Me Time: Meditation
This article, reprinted from Dance Studio Life Magazine, was written as meditation basics for dance professionals (dancers, dance teachers and studio owners.)
Focus on Breathing for Healing and Balance
We love dance and all its benefits for body and soul. But running a business and teaching a physically demanding activity can be stressful. There’s a lot going on, and most of it requires focusing away from our own bodies and feelings. From my time as a professional dancer, dance professor, and meditation teacher, I know meditation gives us a moment with ourselves, develops our ability to focus, awakens awareness, and opens us to deepening embodiment, sensation, and relaxation. This simple act of rebalancing, tucked into the day, is a worthwhile, sanity-reclaiming skill to cultivate.
Meditation doesn’t require much time or need fancy equipment or gear. It does require your full attention.
I have a saying: Sometimes you have to do the “not doing” in order to undo the overdoing. Dancers are especially good at continuously holding muscles taut. As well, we tuck emotional strain into crevices between fascia, hiding our anxieties until some other time when we imagine we can better handle them. Then, given a moment to relax, we feel restless. We need to relax, but we can’t, and being unable to unwind is stressful.
Because dance people are kinetic creatures, the first step in our meditation work is to consciously let go of tight spots. Fully letting go is more than plopping down on the couch. We need to release not just the big outer muscles but the clenched jaw, gripped neck, the diaphragm, and the pelvic floor as well.
Here are four simple meditation techniques for healing and balance. For each of these, find a comfortable, quiet, clean place to sit or lie down where your body can fully relax. It can be small, even a corner of your studio or office—anywhere you have some privacy. Turn off your phone. I like to use a timer so I don’t have to keep checking the time. Set it for at least 10 minutes; 20 is better. Make sure you are warm enough. You might like to lie on a mat or blanket on the floor, or on a sofa or in a big armchair. Let’s begin.
In the beginning, choose one practice and do it once a day. The following sequence of meditations works well, but if you feel drawn to begin with #3 or #4, go ahead. Start with the one that attracts you. Don’t jump around between practices; that won’t calm you down any faster.
Give each meditation a chance to move you through and beyond anxiety and stress. Later, once you are familiar with each practice you may find that one becomes your relaxation “home base.” Or you may cycle through them as you learn how each can benefit you.
Meditate every day or every other day at the same time. Just like pliés, making it regular helps it become natural for your body.
Practice #1: Finding Gravity and Breath
Get comfortable and close your eyes. Let yourself relax, feeling your muscles unclench. As your muscles soften, find your inhale and exhale. Just find that breath without changing anything about it.
Continue to let your muscles release—your legs, your belly, your shoulders. Let your eyelids settle down. Let your facial muscles relax. Go through your body methodically, releasing each part as you go. Don’t worry about the order. Let your body decide, but if you’ve left an area out, make sure to give it a chance to unwind as well.
Now return once again to your breathing. Breathe in and breathe out. Just simple, ordinary breathing. Watch the breaths come in and go out. Stay with this for a while.
Now breathe in, and then on the exhale consciously let go of any tension. Breathe in and breathe the tension out, letting it go in a wavelike fashion. Do about 10 cycles of this.
Now relax your focus and be at ease. Become aware of gravity. Let the chair or couch or floor hold you. Feel where your back sinks into the ground; feel your buttocks melting, the backs of your legs spreading. Breathe naturally. Wherever your body is touching, let go into that surface. Continue to breathe gently. Let the awareness of your body in gravity fill you. Let anything else go. Feel yourself sink into gravity as you breathe until the timer ends your session.
In the beginning, if you feel sleepy it is fine to sleep; it is a sign that you need more rest. You’ll get more from your meditation when you can stay awake, relaxed, and attentive. As you learn to relax more fully, this will get easier.
Practice #2: Developing an Inner Gaze
Most dancers use a mirror to help attain goals. We focus out. The mirror is a terrific assistant, but it takes us away from feeling what we are doing. If we are more aware of how we look than how we feel, we will repress pain or fatigue, inviting injury, souring our quest for health or physical virtuosity, and depleting our bodies. Though we need to push through discomfort in order to progress, it is easy to go too far and become numb. Numbness as a regular state is dangerous.
The next focus expands inner gaze and proprioception (how our body speaks to us, rather than us telling our body what to do).
