Containers not contents: reflections from the Open Floor

For me, dance movement practice is essentially a surrender to emergence. It’s what happens when I slide away some door-like part of consciousness and allow movement to unspool through me. This arising-into-form is both essentially of me – so very personal – and at the same time much bigger and beyond.1 Facilitating dance movement is the work of holding a strong but elastic container in which this unforeseeable choreography can materialise. The purity of the vessel is important. The work isn’t about imposing content, directing attention or in some way imposing something on the spontaneous pressing-through of impulse into movement. Even intention feels suspect.

An autistic person is a goat, not a sheep, and I have always needed to follow my own trajectory, to cut loose from the prescribed curriculum, the required texts. I remember the immense sense of relief when I started my PhD. Finally, there was only me following only my own string into the centre of the labyrinth.

I seem to be – am – doing something with the Open Floor that is different from the thing everyone else is doing, and although it feels obvious to me, it appears to be difficult for other people (except the people I’m actually doing it with) to grasp. It’s a lovely, lonely situation. During the mentor group meeting on Friday, I wrote down:

I’m not trying to teach anything, but to create conditions in which the mover can become more regulated, and so their body can become the teacher. This is an organic process. As the nervous system falls into rhythm, the process naturally unfolds.

On reflection, perhaps this is a difference between teaching and therapy. The therapist gives less energy to explanation and more to opening opportunity for becoming and discovering.2

I don’t go into a dance space to teach Core Movement Principles, but they are offering me a language to identify and articulate what I see emerging on the floor. I work a lot with autistic people and with people with developmental trauma (sometimes they’re the same people). In this context, Activate and Settle speaks to me of a re-tuning of the nervous system, which needs to be able to undulate fluidly between parasympathetic and sympathetic in order for there to be well-being in the whole person. Towards and Away suggests a capacity to touch into and out of painful places.3 Ground speaks to how we find ourselves here and now, on this earth, in this body, in this room. We have a relationship to where we are – physically are – now. Looking through the frame of the Four Hungers, I can see that where my Small Group are at present, at the beginning of their journey together, is in the first Hunger – feeling into a sense of safety, finding or re-finding connection with themselves, expanding into their own internal capacity to create and to enjoy – and that we need to open towards the second Hunger (I with another) only very slowly and with attention to experience in tiny increments.

Clarifying what it is that I do, letting go of the imagined, self-imposed and ill-fitting project, and putting my feet back squarely in my own shoes has been an essential recalibration in locating myself in Open Floor work. I’m grateful for the permission, space and encouragement I’ve been offered to find myself and to work from that place. Still, it’s hard to keep standing in otherness. There’s no one to bounce off without odd tangents, and I’m constantly anxious that I’m about to be kicked out or brought to book.

If I have any doubts about the orientation I’m bringing to my work, what lays them to rest is the responses of the people I’m working with. I’ve been deeply touched to witness them in the process of movement and to hear their reflections on how this work is changing things for them. There’s something here for me about the potency of simplicity – of setting it up, trusting that it’s enough and having the faith to step back and allow it all to happen. It does take faith not to intervene, suggest and control but simply to go on holding the structure. Only that.

Being on this training has been for me so far a complex confection of willingness and resistance, belonging and feeling outside, being present and being energetically absent without leave. But it has made me put myself behind my own dance work in a way that up to now I hadn’t. That work has been happening for about six years off and on, but it has never quite had the courage of my convictions. It was a missing piece of me. Now it is taking its place at the table.

More about my dance movement work.

armsjohnand partner

1. Dan Siegel explains the neurological mechanism behind the feeling of being moved in Mindsight. If anyone can find the page reference, please tell me.

2. Because I’m on the teacher track, I’m not able to refer to myself as a therapist, or what I do as therapy, under the Open Floor banner. This is tricky, because I’m a Registered Somatic Movement Therapist and a certified yoga therapist and I’ve been working therapeutically for longer than I’ve been teaching, which is quite a lot of years. I wonder what Open Floor teachers who already work therapeutically with movement are going to do with ourselves. We’re not psychotherapists introducing movement into speech-based work either. We already work therapeutically with the person through the medium of the body.

3. ‘Pendulate’ in Somatic Experiencing language.

