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Sensation

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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“What do you do when you meditate and dance and you still feel angry?”

Her hair is sweaty, her cheeks are pink and her eyes exhausted.

It’s a good question…and I draw a complete blank. What do we do?

Alice Walker said “Hard times call for furious dancing” and heaven knows that’s what I’ve been doing. But the knot in my heart doesn’t seem to shift. The tightness in my belly and the swirl in my brain don’t go away.

As I look into her tired face looking for an answer, what pops into my mind is what my therapist, James Yates says: the only way out is through.

Gah, I hate it when he says that and he says it all the freaking time. I usually roll my eyes and make a face at him since it means I can’t skirt around the pain. I can’t take a pill or say a mantra or distract myself and think it will shift or heal. The bumper sticker truth is: The Only Way to Heal it is to Feel it.

One of the Nia Technique founders, Debbie Rosas told me once that when people ask her about what she does for work, she says, “I teach people to feel.” Which I thought was all woo-woo and gauzy dresses and Enya at the time. But after 17 years of teaching, I see that she is right. Somatic practices like Nia and yoga (and any body~mind method) are all about feeling sensation.

And doesn’t take much self or human observation to notice how much effort we put into avoiding feeling anything.

Maybe it’s natural to do the easiest thing. Water flows down the path of least resistance, why shouldn’t we? Our car seats have gotten cushier and smooshier. Our houses and offices can be heated and cooled to the precise degree. Our sneakers have air pockets, our jeans are prewashed, our fleece jackets are so soft and light that it’s like wearing a warm cloud. In the midst of all this comfort, we spend most of our time denying, avoiding, and running from any intense feeling.

Life has a way of overturning all our ardent efforts to make our days comfortable, easy, and convenient. It doesn’t matter how much money I pour into my custom-made luxuriousness. It doesn’t matter how obsessively I secure myself against difficulty (Check out Evan Osnos’ New Yorker piece, Survival of the Richest on people who are attempting this now.). It doesn’t matter. One way or another, discomfort and challenge will happen. It is the nature of human life.

The question is, how will I handle it when it inevitably arises? The answer lies in how much I’ve practiced being present in the face of difficulty. The skillfulness of my thoughts, words, and actions in adversity comes down to how comfortable I am with discomfort.

“Hard times call for furious dancing.” I’ve always thought that meant that dancing makes it feel better, makes the hardness not so hard. But now I’m realizing that furious dancing allows us to feel.

She asked a good question: what do you do when you’ve practiced and you still feel angry (or sad or afraid or…)? The answer is that practicing Nia or yoga or meditation isn’t meant to make the sensations go away. Practicing is meant to increase our capacity to feel all of it. Since without feeling it, it will never ease, it will never heal.

Dammit if James isn’t right: the only way out is through.


If you enjoyed this post, great! Please share it!
And you might also like this one from November 2013: Voluntary Discomfort

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When Frank and I were traveling this month, we made a practice of moving in some way every day. I noticed that when faced with an unfamiliar hike or ride (which was practically every day!), I often defaulted to an old habit of thinking I wouldn’t be strong enough and wouldn’t be able to do it.

I suspect this line of thinking started in middle school gym class. We’d be riding or walking along and I’d notice myself thinking, “I can’t do this” or “I’m not strong enough” or “I’m going to fall and break my tuchus.” I could feel myself withdrawing and contracting away from whatever we were doing physically, mentally and emotionally.

Which was a drag since I’d get sad or grumpy and we were in beautiful places together, forcryingoutloud.

Instead, I’d play with saying other things to myself like “I’m fit, I’m healthy and I can do this” or “Just focus on this step right now” or “I can rest if I need to.” It felt a little unfamiliar and awkward to be running these lines in my head like a mantra but dang if I couldn’t do more than I thought I could.

Which brings me to 4 ways of triumphing over the tragedy of middle school gym class and becoming a sacred athlete:

1. Changing it up is good.

The body thrives on variety. We found that hiking one day and biking the next felt good in that different muscles got attention in different ways. My calves got tight when I hiked and then stretched when we rode. But even if you run or walk every day, change up your route or your focus (e.g. experiment with going a little further or not as far, faster or slower, pay attention to how your feet touch the ground or how you hold your hands, shoulders or mouth). If you do Nia or yoga regularly, just changing where your attention goes can change how it lands in your body, so practice giving yourself a focus (e.g., connecting breath and movement, go more slowly, make more sound, etc.)

