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The two weeks following Session 4 have been … bipolar. The moments during and immediately following the session were some of my most powerful ever, but then for a good week I felt like I had regressed nearly all the way back to baseline in terms of how my body was behaving.
Then, like magic, a few days later, I’m feeling my body in a brand new, wonderful way.
Laurie “warned” me that many people viewed the fourth session of Rolfing as a ho-hum prelude to the more enticing Session 5, which centers on the heavy-duty psoas structure.
Session 4—the first of Rolfing’s “Core” sessions (sessions 4 through 7 in the Ten Series)—focuses on the inside arch of the foot and up the leg to the bottom of the pelvis.
She told me to picture the importance of this session like a fountain, the way the water shoots up through the center in a solid stream and then cascades down. We need to pull our resources up from the bottom—through the feet, legs, and pelvis—before it’s possible to shower ourselves fully in the energy that surrounds us.
Well, for what is considered a rather “eh” session in other clients’ opinions ended up being a hotbed of sensation and emotional release for me.
When I went to lie down on the table, I was a buzzing bundle of stress. I had just started a new, demanding job that week and carried my tension with me. I was so heavy with angst and exhaustion and mental commotion that I feared absolutely nothing would affect me during the session, that Laurie’s intentions would do nothing for me.
That said, I hardly remember exactly what the session entailed, anatomically. Instead of trying to keep track of what she was doing and how she was moving my body, I just gave myself to Laurie. I gave my brain permission to shut off and surrendered to her touch.
I do remember at one point, with my knee bent and pulled into my chest, as Laurie’s hands kneaded my hamstrings all the way up to my buttocks and groin, I thought, “Oh, now this is Rolfing.” Translation: Oh crap, this is physically intense.
I wasn’t complaining, though. I have a high tolerance for deep tissue work, and I always find it a shame that it’s so hard to find a massage therapist who is willing to navigate that very important (yet “private”) area. Yes, it’s very intimate and the client has to have some degree of vulnerability to allow a stranger to dig deep just inches away from your perineum, but that is where some of our most buried wounds and emotions are stored.
For me, it’s been a very guarded area due to the labral tear in my hip and the impingements in both of my femurs. It’s my “problem area.” But with Laurie, I completely trusted her and knew that she wasn’t causing pain; rather, it was release.
As the session continued, I realized I was experiencing color visualizations. This is a fairly common occurrence for me when I am meditating or deep in yoga—what I think are just random objects begin to pass through my mind, but then I realize there is a pattern—they are all the same color.
This time, the objects were all deep red hues—a human heart, pools of blood, roasted red peppers. Perhaps a nod toward the root chakra, located at the base of the spine near the coccyx?
When I flipped onto my back for the end of the session, something shifted. One of the closing movements of every session is for me to do a small bridge pose—pressing my feet into the table, lifting my pelvis, and then sinking back down into Laurie’s hand, which rests under my sacrum.
This time, however, everything felt completely different.
The bottoms of my feet were just soaking up heat, pulling up from my soles energy that collected in my knees and then poured from the knees down my thighs, pooling into my pelvis.
My legs didn’t feel like liquid—no. My legs felt like vessels to a larger drainage system, containers for a very elaborate energetic sump pump that was squeezing in warm and fluid energy from below my feet and expelling it into my pelvic bowl.
It was turning into a non-human experience. It was neither pleasure nor pain. It didn’t itch or burn or ache. It was just … warmth. A bit of a heavy tingling sensation, but not “my-legs-are-falling-asleep” tingling.
Your know the emotional feelings you get when you hear a heartwarming story about a random act of kindness or see a video of an animal rescuing its owner? Imagine hearing or seeing hundreds of those stories all at once but then translating those emotions into physical sensations.
That’s kind of what was coursing through my feet, legs, and pelvis. I didn’t know what to do with all those feelings! In that case, what happens is that I get very warm, begin sweating, breathing quickly, and tears start escaping from my eyes.
The sump pump, in working order, does its job to make sure the soil has what it needs and then disperses the rest. Whoosh.
I slipped into a bit of a primordial state at the very end. Behind my closed eyelids, everything felt like it got much lighter, as though someone had pulled open the window blinds in the room.
My body felt like it was losing shape, that instead of a long-limbed, 5’6″ woman, I was nothing but a collection of rounded flesh, shapeless. In my mind’s eye, I no longer had hair—my head was bald, a fetus—a feeling as though I were in utero but not at all feeling suffocated or claustrophobic.
A pleasant, light-filled container. That’s where I rested for the final moments of my session.
When I stood up to get dressed, my knees felt huge, as though the ball-and-socket joints had been replaced by those inflated plastic bags that have taken the place of styrofoam packing peanuts for protecting packages.
I also felt incredibly buoyant when I stood upright, as though balloons were resting under and next to every limb. I imagined that I looked a bit like Ralphie’s brother in A Christmas Story, when he’s wearing that massive marshmallow-like snow suit: “I can’t put my arms down!”
The morning after the session, as I put on my underpants after my shower, something occurred to me: I had just slipped into my undergarments using my non-dominant leg first. I always always always put on pants in a right-left fashion.
But now, left-right?! I paused, bewildered, realizing that I did something that felt different, “off,” and new.
… And that was where the magic ended for about a week, as suddenly all of my old aches and body nuisances returned, from my aching lower back to my wonky scapula.
Walking felt crooked again, and I did not like the way my body felt during a 5Rhythms class. I was very frustrated and feared that doing Rolfing during such intense life events (divorce, new job, moving) was counterproductive.
But a week and a half after the session, something changed. My body aches began to soften, and one of the biggest noticeable differences was the way my body felt during moments of sexual passion.
Sustained. Elongated. Full-bodied.
The fountain metaphor now totally made sense, with every orgasm feeling like a loop of energy being drawn up through my center and then cascading down, a continuous dance of rising and falling.
An act that has always been about feeling had suddenly intensified to a new level, this particular Rolfing session perhaps tapping the entryway to the core of something exhilarating.
Now who said Session 4 wasn’t interesting?!
The third session of Rolfing is a big one. It’s taking the openings created on the top half of the body from Session 1, those made in the feet and legs in Session 2, and linking those upper and lower halves together by working along the side body, kind of like plucking out worn-out stitches from a plush doll and sewing it all back together with fresh, smooth thread.
