It's been something I've been aware of since I was young, even though I didn't know it was called mindfulness, and didn't practise it regularly. I remember a lesson in primary school when I was six, perhaps seven. We sat quietly with our eyes closed and trying not to fidget, focusing our attention on the sounds of others in the room breathing, the class next door, birds outside, traffic, the warmth of the sun coming through the window, the feel of the wooden seat on bare legs. From time to time since then, I've been reminded how useful mindfulness is and each time, I wonder how I could have forgotten. Mindfulness practice is so called because it needs practice. It's so easy to go through life on auto-pilot, bouncing from one task to the next, planning and looking forward, or thinking about what you could, should, ought to have done or be doing.
Looking back on my year of yoga lessons (with Rose Thorn, Inner Yoga Trust and I thoroughly recommend her as a teacher), I realised it was something quite amazing. I haven't managed to clear a space yet to start my own daily yoga (and dance) practice, haven't found (and anyway, can't afford) another class and I'm missing it. It sorted out a worsening sacroiliac problem; I discovered that I had been unconsciously bracing myself by contracting my glutes and the resulting tension was enough to trigger some inflammation. I had probably started it as a balance strategy. Consciously relaxing and 'softening' the muscles as I was standing still was difficult at first, but seems to have paid off. I used to float out of class feeling great and wake up the following morning feeling as though I had been hit by a bus, so there was obviously a lot of work going on deep in the body. The significant and unexpected bonus was how much it helped me mentally, in terms of my ability to focus my attention inwards on my body, its movement, stillness, relaxation, feelings and breath. After years of twitching restlessly or just falling asleep when I tried to be still and meditate, I re-found my ability to do it and I love it.
The somatics workshops and yoga classes were part of my ongoing portfolio of ways to mitigate and counteract the effects of severe osteoarthritis in my knees and feet, relearning and changing the way I use my body. The new awareness of tension and alignment is allowing me to release tightness, especially in the knees, before the pain builds too much. The combination of range of movement exercises, knee supports, heat, massage, awareness and adjustment of alignment and plenty of rest mean that it's now several months since I needed to take any painkillers.
As a result, I can do more, and dance more, providing I remain mindful of the way I use my body. A carelessly aligned foot and leg during a turn could be enough to cause pain and loss of balance. I had thought I was quite good at listening to my body, but learning to sit down before I need to showed me how much I ignored messages from my body, and that's very much a dancer's thing. In dance training, you learn the technique for the steps or moves and learn to ignore the minor (and sometimes major) aches and pains involved in doing them, the tired and burning feet and muscles. Even as you block some sensations, you are practising some sort of mindfulness as you dance in the moment, in the music, but rely on muscle memory for the movements and choreography, and a sort of subliminal awareness of the space that you dance in and the other dancers around you. Is automaticity the opposite of mindfulness? It seems to me that dancing mindfully requires more practice than everyday mindfulness, as dance involves so many senses, it's impossible to give your full attention to all aspects of dance at the same time.
If you focus your attention on the movements themselves, your face can show that concentration. Breaking the movement down and then putting it back together is an essential part of learning it, but over-thinking can induce analysis-paralysis and tension in the body. Anyone who has learned to dance is familiar with this. Dance looks easy, good dance looks effortless (even if the dancer comes off stage pouring with sweat!). You know you can boogie around to your favourite tunes and you thought you were a pretty good dancer. So you start to dance in a given style and you find it's very difficult. You fight for the shape and the movement and become tense. The tension stops full movement and affects posture, which makes everything harder. You try harder to get it right and instead it goes even more wrong. You get frustrated and cross with yourself. Your mind starts to whirl with thoughts of how to get it right and make your body do what you want it to. You end up losing patience with yourself and with learning to dance. (I have a theory this is why many people like to dance but don't want to learn to dance, preferring dance exercise classes in which they can hide at the back and move any old how, without having to remember a routine or strive for correct movement technique. Following the leader, the movement goes in through the eyes and out through the body but bypasses the brain, a bit like copy-typing.) This is where mindfulness helps; another aspect of mindfulness is recollection, remembering to be aware of something. Remember to relax, stop over-thinking and allow the movement to flow.
Noticing without judgement is a difficult thing. When you are practising and are fully aware of how your body is moving, it's easy to be distracted when you do something wrong. Although you are actually making a judgement that your dancing or movement isn't as good as it should be, the ability to look more objectively at it in order to make improvements is positive and constructive, without wallowing in self-criticism. Part of mindfulness practice is to acknowledge the thought and move on. This is important for rehearsal, as you wouldn't stop and acknowledge a wrong move while performing.
Accepting that it might be impossible to be mindful of every aspect of dance while you're dancing, a good way to incorporate mindfulness in dance practice might be to focus on different aspects for different drills, dance pieces or practice sessions. For example, you might create or learn a movement phrase and repeat it several times, on each repeat shifting the focus:
- The movements themselves; the technical aspects and how they feel in the body
- The transitions between moves and shifts of weight
- Movement difficulties, finding ways to move more easily and reduce the effort required
- The movement dynamics - are they soft, sharp, floating, heavy, percussive, flowing ...?
- The expression brought by the dynamics and the music
- Your breathing. Are you forgetting to breathe, could you use it to assist movements (for example, breathing out on an accent such as a hip drop)?
- The space in which you move, the direction of your body in relation to that space and the movement pathways. (For further information on spatial relationships, see my blog post here.)
- Listen deeply to the music, its beat and rhythms, all its nuances, the different instruments, how the key/maqam/dromos makes you feel, and the jingle of your hip belt.
- Wear scent, spray a little on your veil or scent the room with a candle or incense stick.
- Feel the costume fabrics, their textures, colours, the glint and sparkle of beads and coins.
- Notice the way your clothing moves. If you're wearing a skirt, hold or brush it outwards so that it catches the air as you move.
- Feel the way the air flows over your bare arms as you move them.
- Look at the way your body is moving (if you have a mirror), or follow the movement of a hand, the colour, drape and float of a veil.
- Take a break, drink some water, feeling the moist coolness in your mouth.