Shani Blueford first entered my orbit last summer when I asked her to participate in my portrait project, #MyExistenceIsResistance (which will be on display at the April ArtHop in the Park Trades building). Through that initial conversation it became clear that, for Shani, the practice of hooping was not merely a hobby or athletic endeavor.
Movement educator and Master Hooper, Jocelyn Gordon founded HoopYogini™ in 2008. According to her website, HoopYogini™ is “a Holistic Conditioning experience that utilizes the modern adult-size hula hoop for flow, self-awareness and as a functional fitness tool to strengthen and stretch the body. HoopYogini™ is transformational fitness integrating hula hooping with hatha yoga and mindfulness meditation.”
Shani began hooping in 2011 and started her path (working with Jocelyn) to become a certified HoopYogini™ instructor last May. To become certified you must:
• complete a set of required readings (4 books on anatomy, philosophy, & the yoga sutras)
• complete an interactive manual
• complete either an online or in-person training
• practice, teach, and record certification videos
For Shani, the whole experience of learning and teaching HoopYogini™ has indeed been transformative: "It's been a journey leading me to so many good people and good times. To be able to teach a movement & mindfulness practice that has helped me through so much is one of the most fulfilling things I can do. Every time someone connects with the practice, get centered, and has fun all I can do is smile and feel whole. So much of the world is frightening and there are so many problems that seem insurmountable. Especially if you are working to create a different reality on our home planet-- the problems, fears, and risks stay heavy on the mind and body. Even in the face of all the parts of this existence that hurt and limit, I’m guided by the idea that there’s always a little something we can do to get free each day, even if just for a few moments. For me, I find a lot of that freedom inside of my hoop and inside the freeing movements that my body, mind, and spirit crave."
To teach HoopYogini™ you also have to have a certain level of skill with the hoop and a commitment to living mindfully. I've participated in the weekly HoopYogini™ classes Shani offers through her business, Emerge and Circulate: Wellness, Healing and Hoop Arts. At first I felt embarrassed to try and hula hoop. It felt like something I should know how to do. Some childhood skill that should have stuck with me. The truth is, I totally sucked the first few times. But once I learned some of the basic tips, and got my pride in check, I was off and rolling.
The mindfulness component wasn’t readily apparent at first to me. I just liked walking around waist hooping and feeling strong in my body. Despite my own investment in meditation and daily mindfulness practices, that connection with the hoop came slowly. It started in class, mostly around an exercise that cultivates gratitude. Gratitude has been central in my life for a few years now--it's a helpful tool to increase presence, calm anxiety, and focus the mind. The meditative connection crystallized for me one day when I was hooping and practicing what’s called a stall. This move involves rotating with the hoop at the same speed the hoop turns. This slows the hoop down and also looks awesome if done well. I explained to Shani how I love stalls. I love the moment where you’re spinning and the hoop synchs exactly with the speed of your body. “It stops all the activity up here,” I said, pointing to my head. She smiled, nodded, and said, “That’s Yoga!”
One of the yoga sutras states, “When thought ceases, the spirit stands in its true nature as observer to the world.” That small moment of freedom is what the stall provides me, however brief. A moment of simply being, without all the weight of evaluation and comparison of past and future—all those familiar mechanisms of the mind.
When I heard my friend and fellow Kalamazoo poet, Danna Ephland, was teaching a class based in movement, the first thing I said was, “You have to call Shani and bring her to class.” Danna has explored the connections between movement and writing for years. Her series, Bodysongs, is a hybrid of creative movement and creative writing. Danna earned a BFA in dance at York University, Toronto and taught ballet, modern, and creative movement courses for years at Western Michigan University, among other places around the country.
Danna’s currently teaching a class in Western’s College of Health and Human Services. The class, “Healing Through Movement,” brings students from fields of exercise science, nursing, occupational therapy, music therapy, dance, and integrative health studies—to name a few—together to study movement modalities to heal the body, mind, and spirit. A few weeks ago I had the privilege of attending and photographing the class Shani visited.
Of teaching the class, Shani said, "It was a fantastic and interesting experience to teach a full classroom of students who had no idea what they were getting into! I felt an excitement cloaked in shyness from both myself and the students as yoga mats were unrolled and hoops passed out to everyone. In most teaching situations I’ve always taught people who at least had direct interest in hooping, so it felt new to me to teach folks who had signed up for a more general subject of 'Healing Through Movement.'"
Danna and Shani both agree that movement can break through old ways of thinking.
I live my life in widening circles
That reach out across the world.
I may not ever complete the last one
But I give myself to it.
--Ranier Maria Rilke
Shani shared the above poem and then guided the students through the "spinal awakening series" with slow, controlled, yet free movements of the spine while holding the hoop in both hands. Danna remarked, "It is beautiful to watch a room full of bodies and hoops following her lead. As a class we later noted similarities of this spinal awakening with Anne Green Gilbert's "BrainDance" and yoga's six movements of the spine."
Danna told me, "I enjoyed how she discussed the diversity within the hooping community itself. There's a social side to hooping, and a flashy side, and then there are things like retreats, self-care workshops, HoopYogini™... a way of life, all of which is part of "flow arts" which has apparently captured the imagination and energy of young people all over the country. It's adult play, a key concept in my course, especially with our guest who led InterPlay."
Danna observed, "I wanted to try too, but there was no room and I also was happy to be able to observe this transformative energy filling the room with its healing pulse. The experience of and connections we've made among the various movement modalities we've tried this semester is rich learning. Moving bodies are healthier bodies, are bodies doing the work and play of healing."
I couldn't agree more.