2. Moving a little is better than not moving at all.

As Colleen Patrick-Goudreau says, “Don’t do nothing because you can’t do everything.” When we were in the car for long stretches, I circled my wrists, did deep belly breathing, circled my shoulders, and stretched my neck (that one might have been more difficult if I’d been driving). When we stopped, I’d do hip circles (what the heck, I’m not going to see the people in that rest stop again), do some squats and stretch my hamstrings. When we got to a campground late, even a short walk around the campground loop was better than nothing. Now that I’m spending more time at my desk, I’m doing the same thing.

3. Having fun and feeling good is an essential part of healthy movement.

When I’m riding my bike down a hill or I come to a vista at the top of a hike, I get a feeling of exhilaration and joy that is an essential part of being a sacred athlete*. Find a movement that you can do that you love, rather than one that you think is good for you or that you should do. There may be things that you used to do that no longer bring you joy and there may be things that you would never have considered doing at another time in your life that appeal to you now. Whatever bubbles some joy juice into your bloodstream, go do that.


4. My body has wisdom that my mind knows nothing about.

Especially if you’ve ignored your body (perhaps by not moving it or by overriding the sensation it has given you), it can take some time and practice to know the difference between listening to your body and letting your mind talk you out of (or into) something. But when I listen to the subtle nuances as well as the more intense sensation AND feel how I feel AFTER I do something, I can start to hone in on when I need to rest and when I need to GO!

Movement is your birthright no matter what your physical condition, experience or age. Become a Sacred Athlete by starting exactly where you are now and moving with awareness, intention and joy.

* Potentially annoying vacation story: One day we drove for what seemed like hours on a dusty bumpy road, then got to a ride but found it was dusty and bumpy and rocky and not well marked. After an hour of that I was grumpy and cranky and frustrated. Then we got a road with not too many cars and long swooping hills. The first hill I road down smooth and fast, I could actually feel the grumpy crankies clear out of my head.

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“Don’t do nothing because you can’t do everything.” ~ Colleen Patrick-Goudreau

The horror of middle school gym class is so universal that it’s practically a cliché. I know even gifted athletes who suffered the torments of junior high squat thrusts and rope climbing. But it’s not just the smelly, unflattering uniforms and gang showers (heavens above, do schools still use those??) that make 7th grade PhysEd a tragedy. The problem with the gym classes of my youth was their narrow focus on sports, competition, and everybody doing things the same way. (Note: I was taking those classes 40 years ago. I would love to hear from current physical education teachers about how they teach gym these days.)

True facts about my physical education history:

1. I am terrible at sports.

In elementary school, the only sport available to girls was softball. I was terrible. TERRIBLE. Softball is a game in which at every moment, one person is supposed to be doing one thing correctly: hit the ball, catch the ball, throw the ball. As an anxious kid, the pressure of all eyes on me as I inevitably missed the ball, dropped the ball, or threw wildly off target made my stomach hurt. I never got better. I never had fun. In high school, I played on the volleyball team. I got the award for following directions.

2. I was terrible in gym class.

I got nervous learning sports skills in front of the class. I could never figure out which knee was supposed to go up when doing a lay-up. I couldn’t jump so spiking a volleyball never went well. And somehow, soccer balls either ended up behind me or they tripped me up so I was in a heap picking grass out of my teeth.

3. The President’s Physical Fitness testing was an annual exercise in humiliation.

This was a week of doing a list of skills deemed important by the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. The Frasier twins could do everything. Doris and Natalie could hang on that bar for a full minute without quivering. They probably loved Physical Fitness week. I did not. I couldn’t run fast, I wasn’t strong, and in an effort to save some sort of face, my tendency was to give up. (I could force myself to do 50 sit ups but then I was so sore that I could barely get out of my chair.)

4. I hated dancing.

In a progressive move brought on by the late 70s popularity of Saturday Night Fever, dance was added to the PE curriculum. We did dances in gangly tangled lines in the gym but I have a trouble with my left and right and I was usually stepping on the person next to me. I hated it. If you know me, my lack of coordination or athletic prowess is unlikely to be a surprise but it is absolutely true that until I was in my early 30s, I was so self-conscious and uncomfortable that I could barely move on a dance floor.

5. As I got older, I saw exercise as punishment for whatever I’d eaten or for my body not looking how I thought it should.

Over-indulge on the weekend? Extra time on the stair-stepper on Monday morning. Too many restaurant meals on the business trip? Get up at 5am to hit the hotel gym. Don’t look slender and buff like Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2? Hire a personal trainer. Movement that was pleasurable, healing, joyful, or fun was never ever my experience.

