“Empty your mind. Be forrmless, shapeless, like water. You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.” ~ Bruce Lee
The first time I heard this quote, I was in Rome, Italy. I was in a little restaurant cafe, trying to figure out how to get back to my hotel, which was way out on the outskirts of the city center.
I had been taking the bus from the hotel in and out of town for a few days, learning each day how unreliable the bus actually was. On some days, it arrived a little late, on most days it arrived more than an hour late. And on other days, like this particular day, it just never arrived at all.
That’s when Tariq appeared. He was a young guy staying in Italy but originally from Morocco. We started tallking and he said he was heavily into martial arts and asked if I was familiar with Bruce Lee’s famous teaching, “Be Water, My Friend.”
He propped up his phone in front of me so I could watch a video.
Bruce Lee’s voice captured my attention immediately. He spoke with such passion and fervor about the power of water, and how we were capable of being like it, or being IT, if we allowed ourselves to. I was feeling goosebumps throughout even though I wasn’t sure what to make of it all yet. Little did I know I was about to find out shortly.
As Tariq and I got to talking more, he learned about my situation and said he could give me a lift back if I wanted. Although I could have been wary of his offer, something inside was telling me I’d be safe with this guy. Besides, I had run out of solutions, knew I was quite far from where I wanted to go, and it was getting darker out. So I thought I should take the offer while I had it.
As we headed out to the front of the restaurant, I followed Tariq to what I thought would be a car, but instead, he stopped me and handed me a helmet. I just stared at its weight in my palms and then I looked up at him.
Seeing the confusion on my face, he said, “I rode here on my motorbike.”
I felt my stomach drop as I had only been on a bike once, on small streets in my home city on a much shorter distance. I’m sure Tariq could tell that this was new to me. Because, as I hesitantly got onto the bike, he took his time and was doing his utmost to make me feel comfortable. Once he started the bike, he also rode at what I assume was a lot slower speed than he normally would go, even though we were heading onto a long open road that felt like a highway.
I tried to relax and pretended to be less nervous than I was. But I’m sure that Tariq could feel the tension in me, especially with my arms clumsily wrapped around him. I was not used to the posture, the seat, the wind and the helmet, and trying to figure out what to do during the bends on the road made my stomach do more flip flops.
Just when I thought I wouldn’t be able to take it any further, I heard this voice. Whether it was my imagination, Bruce Lee’s spirit, or Tariq actually saying the words out loud through his helmet, I still don’t know. But they spoke calmly saying, “Be Water, my friend.”
In that moment, something shifted. Each part of me started to relax, bit by bit. My arms loosened, my shoulders dropped, my back settled, and I started going with the motion of the bike, and the rider in front of me. Instead of gripping Tariq’s jacket as tightly as I had been, I held him in a way that felt more natural. I also finally exhaled. I think I even smiled as it dawned on me that I was in Rome, on a beautiful night, on the back of a motorbike on an open road, and that the universe had brought me a lift home exactly when I needed it.
My fear turned into exhilaration, and the dread in my stomach turned into butterlies of adventure and gratitude. Tariq must have felt the change in me too, because he began to speed up just after turning a little to give me a little nod. And I suddenly felt as if I could finally enjoy the rest of the ride.
We arrived safely at my destination. Tariq dropped me off and wished me well. I never saw him again, and thought I had forgotten about the experience, until…
A year or two later, I was at a Bachata festival and a friend of mine asked if I wanted to join him in taking a private lesson. We’d be taking it with a well known instructor- Ryel (or Henry) of Zenzouk. Though Zouk was really new to me, I was excited because I had seen some people at the festival dancing it and I was quite intrigued by it.
We were just working on the basics, which I thought shouldn’t have been that hard. But I was not ‘feeling’ it. I wasn’t sure what was missing. Maybe I was comparing it too much to salsa, or turning my longer step into too much of a tango projection. I was unclear on what made Zouk distinct and how to express that in my body. I just felt so robotic and out of sync.
