deeper than words, into the marrow
When I was in my late 30s, after being in therapy for a decade in my twenties with an extraordinarily gifted therapist and a shorter stint with a therapist in my mid 30s, I realized that much of the work I still needed to do couldn’t be done with words. The early trauma—sexual abuse, exposure to violence, loss of loved ones, parental alcoholism, constant uprooting—needed to move around my body. I was going to need to find it there in my body, although, at the time, the notion of “finding it in my body” felt so vague to me that stepping out of the land of talk therapy and into the land of movement felt more like a crazy leap of faith than anything else.
I decided that, at 40, I was going to pretend I was 35—that I had lost five of my years. In my mind, five years seemed about right for the extra toll that carrying around trauma and being in graduate school (and on the job market) had exacted. Magical thinking, I know, believing I could assign a time period to the cost of trauma but….I decided that for each year that I built my age back up—36, 37, 38, 39, 40, I would add a new body-based practice, starting with going to the gym (and working with a personal trainer), then adding salsa, then yoga, then, as it turns out more yoga.
Looking back on this now, I can see how each addition was building toward wholeness although at the time I couldn’t yet see the pattern. With the gym and finding a personal trainer, I had someone who, three times a week, would focus on me, only on me, watch, and coach and guide and witness and laugh and encourage me as my lower back got stronger (i.e. I started to be able to stand up for myself better), my arm muscles developed (which means I eventually gained the confidence to wear shirts with no sleeves, for the first time in my life), my abs got stronger (which helped my back to not hurt when needing to sit at the desk for long periods of time). And I loved the music—the early morning Aretha Franklin, Beyonce, Chaka Kahn, Luther, Santana, Nellie—jamming, filling me up with rhythm and melody before 8:00 o’clock in the morning.
Salsa was next, no small thing since I come from a Mormon background which my relatives and I refer to as the “ironing board” culture—hold your body as erect as possible and don’t breathe. No movement, no joy, and certainly no dance. Salsa didn’t come easily to me, especially as many of the 20-something Latinas who came to dance class appeared to have been dancing in the womb, had ballet training since they could walk, along with hip hop, modern dance, etc. They would twirl themselves around me, doing triple turns and back bends that looked like magic to me as I painstakingly practiced my once-around-find-a-point-without-getting-dizzy steps. It helped to have a compassionate Guatemalan dance instructor who, sometimes would whirl me around the dance floor making me temporarily look better than I was. And, over time, especially when I danced with someone I could relax with, I started to get a little bit better.
Yoga got added to this mix alongside the gym and salsa, first as a student of Bikram yoga, a steady practice for seven years and then branching out—to Vinyasa flow, Forrest yoga, Iyengar-based practice and a little Kundalini. Along the way, I began to teach as I started to see a connection between moving my body and memory, between asanas and feeling, between yoga postures and finding ways to be in the world where I wasn’t afraid all of the time, bracing for the next disaster.
My journey has been a feeling one, as vulnerable and resilient as a winter rose. An early, emblematic yoga memory—doing camel (ustrasana) toward the end of a practice, coming up from a backbend and sobbing, the teacher saying in her dialogue that “feelings come up in camel that you might not expect. They are normal. Crying on the mat is okay.” The first time I heard these words, I thought she was saying them just for me—that she saw my tears and was trying to comfort me while teaching. It took me a while to get that her words (except for the reference to crying) are part of the practiced script and that the reaction I was having, others had too. The floor series, especially the postures involving back bends—the physical postures that tapped fears that I thought I had “dealt” with but clearly had not—made me see that memories were lurking around in my body. For survivors of traumas that occur prior to our ability to talk, healing means getting in touch with what the body knew before words, before language. I was starting to realize that healing meant re-finding myself before trauma, finding the self that changed during the trauma and the self that had come out the other side dazed, and often driven. Such healing required, allowed me to start reaching out, to find other people’s glistening eyes, to be willing to go deeper than words, finding others who were struggling on and off the mat but still, sometimes miraculously, were coming back.