The human body is designed to move. Sports games and disco dancing a la John Travolta are not the only ways to move. As a culture we tend to focus on competition and performance. If you thrive in that environment and love it like the Frasier twins did, that is wonderful. But even if exercising in squads was great for you, it’s important to remember that sport is just a small part of what the body can do. The tragedy is that many of us take this narrow view of physicality and generalize it to “I’m not athletic” or “I hate exercise.”

Lucky for me, I came across a practice that I love, a practice that isn’t about winning or competition but about awareness, healing, and feeling good. Lucky for me, after a few years of moving my body in a different environment than the no-pain-no-gain, sports-y world, I started to feel differently about my body and my physical abilities. I don’t have to run a marathon or clear the hurdles. I don’t have to dribble any kind of ball. I just need to find a way to move my body that feels good. I just need to invite myself to the edge between challenge and healing and find the joy of moving there.

Even if you flourish in the traditional athletic system and love playing of the game, it’s worthwhile to remember that competitive sports aren’t the only way to be an athlete. I can admire the talents of my beloved UVA basketball team and be amazed by the feats of Olympians and find my own sacred athleticism in other ways.

May physical education for everyone lead to understanding how the body works, how to move with awareness, and how to cultivate joy in our physical abilities, whatever they are.

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Robert Plant’s, Song to the Siren, was the last song my teacher, Carlos AyaRosas, played in a Nia class. One of the lines is:

Oh my heart, oh my heart
Shies from the sorrow

We all do this– we pull away from difficult or intense feelings and sensations. Intensity of all kinds can feel scary even though feeling is the reason we’re here! The practice is to lean into all sensations and allow our bodies and minds to become accustomed to feeling. Then, when life presents us with intensity, we have practiced feeling it and staying in it rather than shutting down or running. The practice is to feel life.

This week we danced to my routine, Unity which is based on Carlos’ routine Humanity. You can find all playlists below or you can choose to listen to them by going to Spotify! You can listen for free at Spotify! Sign up for free, follow me at “susanmcculley” and you’ll find my public playlists ~ just click and listen!

Here are the upcoming special classes and events — I hope you’ll join us!

• Earth Day, Friday, April 22, 545-7pm, acac downtown ~ Group Ex Studio
Susan & Mary Linn are teaming up for a special class celebrating our big mama, Earth. Join us for a playful exploration of how the elements of earth, wind, water and fire manifest in movement and in our bodies.

• A Spring Thing, Friday, April 29, 545-715pm, Buck Mountain Episcopal Parish Hall*, Earlysville
Join Susan & Mary Linn for an evening of movement choices. Spring can be a time of both riding the ebullient wave of upward energy and finding peace in the midst of all that blossoming and growing! The first portion of the evening will be a look at some of the basics of Nia movement and how each can be adjusted as to the needs of your body in the moment. Then we’ll practice those movements in a Spring Thing Nia class experience. Free to everybody (donations gratefully accepted for the Buck Mountain Health and Wellness Ministry).
* 4133 Earlysville Road, Earlysville VA 22936 ~ GPS will take you to the church; the Parish Hall is the small white building just past the church.

• dance. sit. write. draw. returns! Saturday, May 7, 830am-5pm – EARLY REGISTRATION RATE OF $80 EXTENDED TO APRIL 15!
Did you know that Albert Einstein used the practice of “combinatory play” to help him solve difficult problems? He would spend a few hours playing his violin and when he was done, he had the solution! Spending the day blending the practices of movement, meditation, writing and drawing is a way of opening the channel of your artist self ~ giving it some oxygen and space no matter what your experience is. Join us for a delicious day. Early registration rate of $80 extended to April 15! If you’re on the fence, my friends, now’s the time to hop off.

The dance. sit. write. draw. four-part mini-video series is complete. You can watch them all in about 10 minutes to get more information about the retreat and why you might choose to join us.
Why dance. sit. write. draw.?
Wait, why dance. sit. write. draw., again? (Or, Why Pablo Picasso and I Want You To Come To The Retreat)
Dance. sit. write. draw. (It’s a thing!)
Dance. sit. write. draw. (Your medicine)
Go to susanmcculley.com/workshops for the details and to register. Or email sjmnia@gmail.com with questions.

