“Lean into your partner. Press against them with everything you have, like you are trying to push them over. Look them in the eyes and scream. Let it all out. Really feel it from the depth of your belly. Loud as you can.”
It was the first “exercise” of the intenSati retreat. I cringed. These kinds of exercises were always well beyond the scope of my comfort zone. Even though I’ve come to expect such activities from my teacher, it never softens the blow of what we are asked to do.
I watched as one by one people partnered up and began the screaming exercise, an exercise intended to have you tap into discomfort, anger and hurt – to feel it all and let it out – to feel all the things we typically don’t allow ourselves to feel.
I leaned into my partner who held me firm by my shoulders. I looked her in the eyes and began laughing uncontrollably.
“I can’t do this,” I said through gasps of laughing.
“Yes you can,” she encouraged, “Just think of a time you’ve been really hurt or angry and let it out.”
“Ok,” I said as I coughed out another laugh.
Each and every time I tried to yell, I began laughing. Nothing else but the laugh would come out.
Humor is a defense mechanism we use to not feel. It’s easier to laugh than it is to feel what’s below the surface.
Eventually my close friend, Liv came over and completed the exercise with my partner. Then she turned to me, “Now you.”
“I can’t,” I said.
Liv grabbed me by the shoulders anyway and pressed her weight against me, forcing me to lean in and press back.
I busted out laughing again. But she just held me tight, never ceasing her intent gaze.
“Just look at me. Let it out. Let it all go.”
I began to laugh again but this time my laugh turned into a sob. With tears streaming down my face I said, “I just can’t.”
“It’s OK,” she replied, drawing me into her arms for a hug, “It’s OK.”
In that moment, I felt shame.
As someone who teaches and preaches vulnerability – as someone who is always seeking to get her students to a new level of discomfort so that they can go beyond the physical – here I was straddling the line of fear and courage…and I let fear win.
I felt like a hypocrite. I felt like a failure. And worst of all, I let shame wash over me. It would have been easy to sweep this exercise under the rug. The only people that knew were my partner and my close friend, Liv. But instead, not being able to scream, not allowing myself to deeply feel my hurt, kept nagging at me and the lesson of not using my voice, interestingly enough, became a reoccurring theme throughout the week.
The next evening, several of us from our group decided to go to a sweat lodge ceremony, something I had wanted to do the last time I was on the retreat but was too afraid to do. Gold star for me, I thought.
As we sat in the hot, dark and enclosed room, various prayers and songs were sung in Spanish by our Mayan healer and guide. Then, towards the end of the ceremony we were asked to offer our own song.
My heart sank. No one said anything about me singing in front of the group. My overly prepared perfectionist, who would have rehearsed a song if she has known, began to freak out. You know those moments where you blank out and literally nothing is in your head? This was one of them and for the life of me, I couldn’t think of any song, not one I could sing.
One by one, each individual sang their song, sometimes a line, sometimes a whole verse.
With each passing person, my fear intensified until it was Julia’s turn, the woman that was next to me. As she finished, “This Little Light of Mine,” I swallowed hard, my throat began to close up. Years ago, I used to sing. In fact, I’ve been in traveling singing companies and off-Broadway revue companies. But five years ago, I damaged my vocal chords teaching intenSati in Rittenhouse Square and it’s never been the same. Since then, I’ve been afraid to let anyone hear it.
The Mayan healer began to talk and a sigh of relief washed over me. She’s forgotten about me. I won’t have to go. I thought about how lucky I was in that moment….until my friends kindly pointed out to her I hadn’t gone.
“There’s still one more,” Lucy said.
“Yes,” said Liv, “Amy hasn’t gone.”
An uncomfortable silence pervaded the air and I quietly began to sing “This is Me” from The Greatest Showman, the song that suddenly (and thankfully) popped into my head, a song that I consider my personal anthem.
After I finished, the Mayan healer closed with her song. I sat with the last note I sang on my lips wondering why I was so afraid to use my voice this week. Where in my life was I not using my voice? And why?
