How Mindfulness Helps Students in Brooklyn School Cope With Pandemic And Social Justice Issues

Students may be drawn first to the calming impacts of mindfulness, but mindfulness can also be seen as empowerment – a way to eliminate the internal obstacles that stop them from stepping fully into their power, dignity, and creativity – essential tools on the path to racial justice, and essential tools on the path to real freedom and equality.

Over the four years since I started a mindfulness program at Cobble Hill High School in Brooklyn where I teach, I’ve watched student after student find their power by turning inside, where it was waiting all along. In the process, students learn to be strong advocates for themselves and for their communities.

During the Spring 2020 semester, more than one student wrote, “Mindfulness doesn’t mean you always have to be peaceful.”

Several students shared how mindfulness has helped them cope with the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others, and also with the ongoing pandemic.

“What stood out was how much more this was affecting me than I realized, until I actually sat and broke down what I was really scared and worried about,” shared one student. Another wrote, “You have the right to be completely angry or sad, but mindfulness helps you break away and meditate to calm down.”

Students had a full semester of mindfulness before the pandemic, but I had no idea how it would play out once they were in remote learning and almost totally on their own. We started using a popular mindfulness app to support us, and many students dove deep, some understanding the benefits of mindfulness for the first time. One student shared that while every member of his household was sick with COVID, he would practice daily on his balcony to stay sane.

Teachers have been independently bringing mindfulness to NYC students for twenty years or more, but it wasn’t until 2017 that the New York City Department of Education placed their official stamp of approval on mindfulness instruction as a valid option for meeting the social and emotional needs of students, appointing Barnaby Spring as the first-ever Director of Mindfulness.

Mindfulness in Schools for Student Wellness & Equity

Mindfulness is learning to pay attention in a certain way. In the words of mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat Zinn, “Mindfulness meditation is the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” Mindfulness training involves choosing a focus such as the breath, then calmly noticing whenever the attention shifts, and gently returning it. In this way, students build up the ability to concentrate and remain present with their experiences.

Mindfulness instruction has implications for helping students develop healthy relationships, resilience, empathy, motivation, the ability to make responsible decisions, and the ability to effectively regulate emotions.

These are important benefits for all students, but may be particularly important for students of color. Resulting from centuries of oppression, Black and Brown students disproportionately suffer from poverty and loss. Having to cope with racism on a daily basis also takes its toll.  According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African Americans are 20% more likely to experience mental health problems than White Americans. In addition, there are multiple barriers for Black and Brown people when it comes to receiving adequate mental health services despite the likely added stressors that many face.

Adrian Childress/Bklyner

Mindfulness training in schools can help to fill this urgent gap.

Mindfulness supports students in confronting internalized stereotypes and processing painful experiences when they have been marginalized, judged, or accused. In the words of a 9th grade student, “Mindfulness is beneficial because it relieves stress and anxiety and lowers chaos in your emotions.”

Dr. Donald Fennoy, superintendent of schools in Palm Beach County, Florida, created a division for Student Wellness & Equity after the start of the protests following the murder of George Floyd.

Fennoy is not the only school leader to connect wellness and equity.

In a 2019 interview, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams stated, “We put a greater level of emphasis on the academic stability of a child, and not the emotional stability, and that’s a big mistake.”  Adams, himself a disciplined meditation practitioner, argued that teaching students mindfulness, a priority for Brooklyn schools, allows students to “become their own healers,” and begin to address PTSD, grief, the impacts of racism, and the stressors of daily life.

“The overwhelming number of our million plus children are living with trauma every day. We have become extremely successful at masking trauma and normalizing it. It’s not a black eye, it’s not a broken arm,” Adams shared. Rather, trauma and PTSD are internal, invisible injuries.

I asked, “Do you think that students of color might stand to benefit in particular from mindfulness because of the added burden of having to deal with racism?”

Adams responded, “The first step forward is to acknowledge the fact that we treat people differently based on how we see them because of our predispositions. Black and Brown students are dealing with an obstacle that’s larger than their White counterparts. And acknowledging that doesn’t mean their White counterparts are racist, it just acknowledges the fact that we come from a country with a history.”

Studies published between 2009-2020 in Psychological Bulletin,  School Psychology Quarterly, and other journals indicate that students who receive mindfulness instruction tend to have better focus, more ability to self-regulate, less stress, healthier relationships, and less incidents that lead to disciplinary consequences, which is of particular significance since Black and Brown students tend to receive harsher punishments both in schools and the judicial system.

Unite NY Rally. Adrian Childress/Bklyner

Mindfulness Helps In Teaching, Too

Mindfulness can also positively impact the adults in school communities.

The first layer of mindfulness, decreased stress and improved mood, can support teachers in meeting students with patience and understanding.

Another layer, when practitioners naturally begin to examine the workings of their minds, has other implications. Practitioners begin to note self-talk and repetitive thoughts, to monitor the body’s feedback, and to examine underlying stories. For many, this leads to a decrease in the impacts of implicit bias.

Committed mindfulness practice leads to a key insight: that we are profoundly interconnected. The small-minded categories and distinctions we make crumble when subject to intense scrutiny. This realization leads to increased empathy and the knowledge that injustice anywhere affects every one of us – a counteragent to individual racism that can lead to systemic impacts.

In addition, when school leaders and teachers develop the ability to stay present with discomfort, a key component of mindfulness training, it may be easier to ponder difficult personal and systemic questions, and lead to greater transparency and accountability – important attributes for systems that are working toward anti-racist goals.

No one knows what the coming school year will look like, but even in the best case scenario, we will have to cope with stress, uncertainty, and powerful emotions. Mindfulness is an important ally as we weather these storms, and work toward a brighter future.



How Mindfulness Helps Students in Brooklyn School Cope With Pandemic And Social Justice Issues

Nothing More. Nothing Less. A Dance.

