In my work, people often come to me with a crippling physical problem and a serious diagnosis from the doctor. Although I completely believe the physical problem is real and debilitating, I’ve found there is also almost always an emotional component lying beneath the physical distress. If you are reading this, and your body is showing up with symptoms that are asking for help, ask your deeper wisdom,
“Is the pain serving me in some way?”
In Erin’s case, the Wolf she describes in the piece below is a persona that’s hard for her to embody in her daily life. She is not comfortable being that fierce. However, the fierceness that comes with her chronic pain creates safety for her, and allows her to set boundaries in a way that would otherwise be difficult for her. She needs the Wolf to keep her safe. To give up her pain would give up her protector, her safety.
Without my Pain, the power of a fierce wolf would be gone from my side. She has been my most faithful companion. She keeps me ever alert to potential pitfalls. She protects me from risks that could intensify the pain. She keeps others a safe distance from me. Only those willing to befriend her can come close. Yet this has also made me lonely.
She taught me how to howl in anguish, when it’s just us and the moon. She shepherds me in the wilderness of grief. If I try to stray, she is quick to nip me back into my boundaries. She keeps me fearful of stepping outside of that familiar territory. And yet I yearn to, gazing longingly at that unknown, expansive world outside this hemmed in space.
So perhaps who I would be without the Pain, is an explorer, a traveler, a risk-taker, led by Passion rather than bound by Pain. I have discovered, in brief moments of freedom from Pain, that Passion and Pleasure are companions that empower me, rather than enslave me. Through Pleasure I can open channels of energy, I can connect without being encumbered, and I can be seen. People would see me first, not the wolf.
I am thrilled to be sharing Erin’s writings with you all. So many of you have expressed appreciation of her deep wisdom and her ability to express her process with the work with such clarity and depth. We continue here with a piece she wrote after one of her sessions. Before the session, she shared a poem with me about her life feeling like a mosaic with broken shards of glass. Here she reframes that image and it reflects her ability to integrate her illness story in a new way. I offer this to you all as a reflection of Erin’s deep commitment to her own healing.
Please continue to share your thoughts with us,
Through Body Dialogue, I was finally able to gain insight on how to bring grace to my own pain and to recreate a new mosaic. When I began working with Janice, I saw my identity as being made up of three interlocking circles— My Illness Story, My Culture Story, and My Career Story. I pictured them as three intricately painted serving plates, because my identity had always been about serving. I realized the key to making a new mosaic of my identity was to smash these plates, by challenging the narratives I’ve been told and rewriting my own stories. Then I will arrange the pieces into a bowl. A sacred container. Able to receive and not just give.
Janice’s instructions in my private sessions help me begin to cast the mold for my bowl. “Lie on your back and feel the weight of your skull, your sternum, and your sacrum. Drop your skull, your sternum, and your sacrum into the floor.” When I allow my breath to move through me like this, I notice how much softer the shape of my spine becomes. There are curves, like a bowl, instead of the flat rigidity of a plate. My spine feels held, like I am cradled just perfectly. This feeling invites the breath into my lungs, and now I know it is safe. Safe to be in my body. Safe for my mind, heart and guts to come home, to be truly present and integrated into a whole body. The weight of my skull invites my mind to be present in my body. The weight of my sternum lets my heart know it’s safe to open and expand. The weight of my sacrum rocking on the floor massages my guts into calm. I am no longer broken shards of a disjointed body. I am a whole vessel now, able to receive.
This piece is a continuation of Erin’s writing about our work together. In one of her early sessions, she received an image that she describes below as a pinball machine. I remembered Marion Woodman, my teacher in BodySoul Rhythms, telling us that when a person receives an image born out of their felt experience, that image can shift the trauma living in the body. Her body was talking to her through this waking dream image.
Disabling the Pinballs
I envision the multiple episodes of trauma and chronic pain I have experienced as rogue pinballs that have been set loose within my body. Every muscle, joint and nerve they hit recoils in shock, and forgets how to function properly. Cells bundle together to “guard” the afflicted areas, but in doing so, they prevent healing. Other muscles try to take over functions they were not designed for. And the mere act of holding myself upright becomes exhausting. So much energy wasted on trying to block the pinballs and drag my body along through the damage…
But now I know there is a better way. Unplug the pinball machine. This first requires unplugging the mind from all external distractions and solely focusing on the lights, bells, and whistles on the inside, set off by the rogue pinballs. Then gently tell the muscles, “It doesn’t have to be this way. You can all return to the jobs you were meant for. You have the wisdom. You have the power to heal and strengthen. You can stop setting off alarms. Just disable the pinballs.”
