I’ve been binge-listening to Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, master cantadora, curandera and Jungian psychoanalyst. Whenever I need a Wise Woman injection, I sit at her knee and wrap my shoulders in her warm voice and soul-truth stories… via Audible, anyway.
In The Joyous Body, Clarissa writes that the body stores memories. It tucks away history, experience and imprint, as I’ve witnessed time and again over years working with women’s bodies:
… how a sudden adolescent growth spurt or blossoming bosom marks itself in the hunched curve of a shoulder,
… or an unforgotten betrayal holds the lips in a pressed, flat line,
… or how a stifled sensual coming-of-age, squelched by a moment’s careless word or look, freezes the hips into a fixed, unmoving undercarriage.
The body’s untold stories shape how we carry ourselves and whether we open ourselves to new experiences – or, unwittingly, block the opportunities we so fervently desire.
The body, with its unspoken beliefs absorbed over a lifetime, trumps conscious thought every time. And all too often, girls and women believe that they and their scars are invisible. But our bodies are like satellite dishes, transmitting and receiving information at a depth and scope we rarely acknowledge.
People see us, whether we like it or not. Their bodies’ stories respond to our bodies’ stories. So, you may say that you want more clients in your business, while the set of your jaw says: “Stay away.” Or you may want greater intimacy with your beloved… while a hard glint around your eyes says “Others have disappointed me so many times. Don’t even bother trying.”
Some of the key work clients and I do together is around these unspoken messages, implementing simple body strategies with startling results:
B., a brilliant coach and entrepreneur, struggled to connect with her ideal mate, despite several online dating profiles. A single recommendation on how she held herself when responding to inquiries changed everything. She met a dream guy within weeks. Men started coming out of the woodwork to flirt with her in a way they never had before. Amazed, she said, “Working with you changed my life.”
I learned about my own body’s unspoken stories firsthand when I trained for my first national bellydance competition.
My coach D. and I had been preparing for months. He identified and corrected habits I’d developed over years of teaching. For example, I maintained precise control of my movements, dancing a hair ahead of the music so that students could follow right on time. D. and I worked to loosen the grip my teaching techniques had on my artistry.
One session changed my dance forever. I was practicing my shimmy, the joyous vibration – especially through the hips – characteristic of belly dance. “Can I ask you… a personal question?” he asked quietly over Skype, he in his San Diego office, me in my Chicago suburban studio. Surprised, I nodded wordlessly.
“Was your husband controlling?” he asked, tentatively.
Suddenly the tears surged, and I had to step away. While D. agonized that he may have lost a prized student, I quietly shuddered with sobs off-screen. Memories flooded, as one by one I thought of partners and relationships going back to childhood.
Where I had forgiven and released people who exerted control over, even abused me, my body had internalized and still carried their message: This body… uncontained… unrestrained, is “too much,” “out of control,” shameful. I had learned a tightrope, tightly-controlled walk born of fear and shame, so customary it felt like home.
Wiping my eyes, I returned to the screen. David heaved a sigh of relief.
And suddenly: a tension I hadn’t known existed, unclenched. A dam broke. As I shimmied, my hips rocked and pistoned with a vigor and freedom I had never achieved before, in 10 years of practice. Hot damn, I could put an eye out with that shimmy! And it only took a moment’s watershed realization to free them.
To be clear: the body also stores joyous experiences, as I discovered in a massage that reawakened a vivid memory of my daughter’s raucous passage out of the womb! Happy memories expand rather than constrict, free rather than limit the body.
By naming the story I held in my hips, I unleashed energy I hadn’t realized was bound. I went on to win a trophy in that national competition, unheard-of for a first-time participant.
What I have found, over years of research as a women and gender studies major in college and beyond, over years of on-the ground experience dancing with women and hearing their stories, is that: though my story, like every woman’s, is unique, it represents a common pattern.
A sidelong look, a hurled insult, a parental observation, a nonconsensual grope. An assault, a harassment, a whisper. Trauma folds into the body like a passed note, carrying a secret… calloused and scarred into place; and, it is readily shed with the right key.
Where might your body hold a story you’re ready to release? What untapped energy lays buried or bound? And what lays on the other side of it for you?