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Core

As much as I love dancing in my kitchen (livingroom/office/car, etc.), I teach because it feels better to dance together. Way better.

Something happens when we move together. Something shifts when we are sharing the space, the music, and the experience. It happens over and over, I walk into the studio feeling stuck or tired or low, and walk out feeling…well.

Years ago, Integral Yoga founder Swami Satchidananda was asked at a health conference what the difference was between illness and wellness. In answer, he wordlessly walked to a blackboard, wrote the two words and circled the “I” and the “We.”

When we isolate and separate ourselves, when we put our attention on the “I,” the result is a kind of illness. The recipe for wellness, on the other hand, is when we connect and recognize ourselves as part of the larger community, the integrated whole.

It’s my limbic or lizard brain that cramps my focus and convinces me that I am separate and alone. When I say (or more often, think), “No one is as injured / sad / crazy / lonley / (fill in the blank) as I am,” it’s my limbic brain is driving the train. This separation creates a tightness, a narrow tension that is itself a kind of illness.

No matter what I am experiencing, I am connected to the wider community of life. No matter what is happening, there are millions and millions of others experiencing the same thing. No matter how difficult my circumstances, I am never alone. Expanding and softening into this truth is a step toward wellness.

In the body, one of the most important places of connection is the psoas muscle. These two deep-set muscles start on either side of the lumbar spine at the low back and connect to the inside of the femurs, the thigh bones. Since it is the only muscle to connect the core and the legs, a healthy functioning psoas allows fluid, easeful, pain-free movement and allows stability while moving, bending, and sitting.

More than the postural and kinetic importance of this deepest core muscle, the psoas also connects through the fascia to the diaphragm. This means that a healthy psoas muscle directly impacts your breath and your sense of calm or stress. (Dr. Christiane Northrup has a great article about this here. )

All of which means that a tight or weak psoas is often the source of low back or hip pain, as well as digestive trouble and a hyper-alert nervous system. (Remember our focus a couple of weeks ago about looking around the pain to find what needs healing?) Tending to psoas health, then, is integral to overall health. But instead of thinking of the psoas as a tight, weak place that needs stretching like a brittle rope or a dried-out bungee cord, imagine healing the psoas as a chance to hydrate, soften, and juice this deep connection. Liz Koch’s Core Awareness work uses the approach of “unraveling” the tissue of the psoas. I strongly recommend her teaching and you can learn more here.

Clinical Psychiatry professor, Daniel J. Siegel defines health as integration. In any system – whether it’s a weather system or a human body, a company or a relationship – when the parts are integrated and connected, there is flow and health. When they are disconnected, there is “disintegration.”

Wellness is “we.” Integration is health. In the studio, in the body, and in the world, let’s unravel the tight focus on “I” and instead open to the soft, juicy wellness of connection.

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When I first heard about the chakras, the energy system of the body, I didn’t buy it.
At all.
I had seen a rainbow poster of sanskrit symbols in a health food store that smelled of patchouli and wheat grass and thought it was hippie dippy nonsense.

As it turns out, the chakra system (“chakra” simply means “wheel” in Sanskrit) is one of the most practical and useful things I’ve learned in 18 years of practicing mind~body movement. So here’s my very own rainbow art of the system.

On the left is the number of the chakra and where it’s located on the body. The first chakra points down to the earth and the 7th chakra points up to the sky and the others run front to back in the body. The colors are not actually random hippie dippy but rather a reflection of the vibration of each center (This also means there is a sound associated with each center so the music I’ll use in classes this week will be tuned to these vibrations. Just listening to the music can balance your energy. Pretty cool, right?). On the right is the main issue associated with each chakra and an affirmation/intention for each.

Does it sound like a bunch of bunkum to you? Check this excerpt from a post I wrote a while back (you can read the whole thing here):

• Ever felt tightness at the base of your belly when you were worried about money? Or ever known someone insecure who acted like a tight-ass? That’s the first chakra, the base.
• Ever meet someone super-attractive and feel a rush in your stomach? That’s the second chakra, the sexual center.
• Ever had a gut feeling that something was (or wasn’t) the right thing to do? That’s the third chakra, the will center.
• Ever feel heart-broken or like your heart would burst with love? That’s the fourth chakra, the heart center.
• Ever feel a lump in your throat when you wanted to cry? Or a tightness in your throat when you were afraid to say something? That’s the fifth chakra, the throat center.
• Ever just have a feeling that something was happening? Ever get an intuition to call someone? That’s the sixth chakra, the third eye.
• Ever have an expansive feeling of connection far beyond yourself? That’s the seventh chakra, the crown.

