, but if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I’ve amped up my 5Rhythms practice significantly during the past 2 years. 5Rhythms isn’t Biodanza and Biodanza isn’t 5Rhythms, but the two modalities work extremely well together in terms of exploring authentic movement and intentional connection.
In fact, both practices are based around “5s”: The 5Rhythms are Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical, and Stillness; in Biodanza, the “Five Lines of Vivencia” are Vitality, Sexuality, Creativity, Affectivity, and Transcendence. Imagine both of those frameworks being written on transparent paper and placed on top of each other: Can you see the overlap?!
The class last month was two hours long and included several exercises that transformed our group of 11 from mostly strangers and acquaintances into a pretty tight gang (in fact, several of us went out for a group dinner afterward to prolong the friendship).
In the spirit of that magic number, I’ll discuss the 5 exercises that impacted me the most and which I think are good representations of the Biodanza practice.
WALKING vs. DANCING
One of the first exercises we did after introducing ourselves was pair with a partner, hold hands, and walk around the studio to music. Seems easy enough, but the tricky part was being reminded to simply walk with our partner, not dance. Michelle instructed us to hold eye contact with our partner, to just be there with him or her without feeling the need to entertain or do something together. It’s one of the few times that walking became more challenging than dancing; the utter simplicity of being versus doing (with someone we just met!) somehow felt more intimate than slow dancing at the junior prom.
SENSATIONS and SOUNDS
Imagine someone standing behind you, placing their hands lightly on your ankles, and then sweeping their hands upward, passing over your calves, thighs, buttocks, spine, neck, and finally—with a grand flourish—through your hair or over your scalp. What would the soundtrack to that elongated caress sound like? Would it be “WooooooooooOOOOO!” or “AhhhhhHHHHHHH!” or “EeeeeeeeeeEEE!“?
As the receiver of this touch, are you able to fully tune into where your partner’s hands are in relation to how quickly or slowly you are vocalizing? Are you making noise just to make noise, or are you truly feeling the marriage of touch and sound?
As the “sweeper,” are you paying attention to your partner’s body or just quickly going through the motions? Is your partner wearing pants, or do you feel the skin of his/her calves? What does the fabric of your partner’s shirt feel like? Did your hands explode through a thick mane of wavy locks, or did your fingertips glide over a bald scalp?
Now, imagine your partner giving a gentle poke to your nose. A firm tap on your shoulder. Another nose poke, nose poke, nose poke, followed by a quick pat on your head. What does that sound like? Maybe that combination of touches sounded something like “Meep! Hmm. Meep! Meep! Meep! Ahhhh.”
This exercise turned our bodies into instruments, and the “receivers” had very little time (milliseconds!) to emit a sound that paired with their partners’ exploratory taps, touches, brushes, pokes, and pats. It was fun for both the giver, for whom the exercise was a bit like playing the game of Simon without rhyme or reason, and for the receiver, who was often surprised by what came out of his or her mouth.
With five pairs doing this exercise at once, the studio sounded like a bunch of robots gone haywire, blipping and beeping, meeping and squeaking. I don’t think there was anyone who didn’t break out laughing at one point or another.
BE and BREATHE
After all that entertainment, we had a bit of a serious moment with our partner, as one person lay down on his/her back and the other person simply rested a hand on the other’s belly. For about 3 minutes, all we did was be quietly present with our partner, either relaxing into the ground and being receptive to the human hand resting on our rising and falling bellies or being completely enamored with nothing else but our partner’s inhalations and exhalations.
The exercise was simple but profound, a tactile reminder of the breath of life. My partner was moved, commenting that the exercise reminded her of her mother’s passing and the gratitude of being able to be present for those last precious moments.
During one of the few exercises in which we partnered with ourselves, we all found a spot in the room in which we felt comfortable, closed our eyes, and allowed our bodies to unfold to slow, sensual music. Michelle reminded us to stay close to our hearts for this one, to feel the movement begin in the heart and radiate outward, not to get too caught up in grand choreography. We had just done so much work being present with partners; this was the time to get intimate with our own hearts.
It was hard for me to stay in one place, as the swelling music was just tempting me to dive into the dance floor. What I didn’t realize was that that part was coming up next; the point of this particular exercise was to contain the movement, to feel it deeply in yourself before passing it along.
In the proceeding exercise, Michelle invited our heart dances to move outside of their confined spaces and among the group. The gradual build-up beforehand allowed my movement to grow, expand, and finally be fully shared with others. The light and airy weaving of bodies in and around each other reminded me of the rhythm of Lyrical, our arms and hands extending like kites dancing in a gentle spring breeze.
Partner dancing with someone when both of your eyes are open ain’t no thang, but what happens when you turn off the sense of vision and have to rely primarily on touch? This was the basis of the dance of relationship, joining palms with a partner, closing the eyes, and feeling where the dance would go next. Movements had to be slow, deliberate, and incredibly mindful; if your partner shot his arm upward without any warning, you’d be left standing there with an empty palm, the connection broken due to lack of kinesthetic communication.
The challenge of this exercise was to strike a balance between awareness and attention, to sink into a soft dance without being obsessed with or hyperaware of every gesture. How much do you trust your partner, and how willing are you to let go and have faith in this mutual movement?
~ ~ ~
Much like my last class two years ago, I left this most recent Biodanza class feeling very deeply for my fellow dancers. I may not have remembered everyone’s names, but I sure did remember their eyes, their smiles, their particular body language. It was hard to part ways immediately after the workshop, and that’s why a few of us extended the evening and went out to dinner. The desire to stay connected was palpable in the post-class atmosphere.
However, I also learned that night as I left the city that the essence of Biodanza ends on the subway platform, where “human encounter” is seldom poetry but rather a short story, sometimes nothing but a trifold pamphlet.
My eyes were wide open when I entered the train, willing to make contact with another, eager for my personal verse/stanza to be joined by another’s until the entire train car was a collaborative poem of human encounter. But no one wants to make eye contact on the subway; the M.O. is head down, earbuds in place, hands in pockets.
Let’s work on this, shall we?! Michelle has plans to return to Philadelphia on June 8 at Mama’s Wellness Joint in Center City. Will you help the City of Brotherly Love become just a little more, well, loveable? Like this happy group of folks?
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!
When I first sat down to write this post, the phrase that initially came to mind was a variation of the classic line from The Sixth Sense:
“I see dead people.”
Except in my case, the unusual phenomenon I experience is nowhere near as spooky as Haley Joel Osment’s, only occurs during highly meditative experiences (usually moving/dancing), and the people I see are bursting with life.
In short, when I am immersed for long stretches of time in meditative activity with other people (e.g., a 3-day 5Rhythms workshop), the faces of those with whom I am moving/dancing/flowing/growing begin to fill my mind whenever I close my eyes. Sometimes it happens when I’m dancing, sometimes during meditation, and almost always occurs in those few moments before falling asleep at night.
It’s a bit like watching a movie but feels more personal, that I am not just an observer but a participant as well. It’s not intrusive at all; in fact, it feels comforting, like I have bits and pieces of each and every one of my classmates downloaded inside of me.
However, before I continue, let me refer you to some previous posts in which I describe these experiences.
