Trigger warnings- Talk of eating disorders, PTSD, birth trauma and mental health in this blog
In a change to your regular programming of sweary blogs full of silliness, I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Jessica Garner , who is not only a badass pole dancer and aerialist, but also a Behavioural Therapist, Child Adolescent Mental Health Academic, and Special Educational Needs Teacher.
Jessica is currently in the process of studying for her PhD and setting up her wonderful new venture KALMFARM. “KALM” stands for Kindred Aerialists Living Mindfully, which promotes mindfulness, mental health and wellness through sensory integration and movement. Jessica’s interview below was an absolute treat to read, and made me have some eye opening revelations about my own well-being habits too, so grab a cuppa, get comfy (this is a long but very worthwhile read) and read all about KALMFARM and well-being for pole dancers and aerialists below.
What inspired you to start KALMFARM? Great name btw!
KALMFARM actually started life as a kids Yoga business. I am a Yoga and Dance instructor and wanted to set up a service for disadvantaged children and kids with additional needs who might benefit from free access to yoga and dance/movement classes. In a pre-Covid world, I worked in Child Adolescent Mental Health Learning Disability services. It was there that I was lucky enough to work with the wizards otherwise known as Occupational Therapists, and was introduced to the concept of sensory integration therapy. Sensory Integration (SI) therapy is basically magic and has a strong evidence base for treating childhood trauma and conditions which can affect impulsivity and emotional regulation. What I noticed were loads of similarities between what the Occupational Therapists were doing and what I was doing as a yoga instructor, like, LOADS. Whilst not trained in SI, it was always my intention to begin therapeutic workshops for children working within the scope of my practise using SI inspired techniques and Yoga, to support their developing emotional skills. The dream never became a reality initially because of COVID, so it sat on the burner waiting for the right time to come back.
KALM as an acronym has had a couple of incarnations. It originally stood for Kids About Living Mindfully – as that’s were the focus of my work was at that time. But since branching more specifically into Aerial, and the fact that my work is spread across the life span it now stands for “Kindred Aerialists Living Mindfully”. The work is still the same – promoting mindfulness and mental health and wellness through sensory integration and movement. KALMFARM was born as a place where we nurture and grow in mental wellness. The imagery of a farm being a place where we harvest, cultivate and pollinate. At the moment it is a digital space, but in time it is hoped there will be a physical event where Kindred Aerialists can go, to come together holistically. I am in the process of completing grant and funding applications to make this a reality.
Also what inspired you to begin your pole and aerial journey?
I am a trained dancer who quit (like so many) due to the lack of support and appreciation for different shapes and sizes of human. I was quite literally prescribed a diet of toilet paper when I was a teenager, before I decided that this extreme “lifestyle” wasn’t for me, which is a shame because I was actually rather good. I instead took the musical theatre route and quickly learned I could sing better than I could dance, which was a blessing in disguise. I always kept up with recreational dance classes though and attended vocational style classes wherever I could. I was very active on the burlesque scene up until I had my daughter in 2014. I single handedly stage managed the Morecambe Variety festival produced by Neil (Nez) Kendall, whilst 7 months pregnant. And it was in this scene that I met some awesomely inspiring performers like Velma Von Bon Bon, who transcended the boundaries of cabaret, circus, and burlesque. At that time, burlesque and aerial would sit in quite neat boxes and rarely cross over. Aerial soon became a hobby added to my repertoire, alongside my dance and yoga (although admittedly I was shockingly bad at it).
After having my daughter I became exceptionally unwell and was unable to exercise. Additionally I developed PTSD from birth trauma. A diagnosis of a brain tumour and three years of successful treatment later and I was in a place where I wanted to get back to dancing for fun. I had started some clinical therapeutic training in Manchester once a week and none of the classes I wanted to attend fitted in with my new working mum schedule, other than a pole class at Bodybarre in Manchester, so I went for it. My OG Pole mama Penny rekindled my love of dance and expression through movement, and made the “pain” worth it and I started to see a noticeable difference in my PTSD symptoms after attending weekly classes.
