Monkey Girl: me, my ribs, the speaking body and some physiotherapists I have known

Once, in class, I’d reached out to touch a coil of braids on the head of the woman in the seat in front of me. I hadn’t been thinking at all, overwhelmed by the need to feel that intricacy of hair. She’d turned around. ‘My head doesn’t belong to you,’ she’d said icily, leaving me stuttering an apology, horrified at the way my chimp nature still popped out when I wasn’t paying attention.”—Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Rosemary grew up with a chimp. While the chimp, in Karen Joy Fowler’s novel, acquires some human skills and characteristics, Rosemary also learns to emote and socialise a bit like a chimp. ‘There was something off about me,’ Rosemary says, ‘maybe in my gestures, my facial expressions or eye movement, and certainly in the things I said.’ Being autistic in a neurotypical world feels not dissimilar to this.

I’m not horrified by my autistic nature – far from it – but I am very aware of its capacity for toppling things over. There’s a constant negotiation going on between my authentic monkey impulses and the way I know human beings are supposed to behave. The more I like someone, the more I want to bring all of myself to the table, but the bigger the risk of upsetting the teapot. I often feel like an over-large and over-enthusiastic dog who loves you just too much, and is just a bit too excited to see you. I’m scared I’ll knock you off your feet with the full force of myself.

10482574_765329033510297_4537353880031777239_nThere are some autistic people, I’m told, who show very little affect; I am not one of those autistic people. What I feel emits from my body like cartoon shock waves in the air. For many years, I tried to curb myself. This is called passing. It hurts. I walked around in an invisible straitjacket. I fitted right in. Unfortunately, I also had an eating disorder, ongoing low-level PTSD and chronic fatigue. I felt alienated not only from everyone and everything, but also from myself. I remember writing at the time that I felt like half a pound of bacon sealed in a plastic pack.

This is one reason why I live in the intersecting worlds of dance, movement and somatics. They’re speaking-body-positive. If I want to talk to one of my teachers on the Openfloor, I most often take their hand, partly because I can use and understand verbal speech more easily that way – touch closes that heart-stopping gulf that feels insurmountable by only words; partly because I feel plugged in when I’m physically connected. I imagine sonar detection must be a bit like this if you’re a bat. There’s a constant conversation of kinaesthetic chirrupings and whistlings when bodies are in contact, exchanges of information outside the closely defined meanings of verbal language.

Being hypermobile is for me intimately and inextricably connected with being autistic. It’s as if hypermobility were my body speaking autism. Just like autistic mind, crazy wisdom body is a maverick guide who navigates without a map. We find our trajectory by following footprints in the snow and parsing the arrows the birds make when they fly. Together we have ambled through a pleasant series of left fields, wire-walked precipital brinks and nearly drowned in a lot of raging seas. Never a dull moment, and our sense of direction must somehow have been good, because, by wit or wandering, we have finally made footfall on stable ground.

Since July, I’ve been re-aligning my ribcage. This means I’m embodying – slowly – a new and more functional form of internal support. For most of my life, I thought I had a congenital scoliosis. What I actually have turns out to be some kind of lopsided shiftingness which originates, I think, in the physical difficulty of getting upright at eighteen months1 and of staying at least periodically vertical for the following 50 years. As a hypermobile person, I’ve always found standing up a dizzy kind of challenge; with insufficient fascial integrity, the forces of nature tend inexorably towards collapse.2

What I’m doing with my ribs is called the Thoracic Ring Approach. It’s genius. I’m a little bit obsessed with it. If you grew up skew-wiff and ramshackle and sidling like a nervous horse, if you feel that some part of you has always been cowering in a corner, if your ribcage feels like a collapsed accordion and you’d like it to be a chamber that honours the fullness of your heart, if you’ve been leaning on that wall for fifty years and you feel it’s time to stand up and support yourself … Oh, wait, that’s me …

Thoracic Ring Approach emerged from the physiotherapy world, but in some ways it feels to me like a somatic practice that doesn’t know it is one. Like many somatic alignment processes, it presupposes that the body is naturally intelligent – that if you remind it where its ribs are meant to go, it will recognise the original template and recruit for itself the muscles it needs to support the new-old and more functional structure. In other words, it’s different from pulleys and levers and strengthening exercises for muscles which, if you’re proprioceptively challenged, you can’t isolate anyway. Give it a clue and the body will align itself towards optimum kinetic efficiency.

In other ways, Thoracic Ring Approach is definitely physiotherapy. It operates to all intents and purposes as if the physical body were an isolatable entity that could be addressed apart from the emotional body, the body of memories, the cognitive body and all the rest. The neurological body, actually that one’s being allowed in. It’s scientific. To a somaticist (an actual one) like me, this abstraction of physical body is either funny or frustrating or stupid, depending on your orientation to it in the moment. Because, clearly, how I support myself thoracically is not only a series of physical events but speaks to how I stand up in myself in emotional, relational, cognitive and all other ways. Which means that the unacknowledged part of this work – or the part that’s acknowledged only by me – is the call to support myself really. Not the pleasing façade behind whose illusion of substance I’m actually riding roughshod over my needs, isolating myself or playing truant, but the structure in which I’m able to line myself up synergistically and inhabit myself in a steady, congruent, measured way.

How I stack up thoracically is also intricately linked with how I carry my heart. My default position for a lifetime has been rib-crests-first – in which the rib crests stick out in front of the upper thoracic ribs. I’ve always thought of this as ‘false heart’. It means that you don’t meet anything or anybody with your real one. It’s taken me 51 years to be ready to embody the centred heart. It’s a commitment not just to random acts of radical vulnerabilty, but to a permanent and thorough-going physical, neurological and emotional repatterning in favour of heart first: clearly, honestly, unapologetically.