“It’s 2019. Just thought I’d let you know that,” jokes Tanya Goldman, who is leading the first Sunday Sweat Your Prayers 5Rhythms class of 2019 in New York City. She doesn’t specifically mention New Year’s resolutions, but she does say, “One thing I’ve learned is if you want to change, you have to move. Physically, mentally and emotionally. It doesn’t just happen.”

Tanya doesn’t talk much during class but somehow manages to bring out the best in people. For this Sunday morning class, the big dance studio is jam-packed and notably porous, the many selves melting in and out of each other, part of a big, collective self.

As the class begins, Tanya leads us in a long, patient Flowing. She seems confident that we’ll stay with her, even if she doesn’t rush to entertain us. In Staccato and a wild Chaos, I dance with a friend who’s seated in a chair, bringing me down low. I also share several dances with a friend who has been a frequent partner over ten or more years. In contrast to our usual ebullient, wide-ranging partnership, we tuck into a pocket, sustainable, riding energy patiently. In Lyrical, I join with another friend, leaping into flight with my shoulders and chest wide open, tears streaming down my face.

At the height of joyful intensity, Tanya plays the 90’s club anthem ’Last Night a DJ Saved My Life with a Song‘. I recognize it immediately, sinking low in a pumping warrior cry as the room explodes.

Tanya has a way of doing this. Of building things up and building things up, then dropping the exact perfect song at the exact perfect moment; and if I had had any sort of conscious thought, it probably would have been: This is heaven. Life could not possibly get better than this.

At the end of the class, I pause to chat with one of the friends I’d partnered with. “That was just amazing,” he says, wide-eyed. I nod. “She is incredibly trustworthy. I feel like it’s safe to totally let go. Like she is holding space and witnessing what is unfolding in, like, a clean way, or something.”


I think back to a Heartbeat workshop that Tanya and I both attended ten years before. I was having a joyful and pleasant experience, but it shifted when we were placed into groups of three for an exercise. One person was to move with a certain prompt in mind and the other two would witness the person who was moving, then we would change roles. One of my partners was this very expressive woman who had a huge dance. I had cheerfully joined her in partnership many times during the workshop, but this time when she was supposed to witness me, I didn’t feel like she was seeing me at all. Like she was just totally wrapped up in her own awesomeness. I’m pretty extroverted and don’t feel invisible very often, but somehow this really hurt me.

Thankfully, Tanya was my other partner. Curiously, it wasn’t until I reflected later, still nursing wounds from the experience, that I realized that although one partner had failed to see me, Tanya had very much seen me. I realized what a valuable friend she is and hoped that I could return the favor of her clear-seeing, something I continue to try to live up to.


Tanya, who has been a 5Rhythms teacher since 2014, sat down with me last spring to share some thoughts on her life and process. We planned to get together after a different Sweat Your Prayers class in the West Village for this interview. I hadn’t really thought through where we would set up but considered a few local restaurants without fully appreciating how much Tanya has to think things through in advance. Tanya has a disability that affects motor ability and uses a walker to get around, so accessibility is an issue, and she also let me know that she is not able to eat solid food. So instead of a restaurant, we went to a smoothie place at the corner, then sat down together at the closest Starbucks.

Once settled, Tanya patiently blinked her clear, blue-green eyes, and sipped at her smoothie, inviting the first question.

“When did you start practicing the 5Rhythms and what brought you to 5Rhythms for the first time?” I asked.

“I started practicing in 2008,” she began. “I’d already been doing Contact Improv for many years, since college.”

Tanya shared that she went to Oberlin, where Contact Improv was invented, and in fact practiced in the very studio where Contact Improv originated.

“I loved it, and learned that I could really be there, could really be in it despite my limitations. As my disability progressed, it got harder to do Contact Improv. It’s really all about partnering. In partnering, it was like my partner shared my disability, so it would limit what they could do, and not everyone was ok with that.”

She also shared that she didn’t always feel like she was included in the community, and added, “I decided I needed to find another dance community where it would be ok to dance on my own.”

Next, she became part of the Dance New England community and someone there suggested she try the 5Rhythms.

“For my first class, Jonny (Jonathan Horan, the director of 5Rhythms and son of its creator, Gabrielle Roth) was teaching. I didn’t understand it at all, but I felt accepted. Then, it was many years before I started to learn what it was all about.”

The next question I asked was, “How has your practice changed over time?”

“Well, my body has changed. The biggest change is that I now use a walker. That’s been in the last six-to-eight months. In the beginning, my balance was so much better. I could skip and run. Particularly after I got the walker, I was aware that my balance was really changing. For a while, I was falling all the time. My mind wanted to dance faster than my body could handle. The mind doesn’t want to accept the body’s limitations, but once you can go with the changes, then it’s so much easier. And now I’m not falling! But I’m definitely still moving.”

“Do you feel more comfortable with being off balance?”

“I don’t feel out of balance. I’ve come to accept and find the grace within my own dance. But it’s not a definite. One day it’s there and the next it’s like ‘where is it?’”

trainees running with Tanya

Then, I asked, “Do you have a ‘home’ rhythm?”
“Not really. For me, it’s all about change. We’re always changing and life is always changing.”

“Tanya, what made you decide to become a 5Rhythms teacher?”

“I did a class with Sylvie Minot and she talked about teaching 5Rhythms to inmates in prisons. I thought that was amazing. Not that she was teaching in prisons, but that she was bringing the work to disadvantaged people. I’m trained as a social worker. I always wanted to help people, to change lives for the better. In fact, when I started the teacher training, I was still working as a social worker. Halfway through the teacher training, I got laid off from my job, along with my social worker colleagues. After, I was too exhausted to go back to work, but I feel like being a 5Rhythms teacher is my offering, my contribution.”

“Did you have to overcome significant obstacles to undergo the teacher training?”

