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mind-body connection

The Freedom of Movement

The Freedom of Movement

I fancy myself an amateur athlete. I love to move, to challenge myself, to constantly find facility over a physical skill. But there are modes of movement that I’ve shied away from because of a self-defeating belief that I cannot (or I am not made to) move that way.

‘You’re in over your head. You could leave right now. Nobody would know,’ I heard my inner critic say.

These beliefs have influenced specific movement patterns in my body – they are often linear and (sometimes) rigid. I run, lift weights, and move through yoga classes where poses are performed within the confines of a 2x6 foot mat. Over time I have noticed that my propensity towards these kinds movements parallels how I tend to orient within the world: I can be rigid in my thinking; I often follow rules with little question; if not attentive, I can slide into being dogmatic– focusing on the expectation or goal, forgoing my intuition, and lead myself into danger, injury, or overload.

Knowing that I have a tendency toward being overly controlled (in mind and body), I began to wonder about ways I could still enjoy the endorphins released by exercise while moving outside my proverbial fitness box. This wondering led me back to my self-effacing beliefs, to all the ways I’ve thought I was not made move: flowing, fluid, emotionally evocative, somatically dynamic.

I have always envied dancers. These artists (using their bodies as an instrument) tell stories in ways that are nothing short of miraculous. The control and skill needed to move so freely is a paradox that intrigues me. And my awe of them has always kept me an observer. My inner critic has scared me from engaging with such freedom in my own movement.

As I mused on this month’s theme of freedom here at MHT, I thought about how my inner-critic keeps me a prisoner of my own false beliefs. I know my critic functions (albeit misguidedly) to keep me safe. By assuming I am terrible at something, I don’t try. And if I don’t try, there’s no chance of failure. The critic helps me stay “good” and safe within my pre-conceived/contrived limits. 


But what if being good isn’t the point? I know that many of my athletic pursuits are motivated by wanting to gain speed, power, strength – some measurable unit of improvement. But there I go again thinking linearly. What if mastering movement isn’t the point? What if simply being movement is the point?

This reframe in intention brought me to The Sweat Spot - an unassuming dance studio tucked between a hip vintage clothing store and vinyl record shop (it’s in Silver Lake… so go figure). My heart was pounding. I hadn’t been in a dance studio since the screeching failure that was pre-k ballet lessons. I didn’t feel like I belonged here.

I’d paid and pre-registered for a class called Gaga People. If it was a Lady Gaga themed drag queen party, I actually might have been more comfortable.

Gaga People, developed by renowned dancer and choreographer Ohad Naharin, is described as a ‘movement language’. The class facilitates space for people to tune into a deep awareness with their present physical sensations and invites exploration and interpretation of those sensations with expressive movement (i.e.- movement language). The point of the class is to be the movement, to embody the sensations that are experienced.

I had no idea what to expect. I filled out a waiver and proceeded to a small staging area with benches, cubbies, and an in-wall window into the studio space. The preceding class was finishing up. I watched in awe as dozens of dancers performed some kind of primal modern choreography. The staging area began to fill with other Gaga attendees; they seemed un-phased by the talent on display. 

“You’re in over your head. You could leave right now. Nobody would know”, I heard my inner critic say.

But what if being good isn’t the point?

Before I knew it, flushed and exuberant faces began cascading from the studio into the staging area. I pressed myself up against the closest wall and waited for my turn to walk into the studio – feeling like a cow being corralled toward the slaughterhouse.

There were more than two dozen of us - various ages, genders, ethnicities, & bodies all taking up a small portion of dance floor real estate. The instructor came to the center of the room and invited us to look at our hands and begin to move our fingers. 

“Imagine that each of your knuckles could move in all directions…” she said, “…like a ball & socket joint. Imagine and try to find as much movement in the joints of your fingers as you can find in your hips or shoulders.”

I knew (thanks to high school biology) that it was physically impossible but I was intrigued by what it felt like to try anyway. My mind was fully present in the sensations and efforts of my fingers, palms, and forearms. I had a fleeting feeling of expansiveness. I was trying to move in a way that I logically knew was impossible… and yet I acted into it anyway and felt more alive due to my effort. In that moment, I understood and embodied freedom.

