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One of the gifts of dancing with the same group of people over time is being able to see them grow, to watch their dances make the metamorphosis from lack of groundedness to firmly rooted feet, from insecurity and timidness to confidence and direction.
The youngest dancer in my Philadelphia home tribe is 17, but I first met her when she was 15. In her movement I see my own teenage self, a contained package of passion being called to open and unfold, an intricate, tightly bound origami creature unraveling crease by crease from its predetermined, tightly bound structure.
She wore orthodontic braces back in 2012. Now her teeth are smooth and straight, and I see them a lot more because she never holds back a smile.
One weekend, she danced till 10 p.m. at a Friday night workshop, took her SATs early the following morning, and then came back on Saturday afternoon to dance another 10 or so hours of an advanced workshop centered on the notion of fear.
She’s skipped out on normal high school kid diversions so she could travel to Virginia with a bunch of adults for the weekend and write poetry, sweat her prayers, and wrap her compassionate arms around crying strangers.
Not even a year after getting her license, she was using her driving privileges not to cruise aimlessly on open roads with her friends but to make the hour-long commute to and from the church where we dance.
These changes are beautiful and poignantly unusual for a young woman her age, but they are obvious to the naked eye.
Most of us have all made the transition from crooked teeth to braces-free, from fretting about midterms to reveling in getting accepted into our first-pick college. We’ve all struggled with breaking away from adolescent antics and moving toward activities that bring us a sense of purpose.
However, one of the gifts of being part of a conscious dance collective is being able to see deeper than the surface, to see that our youngest tribe member isn’t just growing up … she’s growing.
During our earlier dances, she moved to the music. Now, the music moves her.
The changes are subtle and sometimes can’t even be seen, but rather felt. There’s a different energy in her presence. Her movement, once a random and uncertain compilation of powerful words, is now a poem, those same potent words now mindfully crafted into compelling verse and stanza.
I’m picking on this particular person because I admire her teenage tenacity and find it hard not to watch her pop out of her old girl pupa and flutter her young woman wings, but she is just one of many of us who are being witnessed as we move, who have taken that leap to dance our hearts not just in our living rooms but in the presence of others.
We could so easily pop on Pandora at home and thrash our bodies behind closed doors, but instead we choose to step out into the open, to do our most raw expressions of movement in front of a teacher and in the middle of a mass of messy bodies.
There’s a certain vulnerability in that, but also a plea:
Please, see me.
Unlike an audition or competition, we’re not dancing to impress but rather to express. We don’t ask for the teacher’s approval but wish only for acknowledgement, a bow of the head that says “I see you.”
The teacher’s role in a 5Rhythms® or similar movement meditation class is not to push perfection but to observe and encourage.
A teacher would rarely force a student to move her hips a certain way, but might instead say, “Are your hips moving? Maybe add more breath to them and see how that feels.”
In that sense, there’s not much rigid instruction in these types of classes. More important than getting a student to move is to give her the space to be moved … and to honor it when it happens.
For example, Lucia Horan noticed an overreliance on our arms for the rhythm of Flowing and reminded us that this rhythm is about rootedness, finding our feet, to dig the movement from the earth up rather than try to grasp for it with flimsy arms.
I remember Amara Pagano closely watching a woman travel across the floor and being disturbed by the dancer’s lack of breath. She put a hand on the woman’s belly and reminded her to breathe, to use inspiration—rather than brute strength—to carry her across the floor.
During his workshop on fear, Adam also pointed out that many of us were confusing this concept with anger. So many of us were trying to dance fear with enraged eyes and martial arts-like strikes and jabs. “That’s anger, not fear,” he reminded us.
Kathy Altman noticed many of us had a tendency to gravitate toward where the most bodies were gathered and that we weren’t being bold and stepping into the empty spaces.
As students, we are permitted that opportunity to witness as well. Many times, especially in a workshop setting, we are paired up with a fellow dancer for an extended time. We take turns dancing and witnessing, moving through our current heartsong or emotional conflict as the other person simply steps back and gives us the gift of presence.
It is not a performance, nor is it a judges’ panel.
We are simply being ourselves and being seen.
In that sense, it is much scarier than performing because now we are being our true selves.
It’s showing a teacher a page of your diary versus a fictional short story you have created.
It’s about dancing your dance, not a teacher’s choreography.
It’s not caring whether you have two left feet but acknowledging that you have one big heart, and dammit, you’re going to let it speak. And sing. And grow.
Now … can I get a witness?
“This is hard, and I need help.”
Those are the words that were speaking deep in my solar plexus on December 21 this past year as I stood in Warrior I during a special winter solstice yoga/dance class combo, my wonky hip feeling especially out of sorts, my heart racing from the frustration of not being able to glide effortlessly through asanas, my monkey mind blasting full volume about how I have fallen hard off the yoga bandwagon.
I kept envisioning the 5-yoga-classes-per-week Jennifer circa 2006, the one with smooth, in tact cartilage in her hip joints and hamstrings that stretched like rubber bands. This 2012 body didn’t match up, partially because of injury, partially due to neglect.
