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From Disassociation to Divinity

Blog Post April 3, 2024


Why do we leave our bodies?


As an embodiment guide, my life has woven in such a way that I have dedicated my path to living in this body and learning how to understand its codes so I can reintegrate my being - from fragmented, confused and depressed to whole, authentic and expressed. 


I wasn’t born this way. Honestly a lot of my memories from childhood are feeling scared, angry or tired. I found dance at age seven and recovered an essential part of my being. A part of myself I had closed inside a little closet that could open when I entered a dance floor and felt the beats thump in my cells. She would come out and she was my saving grace.


The other place where I felt I could recover my innocence was cloaked in the quietness of pine trees or underwater. I would hold my breath for as long as I possibly could with my eyes open, feeling the water hold my body, peering up at how the light danced on the surface, and I felt at home.



Photo of Hayley Shannon underwater by Aliko "Mountain" Weste


Despite how good it felt to be in my body when I blessed to be at dance or in nature, I was very good at leaving my body. It’s a strategy that many of us have developed in order to maintain a feeling of being safe - within our nervous system’s window of tolerance. If we feel like we are on the verge of a threat so strong that we cannot escape it and death’s door may be coming for us, we can go into hypo-arousal and energetically exit our body so it’s less painful. Pretty incredible that we can do that, isn’t it? (Learn more about this theory, called Polyvagal theory, here).


Unfortunately, a lot of us have nervous systems that are stuck in a feeling of not-quite-safe in our bodies (what is referred to as "faux window-of-tolerance"). We find ourselves grasping for safety through coping mechanisms (like overworking, binge eating and drinking etc) that assist us in checking out. Being hyper-sensitive in a harsh world is a bit much, and many of us are just looking for a break from it all. I was here for many years.



Image of shadow figure behind white wall, credit unknown

I see dis-embodiment is an epidemic, however, thanks to many who did incredible work before us, we have crossed the threshold into collective awareness of this issue. There is a grand wave of us seeking meaningful pathways to reestablish a kind relationship with our vessels that isn’t about shaming, judgement, pushing, fixing or vandalizing them. How do we get there?


Grandmother of ecstatic dance, Gabrielle Roth, says: “In many shamanic societies, if you came to a medicine person complaining of being disheartened, dispirited, or depressed, they would ask one of four questions: ‘When did you stop dancing? When did you stop singing? When did you stop being enchanted by stories?’”


Our spirit, or that feeling of being connected to all of life, flows with the water of creative energy. We can look to where we disowned parts of creative expression - including intuitive art, emotional expression, and intimate relationships - to return to the wound that is holding it captive. The wounds that have severed the soul.


I could not find these gold mines by linearly recounting my life experiences in a therapist’s office…I tried, albeit not for very long. I found them by returning to the practices that I knew were my birthright but that scared the living hell out of me. Dancing my own dance…singing my own song…speaking truth from my belly…creating art that was honest and just for me. It required me to remember ritual and ceremony…to seek sacred spaces where the soul would want to return.


A memory that comes to mind is singing out to the redwoods in California. I had been working with a sound shaman and now mentor, Dohee Lee*, who would coach my somatic expressive arts therapy cohort for hours and hours to reconnect with and trust our true sounds. She called them “sound seeds” as we imagined planting them and witnessing how they wanted to grow by “staying with it.” On this day as my voice carried out beyond the walls and touched the pines, a knowing dropped into my mind that “I am calling my soul home.”


Breathwork is another practice that illuminated the chasms in my wholeness. This past weekend I was in a four-day breathwork intensive that focused on how to provide supportive touch to “breathers” - the courageous humans who go into a breathwork journey.


In this style of “conscious connective breathwork,” we intentionally amp up our body’s energy into a sympathetic state by over-breathing. It’s like taking your nervous system for a run. In real life, we don’t want to be over-breathing just like we don’t want to sprint everywhere, but by intentionally charging up our sympathetic state (sometimes known as fight/flight), our nervous system naturally seeks to discharge excess energy. This gives our whole system a reboot and can also contact sensitive places where the energy is stuck - i.e. the chasms in our wholeness. 