Faulkner once wrote:  “We must be free not because we claim freedom, but because we practice it.” That Gaga class let me practice freedom. It helped me experience how I imprison myself, restrict my own freedoms, and how I can decide to let them go whenever I choose. 

For anyone interested in finding some embodied freedom, The Sweat Spot offers their Gaga People class Thursdays at 1pm. They’re located at 3327 Sunset Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90026.

Lauren Ziel, MSW is a Registered Associate Clinical Social Worker, ASW #76483, working under the supervision of Saralyn Masselink, LCSW . Through the use of movement and mindfulness, Lauren develops specialized treatment for anxiety, depression, eating disorders, challenges in life-stage transitions, relational difficulties, and identity/intrapersonal development.

Failure is a Guidepost

Failure is a Guidepost

When faced with failure, I try to remember that growth is not linear, and success is not always so clearly measured.

I’ve experienced a sense of failure when the difference between where I am and where I would like to be feels much greater than I had hoped. The journey suddenly feels longer, and I become exhausted, ashamed, upset with myself, and I start to contemplate giving up or changing course. These feelings don’t help me reach my goals or accept myself for who I am when it gets to the point that I avoid the challenges or begin to let my inner sense of failure infiltrate the rest of my psychic being.  

When faced with failure, I try to remember that growth is not linear, and success is not always so clearly measured. I try to practice self-compassion without letting myself off the hook or continuing to avoid the painful feelings I must wrestle with to keep moving toward my goals. Maybe this time they are more realistic or appropriate and are not as concerned about what others think. Maybe more self-compassion and kindness will make me more open to feedback and help along the way.  

In the past, accepting failure and telling myself that I am just not “good enough” or “smart enough” has been a slippery slope when it comes to having the confidence to move forward in areas where I am indeed better suited. I still feed this struggle sometimes, feeling like I have failed if I am still suffering from some of my same old defenses that no longer serve me. Rather than feeling consumed by guilt, shame, and inadequacy when I recognize my growing edges, I must have more compassion for my own healing journey and know that I am committed to the process with all its inevitable failures and follies. Failure is never easy, and some failures hurt more than others, but failure can also serve as guideposts to where real growth can begin as long as we keep our heads up high enough not to miss the trails. 

Erika Mitchell, MA, is a Registered Associate Marriage and Family Therapist #109385, working under the professional supervision of Michelle Harwell, PsyD, LMFT 50732. Erika specializes in helping her clients bring mindful, attuned awareness to their sensations and emotions.

Women are Bold

Women are Bold

All humans are capable of bold acts, but being a woman requires it daily.  

Being a woman means many different things to the wide-world of self-identifying women. For me, being a woman takes a certain amount of boldness to be oneself and to honor the unique value of our more feminine traits, even in the face of misogyny and patriarchal structures. Bold may not be a word that readily comes to mind for some people when they think about women, especially considering that historically women have been considered more submissive, polite, and accommodating. However, inherent in being bold is a courage to take risks and be seen.

Without getting too political, I must say that bold was a word that came to mind after listening to the Kavanaugh hearing as I considered the enormous risk that Christine Blasey Ford was taking to have her voice heard. As a therapist and someone who has made a career of listening to people’s stories, I was particularly struck by the bold conviction she had to be heard and to voice injustices against women that can be all too cavalier. To speak of justice at the hearing of a supreme court justice nominee was a bold decision. Despite facing public ridicule and overwhelming threats on the safety of her and her family, she boldly went forward in a room full of predominantly high-powered men and spoke her truth.    

This act of boldness reminded me of the everyday struggle for women to be heard, to be accepted as ‘credible,’ and to be themselves in a societal structure designed to make them fight for their rights time and time again. The risks we take every day even in deciding what to wear in a world that has been known to blame survivors of sexual assault based on their personal expression of style, takes an inborn boldness to carry on and demand that we be treated fairly.  All humans are capable of bold acts, but being a woman requires it daily.  


