Monday, August 9, 2010

Being Present: Alison Scola interview, pt. 2

Here's part two of our interview with Lindy Hopper and Yoga Therapist Alison Scola. In the previous part, we discussed Alison's entries into yoga and Lindy Hop. To read part one, please click here: So Many Levels.

LindyGroove Technique: Being grounded is being present. What does it mean to be present?

Alison Scola: Being present to me, by Alison Harper Scola! Means having my mind's attention focused on what's happening at the level of what's happening physically, emotionally, energetically and ultimately for me because I do have spiritual practice at the center of my life, what's happening at the higher level of consciousness.

So when it comes to Lindy Hop, let's say for example I'm dancing with a beginner dancer. So somebody literally like maybe this is their first day ever dancing and this dude has no clue how to lead. I could be like "oh, this is lame. Ugh! He has no connection!" or I could find the connection that is there. "He's not dancing to even the tempo of the music," or I could find, well "where is he?" and dance with him in his rhythm.

LGT: That's so important.

AS: And I could look at what's going on with this human being who is trying to dance with me, emotionally. "Oh, he's shitting his pants and completely insecure. So how can I be loving and kind towards him in that?"

LGT: So many people are critical of beginners when they start. The critical mind seems so completely out of the moment. It's like there's someone they expect to dance with, rather than the person who is actually there.

AS: Yeah, so I think that example is - how can I take being in the present moment and apply it to the situation? On the flip side, if I'm dancing with an advanced dancer, let's say "Oh my god, everybody's staring at us." What's going on with this person emotionally? Well, they're probably feeling self-conscious, but their ego is masking that. So how can I be as loving and kind and as present with that, in acceptance. And maybe some of that's going on inside of me. What's going on inside of me and what am I offering them?

LGT: Is it so conscious? There's that thought of being "in your head." Is it conscious like that where you're actually going through the process of thinking "what's this person thinking?" or is it somewhere else?

AS: Let's say for example I notice if I am dancing with a beginner dancer, my first thought is "Oh crap, he's gonna rip my arms out of the sockets," or "oh man, this isn't the dance I was hoping for." First I notice I'm being judgmental; I'm being critical. How is that making me feel? Is it closing me off to this person? When we are separated from our true nature, which in my opinion is love.... When I'm disconnected from love I don't feel good. and I know you're not feeling anything good from me. Usually it starts with me being in observation of something that's causing me discomfort and then I'm able to go into an awareness of that - go like "eww, I'm not sure that feels good to me." So how can I move toward something that's more whole and more a part of alignment with my true nature.

LGT: Tell me about what breathing means to you. I know that it's not something that we talk about in Lindy Hop, but it's certainly something you talk about in yoga. There's so much about it, but give us an introduction to the idea of the Breath.

AS: I'll give you that introduction through my own experience. I used to suffer from severe anxiety disorder - panic attacks. My tendency was toward being ridiculously anxious and the Breath, learning how to breathe, was what allowed me to release that from my process and my body. And what I discovered was that I didn't take deep breaths.

LGT: Deep breaths?

AS: Full and complete. I constantly was in a state of shallow, short inhalations with very little exhale. As I watch people function in the world, most of us breathe that way. When we're not breathing consciously, when we're not consciously taking a deep breath, we're breathing really shallow, which triggers the nervous system to think that we're in danger. (laughs) And so our physical reaction to that is anxiety. So through my daily life I've had to train myself, and my yoga practice has done this for me, to take deep conscious breaths. When I am able to check in with that the same thing translates into my dancing. Is my breathing right now causing my frame to tighten? Is my breathing right now adding to the fact that I'm anxious to dance with this rock star dancer?

LGT: (chuckles)

AS: What if I took deep breaths? It immediately lets my body relax. It lets myself relax emotionally. It gets me grounded and into the present moment that I just rambled about before. So the breath is intimately connected... In fact when I've done private lessons, Lindy Hop lessons, especially when people are working on performance or aerials or something like that, the breath is a huge part of letting the energy flow.

LGT: Any last thoughts or anything you'd like to share?

