Yoga mats out, dance manuals distributed, we started with an orientation, introductions and then the usual health n safety announcements. As the students around the room spoke about their dance experience and why they had come to the programme… I began to feel a little out of place. I was there as a yoga instructor and budding Pilates instructor, it had been months since I had done any serious dancing.
I introduced myself as; a dancer since 2009, mainly American Tribal Style® background but now mostly a fusion dancer. (with a nod towards my mentor Alexis who was in the room).
In the past I would have waxed on about my FCBD® ATS® sister studio status, how I was the director of Tsukiko tribal dance troupe and how I taught regular dance classes…. But since spending my time rehabbing my shoulder injury and leaving the teaching world of dance to become a student again, I haven’t really felt that connection to ATS®. Its really difficult to feel like a ‘real’ ATS® dancer when you don’t teach, don’t go to classes (I’m the only tribal dancer in my home town and I can’t afford to travel to the nearest class 2 hours away) and you aren’t part of a troupe… there’s only so much you can do as a solo tribal dancer with no tribe… so for the longest time I have turned to tribal fusion. The only classes I attend are the ones in my living room with Datura online and the workshops I attend, usually stalking my mentor Alexis Southall (our host).
During the meditation section I focused on my breath and felt my feet go numb, (even as a full time yogi Ferret I still suck at Sukasana) but I felt a lot stronger this time around. This wasn’t my first time taking this dance programme. Last year In October (8 months ago) I attended Integrated Dance part 1, and the 6 day intensive nearly floored me… 7 days later after a full workshop and performance weekend (Infusion Emporium 2017) and shaving my head for charity; I was hospitalised. 1 week into my hospital stay I very nearly died.
After recovering for a few months I tentatively came back to my yoga practice and then after my corporate job basically disciplined me… for being sick… something I had absolutely zero control over, I’d had enough. I left the corporate office world and went on a 3 month intensive programme to become a yoga instructor. I had to produce 60 hours of home study evidence, complete 6 essays, take 2x exams and a full day of practical exams and attend 6 full weekends of classes – but I passed everything with a hunger I’d never known before. My focus was tunnel vision : YOGA.
So, as I sat on my expensive professional yoga mat with my mala beads round my neck and my full supply of yoga blocks dotted around the room for people to use… I suddenly found myself remembering what had originally got me to yoga in the first place.
We worked gently on Day 1. Some basic Pilates exercises; imprint, ab prep, bridge, single leg stretch and a half roll up. For yoga we did Utkatasana and tadasana with heel / calf strengthening work and 5x sun salutations. I’m beginning to realise the sun salutations I do are completely different to anyone else’s. I’m not sure yet if I like it better my way I’ve been taught or not… we’ll see.
The dance drills were really basic, and yet I felt I was working hard. My shoulders felt like they’d fall off if we’d went any longer… but the dancing was short so luckily, I survived. It felt good to be drilling again though.
The afternoon was anatomy terminology which was a nice relaxation for my brain and then the music theory section was time for me to focus. Time signatures are currently a challenge for me. I play zills and sing in a band and I’ve been a musician all my life… but I don’t feel I can read music or understand musical terms. I am determined to study though.
Coming home after the first day all I wanted was sleep. Being in a room full of people all day, even lovely people, even as an extrovert; takes it toll. Another 2 weeks of this…. Lets hope I can survive.
Day 2 – Lets work.
Our focus for the workout today was given to us by Ashley; try for 5. When it hurts, when you reach that point, when you meet your edge… before you give up; try to stay in the stillness, lean in to the discomfort, for another 5 seconds. Try to stay for 5 seconds. My mantra for the day “try for 5”. Just 5 more… you CAN do just another 5…
My legs and feet were going completely numb in the meditation… so I stayed with that feeling for just 1 more breath. I slowed down my breathing to the following;
Inhale for 5
Hold the breath (retain) for 8
Exhale for 10 seconds… then refrain from inhaling for 5 seconds.
We meditated for 15mins in total and I felt several times over the panic and the urge to move my feet…. I couldn’t feel my limbs and it was painful to be there… but I stayed. Where previously I would have panicked and jerked my legs up and out of position, rubbing my toes till the blood came back; …today I stayed.
