Growing up, I was teased for being tall and thin. The winter that I was ten years old, my father took me to visit my brother and his family at the AFB in Plattsburgh, NY where he was stationed. We went to see Bill Cosby perform. He had a bit about “the breast fairy.” For the next several mornings, everyone joked that it was too bad the fairy had not yet paid me a visit. I remember feeling sensitive and inadequate. Sometime toward the end of middle school, my nephews nicknamed me “Larry Bird” (former star basketball player for the Boston Celtics). I became increasingly ashamed of my structure, especially the fact that my breasts were small and concerned about when that would change, if ever. I began to cloak my body is baggy sweatshirts. Withdrawing my chest from the view of the world while it still seemed to me and by all my accounts, by everyone else, to be not enough. I avoided trips to the beach, terrified of being seen with nothing to fill out my bikini top. I remember sitting at the kitchen table looking at pictures that had just arrived from our family vacation to Florida. My older sister paused on one of me in a a green and orange bikini, standing up in the ocean and said: Isn’t she beautiful? I remember this because immediately and without warning, I burst into tears and fled the room. This was a deep visceral reaction. I was not used to hearing that I was beautiful after a certain age, and I did not believe it.
Around that time, I stopped ballet training. Physically, I became withdrawn, my shoulders rolling inward, sinking my chest further into my body. Without the pressure of performance and the constant demand of my teacher, I could hide behind my shoulders and arms, now typically crossed. One year during college, I came home after happy hour (already with a buzz on) and my roommates were getting ready for a Halloween party. I had no costume and in my buzzed state, not the capacity to pull one together. One of the girls decided that she could dress me up as Olive Oyl in a red top, black skirt and her pair of combat boots. I put my hair in a bun and threw on some red lipstick, looked in the mirror and figured I would need to explain my costume to everyone at the party. Not so. I remember feeling sort of sad that everyone pegged me as Olive Oyl in my hac-job costume without any prompting from me. What did that say about my appearance?
By the time I got to the White belt, my posture might be read as someone who was chilly. Constantly. Arms across a concave chest. Even when I uncrossed my arms, my shoulders still knit in tightly. Debbie pointed this out. It was something for me to work on. By Blue belt, I still hadn’t worked on it. I remember learning the routine Infinity and feeling the possibilities of a new form, seeing Debbie’s expansiveness of heart on the video. At moments, I felt access to opening of my chest cavity, but I could not sustain it. I did not own it outside of practicing the routine.
Yoga training came in between blue and brown belt and came with my first formal exposure to anatomy. During this time, I lost my father to cancer. At the end of one of my Nia classes, a student approached me and shared that she was an energy worker and that she wanted to share something she noticed. She saw a leak behind my heart. So it was not just physical, it was energetic. She asked if I had experienced a lot of loss, and I immediately went to the most recent grief over the loss of my father. She felt it had been there long term. The loss of my best friend to cancer at 16. Compacting the wounds around my heart, the armor my body had built to protect itself from further loss and embarrassment was no longer serving me, was not allowing me to take in what I needed. And as I moved into my first pregnancy, I knew that in order to give and receive what I needed to support twin boys and myself with love, the shape around my heart had to change.
In the training, I struggled with poses like Warrior 1, in which the tension of my shoulders prohibited me from both raising my arms and drawing down my shoulders. The trainer explained that I needed to condition the rhomboids to draw down the scapula. It sounded technical. I looked at pictures in anatomy books. For years I was focused on how I felt about the front of my chest, and thought I could only open my heart from the front, and by throwing my shoulders back. I used props to help me access change along the the spine: blocks, bolsters. I X-Rayed Debbie and Carlos's with more emphasis on the upper spine, the upper extremities, the wings. I stalked my tendency to cross my arms when I was feeling uncertain of myself, insecure, when relating with others, and consciously "disarmed" my chest. I remember feeling so open at the completion of Brown belt. A week after my return, a man was asking me for money on Boston Common and began pestering me. I recall the moment that I would have crossed my armed, folded in and retreated, but I heard the word NO come up inside of me. I connected to my hara, faced him, with my heart and pregnant belly vulnerable and said, NO. Not loudly, but solidly, from a deep well of self-love and preservation. And he turned tail.
When I am feeling closed off now, I either put myself in a restorative backbend to support expansion in the front and strength in the back of the heart - or - I dance my heart wide open. I visualize the expansion. I imagine the expansion. Physically I become expansive. Vulnerability and connection were aspects that I had cut myself off from physically in the past. In the present, I have my body as symbol and as vehicle of what I want to be and what I want to offer to the world.