“I definitely had to overcome obstacles. The first was financial, especially after being laid off after the first module. Maybe even more significant were the mental obstacles. I had an internal story that I wasn’t even fully aware of that I had nothing special to offer. At an Open Floor workshop with Andrea Juhan this story came out and I was finally able to deal with it. That was a big turning point for me.”

“While I was going through this, though, I felt supported by Jonny (Jonathan Horan). During the training, we had to learn a kind of two-step pattern, which was obviously pretty hard for me, but I did it.”

She also shared that Jonathan said, “When you do this with Tanya, hold her hands,” and how much she appreciated that Jonathan seemed to get her needs.


“What, in your opinion as a 5Rhythms teacher, is the essence of 5Rhythms practice?”

“For me, it’s about permission and possibility; and it’s about getting out of your own way.”

“What, if anything, makes your perspective on the 5Rhythms unique?”

“I think as a person with a disability, I give a lot of permission to people in general. And, as a person with a disability, I also bring a lot about being willing to be vulnerable. My experience is about being very vulnerable every day. I wear my vulnerability on the outside.”


Tanya and I shared a workshop this weekend that was focused on the 5Rhythms emotional map, Heartbeat. At one point, we were working with the emotion of anger, and the room was explosive. We were instructed to line up at one end of the room and several sets of partners at a time would cross the floor to the other side, expressing the emotion of anger with our bodies.

One issue I’ve personally been working with is how to know when to help people and when not to, and how I relate internally to those two options. In fact, in a Sunday class the week before, a man had come in with a walker and paused at the side of the dance floor. I happened to be near him and asked if he wanted a chair. He was irate: “Why would I need a chair? There’s nothing wrong with me!”

Although I have never discussed it with Tanya, I wonder if, because of her disability, she has to contend constantly with people projecting their ideas of what her experience is and should be onto her. When I was pregnant in 2009-2010, I struggled with the visibility of my pregnant body and how much people wanted to tell me about my experience. I felt like a walking screen for everyone’s projections, and that if I heard one more birth horror story I might possibly harm someone.

With Tanya, I want to be available to help, but also don’t want to insult her by offering, and sometimes I get myself tangled in stories about helping/not helping instead of simply trusting myself to communicate effectively and do what’s needed. When we were lining up in the anger exercise, Tanya, who happened to be next to me, turned to me and shook her head, blinking her eyes and looking unhappy. “Does this feel like too much?” I asked. She nodded. “Do you want me to get you a chair?” She nodded again. I carried a chair over, placed it off to the side, and she sat down. The week before, I’d shared a dance with a broken-ankled friend who needed to stay seated, and, deep in a vigorous chaos, she had traveled laterally at least ten feet without harming the floor surface at all. Recalling this, I asked,

“Tanya, do you want me to push you across in the chair?”

Her eyebrows raised and her face lit up. “Really?”

She gave a clear “Yes” nod, so I moved behind the chair and pushed her forward. Tanya seemed delighted as I gently zigged and zagged across. My own dance had vigor and specificity, a Staccato I’ve been searching for lately – a self I’ve been searching for lately –especially as my roles in the world become more complex and I step into more positions of leadership. When we were almost to the end, I signaled to another dancer to please take over and she got the message immediately. I ran back to the first side of the room and crossed again, on my own this time, in an individual anger dance, unselfconsciously ferocious, owning my power without insisting on it.

The next time across, I asked a mutual friend to join Tanya and me. We were just as wild, zigzagging across both in partnership and as a trio, and changing roles halfway across.

I’m sure I benefited much more than Tanya in this exchange, and remain grateful to her for her willingness, courage, and openness.

The next and final day of the workshop, when we greeted each other, Tanya took the time to say, “I feel seen.” I recalled my resolution following a Heartbeat workshop more than a decade before to return the favor of Tanya’s clear-seeing when I had felt painfully unseen by one dancer, but seen by Tanya.

I don’t know if she meant specifically seen by me, but however she meant it, I looked at length into her light eyes and my heart flooded up. So many of the lessons Tanya teaches me are the ones that we already know deep down but conventionally forget, such as the fact that one of the deepest human needs is to feel seen, and that one of the greatest gifts we can offer is to see each other.


“Do you have any advice for new dancers?” I asked as our interview drew to a close.

“Have fun! Try not to take yourself too seriously and don’t worry if you don’t ‘get it’ at first. I tried to read one of Gabrielle Roth’s books in the beginning and I didn’t understand it. I couldn’t really hear what the teachers were saying at first, either. I’m very kinaesthetic; I learn through the body. I had to practice before I could get it intellectually.”

“And do you have advice for experienced dancers?

“Same thing! And also keep your mind open, keep your eyes open, and don’t get fixed on a certain idea.”

The final question was, “In closing, do you have a favorite quote or passage from Gabrielle’s teachings?”

“Waves move in patterns. Patterns move in rhythms. A human being is just that – energy, waves, patterns, rhythms. Nothing more. Nothing less. A dance.”

by Meghan LeBorious, based on an interview with 5Rhythms teacher Tanya Goldman on May 27, 2018, and journal notes from 2008-2019.

Originally published in the 5Rhythms Tribe newsletter on April 16, 2019. Photographs courtesy of Tanya Goldman and Jonathan Horan.

Wild and Precious: Breastfeeding As Formal Meditation Practice

Wild and Precious: Breastfeeding As Formal Meditation Practice

Resting against the wall, breastfeeding my tiny son in the quietest stretch of night, I watch from the fourth floor as the silver line of the J-train glides along its raised track and over the East River.  A blizzard that encased New York in silence hit a few days ago, leaving city buses stranded in the snow on Manhattan’s busy avenues.  Square shovelpaths above the height of my waist have been cut into the deep snow so the sidewalks look like magical labyrinths.  The scrape of a shovel on pavement resounds from far away.  Inside the room, candles flicker on a low table.  The baby, Simon, who is supported by the curve of my arm, has his eyes closed and is sucking patiently, perhaps asleep.

