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Sensation

If you look up the classes I teach on the gym schedule, you’ll find them listed under “Body Mind Classes” as opposed to “Group Exercise Classes.” After 20 years of having my work categorized in this way, I find the arbitrary distinction sometimes hilarious, sometimes exasperating. Catch me in the right mood, and I can go on a serious rant. I mean seriously: what Body Pump or High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) class isn’t using both body and mind and what yoga or Nia class isn’t group exercise? Don’t even get me started.

If I got to describe the practice we do together, I would call it movement, not exercise or dance or martial arts. I would say it is systemic, whole-body and sensory-centered. I would say that it is about presence, awareness and responsiveness. I would say it creates health through integration and is as much about what we do outside the studio as it is what we do in it.

I might call it Seselelame.

Seselelame is a West African word that a genius coach friend taught me not long ago. She learned it from Philip Shepherd’s book Radical Wholeness in which seselelame is described as “an inner realm in which all the world is felt.” I haven’t read Shepherd’s book but this term captures my imagination.

Kathryn Geurts’ academic work and her book Culture and the Senses: Bodily Ways of Knowing in an African Community
describes the holistic quality of seselelame and how it encompasses sensation both internal and external, physical and emotional, everything in the world inside and out.

Our western view of the senses, on the other hand, is utterly external. From our “five senses” perspective, we see what is outside us, hear what is outside us. Taste, touch, smell what is outside. Other cultures think of balance as a sense and physiologists know that proprioception and interoception (see my post about these here) are senses that are essential to our human functioning. But we westerners are all about what’s out there.

Seselelame is translated as “feel feel at flesh inside” which recognizes that the entire human experience is felt in our bodies. The approach is used by dancers to balance choreography with improvisation, training with intuition, cooperation with competition. I loved watching this video and considering the question it poses, “How does dance enable you to understand who you are?”

Maybe if I was asked to describe the practice we do together, I’d call it HIIT: Holistic Integrated Interoceptive Training. Maybe I’d call it Seselelame: Feel Feel At Flesh Inside While Moving To Groovy Music. And maybe that’s why I’m not in the marketing department.

This week, let’s dive into the question, “How does movement enable you to understand who you are?”

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Yesterday, I went to a three-hour yoga workshop. We held poses for minutes at a time. We lay on tennis balls and let them soften up tight tissues. I had sensations of release, mild discomfort, and “holy moly.”

Last week, I could barely read the news. Among the usual bombshells, the UN released a report saying that extinctions of a huge range of species is happening at alarming rates. I cannot stop thinking about this and have sensations in my belly of fear and anger and despair.

There is another school shooting. This time a friends’ children were in the school where it happened. It is dumbfounding to talk to her. Incomprehensible. My mind reels with thoughts and feelings that all reverberate in my body.

I sit by the river in the warm May breeze and watch the birds. My heart aches at the beauty and how soothed I am.

There is no lack of sensation. It’s up to us to surf it. It’s up to us to be both the surfer and the wave.

In May, my mother-in-law and sister- and brother-in-law are driving from Minnesota to Virginia for a visit. After the excitement of getting the dates in the calendar, my first thought was, “I need to figure out what I’ll cook for them!”

After a sleepless night, I walk to yoga thinking, “I’m tired so I should figure out how many Wheels to do in class today.”

A friend announces her upcoming birthday party and I think, “Hmmm, now to figure out what to wear!”

It happens when I’m driving. And when I’m falling asleep. And doing chores. It happens a lot.
I catch myself figuring things out that aren’t actually things that need to be figured out.

In her book, The Not So Big Life, Sarah Susanka makes the distinction between “working mind” and “thinking mind.” She says,

…the spontaneous response to situations in the present moment is “working mind,” a label coined by the author and teacher Ramesh Balsekar. This is mind without baggage, with out preconceiving and second-guessing. As soon as you find yourself planning how to cope with a situation or with an eventuality that might come about as a consequence of a projected sequence of events, you are in “thinking mind” — the mind that believes it is up to it to orchestrate reality. (p. 186)

I notice that when I say “I need to figure out…” the space between my eyebrows contracts, my eyes (and brain) get a little tight. This is the sensation of “thinking mind” and it not only takes me out of the present moment, it is exhausting.