AS: I also think Lindy Hop, it speaks mostly to the physical. Everything that we've spoken about speaks to the spiritual or energetic. [Lindy Hop] speaks to the physical. We're street dancers, right? And most of us have no clue about how to take care of our bodies. But Lindy Hop and all of swing in all of its forms is one of the most athletic and strenuous social dances that exist. And a lot of us have no clue how to take care of our bodies. So we get hurt. You see Lindy Hoppers saying things like "Oh yeah, I tore my ACL. I have to go have knee surgery," or "Oh god, I just broke my neck." Yoga is the only reason that I'm still dancing today. The only reason I'm still doing any of these things.

LGT: [...that you're] still able to dance?

AS: Yeah, and it's also the thing that's prevented me from having surgeries that doctors told me that I had to have. I was told three years ago that I had a hip injury that couldn't heal without surgery and I healed it with yoga. That's why I'm jumping around on the floor today.

So my advice or my offering to all these beautiful Lindy Hoppers is: find some sort of physical practice besides dancing that makes you feel good inside your body. Maybe it's yoga. Maybe it's stretching class. A lot of y'all are rockin' the P90X.

LGT: Hahahaha!

AS: But whatever it is, figure out how to take care of your body in a way that allows you to keep dancing, because we want to be the old guys on the floor however may years from now.

LGT: Thank you, Alison!

AS: Thank you. It's been a privilege.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

So Many Levels: Alison Scola interview pt. 1

After the Sunday morning yoga class at Camp Hollywood 2010, I sat by the pool at the LAX Marriott with yoga therapist and internationally famous sassy lady Alison Scola for a brief discussion of Yoga and Lindy Hop.

LindyGroove Technique: Which did you get involved in first, Yoga or Lindy Hop?

Alison Scola: Yoga.

LGT: How did you get started in Yoga?

AS: About 16 years ago, I had crippling lower back pain that stopped my entire life. I couldn't work. I couldn't dress myself. I was literally bed-ridden from the back pain and found nothing made it better. It was at that point somebody said "hey, you should try Yoga," and I went to a yoga class and for the first time I found something that made me feel like I didn't mind living inside my body for a little while.

LGT: How long did it take for you to get to a point where you were no longer in pain?

AS: Pain free? Well, the body is a tricky thing. It's not just structural. It's way more than physical mechanics. The working through the emotional stuff that was tied to the low back issue in addition to the structural stuff... I think it was probably close to a year before I was completely pain-free.

That's what brought me to yoga. That's what taught incredible healing aspect of what a yoga practice could be.

LGT: So then, how did you get to Lindy Hop?

AS: Ha haha! So, what yoga opened up for me was the fact that life was supposed to be joyful and that we were supposed to be happy inside these physical bodies, rather than imprisoned. I had always wanted to try swing dancing. Maybe a year or two after I started my yoga practice there was this free swing lesson at the Spy Bar in Cleveland. I found that night, the most fun thing I had ever done in my life.

LGT: Now was that an East Coast lesson?

AS: Oh yeah, 6-count East Coast, baby! My first Lindy Hop lesson was taking a six-week session with Valerie Salstrom.

I found that swing dance was something that absolutely brought me into the Present Moment like nothing else. Because there was no place else I could be inside my head or physically other than right there. And I discovered the most amazing joy that I have ever found in my life.

LGT: Getting back to yoga - there are a couple of ways people view yoga. Some people might view it as a fitness regimen and some folks view it more deeply. What was your experience with that?

AS: What yoga taught me was that it was about much more than what was going on physically. Yoga has been a holistic experience for me from the beginning of my journey. It has been about realizing that as I function as a being in the world that there is an energetic level to who I am. There is an emotional level to who I am. There is a physical level to who I am. There is a spiritual level to who I am. And that all of that lives inside of this body.

So when I have emotions that I'm not expressing or feeling in other ways, they get trapped inside of my body. I've literally had yoga practices where I opened my quadricep and ended up sobbing my face off or opened my hamstring and can't stop laughing. Because it's emotions lingering and all it wants to do is get moved out.

