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Making Space

I feel like I am always in search of balance.  I like to be busy.  In my mind’s eye, sometimes I see myself as this character balancing a potted plant on every available part of each limb – including a few on top of my head. My mission: don’t drop any of the pots.

Generally, I feel like I can manage pretty well that way.  I enjoy the challenge and the excitement of having a variety of things going on.  It is only when one of those elements becomes out of sync or stops working that I find myself struggling – and one of the pots is about to tumble.  I was provided with clear and pointed reminder of this recently.

I love my job.  I’ve always loved my job.  Then one day, I noticed that I was coming home from one of my practices each day in a sour mood.  The joy in my work that I originally found revitalizing and energizing was waning, though nothing had really changed.  The situation and the environment simply did not work for me or my practice anymore.

So, I did the scariest thing that I could do: I jumped ship.

If you’ve ever been in this boat you will understand what I mean when I say that it was terrifying. I wrestled with this decision for over a year.  I was held back by clients that I loved and the security of my position. Ultimately I listened to my intuition and followed the timeline that felt right to me.  Once I left, fully expecting to become a pauper, I found that my practice in my other locations expanded like wildfire.  New endeavors cropped up.  I started developing relationships with people in my field like I had never done before.  All because I had the time and space to do it.

The way that we organize our lives really does influence what new and exciting adventures are actually able to reach us.  If your life is overrun with ill-functioning tasks, jobs or relationships that make you unhappy or chronically stressed, there’s no room for anything better to come your way.

Don’t be stuck.  Listen to your intuition, do right by yourself and when the timing is right, don’t be afraid to jump.

A Lesson from My Students

Every year for the past eight years, I’ve had the privilege of serving as the Dance Faculty for Portland Metro Arts Kids Camp.  It never fails, I walk away from that two week camp reaffirmed in the importance of dance.

Jo & Campers onstage showing what they learned in dance class.

The 6-12 year old kids who attend this camp are brilliant.  They enter my class, held on the Newmark Theater stage at what is now Portland 5, shuffling their small feet with back packs and lunch bags in tow.  I can see the apprehension on their little faces…”oh, no…I have to DANCE!”.  Most of these kids have never danced before, or at the very least have not been in a specific dance class.

The first day, we go around in a circle and introduce ourselves to each other one at a time.  Invariably there are always a couple of kids who do not want to introduce themselves.  It comes their turn to tell us who they are and they fall silent.  If I’m lucky, I can guide them through their introduction and get them to talk.  But there is always at least one kid who is adamantly against opening their mouth.  I’m thinking of one student in particular who, along with refusing to talk, was balled up as tight as he could possibly be while still sitting up on his seat.

Then we stand up and I turn on the music and…


The kids who were most silent listened to that music, my instructions being shouted over the energetic beat, and they come alive.  Where there was fear and hesitation, there is the unbridled joy of simply moving.  It is incredible to watch these children learn and grow in this way.  To become confident in their abilities, comfortable in their bodies and giving themselves permission to have fun moving their bodies. We lose that.

As we grow into adults, we lose the freedom to explore what it means to move.  We become embarrassed by moving, even in a social setting. Realistically, if you are out at a party you may not see the most graceful or elegant dancing – but that’s not the point.  The point is to allow your body to express itself.  There is no wrong way to do that.  We just have to be willing to see it that way.

The end of this camp always fills my heart with an incredible sense of awe and pride. I watch my students onstage in front of the entire body of campers, as well as all the friends and family that have come to watch their final performance.  I watch them perform with their confidence overflowing, their bravery apparent, and their willingness to make mistakes.

All I can think to myself is, wow.  I want to be like them.

Role Model


The House that Soma Built

Imagine that you are in your kitchen cooking.  All of the windows and doors are open – the smell of the food wafting through the house and out through the windows and doors.  Now imagine that you shut those windows and doors tightly.  The scent of whatever you are cooking would be trapped. The more often you cook with those windows and doors clamped shut, the deeper, stronger and more engrained that scent will get.  There you would be trapped alone in a room with your cooking, the scent seeping into the walls, furniture, your clothes and your hair.  The same thing can happen in the body when our thoughts, feelings, and experiences go unaddressed.