“It is not half so important to know as to feel.” – Rachel Carson

I’m married to a man who was born to build things. He creates furniture, cabinetry and beautiful spaces to live in. One of the results of his gift is that I’ve moved quite a lot in the past 20 years. We’re about to move into our sixth home together (not including our rolling camper home and various other places we stayed when we were between houses). Usually when faced with a move, I go into full-on FIGURE IT OUT mode so I can “cope with an eventuality that might come about as a consequence of a projected sequence of events.” This time, I’ve done my best to approach the move from “working mind.” I’m doing my best to be more in the flow and the inspiration, clearing spaces and making decisions from how it feels rather than from between my eyebrows.

This is not to say that planning is a bad thing, or even that thinking is a bad thing. Planning and thinking are tools that are extraordinarily helpful. Instead, I’m practicing noticing when I am over-planning, over-controlling, over-managing. When I find myself spinning and grinding and trying really hard to figure something out, instead I’m feel it out. Often, this means trusting that I will know when I need to know with more wisdom than I could possibly know now.

In her dharma talk on impermanence, Tara Brach quotes poet John O’Donohue:

“We’re so busy managing our life so to cover over this great mystery we’re involved in.”

What would happen if you dropped unnecessary managing and controlling and stepped into the mystery? What might it be like to trust that the present is unfolding and that you can sense what is the most skillful next step.

Instead of figuring it out, feel in.

NOTE: If this illustration and focus look familiar, it’s because in December, I wasn’t able to teach to this focus due to unexpected travel. So we’re coming back to it.

Ponder this for a moment.

Nature and experience (and last week’s focus!) show us that everything is connected. Nothing exists in isolation. The body, mind, and emotions are the same. They are all energy in different forms. And they are utterly and inextricably interconnected.

Not long ago, I was running late to teach class and I was all up in my head about what I was teaching and would I be able to pull it off and how I really needed to stop rushing around and how I wished my low back would feel better than it did.

As I slid through the employee breakroom to clock in, there was a basket I’d never seen before with an Alice In Wonderland sign on it:
Inspirational Words ~ Take One.

So I did.

It said, “Your body hears everything your mind says.”

Of course. I know this and I forget. My body is always doing its best for me. Like a loyal and kind friend, it is always doing whatever it can to support me. And it believes me. It believes everything I say.

So if my mind says, “I don’t like the way you look” or “my stupid old low back” or “I hate my knees/thighs/skin” my body hears it all.

If I say out loud, “I’m not angry” when my body knows full-well that I am, what can result but confusion?

If I think, “everybody moves better than I do” or “I am the oldest/fattest/most injured person here” or “nobody is suffering the way I am” or “nobody is as crazy as I am,” my body believes the illusion of disconnection.

If I think, “oh sweetheart, you’re doing great” or “I can feel that you are suffering. What do you need?” or “you have a beauty that no one else has,” how does that feel in my body?

The practice is to pay attention to what my mind says and ask:
Is that something I want to say to a loyal, supportive friend who unconditionally loves me?
Is that what I want to say to a friend who believes everything I say?
Every. Single. Thing.

“When we protect ourselves so we won’t feel pain, that protection becomes like armor, like armor that imprisons the softness of the heart.”
― Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times

Has anyone ever told you that you’re too sensitive?
That you’re touchy? Or overreacting?
Or that you shouldn’t feel as much as you do?
Whenever I’ve heard this, it was never a compliment.
It was a judgment. A criticism.

Too sensitive?
I say there is no such thing.

 In a world that moves fast, rewards hardness and runs roughshod, the willingness, the choice, the ability to be soft and tender is extraordinarily courageous.

The softer we can stay in the face of everything that life gives us, the stronger we are.
It’s a paradox of living that most people never even consider, let alone practice.

Many of us were told to toughen up when we were kids. We were taught that the world was a mean place and you’ve got to grow thick skin so you can take it. But what if the opposite is actually true? What if, in a mean world, the way to make it through is to stay tender and open and willing to feel? What if bullying and lashing out is the ultimate weakness? What if sensitivity is the ultimate strength?

In the body, we can start with the skin. Experiment with feeling details and nuance with every cell of your skin. Feel not just with your palms and fingers but with the backs of your hands, the spaces between your fingers. Feel with your wrists and the backs of your knees. Feel with your cheeks and your shoulders. Feel all of it with all of your sensitive skin.