When lock down hit, I had to find a new studio as travelling to Manchester was no longer an option due to lockdown travel restrictions. Each week that went by without pole, I saw a noticeable deterioration in my PTSD symptoms. It was almost like my body was craving to be upside down and climbing.
Lockdown slowly lifted and I found a new studio more local to where I lived. Aerial Sports came in to my life and Jade Strugnell has not been able to get rid of me since.
Kalm’s aerial wellbeing courses sound fascinating. What do they consist of and how are they coming along?
Ever the academic researcher, I have noticed and observed through first hand encounters and reviews of the literature out there, that Aerialists need looking after in a particular way. We have our own unique set of baggage which needs carefully handling. We are more likely than other client groups in exercise to have trauma related mental health issues. Aerial well-being needs to be addressed differently to other ‘sports’.
The courses themselves are going to be initially aimed at instructors and studio owners. They need to be equipped with the skills and tools to support their clients, especially if we are going to be encouraging clients to take the lid off some of their issues and welcoming them to bring “stuff” to class. It wouldn’t be fair or safe to deliver well-being sessions to clients without first up-skilling the instructors. They need to be able to operate safely and be confident in advertising that Aerial mental well-being is within the scope of their practise in much the same way as they would advertise that they are trained in hoop, silks or stretch.
The first phase is mental health and well-being course for Pole dance instructors. There are tonnes of mental health first aid courses on the market, but there is nothing bespoke to Pole (or aerial, or circus for that matter). Mental health training in the U.K. isn’t regulated (which is shocking) there will be so many instructors and coaches who are considering signing up for a course, but not appreciating that those courses are not regulated in anyway by a mental health governing body. Some of them haven’t even been written by Mental Health Professionals. I am in the process of getting my course accredited by some exercise governing bodies applicable to the Pole dance industry so in the very least, there will be some level of governance associated with the course. As a mental health academic and trained therapist, I bring an element of legitimacy to the training.
Following the successful launch of the instructor programme, I will be rolling out the well-being programme for clients. Initially this will take the form of clinical trials aimed to explore the psychotherapeutic value of Pole dance. Again, I don’t want to roll out a programme that claims benefits without being clinically trialled. Anecdotal evidence is not enough for me. I am accessing the latest research and networking with specialists via spaces such as the Sensory Integration Network, prior to launching the clinical trials.
Do we have a release date for the courses yet?
I was hoping to have released the first module for instructors by now, but accreditation takes time. There was a suggestion that I do a pilot course to begin with and then get accreditation, but I want to do things properly. I work full time as a special needs teacher so that is taking up much of my time. It would be awesome if I could get things rolled out in the new year to capture all the “winter blues” that will hit studios in January.
Similarly to the above, how is your PhD progressing?
Ah, the world of academia… it feels like I’m just at the start of the process of taking the hobbits to Isengard if I’m honest. I’m totally not far enough in to see the light at the end. I could legit drop it all now and lose nothing. But I know there’s something here that will make a massive impact, not just to the bespoke Aerial world, but to the wider population.
I am self-funding and doing this largely on my own so it’s a real labour of love. I’m trying to drum up publicity and interest so that securing funding is easier. You are more likely to get financial support if you’ve run a pilot project for example.
Additionally I will be launching a Patreon account to subsidise some of my research. The account will be a mental health and well-being channel where you can pop by and pick up some awesome well-being sessions to help you in your everyday functioning. It’s not meant to be a profiteering exercise – every pound raised will go towards paying for my training courses/fees and accessing research. It all goes back in to the greater good. For example specialist Sensory Integration courses, Children’s Pole and Aerial Instructor Course, paying for clinical supervision and PhD supervisory team fees.
Once I am in a place to run clinical trials, I have some amazing humans ready to take me under their supervision wings. Then it’s just the small matter of writing it all up and defending it before getting a fancy new hat and some extra letters on my name.
What do you believe the wider pole dance and aerial industries could do to improve the mental health of those who participate in it?
This is such a hot topic of conversation now and something I spoke to PD Uncovered podcast about. Improving mental health is not the responsibility of instructors. There is a difference between mental health and mental wellbeing. And yes, all fitness professionals have a duty of care to the mental wellbeing of their clients.
