What Makes Laura Sarah Dowdall Tick
In ‘What Makes You Tick’ I get the chance to pick the brains of some inspirational people from all walks of life, in the hope that by sharing ideas we can continue to progress, push our limits, and inspire each other.
“I always find it a difficult question to answer; Who am I? We so often define ourselves by the roles we play, but we’re so much more than that. It’s the answers to these very questions which I look to explore through the work that I do, which I suppose is quite diverse in terms of artistic expression.”
Laura Sarah Dowdall is an innovative dance artist with a background in drama, classical ballet and contemporary dance, a certified life coach, healing practitioner, somatic movement and yoga teacher, and the founder of Healing Yoga.
She is ‘Dancer in Residence’ at Rua Red for 2017, and has been selected for the ‘Next Generation Artist Award’ for 2017. Her project Running Blind, developed from her engagement with the blind and deaf-blind communities, invites new perspective and is a “visceral dialogue of the senses, an immersion into a tactile, imagined and experienced presence.”
She studied international commerce and Italian in UCD, and international negotiation, conflict resolution and cross-cultural change at Harvard University.
“I’ve been dancing since I was four, it’s always been a part of who I am. I naturally had a high sensitivity to the energy of the people and world around me, and an innate joy and appreciation of the smaller things in life. These aspects of my personality have led me towards the world of the arts and holistic wellbeing.”
Laura was kind enough to take the time to share her insights and experiences.
Would you say you are more introverted, or extroverted, and how does it come through in what you do?
It’s kind of ironic when you’re working in the performing arts, people might assume that you are an extrovert, but usually it’s seldom the case. I would say a part of me is extroverted in that I love working with people, facilitating group experiences and obviously performing. But then I don’t really see that as being extroverted, rather it’s a way of sharing something, and allowing it to become something bigger, something beyond me.
In order to share and communicate with people I need to be open and receptive, but to do this I need to be inwardly connected to truthfully express myself. Time alone to be creative, to meditate, and be in nature is essential for me to sustain an awareness of my thoughts and feelings and support my personal development. It’s funny, I think it takes the confidence of an extrovert to be comfortable with being an introvert, but really I don’t believe in labelling.
The most important thing for me, is to be authentic. At any given moment I will think, how do I feel?; where is the focus of my energy?; what do I need right now?
Just as our body is constantly changing and renewing, whether we realise this or not, our mind and emotional state also shifts depending on what we’re experiencing. When we limit ourselves to thinking and moving in one way we pigeon-hole or label ourselves as being this one type. Staying open to the changing dynamic of every moment keeps us fresh and adaptable to choose.
What’s the importance of being authentic, and what does it mean to you?
Being authentic is my most important value. It means being really honest with yourself- learning to observe what it is that you’re feeling, and from that awareness being able to make choices. And in the work that I do, I feel that being authentic means being present in the moment, being fully aware of the body, and being able to really connect with the people that you are performing to, or working with, whether it’s in a workshop or one-to-one with a client.
If I’m authentic in my communication, which sometimes requires being vulnerable and always requires being open-minded, then that sincerity helps others relax and bring forth their true self. So much more value can come from the exchange as a result of being authentic; it can offer a deeper learning experience, and greater opportunities for personal growth.
You mentioned meditation and mindfulness, do you have a morning routine that helps you get into that authentic frame of mind?
Movement is really important to me; detox the body to detox the mind is a phrase I regularly talk about in my workshops. I drink plenty of water, with lemon usually, and I would do a moving meditation incorporating yoga, dance, somatic movement and breath work. After this I feel more present in my body and my mind feels more accessible and focused.
An essential practice for me is developing patience and self-awareness through meditation; to grow requires commitment and we need to appreciate our efforts, and be aware when we’re critical of our set-backs. When I recognise a negative pattern or thought, I try dig it up and spend time with it so that learning can occur. Meditating allows me to observe my thinking and give space for understanding and often a solution arises. In this way I am practicing being mindful and honest with myself and in relation to others.