Practice sensitivity with your imagination: let your dreaming mind explore and create something. Draw or write or sing or dance or just think up something you’ve never thought up before. It’s a tender place, the imagining place. Spend some time there, it’s a seriously brave move.

In every day, there are opportunities for softening your heart. Talk to a friend who’s struggling. Watch the aching ebb and flow of Nature. Read a headline or two. Whatever you choose, stay open and soft and take it in. Without trying to fix it or change it or look away or pretend it’s not happening, stay open and soft.

It’s challenging stuff, sensitivity. Most people armor up and build a hard protective coating around them in an attempt to avoid the discomfort of staying tender. The paradox is that only softening strengthens us to live deeply and fully.

“When things are shaky and nothing is working, we might realize that we are on the verge of something. We might realize that this is a very vulnerable and tender place, and that tenderness can go either way. We can shut down and feel resentful or we can touch in on that throbbing quality.”
― Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heartfelt Advice for Hard Times


If I asked you to list your senses, most of us would go with the obvious five: touch, hearing, taste, smell and sight. These are huge, for sure. To deepen mindfulness and awareness, these are rich and important to pay attention to.

There are, however, two additional sense systems that are essential to our healthy, integrated functioning: Proprioception and Interoception.

Proprioception is the 6th sense: the body’s ability to sense itself in space. It’s a fascinating system that resides largely in receptors in the joints and the hands and feet. It’s the system that allows you to scratch an itch you cannot see, to move without looking and to move fluidly. I love playing with proprioception and I’ve written about it before.

For a deep dive into it, please go to The Secret Sense post from Nov 29, 2015. For proprioceptive practical particulars, please check out Art In Action: 4 Ways to Strengthen Proprioception from Dec 1 2015.

The 7th sense is Interoception: your ability to sense yourself from the inside. Interoception is what allows you to feel your heart beating and tells you when you are thirsty, hungry or need to go to the bathroom. Interoception also allows you to feel your emotions. Many of us don’t pay close attention to these sensations and can confuse them. Ever eat when you’re actually thirsty or bored or stressed? That’s just muddled interoception. (This great article about Interoception and Autism isn’t just for people on the spectrum, I certainly find myself having similar experiences as those described here.)

The practice of mindful movement invites us to pay attention to both proprioception and interoception with focus and clarity. Strengthening the 6th and 7th senses allows us to move through the world with more ease and grace.

On a sunny Friday morning, I rode my bike to the gym for a yoga class and a workout. Yoga was on the deck in the balmy summer air with a teacher I love. I was looking forward to a swim and then a leisurely ride home.

As I walked to the locker room, the sky suddenly went dark and rain roared on the roof. I threw my gear in a bag, ran out to my bike, and was soaked through before I had the lock off. I bumped my bike through the puddles in the parking lot but pedal as I might I couldn’t make it through the first traffic light before it turned red.

As the rain poured through my helmet and dripped down my nose, I stared angrily at the red light. I imagined riding home miserably, uncomfortably, grimly.

I’d missed my swim, but realized I was still getting wet on a summer morning. I took a breath and felt the rain on my skin. It felt tingly and alive. I wondered what would happen if I rode the rest of the way home happily. Or gratefully. Or joyfully. What if I changed the adverb to adventurously or curiously?

I felt the muscles in my face and shoulders soften. The light turned green and I turned onto the next street gleefully.

What happens when you choose your adverb with intention? How does that change the sensation? How does the adverb transform the experience?


I’m teaching extra classes and will be diving into the Adverb Dance with three classic Nia routines:
TranceVision ~ Monday 1045am acac square, Tuesday 840am acac downtown
Moodfood ~ Wednesday 11am acac square, Thursday 840am acac downtown
Fantasia ~ Friday, 6pm acac downtown (101 at 545pm), Saturday, 1245pm acac square (101 at 1230pm)
Inspired by the teaching of Brad Stoller as well as the Nia Blue Belt, we’ll explore how intention and focus changes movement, sensation and experience! Please join me.



My first book! Coming Soon!

I’ve finalized the pages and the cover mechanical is done (doesn’t that sound official and cool? I have no real idea what it means). Please join me in the adventure of the publication of my first book. Go to http://www.susanmcculley.com and sign up to be a Buddha Cat Backer! You’ll get updates, insights, goodies and discounts! Can’t wait to do this together.

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