Something else you’re supposed to pretend isn’t happening in physiotherapy is inter-personal relationship. In somatic modalities, we recognise that when two bodies walk into the same room, a third body arises. This body is the thing that’s greater than the sum of the two parts. It’s totally unique, and it holds the creative potential. Somaticists, psychotherapists, experiential dancers and movers, we take it as read that in a therapeutic relationship a large part of the capacity for healing lies in the third body. As much as techniques and technology, people heal people.

I may have had more physiotherapists than lovers. UCH is the home of the hypermobility unit founded by the wonderful Professor Rodney Grahame, hypermobility hero. As a result of – gasp! – listening to his patients, Professor Grahame was instrumental in recognising hypermobility as a thing. I’d had a few not exactly helpful physiotherapeutic interventions, but I reckoned that at UCH the physiotherapists might be a bit more than averagely clued in about working with hypermobile people, so I got myself referred – to the locum in charge of the department. For a few sessions she took a very long time to do not very much, then finally told me I was able to manage my own condition and didn’t need physiotherapy. To be fair, I probably was able to manage it better than she was doing, but I was in chronic pain, I really did need guidance, support and structure, and I felt abandoned. Well, fuck you too, UCH physiotherapy department!

The environment in the physiotherapy clinic at my local NHS hospital felt toxic. It required an enormous investment of energy and expenditure of executive function to make an appointment there and keep it, so god knows what it was like to actually have to work in the place. In a dozen or so visits, I saw three different physiotherapists. The first one was good, but on secondment from another hospital so I only saw him once. The second one kept telling me what hypermobile people like. Hello? Isn’t it my job to tell you that? (Of course, everyone knows that hypermobile people are actually a globule and we all like exactly the same things.) The third one made me cry with frustration, and I discharged myself. If I can’t stabilise my shoulder blade, a good exercise is not: raise your arm keeping your shoulder blade stabilised. (Actually this is essentially what I’m doing now, but by means so crafty that serratus anterior didn’t realise it was being asked to do something until it found out it already had.)

A friend recommended Richard at Harley St Physio. For a couple of years, until he went back to Australia, I had a really good time with Richard. Richard, if you’re reading this, I still have an extensive collection of your Thera-Bands (especially green), and I always channel you when I want to create an original latex-based exercise to address, well, pretty much anything. I resolved a longterm issue with a thickened flexor hallucis longus tendon this way when the NHS specialist foot physio said there was nothing for it but cortisone injections.

I was introduced to the Thoracic Ring Approach by Darren Higgins at Vanbrugh Physio. I love Darren (yay!). Some of what I like about this relationship is that I feel contained without being constrained in it. I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about the problem of containment in a hypermobile body. With intermittent proprioceptive feedback it’s difficult, perhaps impossible, to establish a consistent sense of body boundary. It’s like being a dot-to-dot person, parts of me constantly threatening to trickle away through the in-between spaces. Because I’m also experiencing the autistic 42 per cent extra resting brain activity3 (and the exponential multiplication of 42 per cent when, most of the time, my brain isn’t resting), there’s an awful lot more that needs containing: a babbling stream of images, emotions, thoughts, ideas, interoceptive information. To encompass the range, multiplicity and shiftingness of it all, any kind of external relational holding also has to be elastic. If there isn’t room for expansion, I feel that I’m going to overflow the space – a frightening prospect of disembodiment and dispersal.

My friend Bruce values in a teacher something he calls ‘gravitas’. He’s queer and Scottish, so imagine it with a rolling ‘r’ and a camp sort of lilt. I think what he means by ‘gravitas’, is a kind of robustness that comes from having done what you do for a long time, from knowing the back and the front and the top and the bottom of it. It comes from confidence that this is enough, awareness that there’s always more, and the recognition that whatever you hold to be known, it’s never going to be the truth for everyone. I think he also means you have a sense of humour about yourself, and that you’re grown-up enough to be able mostly to roll with things, even if they’re a bit unusual. And I think he means that on the whole you don’t get toppled by over-enthusiastic dogs.

As a series of procedures that have to be followed the way they have be followed in order for the thing to work, Thoracic Ring Approach is itself a container. I always see it as an off-white shoe box, no writing or logo’s on it, and a lid that lifts completely off. It’s new shoes when I was five. This is a very good sign, because I love shoes. When I was five, I wanted to work in a shoe shop. You know when you go to empty the shredding bin and you take the lid off and all these little curls of paper spring out? That’s what’s in the shoe box. It’s really a bit too much. Once the lid’s off, you can’t keep it all in. That’s me. Bits of me keep escaping the process. So I like the boxiness of the box and the fact that Darren keeps putting errant bits of me back in. And that other bits spring out. And he puts them back in. Though lately, I’m getting quite good at staying there.

Just now, the process is still in process. I can’t quite do this ring thing independently yet, though one day I will be able to, and in the meantime I’m relying on Darren to hold the structure – energetically because he keeps being in the process with me; and practically because every time I get creative and maverick he stuffs me back in the box; and physically because he keeps manually putting my ribs back where they’re meant to be, and telling me when I’m holding them and when I’m letting them go, so we’re – slowly – creating proprioceptive intelligence over more sustained periods of time and across different activities. And in the meantime, new and more functional emotional, relational and professional structures are aligning themselves around me. But it isn’t really linear, more like butter forming in a churn.

1. Many hypermobile children start walking late. This is a great link: http://www.skillsforaction.com/infant-joint-hypermobility

2. Hypermobile people generally find standing difficult and tiring. Because our fascia lacks the tensility to hold us up effectively, we have to recruit a lot more muscle than a non-hypermobile person does in order to be upright. For many of us, hypermobility is coupled with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), which means we may also feel faint when standing still.

3. I’ve written elsewhere about this too. According to a recent study, the resting brains of autistic children produce 42 per cent more information than those of non-autistic controls.