We’ve all felt the energetic sensations of the chakra system but often we don’t listen to them. Our culture discourages paying attention to these sensations, but tuning into them is both practical and wise.

Next time you feel emotional in any way – sad or angry or excited – just pause and sense where you feel it in your body. Listening to the subtle energy from the chakra system offers insight and clarity about what is really going on.

When something feels off in our physical bodies, paying attention to it and responding so it can heal is a wise practice. The same is true for the chakra system. To help with that, I’ve created a simple table that gives practical information about how to balance each center (and how to know if it’s out of whack). You can find a PDF of that by clicking on this link ~ Non woo woo table pdf

And if you’d like even more information, check out this post that shares The Nia Technique’s approach to the chakras.

The more I listen to the sensations in the chakra system, the more I can discern what’s happening and make choices about how to proceed with skill and self-awareness. So the next time you feel a lump in your throat or you get a gut feeling, know that paying attention and taking care of that is not hippie dippy woo-woo but skillful self healing.

Small talk bores me.
When I ask you how you are, please don’t say, “Fine.”
(Unless you say, “Fiiiinnnne!”)
When I ask you how you are, I really want to know.

I believe in going deep.
In diving in.
In delving in.
The paradox is the deeper we go, the further we fly.

In the physical body, we can experience this by going deep into the strength and stability of the legs and core. The more we tap into our power there, the further we can reach out.*

For more on this, check out my Explore from Core post which, in turn, has links to other core-centric posts.

Of course, going deep isn’t only a physical experience. Our willingness to go deep ourselves directly impacts our willingness to be present and connected with others. As Pema Chödrön beautifully puts it:

“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”

Let’s dive deep, friends.

____________
* The inspiration for this week’s focus was not just Ben Howard’s beautiful song quoted in the art above but also some slow, down deep yoga classes with the brilliant Amy Kidd. Thank you Ben & Amy.

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Art in Action is a weekly post: a short, practical guide to applying the ideas and principles in the Focus Pocus posts to your body and life. As always, I love to hear from you about how you use them and how you translate the ideas into action.

I’m all about feet.

Since 1999, I’ve been dancing barefoot and exploring what happens in the body when we take off our shoes and move as we were designed. I’m always interested in ways of stretching, massaging, strengthening, and generally caring for feet since happy feet are the foundation of a happy body (just ask me after I’ve spent the evening standing in pointy, pointy high heeled shoes how happy I’m feeling).

cranky-feet-100416

But when I stumbled on this video I learned something that set up a cascade of unexpected discoveries that surprised even a foot health fan like me.

1. Stretch the feet and release the back of the legs

The Pilates foot release video has a nice protocol for stretching that I’ve been enjoying but it’s not that different from other stretches I’ve done on my feet with a variety of balls (tennis, Yamuna , foot rollers , etc.). What fascinated me was the connection between releasing my feet and releasing my hamstrings.

Not only did it feel good to stretch and open my feet, I loved that I could also feel the release through my back legs. That discovery had me looking for other connections…

2. Release backs of legs and release low back

As I noticed a lengthening and release in the back of my legs, I noticed a corresponding release through my low back. I have a tendency towards lumbar lordosis (or duck butt)

lordosis

but as my feet and back legs released, my tailbone dropped down allowing my lumbar spine to let go. So I kept following the thread…

3. Release low back and engage core

As my low back released from its habitual hyperextension, my low core and belly naturally turned on. <a href=”http://As we’ve talked about before in this space” target=”_blank”>As we’ve talked about before in this space, core strength is key to moving in a with grace and power but a perhaps surprising benefit of core engagement is…

4. Engage core and get lighter and more flexible feet

…that a strong core, allows me to step more lightly, with more mobility and agility without taxing my feet which allows them to stay (you guessed it) more flexible.

This chain works in both directions: I can also focus on stepping lightly, without dropping my foot, and that strengthens my core, which releases my tailbone and lumbar spine, which lengthens my hamstrings which creates more ease in my feet.

Cool, huh?

And all of this connection sleuthing has me curious about other unexpected connections in the body. Some of the ones I also play with:
• Relaxing my jaw allows my hips to let go
• Pressing my feet into the floor and opening the arch of my feet allows me to breathe more deeply (stretching my diaphragm)
• The thoughts and images I have in my mind profoundly connect with how my body feels and moves

As ever, I’d love to hear how this chain of connection reverberates in your body and any surprising connections that you’ve discovered in your own practice! Do tell.

