Conditioning of Mindbody
Dr. Kim Chandler Vaccaro, RDE
Illustrations and video by Emily Yancey
Kim Chandler Vaccaro
Additional editing by Mary Jane Gavenda
Total Health Publications
Full disclosure: I want to change the world, or at least I want to act in a way that I am proud of towards my students. My goal is to instill them with the confidence to explore, play, honor, co-exist peacefully and actualize their potential. I used to be happy just to know that since I was a dance teacher I helped students develop their imagination, and where there was an imagination there was possibility. But the new science of neuroplasticity is revealing that we can do far more. We can change the structure of our brains. Imagination is magical and necessary but we can also develop mindbody-conditioning programs that produce integrated, balanced, confident, compassionate, flexible yet stable students. So I have to. As an educator and human being I must act in a way that is responsible and ethical, which means that I have to change the methodologies I have used for 35 years and move forward. Combining the wisdom of many of my teachers produced such a practice. CoMBo nditions the inddy, promoting integration, health and happiness.
/Health and Integration through Contemplative Movement
Part One – Myelination
Part Two – Practice
Contemplative Movement Practice
Contrology Core work
Pilates and Taiqiquan
Riding the Waves
Part Three – Transformation
CoMBo: Modern Dance
Let them Play! CoMBo for Kids
Teens/First Time Learners
CoMBo in Education
Changing the World Through Contemplative
Resources and References
Editor’s Note: To view the videos you must be connected to the Internet. If you are reading and e-book version (epub, pdf, etc) merely clink the link. Allow 7 to 10 seconds. If you are reading a printed book, copy the link address into the address bar on your browser.
Every morning before I get out of bed I do a morning mantra. It helps me to be in the right frame of mind to approach each day with humor, joy, excitement, and peace.
I am grateful for the time to sit, and to Rider University for allowing me to take this journey; for the A [_ team – my husband and kids- for putting up with me and to my ] _*teachers* who helped me cherish the environment, my extended family and friends, the undergraduates who challenge me everyday like little Buddhas, and the renewed love I have for my work.
CoMBo is a holistic movement system that integrates ideas from neuroscience, Pilates, yoga, T’ai Chi Ch’uan (herein referred to as Taiqiquan, which is pronounced the same,) Dance Movement Therapy, Alexander Technique, Body-Mind Centering, Ideokinesis, various dance forms and many of the somatic modalities that were introduced in the 20th century.
To that end I am grateful to all of the teachers, dancers, researchers and institutions that I have encountered on this journey to develop this material: , , [+ Tracy Goldenberg+], Larry Welsh, [+ Anne Green Gilbert+], , , Steven Sachs, Stephanie Golski, Alma Hawkins, Wayne Vaccaro, ,* and especially all of the students who have helped me learn, understand and pursue this path. Their thoughts pepper this work. Quotes with only first names are from my Rider University students in the fall of 2014.
CoMBo conditions both the mind and body. (From this point forward I am going to refer to both as “Mindbody.” (By virtue of the fact that we receive all information through the body and have nervous systems throughout entire being, the body and mind have to be integrated. It is time for shift in how we understand the process that we call mind and its embodiment.) It begins with a contemplative movement practice that takes the focus fully inward. Concentration is directed to open the gates of energy in the body (the joints) and release the soft tissue of the muscles, ligaments and tendons. When connected to the center of weight, and aware of energy and tension, the focus goes towards deep core work. Once the body is fully warm and prepared through strengthening the major muscle groups, a movement experience follows that recognizes the different rhythms of the body through choreography and improvisation. Along the way great care is taken to choose steps and movements that can create neural pathways that build links between disparate aspects of the brain and body. Together, this system builds coordination, balance, flexibility, strength, musicality, and confidence. Most importantly it helps to integrate the central nervous system, create important neural pathways between action and thought, and leaves a feeling of lightness, strength, capability and joy. The effects are immediate and long lasting and it can be adapted to any age group or level of ability.
Dear Dr. Kim, I’ve really enjoyed taking your CoMBo classes. It is extremely relaxing and releases the tension in my body every time …
These classes always make me feel so much better physically, mentally, and emotionally.