Last summer, during a day-long workshop with 5Rhythms teacher Rivi Diamond, this happened near the end of the class:
“I experienced a brief sensation of aloneness as I walked through a ‘graveyard’ of bodies, people spread out in various shapes of savasana. It was as though everyone’s old self was dying, melting into the earth, and I was joining them in this passage. It was a bit sad, but when I closed my eyes I saw all of my classmates’ faces so vividly, each of them crying along with me. It may sound mournful to have that kind of vision, but it was actually an uplifting one, a bit of an energetic reminder that everyone hurts, everyone cries, everyone needs each other.”
During my month at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health for the 200-hour yoga teacher training, I had all kinds of intense visualizations during savasana and meditation:
“Ever since I came here, I’ve had very vivid images dance in my head when I close my eyes. For example, when in a flowing posture, like standing forward bend or bridge, I’d close my eyes and see random snapshots of people–all Kripalu people. I’ll close my eyes at night or during savasana and see quick flashes of people in bandanas, people with shawls, smiling, happy, introspective, compassionate Kripalu people, like I’m looking in a photo album (in fast forward) of all the residents here. However, there are times (usually during chanting, centering, pranayama, and sometimes during certain poses) that I close my eyes and see us all as a unified group. Amazingly synchronized. Holding hands, or arms raised, our mouths open in Om. I see our group, our tribe, together. So tight, as One.” (source)
“How many times have I lay in savasana, and this is the first time I get this wild sensation of simultaneous rising and falling, the soft earth greeting my back with a gentle nudge. I sink and the whole class sinks with me, my friends, all gently sliding into the ground…. At the end of meditation, we chant Om, and I envision our entire class in white clothing. As the sound swells, I so briefly and vividly feel like we’re back in the ashram, our gurus at the front. It’s very beautiful.” (source)
Now, I am a writer and have been told I have a very vivid imagination, but I honestly believe these are more than simply illustrations I have consciously planted in my mind. I don’t “conjure up” these experiences; they just happen. I don’t rest my head on my pillow at night and actively direct my brain to recount all the people I have danced with. I close my eyes, and—like a flip book—I see Christina shaking in Chaos, Rebekah swinging her hair around in Flowing, Lana lying in Stillness.
It’s almost as though my brain has been “uploading” media files all day; closing my eyes is the time for the files to play back.
Very often, I can feel this “uploading” process take place. It usually takes a few hours of movement and almost always happens during the Lyrical portion of a 5Rhythms class. I go from feeling me to feeling everyone. My eyes lift from the floor, and suddenly the people I’ve been dancing with are no longer bodies with names but rather energy with faces, and I feel amazingly connected to everyone in the room, even people who might otherwise rub me the wrong way.
It’s usually at this point I stop dancing and begin weaving in and out of the group or around the room, my eyes locking on every face I pass, my arms instinctively rising upward, my palms widening as though to collect every morsel of electric energy that is crackling in the air.
Each time my eyes gaze into another pair, there’s a little energetic camera shutter-like “snap,” that person’s image and energy being stored in my circuitry. Shortly after that, the images go from sharp to blurry, almost as if to say, “There is no separation between us. We are all one.”
Sometimes I’ll even feel like I’m embodying others. I remember one time I swung my loose hair around but “saw” my classmate’s face instead of my own underneath all that hair.
Other times my classmates become hybrids of each other. I specifically remember one moment in Stillness—I was in such a deep meditation—that in my mind’s eye the person I was dancing with had the face of one man but the clothes and mannerisms of another.
And here’s an even more curious phenomenon: There have been times after class when I see the silhouette of a classmate but the “face” my brain is trying to pin on the shadow keeps morphing. I logically know I am looking at Person A, but the face my eyes keep trying to see in the dark changes from Person A to Person B to Person C, almost like Person A is embodying everyone else, too!
The one thing I’ve noticed is that for these experiences to occur, I must be engaging in some kind of prolonged meditative work. And that’s why these “visions” don’t freak me out or make me question my sanity, because they only happen when I am in a heightened state of consciousness. Believe me, I don’t go home every day and see my coworkers’ faces behind my eyelids, although it would be nice to experience my colleagues on that kind of universal level.
Another thing that reassures me that I’m not nuts is Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED Talk. Taylor is a neuroanatomist who suffered a stroke and—because of her insight and knowledge about the brain—was able to track as much of the experience as possible, as it was unfolding. In her talk, she describes the two hemispheres of the brain. The left, whose purpose is to function in the “I” voice, and then the right, which is focused on the “we”:
“Our right hemisphere, it thinks in pictures and it learns kinesthetically through the movement of our bodies. Information in the form of energy streams in simultaneously through all of our sensory systems. And then it explodes into this enormous collage of what this present moment looks like…. I am an energy being connected to the energy all around me through the consciousness of my right hemisphere. We are energy beings connected to one another through the consciousness of our right hemispheres as one human family. And right here, right now, all we are brothers and sisters on this planet, here to make the world a better place. And in this moment we are perfect. We are whole. And we are beautiful.”
When I heard her describe this, I nearly burst into tears. I felt like she was describing all of my dance/yoga/meditation experiences!
Taylor’s stroke was a huge physical setback, but those hours in which her left brain shut off and her right hemisphere took over contributed to a monumental spiritual and emotional awakening that set the course for her recovery:
“I realized ‘But I’m still alive! I’m still alive and I have found Nirvana. And if I have found Nirvana and I’m still alive, then everyone who is alive can find Nirvana.’ I picture a world filled with beautiful, peaceful, compassionate, loving people who knew that they could come to this space at any time. And that they could purposely choose to step to the right of their left hemispheres and find this peace. And then I realized what a tremendous gift this experience could be, what a stroke of insight this could be to how we live our lives. And it motivated me to recover.”
My faces, my visions, my “uploads,” my video montages are all small reminders that we don’t need to have a stroke to experience at least a little part of what Taylor was describing.
How fortunate that I can understand this Nirvana that she speaks of, and that I can get halfway there through the right combination of movement, mindfulness, and meditation.
I’d love to hear from people who experience similar (or totally different!) visions during this kind of work. Please share your stories in the comments!
More often than not, the first hour of a movement meditation class is simply a warm-up for me. Even after the designated 10-minute-or-so warm-up period, my arms, legs, and neck still feel like rigid sticks and twigs protruding from my tree trunk of a torso. I am hyperaware of any stiffness, the creakiness in my joints, how angular and non-flowing I feel. I imagine myself looking like a collection of hard, plastic flesh-colored Legos assembled to resemble a human being.
There is also a bit of mental hardness that accompanies this physical stiffness. Mind chatter about what I’m trying to “work on” today, trepidation/nervousness about the possibility of having to partner with so-and-so, conversations with myself about why I keep coming back to the dance when I feel like what was once an “answer” to my quest for spiritual and physical nourishment now just bombards me with more questions every time I take my first step into Flowing.
In that first hour, I work hard to chip away at the crusty dirt that is caking my body and mind. I douse it with water, a baptism of sweat softening the earth that envelops my flesh, turning the hardened earth into pliable mud. By the end of the first Wave, I may still have tree bark in my hair and speckles of dirt between my toes, but I’m no longer as skeletal as a sycamore in winter or as rough as volcanic rock.
