Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about feet.
The late afternoon sun on my closed eyelids lets me see the orange-red blood in the eyelid’s tiny capillaries. Turning away from the sun brings them back to shadow. My eyes still closed, I turn into the dazzling sun and back into shadow again and again, moving with my own breath. Bird song filters down from the tallest tree in the yard. Wind starts as a rustle at the tops of trees, then causes a progressive cooling on the exposed skin of my arms and face, as my feet softly turn, feeling every curve and dip of the ground.
But I begin with the end, with the rhythm of Stillness. There were so many things that led me here, to this quiet reckoning, to this cloudless sky.
The day was already getting away from me; and I was tempted to cancel or rush through a video call I had planned with a friend. And then it seemed that every corner of the house was full of sound: the vacuum cleaner, my ten-year-old son, Simon, on his own video call, lawn-mowing outside. I keep moving around trying to find a place I could actually hear and settle down. I’m sure I seemed spastic, and my friend even suggested it might be better to postpone. Finally, I found a quiet corner and settled in.
Speaking with her reconnected me to myself, and I left the call thinking it was time well spent.
Over the past few days, I’ve been engaged in an ongoing discussion with another friend on the subject of feet. She is deeplyimmersed in the practice and teaching of yoga, and is also a dharma teacher. She wrote about how the soles of the feet are connected to the different regions of the body, and how the feet are really the beginning of the chakra system. She also shared that there are many images depicting the feet with fanned flower petals underneath them, indicating that the entire body is supported by the “lotus feet.” She wrote, “As the lotus feet ‘bloom’ they encourage similar openings in the nervous system and subtle body.”
I found that I had some things to share from the perspective of the 5Rhythms about the subject of feet.
It is the feet that connect us to our intuition, our instinct. One of my teachers, Kierra Foster-Ba, often says, “We, like any other animal, get a lot of information from our feet,” including vibrations in the ground. In this way, the feet can be seen as a gateway to primal, unconditioned awareness.
Each of the 5Rhythms is associated with a body part; and the rhythm of the feet is Flowing. It is considered the receptive rhythm, where we are letting in, sourcing, and gathering energy and information.
I’ve been investigating my relationship to Flowing anew of late, especially as I’ve been dancing in the woods, gardening, and attending to nature’s cycles like the moon and the seasons since retreating from NYC because of the pandemic.
In 5Rhythms, some talk about “finding the feet” as the measure of embodiment in 5R practice. It is as though to what degree you have “found your feet” indicates your level of attainment. This can be interpreted in a straightforward way–actually paying continuous attention, on purpose, to the physical feeling of the feet on the ground.
Personally, I tend to generalize this a little more, and interpret “finding the feet” as establishing and maintaining profound mindfulness, while using the feet as the primary object of meditation.
The entire dance is built from the ground up, and there are times we return to Flowing, even when we have shifted into the other rhythms that follow in the wave: Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical, and Stillness.
My first movements into the rhythm of Flowing today seemed twittery, but before long, I resolved to drop my full attention and weight into one foot and then the other, and this opened me into generous, weighted circling. Sometimes my steps were even subsumed and pulled into the larger falling circling of the body.
A different friend shared that in one class she had started to feel bored in Flowing. I could totally relate. For many years, I was so eager to get from the first rhythm of Flowing to the second rhythm of Staccato that I had to force myself to stay in Flowing for longer than felt intuitive. I often felt bored in Flowing. It’s humble edgelessness held little appeal for me, and I was eager for the expression of Staccato and the explosive catharsis of Chaos.
I realized that I had severed my relationship to earthiness, and, in the process, to the ground. It took many years of devoted practice, especially working with the rhythm of Flowing, to begin to reclaim this relationship.
Thanks to my own song choices, I was dropped abruptly from Flowing into the rhythm of Staccato. I occasionally let out a warrior cry, and my body was dynamic, alive, finding every diagonal, bending and flexing, bouncing up and curving down, sticking my butt way out, then pushing my pelvis forward, with my knees and elbows talking loudly.
