This particular blog is gonna be a long one so grab a cuppa joe or tea and have a seat, if you will.
In early 2011, I took a class which combined dance and art. At about the 2nd or 3rd week, my back began to hurt and life slowed down to a shuffle. My condition worsened and left me incapacitated for four weeks. I explored different assessment and treatment options including massage, acupuncture, Rolfing, and Cranio-Sacral Therapy. A series of x-rays showed disk and joint degeneration in my spine and left hip. The doctor couldn’t do much; they gave me some pills, and sent me home. Since nothing was working to alleviate my pain, I decided to work with the doctor rather than against her. She strongly suggested I take a few of them as directed – muscle relaxers. My back and hip were in the middle of a major muscle spasm. As a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine and body worker for eight years, having worked with many clients, I was sad that nothing outside of western medicine was providing me with relief. I also began to wonder how I was sourcing my own body movements – was I sourcing from a place of joy and wholeness? Or from some other experience? I certainly didn’t feel whole or joyful. I also did not recall an injury to my left hip, so what the hell was happening?
During one of my artistic homework assignments, some unnamable experience began to take place and manifest in my drawing. As I drew on the paper, watching and feeling the moment unfold, my conscious mind began to nudge me – something pivotal was taking place. My back ached fiercely and I could barely stand at the table to work – sitting was impossible. I also noticed that expected visitors were pulling up in my driveway. At that moment I had a choice – shut down the experience and greet my guests, or dump all this out in my drawing as they were walking through the door. I noticed conflicting thoughts – take care of yourself, keep going. No, I’m scared. I don’t know what will happen. It’s okay, keep going. NO! Yes, keep going, or it will take years to come again. I opted to shut the experience down and close my art journal.
Working with movement and art was providing a conduit for a deeper layer of information held within my psyche and body. These memories or experiences seemed to be traveling to the surface of my consciousness through my body. The story of what I knew about this physical vessel of mine or said out loud about my body was different from the one I held deep inside. After five years of receiving deep training in my bodywork specialties and eight years of private practice with clients, here I was again, facing another layer of my somatic journey.
To complete my Associate’s of Science degree, I wrote a paper on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and how it might manifest in the body through somatization, from the Greek Soma, meaning body. Somatization is defined as “distressing somatic symptoms plus abnormal thoughts, feelings and behaviors” (DSM-5, 2013, p. 309). I grimaced while hobbling around on the University of California San Diego campus to two different libraries doing literature reviews of research; my back and hip pain almost unbearable. But I would not quit, would not give up. Hold on honey, it’s almost over. My mind kept pushing me and so I pushed my body. This mantra became a talisman – one I had carried with me for decades and that ultimately set me up for dangerous patterns of everyday somatic function. This mantra was linked to early trauma, but I didn’t know that at the time. In my third year at Naropa, I would revisit this mantra and find healing in actually walking away from a triggering event rather than pushing my body forward with aggression.
The remarkable thing regarding stories from past experience is what they reveal about the present moment and sometimes what the present moment can reveal about past experiences can be just as remarkable. Throughout my literature research I repeatedly found various versions of myself on the pages of studies conducted by numerous experts in the field of psychology and somatization (Adverse Childhood Experiences – ACEs, 2013; Alexander, 1950; Black, 1967; Cheren, 1989; Head, 1920; Lewis and Lewis, 1972; Lilly, 1972; Oxford, 1978; Saylor, 1993; Shapiro & Rosenfeld, 1987; van der Kolk, 2014; Wolman, 1988). These studies found that children who have survived natural disasters; lived uprooted lives, with no stability and absentee parents; were exposed to daily abuse and violence, surrounded by drugs and alcohol, as well as psychological and physical abandonment and neglect, also experienced a wide variety of negative conditioning paradigms. They can suffer cognitively, socially and emotionally.
My childhood is fuzzy, but four events stand out – the Sylmar earthquake of 1971, a physical assault that same year at the age of six, being hit by a car shortly after, and then abandoned by my mother – all in a period of six to eight months. Add my exposure to marital discord and violence as a baby in my mother’s womb, induced labor and birth trauma – forceps were used to hurry along my birth, divorced parents, unstable housing, my mother’s mental illness which rendered her unreliable as a caregiver, as well as being hungry, impoverished and my heroin addicted father in prison. I seemed to view these experiences from an intellectual perspective. But was it possible these past events were impacting my body and how I was living right now?
