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As much as I love to dance, there are in fact days (usually when I forget to drink my afternoon coffee) that I’m just not quite sure my limbs, torso, muscle, and bones are going to sync with my brain and produce some kind of coordinated movement. When I head off to a 5Rhythms or YogaDance class with a dull brain, I fear that even the most rockin’ tunes won’t get the engine going and I’ll end up wasting 2 hours sputtering in the driveway.
Most of the time, however, my inner Henry emerges.
Who is Henry, you ask?
Henry is that glorious moment when inertia suddenly switches to reaction. Henry is eyes lighting up. Henry is fingers snapping. Henry is the reminder that you can feel.
Henry also happens to be the poster
child man for the nonprofit organization Music & Memory, whose goal is to bring the therapeutic benefits of personalized music to long-term care (LTC) settings nationally and globally. You may remember Henry from his spin around the social media circuit earlier this year, his wide-eyed and animated face plastered all over Facebook and Reddit video posts: “Man In Nursing Home Reacts To Hearing Music From His Era”:
What I recently found out was that Henry is just one of hundreds of older adults profoundly touched by the gift of music, and one of several featured in the up-and-coming documentary Alive Inside: The Story of Music & Memory. I had the privilege of attending an advanced screening of this documentary at my alma mater, coordinated by the Dean (who also happens to be a fellow blogger!) of my old stomping grounds, the College of Communication & Creative Arts. Both the executive director of Music & Memory, Dan Cohen, and the film’s producer/director, Michael Rossato-Bennett, were present to discuss their project.
Cohen, armed with volumes of evidence-based research on the connections between music, mind, and memory (including testimony from the renowned Oliver Sacks), is on a mission: to help all LTC residents and individuals with Alzheimer’s disease/related dementias reconnect with their joys, dreams, and passions of yesteryear using digital music players as the key to unlocking these deeply rooted memories.
The idea is simple and straightforward: Talk with LTC residents and their family members about what kind of music the residents enjoyed growing up; compile these songs in a personalized iPod playlist; place a pair of headphones on the resident’s ears; press Play.
Of course, the individuals featured in the documentary were ones with the most transformational reactions: Henry, described by his caregiver as “inert and unresponsive” suddenly began signing Cab Calloway, talking about his childhood, and waxing about love and God; Denise, who had been using a walker every day for the past two years, stood up, pushed it aside, and began dancing with the researcher; and Joe, a former performer, started singing like a Broadway star, his clearly trained voice stunning the other residents and staff. He cried afterward, stating that he was so happy to find that connection again.
Cohen pointed out that not everyone has the same reaction—for some residents, the response isn’t instantaneous; for others, it takes several attempts to narrow down just the right music that will spark something in their brains. Sometimes there is no change at all. Nevertheless, he said, there’s never been an adverse reaction to listening to some music. The video clip of Henry, in fact, was filmed 4 years ago. Today, Cohen said, Henry still has his music protocol. He’s declining physically yet remaining stable cognitively. Had it not been for the music, both domains instead of one would have most likely been on a downward slope.
This effect of music on the mind is nothing new, nor is the notion of bringing it into the lives of nursing home residents. The genius of Cohen’s vision, however, is (a) personalization and (b) high-quality stereophonic audio. With today’s technology, volunteers can easily create customized playlists for residents, adding and eliminating songs with the click of a mouse. This is one key difference in Cohen’s program versus, say, playing a record of Count Basie in the nursing home living room. Not everyone is going to appreciate Count Basie, and his music may not fire the neurons of someone who prefers bluegrass or the Beach Boys. The Music & Memory program also strives to personalize not just the music but a resident’s schedule as well. Maybe Jane likes to wake up to Broadway showtunes but functions better at bedtime with a soothing melody. With this program, residents’ music is tailored to their personal preferences, mood, and time of day.
In addition, the use of crystal-clear digital sound and the iPod headphones are crucial in a nursing home, where auditory distractions are commonplace. This way, residents get a “direct infusion of music,” said Cohen. Also, in the case of Alzheimer’s disease, one’s ability to filter out background noise diminishes, he pointed out. A stereo sitting on a nightstand may be useless for someone who is going to be distracted by a ticking clock or voices in the hallway.
While this is all very inspiring work, one of the challenges Cohen faces is convincing nursing home CEOs and potential donors that it is worth the money. It can be disheartening when facilities and insurance companies will pay millions of dollars for a treasure chest of antidepressant/antipsychotic drugs but can’t find value in spending $40 per person for a program that will rejuvenate hearts and souls, something no drug on the market can do. It is the lazy/ignorant route to point at patients slumped in the corner and claim that they are withdrawn and unresponsive, so if drugs can’t help them, how can an hour of Elvis?
As editor of two gerontological nursing publications for the past 5 years, I guess you could say I have a soft spot in my heart for the older adult population, and yes, that is partially why I attended the screening; however, I was more interested in witnessing just how magical music can be. Nearly everyone featured in the documentary had some kind of physical response to the music—tapping their feet, swaying, gesturing their arms like a conductor—a testament to how deeply music is stored and can be felt in our bodies. One woman—bedridden and catatonic—began rocking back and forth when the headphones were placed on her ears.
It’s reactions like this that make me even more appreciative of not only Cohen’s work but that of movement-based therapeutic modalities such as Let Your Yoga Dance (which has a separate teacher training for those who wish to work with special populations, including older adults), the 5Rhythms Reach Out for elders, and Wu Tao Dance for the dementia population. When the older adults in Cohen’s Music & Memory program start ditching their walkers and wheelchairs, these groups will be prepared to add safe movement to that oh-so-magic music.
Have you found your inner Henry yet? Put on some music and see if it does to you what it does to Henry:
“It gives me the feeling of love, of romance. I figure right now the world needs to come into music, singing. You’ve got beautiful music here.”