A lot of what we need to do as instructors is work on ourselves initially and this can be done without needing to refer yourself for therapy. As a business owner you are used to business planning and reviewing your success. How is the venue? Apparatus still working? Do you need to tweak your timetable? Look at yourself as one of those areas to be reviewed. You are a variable in your business which needs the same level of analysis as all the other stuff .
There are some instructors out there who are really boundaried and feel that client mental well-being is beyond their scope of practise. Whilst there is an element of truth in that, the research and evidence is quickly proving this to be an outdated concept. Just by shifting your own attitude and understanding of your role in supporting your clients’ mental health and well-being, you are taking a huge step.
Physical health and well-being and mental health and well-being cannot be distanced from each other, we know as scientists that the two are intrinsically linked and symbiotic in nature. From a sports coaching perspective we’ve known for years that psychology and the more cognitive aspects of our clients have a huge impact on performance and recovery. This is really well researched and you will see lots of physios bigging this up on Insta and podcasts. However there is no research which can explain the role that Pole dance and Aerial has on mental health (good and bad).
The first thing we need to do is accept that as instructors we do play a role in mental health and well being and that this can be positive and it can be negative. Admitting that we might not be as helpful as we thought is huge. Equally, admitting that we might be “too” helpful is huge.
Then, we need to understand what our own attitudes and beliefs are about mental health, where we are with our journey of mental health and then be able to apply this to our interactions with clients. Where do we put our boundaries up? What triggers us? What is our language like? Do we put a wall up when we hear or see something that triggers us? Why do we use Pole dance ourselves? What is our relationship with food and exercise like? What is our online behaviour like – for example on Instagram? We can’t promote body positivity for example in our studios whilst fat shaming ourselves on Insta. You can’t promote a healthy competition training schedule to your clients when you know that you use Pole as a therapeutic crutch which leads to over training.
Just by doing this you are making massive changes which will make your studio a more supportive place to be. Instructors should not be improving mental health, they should be supporting mental well-being. Recreational pole dance has the power to improve mental ill health, and my training aims to support instructors to facilitate this aspect of Pole dance. Until then though, we need a culture shift in being mental health aware and equipped with the skills to promote mental wellness.
Who are your biggest inspirations in the pole dance industry with regard to promoting and championing wellbeing?
One of the issues we have in mental health is this sudden increase in mental health “experts” and “life coaches” who offer “advice” and even “therapy” to vulnerable people who can’t access the right support. There’s so many well-meaning people (especially on Insta) who use the #mentalhealth and profess to be helping people by sharing their stories of their own mental health problems, regurgitating well-meaning memes, or making uplifting TikTok videos. But invariably this is not helpful to individuals or indeed to themselves. It actually dilutes mental health therapies and is counterproductive to the evidence based practises that some individuals need to access when they have acute mental health problems. I’ve already mentioned that mental health training is not regulated in the same way as physical health, an Insta and TikTok are really not helping with this at all. Dr Emily Rausch put up an excellent post on World Mental Health Day saying “Pole is not your therapy” and encouraged people to seek out therapy for mental health, from a mental health therapist. She is absolutely right. For sure, Pole dancing has therapeutic value, but until I have completed my clinical trials and can safely claim that Pole dance therapy can be prescribed for specific mental illnesses, it absolutely should not be advertised as anything other than fitness and fun.
Jade Strugnell is my coach. And whenever she reads or listens to anything I do regarding my research, she says it feels like a tick list in her mind that she gets right every time. And she is right. She nails well-being. I’m sure there’s so many people out there feeling the same about their coaches. What Jade does exceptionally well is promote rest and recovery, and she leads by example with this. She closes her studio for planned shut downs and communicates to everyone this is a time to rest. Resting is so important for mental wellness and she promotes this well. It has to be a tough and scary call as a business owner to openly say “I’m closed” and have to manage finances accordingly, but she does it. I could literally talk about Jade all day – she really is such a great example of how to coach pole dance well. If you ever get chance to train online or in person with her – do it.