Posted in (Dis)ability, Autism, Body, Dance, Eating disorders, Hypermobility / Ehlers Danlos, Injury, Movement, Somatic movement practice, Somatics, Thoracic Ring Approach | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

A Cascade of Epiphanies: in which I put my foot behind my head and end up writing about injury again

Recently I’ve been again in the strange and exquisite process of injury. I didn’t volunteer. I don’t always feel grateful. It’s almost a cliche that injury is a gift, but the gift is another of those bad-fairy ones: you-didn’t-want-to-sleep-for-a-hundred-years-but-in-the-end-you-get-the-prince kind of thing.

It feels like about a hundred years ­– easily – but despite a cascade of tender little epiphanies, I haven’t got the prince yet. And since I’m still in process with this one, I’m not going to write about particularities. Seeds need to germinate in the dark.

Practice without epiphany would be an odd kind of practice to me, but injury seems to act as a particular kind of awareness cluster – an escalation, an intensification, also often a redirection, a refocusing and re-envisioning. It’s a call to pay attention, an opportunity for a kind of meta realignment, which contains biomechanics – signposts for practical physical restructuring – but is also much bigger, carrying personal mythopoeic meanings with the potential to unravel, rewind and reorient. It speaks to the occluded histories of my body, to ways of being in the world so familar as to have become transparent to me, and through all of this to the potential for fuller human becoming.

My practice is cyclic. I’ve been fortunate in that hypermobility deprived me early on of any illusion of linearity in these things. There are times of more; there are times of less. Over-arching this one-step, two-step in the realm of performative physical capability, is a boader pattern of integration, enlargement, attunement on an increasingly subtle level. What seems to arise is on the one hand a more precise and intuitive faculty of discrimination ­– viveka – and on the other, the slow inexorable seepage of love.

A long time ago, I put myself in apprenticeship to my body; it’s the teachings that emerge from being a body, and from reflecting on and as that body, that really inform me. I have little interest in abstract yoga philosophy. I’m sceptical about enlightenment and the ‘higher’ states of awareness: samsara as something attainable, something ‘over there’. What’s happened to me is more like a slow settling, a sifting and shifting, like an old house on friable ground. The more it settles, the more the walls crack. The situation is essentially imperfectible. It’s the humanness of this that absorbs me.

After 33 years, I feel that my practice is really just beginning to get interesting. Maybe I”m a slow starter. Matthew Remski’s WAWADIA project has produced quite a bit of discussion of a kind of asana plateau, which happens, apparently, somewhere around three to five years into practice – like the yoga version of the seven-year itch. Maybe this has to do with the limited attention span of neurotypical people (a source of ongoing amazement to those of us on the spectrum). Autistic people are orientated to detail and pattern. We will happily do the same thing every day for years and years, because it never is the same thing. Repetition is revelation: my practice is always full of surprises.

I think it also has to do with an essential human resistance to change. Few of us embark on a yoga practice with a knowledge of how deep and thorough-going will be the transformation it requires of us. We expect yoga to be contained in the magic one hour or ninety minutes. We expect it to be pleasant and enlivening. We don’t expect it to crack out of stasis our old habituated patterns, or to surface deeply embodied historical trauma. The most commonly given reasons for coming to a yoga class by my beginning students are: to get fit, to increase flexibility, to lose weight and to relax. When practice starts to require of them much, much, very much more, they frequently slide silently out.

I know that many schools consider two years’ practice to be sufficient to embark on yoga teacher training, but to me, two, three or five years is scarcely a beginning. To me, a practice becomes a practice when it’s seen you through at least a couple of generations – through births, deaths and marriages, love and loss. It seems to be symptomatic of the Tesco superstore mentality afflicting our culture that we jump ship so readily. If there’s always another product on the shelf with another promise of youth, fitness and vitality, why bother to negotiate inconvenient and difficult obstacles? Why bother to learn anything at all?

Matthew reckons that most people enter yoga in search of some kind of therapeutic outcome. I’m not most people, so I don’t know whether this is true or not. I started practising yoga when I was eighteen, I didn’t have any physical parts in obvious need of fixing, and I couldn’t have told you why I was doing it. In retrospect, it’s clear to me that I was hungry for embodiment. I was autistic, anorexic and out of my depth, and everything was a last-ditch stand. No habitat I could locate felt vast or wild enough to reflect my internal experience. I was desperate for a sense of containment, of physical integration, of the parts adhering to the whole. I urgently needed to discover some kind of coherent centre. I suppose that, in a very broad sense, this could be seen as a therapeutic motivation, but really I viewed it more as an artistic mandate, in which I was both the art and the artist. I still do see it that way.

Most of my life I’ve lived to move, not moved to live. I tumbled head first into astanga vinyasa because I was enthralled by the movement and captivated by the preoccupation with edge. I wasn’t all that interested in what it could do for my health and wellbeing. It turned out that many of the arrows pointed in both directions, but I can’t in honesty say that all of them do. The ongoing challenge is to nudge the situation into some form of do-ability. As I’ve tipped over onto the descending flank of the hill, my orientation has shifted – a little bit. The materials are in slow metamorphosis. They are gradually producing a different kind of art and a different kind of artist. At 51, I know that each day of astanga vinyasa is a day of grace. I know that one day the practice will spit me out – not, I hope, before I’ve been thoroughly chewed up by it. I’m going for complete mastication. I’m giving it my all.

Foot behind head


It takes a village to keep a hypermobile body in something like working order. I would like to thank Darren Higgins at Vanbrugh Physio. I can’t tell you how long I’ve been looking for a physio I can actually work with – found one! I would also like to thank 
my wonderful osteopaths and much – very much – loved companions on the path of the dance Indi Ajimal and Cyprian Londt. And where would I be without Scott Johnson and Andy Gill at Stillpoint Yoga London? Lots of love, guys.

 

 

Posted in Aging with astanga, Astanga vinyasa, Autism, Beginners, Body, Edge, Hypermobility / Ehlers Danlos, Injury, Movement, Yoga | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Hacking off the Plaster

I’m told that my grandfather had a reputation for being the best plasterer in Portsmouth. I’ve inherited his talent for making smooth surfaces. Unfortunately, while it’s a gift, it’s also a curse. I’ve several times smoothed myself out so thoroughly I’ve almost obliterated myself.

