Feel the ground underneath your feet, keep your knees soft, says Maria. Hold, but don’t clench, the abdominal muscles. Then twist from the core, rotate shoulders, and strike with the heel of the right hand. Keep the left arm and hand close to the side body. And vocalize!
I strike with my right hand, and let out a satisfying grunt. Huh!
Next, breathe in, swivel the core, and strike with the left. Huh!
We march forward, 1 – 2 – 3 – 4, and strike: Right! Left! Right! Left!
March back, with feet stomping, and repeat Huh! Huh! Huh! Huh! Four precise strikes, while a rock song with a heavy downbeat plays over the speaker.
I am in a Nia class, a style which draws upon jazz and modern dance, tai chi, yoga, as well as tae kwon doe, and regularly incorporates punches, blocks and kicks into dance routines set to inspiring music.
I sense my brow getting furrowed, and my focus zeroing in on the mental image of someone I am angry with – someone at work who had lied about me and was ruining my reputation. This is one of the worst things someone can do to me. I channel my heated energy at an image of their face, then strike: Right! Left! Huh! Huh! I imagine the strikes land on their stomach. It’s violent, I know, but I figure it is a safer way than most to channel my aggressions.
While we dance, Maria demonstrates a new pattern: She marches forward, 1 – 2 – 3 – 4, and does two strikes – Right! Left! Then she adds two freestyle moves – freeflowing arms with her hips jiving to the beat and legs loose.
March forward – 2 – 3 – 4. Huh! Huh! Then, I freeze. My body refuses to do freestyle moves. I stand with fists clenched and arms rigid.
March back – 2 – 3 – 4. Huh! Huh! I try again. I manage some herky jerky moves, probably resembling the ‘robot’. I get angry at what Maria is asking me to do – I was in the zone and wanted to stay aggressive.
I could not loosen up my core and arms, in order to pull off any moves other than the strikes.
Next time, I know it’s coming, so I try to prepare. I do my strikes, and then try to loosen up, but my body doesn’t acquiesce. My mind is almost dizzy at the attempt, and can’t find the rhythm in order to time my freestyle…
After one song, we move on from the martial arts movements to other dance steps, and I am relieved.
After class, I wondered, why was this so challenging? I tend to pick up dance moves pretty easily, but this one – firm attacks, interspersed with flowing, loose movements – was a struggle, for both my body, and my mind.
When I feel hurt, threatened or angry, it is difficult for me to come out of that to feel relaxed, joyful, or happy. Once I am physically tense, my body is not able to easily relax. And once I am angry, my mind tells me that if I let go of the emotion, I will be condoning whatever made me upset in the first place.
I reflected that this pattern has shown up over the course of my life in the form of holding grudges.
The most extreme example of this occurred many years ago. After college, my sister and I had moved back home. After a painful and dramatic incident, we did not speak to each other for several months. It started with screaming and crying, and evolved to sidestepping each other with tension and awkwardness. I soon escaped by moving into my own apartment.
This habit seemed to run in my family. My mother had a couple of years when she didn’t speak to her brother. My father didn’t speak to his sisters for a couple of decades.
Thankfully, all of those rifts had been resolved, but I felt there was more to discover.
At the time, I had also noticed that I had a very hard time cooling off after an argument with my then 7-year-old son. Even after he had moved on, and approached me lovingly, I couldn’t fully open to him, because I retained the tension of the interaction in my physical body. Once I was aware of the pattern, it seemed absurd. I made a cognitive resolution to change my behavior, my plan complete with self-flagellation and harsh critique.
Meanwhile, in dance class, I continued to follow Maria’s instruction. In every class, we had strikes, punches, blocks and other martial arts movements integrated into the dance. I would mimic to the best of my ability, focusing on the strike moves, and then releasing to allow organic dance movements. It remained the hardest part of the dance for me to follow.
At times, I found myself taking my strikes, huffing an inhale, and then moving into the flowing dance move. It was a jilted move, and I was behind the beat, but I kept trying. Other times, I was so determined on making the flowing move, that my last strike would be wimpy and unfocused.
After some amount of time (months, or maybe even a year?), one day I noticed that I moved from my strikes, focused and sharp, to my arms flowing, and core swaying gracefully. I couldn’t pinpoint how I had developed the ability, and it didn’t even require the hyperfocus or trying that I had put in before. The ease was just there. I was ecstatic!
Upon later reflection, I wondered whether this physical capability had any impact on my family or social interactions, so I made an intention to notice if there were any changes. One day, during an intense interaction with my kids, my emotions flared up and I yelled. I felt my body and jaw tense up. I told the kids I needed to take a timeout and went to my room and closed the door. After a few minutes, I emerged physically calmer, and emotionally cooler. When my son came to me, I was able to open to his embrace. We then discussed the situation, and I apologized for not communicating calmly.
I have since realized that my physical tension stems from the sympathetic nervous system. My mind and body believe I am in danger and trigger a fight/flight/freeze response. While I had known about this physiological response cognitively, it was only through my body’s practice that I was able to shift the pattern.
I continue to be amazed at how the lessons I learn from my body are improving the quality of my life. I am so very grateful for my body and all that it allows me to discover, endure, and experience. It is one of my most important teachers.