Sometimes the shift is profound, other times subtle, but almost always there comes a point during the second Wave where I feel my body become distinctively soft. It’s like someone used the “Blur Edges” filter on me in Photoshop. I still have bones, but a mystical force has allowed them to curve and bend like vines. My brain no longer feels like an intrusive anvil in my skull; it too is soft—not mushy, though—an enigmatic organ whose own waves have shifted from on-alert beta to more mellow alpha. When I bound across the room, I feel like I am leaping feet in the air as opposed to inches.
Instinctively, I move to the center of the room, my Play-Doh limbs wanting to mesh and mold with the other pliant persons around me.
I am a soft cotton square weaving its way into the patchwork quilt of humanity gradually taking shape on the floor.
I am a plump polyester tea sachet dipping gently into a warm water bath of bodies.
By the end of class, I am an infant swaddled in the softest of blankets, curious eyes wide open, face round and creaseless. I feel fresh out of the womb, no weight on my shoulders, no labels stifling my spirit. I am not “Jennifer, the [editor/blogger/worrier/planner].” I just am.
If I am lucky, as I was during a recent class in Philadelphia with Tammy Burstein, the sensation of softness that pulses through my body as I rest in Stillness brings me to tears. I had slithered my way onto the floor, stomach pressed against the wood, and breath by breath, my pelvis melted into what can best be described as a slow ripple of waves. I often use imagery to help my dance, but this time the imagery came without cerebral command.
My hips, which usually feel like Barbie doll legs plugged crookedly into their sockets, had become liquid. It felt as though my body ended at my waistline and the flesh and muscle that lay below had become a shoreline in Maui: soft sand, lapping waves, my lower body a beach that extended beyond where my feet were supposed to be and into the ocean of energy around me.
I cried because it is so seldom my hips experience that kind of softness and openness. For someone who constantly has to pop her sacrum back in place and stomp her legs like a zebra to get the top of her femur bone unjammed from loose hip cartilage, those few moments of fluidity were a beautiful reminder that my essence extends so far beyond my bones, muscles, and skin. Despite the hard armor I wear, underneath, I am nothing more than a soft soul.
My fourth-grade teacher had a saying when she wanted her students to take her words seriously:
“That’s a requirement, not a request.”
Back then, it referred to remaining quiet during a test, putting the classroom hermit crab back in its cage, or ending the latest battle of spitball warfare. When you heard that phrase, you shut up and did what Mrs. Goettelmann said.
Lately, however, I’m hearing those words echo through my head about something greater: yoga and meditation.
And it’s not my fourth-grade teacher talking, either. It’s my aching, stiff body. My deprived lungs, which never seem to get enough oxygen. My heavy, scatterbrained, impatient mind:
“Do yoga. Meditate. This is a requirement, not a request, Jennifer.”
Yoga and meditation used to be a very integral part of my life. I had the schedules of every local yoga studio stuffed into the side pockets of my car door so I knew exactly where I could ashtanga, kundalini, or yin on any given day of the week. If I wasn’t at a studio, I was upstairs in my yoga room, following along to a podcast or simply cobbling together my own practice.
Group classes became more challenging once I hurt my hip, but I persisted, knowing my limits, modifying as necessary, simply enjoying the hour or so set aside for nothing other than focused movement and breath.
But—once a dancer, always a dancer—as soon as I discovered 5Rhythms and YogaDance and Nia and all other forms of conscious dance, my appreciation for traditional yoga and seated meditation dwindled. After all, 5Rhythms is described as “movement meditation.” I’ve never liked sitting still. I’ve always walked around on my toes. You mean I don’t have to stay perfectly poised on my little rectangular rubber mat to get a decent mind-body-soul workout? I can leap and stomp and glide and dive into dubstep and still consider that meditation?
It felt so right, too. My hip rarely ached after a 2-hour 5Rhythms class, and I usually walked away with a pretty clear mind, too. Over time, my collection of yoga mats became like old world maps, tightly rolled up and tucked away in a corner, collecting dust.
Dancing was my new yoga, my new meditation.
What I was failing to realize, though, was that the clarity and comfort attained through dancing is just simply NOT the same as that achieved through yoga and seated meditation.
Yes, there are incredibly deep meditative moments in 5Rhythms—Stillness is almost always a time of prayer and revelation for me—but it only appears after a vigorous Wave of dancing all over the room like a lunatic. Flowing, Staccato, Chaos…they shake things up. Move the gunk and junk through the trunk. It’s a relatively active process, like water boiling on the range.
Don’t get me wrong—I love the simmering, the vibrating H2O molecules, the hot and foamy water cascading over the side of the pot and sizzling on the stove top. That kind of transformation is necessary, changing from solid to liquid to vapor. The things I’ve learned through moving would have never presented themselves through tree pose or 20 minutes of alternate-nostril breathing.
But there’s a reason it was so easy for me to “leave” yoga and meditation: It’s hard! Remaining still, sinking into a pose, practicing patience and concentration is not easy. Because really, who actually wants to follow someone else’s direction about how long to stand on one foot when you could be dancing to the beat of your own drummer?
And that is precisely why yoga is so important: It forces us to pay attention. Be still. Listen.
When you stop doing that, things go haywire.
— You become irritable, complaining about the weather, work, anything and everything out of your control. Coworkers, who once you saw you as the “perpetual optimist,” are perplexed at these out-of-character sentiments.
— You become impatient, especially on the road, so much so that you need to squeeze a few drops of impatiens flower essence into your water bottle before hitting the highway so that you don’t grit your teeth to the gum line as you drive from Point A to Point B.
— You seethe when things don’t go your way, usually about stupid things, like a car pulling out of a driveway during your morning walk. (“God, it’s 6:30 a.m., why does THIS car have to leave RIGHT now and make me STOP?!”)
— You realize your flexibility in a simple seated forward bend is diminishing, that holding onto your ankles may be more reasonable than grasping for the toes.
At first, I requested myself to get back into yoga. Which at the time meant nothing more than doing a few paschimottanasanas and spinal twists after my morning walks.
Then, two things occurred that made me think of Mrs. Goettelmann, shifting the request into a requirement.
First, during a yoga/5Rhythms combo class to celebrate the winter solstice, I mentally fuh-reaked out during the yoga portion. I hadn’t done a group yoga class in months, and I was frustrated with the way my wonky hips wouldn’t let me shift from one pose into another. In the past, I would’ve found my own way to work through it without any problem, but that night I was so acutely aware of the discomfort and difficulty, and I HATED that everyone else was able to sit like little cross-legged Buddhas while I struggled to find a comfortable seated posture. I was angry and sad and basically lost all mental composure, feeling seconds away from bursting into tears and running out into the hallway.
As a result, I didn’t start the dancing portion on a very balanced note. In fact, I may have cried during almost all of Flowing.
Second, I got blood drawn last week. I take thyroid medication, so labwork is routine. A regular yoga practice has always helped me through these kinds of medical procedures, but this time no signs of yoga were evident. I had trouble taking deep breaths. I could feel my body temperature rise. I got panicky, feeling the need to escape. I kind of wanted to throw up. My sympathetic nervous system kicked into overdrive, despite having very easy veins and an experienced phlebotomist.
In short, the nickname my friend Carrol had once bestowed on me—ZenJen—is losing all meaning.
You know, I was a teacher’s pet back in elementary school, and I always listened to Mrs. Goettelmann. Now I realize it’s time to listen to a different kind of teacher: my body.
Jennifer, it’s time to do some yoga and meditate. That’s a requirement, not a request.