I realize that each time I enter Laurie’s office, I am filled with nervous excitement and curiosity about the places I’ll go in those 60 minutes. It’s a bit of a paradox, because I am incredibly present as she works on my body, but the energy she stirs up always sends me into sensation that feels far beyond this earth.
Laurie reminded me that *that* is how we are intended to feel. Being in tune with that swirling energy and openness isn’t meant to be a deviation from normal—it’s how everyone should be experiencing their bodies!
So, really, I’m not going anywhere. I’m coming home.
Coming home is about stepping off the massage table, slipping into my clothes, and standing upright feeling completely supported in space. The sensation startled me as I got my bearings together after the session: ‘
It felt like I wasn’t activating a single muscle to keep me standing.
I wasn’t “loopy” or “floating” as I typically am after a traditional massage. No, I was balanced so evenly in space that it was effortless to remain vertical.
There’s not much one can do when feeling that way, other than let out a stunned, “Whoaaaaaaa.”
In that moment, I did not feel like a body surrounded by energy. I felt like energy surrounded by a human body, like my skin and (unactivated) muscle and bone was nothing more than a paper-thin shawl wrapped around my feather-light being.
So, how did I get to that place?
Unlike regular massage sessions where one remains either on her belly or back, most of this session I remained on my side after some initial work on my front body.
The first time I rolled on my side, it felt like my torso and everything below was a big bowl of warm soup, my lower half an ever-expanding bowl. It was so fluid and pleasant, and my hips—always a source of tension and apprehension due to my labral tear—felt like they had been transformed into miso broth.
Working on my upper half, Laurie would ask me to lift my arm, elbow up, which she held and adjusted as necessary. A little tension but never pain, I began to experience a feeling of being disjointed, as though my hand was floating out in space, unattached to the rest of me. My scapula—also hanging out in space.
Separate body parts suspended in mid-air, a mobile of various flesh-covered units.
The more I thought about the sensation, I realized what was happening. These parts were being pulled out of regular alignment like crooked books on a library shelf, being worked on separately, then being inserted back into place. Laurie the Rolfer/librarian was just dusting off the books and then nestling them back into their proper spot on the shelf.
No longer crooked, and now in alphabetical order.
Still on my side, she worked my lower half, asking me to align my shoulder to hip to knee to foot, and then I gently moved my knee back into hyperflexion, then forward. I did this motion repeatedly as she worked up through the knee, the iliotibial band, my quadratus lumborum, up through my torso.
If the eyes are windows to the soul, then the sides are windows to spirit, because this action brought on a sensation of brightness and airiness, as though the space between my armpit and iliac crest was a picture window, and Laurie was gently pulling back the heavy drapes that had covered it for so long.
I’m pretty sure I heard angels singing, because it felt like I was getting a glimpse into heaven—that’s how bright and pure it felt!
When there wasn’t heavenly light or disjointed library books (see what I mean about the places I go?!), there was lots of buzzing energy as I lie there on my side. It came and went in intensity, like a crackling radio station trying to come through, tuning in, tuning out, from static noise to FULL VOLUME.
This was probably the most “uncomfortable” part of the session, because my reaction was to turn it down immediately instead of being curious and listening to it. Laurie was turning my frequency dial, and I just didn’t know how to process all this new, incoming feedback.
Flipping back onto my back after that side work was an exhilarating feeling. My nostrils felt HUGE, the size of dinner places, able to draw in so much oxygen.
In addition, the upper lobes of my lungs—well, I could feel them! And give them air without even trying. I inhaled, and my lungs filled to full capacity. No more struggling for a deep breath.
What a better place we’d all be in if we could breathe like that all the time!
To complete the session, Laurie moved toward my scalp then drew her hands away slowly. My radio dial was still tuned in, and my nose and upper lip sensed her energy mingling with mine. It was so strong that my head and face began to draw upward to her, like a curious puppy smelling a pleasant scent, literally arching my head toward her fingers.
Soon after that, my scalp started to tingle at very specific points, as though she had attached live EEG wires to my head.
Then, I found myself where I started this post: standing upright with absolutely no effort.
I left Laurie’s office feeling keenly observant about everything around me, making connections where I may not have seen them before.
For example, in the bathroom, a strand from the throw rug under my feet happened to curve in the very same shape as a random marking on the slate floor.
Then, I noticed the tissue box on the bathroom sink had same curly curve.
I was so enamored with this similarity that I had to take a photo. That’s the kind of place I was in.
For what it’s worth, this pattern re-appeared later the following week, when I went into a liquor store for a new bottle of wine. I only realized the pattern just now:
Speaking of roots, the first week following Session 3 was amazing. I felt grounded yet free and experienced some wonderful openings, both emotionally and physically. I went to a beginner’s yoga class and actually enjoyed it, rather than continuously readjusting myself to feel comfortable.
I really thought I had turned a corner in my physical comfort … until this week. The second week after Session 3, I experienced some major life events that I think really made me slip a little. My left-side twinges are returning, along with the aggravating “tug” in my lower back/sacrum.
Granted, they are not as severe as they were pre-Rolfing, but enough to make me lament the gains I had made up until this point.
Let’s see how Session 4 works out tomorrow, and in the meantime, I’ll do my best to stay rooted, as reminded by my wine!
The second session of my 10-part Rolfing series began very similarly to a 5Rhythms® movement class, with an emphasis on the feet. My therapist Laurie explained that this particular session would not be as physically intense as the previous one, which had focused on such an anatomical (and emotional!) powerhouse: the ribs, solar plexus, and diaphragm.
She described that the first session was necessary in order to release the areas around the lungs, as this kind of work is not possible without being able to breathe fully!
Once that key area is open, it’s then time to work on the “grounding” areas of the body: the feet and lower legs.
Her description of why the feet are so important early on in Rolfing made so much sense, as it is also a key concept in the 5Rhythms practice. Flowing, the first rhythm, the rhythm of the earth, is about finding your connection to the floor, establishing groundedness, pulling energy up from the earth as your sustenance rather than grasping frantically at air.
It’s not about knowing where you’re going but having confidence you’ll be able to get yourself there, wherever “there” is. You’re completely aware of the support holding you upright.
