Welcome to my first guest post ever! Occasionally I will use this blog to highlight how facilitators use InterPlay to change the world. This post is written by Dorothy Finnigan.

This Work Could Save Lives

I stared at the email.  “This work could save lives,” it said.  Had I really just been invited to teach InterPlay and juggling to a group of Iraq and Vietnam War Veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?!

A day later, I was granted clearance to the Veterans Affairs (VA) facility. My host drove me through the rain, warning me to expect a tough reception from the vets. Some had just returned from Iraq; others were still healing from Vietnam. Once a week, they all took mandatory art therapy and wellness classes. On this day, I would be given the entire “wellness” hour to share whatever I wished.

Accessible, Playful, Unpretentious

InterPlay had been a personal practice of mine for under a year. I found it when I was craving the embodied wisdom of elders and the space to share my stories. With its practical forms and accessible, playful, unpretentious philosophy, InterPlay had helped me transition through harrowing circumstances and enjoy life more than ever.  Now, I wanted to share simple tools for relaxation, healing, and enjoyment with these vets.

A dozen people took their seats around the perimeter of the small, naturally-lit room. I stood before them and took a deep breath, letting it out with a loud sigh. “The best way I know to help myself relax is to take a deep breath. I invite you to take a deep breath with me.” This invitation seemed simple enough, and everyone obliged.

Optimal Health and Happiness

“I’m of the belief,” I explained as I drew five bullet-points on the whiteboard, “that to have optimal health and happiness in our lives, there are five things we need on a daily basis. The first one is to have our voice. Sighing is one of the simplest ways we can let ourselves have our voice throughout the day. So let’s take a deep breath, and let it out with a sigh. Ahhhhhhhhhhh.” The sighing got louder as people relaxed into the permission to have their voice.

“Another thing I need on a daily basis is movement. Right where you’re sitting, shake out a hand. Shake out another hand. Shake out a foot. Shake out another foot. Shake out what you’re sitting on.” Everyone participated. A few chuckled. One veteran got really into moving her rear around her chair. Within myself and around the room, I could feel the anticipation of fun growing.

It’s Not An Order; It’s An Offering

“Anything I say to you today,” I reassured them, “is just an invitation. An offering. It’s not an order. Feel free to alter or abstain from any activity.” I invited them to stand up. Everyone complied. I didn’t yet sense the major resistance I’d been warned about. “Shake yourself down into your spot…”

And with that, I took them through the InterPlay warm-up, welcoming and awakening parts of our body from head to toe. At one point a couple of veterans chose to sit down; true to my word and in keeping with InterPlay’s commitment to honoring individual choice, I simply continued leading. Soon both veterans were on their feet again, perhaps because they realized that my “do what is good for you” rhetoric was for real.

Juggling Is Good For You

After warming up, it was juggling time! I had spent 15 years teaching tens of thousands of people to juggle using slow-moving nylon scarves; yet, only recently (thanks to InterPlay) could I articulate why juggling helps heal the supposed “split” between mind and body. Neurological research increasingly confirms the integrative health benefits of juggling. Moving cross-laterally and tracing infinity sign pathways (which are the “secrets” to juggling) are movements that activate communication between left and right brains. This may help to inhibit Alzheimer’s, deal with dyslexia, and develop reading skills and higher order problem solving abilities. Turns out that juggling is not only fun, it’s really, really good for you!

Sharing Stories

Earlier, I had been cautioned by my host to expect the veterans to be self-conscious in the group because of certain judgmental personalities. However, as each individual’s nylon scarves kept falling to the floor, they just laughed at themselves and continued to enjoy learning. When I casually asked half the room to stop juggling in order to witness the other half, the vets enthusiastically applauded for one another! By slipping in this opportunity to witness and affirm their peers, we had avoided setting up a stressful paradigm of “audience” versus “performer” that might have activated judgment of self and others.

InterPlay is essentially a practice of doing stuff (with our bodies, voices, etc.) and then noticing our experience. With that in mind, I invited each veteran to take 30 seconds to share with a partner about learning to juggle. The vets were proud they had learned a new skill; they were also surprised how much of a workout they got out of three floaty scarves. With the group relaxed and confident, I then led them through a storytelling series. They got to talk about things like their favorite place in nature and a person on their mind. There were nods of agreement all around when I said, “I believe that sharing our stories — both the monumental AND the mundane — is another requirement for health and happiness.

The One Hand Dance

To close the hour, I taught the quintessential InterPlay form: the one hand dance. The beauty of the one hand dance is that anyone can do it. Raise your hand in the air and move it through space. Play with both smooth and jagged movements; make different shapes; vary the speed. For the veterans, I put on a piece of music and invited them to do a hand dance on behalf of the person who was on their mind. As partners witnessed each other, some pairs fell into deep laughter and others had tears in their eyes. One vet ended his piece with his hand over his heart. He and his partner sat in stillness for a silent minute.

And our hour was up. I invited them to take an idea or activity into their lives beyond this room. If nothing else, I hope they feel a greater sense of permission to take a deep breath and let it out with a loud sigh whenever they need a moment of grace.

A New Way to Express

Earnest “thank-you”s filled the air as the vets filed out of the room. As I packed up my scarves and sound system, I overheard Archie (one of the “resistant” vets I’d been warned about) telling his friend who hadn’t been able to attend, “You really missed something. Too bad for you, man. It was fun.” My host, who’d also overheard the comment, shook her head in disbelief.  “You won them over,” she marveled. “Even Archie.”

The other staff were impressed, too. “Not only did you give them an opportunity to relax and have fun, but there was a sense of peaceful group cohesion we desperately needed. Thank you!”

As I was leaving the facility, a veteran who had done a hand dance on behalf of his daughter, thanked me again for allowing him to have “a way to express.” Over the course of the class I had shared the belief that for optimal health, we need to be able to have our voice, our movement, our stories, our stillness, and our contact with others (otherwise known as InterPlay’s Five Recommended Daily Requirements). The invitation and opportunity to have these things, had given this vet a way to connect with his own truth.

Creating a Space of ProFUNdity

Who could have guessed that my old skill — juggling! — would integrate so seamlessly with InterPlay’s tools for holistic community development, creating an environment of ease, affirmation, and grace. The strength of these men and women, and particularly their willingness to open up when given the choice, touched and inspired me. I see now that this work has the power to be sneaky deep: to be both playful and transformational for individuals and communities. I’m looking forward to new opportunities to create a space of proFUNdity for groups, from intergenerational gatherings to corporate cultures.

Until then, I continue to work on having InterPlay’s five recommended daily requirements in my own life. Even now, sitting in this coffee shop writing, I take a deep breath, let it out with a sigh, and am grateful for this moment of grace.

Who is This Dorothy, Anyway?

Dorothy Finnigan grew up on the road, living in a motor home with her family as they taught juggling in elementary schools across the United States. She was world-schooled (her version of being home-schooled) until age 18, after which she traveled solo internationally, paying her way by juggling on the street.  After a brief stint of formal education at Yale University, Dorothy “walked out” to pursue intergenerational embodied learning. Now a graduate of InterPlay’s Life Practice Program, Dorothy is developing several workshops that integrate her skills as a juggler and a body wisdom practitioner.