This book is for both potential CoMBo teachers and students to explore the concepts that inspired the system and to gain further knowledge about the classes and the methodology. Within are quotes from students, links to videos and websites, and references to the science and the theories behind the activities, exercises, coaching, and intention of the entire experience.
Through the developing science of neuroplasticity and the age of digital and molecular imaging it is now clear that some exercises, done with a particular intention and progression, can actually make us feel better, more open to learning, more empathetic, and integrated. How can we not include them in our development?
Please explore all of the suggested links and resources. There is a wealth of incredible information and excellent work being done in the field of mindfulness. I recommend beginning with Jon Kabat-Zinn, who may be responsible for changing how we look at health and wellness in the 21st century. His research, books, tapes and workshops MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) have been instrumental in changing our understanding about the immune system, and the nature of the mind, emotions and reality. MBSR is currently practiced in over 700 hospitals worldwide (Cooper, 2015.)
/CoMBo is my offering to enhance the mindbody connection. Let’s connect what we know and feel good!
Welcome to CoMBo! I expect if you are reading this book you are interested in a mindful approach to health. CoMBo has the potential to change how you feel. What if you could do exercises that would make you feel more relaxed, open and coordinated with a balanced nervous system? The work of Dr. Dan Siegel, a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, reveals that the mind is fully embodied, embedded and inter-relational with the body (2010). By performing movements in both improvised and prescribed sequences we can change how our bodies are wired, make new neural connections and myelinate neural pathways that will make us feel centered and grounded without getting injured. Through practice, over time we can actually change the structure of our brains and have more control over our minds.
CoMBo teaches heightened mindbody awareness, thereby over time instills clarity, focus and confidence. It can help with the daily functioning of our lives from schoolwork to housework. If introduced into educational settings it could make all learning easier AND MORE FUN!
/Combo is a joyful approach to learning about ourselves. Public education has been primarily focused on rational thought, disengaged from the body and devaluing active learning. We are taught little about how our anatomy functions. Our lack of physiological knowledge can be compared to “driving around in a body without a license,” as my husband puts it, or knowing very little about how the entire machine operates. CoMBo addresses this by using introspection, self-reflection, and mindful thought-to-action. If it were introduced into public education, it could help children become more confident and able to actualize their potential, but anyone at any age can go through this system and discover their possibilities.
Moving has always made me happy … but CoMBo has the ability to make everyone who does it happy. How? By moving from the inside. I was first introduced to this idea in a movement improvisation class at UCLA taught by Alma Hawkins. Her methodology led the students through sensing, feeling, imaging, and transforming and were a part of my recognition that dance could be revealing and healing. When allowed to explore these concepts in a nonjudgmental environment dancers became more secure and confident, promoting a deeper sense of creativity and a deeper sense of fulfillment. Hawkins was extremely influential in the development of Dance Movement Therapy where she and the other pioneers were intuiting what neuropsychologists are now understanding: that connecting the brain and body through thoughtful action can be integrating and balancing, a place from which true growth can happen.
At UCLA I also encountered Zen Buddhism for the first time and used what I learned about mindfulness and chanting to get me through many years of professional dancing, teaching dance and graduate degrees in Dance and Education. This understanding of the potency of dance propelled me through the first 30 years of teaching in higher education. While teaching, the investigation of the question of “What is optimal performance?” produced books and papers on being “mentally prepared” for class (1994), “Imagery and Visualization” (1997) and “getting students’ attention” (NDEO 2009). Looking at all of the dancers I had trained it occurred to me that focus, not talent, was the most important aspect of an individual reaching their highest ability. In 2010 when a friend led me to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s classic book Wherever You go There you Are all of the theories, somatic practices, research and teaching I had experienced began to coalesce. I gradually began to realize that teaching students to be contemplative about their work, to be mindful, to focus inward and specifically to connect anatomy with feeling could be the most important aspect of their learning. In 2013, Rider University granted me a four-month research leave to immerse myself in these ideas at Naropa University. Returning from that sabbatical I immediately rethought every syllabus I taught and revised them to reflect what I had learned. CoMBo is the fruit of that labor.
