If you'd like to make some space in your life but you're too active to sit still for long, moving meditation can bring it all together. Janet Wright reports in Health and Fitness magazine.
I went on a circle-dancing holiday planning to dance for fun and to learn meditation from a book while I was there. Instead I read magazines and discovered I was meditating, by accident, during the dance.
Moving meditation sounds like a contradiction in terms. Isn't meditation all about sitting perfectly still in silence? It's true that is the best-known technique, and it's a good way to start. But those techniques were developed at a time when most people spent their days in manual work.
If you're teaching 15 manic aerobic classes a week or running around after children, half an hour spent in silent stillness could be the perfect way to bring some balance into your life. But many of us spend our days sitting at desks, the only chance of some natural movement coming when we take the long way round to the photocopier. More sitting down is the last thing we want.
The good news – since meditation's health benefits as stress-relieving techniques are well attested – is that movement itself can be a meditation. New Age dance guru Gabrielle Roth claims the best way to still the mind is to move the body. For many of us, who would find it hard to sit still apparently doing nothing for long, it's easier to reach a meditative state through movement. You're not constantly distracting yourself with random thoughts and daydreams: the movement itself is enough to stop you getting bored or restless, and your brain submits more readily to being still.
"Anyone can practice movement meditation – young or old, people in wheelchairs and dancers," insists dancer and therapist Jalaja Bonheim, who found her own way to it through dancing in clubs. "If you are alive you move, and if you move, you can meditate on your movements."
Meditation is simply a way of stilling the mental chatter that clogs up our minds most of the time and reaching the calm, focused state in which our brain is producing Alpha waves. Even if you've never meditated, you probably know the Alpha-wave state as a kind of high you can get from dancing, when your body feels like part of the music.
Louis Proto, author of several meditation books, explains, "There is random, unaware movement, and there is centered, conscious movement – and it is the latter that brings us to the state of one-pointedness, body awareness and present-centeredness that is the essence of meditation. But for dancing to be a meditation, not just a "social shuffle" round the dance-floor, it has to be total "we have to give it all we've got, getting lost in it – including our minds."
It's not a new idea. Many spiritual traditions include movement: the whirling of Sufis and Dervishes, shamanic trance dancing, the intricate postures of yoga, passionate hymn-singing and chanting, the slow movements of Chinese meditative exercises t'ai chi and qigong – they're all ways of stilling the mind's chatter and reaching an altered state.
Devon-based dance teachers Susannah and Ya'Acov Darling Khan call that mental chatter "Peabrain." Their way of bypassing it is through the five rhythms taught by Gabrielle Roth, which they call Life Dance. Participants clear their minds by moving to five different kinds of music, called flowing, staccato, chaos, lyrical and stillness.
"Peabrain is just like a tickertape, going on and on," says Ya'Acov. "It happens during movement as well, but when you reach chaos your body's moving faster than Peabrain can keep up. Because we're stuck in that physically inactive place, mostly using Peabrain to run our lives, a whole of energy is caught up in our bodies, not usable because it's locked. Through movement, you unlock the energy. The more you do it, the more energy you have in day-to-day life."
Look in on a Life Dance class and you'll see people ecstatically swaying like seaweed or stamping out a war dance. No one learns any steps: you're just moving your energy and stilling your mind.
A circle-dance group looks pretty much the opposite at first glance. There's a teacher explaining the steps to a ring of would-be dancers, with worrying words like Grapevine and Czardas . Beginners – interspersed with experienced dancers who can help with a subtle pull or twist – watch the teacher's feet and try to remember if the curly bit comes after the hop. The music starts, they do a practice round, then they're off. The routine, repeated again and again, starts to flow. Your mind, meanwhile, has first had to concentrate on getting the steps right – no room for Peabrain to start chattering – then is wonderfully released: the steps are now automatic, the music is moving you, you are only aware of the dance and you are part of it.
"There's something about some of the movements that evokes a really deep peace in a way that being still with your own thoughts doesn't achieve," notes Stefan Freedman, who, with his wife, Bethan, teaches circle dance in [the UK] and abroad. "The music is filling you with peace rather than leaving you trying to find it. And some of the steps, like swaying, are more conducive to stillness than actually standing still."