Ryel stopped me for a moment and explained how there is this fluidity to Zouk, even in the basics. That we have to find it in the basics so that we have that flow throughout the dance, right from the ground up. He demonstrated what he meant, with a kind of rise and fall in his steps, which looked like an effortless glide, and then said, “You want to feel like it’s a wave, like… water. If you can be like water when you’re dancing Zouk, that’s when you know you’ve got it.”
And it all just came flooding back. Italy, being stranded, Tariq, Bruce Lee, the motorbike, and finally letting go to be able to enjoy the ride. I wanted to scream out to Ryel, “Be Water- I know what that feels like!”
Instead, I stayed calm but was secretly excited inside. I tried the steps again. This time, I relaxed into it, and turned my stride into a wave. It felt like less effort and more like dancing. Less flat and abrupt, but more smooth and with dimension. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better. And I was so thrilled because I knew what to shoot for in the future. I also knew that Zouk was a dance I wanted to learn more of.
I made sure to take more workshops with Ryel and his partners when I could. He would talk about other elements in many of his classes- like Fire, and Earth and Air. But it was the Water element that stuck with me the most.
As soon as Zouk classes became available in Vancouver, I joined. Sometimes, I was the only student or one of a couple of students in class because it was so new to our scene. But I couldn’t stop. I even found myself dancing other dances less, and putting a lot more focus on Zouk.
Having weakness from an autoimmne condition, I was having trouble with the spinning and speed of salsa, and less motivated to go out to the tango milongas that really encouraged more formality and wearing high heels, which was too much pressure on my feet. Zouk felt less jarring, easier on my body, and involved a younger crowd with more room for casual footwear and gatherings. The music was so fun and playful, but also had this beat and flow that felt hypnotic. I just felt I could get lost in it. It reminded me of the Kizomba music I loved so much as well, but allowed for more space between partners and more traveling on the dance floor. The movements and music could be slow and gentle, or deep and intense. It felt like so many emotions could be expressed through this one dance.
It was years later that I realized that these properties of Zouk that I loved so much were part of an eastern philosophy of the Water element- that of The Five Elements of Chinese Medicine, and the Sacral Chakra.
I didn’t know anything about these energy systems when I was more heavily into Zouk. But over the past couple of years in particular, I’ve been learning about how the Five Elements in this eastern medicine- Water, Wood, Fire, Earth and Metal- are not only inside all of us, they govern how aligned and in flow we are. When our elements are in balance, we experience health, vitality, joy, and inspiration. But when we our ot of balance with our elements, we can experience pain, despression, illness or even disease. And this can be heightened even more wo when it is one of our dominant elements that gets repressed.
It turns out that one of my two dominant elements is Water. And as I learned more about it, and the Sacral Chakra associated with it, I realized how out of balance and blocked they had been for a very long time.
I don’t think that it was a coincidence that Zouk’s water like flow attracted me so much to it. In fact, looking back, I believe Zouk came into my life- maybe with the seed first planted in Italy on a motorbike, and then Ryel choosing the Water description in our private lesson- to help me get back into flow and balance again. I believe that Zouk called me to it to help me balance out my Water Element and unblock my sacral chakra.
People who have Water as one of their dominant elements are usually quite artsy and into creativite expression, like music and and painting and writing or dance. They enjoy diving deep into subjects, trying to find the meaning behind what is going on around them. They like philosophy and philosophical conversations. And they tend to take things slow, enjoying the exploration of things and playing and dreaming. When they are in a healthy balance as Waters, they pursue these interests with confidence and freedom, being productive but also feeling safe to honouring their unique art and ideas.
The Sacral Chakra, an energy center connected to the Water Element. provides this feeling of safety when it is clear and unblocked. Referred to as the Womb Chakra by Donna Eden, a pioneer in Energy Medicine, the Sacral Chakra is about our innocence and sense of trust in the world. It is located above the pelvic area and below the belly button. It is our center of being able to dream and explore our imaginations and sene of wonder at our surroundings. It is also about birthing creative ideas, feeling open to express our emotions without being shut down because of fear or shame or guilt.