Laurie was right—the first half of the 60-minute session was incredibly relaxing and reminded me of reflexology, the way she pressed into key pressure points on my feet. Reflexively, my fingers began to fan along with my spreading toes.
It was certainly more active than reflexology, though, with her prompting me to flex and release my ankle several times as she worked in that area and up my calves. It felt a bit like a PT session for a foot injury, with all of the repetition. (And I’m speaking highly of PT here, not knocking it! It did wonders for me 4 years ago for my hip issues.)
Like the first session, I began to experience some interesting sensations as the session continued.
The first thing I noticed was a distortion in my perception of size. My body began to feel very small and Laurie’s arms, which were working on my legs at the time, very long. Lying there with my eyes closed, I did not understand how Laurie’s condor wing-arms could continue to move up and up and up my leg, which felt no longer than a standard ruler. I was certain she’d hit my head, when in reality she never strayed from my leg.
Then, the reverse. My legs no longer felt tiny but expansive, billowing from below my quadriceps like clouds or overly fluffy pillows. It got to the point where my legs no longer felt attached to my body, that they were these highly sensitive entities hanging out in my personal space but not attached by means of bone or muscle, tendons or ligaments. It was a very contradictory sensation—my legs feeling “detached,” and yet I was still so highly aware of them, feeling every touch of Laurie’s.
But perhaps the most powerful moment of the session was when Laurie was working on my left knee. She was doing nothing painful or terribly intense, but suddenly it felt like that knee was a portal to All The Energy on the left side of my body, and she had successfully opened it.
I felt a rush of warm, pleasant, bubbly energy spread up through my hip, chest, spine, all the way up into the back of my skull. My body rocked in place a bit, and I released some kind of vocal exclamation—a laugh or a Wow! or an ecstatic *&*&((**^####! All I remember was feeling like I had just experienced a kundalini opening on my left side, and that the knee was the trigger point.
Laurie ended my session the same way she does for each, by cradling the neck and skull and doing some kind of energy healing that this time felt like I had long Rapunzel-like locks spreading outward that she was combing with an electrically charged brush. It’s both a bizarre and comforting feeling, all at once.
(Would it be weird to say that right before the Rapunzel hair sensation, I felt like everything from my neck up was encased in a swirling red, gold, and green Christmas ball, but it was a sensation so soothing and reassuring that I was nearly brought to tears? Yeah? Well, that’s what was going on.)
My immediate sensations after the session included:
- Baby-smooth soles, as though they had been scrubbed with a pumice stone.
- Incredible sense of equal weight distribution between the feet—no wobbling from right to left.
- Intense awareness of the bottoms of my feet, almost like I could feel the bottom of my shoes through my socks.
- A sense of walking with purpose and confidence.
- Vibrancy of the world around me, senses in high gear—mostly in the way I perceived color (green tree buds, red cars, yellow street signs).
- My legs looking much thinner when I put my pants back on after the session, as though I had done some magic instant toning exercise routine.
- My left foot expelling excess energy during my car ride home, a bubbly sensation, like my foot was carbonated!
- HUGE emotional release during the drive home, crying just to cry, which released a lot of blockage in my throat area.
It has been about two weeks since that session, and I’m still happy with the way my feet feel. Maybe it’s also because I’m wearing thinner socks or no socks now due to the warmer weather, but I do feel like I have more contact with the floor than usual.
I’ve noticed my gait feels more comfortable now—I take a walking break every day at lunch and sometimes felt like I was walking on a tilt. That has subsided.
The effects from the first session are still sticking for the most part as well. I don’t feel like I’m being tugged forward on my left side, and I’ve been able to incorporate more lunges into my morning stretching routine, something I stopped doing for a while because of the restriction I felt in my psoas, pelvis, and lower back. Now, those lunges actually feel good rather than a prelude to another hip injury.
This week I return for Session 3: the side body!
When I entered my therapist’s office last week, the session started with a 30-minute consultation during which I described the most prominent and frustrating discomforts in my body, including postural/gait imbalances stemming from a small labral tear in my left hip, which leads to pain and locking in my sacrum and low back, as well as leg-length discrepancies that make me feel like I’m wobbling; a left shoulder that always feels sloped forward and contributes to neck and occasional jaw pain; and an incredibly tight psoas that constricts full diaphragmatic breathing.
The next step was for Laurie to examine my posture as I talked my way through how my body felt from the inside.
Standing fully clothed in front of her, I closed my eyes and described the way the soles of my feet pressed into the floor, how my knees balanced my weight, what the inside of my pelvis felt like as though it were a bucket carrying grains of sand. Was the sand evenly spread from femur to femur? Or did the sand feel heavier on one side? We used this kind of visualization up through my shoulders, and then I walked across the room a few times for her to assess my gait.
Some people may find this kind of description difficult to tap into, but as a very visual and sensory learner, I found it very natural and was happy to be with someone who worked in this manner.
I liked Laurie before I even stripped down to my underwear and got on the table!
The 60-minute bodywork session began ever-so-gently with Laurie pressing key acupressure points in my face, neck, and scalp and eventually working into my shoulders and arms, my ribcage and diaphragm, and then some work on my hips, buttocks, and upper legs. This is the traditional format of Session 1.
I was prepared for tightness in my left shoulder, and it was there. But it was never more than I could handle, and the most intense moments only lasted a few seconds. Laurie was constantly readjusting my arms, elbows, and hands like a puppet, and it felt good to move with the massage rather than lie passively and have someone dig in.
In that sense, my first Rolfing session felt like a combination of all my favorite bodywork/movement modalities—traditional massage, Thai yoga massage, chiropractic, yin yoga—all wrapped into one package, with a side of deep meditation.
I have a history of falling asleep during massage sessions, and although the Rolfing was at times surprisingly relaxing and comforting, I never felt the urge to drift off, mostly because I was taking great pleasure in the ways Laurie’s attentive work allowed me to feel my body in ways that had been locked off for so long.
For example, when Laurie worked on my perpetually tight psoas—which has been pulling on my diaphragm and sacrum for some time now—I experienced a wonderful opening in my sacrum, a sensation deep within the tailbone that I have only felt once before during a particularly intense A.R.T. session on that same area.
It was like smelling a marvelous new scent—imagine your nose suddenly inhaling something delicious—except it was my low back feeling something that had never been felt before.