Our emotional and mental baggage gets trapped in the body and can manifest in the form of tension, pain and even illness or injury.  It also dictates a large portion of our movement patterns.

We’ve all experienced this.  Think back to a very stressful period in your life.  At that time, were you likely to get sick more often? Maybe you felt exhausted more easily?  Did you need more sleep?  Maybe you noticed that an old injury sight ached or parts of your body that had never had any trouble before acted up or started hurting?

While there are many theories on why these things happen, the general term for investigating these types of experiences through movement is called Somatics.  Somatics is a term coined by Thomas Hanna, one of the most influential pioneers of the Somatic movement.

Many somatic movement practices exist such as Feldenkrais, Alexander Technique, Rolfing, Yoga, Pilates and to some degree, Dance, among many others.  All of these different practices have something to contribute.  While I cannot speak to all of them, I would like to share my experience with you both as a person who has experienced the benefits of somatics and as a movement teacher.

No matter who you are, your experiences shape your body.  Everything from your posture and the way you carry yourself, to the way that you interact with other people.  Over time the consequent position of your body can become, in some cases, a problem.  Let’s look at an example from my own life.

When I was in my first year of college, I had my first big break up – the first boy who really broke my heart.  At the same time, I noticed that I had a lot of back pain.  About a week or so after being dumped, I was in my Wednesday morning dance class.  I went through class the same way I had every week for a year, but noticed that no matter how hard I tried I could not get my ribs to relax.  I had my chest puffed forward like a big, proud bird.  All through class, I can still hear my teacher saying “Jo, drop your ribs…Jo, drop your ribs,” and while I did my best to follow her directions, my body had it’s own plan: “No, I will not drop my ribs.”

After class, I asked my teacher if she could help me fix my posture.  She had me lie on the floor on my back – my ribs splaying forward, my back arching off the floor and in pain because it was so tight.   After trying everything we could physically do to fix my position,  my teacher said something that I will never forget:

“I think that you have something emotional stuck here.”

She brought two fingers to my sternum – close to where my heart was resting, broken and distressed.  I instantaneously began weeping.  My ribs dropped, sinking under the gentle weight of her fingers.

I sobbed.  I couldn’t stop it.  My chest heaved, ebbing and flowing with each new round of piping hot tears.  I knew that I was upset about the boy who had hurt me; somewhere in my head I knew that.  But all I could hear running through my head over and over again was my teacher’s voice, “you’ve got something stuck here.”  This was my first fully aware somatic experience.

The biggest difference after that experience was that my ribs went from being painfully cemented in place to moving freely without pain.  At that point, I tried to think back to another moment where my ribs were in that position.  I found one moment, and then another, and then another.  I found that every time I had been really emotionally hurt, I puffed my chest forward like a wall of armor.  I was protecting myself – my body was trying to the same.

Now when I notice my ribs going to into that forward position, I can check in and think “Do I really need to be on my guard here?”  If I don’t, I can make the conscious choice to change my position.  If I do, I can address the problem.

The first lesson in somatics is increasing your body awareness, or identifying movement or tension in your body as it is happening (notice). Then you have the opportunity to identify the underlying trigger for that movement or tension – whether it be mental, emotional, or physical (identify).  Once the trigger is identified, you have the option to choose to respond differently the next time around (change).

Making these three steps (notice, identify, change) a constant practice can keep repetitive movement from getting worse or becoming a problem.  For example, say you grind your teeth or clench your jaw when you are stressed.  If you can recognize it and relax when it’s happening, you can prevent it from turning into something like TMJ.  Or say you tense the muscles in your neck and shoulders when you’re thinking deeply or staring at a computer screen.  That tension doesn’t have to turn into chronic pain or neck injury.

Our bodies are much more than a vehicle that we use to move around in.  They are a physical record of our experiences. It is not a luxury to give yourself the safe space and time to work with your body and maintain your health.  It is a necessity, in order to keep your body and mind healthy for as long as you are going to be using them.

Make safe space to open even the most difficult doors and windows.  Air out the dusty rooms and allow the new air in.