If your associations with that word amount to incense, crystals, or robed figures in monasteries, allow me to bend your ear. I do not promise enlightenment, only an effective tool to aid your dancing and–hopefully–your life. I’ve been practicing mindfulness meditation for the several months now, and what I’ve learned through experience and research is worth sharing.
First, a definition from Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the founders of western mindfulness meditation: “Bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis.” I’d like to expound on that to add components of non-judgment and iteration. It is a practice whereby one can wake up to the largely subconscious choices that govern our daily lives, and begin to take action, instead of reaction. That last point is central to this article, so tuck it away for now. First, the science.
A 2015 study reviewed twenty-three separate medical studies which tested mindfulness meditation (or a derivative thereof) for its effects on a variety of wellbeing markers. They concluded that mindfulness meditation, on average, significantly decreased depression, anxiety, and stress, and improved quality of life and physical function. All of the areas saw at least a twenty-five percent improvement (see article). Studies have also shown Mindfulness meditation to improve attention, emotion regulation, and flow.
Research also suggests that meditation affects the physical structure of the brain, increasing the density of gray matter in areas of the brain associated with emotional regulation, meta-awareness, memory consolidation, and others. Meditation is associated with decreased gray matter attrition linked to aging.
The positive research and press goes on and on. Search “Meditation Research” and you can easily spend an hour or two clicking through links. Meditation’s popularity has exploded over the past five years, with books, celebrity testimonials, and websites singing its praises. With the help of app-based coaching, there’s never been a better time to start meditating.
That’s not to say that it doesn’t have its detractors–it is not a panacea. In rare cases, practicers have reported a loss of “self” after prolonged, deep meditation, and others have reported that connecting to their internal space sometimes allows traumatic memories to dominate their thoughts. By most accounts, these occurrences are rare. The consensus is that meditation is, at a minimum, worth a shot.
“That’s all very nice Joel, you’ve beaten us over the head with some nice numbers. So what does this have to do with dance?”
I’m glad you asked. Partner dancing, to my mind, is entirely about living in the moment–that’s why I love it so much. If you examine your relationship with dance, you may discover this is true for you, too. It’s hard to have a great rumba if you worry about filing your tax return. Midway through an excellent waltz you’re unlikely to find yourself focused on a strained relationship with a loved one. This is not to say that thoughts do not occur while dancing, but rather, the immediacy of the music, your partner, and the movement make it hard for such thoughts to dominate your mind. Going back to Zinn’s definition, “Bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis,” it’s not hard to argue that dance actually is meditation.
Semantics aside, meditation can improve your dancing by helping you to respond instead of react. We do not describe great leaders or follows as being reactive; they are responsive. We seek to respond to the music, respond to our partners, and respond to our coaches. In waltz it’s the difference between thunking your foot down blindly, and taking a heel lead, rolling through the foot. It’s using floorcraft to avoid a collision instead of just bracing for impact. Practicing this sort of awareness in a non-dance setting can benefit us when we are out on the floor. Non-judgmental observation is a skill worth cultivating as well, since video review is only excruciating because we allow it to be. Meditation’s benefits extend to partner relations and mental health maintenance, as mentioned above.
“I’m still skeptical. I’m too busy/restless/obstinate/type A to meditate. It just wouldn’t work for me.”
I understand, I’ve been there. Before I started I was pretty skeptical myself. Meditation works for people just like you, everyone from Ellen DeGeneres to Kobe Bryant (and many in between): busy, stressed-out, successful people. You don’t even have to be a media mogul or a professional athlete to take advantage of it. At the end of the day, what do you stand to lose? If you end up not feeling it, you can always walk away with the knowledge in hand that meditation isn’t the tool for you.
Speaking of tools, meditation can be made easy with the help of apps. These provide guided meditations, and FAQs designed to help the average, skeptical person ease their way into meditation. My personal favorite is 10% Happier for its wit and candor. Calm and Headspace are also wildly popular apps that operate in essentially the same way. All of these offer a “freemium” model: you can get the first week or so of guided meditations for free, but if you want more you’ll need to pay. Luckily, most of them let you repeat the free sessions as many times as you like, and some include a few extended guided meditations for those interested in pushing their limits even further. My advice? Take the free week, and see where it leaves you. In the worst case a meditation-free life is just one app deletion away.
(Disclosure: I am not paid to mention any of these apps. They’re simply the ones I’ve used or run across.)
That’s it! Give it a try, and let me know what you think. I bet you’ll find an improved sense of well-being, and an ability to respond instead of react is worth ten minutes of your day. Who knows, you might even gain some perspective.
See you on the dance floor!