About halfway through pregnancy my mother asked if I planned to breastfeed.  “Yeah, I guess,” I shrugged, “If I can, I will, if not, I’m not going to worry about it.”  Coping with volatility at home, the question of whether or not to breastfeed seemed like the least of my problems.  I hadn’t thought much about how I would give birth either, for the same reason.

Despite little preparation until two weeks before, labor went quickly and smoothly.  My as-yet-unnamed son rested easily in the palm of his father’s hand, blinking his dark eyes slowly, like a miniature tortoise.  The midwife passed him to me, telling me to try to feed him.  I contorted my shoulders and twisted my spine into an awkward shape, holding the baby stiffly.  She put her hands on her thick hips and shook her head.  “No, not like that.  You have to relax.  Like this.” She adjusted me, but I still felt uncomfortable and ill at ease.

We left the birthing center just eight hours after Simon was born.  At home, we took turns holding him tenderly.  I did my best to feed him, but struggled to get him to latch properly, and worried that he wasn’t getting enough to eat.  In the first few days, he lost weight.  As I understand, newborns have “extra fluid” that they lose right away, and it takes a week or two to regain their birth weight.  Still, I felt concerned.  In a way, it’s like mothers are set up to worry right from the beginning.

My friend Dina, an RN, came to visit.  She taught me “the football hold,” placing the baby with his belly on my forearm, and re-structuring the armature of pillows around me to better support Simon’s six-pound body.  Soon after, he started to gain weight.

At night, I tucked pillows around myself so I wouldn’t risk rolling over, and placed Simon on my chest.  We slept like that, chest to chest, for six months or more, his tiny body rising and falling with my breath, his arm draped down the side of me, his fist too small to even reach the mattress below.

For our first months together, days and nights became indistinguishable as time lost its workday edges, flowing along in response to Simon’s needs.  Many times, the sky lit with sunset before I felt I’d officially settled into the day, and before long, another sunrise would light the room, and another purple sunset.

Less than two months before Simon was born, I lost my job as a freelance textile designer.  Fortunately though, I qualified for unemployment and managed to stay with Simon nearly full time for the first two years of his life.

At first, Simon seemed to eat all the time, sometimes for hours at once.  In the beginning, I might talk on the phone, craft a task list, or even watch an occasional movie while Simon breastfed.  As the weeks progressed, and the gestures of breastfeeding felt more and more natural, I started to really love it.  I loved watching and holding Simon, his tiny hands, his curious eyes, his dark, expressive eyebrows, his patient breath.

I learned an important lesson from Simon’s father, Eulas.  From the start, I was determined to seem competent and together as a mother, believing that I needed to make it look easy.  On a course to fuss from day one, I attended over-carefully to the mundane details of Simon’s experience.  Once when he was just a few days old, I watched Eulas hold him, supporting his body and gazing into his eyes, completely still.  He was fully present for our tiny son, who was still adjusting to breathing air and to loud sounds and wind and clothing.  “Wow.  I want that,” I thought.  The hell with spending my energy worrying about red tape, and in the process missing opportunities to connect with the miracle of this brand new human being.  I decided then to re-set the maternal pattern of worrying and fussing that had quickly emerged, that had seemed almost inevitable, and to emphasize being fully present instead.

I recalled a teaching I’d encountered at Insight Meditation Society, where I’d done a silent retreat a few years previous.  It was just a short passage set in a modest biography about Dipa Ma, a saint within the Vipassana tradition.  Dipa Ma was a householder who did not seek meditation training until her mid-forties, then managed to attain full enlightenment in a remarkably short time.  After her realization, she guided many along the path to enlightenment.  One of her first students was a woman named Malati Barua, a widow who was raising six children on her own.  According to the biographer,

“Dipa Ma, believing that enlightenment was possible in any environment, devised practices that her new student could carry out at home.  In one such practice, she taught Malati to steadfastly notice the sucking sensation of the infant at her breast, with complete presence of mind, for the duration of each nursing period” (Schmidt, 38-39).

Going back to this text, I decided to read it as practice instructions, and apply it to my own experience.  From then on, whenever Simon was breastfeeding, I considered it practice time.  I did not watch TV, text, read, shop online, or talk on the phone.  Instead, I brought my attention to the rhythmic sensation of Simon sucking at my breast. When my mind wandered, I brought it back again to this sensation, taking it as the primary object of meditation.

Using breastfeeding as a formal meditation practice might be seen as the opposite of “brexting.” A recent study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior showed that there were distractions in half of infant feedings, and that about 60% of those distractions were due to smart phones and other technology–possibly linked to problems with eating habits later in life.

The patch of woods ringing my parents’ yard is layered densities of green, dark leaves and their pale undersides.  Simon, four months old and having just breastfed at length, is sleeping on my lap; and I continue to practice, now bringing my attention to the feeling of holding him, my own breath, and the dynamic forces around me: wind, moving clouds, rustling trees, bird activity, crawling insects.  A hummingbird hovers just a few feet away, interested in some colorful partylights on the deck that it seems to think might be flowers. 

Mindfulness meditation is often focused on the breath, but a practitioner can choose any object to focus on.  In the beginning, the instruction is to notice if your attention wanders and gently bring it back to the thing you decided to focus on–in this case the physical sensation of breastfeeding.  The more we come back to our focus, the more we build up our capacity to be mindful.  Being more mindful allows us to be less anxious, more focused, more loving, and fundamentally happier, even as life continues to present its ups and downs.

Before giving birth, I feared that it might be hard to continue my well-established meditation practice once the baby came.  Instead, because of using breastfeeding as a formal meditation practice, I felt like I was on retreat for the first months of Simon’s life. Blissful sensations arose frequently despite the painful challenges that I continued to face in my relationship with Eulas, which ended after eight tumultuous years around my first Mother’s Day.