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how my summertime dancing has pretty much worn me down to the bone, so I guess it was a blessing that there were no 5Rhythms events on the calendar this past weekend. Instead, I was able to attend something much lighter and less intense—an ’80s-themed YogaDance class led by Nikki, who admitted to being sick and feverish but still managed to be her usual firecracker self.
To be honest, at first, the ’80s theme almost scared me away. I was born in 1980, so I never felt particularly connected to the songs that made the decade. I mean, for most of that time period, I was listening to Rainbow Brite books on tape, Jem and the Holograms cassettes, or music that came along with my Barbie and the Rockers doll. It wasn’t until the ’90s when I started to fully understand the music of my times; you know, classics like Kris Kross’ “Jump,” Bryan Adams’ “Everything I Do (I Do it For You)” (which can make 12-year-old girls in love with their classroom D.A.R.E. officer weep…true story), and, of course, “Ice, Ice Baby.”
The tipping point that got me to go to the ’80s class was the fact that a decent number of people had already RSVP’d, and, well, I’m beginning to understand and appreciate the power of a group. I’d get to dance, sneak in a “doesn’t-feel-like-exercising” workout, and be around some fun people. I realized that I genuinely wanted to be part of the party!
…And a party it was! There were scarves! We “Vogue”d! Heck, we even re-created the chair/water scene from Flashdance‘s “Maniac”!
However, it took me a while to get into the groove. The premise of YogaDance is to move through the chakra system; most classes start with the lower “feeling” chakras and work their way up into the “speaking” and “thinking” chakras. I was so much in my head at the start of class that diving first thing into the muladhara and swadhisthana chakras just didn’t feel natural. I struggled to find my sultry cat during “Stray Cat Strut” and may have let George Michael down with my half-assed rendition of “I Want Your Sex.” I’m curious how my movement may have been different had these numbers come later in class, after I worked through the mental chatter.
The disconnection I was feeling was unsettling, so I thought back to the reason I came to the class: The power of a group! I shifted my attention to everyone else, being aware of not just my own movement but of everyone around me—fully acknowledging their smiles, exuberance, and connection to the music. I loved seeing YogaDance newbies just let it all loose, watching fellow dancer Suzie rock out like Cyndi Lauper, witnessing women belt out the lyrics to “Tainted Love.” Before I knew it, I had been infected (with love!). People frequently tell me that my passionate movement inspires them to dance deeper, but that Friday night I really needed others to be my lighthouse.
Even with the ’80s theme, Nikki constructed appropriate ways to dance into the more sentimental upper chakras. She used a beautiful ballad version of “Time After Time” (by Cassandra Wilson) as music for an Irish circle dance that may have brought tears to my eyes. (OK, it did.) For our last song, Joe Cocker’s “Up Where We Belong” was the soundtrack to our individual prayer dance. I loved how some people bust out into a full-blown lyrical dance (me) and others sat in stillness but yet bursting with gratitude. Everyone’s prayer was one of love, but they were expressed so uniquely.
I didn’t even realize it at the time, but Nikki sneakily led her class for an additional 30 minutes. The hour-long class I was originally reluctant to take had grown into 90 minutes without my knowing, and I have to thank not just Nikki but every other person in that studio for showing me just how fun an evening of INXS, Michael Jackson, and The Cure can be.
(In late June, I spent 5 days at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Massachusetts. This is another installment in a series of posts documenting the experience.)
My older friend Carrol shared with me the other day that she feels her purpose in life right now is to be in the moment when someone else needs her help, assistance, or general presence. She doesn’t have grand plans to travel to India or Africa to volunteer; in fact, she finds comfort in being of aid in the smaller moments of need.
For instance, she said, she was sitting next to an elderly woman at the farmers market, who, without warning, leaned on Carrol’s shoulder to prop herself up to standing when trying to rise from a chair. Later, a parent left a small child all alone out in the middle of the bustling market, and Carrol gently ushered the child to the shade, in a chair, where the child wouldn’t be in such an open, vulnerable position. When I first met Carrol several years ago, I was impressed when she came to work one day with a giant black-and-blue welt on her arm; she had gotten slammed by a foul ball during a baseball game but said she was happy to take the hit because sitting next to her had been an older woman on one side and a child on the other, both who could have been much more seriously injured had Carrol not been there.
“I just try to live in the moment,” Carrol said, “And by doing so, I feel that I am there when I am needed.”
Our discussion reminded me of the children’s book The Three Questions by Jon J. Muth, an eloquent, watercolor-illustrated, Zen-inspired story about compassion and living in the moment. Throughout the book, the central character, a young boy named Nikolai, continues to ask the three questions for which he so desperately seeks the right answers:
When is the best time to do things?
Who is the most important one?
What is the right thing to do?
That morning, as I sat in her living room, Carrol was once again following her philosophy and in a way answering those three questions: The best time was now; I—the person she was with—was the most important one; and the right thing for her to do was that which I needed: listen, hold the space, and offer gentle wisdom…not to mention chocolate avocado muffins and then, later in the day, a few beers. 🙂
While I was away at Kripalu, there were times I got way too lost in thought in an effort to answer those three questions. Sometimes, instead of just allowing myself to sit outside and admire the mountains, I instead became a disengaged analyzer and interpreter, shuffling through the thoughts and words and images stored in my brain and trying to make sense of them, not really being aware of the landscape around me but more so using it as some kind of pretty, two-dimensional backdrop for my mental games.
It’s amazing how hard it really is to live in the moment, even at a place like Kripalu, where being present in the core of the experience!
Despite my fumbles, I did open myself to several moments of pure mindfulness and attention, and I have found those times when I dropped all the effort and just let things be are the ones that I remember most about my experience.
