Sad? Depressed? Anxious? Stressed? Not feeling good enough—not the right height, the right shape, the right whatever? Wish you could click your ruby red slippers and forever banish self doubt? If so, push back the couch and make a little room—I have something I want you to try.
Did you know you can dance your way to happiness?
For the same reason many of us have "chased that disco ball around" after a relationship ended, dancing makes us feel better. In her article "Four Powerful Ways to Live a Joyful Life Today," Amy Leigh Mercree recommended regular exercise to increase happiness in your life. She wrote, "exercise doesn't just make you happy on a physical level, but also on a spiritual one" because it "releases endorphins … causing an analgesic effect [and] a feeling of happiness." What she didn’t mention is that exercise also releases serotonin, a neurotransmitter often deficient in people with depression.
Depression is sadness and self-doubt amplified out of proportion; a bottomless pit, a black hole in a world of brilliant color, an all absorbing, inescapable pit of quicksand. In the developed world doctors usually treat depression with talk therapy (how to avoid excessive discouragement and self-blame through a positive attitude) and behavior modification (daily sunlight exposure, moderate aerobic exercise, and a consistent sleep schedule). In the developing world, however, people with mental illnesses are not so fortunate. Hospitals, let alone psychiatrists, are few and far between—which is why for millennia women in Africa and the Middle East have turned to trance dancing to cure their ills.
Besides causing the brain to secrete endorphins and serotonin, exercise also causes the electrical impulses generated by the brain's billions of nerve cells (brainwaves) to slow from the higher frequencies of waking consciousness (beta) to the subconscious’ lower levels (theta). And when music is added into the mix during dance, the effects are even more powerful. First of all, rhythm and melody become external metronomes for brainwaves to synchronize with. They also tether the awake mind to the physical world, the here and now, while it descends into theta's murky realm of unfiltered impressions and unacknowledged or suppressed emotions. Far more potent than the nebulous images and disjointed story lines of dreams, conscious exploration of your "underworld" frees submerged feelings from their emotional wreckage and allows them to float to the surface. It also disrupts ingrained mental loops by exposing them for what they are—habits adopted as coping mechanisms, which may no longer be necessary or relevant (and in extreme cases might even be harmful). Monsters lurking in the dark are far more scary than when seen in broad daylight. Shine the sun on them and they shrivel. Acknowledge the origin of a problem and the symptoms of its repression will fade away.
Yet not all forms of dance promote cathartic relief. The key ingredient is improvisation— spontaneous expression. This is because remembering choreography or planning movements activates the self critical functions of the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that makes us "human." This region monitors learned behavior, or what people expect of us, and using it only reinforces pre-existing neural pathways, the status quo. Catharsis, relief, and happiness, on the other hand, come when new pathways or ideas are allowed to form, or old ones are examined in a new light. In movement terms, this happens during "flow," when the autonomous nervous system takes over, the body moves on autopilot, and the mind is free to wander. This is why milder forms of trance dancing are referred to as kinetic meditation. They enable you to be a fly on the wall, to objectively experience your body's uncontrolled movements and the ideas it generates in the process.
So, to return to that couch you just pushed out of the way to make room for a dance floor…
Let me teach you one of the most popular trance dance movements I came across in Egypt—the "zikr twist." There are many more techniques in my book Trance Dancing with the Jinn; however, this is one of the easiest to do and quite effective. But first, you must learn how to stand!
Basic stance: Place your feet a little wider than your shoulders, toes pointing forward and knees slightly bent. Straighten and elongate your spine and adjust your pelvic bones so that the tops point up. No arching. Square and center your shoulders, then push them down. No computer slump. On the contrary, you want to open your chest up to heaven. Then elongate your neck as if you were balancing books on your head and let your arms hang loose by your sides. Close your eyes and breathe deeply. Feel your chest rise and fall. Think about everything in your life you are grateful for.
Zikr Twist: With feet firmly planted, on the first count slowly twist your upper body to look behind you over one shoulder. Allow the arms to wrap around your torso, back hand touching front shoulder and front hand reaching behind to touch the back hip. When hands touch shoulder and hip, you should feel wound up like a spring. On the second count, slowly unwind in the other direction to face front. The arms will swing out and follow in delayed motion. Without stopping, on the third count continue twisting until you can see behind you over the other shoulder. Once again, the arms will wrap around, but with the other arm on top. As before, the back hand touches the front shoulder and the front hand reaches behind to touch the back hip. On the fourth count, switch directions and face front, arms following in belated motion. As the upper body twists, the head turns from side to side. When done slowly, this movement stretches spine and neck muscles and loosens vertebrae. When done quickly, it induces trance by agitating the inner ear fluid. Never twist farther than is comfortable. If you are stiff, just swing your arms and turn your head. For a stronger sensation, tilt the head back as you twist.
This is just one suggestion of what you can do. Select music with a continuous, fast driving beat and as few silences as possible. Lower the lights, light a candle or incense, and see where you end up. The idea is to keep dancing for twenty minutes or more, without thinking about what you are doing. Allow flow to take over and let your mind wander. Start gently and pace yourself. Close your eyes. Concentrate on the tempo. "Inhabit" the rhythm, then move any way you want to, to whatever beat you hear. Remember, you are dancing for YOU, not anyone else. No one is watching. Whatever feels good is what you should do—for as long as you want to do it. If you want to go down on your knees, dance on your back, squirm on your belly, go for it—do whatever makes you happy; that's the whole point.
And when you are done, take time for a vision quest. Switch the music to slow and lyrical, lie down, think of a place that makes you happy and close your eyes. As Amy Leigh Mercree said, "Happiness can be a choice"—choose to be happy. Then let your subconscious guide you as to how you can make that happen in your daily life.