Joy In Motion, Part 2: Dissociation, Trauma, and the Body

It was a gray, drizzly morning - the kind I love. I should have been born in the Pacific Northwest, I thought, idly, as I drove to Vanessa’s studio.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from our time together - but I was excited. I could feel myself brimming over with possibility. What could change for me if I really do heal my relationship with movement? I wondered. Things could be so different. I could feel so different.

I parked the car and navigated puddles on the walk into the studio. Sheepishly, I looked down at my loose, comfortable sweat pants. I knew I probably should have worn something more form-fitting - all the better for Vanessa to actually, you know, see my form - but I’d experienced some unexpected anxiety around doing so. It was the oddest thing; no part of me believed Vanessa would be anything but accepting, understanding, and kind. Perhaps it was simply the knowledge that I was about to take a big step outside of my comfort zone - and if my well-worn, pilly sweatpants were a piece of comfort I could cling to, then so be it.

Vanessa met me at the entrance, and I felt a flush of nervousness flutter through my gut. This is exciting, I reminded myself.

We began with a conversation. I’d completed an assessment that Vanessa had emailed me prior to our first session; it contained basic details like medical history, movement goals, and pain I’d been experiencing. In all honesty, even filling out that form felt intimate - and I knew exactly why.

Because as a fat person, I feel that I don’t have the right to complain about any issues in my life that are directly related to my weight.

Can’t find clothes that fit? Lose some weight and quit bitching.

Your knees hurt? You did this to yourself, you know.

People make judgments based on your size? Make yourself smaller and they’ll stop.

The bottom line in all these scenarios being, of course, that I am to blame for my fatness and any negative situations that result from it; therefore, all I need to do is re-embrace diet culture, start eating in disordered ways again, and undo all the hard work I’ve done to shed my self-hatred, and voilà - my problems will be solved.

Except they won’t. Sure, maybe I’ll be thinner. But I’ll probably also spend a lot of time obsessing about calories, wishing I was better at making myself throw up, and fantasizing about getting a tapeworm - none of which are particularly healthy ideations. And given the choice between being thin again and actually having a life that feels like it’s worth living…I’ll take the latter, thanks.

Still, there are things I don’t love about being fat. There are days I wake up and feel uncomfortable and awkward in my body. There are times I wish I was smaller - lots of them. And sharing my physical ailments with Vanessa was absolutely one of those times. If I was thinner, I thought to myself, it wouldn’t be so hard to tell her about the pain in my back, or my knees, or the bottoms of my feet.

If I was thinner, perhaps those things would still be true - almost certainly, in fact, as many of my current issues with pain began when I was much smaller - but at least I wouldn’t feel like they’re all my fault.

There’s a lot to unpack, here.

Anyway. There we were in Vanessa’s studio, where she was walking me through some basic exercises to help improve my alignment and strengthen my core for pain relief and better mobility. Let me clarify, too, because usually hearing the term “exercises” brings to mind images of shiny, sweaty people, huffing and puffing and looking scarily intense. The exercises Vanessa was having me do, though, weren’t of this variety. At all. They weren’t even…hard.

This was an odd thing to come to terms with. My entire life, whether I’ve been fat or thin, I’ve existed under the belief that if it’s not excruciatingly difficult, it’s not really exercise. It’s not movement that counts. It has to feel like literal torture in order to be doing me any good.

(It’s occurring to me, as I write this, that this belief system might be a taaaad problematic, and a big part of the reason why I have never, not once, enjoyed a workout.)

No, the things Vanessa demonstrated weren’t hard - but they were challenging in that they required me to make shifts in the way I normally move. Never in my life have I spent time thinking about which foot I usually lead with when I ascend a flight of stairs, for example - nor did I think it mattered. Apparently, it matters quite a lot.

In addition to stair-climbing, we discussed the way I stand (knees locked, hips forward, lower back compressed painfully), the way I walk (always leading with the right foot, toes pointed slightly outward), and which hip I tend to lean into more (the right one). Vanessa suggested slight tweaks for each scenario - nothing major, just a slight bend to the knees here or a tucking under of the pelvis there - and I was delighted to find that most of them eased the pressure on my lower back considerably.