And for this part, we need the breath. The breath can unplug the pinball machine. It can silence the ruckus inside. Send the breath. Send strength. Feel all of the interfering shields come down. Feel the tightness fall away. Allow the inhale to reel in the cord to the pinball machine, and the exhale to unplug the power. And now the power is not held by dysfunctional habits born of chaos. Now the power is in your breath.
What can you do to awaken your inner dream language?
Here is a practice to do at home:
Lie down on the floor.
Take a baseline of what your breathing is telling you in this moment.
Notice the places in your body where you are holding tension and feeling pain or discomfort.
Ask yourself the question “Can I let go, and sink into the floor, inviting my bones to be heavy, my joints to release, and ask my mind to let go of judgment?”
Start to slowly release the breath through humming.
It requires very little effort.
Imagine that this hum is traveling through your body like a gentle soft touch, filled with compassion and loving kindness.
Slowly open your mouth and with gentle vowel sounds, let the air pass through your lips without effort and continue to exhale.
Give yourself some time, perhaps a few minutes, to explore micro-movements
You do not have to fight to find it.
Just accept where you are and go from there.
Before you get up to continue your day, notice if any images come to mind, any sensations, any colors.
Has your energy shifted? Do you feel a little softer and more present in the world?
For many of us, this super moon marked a time of huge energy shifts, and releasing old stories that no longer serve us. Releasing those stories and opening up to a new life is a death/rebirth process. It requires imagination to envision what is possible. It also requires a willingness to have a new experience. Through the work of Body Dialogue,
Erin Panzella was able to imagine and create a new story.
My relationship with Erin, my student in Body Dialogue, exemplifies the power of finding one’s metaphor to embark on such a healing journey. When Erin came to me, I intuitively knew that unless we found the root of her story in her body, she would continue to carry the pain that had been her identity since her childhood.
Below is an introduction to Erin, who will be sharing her story throughout several blog
posts to come.
My name is Erin Panzella. I have been a student of Janice’s for the past four years. My
journey with chronic pain began as a child with undiagnosed gastrointestinal disorders,
and has continued on in my adult life due to a traumatic back injury that resulted in
spinal fusion surgery. When I finally felt recovered from the surgery, I suffered a car
accident which sent me into a tailspin of pain.
When I first met Janice, it seemed I had already exhausted all other modalities of getting
out of pain. I felt completely hopeless, yet also cracked wide open. This state of
vulnerability meant I was receptive to a new process. Janice understood that my trauma
was more than just the symptoms I displayed. Her goal was to go underneath the pain
and listen to the messages it was speaking. This helped me to shift my focus from trying
to “fix” myself to trying to understand how the pain and fear were consuming my
identity. This process required trust and vulnerability that were first cultivated through
my participation in a couple of retreats lead by Janice. During my first Body Dialogue
session, the following images came to me. The River became a metaphor for my healing…
Artwork by Janice Stieber-Rous
I’ve been crushed under the weight of generations
Worth of Shame, Doubt, and the Burden of
Being a woman,
A lesser creature,
Only worthy of whatever
Men are willing to give.
I’ve been striving so hard
To carry this load
That my bones have contorted
And my muscles have knotted themselves
And I’m so acutely aware
Of the Pain,
That I can’t even begin to imagine
Who I am without it
Until someone said,
“Here, let me…”
Hands loosening my knots
Breath resetting my bones.
I was finally able to recall
A time that was absolutely mine…
Splashing in The Little Colorado River,
With my friend who has always been
There was no past
Just bliss, clean and free
And so the hands help me
Ease into the river
Where I expel
The Pain and Shame from my body,
The water carrying it all
Out and away
I release, exhale
And hold the image of a setting desert sun
As the reference point for my new center
Keeping it simple is real. Coming back to center is a real place. It’s not a metaphor.