My first experience with 5Rhythms was in April 2010. The class took place in a suburban yoga studio, which resides in the basement of an office building. The space is warm and nurturing, but—being in a basement—there are no windows, no view of the outside, and the ceiling hangs low enough that jumping with your arms above your head is something to do with caution.
It is a sweet spot, a second home where I have experienced moments of great tenderness. The monthly class draws a small crowd, enough to have moments of connection with everyone in the room. Metaphorically, the space is a bit like a living room fireplace—cozy, sensual, with the invitation to sink in, let go for a moment, and then return to softness before drifting to Stillness with an empty glass of wine in your hand.
And then there’s New York.
New York City is the heart of 5Rhythms, the headquarters for the practice.
If my monthly class in suburban New Jersey is a crackling fireplace, dancing with Tammy Burstein on a Friday night at the Joffrey Ballet School is a 6-foot high roaring bonfire at Burning Man.
This past Friday marked my first 5Rhythms pilgrimage to Manhattan, thanks to the transportation coordination of one of our tribeholders (I would have never gotten there myself). I was both excited (working with a master teacher, dancing with so many personalities) and terrified (little suburban girl in the big city!).
The funny thing is, to get to the 5Rhythms space, you have to climb to the 5th floor of the building, brushing past leotard-and-tights-clad Joffrey Ballet dancers. In the locker room, I change into my Target yoga pants and flowing floral shirt from Kohl’s as the young girl next to me donned in skin-tight Capezio ballet wear fixes her immaculate bun in the mirror. We walk past rehearsal spaces with girls lined up along the barre, the sound of an instructor counting off “and 1, and 2, and 3, and 4,” everyone’s movement synchronized, coordinated, legs and arms moving as one.
I realized that that terrified me more than anything—the memory of always aiming for perfection, the instant sense of competition when slipping into ballet shoes and lining up with other girls whose battements were just a little higher than yours, whose triple pirouettes looked more solid than your doubles. Being in that environment—if only for a few minutes—made entering the 5Rhythms space that much more relieving, a coming home of sorts.
The barres were pushed to the sides of the room; the only light illuminating the space was a strand of Christmas lights strung around the perimeter, the setting sun outside, and the ever-glowing lights of Manhattan at dusk. People of all shapes, sizes, races, and dance attire begin filtering in the expansive space, and like that we all knew what to do. Just get out there and dance. Music played, we moved. The feeling of being surrounded by so many people (40? 50?) who looked so comfortable in their bodies was incredible. It was a struggle at first to sink within myself and find my own dance when all I wanted to do was step back and watch everyone else. A woman sat off to the side and sketched the whole night. I wish I could have seen what her eyes saw.
I didn’t make too many connections during the first Wave, and that disappointed me. So many brilliant people were in this space, and I yearned to share a moment of movement with them. As I slowed down into Stillness, I almost let this melancholy take over me until Tammy said to the group, “Learn to be confident with yourself the way you would with another.”
Those words were all I needed to hear. As the next Wave began, I knew that I had to dance for myself first. The purpose of the practice wasn’t to seek out acceptance from others but to find it within. The magic is that once I stuck to that creed, connection began on its own. I shared a heart-thumping, fourth-chakra Chaos shake-off with one person; a theatrical Broadway-esque dance to “This Little Light of Mine” with another; and a slow and intimate linkage of hands and arms with Jason, Tammy’s husband. As I shimmied past others, there were brief but personal moments of connection, whether through eye contact, an exchange of vocal out-breaths, or fancy footwork.
The second Chaos of the evening was by far the most powerful, when it felt as though every body in that room was gasping for the same breath, sweating from the same pores. As the pulsing techno music reached its climax, everyone in the room joined in a guttural scream, arms flailing, sweat drip-drip-dripping. It felt like I was in an amusement park, riding every attraction at once—descending down the first hill of a roller coaster, spinning on the Gravitron, pulling the cord on the freefall. I was simultaneously losing control but being so acutely aware of it, dropping and spinning and plummeting yet also feeling like everything was suspended in time. It was the stillpoint in the Chaos, a moment of such madness but with a mysterious current of calmness underneath.
Crystal-clear clarity washed over me after Chaos into Lyrical, my senses open to everything around me: The clocktower next to our building chiming nine times, echoing in the cavernous streets of the city below. The pinpoint top of the Empire State Building peeking above the flat-topped buildings in front of us. The aroma of pizza wafting through the open windows, the light breeze brushing my cheek. Car horns honking, trucks idling, engines revving. The reds and greens of the traffic lights glowing. Silhouetted bodies around me moving like chess pieces coming to life. The sight of another person’s apartment across the street, a painting on the wall. The muffled sound of piano music coming from the ballet studio below. All of these things became part of the dance, the movement of just being.
I sucked in all of these elements around me as the final Stillness began, my hands caressing the floor as though it were another’s chest, coaxing them into this sweet stillness with me, my fingertips brushing over an invisible collarbone, sternum, rib cage. There was nothing but floorboards under my skin, but I felt so much life. When I walked outside onto 6th Avenue, the subway rumbled below in return, my feet vibrating from this underground turbulence: the chaos, the stillness, the musical meditation of Manhattan.
Five years ago on this day, I stare at a flickering votive candle during meditation, my mind becoming absorbed in this tiny flame’s uncontrolled, wild, uninhibited dance. I mourn for the flame–boundless, quick, graceful, chaotic, yet attached to its umbilical wick, a prisoner. I know this is its natural state, that a flame cannot exist without a source, but I keep staring at the yellow gypsy, wishing it freedom, wishing to see it break away from its tether and whirl off into space. Perhaps, though, it’s OK to be wild, elegant, chaotic, and uninhibited while still holding on–but holding onto the Source, the Self, the wax and wick, the divine. It’s OK to dance with a partner and to still dance freely with your own breath. I look to that tiny flame for inspiration, for understanding. I don’t need to detach myself completely from everything and everyone–I just need to find the proper wick, the connection that allows the heat, the burn, the dance to continue.
The above journaling came as a result of morning sadhana with Larissa, a class that ended up being very, very peaceful and meditative. We enter the room to find Larissa, dressed all in white, surrounded by 60-some votive candles, flickering in the morning darkness and illuminating Shiva more than ever. Each of us takes a candle back to our mats, and there we meditate on the flame. When I close my eyes and go inward, the bright flame turns to a deep purple button, throbbing in my third eye. I love watching its dance externally and then seeing its shadow as I closed my eyes.
We do minimal asana, but Larissa has us go into utkatasana for about 3 minutes, being still, doing kapalabhati, bouncing lightly, and finally releasing the pose inch by inch. We immediately go into tadasana, holding our arms overhead for what feels like 5 minutes. She reminds us that we aren’t hurting ourselves–our circulatory system will still be able to bring blood back into our arms. Find our edge and inch our way beyond. Inner exploration isn’t about staying where you are, but testing the waters. Invite these new sensations into our body, breathe into them, find an inner stillness even among all the heat and chaos.
The prana effect of that holding is delicious, and Stage 3 could not come quick enough. After that, everything feels incredible. It’s 7:15 a.m. and I am ON, I think. We do a variation of nadi shodhana (fingers on third eye and breathe in and out of one nostril only, switching halfway through), which balanced me wonderfully, and I floated down into meditation without hesitation.
