Watching Hamilton this past weekend, I found myself moved to tears. And then more tears. Laughing at myself as it happened again and again. They came at the obvious times, through moments in the story about camaraderie, loss, love, and death. The tears represented hope for our country and a wish that the history was actually as diverse as what we see on that stage. But they also came freely every time the full cast swelled the stage with four- or five-part harmony, their bodies moving in unison, sweeping me up alongside them.
Admittedly, musical theater speaks to something fundamental in me. I was a theater kid who achieved some measure of success in professional stage productions, the pinnacle of which led me to the Ford Theater in Los Angeles and Lookingglass Theatre Company in Chicago. Eventually, I discovered that I was much more comfortable behind a keyboard than on a stage, but to this day, if you sit me in front of a live show that moves in perfect harmony, I will weep like a child. Every time. Comedies and dramas alike.
Turns out there is a reason for this. Kelly McGonigal, PhD. is a Stanford University research psychologist and a passionate devotee of group fitness classes. In her book, The Joy of Movement, she writes:
"Human beings synchronize naturally. Not just our movements, but every aspect of our physiology... It is as if our biology is tuned to recognize and respond to common humanity... We were born with brains able to craft a sense of connection to others that is as visceral as the feedback coming from your own heart, lungs, and muscles. That is an astonishing thing, that humans can go about most of our lives, sensing and feeling ourselves as separate, but through one small action—coming together in movement—we dissolve the boundaries that divide us."
When Lin-Manuel raises his arms in protest, I feel the impulse to raise mine. When Renee Elise Goldsberry opens her mouth as elder sister Angelica to sing of being satisfied (or not), I am equally torn in two. Music and movement together cement our connections, especially when we are able to take part physically.
Surprisingly, McGonigal's research shows that, if you are engaging your body, "virtual reality can give you the same endorphin rush as authentic social synchrony." She divulges this information with some hesitation, as face-to-face interaction is more fulfilling for most of us, but these studies do explain her lifelong love of group exercise videos, the popularity of video games where people dance or move with an avatar, and my own adoration for live theater, even if it comes through a screen. Kelly's book dives into the countless ways that exercise and movement bring us hope, connection, and courage—especially when we find ways to move in unison.
The most recent way this has manifested in our lives is through Black Lives Matter marches multiplying nationwide. She writes,"Studies of real-world marches and demonstrations confirm that participating in these events generates feelings of we-agency. Active participants... [feel] part of something bigger than themselves. Marching also makes participants more hopeful. After the event, they are more likely to agree that the world is becoming more just, that human nature is more good than evil, and that the problems they are protesting are solvable."
Kelly has been on my mind these past months. First, because she was kind enough to write a wonderful blurb for my new book, The Habit Trip, which you can read below! But mostly because I've been thinking about how to salvage what's being lost this year, as many of us are physically unable to come together for our collective well-being. Kelly's work gives me hope that online yoga classes and cutting-edge events like Zwift's virtual Tour-de-France—in combination with socially distanced marches, virtual concerts, and steady doses of the Hamilton soundtrack—can patch us through until we meet again.
My favorite quote from Kelly's book?
"Find a form of exercise that leaves you love-drunk and glad to be alive."
Walking and hiking offer me an enormous amount of peace and inspiration whenever I need it, and I'm fortunate to live in a neighborhood where I can safely do that. Sometimes I hike with a friend at a distance, but more often, these days, we walk together over the phone. I'm heartened—by both Hamilton and The Joy of Movement—that no matter what comes next, no matter how long we have to socially isolate, we can always get a lift from falling in step with each other, virtually or otherwise.
What kind of movement leaves you "love drunk and glad to be alive"? And what is a version of that activity you can still do in quarantine?
As Lin-Manuel sings, "This is not a moment. It's the movement."
Rise up! We're halfway through the year and more than halfway to November.
"In The Habit Trip, Sarah Hays Coomer reveals a refreshing new way to approach positive change: listening to your gut, your heart, and your inner voice. If you've ever wanted the process of change to feel more playful, joyful, and rooted in self-trust—not self-criticism—this guide will show you the way."
- Kelly McGonigal, PhD, author of The Willpower Instinct and The Joy of Movement
This weekend, as I watched the fiasco unfolding at Mount Rushmore, I revisited a documentary called Little Wounds Warriors that opened my eyes to the beauty of South Dakota and the strength of the Lakota people on the Pine Ridge Reservation. In particular, I was thinking about Janay Jumping Eagle, a teenager who appears in the film and whom I had the pleasure of interviewing for Physical Disobedience. Janay understands better-than-most how movement has the power to heal.
Her tribe has endured multi-generational trauma, systemic poverty, and, recently, the community suffered a rash of teen suicides. At seventeen years old, Janey "took matters into her own hands by reaching out to kids who were coming up in grades behind her with an event called There Is Hope. The event featured a basketball tournament, food for the kids (most of whom can’t afford a full meal every day), suicide prevention booths, and first-person storytelling from parents who lost their children."
Janay told me, “After losing so many friends and family members, I just wanted to make a positive impact on my community. I wanted other people to know that there are people who care and who will help with whatever they need. I was just thinking what can I do? What do these kids like to do the most? And I thought of basketball. I knew the kids were safe and happy playing basketball. They were smiling at the end of the day, and that’s all I wanted. The suicide rate dropped after that, so I think it worked. I like that I was a part of that. I just wanted to help.”
She understands instinctually what Kelly McGonigal is elevating in The Joy of Movement: Healing comes from moving our bodies and connecting with our communities. Even if we can't always do it in person right now, we can find ways to continue reaching out to each other.
Little Wounds Warriors is 56-minutes long and well worth watching if you have time! This is Janay.
(Image and film - Seth McClellan.)
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