Friday, December 25, 2009

I Heart My Nervous System

I have just started reading a book called “Job’s Body: A Handbook for Bodyworkers” by Deane Juhan.  Initially, I picked up the book just so I could geek out over all the mind-body discussions.  I have been a massage therapist for the past six years and this book was on virtually every “recommended reading” list for my graduate studies in psychology.

            Of course, I only got to page 9 of the Introduction before I found something that I could relate back to pole dancing.  And naturally, I needed to share it with the rest of you, immediately.   Ok, here we go.  Deane Juhan says, “It is the touching of the body’s surfaces against external objects and the rubbing of its own parts together which produce the vast majority of sensory information used by the mind to assemble an accurate image of the body…”

Indeed.  So when I am laying on the floor, eyes closed, legs splayed, mid-dance, dragging my hand across the soft skin of my belly, or maybe when I feel the tips of my toes slowly rub against each other while my hips swivel on the floor, I am not focused as much on what my body looks like as I am on what it feels like to me.   And when the sensation experienced is pleasure, I begin to have a positive experience of my body.  This pleasurable touching of my body as expressed to my brain, by my nervous system, suggests to me that my body is very good as it is.  It is good not just because it feels good, but because it responds well.  Clarissa Pinkola Estes discusses this very same idea in her book “Women Who Run With Wolves”.  Says Estes, “What constitutes a healthy body…At the most basic level - thebreast, the belly, anywhere there is skin, anywhere there are neurons to transmit feeling - the issue is not what shape, what size, what color, what age, but does it feel, does it work as it is meant to, can we respond, do we feel a range, a spectrum of feeling?”

So pole dancing, by virtue of the fact that it asks us to have a sensory experience of our bodies that is, ideally, rooted in experiencing pleasure is essentially creating a space for women to accept their bodies as they are, in the moment, and to experience them as something good.  Hooray!

Wait, there’s more.  The nervous system stimulates the body to move in specific ways as a result of specific sensations, says Juhan.  All movements flood the nervous system with sensations regarding the structures and the functions of the body.  In other words, movement is the unifying bond between mind and body and sensations are the substance of that bond.  As we mature, one of the ways in which we develop and maintain a sense of identity is through selecting and maintaining a specific repertoire of “movement habits”, which subsequently generate a specific repertoire of sensations.  We then put ourselves in a stable environment that will not challenge our choices.  The majority of this decision-making, says Juhan, is largely unconscious.  So a habit develops and even if problems arise, parts go numb or forgotten, we rarely question our habitual patterns.  Here Juhan makes the argument for why touch therapies can be so effective and sometimes produce such positive results so quickly:  Because no matter how much I might move myself around, the tendency is almost always to move in the ways I have always moved, guided by the same deeply rooted habits, sensory cues and mental images of my body.  But, says, Juhan, if you can succeed in surrendering to the movements another person imposes on your body, without your own systems interfering, it is possible not just to gain new information about your body from this new sensory input, it is also possible to see your habitual patterns as nothing more than a habit.  This insight, when permitted to arise, gives us the wonderful gift of choice.  Rather than being chained to our habitual movements, we are free to explore new ways of moving.

Do you see where I’m going here?  While pole dancing is not a form of touch therapy, it incorporates some of its elements through sensory awareness.  Not only that, but when you learn how to pole dance you are surrendering to a new form of movement.  This movement creates new and unfamiliar sensations in your body.  All of a sudden, you are aware of places in your body that are numb, in pain or maybe throbbing and alive.  Your habit of keeping your pelvis tight and tucked under is made glaringly clear to you.  The stiffness in your jaw seems so…unnecessary.  Just by bringing these holding patterns into your awareness, just by allowing new sensations to flood through your nervous system and into your brain, you are giving yourself the choice, the permission to move differently.  This new form of movement, through new sensations, creates a new image of your body in your mind.  If your breasts feel beautiful then maybe you begin to believe that they are actually beautiful.  If your hips feel amazing as you push them out into a huge circle around the room, then maybe they are amazing.  Even more profound than that, as your body begins to move in this sensual, erotic way and nothing bad happens – in fact, only good things happen – then maybe your mind will begin to believe that your sexuality is something to be celebrated publicly, that it is something playful and good, rather than something to be shamed, chained and kept hidden.