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Underestimating the power of the inner belly, the core body is almost impossible to do. This week we danced right into it and experimented with strength, mobility, agility, stability and directed attention. When I direct my attention to the inner belly, I ground and balance myself. When I direct my attention to my inner body, I quiet my mind. And when I direct my attention to my inner purpose, life radiates from there.

All the playlists from the week are below or you can listen to them by going to Spotify! Rock out for free at Spotify! Sign up for free, follow me at “susanmcculley” and you’ll find my public playlists ~ just click and listen!

And first the announce-y things:

• dance. sit. create. ~ THREE SPOTS LEFT for the next delicious day-treat on Saturday, October 1, 830am-5pm
You are creative. You are an artist. Even if your elementary school art teacher told you differently. Whatever you think and feel about dancing, sitting and creativity, this day is for you. Whether you identify with the words “dance sit create.” and think, “Heck, yeah” or if you shake your head and say, “I can’t do those things” or “That’s not me,” this day is for you. Please join me for a delicious day of living at the intersection of movement, stillness, and art. If you’ve come before, come again. If you’ve never joined us, this is a great time.
Early Bird: $95 if registered by September 27. Creative Bird: Get an additional $5 off by making something (a photo! a drawing! a haiku! a kid! anything!) and sharing a picture of it on any social media with this link (www.susanmcculley.com/workshops-retreats/dance-sit-create) and use the hashtag #dancesitcreate. (OR send something you’ve made to Susan and she will share it!)
Limited to 20 participants [Just 3 spots left!]. Questions? Please connect with Susan at sjmnia@gmail.com or between August 7-26, please call or text to 434.960.9959.

• dance. sit. create. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, Sunday, October 23, 830am-5pm
dance. sit. create. is going on the road! I’ll be offering the day-treat experience in Cambridge, Mass, hosted by the amazing Kira Hower in her beautiful studio. Want to take a road trip? Know someone in the area who you think would enjoy spending the day at the intersection of movement, stillness and creativity? Please direct them here or here or directly to me at sjmnia@gmail.com !

• MARK YOUR CALENDAR! Going Below The Surface: Nia, Yin Yoga & Words Saturday, November 12, 1-4pm
SAVE THE DATE, November 12, 1-4pm. Explore this focus in a special workshop — Going Below The Surface — that I’ll be teaching with Yin Yoga Instructor, Amy Kidd on Saturday, November 12 from 1-4pm at acac Albemarle Square. I will lead simple, varied, energetic movements to warm and mobilize the body: particularly the hips, core and shoulders. Amy will then take us through a series of Yin yoga poses designed to release muscle, fascia and other connective tissue in the core with long, supported holds. Interwoven through the afternoon, as energy is released and the body/mind relaxes, will be opportunities to write – either journaling or using simple provided prompts. Plan now to take an afternoon to breathe deep and see what lies below the surface.
Stay tuned for registration information coming soon!

• Art Experiment: Susan’s work on products!
I’m playing with putting my art on some products through a company called VIDA who connects artists with makers – and pays those makers a living wage (you can learn more about VIDA here http://shopvida.com/pages/our-story ). I’m experimenting with a couple of designs and I would love your input. What do you think? Any art you’d like to see on any particular pieces? Any art that I haven’t made yet that you think would work well? I’d love to hear what you think. ❤
Susan McCulley

As always, please let me know if you have questions or how I can help more.
Dance on. Shine on.
Susan sig

*** PLAYLIST NOTE: My playlists can also be found on Spotify https://www.spotify.com/us/ by following “susanmcculley” (no space) and look for Public Playlists. Sometimes music is not available on Spotify so I may replace with another version or skip songs . ***

Monday, Sep 19, 2016, 1045am ~ Inner Belly Is Where It’s At

Here We Go 5:59 Deep Dive Corp. Ft. Hush Forever
The Flame 6:51 Deep Dive Corp.
Heartbreaker 5:24 Crazy P
Down To Love 6:34 Hot Toddy
Don’t Stop The Dance 6:20 Martin Brodin
Steal Drum 7:07 The Martin Brothers
Belly Disco 4:33 Karminsky Experience
Everythings Gonna Be Alright 4:33 The Baby Sitters Circus
Elephant (Dub) 6:07 Spiral System
Empty Vessel 3:46 Bob Holroyd
Stillpoint 4:18 Oliver Shanti & Friends