CoMBo is not a new fad or passing gimmick — it is way to understand ourselves so we can more fully actualize into our potential. It is blending what we know to be true and beginning with the most basic and simple of ideas: how to connect mind and body through focus, attention and intention. Sometimes that means slowing down enough to notice what and how we feel. While the concepts in this book have been known separately for some time, CoMBo puts the ideas together. CoMBo slows down just enough to make sure the participants are not only awake or conscious but they are aware of what they are doing.
I would describe CoMBo to someone who has never done it as a strengthening program that incorporates elements of meditation, modern [dance], Pilates and ballet. It will increase a person’s ability to connect the breath to movement, execute movements fully, develop core and muscle strength, and improve posture. At the end of a long period of taking this class, a person is able to feel a connection with their body and mind that they have never felt before.
CoMBo is different than yoga or fitness dance or Pilates. It is a carefully analyzed series of contemplative movements in a sequence that optimizes the value of each moment and motion. It is a progression that makes sense: movements that encourage the growth of new dendrites in a range of dynamics from breathing to chaos to stillness. There is a connectedness that is established and carries throughout the varied activities – so much that it seems to be easier than it actually is. In fact, my husband, after taking his first class said, “It was good but is was so short.”
/In fact, he had just done 1½ hours of meditation, core work, Vinyasa and dancing! It felt short because it progressed in a logical way – from the inside out, and — and this is the key — he never lost focus or the connection to his body. Hawkins suggested this sensing, imaging, feeling, and listening to our bodies has a transforming ability to make us feel engaged and whole. The progression of the class he took kept him so involved in what he was doing that time passed very quickly.
I have never seen people as smiling and open as when they leave a CoMBo class. It is a balanced experience and creates balanced nervous systems. It does so by creating and myelinating new neural connections between action and thought. Myelination is the increase of the fatty sheath that insulates axonal lengths of neurons. According to Dr. Siegel myelination increases the neural firing and thus the effective communication among interconnected neurons (2012, pg. A1-53.) Repetition thickens the layers of Myelin sheath that surround nerve fibers with an insulating material that increase the speed and efficiency of electrical and chemical impulses through the neural pathways.
Just as we can do multiple repetitions to increase the strength of a muscle, repetitions also thicken the myelin sheaths that make the transmission of information along the axon quicker and more efficient. Once the pathways are established and myelinated, it is difficult to lose. For instance the awareness of how to move with the sacrum released, head floating upward, and all of the gates of energy open becomes an intelligence that can be carried into all aspects of living, myelinating those pathways even more. Then everything becomes easier, more efficient, and lighter and without the strain, tension and subsequent soreness that is prevalent in many workouts.
Joy is the absence of pain. CoMBo is a technique that lets go of the modern-day mantra “no pain, no gain.” It aspires to produce no pain with great gains! Once learned everything you do (from painting the kitchen cabinets to kayaking to dancing to gardening to relaxing or driving) becomes more enjoyable. CoMBo creates an atmosphere conducive to learning. The participants are coached through slow, focused, centering activities. They are led to feel grounded and strong, yet open and receiving. They are guided to let go of what they don’t need and to tune into the simple aspect of doing. They are led through exercises that send information across hemispheres of the brain and axes of the body. Then and only then — after this highly suggestive, open, joyful, grounded, centered place is attained — can the more strenuous muscle activations and contractions begin.
My experience with CoMBo has been a great one. The connection between mind and body is crucial … Not only is it beneficial in the sense of connection, but it is also beneficial because it helps relieve stress and anxiety. Because you are fully aware of the present, you’re allowing yourself to escape from the negativities around you. CoMBo helped me connect and understand each movement my body made, as well as relax and enjoy what I’m doing. It is an amazing experience and I would recommend it to anyone.
Awareness is everything. In a place of awareness one can fully articulate and differentiate one or several muscle groups while keeping the rest fluid and released. Targeting the Powerhouse (the set of torso muscles Mr. Pilates focused on in his regime) in a mindful way while noticing how much tension is being used elsewhere, is analogous to being able to separate thoughts, emotions, ideas and feelings. That distinction brings clarity to all endeavors. And, once you’ve gone inward, deeply, then other muscle groups can be approached fearlessly without compromise.
