Sweat Your Prayers, Dance Your Pain & Move On

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“Take a minute to notice what you’re arriving with,” said 5Rhythms teacher Amber Ryan as she started the Sweat Your Prayers class today with a long, attenuated period of tonal music.  I found a spot on the floor in the northeast corner of the studio, nearest to the home of the late Gabrielle Roth—the founder of the 5Rhythms practice.  As the music unfolded, Amber also encouraged us to set an intention for our dance today, and to offer as many prayers as occurred to us during the dance.  Instantly, a flurry of prayers arose, ending with the simplest and most complex of prayers—a wish for self love.

I lay on back, and drew my legs gently in to my torso, noting a sore back, and resolving to move gently to avoid injuring it further.  On Friday, before Tammy’s Friday Night Waves class I had made the same resolution. That day, I had carried a heavy backpack all day, assisting with a field trip for my six-year-old son, Simon’s, camp, then traipsed around with him after. On the way home, he crashed his bike into the sidewalk and I had flung myself off my bike to run to his aid.  My neck hurt, my back hurt.

Shortly after I began to move in Friday’s class, the pain disappeared completely.  In fact, the neck pain was totally gone until yesterday afternoon when I got a $175 parking ticket—at which point the pain returned with a vengeance.  The back pain stayed disappeared until a giant wave knocked Simon and me over at the beach, after we had been playing and diving over and through the waves for nearly an hour.  Alone, I would just release and let the wave toss me around until I found which way was up, but Simon is an emerging swimmer; and (despite his protestations) I clung to his swim shirt, holding on as the wave overtook us, moving heavily into my back again during this maneuver (though we ended with tumbling smiles).

Today for the Sweat Your Prayers class I shared the elevator to the 5th floor dance studio with a friend.  “How are you?” I asked.  She said, “Well, I can finally make eye contact,” and explained that she’d been very sad recently.  “I did wonder when I saw you on Friday if there might be something going on.”  I had danced up to her, usually a joyful encounter, but she kept her eyes down, her head tilted forward.  I got the message immediately that she wanted privacy and moved to give her the space she seemed to need.

There is so much information in the way we use our eyes.  Early in my dance career, I thought it would be rude to make direct eye contact with other dancers, like it would be an intrusion, and might break the aesthetic trance they were immersed in.  Now, it is when I feel like I need to keep to myself that I avert my eyes.  Or if for some reason I can’t or don’t want to invite someone in.  Or if I am listening carefully to something that is going on inside.  I note with interest that the people who partner the most seem also to be the people who make the most eye contact.  Lately, I make gentle eye contact with everyone I encounter, even people I pass on the street.  Some days, I feel like everyone in New York and I are in on a private joke, our eyes glittering with the juiciness of it.

After considerable time stretching in gentle circles, I attained my feet and began to move slowly through the room, staying out of my edges completely, especially the edges in my back.  I set the intention to see everyone, saying silently, “I see you there; and I am grateful for it.”  (A meditation adapted from a practice taught by the Zen master, Thich Nhat Hahn.)  I looked up from my looping circles, meeting some eyes and not meeting others, but taking the time to notice each person.  The point was not eye contact, but seeing, noticing and acknowledging the presences of the people in the room.  The slow, thick music continued for some time as each of us found our individual ground, and as we established a ground as a class.

Pain did not disappear so much as fade from the front of my experience.  I still felt a bit of tenderness in the back, but as I released into the wave it was a far-off echo.  I marveled at this.  Once, I was barely able to walk I was so gimped from dancing ferociously on the first day of a three-day workshop.  Somehow I hobbled into the studio on day two, unable to imagine how I could possibly move.  Miraculously, as soon as the music started, the experience of physical pain completely reversed.  I spent the remaining two days alternating between soaring and flying; and the pain never returned. The biographer of Dipa Ma, a highly realized teacher in the Buddhist Vipassana tradition who did not begin meditation practice until after the age of 40, wrote that before learning to meditate, Dipa Ma experienced such intense physical and emotional pain—including a severe heart problem—that she could only drag herself to the monastery temple where she would practice meditation by crawling up the stairs.  After learning meditation, she walked upright, free of pain.

This is not to stay that 5Rhythms practice always makes pain disappear, certainly the opposite has happened to me, too; but I am grateful and amazed for the times that pain has suddenly left me, and wonder about the mechanisms of pain’s disappearance.

Another related example occurs to me.  I have had the experience on many occasions that I have been on a chilly beach or other inspiring outdoor site practicing sitting meditation.  I might meditate for an hour or more in these cases.  Immediately after I decide that I am “done” meditating, the cold rushes in, the wind starts to bite, and I can no longer bear to be subject to the elements.  What would it be like if, like Dipa Ma, I could sustain whatever was happening during the “official” period of meditation and generalize it to other areas of my life?  And, significant to our consideration here, what are the internal and external factors at play when pain totally disappears as soon as I step in to the dance?  (In other words, how can I get me some more of that!)

Once the long, slow arriving began to transform, the class picked up like a windstorm.  As Amber told us at the end, she led us through four consecutive mini-waves in the two-hour class.  (In contrast, most two-hour waves classes feature just two waves, separated by a break between the two.)

I noticed that I often decide to hold myself back in a given rhythm before charging on to the next one, especially with Flowing.  Today, I wasn’t always aware of which rhythm we were in.  I thought I really needed to work on something in Staccato; and when I finally let myself leave Flowing and move into Staccato, it seemed like I barely registered Staccato as Staccato before we were moving into Chaos.

