BRATTLEBORO — This column starts with an experience. Before closing your eyes, read these instructions:
Get comfortable in a seated position. Rest both of your hands on the lower part of your stomach. Take a deep breath in and as you exhale, make an “oh” sound. Rest your hands on your heart, take a deep breath in, and when you exhale, you make an “ah” sound.
Place your hands on either sides of your head, and when you exhale make an “eeeh” sound. Do this with your eyes closed, and follow the same steps in reverse, going from your head to your stomach/hip area.
What you've just experienced is an introduction to the healing work of Amber Arnold, a practitioner of cultural somatics.
Arnold, the diversity coordinator at Hilltop Montessori School, a mother, and the founder of Sacred Vibrations, her cultural somatics practice, describes the exercises as “really simple, easy ways to get you into your body.”
“When you are using the vibration of your voice, it is literally different than the way we use our voice box to speak,” she adds. “It is shifting all of the frequencies within yourself.”
It is, she says, about connecting an individual to their body.
Arnold's calm voice and her relaxed demeanor create a cozy atmosphere within the space that she and Sacred Vibrations share within the Whetstone Studios and Gallery, on the corner of Williams and Elliot streets.
The healing space is one that has been co-created with the Susu Healing Collective, a collaboration with Naomi Doe Moody and Lysa Mosca. Susu's mission is “commUNITY reciprocity for the healing, affirming, and liberation of black, indigenous, people of color, and allies.”
Arnold explains the intention behind what might at first glance look like a caps lock gone awry.
“CommUNITY is spelled with a lowercase 'comm' and then 'UNITY' because that is a vision of ours. The 'comm' is a coming together for the purpose of unity, and that is what we want to create. That is what we want to project out into the space.”
Light flows in through the sheer curtains and the windows, with the sound of the Whetstone Brook in the background.
Arnold and I sit on meditation mats as she leads me through some of her practice and explains her approach.
“The lineage I've been working through is from Tada Hazoumi - a Japanese cultural somatics practitioner and activist - and I incorporate my own experiences and ancestral work with my practice,” she says.
A lot of Hazoumi's training references the hara, or the gut, she adds.
“We have the gut where you experience sensation, the heart where you experience feelings, and the head where you experience thoughts,” she says. “In Western culture, we focus on the head and bury the other parts.”
“So, for example, if someone is experiencing anxiety, the hara energy that's in their gut is going straight up into their head,” says Arnold, who talks about the ways she works with individuals to help them return their energy into their bodies to ground themselves.
In the abstract, somatics is a broad swath of practices - bodywork, psychotherapy, dance, spirituality - that all relate to what philosopher Thomas Hanna described as the soma, or “the body experienced from within by first-person perception.”
“The soma, being internally perceived, is categorically distinct from a body, not because the subject is different but because the mode of viewpoint is different: It is immediate proprioception - a sensory mode that provides unique data,” Hanna wrote.
Arnold's mentor Hozumi, a genderqueer Japanese therapist, defines the specific discipline of cultural somatics as “how bodies move, breathe, think, feel, and know themselves within a culture.”
And this is where Arnold's two passions intersect.
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In her role as the diversity coordinator at Hilltop Montessori School in Brattleboro, Amber Arnold works to engage staff, administration, and the youth with resources and training that explore ways of deconstructing our cultural racism, classism, and other harmful systems that exist within our culture.
As a community healer, she uses cultural somatics to help individuals address some of the racialized trauma - such as oppression and white supremacy - that impact their bodies.
At first glance, the work may not seem related, but the two are intimately tied.
“These structures create the systems and then the body holds the systems,” she says. “It is cool to work in both of those places of changing the system and then working through changing the body.”
For many of us, we go to doctors, therapists, or seek other outlets to address whatever feels immediate with what is happening to - and/or within - our bodies.
“Our practices may be missing an opportunity in terms of how we approach and understand trauma and the impact on the body,” Arnold says. “What I do is really a practice in looking at trauma past, beyond what is happening right now. It is looking at the trauma of our ancestors, the trauma of cultures of a people, and how that impacts our nervous systems.”
For example, Arnold says, we talk a lot in this country about the high infant-mortality rates of black women. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2017, infants born to black mothers were about 2.3 times more likely to die in childbirth than their white counterparts.
