The study of epigenetics reveals that stresses felt in current time alter our genetic makeup. Which makes utter survival sense. Except for some ways we stress out are not very healthy adaptive. No matter. Our response to stress is visible in our behavior AND will be passed along to future generations. Trauma is inherited generation after generation.
In one epigenetic study, mice were exposed to the smell of cherries with simultaneous application of electric shock. The conditioned mice quivered whenever they smelled cherries long after the electric shocks were discontinued. And here’s the amazing part: children and grandchildren, never actually exposed to the electric shock, inherited the fear of cherry smell.
The implications of this reverberate through me resting feral in the forest, reading two books back to back. Resma Menakem’s My Grandmother’s Hands
tackles the history and current status of racialized trauma. There is much written on this topic but this book is unique in the way it carefully builds the case for healing this cultural wound with embodied practices. Discussion, reading, training or anything else cognitive illuminates the issue. But behavioral change happens in the body first. My life is built around that notion so I’m grateful to find a resource that speaks my language.
At the same time I’m reading Nobody Will Tell You This But Me
by Bess Kalb, a story of four generations of Jewish American women. It begins with the harrowing story of her great grandmother’s escape from Eastern Europe genocide. Belarus, to be exact…from where my grandparents took flight. I persist in collecting my ancestral puzzle pieces in any way I can.
Back and forth between the two books, sinking deeper and deeper into the DNA truth of my own cherry smelling story. In fact, on several occasions Menakem writes that African Americans, Native Americans and Jewish Americans suffer from similar racialized trauma. To learn that race as a concept is recent New World “wisdom” with indigenous North Americans and African Americans just the first to be seen as other, therefore less than. Each new immigrant group—Italians, Irish, Eastern European Jews—were regarded as non-white as well—“stupid, barbaric, and dangerous.”
This is rich and timely territory. Many of us are seeking education about racism. Menakim’s book is so clear straight forward, the body practices sprinkled throughout bring the narrative home, to the body. Incredibly illuminating on so many levels.
The language of embodied trauma work is in our cultural lexicon now. If you’re unfamiliar with the words activate and settle, you’ve been out of the loop. Activation: a body’s physical response to stress as it readies to fight, flee or freeze. Settling: a body’s relaxation after stress has past. Each musical wave in dance floor practice moves from settled to activated back to settled once again. For a reason.
Activate and settle undercurrents in my mat classes. I love to teach the step before gross activation by focusing on tone, the subtle can-be-volitional recruitment that readies us for activation. Through discerning repetition we learn where the core muscular players live, how they feel and express, how to summon them to action. Kinesthetic sensibility comes with a huge bonus: the potential to investigate when we feel unnecessary contraction. To be curious about what’s happening in that moment. Is the activation habitual? Culturally conditioned? Genetic?
I teach relaxation/settling three distinct ways. Soften: prop use to release myofascial binding caused by injury, posture, genetics or chronic holding. Soothe: rocking, rubbing, pulsing, great skills to normalize tone. Finally good old stretching: re-establishing length in shortened muscle, the result of chronic activation.
There are many relatively easy areas to sense activation. You might recognize yourself in any of these four. Jaw: super-obvious for clenchers, grinders, TMJ pain-ers. Pelvic floor: clenching again, chronic constipation, urinary retention. I’ll stop the long list there. Number three? Breath: shallow, quick upper chest breathing. If you’re a regular reader you know activation area number four. Psoas: cramping, constriction, clutching deep in the belly.
The tender loins, the psoas, fear storage locker…intimately present on this feral in the forest journey. An early memory arose in the meadow this morning. Must have been five or six years old writhing in agony on the living room rug with severe stomach pain. This suffering went on for a while, bad enough to be hospitalized once. Never diagnosed. The cherry smell must have been rampant in that small Cincinnati apartment, my father’s generational rage blowing through our little family. A five year old has no words for that. Just this embodied belly clutch. Little wonder psoas has been a lifelong focus for me. With a name like Bella, how could it be otherwise?
Whatcha up to this Saturday July 18 10:00-noon? Join me for Essential Recharge with a focus on all the feel good rolling with psoas awareness woven all the way through. Whether core activation is a life-saver, genetically programmed, culturally conditioned or personally habitual, an uptight psoas wreaks body havoc. Read its signals, tend it for health—soften & soothe, tone & lengthen. This will be a round up of all we’ve explored the last three months but it will also serve as an introduction to home mat practice if you join for the first time. The available recording helps maintain your practice the rest of July. Come feel it.
Tailoring this offering in support of your home mat practice is my aim and it’s been gratifying to practice with you at home. If someone had told me a year ago I would enjoy and value teaching on line…no way! But here we are and I’m listening to your desire to continue learning in this way. If you’ve been on your mat independently these last two weeks, I’d love to hear from you. Remember, simply rolling out your mat and breathing for a few moments qualifies as practice. Please respond to this with your favorite mat story. I cherish your shares.
July 19 is Sunday Sweat Your Prayers: Zoom online in your home or simulcastlive in the garden, limited enrollment physically distanced dancers. We’re still keeping a close watch on local COVID trends and will cancel the live contingent if we must. The in person community that has been present and moving together—so respectful and care-full. I feel the palpable benefit of this offering outweighs the low risk. The way we link the virtual and the in-the-flesh community amazes me. What a world. Links below for each version.
I hope to spend some time with you this weekend on Saturday and/or Sunday, midway through my July break. We all have our own version of smelling cherries. Embodied practice is the only way I know to bring back the joy in that sweet smell.
P.S. August will be on the web soon. Tuesday Essentials: August 4, 11, 18 and Friday Deeper Being: August 7, 14, 21.