When I came to Naropa to learn more about trauma in the body, I came with a loose plan to look at movement, but not movement platforms such as Yoga or Pilates. The movement had to be “free form”, open movement, guided by something internal and not designed as a structure with an agenda. I reflected back to a book which held great meaning for me – The Four Fold Way, by Angeles Arrien. This book broke me wide open when I first read it in 2004, and I wasn’t sure why, but I think I understand now. Arrien speaks about four archetypes: Teacher, Visionary, Warrior and Healer. Each archetype has a posture of meditation associated with it: laying down, sitting, standing and walking. They are also termed pedestrian movement through the lens of the Dance community and in normal child development these would be considered part of the normal gross motor movement development, or developmental postures. Babies lay down, move to sitting postures, then begin to stand and from there, they walk.
If a child is experiencing traumatic events every day, as they are developing physically, could their small bodies be assimilating this trauma into their very tissues and postures? Ken Dychtwald believed this to be true and his book, Bodymind, outlined his work in this field. By using these four foundational and sacred stances combined with awareness of transitions in between, human beings can facilitate their own sacred encounter between their conscious and unconscious material, psyche and soma, and re-engage cognition and learning, leading to client centered meaning making out of DTD.
Sensorimotor development, which involves the senses and motor movement, takes place during the first two years of a developing child’s life, continues through around age five years, with the preoperational stage of development taking place around age seven (Piaget, 1936, 2015; All checklist, n.d.). Piaget (1936) believed that each child moved through these stages accordingly, like climbing building blocks. Van der Kolk (2014) says, “When a circuit fires repeatedly, it can become a default setting” (p. 56). This perspective can be viewed as positive or negative depending on the situation and area of the brainbody being chronically activated. Was my own nervous system being driven by an unmyelinated vagus circuit – a primal brain structure – which had my body always poised for fight, flight or freeze? The research on trauma and somatics say it’s possible. Horowitz (1970), Lusebrink (1990), Lusebrink & McGuigan (1989) state, “Mental images share the same pathways and brain areas for their formation and process as do perceptions in the different sense modalities” (as summarized in Lusebrink, 2004, p. 129). Sense modalities is said to include visual, auditory, olfactory, taste, perception and sensations of pressure, temperature, movement in the limbs and pain. The research also shows that cognition and learning are drastically impaired due to DTD.
Piaget (1981) makes observations regarding physical experience and its direct connection to learning. When children move, exercise and engage with their environment through play and the manipulation of objects, they are taking sensory information into the brainbody (Hannaford, 2013). In keeping with my theory, if a child is frozen in terror or always on fight-flight alert, seeking both proximity (primal) and avoidance (environment assessment) – then their brainbody sensory systems are on overload. The brainbody of children will automatically shut them down to their external environment as a way to cope with situations they are not capable yet of comprehending, and their ability to engage with the immediate moment – be it learning or socializing – is occluded. Alfred Adler (1931) claimed that an individual’s style of life was formed in childhood, remained consistent throughout adulthood, and was based on a “systematic schema”. This theory included the assertion that posture and body language are part of this formative structure (as cited in Frager and Fadiman, 2013, p. 99). I believe these particular aspects connect deeply to how traumatized children move into adulthood as traumatized people and function, or not, within the constructs of society. I believe that the normal development of these stages can be deeply undermined as a result of DTD and create behavioral habits of conduct – physical, cognitive and relational that may be negative or hindering to a healthy and whole life.
Of habit, or habitual behavior, William James, (1890, Vol. 1.) theorist of the Psychology of Consciousness, claims, “Habits are actions or thoughts that form seemingly automatic responses to a given experience. They differ from instincts in that habits can be created, modified, or eliminated by conscious direction. They are valuable and necessary.” (James as quoted in Frager and Fadiman, p. 189) He applies this theory to both the mind and the body. Further, he says that to withdraw attention to the actions reinforces the actions and makes change more difficult. Returning to my theory, by bringing “conscious direction” to these entrained action or habituated mobility patterns, we highlight the potential for behavioral change and the psychic / somatic restoration of traumatic engrams. The natural evolution of life becomes gridlocked and the integration of new experiences or novelty is blocked until another way to exist is found.