I'm a yoga therapist, which means I use yoga as a means to help people heal on all of those levels. So when I work with somebody, when they come to see me, I take a look at what's going on with them, the initial thing that's aggravating them and I observe it on all of those levels of their being and figure out ways to address how to heal that on all of those levels. That's been my internal process and that's what yoga has taught me. The deepest thing that a yoga practice has taught me has not been how to have long hamstrings. It's been how to learn to love myself in an attitude of acceptance of all that is and just be present with myself.

LGT: How does that apply to Lindy Hop? Or does it?

AS: Hahaha! It absolutely applies to Lindy Hop on so many levels! So when I am connected to another human being and when I'm connected with that other human being to the music, all that's there is energy. So there's all of this energy that we're tapping into, that we're sharing with each other, that we're exchanging and that we're adding to. And all of that's working on that level of emotion, so we're in that joy, or if I'm in competition, then I'm in my nerves, or if an entire room full of people is watching me, maybe I'm in my self-consciousness. Whatever that aspect is and being able to be with that fully and wholly in that experience... and of course there's what's happening physically, which is the "duh" part of that answer. "Duh really, we're physically dancing?" And now brain just blew out of the back of my skull.

LGT: What advice do you have for someone who might not know a lot about yoga and is interested in exploring?

AS: My advice is to listen to their own inner guidance above and beyond anything and everything. And explore! 'Cause there's many different types of yoga out there and each of them have their benefits. Because every person is different and every person has different characteristics and qualities.

Right now, the most popular forms of yoga in the United States are Vinyasa practices and hot yoga - yoga in a heated room, core power, Bikram. Not to digress into a cultural statement, but the fact that those forms of yoga are the most popular here in the west makes a lot of sense. These forms of yoga are about pushing your limits and being in intensity, vs. a more Eastern way of existing, of just being at peace. But there are so many benefits to those forms of yoga as well. Hot yoga, for my constitution is great. Because when I'm in a hot room my body says "oh, thank you! I will stretch and be open!"

LGT: (chuckles)

AS: But there's other types of people with different constitutions. The heat aggravates them and literally makes them physically ill. So it all just depends on who you are and listening to who your are rather than trying to force yourself into where you think you should be. It's just about observing and seeing what feels good. I think the biggest takeaway is that yoga is supposed to feel good and make you feel good. So if you're finding that you feel bad in whatever type of practice it is you're doing, it's probably not right. Try a restorative class instead. See what happens, y'know?

LGT: What lessons can someone take from the yoga practice into the Lindy Hop world? And maybe even vice versa?

AS: I'm gonna tell you what the biggest lessons I've taken away are. I've already said them before, so to reiterate, for me it's about being present with myself and the energy that is there, in full acceptance and appreciation. The other things I've taken away are how to be grounded. Well, I guess that's the same answer.

End of part 1. Check back for part 2 soon!

To quote Bruce Lee

I've been mentioning this post from Bobby White's Swungover quite a lot lately, so it seems right that I should post a link here. The Heavy Follower.

In the post, Bobby examines a few different situations that contribute to the so-called heavy follower. It's well worth the time it takes to read, and even more the time it might take to put it into practice.


Early on in my Lindy Hop career I remember a note that I took after seeing Bruce Lee's classic Kung Fu film Enter the Dragon for the first time.

"It is like a finger, pointing at the moon. Do not concentrate on the finger, for you will miss all of the celestial glory."

That quote seemed immediate to the stuff I was exploring in Lindy Hop. To boil it down a bit, it's often easy to confuse the DANCE STEPS a student might learn in class (in this case the finger) with the act of DANCING (the moon.) I quoted Lee quite often in my early Swing improvisation classes. I haven't used the quote in years.

That is, until I was recently reminded of the finger and the moon while listening to the Zenprov entry, the Finger and the Moon. Zenprov is podcast series about scenic improvisation, but I feel the discussion is still resonant. Check it out!

Edited to add: I extend the idea of the Finger and the Moon to include things like style biases as well. It's a very apt analogy.

What I like about the Zenprov post is the idea of the Narrative mode of thinking vs. the Direct Experience mode. For anyone who has ever been stuck in their head while dancing, this is really worth exploring!

And lastly, from Camp Hollywood 2010, the Fly Rights!