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RAW

Not long ago, I watched this short video about deafness and music. The piece talks about how sound isn’t something only to be listened to but to be felt with the whole body. It’s really worth watching.

Hearing impaired and deaf folks know that sound is a vibration, a wave that can be felt — not just heard. Anyone can experience what it feels like to listen with every bone, with every cell.

Don’t just listen to music (and birds, and conversation, and the highway breathing and LIFE!), bathe your whole body in sound!

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Art in Action is a weekly post: a simple, 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.

Want to do anything better? Introduce the concepts of sthira and sukha to anything you do. (You can read more about sthira and sukha here.) These Sanskrit terms can be translated in lots of ways but my favorite is that offered by master yoga teacher, T.K.V. Desikachar:

Sthira is alertness without tension.
Sukha is relaxation without dullness.

Here are 5 steps to doing anything with more skill and ease by using sthira and sukha:

1. Identify a Thing you want to do More Skillfully

It can be anything.

Your Thing can be a physical endeavor like running or yoga or healing an injury. It can be an activity like studying for an exam, giving a presentation, or writing an essay. It can be creating (or letting go of) a habit like driving or eating or shopping more mindfully, exercising every day or flossing. Your Thing can be a relationship issue like reaching out to friends more, listening more attentively to your child or partner, or being kinder to yourself.

Whatever it is you want to do better, identify it clearly. Whatever it is, we’ll call this Your Thing.

2. Observe with Curiosity

Notice how you do Your Thing. Get curious about the details. At this point, make no effort to change anything, just see how you do your do.

Do you run with grim determination in all weathers regardless of how you feel? Do you put off studying until the last minute and then casually read your notes? Do you start popping cookies as soon as the kids go to bed? Do you zone out when your partner starts telling you about her hapless coworker?

Without judgement or criticism, get curious about your tendencies when you do Your Thing.

3. Tweak by adding Sthira

The next time you do Your Thing, experiment with adding some sthira: alertness without tension.

Drive to work with awareness but without gripping the wheel. As you put your PowerPoint slides together, do it with focus and attention but without hyperventilating about what the boss will think. Invite a friend over to lunch without winding yourself into a perfectionist knot about the Caesar dressing.

See what happens when you add more sthira tension-free alertness to Your Thing.

4. Tweak by adding Sukha

Do Your Thing again and this time focus on adding sukha: relaxation without dullness.

In yoga class, notice what you can relax (eyes, jaw, eyebrows?) and still keep the form of the posture. At the dinner table, take time between bites to pause and breathe without zoning out and shoveling in. When your child wants to tell you a story, see if you can soften your eyes and hands while still listening.

Again, get curious about what happens when you add some sukha relaxation without lifelessness as you do Your Thing.

5. Repeat steps 2-4 as needed

We all have tendencies and we all sometimes swing to alert hyper-vigilance or floaty numbed-out. It’s about practice, not perfection. Like the levels on a stereo, adjust the dials of sthira and sukha depending on the moment and the Thing at hand. Have fun tossing a little Sanskrit wisdom into the mix of your day.

BONUS: Compassion Boost

When I pay close attention to my own habits I have the opportunity to make more skillful, happier choices. An added bonus is that my awareness of my tendencies ups my compassion for others.

When a hurried driver passes me, zigging into the lane in front of me, I can recognize myself in their tension and stress (and I can up my own sthira to stay clear of them on the road). When my teen is zoning out on the Internet instead of doing their midterm paper, I can connect to times when I’ve relaxed myself into a stupor.

More kindness to me allows me more kindness to those around me. The practice is a gift to yourself and to your relationship with the world.

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Have you ever thought about it…

How does a tree stand tall and also give in the wind without breaking?
How does a jelly fish take in nourishment from the ocean and yet hold its form?

I think of a tree as being hard and solid and a jellyfish as being soft and permeable. I didn’t stop to consider that it isn’t as simple as that.

Leslie Kaminoff*, is an extraordinary yoga teacher, an anatomist and the author of one of my favorite books, Yoga Anatomy (with impeccable illustrations by Amy Matthews). He writes,

…in all living things, the principle that balances permeability is stability. The yogic terms that reflect these polarities are sthria and sukha. In Sanskrit, sthira can mean firm, hard, solid, compact, strong, unfluctuating, durable, lasting or permanent. Sukha is composed of two roots: su meaning good and kha meaning space. It means easy, pleasant, agreeable, gentle, and mild. 1

Renowned yoga teacher, T.K.V. Desikachar defines the terms this way:

sthira is “alertness without tension” and sukha is “relaxation without dullness.” 2

I love this definition as it highlights the interconnection of these qualities: there is some freedom in sthira and some form in sukha. The two forces are not opposites, but interrelated. Sthira and sukha are two sides of the same thing.

