Embodied Waves: Flowing

This blog consists of my own subjective experiences on the 5Rhythms® dancing path, and is not sanctioned by any 5Rhythms® organization or teacher.

I was happy to arrive on time to Jonathan Horan’s sold-out, one day workshop “5Rhythms Fundamentals: Embodied Waves” that took place on Sunday at the Joffrey Ballet Studio in the West Village. I had been away until the night before, and had not set foot in a 5Rhythms room for two entire weeks. During the interlude, I danced (again) at Dance Spree in Northampton, Massachusetts, and also went to several dance events at Kripala Institute, where I observed the New Year. I intended to find a quiet corner of the large yoga retreat center to meditate through the midnight hour, but decided, instead, to attend a lively dance party lead by two teachers. I also went to a class lead by a man who started something called Shake Your Soul; and, although initially resistant, found that I was won over by the end of the class. I thought I would relax, meditate and attend yoga classes, but as so often happens, found I was drawn to dance—whether it is specifically 5Rhythms or not. All of these experiences offered new insight and information for me to experiment with.

I noticed as I entered the room on Sunday that I was slightly nervous. I have entered this same room on the 5th floor of the Joffrey hundreds of times; and I have rarely been nervous. It was hard to identify a cause, but I began to suspect that I was overly concerned with what the teacher, Jonathan, thought of me. I’m not sure what, exactly, I was hoping he would think, but it was an interesting thing to note. I admit that I cared very much what Gabrielle Roth—Jonathan’s mother and the founder of 5Rhythms—thought, and wondered if it might not have carried over.

Martha, an artist and 5Rhythms teacher who is highly regarded in the 5Rhythms community, had created an engaging installation with an active water element that contained references to earth, fire, water, air and ether; and I lingered near it, inspecting its elements as the dance began to move me.

I slipped easily into the first wave, beginning by finding an off-to-the-side spot to unfurl, stretch and undulate. I encountered many friends—people I have danced with for years—and greeted them warmly. I noted that there were several experienced teachers on the floor; and that the room felt deeper, somehow, for their many collective years of practice. Once I felt ready to stand, I rose to my feet in a dramatic rush, lifting first my hips, then back, shoulders, and head, and, finally, raising my hands to the sky and arcing slightly back. From there, I found circular motion easily, connecting joyfully with other dancers. I was also deep in my hips, experimenting with long, low stances; sharp, square edges; and percussive motion. With a good friend, I enjoyed a brief flinging jig, with high spinning steps and air-landed kicks during Lyrical in the opening wave.

Things shifted radically for me after Jonathan’s instructional talk following that first wave. I sat in the circle of participants surrounding Jonathan as he spoke, rapt with attention. In the beginning of the talk, he gazed into the ceiling, seemingly searching for words or waiting for inspiration. I wondered if he could see or hear his now-deceased mother, Gabrielle, and couldn’t resist the temptation to follow his gaze skyward.

Jonathan touched on many significant themes. He talked about the nature of practice—a topic that I love—and how we use the discipline of practice to help us to deepen our capacity for awareness. He also explained that (despite conventional understanding) 5Rhythms is not a dance practice. I remember Gabrielle saying that, too. In a talk she gave not long before she died, she said, “This is just the little black dress I put on for you,” and explained that 5Rhythms is actually a way to describe the very creative process itself, not just what happens in the dance.

I hope I don’t fall into the temptation of getting stuck on the idea that 5Rhythms is dance, but I am so grateful that it is. I do love to dance.

Jonathan went on to explain that 5Rhythms is actually a movement meditation practice. He used repetition, taking the voice of a dancer-seeker, “I taste freedom. I taste freedom!” he said, “Freedom from myself!” He then spoke about noticing if you are “in” or “out”, describing, I think, the quality of awareness.

In class on Friday, Tammy also commented on awareness, saying that one of the goals of practice is to develop awareness to such an extent that we realize we are totally and utterly connected to everyone else. She then invoked one of Gabrielle’s most famous adages: “There is only one of us here.”

My inner talk at this point in the workshop was something like, “I get this. I’m good at this. I’m mostly ‘in’. I know how to open my awareness to whatever comes. My heart gets shattered in this room all the time. This is not going to be very hard for me.”

Jonathan invited us to do a dance of being “out”, and had us take partners in this intentional state of being aware of non-awareness. Although we had a partner, we were supposed to think about something else, look away from them, and otherwise distract ourselves. I found that it was really, really hard to stay dis-engaged. I thought about a painting assignment I once had—to make a “bad” painting. It was hard! The intended badness of it was so engaging that I made a painting I loved, and that planted the seeds for an entire painting series that carried through the following year.

Jonathan encouraged us to “be real,” to find our own dance, and to stop performing ourselves. “Do that thing you do, when you are performing,” he said playfully on the microphone, “do that cute thing you do with your hips! Yeah! Do your hipster dance!” He continued; and the bottom dropped out for me. My ego did a triple spin. Every time I tried to move, I felt I was performing. The suspicion I had about wanting to impress Jonathan came drifting back. I felt like every movement I made had some aspect of performing to it. Instead of just noting my inner experience and moving on, in this case I seized up—the ego watching the ego watching the ego. I descended into isolated pain. I did not have the energy I needed to dance with inspiration.