Though I so needed Chaos today, I had to talk myself into it. I imagined my body was moving on a roller coaster track, and my head was like the last car that hops a bit off the track at the end of the train’s whipping gesture. I had a lot of energy in this part, though it wasn’t until the second chaos song that I actually moved intensely enough to be out of breath. At one point the music paused and I leaned forward and held my hands out behind me then crashed them together, rocketing back as the beat kicked back in. I used up all the space available to me, kicking my heels behind me, cross-back-stepping, and flinging my arms up.
Lately in Lyrical, the top of my chest rises up. Today, I was so happy. I’m so happy for myself, that I got to be this happy. I found a tiny little mound of earth to stand on top of, twitter down the side of, twitter down the other side of, back, front; and then the beat dropped again, and every bit of me coiled and bounced, it was like I was on a trampoline, my arms flying way up, body effortless.
Lately, I sometimes make videos of myself dancing alone, and today, as I watch the video, I cry. I can’t believe how lucky I am, that I get to experience such joy. Lyrical only opened itself to me after many dedicated years of working with the ground, with the feet, and with the rhythm of Flowing. Before then, it felt totally unavailable.
I suspend my leg forward and pause, bounce back, then suspend it backward and pause.
Then, this beautiful song comes through the speakers and I close my eyes, noting the variations of light on my inner eyelids. And that brings me back to the beginning, to the Stillness I opened with, to the flashes of light and birdsong, to the rustling breeze and its effect on my skin.
The last thing I do before breaking down my equipment and going inside to cook dinner is walk on the soft earth, my feet alive and knowing, absorbing the messages the earth needs me to hear.
May 18, Broad Brook, Connecticut
Images: Simon’s feet on grass (photo by Meghan LeBorious), The Auspicious Lotus Feet of Lord Vishnu (vivianlawry.com), Self attending to music (photo by Meghan LeBorious)
This blog consists of my own subjective experiences on the 5Rhythms® dancing path, and is not sanctioned by any 5Rhythms® organization or teacher.
“What? This can’t be. Oh, my God, this can’t be. How could this be? This can’t possibly be. What are all of these overnight text messages about. They are no longer celebratory, as they were last night. This can’t be true. Let me look at the internet. Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Please, no. Please, this can’t be. So many people would suffer. This is impossible. How could Americans elect this person? How could anyone vote for this man? Please this is just a nightmare. Let me wake up. This can’t be. Let me text back to some of the texts. Please let it not be so. It can’t be! My God! No, please, this can’t be! So many people would suffer! The economy! Unchecked hatred! Please say it is just a nightmare!”
Often before I start a new text for this blog, I write automatically for ten minutes. Writing automatically usually helps me to find an entry point, a theme, maybe even an idea for a structure, but today my mind remains scattered, dulled by its struggle to accommodate the new reality that my fellow Americans have elected Donald Trump to be the next president of the United States.
At Kierra Foster Ba’s workshop “Light & Shadow” last weekend, Kierra took us on a journey through the shadow aspects of each of the 5Rhythms—the shadow of Flowing, which is inertia; the shadow of Staccato, which is tension; the shadow of Chaos, which is confusion; the shadow of Lyrical, which is the quality of being spaced out; and the shadow of Stillness, which is numbness. In addition, she introduced the idea that the shadows might have to do with the parts of ourselves we would rather keep hidden or disown completely.
After the workshop, I wrote feverishly, very much wanting to deliver a text on the shadows work of last weekend before Tuesday’s election results, realizing that no matter what happened, anything written before Tuesday would become automatically outdated. Although I was very nervous, I wrote with the assumption that there would be a Hillary victory in the end, and, too, with the assumption that after the election that we would have to find ways to work with and address America’s unleased collective shadows of abject hatred and opportunism.
Before the election, my psyche simply could not accommodate the possibility that Donald Trump might actually win the election. It was simply too surreal—too much the stuff of nightmares. It simply could not be. Americans certainly would not go to such extremes, even in the face of anger and disempowerment, that we would actually elect such a person, someone who does not believe in and would threaten our very democracy, who is the confirmed perpetrator of countless, outrageous crimes and abuses, possibly even of rape.
