Somatics Helped Me Feel Safe in My Body & Finally Address Generational Trauma
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“Release the dragon, Paton!”
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Moni Yakim, the legendary head of movement and cofounder of the Drama Division at the Juilliard School, had me in his cross hairs. “Release the dragon!”
Moni’s class transforms artists using physical exploration and impulse exercises that either provoke emotional energy in the body, or interpret experiences through physicality. It’s relentless, physically brutal, exhausting and freeing all at once.
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Moni would implore this of me, knowing that something inside me was begging to be expressed. On some quiet level, I knew what he meant, but I couldn’t “release the dragon” just yet. However, those words would become the first stepping stone in a long journey toward reconnection to my body through somatic, or body-centered, work.
What I didn’t know then during my second year at Juilliard, was that my unprocessed trauma was keeping me in a box. There were depths that I couldn’t find as an actor because I couldn’t examine them within myself. I would often come up against these same guardrails in class, limits I’d unconsciously built for protection since childhood. Nevertheless, rather than accept defeat, I urged myself to lean in and keep pushing up against those limitations. Little did I know, this was my introduction to somatic healing.
But it wouldn’t be until almost three years ago, seemingly lifetimes removed from that classroom, that I’d learn what the “dragon” was — it was rage.
I had just come across the work of Dr. Gabor Maté, who defines trauma as “disconnection from the self” and as the root of our disease, dysfunction, and suffering in society. This led me to read The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk and shortly after, on the recommendation of a friend, My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem. In these books, I came to understand the power of healing somatically — how by moving beyond a cognitive understanding of our trauma, this work brings us into our body’s experience, where trauma actually lives.
Somatic practices range from singing, breathwork, intuitive movement, visualization and sense awareness — all of which can help dislodge trauma in the body. For me, meditation and daily chanting in tandem with my yoga asana, journaling, and the suggested exercises from Menakem’s book, allowed me to hold my painful parts without judgement. Thanks to these practices and the mirroring of my therapist, I became aware of unexpressed rage protecting bottomless grief and fear in my body. I discovered this pain had been there for as long as I could remember, and it wasn’t even all mine to begin with.
The trauma we carry isn’t necessarily all from our own lived experience. In fact, we carry the imprint — somatic memories, and trauma experienced by our ancestors in our bodies.
Generational trauma lives in the expression of our genes. The study of this is called epigenetics: without altering DNA, epigenetic changes (caused by environments and experiences) affect how your body reads a gene sequence. For example, if a mouse is trained to fear a particular odor, its offspring will react the same way to that smell. In this way, our parents and ancestors are quite literally with us, unconsciously running the show at times.
The good news though: epigenetic changes are reversible.
To our central nervous system (CNS), pain means danger, and danger means potential death. So it will do everything possible to keep us from experiencing pain. It’s Survival 101 to the body. And unfortunately, we live in a society that encourages us to exist in a constant state of survival: fight, flight, freeze, or fawn.
Of course, life brings inevitable pain; but we create suffering by avoiding that pain at all costs. We use addictions, we employ protectors like judgment and perfectionism, we hustle and grind ourselves into a pulp and wonder why our bodies finally force us to stop. For years, I would run on fumes until eventually crashing into injury, illness, or depression. Rinse and repeat.
I was afraid to drop in, be still, and listen to my body. Emotion is energy in motion through the body. Our minds create stories, whereas our bodies feel those stories. Feeling is the body’s language, which we inherit and pass on. And if feeling goes unprocessed and ignored, it only grows and reverberates out into our lives and the lives of our children.
One way I avoided myself was by hiding behind the characters I’d play, feeling their pain but not my own. But luckily, it wasn’t all problematic — art works on us in a way that goes beyond our cognition. It transcends the mind and grounds us back into our bodies through emotion. It is a somatic experience. Because of the arts, I felt safer to go to places within myself that I couldn’t reckon with outside the rehearsal room or on stage. Where it was controlled. Where I knew how it ended and where I felt safe to be seen.
But my inability to express myself in real life, to be truly authentic, was keeping me stuck. And because there were places I wouldn’t dare go inside myself, my characters were limited. My relationships were too. Disconnection from the self ripples out through your whole life — suddenly everything is seen through that wounded lens.
The somatic approach to therapy is an incredible gift. Because of it I’ve been able to create safety in my body and find reconnection to myself. I know and honor my needs now because I’m aware and understanding of my body’s language. My relationships to everything — food, work, love — have become more easeful and compassionate. When I need to make a boundary, I make it. When I need rest, I take it. Much like the oxygen mask protocol in an emergency: only by attending to ourselves first can we be helpful to others.
When I started somatic therapy, I remember thinking that I was learning a new way to be human. And as I deepen my understanding, that remains true. The world is not a very healthy and “normal” place to be. But by learning the language of your body, you will come home to yourself. You will find that our capacity for pain and joy grow together. That empathy dissolves shame. That humans are capable of the widest breadth of experience, and there are no limits to our creativity and expression. Because of this work, I’m becoming a more fearless artist and a much more courageous and compassionate human.
The dragon is finally free.
Before you go, check out the mental health apps we swear by for some extra self-care:
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