Exercise Your Muscle Memory

By Teresa Pitt Green, Founder

Words are central to our recovery. We go to “talk” therapy. We pull buried memory to light by speaking it.  We read. We journal. That said, words and their expressive power were not enough to soothe my portion of grief. And, so, my own journey led me beyond the limits of words and intellect. I had to get at suffering burned into my psyche more deeply than words. I had to contend with how I was living spiritually in a cringe, with my back toward God. Taking a look at muscle memory as an avenue for healing may help explain what I mean, and offer you added avenues for healing.

In 2007 The New York Times profiled a dancer, Angel Corella, of the American Ballet Theater who described his renowned performances as a leap out of the self-consciousness of rehearsal into a space where “only brain and emotions” are working. He observed that most dancers never graduate from rehearsal into the freedom of dance.[1] Any survivor of trauma or secondary trauma may notice a parallel. Many of us long to leap beyond the restraint of memories into a spontaneous, integrated, even self-forgetful lifestyle.

The Times writer then described “knowing the steps of a dance is only the first phase in perfecting it.” Dancers must learn “the choreography and then <add> layers of detail and color”[2] from what is deeply emotional, historically accurate and choreographically interpretative. Ultimately, their performance becomes a unified whole no longer in need of heightened self-awareness. This describes, for me, how good “talk” therapy works; I became hyperconscious in exchange for integrating the fragmented pieces of myself. This exchange improved when I chose to incorporate other means of self-care to get at pain and grief where words were simply not helping.

This brings us, and the Times article, to the neuroscience behind what dancers call “muscle memory,” that is, what dancers achieve by rehearsing over and over and over to integrate all these layers from conscious awareness to a smooth physical routine, no longer relying on thought or language. Dancers call this “getting the dance into their bodies.” Once they do, in a study quoted quoted in the Times piece, when the dancer sees someone else performing, for example, an arabesque the same parts of the motor areas in the brain fire off as if they themselves were dancing.[3]

The distinctly personal ways in which dancers absorb memory is also studied by neuroscientists seeking insights into the role of muscle memory in healing. For example, victims sometimes absorb the full memory of trauma in an instant. The impact is so extreme that nothing resembling rehearsal is needed to create lasting muscle memory. Here is an insight into triggers: sensory things—for example sacred images which others freely associate with the beauty of the Catholic tradition—can fire up motor areas in the brain associated with abuse. They trigger a re-experience of abuse without the ability to explain (with words).

Considering muscle memory in healing raises a challenge for every survivor in terms of self-care. One thing we hopefully do in “talk” therapy is unlearn the false lessons of abusers and their enablers. Can we also unlearn traumatic muscle memory? Can we go so far as to take the offensive in terms of self-care and ask the body to recast memories that cannot be soothed by words?

My experience has been “yes.” Due to medical challenges and injuries, I found myself exploring alternative health care options. I was inspired in particular by a medically sound approach toward pain and recuperation common in Europe and Israel. Known as the Feldenkrais Method, it relies on the way the body and mind can align in order to heal each other. Commonly people hear “psychosomatic” and instantly think of a negative physical effect from a “crazy” mental cause. As Catholics, however, we understand how training our minds to contemplate God (or the names of Jesus, or the mysteries of the rosary) can restore life. So it should be no surprise that the conscious opening of mind and spirit can also open the body, or how the body’s memory can exert a healing influence on the mind’s memory where “talk” therapy cannot reach.

With that in mind, consider from the website for the Feldenkrais Guild of North America, the method being described as “a form of somatic education that uses gentle movement and directed attention to improve movement and enhance human functioning.”[4] In admittedly layman’s terms, I describe this as stretching both mind and body gently. The look of the work can resemble physical therapy or gentle stretching; its impact goes further, into how one challenges one’s psyche while stretching to follow, to stretch and open too. In many cases, people use the mind to help the body stretch through physical pain, like chronic back pain or injury. In that case, body follows mind. Others use body to lead the mind, to change “self-image…. Students become more aware of their habitual neuromuscular patterns and rigidities and expand options for new ways of moving.”[5] Victims might think about this process as gently stretching our bodies while we focus on opening up the interior cringe of past pain, opening all of self to the present, to others, to God.

My early experience with healing muscle memory started as an antidote to struggling to connect physical states such as anxiety. Between stress in the body and resistance in the psyche, my early threrapy moved painfully slowly. A fellow survivor encouraged me to try acupuncture, but eventually I discovered an acupuncture-like massage without needles and during which I could remain fully clothed. So I began Shiatsu, which. according to the Shiatsu Society website “… originated in Japan from traditional Chinese medicine, with influences from more recent Western therapies. Although shiatsu means ‘finger pressure’ in Japanese, in practice a practitioner uses touch, comfortable pressure and manipulative techniques to adjust the body’s physical structure and balance its energy flow. It is a deeply relaxing experience and regular treatments can alleviate stress and illness and maintain health and well-being.” The benefits described were for me true, plus I was fortunate to have found the Ohashishiatsu Institute which refines the practice further into a mutually meditative experience.   

Years later, I turned again to Shiatsu, but in an aquatic therapy setting with the goal of reducing chronic physical discomfort.  During my first session I realized some water rushing over my face were my own tears. How could I feel comfortable as to cry with a stranger? During a recent interview of Peter Lukes, a certified practitioner and teacher of aqua therapy, I heard one explanation that all survivors should consider: “As is required now in most areas,” Peter explained, the practitioner must have earned a “license to touch” before offering care. “Much education has gone into making sure the therapist is highly sensitive to perform therapies in a professional manner in which the touch that occurs is done in a manner to minimize triggering for those who might be vulnerable.”[6] In his article below, Peter describes more about his therapy work, but suffice it to say the safety I felt was immediate and reliable.

These or similar methods can relieve the anxiety associated with some of the phases of our wounds and our healing; for example, when our characteristic hypervigilance is set aside for an unfamiliar rest. Body-focused recovery methods can help manage symptoms in depression and other chronic illnesses, whether physical or emotional or spiritual. And, as we know, many survivors grapple with autoimmune diseases which respond well to some of these modalities, especially for pain. They can also draw us physically out of our emotional cringe and let us be receptive of God’s blessings and grace.

So, when “talk” therapy is stuck or falling short, don’t give up. Don’t retreat. Take a step forward. Add to the patchwork of treatment. Exercise even more muscle over the memories that restrain you from the abundance promised by our Savior.


[1] Solway, Diane, “How the Body (and Mind) Learns to Dance,” The International Tribune (May 28, 2007) and The New York Times (May 28, 2007) Arts, Page 1 http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/28/arts/28iht-dance.html
[2] Solway, Diane, “How the Body (and Mind) Learns to Dance,” The International Tribune (May 28, 2007) and The New York Times (May 28, 2007) Arts, Page 1 http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/28/arts/28iht-dance.html
[3] Solway, Diane, “How the Body (and Mind) Learns to Dance,” The International Tribune (May 28, 2007) and The New York Times (May 28, 2007) Arts, Page 1 http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/28/arts/28iht-dance.html
[4] From www.feldenkrais.com/whatis (accessed October 24, 2016)
[5] From www.feldenkrais.com/whatis (accessed October 24, 2016)
[6] Peter Lukes as interviewed by Teresa Green, October 19, 2016.

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