My favourite way to meditate is by lighting a candle and focusing on it. I might do ten minutes to let the mind settle and observe the thoughts and then two more sessions of ten minutes to just open and allow space. I break it up so that I can track if I have lost focus. I always feel the instant benefit from Pranayama (breath-work); my favourite practices are Nadi Shodana, where alternating the side of the body you inhale from either energises or calms the nervous system, or simply counting the breaths to calm the mind, and also using hand mudras (gestures that unlock the flow of energy in the body) to expand my breathing in different parts of the body.
The point of my daily practice is that I am grounded in a sense of awareness that supports my wellbeing and interactions that day. Our experience is our responsibility and if you want to grow you have to work from the inside out.
You talk about continuous learning being important. I ask everyone about their favourite books. What is the best book you’ve read and why?
It’s hard to think of just one, I’ll mention more than one! I think The Prophet is an amazing read. It really opens up perspective and creates space for different pathways of thinking; it injects emotion into the heart, and emotion reveals so much about our beliefs, fears and expectations- most of which have been absorbed and learned rather than consciously chosen.
Nowadays, life is hectic. We feel pressured by time, constant advances in technology, and an over-focus on doing and achieving. I think we are largely disconnected from traditions that give us strong foundations and we are missing the knowledge sharing that used to be passed on from older generations. With that in mind, there’s a wonderful book called The Red Tent, about a young girl growing up and the wisdom and initiations she receives from the women in her family; I found it incredibly inspiring, and actually I think it would be a wonderful book to have as recommended reading in schools.
I have always been fascinated by science, especially quantum physics. I hugely admire the work of Deepak Chopra and a must-read is his book Quantum Healing, which scientifically examines and explains the power of the mind in affecting the body. This book was an exciting revolution for me when I discovered it years ago.
I’d highly recommend any books by Clarissa Pinkola Estes and Eckart Tolle. I could give you a whole reading list.
You talked about some of your values. What would you say is your purpose? What’s your passion?
The underlying drive in all that I do is my desire to learn; I’m always seeking to learn from my experiences, but I think that learning can only take place when you have a sense of appreciation and awareness of what your experiences are.
I get really excited about life. Little things inspire me, and my passion is to share my excitement with the world, and showing or inspiring others to really see the beauty in what already exists. We don’t have to look for more, there’s already so much. Most of us can’t see the magic that’s already inside, what the capabilities of the body are, and when you explore the mind, you find that you can pursue your dreams if you really want to; it’s all about trust. To develop that trust, you first have to open your eyes to the greater world within you.
My mission is to inspire that excitement for life in others, to encourage the deep dive within to really discover who we are and what we really want. Without this we are a ship without a sail and life can sometimes lack meaning, fulfilment and direction.
Looking back, what would you say was the most significant learning experience you can recall having?
A big change occurred when I decided to leave the corporate work culture early in my career, to invest my time and energy into full-time dance training, which was a monumental shift. In that clear decision I was walking away from social norms, I encountered difficult conversations with people who were questioning my reasoning, and making sure I was certain of my decisions, and who were doing so because they cared for me, I should say. I needed to be true to myself, I was going to act upon a dream that I had since I was a kid. It took a huge amount of strength emotionally and physically when I committed to training and carving out a new path; that was a huge learning experience for sure.
Years later I had an accident that gave me first-hand experience of the power of the mind and the importance of self-belief, which really supports healing; it also highlighted for me the value of goals. At the time of this happening I had already decided that I was going to do a particular dance project within two months. I was in hospital for 10 days after suffering a serious head injury: I had a fracture, and internal bleeding. It took me weeks to regain my balance and stamina to just walk up the stairs, so it wasn’t looking likely that I would be doing this particular project. Yet, I had this really strong belief and a desire that motivated me to work towards this goal.
I think we are all empowered with the skills and knowledge to be able to look after ourselves, doctors are amazing of course and modern medicine is incredibly important, but a huge part of the healing process is having the belief that we can encourage healing in our own body. For me, to really feel part of that process helped me heal faster, everything that I had learned- and my beliefs- supported me in this journey. Needless to say dance was and has always been pivotal to my wellbeing and in this case it proved integral to my recovery when I started that project two months later.
I can’t emphasise enough the importance of having a goal; when something motivates you and stretches you, you will step out of your comfort zone in order to accomplish it. From my experience, when you truly come to know yourself you empower your progress and develop the mindset, awareness and resilience to go for your dreams.