You might know this place from yoga or tai chi, from golf or tennis, when the ball has a spin, or the swing feels right. You know it when you are feeling the alignment of your body, the spools lining up in your spine, the energy of the chakras spinning in some vibrational pattern that seems both quiet and alive. You know it when everything feels soft inside, but not too relaxed, poised and dynamic, in a flow. If you are singer, you know it when the voice is effortless and resonance is a felt sense.
It is what we long for after massage or other body work. It’s an actual experience where the head is on right and the muscles are not screaming for attention. Where the body has an inner purring.
We all had it as children, a lot. If not, we could not have learned to walk or get up from all fours to standing. It might not be as easily accessible in the body of an adult with our collection of compensating tensions and restrictions to our breath and balance. It might feel out of reach and impossible, BUT we all have had the experience, either in our bodies or in our imaginations.
It can be learned. I know because I can teach it to people, and I do in my work.
BODY DIALOGUE, the name I’ve given to my work, is about finding a full breath and finding that sweet ephemeral balance when the feet are grounded and the head is floating like a balloon. It’s when the upper body and the lower body are unified . Our body feels organized and connected.
There is another center that is metaphorical.
It’s often attainable even if the body is not feeling so great.
It’s when the mind is clear from worry and the emotions are steady—when the heart feels safe even when the world around is not.
It’s when the people you love can open their hearts to you, and it feels right and easy between you and the world. It’s a reference point. We call it well-being.
I think it is what our addictive society promises with the pursuit of wealth, the perfect body or the perfect partner. The addict longs for this state, but has no idea how to find it without the drug, or shopping, or they simply keep too busy to feel anything at all.
It might be what people mean when they say “everything is under control.” But I know that well-being is not about being in control. It’s knowing you can handle life when the fear feels bigger than anything else.
I call that place the allowing place. It’s a reference point that sometimes is achieved in prayer and meditation. In that place we can risk showing up to the present moment. We can feel the courage to face what is seemingly impossible. We can feel our open hearts and know our resilience even while knowing that what is showing up feels unmanageable. It’s a state of mind that we might call grace or ease. Sometimes we find it on vacation when we have eliminated stress. BUT but more often than not it’s simply a fleeting moment when we can say:
I am grateful for this moment,
I am present to what is.
It comes and goes. It’s not static. Not something we can hold onto even if we want to. It simply is. It’s our recognition of being BOTH Human and Divine.
Keeping it simple is a practice of coming back to center over and over again. It’s finding that sweet spot where true beauty resides and deep listening happens.
It’s a practice because its takes practice to know it is always there, if we say yes to it .
My experience has shown me that even when the heart center is closed and the physical center is hard to find, there is a practice of trusting that it is present and can be accessed.
Sometimes we need the body practice to help the mind/heart. Sometimes we need the body to kickstart the process. Sometimes we need gratitude practice to anchor the emotional body in something larger than our small self.
We all have had a moment in life where we know what trust feels like.
For me, I am celebrating the ability to know the difference between trust and worry, courage and complaint.
I say this holiday season is about practice,
whatever the religion, whatever you believe about the world.
We all need to find center these days and to keep it simple.
When I was three years old, I would dance around the foyer of our house in Maine. Somehow I knew that the greatest expression of joy, for me, was finding my wings to fly. So I danced; according to my mother and my sisters, I danced in the morning and I danced in the evening. Sometimes I even set up chairs for them to watch me dance. The foyer had etched glass window panes in the door. I remember dancing with the light and the shadows. I knew what complete freedom felt like. But a year later, we left that house in Maine, and I mark that trip as the beginning of recognizing contrast from total expansion and freedom to constriction and fear.
I entered into a period of deep grief, and when we finally arrived in Long Island, NY, far from the ocean and the seagulls, and the foyer with the etched glass windows, I began a journey to reclaim what I knew was true as a little girl.
Fast forward to 1965, when I was a student at the Martha Graham school of dance. Having spent twelve years trying to learn proper technique so that my body would master the elements of dance, so I could learn to fly with control, I recognized that to become a Martha Graham dancer was more about deprivation and restriction than it was about freedom and joy. That summer, I entered the American College Dance Festival and met Sally Stackhouse who was a principal dancer for Jose Limon. In her classes, I felt like I could fly across the floor in leaps and jumps and turns. In the next few months, I entered a huge battle within myself. Could I dance with that freedom or would I go back to classes that taught me about control and perfection?