Recently, my friend and sister in autism the poet Joanne Limburg brought to my attention the work of Ralph Savarese, writer, academic, (dis)ability activist and adoptive father of an autistic son. In his essay ‘The Lobes of Autobiography: Poetry and Autism’, Ralph Savarese discusses ‘Autie-type’, which he describes as ‘a highly poetic language that many non-verbal Auties produce spontaneously on their computers, whether in conversation or in actual poems’. I would suggest that it is not only nonverbal autistics for whom Autie-type is a first language, but all of us who are hyperlexic: i.e. for whom writing is easier and more natural than speaking; who have a better than average ability with the read and written word, but who struggle with processing and producing the spoken word, and sometimes experience mutism; and who express ourselves more effectively in writing than in speaking.

Some examples of Autie-type:

‘When I was little everyone thought I was retarded. The very hurtful easy lessons I attended were time spent away from the real world. Addition, subtraction, multiplication and division were subarctic activities. Treated as autistic, retarded, and sedated, I saw myself suspended. Ashamed, I seasoned this mind of mine. Wasting time beasts inhabited my very much lost, very sad boy’s head. Attempts to freshly respond to humans were terrifying quests through killer trees. Where I sent my real self, reasonable, easy breathing, satisfying humans never could find me.’

‘It’s practically getting possible to create satisfying life, interesting and meaningful nowadays because really institutions’ popularity slides towards storage underground at a pace faster than police chasing stepping for escaped prisoners … Nothing apartheids you like the insensitive world of institutional existence. Tapping well of silence with painting permitted songs of hurt to be meted with creativity … Without art, wafting smells of earth’s pleasures would kite away to land of inanimate objects, so it’s past point of personal hobby.’

‘The wave breaks, the bone splinters, and I roll like a planet, like a perfect pearl from the conduit into the shiny vista of my life. I am afraid of the sea. At night in the one-tooth domino house she breathes my susurrating dream. I am the spray on her curling tongue, the loose knot her fingers untie. Help! I have no edges. My atoms scatter on the wave; my cells disperse like seeds. And yet I also yearn for this dissemination, the webbing of the flesh unwrapped, the rags unpinned from the bones. Torn between desire and fear, I think I will forget I am the waves, and the incoming tide is the advent of my soul. I think I will exclude this difficult sea.’

‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –

And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

The first passage is by Ralph Savarese’s son DJ, who I think was about thirteen when he wrote it (US ninth grade – Americans, let me know) and is quoted in ‘The Lobes of Autobiography’. The second, also quoted in ‘Lobes’, is by an autistic artist who had been institutionalised for many years. The third is by me, and comes from a longer prose poetry piece called ‘The Rib Cage’, about my experience of anorexia. I wrote it in my early thirties. The fourth is a poem by Emily Dickinson, whom many people consider to have been autistic.

I could say that reading ‘Lobes’ has been epiphanic for me, but that sounds too cool and white. When I first read DJ’s words, I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry or jump up and down. I was drowning in recognition. I couldn’t breathe. It exploded and landed on my chest. I walked around and around my house and banged the walls to let off some of the froth. The first coherent thought to bubble to the surface was, this is just how my first drafts read. And the second one was, no-o-o-o! When did I ever allow native speech like that to materialise on paper? It would be suicide. It would be inviting the sharks right in and saying, ‘Eat me now!’ No, this is the secret misty way words rise off images in the early morning of my mind. No one, but no one, sees my autistic speaking. I make too-damn sure it’s all joined up and in good neurotypical syntax before it gets anywhere near a page. Even a private one.

Ralph Savarese notes that autists are highly metaphorical – you don’t say! I know that in my case this is because I think in images. When I verbalise, I’m not creating metaphors; I’m doing my best to language as fully and accurately as possible (not very possible) the visual thoughts arising in my head. The doing is not in the metaphor but in the translation of the imagery into acceptable neurotypical-speak.

As Savarese explains, broadly speaking, metaphor arises from the right brain; broadly speaking, grammar and syntax arise from the left. (And it is broad, because there is enormous variation among individual brains, with some people having functions on the ‘wrong’ side.) In those online right brain / left brain tests, it’s no suprise to me that I always score as very predominantly right-brained. This is a fit with the hypothesis of the 1977 study cited in ‘Lobes’ which suggests that ‘autistic children process information predominantly by strategies of the right hemisphere from birth and, unless unusual events occur, continue to be right hemisphere processors throughout their life.’ Unlike DJ, though, I am definitely not also good at left-brain activities. Maths? Forget it. I float in a mythopoeic world, tethered by a fine thread to consensus reality. I pretend to go along with it a lot more than I really do. The sharks again.

Interestingly, word production is also lateralised to the left brain, which would explain why (although superficially I appear highly articulate) vocabulary retrieval is so difficult for me. It’s like one of those palm-sized perspex puzzles we had in the seventies, in which you have to shuttle the little silver ball through a series of shelves and ledges and out the other end. It’s fiddly and frustrating and it takes a lot of time.

I used to mask this difficulty – the way a stutterer covers for themselves by finding alternative words for those with their stutter trigger. I did it very skilfully. I don’t do it any more. I hate those cover-words with their lack of specificity and circumlocutions. I prefer to allow the little gaps and hiatuses; I prefer to let the wrong word come: a pet is a parrot; a parrot is a carrot; agriculture is agrimony (have to google that one – it may be a fully accredited word) … is acrimony, is crimson … Colours tend to leave me speechless – they’re so intense. In truth this is the stuff of poetry, of associative and out-of-the box thinking. And this is the way I don’t erase myself, the way I don’t deface the native beauty of my own arising but simply let myself be. Because actually, I’m no better than I ought to be, but I’m as good as you.

