Posted by: Janice | October 6, 2008

The Pleasure Principle

Seeing as that I spent a year in physical theatre school, its perhaps not so surprising that I now spend a fair amount of time thinking about my body. My relationship with my body. I hate to label it “my relationship with my body” because that automatically seems to separate my sense of self with a blood-and-guts reality, but I supposed that will have to do. How I feel about my body, how I relate to it, how I use it. Those are just some of the things that I contemplate on a daily basis.

I had a major paradigm shift two weeks ago when I did a workshop with Lorna Marshall, author of the book “The Body Speaks”. Instead of the usual warm-up exercises, she told us to have some playtime with our hips, rolling, squirming, and bouncing around on the floor in ways that will make our hips feel good. Mmhmm. Same thing for the shoulders. What we do is completely up to us, as along as it gives us pleasure. She explicitly said that she does not want to see anything that we’ve learned from other teachers, stretches that we may have picked up in dance class for example, or exercises from Lispa. Nope. None.

Lorna was most emphatic about this, this thing of not doing what we’ve been taught, and why? Because she feels that as performers, we need to own our bodies, and if we are merely slaves to technique passed along by our teachers, then they are the ones who truly own our bodies, not us. Technical ability is a place that you can always go back to. Dare to go somewhere different, she says. Technique is just a way to train the body – a body has much more potential, is infinitely more expressive, than any kind of systemic training. Furthermore, she continued, training is often geared towards a standardized body type, so it can never fully adapt to individual physical needs. Every body is different – from differing flexibility to imbalances between left and right sides – and you are the only one who knows your body best. Think of the body as one great puzzle, and techniques as different ways of decoding it. Add together the millions of ways we have of training bodies, and we still wouldn’t have the full picture. An example: most techniques treat torsos as two-dimensional slabs, whereas in reality, they are three-dimensional organs of flesh and bone that can twist and contort. And bend. And stretch. Every which way. Rolling and turning on the floor there like some amoeba, my spine felt really good. And most liberating of all, I did not care how I looked.

It is not that Lorna is against technique – it is just that she feels we need to have our own personal relationship with our bodies outside of what we learn from our teachers.

The thing that struck me most about her whole spiel was her take on pleasure. The whole “playtime with hips” thing? It sounds a bit daff, but for her its about listening to your body and having more pleasurable experiences with it outside of food and sex – the way most people do. It also matters what kind of language we use to talk about the body, whether we scold it like an unruly child, or chat with it like a friend. It feels a bit silly, sitting there, calling your belly “darling, but then thats exactly why we need to do it. Usually, we fear our bodies, or, we treat them like objects that needs to be controlled and disciplined. Especially when it comes to food and sex. Blame this on societal attitudes. Better yet, blame it on Christianity and Descartes. In any case, if we don’t learn to have a good time with our bodies outside of eating and having sex, the argument goes, it will be hard for us to learn to trust it (why trust something that makes us fearful and anxious?), and that in turn will make it extremely difficult for us to be fully engaged with it during performance. I wouldn’t perform with a stage partner that I don’t trust, so why would I perform with a body that I don’t trust myself?

After that workshop I started thinking a lot about the way I relate to my own body. Like many people, I have trouble letting my body have pleasure on a daily basis (it even feels dirty just saying it). I blame this on my all-powerful Christian and Chinese upbringing. No wonder people in Hong Kong love food so much – we get so little pleasure from our bodies on a day to day basis. There is no culture of social hugging or kissing (except among the expats), and even children, once they get beyond the age of seven, get very little physical affection. Hugging just isn’t big in Hong Kong. Add to this an exam/achievement/money oriented culture, a high pressure work environment, and a mostly concrete urban landscape, and you’d get a fairly physically inactive people.

I wasn’t even aware that I usually only get direct physical enjoyment either out of food or sex. Sure, I get a lot of pleasure out of dancing and doing alexander-technique type bodywork too, but the pleasure connection just isn’t as strong. I guess dancing isn’t as necessary for survival, afterall. From there, it also makes complete sense why so many of us have hang-ups about food and sex, the whole having pleasure and being guilty about having pleasure at the same time thing. Fear and anxiety. Hmm. If we can learn to have a less combative attitude towards our bodies, perhaps our relationship with food and sex will not be so out of balance.

I’m off to make some food now, and perhaps spend some time squirming around on the floor. Think of it as reward for my body for a hard days work, making sure I stay upright, supporting me through life.

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