Annie Norris is also up there for me. She talks on her Insta about her ups and downs with health, well-being, fertility, and training. But never once claims to be an authority on mental health and well-being. She helps us all appreciate that underneath her Goddess Athena exterior, is an actual human being. Insta has a massive part to play in the Pole community and is one of the most damaging digital platforms for mental health and well-being, a dichotomy that needs to be unpicked more in my research. So for Annie to present herself the way that she does is super helpful. She is careful with what she writes and does not profess to be a life coach, an expert, or indeed a therapist. She is an honest human being. I think what she also doesn’t realise is that the stance she takes on self-intimacy and sensuality has a potentially massive benefit for survivors of sexual trauma (there’s research out there that supports what she is preaching) and I would love to talk to her more about possibly running workshops to deal with self-intimacy and body image issues for sexual abuse survivors.
What is the biggest impact that pole and aerial has had on your mental health?
I don’t say this lightly (it has formed a massive part of the rationale behind my PhD) but it has impacted my PTSD symptoms. I will spare everyone the potentially triggering details. I had emotional regulation difficulties, tactile hallucinations, intrusive memories, night terrors, a sense of overwhelming foreboding, after a traumatic pregnancy and birth with my daughter. The initial improvement in my mental well-being I put down to “the feel good factor” from doing regular exercise. But it wasn’t until lock down that I realised the extent of the impact as my symptoms began to trouble me again. My clinical presentation was very similar to that of someone undergoing therapy for PTSD and having it abruptly stop. When I unlock it from a clinical perspective it has to be the sensory integration aspect of the movements we use in Pole. I talk about this in my blog for anyone that wants to geek out with me, and it will form the basis of the clinical trials.
How specifically do you believe partaking in pole and aerial can benefit a person’s wellbeing?
Oh there are so many well researched benefits to well-being. Body image, self-esteem, cardio vascular health, cardio respiratory health – just to name a few evidence based and peer reviewed findings. My research looks very much at the unique way that the brain and the body are coordinated in Pole dance. It really is unique as there are no other sports that mimic this. If I am right, the way that we command our brains and bodies to work together in Pole, can have a positive impact on how we process stress, store memories, regulate emotions, learn new emotions, and restore damaged areas of our more primitive brain that have been affected by childhood trauma. Obviously I’m not claiming that popping along to a one off hen do pole session is going to cure your PTSD – it’s bigger than that. Like with all things, there’s specificity to the length of sessions, frequency of sessions and the combination of movements used in each session. I hope to clear that bit up in the clinical trials so that we can design a therapeutic Pole dance course which can be rolled out alongside appropriate clinical interventions from mental health services.
On the other hand, what aspects of practicing pole and aerial do you believe participants need to look out for that can potentially harm their mental health and wellbeing? For example, doom scrolling dancers on social media and comparing yourself to others, two habits which I am guilty of.
Doom scrolling as you call it, is a huge issue for anyone. Knowing when to stop on socials and always scrolling with a purpose and time limit are basic rules to set yourself. What do you hope to gain from scrolling today? Set yourself an intention. Are you looking for new tricks? Costume ideas? Cat memes? How long do you have to spare? Set the alarm and switch off when you are done. Self-discipline is so hard to master.
I’m just about to send out a questionnaire to some volunteers to try and better understand Pole dancers use of Instagram as it has such an important role to play in their “sport/art”. But as I said before, this is somewhat of a dichotomy as Insta is well known in academia for being toxic for mental health and well-being – particularly body image, self-esteem and eating behaviours. Have in mind that the longer you spend scrolling on Instagram the more desensitised you become to extreme body shapes. There are some fabulous polers with all kinds of body shapes (I’m not hating on any specific shape or size) but in order for you to have a healthy appreciation of humans whilst scrolling, it is important to follow a range of body shapes and not rely on Insta to provide your feed with images. Roz the Diva all the way to Blarpie and everything in between. All bodies are pole dancing bodies (damn straight they are!).