It’s easy to deface and erase yourself if you’re autistic, and hard to stand up and be who and what you actually are – all one hundred and extra 42 per cent of it (1). It takes a lot of courage and a lot of practice. Autism is a gift, but it’s the kind of gift bestowed by a bad fairy (always the best kind in the end). It’s like being given a dozen wild and furious horses to hitch to your carriage. You can break them if you like – if you want them to end up mean and bridled and dispirited. It’s taken me half a lifetime to whisper my horses, and it requires a huge amount of skill, experience and mindful attention to keep the carriage moving forward without rattling, jostling, spooked and hell-for-leather horses, and generally pitching everyone into a rut.

I’m really committed these days to disrupting surfaces. I want to know what we’re all made of. I want the materiality of lumps and bumps, coarseness and sticking out bits. I want the old bones, coins and broken tea-cups. I want what presses up out of the pores of the earth. I’m no longer willing to small myself down and fold it up in a box because I think it might offend you. I want to be full of myself. And there’s a place in being in which it’s all possible. A place of fluidity, in which we flow into and through and among one another without snagging and hitching, in which we roll off one another’s idiosyncracies, and it’s delightful. I know this because I learnt it on the dancefloor (another story), it flooded out into my life, and mostly I live in it now. It feels limitless and full of potential. It feels like the essence of love. It feels like the place where we can all truly meet. It feels like a dreamed of sea.

(1) According to a recent study, the resting brains of autistic children produce 42 per cent more information than those of non-autistic controls.

 

Posted in (Dis)ability, 5Rhythms, Autism, Dance, Writing | 9 Comments

Threads of Yoga: a response to Matthew Remski’s book

Threads of Yoga is definitely the most erotic book of yoga philosophy I’ve ever read. And that’s sort of the point. One of its foremost intentions is to reinsert the body as a felt organism with interoception and messy biological needs into the clean white envelope of the Yoga Sutras. In this sense, it groove-joins the old text to contemporary asana practice, in which a dominant paradigm is somatic connection:

While multiple streams of inquiry are now breathlessly searching for the ‘mindbody connection’, many yoga practitioners carry the feeling that this ‘connection’ does not need to be found or forged – it was simply never missing.

Threads of Yoga also sutures the dissevered limb of the solitary meditative seeker back onto the body of the environment. In scenes of graphic intersubjectivity, it peoples the lonely cathedral spaces of the Yoga Sutras with grass, sex, children, flowers, birds; its hard edges are replaced by a kind of porosity that soaks us all into each other. What was high, holy, vaulted and up there becomes immediate, tactile, equally holy and down here. For we are not lonely monks wandering in the forest, desert fathers, saints clinging to a windy skellig (1), but we are inter-related subjects living in a sensory world of mingled flesh and tangled relationship. We are all in it together, and we need soft-bodied texts that breathe us into our togetherness.

Threads of Yoga also punctures the Emperor’s new clothes conceit / deceit of omniscient authorship. The constructed Patanjali identity, presumed to have reached full awakening, to have surpassed the ordinary things of ordinary human beings, and to be here to tell us how we can do it too, is nudged off the shelf and replaced by someone who hasn’t. If, like me, you’re not wholly convinced by enlightenment, the horizontality of Threads of Yoga is a lot more relateable. It speaks to my personal experience of practice and integration, which is real and immediate, not particularly pristine, and tends to bed me more into the everyday here-and-now compost of dirty human being.

Some of what I love about Matthew is that he’s a radical deconstructor. This appeals to my autistic soul. Because, to an autistic person, the cultural constructions ‘we’ invest with a socially agreed thing-ness, actually appear pretty arbitrary, so it’s a relief when someone knocks them down and there’s just a great big pile of lego pieces lying on the floor. Now we have creative potential. Not that I necessarily go along with everything Matthew makes with the lego. Some of it seems to me fairly off-the-wall. I’m not very keen on psychoanalytic theories. I find many of them over-determined and hetero-normalising. And I’m fairly sure I don’t feel traumatised by axial and pre-axial age practices of infanticide. Or even that convinced that they were widely prevalent. But, anyway, I’m glad we have reappropriated the lego and we can build strange stuff.

Another thing I love about Matthew is that his vocabulary so choice. Y’all know me as a mover and a shaker, but my background is also in poetry and the written word. One of the reasons I got into Buddhism ten or so years ago was actually that the writing was so much better than anything the contemporary yoga world had to offer. So much yoga writing was drab, pedestrian and totally lacking in the capacity for original thought. Hallellujah, this is finally changing, and Matthew is part of that. Threads of Yoga is touched by poetry. It has that necessary quality of scintillation and surprise, and sentences with musical phrasing. Gosh, a yoga book written by a writer! But if it was about fishing or gardening, I’d probably still read it, because the prose delights me.

Those who have taken exception to Threads of Yoga seem largely not to have read the subtitle. You can’t really object to a book for being an inaccurate translation when it describes itself as ‘remix’ and ‘reverie’. Really, it does exactly what it says on the tin. It samples Patanjali, drops some unexpected and eclectic beats, and give us all the chance to dance like lunatics. You can’t say fairer than that.

Threads of Yoga: A remix of Patanjali’s sutras with commentary and reverieMatthew Remski, 2012.

(1) Even if that’s a favourite landscape of mine: http://movingprayer.wordpress.com/2013/07/21/whose-practice-is-it-anyway/.

Posted in Body, Teachers, Threads of Yoga, Yoga, Yoga Sutras | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Bleeding words: I write about why it’s hard to write

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”―Ernest Hemingway

I may possibly not have the same relationship with bleeding as Ernest Hemingway. While I think he’s probably intending razor blades or knives, I’m getting tides, the moon and the leg-collapsing sensation of drawing down, an organic cycle that transcends choice, desire or need and isn’t very dramatic. But it’s true there’s nothing to this kind of bleeding.

And I really wish I could write that way. I really wish there were a running tap or a tide, because nothing to me is more perplexed, trammelled, stilted and stuttering than making the little ants march across the big white spaces. For me, writing is more like wading through waist-high sludge than opening a vein.