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Erika Mitchell, MA, is a Registered Associate Marriage and Family Therapist #109385, working under the professional supervision of Michelle Harwell, PsyD, LMFT 50732. Erika specializes in helping her clients bring mindful, attuned awareness to their sensations and emotions.

Humans of MHT: An Interview with Lauren Ziel, Registered Associate CSW

Humans of MHT: An Interview with Lauren Ziel, Registered Associate CSW

This is the second interview in our series "The Humans of MHT." I was delighted to spend time with Lauren Ziel, Associate Social Worker Intern. Lauren's curiosity about her own internal process lead us through an invigorating journey at the intersections of vulnerability, mindfulness, and the wisdom of the body. She is equal parts scientist, fitness guru, and empath - and she's unafraid to be silly and to speak truthfully about not-knowing.

To view (or read) the first interview in this series, go here

- Taz Morgan, MFT Intern

Taz: I’m here with with Lauren Ziel. I’m excited about getting to know you better, Lauren. I guess to start with…what does humanness mean to you?

Lauren: You know, when I think of humanness, I think of this idea of this eternal hope mixed with a lot of fallibility. A lot of pain, a lot of suffering, a lot of this capacity to self-preserve. And there’s a lot of ways that we self-preserve. Sometimes they benefit us at one point in our lives and then they no longer benefit us later on. The human condition is the depths and dark and deeply troubling things we can experience combined with this ability to overcome...maybe with a little help sometimes to overcome. 

There’s this joke, and I don’t know if you’ve heard it. But when you’re in school, maybe undergraduate or in your master’s level work or so on, where the joke is that therapists are all crazy, and they’re taking these classes to figure out themselves and to figure out their experiences. And I think there is some truth to that. I think that our inherent curiosity about ourselves and how our brain ticks, how our heart beats, all of that definitely plays into…at least, I’ve used it as a way to connect to other people. 

T: Your point about…this…well, I think of it as this Wounded Healer. Because of my background that I have…we talk about archetypes. This archetype of the Wounded Healer. And how we use our deepest wounds to be compassionate; to feel into what maybe the people we’re working with are feeling. 

L: Absolutely. What I think is so great about this project is, you know, we are not this all-knowing entity sitting across the room from you. There’s a lot that I don’t about you - the person sitting across from me - and there’s a lot I’m still learning about myself, this world and my place in it, your place in it, and how we’re coming together in this room in this weird situation where it seems kinda contrived, but it’s really, potentially a vehicle and a space for tremendous vulnerability, but also safeness in that vulnerability. 

There’s a strange way in working with my clients that make me feel accountable; that make me remember how much work it takes to figure out yourself. And it’s a motivation for me, honestly. Yeah, I think that’s the really cool part about doing what we do, or being in profession where you’re helping people on such a visceral level, on an emotional level…is it changes you. You learn so much. 

T: Yeah, you’re speaking to how it can be transformative for you as the therapist…that you’re being impacted in some way by sitting with this person or working with them. Yeah, that it feeds something in you, not in a way that is impeding the work…but it’s…I’m forgetting the quote…something that Carl Jung says that it’s alchemical. That the two people are in are this space and they’re both gonna be transformed somehow. It’s not just about the client changing. I really like that, and that seems to be what you’re speaking about.

L: Yeah. Absolutely. I feel like I need to find the quote now, but yeah (laughs), absolutely. I think that the more I can bring myself to the table - my humanness, my fallibility, in a mindful and constructive manner - but the more that I can show up being a human...being…like I don’t know sometimes. I’ll tell you when I don’t know. I might feel a little silly and wish I that actually did know the answer. I want, in way to model, to model the vulnerability, and model it so that it’s okay.

T: You’ve talked a lot, I think, about how humanness shows up in your work as a therapist. I want to talk more about what you chose as your passion that represents your humanness. Even the phrase that you chose “movement is medicine” — I thought that it would be “fitness.” Say more about this idea of movement is medicine, and how it’s meaningful to you. 

