Life as a Dance

“Life as an art and art as a game – an action for its own sake, without thought of gain or loss, praise or blame, is the key, then, to the turning of living itself into a yoga, and art into the means to such a life.” - Joseph Campbell

I’m visiting Colorado this week, both to teach tango and to study Thai yoga healing work. Given the dual nature of my visit, the links between art, yoga, and life in this quotation caught my attention as I wandered into a bookstore in downtown Boulder. I admit that, as a dancer, I mentally substituted, “Life as a dance…” as I read this sentence a few more times, and it got me thinking about the common threads between my ongoing explorations of tango and yoga. Both continue to offer me profound lessons in connection in slightly different ways. In the tango, two individuals form an improvised partnership that can often feel like one body. In yoga, a kind of partnership unfolds within a single person, between the spirit self and the everyday self, and these can sometime feel like two separate entities.

So, under the larger umbrella of partnering, tango and yoga have been passing one another along my neurological pathways for many years. Sometimes they’ve exchanged furtive glances, and sometimes they’ve high-fived, but at this point, I definitely see some clear parallels! My focus as a tango dancer has shifted over time from the beauty of movement patterns toward the invisible nuances of relating. Similarly, my study of yoga has expanded from anatomy and posture to include more subtle practices of awareness. You might say I’ve recognized the yoga in my dancing, or discovered the dance that is yoga.

Natarajasana, "Lord of the Dance Pose" - Photo by Isaac Oboka

Natarajasana, "Lord of the Dance Pose" - Photo by Isaac Oboka

Nowadays, whether I’m social dancing or stretching or stirring oatmeal for breakfast, I find that the question of where to place my attention is usually the most crucial one, and that such choices have very tangible effects on my experience in any given moment. Author James Redfield coined the phrase, “where attention goes energy flows.” The word energy can be a little hard to pin down, but I know for certain that if I deliberately focus on being receptive and curious, for example, then my dancing (and my breakfast, too!) tends to feel more and more delightful.

As Campbell implies, when I consider potential “gain or loss, praise or blame” in any situation, or otherwise compare my personal desires to external standards, I feel worried and nervous. This is a “garbage in, garbage out” system. And as funny as it may sound, I really can see this playing out in something as mundane as breakfast. “Is this oatmeal the healthy kind? Should I have honey on it? What about raisins, do they have too much fructose? Maybe I should buy a blender and have green smoothies instead.” My mind moves quickly and is never far from the panic button.

Instead, if I manage to change the channel and make a conscious, internally-sourced intention (I am going to enjoy eating this oatmeal!), then the anxiety fades very quickly. I’m left to enjoy the delicious warmth and sweetness of my breakfast!

As a social dancer, it’s easy to be distracted by either imagined or real opinions of others, and when that happens, the downward spiral is swift and sure. I get nervous, avoid people, and am generally unable to enjoy dancing, the very thing I came for. So, my practice in that environment is to choose to focus on the kind of experience I want to be having (fun, inspired, creative, accepting). If I notice that focus drifting, I go to the bathroom or step outside to “reset.”

And so, wherever I am, I do my best to “dance” between intention and experience. I notice that when my focus is strong, all of the habitual judgments I make about myself both as an artist and as a person (better/worse, success/failure, right/wrong) suddenly become irrelevant. Instead of the panic button, I hit the release valve. These moments are sometimes fleeting, but I find them to be liberating on multiple levels.

My challenge to you for this week is to set a Daily Intention:

First thing in the morning, take one minute to choose an intention for the day. It can be simple: calm, curious, flowing, anything that appeals to you. Breathe it in and notice how it feels in your system. Acknowledge any shifts, even subtle ones, throughout the day.

If you are a social dancer, try this the next time you go out dancing! You can even order your very own set of Tango Intentions, a deck of 52 cards with single words you can use to focus when dancing or practicing.