In late Fall, when Simon is ten months old, we visit my cousin and her wife in Vermont.  They’ve renovated an old farmhouse; and it sits on a wooded, sloping acre, complete with an apple orchard.  They head for work, leaving us to explore on our own.  After walking patiently around the property with attention to all of our senses, we settle onto a big, woven-rope hammock so Simon can breastfeed and slide off into a nap.  I hang my foot over the side of the hammock, rustling some dry leaves and rocking us by pushing against the ground.  Simon snuggles close to my body, falling into a trance of contentment. I practice, holding him and continuing to rock back and forth in the hammock, intentionally noticing the physical sensations of breastfeeding.  The trees are majestic, soaring high overhead.  Clouds rush behind them.  A horizontal leaf drifts all the way down from the high branches, zigzagging patiently to the ground.

That I was not working for the first two years of Simon’s life made it easier to use breastfeeding as a formal meditation practice, but Dipa Ma specially designed this practice for mothers who are pressed for time, and I believe it is a viable option for maintaining (or even deepening) a meditation practice during the first stretch of motherhood.


We think we are so busy, but the truth is that sometimes we make ourselves busier than we need to be because it makes us feel important. The more we tell ourselves we are busy, the more we amp ourselves up and lose touch with what is actually important.  Conversely, the more present we are, the better we are able to be strategic about mundane necessities, to express love, and to delight in the tiny, patient experience of welcoming a new human to the world.


In the words of the poet Mary Oliver,


“Tell me, what is it you plan to do

With your one wild and precious life?”


This essay is dedicated to Lauren LeBlanc, in gratitude for her encouragement, literary skill and insight, and also for her dedication to excellence in mothering.  It is also dedicated to my own mother, Betsy LeBorious, one of my two first and best teachers.

(First published, July 19, 2018)

Raising Kids with the Rhythms

“I think we’re here to learn to be calm and gentle. And also to be fast. And to notice things.”
— Simon, age 7


My son, Simon, has taken a risk and let go of my hands for the first time today, up-rocking breakdance-style with intricately syncopated steps, twisting his waist emphatically, using all parts of his fast-moving feet, and following their gestures with sharp-angled arms. He is nearly as tall as me, lithe and bursting. Tight, brown, carefully-clipped curls frame his face, and his dark eyes flash with excitement and focus. Simon and I are at the Joffrey Studio in the West Village – in a Sunday morning 5Rhythms class. Simon suddenly looks around at the many dancers, then grabs hold of my hands again, pulling hard on my wrists.

Of everything that I do as a parent, I think giving Simon access to the 5Rhythms is, quite possibly, my best offering. Even at the age of 7, the practice has already equipped him with a powerful toolkit for moving through life.

Three years before Simon was born, I started dancing the 5Rhythms at the suggestion of a trusted friend. For the first two years of dancing, I cried almost constantly. I found that I needed to collapse again and again — an antidote for years of holding things back in difficult relationships. Sometimes I was crying out unexpressed grief, sometimes I was crying for joy; and often I wasn’t sure why I was crying — only that my at once tender and defended heart was becoming more and more available.

On first glance, a 5Rhythms class would probably just look like a wild dance club, but for most people, it is also much more. For me, it is a laboratory for life, encompassing psychological, emotional, philosophical, interpersonal and shamanic levels.

I had already been practicing for two years when I became pregnant with Simon. For me, pregnancy was a study in contrasts. My relationship with Simon’s father was marked by conflict and I felt anguish on a daily basis. At the same time, I loved being pregnant. In dance, I found a way to express and release the pain I was experiencing. Although I was as big as I would be by six months into pregnancy, I never moved like a pregnant woman as dancing gave me the ability to work with the fast changes in my body and allowed me to adapt consciously as my balance shifted. Also in dance, I was deeply aware of the miracle of pregnancy. I felt so full. So un-lonely. So fascinated with my own body. I danced both our rhythms at once, marveling that I contained two heartbeats and that I was both one person and two people at the same time.

When I was five months pregnant, I danced like a wild animal in the rhythm of Chaos during an intensive workshop and became concerned that I might have harmed my small son. After that, I decided to play it safe and take a break from 5Rhythms until after the baby came. Things got even worse in my relationship, however, and after a week I realized that I urgently needed my supportive 5Rhythms community to balance out the conflict at home. I also feared the pain I was experiencing could harm my son unless I was diligent about moving and not allowing the energies of afflictive emotions to lodge in either of our bodies.

In a way, I am grateful even for the difficulty, as it caused me to stay with practice, yielding moments of incomparable beauty. I continued to attend 5Rhythms classes until less than a week before Simon was born.

At a 5Rhythms class, sometimes an arrangement of objects and images is included in the studio, rather like an altar or an artwork installation. Right after Simon was born, the same friend who had first invited me to 5Rhythms included a picture of him in such an arrangement for the Friday Night Waves class. In the picture, he is tiny, his head nestled in the palm of Daddy’s hand, in exquisite profile. The teacher, Tammy Burstein, also announced that Simon had arrived, and, as my friend tells it, several dancers were moved to tears by this news, since they felt they had been dancing with him all along.

I took a break from classes right after Simon was born, but continued to practice daily in my apartment, putting him down in a baby chair when my movement became vigorous, but holding him through much of the practice. After a month, when he could take a bottle and I could be away from him for a few hours, I resumed regular attendance, at least on Friday nights.

