How a $6 Childhood Toy Finally Taught Me How to Meditate
It sounded gimmicky, but also too fascinating to miss.
I’ve tried meditation, trust me. I’ve downloaded the meditation apps. I’ve attended meditation classes. I’ve even tried a fancy EEG-powered headband meant to train my brain to quiet itself. Blame New York City, blame the noise, blame my mind always fixated on dinner that night, work assignments, and what’s going to happen on the next episode of whatever I’m Netflix bingeing, but I could never achieve that calm and clarity these services promised. It was only when I found myself swinging a hula hoop over my head that I really got a sense of what all the hype is about.
Before I headed to Oahu for the yoga festival Wanderlust, I took a look at the lineup of instructors and speakers and one person stuck out: Jinju Dasalla. In her bio, I read that part of what she taught was dancing with the hula hoop to “re-pattern the nervous system and release trauma.” It sounded gimmicky, but also too fascinating to miss. So, I signed up for her workshop.
It was 9 a.m. on a Friday morning and there was a surprisingly big group, some people even barefoot, spread out in a circle across the dewy grass. We each grabbed a striped hula hoop and took a few minutes to get familiar with it again–I haven’t touched one since I was in elementary school. I positioned it around my waist and swung my hips in a circular motion, laughing self-consciously while witnessing 30 or so adults doing the same.
IT WAS LIKE SOMETHING OUT OF CIRQUE DU SOLEIL.
Then, Dasalla stepped to the center with partner to demonstrate the incredibly graceful routine we’d learn. She swung her hula hoop around her waist and over her head, back and forth between the two arms, down low, up high, spun rapidly, and jumped through it all the while maintaining the allure of a ballet dancer. It was like something out of Cirque du Soleil. Dasalla, a petite, jovial woman in layers of beads, a gold halter top, and billowing maroon pants, guided us through the steps one by one. I was immediately doubtful I’d be able to replicate the routine and frankly wasn’t quite sure of the point (although it mesmerized me). She turned up the volume of her upbeat music. “Why don’t you dance? Freestyle!” she encouraged the group with a wide grin. Some people really enthusiastically wound their waists around and shook their limbs (they’re probably the folks who know how to meditate, I thought). I swayed left and right a bit more timidly in the confines of my hoop.
Dasalla is the co-founder of Soul Flow Arts, a company she founded with her husband, Nova Dasalla, in 2012. She has a PhD in neuroscience, a lifelong love for dance, and a mission to educate health professionals, coaches, yoga teachers, and therapists on the benefits of “play.” Also a life coach, Dasalla hosts workshops and retreats where she teaches people how to dance with the poi (using fire) and the hula hoop.
IF YOU CONSCIOUSLY LIFT THE HEART, BRING THE SHOULDERS BACK, BREATHE DEEP, AND THIS IS ALL YOU DO, YOU LITERALLY CHANGE THE NEUROCHEMISTRY OF YOUR BRAIN.
When I later sat down with Dasalla, I admitted feeling apprehensive toward the beginning of class. She simply smiled and demonstrated something she had once learned from an instructor: She slouched, squeezed in her shoulders and crossed her arms over her chest. “Try yelling, ‘I’m so happy!’ while in this position,” she said, then stood up and opened her arms and chest wide open to the sky, “Now try doing this and screaming ‘I’m depressed!’ It just doesn’t work.” Posture, she says, is just one way the mind and body connect. “It affects the neurochemistry,” Dasalla explains, “Constantly being constricted in the chest and in the neck holds trauma and triggers cortisol. But if you consciously lift the heart, bring the shoulders back, breathe deep, and this is all you do”–as we did during her hoop class–”you literally change the neurochemistry of your brain, of your heart. You increase the levels of serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, all the good endorphins, and then this changes the way you see things psychologically and the world sees you change, so it‘s synergistic and symbiotic.”
Dasalla introduced me to the notion of neuroplasticity–the idea that patterns in the brain are changeable even through adulthood. “Sometimes the patterns we learn, maybe at a younger age to protect us especially more at an emotional level, they really close us up,” she says, “These behaviors all come down to literally neurons connecting with different parts of the brain. You can break that and rewire it.” Here’s where the hula hoop comes in.(The whole video above is worth watching but skip to 1:20 for the really cool stuff).
Hula hoops encourage contralateral movement, which exercises muscles on the opposite side of the body from one another. Using the hoops, she says is “scrambling everything up and forcing engagement of both the right brain and left brain–this isn’t something we do as adults, normally” since we adopt dominant sides. Using both sides of the brain promotes brain functioning by increasing the number of neural pathways in the brain, which is linked to reducing anxiety and depression. The movements Dasalla teaches lead to a “whole-brain functioning state” that helps get you into a mindset that allows you to repattern your subconscious thinking. In my case, that meant letting go of being self-conscious during class (something I commonly experience not just when I’m awkwardly dancing with a hula hoop, but also in other fitness classes where I constantly compare my body, my strength, etc. to other women).
THE GOAL EITHER WAY IS TO KNOW WHATEVER IS GOING TO GET THAT PERSON INTO THE PRESENT MOMENT STATE. TO FLOW.
It’s a simplistic explanation for a really intricate scientific phenomenon, but the basic idea is that getting your body to dance and “play,” as Dasalla identifies it, helps you focus. How is that different from sitting on a cushion and reserving five minutes to think or, rather, not think? “The goal either way is to know whatever is going to get that person into the present moment state. To flow,” she explains. “I think that’s why I gravitated toward the hoop because it forced me to think, “Ok, if I get out of the present moment right now, I’m gonna get hit,” she says before chuckling, “Try fire dancing.”
That self-consciousness I had at the start of class manifested itself in my physical motions; I kept looking around at others, didn’t want to move toward the center of the circle, or freestyle dance. But about an hour into our 90-minute class, something lifted in me. When we got to try Dasalla’s choreography on our own, I practiced catching the hoop mid-hula, balanced it with my arms outstretched behind me, switched the hoop left and right, and that’s when I realized it: I was meditating. My mind was quiet, blocking out anything that didn’t have to do with that present moment. Nothing was going through it as I allowed muscle memory to settle deeper while playing with the hoop. I was having fun and, at the end of it, felt a release I’d only previously felt at the end of a yoga classes during savasana.
Those big motions using the hoop were something I wasn’t used to in day-to-day, cramped city life. “The hoop builds confidence. It’s like saying ‘I’m here! And I’m going to take up space!” Dasalla says, “If we are invited to look at the poi, or the hoop, as an extension of ourselves and to really open up and to remember how big we are, how important every single one of us is to the bigger picture, then it is a beautiful thing.” While I don’t know if I’m going to actually buy a hula hoop (though if I did, I could find one as low as $6 online), taking this class did convince me to reserve time for regularly playing or dancing. It’s the best way to get me to that state of clarity that an app and even whole meditation studios couldn’t deliver.