Either way, the frustration that was stemming from being aware of how critical my lack-of-yoga situation had become—the frustration that had me “feeling seconds away from bursting into tears and running out into the hallway”—was both screaming between my ears (“WAHHHHH!!! I hate yoga anyway, it’s stupid to stand in one posture when I could be dancing instead!!”) and whispering to my heart:
“This is an important practice, Jennifer. It has gotten hard. It is time to ask for help.”
As if on cue, as I discussed my frustration after class with the yoga instructor, she embraced me with her soft and nurturing eyes (yes, I did just say that her eyes embraced me; that is how comforting her gaze is, like a thick and woolly winter sweater) and said, well, Why don’t you come to me some time for a private lesson, and I’ll help you through some of those physical and emotional blocks?
The polite person in me nodded thoughtfully, smiled in agreement: Sure, Yeah, Good Idea, Why Not? But the stubborn and scared person—the one who had JUST privately acknowledged her need for help—shook with resistance internally: No way! How could I allow someone to see me so vulnerable?!
And it wasn’t just anyone. The instructor, Lana Jaclyn, was my dance buddy. We see each other all the time. We had actually crossed paths several years ago practicing yoga at a small-town studio. I didn’t want someone who saw me do straddles and splits and stuff see me in this new tight and wobbly state.
Also, um, I’m technically a certified yoga instructor myself! I went to Kripalu for a month! I have a training manual and certificate! Shouldn’t I be able to help myself? Shouldn’t I instinctively know the tools to recover from this state of yoga desperation?
I sat on Lana’s offer for almost two months. I would like to say that Brené Brown’s TED Talk about vulnerability was what finally pushed me into scheduling an appointment, but the truth is I didn’t see her presentation until just recently, but boy, can I relate!
Living in a state of shame would get me nowhere. “Courage” wasn’t about pulling myself up by the bootstraps, busting out my yoga teacher training notes, and fighting through it myself; courage was embracing imperfection. Being seen, struggles and all.
I had grown to prefer bigger yoga classes recently because I could “hide,” disappear in the crowd if I had to stop and jiggle my leg or take a moment to lie on my back and let my sacrum pop, and now here is I was, in Lana’s home studio, just her and me.
There was nowhere to hide.
However, within moments, as I settled into the session with my legs on the wall in viparita karani, I began to realize this wasn’t such a bad thing. When Lana suggested I slide my legs outward into a V position and I could only go so far before my hip started to hurt … that’s where we stopped. She didn’t make me hold it for a long time.
And when I stepped out of a lunge and felt the usual twinge in my hip joint, I could stop, do my trademark leg jiggle, and continue where we left off. I didn’t feel like I was breaking the flow of someone else’s class. I wasn’t distracting my neighbor. I didn’t have to worry about being three poses behind what the teacher was leading.
Best of all, I was beginning to notice that good ol’ zen feeling emerge, something that yoga hadn’t brought me in a long time. Instead of grinding my teeth, I was enjoying each moment of somatic exploration. I was breeeeeeathing instead of feeling like my lungs were going to pop.
(Confession: I have never been able to properly do ujayii breath until now [yes, even at Kripalu I faked my way through it]—Lana wouldn’t give up on me until I got it right. Man, now I finally know why that pranayama is so calming!)
Of course, with a private class, all of the movements are going to be tailored to the individual. Not having to worry “OMG, I hope she doesn’t do pigeon, please don’t do hip-based stuff for the next 10 minutes!” took a LOAD off my mind.
And even with postures that put minimal stress on my hip, such as a low lunge, Lana had my back. Literally. She straddled me with her knees pressed against my hips, rolled my shoulders back, and molded her body into mine in a way that gave me full experience of the posture.
She did this assist in bow pose … lord, it almost brought me to tears. I haven’t been able to rise that high in years, and the stretch in my back felt like some kind of spinal orgasm. If my back could speak, it would have been squealing “Yes, yes, YES!!!”
During my downdogs, Lana noticed I was sinking into my shoulders and worked with me again and again until I kept a flat back. (This work helped IMMENSELY with the trapezius pain I had been experiencing.)
To build my core strength (and thus help my hip), we worked with a sphinx-based core lift that looked super easy but was a struggle for me (thus showing how badly I needed it). I now believe the solution to all of life’s problems is to simply tuck the tailbone.
Tears flowed freely from my eyes during savasana. The warmth I was experiencing from head to toe was so strong and comforting that I was certain Lana was hovering over me doing some kind of specialized aura healing. The truth was, she was sitting in a corner of the room, simply just being there with me during my relaxation. She commented later that she gets lots of comments about how Reiki flows so naturally from her.
Well, I felt it. Maybe it was her Reiki, maybe it was just the feeling of being reacquainted with my lover, my body, remembering the sensations lying within those nooks and crannies, the curves and hollows of my back, shoulders, knees, hips, neck.
But damn, it felt good.
In her TED Talk, Brené Brown commented on the complexity of vulnerability: “I know that vulnerability is kind of the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, and creativity, of belong, of love.”
Being vulnerable—the certified yoga teacher needing to reach out for help—indeed initially caused shame. In the end, however, that vulnerability filled me with a long-lost sense of love: for my body, my breath, and the individuals like Lana who see me even when I work so hard to remain hidden.