I did eventually, right at the end after the bell had sounded out a 10 minute interval, move my legs.
But I just shifted position and gave myself a hug and stayed with the numbness, the lack of feeling, the emptiness left behind where once I had feet… The feeling came back eventually and the world didn’t end.
I proved to myself I had the ability to challenge my mental state.
So when my arms burned in plank; I stayed
When my glutes were on fire during the bridge progressions; I stayed.
When my ego told me to pretend to need a wee and run away during a difficult twist-shimmy drill… I stayed and failed over and over again at giving it a go… because in repeatedly failing to execute a twist shimmy with 3 quarter chest locks over the top of it… I repeatedly succeeded in winning at life.
Today we worked hard. When I ate my weight in food I felt I deserved it. We studied music theory in depth again and I finally felt like I understood time signatures.
I only wish I could share the joy of that with my previous drummer Stephen, who hasn’t spoken to me since I left my band Skyligers 3 weeks ago. (A really depressing and painful decision I made that I don’t really want to get into right now).
I drank gin for the first time properly tonight and again… felt like I deserved it and I enjoyed hanging out with my dancer friends. Slowly but surely, I am coming back to dance.
Day 3; Homesick
I woke up incredibly forlorn and homesick.
That feeling stayed with me throughout the entire morning, the morning’s meditation and the first few exercises. Then something changed. My focus shifted. I found myself concentrating on the stretch in my quadriceps, the pain in my knee, the feeling of balance being challenged.
Suddenly I was no longer homesick.
Because I was home.
Alright… I still miss my partner very much… but putting that “I wish I could hug Charlie” feeling aside… I realised that my yoga mat is my home. As wishy washy and woo-woo as this might sound… it is absolute truth. My body, my body moving in space, my practice; is home. I can be anywhere in the world and using any yoga mat – and that yoga mat has my back. My practice is portable and requires nothing but an open heart and a focus – the willingness to go inward, to go deep, to receive myself. To be willing to show up and give myself full attention.
TO PUT DOWN MY PHONE AND DROP THE EGO
Today the material was challenging enough that I felt worked out, but it was mainly yoga and then the dance drills were mainly muscular contractions as apposed to complicated footwork… so I felt like all I had to do was concentrate, listen and work. There were only brief moments of “Oh holy fuck I can’t do this!” – and those moments were not only few and far between but also easily squashed.
I am so very lucky to be working with my guru and muse Ashley Lopez. I am also lucky to be in the presence of my mentor Alexis. I am also lucky to be around dancers who ask questions and want to learn. We are all here to seek and gain knowledge… the space is supportive and I am very privileged to be inside it and a part of it.
Day 4 – aaaaand crash.
I woke up ill.
I have to listen.
I kept trying to join in with the exercises.
My body kept getting dizzy.
I have to listen.
Just standing still made me sweat – I’m exhausted
I have to listen.
Last year I didn’t listen to my body and I ended up in hospital. This time I stopped. Took notes and lay down. It was a 12 hour day.
I am too tired to write and it’s already nearly midnight.
Let’s hope tomorrow is better.
Day 5 – Work It!
Today my body was behaving and my mind was on track. I got up early and was ready to rock. The meditation for this morning was ‘loving kindness’ which I used to make piece with my decision to leave Skyligers. I only hope that we are all speaking again some day soon. ( I miss them and love them so much).
The Pilates workouts were challenging but I was in full focus and working hard.
The yoga was challenging too; but my favourite mantra came on to the playlist and I sang the Gayatri mantra along with Deva Premal as we moved through challenging transitions that worked my upper legs and balance. Warrior 3 was hard after my upper legs were already tired… you just don’t work your body as hard when you’re teaching, so it was really delightful being a student. We held our warrior 2 for a good 3-4minutes… and it made me laugh inside as previously I have been told; I make my students hold poses for a bit too long. I can’t think where I got that from…. *looks at Ashley*
Next we did layering drills with twists (a move I just never do – so even this was a challenge but I feel like I’m slowly getting the hang of it whilst layering arms, legs and isolations on top).
