Extreme Heat, Releasing the Neck & Doing Great Things

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Heat lightning ripped through the grey-purple sky as I was driving to the Friday Night Waves class.  Looking down my Brooklyn street to the East River a bolt jagged to the right and down, next to a looming metal crane.  Crossing the blue expanse of the Manhattan Bridge, lightning danced in fractured lines on both sides of me.  I felt sure the sky would explode with rain at any moment, though the clouds only managed to squeeze out a few frustrated drops.

In the week leading up to the class and in the days following, the entire city wilted.  Even bodies usually kept concealed have emerged and the edges of our garments have crept toward their seams. I have been doing errands in a bra and skirt, for example; and I did yoga today in a bathing suit. My parents came to visit and we all had a slumber party in the one air conditioned room of the apartment.  Nearly everyone has a similar dominant experience; and the heat is the main topic of conversation everywhere. I love the feeling of shared challenge and the remarkableness of it, but it has definitely been intense.

A few days before the class, I had a dream in which I knew that I was dying.  Some of my friends were going on a bike ride in the heat.  Though I was tempted to join, I opted to conserve my energy instead and write notes to everyone I love.  Lately, I have felt a generalized dissatisfaction, like I should be doing something other than what I am doing, like I am craving something that I can’t quite pinpoint.  I had a painful insight that when I get edgy with my six-year-old son, Simon, because he is taking too long to do a task, the root of my edginess is really a fear of failure.  Fear that if I waste time, I will fail to create markers of my experience and identity.  That I will die anonymous and therefore succumb completely to death—total annihilation.  The dream seemed to re-set my priorities, and I experienced a deepening of meditation practice.  I remembered, if only briefly, that now is my only hope.

I hadn’t realized that Tammy would be away this week; but I was happy to see Kierra Foster Ba at the teacher’s table in her place.  The air conditioners were on, but it was HOT. Seriously hot.  Again, like many, I wore less clothing than usual.  Stepping in, I bowed to the room and to the practice, then found a spot on the floor to stretch.  I was quickly called to movement, casting into curving, arcing gestures.  I found myself doing my current version of breakdancing—athletic circling, rising and falling, putting as much weight on my hands as on my feet, moving in unending circles and arcs.

I would have thought that breakdancing would appear in Staccato, as I see it as edgy and expressive, but for me it has only ever appeared in Flowing.  I recall an episode that happened not long after I started dancing the 5Rhythms—at a gallery event that turned into an all-night dance party.  One of the biggest obstacles I faced in the beginning of my 5Rhythms path was that I was painfully constricted—trying very hard not to be too big, too unruly, too attention-getting—trying to keep a lid on my explosive inner Chaos.  Having just fallen in love with 5Rhythms, I danced every bit as gigantic as I felt.  And everyone else did, too!  I realized that it is possible that dancing every inch of my dance (not to be confused with dancing gigantic just to get everyone’s attention) could give everyone else permission to dance every inch of their dance, too.  A moment from the gallery dance party that lives delightfully in my memory was when I did the worm across the entire length of the gallery, jumping to my feet in peals of laughter at the opposite wall, amongst friends, who also delightfully trotted out their favorite moves.

Taking to my feet, I flowed through the room with the intention of seeing everyone in attendance.  I thought of a man I met earlier in the day in downtown Brooklyn.  He sat on the sidewalk, with a money-request-cup and a sign that listed the important events of his life.  “Father died.  Grandmother died…” There was also a copy of a newspaper article, “Boy Survives Fall Out of 6th Story Building.”  “Are you the boy that fell out the window?” I asked.  He looked at me and nodded and his words began to tumble out.  I realized how much he wanted to be seen, and thought about how true that is for most of us.  Wanting to be seen.  Really seen.  Not just looked at.  Holding my brand new baby niece, I thought about that fundamental human wish again, as she opened her tiny eyes and in just a few moments of concentrating her tiny baby gaze, seemed to see all of me, everything that is important about me, completely.

Flowing lead to Staccato before long.  I noted that my right foot had a slight flatness, in comparison to its usual articulation, but it didn’t stop me from jumping into partnership after partnership—including with one lanky friend who always challenges me to stretch upward and into the farthest reaches of my limbs.

My top lip curled ever so slightly in response to an outburst of yelling from one corner of the dance floor.  Kierra picked up the microphone right away and said, “This is a spiritual practice. There is no talking.”  I am often impressed by Kierra’s non-didactic approach, and on this occasion I was just as impressed by her pointedness.

Chaos in the first wave found me energetic, spinning, loose.  Kierra played a track with tribal chaos rhythms mixed with a riff from Buena Vista Social Club; and I responded with enthusiasm and vigor despite the fact that I was already drenched with sweat.

