Make a ritual out of grieving, honor the loss, disappointment, change. Make space and time for grief. Our feelings in our bodies need space and time. Feel where it is in your body. Sink in. Feel what it feels like in your body: your heart, shoulders, hips. Give grief a color, a song, and let it move through you.
As a part of my series about the women in wellness, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bernadette Pleasant.
Spirited and energetic, Bernadette Pleasant is a fiery and sensual speaker, somatic healer, Founder of The Emotional Institute and Creator of Femme!, a mind-body wellness program, and 400 Years, a somatic-based anti-racism program, and Sacred Grief Rituals. She is known for channeling her personal journeys and radical empathy into transformative, immersive experiences that support and celebrate people of all genders, colors, ages, and sizes. She has transformed the lives of thousands of people around the world, inspiring them to become more self-expressed and empowered as their own badass selves.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
Mybody of work in The Emotional Institute, Femme!, and Sacred Grief Rituals was born through necessity and at a time when emotions, movement and the body were rarely a topic of conversation. I began my inquiry of deeply living through a process of unwinding myself emotionally.
When I was young, my life was so constricted and emotionally shut down. I looked towards religion and my family to see if there was enough space for me. I knew that I didn’t fit into the narrow confines of expression in the church nor my household.
I became aware that people make decisions to fit into society, trying hard not to be too much nor break the social norms. You don’t date someone without the intent to marry. I ended up marrying at 17 out of an obligation to a religious contract I didn’t believe in. So many constrictions and confines I couldn’t bear.
This awareness also showed me that I wanted to live my own life. I didn’t want to live by the confines and rules that had been passed down to me. I wanted a sense of agency over my life, all parts of it.
I started making my own choices from skirt lengths to who I wanted to be, and who I wanted to love. Breaking out of those confines gave me more freedom and joy. In addition to therapy, I started going to different dance and movement classes. I was hungry for freedom in my body.
Ultimately, movement was the key to my healing and transformation. I even became certified in some dance modalities. Yet the movement that was most healing for me wasn’t dance… it was the primal movements evoked by African drums that led to messy, slow, fast, grunting, growling, spinning, stillness… whatever my body wanted.
As I moved my body in these ways, shame and worry melted. The rules that had once dictated my every move, dissolved. I came home to myself and felt more powerful than ever before.
I began to teach my own classes and brought in different elements, such as live African drumming and guided, unchoreographed invitations for participants to listen to their own body and allow their emotions to move them from within. Some participants even started asking me if I could train them on how to teach these classes.
This unique approach to movement became known as Femme! and launched me into a whole next level of leadership and life where all emotions were embraced, embodied, and expressed. I have now taught Femme! classes online and in person around the world and certified over 100 instructors to teach it as well.
My hips now have a fuller range of motion, as do my emotions and expression. I continue to bring curiosity and play to the adventure of emotions, and invite you to come explore with us, too.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? What were the main lessons or takeaways from that story?
I’ve had many interesting stories. There is one story that stands out and speaks to the power of my work. A man, who was a student of mine, shared his experience. It was the first time he had the safety to access the fullness of his emotions, to express guttural sounds, punch, and not hurt another person. He was able to move the anger out of his body and feel no shame. This was a first for him.
He shared in a letter that doing this work helped him release a lifetime of anger, finding a way to express his emotions in a way that doesn’t harm others. He had an outlet for his emotions through sound and movement. The live African drums playing and beating in my class were able to reach into places inside, to excavate the anger in a way that didn’t hurt others. Through moving, sounding, punching and being lovingly witnessed, something shifted. He later revealed that he stopped beating his wife as a result.
Impact on life. Changes in family units. It further drives my work because you never know how far-reaching this emotional release work goes.
Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
“Perfectionism is the mother of procrastination.” ~Michael Hyatt
Which one?! There are so many! The biggest mistake I made was trying to be perfect. A colleague pulled me aside to tell me, “You’re overthinking it! You don’t have to be perfect, Bern.” That was a hard reflection to take in and it was the truth.