Juhan says that massage therapists do not operate as interventionists in the body.  Rather, they act as facilitators.  Their hands are like flashlights, illuminating a dark room, and the medicine they offer is self-awareness.  I like to think of my pole dance teachers in the same way.  Only it is their bodies and their movements that illuminate the way, reminding us that we are not a collection of parts, but a unified whole and that pleasure in the body can lead to profound shifts in the perceptions of the mind.


Monday, December 14, 2009

The Why Factor

I recently attended the most splendid play.  I love plays.  And of course, I love pole dancing.  So a play that combines the two is just, well, delicious.  The play was called The Why Factor: Proportion Distortion.  The Why Factor is an all-female writing ensemble started by Christina Howard in 2006.  Over the past few years, these women have created four original productions each focusing on a different theme in women’s lives.  This particular production focused on exploring female body image and sexuality.  The story centers around nine women who attend a pole dance class in an attempt to get in touch with their sexuality.  Through the work they do in class, the women are forced to confront issues of self-acceptance, the ways in which they keep themselves chained to their past and the realization that they each have tremendous untapped power.


The play was sponsored by S Factor, an all-female pole dancing studio based in Los Angeles.  The structure of the classes and the dance movements were based on the S Factor experience.  S Factor emphasizes the emotional connection between erotic dance and the female sexual psyche.  Many students who have attended S Factor classes (including Christina Howard) call the experience “transformative”.

The instructor in the dance class (played by real-life S Factor Instructor Janelle Taylor) is cast simultaneously as Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire, dance, volcanoes and destruction.  Pele represents the passionate and creative force that transforms and rebuilds our lives.  She has the power to clear and purify all that is not needed.  As the instructor, Taylor beckons the women to bring forth that which lays dormant at the very core of their being.  She believes that every woman has a fire that burns deep within and that calling out this fire has tremendous healing potential.


This Pele archetype is particularly important for the modern day women   As a goddess who is associated with destruction, Pele is often misunderstood and even misjudged.  We often like to connect the Divine feminine with cozy, comfy things such as nurturing, mothering, unconditional love, and non-judgmental support.  However when it comes the darker, wild side of the feminine, i.e. the chaotic, the unpredictable and the destructive, we shy away and even disown these parts of ourselves.  Pele reminds us that fiery eruptions and emotional upheaval are almost always followed by new life and change.  She reminds us that this wild side of the feminine is where a part of our power resides, and to disown it or deny it is to deny a core aspect of the feminine nature. 


There is a particularly poignant moment towards the end of the play when a student, unable to handle where the class is asking her to go and the implications it has on her marriage, chooses to leave.  Pele/The eacher leaves the classroom to go after her and returns unsuccessful only to face a classroom full of doubting women.  The students challenge the teacher, telling her the work is easy for her and questioning the validity of the journey she has taken them on.  “OOOOHHHHHH!”  bellows Pele.  Her fiery explosion stuns her students into silence.  She rages on, telling them about her own journey and it’s darkest moments, explaining to them that this sexual openness has never come easily for her, that she struggled for years with her demons and that it had, in fact, required a part of her to die and then rise from the ashes left behind.


In this scene Pele is describing a struggle that many women face with when confronted with their sexuality.  It is easy to think that a woman who can lead you into a deeper relationship with your sexual self has it all figured out or that somehow, her road was easier than yours.  It was not.  It is easy to think that the girl on the mat next to you has it all together.  She does not.  The wisdom that we see in our teachers comes from a willingness to dive into the darkest parts of ourselves and to know and love those places intimately.  The demons inside may change or go away but that is not the goal.  And when we find ourselves back in what seems to be the same place, for what feels like the millionth time, it is wise to take the lesson, be utterly kind to one’s self but also to notice what is different this time.  In my experience, we rarely visit the same places twice.  Rather, we circle around in an upward spiral, coming to what seems like the same place from a different perspective.


At the end of the play Pele says she believes that within every woman there is a fire that burns hotter than the earth’s core.  But that it is often buried, making it burn even hotter.  The journey then is to uncover this fire, this wildness, and to let it out so that it might purify and energize us.  The journey is to let others feel and see this fire, to make them understand that it is as inherent to a woman’s nature as nurturing might be.  The journey is to let the ashes of that fire be the fertile ground for new beginnings.