by Dr. Elena Villanueva
As humans, we are given the gift of “experience.” By experience, I am speaking of the experience of emotions, the experience of physical sensations like touch, smell, and sight; and we get to experience how our mind, body, and spirit connect to express the emotions and thoughts evoked by the experiences we have. When we learn to become masters of our own minds, we also learn the power of creating our experiences and how to change them. Through our thoughts, actions, and emotions, we create the experiences in our lives which in turn create the stories in our lives which ultimately become our reality.
Developing an awareness of how our thoughts, actions, and emotions ultimately create our experiences and our story is truly what many call the ultimate gift of life! And once we become aware of how we are creating our own experiences, we can learn to become empowered in the mastery of our emotions, thoughts, and actions, so that we can realize the outcomes we desire to ultimately experience.
In the process of this self-mastery, some of the tools we teach our clients to involve the self-mastery of expression of our emotions, thoughts, and desires through speaking, writing, movement, and other artistic forms.
When we learn to express ourselves, we are in the process of letting our thoughts, emotions, and feelings be known not only to others but most importantly to ourselves—all parts of ourselves—mind, body, and spirit. This process of self-mastery through expression helps us to identify if we are congruent in all parts of ourselves, with what we desire (like getting our health back, for example), or if we are in conflict (perhaps saying we want to heal from our dis-ease, but our actions, thought, or emotions don’t resonate with our desired outcome).
Dancing is one method of tapping into our minds, bodies, and spirits to self-check if all parts of ourselves are truly resonating with what we desire. Dance also invites creativity which repatterns and creates new neurological connections in the brain, and it provides benefits to the physical body, boosting energy and mood.
There are sometimes various conditions that can impair the ability of a person to express themselves, and these conditions can range from mental health conditions to autoimmune issues, and especially neurodegenerative diseases. In cases where one might be struggling with a neurodegenerative disease like Parkinson’s Disease (PD) the physical and mental symptoms can challenge the relationship with expression involving movement, speech, and writing.
More than a decade ago, my father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. As a result, he moved closer to me so I could help him manage his movement disorder through breathing exercises, movement, and dance. He had never danced in his life. We began taking weekly dance classes adapted specifically for Parkinson’s. Dancing helps improve cognitive function and motor function for those struggling with the effects of neurodegenerative dis-ese.
Not only was I able to see his own improvements by incorporating dance into his healing routine, I witnessed the other participants find joy through dance and learn not to identify with their disease… but as dancers! Here is a link to a fabulous video on the Dancing with Parkinson’s program through the Mark Morris Dance Institute in Brooklyn, NY as well as a film trailer of Capturing Grace.
Another great resource on the power of dance to benefit brain function is from David Leventhal, the Program Director for Dance for Parkinson’s Disease. In this video, David Leventhal gives a powerful lecture describing the benefits of dance on multiple levels: physical, cognitive, social, and emotional. I particularly loved his teaching on “Think Like a Dancer.”
He offers 4 components of how people living with Parkinson’s—and anyone—can flourish. These are:
Using our imagination is extremely important in working with neurodegenerative diseases, but also alleviating the impact of trauma. These key concepts are taught by thought leaders and world-renowned teachers like Dr. Van Der Kolk. In his book, The Body Keeps the Score, he says, “Imagination is absolutely critical to the quality of our lives. Imagination gives us the opportunity to envision new possibilities—it is an essential launchpad for making our hopes come true.”
When Dad and I learned choreography in preparation for performances, our highly-skilled teacher always taught movements in imagery to help us remember. Sometimes we would loosen up our muscles in the heat of the Texas summers to the song “Sailing” by Christopher Cross. When rotating the wrists, she would have us pretend we were swirling our hands in water. An upward stretch of the arms was imagined as a sail being hoisted toward the clear blue sky. Although many participants were unable to travel, we were transported straight to the salty ocean.
David Leventhal gives the example that, upon waking, to imagine yourself as a tree. Using that imagery, you can think of your feet as roots and securely plant them. Your arms become branches and reach out. Feels good! Starting your day this way can help you connect with your body. Imagine pushing away some clouds and feeling the sun on your face. It may also help in reducing a fall caused by getting up too quickly without grounding first.
Life is a dance—it has a rhythm. The sun comes up in the morning and sets in the evening. Rhythm. Our breath and heartbeat are a rhythm. We have responsibilities to complete on a daily basis. Usually, we plan and review our daily schedule the night before to be efficient. Leventhal gives the example to choreograph your way through the grocery store to the checkout aisle. In keeping with the theme of expression, I also dance my way through the store if delightful music is playing. This way, movement is built into my day.
Try choreographing your day with a balance of responsibilities, play, and connection.
Put together a playlist that gets you moving. I play the song, “Staying Alive” by the Bee Gees when I walk next to my Dad while he uses a walker to help his brain link to the rhythm. This in turn improves his gait. He loves to sing the line “You can tell by the way I walk, I’m a woman’s man… no time to talk.” It’s amazing to watch how his cognition, gait, and mood improve with the right music.
Try this: Put an upbeat song on in the morning that has a positive message. I like the song, “A Lovely Day” by Bill Withers. I even start my day dancing to that song while lying in bed. Then, I write one thing that I am grateful for before tackling responsibilities. That’s also an example of choreographing my waking moments. This idea came to me after reading, The Body Keeps the Score and learning about how successful moving and then writing are in working with trauma.
If you were on a stage, imagine that your movement would have to be big enough that the people in the balcony or back row could see you. This is something that Leventhal and our PD teacher discuss in preparation for performing. But in everyday circumstances, this translates into taking up space.
You matter and you belong! You are not your disease or trauma. Let your movements express this notion. I knew this as a young child and had no fear of getting on the stage. Somewhere along the way, I started to second guess myself. Through the deep inner work of yoga and meditation, I have made the world my stage again. Believe me when I say I am back dancing whenever and wherever I can.
I hope you join me in dancing your way into joy, health, and vitality, and expressing yourself fully!
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