The lively activity at my polling place in Brooklyn made me feel like Hillary would surely win. The better the voter turnout, I argued in my head, the more likely she would prevail. I brought my six-year-old son along with me, regaling him with stories of when Obama was first elected—the long, happy lines to vote; and after the results came in, the streets filled with celebration, people thronging Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where I lived at the time. I told him excitedly, “This is a moment you will always remember, when we voted for the first woman president!”
The memory of the first 5Rhythms class I attended after Obama was elected in 2008 seemed like a totally different lifetime. It was Tammy’s Friday Night Waves class. For days, I had been walking around the city sobbing for joy. It would hit me, buying a tea, waiting for the walk sign, standing on the subway. Talking with everyone. Beaming. Not only had we—a nation built with the blood and sweat of slaves—elected a Black man, but we had elected an ethical, competent, intelligent leader, who was intent on building consensus, examining the minutiae of evidence on the many matters that faced him, and with the stated intention—and possibly the skill—to extend the prosperity that a small number of Americans enjoyed to a larger portion of society. That was the first time since I was a baby in a leaf pile playing with my parents, that I had ever moved in pure joy. The room was filled with a different kind of vocalization than what we experienced in class this week—hooting and hollering that moved through the air in waves of its own. We were a glowing mess, drenched, crying, leaping many feet off the ground, the entire wood floor bouncing, the music getting louder and louder. It was paradise. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was—to be alive in this time, to be part of this seismic shift, this uncontainable joy.
A few sleepless, dark morning hours after learning the results (during which my son and I sat on a meditation cushion together, my stomach in knots, him reading quietly or practicing meditation along with me) one of the people I am closest to—a Black and Latino man—entered the house. He shared an opinion that I have since heard echoed by more than one person of color—that this was no surprise, and that “Black people in America have been dealing with this level of hatred and injustice all along. Now, it is just out in the open.” He also reminded me that his joy when Obama was elected had been mitigated by his prediction that there would be a monstrous backlash after Obama’s term.
Since the election, hate crimes have surged, according to the New York Times, USA Today, CNN and a long list of reputable sources. “Make America White Again” has been scrawled on a whiteboard in a University of North Florida library, and in countless other places countrywide. My father told me with grave consternation that there had been a KKK rally in my parents’ small town in Northern Connecticut, to my knowledge an unprecedented event.
During and after the “Light & Shadow” workshop, I grappled with the concept of ground, wondering if in clinging to the idea of ground, I might be limiting my perception of reality. Kierra sought to share her insight, and an insight likely shared by Gabrielle Roth—the creator of the 5Rhythms practice—that the ground is always there; and that it is possible to find the ground even in an earthquake. Instead of only finding the ground in Flowing, where we traditionally establish it, Kierra lead me to also consider finding it through releasing into Chaos. My idea of “the ground” as Gabrielle Roth intended it continues to evolve, but I realize that the idea of ground is compatible with the realization that absolutely everything is in constant, dynamic flux; and that there is truly nothing to cling to. The ground is the foundation, from which we hear and trust our instinctive, physical selves, and from which we come to trust the fundamental correctness and workability of reality. Truly, finding the ground and being at ease through releasing into Chaos is a powerful tool, as we seek to navigate (at minimum) the next four years.
Driving alone to a 5Rhythms class, my first since the election, I bawled and keened, my face contorted, tears streaming down my cheeks to the point that my skin actually started to itch from all of the salt. My mind raced, “Would I choose to leave the US? What steps would I have to take? Is there anywhere in the western world that is exempt from this impulse toward xenophobia and aggression, this reaction to globalism? Should I stay and be part of the resistance? What would the resistance be? What would happen to all the people without insurance? Would my son be safe from racism, hatred and violence? Would New York City be safe, once Trump started provoking countries around the world? Would I lose my job as a result of recession? Would my friends lose their jobs? Would all of my parents’ lifelong hard work for social justice be wiped away, just as they are growing old, beginning to tally their contributions? Would they lose heart and lose faith? Would I? Do all of the people who voted for Trump hate women? Do all of the people who voted for Trump hate me? Do they all think that the sexual trauma I have suffered in my own life is no big deal and that the pain I have struggled with for a lifetime is just someone’s lark—locker room pranks—without accountability? And how, in this crazy world, would I counter this monstrous influence on my small son? Is there any way to protect him?” I had no schema for any of this. Through years of diligent practice, I had developed powerful faith in the basic goodness of human beings. How could I reconcile these seemingly contradictory realities?