After layering we discussed various turns and did a really cool paddle turn drill which I basically used as a chance to completely throw myself around and blow off steam. I haven’t spun in ages and I really enjoyed being an idiot for 5 minutes (even though that wasn’t the point of the drill).
I felt like a teacher’s pet geek as I raised my hand repeatedly (probably annoying the shit out of everyone else) during the discussion on the rotator cuff muscles. (what can I say… I know my anatomy and I studied the rotator cuff muscles extensively following my injury). Then we spoke about goals today after our anatomy study and our discussion of the day’s exercises.
My goals for the next 6 months are;
- To become a fully certified Integrated Dance teacher, complete all the required items to get my name on the website and finish the qualification.
- To begin teaching regular dance workshops / classes in Sheffield.
- To be able to do Urdva Dhanurasana pose well, comfortably lifted.
So; I have; an achievement, some action I want to take, and a fitness goal.
We talked about how to make our goals SMART and how to plan achieving them.
Ashley suggested I add the poses I need for strengthening my urdva dhanurasana into my various daily classes and then demo these a lot when teaching so my body gets a chance to have a bit of a practice.
I feel like my warrior2 needs work to get my knee in line. I feel like everything needs a good amount of work and I get overwhelmed sometimes by the number of things I want to do and achieve. We all expressed these feelings and talked about the importance of schedule and knowing what our schedule held for us.
In the evening after our day I had a chance to be alone in the kitchen… I cooked EVERYTHING. A huge risotto, a pasta lunch thing, all sorts. I have found myself eating an incredible amount of food this week. I’m missing my kitchen and my home and my Charlie and my yoga students. I am very lucky to miss my job; I never thought I’d say something like that.
Day 6 – The last day.
I feel like today Ashley wanted to make sure that we definitely tired out our abdominals and legs and shoulders and core… oh wait… everything. Everything hurts. The yoga was challenging and deep. Side angle pose and triangle, warrior 3 again… she worked us so much I felt that Adho Mukha Svanasana was a rest when we eventually came back to it. You know you’re working hard when downward-facing-dog is a rest! Then the Pilates workout was intense, several times my abs gave way beneath me and I was left panting for breath.
My body was really starting to fall apart. I managed all but 5 minutes of the dance drills and gave all the turns a go. I really love to spin, even if I’m not incredible at it, I still enjoy drilling them. There’s definitely a 5 year old in me that goes “weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee” every time.
In the review quiz at the end of the day I got 16 ½ out of 20 questions. All the anatomy correct, 1 exercise incorrectly identified and almost all the music theory questions were a fail. Oh dear. Rushing off at the end of the last day to move house on my day off made me heart sick. Nothing like a crazy busy schedule ey?
Day 1 of Part 2
The 2 ‘days off’ I had between taking the ‘part 1’ intensive and starting part 2 were not days off for me. On the Thursday I taught 2x yoga classes and packed boxes and tried to carve out a slice of time to spend with my primary Charlie. On the Friday I single-handedly moved boxes n boxes over to the new flat and packed up the rest.
The 2.5 hour drive back down to stay with Alexis was the only real break I felt I had. (singing at the top of your lungs to Civil Wars and The Black Feathers whilst in traffic is cool right?).
Ashley herself has said that she doesn’t really consider this programme to be 2 different levels ; it’s not level 1 and level 2 but 2 parts, 2 halves to a whole programme. However… that being said, today we really worked, there definitely feels like a “next level step up” to part2.
I began the day dizzy – like; just-stepped-off-the-merry-go-round kind of dizzy – and this feeling didn’t leave me until we got half way through the workout.
I was determined to push through it. I feel like I know when to listen to my body, and when my body is just taking it’s time to get warmed up.
I had nothing to worry about though as Ashley certainly kept us warm.
We were worked towards 2 peak poses today in our yoga practice; Ushtrasana (which I did with 2 blocks in order to really concentrate on and feel the lift in my somewhat stiff thorasic spine and then Eka Pada Raja kapotasana (one foot kind pigeon pose) which until today I had never tried it as a lifted balance with a foot grab: I’d always just done the reclining version. It was fun to try but I think I’d like to go and work on this one on my own. By the time I had got into it we were moving on already.
After the workout in yoga and pilates; we did dance drills and layering before beginning to learn the week’s complicated choreography.
