A few years ago, I found myself stuck in a rut and feeling sort of numb about everything. Trying to find a way out of this slump I read a book about how we often don’t truly feel our feelings – instead we block them and carry on – which allows us to avoid dealing with whatever intense emotions they may cause. The author encouraged acknowledging that the feeling is there, opening ourselves to it and bringing awareness to the core of the feeling. This, he said, allows us to be one with our feeling no longer seeing it as a part of ourself, but actually ourself. These words resonated deeply with me as I realized that I rarely – if ever – truly allowed myself to feel. I was extremely in tune to the feelings of my children and making sure that their emotional needs were being met. Yet I didn’t have any idea what pain, sadness or even joy and pleasure felt like as physical feelings in my body. I was experiencing the feelings from outside of my body instead of them actually being a part of me. In this way I realized that I was living unconsciously by existing and doing rather than consciously by being and feeling. Wondering what it would be like to be able to feel things on a more internal level, I began to pay attention to my physical body for any response that would indicate some sort of feeling. I started to notice that when I was afraid, sad, weak or ashamed I could feel something hard form in my stomach and I’d get out of breath. This happened before I had to speak in public, when I felt hurt by someone I loved or when I felt exposed and vulnerable. So I decided to open myself to these physical feelings through breath. Breathing deeply seemed to be the best way that I knew to be present in my body, avoid escaping and allow space for feelings. Space didn’t hold judgement of the feeling – it was just space. With practice, anytime I began to feel the hardness in my stomach, I would pay attention to my breath and make sure that it went deep inside me as I inhaled and that I fully let go on exhalation. Slowly I began to notice that this alone was enough to make the physical discomfort go away – which allowed me to be able to deal with whatever the emotion really was. In a sense breath helped me to enter the feeling rather than just sit on the edge of it. If I didn’t breathe and provide space for these feelings, they would stick in my body and cause pain until I did something to distract myself or push them down. This discovery literally blew me away and I wondered how I had lived for 34 years without actually realizing that my feelings could be felt physically. With more practice I discovered that the feelings I considered to be positive also gave me the same hardness in my stomach and shortness of breath. So actually the “good” and “bad” feelings showed up in the same place in my body but I had not allowed myself the space to really feel either of them. Feeling them led to experiencing the world in a whole new way. A way that allowed me to be an active participant in life rather than a passive bystander. I felt more alive and fulfilled emotionally and physically because of it.
Once I was more in tune with how my emotional feelings presented themselves physically in my body, I yearned to learn more. I wanted to feel this deeply in all ways – emotionally, physically, spiritually and sexually. I wondered about the depth of my sexual power that I had pushed deep inside of me because I had been afraid to really acknowledge it. Desire and curiosity to discover this power led me to attend a Bodysex workshop in NYC facilitated by, 85 year old sex educator, Betty Dodson. She designed the workshop with the belief that our primary sexual relationship is with ourself. Therefore if we learn how our own body works and best responds to pleasure, we can be our own greatest lover thus having a more fulfilling sex life alone or with others. Essentially she was suggesting that we look inside ourselves for the answers and to find the place where our sexuality lies. During the workshop we were taught techniques to enhance our orgasms and Betty explained that “Sex energy travels on our breath. So by holding our breath we are blocking something somewhere” therefore not allowing for all of our sexual energy to be released. “Breath” Betty said, “is the life blood of an orgasm.” She said that we often learn to orgasm through masturbation as children and because of the shame associated with it, we hold our breath and quietly tighten our body leading to what she describes as a tension orgasm. This often carries through as we grow older and, while a tension orgasm is an orgasm, so much of the feeling and energy is trapped in our held breath and tense body.
Breath had changed my life and made me feel more alive in other ways, so I decided to practice consciously breathing during orgasm and seeing what would happen. This wasn’t easy to do as I had learnt to orgasm by holding my breath and my natural instinct was to do so. Yet I longed to feel the intensity of my sexual energy and it made sense to me that it would come through my breath just like the my emotional feelings had three years before. Paying attention to my breath during the build up and release caused my whole body to orgasm – rather than just one area. Holding my breath had meant holding a part of myself back and not really surrendering to the pleasure. It was necessary to let go and give up control in order to feel the full power of my sexual energy. Breathing not only intensified my orgasms but I discovered that it could keep me in the build up phase of orgasm longer which, in turn, led to even more intense of a release. My orgasms were no longer something that happened to me – they were me. Once again I was amazed at the profoundly physical feelings I was able to experience from only providing space and air for them to be.
Desire for self awareness and something MORE led me to finding the power of my own breath. Through breath, I learned to feel deeply and create space for any strong emotion. Finding my breath and learning to make space connected me deeply to the emotional, physical and sexual parts of myself. Next weekend I will lead my first workshop on The Art of Self Loving, where I hope to, in part, educate and encourage women to use their breath to find the place in themselves where their sexuality lies.
“The roots of the word shame are thought to derive from a word meaning “to cover”; as such, covering oneself, literally or figuratively, is a natural expression of shame.”