I believe the words I said to Laurie were, “It feels like you’re tapping into a hidden repository of feeling in my sacrum!”, like Indiana Jones coming across a new, glimmering treasure buried deep in an ancient temple. It was there all along but just needed to be discovered!
I had a similar experience in my torso—after several minutes of her fingers smoothing out the tissue between my ribs, I had the sensation of my chest just opening and opening and opening like a blooming flower in fast forward.
My post-session description: “It was like a gynecological exam for my ribcage; she just spread me wide open!” It was a new sensation of expansiveness that I have not felt in a very long time.
Rolfing was no doubt more intimate that a traditional massage session in the way Laurie needed to work deep near my ribs and tailbone. That meant working near my breasts and close to my coccyx (i.e., at the top of my butt crack), but the sensation was more relieving than weird or uncomfortable. I am not modest when it comes to pain relief!
The work was also highly energetic and meditative for me. When she worked on my solar plexus, I felt a relaxing blue color spread through the area. Later, as she touched the same area as I lay on my side, I felt a wave of emotion swell from torso to throat, enough to make my eyes tickle with the beginnings of tears.
Midway through the session, I began to feel like a pot of water sitting on the stovetop, as though tiny happy bubbles were beginning a slow and steady rumble under my skin. I described the sensation to Laurie.
“What do you think that is?” I asked.
“That’s called good ol’ fashioned energy!” she replied.
By the end of the session, the bubbling had intensified to what I described as feeling jittery, giddy, and highly caffeinated. Laurie indicated that was a good sign, that we had worked deep enough to tap into the energetic body. Right on cue, it was time to wrap up the session before the energy got too intense.
Sure enough, as I lay on my back and Laurie did a few final touches on my scalp, something amazing happened.
She pulled her fingers off of my head, but I could still feel her. I knew she was no longer physically in contact with my head, but she was doing something above my scalp, and it felt like my facial skin was being pulling upward, a kind of energetic facelift. The sensation triggered an eruption of energy, which spilled forth in a burst of laughter.
It was not ha-ha funny laughter or nervous laughter but simply my body’s way of releasing the energy she had been coaxing. Almost instantly Laurie laughed back, saying she was keenly aware of the bubble of energy she was working with as well.
Stepping off the table, I felt amazingly aware of my bodies—yes, plural intended—my physical and energetic bodies. I felt like the planet Saturn, surrounded with rings of sensation that reached far beyond my corporeal surface.
Laurie encouraged me to use that sensation as a support, to learn to be comfortable being supported and carried by those rings of energy rather than using brute physical force to carry my body through space. I love this visualization, and I will probably write in greater detail about it later as I learn to incorporate it into my dance practice.
Before I left, I stood in front of Laurie again, feeling my way through my body from the bottoms of my feet up to my scalp. I was surprised at how firmly my feet were planted into the ground, when earlier I felt so wobbly and off-balance. The amazing thing is that Laurie didn’t do any work on my legs below my knees, which goes to show that everything is indeed connected.
Other immediate effects included a very acute tingling sensation in the big toe joint of my left foot, as though someone had spread Biofreeze on the area. This is the toe that has arthritis, and I couldn’t believe how vividly it was “speaking” to me after a session that included absolutely zero work on my feet.
It wasn’t pain, just an energetic “Hello, stuff has opened up in the rest of your body that is now trickling all the way down to me. This pesky arthritis has ‘locked’ me out for some time, but now I’m beginning to feel again!”
I felt strangely alert when I left Laurie’s office. Massages tend to make me super-sleepy and lethargic, but the feeling I had after Rolfing was more akin to how I feel after meditation or kundalini yoga—totally in tune with the world around me, grounded, radiant, and receptive.
That evening, I attempted a simple backbend by pressing my hands into my sacrum, raising my chest, and tilting my spine back. Recently, my range of motion in this pose has been embarrassingly limited with my thoracic tightness, but that night I was able to see the wall behind me. I could not believe how far I was able to go back and the wonderful opening in my chest that allowed me to do so.
* * *
At the time I drafted this post, it had been exactly 1 week since my first session, and although I feel tugged by my old compensatory patterns, I am trying to be mindful of my movement and work on staying open and expansive.
I have noticed much more opening in my sacrum, chest, and shoulders during my warrior lunges in yoga and considerably more flexibility in my spine during backbends (but not as deep as that one the first evening). I can also bend forward into gorilla pose without feeling the usual psoas-sacrum-hamstring tug that so often limited my stretch.
I am staggering my 10 sessions every two to three weeks to help with the payments, and Laurie reassured me that I won’t “lose” what I’ve learned in-between sessions.
I return this week for Session 2, which involves the feet and lower legs. Watch out, Arthritic Toe!
Well, it’s official. I’ve been Rolfed.
Now that’s a phrase that may raise eyebrows, I’m sure. Is this something that requires filing a police report? Who did what to me, and am I OK? Is this a prank akin to getting Rickrolled?
In short, Rolfing® is a bodywork technique that aims to work out the kinks in the body’s fascia (connective tissue) that have accumulated over years of poor posture, compensatory patterns, and injury/overuse.
It’s different from massage, I learned, in that focal point of massage is muscle. Muscles have distinct attachment and insertion points in the bones, whereas fascia is an interconnected web of tissue that sheaths the entire body, “supporting and penetrating all of the muscles, bones, nerves, and organs” (Source).
Therefore, as the old saying goes, everything is connected. For example, a few years of sitting hunched over a laptop will not only affect your neck and spine but also your lungs, diaphragm, sacrum, hips, so on and so forth.
I’ve been getting deep-tissue massages regularly for several years, in addition to occasional chiropractic work that incorporates the Active Release Technique (A.R.T.). Both have served me very well and have aided in easing discomfort in my hips, sacrum, psoas, and scapula.
However, over the past year the relief provided by massage and chiropractic was short-lived. I’d have work done on my shoulders one day, swim laps a few days later, and feel out of alignment all over again.
Years of yoga and conscious dance have made me hyperaware of my body’s misalignments and imbalances, which has been both a blessing and a curse.
Being in tune with my body allows me to listen and respond precisely to what it needs (e.g., what shoes to wear on a bad hip day, what stretches to do in the morning), but being super-sensitive to every little notion of crookedness also makes yoga class an exhausting ordeal, my mind scrolling through a neverending checklist of all the body parts that feel “off” in each asana.
