“The topic tonight will be intimacy,” said Emily.
A pang of fear mixed with excitement tingled through my body. I was attending a Women’s Circle in Ubud, Bali. Emily, a Bali-based yoga instructor originally from the USA, was leading it.
I signed up for this experience with no information. Even though I didn’t read the class description for this weekly gathering at the Yoga Barn, I figured that it would be juicy. Whenever you get a handful of women together in a group, as the title implied, sparks tend to fly. Sometimes good, sometimes bad. At the very least, I figured that by attending, I’d meet some interesting new people, perhaps make a connection or two.
But the topic we were all now being asked to ponder, write about and discuss … was intimacy. There would be no “traditional” yoga practice, no chit-chatting about “lighter” topics such as cooking recipes or favorite places in Bali. We were jumping right into the deep end.
Intimacy is a heavy subject for me. And as it turned out, it was for everyone in that circle.
When I entered the open-air yoga room, I noticed candles fluttering around a small alter at the front of the room holding a gold statue of the Hindu god Shiva. Sprinkled on the altar were orange flower petals. A gentle chanting melody played in the background. The space was calm as it filled up with about 20 women. We all sat silently, some of us in meditation, some of us stretching, some of on our iPhones, until Emily walked in.
She asked us to make a circle with our bolsters. Then she put three bags of fresh flower petals — purple, pink and gold — in the center of our circle and asked us to create a mandala with them. A “mandala,” which is Sanskrit for circle, is a geometric pattern that is symbolic of the never-ending universe. It’s usually vibrant in color and circular. Several of us, myself included, rose to the task of creating one in the center of our circle of women. Our mandala wasn’t perfect, as none of us were “directing” how it should look, but it was a beautiful, lopsided circle of flower petals. It was entirely imperfect, just like all of us.
After we took our seats and chanted three OMs together, Emily asked us to call into the circle women who were significant teachers in our lives. We were asked to voice these names aloud to the group, one by one. The first person who immediately came to mind was my mom, Linda — and as it turns out, “mom” was also top of mind for most others. Almost every single woman in the circle called in her own mother. That became a special bond that immediately united us all: our respect and gratitude for our mothers, regardless of whether we “liked” them or not. (Because some of the women, as I later learned, had a rocky relationship with their moms.)
Then things got real. Like, really real.
Emily asked us to spend ten minutes writing about our relationship to intimacy. What it means to us. How we respond to it. Our connection to it. Whatever flowed from our brains to the pen and paper. No self-editing allowed.
So I wrote. And wrote. And wrote. And wrote. It was surprisingly easy. Easy, not that my connection to intimacy is easy. No way.
But I know where I stand with it … because it’s one of the most major things that I’m working on, working with, attempting to improve.
My connection to intimacy
This isn’t a verbatim of what I wrote, but here is my current lens on intimacy:
- Intimacy is connection. Intimacy is the ability to see deeply into another person while allowing them to see deeply into me.
- It is allowing myself to be vulnerable while making space for others to be vulnerable before me. It is holding that space of vulnerability, without judgment.
- It is being so completely open as to risk pain, love, fear, bliss and every other emotion in the infinite spectrum of emotions.
- Intimacy is dropping all pretense and self-editing and ego and allowing my true spirit to intertwine with others, in all manner of relationships, not just the romantic ones.
Intimacy, in other words, is way more than sexual. It is a deep connection with everyone and everything around me. And, quite significantly, it is feeling that connection.
I recognize all of this above on both an intellectual and emotional level. Unfortunately, I rarely feel this full connection to intimacy. I’ve had moments with it, and a few relationships that proved deeply intimate — I crave those. So I know what it feels like. Yet, it’s not an “easy” thing for me. Something has been holding me back.
This is ironic, considering we live in an age where the Internet and social media are supposed to be connecting us more than ever to others. Yet, it’s simply not fostering the intimate connection I crave. I have more than 800 “friends” on Facebook. But am I intimate with all of them? Hell no. This digital connection, for the most part, is fleeting and ultimately empty. On top of this, social media has proven a distraction to the intimacy I should be cultivating with myself. After all, how can I be authentically intimate with others when I’m not authentically connected with the one person in this life that I’m truly responsible for: me.
The talking stick
After we spent a good ten minutes exploring the topic of intimacy in private, we transitioned our focus back to the group. Emily produced a “talking stick” — a small tan stick with some feathers attached — that would be passed around the circle in a clockwise direction. She said that anyone who held the stick would have the power to talk and immediately command the attention of the circle. Each woman could talk as long as she wanted while holding the talking stick, without interruption, and with the full support of the circle. If she wanted to “pass” on sharing, she could do so. The stick would yield respect to its holder.
Cool, I thought to myself. I’d never participated in a circle with a talking stick before. I’d heard about these things. I started to think about what I would say, wanting to impress the group with something meaningful and memorable. Then Emily cut into those thoughts with this statement: Do NOT think about what you want to say while other women are speaking.