 

Tissue paper and glass

I once heard an interview with a hypermobile contortionist whose act involved fitting himself into tiny boxes.1 He explained that he had learnt how to dislocate and relocate his joints at will when he was a child. This seems to me a very clever neurological adaptation, because in my experience dislocating is like touching fire. I’m out of that place much faster than I can think. My body knows where its parts are meant to be, even if it’s sometimes a bit rubbish at keeping them there.

Three days ago, I made an awkward movement while adjusting my left foot in ekapada sirsasana. There was a big clunk on the right side that felt an awful lot like my SI joint subluxing. The immediate feeling was a kind of suspension: a long second or two of grace before sensation surged in, and with sensation testing and assessing, seeing what I could move and working it out. Grace addled with fear really. I know those clunks. I know what they mean. I know that pain and immobility arrive like a caravanserai, slowly, throughout the day, one camel at a time.

Photo on 24-12-2015 at 21.10 10.39.00What’s difficult about writing for a public space – so difficult that I rarely do it – is creating form and structure. Form and structure are really protective distance – between me in the nakedness of the experience and the person reading about it. I’d much rather sketch, in a few scant lines, but going straight in, deep. I’d rather silk spooling out of spinnerets, easy, casual, letting myself down, winding myself up, and down again. But it’s exposing.

For the rest of the day I felt skinless. I could hardly bear the shiver of feeling. Sounds were acute, grazing, shocking. Inside was grey, grainy, gauzy, like the spaces through a very old net curtain … like winter trees scribbling across the sky, cross-hatched and mobile. Still, now, that membraneous feeling comes and goes. It’s a bit like having very bad flu: tiny sensations are enormously expanded, clean sheets like an iceberg; turning over, the revolving of a planet from night into day.

At present I’m somewhat hobbling. My right piriformis is in spasm, and I’m starting to think my right foot problem may be a stress fracture. I often feel as if I’m made out of tissue paper and glass. But when I’m in the thick of practice – at the deep beating heart of it – I feel melted into a fluidity in which all my parts coalesce. There’s a sense of resolving into an entity that isn’t about surfaces but coheres from the centre outwards.

I really believe in moving, no matter what. The more limited I am, the more important it feels to me to get up and move what’s here. As I get older, I see how well this has served me over the years. For one thing, I’ve seen what happens to hypermobile people when we don’t move. It isn’t, for the most, part a pretty picture. More significantly, sites of restriction, injury, places where continuing feels utterly impossible … these have been the loci of the most fundamental repatterning for me. This sort of recalibration happens in my body but not just to my body. It’s a whole-person event.

Practising, for me, isn’t about pounding away – same old, same old. It’s about feeling into the subtle differences, becoming awake to the more functional in the new. In my personal experience, occasional injury is inevitable when I’m practising on this edge. Partly because I have Ehlers Danlos, but more fundamentally because, by definition, I’m working – out of a secure foundation of established practice – into a territory where I don’t totally know. It’s risky.

This hypermobile body teaches me about impermanence and the inherent fragility of that. It’s brave to step up and inhabit this precariousness, but there’s also a kind of freedom in living there.

1. The contortionist is Captain Frodo. You can read an interview with him here. He also sounds a tiny bit autistic.

New mats / old mats: a shala story of feeling, speaking and gratitude again

At Stillpoint Yoga London, where I practise, it’s been getting busy lately, which has prompted a rearrangement of the mat layout. The way the mats were before, I could be pretty much anywhere in the room and have my back to a wall and the door in my sightline, and I could see everyone in the room. There was no unpredictable movement behind me and no surprise engagement with teachers. None of this is so any more.

When I first arrived at Stillpoint, I think perhaps some time in 2011, I’d been practising alone for the previous few years.1 My longtime teacher had moved away from astanga, and my other trusted teacher in London was too far away to get to for early-morning practice. It was also clear to me that in the context of a teacher relationship I was not able to articulate – or most of the time even feel – my own needs or clearly hold my own boundaries. At that point, I had also recently become aware that I was in a state of ongoing low-level traumatic stress, and I had started to find ways of creating a more fluid and responsive relationship between sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, but I didn’t yet have any useful awareness of autism and I didn’t understand why it was that that the cat had got stuck up a tree and needed the fire brigade to get it down.