After a few recommendations from friends, I was ready to investigate this bodywork technique that they claimed changed their lives and introduced a whole new way of feeling.
Rolfing sometimes has an intimidating reputation of being torturous and painful, often likened to a deep-tissue massage from hell. Although some therapists take on that aggressive technique, the original form developed by Ida P. Rolf was not intended to be that way, and the therapist I eventually chose reassured me that her work was deep but not breathtakingly intense.
(In fact, my therapist trained directly with Ida Rolf and has been in practice for nearly 40 years, which was a significant selling point for me.)
The other factor I needed to consider before being Rolfed was cost. Rolfing is by nature more pricey than a regular massage session, and first-time Rolfing clients are encouraged to follow the “standardized ‘recipe’ known as the Ten-Series, the goal of which is to systematically balance and optimize both the structure (shape) and function (movement) of the entire body over the course of 10 Rolfing sessions” (Source).
So right off the bat, I knew I’d have to put out at least $1,000 for my treatment, should I go ahead with the full program.
It was a difficult decision, but after my annual contract at a so-so franchise massage spa ended and I was no longer shelling out monthly dues to another bodyworker, I felt confident going ahead with a plan to reclaim my body.
Stay tuned for a detailed recap of my first visit!
Not even 15 minutes into a 5Rhythms class this past weekend, I started crying.
At first I thought it was just a random blip of emotion, but the blip continued to burgeon. Burgeoning eventually gave way to bawling.
I had been caught off guard by a movement-induced meltdown.
Dancing is normally such a joyous outlet for me, even on days I feel like the Tin Man for the first half of class. My muscles may be achy and I may feel a bit discombobulated, but I trust the practice and know deep inside that if I commit to continuous movement, my self-conscious skin will eventually shed and I’ll be a free woman within the 1-hour mark.
I’m aware that movement can also stir up the junk in the trunk and cause some pretty spectacular emotional escapades, but—at least for me—those have mostly been reserved for workshop-based settings; for example, Day 3 of a Heartbeat-level 5Rhythms workshop based around the concept of fear. In that type of setting, however, we are intentionally pushed to test our limits, and the exercises are specifically structured to move us gradually from the physical body to the emotional realm. Tears, sobbing, and moaning are pretty much the norm, especially when we have no physical energy left to stave off whatever’s been hiding underneath all the chaos.
I’ve had teary-eyed endings in several regular classes, even one class that ended with me shaking on the floor in a puddle of sweat. But after dancing for 2+ hours, I’d expect nothing less than at least some kind of emotional release, be it crying or shaking or even just smiling uncontrollably.
The difference with this release, however, was that it was so early in the practice, so sudden.
I remember being very cold. It was a gorgeous, sunny day, but the church hall we were dancing in had been locked up all morning and felt nearly 15 degrees cooler than the outside. People were dancing in their coats; several individuals who normally dance barefoot kept their socks on.
This was strike one. A hardcore vata, I hate being cold. Logically I knew that moving would no doubt warm me up, but it felt completely hopeless at the time.
As a result, I felt unusually uninspired, uncoordinated, and sloppy. I began to view my body as a hastily drawn stick figure, limbs angular and harsh, no softness, no fluidity, no sensuality. Even in the rhythm of Flowing, which carries such an earthy and organic quality, I found no inspiration.
I tried focusing on my feet, the body part associated with Flowing, but I felt like my left foot was now my right and vice versa. I did not feel steady or balanced.
A feeling of panic began to fester in my gut, a voice telling me that I was not the sensual person I thought myself to be. If my body and spirit were a utensil, I wanted to be seen as a spoon—curved, smooth, having a space for holding, an object that could cradle both hot soup and ice cream. Instead, I felt like a pair of cheap throwaway wooden chopsticks, rough and splintered.
I noticed there were more African American women in the class than normal, and every time I glanced at one of them, the gnawing in my solar plexus intensified. As I’ve written before, I have this unexplainable attraction to African-rooted dance forms and music. I envy Black dancers’ bodies, the way their hips and shoulders roll like butter. Black women are always making their into my dreams; most recently, I dreamed about a group of Black women entering a hotel lobby I was waiting in, pulling out instruments, and starting to play jazz/world music. I could not help myself from dancing, and in the dream I moved effortlessly, dancing like I have never danced before, my body and the music becoming one. I felt like magic!
Well, I did not feel like magic on that Saturday in the chilly church hall. Perhaps the post from fellow blogger Stephanie in which she writes about her dream of “the chocolate-colored woman” was clinging to my consciousness. In this post, Stephanie elaborates on the works of Jungian analyst Marion Woodman, who described the symbolism of dreams involving dark and white women:
“The Dark Goddess has to do with the Earth, the humus, the humility, the human. She has to do with sexuality, with the sheer joy of the body, with fecundity and the lusciousness of the Earth and with the love that can honour the imperfections in the human being.
Whereas the White Goddess tends to make people idealize themselves and therefore develop a huge shadow, the Black Goddess, through her sense of humour and immense love for humanity, helps us to accept our imperfections. Not only that, she helps us to see that a lot of things that we may have considered shameful in ourselves are not shameful at all.”
Was that why I began to cry every time I looked at one of the Black women dancing, my frozen body’s way of wanting to thaw and lap up the lusciousness of the earth?
I’m not exaggerating, either. Every time my eyes crossed paths with a dark-skinned woman, I felt the heaviness in my gut grow and tears spring to my eyes. I wasn’t envious of their bodies, per se, more like what they embodied. And it was all coming to a head on the dance floor.
In response, I began to use a wall for support. It was what my body asked for, to lean against something rather than stand alone in space. The wall became my partner, and once I felt its support, I could not part with it. With the backs of my legs plastered against the wood, I bent forward, head dangling, hands in my hair, and BOOM—steady tears came flowing, then sobbing, that “point of no return” crying that crumples and contorts your whole face.
What I knew I had to do was keep moving. It’s something every 5Rhythms teacher stresses, to allow the emotion to continue to dance, even when our natural reaction is to want to curl up in a fetal position and let tears take over.