L: I think I have to start that with my own that, when I physically move, when I exert myself, when my heart rate is up, my respiration is up. Again this is how I do it. Some people would hate doing that, and I get it. When I’m sweating and exerting, and I’m fully engaged in what my body is doing in that moment….and I can feel the strike of my foot against the concrete… when I can feel how I roll my fingers over a dumbbell or a barbell as I move it - it’s really, honestly, a practice of mindfulness for me. It’s a practice of being in the present moment. There’s a degree of like a flow state where it almost just happening and there’s not a lot of thinking about. It parallels with this incredible attunement with your physical being. And it’s very grounding for me. It allows me to take my energy…because I can tend to be very heady and all up in my head and very light — pretty anxious. And using my body to ground me is very effective for me. It calms me down. It provides my brain with a little bit of clarity and being in that moment. 

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L: I have just found in particular, running, weight-lighting, yoga - those are the things that tend to do it for me. I have discovered dancing, which I don’t know that I’m very good at, but I actually really like it. Not yet, at least, I’m not putting it off the table (laughs). You know when you’re a kid and you go climb a tree because there’s a tree there and that’s what you do? Or when your favorite song comes on and you scream at the top of your lungs in your room or in the shower?  I feel like your body, moving your body in a way that expresses feeling, and you not having to understand exactly why that is…is so freeing. 

T: Yeah, honoring the wisdom of your body.

L: Yeah, exactly, yes, beautiful way of putting. That’s perfect. It’s my me time. It really is. It’s my me time. If I can help someone find a little bit of that - it’s great. When I start to see someone really come into their body, really come into what their body is capable of, and listening to that intuition…your physical being holds so much and it can also let go of so much. 

And at the same time, I think that the body can also….just like what we talked about at the beginning…there are ways that we have learned to protect ourselves, right? The body does that, too. The body holds onto to certain things. 

T: My shoulders will just be up here sometimes (shrugging and laughing).

L: Me too. I’m a constant shoulder-shrugging. It’s like someone just scared me all the time. I totally get that (laughing). There’s a lot of really awesome research about where tension is held in the body and where certain physical maladies are coming up or somatic presentations of psychological issues. There’s so much research out there now.

T:  To incorporate the somatic piece or the body — it’s widening the scope of how we look at what it means to be human.

L:  What works for me one day won’t necessarily work for me the next. And that’s okay. It comes back to learning more about one’s self and the motivations we have, the needs and the drives that are bringing us to these behaviors is what is so interesting. And the work is never really finished at the end of the day. 

This is something that went over in my yoga teaching training - the more that we try to keep things from changing, the less satisfied we are with the situations or ourselves because change is natural. And learning to be okay with the ambiguity, the scariness, and the discomfort is probably the biggest skill that one can develop for themselves. And it’s hard. It’s work that keeps going.

T: It’s such a challenge, I think, to accept one’s own rhythm, right? The opposite of being human, in my view, is being a robot where you would have the same sensations everyday. You’re talking about having a lot of acceptance or compassion for each day being different or one day something works…there’s this nuance and complexity. And being in the not-knowing.

L: And then taking that…and having a frame of mind where…one could look at that and find it terrifying. I get that, yeah it’s terrifying but it’s also…if you put your science cap on and have this curiosity about yourself about how you function in the world and why you function in the world, then it’s almost like this cool on-going experiment you have with yourself. Figuring out all the variables.

Thank you, Taz. This was great.

T: Thank you, Lauren. It was so nice to get to know you, and hear your thoughts a little bit.

L: Samesies.

Lauren Ziel, MSW is a Registered Associate Clinical Social Worker, ASW #76483, working under the supervision of Vanessa Spooner, PsyD. Through the use of movement and mindfulness, Lauren develops specialized treatment for anxiety, depression, eating disorders, challenges in life-stage transitions, relational difficulties, and identity/intrapersonal development.

Taz Morgan, MA, is a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern, IMF #99714, working under the supervision of Vanessa Spooner, PsyD. She has trained in Depth-oriented psychotherapy and works with adolescents, adults, and couples.