When I first started, I led with the edited “perfect” version of myself that I wanted people to see, instead of being the real me. I was trying to be perfect and in doing so, I came across very unrelatable. I was overthinking and the more I strived to be perfect, the more disconnected I was from what I was feeling. The doubts would arise, more time would go by, I would think and analyze and try to perfect. Time kept rolling and I kept mulling.
I am thankful today for the people closest to me telling me the truth. I learned something about myself and the effort to be perfect. This perfectionism masked a spiral of doubt that led to procrastination.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Ron Davidow, my husband. He is incredible. I think he lives vicariously through my crazy ideas. I am blessed with his absolute consistency, deep listening, and always suggesting that I go for it. He listens to my fears, champions me and offers financial and emotional support. Ron sets things up, break things down, cooks for us, advises, and he proofreads everything.
Early on I had a bridal shop and it was an epic financial failure. I was hard on myself. I carried a lot of guilt and the weight of that failed bridal shop business. Ron would tell me, “ It’s a risk you take when you go into a business, the risk is part of the learning. You have to keep putting yourself out there.” I was more devastated and disappointed about the financial loss than he was. I am so grateful for his unwavering support to have me out in the world to create. No. Matter. What.
Ok perfect. Now let’s jump to our main focus. When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?
People are emotionally constipated. I think that we need more good examples of healthy emotionally expressed humans. We all have emotions that have some sort of restrictions. My work allows for full expression, to create more vibrant lives. This access to emotions affects everything. It makes for a kinder world because people give themselves permission to feel and have compassion for others.
As we have moved through this year with Breonna Taylor, George Floyd the grief and tragedy of the pervasiveness of racism in our nation, I birthed a program: 400 Years: Unlearning racism through the body, storytelling and deep listening.
This program is a response to the awakening occurring right now in our country and on the planet. It’s time to come together and unlearn racism, through our body, storytelling and deep listening, so that we can heal the divide between races and stand united, for and with each other.
400 Years provides the knowledge and understanding required to address how we’ve locked bias and racism into our bodies and been trained to turn a blind eye to racial inequities. This will include an emotional tour of the effects of white privilege, internalized racism and oppression.
We will also explore how to unlock and unlearn racism from our bodies, by gently tending to our wounded spirit, ego, and privilege.
We have also experienced an unprecedented amount of grief as individuals and as a collective. There are few examples in many societies on how to be with grief. I’ve seen many examples of how to ignore, medicate, sleep, drink, shop grief away. I’ve found that none of those methods work.
What is needed is something far more heroic. When you have the courage to say I am experiencing heartache and grief, to look at it, admit it to oneself and others, to make room for it, to sit with its discomfort, to pick up the many pieces of your broken heart and go towards the grief, so you can go through the grief.
Grief isn’t something you get over, you get through it with gentleness and patience. I invite you, I’m glad you came to take this journey.
Which is why I created the Sacred Grief Ritual Guidebook: to provide you with a step by step set of instructions that you can follow (and customize to your own situation) to express your grief in safe and constructive ways. When we create rituals to honor our grief, we are able to live our lives fully: alive, awake and authentically.
Currently, we have an online platform, The Emotional Institute, which came to me as a vision while spending a month by myself on Kauai.
Femme!, the movement-based body of work around emotions I created and facilitated for years, was really solid. I have led classes around the world and certified over 100 instructors to teach my unique mind-body wellness program.
Now that we’d learned how to move and give sound to our emotions with Femme!, something more was asking to be birthed to take our study and exploration even deeper. It was time to examine our emotions, address the shame that built up around them, and dissolve the constrictions that kept us from experiencing the passionate, authentic intimacy available to us.
That’s when I saw the vision for the Institute: a place where leaders and teachers join together to provide courses and training that contribute to a healthier emotional world.
Femme!,400 years, Sacred Grief Rituals and the creation of The Emotional Institute were created because of the need for people to heal and express themselves.
