I recently attended a rhythm workshop for non-musical educators. I’m personally a musical educator, but there were many in the workshop who were not and for whom the mere idea of spending an hour moving to a drum evoked fear and anxiety. Damien Bassman, a New York City musician and music educator, taught the workshop. “What are some words you would use to describe textiles?” he asked us. We responded shyly:
“Silky.” “Rough.” “Flowing.” “Felted.”
“What are words you would use to describe foods?”
“Crunchy.” “Salty.” “Cold.” “Sweet.”
“What about nature?”
“Green.” “Beautiful.” “Wild.”
“Musicians describe music the same way,” Damien explained. “I’ve had conductors tell me, ‘A little more purple, and less mysterious.’ These are all legitimate words to describe qualities of music and rhythm.”
Next, as Damien held a beat on a hand drum, he had us begin to step in rhythm in one large circle around the room, finding what he called “the pulse” of our steps – the driver and motivator of our movement. “Find where in your body your pulse comes from, and move from that place.” Participants began to relax and the circle of 35 people took on a unique rhythm and shape. “Now,” Damien instructed, “notice the quality of your pulse. How would you describe it?…This is your pulse. Stay with it.”
We moved for over a half hour, the only sounds being Damien’s instructions, the shuffle and stomp of our feet, and the clapping of our hands, each of us focusing on our own pulse. Around the circle, layers were shed as the movers built up heat. Hair got tied back. Shoes came off. Damien morphed the beat on his drum, adding bells and clacks to become a one-man percussion section. He played with time, with backbeat, with counting, inviting us to find the 1 with our feet and the 1-2-3-4 with our hands – and then switch with a hop so that our 1s and 4s inverted from feet to hands. A little bit of a mind trip as the movers all tried to stay in time and follow instructions. Yet every so often, Damien would gently remind us, “Don’t lose your pulse, don’t lose your quality. When you’re leading a group, when the rhythm changes, always come back to that.”
The pulse I found in the workshop that day with Damien came from my right hip socket. The descriptive word that came to my mind was “springy.” At first I thought to myself, “Springy? That’s stupid.” But despite my self-judgement, I sprang and twirled around the room having a delightful time. I envisioned a coiled up spring in my hip flexor, extending and collecting with each tuck and twist. The quality was that of radiating sunshine.
That was two weeks ago. Since then, I’ve been taking time in my morning routines to breathe into my pulse and its spring. Starting with this practice is helping me to stay grounded throughout my day. When my embodied presence waivers, I bring my awareness back to my pulse. This simple practice has been doing wonders. When I focus on my locus of movement, my entire body responds. My posture changes. My heart settles back into my chest. And amazingly, my mood responds, too. What if I am feeling weighed down by major life decisions and the plight of refugees and Muslim friends? If I move from my fear, then I literally experience a paralysis that weighs me down – the exact opposite of “springy.” But when I come back to my pulse, my whole body and mood shifts. It’s not about artificially “making myself feel better,” but about staying present with a quality that enlivens me and enables me to carry myself in the world with open-hearted understanding and patience.
I’m also aware that a coiled spring in my right hip flexor is the source and quality of my pulse right now. That will probably change, depending on what life lessons I am orienting to. There are also days when I simply prefer to mope and sit with my grief, fear and anger. These emotions provide me with valuable information about what I love and value. However, if I let them be in control more often than not, I might do things like build walls and ban people who I’ve never met and know nothing about from my life. So, I dance with the grief and fear, but I remember my pulse.
In this video clip, Staci Haines, founder of Generative Somatics, speaks to embodiment practice as the bridge between knowledge and action. She offers a centering practice that, for me, is tantamount to finding my pulse. And now more than ever, in a world that literally keeps me up at night and wakes me from anxious dreams, I need centering practices.
Do you resonate with this idea of “pulse?” What tricks do you find helpful in returning to your internal anchor when you feel off center?