* * *
During a wild, trancey Let Your Yoga Dance (LYYD) class with live drumming, I peel off my saturated shirt and dance in my sports bra. So many smiles! Glow! Unfolding! Celebration! Joy! When I partner up with others, I sense something new emerge from me that I don’t remember possessing when I was here last: Uninhibited connection, a longing to share this experience with others, the drive to make this a mutual experience and not just MY dance. I can feel how I’ve grown, I can feel it in my feet, my hips, my face. My face, I let it shine, I don’t hold back. Sullen eyes don’t attract energy; radiate, shine, and the rest of the world will light up with you.
As the class wraps up, I sit with the large group in a circle, my sweaty calves and thighs plastered to the bamboo floor, the soles of my feet peppered with bits of sand and dirt, remnants from the few minutes we took our dance outdoors and paraded around the parking lot, everyone’s dance quickly becoming a “walking on hot coals” routine as the hot asphalt scorched our skin. Megha guides us in a series of cool-down motions, everyone’s arms floating to the center of the room, then away. Flowing in, flowing out. I think to myself, “This feels like a painting,” and when I turn my head to one side, I happen to notice that the executive director of the LYYD program, Irena, is taking a picture of the group.
After class, I make my way over to see to Megha, who recognizes my name and remembers me and a letter I wrote her in 2006. In that moment, she is the most important one, and the right thing to do is give her a big hug and let her know that her energy and the influence she has on other teachers (Nikki! Suzie!) is omnipresent. We embrace, and our sweat mingles.
* * *
I sit in the dining hall during silent breakfast, refraining from pulling out a book or my BlackBerry because all I really want to do is feel the crunch of my nutty flax cereal in my mouth and watch the way my hard-boiled egg wobbles around my plate any time I move my tray. In silence and without distraction, I am able to witness so much. The slight bow of the attendant’s head as she greets people into the cafeteria. The musical clink and clank of silverware brushing against each other. A couple sitting across from each other, outstretched arms, hands holding, a silent welcoming into their shared meal. A young man pausing before he eats, eyes closed, slight smile stretched across his lips, utmost and sincere appreciation for his food. Shawls, do-rags, Lululemon, Target, sweaters, tank tops, freshly showered, damp with perspiration, so many people to witness.
At my table sits a young girl in a tie-dye shirt and messy dreadlocks in her hair. It is obvious she is part of the yoga teacher training program; her manual is open, notecards spread across the table. I get a sense that today is the final practice teach day. She stands up to return her food tray; I pull an old page out of my notebook and place it atop her materials. It is a letter I wrote when I was last at Kripalu in 2008; also at a time when a YTT was taking place. I remember feeling so honored to be at Kripalu in the middle of YTT, feeling the ebullient energy emanating from their program room, throughout the halls. I had penned the letter as a fellow former YTT student, giving them my well-wishes, respect, and understanding of the monumental experience they were currently going through. But…I never did anything with the note in 2008. It sat in my notebook for four years. So that morning, in 2012, that young girl in the tie-dye shirt was the most important one, and the right thing to do was to pass the letter along to her.
When she returns to her belongings, she looks at the letter with a quizzical expression; I nod, permission for her to take the note. She reads it at the table, her face filling with emotion as the writing unfolds. Her hand comes up to her mouth, her eyes. We exchange word-less namastes, a slight bow of the head, hands on heart. With that, she turns to go about her day. We never once use our voices, but the silent exchange is one of the most profound conversations of the day.
* * *
I am outside, sitting at a picnic table, watching the way the breeze makes the canopy above me flutter, a gentle whooshing sound. The trees lean slightly with each whisper of wind. There is so much green, and above that, so much blue. Tea mug in my hand.
At the table next to me, a chipmunk comes across a left-behind plate and bowl. Jackpot! The chipmunk nibbles on a cantaloupe rind. Pauses. Nibble. Looks around. Contemplating. Plunges its little furry head right into the bowl and drinks up whatever is left.
The chipmunk show causes me to linger. Someone else joins me at the table, a woman named Radiah who has just arrived for a 5-day qi gong program. “I’m so happy to be here!” she exclaims, before we even exchange hellos. She asks what I am there for, and I tell her about the Embodied Meditation program I participated in. I explain how we talked so much about gravity, letting go of the notion to always be “up and at ’em” and instead find time to sink down, find your roots, be OK with directing inhalations downward. Radiah is taking notes; this is what she needed to hear, she says, explaining that she is working with an artist on an installation titled “Gravity and Grace,” and until listening to me had never really understood the use of the word “gravity” in the title.
So, thank you, hungry chipmunk, for allowing me to stay in the moment, for Radiah was the most important one, and the right thing to do was to give her a new perspective on a concept she had been struggling with.
* * *
To close this post, I feel compelled to share something I heard on a podcast I was listening to this morning, before I sat down to write. The program was On Being; the title “Pursuing Happiness.” The following was shared by Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks:
“The Sabbath is when we celebrate the things that are important, but not urgent. And I remember once taking…an atheist…to see a little Jewish primary school…. She’s fascinated by this Sabbath, which she has never experienced. And she asked one five-year-old boy, ‘What do you like most about the Sabbath?’…or…’What don’t you like?’ And the five-year-old boy, being an Orthodox child, says, ‘You can’t watch television. It’s terrible.’ And then she said, ‘What do you like about the Sabbath?’ and he said, ‘It’s the only time daddy doesn’t have to rush away.’ Sometimes we don’t need to pursue happiness. We just need to pause and let it catch up with us.”
The other night it occurred to me that I have two homes.
(No, friends, don’t get excited, we didn’t buy a shore house.) 🙂
But along with our suburban bungalow, there is another place—with smooth wooden floors and music constantly streaming from the speakers—that I’m beginning to find refuge in.
My second home is the dance floor, whether it be above an African restaurant in West Philadelphia, in a former warehouse alongside the Delaware River, or in the basement of a South Jersey yoga studio, whether for 5Rhythms, YogaDance, or Nia.