I had no problem using my voice earlier in the day when my teacher asked me to lead the class in intenSati and instruct part of the class. But, when I was asked to share in large groups, when I was asked to sing, when I was asked to feel my dark emotions, I shut down.
The feeling of shame welled up in me again. I didn’t want anyone to know I was afraid of using my voice, should it lessen how others saw me, a respected leader and teacher in this community.
I didn’t want anyone to know the thing I struggle with is the very thing my life is built around as a writer and teacher – the very thing the practice of intenSati is built around: the power of word and using your voice.
I didn’t want to admit I had trouble when the voice was in service of me – my feelings, my fears, my dreams.
Towards the end of the week, I decided to go back and see the Mayan healer for an energetic healing session. During my session she did an egg yoke reading, a tarot card reading and an intenstinal massage. At the end of the session, she grabbed my hands, placing them in hers and looked me in the eyes: You are so powerful. You have many doors and blessings available to you, but it is your anger and judgement that you hold here,” pointing her finger at my heart, “that keeps you stuck. You give too much to others, yes? There’s nothing left for you. You must focus on you, your power.
I give away my power. I don’t use my voice. And this cycle perpetuates me holding onto anger and judgement and blame.
A woman who knew nothing about me – and absolutely everything about me – had told me what I needed to hear.
On the last day of the retreat, as we were closing up, my teacher asked if anyone had any last insights or moments they wanted to share.
You’ve got to share. This is it. the voice inside me urged and reluctantly, and very tentatively, I raised my hand.
I shared about not being able to complete the screaming exercise. I shared about the sweat lodge experience and thinking I wouldn’t have to sing. I shared what the Mayan healer told me. Instance after instance where I was asked to use my voice and where I shut down. How this week I learned that I need to use my voice to step into my power and potential.
“Is that right?” my teacher asked.
Fuck. I knew where this was going. Ahhh I shouldn’t have shared.
She didn’t wait for an answer, “Get up and come into the center of the circle. You are going to scream right now. In front of everyone.”
She has got to be kidding.
The group began to clap, my friend Liv came over and pulled me into the center of the circle.
Again, I began to laugh, “I can’t,” I said to my teacher.
“Stop. You can. Close your eyes. Feel the very thing you don’t want to feel. The thing you are most afraid of feeling and let it out. Now open your eyes, look at Liv and scream.”
A yell began to escape my lips, my throat ached, and tears welled in my eyes.
Thank god that’s over.
“You’re not done,” my teacher said, “Go again.”
I looked at her in disbelief, “That’s not it,” she said. “Feel it in your belly. Let it come from deep within you.”
I scream again. More tears streamed down my face.
“Again” she said.
What the fuck. Can’t you see I’m crying? I am there. I am feeling this shit!
“Again,” she simply repeated.
I closed my eyes. I thought about the last year. The pain of losing everything. All the people I blamed. All the anger and resentment I felt towards those people. As much healing as I’ve done, that feeling is still there, the hurt was still alive. And I began to scream from a place of intense hurt, a depth I didn’t know existed. My whole body shook, tears flew down my face, my voice echoed beyond the walls of the hut we were in.
“Yes,” said my teacher as I lost the strength to keep pushing my weight into Liv, collapsing into her arms.
Liv wrapped her arms around me, “I’m so proud of you,” she whispered in my ear.
We all have parts of us – old stories, addictions we’re struggling with, a specific part of our personality, or ways in which we’ve hurt others – that we pretend aren’t there or that we try to hide.
We all have a dark side we believe needs to stay hidden in the dark.
But it’s only when we bring light to our dark parts – it’s only when we talk about the things we’re afraid of, struggling with, or up against – that we break cycles of guilt, blame and shame and can move into a powerful energy of courage and vulnerability.
Making that leap requires an acute willingness to show up and be seen – not just in your picturesque moments or the semi-shitty ones. Showing up means being seen in the really ugly, beyond messy moments too.
What’s part of you, you don’t want others to see?
This week, share that with someone – be it a close friend, partner or stranger (or write it in the comments below!) and release its hold over you.