Nuggets From Deborah Cohan's Call

Posted by Kristin Von Kundra on Sep 11, 2021
Awakin Calls was delighted to host Dr Deborah Cohan, in conversation with Dr Cynthia Li. Deborah is a lifelong dancer, obstetrician-gynecologist, and teacher of embodied medicine. In 2013, moments before undergoing a double-mastectomy, she and the entire operating room team broke out into dance, filmed by the anesthesiologist for Deborah’s friends and family. The video found its way into the public sphere and has since been viewed 8 million times, continuing to bring forth joy and inspiration!

Deborah oversees births at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and serves as the medical director of HIVE, caring for pregnant people living with HIV. She teaches embodied medicine at Bolinas, through the Foundation for Embodied Medicine. For Cohan, medicine and movement are deeply interwoven. With an embodied approach that honors the inherent wisdom of our bodies, she has served as a doula for those who are giving birth and those who are dying.

It was pure joy to share space with Deborah, to hear her share about her journey and what she’s learned along the way, and to experience embodiment! The call began with a beautiful guided meditation, with the song "Returning" by Jennifer Berezan pulsing alongside Deborah’s guidance. She invited listeners to “bring in what feels right, and release what doesn’t feel right.”

Here are a few nuggets of wisdom that stood out to me:

Wisdom from babies in the womb: Right now Deborah is reading Rabbi Jill Hammer’s The Jewish Book of Days, and was struck by a line in the book, that "every infant represents a harvest of the past and a seed of the future." From the countless fetuses Deborah has observed in the womb through ultrasound, she’s seen firsthand how they all “dance like no one’s watching.” There are graceful movements, some jerkier movements, and also stillness. “It’s all necessary.” During the birthing process, fetuses find the path of least resistance moving through the birth canal, and know exactly how to move and contract in the journey of being born. We all have that innate capacity to find that path of least resistance. If we can close our eyes and go into our bodies, our bodies will always know the answer.

Wisdom from pregnancy: Pregnant people have innate wisdom. A lot of people worry when they are pregnant, about all that could go wrong, but somehow the body knows how to make another human. Deborah spoke with reverence for this beautiful and miraculous process, specifically regarding the amniotic fluid, and the placenta, “this incredibly wise organ” that removes what is toxic. May we remember that we have this innate wisdom that we received as a fetus. Birthing people will often lose faith in their ability during the experience, saying they “can’t” but they are in fact doing it. The body knows how to give birth.

Medical language of “delivery” regarding birth: Deborah clarified how ultimately it is the mother delivering the baby, that her role as the attending physician is to co-create a safe place for the birthing mother and baby. To the question of how many babies she has delivered: “I’ve delivered two, I have two children.”

Liberation, joy, and wisdom through bodily movement: After years of ballet class as a child, Deborah found incredible liberation through gymnastics, the act of running across the gym during a floor routine. She brought that same freedom of movement back to the ballet room, with the realization that “liberation is possible in the body.” When Deborah learned of her cancer diagnosis it was a Monday, the day of her weekly dance class. She went. Deborah lay on the floor crying for most of the class, allowing the music to fill her body, truly feeling the energy of the music enter her body. Most of the class, she felt grief, but then... she felt joy. It didn't make sense, but she allowed it. That spark of joy grew. Deborah found herself then dancing all around the room. It was a joy unlike all other, dancing with her grief. This experience helped guide Deborah in the following days in navigating her cancer treatment.

The dancing video in the OR: Ahead of her surgery, Deborah conceived of the flash mob dance, and filming it as a way to invite community into her healing. She was appreciative that her operating team was supportive of her wishes. A few people she had known previously, but mostly the people working in the operating room that day were strangers to her. But everyone started dancing. (Everyone except the anesthesiologist who was filming on a friend’s phone.) While Deborah was recovering, this friend uploaded the video and chose “public” so not only friends and family could view it, but strangers too. This led her to connect with people from around the world. “I was meant to not only work in the hospital, but also bring this embodiment to others.” During the Awakin Call, we all watched a clip of the video, and in reflection, Deborah noted that, “there’s so much talk about how the body holds trauma, but the body also holds joy!

Dancing in solitude, and in community: It’s analogous to meditating. There’s something potent and important about meditating in community. There is a role for dancing alone. For some it may feel safer. There’s an electric energy felt when we dance with others, we find how inherently connected we are with each other. In the OR, Deborah was shocked that they were all dancing, that those who didn’t know her prior would honor her healing with participation. There’s a woman from the OR whom she dances directly with at one point; they spoke of this experience afterwards and Deborah learned that, “it wasn’t just my healing, that it was healing for both of us.”

Comparing the birth and death processes: Deborah has bore witness to both birth and death. She finds overall that births are much louder, but the emotional charge is very similar. It’s a similar energy of finding the path of least resistance, a place where there can be no efforting. “My role feels very similar [...] I’m there to witness, help the passage be as safe and as easeful as possible.” Deborah notes that it’s within these transition moments that the body knows what to do.

Resources and links from Deborah: At Deborah’s invitation, we all stood up and rocked out to "I'm Alive" by Michael Franti.

Much gratitude to Deborah Cohan, for sharing her wisdom and introducing us to the practice of embodiment, to Cynthia Li for expertly guiding the conversation, to all the ServiceSpace volunteers who helped bring everything together, and to you, the listener, for tuning in with your presence and wonder.

May you all find the innate joy that can spring forth from “dancing as if no one is watching.”

Posted by Kristin Von Kundra | | permalink

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