In that case, you might reasonably be wondering why I keep on trying. Byron (I love Byron – I don’t really like Hemingway) explained, ‘If I don’t write to empty my mind, I go mad.’ I feel that. I often empty my mind by moving these days, but it’s a different kind of emptying. Byron is right: there’s something cathartic in tipping out the trash can. At least then you can see what’s mouldering and mulching; it’s no longer silently doing its inexorable organic thing inside your head. There’s a satisfying sense of compensatory aesthetic control when the inchoate is mustered and corralled, penned into neat black lines and grammatical structures – even if all they really do is frame its essential wildness.

But for me it’s not enough just to quietly lasso a few horses. I have this desperate need to be heard, seen and truly apprehended, to know that I am not sifting away like sand through an egg-timer. It’s as if some maniacal little Führer in my head is constantly yelling, ‘Listen, all of you! Listen! Just listen! LISTEN!’ Because otherwise I don’t exist. I’m whirling and whirling away, down the plughole, over the event horizon.

So, start where you are and all that, I thought I’d excavate it a bit, this feeling: the wool in my mouth, the thick tongue, gagging, choking. Just why is it so fucking difficult? Just why?

The thing is, when I write, I do feel as if my life depends upon it, and it depends upon it being good – so I have very high standards. It has to sing for me; it can’t clunk or collapse with an exhausted sigh. Writing is something I do well or I don’t do at all – which you can see is a crippling position to begin from. Who the hell can write like that? Like it has to be perfectly finished before it’s even started?

In some ways, this urgency, this sense of life-depends-upon, begins in a response to my neurology. I think in images. I see my thoughts, all of them, and then translate them into words. A writer friend – neurotypical – once told me she was envious of what she saw as my ability to generate images in poetry. I wanted to explain to her that I don’t have to generate anything. The inside of my head is an overwhelming prolixity of multi-layered and inter-penetrating images. Images are for me the ground of consciousness. The difficulty is in sifting and sorting. It requires a huge amount of executive function, and if you’re autistic, you don’t have a lot of executive function.

The first time I heard an autistic person describe the way they think as a movie, I was puzzled. Why was this something that needed explaining? How else was there to think? I still find it difficult to imagine what it’s like to think in words or how it’s even possible. Words seem such a sophisticated product of consciousness, like an aeroplane or the iPhone, so removed from the primal mud of the source. How can they arise pristine and fully formed?

I love films (actual ones), especially when they create their own landscape and communicate mostly through it. They are for me a form of direct apprehension: visual to visual. It’s a jaw-unhingeing relaxation to inhabit this kind of instantaneous world in which meaning presses through the surface like colours in a dirty sponge and soaks unmediated into my consciousness. Sponge to sponge.

When I write, there has to be the interpolation of another surface, one that must be negotiated and surmounted, and with it comes a sense of impotence. The thing is, when you think in images, so much of everything that matters – detail, colouration, mood, tone, and a kind of slidingness between one thing and another that allows for multiplicity, for more than one thing to be true at the same time and for everything to be connected to everything else – so much of this slips though the spaces between the words, leaving you with something at best diminished, at worst tangential to its actual meaning or signifying absolutely bloody nothing.

I also feel in images. My emotional experience happens in intense, rich, brightly coloured moving pictures, saturated with metaphorical meaning. I am one of those autistic people who experiences an overwhelming amount of emotion (whereas others report feeling almost no emotion at all). There’s so much going on in here that I often feel in danger of drowning in myself, and I struggle to experience a sense of containment. Like many autistic people, I find it difficult to name and categorise emotion. Partly, this seems to be due to the sheer volume of it happening all the time. Partly, it seems to devolve from the fact that no words have been coined for many of the emotions I see-feel. They exist like outlaws beyond what is languaged, defined and accepted as a known emotional experience. I need fifty words for snow. These days, given time (I’ve practised a lot), I can usually match what I see roughly to a fully accredited word for a feeling, but it’s a very broad category that loses much of the particularity, aesthetic wonder and intensity of the actual emotion. It communicates a lot less than it leaves out, and this is mightily frustrating.

There’s something else too. It’s biographical. I came to dance, but in my family dancing was considered a bit like masturbating – embarrassing and better done behind closed doors. So while I was always a secret dancer, writing became my first public practice and discipline, the first expressive form where I was witnessed. It also became the dungeon where my dancer was tied up and hidden. While I have set her fully at liberty in the world (another story), writing continues to be freighted for me with the frustration, limitation, dislocation / relocation of something that is not my first means but which had to be reached for, manipulated into. Maybe that’s why dancing is indeed for me like Hemingway bleeding: an open vein, a running tap.

Just lately I allowed myself to notice something else: writing and reading are erotic experiences. It’s the name I didn’t name of that intensity of being intimately read – by school English teachers and onwards to mentors and lovers I’ve written to. While I was fiddling around, turning the compost for this article ­– writer’s fore-play, essential to the writing act – I typed some words I like by Matthew Remski:

Language is continually overflowing its consensus meanings … When we use it playfully, it co-creates with us. But when we domesticate it to a conceptual purpose, our most serious grammar and richest vocabularies become very fragile nets through which most of the world escapes.

And as I typed, I was overtaken by this swoony, vertiginous feeling, of one thing collapsing into another – time, space and personhood. And for a moment I could not quite recollect … Who do these words belong to? To me? To you? Where did they come from? And I wondered, do you press through into another person’s consciousness when you re-write their words? Do you? Is it like lying naked, mind to mind, but still essentially unknowable? Are words really sex? Did my family get it all wrong?

And somehow I waded through the mud to the end – and the bit of writing I really love: polishing, refining. I’m autistic; I’m a details person. I have no eye for the big picture, and the process of emerging a structure is laden with anxiety for me. I can’t always bear to stay present for it. It’s got better since I embraced the associative nature of my thinking. I no longer look for lines, but drop in a pebble and follow the rippling out. And the rippling out and the rippling out … until the ripples dissolve into a sort of stillness.

threads of yoga, Matthew Remski, 2012.