When Simon was an infant, still only held or carried, I brought him several times to a small daytime 5Rhythms class that Tammy Burstein held at the now-defunct Sandra Cameron dance studio on the Lower East Side. I would dance with Simon in my arms, letting the weight of his little body pull me into dipping spins in Flowing, his presence affecting my experience of each of the rhythms. Dancers would partner with us, and we had many playful, deep, fascinating exchanges. I felt confident about dancing while holding him, and continued to be fully engaged in my own practice. Sometimes Simon would travel with other bodies, usually comfortable with being passed around. Once, I sent Tammy a song I thought she would love, “Be My Little Honeybee” from one of Simon’s children’s albums. After two absorbing waves, she surprised me by playing the honeybee song in the rhythm of Lyrical. Simon, though still barely speaking, recognized it and lit up with delight. The moment lives in my memory as one when I was fully aware of the gigantic, tender love that I feel for my son. In fact, it has been inside 5Rhythms classes, when I am not thinking about red tape or setting boundaries or the challenges of day-to-day living, that I have most fully noticed and enjoyed the powerful love that I have for him.

I knew from the beginning that I wanted to raise Simon with the 5Rhythms. Truthfully, I couldn’t imagine not raising Simon with 5Rhythms. But the question was: How? A few 5Rhythms teachers offer classes for children, but there are no classes for children in NYC, where we live. I was able to bring Simon occasionally to small, daytime classes, but once I started working during the day that was no longer possible. The guidelines for including children at night classes were extra hazy. It was sometimes done, but it seemed to be a favor granted on a case-by-case basis. Also, a lot of the night classes seemed too energetic, and occasionally too emotionally dark, to bring a small child. And I didn’t want to intrude too heavily on the adult space of the practice room.

For over a year, I produced an all-ages 5Rhythms class called Family Waves in two successive Brooklyn venues. The class was taught by rotating teachers including Jason GoodmanMichelle LampisAmber Ryan and Alex de Willermin, who generously volunteered their time. Picture many small children (including mine) running in circles and criss-crossing the room, narrowly missing (or not missing) collisions and occasionally indulging the adults by following the teacher’s directions. The class lasted only an hour, but we ranged through various terrain as the teachers attempted to address both the children and the adults at the same time, so it wouldn’t be either a children’s class the adults were just hanging around for or an adult class the children were permitted to attend.

For so many of us, 5Rhythms is what has allowed us to heal from a lifetime of pressure to stop moving. It is a doorway to freedom, a path out of constraint. How powerful, I thought, it would be to never stop moving — to have it from the beginning. To be taught and encouraged from when you are tiny that it is alright to be exactly who you are, that the possibilities for aliveness are beyond our wildest imaginings, that you will experience infinite different emotions and that they are all OK. That you are absolutely the only one who can dance your dance, and, at the same time, that you are in no way separate from the fabric of humanity, but are intricately connected with every other being. I very much wanted to share these teachings with my son, to help him to thrive in our increasingly stressful world.

But in reality, my precious child was like a wild animal, running at top speed, totally out of control. I was mired in conflict. Authentic movement seemed essential to my vision as a 5Rhythms parent, but somehow my son had to observe certain boundaries. I struggled to set limits without giving him the message that his way of being was somehow incorrect. Eventually, I had to admit that the format really was not working — at least not for Simon. And I was so stressed with trying to manage the red tape of the class and Simon’s behavior at the same time that it didn’t make sense to continue the project. Fortunately, a short time after the Family Waves class dissolved, a policy was made officially allowing children to attend the Sweat Your Prayers class on Sunday mornings, so I had a new way to hold the door open for Simon.

When I contacted Alex de Willermin, one of the Family Waves teachers, to ask her opinion about the best way to expose children to the 5Rhythms, she emphasized that the first point of contact is for parents to dance with their children at home so that their children could “see their parents dancing and feeling much more relaxed, present and connected after they do.” She stressed the importance of using “language to help tap into their curiosity, playfulness, and imagination; as well as clear rules: whether to give permission or set boundaries.” In Alex’s words, “Society could only benefit from children becoming more confident and comfortable in their bodies — with their emotions allowed and their being affirmed.” Notably, Alex is currently teaching Family Waves classes in her hometown, Paris, a re-incarnation of the multi-generational class that we piloted in Brooklyn.

Daniela Plattner, a 5Rhythms teacher who herself began practicing around the age of 8, also shared her thoughts on raising kids in the 5Rhythms. “The best way to expose children to 5Rhythms is to bring them to class.” She went on to say, “We need to get 5Rhythms in kid-relevant places.” Daniela, for example, did her first 5Rhythms class at her local skating rink.

Daniela believes that the practice could positively impact children. In her words, “It will help them develop their fine and gross motor skills, become comfortable in their skin, learn to work with healthy boundaries and non verbal communication, decrease stress and anxiety, and provide a healthy outlet for anger and sadness.”

Asked to describe her experience as a young practitioner and how it may have impacted her development, Daniela shared, “I practiced as a kid with Gabrielle growing up. When we were filming one of her videos, I remember thinking that I could do anything. I was free. I always felt empowered and intrigued by the 5Rhythms, especially with Gabrielle and Jonny (Jonathan Horan, Gabrielle Roth’s son). It gave me confidence to strut on the street and to be bold and brave in board rooms.”

In response to a question about how 5Rhythms is different for kids, Daniela said, “They need specificity and images, and sometimes more guidance. My preference is for teaching concepts through dance. Kids don’t need as much information about the science and goals of the practice as adults do in work-place settings.” The fundamental objective of 5Rhythms is the same for all ages, though: “to get people moving and expressing themselves.”

I asked a parent who has been diligently practicing the 5Rhythms for nearly twenty years his opinion on raising children in 5Rhythms. He stated, “I started 5Rhythms when my second child was born. I didn’t explain 5Rhythms or teach it to (my children). We just danced all the time. They came to one class and didn’t care for it. … What I’ve learned for myself is that if I’m grounded in my body, I’m a better parent. The funny thing is, my daughter is 20 now and is extremely confident; and my son is 17 and a professional dancer.”