The Taoist principle of yin and yang describes the same idea. Like sukha and sthira, yin and yang acknowledges the intrinsic interdependence of light and dark, masculine and feminine, active and receptive. In the classic symbol, notice that there is some light in the dark and some dark in the light – not separate but integrated.

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In Nia, we practice with the quality of RAW: Relaxed, Alert, and Waiting. As a new Nia teacher, I joked that I was usually in the state of AW — alert and waiting but not relaxed at all. No big shock. It is my tendency to swing into a hyper-alert place of tension. I have to practice relaxing. I teach (and do everything) better when I have a sthira “alertness without tension” and also a sukha “relaxation without dullness.” By teaching (or doing anything) in a state of AW, I miss that healthful integration.

What do you notice about your relationship to the qualities of sthira and sukha? How could you introduce more balance in anything you do by being both alert without tension and relaxed without dullness?


* I am a huge Leslie Kaminoff fan. Some people binge watch Downton Abbey, I put Leslie Kaminoff youTube videos on a loop. Here’s one on the topic of sthira and sukha and how those two qualities are present in the spine.

1 [Look at me go with the footnotes!] Yoga Anatomy by Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews, p. 2
2 The Heart of Yoga, II.46 by T.K.V. Desikachar

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Turkey Run State Park, Indiana

… tree roots seem to maintain a readiness to grow independent of the aboveground parts of the tree. … This winter quiescence – where roots are resting but ready – is extremely important for the health of individual trees and, by extension, for forests in general. ~ Micheal Snyder, Northern Woodlands, Winter 2007

Most of the time, I don’t give tree roots a whole lot of thought. But I think about tree roots plenty when I trip on one (a perfect opportunity to use John Larroquette’s timeless line from Stripes: “Have that removed.”). I think about tree roots when I’m riding over them on my bike. When I’m bouncing along and every other sound out of my mouth is “ooohff”? That’s when I think about tree roots.

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Ricketts Glen State Park, Pennsylvania

On our trip this summer, we saw roots everywhere: on the trails, curving around rocks, clinging to river banks and lake shores. We saw the roots of up-ended trees fanning up toward the sky with the awkward vulnerability of a teenager who’s tripped and fallen in a high school hallway.

When I’m bumping and tripping over them, I think of roots as solid and fixed, grasping the earth to keep the tree upright. But of course, roots aren’t that way at all. Roots are alive and growing and finding their way through soil, around rocks, always deepening their connection and finding ways to offer support and nourishment.

Rigid, solid roots would serve the tree no better than rigid feet would serve us.

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Grundy Lake Provincial Park, Ontario

Feet offer stability and make it possible for us live upright. Tight, tense feet that live in ill-fitting shoes are unstable feet – and are likely attached to an uncomfortable person. A couple of years ago, I noticed I tense and lift my big toes a lot when I walk and when standing I often “grab” the floor with my toes. No wonder balance is a challenge for me: my feet are holding on instead of relaxing down. Check out how much tension you hold in your feet. Relax your feet and toes, and your whole body gains stability and mobility. You might also smile more.

One misconception I had about tree roots is that they mirror the branches above them. I always imagined that roots reach down as far as branches reach up. Instead, most tree roots grow out more than down – mainly in the top 18 inches of soil where the most water and nutrients are available. Imagine a wine glass standing in the middle of a dinner plate. Roots create support and stability by spreading wide.

Except for maybe in super soft sand, our feet can’t really dig down, but they can spread out. Notice if, like me, you roll to the outside edges of your feet (you can also look at the wear on the soles of your shoes to see if you have this tendency). The inside of foot — heel to big toe and third toe plus the arch that spans the space between — is the most stable. As you stand and move, focus on pressing down through the big toe mound to engage the muscles and connective tissue in your feet and legs that offer you stability and relaxation. You can also pay attention from the top down: if any body part above the base is tense, this is a sign that the base isn’t stable and relaxed.

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Ricketts Glen State Park, Pennsylvania

As winter approaches, tree branches go dormant and wait for spring before they grow again, but roots go into a different state as the weather gets colder. Roots are inactive, but if temperatures rise even briefly, they will “wake up” and get growing again. In the winter, roots aren’t totally alseep; they are in a state of “resting but ready.”

When our human bodies are moving easefully and efficiently on the earth, our feet and legs are in this state of resting but ready each time we place a foot on the ground. The foot’s intricate architecture of 26 bones, 33 joints, 107 ligaments, 19 muscles plus connective tissue all allow it to move, be still, and balance on sandy, grassy and rocky terrain. When we say “stability” sometimes it’s mistaken for solidity or rigidity. Instead, every step and stance is alive with powerful and readiness for whatever movement may (or may not) come next.