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, Apr 11, 2016, 1045am ~ Stay in Sensation (Unity based on Humanity)

Aquarius 4:48 Hair, the Musical
What I Got 3:21 Gift Of Gab, Michael Franti & Spearhead
When Doves Cry 4:04 The Be Good Tanyas
Qalanderi 7:10 Cheb i Sabbah
Sunshine 3:34 Matisyahu
Legend In My Living Room 3:46 Annie Lennox
Give Love (Infinite Love Mix) 5:29 MC Yogi
Nataraj 6:02 Ganga Giri
Body Language / Interpretation 5:00 Booka Shade
Common Threads 4:17 Bobby McFerrin
Don’t Leave 4:03 Faithless
Song To The Siren 5:51 Robert Plant

Tuesday, Apr 12, 2016, 840am ~ Stay in Sensation (Unity based on Humanity)

Aquarius 4:48 Hair, the Musical
What I Got 3:21 Gift Of Gab, Michael Franti & Spearhead
When Doves Cry 4:04 The Be Good Tanyas
Qalanderi 7:10 Cheb i Sabbah
Legend In My Living Room 3:46 Annie Lennox
Give Love (Infinite Love Mix) 5:29 MC Yogi
Nataraj 6:02 Ganga Giri
Body Language / Interpretation 5:00 Booka Shade
Common Threads 4:17 Bobby McFerrin
Don’t Leave 4:03 Faithless
Song To The Siren 5:51 Robert Plant

Wednesday, Apr 13, 2016, 11am ~ Stay in Sensation (Unity based on Humanity)

Aquarius 4:48 Hair, the Musical
What I Got 3:21 Gift Of Gab, Michael Franti & Spearhead
When Doves Cry 4:04 The Be Good Tanyas
Qalanderi 7:10 Cheb i Sabbah
Legend In My Living Room 3:46 Annie Lennox
Give Love (Infinite Love Mix) 5:29 MC Yogi
Nataraj 6:02 Ganga Giri
New Sensation 3:39 INXS
Common Threads 4:17 Bobby McFerrin
Don’t Leave 4:03 Faithless
Song To The Siren 5:51 Robert Plant

Thursday, Apr 14, 2016, 840am ~ Stay in Sensation (Unity based on Humanity)

Aquarius 4:48 Hair, the Musical
What I Got 3:21 Gift Of Gab, Michael Franti & Spearhead
When Doves Cry 4:04 The Be Good Tanyas
Qalanderi 7:10 Cheb i Sabbah
Legend In My Living Room 3:46 Annie Lennox
Give Love (Infinite Love Mix) 5:29 MC Yogi
Nataraj 6:02 Ganga Giri
New Sensation 3:39 INXS
Common Threads 4:17 Bobby McFerrin
Don’t Leave 4:03 Faithless
Song To The Siren 5:51 Robert Plant

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…
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!

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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.

As I walk into the memorial service for a 23-year-old friend, I see an image of his beautiful face on the wall, and I felt my heart buckle. I put my had on my friend’s arm. I don’t think I can do this, I said. I can’t bear it. She takes my hand and says, Our ability to feel grief and sadness is directly proportional to our ability to feel love and joy. Stretch your heart. You can do it.

At the most basic level, why are we here? Why are we in these bodies, on this planet, in this life? Why do we connect with each other, why do we work, why do we create things, why are art and music and stories are so important to us?

Why? We are here to feel. The reason we are here is to feel it all.

And yet in the ultimate irony, we avoid or minimize how much we feel. We create environments that are not too hot and not too cold. We resist intensity of all kinds, go on auto-pilot and hang out mainly in a neutral, not-feeling-much-of-anything space.

Staying in sensation is an investment in life. By paying attention, I have the chance to actually be present for my days. It’s a matter of bravely stretching our hearts, minds, and nervous systems to be able to sustain awareness and presence – even when life gets intense.

It’s a practice that’s as simple and profound as one single question:

What sensation am I feeling now?

In any moment, I can pay attention and ask the question in regards to my body, my mind, my emotions, my life:

  • Monday morning yoga class: I’m in Warrior II pose. When I ask, What sensation am I feeling now? I realize that I’m a little checked out. I don’t feel much in my legs and my arms are noodly.

By asking the question, I stop thinking about my to-do list and how my yoga top has ridden up over my belly. I can drop into the intensity of Warrior II. My legs get stronger when I make this choice and my nervous system gets stronger, too.

  • It’s a Tuesday evening, and I’ve spent the day doing all the things I always do on Tuesday. I’ve done chores around the house, I’ve taught a class, I’ve run the errands, I’ve written a post, I’ve gotten dinner ready.

When I ask, What sensation am I feeling now? I realize that much of the day, I’ve been habitually doing what I do and I feel a fuzzy, cotton-wool-in-the-head feeling.

By asking the question, I can choose to drop into sensation and engage. Instead of zoning out in front of the TV or scrolling through Facebook, I can read an interesting article or listen to some jazz or watch a film that challenges me. Waking up with something unfamiliar and unexpected expands my mind and in general makes me more open to whatever arises.

