Body of Memory

Sep 12 2016 by Allison English

< Back to posts

Body of Memory

I can recall quite clearly that I got up late on Tuesday September 11, 2001. My roommate was still asleep in the loft bed and I quietly grabbed a quick bagel and snuck out the door to get to my 8am lecture. I was exhausted and went to class in my pajamas – the bottoms had stars on them. I rolled into the huge lecture hall at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and took a seat on the left hand aisle all the way at the top. I was always nervous in big lectures – I wanted to make sure if anything happened I had a way out. At the time I was deep in the throws of panic and anxiety attacks, and that morning was particularly bad. I fidgeted all through class.

The lecture was East Asian Languages and Cultures: Hindu Mythology. I studied the philosophical underpinnings of yoga before I became a teacher and this class fascinated me from the first day. The professor spoke almost always in the metaphors of the myths we were studying and September 11 was no different. That day she was lecturing about the Yuga Cycles in Hinduism – the idea that there are four ages in the cycle of humanity. She spoke about the current cycle – Kali Yuga – and about its qualities of death and destruction, ignorance and hatred. She gave examples of the escalating violence around the world and humankind’s dissolution into the most base states of being – attacking one another as different and breaking harmony at any chance. As we got towards the 9am end point of the lecture she said, “And today is just another example: myth made real. It was no accident that plane crashed into that building in New York City.”

When I left my room at 7:30am CST, it was 8:30am EST. When I reached the lecture hall at 8am CST, it was 9am EST and the first plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center. My professor knew about the first plane – I did not. I had rushed to class without looking at anything – no email, no television, no internet.

When I got home the house I lived in with nearly 100 other people was in shambles. Every television was on blaring. Everyone sat staring into the television screens with tears in their eyes. My panic felt real. My heart went out to all the people dying in New York. Despite what the news anchors were saying to reassure that this was a freak accident, I knew that many people were dying senselessly as the towers fell. Later we all found out just how many.

I had never heard of Al-Qaeda. I honestly knew little about what was going on in the world. I lived in a bubble. That day I purposefully popped the bubble I was living in and took a real look at the world around me and what I could do to live in it better. It was because of these events that I took a liking to forensic anthropology – my professor was an identifier at Ground Zero and her service was a tremendous inspiration to the power of what I was learning to bring closure to grieving families. It was because of this event that I moved to Italy for a summer semester despite having no money and having never been outside the country before because I needed to understand how much bigger the world was than my small corner of it. It was because of this event that I studied harder, became kinder and worked to know my world and its inhabitants more fully in all their messy glory.

I remember calling everyone I loved and making sure they were ok that day. A high school contact was working for the Pentagon at the time and he was the hardest to track down. Everyone was safe and sound. But on that day even though everyone I knew was safe, nothing was safe. I will never forget the details of that day. I’ve probably written about them many times and not just this year. The details flood back to me every year and I feel the fidgety Allison that sat in that lecture hall over again.

Our memory – it is one of the greatest strengths of being human. Our lives are written in memories upon our body. The food we ate becomes a memory of molecules in our tissue. Our workout becomes a memory in our muscles. Our sadness becomes a memory of our heart. The very fiber of our being is seemingly made up of the memories of life. And long after our mind may forget, our body does not.

So today, to honor those who passed, those we knew and those we did not, to honor those who searched and risked their lives and health to find survivors, to honor those who helped all over New York City, the United States and the world – for all of them and for all of us – we remembered today. On the mat, in my classes we set a simple intent to feel how memory lives through us. Feel all the thoughts, emotions, energies and sensations brought through the body as we breathed and moved. And in this daring act of feeling, we remember – each in our own way – and hold sacred to a belief that in our vulnerability to be humans who feel we are so strong. We can, we will and we must move forward to help create a better world, but we do so because we remember deep within our bones the tragedy of this day and too many others like it.

Body Memory

Jan 22 2015 by Allison English

< Back to posts

Body Memory

There was a time, not really that long ago, when my pair of ice skates felt more comfortable to me than anything. When waking up early I found myself on the ice at a local arena, not on my yoga mat. When jumping into the air off the ice and spinning faster than you can imagine was more natural to me than walking up stairs. There were many years when performing and competing as a figure skater drove me more than meditation or yogic self-inquiry. Barefoot back then would have felt naked; now it’s the daily uniform.


Then there was the injury that ended it all, and I left figure skating more than a decade ago seemingly never to go back. It was too painful physically at the time to even think about skating. And my Spirit felt destroyed when the rug of all I had known and identified with was suddenly pulled out from underneath me. For many years after, I felt like I wandered.