This story is the seed of my work, Body Dialogue. I have been in a conversation all these years, asking how do I find joy, freedom, and expansion in movement, and at the same time fly like a bird and coast with the angels? I am exploring the concept of My Body as my Best Friend. She has been my guide and teacher as I have navigated this journey of contrast, felt in my cells and experienced in my bones, muscle and in the energy that I call “my body”.
Everything is energy. The breath is energy, our thoughts are energy, our bodies are the accumulation of our history and our presence in the moment. The physical body is of a different vibration than the emotional and spiritual bodies. But ideally when we line up the physical, emotional, and spiritual, we are allowing healing to occur in all three realms.
This article by Marion Woodman in Parabola helps us understand the pattern of addiction that is rampant in our culture. Her analysis helps to explain how we have arrived in this moment. Marion passed away in early July and left her students and her writings as her legacy
For the last number of years, my body has taken on a different shape. I have grown wider and my stomach has rounded into a mound. My already crooked spine has gotten more crooked and places that used to be so flexible are starting to lose that ease I once had. Places that were once angular are now sharp, and places that seemed strong now feel rigid. It has been very easy to feel angry now that I have “more junk in my trunk” as they say. My photos reveal someone I hardly know. When I look at them, I do not like what I see, and I often ask “who is that?” I feel disgust or complete rejection of my own image, but that is my new edge. I have not yet fully accepted who I have become or what I see, but I am beginning to delve deeply into the self-criticism and self-loathing that is showing up.
If my body is my best friend, then how do I befriend this person inhabiting this Body?
How do I name it? What do I call myself? I used to simply go up and down five pounds, now I just keep growing. I love food and eating but it’s more that that; I eat whenever I can as if I am fueling a huge machine. Sometimes I think I am stuffing down the pain of my fears of the future; a world my grandchildren will not be able to live in, my fears of elephants and dolphins disappearing. How can I not be terrified by that?
I am also not moving as much as I did in the past. I am not walking every day because walking hurts my hip and my back. I am not motivated to jump up early in the morning to do my yoga or my stretching. So am I all of a sudden lazy? Or am I in a different rhythm?
I am writing this to you because my assistant Maddie suggested that this is a conversation that tends to be kept private. Few people want to talk about what happens to our Body as we age. Few people are willing to verbalize the ongoing struggle with shame and rejection of the Body.
What happens to us as we find ourselves different form before? How do adjust our expectations and our inner perceptions? How do we continue to be in a healthy Body Dialogue if there is disgust, loathing and anger as our new behaviors?
Now, I can only call on love and compassion; full acceptance. It was not this hard before, but now it is a daily practice. I am starting a loving kindness practice between me and my body. Not a deprivation regime but a strategy of indulging in unconditional love.
Can I challenge myself, not to thirty days of lemon juice and olive oil, but thirty days of loving kindness? Can I use my will in the service of love, not power? Can I invite my animal Body to speak and tell me what she wants and needs? Can I feel the shape that I have become as Janice too?
I release the inner critic when I see a new me!
I write this letter to you because I want to model a new way of thinking of our aging bodies. I am writing to teach a new course of self-correction based on love, acceptance and invitation. I am imagining this new energy as a gift to my body. My guidance tells me that now is the time to release all the phony ways we have been dominated and told what beauty is. Beauty is truly from the eyes of love.
This invitation is for you and me and any others who want to join me.
Try this when you have a voice inside that is filled with shame:
Sense into where you first heard that voice. Is it truly your own? Whose voice is it? Where in your body do you feel the messages of this broken voice?
Then ask your body to show you the opposite of that voice.
For example, if in my mind I hear my mother’s disgust at my family members for having no self-control and gaining weight, I replace it with remembering how I feel when I am swimming as a positive reinforcement for a new behavior. I bathe myself in this more life-giving feeling. After-all, our friendship with our body has very little to do with how we look, and a lot to do with how we feel.