I wondered about the things I could have done differently to avoid this current pain. I should have eaten an adequate breakfast. I was tired because of going non-stop from one physically intense activity to the next at Kripalu; and perhaps I should have paced myself more. I hadn’t hydrated enough, surely. I started to wonder about a possible muscle pull in my right groin that had been tender for two days. I stopped the bold physical experiments—with wide, decisive steps and sweeping, extended arms—afraid I might have seriously pulled the muscle and just wasn’t feeling the damage yet.

Rather than dancing near the front and middle, where there is usually a lot of space and a lot of action, I hovered, instead, near the columns—vague and distracted by the inner discussion I wanted no part of, but was unable to silence.

This reminded me of an experiment Tammy proposed during a Friday night class in 2007 or 2008: that we turn and dance with the emptiness next to us. I happened to be concurrently studying the Buddhist concept of emptiness—that nothing exists inherently in and of itself, including me—and that everything is in a constant state of change and flux. The study of emptiness infuriated me. Wasn’t it enough to know and accept emptiness without having to belabor the point? My ego rubbed and rubbed, blistering me in the process, trying its best to sustain itself. In retrospect, the class that focused on the study of emptiness (in the context of Buddhist Madyamika Prasangika teachings) was by far the most transformative of all the classes I took in a two-year intensive Buddhist studies program. I had no idea whatsoever how to respond to Tammy’s instructions at the time to turn and dance with the empty space next to us; and I found myself confused and irritated.

I think I should explain what I mean by the ego. I mean it not in the Freudian sense exactly, but closer to a Buddhist sense. The self aspect of self that is constantly involved in a process of proving its existence to itself—projecting its habitual stories, then trying to convince itself and others that its stories are true and eternal. This is the creature that got rubbed so hard in the workshop on Sunday. I can’t tell you exactly what self-story got interrupted, but I’m pretty sure I know it when I feel it.

Jonathan kept asking, are you “in” or “out”? “Are you just going through the motions?” He also said something like, “Can’t you just be real?” At one point, he said, “It’s a choice. In, or out.” This sparked anger. More than anything, I wanted to make the choice to be “in,” in fact I was making that choice, but “in” absolutely wasn’t available to me at that moment. The spark of anger never ignited, thankfully, as another voice in me answered the first, “It might not be a choice in this moment, but in the bigger picture, it is a choice. One that unfolds over time.”

It seemed clear that my ego was having some sort of temper tantrum, and it was downright unpleasant. On some deep-inside level, I think I trusted Jonathan, and was willing to believe that his choices were skillful, even if I couldn’t understand them in the moment. At the end of that wave, the final shape my body took was a twisted curve; and my eyes landed and stayed on the room’s red exit sign, hanging above the studio door.

I left quickly for lunch, hoping to avoid having to interact with anyone. As I sat at a local eatery, a close friend appeared and asked if he could join me. I was happy for his company, though still feeling unhappy and oddly tight. He told me someone asked if he was “having a nice dance,” and he shrugged, saying, “Well, I wouldn’t exactly call it nice.” I said, “Yes, sometimes nice or pleasant doesn’t exactly line up with productive. It could be totally not nice and still be productive.” I went on to share, “My dance so far today is very unpleasant, in fact. I think it might be productive, but it is really unpleasant right now. It would be good if it would shift.” I tried, unsuccessfully, to explain the tussle I suspected my ego was embroiled in.

I returned after lunch, once again on time, curious to see how my narrative would evolve through the afternoon. I wondered if I would remain locked in isolation, or if a different quality would come through. This time, I fell right into the luxury of aimlessness, flowing into empty spaces as they opened up and being coiled and repelled by currents as I moved toward and away from people. Sometimes I would trail someone briefly as I was tugged along in their wake. Even if I made a choice to go a particular way or to dance with a particular dancer, something would inevitably intervene and send me swirling happily in a different direction altogether.

I thought about how I had gone through stretches lasting months when dance was very unpleasant. I have no idea why I kept going to 5Rhythms classes when things got so very, very unpleasant and stayed that way for so long. I would scurry out at the end, unable, even, to sit peacefully with friends. I told myself that it was the nature of practice—that you keep showing up for yourself, again and again and again—without being attached to what will happen as a result. On Sunday, I was grateful that this period of unpleasantness seemed to have passed quickly.

Up until the time of this writing, I wasn’t exactly sure what the theme or even the title of the workshop was; and I actually had to look it up on 5Rhythms.com. I just knew that it was a one-day workshop with Jonathan in New York and was sure it wouldn’t be a waste of time or money. As it turns out, this was the first of a series of one-day “5Rhythms Fundamentals” workshops, each focusing on one of the 5Rhythms. While I didn’t note an emphasis on the rhythm of Flowing per se, in his final remarks at the end of the day, Jonathan said something to the effect that if you haven’t developed your relationship to Flowing—to finding yourself in the feet and knowing the ground beneath you—there is no point in moving on. I was left with the thought that the teachings of the day had to do not just with Flowing and finding the ground, but also to do with clear-cutting the defilements that corrupt that very relationship. No point in building a house on a swamp!

On Monday, I returned to work after two weeks of celebration, rest and time with family. It might or might not be related to my experiences during the workshop, but the week has been characterized by balance. I have been neither fatigued nor manic, neither hungry nor overfull, and neither bored nor overwhelmed.

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