“97, 98, 99, 100.” I pull my exhausted, 8-year-old body out of the pool, and collapse onto the warm concrete patio. Through the haze of chlorine fumes and low blood sugar, pride at my accomplishment revives me. Later I speak to my father, who is on a business trip, “I swam 100 laps”, I declare. “Wow, that’s great!” he exclaims. My father is notoriously hard to please. A perfectionist, especially when it comes to his body. He implements diet and exercise routines with the cool precision of a trained sniper aiming at his next target. I am a desperate young girl. To miss the mark could mean staring into the face of fury and disdain. Or maybe even worse, to be ignored. If I remained in his favor, there was safety, approval, and an exclusive kind of belonging.
That 8-year-old girl grows into a teenager who is constantly criticizing her body. Exercise and dieting become her savior; an antidote for flabby thighs and an enormous bowl of chocolate ice cream. But the beast is never satiated. An endless cycle of obsession, consumption, and punishment ensue, leaving her hollow and isolated.
As I reflect on my years as a young girl, raised by a mentally ill mother and an abusive father, I can see that harming my body actually saved my life.
To inhabit my physical body would have meant having to feel and experience the unbearable realities in which I existed. My body was a vessel of truth. Though it had the capacity to experience pleasure, it also held the darkness of unnamed feelings and untold stories of harm. The only path I could see out of the darkness was to sever the connection to my body.
I’ll never forget the first yoga class I attended. After months of work delving into my story, my therapist suggested we attend a class together in lieu of a session. We sat together in a crowded class at a local YMCA. When the class began, my body was nervous and tense. I was acutely aware of the men and women around me who displayed the confidence and flexibility of seasoned yogis. Old tapes began to play as shame, my familiar friend, arose. I was aware of the battle to focus my attention outward and ignore my body, yet I also held an earnest desire to experience something different.
The yoga instructor invited us into pigeon pose, a deep hip opener. As I moved into the form and felt the intensity of the stretch, grief began to emerge. Attuning to my body, when I had spent 20 years at war, caused feelings to surface and begin to release that I had no words for. In his book, Trauma Sensitive Yoga in Therapy, David Emerson states, “…the truth of memory and cognition is not the only kind of truth that is important to trauma healing. What I feel in my body right now, in the present moment, is at least as important as what I remember about the past and what I tell about it.”
As tears silently streamed down my cheeks into a puddle on the waxed gymnasium floor, I found myself shifting from a posture of shame, to one of empathy and tenderness. The connection to my physical body became the therapy, giving me a path to move through the darkness.
The journey to maintain connection to my body is ongoing. I developed well-worn paths as a child to keep myself from destruction. Though I now know that the way out of darkness is to walk through it, I still meet at least initial resistance. There are still mornings when I’m driving my kids to school and they are fighting and dysregulated, that I feel whirling panic and the temptation to depart from my body as a way to cope. I have a choice then to tune in to what my body is feeling (a tightening in my chest, shallow breathing), or to detach and become reactive.
When I choose to bring awareness to my body, I am given a way through the darkness. As I confront the painful truths that my body holds, I find a hand outstretched to meet me. Jesus was an embodied human being who experienced pain and betrayal. We are invited to follow the same rhythm, bearing the truthful witness of the past and the present contained in our bodies. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4).
Cathy Buckland feels her heart come alive when engaging in creativity in its many forms. This includes rich and meaningful conversations, travel to beautiful places, and creating sculptures and watercolor art. With over 15 years of experience as a Licensed Counselor, she treasures moving through stories of harm with others to find hope and restoration. Cathy has a particular interest in the mind-body connection, and is currently pursuing her teacher training certificate in yoga. She lives in the Orlando area with her husband and four energetic young boys.