Last week I joined some of the most brilliant movement educators I know at the Yoga Tune Up Summit in Ojai California. The theme of the Summit was storytelling. During this Summit, I climbed an inner summit and found the courage to share one of the most formative experiences of my life with my peers and teachers. The story I shared, like many of my peers’ stories, involved one of self-discovery through the exploration of personal pain. Here is a longer version of the story I shared with my fellow teachers:
In the summer of 2011, I left New York for several months and moved back to my childhood home in Wisconsin. I left to take care of my mother, who, after living 66 years of a life dedicated to loving and serving others, had opted for in-home hospice to live out the last few months of her battle with uterine cancer. I am my mother’s youngest child and her only daughter. In those final months I became her nurse and her protector. During this time I pushed back my own personal pain, allowing myself only the briefest moments of alone time. In those moments, I found myself out back on the dock crying silent tears into the algae-covered lake, a life-long sanctuary for much of my childhood joy and sadness.
Meanwhile, in front of my mother and others, I masked my pain so that I could more effectively manage hers and everyone else’s. The strategy of stifling any outward expressions of my despair, however imperfect, functioned as a means to survive in a role that I felt woefully ill-equipped to play. I needed a clear mind to get her morphine dosages correct; endless energy to be awake at any hour in case she needed the bathroom or to simply hold my hand and talk; and kind resolve to send loving guests away when she was out of precious energy and needed to sleep. However imperfect a strategy it was, I stifled my pain to improve my functionality, and for the time being, it seemed to work.
Months after my mother’s funeral and the funeral of her mother – my grandma passed away just days before my mother did – this practice of masking my pain became dysfunctional. Upon returning to life as usual in New York I proceeded to fill my schedule to the brim in an effort to keep the sadness at bay. Quickly and noticeably, as I went through the motions of my busy life, this pent up and unexplored pain began referring tension and dysfunction to my interpersonal relationships. I was not allowing myself to grieve the death of my mom and grandma and this repressed sadness was causing me to behave in ways that hurt others still alive.
Gratefully, with help and encouragement of the people closest to me, I eventually sought out and found some strategies to help me ease into the discomfort of feeling my own sadness and slowly and methodically unmasking my own pain. I found a grief counselor who taught me how to verbalize, often for the first time, some of my life’s most pivotal and potent moments. I learned to lean into my husband in ways that I never had before, and to explore new depths in my capacity to trust. And as luck would have it, during this time, I met my teacher Jill and learned about self-massage. In the privacy of my apartment, I rolled out my body’s tension, the equivalent of floodgates damning my ability to grieve. On the lighter side, the balls helped me feel better physically and work through some old yoga and sports related injuries from my past. It was a non-verbal voyage into myself, involving a medium of expression I’d always felt comfortable with — movement. This practice of breaking through my physical tension, and exploring my body through deep therapeutic self-touch became a major catalyst in progressing my healing process as well in transforming the way I taught yoga. I now teach self-massage in almost every single one of my classes, workshops and trainings. I can’t not share it because I know first hand how important and useful it can be.
At the Summit last week, the experience of standing up in front of a room full of my peers and teachers, many of whom I hold a deep level of respect for as well as many who I had just met that weekend, was uncomfortable at best. A more accurate expression would be heart-stopping terror. The thing is, I get up in front of strangers to speak publicly all the time. I’m a former theatre actor and I currently make my living as a yoga teacher regularly presenting yoga and anatomy trainings nationally and internationally to complete strangers. Public speaking was not the reason for my terror. My terror came in facing one of the fears that I hold closest to my heart, the fear of letting others see my sadness. Getting up and telling the story of my greatest loss was a huge step toward getting comfortable with this discomfort. It broke through the layers of my identity – being seen as “strong”, “smart” and “capable” – that, like algae, cover over the hurt beneath my surface. To me, my sadness always seemed to run in direct conflict with how I wanted others to see me.
This is no longer the case.
The biggest breakthrough for me this summer was learning that I have the capacity to tell my stories. It was learning the courage required to put words to both my embodied and disembodied experiences. And like the inevitable physical discomfort that comes while rolling out my sore muscles on rubber therapy balls, there will no doubt be some emotional discomfort in sharing my stories.
In mid-August, the time of year that my mother passed away, the lake that I grew up on is especially difficult to canoe on. To go anywhere, you must paddle pretty arduously through a thick blanket of algae covering the surface. But with some effort, the algae yields, and its displacement uncovers the water’s surface, transparent revealing the life below and reflective mirroring the life looking in. For me, self-massage and storytelling involve similarly arduous processes yielding equally revelatory insights. And like the experience I had at the Summit, undergoing this process often shows me that my deepest grief is never far away from my deepest joy.
Here is a poem that I’ve found helpful in articulating an idea that I continue to re-understand through movement, therapy and human interaction:
On Joy and Sorrow
By Kahlil Gibran
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
Some of you say, “Joy is greater thar sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.
Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.
Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced.
When the treasure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver, needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.