Fast forward to today, when I have been feeling a need to start ice-skating again. For months in 2014 I dreamed of skating. Every song on the radio became a skating routine rather than a yoga sequence. I was dreaming of choreography and moves in the field, hearing the sound of my old “patch” scribe drawing out the figure eights on the clean ice surface, and recalling the voices of my coaches chasing me around the ice. I could smell the ice just after it was resurfaced by the Zamboni. I took all of these as signs that the time had come to go back to the ice – to see what was still there. There were memories in my body, in my energy, in my very life force – and for some reason they were coming back to the surface. At the time I left my figure skating career, I didn’t have much mental space to process what happened. Maybe the time and space had finally arisen.

So I researched the local ice arenas’ public skate schedules and picked one that was close and worked: the Chicago Park District McFetridge Ice Arena. I pulled my skates out of hiding (yes I still have them, and they still fit!). I found some clothes that would work and I planned a Friday visit. The first time I went, I couldn’t even get my skates on. I was too scared. It was too familiar and too foreign all at the same time. I had to wait another week until I tried again and actually got onto the ice. I fully anticipated to fall flat on my butt! I was surprised at what I found instead.

I remember so much of the “bad” stuff of skating: coaches yelling at me, losing competitions, the relentless striving for perfection, how nothing was ever good enough – there was always the next step of “better” that someone else had mastered and I had to catch up to, the endless criticism, the demanding schedule and practicing. I had forgotten so much else.

Not only did I stay upright, but I am in fact still a quite capable skater. My feet, legs, hips, arms and hands remembered things that my mind had forgotten. Our bodies remember what our minds often forget. Here is what my body remembered:

1. Going Fast is Fun: Yoga is slow moving even on it’s fastest day. I forgot how exhilarating it is to go fast. And I can still skate REALLY fast! Speeding around the rink feeling the wind rush around you is the coolest feeling. I forgot how much I missed that feeling.

2. The Balance of Strength and Vulnerability: Figure Skating is equal parts strength and vulnerability. You have to develop physical strength in your feet and legs to carry yourself around on those little blades, but you also have to be vulnerable enough to fall down many times to learn how to do anything. You have to be willing to crash into a hard surface to learn how to stay upright.

3. Tough as Nails and Smooth as Silk: There were times in my childhood that I skated more hours than I went to school. I kept a rigorous schedule of sleeping, eating, practicing, studying and acing school – also working jobs from a young age. It was not hard and when I look back I see a child that really was tough as nails and holding all of this together! But at the same time, I had to be incredibly sensitive inside those skates to perform openly, to bring artistry to my routines, and to sense the subtleties that make the moves in figure skating so incredible. It was good to be reminded what a fusion of these two I am still today.

4. Trust: As a skater you have to trust that a skinny little blade it going to catch you after a dizzying spin or a high jump. You have to trust your edges are going to push, pull and propel you around the ice as you ask them to. You have to trust your legs beneath you and your arms around you to coordinate your movements. I forgot how good I can be at trusting myself.

Just before an ice skating performance – Cuteness!

5. Equal Parts Control and Wild Abandon: Let’s face it – it takes a lot of practice and physical control to learn all those jumps and spins…but it also takes a healthy dose of wild abandon! As I leapt about the ice trying to recall the jumps I used to be able to do, I had to let go of being in control. I needed to just go for it! Yoga has made me almost too controlled. It was incredible to leap into the air off my blade and hope for the best on the other end. My blades caught me every time! I guess the body memory retained a control and precision even without my mind being there 🙂

6. Beauty and Grace: I would not call myself graceful and I don’t think I move particularly beautifully. I would use words like athletic or capable to describe my movements. But on the ice, I am beautiful and graceful and stunning. I hadn’t been on the ice for 15 minutes, and someone came up to me and asked if I was an adult competitive figure skater. They complimented me on my graceful form in a particular turn I was playing with…on a movement I haven’t done in over 10 years. It was fun to remember that I can be graceful – even if just on a surface like ice 🙂

Your body remembers a lot more than you might realize.  Perhaps there are experiences you have passed through, difficult or delightful, that arise in your mind from time to time. I really believe this is your own body memory arising to give you an important reminder in your current life. Take the time to heed the memories that are arising, revisit elements of the past without getting stuck in them, and you might be amazed what you find. I know I am! And I am so happy to have a weekly skating date with my graceful, beautiful, fast moving, fast spinning, jumping with wild abandon, trusting, strong and vulnerable Self. What body memory are you going to reclaim?