Yoga Dance: An Embodied Practice for Holding On to Justice, Strength, & Fun

Yoga Dance: An Embodied Practice for Holding On to Justice, Strength, & Fun

Yes, it’s a thing! And I’m almost done crafting my social justice playlist for my yoga dance workshops.

To me, a justice-focused playlist needs to feel energized, determined, and loving. It needs to make way for reflection, charge, and heart. And it needs to help people tap into joy and sometimes, sorrow. The dancing itself needs to be liberating. Otherwise, we can’t move through the barriers that we encounter in this world. We cannot heal. So far my favorite song on the list is “Heal This Land,” assigned to me by my teacher and mentor Megha. For this one, I incorporate some simple fertility African Dance moves with flowing yoga postures.

The purpose of “Let Your Yoga Dance,” founded by Megha Buttenheim (and featured in O Magazine in January 2018), is to spread joy and consciousness throughout the world by transmitting body health, brain health, heart health, and soul health to all populations. At a practical level, Yoga Dance combines fluid movement and intentional breathing exercises with music for every level of ability. Since the goal of yoga is to awaken each participant to their full potential through deep breathing, body awareness, and regular movement practice, Yoga Dance functions as an empowerment tool. I’ve personally experienced how it builds leadership skills and most importantly, provides a common language and shared felt experience of positive mindfulness and embodiment for individuals and for our connected human tribe.

Megha was one of the Wholebeing Institute Positive Psychology team members at The Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Mass. where I completed my ten-month intensive Positive Psychology training in 2015. It was during the infamous since time immemorial “noon dance” in the Main Hall at Kripalu that I first experienced yoga dance. Megha led at least 50 people through a powerful, 60 min class that I quickly recognized could be life changing. Yoga dance became my tool to embody new positive psychology learning. I found I was able to move through the energy sources of my body in order to integrate new knowledge shared by Dr. Tal Ben Shahar and Dr. Maria Sirois and over 180 professionals from around the world.

Equally important, I met new colleagues and friends through yoga dance without the exchange of business cards and titles. We just shared movement and connection. No words. It served as a break from the heaps of scientific studies and research we needed to sort through in order to reframe and, in some cases, return to what is working for ourselves, others, communities and to build from there. It was such a reprieve from intense group shares… just moving, breathing, and connecting across the room.

Two years later, I decided to get certified in yoga dance myself. After four months including two weeklong immersions as of January 2018, I’m certified in one of the several brands of yoga dance called “Let Your Yoga Dance: Grace in Motion”®. I’m proud to join a cohort of new Yoga Dance trainers who honor, acknowledge and integrate ancient yogic practices with positive psychology techniques and use them as inspiration in a dance teaching and soul healing practice. In this brand of Yoga Dance, we study traditional yoga and breathing practices, practice mindfulness, learn about our chakras (energy sources) and yamas and niyamas. We make a point of using (and moving through) our energy sources to center ourselves and cultivate clarity and connection.  

Why Yoga Dance for Equity & Inclusion Work?

I’m thrilled to now integrate yoga dance into my personal workshop offerings and into Multicultural BRIDGE’s equity and justice programming because it gives people a way to connect art and personal expression with activism and builds relationships through yoga, music, and movement. To serve our community well, we’ve always offered programs that develop leadership skills and help individuals realize their dreams, talents, and abilities at BRIDGE. But I added Yoga Dance to BRIDGE’s equity and inclusion offerings and Women to Women programs because I know it is necessary to FEEL STRONG AND JOYFUL IN OUR OWN BODIES in order to enjoy personal good health and serve others well. For service providers specifically, I also know that “embodying our work” comes in many forms. One way is through physical movement, alone and together. This keeps our women’s circles and circles of caretakers strong and well-connected to each other and provides an outlet for staff and volunteers.