Once I remove my shoes in the entryway and my bare feet touch that floor, I am home safe. Not only do I feel physically supported by my environs, but a feeling of emotional security greets me in that moment as well. My fellow classmates and I may hug before the dance begins, and even if we do not, there is still a silent exchange of energy that is the catalyst for movement, for magic.
This past Friday night, I was “home,” in a Let Your Yoga Dance class at Yoga for Living. Teaching the class was Nikki, who had to jump some medical hurdles between late last year and now to return to teaching. I was thrilled for her return and was glad to see she had not lost any of her charming ‘tude while recovering. When her playlist clicked to Florence and the Machine’s “Shake it Out” as a workout for our solar plexus chakra, I loved her even more. Classmate Suzie and I just couldn’t resist that opening church organ music and began shaking the devil off our backs before Nikki even gave us the directions.
By the time we worked our way to the upper chakras, that feeling of safety and openness was strong—very strong. Nikki had us get in pairs and showed us some simple choreography to dance with our partner to a heart-stirring gospel song. I didn’t know half of the people I danced with, but I could feel my anahata chakra swirling in all its vibrant greenness, a flourishing vine wanting to intertwine with everything it connected to.
One of the last people I partnered with was the owner of the studio in which we were standing in. With her yoga studio as my home, she is its mother. Our dance was profound and heartfelt, and it brought us to tears. We connected foreheads during a move in which we leaned forward like arching swans, a physical gesture that reminded me of the preciousness of this second home.
During a final private dance prayer, my dance turned into one of incredible appreciation of this safe space, this home. It started as a reflection on the physical space, the floor that has supported my feet, the Sanskrit on the walls that has mesmerized me during my chaotic 5Rhythms trances. This studio is where I first discovered 5Rhythms; its physical foundation is my emotional bedrock. Oh, the places I’ve gone while dancing within these walls.
But then the prayer expanded into appreciation for a greater sense of home, the feelings of comfort and belonging that dance and movement brings to me. The feeling of leaving behind a long day of work and stepping inside the doorway—coming home—relaxing with and giving in to that which greets me.
Living here in this brand new world might be a fantasy
But it’s taught me to love….so it’s real, real to me
And I’ve learned that we must look inside our hearts to find
A world full of love—like yours and mine—
~ “Home,” The Wiz
In an effort to explore some of the things “stirring” me lately, I have done what all people do when they are petrified of looking to the future: Look at the past, of course.
Right about this time 5 years ago, I was grappling with the decision to “retire” from teaching yoga after doing it for only half a year, as documented in my old journal:
“My personal practice has suffered greatly because of this new role I’ve placed upon myself. Before I was ‘teacher,’ I was a sponge. I voluntarily soaked up every ounce of yoga knowledge I could find, and I loved it. I loved reading Yoga Journal, I loved reading Iyengar’s books, I loved taking class from master teachers and learning just to learn. But now that I’m ‘teacher,’ doing all of those things feel like work, like I’m preparing from some huge exam.
“I can’t sit back and read Yoga Journal just because…. I read it like I have to download every article into my brain and remember the key points so I can recall them back to future students. It’s like required reading in high school. Remember all those great books we were forced to read that weren’t so ‘great’ at the time because it was required? And then in college, maybe you picked up The Scarlet Letter just for the heck of it, read it at leisure, and then were like, ‘WOW! What a great book! I didn’t want to put it down!’ The practice of reading is wholly different when there are expectations vs. no expectations. And that’s kind of how I feel, in a nutshell.
“Yoga is very complicated… it’s not just about teaching down dog and savasana. There are so many facets of yoga, very deep concepts that even I can’t into words sometimes. I just feel it. I can’t recite it back to anyone. And I had only been practicing yoga for about two years—seriously practicing it—before becoming a teacher. When I signed up for the teacher training, I thought two years was enough. Yoga had changed my life in two years, so obviously I got it and was ready to spread the love. But…I don’t think it’s turning out how I expected.
“I feel so inexperienced, not just compared with other teachers, but I feel like I’m a little girl trying flop around the house in daddy’s huge work boots. I haven’t grown into this role yet.”
However, just days after I declared that I was done with teaching and requested my name be taken off the teacher list at the studio where I worked, I taught one final, last-hurrah Friday night “happy hour” class. It is the class that has haunted me since, not because it marked the poignant end of an era or that it flat-out sucked.
No, quite the contrary. It haunts me because it was possibly one of the best classes I ever taught, and one in which—possibly because I knew it was my last one and all pressure was off—I stood at the front of the room as Me, Jennifer, Lover of Yoga/Movement/Dance, and not a lofty mental fabrication of what I thought a yoga teacher should be. I took what I loved about Kripalu yoga, blended in some of the things I learned during all the DansKinetics classes I took during my month at Kripalu, and topped it off with my own personal touch.
For once, the shoes on my feet were no longer “daddy’s huge work boots”; I was wearing Cinderella’s glass slippers.
Here’s what I wrote after the class:
“I led a really great yoga class tonight for Yoga Happy Hour. It’s after classes like this when I wonder why I ever doubted my abilities and passion. I planned the class last night as I was listening to some tribal drumming music. I was all set to teach one of my regular gentle classes, but then I thought, Hmm, this is Happy Hour yoga! I need to develop something upbeat, incredibly fun, and rockin’!
“So I based my class around specific songs and music styles, using the tribal drumming, of course (KDZ for all you Kripalu folks out there), trippy Peter Gabriel music from Birdy, and hula songs by Iz. I even managed to incorporate some Stage 3 Meditation in Motion elements in there. I found a really hypnotic song, led everyone through some basic sun salutes, and then opened the floor for some prana response. Man, what fun to watch! They did it!