This piece is a fast, fully layered dance piece with a complicated zill composition on top. And honestly… I was still stuck on which foot I was stepping on! However, I’m really excited to add the zills! Today she spoke the pattern for us and played a demo. It is tricky but really cool. I have brought my silver afghani saroyans down and it’ll be the first time I have played them properly (they’re so loud!).
After an afternoon of anatomy study and going over the exercises and poses from the morning, we were given a task. Create 2x 8 count moves that can fit into a 16 count combo that go side to side or front to back (so traveling / changing directions) and then another 2x 8 counts for the 2nd song, then put these 4x 8 counts together to form 1 big combo that can link and go side to side.
Yeah but then we had to teach it to a friend.
The exercise was to get us to realise that teaching 2 simple moves takes longer than we think. I thought I had chosen two really easy simple moves… but the moment I got teaching them to my partner Nia; I started to break down the move way too much in an effort to be a good teacher. (as if I was teaching a complete beginner). So we didn’t get to drill the 2nd side. And we weren’t on beat with the music because I could barely hear it over the din of voices. Nia faired better than me at getting through her combos, but hadn’t quite worked out how to link them. I know that given time and a quieter space we’d have worked together and she’d have fully nailed it – but the exercise was also to teach us that sometimes you can’t shout over the music (you’ll lose your voice). Ashley then seamlessly taught us 4x 8 counts using visual cues and didn’t say a word.
This really excited me because I LOVE teaching without speaking. The movement becomes a meditation and everyone focuses and zones in. It is also my favourite way to learn.
Coming home after such a full day – my body broke down and I had my first full on need-to-take-panic-meds-to-get-out-of-this-alive panic attack. It wasn’t fun and it wiped me out for the evening. (I’m writing this journal in the morning with my coffee and weird pasta breakfast). I’m really enjoying the programme and the opportunity, however I am desperate to go back home, sort out the house move and get back to my students whom I miss dearly. My panic attacks are coming from seemingly nowhere… as if my body is trying to tell me something.
I come back to this journal on day 4 of part 2. It is Tuesday. I’m sat on the floor watching everyone else dance (they look awesome). I haven’t written for a few days because I spent day 2 exhausted and went straight to bed (we did upward bow / wheel pose with a lot of shoulder strength prep and handstands… which all aggravated my shoulder injury I have been working hard to rehab) I then spent the day 3 morning workout vomiting and then having panic attacks because all I could think was “oh my god I’m leaving the room constantly and missing out, what will people think of me?” and “what if I end up in hospital again??” My shoulders and neck muscles were so tight I felt them constantly (like a throbbing heart beat in my neck which made me sick) and I couldn’t shake the panic and I couldn’t take any of my panic attack medication because I have to drive the car for everyone. So, I felt trapped. Everything I tried to do made me either feel like I would vomit or made me feel like I couldn’t breathe. In the end, so as to not distract from everything going on I left the room. I was torn between; do I stay in the room panicking and almost vomiting – possibly distracting the other dancers… or do I leave so they can enjoy their workout without me in the corner freaking out. I couldn’t win either way.
I needn’t have worried at all about the opinions of my fellow dancers; they were all extremely supportive and caring and kind. So, for them; I am truly grateful. My teacher Alexis had 2 x asthma attacks in the morning also. The air was thick – and for us allergy sufferers it was suffocating.
It is obvious to me now after what happened yesterday; that my anxiety is a gift. Through suffering we find enlightenment said Buddha ; if I didn’t suffer with panic attacks I would never know what it felt like to be anxious, have anxiety or just to struggle to breathe. As a teacher with anxiety; I am able to properly care for and support my beloved students whom I recognise are showing up to class DESPITE their noise-related anxiety, touch-related anxiety, germ-related anxiety, social – anxiety, etc. I operate a safe sacred space for my students to study movement in a place where they will never be made to feel less of a person or cursed by their mental illness. Granted I don’t molly-coddle the shit out of them either but I recognise exactly when someone is slacking off from an exercise and when someone is about to reach their edge in panic. Its empathy and compassion on a level that cannot really be taught – you have to EXPERIENCE the fucking horror or feeling like your world is crumbling around you before you can reach out a hand to help that person up.