Arriving at class, I took my time to enter the studio, noticing the powerful ritual of stepping from the world into the space of formal practice. I was not wracked by grief. There was no catharsis, as I had in a way hoped for. Instead, the group moved through the first wave, breathing in and out, trying our best to release into Flowing and then into each of the other rhythms. I noticed that my version of Flowing was agitated, and I made an effort to slow down, to let it in. To let in the reality of my stress and grief-wracked body, and the reality of the outcome of the election, which I still could not fully grasp. Staccato barely arrived in this first wave, finding me fumbling, unsure of my feet for once, disassociated, perhaps still in the throes of shock despite my stated willingness to let in. Chaos was loud and energetic, though mental activity continued to churn, in disjointed snippets and unruly threads. The tiniest hint of Lyrical emerged, and it crossed my mind that somehow I would have to find a way to let joy in, too, despite everything, or I would lose four years of my life, perhaps even causing an atrophy of joy that I would not recover from. I reminded myself that expressing joy is not an intrinsic affront to suffering, and that being miserable, angry or sad wouldn’t help me to control anything. It would just make me miserable or angry or sad. Whether I find Lyrical or not—the situation is very much outside of my control.
On Wednesday morning, arriving to work, I went straight to my one strong work ally. Hugging him, I sobbed. Although there were a few people there who were also devastated by the results of the election, I felt very alone, both at work and in the context of the country. On parting, I said, “This is a call to arms. We must each become a warrior of the heart. That is our only hope at this point. As of today, any kindness is now an act of political resistance.”
At the class, I felt like a whole layer of neurosis had become outdated, along with everything else that happened before November 8, 2016. Most of the people I was moving with were allies, and could be trusted. Petty irritations seemed extra pointless, considering the need to build community. Despite this, some irritations did arise, and I wondered if they were a last sprint of a certain kind of ego, or if they might be a way for my psyche to work on some things that I couldn’t manage to confront directly.
In the interim between the two waves, I sat leaning in a little pod with a small group of friends who happened to be seated near me; then, began to flow back-to-back with one friend, at first just gently swaying from side to side. I was still disassociated and not capable of fully releasing to ground, but did my best to show up for my friend and for myself. Eventually gaining our feet, we moved around each other with great energy, then smiled thankfully, beginning to move separately throughout the room. I spent part of this wave considering disaster preparedness, with a long list of specifics, despite the shared intention to really see each other, to really give to each other. In Staccato, I found ferocity in bursts, but still felt disassociated. I partnered with one friend, and marveled at her fire. Inspired, I grew gigantic, too, forcing it ever so slightly, trying it as an experiment, an intention, rather than as my full expression in that moment. Even so, I recognized the need to step up in every way, to step into my power, to help the people around me to step into their power, to organize, to defy, to build community, to speak, to listen, to offer, to receive.
Today, as I write, I have a bone infection in my jaw. It is incredibly painful. Instead of succumbing to self-pity, I remind myself that there are many people around the world who at this very moment are also experiencing excruciating dental pain. Maybe also on top of other kinds of pain, too. The great Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron teaches a Tibetan meditation practice called Tonglen. In Tonglen, instead of resisting or pushing away pain, negativity or other afflictive emotions, we breathe them in. Then, we breathe out equanimity, positivity and pleasant emotions. In the process, we work against our conditioned impulse to push away what threatens us, frightens us, or rocks our fundamental notions of who we are. In doing so, we transform our relationship to aversion—the energetic pushing away or non-acceptance of things we usually can’t escape anyway. An aspect of Tonglen that acts as a counter to despair is that we remind ourselves again and again that we are not alone, that whatever pain we are experiencing, there are countless others who feel or have felt the same pain. As such, it is impossible not to call to mind the billions of people who suffer or have suffered under the leadership of corrupt, greedy, dishonest or incompetent leaders. I am not alone. We are not alone.
