The image of my face, hazy yet mouth in sharp focus, came to me while I was meditating. When I opened my mouth, out flew a flock of black birds. The birds took flight, even as my heart was sinking. I drove into the Sonoran desert, hoping a change in scenery would unburden my heavy heart. The limitless horizon revealed, however, that my heart is as wide-open and expansive as the desert sky, encompassing a spectrum of emotions. My heart is spacious not in spite of the heaviness, but inclusive of it.
The birds and the desert sky represented my throat and heart, my fear and sadness. I understood these messages, but I was not confident that I knew how to embrace the emotions or push the sliding door in my throat open and voice them. And even before the sadness, there was the disassociation and the numbness. How do I face any deep feeling at all?
It is curious to me that one of my top values is motion, and yet when I defined that value years ago, I did not connect it to my emotions, despite the one letter difference between the two words. Motion to me, back then, meant pursuing. Goals, dreams, adventure. It could also be the pursuit of physically moving my body — such as in dance — but there was always a goal, a destination.
As the news of COVID-19 hit, and we were ordered to shelter-in-place, one of the first questions I asked myself was: how do I stay in alignment with my value of motion when I am essentially confined to one living room? How much motion could there possibly be in 250 square feet?
I attempted to keep moving in my little square: yoga, Pilates, flamenco dancing. Yet, as the pandemic dragged on and on and on…I began to reach the limits of my typical routine. One fateful Sunday, I took a Zoom Afro Flow Yoga (AFY) class for the first time. Within minutes of the class’ start, tears were streaming down my face uncontrollably. The combination of yoga, dance, intuitive movement, and the practice of letting go and calling in, all with live music, touched, and unlocked, something deep within.
I thought this was an isolated incident, but I was about to discover that the floodgates were open. A week after the AFY class, I purchased tune up therapy balls. Through focused movement routines, the high grip rubber balls massage deeply into high tension areas. Enduring tight hips for as long as I can remember, I searched for a hips-focused video in Stacey Rosenberg’s vast tune up ball video library. Despite having heard that some physical therapists, neuroscientists, and yogis alike say that we hold our relationships in our hips, that first night I rolled out my hips I was astonished by the free flow of tears.
In the face of stress, the typical response is either fight or flight, which mobilizes our hips — getting us ready to run away or stay and struggle. Both responses result in a clenching of the hips, like the clenching of the jaw. In fact, a Hanover Medical School study found that after releasing jaw tension, the hips’ range of motion significantly increased. When the hip clenches, it shortens, not only trapping the tension muscularly, but also emotionally. Thus, the stressful relational memories trapped in our hips can make it physically hard or painful to move our body, use our voice.
The mobility of hips, in all moments calm and stressful, is also an area of strength, as the hips support our weight. The hip bones are connected to the base of the spine by two joints — and the spine structures our entire body. Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, poet, psychoanalyst, and post-trauma specialist, calls the hips “handholds for love.” Hips also have the potential to cradle new life for women who can bear children. Strength and structure, love and life: no wonder the physical hip can literally and figuratively hold so much feeling and sensation.
The late neuropharmacologist Dr. Candace Pert said,
“emotional memory is stored in many places in the body, not just or even primarily in the brain…unexpressed emotions are literally lodged in the body…trying to move up and be expressed and thereby integrated, made whole, and healed.”
Both the AFY class and the tune up therapy ball experiences were turning points: my numbness was clearly thawing, prompting a serious exploration of the metaphysical nature of movement. The strange silver lining of the pandemic is that it freed me from life’s typical distractions, gave me this opportunity to explore, and brought experiences like AFY into my living room. Regardless of the confines of my physical space, and provoked by the heaviness of my heart space, I was compelled to move my body to heal my heart — rolling out, moving through, and expressing a lifetime of relationships that I have held in my cells.
I had inklings of this emotion/motion connection, intuitively, being a dancer almost my entire life. I did not realize, however, how fragmented and disconnected from my body I had become until I was confronted by unexpected tears and the subsequent attempts to process my painful emotions through my limbs.
Processing emotions through our limbs is what writer, activist, and dancer Dana Naomy Mills calls “nonverbal thinking” — a whole-body movement that considers, reasons, and creates an alternate space for self-expression. Nonverbal thinking is also an embodied dialogue with oneself, and with others.
Like the running dialogue in our minds, in movement exists all possibilities: joy, hope, sadness, and grief. Yet sometimes it is not possible to verbalize those feelings, and embodied dialogue is the only way we can express ourselves. Poet Rainer Maria Rilke said, “Most experiences are unsayable. They happen in a space that no word has ever entered.”
