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I love dancing in dualities.

In the expressive movement classes I facilitate, I often ask my students to imagine dancing at one end of a sensory spectrum (“How does your body move if you imagine yourself in the middle of the Sahara, your bare feet in hot sand?”) and then during the next song ask them to switch to the opposite (“Suddenly we find ourselves in the middle of a blizzard. How does your body move to the cold, biting wind?”)

It’s an easy and fun experiment to see how many ways individuals can move, a chance for them to be creative and extend their movement beyond their “usual” dance. Ten bucks says the way your hands and feet respond to blistering desert heat is different from the way they are compelled to move during a mitten-less sleet storm.

My 5Rhythms teacher asked the same of us during a recent Waves class. During the final rhythm of Stillness, he proposed that we shift between movement that was open and that which was closed, our inhalation expanding us into one shape, and our exhalation leading the way into the next.

All he had used were the words “open” and “close,” but without much thought—more reflexive than mindful—I instantly translated these movements to “good” and “bad.”

So, for the first couple of minutes, my dance was a back-and-forth between shapes that looked like “Yes!” and “Halleljuah!” and “Here I Am!” to “Oh noooo” “Ow,” and “Woe Is Me.”

I even got a little upset. Before the teacher’s instruction, I had been feeling really alive. Now, he was asking us to be sad and withdrawn. How dare he…!

Fortunately, my Buddhist-in-training brain switched on before I got too far in the blame game, and it occurred to me that maybe these terms don’t need labels.

Why did I have to assign “good” and “bad” qualifiers to actions that were just that—actions?

It helped that earlier that day I had been listening to a talk from Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, in which she was talking about the dangers of labeling mediation sits as “good” and “bad”:

“Say, for instance, you meditated and you felt a sort of settling and a sort of calmness, a sense of well-being. And maybe thoughts came and went, but they didn’t hook you, and you were able to come back, and there wasn’t a sense of struggle. Afterwards, [you think], ‘I did it right, I got it right, that’s how it should always be, that’s the model.’

Then you have the ‘bad’ one, which is not bad. It’s just that you sat there and you were very discursive and you were obsessing about someone at home, at work, something you have to do—you worried and you fretted, or you got into a fear or anger…. You just felt like it was a horrible meditation session. At the end of it you feel discouraged, and it was bad and you’re bad for the bad meditation. And you could feel hopeless.” (Source)

She goes on to explain how getting caught in this good-versus-bad tug-of-war causes a lot of angst and tension, always striving to attain the “good” and then almost always defeated when the good we were hoping for isn’t as good as the previous good, which means it is bad.

It feels as exhausting as it sounds. And this is what ultimately leads to suffering.

It’s kind of what was happening to me on the dance floor. I was getting pulled down into an abyss of “bad” because that is what I decided to equate with “closed.”

When Pema’s advice caught up to me, I decided to shift my thoughts.

I thought of all the ways “closed” movement can represent concepts beyond sadness and heartache and defensiveness.

Closed can mean shutting one’s eyes to daydream. Pressing hands together to pray. Curling up under a blanket to snuggle or watch a movie.

Closed can mean placing the hands palms down on the knees during meditation. Folding back into Child’s Pose during a strenuous yoga class. A baby in its mother’s womb, knees and arms tucked into chest—the original fetal position.

Closed can mean shutting down the office at noon for a siesta, wrapping arms around an injured animal or child and nursing it to health, withdrawing from the senses in order to tune inward in self-reflection.

In no time I was feeling alive again, no longer pulled down by this heavy anchor of “bad”-ness I had inflicted on myself.

Closing actually felt…beautiful!

Shifting my perspective in that one little way created big change, my dance of duality a moving lesson in being more open-minded about the notion of being closed.

If you have any interpretations of “closed” you’d like to offer, please share in the comments below!



Open on Beach

I stood in the center of the yoga studio, arms wide open, chest expanded, head arched back and face directed toward the ceiling, imaginary rays of light emanating from my pores.

“Yes, that’s right,” my 5Rhythms instructor Richard said, observing the class. “Continue to move your body into a shape of being open, being receptive.”

I obliged. This felt good. My body loved standing this way, stretching upward and outward. I wasn’t even actively thinking about shapes or poses or where to place my arms and legs next. They just moved, stretching out like sunbeams. I could take deep breaths, I could relax, I could…

“Now, how does expansion transition to contraction?” Richard offered. “Move to a shape of being closed.”

Closed? You’re asking me to move from this luxurious feeling of openness to being shut down and closed?


OK, body, my brain reluctantly commanded my muscles. Listen to the teacher and move inward.

[body refuses to respond]

Um, body?? You heard Richard. We’re supposed to be doing “closed” moves now. Why are you still standing so upright and open? Do something different! Bend down! Curl into a ball!

…But my body would not acquiesce.

In fact, the mere thought of curling a finger toward my palm or bowing my head to my feet sent energetic red flags throughout my system. No no no no.

I stayed standing, my arms never coming down from above my head. The only thing that was closed were my eyes, so I wasn’t able to see my classmates do what I could not.

I did not want to close. In that moment, the request was like asking a mother to withdraw her outstretched arms as her newborn infant is placed in front of her. How could I? Why would I want to?

I’ve done this exercise numerous times in 5Rhythms classes. It’s one of the simplest ways to play with polarities and help 5Rhythms newcomers explore new ways to move. It’s never posed such a problem for me, but that night my body talked.

My body was saying, I’m tiring of retreating and contracting. I love openness, and that is where I want to be. I want to relish this receptivity, I want to continue spreading my arms, I want to embrace freedom. Don’t tell me to close down. Don’t tell me to be small and shrink and shrivel back into hibernation.

I have a quote from 5Rhythms teachers Sara Pagano hanging on my cubicle wall at work. I’ve never danced with Sara before, but I understand her words:

“Our bodies cannot lie. Our bodies will continue to express the truth. And our dance wants nothing more than to bring us home, into the truth of our hearts.”

5Rhythms is not a game of Simon Says. Sometimes a teacher gives an instruction that the body just cannot follow, not because of physical limitations, disability, or injury but because body language is the most basic litmus test of what’s cookin’ inside. It’s why doing Camel pose in yoga is incredibly difficult if you’re protecting your heart and why sexual trauma victims cringe at the thought of doing the wide-legged Happy Baby/Dead Bug posture.

Alternately, when we’re not really sure what’s going on inside, listening to our bodies can be a valuable source of information.

Sometimes it whispers. Sometimes it screams. And sometimes it just begs to remain open.


About the Author

Name: Jennifer

Location: Greater Philadelphia Area

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

EXPAND my network of like-minded individuals,

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

FLOW and GROW with the world around me!



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