Can you share your top five “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing? Please give an example or story for each.
1. Acknowledge how I’m feeling, be honest with myself and others.
Imagine me in my 30’s, in a Brooks Brothers suit, holding an attache, and an umbrella. Now, picture me falling down an NYC escalator, shouting “I’m fine!” as I am rolling down the escalator. When I got to the bottom, pantyhose torn, bloody knee, and my attache, shoe, and my umbrella tumbling down after.
Can you imagine this scene? Even at the bottom of the escalator, I am still trying to convince myself and everyone else that, “I’m fine.” People around me were trying to help and I wasn’t in a place to receive it. Some couldn’t help but chuckle at the lunacy of this predicament.
I couldn’t receive the help because I was too busy trying to save face. The honest truth, I wasn’t ok. At that moment, I couldn’t acknowledge my feelings of shock, embarrassment, fear. The lesson I learned is that when I can acknowledge my feelings, I can make space to receive the help offered.
2. Make a ritual out of grieving, honor the loss, disappointment, change.
Make space and time for grief. Our feelings in our bodies need space and time. Feel where it is in your body. Sink in. Feel what it feels like in your body: your heart, shoulders, hips. Give grief a color, a song, and let it move through you.
“Grief is love with nowhere to go.” ~ Jamie Anderson
When you acknowledge that, there is a place for grief. Give that gift to yourself.
3. Look for opportunities to laugh and smile with full abandon.
Enjoy it all! Have the emotions fully as they arise: unfiltered and unsuppressed. Be on the lookout for opportunities to laugh and smile. I know that if I’m looking for it, I’m going to find it.
4. Hug people at every opportunity.
It’s said that hugs are great medicine for both the giver and receiver. It’s a moment of mindfulness and heals us on a cellular level. Who doesn’t want more of that!
5. Mindfulness — slow down. Put your feet on the earth.
I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue during Covid-19. I was surprised to hear that my daily walks, my very slow daily walks, truly reduces stress in the body. I do it as often as I can — slow down and put my feet on the earth. I make time to slow down to calm my nervous system. There is room for creation and understanding when I move slowly.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?
If emotional wellness is provided and available to people, I think children will see the example and then have more access to live full lives.
Generationally, we will create more kindness. We will be able to change all the -isms that come from fear or lack of understanding. We will be able to connect to our own humanity and the humanity of others. This process relaxes the nervous systems and moves us towards curiosity.
Emotional wellness creates space for differences and levels the playing field for being human at any size, shape, color, age.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- Authenticity sells. Vulnerability is not a weakness.
Why? People connect with those they find to be relatable.
- How you make people feel is what matters most.
Why? Maya Angelou said it best. “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
- It’s ok to charge what you are worth. Giving is not always helping.
Why? You can’t do good work for others if you can’t keep yourself in business.
- Yes, hard work. Yes, it takes time. AND YES, have fun doing it.
Why? I believe it’s essential to infuse play into my work. Laugh, dance and find ways to keep it simple and enjoyable.
- To learn the difference between playing safe and playing small.
Why? Unhealthy fear can keep us in our comfort zone. Do something a little different, take a risk sometime. You may find a whole new and fun arena to play in.
Sustainability, veganism, mental health, and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?
Mental health is dearest to me because I see how it has ravaged certain underprivileged communities. As a whole, mental health has been medicated, avoided, and ignored. This is especially true in communities with access to quality healthcare. Other communities without access lead to policing, physical attacks and arrests rather than care. For some, mental health is insured and treated. Others are seen as a physical threat, put in deadly choke holds or shot.
As we are in a global pandemic, I think depression and grief are going to have a larger impact. I fear for what will become of those who are mentally ill. I think that when we are in a healthy mental state we can care for our world and each other. Our mental and emotional state affects healthy thinking in every area of our lives and emotional health is just as important as our mental health.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
Thank you for these fantastic insights!