The Liberated Life Guide: Hula as an Awareness Practice

The Liberated Life Guide: Hula as an Awareness Practice

on Apr 23, 2013 in Spirit | 0 comments

Pele's Heartbeat / photo: Brad Lewis

Pele’s Heartbeat / photo: Brad Lewis

This post is part of the Liberated Life Project series on awareness practices.
For a guide to the other posts in this series, see this article.


One of the first times I can remember my heart being broken was when I was eight years old.

My mother, sister, and I were sitting on our porch on a warm Hawaiian afternoon. Something happened – I think that my mother scolded me. A deep sadness welled up in my heart and overflowed into large tears that slowly ran down my cheeks. I sat still, teardrops streaming. My mother laughed. She cupped her hands under my chin and said, “Oh look at the crocodile tears, I’m catching them.”

It seemed as though she was laughing at me. I felt frustrated and the tears kept flowing. For a long time after that I held a grudge against my mother.

About five years ago, I was at my parents’ home in beautiful Kukaiau helping care for my dying father. Cancer had metastasized to his bones and he was in a lot of pain. It was one of his bad days. My little 8-year old nephew Bruddah did something playful and unexpectedly startled my father. Dad yelled at him in a very harsh way.

Bruddah ran into the bedroom. I found him sobbing on the bed. His little heart was broken and he looked so vulnerable. I found myself wanting to laugh, though not at him. The impulse seemed so incongruous. I knew Bruddah was in pain but he also looked so adorable.

Suddenly I remembered when I was eight and how I felt when I thought my mother laughed at my tears. This recollection restrained my laughter. We sat together and I gently told him that Grampa didn’t mean to yell at him like that. It was only because Grampa was sick and in pain. I reassured him that Grampa loved him very much.

I also thought twice about that “grudge” I held against my mother.

Cultivating Courage

Learning the ways of the heart takes courage and tenacity. Standing your ground or staying and opening to pain is a challenge.

We think running away from physical or emotional pain will make it go away. We distract ourselves with our electronic devices. We develop habits that don’t help us like replaying the painful scenario ad infinitum and blaming others. This dead-end inner conversation only prolongs the pain.

Standing your ground with pain cultivates a fearless heart.
Meditation is one way to practice staying when the impulse is to run. And this courage builds over time. I find when strong feelings like anger arise, it’s useful to take time and feel it in your body. This helps short-circuit the story in your mind. Feel your heart pounding, your palms sweating, your head feeling thick, your eyes narrowing. And give yourself some empathy and  kindness. Acknowledge it’s a difficult situation and you’re having a hard time.

Take a break. Go for a walk. Be attentive and mindful about your feet walking on the great earth. For a few minutes, focus on your breathing. Focus especially on the out-breath. Come back to your body and check-in and see how it’s doing. All of this helps to ground you and gives you time to re-balance.

Meditation strengthens your courage to be open to pain and see clearer. Eighteen years ago I went to Auschwitz on the first Zen Peacemaker Bearing Witness Retreat. I never would have gone to such a terrifying place had I not started to meditate for a couple of years earlier. At Auschwitz I began to learn about forgiveness and letting go. In Poland people say that “a broken heart is a whole heart.” Feeling a broken heart is a way that we can discover resilience and compassion.

The Wisdom of the Body… and Hula

It’s about the wisdom of the body and of the heart and its relationship to the earth.  Perhaps that’s why I love hula so much.  We learn in hula to become embodied or aware of our body in space and time and our relationship with nature or our environment.  This is the outer work of hula.  Our bodies love to dance and move.  And pretty soon we find that if we want to keep dancing, we have to take care of our bodies through massage and rest.

Hula is about learning specific dances that has been passed down through a lineage and genealogy.  These dances are about life.  The more aware that we are of our bodies and how it moves, the easier it is to learn the movements.  Regular practice then grounds the dance in our muscle memory as well as improves coordination of mind and body.  By mastering the technique through practice, we can be free with our expression.

The inner work with our mind and heart are equally important.  Meditation is critical for this aspect.  Life is our practice ground for humility, patience, kokua (generosity of spirit), forgiveness, courage and respect – all important hula values.  Pervading this sacred dance of body, heart, and mind is an expansive aloha (love) that’s indivisible from who we are.

Anyone can dance the hula.  In Hawaii you’ll find children, men, women and elders dancing.  If you are interested in hula, find someone who teaches it and try it out.  A kumu hula is a title for a master teacher of the hula.  There are many kumu hula in Hawaii, on the West Coast, less as you go east.  There are also many kumu hula in Japan and Mexico.  A kumu hula has gone through years of training and special ceremonies.

There are also hula teachers who have not gone through any ceremonies but had the training passed down to them from their family like their mothers or grandmothers.  Or there are teachers who have studied a long while with their teachers and have no formal credential.  In any case, see if you resonate with the teacher.  If you like their style and who they are as a person continue to study with them and practice regularly.


JuneJune Kaililani Tanoue is a Kumu Hula (hula teacher) as well as a Zen priest in Chicago, IL. Find out more about June on the ZLMC website:  as well as on her hula website:

The amazing photo at the top of this post was taken by G. Brad Lewis.


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