Laying down, sitting, standing and walking as Therapy ~
“First, you slow down and look deeply into yourself and the world until you start to be present to what’s trying to emerge.” Otto Scharmer, Presence
Dancing, movement and play increase range of motion, learning and show us how we position ourselves and move through the world. From the perspective of these developmental postures – learning to roll over from laying down, moving to crawling, sitting and then standing and walking and observing as children play and dance, be creative and silly – it is clear that these aspects of development are a natural instinct. From birth through the age of five, children experiencing normal physical development are voyaging through developmental milestones involving gross motor movement such as rolling over, scooting, crawling, sitting up, standing, walking, running and climbing. For children experiencing repeated events that are perceived as terrifying, thereby resulting in DTD, these developmental milestones are severely impacted. With a return to these sacred and early developmental postures, DTD is unraveled at the deepest somatic and psychic level.
Although my introduction to dance combined with art began using Anna Halprin’s (2002) book A Return to Health: with Dance, Movement and Imagery, formal dance had not been part of my overall experience. These four sacred postures, however, were part of my every day life. Halprin, a former teacher at Naropa back in the 70s, used dance and art in clinical therapeutic settings with cancer patients during the 1980s.
The postures themselves have been used in meditation practice for thousands of years, and Sakyamuni Buddha himself utilized all of these during his journey toward self-realization (TNH, 1985, 1990; de Llosa, 2006). In Transformation and Healing (1990) by Thich Nhat Hahn, the Sutra of the Four Establishments of Mindfulness is provided. The first establishment says, “…a practitioner remains established in the observation of the body, in the body, diligent, with clear understanding, mindful…” (p. 3). Thich Nhat Hahn continues,
Moreover, when a practitioner walks, he is aware, ‘I am walking.’ When he is standing, he is aware, ‘I am standing.’ When he is sitting, he is aware, ‘I am sitting.’ When he is lying down, he is aware, ‘I am lying down.’ In whatever position his body happens to be, he is aware of the position of his body. This is how a practitioner observes the body in the body (p. 5).
Awareness of being present in the body, of moving around throughout the day in the body is cultivated through mindful attention; walking backward and forward, bending over and standing up. These postures are more than just the act of being prone, the exploration includes the awareness of how one gets there. The postures are both static and fluid. How does a person lie down? How does a person move from sitting to standing up? Is there body awareness (interoception) when engaging with these transitional shifts? How does speeding up or slowing down during transitions between these postures or walking and running impact the experience? Is there something to be discovered? Hannaford (2013) says, “Self-initiated movement, exploration, interaction and physical experience for the joy and challenge of it, facilitates nerve growth for a lifetime” (Smart Moves, p. 22). The awareness we bring to our bodies in stillness, during movement and in between is a practice that can become life changing for those working with DTD.
For someone with DTD, however, awareness of the body can also be terrifying. If sexual violence or physical assault, and a powerful need to feel safe in a frightening environment, is a part of their history, leaving the body through dissociation is a way to avoid painful experiences or memories – and remember, this is an evolutionary event, not a choice. Porges (2007) has already indicated that beyond fight or flight, a freeze or faint response is common as the primal brain structures of the dorsal vagus take over. A person may be tremendously aware of the body in some unconscious way and still have no control over dissociative states. When a person is dissociated from the body, they may have limited awareness of walking, standing, sitting and lying down. Could it be that restriction of movement in the body or a habituated pattern of maneuverability is actually deep somatic wisdom avoiding a painful memory? Spatial awareness and physical mobility are both impaired by traumatic phenomenon. Through gentle, compassionate and mindful awareness, individuals suffering from traumatic states and dissociative patterns, may find confluence through working within the moment. The experience of the body can be transformed from something fearful into a vessel of comfort and an ally. Using these four sacred developmental movements, one can begin to pay attention to this somatic resistance of painful experience and traumatic memory.