“I think my plan of integrating several dance elements throughout the practice really helped, too, because I work really well with good music. I had everyone rolling their shoulders and hips and doing some intense hara moves like Breath of Joy and Pulling Prana. I even threw in a few minutes of walking meditation! I was on a roll!
“The best was hearing some feedback from Joe, a guy from Tuesday night Kundalini, who said the class snapped him out of the depressed/withdrawn funk he’s been in for the past week. And he really appreciated the chance to just sway to the music and hop around to the tribal drums and just get in tune with himself. Dude! That’s my main objective. I just want people to feel free.”
I guess what I’m getting at is that these feelings of “wanting people to feel free” are creeping up on me again, becoming especially intense nowadays since all I do in my spare time is dance. I dance before work, after work, every weekend, even in my dreams. I hardly go to the gym anymore; I wear myself out enough doing a self-led 5Rhythms practice in my living room.
The question is: Does this passion need to be a career? How formal do we need to be about something we love for it to feel validated? I remember back in 2007, I was all set to attend a YogaDance program at Kripalu, but I ended up having to cancel due to my husband’s 10-year high school reunion being the same weekend. At first, I was utterly devastated to miss out on this Very Important Dance Program, but as it turned out, going to the reunion gave me the opportunity to be a dance teacher in a different, real-world context:
“What I loved about this event is that I actually DID, truly, let my yoga dance. The music was pulsing all night and stirring the dancer inside to get up and move. Absolutely no one else, though, was on the dance floor, and I withheld. But the second I saw some random guy approach the floor, bopping with a beer in his hand, I leaped on the opportunity and bounded up there to draw him on the dance floor. It worked, and soon D., D., and I were dancing like crazybirds, just the three of us, in front of a group of classmates.
“It was fabulous music, the stuff I love, so I was totally into the flow. Before I knew it, I really was kicking off my shoes and letting my hair down. The wife of one of Bryan’s friends said that I looked like I was having so much fun that she couldn’t help joining me on the dance floor. She looked like an otherwise stiff person, and I was happy to see her moving and flailing and sweating and shaking. At one point we were even slow dancing together to some R&B song, because everyone else had left the floor. We twirled each other, tangoed, waltzed, me guiding her along the entire time.
“It dawned on me then that what I was doing there was what I would have been doing at Kripalu: dancing with others, being free, helping others let go and let their bodies take over. I didn’t have to be 5 hours away in a Massachusetts yoga ashram to let my yoga dance. I had brought Kripalu here, in the real world. I was exhausted, sweaty, smelly, and had incredibly dirty feet, but I felt so content and happy for following the call of music and dancing. Just dancing.“
It’s Saturday, it’s sunny, and things are a bit synchronous.
It started with a recollection of a dream I had last night. This was one of those dreams that you don’t remember you even had until something innocuous sparks the memory. I was doing my usual morning stretches and general rolling around/yoga/dancing in the living room when the Grooveshark playlist I had on switched over to Tina Malia’s “Heal This Land.” The first time I heard this song was back in October, during a Let Your Yoga Dance (LYYD) class. The instructor, Nikki, was training to become a certified LYYD teacher and was doing the practice teaches required before returning to Kripalu.
When Nikki played that song, it reminded me instantly of Megha, LYYD’s founder and director, especially in relation to the workshop at Kripalu I attended back in 2008. The program was titled “Let Your Yoga Dance: Heal Yourself, Heal the Earth,” and many of our sessions revolved around the importance of not only keeping ourselves healthy but the earth as well.
We danced barefoot in the grass outside. Planted sunflowers. Went out as a group to the labyrinth to move meditatively through the never-ending rock-lined loops, claps of thunder sounding in the distance. So hearing a song with lyrics like “My body is the mountain, the ocean, the river / The sand and the soil, the life giver” was just so, so Megha.
When the song played for me this morning, it hit me. The dream. I had dreamed last night that I was back at Kripalu, awaiting my chance to once again dance with Megha. In the dream, I had been promised a chance to review some of my choreography with Megha, and I couldn’t wait to show her my work. (This dream is also an embarrassing indication of how much Dance Academy I’ve been watching.) But the timing was never right. Our schedules kept interfering, and I never had the opportunity demonstrate my dance for her. The most I was able to do was meet with her briefly, stroke her face, and reassure her that she was “a wise woman.” (And all of this is completely normal, of course, in dreamland.)
So with that memory in mind, my dance to “Heal This Land” this morning was passionate, soulful. I felt connected to Megha, to LYYD, to the way dancing at Kripalu makes me feel…
…which then led to me opening my e-mail and finding a new Google Alert, which I have set up to let me know when the term “Kripalu” pops up on the Internet. The link led me to this YouTube video:
created by one of the musicians from KDZ, the drumming group that performs at Kripalu. Coincidentally, Megha usually leads the dance portion of these Saturday-at-Noon jams. It’s not an official Kripalu-affiliated video or anything, but it was so exciting to remotely be immersed in the sights and sounds of the dancing and jamming that goes on over there in the Berkshires. I’m not sure what I enjoyed more about my yoga teacher training, getting a 200-hour certification or spending my free Saturdays dancing with live drumming! 🙂
So now that I’ve found this great video, man, do I miss me some good drumming…
…oh! What’s this other e-mail in my inbox?
A day-long drumming retreat right here in New Jersey? With Jim Donovan, who I had just written about in this blog post?! You don’t say!
Thanks for the synchronicities, Saturday! You’ve reminded me that somewhere underneath all the commotion and chaos of life, there is a universal hum that keeps us all singing and dancing together.
Remember late last year when I took a Let Your Yoga Dance (LYYD) class with Nikki to help her fulfill her practice teach requirements?
One of the other students in the class was Suzie, who just so happened to be in the same LYYD training program at Kripalu. Suzie was a super-fun classmate, but I couldn’t wait to be one of her students. Like Nikki, she had a demeanor that just exuded Teacher. And, seriously, how cool is it to have not one but two LYYD teachers in my neighborhood?!