It looks like rain today, but right now the clouds linger over the mountains, cool air (not cold), the trees really naked now, a giant black crow squawking on a tree on the patio. It’s hard to believe that right now, 8:40 a.m. on Thursday morning, November 16, I am essentially a certified yoga teacher. That I just embarked on and survived a month away from everything familiar, a brand new learning experience, a whole new course of living and learning. I studied, practiced, dreamed, wept, had fun, had frustration and somehow got rewarded for it all. If only all learning and education could be as fulfilling and hearty. I am getting a certificate for learning to be myself and find safety and security within myself and community. I get a certificate for taking what I love, wanting to spread it out to the world, and learning how to do so. I am so blessed to be rewarded for just wanting to be.
We are told not to come into Shadowbrook until instructed, and a colorful sign on the closed doors tells us to have either clean feet or a pair of socks, two cushions, a blanket, and a partner. R. asks to be my partner, and I say yes. Megha sneaks out the door, giddy as a child, telling us that she feels like a kid on Christmas Day, eager to share that one present with that one special person. Inside our room is a circle of purple yoga blocks, an elegant Stonehenge of sorts, different levels of towering blocks, each tower with a votive candle on top, each stack dressed up with a colorful scarf.
We set ourselves up around the “alter,” foot massages with the receiver on her back, feet draped over the giver’s crossed legs, a cushion between back and root chakra. Tenderness. Face and neck massage, a candle swirled around the receiver’s supine body, the warmth and light penetrating the koshas, delving deep into the intuitive and mental bodies. We are asked to speak…What does yoga mean to me?
It’s the same question we were asked on our first day here, the question that seemed to definite and easy and black and white. I realize now that asking me to define yoga is like asking a Christian to define God, a spouse to define love. I can give examples (“Love is snugging in bed”), but the true, the black-and-white dictionary definition is impossible for me to discover. Yoga is moving from the inside out. Once, I used to dance from the outside in. The costumes, the lights, the audience–they were my stimuli, and I reacted. The external is what fueled the internal. Now, the opposite is the case. I feel my heart and soul quake; therefore, I move, I dance.
Yoga is union, connectedness, oneness. I am that I am, but I am also that of him, and her, and them, and they. I studied creative writing for four years, yet yoga has no words to describe fully. I write, but I have no words. I am empty, full, so full, bursting, but so empty and vast.
We engage in meditation-in-motion, one person acting as the Witness Consciousness, as the other sinks into dance and movement. R. is beautiful, dancing with nature, playing and pulsing with the earth and sky, vibrating with the Earth. I feel intrusive again, being involved in such a profound, personal movement. I feel choked up. In the distance, someone cries, loudly. Sobbing. It is a gorgeous soundtrack. I don’t recall my meditation-in-motion too much, but I didn’t use a mat, and it felt great. I rolled on the ground, caressed, stroked, flowed here and there, in and out, up and down. I recall lots of pelvis motion into the ground, lots of finger twirling, fingers and feet flexing and pointing. I have a deep connection to m hips and knees, and I find myself hugging them close quote often during Stage 3 experiences. The moment is elegant, soft, loud, and pulsing. Always a paradox, always a dance of polarities.
R. looks me in the eye afterward and tells me: “You are grace.”
To close the experience, we sing our student-teacher mantra, and it is both filmed and recorded. I can’t hold back the emotion. We are not loud, but we are strong. Our voices are buoyant, heavenly, beyond this world. Our final Om is _______. No words. Its sound fills me up like a helium balloon. I feel expanded, full, ready to float to the sky.
In the cafeteria, I witness one of the control/operations employees embrace an individual with what looks like retardation and maybe cancer. He/she (it’s hard to tell) is bald. The embrace this man gives is so sincere, so intentional. I watch his fingers wrap around this person, each finger’s motion a slow and tender touch. His one hand just danced a dance of a thousand words.
Five years ago on this day, we begin our day of silence, the Noble Retreat. So far, nothing really seems different. Everyone’s too tired to talk in the morning, and breakfast is already silent. However, now that I’m sitting here at breakfast, although everything is the same and nothing has changed, I am more aware of the silence. Maybe it’s the sunlight trying to peak through the clouds. Maybe it’s because Grace just led a very silent-based awareness class, but everything feels illuminated right now. Colors are more vibrant, the small sounds of clinking spoons, water gurgling, clunking bowls, whispers, and the music playing softly from the stereo are extremely titillating, arousing. Especially the music. “Amazing Grace” was just playing; now it’s a beautiful chant. The few sounds around me buoy me, lift my heart. Trying to find the stillness, the silence among noise is a challenge, but a gentle one.
I’m not sure whether to look super-serious as I do this silent endeavor or be happy and smile. I feel like smiling could inadvertently engage conversation, but just because I’m silent doesn’t mean I can’t communicate. I speak through my body; perhaps that affirmation will be strengthened today.
Grace’s sadhana was delicious as she helped us explore the marriage of movement and breath, since our breath is our only speaking friend today. A fun experiment was asking the class to do either sun breaths or bhastrika–but once you started, you had to stay in your chosen breath, trying to tune out the quick or slow breaths around you. It was definitely a challenge doing the slow and deliberate sun breaths as others noisily did bhastrika. Even vice versa was hard. There was a certain softness in the room I wanted to capture during my loud bhastrika.
After class, we are asked to journal on the following question: What does yoga mean to me now?
Yoga is breaking the barriers between mind, body, and spirit, not treating them as separate entities but seeing and living them as One. Yoga is acknowledging the Oneness in the world around me–I am not separate from these beings around me; they are all part of me, as I am part of them. Yoga is touching your true Self, touching it, observing it, playing with it, doing all these things before you embrace the Self. Finding your essence, your core, finding out that you–no, I–speak through movement. That is me, finding grace. Finding the light and the shadow and embracing them–honoring them, working your way through the light and darkness, breathing through the unknown, tip-toeing, jumping, leaping, into the wave, riding, riding, riding the wave.
Our student-teacher mantra is whole and strong, our Oms filled with a deep-rooted urge to make sound. We are permitted to chant Ganesha Sharanam again, loud, with instruments. It goes on forever, 15 minutes? So vibrant and delicious. I whirl and twirl to the chanting and drumming, the harmonium, the maracas, the sticks. I bow to the remover of all obstacles, I dance to the remover of all obstacles. I lose control, I gain control, a delicate dance of will and surrender. As the music slows, I fall to the floor on my knees and relish the stillness in my body. For once, I appreciate non-movement, inquiry, breath.
That is when we go outside for a silent nature walk; the natural stillness of the Berkshires such a maddening polarity of the noise we had just created.
Each crunch of a single leaf sounds like a tree falling in the forest. Standing on rocks sounds like icy snow under my shoes. Birds, cars, airplanes are the music. Engines humming. People sighing. People praying. People walking. People crying. Stuffy noses. Twigs snapping. My pen clicking. The gong ringing. A small waterfall’s trickle, reminding me of Tibet, the mountains, the waterfalls. The non-stop trickling of water. Bright moss, florescent green, yellow leaves among brown and bare. J.’s blue-green jacket near yellow leaves.
Pinecones and red berries. Small, miniature pinecones on the ground of the woods–makes me think of the holidays, home, warmth, love, family. No gifts, just warmth. Music, warmth, love, pinecones, and red berries.