My personal experience is that once the neural pathway is established it does not go away, but is re-enforced and used through all other daily activities. Once connections have been made joints stay open, muscles remain released, and there is a general sense of joy and well-being.
If you are beginning a teacher-training program all of the readings listed here are required and should be completed as soon as possible. You should also begin a contemplative practice of your own to better guide others. However this book is also a tool for anyone who wants to delve deeper into the science, methodology and pedagogy behind the CoMBo system.
I am a dancer so my investigation into the science of the brain began with a quest to find out what was actually happening in a dancer’s mind and brain during performance. That initial quest produced a series of performance videos, three of which have links in this volume.
I created this one, The Neuron Dance, with Alexis Diaz, a senior Rider University student at the time with a double major in elementary education and dance. She was frustrated at the amount of testing she witnessed in elementary education classrooms when she was “in the field” for her Education classes, and was looking for ways to really educate rather than merely teach to the test.” Together we researched different areas of the brain and which parts were working while dancing. While we choreographed movement specific to each part of the brain, in actuality the brain functions completely inter-relationally between parts, the mind being the process of information relay.
by Kim Chandler Vaccaro and Alexis Diaz
The sources suggested on next pages will allow you to explore this much further and a cursory search of the Internet will reveal multitudes of studies done on mindfulness and its positive affect on almost everything we do. In 2014 alone, just a few outstanding articles and websites I recommend are:
• [+ Biology Research for Nursing+] acknowledges the effects of mindfulness training on symptoms of depression and may have positive effects on cell longevity.
• Points to the reduction of fear in breast cancer.
• [+ National Institute of Health+] , which suggests that practicing meditation, can help reduce stress and promote psychological health, well-being and resilience.
• [+ Journal of American Medical Association+]. details the successful treatment of substance abuse through mindfulness practices.
/ Increasingly, mindfulness and meditation are being regarded as positive, non-drug based therapies for a wide range of illnesses by teaching people to notice and control their thoughts, emotions and subsequently chemical and electronic reactions to life’s events. In fact the Yale Medical School has an entire that “conducts research on the science of stress and translates new findings to personalized clinical care to optimize your potential and function.”
At the Stress Center one can participate in traditional cognitive therapies along with yoga, nutritional counseling, breathing techniques and free introductory classes in MBSR. MBSR is the system designed by Jon Kabat-Zinn that is being used worldwide to treat all kinds of stress related problems such as disease, addiction, depression, and at the same time promote balance and well being.
Imagery and visualization are techniques that have been used by dancers and athletes for decades to achieve optimal performance. Both resemble mindfulness as they take attention inward to a singular focus and control the mind’s thoughts and reactions so the actors are not hijacked by stress before or during performance. Again there are many sources which discuss this such as Anne Garretts’ article [+ “How Mindfulness Helps Athletic Performance” The Daily Burn+]) Clearly the idea of mindfulness as a way to optimize health and performance is in the mainstream and should be a part of any holistic movement system.
/ A CoMBo teacher should have enough experience in contemplative practices so that he or she could suggest to each student what method would be useful to get their focus into their bodies. Brittany Willoughby (2011) describes contemplative practices as those that cultivate the quality of mind that includes the ability to pay attention, focus, compassion, patience and generosity. There are myriad ways to approach this, but to really understand what makes something “meditation” or “contemplative” is essential, as is the creativity to continually develop new pathways. The methodology is to find an experience that will take an individual from the external to the internal and then keep that focus through a series of articulate, strenuous core exercises and on into the strengthening and movement aspects of the class.
A teacher’s own practice, could be a variety of configurations and be inspired by many different aspects of movement integration available to us. The teacher must be introspective enough to know what the CoMBo practice feels like so he or she can understand how the practice affects other bodies. Self-regulating and tracking is very important for teachers because if they get anxious and become a cortisol factory, they shut down when they need to be open and present for the students. There are many ways to access a focused, connected state, but without a deep personal experience, it may be difficult to create activities for varied populations. (For more information on how to become a teacher contact Kim Chandler Vaccaro at or . This text provides only an outline and a guide of where and how to get the information needed to be able give, and take, a class that conditions the inter-relational mindbody.)