“Yet, Western doctors aren't looking at the intergenerational trauma, the hundreds of years of slavery, the rape, and so many things that have happened to the bodies of black women,” Arnold says.
We are increasingly understanding that the environmental factors and tragedies which impacted our ancestors live on within our bodies.
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However, we all would be missing the point to assume that cultural somatics applies only to healing or “fixing” the trauma of individuals of color. We are within an American cultural moment of exploring all of the ways that we have been impacted and harmed by the past.
“We all have a culture, but most of us have been separated from our culture,” Arnold says. “So most white folks have cultures that they aren't connected to, and that's a huge loss.”
She offers a key reminder about our language - specifically, in how we use words and terms like “privilege” or “white privilege.”
“When we have words like 'privilege,' it makes people think they're missing out on something or something will be taken away from them,” she says. “It's a kind of a weird word to use when we talk about white privilege. But really what's happening is you're not actually being able to experience this beautiful connection that was taken from you, too.”
The beautiful connection that Amber Arnold is emphasizing?
That's the opportunity to heal within a system that is harming and depriving everyone of the connection with their own culture, ancestors, rituals.
* * *
With Arnold's approach, there is no one size to fit all, especially as it relates to healing the different traumas we each face.
A range of individuals come to Arnold - not just those who are aware of racism and social justice.
For any client, Arnold says, “we'll just start the process in a different place. You know, like it really starts wherever people are at.”
Pacing is key, too.
“Everything is done very, very slowly,” Arnold says. “It's not like we just jump into something. If it is just a single session, I focus on what the client wants to address. If we are working through several sessions together, then we start small.”
A client might want to address something happening at work or in a relationship. Or they might be “coming from a place of survival and wanting to seek safety,” she says.
Arnold helps individuals get into their bodies while showing them their own abilities, through breathing and other techniques, to tap into the tools they have within themselves.
After building that foundation, clients are ready to approach another level of “having agency” over their trauma, she says.
It is not easy work. It is also work that Arnold has even tried to avoid.
“As an adult, it's something I tried to stay away from but I always found myself in. I have a lot of passion, doing social and racial justice type work. But I've always felt like there must be a different way to do this. Because everybody gets so burnt out.”
In fact, the process of guiding individuals and communities in healing can be demanding of the self on many levels and often leads to compassion fatigue or burnout.
But Arnold's energy and calm bring a sense of presence.
“How does the healer heal herself?” I ask her.
She doesn't miss a beat.
“I have elders, mentors who do this work who I look up to,” she says.
* * *
Coming to work that focuses on helping others heal trauma is not an easy decision for many. For Arnold, this way of thinking was within her tapestry of home.
“I grew up in a home where my mom's a therapist and went to art school - that was a big piece of my upbringing,” she says. “Also, my stepfather was a musician. They were both into social justice and organizing. All those aspects were always interwoven.”
Growing up, Amber and her mom would often pass through Brattleboro on the way to see Bread and Puppet, the famous radical theater in the Orleans County town of Glover. She followed her mom to the area and recalls feeling like she'd found home.
“It was interesting, because as a kid, I moved around all the time. I never really felt like I had a home. When I moved here, I had this feeling like 'This feels like home.'”
While making Brattleboro home, this region was also where Arnold noticed a different sense of community: an awareness around food, the environment, and sustainability - “things that are really important to me.”
And ultimately, it is these various factors that have kept her in the region, in Brattleboro.
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Amber Arnold would like to see more shifts in our community in our institutions and the spaces we create.
She would like to see “the storefronts, especially on Main street, inhabited by a more diverse range of people. Places where creative people can connect and build community.”
Arnold also dreams of a shift where children can apply lessons of cultural somatics and gain awareness of and agency over their bodies. “This is information we did not learn in school” she says. “It is important that we start to learn these skills at a younger age.”
She also wants to see a transition in our approach to mental health in the region.
“I hope that a lot of the bigger institutional programs will start integrating more practices and things that focus less on the mental health model of needing to diagnose and more on the healing of the individuals.”
People should have “access to healthy food, to different resources other than just heavily prescribed medications,” she says.
Such a shift is not just up to the institutions. It's up to all of us who also play a role in creating a change, at the community level, she says.
“This healing work is activism,” Arnold says. “It is revolutionary. It is learning how to take care of ourselves.”