On Yoga Dance and Zumba evenings at BRIDGE, my daughter Jessica serves as host and sponsor through her participant-directed program for adults living with disabilities. She loves the joyful social connection—especially over dance, music, and theatre. For her, this vision arose as she helped me as she watched me prepare for my Practice Teach (the final exam for Let Your Yoga Dance certification) and pick out songs for my playlist. Jessica saw a pathway to connecting with her friends and her goals at once.

Music and dance helps folks of all backgrounds connect differently than writing, reading, and talking. And sometimes we just need to move and “get dancy,” as a colleague of mine says, to connect thoughts and emotions and move to action. Historically, dance has also been a form of communication and pathway for survival for my ancestors and for many others. Dance remains a pathway to health and balance.

Like all of BRIDGE’s Women to Women programs, Yoga Dance also engages participants in mindful exercises towards self-actualization while connecting to compassion, trust, and acceptance in an inclusive environment. We use dance to offer and self-affirmation techniques and meditation practices, which build an ability to manage stress and accessibility issues in everyday life. By connecting to our own vitality and energy, we fight for our own well-being and thereby fight for others’ well-being. Together, we hold the intention of healing the world one person at a time.

My ultimate goal is to have all of my own workshops integrate body and mind (and most importantly, spirit and heart.)

Why I Decided to Teach (Not Just Dance!)

When I decided to get certified in Yoga Dance, I had hit another threshold of leadership fatigue. The world was demanding so much from those of us who were steeped in social and racial justice work. How was I to stay centered, focused, and connected to my positive psychology practices and to self-care in what felt like darkening times? It was just time for Yoga Dance.

Yoga Dance is a tool that normally doesn’t reach populations that need it most. I know teachers and practitioners want this to be different, so I decided to get certified. I saw a way to create an access point. (Then I trust in the ripple effects of each and every workshop). I also know what it is like to struggle with health and wellness as a result of trauma, lack of resources dedicated to self-care, and isolation.

As a mother supporting an adult young woman at age 25 living with autism in the Berkshires, I encountered unique intersecting barriers to wellness, community, and supports for my daughter’s everyday life. Today, I am able to support Jessica well on her journey and this is because we have been able to identify resources, create resources, and leverage resources available (or that should have been available) in our community.

In Berkshire County, too many people have limited or no access to resources as a result of physical and/or mental trauma, lack of social networks and literal physical isolation by virtue of living in a rural area. Immigrant women, women in poverty, and women of color and their families experience trauma as a result of immigration concerns, racialized violence, criminalized poverty, and isolation due to poor transportation services. Many rural families live with the daily stress of poverty. Living in a predominately white and able-bodied community, many immigrants also face the challenge of isolation due to cultural differences, language, and unmet needs. Parents of all backgrounds encounter significant socio-economic and cultural challenges that cause undue burdens including: stress, instability at home, stressors from immigration process largely due to federal immigration laws being inconsistent and unjust, and again, isolation.

All of these communities need our support in advocating for themselves, their families, and their embodied well-being. Everyone needs support to realize their dreams. This isn’t just about having our basic needs met and human rights protected; it’s about making sure that our children and loved ones experience life well beyond coping and survival. How can we help people flow in to joy and thrive in community, in connection with others on similar journeys? With the right resources, including health and wellness resources, we create pathways of flourishing. And, I remind people--as we deconstruct power and privilege in our daily lives, assessing where we can leverage our resources for good--“access to resources” almost always has a gender component. How do women afford themselves time for “self-care” and “squad-care”?

I recognize the parallels across women of all identities in their socialized roles of feminine partner, caretaker, and homemaker. Immigrant women, women of color, white women, and women living with disabilities, women caring for others with disabilities, and aging women all experience these, at times, limiting (deeply gendered) roles or encounter gender assumptions and expectations. What does it look like to care for yourself well when you have been taught and expected to care for others first?

Dance has helped me move through tough emotions and connect with the joy and positivity around me. Yoga and dance are both about building sustainable resilience to manage trauma, thoughts, and emotions… the ultimate tool in self-regulation. We all know the power of feeling connected to our inner vitality… I know the joy of feeling more and more connected to my own authentic leadership style. This is why I am committed to bringing leading edge strategies of addressing the holistic well-being of families and children into my community and work while breaking down cultural, social, and economic barriers to change.