In Peter Levine’s book, In an Unspoken Voice (2010), he provides quotes from an early pioneer in the field of modern neurophysiology, Sir Charles Sherrington and one of Sherrington’s students, A. E. Gisell. Sherrington (1945) believed that “reflex action” and “postural” expression was formulated in “attitude” (p. 145). In fact, his student, Gisell, stated, “The embryogenesis of mind must be sought in the beginnings of posture behavior” (p. 145). Here Gisell implies that mind and body are connected with one influencing the other. I perceived a truth in this statement, if only underlying and personal to my own experience. The embryogenesis of my own mind had shaped my physical and mental mobility – hide, be small, protect myself.
During one performance class I took at Naropa, I recreated the scene of being hit by a car at six years old. I was attempting to avoid the corner where the bad man lived – I uncovered that memory about two years previous – and instead ran across the middle of a busy four lane highway. I almost made it. By recreating the impact to my body in a classroom setting, I explored what it might have felt like to be a six-year old little girl, terrified and running across a street but with the knowledge that I would be hit by a car. What happened to my body during the initial impact? What might it have felt like? How did my body land on the parked car I flew into? What must it have felt like to slam onto the pavement? I recreated this scene to the best of my ability, only remembering bits of the experience – impact on the right side, maybe slamming into the parked car with the left side of my body, sliding back out into the street. Interesting to me was that the instructor had no idea the impetus for this particular composition. Even more interesting was that she asked me to do it again, but to repeat it four times, in sequence, and to change the direction I was facing each time. I was on the edge of something. I completed the sequence but found that I was holding back. She recorded it but I didn’t have the courage to view it. I would revisit this particular score and the remaining four sacred postures through my independent study – that of working directly with SiMA – Somatic inquiry through Movement and Art.
The body-centered way of storytelling can be a well of untapped history and experience. I recall reviewing images of photographs taken of me by one of my peers as I moved through all four postures. We had a large studio with beautiful sunlight streaming through. Afterward, as I scrolled through each image, I noticed my posture in the photographs while I was running. Is that how I always looked while running? Was it because of the dress I was wearing? Or running barefooted? My posture seemed awkward. My body was stiff and frozen, my sacrum hanging down as if weighted by an anchor, my shoulders hunched and pinched up around my ears. It was painful to look at. I could see myself as six-year old girl and running for my life, but I also saw in my frozen posture the somatic understanding that I wouldn’t make it across that street.
I read a case about a man who gesticulated wildly with his arms while expressing himself verbally (Weinberg, 1996). He was tall with very long limbs. His counselor once asked him to refrain from moving his arms while talking and to track what he noticed. After some reflection, the client recalled being a small boy and using arm gestures to be heard as well as seen – something he had been unaware of as an adult. By engaging with his stillness, he was able to reconnect to the somatic experience (right hemisphere) and the inner dialogue or narrative (left hemisphere) that accompanied both the motility and the stillness. Trauma is born in the brain and lives in the body. Carney, Cuddy and Yap (2010) state, “For example, the mere taking on of a dominant versus a submissive body posture has been shown to cause changes not only in experiencing the self, but also in testosterone levels in saliva and risk-taking behavior after the intervention: both were higher in participants assuming a dominant posture” (as quoted in Koch and Fuchs, 2011, p. 277). When the brainbody experiences postural shifts from flaccid to resilient, the brainbody registers these experiences in measureable ways. Sensory images are the inherent language of the body. Body and brain – the two are one; there truly is no separation.