Begin as before, in a comfortable position. Close your eyes. (Closing the eyes enhances proprioception and makes sensation easier to perceive.) Find your breathing. Feel yourself let go into gravity.
Bring your attention to your skin. You might gently do a tiny motion with your arms or legs to activate sensation in your skin. How does your skin feel as it touches your clothing and the air? Be aware of your breathing. Do this for a little while.
Now let go of skin awareness and draw your attention to your bones. Breathe in, breathe out. Don’t imagine an anatomical chart; try to sense where the bones might be. It doesn’t matter right now if you are accurate. Rather than telling them what to do, we are giving our bodies a chance to communicate to us. Where is your pelvic bowl? Your spine, skull, your arm and leg bones? Yes, they have Latin names, but right now just let them be arm bones or leg bones. Breathe in, breathe out, seeing your bones with your inner gaze. Inner gaze is more about sensing than imagining.
If thoughts pop up about how your bones should look, let them go. If thoughts pop up about what you should be doing or not doing (other than breathing and seeing your bones), let them go. You have nothing else to do at this moment but breathe and look inward.
As you gaze inward, getting a feeling/sense of your bones, enjoy the inner view. You might see colors, or feel dizzy, or experience unusual aches that flash in and out. Let these come and go. Breathe in, breathe out, watching with your inner gaze. Continue this with no concern for how you look. You don’t have to look or be different. Let the inner gaze be nonjudgmental. Stay awake and gently attentive. Continue until the timer ends your session.
Over time, as we work with inner gaze we learn to attach significance to the sensorial experience of self. Become the sensation of your body. Become the feeling of yourself. This subjective definition belongs to you; no one can feel how you feel but you. It stands outside of comparison. This value of self is crucial to feeling relaxed, whole, comfortable in our own skin, and solid in the world.
Practice #3: Getting Present
Attention to breathing is common to all meditation traditions because it defines what it means to be alive. If we can become aware of breathing, it will always be a place we can turn to for centering. In this practice we focus on breath pattern.
Set the timer and close your eyes. Bring your attention to your breathing. Breathe in, slowly and gradually. Breathe out, slowly and gently. Don’t force the slowness; let the breathing settle down naturally. With your inner gaze, watch each breath flow in and out through your nose. Continue until you can see the entire breath cycle from beginning to end. The ability to see this fully may come and go. Don’t worry; that’s normal. Keep going.
This time, see the inflow of breath pass through the nose and down into your lungs. The lungs swell, the diaphragm arcs up. As you breathe out, watch the air depart. The breath is like water flowing in and flowing out. Do this for a while.
Now let the inhale and exhale seep through the cells of your skin. This is not as close to anatomical breathing. Draw energy from the surrounding air in through your pores as you inhale. And as you breathe out, let any interior congestion leave you. Continue.
This is similar to releasing tension, but not the same. Focus on drawing the breath in through your skin and letting congestion out. Try to keep your focus attentive, specific, undivided. Draw your entire awareness to what you are doing. If thoughts come, let them go. You may notice the sensation of the breathing and the feeling in your body changing. Just notice. Don’t get stuck. Keep following the process of this breathing.
Now relax and return to your normal breathing. Rest with your eyes closed until the timer ends your session.
Practice #4: One Breath Now
At last, come to your breath and slow down. One breath. Another breath. That’s all. Slow and slower. The world fades back. Time stops. One breath is all there is. Fall in love with your breath.
Simple but not easy
Even though we need it, even though it is effective, most of us resist meditating. That’s natural. You have to resist the impulse to resist. When it drops off the to-do list, put it back, at the top. Especially when you are new to meditation, taking a course or a retreat can jumpstart and support your learning.
Do these practices make us better dancers? I think they do. They certainly make us happier, more satisfied with who we are, and that in turn makes us better at what we do. Meditation is relaxing, and relaxation unbinds a storehouse of energy. It helps us become more integrated. We become more realistic about who we are and what we can do. We develop realistic goals. We know and respect our physical and emotional parameters. We strive in a healthy, integrated fashion.
Should you add meditation to your course offerings? Absolutely. Having it at your studio could make it easier for you to include it in your own life. And when you are comfortable with it, why not start all of your adult and young adult classes with five minutes of closed-eyes meditation? Everyone needs a little unwinding time.
Meditation gets richer with time. Stop the millions of things you are doing and focus in. It will repay your efforts a hundredfold.
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