When I reflect, I know our approach to education at BRIDGE is based on so much of this same thinking. Still, I needed to integrate the science and guidance of the experts to develop the next evolution of BRIDGE trainings, workshops, and education with my team.

What does it look like to care for yourself well when you have been taught and expected to care for others first? I keep coming back to that question, and I am determined to dance it out and embody the question and pathways to solutions.

The Health Benefits of Yoga Dance (from the heart and mind of Megha Buttenheim)

Mental Well-Being

1.     Opens a pathway for participants to experience their own abilities and functions inclusively.

2.     Moves positive endorphins throughout the body and helps to lift spirits.

3.     Supports sensory integration and emotional expression, offering new anxiety coping mechanisms.

4.     Musical rhythms and tones are non-threatening ways to connect and motivate.

Physical Well-Being and Body Alignment

1.     Improves agility and mobility by developing muscle tone and strength.

2.     Supports increased flexibility and strength through core alignment and the safe practice of repetitive movements while sitting in a chair, standing, and moving.

3.     Provides movement opportunities for participants with fine and gross motor challenges.

4.     Offers deep breathing exercises, meditation, and mindfulness practices to reduce stress and calm the spirit.

Social Well-Being and Community Engagement

1.     Gives you a way to love yourself enough to bring yourself into community spaces that support personal engagement and development (this is a theme of our work at BRIDGE).

2.     Supports community members who experience barriers so they can engage joyfully with the language of music and dance in a social environment.

3.     Encourages people of different ages, abilities, and economic backgrounds to gather in celebration of diversity.

4.     Develops trust and creates new bonds among multi-level learners with varying levels of abilities. Creates opportunities for dialogue.

5.     Builds networks between families and makes way for the participation of often marginalized individuals and communities.

6.     Serves as resource to counteract isolation and reclusion.

Ok! Now, what would be on your Equity & Justice playlist? On your VITALITY playlist? (The key here is to make your own list that touches your brain, heart and soul and come up with a little bit of choreography and get breathing and moving). And finally, here are some songs I compiled for a playlist with the help of my Muses, Jessica and Megha. This list is ever evolving, as yours will be!.

Somewhere over the Rainbow, Kamakawiwo'ole
Heal This Land, Tina Malia
At Last, Etta James
Revolution, Kirk Franklin
No is My New Yes, Karen Drucker
Black or White, Michael Jackson
Empire State of Mind, Alicia Keyes
Don’t Ever Let Nobody Take Your Spirit Down, Bibb/Black
Man in the Mirror, Michael Jackson
Express Yourself, Madonna
Imagine, Pentatonix/Lennon
This Woman’s Work, Kate Bush/Maxwell
You Raise Me Up, Graham
Happy, Pharrell Williams
Don’t Worry Be Happy, Bobby McFerrin
The Beauty In You, Karen Drucker
Morning, India Arie
Phenomenal Woman, Maya Angelou
Star-Spangled Banner, Ruby Dee

Current Mindfulness and Movement Classes at BRIDGE:

Zumba® classes with Placido Birriel run on the 1st and 3rd Friday night of every month. Let Your Yoga Dance® is offered on the 2nd and 4th Friday with Amanda Prema of the month, often rotating with Zumba Tone (otherwise known as Laughing & Stretching Zumba @BRIDGE.). Both workshops are user-friendly forms of dance that embrace and celebrate diversity and inclusivity for participants of every level of ability. They are a fun and interactive expression of movement to promote healing of the mind, body, and spirit. For individuals and families in need of support, all classes offer the connection with their community members who are happy, willing, and eager to offer resources for their well-being. For parents and caretakers, these workshops build life-enhancement skills and reinforce positive behaviors for the entire family. 

I also personally offer Yoga Dance workshops within specialized retreats and trainings.

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