My Personal Understanding of BodySoul Rhythms® by Body Dialogue founder Janice Stieber-Rous
This blog post is a personal understanding of the brilliance of BodySoul Rhythms®. I’m using this opportunity as we initiate a more interactive website for the Marion Woodman Foundation to speak about my own personal experience as a student of Marion Woodman, Ann Skinner and Mary Hamilton.
I started my BodySoul Rhythms® intensives in 1998. I had met Marion Woodman numerous times before 1998, and whenever I asked her questions related to the implications of the body in regards to eating disorders, Marion would respond with the same answer: "The only way you’ll understand the work of BodySoul rhythms is when you come to an eight day intensive, and you get on the floor, and you work your dream images through your body and through your voice."
Because her books were so instrumental to my understanding of my own eating disorders, I was aware that I could not delve as deeply as I wanted to unless I took the leap and signed up for a retreat. To me, eight days seemed like an interminable amount of time. I had two children at home, and being away for that long seemed like a huge sacrifice to my family. However, the call to do the work was so strong that I listened to that voice inside that told me to take the risk and go in spite of my fears.
I remember vividly the first time I walked into the opening evening circle. I entered this large room in the Kripalu retreat center and saw a circle of 35 women. My stomach was in knots and I could barely sit still through the first meeting. I was so frightened that I felt like I couldn’t keep my food down. I would run to the bathroom every 15 minutes because I was so terrified of being in a room with all these women and these three strong women teachers. Had it not been for Ann Skinner‘s encouragement and soft touch to go back into the space those first morning meetings, I might have left after the third day. I’m so grateful that I didn’t collapse into my fear and instead decided to trust the process and have faith that something good would come from the terror.
The three women teachers seemed quite loving and I knew I was in good hands. Marion was an expert in dreams and Jungian psychology and I had read her books, had met her before, and heard her talk numerous times. Mary Hamilton was a dance teacher, a dancer and had been a performer. Ann Skinner was a theater teacher and worked specifically with the voice and breath. I knew I wanted to engage more deeply in all three worlds.
To try to explain an intensive is like trying to explain living with your family. I appeared to be a 48 year old woman in a circle of other mature women, but my inner experience was that of a five-year-old child. Growing up, my sisters and I were very competitive and my relationship with my mother was fraught with demons that I had not really been able to manage. Had I not had a deep relationship to movement improvisation, dance, and breath work, I do not know if I could have sustained the feelings that would arise in the afternoon when we left the more cerebral part of the learning and entered the body work and expressive art. Every day at 2pm we began the movement and voice sessions. I dragged myself to the room feeling my resistance and fear. I would get so tired that I fell asleep as soon as we laid down on the floor and started doing our breathing work. It wasn’t because I was tired, it was because I was hitting such a huge wall of pain. I was so scared to feel all the feelings that would arise in those afternoons.
I had been a dancer my whole life and stopped abruptly at 23 years old. The great loss and grief that emerged was often overwhelming. In those sessions I was a split consciousness. One part of me was the dancer delighting in music and movement and expressing myself as I did as a younger person. The other part of me was watching how difficult it was to be in my late 40s and reconnect to my dancer self having abandoned her for 25 years. Had it not been for Mary’s gentle encouragement, compassion and gentle care I wouldn’t have been able to get on the floor and explore the images from my dreams or the symptoms that were showing up in my body. The practices took us into the wordless territory off a different part of my soul/body and brain. It was the world I loved that was wordless and passionate. It was a world that helped me survive the traumas of my early life but it was also a territory I had shut off and ran from after I left dance and the dreams of being a performing artist.
