Author: Beth Flory, Co-Owner of Pole Kisses, November 6, 2023
In this blog, we will explore how aerial fitness may be another tool for trauma recovery. Trigger warning: This post contains topics that may trigger challenging memories in those who have experienced traumatic events. Please take care of yourself! It is ok to take a break from reading if you need to do so. If you are a victim of rape or domestic violence, please do not feel ashamed. You are not alone! If you email firstname.lastname@example.org we are happy to provide you referrals to programs in your area.
In addition to being the co-owner of Pole Kisses, I am also the Executive Director of S.A.F.E. House, INC. S.A.F.E. House is a comprehensive domestic violence program located in Henderson, NV, a suburb of Las Vegas. Emergency shelter, counseling, advocacy, and community education are all provided to victims, their children, and the community, free of charge. Interestingly, I met my co-owner and bestie, Rosy through S.A.F.E. House. That is a story for another time. You may notice a little gap in my blogs. October is domestic violence awareness month, so I was very busy with S.A.F.E. House. But, now is the perfect time to share information about trauma.
I have worked at this non-profit in various capacities since 2009, so I have received considerable education about the impacts of trauma, as well as methods to overcome its devastating effects. Please note, I am not a licensed mental health therapist, but do have a lot of experience in the field. As noted above, we are happy to provide referrals to professionals if you need support. I cannot stress enough; you are not alone and there is no shame in getting help when you are struggling. The impacts of trauma are complex, and there are many tools that can help.
When I first meet people, and they learn I lead S.A.F.E. House as well as co-own a studio with pole dancing, they seem very surprised. That is until I start explaining how the two are actually very interconnected. Besides that I enjoy helping people improve their daily lives and find their best selves, I discovered that aerial fitness can also be a powerful tool for trauma recovery. So, let’s dive into the world of trauma. I hope you are ready for a science lesson.
According to the American Psychological Association, “Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships, and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.” In severe cases, trauma can impact every part of a person’s life.
I myself am a victim of a traumatic event. Years ago, an individual followed me into my apartment building and attempted to rape me. I was able to get away before he succeeded, however it left me with emotional scars. I also had a very bad interaction with law enforcement afterwards, which magnified the negative impact of the experience. I would ruminate on the event, playing it over and over in my head. I could not handle being touched or grabbed unexpectedly by my intimate partners, and would freak out if a door was left unlocked or a window left open. Through counseling and other mental health tools, I was able to stop reliving the event. I also attribute some of my healing to aerial fitness!
“An experience of trauma triggers the brain’s fight-flight-freeze response system (also known as the autonomic nervous system). This sends an automatic message to the body to move or immobilize, and to the mind with its thoughts and feelings.” (Crisis and Trauma Research Institute). These experiences can be extremely overwhelming, either causing a person’s body to feel uncomfortable or painful, or the opposite feeling of being completely disconnected. Individuals feel unsafe in their everyday life, and their body may even feel like a foreign entity, of which they have no control. The brain body connection is incredibly powerful!
Bessel van der Kolk, MD and Dominique Kaehler Schweizer, MD, prominent psychiatrists in the field, share that trauma can cause a separation between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Schweizer, aka Madame Tricot, shares that rhythmic, bilateral, repetitive activity, associated with the complex cognitive process, is one of the best therapeutic tools for trauma. Wow, that is a complex sentence! In this case, she is referring to knitting, however let’s talk about this in layman’s terms, as related to aerial fitness.
Aerial fitness is a form of dance that is off the ground and using an apparatus, such as a pole, lyra, silk, or bungee harness. Dance is rhythmic because it involves the skillful coordination of the body’s movements with the rhythmic elements of music. Aerialists use their bodies as instruments to express and interpret the music’s beat.
Bilateral simply means “both sides” of the body. An excellent aerial instructor will teach you to do all moves on both sides of the body, and make you practice it several times before moving on to the next lesson. Most will say that it is because it can prevent injury and build strength, but also you don’t want one skinny arm and one Popeye arm. (I saw a meme that other day making fun of fitness instructors that made me laugh. When they say, just one more time, it is never one more time. I am totally guilty of this when I teach bungee fitness.) Long story short, aerial training is rhythmic, bilateral and repetitive in nature.
Aerial training is also a very complex cognitive activity. I have described it as mentally solving a physical puzzle; a sentiment I have also heard from rock climbers. (Many aerialists also do well in rock climbing gyms, and vice versa.) You have to think critically about the physics of the trick, and how to move your multiple body parts to accomplish complicated poses and transitions. For example, pole instructors will share where your hands or body parts need to be placed on the pole to create the “push” and “pull” necessary to hold the pose.
Now, let’s revisit the “fight or flight” response noted above. In my various yoga classes, I have heard yoga gurus say that the root chakra is associated with safety and security, the sacral chakra is associated with emotions, and that people hold their emotions in their hips. I took a yoga class once that focused on releasing the hips, and then cried in my car all the way home. However, mentally, I felt like a million dollars the next day. That one class cut my anxiety in half. I am a very science oriented person, and took a lot of biology and psychology courses in undergrad, so I had to figure out why. I love when concepts in “alternative medicine”, considered mystical by some, are also supported by western medicine. So, lets talk about fight or flight responses.
The “fight or flight” response primes the muscles for quick and powerful contractions. Muscles in the hips, which are essential for actions like running and jumping, become more responsive and ready to engage in rapid and forceful movements. These muscles, such as the psoas, can get stuck in the “fight or flight” response. Your body is literally ready to run away from danger at a moment’s notice. People will experience back pain, limited range of motion, and digestive issues. Chronic muscle tension in the hips can also have an emotional impact, as it may contribute to feelings of stress, anxiety, and discomfort, further perpetuating the “fight or flight” response. How do you release this tension? Stretching the lower back, hips, and legs. What do you do in every aerial class? Stretching…especially the lower body if you want to get into the splits.
I threw a lot of science at you. We touched on psychology, kinesiology, and even physics. In the simplest terms, aerial fitness may reconnect your mind to your body. This is why aerial fitness could help with trauma recovery. My business partner Rosy says, when referring to the effects of pole fitness on confidence, “It becomes less about what your body looks like, and more about what your body can do for you.” There is true wisdom in these words. Gaining control of your body, at the level required for aerial fitness, is truly a life changing experience. Not only does it improve your body, it may help heal your trauma.
I have repeated it several times, but I will say it again. There is no shame in asking for help if you have experienced a traumatic event in your past. I am not a therapist, but in my 20 years of working in trauma related fields, I have seen people recover dramatically with professional help. The science of trauma has come a long way, and there are lots of tools that a licensed mental health therapist can teach you. Please email us at email@example.com if you would like referrals to services in your area.