Dancing Through Difficult Emotions

Yesterday a woman who had taken my Shake Your Soul class at Kripalu Center shared how powerful her experience was in my class. She commented, “this is the best anti-depressant I know…I have to learn it and go teach it in my community”.

I felt so touched as she further shared her struggles with depression. I replied “I too have struggled with depression at different times in my life and dance was one of my life-lines”. A tear rolled down my cheek as I felt our common experience of pain and pleasure, of struggle and relief, of feeling trapped and finding freedom.

Depression and anxiety are “body states” and need “body-cures”. Talking about our depression or anxiety won’t “move it”. Our body needs to participate in a body-centered process or practice that moves that stuck and disharmonious energy. When we are depressed our body collapses. When we move and dance our body begins to open. When we are depressed our spirit is deflated. As we move to music with soul, our spirit is lifted and our body is reinvigorated with our own spirit. When we are anxious our nervous system and muscular/organ system are on alert for danger. We tense, our heart rate speeds up or slows down depending on whether we go into fight/flight or freeze response when we are anxious. Our muscles tighten. Our digestive organs slow down as our large muscles prepare to fight or take flight.

Releasing muscular tension:

When we dance we discharge the residual tension of fight/flight/freeze that is being held in our large muscles, particularly our legs. We then are able to relax into feeling grounded versus prepared for our fight or flight from the world.

We can also release visceral tension; tension deep inside the body within our organs themselves as we dance.

Releasing visceral tension:

As we move towards a more sensual way and a more “organic” way of moving our organ system is soothed. We strengthen the tone of our parasympathetic nervous system which allows our digestive organs and our cardiovascular organs to operate at a restorative level versus operating at a survival level.

My studies in Body-Mind Centering helped me integrate organ-based movement into Shake Your Soul so that we aren’t just muscling our way through the dance experience. We are finding the fullness and sensual flow of organic based movement that can support the strength of our muscular expression.

Releasing breath tension:

Also as we shake our souls, our breath returns to fullness and balance versus being held either in a depressed state (limited depths of inhalation and exhalation) or anxious state (erratic and constricted breathing). In Shake Your Soul, integrating breath and movement is key.

My personal discovery of the importance of integrating breath and movement occurred 35 years ago after studying ballet 8 hours a day/7 days a week for two years while working towards my BFA in dance in college. When I decided to change my major (actually, one of my teachers, a former ballet mistress of San Francisco ballet said, “Dan, you just don’t have a ballet body, but you have great rhythm…try modern dance”).

So I jumped tracks to modern dance and recall the revolution of my physiology when we were allowed to make audible breath sounds as we danced…where it was actually encouraged to release the breath and be heard. I felt like I had finally landed in my body!

I took this milestone experience in the importance of breathing into the Shake Your Soul dance experience along with my studies in yoga and qigong which integrate breath with movement.

Breathing naturally and fully is such a powerful way to move through and transform depression and anxiety as it retrains our nervous system to find a harmonious balance between our sympathetic and parasympathetic branches. So dance is a healing practice for our states of depression and anxiety. Both depression and anxiety require a discharge of held tension in our large muscles that are preparing for fight or flight, strengthening the parasympathetic tone (relaxation) in our organ system and a reconnection to full and balanced breathing.

And beyond these physiologic changes there is that ineffable experience of spirit or soul that emerges as we dance to music that moves us, to rhythms that carry us. Our spirit, our soul when reconnected to the body is healing! We transcend and transform our suffering; our depression, our anxiety for that moment in time. We see something bigger about ourselves…actually we’ve physically become bigger as our collapse and tension releases. Our body state changes and then our mind state follows. Truth be told, we still need to work with the issues that bring us into our depression or anxiety. However we have “filled our tank” and now have the energy to work with these issues from a mind-body state of relative openness, energy and clarity.

I hope that you have gained value from this column on dancing through difficult emotions. It’s so important to know that in being human we do encounter moments, days, weeks, months or even years of challenging and even incapacitating emotional states. These states live in our bodies and we need a body practice that can lift our spirits, relax and strengthen our bodies and calm our minds.

For me, dance is this transformative practice that has been instrumental in helping me through my difficult emotions–my visits with depression and anxiety, and I look forward to sharing my love and belief in the healing power of dance with you!

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