When someone has never experienced illness, injury, anxiety, etc; they can’t possibly relate. Sure, they can guess and try to have compassion, and some people I’ve found are good at this empathy. But the real gems; are the compassionate teachers who cultivate an environment for learning where the students are encouraged to stand on their own 2 feet and be independent WITHOUT making them feel stupid or wrong for asking for help or listening to their own bodies.
This is one of my biggest take away’s from this programme; listen to your own body, be your own teacher, do what you need to do, and ultimately do no harm. That includes doing no harm to yourself and your own body and recognising that despite your ego really really wanting to PUSH through the pain, through the injury, through the sickness… actually you should listen to your body as it, quietly at first, and then more loudly says “stop, pause, breathe, please take care” .
So… I’m watching, with a fucking bucket full of compassion for my broken body, proud as all holy hell that I did over an hour of yoga and flexibility training this morning DESPITE feeling broken. Proud that I counted to 5 before quitting, and proud that I knew when to “quit” ….sorry… no no no…. “listen” I knew when to listen and take a break.
Throughout day 4 I definitely felt good about my rest and the time I took to study.
Exams themselves cause me a HUGE amount of anxiety… feeling inadequate in class because of anxiety… breeds more anxiety. I’m lucky that my friends here are being very kind and caring for me.
That’s the last journal entry I wrote for my time at Integrated Dance.
Sadly, on the morning of Day 5 – My broken body wouldn’t let me lift my right arm (an old shoulder injury was aggravated) and I had had 3 panic attacks by 8am. It was time to go home. In order to stop the full body convulsions that the third panic attack had started, I had to take a sedative. I went back to bed to sleep it off… then I drove slowly home.
A few months ago last November when I returned to work after almost dying in hospital (my body went septic) I went back to work in my corporate office and instead of being welcomed back and looked after; I was hit with a disciplinary for being off sick (despite the paramedics picking me up from the office where I had collapsed) … Instead of receiving support for being ill and having a completely broken body, the ‘system’ in place at the company seemed completely indifferent. I was given a final warning despite the illness being completely out of my control. My anxiety about being sick and therefore letting everyone down was birthed out of this trauma and when I finally left the workplace to teach yoga fulltime; I vowed never again to force myself to stay in a situation where I was having 3 panic attacks before 9am.
The two parts back to back of the integrated dance programme can easily be done if you’re a fit individual and you thrive on a challenge. However, despite paying to redo part1 “for fun” because the first time around I loved the experience so much… this time my body just couldn’t cope.
I teach yoga almost every day – sometimes 4 classes a day. I demo almost everything.
But even that didn’t prepare me physically for how hard I pushed myself when surrounded by beautiful talented dancers. The 2 weeks I spent in the programme, I learnt a lot more about my own mental health and the way I push myself beyond my physical abilities when I’m trying to ‘measure up’ or please others. And this is precisely what I ask my students NOT to do in our time together in yoga. And yet I do it myself. I hadn’t even realised.
Going home took guts. I left heart broken. I had expected to complete the 2 weeks and take the final exam and leave almost qualified (there are more teaching hours and a video exam of a class that needs to be submitted afterwards in order to fully qualify). Instead I left broken physically and mentally and spent 2 days heavily sedated on my meds and resting.
Its been 11 days since I came home. The rest of my fellow dancers are all getting news that they passed their exams *so proud*
Ashley reached out to me after I left and we have arranged for me to take my final exam over skype next Monday (eeek!) so I have been studying and working on my homework from the programme since coming home. She told me she was very proud of how hard I’d worked and how far I’d come.
I cried reading that.
I was completely blown away by the amount of support and love I received both during my time on the intensive and then after I left. I solidified existing friendships and made new ones and every single dancer was such a joy to be around and to learn from. I was gutted to miss out on the end of part 2 and the comradery; but I gained some incredible friendships. It was testament to how strongly your own mental chatter can convince you that reality is one way when it clearly isn’t, and a powerful lesson in nurturing self belief and compassion for yourself.
I am looking forward to returning to teach dance, fully planning on being THAT teacher; the one who nurtures complete beginners and creates a safe space for people to learn in.
I can’t wait.