At a Sweat Your Prayers class taught by Kierra Foster-Ba, I was joined by Simon, our ten-year-old cousin, and my uncle, who were visiting New York for the weekend. On entering, the two children settled into a spot at the edge of the dance floor and played with some action figure 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.

In the car on the way to the class, 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 had a delightful dance, myself. At one point, 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 both children continued to play on the floor. I danced near them several times, gently prompting movement, then drifting away again, leaving them to their game. 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.

This week, Simon turned seven. We had a jam-packed, rollicking party with nearly seventy people in our apartment that included singing, dancing, playing music and rough-housing — a chance to practice a manageable version of Chaos in the face of the growing chaos of the national arena. The day before his birthday, Simon called me back to the room after I put him to bed, crying. “Mommy, I’m sad for you that I’m getting older and I’m not a baby now!” “Oh, no! Simon, I’m a little sad that you are not a baby anymore, but I’m even more happy and proud about the young man you are becoming!” Realizing he is growing up quickly strengthens my resolve to offer Simon all that I can in terms of coping skills as he matures and inherits this crazy world.
Simon and I have a ritual for entering a class that started when he was tiny, designed to help him to be aware of sacred space. Our ritual is to stand on the threshold of the studio door, hold hands, take a big breath in, then, as we exhale forcefully, we jump into what we call “The Magic Dance Room.” Today, once across the threshold, we find a spot, tucked into a comfortable corner near a pile of coats, and Simon gets himself settled as I start to move around the room in Flowing. He pretty much burns through all of his snacks during Flowing in the first wave, then gets up in Staccato to join me on the dance floor. He wants me to hold both his hands, and he makes this very clear when I try to release one hand and extend my range of motion.

In the elevator, people are generous with their attention, and Simon feels seen and welcomed. The class’s producer, who is set up with a small table filled with postcards announcing upcoming events and a folding chair, kindly welcomes Simon’s hug and kiss with open arms as we prepare to enter the studio.

Simon and I have a ritual for entering a class that started when he was tiny, designed to help him to be aware of sacred space. Our ritual is to stand on the threshold of the studio door, hold hands, take a big breath in, then, as we exhale forcefully, we jump into what we call “The Magic Dance Room.” Today, once across the threshold, we find a spot, tucked into a comfortable corner near a pile of coats, and Simon gets himself settled as I start to move around the room in Flowing. He pretty much burns through all of his snacks during Flowing in the first wave, then gets up in Staccato to join me on the dance floor. He wants me to hold both his hands, and he makes this very clear when I try to release one hand and extend my range of motion.

When Simon was tiny, he often wanted to be carried during a class. If he was on the ground, he would wrap his arms around my leg. I found an entirely new and fascinating way of moving, a previously undiscovered aspect of self, even with one leg restricted and grounded, that I would never have otherwise uncovered — the depths we can perhaps only find when faced with limitations. I reflected that although some might see having a child as limiting their experience with his dependence and in providing certain constraints, Simon has given me a door into vaster freedom than I had previously been able to conceive of. Especially in the first two years after his birth, creative work has flowed from me into the world.

Since we had just celebrated Simon’s birthday, I relived the memory of giving birth to him. Simon was born at a warm, quiet birthing center without any drugs or medical interventions. I danced Flowing in the intervals between contractions, and worked through each of the rhythms in the process of giving birth, pounding out a staccato rhythm on the side of a large bathtub as I labored, raising massive energy and letting go in Chaos as the baby came to light, blinking my eyes in delighted Lyrical as I looked at him for the first time, and breathing in Stillness as we rested together, absorbed in a whole new reality.

In this case, in the Sunday class, I am moving very much in Staccato; and my dance remains attentive to Simon’s needs. He trots out some more fancy footwork as we move around the room, still holding tightly to my hands, and looking at all the dancers around us. As Chaos arises, Simon goes back to his spot in the corner and plays with his Legos. I move around the room, then join with a good friend in Lyrical, letting extensions pull me upward, and following her pendulous spinning.

In Stillness, Simon and I both stretch out on the floor and roll slowly, side by side, into the middle of the room. Before long, I sit up, continuing to move near him, but he remains on his back, pushing himself slowly through the room with his bent legs, gazing upward at the dancing adults.

Another 5Rhythms teacher who taught the Family Waves class, Michelle Lampis, is now the parent of a two-year-old. Although she feels her son is too young to attend classes, “we dance almost every day for fun. There are times when a particular rhythm stands out more. For example: on a given day my son might be feeling frustrated with not getting his way. I can help him move that frustration by stomping my feet along with him and saying ‘No’ to a staccato beat, or just by being playful in Lyrical together. Expressing his (and often my own) frustration can also introduce humor to the situation.”

Gabrielle Roth in “Maps to Ecstasy” writes, “The best thing to do with an angry child is not to try to turn off the anger, to push it down, to insist that the anger be controlled; rather, it is best to give the anger permission, to affirm it. Maybe you can get down with the child and do an angry, stomping, monster dance together. It is so vital for us to help our … children … in letting their emotions breathe and find apt expression. Compassion supports other people in entering into and releasing their authentic feelings.”

Michelle also believes that exposing children to 5Rhythms concepts “gives them more tools for expressing what they need and how they feel. Each rhythm can become a reference point and provide emotional vocabulary.” She goes on to say, “We don’t have a culture that gives us avenues to explore and understand our emotional world. Mostly we aren’t meant to feel ‘too much’ or ‘too big’. The 5Rhythms provide a place to express it all.” She adds, “I hope it will mean that my son and I have a language that will involve all aspects of our experience — our thoughts, our emotions and our bodily sensations.” 5Rhythms has the potential to not only expand our shared language but also, in the process, to expand our very capacity for experience.