Tuesday, Sep 20, 2016, 840am ~ Inner Belly Is Where It’s At

Here We Go 5:59 Deep Dive Corp. Ft. Hush Forever
The Flame 6:51 Deep Dive Corp.
Heartbreaker 5:24 Crazy P
Down To Love 6:34 Hot Toddy
Don’t Stop The Dance 6:20 Martin Brodin
Steal Drum 7:07 The Martin Brothers
Everythings Gonna Be Alright 4:33 The Baby Sitters Circus
Elephant (Dub) 6:07 Spiral System
Empty Vessel 3:46 Bob Holroyd

Wednesday, Sep 21, 2016, 11am ~ Inner Belly Is Where It’s At

Here We Go 5:59 Deep Dive Corp. Ft. Hush Forever
The Flame 6:51 Deep Dive Corp.
Heartbreaker 5:24 Crazy P
Down To Love 6:34 Hot Toddy
Don’t Stop The Dance 6:20 Martin Brodin
Steal Drum 7:07 The Martin Brothers
Belly Belly Nice 3:53 Dave Matthews Band
Everythings Gonna Be Alright 4:33 The Baby Sitters Circus
Elephant (Dub) 6:07 Spiral System
Empty Vessel 3:46 Bob Holroyd
Stillpoint 4:18 Oliver Shanti & Friends

Thursday, Sep 22, 2016, 840am ~Inner Belly Is Where It’s At

Here We Go 5:59 Deep Dive Corp. Ft. Hush Forever
The Flame 6:51 Deep Dive Corp.
Heartbreaker 5:24 Crazy P
Down To Love 6:34 Hot Toddy
Don’t Stop The Dance 6:20 Martin Brodin
Fire In the Belly 5:43 Ganga Giri
Everythings Gonna Be Alright 4:33 The Baby Sitters Circus
Elephant (Dub) 6:07 Spiral System
Empty Vessel 3:46 Bob Holroyd

WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT NIA?

For more information about Nia and this rich system of training and learning? Everything Nia is at http://www.nianow.com&#8230;
If you’re traveling or moving, you can find a teacher or classes wherever you’re going.
Interested in teaching or deepening your practice? Check out the Nia White Belt Training. They are offered all around the world so you can find one near you or where you may want to go!

inner-belly-power-091916

Art in Action is a weekly post: a short, practical guide to applying the ideas and principles in the Focus Pocus posts to your body and life. As always, I love to hear from you about how you use them and how you translate the ideas into action.

After a lifetime of wrassling with my outer belly, generating all manner of suffering around what I thought it should look like and how it definitely did not measure up, I felt a wave of relief when my yoga teacher, Lizzie said, “The outer belly is going to do what it’s going to do. The inner belly is where it’s at. That’s where the fire is.”

Lizzie’s words help me release my attachment to the outer and get busy with what’s going on inside. Today’s Art in Action digs into the inner belly, inner body, and inner purpose.

Inner Belly

Over and over again in my physical practices, I am reminded about the radiating effects of cultivating a strong core. I mentioned some of what I’ve noticed lately in this week’s post but simply put a strong core will help you do everything better. Our culture tends to put a heavier emphasis on the outer core, and truly the two are deeply intertwined.

Of course, what with the World Wide Interwebs and fitness experts all over the place, you can find all kinds of core exercises:

• I offered some in an Art in Action post earlier this year a couple of my favorites for deep core are Plank Pose and Air Chair (it looks simple, but if you keep your hips and knees at 90 degrees, you will feel your core turn on — SHAZAM!).

air-chair-092016

• Yogis use a root lock (Mula Bandha) to strengthen the pelvic floor and an upward abdominal lock (Uddiyana Bandha). I wrote about them some last year.

• Aikido and other martial arts practitioners put their awareness on the center point of the body, sometimes called the Hara or Tan Tien, to ground and balance. Try this exercise with a friend: stand with your feet shoulder width apart with soft knees, focus your attention on the tip of your nose and have your friend gently but steadily push your shoulders with their index and middle fingers. It probably won’t take much to push you off balance. Then do the exact same thing but focus your attention on your inner belly, two inches below your belly button and two inches inside your body. Your friend probably cannot budge you when you drop your attention to your center.

Give your deep, inner core attention, it has powerful benefits for your physical movement and more than that…

Inner Body

Similarly, it’s easy to get caught up in what the external body looks and feels like even though the inner body is where the real power is. Our culture tends to put a heavier emphasis on the outer body, and truly the two are deeply intertwined. Connecting to the inner body can quiet the mind, offer perspective, a reminder of what is really essential.