So if wild movements and carefully set steps can both still the mind, bringing you to a meditative state, can any kind of movement have the same effects as long as you focus intently on it?
One form of Buddhist mediation involves simply focusing on whatever you're doing – but, like the classic seated meditation, it takes a lot of practice to pull your mind back from the thousand paths it wanders along.
Physical movement stops you getting bored while your mind is still.
But while dancing or aerobics may provide the physical element, the club atmosphere may provide all kinds of distractions and your mind may be taken up with the instructor's changing moves or the good it is doing your abs.
" Anything can become meditation."
London-based meditation teacher William Bloom explains. "But certain movements work to take people into a meditative state. They have a certain mythic or poetic or lyrical or archetypal quality that somewhere, at an unconscious level, links the person with an altered state of consciousness.
"In T'ai chi, certain movements copy very graceful, slow, animal movements, like a bird, or a tiger running. When a human being gets into the real flow of that movement something happens at an unconscious level which alters the whole way you see, and you can move into a different awareness.
"The same thing happens with Roth's work. She identified what she considered to be five basic rhythms. If you do them and surrender to them, at a certain point the music dances the body, and your consciousness is left to just experience it; then it becomes a meditation. You're no longer concentrating.
"Most women who have done aerobics have experienced that point where the rhythm takes over, the body's on automatic pilot. It's the same with long-distance athletes – at that point when the mind's not engaged with the movement, the mind is clear, watching it. Don't go off into daydreaming. Let the experience in, breathe it in."
Twin enemies of successful meditation are having to concentrate too hard on what you're doing, and finding your mind wandering off into thoughts and daydreams. So to reach the Alpha state through aerobics, you probably need either a fairly simple class or a well-loved old tape, so you won't need to worry about a sudden change of step. Focus on the movement calmly, without the effort of concentrating, and don't slip off into a dream. As other thoughts come to mind, let them drift on out, and stay with the movement.
The late Indian guru Osho recommended meditations that included laughter, shouting, dancing, jumping, humming, running, making love and a host of other everyday activities. And you don't have to restrict yourself to indoor activities: mindfulness meditation can be carried out whatever you're doing.
Outdoorsman and former hydrogeologist Ad Brugman, of Hereford, put his experience of leading field expeditions to good use when he switched to teaching meditation. He now leads groups on mountain walks, cross-country skiing in Norway and canoeing on Scottish lochs. It's all part of his mindfulness meditation practice, which includes specific exercises and movement work.
"Mindfulness gives us permission to stop, allow the time and space to enter our lives, thus preventing us from reacting to events and people in a habitual, out-of-date way," Brugman explains. "It makes us operate from a more wholesome place within – a place of stillness and clarity which is not easily shaken."
Taking a course or going on a holiday is a great way to start meditation. Alternative centers such as Cortijo Romero in Spain or Little Grove in Chesham, Bucks, are just two that offer a whole range.... Most accessible are yoga or t'ai chi classes, since meditation has always been an important part of these disciplines....
One of the few teachers who recommends meditating to music, Bonheim uses wild drumming, percussion, dreamy New Age sounds, ethnic classics, even rock 'n roll, and teaches powerful rhythmic movements to awaken energy, as well as center the mind. She starts with simple pelvic loosening movements – such as tracing an imaginary figure of eight with your hips and flattening your back against a wall, then exaggerating its curve – and moves on to dance-like exercises.
Bonheim believes western civilization has squashed our passion and creativity for too long, even limiting the way we move. Certainly, any alien watching English people dance would suspect our legs were bolted on to our torsos and held firm with rivets. Your hips were built to move – get in touch with your body and come to life!
That's perhaps the best reason for combining movement and meditation. People who take up meditation are frequently cerebral types who live mainly in their head; if that's you, the message is, "Come on down and meet your body: I just know you're going to get on." But if your life is one of physical activity without pause for thought, it's a way of making room for insight. Either way you integrate sides of yourself that often seem to be following different instructions.
"Moving meditation is the process to put back together our fragmented selves into something that's whole and going in the same direction," says Ya'Acov Darling Khan, "instead of thinking one thing, feeling something else, and doing something different."
Or, as Osho puts it, "Meditation is your birthright. It is there, waiting for you to relax a little, so it can sing a song, become a dance."
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