You talked about faith, and your beliefs, what are some things that you keep in mind that help you stay along the path?
I genuinely believe that “What’s for ye won’t pass ye,” as we say in Ireland. If you know what you want and are sincere in your motivations, that focus will hone your awareness to follow the clues that lead you closer to your goal. The selective focus of your mind draws your attention to the right path (just like deciding to buy a red car and then suddenly all you notice are red cars everywhere). As the quote implies, I also believe in the magic of coincidence and that we need to practice opening our eyes to the opportunity that constantly surrounds us.
I know from my own experiences that you can keep studying, and learning, and working, putting off decisive action for fear that you are not yet good enough; you may feel you have to wait until you have accumulated more knowledge or skills or money or whatever it may be, when actually the change you want really requires one simple and transformative shift in belief. In trusting and believing in yourself you develop the mental, emotional and physical strength to make it happen. Don’t get me wrong, the learning is essential as it gives you the confidence, and expertise to grow from, but the difference between a dream and a reality is a powerful self-belief; nothing happens without the confidence to take action.
You also mentioned vulnerability earlier. Do you experience moments of self-doubt, and if so how do you deal with it?
I think self-doubt occurs from a fear of failure, criticism or rejection. In this case we are likely disempowering ourself by basing our decision or lack-there-of on external approval. If I feel that I am doubting my capabilities I seek counsel in people that I trust to give me honest advice. Often voicing a fear does half the work to dispel its strength.
Doubt and fear are huge emotions, like all emotions they act as triggers that can reveal a lot about our ‘programming’, so if I’m doubting myself there is something asking for attention, this is where self-reflection is key. My way to process and manage strong emotions like fear or worry is to dive into the mountains and get lost in nature. I find that when I give myself the physical space to process, I get an abundance of mental space in return and in that ether, new awareness, creative ideas and a wider perspective emerge so that I can see things from a viewpoint that I couldn’t have before.
Tension, fear, worry and resistance are all invitations to take you into a deeper awareness of yourself and to unlock yourself from negative anchors that you may not have otherwise paid attention to.
Is there something that triggers inside of you, that tells you you need to go into nature?
The warning signs are that I feel stuck in my head which means my mind is working overtime and I feel disconnected from my body. I use an expression quite often which is, get out of your head and into your heart; a feeling is a more sincere indicator of what you need, and of what resonates with you.
You mentioned how you knew from a young age this was the path you wanted to go down. Was there any particular influence on your life at a young age.
When I was a child I had a lovely ballet teacher- her name was Vonnie Goulding- and I just remember her as someone that I revered. The funny thing is that I can only remember her from her waist down; I don’t even remember what she looks like, I just remember her ballet shoes, her black skirt and tights. I remember that she was incredibly loving and encouraging, she saw something in me when I was really little; I felt her encouragement, even though at that age I didn’t really understand it, but that feeling has stuck with me. To be a good teacher requires an ability to really connect with people and to be able to instil in them a confidence that empowers their own self-belief; I think she had a very important influence on me when I was a little ballerina.
There have been challenges along the way and the thing I’ve come to understand, is that the biggest resource I have is my resilience which is probably due to personal learning, facing fears, listening to emotions and ultimately trusting that I am following my heart, which I believe is always the right direction. In testing times I’ve discovered this willpower within myself. Going back to what I said earlier, carving out your own path requires a hell of a lot of trust and self-belief.
What does success mean to you?
Success to me is expressing the true you– I actually have a workshop called just that. It means feeling free to be yourself, trusting your instinct.
It means practicing what I preach, experiencing flow, seeing the wonder in life and learning from its currents.
Success to me means contributing positively to the people and the world around me so that a positive ripple effect can occur, be that with a smile, through a performance, or a mission to inspire children and adults to live from their heart.
What are some defining moments that you remember from doing what you do?
An outstanding moment came when I was working with the deaf-blind community. I was observing a resident who was very withdrawn, in dance terms he was always the follower never the leader. At the end of class one day, he started to let go and bring his hands on this journey, he started to move independently without prompts; his support-worker didn’t quite know what to do as this man began to express himself through movement. I was amazed and suggested to the support-worker to just be with him, listen to him. The energy in the room was incredible; that’s the beauty of dance and being in connection with another person, you feel it, it’s a vibration, and it’s the essence behind everything I do.
