by Pia Fritsch, Prairiewoods Intern

One of the exercises that we did that stretched people the most was the animal embodiment workshop. In this workshop we had to enact an animal that represented who we are. We were split into groups of three that Sister Marj and Sister Joan had tried to mix introverts and extroverts. We were all a bit wary of this activity since it pushed us so far out of our comfort zone. However, naturally when we started the extroverts volunteered to go first. I think that this was the plan the whole time, because the music that was set in the background for this was quite slow. This created a different dynamic than the extroverts would normally like. The first person to go in my group started with some playful scratches with her “paws.” She then got down on all fours and went through the cycle of a day: eating, playing, and sleeping. During this she let out a few howls which played off of another person who was also howling. Once the music stopped we got together in our groups and reflected to each other what we observed. The two people who weren’t acting described what we saw first. We both guessed that she was being a wolf and that she was being playful. Then the actor got to speak. She was being a wolf, but she said that the music made her slow down. It really brought her attention to self-care, and she seemed quite touched by that experience.

Then it was my turn to go, and I started with some trepidation. We had been instructed to close our eyes during this experience which helped to get into the spirit of the animal. I hadn’t thought much about what animal I would choose, but I have always felt close to deer. With a doe in mind, I got down on all fours but found that that didn’t feel right. I got back up to a standing position keeping my hands out to indicate legs. Then I wondered what deer do. They seem like they just stand around and take a nibble every now and then. So I stood and moved a little. Then I’d lift my head up and “look” around then stand and move a little. After a little while I galloped a short distance away and repeated the process. Finally, the music stopped. We got together in our group to discuss, and I was surprised what my group members said to me. The woman who had chosen the wolf said that she was unsure of what animal I was but that I had a deep inner well of strength and peace. She and my other group member thought I might be a deer but also maybe a horse or a cat. I had thought of those animals while I was acting, and I thought it was surprising that they picked up those signals. I thought that my discomfort had been the most obvious thing, but I was surprised that they both told me that I held a kind of grace and presence that I wasn’t even aware of.

The last person in the group had some slightly more upbeat music to move to. She started out with her hands and feet tucked under her and her head curled in as well. She slowly pushed out her “flippers” and moved around the floor space. Our other group member gently guided her away from some chairs and other things she might bump into. She would move a bit then return to her closed position, then start out in a slightly different direction. We got into our discussion group, and I started by saying that she seemed very deliberate and contemplative. She was very internal which I can relate to. I thought it was interesting how, though we have similar qualities, we chose different animals to represent ourselves. I felt like this exercise showed how every person has unique qualities that can be represented by animals. Through the act of “becoming” that animal it was like all of our different qualities were honored. I often admire and wish I could be more like a “wolf” person, but I know those are not the traits that I embody. I have also been reading this book called Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pincoles Estes. I love that book. A lot. As I’ve been reading it though, I just think: “I’m not a wolf.” I just know that is not the animal that most accurately represents myself, yet I know I have that earthy, intuitive, wild aspect of myself. It just so happens that I am wild like the deer instead of the wolf. It was also funny to see how I am drawn to people who personify the positive “wolf” characteristics, and deer and wolves are natural opposites. We reflect more of nature than we even realize.

I also recognized a connection between this exercise and the dream that I shared with the group. I had a critical character personified by a news man. I do have a critical voice in my head, but after the animal workshop I realized that there isn’t any reason to criticize a doe. It just is what it is. I just am what I am. There are beautiful traits to a deer. I’ve stopped many times just to look at them and to think of myself that way is encouraging. Wolves are beautiful as well, and I still admire friendly yet independent and vocal people. Now though, I can remember the beauty of a doe when the “news man” tries to spread some bad rumors through the rest of my psyche.

In addition to this exercise we also watched Into the Woods which was a modern take on several classic fairy tales. It had us all laughing and also explored unseen sides of archetypal characters. The witch was not good or nice, but she was right. The princes were charming, but they weren’t sincere. I saw in the credits that the same actor who played one of the princes also played the wolf in the part based off of “Little Red Riding Hood.” I thought that was quite profound in itself. Sometimes the same person who is so charming can also be vicious. In the first half the princes wanted their damsels, because they ran away. In the second half when they were married, they yearned after other unattainable damsels. Other than being amusing because of the duet “Agony,” these characters represent the part of ourselves that always wants what we can’t have. There is a great truth in that.

We ended our retreat with a closing circle where everyone brought to the table, metaphorically and literally, the experiences and understandings that they had gained throughout the week. Many people seemed quite touched by their experiences and had a lot of positive feedback and new insights. Some people made drawings, some poems, one a trash can full of prairie flowers. That was mostly just to fit the flowers, but it brought a smile out from everyone. I just shared how I felt supported by everyone in the group to follow my heart even though a philosophy degree is not the most practical thing to pursue, albeit a philosophy of sustainable living degree. I also shared how I could now look at myself as a doe and have more self compassion.