When I became pregnant with my first child I envisioned a birth that was all natural, where I felt empowered and present in the beauty of bringing a child into the world. I wanted to feel the pain fully and saw it as an initiation into the strength I would need as a mother. I imagined a hard but moving birth and that my baby would be placed on my naked chest to drink as soon as he or she came out. Reality, however, didn’t work that way. Eight months into the pregnancy my doctor warned me that she suspected I would end up having a cesarean because my baby’s head was too big. This was devastating news to me. I had always wanted to be a mother. It was the only thing that I was certain I wanted in my life, and hearing this felt like my body wasn’t going to cooperate with the way I envisioned this dream. On July 13th 2000 I went into labor naturally but nearly two weeks overdue. My labor stalled and, completely exhausted and not feeling at all empowered, I agreed to be induced. From that point on we encountered one problem after another as, after several hours of back labor, she became stuck face up with her heart rate dropping. When my doctor told me that I had to have a cesarean I completely broke down. I couldn’t understand how this could be happening or why my body was failing me at the one thing I truly wanted. I was fortunate to be awake for her birth but didn’t see her for several minutes after she came out. They wiped her off, bundled her up, and brought her to my face so I could see. The sheet covering me from my neck down and my arms attached to machines on either side of my body didn’t allow for me to hold her. Acacia, as we named her, was bruised from being stuck but still absolutely perfect and I immediately fell in love. My doctor congratulated us and then went to call my parents. I burst into tears ashamed that they would hear this and know that my body had failed. When my mom and dad arrived I saw a look of compassion on my dad’s face as he noticed my eyes swollen from crying. I knew then that they still loved me. Days went by and, while my body slowly healed, I struggled with learning to breast feed. I loathed my scar and saw it as a visible reminder of what I hadn’t been able to do – yet wanted the most. I gave birth three more times after that and each birth was by cesarean. Every time I was asked about my childrens’ birth stories I felt a wall go up around me as I tried to justify why I couldn’t give birth normally when I didn’t really understand it myself. I looked at the women, who had experienced the birthing story that I longed for, with envy and admiration and hoped somehow that the effort I put into parenting my children made up for what I lacked in birthing them.
Thirteen years after my first child was born I attended my first Bodysex workshop in New York, with the intent of training to become a facilitator. I knocked on the door of Betty Dodson’s apartment and was greeted by two naked women who showed me the row of hooks where I could hang my clothes. I had been expecting this and knew that I was going to spend the next two days in the nude but it was a whole other thing to actually do it. Once I was naked I took my place in the circle of towels on the floor of Betty’s living room. There were women from all over the world attending this workshop and we were all there because we struggled with body and sexual shame. When it came my turn to share my feelings about my body I opened up about my stomach and how I didn’t like the stretch marks that I got from my pregnancies and about how, until recently, I had never worn shorts because I hated my legs. I didn’t, however, speak up about the shame I felt in not being able to birth a baby normally. It was as if I believed it more acceptable to admit to shame about the stuff that made me less physically attractive and that I couldn’t hide from, but not the shame that compromised my view of my inner self. That cut too deep and meant being more vulnerable than I was ready for. It also meant admitting to myself how much I felt like my body had let me down.
Over the next two days the women in that circle opened up and we revealed vulnerable layers that we had been kept hidden for years. As one spoke the rest of us would look at her and nod silently in empathy and understanding. Even if the shame was not exactly the same we all understood the place it came from. Witnessing other women bravely peel back invisible layers of their pain was healing for all of us in the circle. I felt normal in my shame and loved and accepted as I sat in physical and emotional nakedness. We discussed our bodies, orgasms or lack of, our relationships, feelings regarding sexuality and our desires for more. We laughed until our stomachs ached, cried, and then let go through orgasm – still with our same place in the circle – alone but together. Near the end of the second day Betty informed us that we were going to do something together that has been done by women since the beginning of time. A sacred touching ritual where the hands of five women are placed on your body and you experience ten minutes of the most amazing loving touch you can imagine. At the beginning of the workshop I would have been scared to do this but after all that had been shared I felt open to accepting their love and I enjoyed the feel of each different hand as they travelled over my body. Laying there receiving this touch I heard Betty say “Look at this little body that has given birth to all those beautiful babies.” She said it with such motherly tenderness and love that I felt myself fill with warmth. Their hands continued to slide over me gently touching my ears, arms, fingers, legs, toes, and stomach. I could feel the love and attention that they gave to my cesarean scar and I, without thinking, shared my feelings of shame at not being able to give birth naturally. The women continued to love me with their hands and the shame was gently replaced by acceptance and love. I was a mama. I hadn’t given birth naturally. But I was still a mama. I think the feeling of love I felt in that moment, was the same as my babies’ would have felt as they lay, skin to skin, drinking from my breast at night.
Women have come to me saying that they are afraid of attending my workshop because they have too much body shame, they are afraid to discuss it, or they think It’s easier for me because I’m “skinny.” I understand those fears and the desire to keep them inside. I also understand thinking that no one else has as much shame as we do ourselves. This process wasn’t easy for me then and it’s not easy for me now. Body shame comes in many forms and whatever your story is, it is just as valid and as painful as anyone else’s. We are all covering our selves to hide our shame – literally and figuratively. Only when we uncover these parts can there be space to let the acceptance of ourselves – from ourselves, and from others – in.