Creative self-expression through movement and dance can help to release unprocessed emotions that have become lodged in the body.
Your body wants to be heard, and emotions are meant to be felt. When you don’t listen and you neglect feeling, you open yourself up to illness and disease. By learning to listen to your body and feel what it is experiencing, you allow yourself to heal.
The healing power of dance and movement is a core principle for Dan Leven. As founder of The Leven Institute for Expressive Movement and longtime senior faculty at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, he’s witnessed the transformative effects of movement in thousands of participants during his 40-year career.
For Leven, who is also a pastoral counselor, dance has been integral to living more fully. He strives to instill the beneficial and nourishing effects of movement into the lives of others.
“Emotion is energy and if you hold it in, it gets lodged in the body,” Leven says. With movement and dance, “You’re opening up channels in the body, releasing tension, and moving the energy so feelings can flow, be integrated, and not get stuck.” Your emotions—like your body—need to move. As Leven points out, the word emotion is derived from Latin and it literally means to move outward.
“Your emotions live in your body,” he says. Your experiences are in your cells.
“Candace Pert, author of Molecules of Emotion, said: ‘Your biography lives in your biology,’” Leven notes. Neuroscience research shows that emotions are neuropeptides in your body, affecting every system and cell. Your emotions and your body are communicating all the time.
Movement and dance engage the right side of the brain, allowing you to access your deepest self, visceral feelings, and intuition more easily, Leven says. Movement also spurs the growth of new brain cells. “Right-brain activities such as dancing, drawing, painting, and singing strengthen the brain pathways that connect to and express your emotions,” he adds.
As a child, “You probably got the message that sharing your emotions wasn’t acceptable. Maybe there wasn’t anyone there to say: ‘It’s OK to be sad, I’m here with you,’” he says. “Any emotion that you’ve been taught isn’t okay to feel can’t be digested and processed. And when you can’t express a full range of feelings, that can set the stage for illness.”
“Your emotions are here for a reason,” he explains. “They are letting you know what you need.” Emotions are your compass in life. “For every difficult feeling, you’re trying to meet a need. A need isn’t a weakness; it’s a form of self-care.”
For example, he says, “if I’m feeling agitated, I ask myself: ‘What is my agitation telling me?’ My response might be: ‘Well, I’ve been sitting on the computer for six hours, and I need to go for a walk outdoors.’” Leven recommends letting yourself feel the difficult emotion and asking, “What is this here to tell me, what’s the message?” Maybe the answer is, “I need to feel valued” or “I need to feel heard.”
“Your body has a story,” asserts Leven. “And its truth needs to be told.” What happens when you don’t know your body’s story? He says that “you become disconnected from yourself, your life, and other people. Your relationships will lack intimacy because you lack intimacy with yourself.”
“It’s not an easy process to know yourself in a deep way,” admits Leven. “The world doesn’t encourage you to be real.”
To forge a deeper connection with yourself and your body, “Carve out time every day to experience the sensations in your body,” says Leven. “Be with what arises, don’t judge it; your body will talk to you if you befriend it.” Your body wants to be heard, and having compassion for yourself is the key to tuning in to its messages. “If you’re pushing and forcing yourself to do something, that causes strain and stress and is very different from befriending and welcoming.”
Leven suggests taking moments throughout the day to pause and ask yourself, “What’s in my body?” Notice your thoughts. Ask, “What’s my body’s truth?” This regular practice of inner mindfulness and awareness helps you build tolerance for uncomfortable feelings instead of running from them.
The key, he emphasizes, “is to have a balanced and accepting stance with all your feelings, not just the positive ones.” Over time you’ll come to accept not only all of your feelings, but all of yourself.
Befriend all of your emotions by practicing "The WTF Prayer."