We come inside from the late fall’s chill and do a blood-pumping vinyasa practice with Roger, earthy, primal root music vibrating off the walls and floor. I feel the flow before we even start, Mother Earth aching to erupt from my root, my bones. Ooooh, I want to mooooove. I feel the prana before Roger leads, and the incredible heat within only gets more intense as he goes along. Sun salutation after sun salutation, uttansana, utkatasana, burning, flowing, fire and water. My monkey mind slowly starts to disappear as prana resides in my circuits. We go into a side plank with the top leg up (something that’s always challenged me), but it comes naturally today: no mind, no will, just prana. Everything is illuminated; I feel like I’m looking at a Magic Eye book, my eyes drawn into the minute squares on my blue yoga mat. The throbbing, pulsing music becomes ingrained in my body. And then, meditation in motion:
Downdog splits, so high and wide, a camel so deep I thought my head was going to drop to the floor. I allowed my heart to reach up, my head to drop, for will to let the f*** go. A lunging Warrior that danced, a backbend that I’ve never done before, my spine fluid, my spine prana. A snake with no inhibitions. Hanumasana, rolling over into upavistha konasana, all flow, so deep. Up into that leg-on-the-upper-arm balance, no holding back, no deep preparation, just down and up. So much warmth, but not a hot “Oh my god, I just ran a mile” hot, but a deep, internal flame hot, the sweat that emerged from my pores was energy, passion, not overheated sweat. Gold. I felt illuminated.
We then move into pranayama, a difficult transition. I still had prana shaking in my ribs. I sat on my mat, dazed and woozy with santosha, as Roger handed out cushions. Kapalabhati, nadi shodhana, dirgha. The heat subsided. The energy dispersed from my center all over my body. No more kundalini, no more shakti. Contentment. Peace. We sat in meditation and my third eye pulsed, shapes swam in my third eye until all the gold and black movement cleared and made way for an expanse of dark blue, like a curtain opening to a beautiful stage of a royal blue backdrop. The stage was empty, and it was time to watch the show. I felt like I had entered another dimension until Rudy awakened us.
Afterwards, we are allowed to make noise again. We Om in a chorus, so loud and present. We do a round of the Birthday Song for L., and I am taken aback at my own voice, how strong, confident, and melodic it is. I am there, man. I am speaking from my roots, I am present. Gradually I am letting go and returning to me. I am Jennifer. I am Jennifer.
The afternoon session with Devarshi stars off with, as always, music. We all enter and dance, this time it being more meaningful because we have been silent with our voices. It was a slow, mellow, soul-bearing melody, folksy, full of sways and spins. Devarshi danced along with us–he was definitely cool in my book. His talk about The Bhagavad Gita was profound and provocative, that life is a battle, the reason for fighting lies within ourselves, and that the only way to find god is just to look a little closer. Look! Look! Look! Experience everything fully, good or bad. See the world like a baby, like an alien. Be curious. Live in the inquiry.
In yoga, Devarshi says, the postures are just the chip (versus the dip, the deeper stuff). When something is fully experienced, no matter how bad/big, there is bliss. “‘Is that so (lofty)’ versus ‘Is.That.So’ (wow, here’s an experience).” Babies have no filters; they experience everything at the present, devour everything as it comes. What is happening now? Living in the inquiry, the mystery. Book. Bird. They fly with the bird, not just label it.
To emphasize that point, we are asked to go outside and explore our surroundings as if we are aliens landing on a new planet, to experience life as it is. So there we are, 65 of us crawling on the asphalt, picking at the grass, squinting curiously into the sun. I play with ivy and find a ladybug. I play with some pine needles as though I am a cat. Even feeling the movement of air around me becomes a different experience.
Jurian leads the afternoon sadhana, an intense class of emotional sweat and vigor. A bunch of hara pratapana and postures like Bird of Paradise, bakasana, and side crane– whew! I was totally into the class, loving the release. I found myself crying during a warrior/goddess kumbhaka pratapana, just because stuff needed to get out.
Tonight is our free night, but a lot of us end up back in Shadowbrook anyway for an open mic jam, starring S. and L. L. did back-up vocals, and random people popped in to listen or participate. L. sang “What a Night,” S. did “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree,” and then J. and I danced to “Building a Mystery.” A fun, spontaneous evening.
• G. does his own sh** during every sadhana, and that is annoying and disrespectful. I know Kripalu yoga is very open about exploring your body and listening to what movement you need, but he just goes off into LaLa Land all the time. I must stop setting up my mat next to his.
• My jaw doesn’t hurt so much anymore now that I’m talking again.
As you may have noticed, I write a lot on here about this “5Rhythms” thing I do a few times a month. Because it’s not a well-known or widespread practice, I figured I’d provide a little background about this powerful moving meditation that has been a welcome part of life since April 2010.
5Rhythms is a meditative dance/movement class, described most fully in founder Gabrielle Roth’s book, Sweat Your Prayers, which I read before I even knew such classes existed and that one day there would be a class 20 minutes from me. During each class (the ones I attend are usually 2-3 hours), students are led through a “Wave” of motion. 5 distinct rhythms comprise a single Wave: Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical, and Stillness, in that order. The music, which can range from classical to country to techno, is carefully selected to guide students through each segment; equal time spent in each rhythm ensures the ebb and flow of movement become natural, rather than choppy and disjointed. A typical class usually includes two or three Waves.
A Breakdown of the 5Rhythms
Warm-Up: Classes usually start with a self-led warm-up. Soft, inviting music plays as people enter the room, and students warm up their bodies however they please, whether stretching on the floor, sitting in meditation, or simply walking around the studio. There is no official “OK, class begins now; warm-up time!” People used to very regimented classes may feel awkward having to move on their own and not having direct instructions to follow; however, there are no “wrong” movements in 5Rhythms. Standing still and just focusing on your breath is just as acceptable as moving through a flowing yoga sequence.
Flowing: Gradually the music shifts to Flowing. At this point, people who are in seated meditation usually begin to move a little more; movement may become more sweeping and airy. The pace picks up a little, and more bodies are crisscrossing throughout the room, arms circling, shoulders rolling, chests expanding and contracting.
Staccato: After Flowing, the music switches to something with a distinct beat, music you can bob your head or snip your fingers to. Frequently, this is the rhythm during which reserved students begin to smile, because the songs are usually fun and upbeat. Typical Staccato movement includes foot tapping, hip rocking, arm punching, and sometimes even clapping or vocal exclamations.
Chaos: After building energy from Staccato, the body naturally amps up to Chaos. Typical music includes fast African drumming and techno compilations. For some people (myself included), this is the “voo-doo rain dance” portion of the class, when eyes roll into the back of the head, ponytails are released and hair let down, flailing and spinning and wild hypnotic movement ensues.
Yet, at the same time, Chaos can also be very subtle; I have had very intense Chaos experiences in which all I was doing was walking very deliberately around the studio with my hands doing all of the dancing. In that sense, Chaos can be either laughing uncontrollably or experiencing one of those deep laughs where you don’t even make a sound. Both are equally as intense.