It felt so hopeless at the time. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to peel myself from the wall, and I briefly envisioned doing an entire 2.5-hour class in that one spot. I tried every now and then to step away, but the separation felt terrifying. Back to wall I went. One of my classmates shared later that he had contemplated attempting to draw me away from the wall but then reconsidered, sensing I was where I needed to be and that I’d work it out on my own.
And it’s true, I did. Eyes swollen and face still puffy, I was eventually able to break free from the wall. I made sure to stay on the one side of the dance floor, the side with the windows where sunlight streamed through. It felt safe to stand in the warmth.
I survived the first Wave but just barely. I wasn’t satisfied with the way it ended, partnered for eternity with someone whose rhythm just didn’t match mine. I kept waiting and waiting for the instructor to call “Change partners” or “Dance on your own, ” but instead I slogged through Lyrical and Stillness half-heartedly, me doing my thing, my partner doing another thing, a lackluster connection that triggered the anxiety I had just worked so hard to vanquish.
Meltdown, part II.
As the first Wave ended and people gathered to listen to the instructor speak, I extended my Stillness in the upstairs bathroom, the need for something to lean on again a priority. I found a little space on the floor between the sink and the window, curled up in a ball, and found comfort in the gurgling, hissing radiator at my side and the blinding sunlight illuminating my face. I’m not usually one to “escape” during class, but I saw this as a much needed release, plus it wouldn’t have been very considerate of me to sob away during the instructor’s presentation. The watery, steamy radiator sounds complemented my tears, ultimately ushering me into my own version of Stillness.
When I finally ventured back downstairs to join the class, I felt paralyzed with raw awareness, awe, and appreciation, and even when the music started up again, I couldn’t rise from sitting; I just wanted to watch all of my classmates move, tears flowing down my face, like I was watching the final scene of one achingly heartwarming movie. I didn’t know if I was sad or had transcended to a heightened level of sensitivity in which every person was so divinely beautiful. All I knew is that I didn’t want to move, I wanted to watch, I wanted to witness each person in their moment.
Who knows how long I would have sat there, had it not been for the aid of one of my classmates, who approached me, leaned down with extended arms, and pulled me off the ground?
Of course that person was a chocolate-colored woman—one of my favorite dancers, Michelle—making the class and all of my related emotional outbursts come full circle.
The rest of the class was refreshingly satisfying for me, and the lump I had originally felt in my solar plexus area had completely vanished.
Below are some of my own suggestions for dealing with an emotional release that crops up during dance:
1. Embrace this information; don’t fight it! Your body obviously has something to say to you. Movement happened to be the key to getting it out of hiding.
2. Don’t be embarrassed. You’re in a supportive environment, and most conscious dance tribes totally understand these types of releases.
3. Keep moving (and breathing!). Movement created the release, and continuing to move will allow whatever is speaking to pass through you. As Adam Barley said once during a long workshop, “If you’re tired, dance a tired Chaos.”
4. Stay aware of your movement but try not to over-analyze it. Approach dancing like meditation, taking note of a particular pattern or repetition (e.g., a desire to cling to the wall, clenched fists) but don’t dwell on it or try to make it a “story.” Just allow it to happen.
5. Be aware of your surroundings. If you feel like you’re going to have wild outbursts of emotion, consider moving to the perimeter of the dance floor so you don’t accidentally hurt someone else.
6. At the same time, try to stay a part of the group and don’t distance yourself too much. It’s why I waited until the first Wave ended before I escaped onto the bathroom floor, despite just wanting to get the hell off the dance floor.
7. Keep in mind that some people may feel compelled to “rescue” you from your “crisis.” If you’d rather work it out on your own, offer a simple hand gesture or eye contact that says, “Thanks, but I’m OK.” Other times, maybe you need that support, the way I reached my arms out to Michelle so she could lift me off the ground.
8. Offer gratitude. If someone’s smile, touch, or gesture provided just the slightest amount of comfort during your release, pay it back to them, either on the dance floor with a similar gesture, or after class, with a hug or comment of appreciation. This exchange is what builds community.
9. Take time during break or after class to journal about the experience or debrief with a trusted classmate/friend. It’s important for the information to be processed, even if you don’t necessarily know “why” it happened or what it means.
10. Be happy that your practice is so therapeutic, even if it doesn’t feel so in the throes of an emotional release. I may feel utterly exhausted at the end of an emotional dance, but the fear/panic/crying/nausea/headache/solar plexus-heaviness that was so present during class almost always dissipates afterward, reinforcing the notion that movement is indeed medicine!
“This is hard, and I need help.”
Those are the words that were speaking deep in my solar plexus on December 21 this past year as I stood in Warrior I during a special winter solstice yoga/dance class combo, my wonky hip feeling especially out of sorts, my heart racing from the frustration of not being able to glide effortlessly through asanas, my monkey mind blasting full volume about how I have fallen hard off the yoga bandwagon.
I kept envisioning the 5-yoga-classes-per-week Jennifer circa 2006, the one with smooth, in tact cartilage in her hip joints and hamstrings that stretched like rubber bands. This 2012 body didn’t match up, partially because of injury, partially due to neglect.
Either way, the frustration that was stemming from being aware of how critical my lack-of-yoga situation had become—the frustration that had me “feeling seconds away from bursting into tears and running out into the hallway”—was both screaming between my ears (“WAHHHHH!!! I hate yoga anyway, it’s stupid to stand in one posture when I could be dancing instead!!”) and whispering to my heart:
“This is an important practice, Jennifer. It has gotten hard. It is time to ask for help.”
As if on cue, as I discussed my frustration after class with the yoga instructor, she embraced me with her soft and nurturing eyes (yes, I did just say that her eyes embraced me; that is how comforting her gaze is, like a thick and woolly winter sweater) and said, well, Why don’t you come to me some time for a private lesson, and I’ll help you through some of those physical and emotional blocks?
The polite person in me nodded thoughtfully, smiled in agreement: Sure, Yeah, Good Idea, Why Not? But the stubborn and scared person—the one who had JUST privately acknowledged her need for help—shook with resistance internally: No way! How could I allow someone to see me so vulnerable?!
And it wasn’t just anyone. The instructor, Lana Jaclyn, was my dance buddy. We see each other all the time. We had actually crossed paths several years ago practicing yoga at a small-town studio. I didn’t want someone who saw me do straddles and splits and stuff see me in this new tight and wobbly state.