/The following Annotated Bibliography is suggested for the casual reader and required reading for a rising teacher. All of these texts have played a role in the development of the CoMBo system. They are in alphabetical order by author.
Devananda, Swarmi Omkari
Nestled in the hills of southern Boulder, Colorado is the where many yogis and swarmis live, raise food and alpacas, and teach yoga. They walk the walk there extending compassion through out their community. Their facility is beautiful with spectacular views of the Flatirons. Swarmi Omkari Devananda’s book Yoga in the Shambhava Tradition (2009) is a very clear presentation of their philosophy and methodology, joyous in its simple approach to the union of mindbody and full of heart.
Eric Franklin is the author of many books on using imagery for technique and performance. In Beautiful Body, Beautiful Mind (2009) this mindbody expert calls on self-reflection and self-talk to create a positive mental attitude and introduces mental and physical techniques to deal with stress, pain and emotions. A very respected dancer and researcher his is used and taught worldwide and his website enables one to see his work in practice. I have used Franklin’s advice in my teaching, especially as it applies to some imagery and visit his website often for inspiration.
Gallagher, Sean P. and Kryzanowska, Romana
The Pilates Method of Body Conditioning coauthored Sean P. Gallagher, and Romana Kryzanowska, explains the exercises Joe Pilates developed to strengthen the Powerhouse, the combination of the muscles of the torso, especially the deep core muscle and to increase flexibility in the rest of the body. At one point it was almost only used by professional dancers (Martha Graham and George Balanchine were devotees) but has become one of the most renowned methods for specific kinds of core work. Romana Kryzanowska, was among the foremost disciples and teachers of Joseph Pilates. My training came directly from this lineage and while CoMBo is not Pilates, it borrows some of its ideas for its deepest core work. It is important to know that Joseph Pilates never copyrighted the system, so there are several methodologies that use the Pilates name but may not necessarily be grounded in the basic fundamentals of the original technique.
Gilbert, Anne Green
Brain Compatible Dance (2006) and the Brain Dance (2003) DVD by Anne Green Gilbert are invaluable for anyone teaching movement to children. One of the foremost children’s dance educators in the world, her method is based on the neuroscience of the brain and developmental theories including Bartenieff Fundamentals. She is artistic Director of [+ The Creative Dance Center+] in Seattle, Washington and her work truly speaks to the whole child acknowledging the need for movement, creativity, rhythm and socialization in children’s lives.
Dancing to Learn: The Brain’s Cognition, Emotion and Movement (2015) draws upon “ the current knowledge about the brain, evolutionary biology and culture” to illustrate the choreography of the brain does while dancing. She makes connections among an array of disciplines, asking: “what is the evidence for the lived body in dance, and what does that mean?” Hanna restates her assertion that dance is a language and uses the same cognitive processes as other languages. She describes dance a “super-exercise” that extends to cognition and emotion, promoting neurogenesis and the release of BDPN a factor that supports learning and memory; and dance as a therapeutical endeavor.
Green Gilbert understood Dr. Carla Hannaford, whose 2005 was a catalyst for CoMBo. In clear, precise, scientifically accurate terms Hannaford explores factors that influence learning, including stress and neurochemicals such as cortisol. This book should be required for anyone teaching children anywhere. Everything begins with movement — even the tiniest firing of a chemical response in the brain. Hannaford is able to show why that matters in learning.
As mentioned previously, UCLA dance professor and dance movement therapist, Alma Hawkins, Moving From Within (1991) had an amazing influence on my understanding of the art of dance. Her class presented an opportunity for dancers to go inside and find inspiration by sensing, imaging and playing with the body and movement. The book gives an idea of concepts she presented and how she led students through discovery of the creative process. Much of it is tied to feeling and interoception. (Note: introspection is self-analysis of one’s own thoughts; Interoception, sometimes used synonymously is awareness of internal bodily states.)
This book has already paid respect to Jon Kabat-Zinn, and will do so again in the coming notes. changed the way I viewed the ability of the mind to regulate itself and to incorporate mindfulness into a life. In fact this book had a remarkable effect on my level of happiness which he and others prove can be faciliatated by mindfulness practices. He is the author of a multitude of books and DVDs and can be seen on YouTube in Bill Moyer’s special Healing and the Mind. His website at could lead one on a journey of discovery.
