Originally Published on StartAgain Media
“There are an infinite number of ways in which people suffer. Therefore, there must be an infinite number of ways in which Dharma is available to people.”
-a 98-year old Chan Master, as shared with Jon Kabat-Zinn
What images do you associate with the word mindfulness?
Do you see a fit yogi sitting on a beach in a perfect lotus position, entranced by the surrounding calm? Or are you going to a picture of a saintly Buddhist monk, eyes closed, clutching his prayer beads? Maybe you’re seeing a large group of people gathered at a festival, chanting “Om” in unison. You might even picture someone taking deliberate steps through a garden maze, savoring each pace of a walking meditation.
Here’s a new one to try out: Imagine a dance floor full of people. Picture a community of all shapes, sizes, and physical abilities discovering their individual body’s sense of dance through the simplest of rhythmic movements. A gathering of beings, getting down and grooving to every musical genre imaginable. A collection of souls, each with his or her own unique story to tell, having fun and being themselves in the moment, tapping in to the fullness of their human potential. This is dancing mindfulness.
In modern Western cultures, we tend to be inhibited when it comes to dancing, fearing that if we don’t dance well, then we really shouldn’t be dancing, victims of the looks are everything mentality. In essence, there’s a whole lot of judging--of others but especially of ourselves--and not a lot of witnessing. What if those of us who have experienced the beauty of mindful practice could work with people to move in a non-judgmental way and stay present? Imagine the healing potential we can help people realize, whether we are working with them in community or clinical settings. Tapping into each individual’s potential for movement, creating beauty, and achieving mindful awareness is what defines a dancing mindfulness practice. Dancing mindfulness helps people in the modern era get back to some of what we lost along the way.
Dancing Mindfulness is a wellness practice that grew from my own clinical experiences working with trauma and addiction. Dancing Mindfulness can be learned in a group class and practiced in community, as well as individually; experience in yoga, meditation, or dance is not required to practice. Participants are simply asked to come as they are with attitudes of open-mindedness. Structured classes begin with a facilitator gently leading participants through a series of breathing and body awareness exercises. Following a mindful stretch series, the facilitator leads participants up to their feet for letting go and dancing with the freedom one might tap into by simply turning on some music and dancing around their houses. Many participants find this practice, especially when supported by the energy of other practitioners who are also taking risks, a cathartic experience. Although some find themselves overwhelmed and intimidated, they are encouraged to just acknowledge their experience, without judgment, and can choose to opt out of a certain dance or use their breath and movement as vehicles for moving through the discomfort. Safety is imperative to Dancing Mindfulness practice—facilitators emphasize that no one ought ever feel forced to participate in any component of the practice.
The primary attitudes cultivated by mindful practice, as identified by Kabat-Zinn (2011) in his synthesis of mindfulness study, are used as thematic guidelines in structuring classes: acceptance, beginner’s mind, letting go, non-judging, non-striving, patience, and trust. Any of these attitudes may be used as a thematic guide in choosing music for the class, or the facilitator may call upon a series of these attitudes in dancing with an element. The elements of Dancing Mindfulness are networks through which mindfulness can be practiced: breath, body, mind, spirit, sound, story, and fusion of all the elements. A facilitator may elect to start the class working with breath in silence, advising participants that when they use their bodies to come up to their feet and dance, their breaths are with them as a guiding force. Using breath to guide movement is a way, for example, to cultivate the attitude of trust.
Each class seems to take on a life of its own, depending on the venue and the students. Some classes seem to naturally cause participants to connect more with other dancers, but this process is to never be forced for the sake of safety. Other classes seem to be focused on personal depth of exploration. Regardless of the form the class takes, we always end on the ground with safety and relaxation, connecting back with the breath, the heartbeat, and often some light chanting. Since the beginning of 2013, I’ve had the privilege of training 52 facilitators in the United States and Great Britain who expressed an interest in the growing practice and a willingness to share it in their communities. It delights me that each facilitator brings her own authenticity to the practice and that no two facilitators lead a Dancing Mindfulness practice in exactly the same way.
In the following series of blogs, The Art of Dancing Mindfully, I will be exploring more facets of the Dancing Mindfulness practice and its manifestations in both the group and individual format. See my earlier StartAgain blog, “This is Why I Dance” for a personal reflection on my individualized Dancing Mindfulness practice. I will share a bit more of my own story with developing and taking the Dancing Mindfulness practice into the community, in addition to addressing some of the criticisms I’ve heard that Dancing Mindfulness “isn’t really mindfulness.” I will also share some reflections of other people who’ve benefitted from cultivating a personal and communal Dancing Mindfulness practice.
If you’d like to read more about the practice and see some sample videos of how the practice plays out, please go to: www.dancingmindfulness.com.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2011). Mindfulness for beginners: Reclaiming the present moment-and your life. Boulder, CO: Sounds True Books.
Dr. Jamie Marich
Curator of the Dancing Mindfulness expressive arts blog: a celebration of mindfully-inspired, multi-modal creativity