Nature knows how to make a tall life form like a tree or a human stable and resilient. Awareness and intent can let your roots come alive.

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Quetico Provincial Park, Ontario

Plus, more resting but ready, means less tripping over tree roots.

The Unofficial Guide
to the 13 Nia Principles
~ Practical, Nia-or-Not Applications for EveryBody

(Wondering what in the world the Unofficial Guide is and why I’m writing this series of posts? Click here!)

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Principle 3 – Music and the 8BC System

Excerpt from the Official Nia Headquarters Description:

“Music is the festive dress of silence.” – Chamalu (my teacher Carlos’s teacher)

When we began, we wanted to create Nia in a way that addressed the entire human being – body, mind, emotions and spirit. We view Nia through the triad of Music, Movement and Magic. Music is the canvas upon which the body moves. Magic is what happens inside you. We do not divide Nia into 33.3% music, 33.3% movement and 33.3% magic. Rather, each is 100% valued. When you masterfully connect music and movement, magic is created.

The 8BC System is a notation system used in Nia to become intimate with the structure and flow of the music we use. By intimately knowing your music, you are free to teach rather than count and your music becomes a resource to create a powerful experience. The 8BC system is the roadmap you use to visually format the structure and landmarks of your music and choreography.

Unofficial Practical Nia-or-Not Application for EveryBody:

“Dance is the festive dress of stillness.” – Susan (based on Chamalu)

Teen-aged me loved sprawling on the living room floor in a sea of album covers and liner notes, memorizing lyrics, listening for the guitar solo, feeling the intricacies of the beat. This music-crazy part of me was rekindled when I started teaching Nia and using the 8BC system to map music. If given half a chance, I will wax rhapsodic about this genius method of creating a visual map of sound. (A genius method, I should point out, that I resisted stubbornly for two years.) If you’re interested, I’d love to tell you all about it, but pack a lunch. Once I get going, it takes a while to stop me.

Fascinating and functional as the 8BC system is, as a practitioner it’s less important to use the 8BCs and more important to put the essence of this principle into practice. Principle 3 is about using the state of Relaxed, Alert and Waiting to listen to the details, silence and sound in music – the music that is everywhere.

At the core of Principle 3 is the practice of RAW – Relaxed, Alert and Waiting. In Nia, we first use RAW for listening to music: a relaxed body with upright spine, an alert mind without preference, and a waiting spirit allowing for whatever may happen in the sound.

Unofficially, the state of RAW is powerfully practical whether you teach Nia or not. RAW is meditative and centering and applicable to any situation in which you want to be fully present.

Since learning to be RAW when mapping music for Nia class, I now use it whenever I step in to teach, in any important conversation, or when working on a creative project. The state of RAW integrates body, mind and spirit and in this way is a healthy and balanced foundation any time I want to hear all the details in the universal music around me.

In the Unofficial Guide, we can use Principle 3 as a reminder that music is everywhere. There is music in weather and nature, in cities and traffic, and in people, always in people. RAW gives us the space to listen deeply and attentively to whatever music is playing.

Right now, sit with a straight spine, take a breath and relax, get attentive and wait to see what you hear. Do you hear leaves rustling in the wind, dogs barking, the hum of air conditioning, traffic breathing on the road, conversation happening in the next room? As you listen, notice that sounds come and go. You don’t have to do anything about them. Notice when they start and when they end, notice the silences between them. Notice the details in the sounds: when volume shifts or tone changes. If you’re having a conversation with someone, notice what they are saying when they stop speaking. Notice when their voice sounds tight and when it sounds relaxed regardless of the words they are using.

Music is everywhere. Principle 3 gives us the practice of RAW to listen deeply and allow that music to play through our bodies, minds, emotions and spirits.

sanctuary red doorsSanctuary. It’s such a beautiful word. For centuries, church doors have been painted red to show that they were a place of sanctuary (and for other symbolic reasons). Anyone who passed through those red doors was safe from harm or persecution. If you were hungry, or frightened, or broken in spirit or body, the church was a haven.

The caretaker of the sanctuary would have to be strong, compassionate, relaxed and alert to whoever might appear at the red doors. It might be someone desperate or terrified or hopeless. There’s no telling who might cross over the threshold.

As human beings, we have the ability to make ourselves a sanctuary. By creating an internal environment of strength, balance, and relaxation, whatever presents itself  — be it internal or external — we can allow it in and take care of it.  On a physical level, we can do this by allowing the nervous system to relax.  One way of doing this is to activate movement in and awareness of the hands and feet, which have proprioceptors which sense the body’s position in space.  On a mental and emotional level, we can bring awareness to our thoughts and emotions, allow them in, and allow them to move through.  You can be a sanctuary for yourself.