Also, um, I’m technically a certified yoga instructor myself! I went to Kripalu for a month! I have a training manual and certificate! Shouldn’t I be able to help myself? Shouldn’t I instinctively know the tools to recover from this state of yoga desperation?
I sat on Lana’s offer for almost two months. I would like to say that Brené Brown’s TED Talk about vulnerability was what finally pushed me into scheduling an appointment, but the truth is I didn’t see her presentation until just recently, but boy, can I relate!
Living in a state of shame would get me nowhere. “Courage” wasn’t about pulling myself up by the bootstraps, busting out my yoga teacher training notes, and fighting through it myself; courage was embracing imperfection. Being seen, struggles and all.
I had grown to prefer bigger yoga classes recently because I could “hide,” disappear in the crowd if I had to stop and jiggle my leg or take a moment to lie on my back and let my sacrum pop, and now here is I was, in Lana’s home studio, just her and me.
There was nowhere to hide.
However, within moments, as I settled into the session with my legs on the wall in viparita karani, I began to realize this wasn’t such a bad thing. When Lana suggested I slide my legs outward into a V position and I could only go so far before my hip started to hurt … that’s where we stopped. She didn’t make me hold it for a long time.
And when I stepped out of a lunge and felt the usual twinge in my hip joint, I could stop, do my trademark leg jiggle, and continue where we left off. I didn’t feel like I was breaking the flow of someone else’s class. I wasn’t distracting my neighbor. I didn’t have to worry about being three poses behind what the teacher was leading.
Best of all, I was beginning to notice that good ol’ zen feeling emerge, something that yoga hadn’t brought me in a long time. Instead of grinding my teeth, I was enjoying each moment of somatic exploration. I was breeeeeeathing instead of feeling like my lungs were going to pop.
(Confession: I have never been able to properly do ujayii breath until now [yes, even at Kripalu I faked my way through it]—Lana wouldn’t give up on me until I got it right. Man, now I finally know why that pranayama is so calming!)
Of course, with a private class, all of the movements are going to be tailored to the individual. Not having to worry “OMG, I hope she doesn’t do pigeon, please don’t do hip-based stuff for the next 10 minutes!” took a LOAD off my mind.
And even with postures that put minimal stress on my hip, such as a low lunge, Lana had my back. Literally. She straddled me with her knees pressed against my hips, rolled my shoulders back, and molded her body into mine in a way that gave me full experience of the posture.
She did this assist in bow pose … lord, it almost brought me to tears. I haven’t been able to rise that high in years, and the stretch in my back felt like some kind of spinal orgasm. If my back could speak, it would have been squealing “Yes, yes, YES!!!”
During my downdogs, Lana noticed I was sinking into my shoulders and worked with me again and again until I kept a flat back. (This work helped IMMENSELY with the trapezius pain I had been experiencing.)
To build my core strength (and thus help my hip), we worked with a sphinx-based core lift that looked super easy but was a struggle for me (thus showing how badly I needed it). I now believe the solution to all of life’s problems is to simply tuck the tailbone.
Tears flowed freely from my eyes during savasana. The warmth I was experiencing from head to toe was so strong and comforting that I was certain Lana was hovering over me doing some kind of specialized aura healing. The truth was, she was sitting in a corner of the room, simply just being there with me during my relaxation. She commented later that she gets lots of comments about how Reiki flows so naturally from her.
Well, I felt it. Maybe it was her Reiki, maybe it was just the feeling of being reacquainted with my lover, my body, remembering the sensations lying within those nooks and crannies, the curves and hollows of my back, shoulders, knees, hips, neck.
But damn, it felt good.
In her TED Talk, Brené Brown commented on the complexity of vulnerability: “I know that vulnerability is kind of the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, and creativity, of belong, of love.”
Being vulnerable—the certified yoga teacher needing to reach out for help—indeed initially caused shame. In the end, however, that vulnerability filled me with a long-lost sense of love: for my body, my breath, and the individuals like Lana who see me even when I work so hard to remain hidden.
More often than not, the first hour of a movement meditation class is simply a warm-up for me. Even after the designated 10-minute-or-so warm-up period, my arms, legs, and neck still feel like rigid sticks and twigs protruding from my tree trunk of a torso. I am hyperaware of any stiffness, the creakiness in my joints, how angular and non-flowing I feel. I imagine myself looking like a collection of hard, plastic flesh-colored Legos assembled to resemble a human being.
There is also a bit of mental hardness that accompanies this physical stiffness. Mind chatter about what I’m trying to “work on” today, trepidation/nervousness about the possibility of having to partner with so-and-so, conversations with myself about why I keep coming back to the dance when I feel like what was once an “answer” to my quest for spiritual and physical nourishment now just bombards me with more questions every time I take my first step into Flowing.
In that first hour, I work hard to chip away at the crusty dirt that is caking my body and mind. I douse it with water, a baptism of sweat softening the earth that envelops my flesh, turning the hardened earth into pliable mud. By the end of the first Wave, I may still have tree bark in my hair and speckles of dirt between my toes, but I’m no longer as skeletal as a sycamore in winter or as rough as volcanic rock.
Sometimes the shift is profound, other times subtle, but almost always there comes a point during the second Wave where I feel my body become distinctively soft. It’s like someone used the “Blur Edges” filter on me in Photoshop. I still have bones, but a mystical force has allowed them to curve and bend like vines. My brain no longer feels like an intrusive anvil in my skull; it too is soft—not mushy, though—an enigmatic organ whose own waves have shifted from on-alert beta to more mellow alpha. When I bound across the room, I feel like I am leaping feet in the air as opposed to inches.
Instinctively, I move to the center of the room, my Play-Doh limbs wanting to mesh and mold with the other pliant persons around me.
I am a soft cotton square weaving its way into the patchwork quilt of humanity gradually taking shape on the floor.
I am a plump polyester tea sachet dipping gently into a warm water bath of bodies.
By the end of class, I am an infant swaddled in the softest of blankets, curious eyes wide open, face round and creaseless. I feel fresh out of the womb, no weight on my shoulders, no labels stifling my spirit. I am not “Jennifer, the [editor/blogger/worrier/planner].” I just am.