Lyrical: After expending all that energy, the body gradually cools down with entrance into Lyrical, which is seen as a combination of all of the above rhythms. Synthesis would an appropriate term to describe this rhythm. Some people settle into more of a flowing pattern here, but others are still feeling the wild effects of Chaos, toning down their movements just a tad. Hints of Staccato usually return during Lyrical, even if just for a fleeting moment. People’s movements vary significantly during this rhythm, as some are growing tired and slowing down while others are still processing everything running through them.
Stillness: The conclusion of a Wave, Stillness is marked by music such as Tibetan singing bowls, an achingly poignant instrumental song, or a few piano keys. Movement becomes very meditative during this phase, and for some people is very sacred and profound, almost a prayer. Some people gesture up to the sky, others sink into the floor and curl into a ball. Despite its name, Stillness is usually the most “moving” of all 5 Rhythms; it is the time when everything falls into line, realizations are made, and emotions come to the surface. It is not uncommon for people to cry or get emotional during this stage.
(Real-life examples provided by Gabrielle Roth, Sweat Your Prayers. Photos are mine.)
Instruction is very loose during 5Rhythms, and most of the class is self-led, an invitation for students to explore their own movements and personalities. As mentioned earlier, those used to detailed instruction may feel self-conscious at first, thinking they are doing something wrong or that they should be doing what that guy is doing. I find that it’s much easier to move with my eyes closed at first, pretending I am in my living room at home, dancing to the radio. Copying others’ movement is also encouraged if you’re having difficulty getting in touch with your own rhythm; sometimes doing someone else’s move for just a few seconds will create an Aha! moment in yourself, and suddenly you’ll launch into your own pattern without even thinking about it.
If the class includes mostly new students or beginners, the instructor is more likely to include more discussion about each of the rhythms and his own demonstrations of each. Other exercises include isolated movements of each body part (i.e., “Just move your hands. Explore the movements of the fingers and wrists, make the dance come from only your hands,” so on and so forth with the head and neck, shoulders and arms, hips and knees, and feet).
Sometimes you’ll be guided on the kind of movement to make; for example, “Do an ‘open’ move,” followed by “Do a ‘closed’ move,” or do an “up” versus “down” movement. As you can see, these instructions are generous and open to interpretation, allowing for authentic movement to emerge. Never in a 5Rhythms class will you be directed exactly how to move (“Grapevine to the left, pivot turn, and shimmy on down!”) or told precisely how you should feel (“You are a goddess! You are glowing and radiant!”). The purpose of 5Rhythms is to explore your OWN movement, even if it’s sloppy and you feel like crap.
Depending on the experience and comfort levels among the group, sometimes partner work is incorporated into a class; however, it’s nothing like ballroom dancing. Partner work can be as simple as pairing up with another person and doing your own thing, just being aware of the other’s movement (this post includes specifics about 5Rhythms partner work), although some people, if there’s a connection, will find themselves engaged in a very eloquent pas de deux as though they had been dancing together forever. Some couples can dance beautifully without ever touching, and others are more tactile and like to grasp hands, link arms, etc. The instructor calls for partner changes frequently so you’re able to experience working with different personalities and abilities.
Who Can Do the 5Rhythms?
People of all abilities are invited to dance the 5Rhythms. Since the class is self-regulated, students have permission to slow down when they need to, use a wall as support, or even dance while seated. My instructor has taken classes on crutches after a knee surgery; I’ve danced with people with hearing impairments, autoimmune diseases, and myself with a gimpy hip; and I’ve seen all different types of people in class, from former Navy SEALs to yoga instructors to physicians. No dance experience is necessary, and it is typically people without formal dance training who express themselves the most during class, as they are not locked into the notion of what dance “should” look like.
What Does One Wear?
5Rhythms is done either barefoot or in soft-soled dance shoes, as most classes typically take place in dance or yoga studios with very delicate floors. As for clothing, anything goes, as long as it’s comfortable. I’ve danced in sports bras, sweatshirt hoodies, and flowing skirts, yet others come to class in sweatpants and a tee; loose-fitting jeans; or glittery, fringed, Latin-inspired dance dresses. Wear what makes you YOU. Layers are important as well, because although you may start off class a bit chilly, by Chaos you may be sweating up a storm.
A Deeper Experience
As I wrote here, there is no doubt that 5Rhythms is an intense cardiovascular practice. However, once you dance the 5Rhythms on a regular basis, you begin to notice how the Rhythms are parallel to real life, the same way yoga practitioners begin to notice that yoga is more than just doing poses on a rubber mat.
For example, you may find that you are more of a “Flowing” personality and can never be clear and precise about your needs and wants. Perhaps you need to be a little more forthright (Staccato) about declaring your intentions and ambitions. Also, you begin to see the 5Rhythms in everyday occurrences, such as children playing outside (after a breathless round of playing tag [Chaos], their movement will gradually progress to Lyrical and finally to naptime [Stillness]) or the death of a loved one (in which the stages of grief are very close to each of the 5 Rhythms).
Also with experience comes a greater comfort level in dancing authentically. It can take a few classes before you begin to let go of self-consciousness and find your true movement. I also enjoy doing a Wave or two by myself at home, when no one is watching.
Finding a 5Rhythms Class
Due to the rigorous, extensive training it takes to complete 5Rhythms teacher training, not many people are certified to teach and thus classes are not as widespread as, say, yoga classes. Certified teachers are listed on the 5Rhythms website (click on the “Teachers” side tab), and I found my local classes through Meetup. Institutions such as Kripalu, Omega, and Esalen sometimes host weekend programs or intensives. Although dancing with a group and having someone else DJ is great, the 5Rhythms can easily be done by yourself at home, as Meg from Spirit Moves Dance frequently demonstrates.
Reading Gabrielle Roth’s Sweat Your Prayers is a wonderful place to start, as she offers numerous movement examples and even suggestions for music. iTunes, Spotify, Pandora, and Grooveshark technology make it easy to create and share playlists; just be sure to have your playlist ready to go before you dance rather than choose music as you go along; the smoother the transitions, the more immersed into the dance you will become.
No two 5Rhythms classes are the same for me. Sometimes I leave feeling open, exposed, and vulnerable; other times I leave class feeling high as a kite and in love with the world. Sometimes my cells vibrate; other times I am ho-hum. More often than not, though, I leave class feeling better than when I started, both physically and mentally. I feel more aware of the people and things around me; I am able to express my thoughts more clearly; and my body is thanking me for allowing it to move naturally rather than in some forced, repetitive manner.
To close, here are some snippets of journal entries I wrote following 5Rhythms class:
• “My body was delighted to be moving naturally, sweating from dancing, not from doing 30 minutes on a StairMaster. Dancing has always felt freeing, but it was even more so last night because I’ve just felt so restricted lately. My limbs and heart felt liberated, and in turn my breath quickened, my eyes rolled back, and I attained a sense of euphoria that even running cannot provide me.”
• “What I had learned in that class last month was that ‘dance’ can be achieved with minimal movement. Sure, I love leaping and jumping and spinning and am totally obsessed with the choreography on So You Think You Can Dance, but dance is also a mental place for me. So even though I didn’t move as much in that July class, I felt like I had danced more than ever. I connected with the music and took my soul to a different dimension.”
• “Once again, I had to drag myself to the center of the room after class. I felt like I was on a different plane and that my body needed some time to settle back on earth. All that from 90 minutes of dance!”
• “When the class ended, my cells were vibrating the same way they used to vibrate after an intense kundalini yoga class. I felt like I was drunk on air and music and sweat. What a wacky, wonderful, and soul-satisfying experience.”