Friday night, in honor of the Go Red for Women campaign, Suzie held a heartwarming LYYD class where all proceeds went to the American Heart Association. It was a perfect tie-in: Raising money for charity by coming together and dancing our hearts out, getting our own cardiovascular workout through something as simple as dancing freely and openly.
I came into the class a bit tired and very cold. I felt like I was carrying weight of the work week on my shoulders, and I was afraid I would (a) just not have any energy; and (b) be a popsicle the entire time. When I am cold, I live with the fear that I will never warm up. Luckily, a few minutes of shaking around to Michael Franti’s “Say Hey (I Love You)” took care of that. 🙂
The thing about being a teacher is that you have to be ON, because you are the lighthouse for the rest of the class. If you begin to fade, the class energy fades with you. Suzie had some factors working against her: only a handful of students (one of whom [me] was sleepy and shivering) and the fact that we were dancing in the phys ed room of a small parochial school, surrounded by unflattering overhead florescent lighting, worn gray carpeting over a concrete floor, and hideous bright blue/yellow walls. She’d have to work extra hard to get us motivated!
Luckily, Suzie never let the conditions get to her and remained naturally ebullient throughout the entire class. It was hard to be grumpy when dancing with someone like this:
Those hats were used during our Broadway routine to “One” form A Chorus Line, when we strutted, shimmied, and kicked our way across the room. I have to say that was one of my favorite routines; props + musical theater = Happy Jen. It reminded me that as much as I love free-form dance, my past experiences on stage are still very much a part of me. (Maybe next time Suzie can play one of the songs from 42nd Street, with the tap-shoe sounds? Because how seriously fun would that be to pretend we’re tap dancers?!)
Our other props were scarves, which we moved fluidly and tenderly to RENT‘s “Seasons of Love” and then whipped around joyously to the Charlie Brown “Linus and Lucy” song. The colorful scarves were a great addition, and they helped add some vibrancy to the otherwise drab room. During the first song we were all inhaling and exhaling our scarves together like an opening and closing flower, and then when the Charlie Brown music came on, the scarves bobbed up and down with us as we shook around like cartoonish Peanuts characters.
And what’s a LYYD class without partner work? One of my favorite partner routines–not just of the class but, like, EVER–was standing in front of another person, eyes closed, and having their touch guide me into spontaneous movement. So the woman behind me tapped my right shoulder, and I moved from that touch. Then she touched my left knee, my right hip, the back of my head. Suzie instructed the “mover” to pretend as though we were in water, and that each touch from our partner created a kind of ripple effect. What made me love this practice so much was (a) the spontaneous factor, not knowing where I was going to be touched next; and (b) the “controlling” effect of being the toucher. It was like being a puppeteer in a way, me tapping my partner’s shoulder and watching her respond to that touch. I could control the speed I offered my touches and decide where my touch would go. And yet the movement she presented from that touch could never be predicted: Sometimes she rolled down over her knees, other times she reached up to the ceiling. What a seriously great practice in the dance between spontaneity and control, and also how one’s action can be so influential. The world continues to move via ripple effects.
I left class warm, both physically and emotionally. I wasn’t ready to be all Ya-Ya Sisterhood with my other three classmates, but I did feel more connected to them than when I first entered the room an hour earlier. I guess stuff like that happens when you roar like lions in each others’ faces and then later dance palm-to-palm, a la the Romeo and Juliet masquerade ball.
As much as I tried not to let the external environment get to me, I do wish the setting could have been a little more welcoming, maybe less harsh lighting and just a tad more visual warmth. I know the essence of yoga lives within us, but trying to cultivate it while standing under institutional lighting on a shabby gray carpet was a bit challenging. I joked that for her next class, Suzie should ask everyone to bring a small lamp or camping lanterns so we can shut off the overhead lights.
If not, though, I’ll just try to dive more into my practice and keep calm. 🙂
I feel like I should have a little check-in with myself every month to review where I am with my yoga practice; in short, Am I doing it?
I rarely go to studio classes anymore, for many reasons: (a) I feel like I know enough to guide myself through a practice; (b) sometimes class times don’t jive well with my work/commute schedule; (c) I’m annoyingly picky about studio temperature/teachers’ voices/teachers’ word choices (i.e., “goddess,” “divine,” and any talk of angels will have me squirming in my savasana); and (d) I’m self-conscious about my hip and the fact that sometimes I have to stop what I’m doing and jostle my leg around to snap it back into place…and sometimes that takes quite a few jostles.
The one exception I made, starting back in October, was to sign up for a 5-week kundalini yoga series. I knew the teacher from a tai chi series I took two years ago, and she is very accommodating to injuries/limitations/modifications, as she herself has faced several physical challenges. I told her straight off about my hip and how I’d be using blankets to prop me up and may have to stop every so often for the jostling, all of which she was totally cool with. I was so happy when she guided us through frog squats but made a point to demonstrate that one doesn’t have to go all the way down to the floor and can simply hold onto their calves.
I was glad that I had registered and paid for the class beforehand, which kept me from bailing out. The class didn’t start until 7:30 p.m., and at times I struggled leaving the house after it was dark outside and I felt settled in for the night. Fortunately, the studio is less than 10 minutes from home, so I never felt like it was a burden to drive to class. Another plus: I always, always, ALWAYS left class feeling a million times better than when I started. I’m sure my husband noticed that the cool-as-a-cucumber woman who entered the front door at 9 p.m. was not the same as the one who trudged out at 7:15.
We started every class with an aura-strengthening kriya, which the teacher recommended doing every day, not only to keep our physical self healthy but our energetic body as well. I took her words to heart and have started every morning with the set, especially because I find there is a lot of negative energy floating around this time of year, with harried holiday shoppers, disgruntled cashiers, and many meet-ups with friends and family who may be energy vampires. Also, on a physical level, ’tis the season for unwanted germs!