 

Posted in (Dis)ability, Autism, Body, Dance, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

On the edge: wire-walking for beginners

If we were to reduce yoga down to the bones, it’s breath, movement and attention that would be left at the bottom of my saucepan. When I say ‘yoga’, these three in union are what I mean. And whenever we breathe, move and attend to experience, we generate an encounter with a fourth thing, usually called in yoga ‘the edge’. In a beginning practice (especially a dynamic one), it’s not uncommon to equate ‘being on the edge’ with ‘going to the limit’. They are not the same. The edge is how I want to place myself in relation to a particular sensation, emotion or memory arising from embodied experience. It requires sensitive cultivation and implies what feels like an infinite number of possible responses – there are certainly a lot. I think we all know what ‘going to the limit’ means.

My practice, astanga vinyasa, is a gymnastic form, and is often considered to be the most physically challenging style of postural yoga. It consists of four (or six, depending on how you divide them) progressive series, demanding escalating degrees of strength, stamina and flexibility. It’s in the nature of this kind of practice to attract people, like me, who love to dance on the brink of the precipice. It may be only when injury or exhaustion forces us to re-evaluate how we are engaging with our practice that we begin to question the wisdom of habitually hanging on by our finger-nails. As we start to explore our physical, psychological and emotional experience more subtly, we may discover that the brink is not the only edge.

When we speak of edge, we are talking actually not of a singular position but of something more like a spectrum. Eric Schiffmann describes it like this:

Each pose has a ‘minimum edge’ and a ‘maximum edge’, as well as a series of intermediary edges between these … [The maximum edge] is the point where the stretch begins to hurt. It is the furthest point of tightness beyond which you should not go. If you were to force yourself beyond this point, you would definitely be in pain and might hurt yourself or pull a muscle. The minimum edge is where you sense the very first sensation of stretch, the very first hint of resistance coming from your muscles. (The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness, Pocket Books, 1996).

Eric’s words imply that the edge is actually the middle: the centre point – or multiplicity of centre points – between too little and too much. What constitutes too little and what constitutes too much will vary from person to person, posture to posture, day to day, moment to moment. There will be times in your practice when you feel the need to press into your edge, and times when you feel the need to draw back. In other words, edge is not one location or a final arrival; it’s never discovered, mapped, done and dusted. Edge is an ongoing process, an endless dance of shifting experience. Nor is the edge really separate from us. There’s no thin black line out there against which we in here pit ourselves. Edge is intrinsic, a unique product of the interplay between our individual body and psyche with a particular posture in a particular moment in time.

Eric’s explanation might seem to imply that edge is all about extension – how much we stretch. Of course, it isn’t only. While, in the popular mind, yoga may be a form of esoteric contortionism, those of us who have practised it know that yoga postures engage us in contraction as much as extension – we breathe in and expand; we breathe out and find the tensility that enables us to maintain and stabilise. So edge arises also in our relationship with holding and contracting, as well as in the balance between holding / contracting and expanding. Since yoga is fundamentally about gradually enlarging our capacity to stay present to any and all of our experience, then feeling into how much of my own anger / frustration / grief / joy / excitement / inertia I can tolerate without dissociating – that’s also edge.

If the edge is the new middle, perhaps we can lift it out of its geometry altogether. When I’m teaching about edge, I often reframe it as ‘the expansion zone’. This feels to me richer, more plastic and more pregnant with potential. The expansion zone connotes that state of receptive witnessing where unanticipated changes can self-arise, organically, without me forcing the agenda. If I fall just short of the expansion zone, I’m too slack, too comfortable; if I push past it, I’m too strong, too urgent. What we’re aiming for here is that just-right feeling – not too sweet, not too sour; not too hot, not too cold; not too hard, not too soft. The one that when it emerges seems quite naturally to meet the moment.

When I offer mindful attention to my edge, I’m less likely to injure myself as I practise, and that’s important. Beyond that, though, my relationship with edge on my mat has everything to tell me about how I meet with edge in the rest of my life. If I practise yoga constantly at the outer limit of my endurance and on the verge of pain, this is a reflection of how I pitch myself in life. If I reflexively back away from challenges on my mat, choosing postures I find easy and non-threatening, the odds are that I am remaining in the shallows, emotionally and physically, in the rest of my life. Many of us go on habitually redrawing the same patterns in the sand and wondering why they never look any different. As we familiarise ourselves with these patterns in the laboratory of our practice, we become gradually more able to recognise them in life and can slowly begin to choose new trajectories.

Astanga vinyasa involves a process of dynamic surrender. ‘Dynamic’ means going for it, offering the best of our energy and our sense of direction, hanging on in there and staying wide awake. ‘Surrender’ means letting go into what’s really happening in the present moment – which may be that we don’t have much energy, we’ve lost our way and we’re falling asleep. Learning to walk this edge skillfully requires a lot of practice – which is why astangi’s practise every day. The more we practise, the more we find there’s space around the edge to play. We develop finesse and audacity. We may choose to lean back and take it easy; we may choose to take a risk – not out of habit or compulsion but because we’re feeling into what the moment uniquely requires.

ImagePhilippe Petit wire-walks between the Twin Towers

Posted in Astanga vinyasa, Beginners, Body, Edge, Yoga | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Crazy wisdom body: pain, injury and practising with what is

“There is nothing that does not grow light through habit and familiarity. Putting up with little cares, I’ll train myself to bear with great adversity.”—Shantideva

For a period of my astanga life, I referred to my practice as ‘the path of pain’. I was joking, but only a bit. The path of pain was nothing to do with masochism. I tried very hard not to hurt myself and I got intensely frustrated when I hurt myself anyway. The more I endeavoured to move ‘forwards’, the more I seemed to be pushed ‘backwards’ into a situation increasingly ‘imited’ by injury.