If you have never taken Taiqiquan, you should. When led by a master teacher such as Larry Welsh of Naropa University, Taiqiquan can be life-changing as you learn the relationship to dance, life, health, listening and empathy. Based on the work of Welsh’s classes demonstrated and discussed Cheng’s Tzu’s Thirteen Treatises on T’ai Chi’ Ch’uan (1991.) Here you find guidance that helps ground you to the earth and connect to heaven above, to understand Yin and Yang, and to cultivate life energy or Chi. CoMBo was deeply influenced by the many ideas within the Taiqiquan practice. Contrary to popular thought, it is more than a martial art or exercise. Taiqiquan when done with attention, intention and connection to the group teaches one to connect with community, to foster patience, and develop the ability to listen to another’s energy.
Contrology is actually the name [+ Joseph Pilates+] gave to his physical fitness system. In Return to Life through Contrology (1945) you can read his philosophy. It was renamed Pilates after his death. His tenets: core strength, precision without tension, fluidity, and a mind-body connection guide every aspect of a CoMBo class. A nice history and related readings are on the Balanced Body website.
Russell Simmons is happy and wants you to share his enthusiasm. His 2014 offers a practical, simple to read argument of why and how quieting the mind through mindfulness meditation can put one on the road to happiness. He’s done a lot of good reading, studying the latest science and working with top teachers in the field. His simple, fun book is easy to read and an incredible inspiration. He influenced my understanding and appreciation of “Stillness” immensely.
The books above offer a wealth of information on how to begin a practice, on understanding energy, the science that explains how important movement is to learning, and how to use imagery, visualization and knowledge of what is really core or center. Their wisdom will guide you to a faithful contemplative practice, which will bring you clarity, stress relief, and fodder for class design. But it is the actual doing that creates and strengthens neural pathways.
DK! I just had my first yoga/kettle bell fusion class since getting home, and I made a wonderful discovery. Everything was so much more easeful than it had ever been. I was achieving precision without tension more than ever before! I swear this is because of a year of class with you! Thanks you so much!
Through a well thought-out progression, a CoMBo class enables a student to be grounded, centered, focused and without the self-doubts common to many when working out. Through the conscious practice of breathing CoMBo promotes increased capacity for oxygen intake, focus and warmth meaning strenuous exercise can occur with less chance of injury. Doing core exercises designed so only specific muscles activate promotes stability as strong cores enable efficient, rigorous work. By opening up the joints and gates of energy one is able to reach their full range of motion. Activities that cross hemispheres and axes increase balance and confidence.
If CoMBo is done as a regular practice all of the neural connections responsible for all of the above are myelinated and will work more efficiently and swiftly. Then one begins to feel energized, balanced, centered, coordinated, and strong (hence confident) most of the time. When one has these attributes they can listen better and have increased potential for empathy and compassion. The aforementioned texts will help explain how this works. Now lets look at what you actually do in a CoMBo class.
One of the mantras I use with various pranayamas is based on the following dharma wisdom.
Faith in life is necessary, that gentleness, kindness, sensitivity and compassion are necessary in order to deal with this life … that one must make an Effort every day to practice clarity and focus … that one brings mindfulness awareness to the mind, the breath and the body … and *Aversion*, *a*lways remember *v*irtually *e*veryone deserves *s*ympathetic joy for their *i*ndividuality and *o*riginality … *n*ever attack anything
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• The Mindbody is exposed to how it can be conditioned by the revolutionary combination of meditation, Pilates and dance. • This video illustrated book begins with contemplative movement practice to take your focus inward. Concentration is directed to open the gates of energy in the body, release the soft tissue and connect to the core. Once the body is fully prepared through strengthening the major muscle groups, different rhythms of the body are explored through choreography and improvisation. Selected combinations build coordination, balance, flexibility, strength, musicality, and confidence. This "CoMBo" method helps to integrate the central nervous system, create important neural pathways between action and thought, and leaves a feeling of lightness, capability and joy. The effects are immediate and long-lasting, and it can be adapted to any age group or level of ability.