Ouch. That felt directed right at me (even though I knew it wasn’t).
Emily challenged us to speak from the heart when we held the stick. No overthinking it. No planning. Our focus should be on each woman as she spoke, she said, not on preparing our own words. She said it is an interesting challenge that typically produces beautifully raw and powerful speeches from women who never realized they had the capacity to speak that way.
Alright. Challenge accepted.
Around the circle
The circle was made up of women from around the world. Belgium, Australia, Spain, USA, Denmark, France, Japan, India … and so on. Even though our geographical homes were many miles apart, there was a beautiful union in that room as we each shared our perspective on intimacy.
For most of us, it translated into sharing a story, to bring the concept to life. We all carry stories. Hundreds, thousands, millions of them. Since the beginning of time, these stories have been vehicles by which to share information. That’s what happened in this Woman’s Circle. We shared our stories.
There was the woman from Denmark who said that intimacy was “like breathing” for her. (That made me immediately envious. I want the water she’s drinking!) While she understood that this wasn’t a feeling relatable to everyone, she also couldn’t fathom living in a place where others didn’t operate the same way. That’s a big part of what recently inspired her to permanently leave her native country of Denmark for Bali. In Denmark, she felt no true connections, even with her good friends. She talked about opening up her heart and emotions to “stone faces” and people who were more fixated on material success and advancement over emotional success and advancement. In Bali, said, it is the exact opposite, and this feels more like “home” for her. There was a power in the way this woman spoke that was absolutely captivating. The fluidity of her language must come from a deep understanding of herself.
There was the woman from Arizona who couldn’t be intimate with her best friends. She began crying as she relayed a moment where one of her friends called her out on it: “Why don’t you trust us? We’re here for you.” She desperately wanted to open her heart but recognized that a trauma from 20 years ago might be blocking her ability to be intimate. It happened in her hometown. She didn’t go into specifics, but said that this event created so much judgment against her, that she lost all her friends and nobody in the town would talk to her. All she had left, in terms of human contact, were her parents. My heart dropped at imagining what that must have felt like — to be alone, to be shamed, to be silenced. Without knowing her full story, I could immediately understand why intimacy might be incredibly difficult for her. As a result, her relationship to intimacy was the opposite of the women from Denmark.
There was another American woman, one who used to live in a strict Mormon community, who recalled how it was “awkward” to hug her own sisters and parents growing up. She wanted to hug them, but they never hugged back — not in the genuine way that she instinctually knew, even as a small child. At this point, she began to cry. She said that she is finding a similar pattern with her current boyfriend, as she wants to break through to him on a deeply intimate level, but cannot. She is struggling with intimacy — her capacity for it, and her significant other’s boundaries with it — and how to proceed.
And then there was me. When it was my turn to hold the stick, I first took a deep breath. Then I looked around the room. Each face was present, smiling back at me. I opened my mouth and words tumbled out. None of it was planned.
I told the group about my current struggle with deep connection. I want more, and people around me deserve more. In order for me to be truly intimate, I said, I have to reveal my shadows, my flaws, my un-perfectness. And this is tough. I told the group that I have been conditioned since I was a little girl to be perfect, be brave, be tough, to put on a “good face.” I was a competitive gymnast (Think: Perfect 10) and the eldest daughter of two high-achieving doctors. My authentic self has been hidden behind a mask of perfection. To rip off that mask is to reveal parts of myself that I’ve been told by family and society to tuck away … is scary. It can be shameful. It can be embarrassing. It can be vulnerable. So this is my dance with intimacy: to first strip away ego and fear that is sheltering the “un-perfect” me. I exhaled and passed the stick.
As each woman in the circle took two, five, sometimes ten minutes to speak her mind, I felt such a strong connection to everyone. Even though I was meeting everyone for the first time, there was something in each woman’s story resonated with me. The most powerful takeaway, however: We are all working on it. Within ourselves. With those around us. And it ain’t easy.
I took comfort in hearing these stories. Huge comfort. Here we were, 20 perfect strangers, being incredibly vulnerable with each other in the span on two hours. We got intimate because the space supported and fostered this. We felt safe. We felt … connected.
This experience lit something quite serious in me: How could I foster the same back in Chicago? I love stories. I love inspiring emotional growth. I love teaching. Perhaps I could take the seeds of what I experienced in this Woman’s Circle in Bali and sprinkle some of them back home, somewhere, somehow. Perhaps it could start with my girls night dinners. Perhaps it’s something I could pair with my yoga teaching. Bottom line, it’s something to marinate on, not force, and see where curiosity and little epiphanies take me. This discovery is exciting.
This aside, I’m inspired to continue working on my connection to intimacy. To really listen. To go deeper. To be vulnerable. To hold space for other people’s vulnerabilities. To be authentic. To be accepted for both my light and my shadows. To do the same for others. To not be afraid to be seen, really seen, for who I truly am.