“Pick one thing to focus on adjusting throughout the week,” she told me - just one, lest I get distracted by trying to shift too much at once. I decided I would start paying attention to how I stand. This, then, was my homework: whenever I notice I’m standing in my usual way (read: not doing myself any favors), I focus in on my body, bend my knees just a bit, let my butt lean back and my torso come forward just a hair, and slightly tuck my pelvis under. Small, subtle moves that the average person wouldn’t even see me doing. That’s it! Easy peasy, right?

The answer, my friends, is no - not because the movements themselves are hard, but because I only seem to be able to remember to do them about ten percent of the time.

Practicing this over the last couple of weeks has really opened my eyes to how often I dissociate from my body entirely. I was aware of this tendency of mine, but honestly, I expected to at least be aware of my body and its mechanics more than just a few times throughout the day. It’s interesting to me that, for someone who is so aware of the bulk of her body, I am hardly ever really inhabiting it at all.

Another exercise Vanessa introduced me to that clued me in to my dissociation was rolling my muscles out with a pink rubber ball - specifically, my glutes and the area around my hip bones. Since I experience extreme tenderness in much of my lower body, instead of having me sit on the ball, Vanessa prompted me to roll against it on the wall, which allowed me to control the intensity. Even the slightest bit of pressure caused a certain amount of pain. But it felt like good pain, if that makes any sense at all. It felt like my lower body was waking up, in a way it hadn’t for years. Suddenly, after rolling out my glutes, I could feel them firing when I moved. I was aware of them, rather than having the sensation that I’m just dragging them around behind me like two cold hams strapped to the base of my spine, without them actually belonging to my body.

The psoas release - we must not forget the psoas release. It’s been mentioned to me before, by more than one health care professional, that a tight psoas muscle could be contributing to some of my problems. However, I’ve never received any information on how to actually address the issue, so I was thrilled when Vanessa brought it up.

(For those of you who don’t know, the psoas is a deep-seated core muscle that connects the lumbar vertebrae to the femur. Why it’s important, we’ll get to in just a moment.)

Vanessa prompted me to lie down on the floor, with a bolster beneath my lower back to elevate my hips and pelvis. Patiently, I waited for further instruction; would I be lifting my legs? Twisting my torso? Doing jazz hands, perhaps?

No, it turns out - that’s it. All I had to do was lie there - and as I did, I realized that I hadn’t been so comfortable lying down in years. I felt this deep sense of peace. Relaxation. I felt safe, which is an odd thing to say about laying on your back with a pillow under your butt, until you consider the fact that the psoas is directly tied into the body’s fight-or-flight mechanism. For people who have experienced recurring trauma, this muscle has spent a lot of time in a state of stress and contraction. I researched this further and found that there is a strong link between survivors of chronic traumas and lower back pain, due to the emotional strain bearing a physical burden on the psoas.

Therefore, the inexplicable feeling of safety and security I got while lying in this position makes perfect sense. I underwent nine years of emotional and physical trauma at the hands of my abusive ex-partner. My psoas is probably still tourniquet-tight after all that training.

The psoas release has been my absolute favorite part of this movement journey so far, which is ironic, as it’s not exactly movement, per se. But it is a healing and restorative act I do for the well-being of my body, and it feels good. Dare I say…it brings me joy?

I’ll be honest. After two solid weeks of doing this work, I wanted to be able to report back with the news that my relationship to movement had completely changed and I was now positively brimming over with joy whenever I walked to the mailbox or bent over to pick something up off the floor.

Unrealistic? Sure - but that didn’t stop me from secretly hoping.

Sometimes, when I perform my Movement 20 (which is my official Google calendar name for the twenty-minute period I schedule daily to roll out my glutes and hips, do the exercises Vanessa has assigned, and enjoy the glorious psoas release), I find myself feeling frustrated.


Because I don’t like it.

I don’t hate it, either. But with the exception of the psoas release, which I will most likely perform regularly until the day I die, I mildly dislike these exercises.

The important part is understanding why I dislike them.