Over the course of the 5 weeks, we also practiced the “Sa Ta Na Ma” meditation for 12 minutes; the “Breath to do when you don’t know what to do” (inhale thru nose, exhale thru nose; inhale thru mouth, exhale thru mouth; inhale thru nose, exhale thru mouth; inhale thru mouth, exhale thru nose); a Celtic energy clearing (while standing, wave hands above head, over heart, over stomach, in front of knees, behind knees); and a gong meditation, first to a recording of a gong, then later to an actual gong. I found that the gong meditation really stirred up some stuff inside of me, because at times it was really, really loud, maddening, almost. It was chaos in my mind, and I found myself wanting to scream along with the jarring sounds, not because it bothered me but because it was just stirring up some residual emotions. But then when the gong slowed and became soft, so did I. It was interesting to fluctuate between the two very different sounds.
I loved everything about the series and only wished it were a permanent class. I was really bummed when the 5 weeks were over, but I try to do a little kundalini every morning after waking up.
During the process of writing about my Kripalu experience, I began to crave more Kripalu-based classes. I wrote about finding a Kripalu class on YouTube, and then shortly after that I found the actual Kripalu-at-Home website, which offers videos of 7 different, full-length yoga classes.
I had done Devarshi’s moderate/vigorous one previously, and I’ve since tried Megha’s gentle class (a little too introductory for me, but probably great for beginners; also just wonderful to hear Megha’s voice again!); Jurian’s moderate class (her theatrical voice is perfect for leading class; fun practice, but so glad I was in my living room because there was a lot of hip-jostling going on); and Coby’s moderate vinyasa flow (REALLY loved this one, especially her utkatasana series). Others available but that I haven’t tried yet are Sudha’s restorative class and two vigorous classes, one from Danny and the other by Jovinna. Coby’s class is my go-to video when I’ve looking for a flowing practice, and if I crave a little more power, I just throw in my own chaturangas in between the planks and downdogs.
In fact, I practiced with Coby this morning, when, after waking up late and doing some stretching in the living room, out of nowhere I felt the urge to do a full practice. I actually put off from drinking my morning coffee for an hour so I could take class! That says something!
As I wrote previously, November also marked a yoga workshop with Rudy Peirce. I’ll admit, it was nice to be in a studio setting and work with others, especially a workshop setting where things are more hands-on and instructive. Even better was meditating with others, because otherwise it’s so hard to sit still! I bought one of Rudy’s gentle yoga CDs so I could take home the experience, and I also bought a new yoga mat to replace the Gaiam one that I keep slipping and sliding on. Several months ago I had posted about the quest for a new mat, and several people commented about the wonders of Jade. This studio happened to specialize in them, so I picked out my favorite color (red) and brought the new guy home with me.
The studio owner warned me that it would need to “air out” for a while to get rid of the rubbery (not chemical) smell. Boy, was he right! I’ve been airing it out for about 3 weeks and it finally seems ready to use. Not that I couldn’t have used it earlier, but the thing made the entire living room smell like new tires.
Finally, although this type of yoga doesn’t require a mat, I spent two Thursdays in November participating in the final two practice teach classes of YogaDance teacher-in-training, Nikki (who actually is now a full-fledged Let Your Yoga Dance teacher; she graduated this past Friday!). Nikki deviated from her prescribed class outline during the final class and taught something she created herself instead, and the authenticity showed! I didn’t realize that her previous classes were not her own (the outline was chosen for her), because she did so well leading them. However, when she taught a class full of music and choreography that was her own, her true spirit emerged, and it was so fun to be a part of this creative awakening. She has plans to eventually teach a weekly YogaDance class at a nearby studio, and I hope I can be a part of it. YogaDance reminds us that yoga doesn’t always have to be about sun salutations and downdogs; it’s about taking time to connect body and breath, movement and spirit.
…That said, I do like the way that hatha yoga stretches and strengthens, and I would like to incorporate that a little more into my life. We’ll see during the next yoga update if I managed to do that in December!
Since undertaking the grand challenge of re-living my entire monthlong Kripalu yoga teacher training experience (Day 1 starts here in case you missed it), I’ve really begun to miss the warm and fuzzy things associated with Kripalu: smiles, breathless dancing, and instant connection with others. While it’s true that I attend a 5Rhythms class at least once per month and that that kind of dancing is no doubt full of healing and feeling, traveling back down this long road of Kripalu memories has made my heart yearn for Kripalu’s brand of free dance (termed DansKinetics while I was there and since updated to Kripalu YogaDance).
Whereas 5Rhythms is largely self-guided, YogaDance is structured enough so that people who have never danced before will have an idea of where to begin while at the same time is still open to interpretation enough that experienced dancers won’t feel restricted. In YogaDance, there is a time to have fun and be wild with the group but also a time for private reflection and personal movement. Most important, you have to come to YogaDance with a willingness to smile, make eye contact with others, and shake your booty (even if just a little).
As if the universe was listening to my thoughts and lending a sympathetic ear toward my desire to be re-acquainted with Kripalu, I recently found out that a woman who was in the Laughter Yoga class with me a few weeks ago is training to be a Kripalu YogaDance instructor and, as part of the certification process, must teach three practice classes in-between her two training sessions. A local yoga studio owner was kind enough to allow Nikki to conduct the classes at her studio, and—just like that—last week I found myself immersed in Kripalu all over again.
Anyone who has taken a “Let Your Yoga Dance” class at Kripalu knows that its founder, Megha, is the spark that sets the place on fire. Taking a class with Megha is akin to studying ballet with George Balanchine—you’re getting the real deal, a 10 gazillion mega-watt (pun intended) practice.