Longtime 5Rhythms teacher, Jane Selzer, talks about the ways 5Rhythms training has influenced her as a parent. “The (advanced 5Rhythms maps) Mirrors and Cycles, in particular, have helped me to shift with my son as he grows. At the Waves level, 5Rhythms helps me to avoid getting stuck in patterns that aren’t working. Also, the playfulness and creativity of the practice have always helped me keep my relationship with my son light and fun instead of rigid and judgmental.”

As the next wave starts, Simon takes another Legos break. Joining me in Staccato, we dance close to where he has his Legos and toys. He lets go of my hands again and gets creative with his feet as we move toward Chaos, letting me loop around him, ranging over several feet. As Chaos deepens, Simon goes back to his spot in the corner again, while I move into an exceptionally creative Chaos with the favorite dance partner who has delighted me by making an appearance.

At home, we have always danced. There are often 5Rhythms-inspired experiments, but really it is a blend of yoga, dance and rough-housing that most often takes place in our living room. We also use the vocabulary of 5Rhythms in our discussions. For example, using the language of Flowing to talk about how to move on a crowded sidewalk in our home neighborhood, Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Another example is talking about the energy we need to bring to getting somewhere, Flowing — “taking our time and looking at everything mode,” or Staccato – “efficient mode” — when we need to be about business and timetables. Yet another is in talking about the Chaos of trying something new, and how sometimes people get stuck in ruts and are afraid to experiment. In fact, many of our daily conversations are inflected with the 5Rhythms, which helps us to connect and to communicate in ways that are meaningful.

Back to the Sunday class after the 7-year-old birthday party, in Lyrical, Simon points silently to the door, and we both step out of the studio briefly. “The music is too loud. It’s hurting my ears,” he says. “OK, we can stay out here for a little while.” “We can go back in when the song is done,” he says, leading me back into the room as soon as the music shifts.

Coming back through the door into the studio, the rhythm of Stillness has already begun to unfold. Simon pours his weight onto my forearm, as he does when we are walking home and he is extremely tired. We are invited to partner in a conscious speaking exercise to answer the question “Why are we here?” and sit on the floor facing each other, in “criss-cross-applesauce” posture. We snuggle with his head on my shoulder and our arms wrapped around each other. After a few moments, I say, “Do you want to talk about why you think we’re here?” Without pausing Simon says, “I think we’re here to learn to be calm. And gentle. And also to be fast. And to notice things,” he says, probably answering in terms of why he thinks we are here in the class, today, not existentially, as I had assumed the teacher meant the question. I kiss his forehead, then take my own turn to speak, saying, “I think we’re here to make others happy and to make ourselves happy.” It seems that his “today” answer and my “existential” answer were pretty similar anyway. We continue to snuggle and to rock back and forth gently. At one point, I gather him into my arms, sideways, like when he was a small baby, and rock him gently. As the final song begins, Simon rests the back of his head on the tops of my feet, leaning backward over my knees, relaxed. I feel a rush of love and gratitude, as we hold hands and gently move each other’s arms, listening to the last song Gabrielle Roth ever recorded.

When the music concludes, the mood in the room is reverent. Simon leads the way to our things. We quietly pick them up, then head out of the studio. “Simon, I’m so proud of you,” I say, “When the teacher asked us to leave the room silently, you followed the directions.” He responds, “I didn’t even hear that, Mommy. I just knew I was still in the Magic Dance Room and I couldn’t talk.”

I am grateful for the many moments of glorious connection, when the practice draws back the veil of mundane experience and reminds me of the divine blessing of my sweet little boy, my darling son. We end our adventure with a special lunch and talk about our experiences. I say, “Simon, I am so happy to have had this chance to practice with you. It makes me so happy. I hope that the 5Rhythms will help you build up your happiness skills”. I think, but don’t say, my little one, who is quickly getting big, I hope the practice arms you to deal with a frightening world that I can’t protect you from. I hope your heart will guide you always, and that you will never forget that moving is your birthright—the destiny that gave birth to you, that gave birth to all of us.

Practical Suggestions for Raising Kids in 5Rhythms

(Originally published in the Moving Center Newsletter, Summer 2017)

Prepared for Grief & More: what Gabrielle Roth did for me

When I learned by text message last October that Gabrielle Roth was passing through the veil of death, I sat in silence, cradling the phone in my hand. I remembered that my first meeting with her was like meeting the Buddha. She had an inspiring presence backed up by a body of teachings shared by followers around the world. I had come to think of her as immortal even though I knew that she was growing frail with stage four lung cancer. As I processed the news, I realized that from the moment that I first walked into one of Gabrielle’s 5Rhythms classes she was preparing me to handle this grief.Sweat your prayers

Gabrielle Roth is renowned for her dance and movement meditation practice 5Rhythms. Her ideas were spread through books such as Maps to Ecstasy (1989), Sweat Your Prayers (1997), and Connections: the Five Threads of Intuitive Wisdom (2004).  She also recorded over twenty albums, mainly as Gabrielle Roth & The Mirrors.  Many of these albums are popular in yoga classes. In 2007, she founded the non-profit  5Rhythms Reach Out to offer her movement practices to prisoners, inner city children, the elderly, and other special needs communities.  Roth passed away October 22, 2012.

The 5Rhythms moving awareness practice that Gabrielle Roth created is my own core spiritual practice—my way of investigating, healing, connecting, questioning and celebrating the experience of my life. Her refrain was, “A body in motion heals itself.”

The 5Rhythms are movement frameworks called Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical and Stillness. There are no prescribed movements, only guiding principles for one’s creativity. When one moves through a sequence of the 5Rhythms, it is called a Wave.  Gabrielle laid out additional maps for the 5Rhythms practice, including guided workshops.  Even so, Gabrielle encouraged each person to find his or her own way, because the 5Rhythms is a way of describing the energy of the creative process, not a prescription of a particular form of dance. “This is just the little black dress I put on for you,” she said.