Mind-body medicine pioneer Dr. James S. Gordon shares a technique to shake loose trauma from the body.
On a cold, damp morning in March 1999, while US bombers roar overhead and UN trucks groan through the endless rows of tents in Macedonia’s Stancovic refugee camp, I lead a workshop for two hundred Kosovo Albanians who have fled Serbian ethnic cleansing.
I begin, as I usually do, with Soft Belly breathing.
Afterward, I ask for a show of hands: “How many of you,” my interpreter queries, translating my English into Albanian, “notice any change?” Here, as elsewhere after war is over or even in the middle of fighting, about 70 or 80 percent of the hands go up. “What happened?” I say, and answers are shouted out. “Calmer,” “relaxed,” “my body’s less tense,” “fewer bad thoughts,” “a little less cold”—there are laughs at this.
I explain the fight-or-flight response, asking my audience to tell me if they’ve experienced it and what it’s like.
There’s no problem getting the answers. Their hearts have been racing. Just about everybody is having trouble sleeping. Older peoples’ blood pressure is off the charts. The close quarters of cold, small tents are filled with irritation. Ordinarily patient mothers are smacking unruly children.
“Does anyone,” I go on, “have any questions about fight or flight or this Soft Belly meditation, or any concerns you’d like to share?”
Far away, toward the back of the huge tent, a man with a pale, round face stands and raises his hand. “Doctor,” he says, “thank you so much for coming to help us. Three months ago, I saw 21 members of our family massacred by Serbian paramilitaries. I cannot get the picture out of my mind. It is always there when I’m awake, the children falling and bleeding, my wife trying to cover the bodies. And it is there in my dreams. It was still there while we were doing the breathing. What can I do to make it leave my mind?”
My own mind stops. My beating heart seems to overwhelm my voice. Finally, I tell him that I’m so sad and moved by what he has told me, and honored that he would share his pain with me. “I do not know what I can do to help,” I say, “but I do hope that you will stay with us in this workshop.”
“Thank you, doctor,” he says and sits.
I speak, haltingly at first, my eyes filled with the face of this questioner whom I think of as the Man of Sorrow, with his unimaginable suffering.
I pause and breathe slowly and deeply, this time to quiet my own shock and my sadness at not being able to help.
When I’m calm enough to speak, I begin again. “I know there are many of you whose minds are filled with terrible memories that won’t go away, whose hearts are heavy with grief. I know that some of you feel weak and stiff in your body, unable to act or even feel. These are all effects of trauma.
“We’re going to do something now that will shake loose the tension of your fight or flight and help melt your frozen body. It may help you get rid of some of your anger, raise your energy a little, maybe even lift off some of the troubles that weigh down your minds.
“What we’re going to do,” I continue, “is technically called an ‘expressive meditation.’ Expressive meditations are the oldest ones on our planet. All our ancestors did them. They shouted and danced and whirled and jumped up and down. When something terrible had happened or was about to happen, they moved their bodies and let go of their tensions and expressed their feelings. Are you willing to do this?” I’m shouting now.
Hands go up everywhere. I hope it’s enthusiasm. Perhaps it’s only that right now I’m a diversion in this tedious, troubled tent town of seventy thousand refugees.
“In the first part, we’ll shake for about six to eight minutes to fast music. Then we’ll stop and stand still for a couple of minutes, relaxing, paying attention to, being aware, mindful of, our body and our breath.
“Then there will be new music. Just let your body move to it. I don’t say ‘dance’ because then you’ll have an idea in your head—waltz or salsa or electric slide.” Some laughs. “Or you’ll start worrying: ‘I’m such a poor dancer.’ Or you’ll start thinking how you’re going to show off some new steps.” Many laughs here. “It isn’t about those dances or any particular dance, and it’s not about skill. It’s about doing your dance.
“Each of us is different. We all look a little different. We have different genes, different fingerprints, different faces, different minds, different preferences. So, if there are two hundred of us here, there will be two hundred different dances.
“Now I’m going to show you how to shake.” I say, climbing up on a truck bed so they can see me from the back of the tent. “Put your feet shoulder-width apart. Bend your knees
a little bit and relax your shoulders. And now begin shaking from your feet up through your knees and your hips until your whole body is shaking.”
I do it and see incredulous looks on weathered faces: a grown man, a doctor, doing this? Meanwhile, the team of doctors and therapists I’ve brought from the US spreads out and shakes with me.
Soon, pretty much everyone is moving up and down, shaking, laughing. “Great!” I shout. “You’re very good! This is just practice. We’ll start again soon. Relax for a minute.” ...
The music—fast, driving, rhythmic, electronic—fills the air underneath the huge tent. “Shake up from your feet through your knees, hips, and shoulders to your chest. Let the shaking take over. Let your shoulders go. Most of us have so much tension there.
More and more people join in, masses of men moving like jackhammers, women in hijabs gathering together, bobbing up and down, kids shaking arms and legs as if to bring down rain.
“Let your head go as you shake. Let your jaw hang open. Lots of us have tightness there. If sounds come out of your mouth, let them come.” And now there are shouts, howls, a few high-pitched screams. “If you feel silly or bored or tired—keep going. Let the shaking take over your whole body. Good. Good. Keep going.” I’m shaking as hard as I can now, my head whipping side to side, laughing, enjoying and encouraging my new partners.
After about four minutes, just when everyone is ready to call it a day, I shout the remaining time: “Three minutes left.” Scattered groans. “If you feel tired or bored—pick up the pace. Keep going, keep going. Faster. Good. Good. Two minutes.” I’m counting down now. “Keep going. Great. One minute. 100 percent effort. Thirty seconds. Stop.” The music stops and so do the shakers.
“Now be quiet. Pay attention to your breathing. Relax. Be aware of your body, of breathing.” Our breath rises in steam toward the roof of the great tent.
After two or three minutes of silence, I speak again, announcing: “When the music begins, let it move you.”
A couple of dramatic chords surprise us, and then there’s the voice of Jimmy Cliff, at once insistent and angry, upbeat and hopeful, urging us on. It’s the reggae anthem You Can Get It If You Really Want.
Older people are shuffling in place. Younger ones kick their legs and flail their arms. Some can’t resist opening their eyes and grabbing partners—mostly men with men and women in circles of women; children are whirling.
After a few minutes the song is over, but some people continue to move, by themselves and in the lines they’ve formed for traditional Albanian dances. There’s lots of loud talk. Women laugh and men slap each other on the back. It looks like sleepers have come awake. Eyes are bright. The air is filled with appreciation and questions. “Finally I am relaxed.” “I can feel my body again.” “What time of day is best to do this?” “Can I teach it to my grandmother?”
“Morning,” I answer, “or any time you are tense.” “And yes, it’s fine for your grandmother.”
Afterward, some people hang around, wanting to tell each other or me more about what has happened. I listen, answer questions.
As the crowd melts away, I see the Man of Sorrow, sitting quietly, apart. He signals to my interpreter, says he wants to take a picture with me. I sit next to him, our arms around each other’s shoulders. I ask him why he wants the photo. “For a few minutes,” he says, “after the shaking, during the
dancing, those terrible images and thoughts were gone from my mind. It’s the first time in three months. It gives me hope that I can live again.”
Excerpted from The Transformation by James S. Gordon, MD and reprinted with permission from HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. © 2019.