I have been very careful to write about the nation as “we,” though it is a stretch for me at this moment. One sneaky form of aversion is setting up a group of people as “others” who are distinct from “us.” This is a fundamental premise of postmodern identity politics and of post-colonial theory—the idea that in order to construct ourselves a certain way, we set up groups of people as “others” as a counterpoint to the “us.” It is like we can only have an identity by defining who does not have our identity, excluding certain people from our experience completely. I am using “we,” and thinking of the many complex causes that gave rise to this moment, rather than succumbing to the temptation to simply revile Trump’s supporters to make them “other.” Truly, this is a phenomenon that all of us have participated in producing. This place we find ourselves is not an anomaly, and is not simply the result of someone else’s misconduct.
The Black and Latino man I wrote of earlier and who is one of my most important allies again shared his thoughts on the current political moment, reminding me very much of the teachings on the shadow aspects of the 5Rhythms. He said, “The thing is, people of color have always known it was this bad. It always has been. The good thing is that we know that the only way to change things is to first actually accept how bad things are. That’s the thing that white people just haven’t realized; and that’s why so many people are so shocked. It is only when we can really accept what is actually happening that real change can finally occur.”
Gabrielle Roth often expressed that the rhythm of our time is Chaos. As volatile as it inevitably has been, she believed that our era is also marked by possibility and creativity. I try to imagine what she would say now, if she were still alive. Perhaps that no matter what, we have to keep moving. Perhaps that to shut down and lock up would be the real death of us. Perhaps that the best way to work with Chaos is to release directly into the middle of it. Perhaps that, ultimately, nothing and no one can take away our freedom or peace of mind, unless we ourselves allow it.
Rending, guttural screams flew through the space as we moved in Chaos. I found the floor, pulsing vigorously through my middle back, on my hands and knees and crouched into the hips with my pubis almost touching the ground, then I would leap and spin, finding all the while stops and edges inside my own maelstrom. The friend who was so ferocious in Staccato moved with just as much vigor right next to me. I moved to the floor and up from it, leaping quickly, perhaps in a primal defensive gesture, landing first in a deep squat, bursting upward, my head a car on the speeding rollercoaster of my spine, then moved back to the ground. I remembered Kierra’s words about releasing into Chaos, and as the rhythm played out I found more softness, less edge. If I was tempted to check myself out of this intensity, I reminded myself of the critical importance of releasing to Chaos as a tool for survival.
Lyrical came, too, and then Stillness. I partnered with a friend who I love to dance with, and we beamed as we moved together, more expansive than in our past dances. High up on my toes and both finding discrete patterns, we played in and out of each other’s orbits. In Stillness, I moved unselfconsciously, pulling away from a friend who wanted to partner, giving myself a quiet moment to turn inward.
Though there will be times that we all need to turn inward, community has become critical. Right before the election, I had invited several friends to a series of dinner parties because I had realized the need to re-focus my priorities on the people around me, rather than on my very stressful job. Now, after the election, having a way to gather together and cultivate our relationships seems even more important—in fact, like a matter of emotional and political necessity.
At the height of dental pain, I decided to take a yoga class. I reasoned that I would try it, and if it was impossible I would just leave. The pain was an 8 or 9 on a scale of 1-10 most of the time, but at moments it receded to the back of my mind, as I attended diligently to the poses and to the breath. I was surprised that I made it through the entire class, despite the pain. The teacher, who I trust deeply, said, “It might be hard to hear this right now, but the truth is that we are made for these times. This is what we have been practicing for.”
On Saturday, I attended a candlelight vigil and rally at Fort Greene Park, where thousands of all races, classes, ages, religions and orientations came together to affirm our commitment to oppose injustice and hatred in all its manifestations, to affirm our commitment to love, and to support each other in resisting the temptation to feel isolated or incapacitated. A heartful voice sang out, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine…” We all joined in, raising our candles in the falling night. My voice was ragged, the words barely coherent. A friend from the neighborhood I hadn’t realized was right next to me turned and embraced me. I looked to my other side and saw another friend—this one from college in Boston—and I turned and kissed her cheek.