As a poler yourself, irrespective of how many followers you have, remember you have a duty of care to represent yourself online in the most human way possible. Ditch the vanity filters, upload the photos where your body is soft, I want to see that when you hold your Teddy grip – you too have fatty tissue around your triceps. We occupy a massive space on Insta and can collectively turn it into a space full of real bodies. Emma Poole (@tangledinair) runs psychology workshops which often address body image in Aerial. One of her recent posts asks people to consider how they feel about softness in their body, and it really struck a chord with me. When did we move as a culture towards the idea of flatness, hardness and tightness in women’s bodies? As I walk around galleries I see no abs or obliques on the pre-Raphaelite paintings. Again, not body shaming, but it’s worth a thought.
Overtraining is a massive issue. It was either @thepole.physio or Emily Rausch who gave the advice that as a recreational poler (which most of us are, unless we are competing for our country) 3 times a week is enough alongside other exercises. Over training can lead to burnout, which @circuspsychology explains is a massive issue which requires clinical intervention and a complete withdrawal from (in our case) Pole. You can spot burnout creeping in with disparaging language, cancelling classes, not enjoying sessions, avoiding photographs, or the opposite – over committing to Pole and knocking the balance off from your regular life.
As well as your aerial wellbeing courses, what other projects does Kalm Farm have in the pipeline for 2023?
I am in the process of applying for funding for an event which I hope to run in winter 2023. I’m not in a rush though. As with everything, I want it done properly as opposed to quickly.
Are there any other therapies, such as CBT or mindfulness for example, that affect the brain in a similar way to practicing pole and aerial? I find pole dance very similar to mindfulness, as when I am upside down trying to get a move, you can guarantee I’m very much in the present moment!
I have hypothesised some similarities between mindfulness and Pole. Mindfulness as a therapy stems from yoga and meditation. It’s basically a manualised version of meditation which can be prescribed and reviewed using clinical measures to ensure its effectiveness. Mindfulness encourages people to increase their mind-body-breath connection and to remain “present” in the moment as opposed to the past or the future, where anxious minds can so often wander. Pole is similar as you mention, in that if you start wondering about who’s leaving Love Island in the middle of an Ayesha, you have but one option – hitting the crash mat. The key to pole being fully mindful is the conscious awareness of the mind-body-breath connection. For some people this is not at all suitable and can be quite dangerous. Complex trauma is one example where mindfulness can be quite dangerous and would require close clinical supervision, as there is potential for retraumatising the individual. So again, I’m not advocating Pole as a one size fits all here, it’s worth having a think about where you are at personally before embarking on a therapeutic pole journey.
CBT is an entirely different treatment requiring us to connect our behaviours to core beliefs that we hold. The principles behind CBT are readily applied to many sports coaching scenarios, and with the correct training and supervision would be a welcome addition to the Pole world.
Have you noticed any similarities in the personality types of pole dancers and aerialists?
Personality correlates are always interesting to me as a Psychologist. But it’s not a clear cut science. From the studies I have read, anxious perfectionism is up there as a strong correlate with aerialists. But it’s a chicken and egg situation. How much of a person’s personality is a product of their genes and how much is a product of their childhood experiences? In other words, are aerialists anxious perfectionists because that’s how they were born or because they have experienced adversity that has led them to being this way inclined?
There are hundreds of personality traits so it would be hard to pin down what the personality of a pole dancer is. We are a fabulously diverse bunch that’s for sure!
If you could give any pole dancer or aerialist any piece of advice on looking after their mental health and wellbeing, what would it be and why?
If you are not a shift worker – wake up at the same time every day and have a set routine in the morning. This sets the circadian rhythm which is the foundation for our brains functioning. Even if you have insomnia and struggle getting off to sleep, by setting the alarm and getting up at the same time every day, you train your brain to know when to fall asleep. When I worked in inpatient psychiatry, one of the smallest changes made to care plans for some of the most severely unwell people was to get up and out of bed. It’s basic behavioural activation. And it works.
If you are a shift worker – sleep hygiene. Bedrooms are for sleeping. Get rid of the electronics, the distractions, the clutter. Get yourself some decent sleep. If you are struggling with sleep you may want to check out the sleep council website for some tips on sleep. Sleep is our opportunity to heal, to learn, to remember. It will make you a better pole dancer.