As I continued to move and express myself in all the ways I had moved before, but now with this sense of embodying and accepting my feelings, I was exploring the many spaces that no word had ever entered. Daily I asked myself: how can I use my physically seen body to access the parts within myself that are not so readily visible? What have I held in my hips that has never reached my lips?
Humans tend to fragment the different parts of ourselves, the seen and unseen. Dr. Pinkola Estés expresses it this way: we tend to think of the body as this “other” that does its thing somewhat without us. Yet, being in our body unites these fragments, and that unity brings freedom. It is a freedom that comes from a connection to the heart and soul, to mind and emotion, all held by the container of our bodies.
There are well documented reasons, from patriarchy to capitalism to ableism, to media and unrealistic beauty standards, as to why it is so difficult to grasp the beautiful freedom in this wholeness.
AFY showed up again as an elemental piece in confronting these barriers to wholeness and advancing my healing journey. Given my transformational experience in the AFY class, I was intrigued when I received an invitation to join their virtual teacher training, an immersive eight-week course studying the history of ancient Africa and yoga; the history and cultures of the African diaspora in dance, music, and ritual; and collective healing. I could not ignore the serendipitous timing of this teacher training and, after some initial hesitation, quickly accepted the invitation.
The learning and insights I gained from the course content and my amazing cohort are numerous, but two lessons in particular stand out. The first is that movement, as it has been experienced through millennia and in countless cultures, provides a path to healing for those traumatic, unsayable experiences and the resulting feelings of pain and sorrow. On an individual and community level, we have experienced a history of loss, abuse, displacement, violence, and colonization. Movement is one critical stepping-stone towards processing these experiences and relieving all sorts of stress, and distress, and bolstering feelings of centeredness, wholeness, and calm.
The second important lesson was the deepening and magnification of the messages my body had been sending me as the cracks in my armor of numbness began to widen:
My body is my intuition and insight.
My body can heighten my awareness, arousal, and senses.
My body provides grounding, nourishment, and protection for my spirit.
I can learn from my body.
My body is my home.
Unlike my mind that can travel to the past and the future, my body can only be present, in the fullness of the moment.
Contemplating the sublime freedom of these messages, Dr. Pinkola Estes’ question came to my mind:
“Is it wise to spend a lifetime chastising this teacher who has so much to give and teach? Do we wish to spend a lifetime allowing others to distract from our bodies, judge them, find them wanting?”
I recognize the immense struggle and difficulty in answering this question. It may take a lifetime to add and enhance every time that I, and others, detract. Inhabiting the space of my body is not about what it does or doesn’t do, or what it looks like. It is about the awareness and attention to the present.
As I continue to live out my lifetime one breath at a time, I hold close to my heart the physics behind motion. I take comfort in the fact that velocity, speed, and the phenomenon by which an object changes its position has to start somewhere. One little step is all it takes to start overcoming the potential for staying stuck in fear and self-doubt. By putting my body in motion and dislodging and expressing my emotions, I develop the potential to run, to fly.
Of course, there are also days that any movement beyond shifting my position on the couch feels impossible. On these days, I get embodied through a body scan mindfulness exercise. All it requires is a surface on which to lie down. Or, if laying down is not possible, simply a place to sit will do. Laying down or sitting in one place may sound like inaction; however, a body scan is not static. The movement comes with the focus of attention, starting at my toes, ankles, calves, and so on, all the way up to the top of my head. Each body part receives at least one breath in and one breath out, centering the dialogue on what my body tells me about the sensations and feelings it is experiencing. It is a powerful way to give voice to my body, to listen to its wise teachings.
In fact, our bodies communicate with us all the time; we just have to listen. Allowing the body’s insight and ability to ground us, as well as being aware of its sensations and the way it keeps us in the present moment, is essential. Both for ourselves, and for our collective healing.
Dr. Pert found in her studies that the changing chemistry of every cell in our body also sends out vibrations to other people. And in a pandemic, our virtual gatherings rearticulate the vibrations and connections between ourselves and other moving bodies. Naomy Mills said, “we can move alone yet not be lonely” as we breathe, move, and sway in our confined spaces across virtual platforms around the world. Once we embrace this embodied dialogue, both with ourselves and with others, the body becomes, as Dr. Pinkola Estes says, “the launcher of our soaring spirit.”
I am writing this article over a year since the pandemic started, and many months into my journey of embodied dialogue and encouraging my spirit to soar. Grief and healing is circuitous and I still have doubts that often manifest in disturbing dreams. Most recently, I dreamt that I was at a gathering of friends and family, but every time I spoke, no one heard me. This work of letting the black birds fly and embracing all my heart’s emotions is constant and ongoing. My throat, my hips, and other parts of my body, and their corresponding emotions, still clamor for my attention. Everyone carries their emotion in different places in their bodies, just as everyone has a different version of trauma, whether big or small. The question is — how will you move through it?