The big, nasty parking ticket the day before gave me some insight into aspects of Staccato that I need to repair.  I was on a beach trip to celebrate my friend’s birthday and she suggested her favorite beach. We saw a line of cars parked on the side of the road.  Also, farther down, a red sign that said, “No Standing.”  My friend went to ask the people in a car ahead of us if they knew it was a legal place to park.  “We’ve never been here before actually.  But they can’t tow all of us!” was their jocular response.  Though squeamish, I wanted to honor my friend’s birthday wish; and we gathered our things for the long walk to Fort Tilden Beach. Returning a few hours later, though I was happy to find that the car had not been towed, my smile faded seconds later when I found a prison-orange parking ticket crammed under the driver’s side windshield wiper.  Two separate violations were checked—totaling $175.

I knew it was a bad idea.  I got the message from my body.  My friend would not have cared at all if I said, “This is not a good idea.  Let’s go to the other beach instead.”  Instead, perhaps influenced by an internalized voice of someone who was close to me for a long time, I wanted so much to be NOT controlling that I overdid it.  I knew the best course of action, but I swallowed it.  The problem was not so much about having the confidence to speak, as it was about having the confidence to own my knowledge and intuition, instead of talking myself out of it for some stupid identity reason.  Not just getting the message, but clearing the channel into proper expression—the skillful application of Staccato.

Lately, I have been considering the continuum between following what feels like intuition and fully taking on each rhythm as it comes, even when it seems counter-intuitive.  Since today I often didn’t know which rhythm we were in, the only thing I could do was move with what felt right.

Although I have fallen in love with Flowing and with the ground in recent years, sometimes the mandate of finding the ground feels like a heavy responsibility.  I know that if I don’t take the time to really find the ground—what is a better way to put this?  I know if I don’t take the time to fully arrive in my body and in my senses, and take the time to slow down and open my awareness to how my own body relates with the environment I exist in—that it is not responsible to move on to another rhythm.  That would be to risk causing harm.  The ground—and I mean ground in this broad sense—is what protects you and the people around you.  Until you find the ground, as Jonathan Horan, Gabrielle Roth’s son and the current holder of the 5Rhythms lineage said, “There is no point in moving on.” I’m not sure why, for me, sometimes, I make it into a “should,” rather than just receiving it as a blessing.  It’s kind of like being in a conversation and just waiting to get your point in, rather than patiently listening to the other person’s words.  Committing to finding the ground first even when I want to charge ahead to Staccato and to Chaos is an example of taking on the rhythms and experimenting with resisting my automatic responses, rather than always going with what feels comfortable.  I think the trick is to distinguish between the pull of conditioned responses and the wisdom of intuition—a key distinction that will be different in every new set of circumstances.

Chaos—off and on—as it came, was delightful today.  Continuing to stay out of my edges, I was as totally released as I can be at this time.  We are often taught that Chaos is a fusion of Flowing and Staccato; and today my version of Chaos was much closer to Flowing, though without any of its weight.  As we moved into Lyrical, I noticed not only the friend I had seen in the elevator crying, but many others crying, too.  Though I avoided the deep arcing bows into the ground that I so love, I found glorious flight, high onto my toes, twittering and soaring, at once quirky and extended, aloft, majestic.

I stepped into a smiling dancer who is new to me and started to cry myself, like so many in today’s class.  The fronts of her shoulders were exceptionally open.  I tried on her gesture, and realized how much you have to open the front shoulders to release the heart.  I continued to experiment with the generous arm and shoulder gestures that were inspired by this brief dance for the rest of the class.  I also noticed that my diaphragm, which is a part of my body where I typically hold stuck energy, was released today.  That spot has not fully let in air for a very long time, but today it was open, clean.

There was something of a pause after one of the Stillnesses; and I began to move in circles with a friend.  Amber marked the start of this wave, beginning an instruction with, “As the end becomes the beginning again…”  Both of us spun, moving more quickly than much of the honey-slow room.  Her spine undulated, released in all directions.  Collectively, the exchange went up several notches and we both broke into open-mouthed smiles as our spins began to find weight and we stepped in and out, behind and around, still moving in unending circles.  As the song shifted toward Staccato, my friend moved to the other side of the room.  Smiling, I followed her for one more pass.  As Flowing transitioned to Staccato, I stepped into the field of another friend, very close, extremely gently.  We found a tiny, timeless pocket of Stillness, breathing so fully it seemed breathless, sharing a minute portal; then we each spun back into the collective field.

Amber invited us to return to the intention that we set at the beginning as the class drew to a close, the room joyful, moving out of a drum-heavy Hindu chant.  In the final phase of Stillness, I moved unselfconsciously, silently enacting an energetic Buddhist practice that feels like home for me.

Amber concluded the class with a ritual (one of her great strengths as a teacher).  We sat in a large circle, then Amber asked us to notice the person to our left and the person to our right.  We then were told to hold our left hand facing up and our right hand facing down, so they lined up with our neighbors’ hands, without actually touching.  We sat there, receiving and offering, generating energy and filtering everything through the heart, for a few minutes.

Self love seemed more available.  Pain seemed unimportant.  The world seemed workable.  My heart felt full.  The circle dissolved, the class dissolved.

In the hall, I saw the friend I had taken the elevator with before class who shared that she had been terribly sad.  She was smiling even as she pulled a clean shirt over her head, shining, apparently pain free, or at least having a break from it.

“Sweat your prayers, dance your pain and move on.” –Gabrielle Roth

August 22, 2016, NYC

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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