Ask yourself: When do you feel the most at home in your body? When do you feel the most alive? The most energized? The most at peace? How can you make space and time to support these positive feelings?
We hope you will enjoy this poem by Sonya Renee Taylor: The Body is Not an Apology
PBS special Breaking Big with Roxane Gay, a leading voice in the feminist movement
Recently, a friend of mine who is also a psychotherapist, was sharing a technique with me that helps to clear emotional blocks in the body. She commented that sometimes people are unable to do the technique because they are so blocked from getting into their physical selves. In response, I reflected that although there are so many reasons why someone may be blocked from being fully embodied, most often someone simply might not feel safe enough to drop into their physical self. What I aim to do in my private sessions and my classes is to create safety through my touch and my presence. In addition, the teachings of F.M. Alexander emphasize using the mind to direct the energy. By using these inner verbal cues, we are encouraging the flow of energy in a particular direction. My hands and my own body have years of experience, so I can detect the very subtle ways that people shut down their field and disconnect from their somatic cues. By using the breath, I persuade areas that are closed to open. For people who are too open in their energetic field, I help ground their energy in their muscles and their bones. The subtle awareness of this dialogue is not always understood cognitively by my students, but by the end of the session when they get off the table, their body feels different, and they know that something has shifted.
The reason people like massage and other hands-on modalities is because it gives them the permission to drop into the physical body with no expectation of performance. Perhaps in the work of Body Dialogue, we go one step further. We use the breath and the mind to converse with the energy that lives within our physical existence. We create a somatic-based conversation. We call this the subtle body. In order to make our bodies our friends, we need to engage all aspects of our energetic field, which includes our thoughts, our belief systems, and the stories we tell ourselves. Engaging in this way is a process and a practice. Deepening our relationship with our body takes time, care, and attention. Some people see color and some see images. Some use sound and some use kinesthetics. We are all different. Sometimes we need the help of a practitioner to facilitate or initiate this dialogue. Ultimately, you have the potential to understand yourself more than anyone else. I invite you to enter this conversation with your body.
We are born knowing how to breathe. Every baby (with the exception of infants with birth trauma) takes in a full breath and exhales completely. It is the miracle of life. It is our birthright. For this reason, when I work hands-on with my students, I know they have that capacity in their muscle memory. Even if there has been severe childhood trauma and dissociation, the body knows how to breathe. It is the gift of our autonomic nervous system. You do not have to be a singer or a yogi to learn how to have maximum efficiency of your diaphragm, or how to make a full resonant tone. In days of stress and tension, we forget this simple fact, even if our body knows it.
In Body Dialogue, my job is to invite my students into the experience of a full free expansive breath. So many people come to me knowing they are short of breath and completely stymied by what keeps them so restricted. In my private sessions and in my retreats, I teach simple practical tools to unlock the rigidity of the ribcage and release the sound.
This May 4-6, I am offering a small retreat for women who are curious about their breathing patterns, their physical restrictions, and want to explore the joy of movement. This retreat will restore your vitality, and enliven your soul.
Check out this short video for a glimpse into the beauty of the ACA campus.
Last month I had the joy of being a guest on Carol Cox’s Speaking Your Brand podcast. It gave me an opportunity to tell listeners why better breathing is so important in giving presentations, and in living a fuller and more expressive public life. This is actually only one of the many places that better breathing helps.
I wanted to share the interview with you because it explains so much about the connection between breathing and our communication. I think this could help people in ways that are probably surprising and unexpected.
More than simply helping to calm your nerves or speak more clearly (which it definitely does as well!), using your breath properly and intentionally can connect you on a deeper level with your audience and make your words more powerful and impactful (it’s physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual).
This is what the best speakers in the world do – and you can too.
Janice and I also talk about why we’re often reluctant to have silence and pauses in our conversations and presentations (and, I would add, in our lives), but why it’s crucial for our listeners (and us).”
~Carol Cox, SPEAKING YOUR BRAND PODCAST
The importance of breath, tone, resonance, vibration, and grounding the body
How to let your breath guide the voice so your words are powerful and impactful
How pauses and silences are necessary so your audience see you as the authority on your topic
Techniques to invite your audience into your speech
The importance of physical and vocal warmups before a speaking engagement