(Editor’s note, 1/26/13: Gabrielle Roth, the founder of 5Rhythms, died in October 2012 at the age of 71. Detailed posts about her passing and subsequent memorial can be found here and here.)
I loved Biodanza before I even stepped foot into the introductory workshop this past weekend, for three reasons:
1) The name alone. It translates to “dance of life.” Adding “bio” onto something makes it sound essential to life, like dance is essential to our biological existence, just as important as eating and breathing. Yes!
2) Biodanza’s tagline is “the poetry of human encounter.” Beautiful!
3) A quick definition of Biodanza is “a movement-based system that integrates music, dance, and authentic relationships with self, others, and the world to support health, joy, and a sense of being fully alive.” Bring it!
Without getting too much into the history, Biodanza originated in Chile, developed by Rolando Toro Araneda, a clinical psychologist and anthropologist who noticed the positive effects of music and dance on his patients. Biodanza as a movement/healing modality is found mostly in South America, Europe, and the U.S. West Coast. The instructor from Saturday’s workshop, Michelle Dubreuil Macek, is in the process of opening a Biodanza school on the East Coast; she is located in the Maryland/DC area but expressed interest in coming to the Philadelphia region regularly if the interest is there. (I’m raising my hand now, but you can’t see it!)
Despite my excitement about the workshop, I’ll admit I was a bit nervous. The instructor posted a video of a sample class online beforehand, and there was a lot of partner work. Touching. Looking eye-to-eye with other students. Now, we do do some partner work in 5Rhythms, but there’s generally no “forced” contact, and much of the class is a private experience with the added benefit of using others’ energy to enhance or energize your own dance. Connections are made during 5Rhythms, but they are somewhat indirect, whereas the entire purpose of Biodanza is to experience a meaningful connection with everyone in the room. This is done through various exercises, such as walking around the room holding hands with a partner while looking at them in the eyes, or sitting in groups of four, closing your eyes, and weaving your hands up and down with the others in your circle: fingers, thumbs, and wrists gently stroking and brushing each other. Several solo exercises are incorporated throughout, to strengthen your connection to self. It wasn’t that I was opposed to the partner/group work; I just had reservations about delving into them in just a 2-hour program. It sounded like something that would require time: Would it be possible for connections like that to develop in just 120 minutes?
I was afraid of being the “unfeeling” one in the class, the student whose smiles and enthusiasm about holding hands were fake and forced, self-consciously trying to enjoy all of the exercises with as much gusto as the folks around me. And yes, the first exercise—getting into a big circle, holding hands, and dancing around like hippies without the “Kumbaya”—was a bit awkward. People started smiling from the get-go, but I just wasn’t feeling the love right away; I felt like I was being pressured into an adult version of Ring-a-Round the Rosey.
Is That a Smile I See?
The next exercise had us in pairs, holding hands, and walking around the room to upbeat music. We were directed to look into each others’ eyes during the process. I started to break out of my shell here, only because the combination of the fun music plus our goofy walking/dancing/skipping moves and the direction to communicate only through our eyes and face (with the exception of the teacher’s talking, the entire class is nonverbal) made me feel like I was dancing in a GAP commercial. In fact, if you had put us all in khakis and blue button-down shirts, we were a GAP commercial.
Other partner/group exercises included the “Airport Greeting,” where we partnered up and had to approach our partner from across the room as though we were seeing them for the first time in years. My partner was a middle-aged black woman named Michelle, who was just the most ebullient person in the room. Her eyes twinkled and her entire faced glowed, and when we finally met up at the “airport gate,” we exploded in giggles and embraced as though we had really known each other, even though I had only just met her an hour ago.
There were times, no doubt, we all looked like a bunch of freshmen college students in Acting 101 class. If I let myself think too much about what was going on, surely I would cringe. But the fact was, I was having fun, I paid to be here, and everyone else around me was there for a reason too.
Dancing Alone vs. Dancing with Others
What made the class work was the balance between dancing with others and dancing alone. So for all of the partner exercises, there were the same number of private moments, when we could escape into our own movement. We walked to boogie-woogie music, and then tried walking to a very different song with a strong downbeat. We danced from our hips, and then from our heart. We were instructed to “dance our breath.” The music picked up, and we danced with no boundaries, much like the rhythm of Chaos.
However, as someone who generally shuns group/partner work, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed working with others. One of most moving exercises for me was the “seaweed arm dance,” in which we s-l-o-w-l-y traveled through the room while letting our arms dance like seaweed. The teacher told us that if we happened to bump into someone, turn it into a meaningful connection instead of shying away. It happened a few times to me: I’d “bump” into someone with my arms; my gut reaction was to apologize and draw away, but instead I’d try to avoid flinching and just stay connected to them (much like the basis of contact improv).
Well, That Was Fun!
The workshop ended the same way it started: with all of us in a circle, hands clasped, doing the ol’ Ring-Around-the-Rosey, but this time to Ringo Starr’s “It Don’t Come Easy,” and far less awkward. Our smiles were relaxed and genuine, and we pulled and tugged and skipped and laughed like first graders out at recess. Just the day before, I had commented in 5Rhythms class that it’s so hard to get my face to become part of the dance; I can make my elbows dance, I can make my knees dance, but everything from the neck up is a struggle. But that afternoon in Biodanza, I could finally feel my face start to dance: My eyes widened and winked; I exchanged goofy bug-eyed, tongue-out expressions; I pouted my lips, I made monster faces; and for once my teeth saw the light of day. The super-serious military sergeant mask finally gave way.
The 2-hour class flew by, and I felt so humble and content afterward. I lingered around, chatting with a girl who looked slightly younger than me and was there with her mother-in-law to be, and then with Michelle, the enthusiastic black woman I had paired with earlier. She confessed that she was actually very shy; I was stunned–she looked like a pro!
For the rest of the weekend, every time I closed my eyes I saw the faces of those with whom I danced that afternoon. After looking at people directly in the eye for a prolonged period, their faces really become emblazoned in your mind. And vividly, too. Even today, three whole days later, I can close my eyes and picture every one of those in the studio with me. It reminded me of our YTT graduation at Kripalu, when we walked down the “receiving line” and made direct eye contact with each of our classmates.
Physically, I felt wonderful too. Between doing 5Rhythms on Friday, Biodanza on Saturday, and then some simple swimming on Sunday, my body was so happy–allowed to move as it needed, with plenty of “self-regulation” (a term the Biodanza teacher reinforced) whenever the hip needed a break.
(a) A Biodanza group has to be fairly large, at least 10 people. Any less, and then you’re stuck dancing with the same people over and over again. The good thing about Saturday’s class size was that there were so many people to partner with and several personalities to explore.
(b) If a regular class were to be offered, it would be preferable to have the same group each time, rather than the class as a drop-in offering. Otherwise, newcomers may potentially feel left out if they drop in on a group that has established a deep connection already.
(c) You can’t have any reservations about germs and hand-holding.
(d) Yes, several of the exercises are goofy and silly. But so is sitting around someone’s living room watching them play Guitar Hero.
(e) I was amazed at how much I was sweating. It felt like more of a “cleansing” sweat though, than a “workout” sweat.
In conclusion, Biodanza (or as my husband calls it, Tony Danza) is something I would like to do again!