Breath painting by Lupuca Luminita

Breathwork is an ancient practice that has been traced to the Bushman in Africa and Tibetan monks in Tibet since time immerrorial. When German psychologist Wilhelm Reich met it in 1960 he began studying its effects on healing trauma. Somatic therapists have been working with breathwork ever since to help people heal from depression, anxiety, PTSD and more. 


In this training, us trainees were practicing on each other while also going through real expanded consciousness journeys where we transmuted wounds on a level that, for many of us, was actually deeper than we’ve ever been able to go before. 


My first session rocked my boat. I’ve been practicing for so many years how to be in my body. Well, something triggered a very old part of me in that first session and a core part of me didn’t feel safe. My reaction? To leave my body.


I wasn’t aware during the journey; I thought it was a pretty gentle ride although I kept forgetting I was doing breathwork and maybe falling asleep? I was aware of feeling triggered early on…


It wasn’t until my facilitator told me after that I had been holding my breath for up to 3 minutes at at time and being unresponsive to her that I realized I had gone into hypoarousal and disassociated from my body during the journey. This was scary for me and I couldn’t help but ask that question: why?


Why was to meet this terror inside myself that was ready to be freed, within a truly safe container.


The next day, a little to my embarrassment, the teacher* took extra care of me and kept a close eye; working with me one-on-one and giving me encouraging notes like “you’re in really good hands!” My adult self was able to speak up and ask for what I needed to sooth my nervousness about going into a journey again: secure touch and solid presence.


I recalled the one image that came to me while flying outside of the body the day prior - a moon and and an old woman’s brown face. On this day, deep in my journey, this image came back to me and the message was clear: We have always been here with you. You have always been safe.



With this resource and the generous support of the gifted trainees and teacher, my body released old terror that still lived on inside of me on an unconscious level with tears and shaking. Bless those holy releases.


On the fourth day of the training, with some of the unconscious terror out of the way and the knowing restored on a somatic level that I am really safe and truly cared, I was able to go deeper. My sacrum was asking for attention and with a raise of my hand, a warm and grounded women was by my side. I asked her (feeling vulnerable) if she would put her hand under my sacrum - a technique we learned called “sacral release.” 


"Sacred Sacrum" a photograph by Nok

There is a magic that happens when your body can rest upon the Earth of another’s body. One of my partner’s earlier in the training illuminated this for me when I gently rested my hands under her feet. “It’s like I’m laying directly on the Earth and is very grounding to my system,” she told me.


With this kind soul’s hand under my sacrum and in the expanded state of my journey, a deep unwinding began. The word sacrum comes from “sacred” and is such a special place in the body, where the tendrils of our nervous system branch into. With no story and the presence of this warm hand, I opened to the grief and relief of feeling held here.


The irony is that from this place of embodied safety, we can reach higher into the astral realms - like the tree who’s roots allow it to stretch into the sky. After this gentle sacral release, I felt truly connected to the divinity of the breath; to the angels that have been with my all along; to the Grandmother moon. This state of connectedness is a holy place to touch. It felt like the faith I longed for during my Christian upbringing but this faith was felt and it was mine.



Photo of Hayley Shannon by Aliko "Mountain" Weste


I share this story to offer an honest and recent healing experience that may illuminate how coming home to the body is a process and a practice that often requires support. I can bet that most of us somatic practitioners are not in the field because it came easy to us, but because we desperately needed this work and we want to pay it forward.


My favorite part of any transformative embodiment journey is the deep bonds that awaken both within us and among us. It is truly an honor to be trusted and to be in sacred space with others as we heal and as we witness and support them healing.


As you can tell from my story, it doesn’t mean there won’t be triggers. I actually think when we enter a healing space, we are signing up to get intentionally triggered while trusting that there will be enough support to help us move through it. This requires strong discernment about who, where and what we are stepping into.


If you have any questions about how somatic healing arts might serve you, please reach out! I share my teachers that I mention below. I am truly honored to guide breathwork, dance healing and embodiment journeys 1:1 and in groups both in person and online. 





I hope this post finds you well-resourced and in your body. If you want to share any feedback or if you want support to meet your authentic aliveness, please reach out.


In body and soul,

Hayley


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*The teachers I mention in this post:

BREATHWORK: Tai Hubbert, Sword and Lotus. Learn more.

SOUND HEALING: Dohee Lee, Tamalpa Institute. Learn more.

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