If I am lucky, as I was during a recent class in Philadelphia with Tammy Burstein, the sensation of softness that pulses through my body as I rest in Stillness brings me to tears. I had slithered my way onto the floor, stomach pressed against the wood, and breath by breath, my pelvis melted into what can best be described as a slow ripple of waves. I often use imagery to help my dance, but this time the imagery came without cerebral command.
My hips, which usually feel like Barbie doll legs plugged crookedly into their sockets, had become liquid. It felt as though my body ended at my waistline and the flesh and muscle that lay below had become a shoreline in Maui: soft sand, lapping waves, my lower body a beach that extended beyond where my feet were supposed to be and into the ocean of energy around me.
I cried because it is so seldom my hips experience that kind of softness and openness. For someone who constantly has to pop her sacrum back in place and stomp her legs like a zebra to get the top of her femur bone unjammed from loose hip cartilage, those few moments of fluidity were a beautiful reminder that my essence extends so far beyond my bones, muscles, and skin. Despite the hard armor I wear, underneath, I am nothing more than a soft soul.
I’ve been experiencing some discomfort in my foot recently, and my podiatrist—an athlete who knows better than to tell an active patient, “Well, just stop dancing for a bit!”—recommended taping my big toe to help stabilize the joint that’s causing me pain. This isn’t that fancy kinesio taping method you see on Olympic divers, either. Nah, this is a just an ugly mound of adhesive that looks like I’ve broken my toe.
My movement isn’t too inhibited by the tape—I’ve just been advised not to go into full relevé on my left side. However, after a test dance in my carpeted living room that had bits of hair and rug fuzz clinging to the unraveling tape, I decided that maybe I should protect the tape by wearing my soft-soled jazz shoes.
Although most people dance 5Rhythms barefoot, there is no shame in wearing shoes during class. Jazz shoes, ballet slippers, FootUndeez, lyrical sandals, sneakers set aside solely to the dance floor…all are welcome, as long as they aren’t worn out on the street. Heck, a young woman came to class the other day in an orthopedic walking boot.
During a recent 5Rhythms class in New York City, I completed the first of two Waves in my jazz shoes. They protected my tape, and I also felt like the shoe’s slight heel and split sole gave me more support. But as I started the second Wave, I found myself falling into a foot funk, looking enviously at all the beautiful exposed toes and cracked heels flying around me.
Most of all, what I was longing for was the sense of connection that comes from dancing barefoot. You wouldn’t think that a think layer of leather and rubber would create an energetic barrier, but it does! The bottoms of the feet are loaded with acupressure points, and their stimulation can affect all body systems and energy channels.
The minute I decided to say hell with it and peel off my shoes and socks—that moment when my once-cocooned feet touched the cool floor—I simultaneously felt both ferociously wild and peacefully contained. Almost instantly, I could feel my dance change. I wasn’t doing new moves; rather, it was my body being moved differently as my feet were given the freedom to breathe in and receive the bubbling waves of energy around me.
Appropriately, the shoe removal came just before a dance-mix mash-up of The Doors’ “Break On Through” ripped through the studio speakers. My cloaked feet had broken through to the other side, a new nakedness that gave me a sense of falling into the floor and ascending high past the Manhattan skyline. I was walking on air, stomping on flames, sinking into sand, stepping into the unknown…and feeling every sensation of the journey.
I don’t recommend compromising comfort and podiatric health, but, if possible, I do encourage trying out even just a few minutes of being barefoot. How does the connection with the ground below you influence your dance? If impossible to remove your shoes, allow the palms of your hands (also loaded with acupressure points) to explore the floor. You may be amazed at the energy you can harness from these extremities.
I stood in the center of the yoga studio, arms wide open, chest expanded, head arched back and face directed toward the ceiling, imaginary rays of light emanating from my pores.
“Yes, that’s right,” my 5Rhythms instructor Richard said, observing the class. “Continue to move your body into a shape of being open, being receptive.”
I obliged. This felt good. My body loved standing this way, stretching upward and outward. I wasn’t even actively thinking about shapes or poses or where to place my arms and legs next. They just moved, stretching out like sunbeams. I could take deep breaths, I could relax, I could…
“Now, how does expansion transition to contraction?” Richard offered. “Move to a shape of being closed.”
Closed? You’re asking me to move from this luxurious feeling of openness to being shut down and closed?
OK, body, my brain reluctantly commanded my muscles. Listen to the teacher and move inward.
[body refuses to respond]
Um, body?? You heard Richard. We’re supposed to be doing “closed” moves now. Why are you still standing so upright and open? Do something different! Bend down! Curl into a ball!
…But my body would not acquiesce.
In fact, the mere thought of curling a finger toward my palm or bowing my head to my feet sent energetic red flags throughout my system. No no no no.
I stayed standing, my arms never coming down from above my head. The only thing that was closed were my eyes, so I wasn’t able to see my classmates do what I could not.
I did not want to close. In that moment, the request was like asking a mother to withdraw her outstretched arms as her newborn infant is placed in front of her. How could I? Why would I want to?
I’ve done this exercise numerous times in 5Rhythms classes. It’s one of the simplest ways to play with polarities and help 5Rhythms newcomers explore new ways to move. It’s never posed such a problem for me, but that night my body talked.
My body was saying, I’m tiring of retreating and contracting. I love openness, and that is where I want to be. I want to relish this receptivity, I want to continue spreading my arms, I want to embrace freedom. Don’t tell me to close down. Don’t tell me to be small and shrink and shrivel back into hibernation.
I have a quote from 5Rhythms teachers Sara Pagano hanging on my cubicle wall at work. I’ve never danced with Sara before, but I understand her words:
“Our bodies cannot lie. Our bodies will continue to express the truth. And our dance wants nothing more than to bring us home, into the truth of our hearts.”
5Rhythms is not a game of Simon Says. Sometimes a teacher gives an instruction that the body just cannot follow, not because of physical limitations, disability, or injury but because body language is the most basic litmus test of what’s cookin’ inside. It’s why doing Camel pose in yoga is incredibly difficult if you’re protecting your heart and why sexual trauma victims cringe at the thought of doing the wide-legged Happy Baby/Dead Bug posture.
Alternately, when we’re not really sure what’s going on inside, listening to our bodies can be a valuable source of information.
Sometimes it whispers. Sometimes it screams. And sometimes it just begs to remain open.