Although I still dance, my love of dance left me many years ago. After almost four decades of dancing (non-professionally) I was tired of being sexualized on the dance floor; moving my body freely for the pure enjoyment of it seemed to disappear. At Naropa, I took several classes in movement and performance, and initially had no idea what to expect. I chose courses that seemed the least threatening to my already precarious somatic and psychic stability in an effort to avoid failing a class while still having an opportunity to explore and engage in personal research. I spoke very honestly and clearly to my trauma with instructors while trying not to allow the trauma to dominate my learning process and the class. At times the activities were challenging, but I always tried and I tracked my inner experience wherever possible. This form of navigation was new and difficult to maintain. Other moments were excruciating – I felt naked and raw. Susan Aposhyan (1999), author, practitioner of body-mind psychotherapy and former instructor at Naropa University, says, “We have developed body-mind dualism, the ability to repress and ignore parts of ourselves which often results in opposing factions within our beings” (Natural Intelligence, p. 4). This described my experience perfectly – attempting to ignore my brainbody while healing my body-mind presented a conundrum to be certain. Here’s how my inner narrative would unfold: If I dance, someone will see me. If they see me, I’ll become a target and then victimized. Well, don’t dance, don’t move. This inner monologue was unconscious. The physical manifestation showed up as resistance to movement, dancing, and even socializing at times.
The somatic investigation of this work – using these four sacred postures – does not necessarily culminate in the expression of the movement itself. This body inquiry can be classified as a release of energy trapped at the cellular level; an energetic memory of pain, a historical reference to the trauma that is being carried around in the body, and limiting psyche-somatic freedom. Through this process of somatic dehabituation, a tangible creative artistic expression is imperative for the client’s integration process. The energetic memory can be recognized, witnessed and validated. Without the mindful awareness and grieving it deserves, clients may be re-traumatized both psychically and physically. The body is encouraged gently to move as it was meant to – free, open, unrestricted, and multi-dimensionally. By reengaging with these sacred postures and body fluctuations in a conscious way, the unconscious is stirred.
For the last 2 months, I’ve been living with my sister in the Hollywood Hills. Over the last few weeks, I’ve found myself walking all over her neighborhood. Some walks are short while others have been longer, and further. I’ve noticed many things while walking – sore spots in my back, or my feet. I’ve paid attention to how I step, which part of my foot hits the ground first, which foot I use to push off a curb, and even whether my buttocks are clenching when I extend my leg back while walking up hill. Which muscles are working? And which ones should be working, but aren’t? The combination of walking along the hilly roads and all the various smells of trees, grasses and leaves, I’ve returned to memories of my teenage years. These were days filled with a lot of partying, frivolous behavior and drama. I remember the heat of late afternoon while walking to “the neighborhood” and the dry grasses on undeveloped hills. I recall how I would walk on the paved roads: be mindful of going up or down hill, blind turns and walking on the side of the street were cars would be driving at an incline and moving more slowly. I’ve found art, fruit and vegetable trees. I’ve met owners walking their dogs with stories about coyotes. I’ve seen beautiful architecture, homes that defy gravity, lush foliage, pools and fountains (despite the drought, some are in use), and incredible doors and gates. (More on gates and doors as a metaphor for how we move through life at a later date)
I feel as though walking these roads, reliving my younger years almost 4 decades later is providing me with a chance to heal some of the damage I did to my soul-body as a young girl. I had punished myself – pushed too hard, drank alcohol and used drugs, placed myself in very unsafe situations, ate poorly and slept little. While the physical activity was enlivening for my body, the remainder of my social interactions, once I arrived to visit my friends, were dangerous and harmful. I hurt my spirit, my soul, and my heart. With each step, I had abandoned myself but as an adult, I began to reflect and wonder how much my body remembered of each step and the harmful acts I had inflicted upon myself.
Today was a good day of walking. Two days ago I spent 3 hours walking, doubling back in one area and dropping down into a section of the hills I’d never walked before. I came back exhausted, sweaty, dirty and hungry. This morning I walked to a local market, taking a short cut through the hills filled with large houses. It was a short walk – only two hours today. But with each step I feel as though I’m healing myself. I arrive safely to a destination, then return with joy and fully embodied. I feel happy when complete with these walks. I return home in need of water, food, a shower – nourishment. By walking and enjoying my walk, I find I return home with the ability to meet my own needs, my basic needs – needs that sometimes weren’t met as a little girl. Nourishment – I now provide this for myself. I arrive safe and sound. Stepping out in to the world to meet life as it is can be difficult but right now, doing it in this way, feels like paving a new road which I hope will lead me some place beautiful.