In the context of the current presidential campaign season, my father has been saying, “In public life, there are two kinds of people: those who want to be somebody great, and those who want to do great things.”  This quote came to mind as Kierra began to speak in the interlude between the first and the second wave of the class.  “This is not a performance,” she said.  “This is a spiritual practice.  It’s for you.  Not for anyone else.  I challenge you to move beyond your self-consciousness, to not worry at all about how you look.”  I don’t think she was talking about self-consciousness just as shyness (as it often implies) but, rather, self-consciousness in the sense that you are very preoccupied with how others are seeing you, perhaps losing the center and depth of your own experience in the process.

Kierra stepped forward to demonstrate through moving what a 5Rhythms wave looked like for her in that moment.  She moved with grace and vigor as she explained to the eight brand new dancers in the room (and to the rest of us) that the gateway to Flowing is the feet; and that Flowing is characterized by unending, circular movement.  She began to move more sharply and to forcefully exhale.  “Staccato is really the opposite of Flowing.  It is directional, angular.  It is a good place to practice having good boundaries.”

At this point, Kierra digressed productively, encouraging us to fully take on the 5Rhythms, “especially if you have a strong will, and you always want to do things your way.  For example, you might want to be in the beat, but it’s Flowing—so you flow; and see what’s there, in your flow.  See what’s there for you.”  The suggestion to fully take on the 5Rhythms is, in my experience, incredibly useful advice.  In addition to Kierra, I have heard this theme emphasized by 5Rhythms teachers countless times, including Amber Ryan, Peter Fodera, and certainly by Tammy Burstein.  There are times that it is skillful to track the minute shifts of energy that take place moment by moment and to follow every fleeting impulse, but more often, part of the discipline of practice—the seeds that eventually yield the harvest—is to take on the 5Rhythms fully, with the intention of being curious and seeing what comes.  It is especially in the receptivity or resistance to a given rhythm that we mine for insights—information we would never uncover if we were always to simply follow our immediate, conditioned impulses.

Demonstrating the requisite release of the head in Chaos, Kierra said something I had never heard before: that we have some sort glands both in our foot pads and in our necks that release endorphins, which is one reason circling the head and neck are important in several religious traditions—such as Sufi whirling.  This made perfect sense to me, as I have often been flooded with delightful natural chemicals in the throes of Chaos.

The release of my neck has been one of life’s little miracles.  When I first began 5Rhythms, my neck was totally locked.  At the end of a yoga class, it was agony to lay prone on the floor because it was so pinched.  Instructors often asked, “Are you ok like that? Really?”  Gradually, thanks to the 5Rhythms, my neck began to free itself.  As it becomes more and more free, moving sometimes with alarming intensity in the rhythm of Chaos, so too, does my mind seem to grow more free.  Whenever I feel discouraged by lack of progress on my path, the relative freedom of my neck reminds me of how far I have traveled, how ripe I am for catharsis, and how readily it comes.

Continuing with the litany of the rhythms, the rhythm of Lyrical, Kierra said, “Will look different for everyone.”  All the rhythms will look different for everyone! But Lyrical in particular, since in Lyrical we let go of the letting go (of Chaos) and our innate patterns begin to emerge.

Kierra shared an example that Gabrielle Roth, the creator of the 5Rhythms practice, used to offer at workshops.  Gabrielle said she would occasionally be washed over with sadness, even when she was in the throes of joy. Over time, she was able to locate the energy of this particular sadness to her wrist.  Finally, after working with the sadness for a long period, she got the memory connected to it.  As Kierra put it, “She was very young, pre-verbal even, and she had been told to wave good-bye to her father.  She was bereft because she didn’t understand that he was coming back.  She thought she was waving good bye to her father forever.”

As she moved on to demonstrate Stillness, Kierra said, “Sometimes when people first come to the 5Rhythms, they see a big, fun dance party.  And it is that!  It is that.  But it is also so much more.”  Kierra explained that once you faithfully go through all of the rhythms, eventually you will get to a trance.  She recalled something Gabrielle would often say, “The body is begging bowl for spirit.”  In that place, according to your beliefs and experiences, you will be moving with something much larger than yourself.  For example, for Kierra, she becomes aware that she is moving along with her ancestors.  This is very much true for me, too.  It is in Stillness that I realize I have an entire spirit entourage, that I am not alone in this existence.  I have often heard Kierra talk about being interested in “going deep” in practice, and as I reflect on her comments now I wonder if it is precisely this field she has been pointing toward.

Like nearly everyone in the room, I ended the night in a sweaty puddle on the floor that has held me literally hundreds of times.  Kierra concluded the class with one of Gabrielle’s most famous quotes, and one of my personal favorites,

“Do you have the discipline to be a free spirit?”

August 14, 2016, Brooklyn, NYC

Image from derrickniehaus.deviantart.com.

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

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