Below is the playlist (mostly from the 1997 album Songs of Sanctuary) from the class I taught on Friday, October 11, 2013, at the Buck Mountain Episcopal Church Community Center. And here is the poem about allowing ourselves to embody sanctuary: The Guest House by the 13th Century Persian poet, Rumi.

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Thanks to all who joined us for the movement, music and magic!
Dance on. Shine on.
Susan

Sanctuary at Buck Mountain Episcopal Church Community Center

Adiemus – 4:02 – Adiemus/London Philharmonic Orchestra/Miriam Stockley
Tintinnabulum – 11:03 – Adiemus/London Philharmonic/Miriam Stockley
Cantus Inaequalis – 3:18 – Adiemus/London Philharmonic/Miriam Stockley
Cantus Insolitus – 5:40 – Adiemus/London Philharmonic/Miriam Stockley
In Caelum Fero – 7:49 – Adiemus/London Philharmonic Orchestra/Miriam Stockley
Amaté Adea – 5:23 – Adiemus/London Philharmonic/Miriam Stockley
Kayama – 7:58 – Adiemus/London Philharmonic Orchestra/Miriam Stockley
Out Of The Silence – 6:22 – Aeoliah
Hymn – 2:42 – Adiemus/London Philharmonic Orchestra/Miriam Stockley

music hallelujah“Music is, to me, proof of the existence of God.” – Kurt Vonnegut

The first time I heard Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, I was in my early teens and questioning all things religious. Even in the relatively innocuous Congregational church our family attended, I was beginning to bump up against dogma and faith and belief and how those things tangled with my own experience and the expectations of others. But as I stood in that little white sanctuary listening for the first time to our small choir, accompanied by a string quartet, belting out Handel’s famous chorus, my eyes spilled tears. “It can’t just be us,” I thought. “Even the most brilliant of us would need help to create something like that.”

Is there a piece of music that took your breath away the first time you heard it? Does it still? I invite you, right now, to go back and listen to it, even if (or perhaps particularly if) you’ve listened to it 10,000 times since that first time. Whether it’s Handel’s Hallelujah or Rufus Wainwright’s Hallelujah, listen to it again as if you’ve never heard it before.

“Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life.” – Ludwig van Beethoven

While my thoughts about God and spirituality have evolved a lot since I first heard Handel, I still deeply believe in the power of music to open me up, express beyond words, melt my sharp edges, and remind me of my divinity. In 13 years of teaching movement, I have felt it and witnessed it a thousand times: the recognition in a piece of music of something beyond me. My spirit flies, my heart unlocks. The practice of combining rich and resonant music with expressive movement makes magic: body and soul. Even more than listening or movement alone (both powerful practices in and of themselves), moving to music enlivens me like nothing else. As Beethoven said, music bridges that which is deliciously human and that which is beyond human. You can do this now, too, put on a piece of music and breathe, move, dance, or conduct to it. Savor the mediation of essence and form.

“When I don’t like a piece of music, I make a point of listening to it more closely.” – Florent Schmitt

It’s a practice to listen with open curiosity and without expectation. In Nia, we call it the state of RAW: Relaxed, Alert and Waiting. RAW turns listening to any piece of music into an adventure. When I was young(er), I only listened for the lyrics, and I still am a sucker for the poetry of music. But more recently, I’ve discovered Steely Dan’s jazzy irregularities, the intricacies of The Beatles later songs, the thematic variations in a Dvořák symphony, and the layers of unusual sounds in electronica. Even if I don’t choose a song to use in class or to listen to while I cook, any piece of music can be a chance to notice something new. Ask a friend (preferably someone in another generation or with a completely different musical taste from yours) to suggest a piece of music that you’ve never heard before. Allow yourself to listen to it openly and with curiosity. Notice if judgment, story, or preference pop up. If it does, see if you can gently set it aside and just listen: relaxed, alert and waiting. Here’s one you can play with right now.

“Music melts all the separate parts of our bodies together.” ― Anaïs Nin

For the next couple of weeks, I’m on call for jury duty in Charlottesville. This means that I won’t know until the last minute if I’ll be able to teach class or if I’ll be doing my civic duty (we will do our very best to update the Web site so it is accurate, and you can also dive into the river of the unknown, show up for class and see who’s there). In the spirit of RAW, for these two weeks, whenever I teach, we will draw the routine randomly out of a hat and together, we’ll create a focus. Whether you are dancing with me (or my back-up team mates who are graciously waiting in the wings in case I need them), or you are dancing through your life, I invite you to allow music into your awareness. Listen with mindful curiosity. Entertain the possibility that music is divine expression and that when combined with movement, it is an embodiment of spirit.

PS On Monday, August 5, I will be teaching at 1045am at ACAC Albemarle Square: jury cancelled! 🙂

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