“The intention for this workshop is full, complete and unrelenting self-acceptance,” said highly regarded 5Rhythms teacher Kierra Foster-Ba during the course of the one-day workshop “Light & Shadow” at Martha Graham studios on Saturday. 5Rhythms is a dance and movement meditation practice created by the late Gabrielle Roth; and the “Light & Shadows” workshop was a committed investigation of the shadow aspects of each of the five rhythms—Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical and Stillness. After a series of tightly scheduled events, I found myself en route to the West Village, hoping a miracle would grant me parking; and pondering the fact that there are so many terrifying, uncomfortable, collective shadows to dance at this particular moment. No matter how things go with the election, there is no denying that we have seen some horrifically ugly aspects of our humanity recently.
Before stepping up onto the gloriously forgiving sprung floor, I took several moments to notice the powerful ritual of stepping from the world into the space of formal practice. We began with a brief wave—what we call it when we move through each of the 5Rhythms in sequence—and I found movement easily, though I noticed that I was more introverted than usual.
After the opening wave, Kierra gathered us together to offer spoken instruction and to demonstrate one way of moving in each rhythm. Kierra noted that there were several participants who had never before attended a 5Rhythms class or workshop; and she took the time to teach essential points before moving on to the shadow work. She spent the most time on Flowing—the first and most foundational rhythm. She explained that Flowing is led by the feet, and is an invitation to drop all the way down into the feet in order to connect with the instinctive self. Next, her movements became sharp and she exhaled noticeably, “Staccato is about being in the world.” She went on to say, “Staccato is directional. Letting in and letting out.” The movement of her head accelerated and she began to rock back and forth energetically, saying, “Chaos is about letting go.” She emphasized that if you give yourself over to Chaos, including not caring at all about how you look to others, you are inevitably led into Lyrical—the rhythm of joy, of lightening up. At Kierra’s request, another well regarded 5Rhythms teacher, Jane Selzer, got up to demonstrate the rhythm of Stillness, as Kierra explained on the microphone that breath is the gateway to Stillness, and that in Stillness we begin to let pauses come into our movements.
Having set the foundation of the rhythms, Kierra went on to speak about the shadows. The shadow of Flowing is inertia, of Staccato is tension, of Chaos is confusion, of Lyrical is being spaced out, and of Stillness is numbness. Although the temptation is to see the shadow as a negative aspect of the rhythms or as something to get rid of, Kierra encouraged us to think of the shadows as something with real “nutrition,” and even went on to later describe the “gravy” of each shadow, inviting us to consider that the shadow rhythms might even be as enjoyable as the “essential” rhythm in some ways. She also introduced the theme that the shadow rhythms could relate to parts of us that we are ashamed of and keep hidden, sometimes even from ourselves.
Tuesday was a difficult day for me. I can’t exactly say why. A stressful situation had dissolved a few days before; and perhaps it could only hit me after the fact. My nails were bitten down, my hair’s ends broken, my skin was unhappy, I couldn’t eat as I had something that must have been heartburn, and my lower back hurt. The dentist told me the pain I was feeling in my jaw was not because I needed some urgent dental surgery, but that the likely cause was that my gums and teeth were showing signs of stress. I couldn’t find joy or optimism, especially in the context of work. Everything seemed hopeless and useless. To make matters worse, I couldn’t swim after work, my daily habit for re-setting myself to neutral, because in my rushing movements I had forgotten my swim bag.
That evening, my six-year-old son, Simon, did his very best to cheer me up. He is an exceedingly charming child and tried all the tricks that usually work. “How can I make you happy, Mommy?” he finally asked. “Oh, my beautiful son! You always make me happy. But today I am just not feeling good. I’m not exactly sure why, but I just don’t feel happy. Sometimes it is like that, little one. Sometimes you just have to let whatever it is work its way through without trying to fix it.” After Simon went to bed, I was tempted to call my mother, as she always helps me feel better, but I decided not to. I wanted to have a beer as soon as Simon went to bed, too, but I decided not to. Instead, I practiced yoga for a while, letting the painful, disheartened feelings I was experiencing have full sway. It was not easy to be with the discomfort.
Kierra was transparent about the structure of the workshop; and explained her plans for working with inertia—the shadow of Flowing. She invited us to stretch out on the floor and let ourselves slowly be called to action by the music. There would be three songs to let ourselves be in inertia, then find our way into moving. I started out moving kind of quickly, and consciously tried to slow way down. The gravity and resistance of inertia didn’t feel that different from how I normally experience Flowing—where I love to whirl and grind myself into the floor, partnering with gravity and solidity. I slowly gathered myself and rose to my feet, beginning to move throughout the room. Kierra picked up the microphone, “At this point, ask yourself, ‘What do I need right now in order to find Flowing?” What came immediately to mind for me was, “I need other people. I need to see and be seen—not direct, not confrontational, but obliquely, softly. To be influenced by other people’s gestures, to be swept along by the currents of the bodies around me and to gently affect the currents of the room, myself.” I thought of traces, of mingling, and of kelp plants, waving their tethered arms with the movements of the deep ocean.
To some extent, working with the shadows is about transforming our relationship to aversion; and Kierra again and again visited the theme of loving and supporting all parts of ourselves, including the parts we would perhaps rather disown. In Buddhist terms, aversion is the act of pushing away from what we find distasteful or frightening. Working intentionally with the shadows is to choose to move toward the things we would normally try to push away. Both in 5Rhythms and in many Buddhist traditions, moving intentionally into what we want to move away from is seen as a way to open the heart and mind, not as some form of masochistic self-abuse. Perhaps moving directly into pain—rather than doing everything in our power to get away from it, through over-drinking, over-eating, over-exercising, over-working, gambling, drugs, filling up every space in our minds with churning thoughts, or filling up every space of our lives with frantic activity—can serve us.
Next, we moved on to the investigation of Staccato. The shadows of each rhythm are even less fixed than the essential rhythms; and though we learned that the shadow of Staccato is tension, Kierra also added that the tension can lead to repression and control. I clenched my fists and set to it. I had to keep fluttering my lips and shaking out my head, as the level of tension in my body didn’t feel healthy. My dance at this point was not very inspired. I thought about Gabrielle Roth, how she used to stop and straight out tell people to dig deeper, to give more. At that point, Kierra stopped the music and said, “I’m going to play a song now that is really going to allow us to go there. This might even be a little bit aggressive.” And, oh, was it! Filled with angst and speed and resistance, I became a demon, letting aggression and anger arise, deep, deep in the hips, scraping, clawing the air around me, raking my knees into sharp angles, my head released and flinging itself with as much speed as my hips, feet, knees and elbows. I danced near a friend with a very strong practice and his devotion, passion and energy inspired me to dig even deeper. A giddy, chemical release flooded my quadriceps and soon the rest of me. As the last Staccato song concluded, Kierra commented that anger can be a teacher; and that it can alert us when our boundaries have been inappropriately transgressed.
On the note of repression, I thought about an incident that took place during a meditation retreat I was staffing several years ago. We were sitting on meditation cushions in a small group of perhaps ten people, engaged in a formal discussion. We were talking about aversion—again, the Buddhist concept of pushing away what is unpleasant or uncomfortable. In response to one of the comments about the aversive shell we create to keep ourselves safe, I said, “Well, you know. It would be one thing if shutting down or pushing away actually worked to make us happier or keep us safe. The thing is that it really doesn’t work. If it did I would be all for it, but it doesn’t.” I’m not exactly sure how it was framed, but I said something about, “It’s not like it’s the subway in the South Bronx at 2AM in the late 1980’s, when you might actually need a shell around you.” A flash of raw anger shot around the circle; and every single person felt it before even a word was said. One woman spoke up, expressing that she felt that what I said was racist. Man, that hurt. Shame of the most intense possible quality flooded me. My heart started beating like crazy. My partner of many years was a black and latino man. We had shared hundreds of hours in discussion about racism, ranging through many different levels. Secretly, I had always been terrified that on some deep level I was actually a racist. Though I was afraid, I approached the woman during the next break and asked her to talk with me about her feelings. She was very receptive; and after, I understood how she could see my comment as racist. She also thanked me, saying that she was always calling people out for racist comments; and that I was the first person who had ever come and asked her to talk about it.
This terribly painful experience gave me great insight; and a rush of relief flooded me with another set of powerful chemicals. I realized I had been afraid that there was some essential part of me that was racist. Every other essentialist part of my psyche had been rigorously interrogated, but this part remained hidden, obscured by shame and fear. (Note: As you probably know, from the perspective of some Buddhist philosophy “essentialism” is the belief that there is a separate and definable “self” and too, implies that reality has some logical kind of coherence or definability.) I realized that just as there is no essential self; too, there is no essential racism. As I currently understand it, racism is a process—one that affects every single person who lives in this culture. Fundamentally, it is our flawed human tendency to separate the world into “us” and “them” that lays the foundation for racism, not an intrinsic hidden evil; though there is no denying the intensity and complexity of racism as it now functions. It would be impossible to overstate the importance of this insight for my personal path. Even my firmly-held idea that I was a not-racist was limiting my perception of phenomena, and, as such, needed to be interrogated, as much as any other part of me, in the interest of uncovering the deepest truth.
As the songs devoted to the investigation of tension—the shadow of Staccato—ended, I caught a friend’s eye. We both smiled, and our shoulders started a conversation. Without any thought, we stepped into a Staccato dance, with open chests and shyly playful gestures, before sitting down with the rest of the group to debrief the round of exercises.
Before the second half of the Light & Shadow workshop, we took a brief break, then danced another short wave before settling into an investigation of confusion—the shadow of Chaos. For the first song, we were invited to start with the shapes of “I don’t know.” This exercise did not resonate for me—which is not to say that it didn’t work for me. Certainly, it was acting on me in some way. In every class and workshop, even when I am transported by bliss, there are some exercises that have more charge than others. The following suggestion, that we dance an agitated kind of confusion, didn’t really resonate this time either. Maybe it is partly because I don’t actually mind being confused. I am as cerebral as they come, but I don’t mind that I have all kinds of contradictory opinions and experiences and theories. The final invitation during the Chaos shadow work was, “What does it look like when you really don’t know something, but you are pretending that you do.”
Just that morning, I had been bragging that I don’t usually hide when I don’t know something. I saw a friend—the parent of a child in my son’s class; and I couldn’t for the life of me remember her name (it was this friend I was bragging to). We had shared at least four or five conversations, been at the same party or picnic several times, and our children genuinely like each other. Her name has four syllables and seems unusual to me. I felt embarrassed that I still couldn’t remember it, but I came clean right away, rather than trying to skirt around my lapse. We spoke at length about names and naming and identity; and I learned a lot about her home country. And I have finally committed her name to memory, so I will be able to hug her and greet her by name the next time I see her.
At the workshop, we paused to share thoughts on the shadow of Chaos. Kierra was kind enough to acknowledge my barely-raised hand, and I shared, “What I got was…that confusion arises from misunderstanding the nature of reality. The dissolution of all meaning systems. That everything is moving. And that even the ground isn’t fixed.”
Kierra surprised me by asking, “Can I work with you for a minute? To help you find the ground. I want to ask you to go into Chaos.” I stood up and moved instantly into a massively energetic Chaos, with whipping head and whirling gestures, moving from the floor to the sky and back, with occasional pauses of sharpness in a fast-spinning storm. Kierra offered an oblique compliment that made me feel happy, then went on to talk about how the 5Rhythms can also be seen as a philosophy and as a way to live.
I was very grateful for her kind attention, but I feared I hadn’t communicated the emotional truth of my experience very well. That even the ground moves feels like a revelation (or at least a reminder), rather than a lament. For three years, I worked with teens from Haiti who had been in the devastating earthquake, when the ground literally broke apart. Nearly all lost many family members; and some were injured. I have also practiced 5Rhythms extensively at the edge of the sea, where the ground shifts constantly. There, what was once ground could suddenly be underwater, roiling with rocks and sand. I have incredible gratitude for the principle of ground, but believe there is nothing—absolutely nothing—that is fixed. I think that the principle of grounding is a different matter, in a way. When I say there is no ground, I guess what I really mean is that the only ground we can count on is actually an experience that comes mostly from within. Rather than trying to find a fixed external point to attach myself to, I try to build the skills I need to live in a world that is always in joyful, terrifying, ceaseless motion.
Kierra seemed to be wanting to demonstrate that release is part of the secret to finding the ground. I understand and appreciate this perspective, but I continue to grapple with a new level of what “ground” is. Somehow I have to find a way to trust, surrender to, and adore the ground—at once without clinging in any way to the notion of it. Yet another thread that is a work in progress!
To conclude our debrief of the Chaos exercise, another participant raised his hand to share that, ironically, letting himself go into confusion seemed to allow him to find direction and focus.
Then, there was Lyrical—the rhythm that for years was so foreign to me I would pretty much skip it when I practiced independently. During classes, when Lyrical arrived, I would often be stricken with terror, and have to fight an impulse to check my phone to make sure there hadn’t been some horrible calamity. Kierra invited us to start by making “spaced out” shapes. I started with the familiar shapes of feeling verbally attacked, withdrawn completely—disassociated to the point that I literally could not follow a conversation, prompting a criticism I heard hundreds of times, “Oh, great! The ‘deer in headlights’ look again. That is just like you. You…” Our next investigation was of being distracted. I marched anxiously around the room fixated on an imaginary cel phone. During the final song, Kierra invited us to let ourselves space out to see what might happen. I loved this part! I fixed my gaze on some high up, far off point, sometimes in a different direction than the one my body was moving, and soared through the room, high up on my toes.
The rhythm of Lyrical—after many lifetimes of estrangement—opened up for me the summer before last. After sinking several levels into connection with the ground as a result of many years of disciplined practice, space beckoned me. On a wide beach, a man was flying a huge, red kite-surfing kite, the kind with two heavy-duty handles. It became my partner, and we joined in a massive, radial dance of perhaps a hundred yards or more, surrounded and joined by my son and a group of running children. From then, Lyrical became available to me, accompanied by rainbows, and I welcomed it as a miracle. It was only the combination of ground and open space that allowed me access to this gateway.
I recall another experience of space that offered me an earlier glimpse of Lyrical. It was also during a meditation retreat. We had been following instructions about how to work with our minds and bodies for many weekends. During the first weekend, we held our eyes open, with our gaze just a few feet ahead of us. In the second, we raised the gaze slightly. By the fourth, we would occasionally lift our gaze upward, even into the space above us. We went to practice in Madison Square Park on a beautiful fall day. I sat cross-legged on a park bench; and began to practice. At the moment that I lifted my gaze, I drew breath in quickly, in a sudden rush of delight. In a flash, I saw many beings that hovered in the air, above the fountain, above the park, above the trees. The dynamic aliveness of this moment wrote itself into my body.
In the current political context, and also in the context of my work, it occurs to me that the maturity of Lyrical—the full, shimmering, vibrating, sharp, vivid, spectacular, booming beauty of Lyrical has to do with stepping in to joy with full, open-eyed awareness and acceptance of all our pain and of the collective pain of the world. It is only with the integration of the shadow principles, and, too, of our own psychological shadows, that joy can fully arrive—not just the happy-because-something-went-well-joy or the I’m-going-to-look-happy-since-I’m-not-sure-how I’m-feeling-joy, it is not the innocent joy of a child either. Rather, it is the joy that has wisdom in it, joy that pushes nothing away, joy that sees from vast heights, joy that has enough space to hold all things inside it.
As the workshop drew to a close, Kierra invited us to create a circle, saying, “Now we are going to go in, one at a time. You can do whatever you want once you are there, but the rest of us are all going to hoot and holler and really make you feel appreciated.” I was so happy, clapping and cheering as nearly every participant stepped in. I waited for inspiration, thinking I might walk discretely into the middle then turn slowly, looking each person in the eye, then dance whatever came. As it was, I stepped in just as another dancer, too, stepped into the circle. I backed away, but she beckoned me. Instead of our individual time in the circle, we shared the spotlight, leaping and cascading and smiling as we met each other’s eyes and swooped in and out of each other. I briefly circled her shoulder with my arm, turning her to look at the circle, but we only turned through one small arc. She returned to her original spot in the circle; and I cross-stepped back to my own spot.
Kierra drew us together again and invited us to hold hands, close our eyes, and stand in both our light and in our shadow. Then, gathering us together for a final chat, she tied some of the threads together, expressing that it is only when we fully support and accept all parts of who we are can we live authentically, from the heart. Kierra also said something to the effect that the thing that causes us to suffer the most is the idea that we are separate from each other, and that actually we are deeply connected, in ways “both miraculous and mundane.”
Today, as I write, is marathon Sunday. I got to watch the middle of the pack for a little while, and cheered enthusiastically. There is nothing more gorgeous than people being beautiful—living their dreams, perhaps pushing themselves far beyond what they thought they were capable of. My cheers were jagged with little sobs of joy. What a blessing, to be alive. How incredibly lucky we are. To live and to witness others in living.
I had to leave the discussion a few minutes before the end, as I didn’t want to be too late for the babysitter. The friend I shared the spontaneous, staccato dance with stood up and followed me to the studio door while the discussion continued, embracing me warmly before I stepped down off of the dance floor and the sacred space of formal practice, and back into the world.
November 7, 2016, Brooklyn, NYC
This blog consists of my own subjective experiences on the 5Rhythms® dancing path, and is not sanctioned by any 5Rhythms® organization or teacher.
“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” –Albert Einstein