No Pain, No Gain: Reflections on Redefining Strength and Vulnerability

Aug 23, 2022

Content Warnings - Detailed description of a trauma response, toxic sports culture, perfectionism



As I sit down to write this blog post, I immediately regret offering to write a post on vulnerability and strength. I believe in teaching through example and embodiment. So in order to write a blog post on vulnerability, I have to actually be vulnerable in it in front of the over 1,000 members we now have in the Consent Studio. Buckle up. Here we go…

I was a high level competitive gymnast growing up. It is a dangerous sport with a bad reputation for abuse and toxic culture. I believed in the “No pain, no gain," “Gymnasts don’t cry," “be perfect” culture at my gym. I started doing gymnastics as a toddler while my mother coached the advanced teams. Whether I was in class or hanging out while my mom coached, I was fully immersed and loved it.

My formative years were spent believing strength is being tough and pushing yourself no matter the physical cost. I got so good at focusing and “being in the zone” that as a teenager I was able to totally disconnect from my physical and emotional experience to force myself to do scary and dangerous skills even after terrible falls. Turns out that is clinically known as depersonalizing, and I don’t recommend it as a coping mechanism. I was able to withstand high levels of pain, stress, and fear while continuing to perform at a high level by totally disconnecting from myself. And that is how I defined strength.

I retired as a competitive gymnast when I graduated high school. I wasn’t good enough to be on the competitive teams at the colleges I wanted to attend, and ongoing chronic pain from a myriad of falls and injuries finally caught up to me. I’d had enough. I found my way to stage combat, dance, theater, and movement studies in college. I wasn’t flipping anymore, but I still loved moving my body. I was encouraged to feel my body as it moved. Allowing myself to feel as my body moved was like opening the door into a vast unknown universe. I slowly began to learn how to connect to my experiences, and it has been a lifelong ongoing process that is equal parts bewildering, revelatory, joyful, and exhausting.


I heard over and over again throughout the years that being vulnerable and feeling deeply is a strength. At first I was skeptical. 
To me being strong still meant suffering, bearing down, and gritting through. Over time I began to believe it, in theory. It wasn’t until the final weekend of my yoga teacher training in 2017 that I finally had a fully embodied experience of strength and vulnerability living together in the same heart beat. 

The entire class of yoga teacher trainees sat on our mats in a large circle. One by one we brought our mat to the center of the circle. The instructor had a playlist with songs we had preselected, and we were asked to do yoga to our song alone in the center of the circle while everyone else watched. The goal of the exercise was not to perform, not to do the poses right, but rather to allow ourselves to be fully present in our breath and in our bodies. To allow ourselves to be fully seen and witnessed in our practice. At the end of each person’s turn, the entire group bathed them in an Om, honoring and acknowledging their humanity in their practice.


I was terrified.


I have acted on stage in front of large audiences. I have done vulnerable and emotional acting exercises in classes. I have danced, performed stunts, and done aerial acrobatics 15 feet in the air without a safety net. None of those things had demanded the level of connection and vulnerability this exercise was asking for. My body, mind, and spirit doing yoga fully connected and stripped of all story besides the truth that was alive in my body moment to moment on that day. Just me and the asana. I’m starting to sweat five years later just writing about it. I used disconnection and depersonalization to literally prevent myself from making mistakes that could have (and sometimes did) resulted in catastrophic injury growing up. Radical vulnerability and deep connection still has the potential to get my nervous system revved up and on the lookout for danger.

The exercise went around the circle one student teacher at a time. I was three quarters of the way around the circle. I had to do a lot of sitting and witnessing while I waited for my turn. I watched in awe. My classmates were beautiful in the most imperfect sense of the word. This was a class of real people aged from their 20s to their 70s with a wide range of body types and life experiences. Each person’s practice revealed the story their body carries; their strength, their weaknesses, their fears and insecurities, and their dogged perseverance in the face of the challenges life presents to them. 

As the time grew closer to my turn I experienced a myriad of physical symptoms as my nervous system revved up. My hands and underarms began to sweat uncomfortably. Small muscles in my inner thighs and lower back began to tremble violently. It was a challenge just to hold myself still while waiting and watching. I struggled to stay in my body and in the room. I clung desperately to keeping my breath even and slow to try to keep myself grounded. By the time it was my turn I felt as if I was floating several inches above my mat instead of firmly on it while my whole body buzzed with an intense electricity. 


I sat on my knees with a block under my hips in the center of the circle and my song started, Algeria from Cirque du Soleil’s show of the same title. I wasn’t sure I could move, and at the same time I was buzzing with so much energy I felt like I could out race a cheetah or more likely pass out. I knew I had to get grounded and discharge some of the excess energy if I was going to be able to do this exercise. I started with kapalabhati breathing. It’s a forceful and energized breath that helped me dispel some of the fight or flight energy that was racing around my body. After that I was able to begin moving. I don’t remember all of the poses I did, just that the shaky-ness never totally left me. At some point all of my long training kicked in, and I dropped fully into myself, shaky but connected. I felt myself shake, and breathe. I felt scared and weak. I felt each and every moment as it passed. I felt what my body needed moment to moment and chose asanas accordingly. I did not depersonalize, and I did nothing perfectly. All of me was there, and I did the best I could with the resources I had available to me.

In tree pose the joy hit me. It radiated out of my chest like a sun bathing my whole being and the room around me in a pure unfiltered brightness. It is only when we are vulnerable that we can experience intense and fragile emotions like joy, and I found it in the most unexpected place on that day. 

Afterward I was relieved and energized, though still open and sensitized from the experience. During the break one of my classmates approached me and said four words that hit me like a ton of bricks. 


“You looked so strong.” 


I think for once enough of my guard was down to actually receive what she said. I started to protest, but then stopped myself. I thanked her, and tried to make sense of what had just happened. From my perspective, I had been afraid, shaking and weak. I had felt exposed and vulnerable. I had been barely fighting off depersonalization and dissociation. I experienced joy. All of this lived inside of me, but what she saw was strength. And it finally sunk in, bone deep. Strength and vulnerability are the same thing. It just depends on if you are witnessing it or experiencing it. 

Why write and share all of this on a blog for a company that teaches about consent and intimacy in entertainment? Because performing intimacy, clearly communicating boundaries, and advocating for yourself in an industry where informal networks rule are incredibly vulnerable and radical acts. Treading this path with IDC is not easy. Every one of us who are invested in changing our industry’s culture to one of consent are acting with strength and courage. Asking for help, admitting you can’t do it by yourself, acknowledging your limits all take vulnerability and strength. The more of us that share our vulnerability, our clear and unapologetic no, the bigger impact we will have. We are doing important work, and I am so grateful that we don’t have to do it alone. 

If you often find yourself in the vulnerable position feeling powerless, I invite you to give yourself grace. Resist the urge to suffer silently. Give yourself permission to have needs, state boundaries, and show up in your full humanity. Breathe. Connect with yourself deeply, and say or do the hard thing that comes from your truth. Allow yourself to be seen.

If you often find yourself in a position of power, I invite you to pause. Practice empathy, and hone your listening skills. You cannot respect a boundary without knowing where it truly is. Get settled and grounded in your own body so you can respond instead of react. Ask questions and take time to understand the answers. 

Every individual in our industry is a human being with vulnerable spots, and you don’t need to know what kind of baggage the other person might be carrying around to honor the strength it takes to show up in a creative space as an imperfect human being. 


-Marie C. Percy

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