I admire all YogaDance instructors and at times wish I myself had done the training, but I gotta say, once you’ve taken class with Megha, the bar is set pretty high. I hate to step into a class with expectations, but my time dancing at Kripalu is so near and dear to my heart that I just can’t help making comparisons.
Which is why when Nikki stepped into the studio and began leading our class, I instantly felt at home, as though she had stepped straight off the bus from Kripalu, still brimming with that wonderful vibe passed down from Megha and everyone at Kripalu.
She was authentic, funny as hell, and just glowing. Her instruction was clear but conversational, giving class the lightheartedness it deserves, not a robotic, “This is what we’re going to do now. And now we do this next. Do this, now that.” We joined together as a group and took turns leading each other in movement like a flock of birds; we took time to ourselves to close our eyes and move in our own little prayer dance. We banged on our stomach as though it were a djembe; we took turns stepping into a circle with our interpretation of a “powerful” movement. A particularly poignant portion of class was the “healing” dance, in which we partnered up and exchanged what we thought of as a healing movement, whether for ourselves, for the planet, or for humanity. I happened to be partners with Nikki’s aunt, who confessed to never having done yoga or a structured dance class before but yet was still able to flow with grace and express herself through movement. It was easy to copy her moves, feel them in my own body, and find my own version of Nikki’s aunt’s healing dance. In YogaDance, the point isn’t necessarily to “copy” each other’s moves but to find inspiration in them and add your own flavor as it feels appropriate.
The healing dance was immediately followed by the familiar tune of C + C Music Factory’s “Everybody Dance Now,” a total juxtaposition but one that instantly made everyone smile, relax, and get their groove on. We stood in a circle again, showing off our best dance moves from the ’80s and ’90s, and then sweated even more as a swing dance number came on.
With 5 minutes to spare, we lay in savasana, the events, emotions, and energy from the past hour seeping into our system and spreading through our bodies. I emerged from relaxation totally revitalized, despite just having come from 8 hours of work. Most important, I felt alive, that kind of vitality I felt at Kripalu. I was amazed that Nikki still has another week of training before being certified; I told her she was ready to teach, right here, right now.
I’ve always had a fondness for Kripalu, but I’m feeling it especially strong now since I began doing my day-by-day documentation of my own teacher training experience. Nikki was able to fill that little space in my heart, and for that I am ever-so-thankful. In fact, when I got into my car to drive home, a song that I’ve always associated with Kripalu was on the radio as soon as I started the engine. Woah. Keep the energy flowing, Nikki!
Five years ago on this day, I slept in till 7:30. It was Saturday, our day off during YTT, and I was woken by the howling wind and pounding rain, a Nor’easter banging on our windows. Breakfast was a massive indulgence–no aparigraha whatsoever: cereal, stratta, a scone, yogurt. I eat the entire scone even though I can feel my stomach getting full. I do some weights in the gym, feeling fat. My legs are huge. My pants are sticking to me. M and I complain about our weight and eating habits. Tonight happens to be dessert night. Aparigraha. ::sigh::
Ironically, I talk with S later in the morning. She is leaving. “I’m sick,” she tells me. “I have an eating disorder.” What a wonderful, bold young woman. She came to Kripalu to get away from her sickness, another distraction, but here she came to terms with her illness. She knows she needs help. Psychologically, she is ready–she now knows she needs the physical help. What an intelligent, beautiful 18-year-old. To admit, to share, to stand up and leave and get help. M, S, and I have a deep 30-minute heart-to-heart. I know S will make a great niche teacher once she is certified.
This day is our first “gloomy” day, but it’s so romantic too. The clouds are swirling low over the mountains, like stage effects for a Halloween show. Briefly, the sun emerges, casting a brilliant glow on the oranges and yellows. People flock outside and just stand there, amazed. They stand there like God himself just came off the mountain to say hello. “It rained so much that it erased the mountains!” a woman in the lobby says. “You just couldn’t see them.”
We all hug here. We talk very softly. We are supportive and nurturing. We nod and gently blink and offer love and compassion.
My Stage 3 in Grace’s class is incredible. After some standing postures, I sink into Plough, immersed, encased. I flow into Fish, my heart on fire. I stay, linger. My chest swells. I roll up into sukhasana and sink down into a forward bend. I melt. The energy is intense–through my closed eyes I see vibrating colors and shapes, like a visual boombox, pictorial soundwaves. I find myself in janu sirsasana, falling down and down. I allow my non-extended leg to sink into the mat; my bend deepens. No glute pain. Elongated. Free.
I take my first DansKinetics class at noon. Fantastic, Fabulous, Freeing, I write in my journal, followed by exclamation points, stars, question marks, and other random symbols of frenzy.
Live drumming, percussion madness. A gazillion people in our Shadowbrook room, so sweaty, so close, so alive. Megha is fiery, crazy, looney, bouncy, all smiles and compassionate intensity. She wears blue stretch pants, pink socks, and sneakers. We follow her movements, hoot and holler, pound the floor, do the ischial tuberosity dance (with lyrics!) in both dandasana and baddha konasana. We do choo-choo train “follow-the-leader” dances out into the hallway. The sound is maddening. Tribal. Primal. I become an animal. I am the music. I sweat, sweat, sweat. Glistening, then dripping. Have I ever sweated harder than this? The musicians get in the center of the floor and I move to the center, jam along with the drummers, allow their music to surge through me. I feed off their enthusiasm and vitality. I am the music. At the close of the jam session, I get the urge to run around the room, darting in and out of traffic jams, using people’s energy not to bump into them. I gather everyone else’s energy, I scoop it up like a skipping idiot and drink it in. We fall to the floor to relax, and my slimy skin picks up particles of dirt, fuzz, hair. I lie in savasana with my hands in anjali mudra, over my forehead. Ecstasy. Megha calls the YTT group over afterward to see how we were doing. “Are you in the right training program,” she asks me.