Another high point was staging a solo dance work in Dublin and Boston last year; it had been an aspiration that in a short space of time became a reality. In August this year I presented an interactive performance called Running Blind that sought to make dance accessible to the blind. Two of the six performances were attended by a completely blind audience. It was an ambition that had been in development for over two years and it’s only really sinking in now that it actually exists!
In the last year, I’ve started a creative wellbeing programme for children. Working with children is incredible. They’re so raw and authentic and they tell you exactly what they think; getting feedback from parents saying how their kids are incorporating things they’ve learned from these wellbeing retreats is just amazing to hear.
Personally speaking, new shifts in thinking, or being in a new culture always inspires me. But I don’t necessarily have to travel to be inspired anymore; you can discover something new in your everyday if you learn how to really look. There are little joys in everything, we just need to value them to find them!
It’s interesting how your degree was language related, and you talk a lot about communication and connection, what’s the importance of communication and connection in life?
That’s a really good question, and I’ve noticed that commonality across everything I do. I have always been fascinated by the language of the body, movement, dance, art, energy, touch, languages and culture.
I think that there are a few different layers involved in communication. If we can really listen and have a clear dialogue with ourselves then we can get a lot of insight into how to best support ourselves in what we’re doing, because at the end of the day, the person that knows you best is yourself. The first level of communication is with the self.
In terms of authentically communicating and relating to others, I feel these skills have declined due to an over-use of technology such as instant messaging rather than face-to-face interaction, or even phone calls. The constant stream of entertainment available to us can be distracting and even addictive. It interferes with our aptitude to naturally relate to others and makes it more of a challenge to turn your attention inward and to appreciate the silence that is needed to listen to the truth of who you are.
There’s a greater disconnection between the mind and the body, between me and you; which all leads to health and social problems. The truth is that we have so much in common and that we all crave authentic connection, we are all wanting a very similar thing; to find meaning, to feel valued, to experience freedom.
The premise of interacting with people is to feel that together we can inspire each other and create something more powerful than acting alone, you see more and more movements now to support the renewal of community culture and collaboration. I hugely value collaboration and the creative possibilities it enables!
One of the first things you mentioned was that the person you are is more than what you do. Something that drives what I do, is finding out more about the self. What are some questions you would encourage young people to pose to themselves, in order to encourage that process of self-exploration?
I think the main thing is to follow your passion, the expression where your intention goes your energy flows summarises this perfectly. So I would ask, What inspires you?; What do you get excited about?; What makes you feel good?; What do you enjoy doing?
The more time you take with these open questions the more possibilities and self-awareness develop. I think it’s crucial to not shut down your ideas or dreams; we tend to become more rational as we grow up and practicalities often take precedence over creative play. It’s really important to keep this unique part of us alive.
I experienced it when I said I wanted to be a dancer; you need to absolutely allow yourself the space and trust to formulate your idea, and sometimes that means not sharing your dream until you feel strong enough to receive the feedback- critical and encouraging- that you may receive.
All the work I do is about activating the awareness of the body and the mind, and allowing that wisdom to come forth and speak to you and inform your decisions. When you really genuinely feel something, that’s your body and whole being giving you clear feedback. So feel it, trust it, and you’ll always know what is best for you.
What advice would you give to 16-year-old Laura?
Certainly I would say to follow your heart. It never leads you astray, and if it feels like it does it’s offering you incredible learning. I would also say to choose opportunities to grow.
Be courageous. When you meet a challenge your mind will narrow; practice staying open and more solutions will arise. From feeling anxious or resistant in difficult situations, I have learnt that where there is discomfort there is always an opportunity for growth, so don’t shy away from it.
The most valuable thing I’ve learned in recent years, is to speak really honestly with myself and with others. Be aware of emotions, unpack them rather than hide them away- they are the greatest teachers!
Lastly, find a strong anchor in yourself. Everyone is different and that’s what makes us wonderful, so don’t get caught up with how you are perceived by others. Trust that you’re enough, you’re plenty, and you have a lot to give. Embrace that which makes you unique.