Hula-Hoop Dancing for Health and Happiness

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Caroline Sanchez, RN, MSN, has one question for all of us: “Are you practicing enough play in your life?”

Sanchez, an oncology nurse for more than 10 years, has been passionate about working with cancer patients ever since her mother died from breast cancer at 47. Her close work in women’s health led her to find a passion: hoop dancing.

We spoke with Sanchez about the importance of play, why burnout shouldn’t be a bad word, and the hula hoop as a powerful plastic circle that promotes wellness. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

How did you first get involved with hula-hoop dancing?

I was living in NYC and working at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Breast Medical Oncology, which had been a dream of mine since my mother had passed away when I was 21. I had been an oncology nurse for about four years already. It was a really exciting time in my life. I really loved what I was doing, but at the same time, I was starting to feel burnt out.

On my day off, I was walking through Central Park. I noticed a man playing music, with a bunch of hula hoops sitting around him. I saw a few tourists timidly pick up the plastic circles and begin to spin them on their bodies. Eventually, they were throwing up their hands, and erupting into joy.

I hadn’t hula-hooped since I was a kid, and I was nervous to try it right away, so I sat and observed. When I finally summoned the courage to try it myself, I couldn’t get enough. I hula-hooped for probably three hours. It was movement, it was joy; it was the triumph of keeping the hula hoop up and moving. I was hooked.

How is hoop dancing an embodied movement meditation?

I believe that we are encouraged to resource mostly from our cognitive intelligence in our culture. We’re not encouraged to utilize our physical intelligence, emotional intelligence or even our intuitive intelligence. We’ve been trained to make sure we have all the cards on the table, and that we’re analyzing everything, and making sound judgments based on logic and strategy. All the decision-making processes encourage humans to crawl up into the brain, and remain there.

But there is all this body surface area that we can resource from, below the head. We can draw from those places to stay informed and remain in the body. Body play is a powerful way to drop from the thinking mind to the feeling senses and be where the heart is housed. Explaining what “embodied movement meditation” is easier when we examine each word:

  • Embodied: to be embodied, you are connecting with all of your senses
  • Movement: a primal act for all living things
  • Meditation: when you’re not thinking of the next step, or task to accomplish

Hoop dancing, for me, is an embodied movement meditation practice that drops you down from your head into your body. In these two points of opposition, you’re challenged to keep the hoop up, so the brain is focused on something, and you’re moving. All of a sudden, you’re in a joyful state.

Why are the occupational hazards of burnout and compassion fatigue an issue for nurses?

Burnout and compassion fatigue are occupational hazards within any kind of helping profession. The term burnout is a more commonly used term and refers to the mechanical aspect of the everyday grind of going to work, the different variables of your job that can burn you out. A lot of nurses leave the profession due to burnout, because they simply cannot take it anymore.

The term compassion fatigue was coined by Carla Joinson, an emergency department nurse who studied the phenomenon of something called vicarious post-traumatic stress syndrome in the early 1990s. Joinson realized nurses were experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress after witnessing the suffering of their patients. She concluded that compassion fatigue is found in how we internalize suffering. After all, the beating heart of nursing is caring, it’s what allows the healing to come through.

However, compassion fatigue is a delicate subject for nurses. Nurses don’t want to be portrayed as uncompassionate. They don’t want to be perceived as an unbalanced nurse, because that makes them vulnerable. After all, how effective is a nurse without compassion? This puts them at risk of job security, which is a huge issue.

These hazards are real, and often not talked about. It needs to be talked about, and we should be educating nurses about it, too. When it isn’t talked about, the health of nurses fails, in many areas: disease, disruption in their sleep, depression, and change in appetite. All these areas directly affect the professional life of a nurse.

What advice would you give busy nurses who struggle to make time for themselves and their health?

Self-care wasn’t included in any curriculum when I was in nursing school. Only recently, the American Nurses Association updated their nursing code of ethics to include self-care. Since then, I’ve noticed more nursing programs that are weaving self-care into their programs.

The reality is that as nurses, we have an incredible responsibility to balance the mind, body and soul. In order for us to be caring professionals, to be able to bring our patients back to wholeness, we have to tend to our own wholeness: mind, body and soul.

Dr. Nessa Coyle, a nurse practitioner with special training in advanced cancer and in end-of-life care at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center says, caring for patients is completely unsustainable if nurses do not practice self care. We have a responsibility to do the things that make us joyful in our off time. We must tend to our joy, relieve stress and come back to work rejuvenated.

Taking care of ourselves starts obviously with body movement. Incorporating play into movement is an ideal combination. Play comes in the sense of creativity: being imaginative with your body and your mind. We live in a culture where it’s acceptable to not have time for play. But play needs to be a part of the continuum from birth to death. Play is a very easy, yet powerful, way to get yourself to balance.

Bottom line: In order to stay in the game of nursing, you have to prioritize your own self-care.

What other types of play do you encourage for adults?

Hoop dancing is a way to create a conversation about infusing our life with play. I’m not discounting that there are moments of great suffering in our lives. But knowing that movement brings you joy can help in moments of sadness or anger.

The hula hoop is a plastic circle that brings people into the conversation of play, of play history and even the psychology of play. When children come up to hula hoop, they pick it up, and they automatically start moving their bodies in all kinds of shapes and ways, and they’re not concerned with how they look. They immediately want to explore this playful state. I hope these conversations ask adults to question: What brings me joy?

Play is really about joy. That’s the purpose. Dr. Stuart Brown from the National Institute for Play defines the different properties of play, which are subjective to different people:

  • Play is purposeless: It’s done for its own sake.
  • Play is voluntary: No one forces play.
  • Play has inherent attraction: It’s fun and makes you feel good.
  • Play has no limits: It’s free of time.
  • Play encourages a diminished consciousness of self: You don’t worry what you look like.
  • Play has improvisational potential: Play is ready to break the rules.
  • Play has a continuation desire: You want to keep playing.

What are the health benefits of hoop dancing?

Hoop dancing helps your body self-regulate. Instead of holding on to stress, you shake it off. An added bonus is that hula-hooping can burn anywhere from 200 to 300 calories an hour. But that’s just scratching the surface, because, really it’s not about the result. It’s not just an exercise — the word exercise makes me cringe. It’s simply about movement, and connecting with the body. It’s about being fully present in your joy.

Ultimately, self-care is self-love. For women especially, it’s hard to allow yourself to love yourself, because women are conditioned to make others a priority before themselves. But that is something that we have to learn to unlearn. We need to learn that it’s OK to give ourselves permission to be human.

Hula hooping allows me to be more joyful, to sense more, and feel more. I’m more sensitive and available for healing with my breast cancer patients.

If you take your hula hoop to work, where do you keep it?

Oh, at my desk, of course! In fact, I handmade all my hula hoops while writing my master’s thesis. I’ve also surprised all the nurses at the clinic with their very own handmade hula hoop on their birthdays.

What I love most about having the hula hoops around me at work is that it brings up that conversation of play. Most adults are scared to try to hula-hoop, worried that others will judge them, but once they start, their fears are soon quieted.

The hula hoop represents so much more than just movement and play: It’s ultimately resourcing from our imagination and creativity and putting it into movement. It teaches us how to take joy and be actionable with it throughout the day. In fact, I imagine that I have a hula hoop around me at all times. Thinking like that reminds me that I have a safe space to protect my joy, practice my joy, and share my joy all day long.

Keep up with the latest in Caroline Sanchez’s hula-hooping world.

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