I was told that astanga injuries are the result of aggressive practice – an observation in some instances with sound foundation. I believed that in some subtle way, beneath my conscious awareness, I must be forcing my body. But this was puzzling because I would watch more robust types pushing themselves obviously much harder than I ever did and with no apparent deleterious effects. I now also felt guilty and wrong, but I didn’t know how to be right.

I don’t remember exactly when it began to dawn on me that I was hypermobile. I was formally diagnosed with Hypermobility Syndrome: Ehlers Danlos Type by Professor Rodney Grahame in 2007. By then, it was confirmation of what I already knew. When Rodney Grahame asked me what I wanted to get out of diagnosis, I explained that I would like to be able to set better boundaries for myself. What I meant was that I wanted to believe myself; I wanted to give weight to my own experience; I wanted to move into my own internal authority and be able to proceed consistently from it.

I have chronic tendonitis, triggered trigger points, over-stretched ligaments, frequent minor subluxations, and a hole in my right medial meniscus. In the medical model, these would be termed ‘symptoms’ of hypermobility. I prefer to relate to them as phenomena. This way, I’m less likely to problematise them and more likely to get interested in them in an open way. It’s my tendency for anxiety, dissatisfaction and a kind of improving antsiness that turns ‘little cares’ like this into a thing. But after several years of familiarisation, pain no longer feels like pain in the troublesome sense. I can only hope I’m a bit more prepared for great adversity.

Buddhist mythology tells us that throughout his life the Buddha received regular visits from the demon-god Mara, bearing doubt, discouragement and temptation of every kind. Each time Mara arrived, the Buddha’s servant, Ananda, wanted to bar him entry. He was, in Ananda’s eyes, the daddy of all bad influences. But every time, the Buddha welcomed Mara in, greeting him with the words, ‘I see you, Mara’ and inviting him to sit down for tea. Pain became a path for me when I started inviting my body for tea – not the fictional body, but the one that actually exists, with its tender joints, strung-out hamstrings, travelling carpals and all the rest. Because the reality is that none of these things is a distraction from my practice or an obstacle to it; they are themselves the ground of my practice, the royal road to enduring presence (‘enduring’ meaning ‘hard’ – a presence that remains solid and reliable), out of which flowers a particular kind of resilient joy.

In our culture, the sublimely perfected ‘yoga body’ is much desired. That it is also imaginary and therefore ultimately never attainable makes it the ideal commercial product, ripe for the commodification that it has richly received. The sexed-up, fantasy photoshops of adverti-media are in our faces all the time, while we rarely encounter images of actual bodies doing actual yoga or text describing the process of yoga as a real experience. Those of us who teach yoga are both products and promulgators of the industrial yoga machine. We, too, in our publicity most often depict the practice of yoga as blissful, love-evoking, leading smoothly to radiant health and a younger-looking body. We seldom offer an honest perspective on the actual complexities involved in the relationship between practice and product (pun intended – think about it, people), or of the intersections of yoga practice with our habitual human patterns of addiction, overwhelm, neurosis, anger and pain. No wonder. Such views feel tantamount to taboo.

It’s a radical act to acknowledge what we’re really experiencing in our bodies, on our mats, here and now. It’s revolutionary and it’s evolutionary. Hell, yeah! Let’s do it, people! Let’s put the kettle on, crack open the chocolate digestives and drink tea with the bodies we actually have. Because in the words of that great teacher Dr Doolittle, ‘It’s the truth, it’s actual, everything is satisfactual’. It seems that we are habituated consistently to prefer the fugitive promise of the dreamed-for body to the always-ready-and-waiting satisfactuality of the real one. But it doesn’t have to be like this.

That injury is a teacher is almost a truism, but it took me a while to understand how profound these teachings can be. They are not simply biomechanical in nature but have also to do with how we are in our whole life, as it manifests in our body. From where I’m standing, my body often appears unpredictable, illogical and capricious. Just when I think maybe I understand what’s going on, it throws in something that knocks me completely sideways. When the only possible response is to burst out laughing, you know you’re in the presence of a bona fide crazy wisdom teacher.

My physical technique background is in ballet, so I’m well schooled in the heroic capacity for carrying on regardless. And in a way, I’m very grateful for that training. It has been a valuable precursor to its meta-quality, which contains commitment and consistency, through rough-going as well as smooth; it’s a kind of indestructible self-discipline that keeps on keeping on, even when there is no apparent way through. It’s the habit and commitment that the bodhisattva Shantideva refers to in the quotation. Rather than forcing my body, denying the pain or trying to breathe through it (which to me would be anti-practice), this meta-quality entails getting on my mat anyway and doing what is do-able today. It invites mindful exploration of sensations and the emotional responses they evoke (or vice versa) without seeking to fix or change anything, but simply allowing any resolution to emerge, or not. It includes what’s happening on all levels, so that as little as possible gets swept under the yoga mat. Anger, resentment, envy, fear, grief – these too: chocolate digestives.

Being fully in our real, actual body, whether it’s obviously injured and in pain or not, requires of us sensitivity, honesty and patience. It invites an awake, listening receptivity to what is – whatever is. Because this is what’s happening now, and this, and only this, is the teaching. If I frame my reality so that it’s only ‘good’ yoga if nothing in my body hurts, I’m always going to be in the wrong, partly because I’m genetically hypermobile so some degree of pain and injury is tantamount to a given, no matter how or what I practise; partly because as a human being it’s a dead cert I’m going to encounter the full range of human experience. We breathe in, we expand, we integrate, we grow; we breathe out, we contract, we dissolve and die. A holistic yoga practice is a process of creating a container big enough and elastic enough to include all of this – all of this.

Namaste, amigos!

Posted in (Dis)ability, Aging with astanga, Astanga vinyasa, Body, Hypermobility / Ehlers Danlos, Teachers, Yoga | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments