“Mommy I hear a glow on you,” my eight-year-old son, Simon, told me when I spoke with him for the first time after three days of silence. I had been in the woods, wondering at the complex root systems of the trees underneath the forest path I walked on, sitting at length in a meditation hall, eating in silence, and noting the intensity of a thick heat wave.
When I spoke with him, I was in the middle of a week-long retreat with 90 other educators who are entering an intensive, yearlong program for teaching Mindfulness to youth. The retreat center, Garrison Institute, was formerly a Franciscan monastery, but has been repurposed for use by groups of any and all spiritual traditions.
The meditation hall was once a cathedral, and still has inlaid wood floors, soaring, curved heights with a circular narrative of symbols in stained glass, and an overlooking balcony that may have once housed the pipes of a resonant organ. Half of the space was populated with meditation cushions and chairs, arranged in a semicircle facing the four teachers.
During the first morning of practice, the teachers provided considerable physical instructions and we did sitting and walking meditation throughout the morning. In stages, they described three fundamental “anchors,” or places to hold the attention, including breath, body sensations, and sound, suggesting finally that we pick one anchor to work with. I chose breath, and so returned my attention again and again to the physical feeling of breathing.
Before lunch, one of the teachers, Kaira Jewel Lingo, gave instructions for mindful eating. “Eating is a celebration,” she said in her remarkably gentle voice. I heard, We can consider all of the many people and conditions that had to come together in order for this meal to come to us. We can really take the time to notice all of the flavors and textures of each bite. We can chew until the food is really liquid before we swallow it.
Despite my increasing mindfulness, lunch seemed kind of bland. To remedy this, I shook a bottle of tobasco sauce vigorously over my plain brown rice. Within a few bites, my eyebrows raised in shock and my tongue and lips burned. I had also spooned on a considerable amount of chunky salt, and after the first wave of heat started to normalize, a salt crystal landed on the tip of my tongue. I raised my eyebrows still further, continuing a roller coaster of culinary sensation. I got up to investigate the label on the tobasco sauce, my lips still on fire. Surely this must be a special edition, habanero, extra spicy tobasco sauce? It couldn’t possibly be the same tobasco that I regularly douse my food with? I was surprised to learn that it was in fact regular, standard tobasco sauce, the exact same.
Setting out for a walk in the woods after lunch, I chose the only path that seemed available. After a short time, I chose to veer left from the path and crossed a bridge over railroad tracks. To my delight, this path emptied onto a big rock formation at the edge of the Hudson River. I felt slightly tired, but hoped I could dance a wave, moving through each of the 5Rhythms – Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical and Stillness – in sequence, the fundamental ritual of my core practice. Instead, after moving with noise in my ears for a few moments, I clicked into a groove and entered directly into Stillness, moving gently with breath, expressing the different currents of the river and ribbons of energy as they reached me. It was as though someone had turned the sound off on the world. I moved closer to the edge of the water, descending to where waves created by passing boats touch the rock. A gentle Staccato found me, the rhythm that has had the most to teach me lately – the rhythm of form, expression, direction, and of making things in the world. I moved with my arms and hips to the flips and curves and edges and advances and retractions of the relationship between water and rock.
Back in the meditation hall in the afternoon, I felt slightly sick, constricted through the diaphragm, and hot at the level of the face. Lately I have recognized the need to be able to release energy when I am overfull, like a pressure valve. How to do this hasn’t been exactly clear, however. It seems that the energy of mindfulness has its own strong momentum. Once I’m in the stream of mindfulness, I can’t just say, “OK, I’m not going to be mindful anymore.” Then, I just start being mindful of trying not to be mindful. In this case, I stepped briefly out of the meditation hall, letting go of the attitude of concentration, and that seemed to regulate me.
Reflecting later, I considered this progress in my practice. I’ve been reluctant to back off of my edges in the past, occasionally resulting in depression and ill ease. After these few short moments of casual attitude in the foyer, I re-entered the hall and took my seat among my peers in a more relaxed state.
Another of the four teachers, Erin Woo, presented a talk that evening on the topic of authenticity, and the many limiting stories we tell ourselves that diminish authenticity. She included personal examples of a story that has impacted her own experience, the story of “not good enough.”
During the final walking period of the evening, the early July sky lit with sunset. I stood on an overlook, facing the Hudson river and a wide field. I gasped as the field and bordering woods shimmered, alive with fireflies. I was concerned about seeming like a show-off, and of hogging the space of the overlook, but I slipped into motion, tracking the fast appearing and disappearing lanterns of the little bugs, again in Still Staccato, spine released, and long, ranging gestures with sudden stops and dips, and with occasional twitters in the hands and fingers, expressing the tiny dots and pauses of light that danced in the field below.
Silence wrapped luxuriously around me. Part of the instructions for silence were to avoid even eye contact. I felt too meek with my eyes cast down, so I held my head up instead, occasionally meeting people’s gazes and lighting up slightly. In the past, I have inhabited silence with a hard line, entering so deeply into my own small space that I might even feel the need to defend it if someone spoke with me or made beseeching eye contact. In this case, although I was in silence and very much turning in to the experience of my own inner body, I was still part of the collective field, and remained energetically porous and connected to the people around me.
A moving bell at 6.45AM mingled with my dream state and woke me on the third day of the retreat, which happened to be the 4th of July. After a morning stretch, meditation period, and breakfast, I walked in the woods again. I felt enveloped by the tunnel of trees, and imagined the deep and complex root systems which allow the trees to communicate, even crossing under the very path on which I walked. This time, I cried at length, thinking about the current state of the country. I reflected especially on the fact that its current prosperity is due in large part to the labor and subjugation of enslaved peoples, and to the land taken without remorse from its original inhabitants. An extra painful history to consider at this time, especially as racism and xenophobia have increased exponentially.
The teachers offered a taste of many different practices, and during the afternoon session, another teacher, Robert Thomas, offered a practice that involves open awareness, letting go of a reference point or anchor and hanging out in open space. As we prepared to move out of the meditation hall to practice walking meditation, he suggested that we consider gazing upward toward sky.
I made my way to a hallway of tucked away classrooms, but finding them already occupied continued on to a covered walkway between two second-floor sections of the main building. Three people were already there, arms resting on the balustrade, gazing upward. After some moments, a low growling began to emerge from the darkening sky.
At the end of the walking period, I made my way back to the main hall and took my seat again as the sky continued to rumble. After longer than I expected, rain began to pelt the high ceiling, creating a loud hush. After some moments of meditation, the retreat manager announced that there was an emergency weather advisory, suggesting that some might wish to leave the big cathedral and move to the basement level. No one seemed inclined, but the teachers suggested a five-minute break in case people wanted to close windows or decline to practice in the main hall during the storm.
Along with several others, I made my way to the front steps, where the sweeping vista of the Hudson River was blurred by heavy rain. The heavy wooden doors were each held by one retreatant. Without hesitation, I stepped out into the rain, tipping my head back and letting rain pour over me, grateful after several days of grueling heat. Acknowledging the frequent lightning, I returned to the stone steps under cover, and sat in silence. A woman next to me ate an apple with decisive crunching bites. Two enthusiastic birds continued to sing in the bushes to the right of the doorway. Mist from the rain landed on my forearms and cheeks. Across the wide river, a cliff waterfall I hadn’t noticed before swelled to three times its size, crashing with white water.
A bell summoned us back to the meditation hall, but some of us lingered on the steps, breathing the storm in.
Returning to our seats, the storm continued to activate the big room. I found myself rapt, counting the spaces between the thunder and lightning, aware of the dynamic, dimensional space of the sky around the building and of its intersection with the inside. At one point, I felt terror approach from the left, from the direction of a simultaneous flash of lightning and crack of thunder. My vision got weird and I felt terrified: heat, sick, rising. For a moment I was afraid I might be having a stroke. The words of an Indian master to one of her students came to mind, “Don’t worry, if you can just stay with it, you will accumulate great merit.” The experience rushed through me, arising, peaking and concluding in less than a minute.
In the evening, after a patient, slowly-chewed, silent dinner and evening sit, Kaira Jewel gave a talk on how to cultivate mindstates that lead to happiness, and discourage mindstates that lead to suffering. She called these processes “The Art of Happiness” and “The Art of Suffering.”
Kaira Jewel began her talk with a reflection on “Interdependence Day” and the fact that there is no thing that is only America or American, but there are many phenomena that make up what we know as America. Some include the enslavement of human beings and the experience of being enslaved, and the genocide of the people who originally inhabited the land. Walking in the woods earlier, I felt strongly that July 4th needed to be formally addressed, and I was grateful for Kaira Jewel’s words.
After Kaira Jewel’s talk, we headed out of the meditation hall again for the final walking meditation period of the day.
Instead of staying on the overlook, this time I headed down the stone path straight into the heart of the firefly field. I hesitated briefly, afraid some part of me might want to show off.
Within moments, however, I was immersed, moving through a full 5Rhythms wave, the fundamental ritual of my core spiritual practice. I moved in Flowing, feeling and honoring my feet on the forgiving grass, then began to move in the direction of every firefly I perceived in the expansive field, exhaling forcefully, sinking low into the knees, using the pinky sides of my forearms like swords, rising and falling, building heat in the body, watching the edges of my vision for a new flicker, responding to three nearly simultaneous lanterns, then waiting with full lungs during a brief pause in flashing. The precision of Staccato attention built to the fever of Chaos, and I let my head go, the pricks of light in the air around me blurring as I spun, dipping and coiling inward and away from my own axis, and in and out of my own field. Breathing erratically and sweating heavily, I began to notice the individual fireflies around me, lifting up onto the toes and reaching toward a rising light with the fingertips, leaping and falling, beaming unreservedly, in an expression of pure delight.
Finally, sound fell away again, as I moved with one tiny bug at a time. Lightning bugs tend to hover and linger, so they make excellent dance partners. Still dusk, I could see and track an individual even when it was not lit, and I cupped my palm, letting it lead me, rising and opening my hands in a slowly turning gesture, delighting in its slow transition into illumination, bowing my head to its tiny expression of majesty, part of the unified whole and spectacularly unique at once.
Still pulsing with life, I sat with my peers for the final meditation period of the evening. Every time I half-lowered my eyes, I saw shimmering lights both inside and outside of me.
The next day passed in a river of sensations, challenges and joys. We moved out of silence and began to consciously build community through a variety of exercises and shifting constellations. Kaira Jewel led us in an optional movement session, introducing us to the practice of Interplay.
Another of our teachers, Alan Brown, offered a talk, making a compelling case for the importance of self-regulation, especially for teachers. “Attention is a form of love. Embodiment is a form of safety,” he said as he described how young people can regulate themselves and can learn to self-regulate through the adults they are in contact with. “Just being a self-regulated adult in the classroom, before we’ve even taught anything about Mindfulness, is already a powerful intervention.”
He opened his talk with an astonishing story about his own path, which includes a diagnosis with Tourette’s syndrome. “Mindfulness was literally a medical miracle for me,” he shared, as he summarized the insights of many years of practice. In his case, deep investigation and inquiry into the body, along with some strategic questions posed by his teachers at opportune moments, lead to a radical decrease in the symptoms of Tourette’s and enduring faith in the power of Mindfulness practices.
Following an afternoon of community building which included tears and howling laughter, Alan was also very, very funny, and the room roared with good humor. The teachers also shared several games we could use with students in our classrooms, including a competitive game that physically modeled the paths of neurotransmitters through a line of bodies, and a game that involved passing a full cup of water around a circle.
At one point, Kaira Jewel led us in a structured Lovingkindness practice within a smaller group we will work closely with throughout the entire year of the course. At its conclusion, we offered Lovingkindness to all beings everywhere, without exception. I saw a pulsing dome of energy high above us, into the sky and beyond, twisting light ribbons edging moving planes of energy: powerful, building, resonating. The woman to my right perfectly described my own vision, saying she could see it through me somehow. “We should consider teaming up in card games,” I joked.
The retreat formally ended with writing prompts and shared reflections in our small cohort groups, inspiring words from each of the four teachers, and a ritual of passing a string around the gigantic circle. At its conclusion, the teachers cut a tiny section for each of us, and we tied it around our wrists, a way to remember our experience and to recall our purpose as we re-enter the streams of our lives outside the container of the retreat.
During the days after we let go of silence and engaged in speaking, at least ten people commented on my dance with the fireflies. “Are you a Tai Chi master?” one generous woman asked. “Was that Brazilian fight dancing you were doing in the field?” asked another. I smiled and said with some effusion, “I was just dancing with the fireflies.” If pressed, I would describe the dance in more detail, and if pressed further, shared information about the 5Rhythms dance and movement meditation practice. Many said they thought it was great that I wasn’t afraid to let go, something that never crossed my mind, though I did hesitate because I feared that part of my intention was to show off.
What most said was something along the lines of “That was so beautiful! I just stood there watching you. Your joy was enormous! I love your energy. It made me feel so happy.” Some even said it inspired their own joy. I inevitably choked up, touched that the people in this new community were so unreservedly happy for my happiness. Had I given in to self doubt and kept myself contained, I would have missed an opportunity to experience joy, and in the process of suppression would also have missed a chance to share joy.
I’m not surprised that you “hear a glow” on me, my dear son. This week has lit me from the inside. The path, at least for the moment, rises to meet me, showing itself a little at a time, tiny increments of light, moving in a collective field.
This blog consists of my own subjective experiences on the 5Rhythms® dancing path, and is not sanctioned by any 5Rhythms® organization or teacher.
“Yeeaaah, definitely heel spurs. Both feet. See?” The doctor points at a section in the middle of my right foot on the x-ray that really should be shadowy black, but instead shows white, almost as dense as nearby bones.
As early as February, when I participated in the five-day heartbeat workshop “Anatomy of Emotions,” pain in my feet has been excruciating. They kept getting worse and worse, but I told myself I would only have to tolerate it until I finally manage to become enlightened, at which point pain would have much less influence on me. Just keep practicing, I told myself. If I practice with devotion, if I am relentless in interrogating the stories that limit me, and if I stay connected to raw, unfiltered presence, things will shift radically and this foot pain won’t be such a big deal. Some days, I winced through every step, but still managed to find freedom and inspiration. I even saw the pain as helpful, in that it brought me right into my feet and into the body.
After the “Elemental” workshop in April, my feet got still worse. It would have been difficult to spot, as I still swooped and soared, but I knew I had to seek help, not just hope that enlightenment would eventually free me. A friend suggested I visit an orthopedic doctor who specializes in working with extreme athletes.
After months of trying to get an appointment and waiting for it to arrive, I finally found myself in his office. He explained the x-ray, “When the muscles and fasciae of the foot are very tight, they pull on the heel bone, inside the arch. In response, the heel creates a little spur of bone for them to hang onto. It is essentially made up of calcium deposits.” He connected me with a physical therapist to would could teach me the MELT routine for working with painful feet, and proposed that if I could get the fasciae to relax, the pain from the heel spurs might decrease.
The doctor also noted that my feet, indeed my muscles generally, are very tight. “I know. Massage therapists always say that. I do stretch, though; and I do a lot of work to release tension from the body…” “Oh, yeah, that’s just how some people are. It’s genetic, to a large extent.” “Really? That’s super helpful. I’ve always secretly thought it was some sort of character flaw.” “No, that’s just how some people are built,” he re-iterated.
On the way into class about 10 days after starting the MELT routine, I saw Tammy Burstein, the teacher. “Tammy, I have heel spurs! I just wanted to let you know. That’s why I’ve been leaving early the last couple of weeks. I’m trying to get them to calm down a little.” She spoke as she moved across the threshold, “Work with the ground. There is a lot to learn there.” “Yeah, I know that’s right,” I said, still wondering if it might not be better to leave a little early.
After my appointment with the orthopedic doctor, I decided it would be wise to wear dance shoes to cushion my heels, at least for a little while. I love being barefoot; and this pained me. I also felt old. And I feared that the injury would be permanent, that for the rest of my career as a dancer I would be gimped with pain.
I arrived to Tammy Burstein’s Friday Night Waves class on time. My neck ached fiercely, perhaps from a few straight days of writing feverishly, working on several projects. Some seeds that I planted in years previous have come up and it is with great delight that I set about watering and tending the young plants.
I reflected that people who dance 5Rhythms regularly seem almost inevitably to find their path–their unique, fully realized contribution. It is remarkable, really. I thought I was on one path, of being an artist, pushing the boundaries of artmaking, sacrificing, expanding, challenging and risking. But life has revealed something entirely different. And, to my great surprise, this one is perfect, too!
A couple of weeks after the doctor’s appointment, I finally met with the MELT practitioner to learn the routine. She explained that MELT is a kind of massage you do for yourself, and that once I learned the foot routine and got a set of MELT balls I would be on my own. Alternating between four balls of varying hardness and size, I pressed, rolled and wiggled strategic parts of my feet. “This is really going to help me get to know my feet better,” I said as I rolled the largest, hard ball down each knuckle line of my right foot. “There is something about the feet, the ground. There is a humility to it,” I pontificated to my captive audience. “I haven’t always been so good at humility. To be honest, I’ve always preferred to soar.”
I thought about the experience of doing walking meditation, particularly when I am on a meditation retreat. Sometimes to keep my mind engaged, I shift my attention from toe to toe in sequence and then to different parts of the foot. Never had I so thoroughly articulated the different parts of the foot as I did on this day, however. “How do you feel?” She asked. “Do your feet seem a little flatter?”
After the MELT routine, she showed me some physical therapy exercises to help with general foot strength, including separating the toes and moving each one separately. It was like trying to bend a spoon with the power of my mind. As I bent over toward them and squinted my eyes in focus, the toes quivered with effort, then moved in unison. Only the big toe could really move independently. She assured me that I could develop the ability over time.
I spoke with my Dad by phone, and he reported that for the first time ever in his small, semi rural Connecticut town, a budget referendum had passed on the first try. In an aging, politically red town, it was for several education reforms and improvements. He explained, with an exclamation point in his previously discouraged voice, that a group of parents had banded together to demand change and it had worked. He and his allies on the Democratic Town Committee, a group that grooms and promotes socially conscious political candidates, wasted no time in meeting with the group, encouraging them to consider working together, and maybe to consider public office in the future.
Tammy’s Friday Night Waves class has been my Friday night appointment every week for the last ten years. On this night, nearly a quarter of participants were dancing the 5Rhythms for the first time. Tammy instructed us to partner, then said “change” again and again, re-configuring partnerships, perhaps in part to move some chatty newcomers away from their BFF’s and deeper into the dance.
Because of the heel pain, I felt sorry for myself for a good 5, maybe 10 minutes and even sobbed briefly, dejected by the side of the room, moving only slightly. Then it wasn’t so bad. I could still move. I still got a good groove and had all the energy I needed. I let go of the story I was telling myself about the pain and it didn’t bother me as much.
Curiously, I was reminded of a period when I had lower back pain. I loved to grind into the deepest edges of my back, to flip and coil, to roll and twist with vehemence. Eventually, I realized that I had to back away from the edges in my back, to deeply soften. In following years, I’ve learned to find precision and work with the same edges in a different way, and rarely experience pain. Similarly, I realized that I have to back out of the edges in my feet. A tiny, shrewd little pivot in the foot that catalyzes an epic, syncopated gesture throughout my entire body causes pain at the moment unless the heel is already fully released back and down.
Throughout the class I danced on my own and in partnership, with abundant energy and engagement. The fierce neck pain totally disappeared; and I made it all the way through class, even surprised to learn that time went slightly over. I moved with joy and ease, working with the ground periodically even during energetic experiments, jiggling and vibrating my hips with one partner, moving in blocked parts with a smiling, heavily muscled man, and moving in joyful, collective Chaos, creating my dance from the feet up, from the grass roots, from the foundation.
June 23, 2018, Brooklyn, NY
This blog consists of my own subjective experiences on the 5Rhythms® dancing path, and is not sanctioned by any 5Rhythms® organization or teacher.
Though the day was chilly, things are finally starting to bloom after the long, grueling winter, and magnolia, dogwood, and flowering pear trees are heavy with blossoms all over the city. Yesterday my eight-year-old son, Simon, and I took a leisurely bike ride, wandering aimlessly around our neighborhood and noticing the explosion of life all around us. Eager to express the season, I was exactly on time to the Sweat Your Prayers session at the Joffrey in the West Village this morning, led today by Jilsarah Moscowitz.
I started in a squat, deep in the hips, stretching the inner thighs, feet and calves, rotating and staying low. I soon found my way to the ground, where I continued to stretch and coil, rolling over the fronts of my shoulders, the back of my head, and through the hips, moving from my stomach to my back over and over in a wide circle. Staccato arrived more quickly than I expected, and I burst upward with a knee-lifted back step and half-bent spin.
At the waves workshop “Elemental” that Tammy led last weekend, she offered a prompt that helped me to connect with Staccato. Staccato was my first love, my first “home rhythm” when I started 5Rhythms practice over ten years ago. Its sharp, expressive, fiery tendencies felt intuitive, well aligned to how I saw myself.
Then, after nearly two years of regular practice, I stepped into true Chaos for the first time. For most of the first two years of practice, I don’t think I was ever actually in Chaos, though I certainly thought I was. In retrospect, what I thought was Chaos was more of an agitated, super-fast Staccato. When I finally found myself in Chaos, I was shattered. Completely dissolved. Tear-strewn, windswept and erased. Clearly, Chaos was my home; and I embraced it with all my heart.
For the years that I considered Chaos my home rhythm, I did not have a strong connection to Lyrical. I just didn’t have much access to it. In fact, when I started to enter into Lyrical in a waves class, I would often be struck by some terrible, irrational fear. When I practiced independently, I would pretty much skip Lyrical and Stillness, with maybe just a few passing gestures. On the first day of Spring four or five years ago, on another occasion when Jilsarah led the Sweat Your Prayers session, she created the conditions for me to consider that I might actually have a lyrical nature. And over the next few months, to my immense delight, Lyrical arrived in my experience; and I now consider Lyrical to be my home rhythm.
I never forgot my first love, but my relationship with Staccato has not been dominant for many years. At the workshop, Tammy’s prompt created the conditions for me to draw fire into my body. The beautiful, growling ferocity, the sheer relentless force of Staccato captivated me for long stretches. It seems a worthwhile project: deepening, refining, clarifying and possibly even repairing my relationship to Staccato, and perhaps my ability to be ferociously kind, and kindly ferocious in the world.
Today in the Sweat Your Prayers, I continued to explore my relationship to Staccato. My hips seemed to have learned a whole new list of vocabulary words, and were forming entire new sentences and paragraphs. At one point, I planted my left foot firmly, setting up a physical problem to respond to. I swung the right foot forward, walked it out, cast it back, sunk low and angular, rocked my pelvis, and played with isolating my back hip on just the right side, experimenting with levels and angles. Then, I switched and planted my right foot, letting my left foot range as far afield as it cared to, moving far ahead and far behind, even making low steps to the side, again deep in the hips, and isolating the back hip to explore different levels and angles. When I let go of this constraint, I had built up tremendous force, and continued to move with vigor and specificity.
I kept playing with edges as the room transitioned into Chaos, enjoying the problem of resistance. I joined with one of my favorite dance partners as Chaos began to lighten into Lyrical. Though we have shared hundreds of dances, we continue to find new forms and patterns, and today our wild spins were peppered with shakes and coiled landings. I continued to be led by my back hips, occasionally rising up from low with a big, diagonal back step and a dramatic raised arm, and sometimes bounding up high, fast and light, effortless, drawing on the kinetic energy of the inner thighs and hips.
Jilsarah referenced Connections, the third and final book written by Gabrielle Roth, the founder of the 5Rhythms practice, and invited us to consider the image of “threads.” She spoke of following the threads of our lives, the thread of our breath, and the threads that connect us to each other.
A tone of reverence entered the room. I moved softly, pulsing, twittering, surrendered to breath, still attentive to the hips, sometimes low, with my knees pressed together, coccyx pulling toward the ground, sometimes softly turning around the planes of my feet, moving through the room and noticing the overlap in energy fields, the blend of vibrant colors–bright pink, viridian, violet–as I turned gently, led by dragon trails and the room’s subtle currents.
I noted a minor story that played in my mind. At times I felt left out. There seemed to be groups forming in the room that I was not part of. There was one person in particular who kind of–how can I say this? Kind of–energetically ignored me. This was far from agonizing, but was both uncomfortable and interesting.
Was my perception accurate that the person energetically shut me out? Do I do that to people, too? This is something for me to contemplate.
I noted the story as thinking, the single most powerful strategy for annihilating all that blocks me from total presence. Soon, I returned to expansive, delighted connection.
For the most part, the room seemed to be very flexible, with many different groups forming relationships, then dissolving back into the collective. Even in engaged partnership, I danced slightly with the people on all sides of me at once.
Circling around to Staccato again in another wave, I joined with a different friend, moving to a reggae track in a patient groove, finding yet more ways to move the hips, this time from the hip creases, rocking the pelvis in loping, swooping gestures.
“Alive! Alive! Alive!” Jilsarah chanted.
In Chaos, someone tromped on my foot. I was not seriously injured, just annoyed. I’ve had significant foot pain recently, so I extra disliked being stepped on. Jilsarah noticed right away and left the teacher’s table to check in on me. After a minute or less, I jumped back into the collective, in a particularly creative version of Chaos, with delightful unpredictability, micro-movements within larger gestures, and all sorts of plays on balance and levels.
In the final phase of Stillness, I went deep inside, moving subtle energies, muscles and bones whispering. When I noticed the outside, more than half of the room had formed a hand-joined circle. I continued to whisper-move, backing up to the edge of the circle and taking the two hands beside me.
This blog consists of my own subjective experiences on the 5Rhythms® dancing path, and is not sanctioned by any 5Rhythms® organization or teacher.
Image Credit: Collage/Spring Poem by Simon Pizarro, age 8
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. -Martin Luther King, Jr.
I wasn’t sure if would attend today’s Sweat Your Prayers class or if I would practice yoga closer to home instead. When I learned that the class would be held at Martha Graham studio in the West Village, rather than at its usual home at the Joffrey, and that 5Rhythms teacher Ray Diaz would be leading, I decided to make the trek. At the last Sunday Sweat Your Prayers class that Ray taught, I was thoroughly transported, windswept to different dimensions, and I was eager to see where class might lead me today.
Parking on Bethune Street right in front of the Westbeth Arts Building, where the Martha Graham studio is located, I briefly considered bringing in the laundry detergent that I would need later in the day, wondering if the strident cold might cause the detergent to freeze as it had the last time I attempted to use it.
There was a short delay with letting people enter the 11th floor dance studio, and it had the effect of pooling water behind a damn before a high water release. One friend embraced me, picking me up off my feet and cracking my back enthusiastically as she shook me from side to side, her own pony tail bouncing animatedly. Many ebullient conversations intersected and wove together in the foyer space while we waited for the door to open, inviting us into the studio.
When the door opened, we streamed inside, lodging our bags and backpacks on the wooden bench by the west wall. I paused for a moment on the low floor before taking a breath and stepping up onto the much-beloved, forgiving, sprung dance floor. Then I moved through an energetic ritual to help me arrive, closing it with a low bow and moving into the wide room. I began to lightly drag my feet over the soft grey linoleum. The dance floor at Martha Graham is a shaped like a large square, with no columns or impediments of any kind in the middle. There are big industrial windows on the east and west sides, opening to a spacious vistas of New York City.
The big room was at maximum capacity; and I found a spot on the floor to luxuriate in circles, beginning to stretch and wind up. A cherished friend who I had spent meaningful time with the previous day appeared upside down in the frame of my vision as I stretched, and as I shifted to one leg and began to right myself, she knelt down and curved herself around my back, embracing me and laughing delightedly. I rubbed her forearm and her ankle, and made a sound like a contented baby, touching my cheek to her lower leg. Before long, my attenuated circles, sometimes expressing the maximum plane of my prone body, led me to move through the room.
A friend who I had greeted excitedly in the foyer with a twittering, shimmy-stepping “I’m-so-happy you’re-here-and-I-will-get-to-dance-with-you” dance crossed my path and we began to move together in Flowing. For some time I continued to engage from the floor, though he was upright, curling and rising up onto the back of my head, or up into my raised heel, curving and arcing. I have been exploring the limits of possibility with this friend for ten years now. For the first many years, we joined most often in Chaos, following each other in the most erratic and creative of patterns, then bursting into an entirely new expression, wordlessly supporting and encouraging one another to be wholehearted, free and wild. Today, for the first time ever, as I got to my feet, we joined in a soft version of Flowing, tiptoeing and placing our feet down with the utmost mindfulness as we crept in circles around each other. Before long, we began to trust that we had paid significant homage to the ground, and let ourselves lift off, in a booming and articulate Staccato, with leaping, marching, lateral gestures, and expressive elbows and upper arms. When the song shifted, he made a gesture like tipping a cup up to drink, and took his leave.
Noticing how much heat I had raised with the breath, I began to move throughout the space, joining with anyone who seemed open to it, testing out many different people’s movements for myself. I joined two friends and, observing the character of their dance, began to roll forward from the shoulders, moving my upper body in an angular plane, then moved to bouncing and coiling from the knees, dipping them sideways like a skier working moguls on challenging terrain.
In Chaos I let loose, occasionally slowing to Still Chaos as I passed through different pockets in the room, often ferocious, delighting in many brief partnerships. I let myself find edges, sometimes even awkward, clipped resistance; sometimes expansive and swirling. Occasionally, I would raise my rolling and released head to observe the room, breathing it in, this big energy, this surrender, this gorgeous, sweat-drenched ugliness that feeds me, that feeds the world.
In Lyrical I grazed my hands on the ground, sinking low, then glided and soared, sometimes slipping between the tiniest of openings between bodies, between knees, in the triangular spaces of curved elbows, above heads.
In Stillness I joined with three others, soft and porous. I saw sky and clouds beyond the ceiling, then the four of us grew large, rising to the level of the clouds. I let the bottoms of my feet go and soon we moved among the clouds. Cloud forms coalesced as castles, as dragons, as pathways, my second grade teacher, my son’s second grade teacher, an image from a film–the ever-shifting display, form and its opposite, dispersing again as mist, returning to formless space, my body boundless, extending far beyond its tiny edges, overlapping with everything.
Ray called us together, and I softly thanked this little group before moving away, nuzzling them and kissing fingertips, touching our foreheads together. On this day before the holiday to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Ray rattled off his impressive bio. “I came to this country in 1974,” he began. “I’ve been earning six figures since I was 25 years old; and I’m in the 48% tax bracket…and yet I still come from a ‘shithole country.” This phrase, as most are well aware by now, is a direct quote from the current president of the United States, who, in the context of an immigration policy meeting this week, described Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries.”
Two days before, I had been taken apart in a conversation about code switching by a person of color. He challenged me to both act to end racism, and to be sure to act with precision and sensitivity. He also challenged me to get past my own ego so I would be able to see more clearly.
On the note of letting go of my ego constructions—even the positive and productive constructions I have created for myself—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—the Buddhist concept of pushing away what is unpleasant or uncomfortable. In response to one of the comments about the aversive energetic shell humans 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 at the time 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. 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.
Since Donald Trump was elected, I have been forced to reckon with my naïve underestimation of the power of white privilege.
I looked around the room as Ray spoke, and although I can’t necessarily know how people identify just by looking, it was apparent that a very small percentage of the class participants were people of color.
Before last November, on some level I believed in the fundamental vision of this country, that eventually, incrementally, everything would shake out fairly. I no longer hold that view. In the past two weeks, I have heard a white male conservative pundit and a white male country music singer speak on white privilege, phenomena I found heartening, though still small steps on the national reckoning we must undertake.
Ray shared that he had done a workshop with a movement teacher during which the participants had examined many documents from the Civil Rights Era. I thought of a historic photo of the lunch counter protests, of two activists seated at a lunch counter, totally surrounded by jeering white men, who were pouring food and drinks onto the heads of the protestors. These images are not symbolic. People were hurt and abused. Some went to prison. Some gave their lives.
In one of the photos Ray had examined with his teacher, there was a bearded white-seeming man who Ray had taken the time to research. It turns out that the man was Rabbi Abraham Heschel, a devoted Jewish Civil Rights activist. According to Ray, at one point, the Prime Minister of Israel asked Rabbi Heschel what he was doing, given the danger he was placing himself in. “I’m praying with my feet,” was his response, and he continued to walk resolutely forward.
Ray used this an example to demonstrate that racism is a human problem, not just a matter for people of color. Emotion rose through my throat, gasping upward in pockets of air.
The ebullience of the first wave gave way to subtle reverence, as Ray put on one of Dr. King’s famous speeches mixed with a dance track. Erratic gasps arose now and I made no effort to hide my tears. One woman who danced deep in her hips looked into my eyes, and it was not easy to return her gaze, as I felt raw and vulnerable. I continued to move through the room, but felt more private, energetically overlapping but psychologically contained, coping with the grief, fear, profound sadness, anxiety and anger that coursed up through me from the ground, a boiling geyser.
Ray also played a song with lyrics about how the measure of a country is how its women and girls are treated, then a closing song with a plaintive call to action.
Gabrielle Roth, the mother of 5Rhythms, believed that movement could heal us both individually and collectively. I think she would have approved of Rabbi Heschel’s explanation to the Israeli Prime Minister, “I’m praying with my feet.” As we enter this new year, there can be no question about the need for all of us to step up for justice and fairness, beginning first with what’s inside, but not stopping there. Let us all take a lesson from Ray and from Rabbi Heschel. Let us all pray with our feet!
*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.
This blog consists of my own subjective experiences on the 5Rhythms® dancing path, and is not sanctioned by any 5Rhythms® organization or teacher.