We are not alone, my loves. We are in this together. In the words of the woman whose light guides me, the woman who continues to show my heart the way, Gabrielle Roth, “There is only one of us here.”
November 13, 2016, Brooklyn, NYC
(Image is a photo I took at the “Vigil for Hope & Human Kindness” that took place in Fort Greene Park on November 12, 2016)
This blog consists of my own subjective experiences on the 5Rhythms® dancing path, and is not sanctioned by any 5Rhythms® organization or teacher.
“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
Today’s Sweat Your Prayers class at the Joffrey in the West Village was taught by Kierra Foster-Ba; and I was joined by my 6-year-old son, Simon, our 10-year-old cousin, Maya, and our Uncle Larry. My cousin and uncle had come to town to attend Simon’s recital the day before—an event preceded by weeks of anxious stage fright. A few days before, Simon told me, “Mommy, I don’t think I’m going to be able to go to the recital. I’m pretty sure I’m going to be sick that day.” As it was, he was spectacular—dancing with heart and even performing two “solos”. He told us that in the end he didn’t have any stage fright at all. When we met him after, he almost knocked his cousin over with the ardency of his affection and excitement to see her. It is hard to know when to push and when to back off—this time I am glad I pushed him to move past his fear, and that he had so much support for his risks.
In the car on the way to class today, I explained the expectations. “There aren’t too many rules,” I said, “But we can’t talk inside the dance room; and also you have to keep moving—at least a little. Even if you get tired, then you still just find a way to move a little something.” I asked Simon if he had anything to add. “You can’t crash into anyone,” he said—a rule he has heard many times repeated. I added an extra rule for the sake of my excitable little close-talker: “And you can only give your family member three hugs for the duration of the class. The other times you have to give them their personal space!”
I held both kids’ hands; and, taking a deep breath, jumped in to what we call “The Magic Dance Room.” The two settled into a spot at the edge of the dance floor and played with some tiny toys they had smuggled in. Before long they moved to the middle of the room, still playing with their toys, sticking close to a column. My uncle had entered before us, and seemed right at home, falling into movement right away.
I had a delightful dance, myself, beginning on the floor with energetic circles that took over my whole body and also served the purpose of stretching. Kierra’s gentle grooves tugged me along like I was drafting behind a powerful swimmer in the lap pool—toted along in totally effortless flow. One of my all-time favorite dance partners entered the studio and we jumped right into a high-energy dance of joyful abandon. My cousin watched this unbridled engagement with hesitant interest, but the two continued to play on the floor for some time. I danced near them several times, gently prompting movement, then drifting away again, leaving them to their play. At one point I looked over and both were on their bellies, holding their ankles, laughing and rocking.
It wasn’t until the second wave that they started to enter into the dance, themselves. Remarkably, they got up the courage to move just as we entered into Chaos. I cheered them on with my gestures, smiling as they jittered and jumped, getting into the music.
Sweat Your Prayers is by definition lightly instructed, and the only verbal teaching that Kierra offered during the class was to occasionally prompt us as we crossed into a new rhythm.
I smiled and rolled around the room, happily engaging with many different partners, especially loving the rhythm of Lyrical.
At the end of the class, Kierra shared a quote by Gabrielle Roth, the creator of the 5Rhythms practice. She said, “Do you have the discipline to be a free spirit?” She let the quote sink in for a few moments. Then, she encouraged us to fully embrace each of the 5Rhythms as they arise, and to observe the few rules that we take on when we step into a 5Rhythms room, such as refraining from talking.
I felt immense gratitude to my family members for being willing to step in, and to Kierra and the 5Rhythms community for making space for all of us. The most important things I hope my small son takes away from his experiences in 5Rhythms rooms are that movement is medicine, that life is exquisitely workable, and that even as he becomes a grown-up—a process that closes all too many of us down—life can keep opening and opening, expanding the possibilities of what it means to be alive.
Sunday, April 3, 2016, 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.