However, when this innocence and childlike wonder is pushed down by society or culture, or abuse or our fear of not fititing in, our sacral chakar e can get blocked by the opinions of others. And instead of doing what we desire or what feels right for us, we can end up living for others instead of living what we truly desire. This can also put our Water element out of balance.
I know I was definitely inluenced by a strong push by culture or society to do something more practical in life. My mom was always supportive of my being creative and pursuing what makes me happy. But she was a single mom and it felt like there were many reminders around us that bills needed to be paid and we needed security and stability first. I felt surrounded by so many voices that made the arts and imagination and dreaming sound naive and pointless, just something for kids to explore but silly for adults. And that being too sensitive or showing too emotional meant you were weak or could be easily taken for granted. I would hear people saying things like, You need to toughen up and put away childish things. I also got this false idea that minorities would not be successful in artistic fields. I didn’t see many role models of female Indians who were actresses or singers or writers. I got the impression from media that you either had the talent, or you didn’t. And I just assumed I didn’t.
The thing is that I loved art, and writing, and painting and dreaming, and being sensitive felt natural to me. But I started putting those things aside, or pushing my emotions down, and also not trusting myself to make the right decisions because I didn’t want to get lost in following pursuits that seemed silly to others. I wanted to make something of myself, and help my mom and family. And I misunderstood thinking that what I loved doing wouldn’t get me there. So I left those expressive arts and ideas to the wayside.
What I didn’t realize is that when someone who has Water as their secondary dominant element isn’t allowed to, or even decides not to, express their real emotions and ideas they have inside, they actually end up ignoring huge aspects of themselves and blocking the energies inside them that are meant to flow freely.
Instead of embracing the Water in me, I tried to be more practical and tried to fit into what I thought society and others wanted. So I rushed myself against my natural rhythm trying to keep up with a faster paced life. I chose practicality over imagination. I worked so hard at things that weren’t even right for me. I spent my time people pleasing, and listening to others’ opinions, that I no longer even knew what mine were or that I even had any.
I became exausted, stressed out, and didn’t even trust my ideas or my ability to make decisions for myself. And the result was that I fell so out flow with myself that I made myself literally sick over it. My body shut down so much that I couldn’t feel parts of it. And I ended up getting an autoimmune disease that made me finally stop and look at my life and where I was putting my focus.
Over time, things began to change. I started listening to my body more, and feeling more into what were the things that really made me feel good. But there was still something missing. A bit part of me was holding back who I really was.
Zouk really trigged a rebirthing of this lost self in me. What made it unique from the other dances I was doing prior was that I believe It brought back balance to my Water Element in a much bigger way. My body was yearning for that flow of creativity and flow with life for years.
Through Zouk, I was able to literally embody being Water and flow because the shapes and movements of Zouk were so water like. From the lateral step- a large figure eight, flowing, curvy and cyclical, to the basic forward and back steps, which had a subtle rise and fall to them like a wave, to side body rolls that are often actually referred to as waves and sways. Zouk was allowing me to learn to flow within the dance and within my body and life again. It was helping me reconnect to my Water element and unblock my Sacral Chakra so that I could trust in my own ideas and create again. To become the flow, to find that natural rhythm and creativity and trust in myself again was so empowering. It gave me permission to express my emotions more freely again and brought healing to the child in me that was shut down.
The beautiful thing was that the more I found that flow and freedom through Zouk, I was able to put it into other dances. My kizomba waves, salsa arm styling, tango boleos and bachata turns became smoother. There was an overal trust and confidence and fluidity to my presence both on and off the dance floor. And my creativity in dance, in writing, and in other areas of my life felt more aligned, more open to expressing and receiving.
Rather than hiding my emotions or being scared of getting lost in imagination and dreams, I was able to celebrate the Water in me. As Dondi Dahlin, an energy medicine healer and bellydancer put it, “Waters have mastery in their heads. And if we are lucky enough, they will record it in a book, in a song, or on the big screen.”
(Thank goodness Dondi recorded that and other amazing insights about healing, dance, and all five elements in her book, The Five Elements).