Right now, feel your outer hands: notice if they are warm or cold, what textures they are feeling and if there is weight or pressure on them in any way. Now sense below the surface to your inner hands: there you may feel a sense of flow or tingling or pulsing that is different from your heart beat. This is the sensation of life force, energy, what yogis call prana, what martial artists call chi, moving through you. Now experiment with feeling your inner body in other parts of you.

By dropping your attention into your inner body, you can get out of the flow of thought and reside more fully in the present moment. You can do this any time but it’s particularly helpful when you want to be fully present or when you feel upset, worried, or rattled in any way. And it’s best to practice when you are relaxed so you have access to it when you need it.

Inner Purpose

Again, similarly, we can get caught up in the externality of our lives – what we do and have and how it looks from the outside when our attention is really needed inside. Our culture tends to put a heavier emphasis on the outer purpose, but truly the two are deeply intertwined. For this part, I’ll let Eckhart Tolle explain:

So the most important thing to realize is this: Your life has an inner purpose and an outer purpose. … Your inner purpose is to awaken. It is as simple as that. You share that purpose with every other person on the planet – because it is the purpose of humanity. Your inner purpose is an essential part of the purpose of the whole, the universe and its emerging intelligence. Your outer purpose can change over time. It varies greatly from person to person. Finding and living in alignment with the inner purpose is the foundation for fulfilling your outer purpose. It is the basis for true success. Without that alignment, you can still achieve certain things through effort, struggle, determination, and sheer hard work or cunning. But there is no joy in such endeavor, and it invariably ends in some form of suffering. (from the wonderful book, A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle, p. 258)

Go to the inner – belly, body, and purpose – as Lizzie says, it’s where the fire is.

 

outer-belly-vs-inner-belly-091016

Literally and figuratively, my belly has been my soft spot since adolescence. It’s the place I cover up and suck in and tuck around. I work out, crunch myself silly, eat whole foods but a flat tummy is not mine to be had. My belly is where my self-consciousness and body issues converge.

Not so surprising, then, when I started practicing yoga regularly a few years ago, I cringed a little every time my teachers said, “Pull in your belly.”

For the love of Pete, people, it’s what I’ve been attempting to do my whole life. Don’t you think if I could, I would?

But then my teacher, Lizzie said something that changed my perspective, “Pull in your inner belly. The outer belly is going to do what it’s going to do. It’s your inner belly that we’re working with.”

Of course. My outer belly is going to do what it’s going to do. Just like my eyes are a mish-mash of blue and gray. Just like my hair curls in some weather and frizzes in others. Just like I’m 5’ 7” and not 5’ 2” and not 5’ 11”. And suddenly, I felt less ashamed of my soft, round pooch and got more connected to what was happening on a deeper level.

The more I practice, the more I notice the radiating effects of a strong inner core. The stronger my core:

• The better balance I have
• The more graceful and easeful my movement is
• The better my back feels
• The better my posture is
The better my feet feel 
• The more agile and mobile I am
• The faster I can pedal and the higher I can hike
• The better I feel in my body overall

That’s a lot of benefit from strengthening a part of the body and it points (yet again) to the amazing interconnectedness of the human form.

My self-consciousness about my belly didn’t come from nowhere. Our cultural focus tends to be on the outer belly instead of the inner belly. I see lots of headlines in fitness magazines about getting a six-pack or flat abs, but not so much on strengthening the inner obliques. Which is too bad since focusing on the deep core muscles gives the greatest benefits…as will focusing on my deep core values and priorities.

Ho boy. This post is teetering precariously on the cliché edge of “beauty is only skin deep” and O how superficial we all are.

But there is some truth in all words, even cliché. It is worth considering where I put my focus and energy. Am I placing my attention where the most good will be done? Or am I doing something that only looks good? Am I going to the core of the issue or am I fiddling with the superficial?

And as I’m bobbling and hobbling through my practice, Lizzie drops another pearl of wisdom that I know (IknowIknowIknow) in my mind, but need to be reminded of over and over. She reminds us that how deep we can go into a posture or what it looks like means nothing about what kind of yogi or what kind of person we are. Says Lizzie:

It doesn’t matter what the pose looks like. It matters how you approach the pose. Come from the inside out.

I am grateful for my physical practices for bringing awareness to my body in a deeper way. But just as my deep core muscles connect to my feet, my physical practice radiates far beyond my soft tummy to the core of how I move through the world.

MARK YOUR CALENDAR: Explore this focus of Going Below The Surface in a special workshop that I’ll be teaching with Yin Yoga Instructor, Amy Kidd on Saturday, November 12 from 1-4pm at acac Albemarle Square. Stay tuned for registration information coming soon!

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