  • Out of nowhere, memory of my step-son at age 6 comes to me. He’s on the edge of the auditorium seat at kindergarten orientation radiating excitement. The teacher leads a song and he sings and smiles and my heart could break for loving him. In just over a month, this boy who still radiates excitement about learning, will graduate from college.

When I ask, What sensation am I feeling now? I realize I have set aside his graduation in my heart. I haven’t felt it.

By asking the question, I can feel how happy I am for him, how amazed I am by all he has accomplished and the man he is becoming. And I can feel how sad I will be when he’s far away. By asking the question, I feel my love for him.

In May, when I see him in cap and gown, and I am inevitably in tears, I will be able to feel them instead of holding them back or setting them aside.

Staying in sensation is the edge at which change and transformation happen. It’s where I build the strength, endurance and presence that allow me to feel my life. Life will give us intensity one way or the other. We can practice being with it by being in sensation now.

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Comfort is king in our culture. So much so that sometimes I don’t notice what great lengths I go to stay that way. We heat and cool our houses to an exact temperature. Our beds have pillow tops and our shoes have cushiony insoles. Cars have personalized lumbar support, precision environmental controls, heated seats and sunroofs. We all like it the way we like it: super comfy.


In December of 2011, Carlos AyaRosas, co-founder of The Nia Technique, my teacher and trainer for more than a decade, retired from the practice. His departure knocked the wind out of me. I was already feeling disconnected and disillusioned with my teaching and now with Carlos gone I felt…well, I a lot of things that I did not want to feel.


It’s not just physical comfort that I crave. I want to feel comfortable mentally, too. That’s part of the reason habits are so seductive: they feel easy and “normal.” This morning I put a bracelet on my left wrist that I usually wear on my right. Shazam. My mind scrambled all day – prickling with the awkwardness of “different.” Break a habit and you’ll feel the squirm of discomfort.


Oddly enough (or maybe not), I spent my 4-month sabbatical in 2012 dancing to Carlos’ last routine, Humanity. In a way, I felt like he was still around since he was right there in my living room. So I pushed aside my feelings about him leaving, danced the Crazy Bird and the Criss-Cross Kick and pretended nothing had happened.

At the end of my sabbatical, I created two routines back-to-back and my practice felt full of energy. But sitting there on the edge of my desk, staring at me, was Carlos’ last routine. I was reluctant to teach it. First, I didn’t think it was his best work. There were strokes of brilliance but his heart didn’t seem entirely in it. Besides, to teach his last routine would stir up my feelings about his retirement and I didn’t want that.

So I avoided it. I eyed the file on the edge of my desk and let it sit there.


Feelings are messy, irrational, and replete with tears and runny noses. Sadness, anger, grief – we do our best to avoid them. We pretend they aren’t happening or dull them with our drug of choice. And it’s not just difficult emotions, but joyful ones that we resist feeling fully. I often deflect compliments instead of taking them in, or rush to the next thing instead of celebrating what I’ve accomplished. We prefer, somehow, to hang out in the unmessy middle – not feeling much of anything.


As much as I resisted and ignored them, as soon as I picked up Humanity again, my feelings about Carlos’ retirement floated fast to the surface. First, I was angry. I counted on him to deliver the work and teach me in his impeccable, sometimes confounding way. How could he leave and abandon us? Abandon me?

And I was afraid. What did his departure mean for the practice, my business, for me? Did I still want to teach Nia without him leading? What would happen to this practice into which I was so deeply invested?

And behind the fear was the biggest one: I was sad. I was so sad he was gone.


Moving toward and leaning into sensation – whether it is physical, mental or emotional – is like strengthening a muscle. The more I allow myself to feel — without resisting or running, grasping or holding on — the stronger my system becomes. I’m able to stay connected even when I’m in the swirl of sensation. Staying with sensation allows me to be present rather than panic. Staying with sensation allows me to respond rather than react. Staying with sensation allows me to be at peace with whatever is occurring.


As a way to honor Carlos and honor myself and all my messy feelings, I created a routine called Unity (because Unity is within hUmaNITY!). The routine blends his music and choreography with mine into an integrated piece. [You can read my original post about it here. ] The process of creating the routine gave me a chance to process the feelings and to let them move.

Comfortable is cool. I’m all for pillow tops and heated seats. But moving into, staying in sensation is how we transform and grow – physically, mentally, emotionally.

What are we here for anyway — in these bodies, in this life, in this world — but to feel it all?

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