The combination of body, voice, and expressive art is the genius of BodySoul Rhythms®. In the context of Jung’s understanding of the necessity to work with our archetypal energies and our complexes these three women created a way to dive deeply into our unconscious drives and our survival patterns. The creativity that was brought forth from these three experienced teachers– who each knew their modality intimately– allowed us to be safely contained as we entered the often “dangerous” world of our inner shadows and our disowned energies. Our exploration was only possible because these three women were investigating their material in the same processes we were working with. In the privacy of their rooms, and when they would meet on retreat, they too explored their deepest held traumas. It gave them clues to the mysterious process and practices that we discovered in the rooms where we met.
Because each of the women came to the intensives with a willingness to confront our history, our phobias, and our complexes, we were able to begin to reclaim the disowned parts that were living in the flesh and in the soul of our Bodies.
Here is just one example from one of my intensives:
I remember vividly working with the story of the Ugly Duckling. Marion often used a theme such as a myth or a fairy tale to help us find the images in our personal stories. I was on the floor not knowing what I needed to do, but by trusting the leadership and guidance of the teachers I knew I could explore the images that were arising from my body. I was so identified as an unwanted and dark energy in my family that I almost could not find my breath or my movement that day. However, in the afternoons with the love of the women in the room and the felt sense that I needed to feel into the ghosts that were inside me, after the movement and voice session I started to explore the colors red and gold on paper. I filled twenty large paintings with bold red and gold. For days I was drawn to those two colors and could not stop painting.
We were in Vancouver Island at a retreat center on the coast. I didn’t know many of the women there, which was a blessing because I completely got lost in art. I must’ve spent at least two hours every day making large paintings in red and gold, one after the other.
On the floor I could barely move. My breath was short and I was very limited in my expression, but in painting I was able to connect to my vitality and feel my exuberance. I also cried in a way that I had never done before and I remember Marion getting on the floor with me and holding my hand as I weeped and weeped. Because we were at the sea I spent my breaks walking on the paths talking to the trees and smelling the familiar smells of the coast. I had lived in northeastern Maine until I was four years old, and the coastline had always been my safe haven. I was able to explore the trauma of not knowing what had happened to me as a little child, yet knowing intimately that I had faced violence at that time in my life. Marion encouraged me to keep working with that sense of violation even though I didn’t have a physical memory to attribute to the emotional and and physical symptoms that would show up when I was on the floor. We were exploring the images of my dreams and the experience of not being wanted which I identified with in the Ugly Duckling story. In a private conversation with Marion, she encouraged me not to be bothered with having to get the exact narrative of what actually happened to me. She simply reminded me that when trauma occurs in a family, it is imprinted in the cells of the body. When the body/soul has some form of safety, it can dare to express what’s hidden and buried. This provided an opportunity to go into the grief, the pain, the fear, the dismemberment that I had been living with during my whole childhood. What remains with me Is that the work with the body, the voice, and the visual images allowed me to reclaim my inner reality. The greatest loss for me was I never could trust my reality. I was always told that we were a loving family. The pictures all looked good. I was told to believe that everything was perfect and I was loved… However, I knew underneath all the violence, hysteria, anger, and reactivity there was something larger than me. I was in touch with my inner light which I could find as a child when I danced. My outer realty often did not match my inner experiences or what I was told to believe. These mixed messages often created a confusion I could not navigate.
It has taken me decades of inner exploration in this way to come to understand the work I had created years before called BODY DIALOGUE.
I didn’t understand that the work I was doing on myself was resolving the conflict that I experienced as a child in my home. By daring to confront the imagery, the breathlessness, the restrictions, and the paralysis that lived in my own body I could begin to help others explore their irreconcilable shames, hurt and pain.
I continue to reclaim the truth of my experience by exploring my dreams, working with visual imagery and finding my voice.
The tools that I received in my BodySoul Rhythms® intensives continue to support my journey toward greater wholeness. Without the education I received from Mary, Ann , Marion and Paula Reeves, I would not have the tools I need today to confront the collective trauma that is facing our culture and our world. I hope that this website will be a source of education information and inspiration for those who have been students of this work and newcomers as they meet the teachers who are sharing this work today.