So in 2011 or thereabouts, just stepping into the room at Stillpoint felt like – and was – a huge risk. It was possible because Scott told me he was willing to have me practise without offering any teaching or adjustment. He did what he said, so there was a basis to trust the situation, and we started from there.

Most people don’t notice that I’m communication impaired, but I really am. Several years ago, I lived for a while with an autistic partner. We started out on opposite sides of the Atlantic, so we did a lot of emailing. But even when we were sharing the same house, we continued to email each other when we had something important to say, or just because we wanted to. When I told neurotypical people about this, they often thought it was funny, but many of us on the spectrum communicate a lot more easily in writing than in speech. It’s called hyperlexia. My capacity to think verbally, and then actually to articulate the words, has increased exponentially over the years, but there are still woolly, strawy things that get stuck in my mouth and will not enunciate. Incapacity to speak creates panic, and panic creates more incapacity, which creates more panic … and in extreme situations I can end up completely mute.

I was reading an article earlier this week called How to Explain Autism to People. The article lists several communication differences of autistic people, but I was particularly struck by this one, as it’s very significant for me and I’ve never seen it named before.

• Difficulty expressing needs and desires.

And it occurred to me that when it comes to self-advocacy, this one is such a double whammy.

Self-advocacy is hard. It requires a big vision and a willingness for something like delayed gratification, because in the short term it’s much easier to suppress, hide, conform and look as if you’re coping – don’t rock the boat: the sharks are out there circling – than it is to acknowledge and communicate real feeling. But I know from experience the cumulative effects of decades of containing and managing and never expressing a need or asking for help. it’s a world made of of hard surfaces. You shut down. You become a series of infinitely smaller images receding inside yourself. I have made a commitment not to do that any more, because it’s highly self-destructive, and I actually want to inhabit myself fully and openly, not fizzle like a Disprin or go away and live in a cupboard. This means, one, that I can no longer ellide my difficulties; I can no longer look obliquely and think I’m doing OK; and, two, that I have to find ways, ongoingly, to communicate my actual experience to other people and negotiate for what might make things a little more workable.

Which is why, even though I didn’t want to do it, some kind of communication around the New Mats at Stillpoint felt like a necessary act of presence. As in: I could (a) sit down and shut up and erase myself a little bit further or (b) actually speak something that feels true. So I did (b), I’m not sure whether well or appropriately (this kind of ongoing self-doubt is part and parcel of being autistic and therefore not very atuned to social cues) – or actually what doing it ‘well’  or ‘appropriately’ would look like. I don’t know yet what, if anything, I need to emerge in this particular situation in practical terms. But I think none of that really matters if there’s a genuine mutual intention to deepen relationship and expand understanding. Relationship is always kind of clunky, and it’s process, not a resolution.

If I looked disabled, I think in some ways advocating for myself would be easier. I often feel as if people think I’m making it up. Sometimes even I feel as if I’m making it up. I’ve written a lot already about passing. Studying and mimicking neurotypical communication styles became a survival mechanism for many of us with autism before we were old enough to be cogniscent of what we were doing. Passing is a form of self-displacement – we pass successfully when we cannot be recognised as ourselves – and it’s invidious. It also generates a state of chronic anxiety. We’re always waiting for the mask to slip, and at some point it inevitably does. The sanction for slippage is public humiliation and being left out on the mountainside for the wolves.

I’m actually rather good at passing, but it’s that cupboard again, and it’s small and claustrophobic. At this point in my life I’m choosing instead to cultivate my capacity for agitation and crying and losing the words and letting all the joins show. It feels like an honest and direct way of talking to you that I think some of you can understand.

Or, at least, I’m trying. It’s like restoring an old work of art. I no longer know really whether this bit of the picture was originally blue or green. I’m lifting off tiny flakes of paint one by one with tweasers, but the painting is so old to me now that I don’t always recognise the original any more. I don’t know how I really speak, or when I don’t, or whether that is a distant clutch of trees or there’s a bird, or is that an accidental splodge or a much later traveller another artist entirely painted in?

The elemental force of my reaction to New Mats was huge and overwhelming and barrelled in completely left field. It picked me up and shook me around, and I had no idea when it was going to put me down or whether it has yet. Fundamentally, though, I trust the relationships I’ve developed with Scott and with Andy enough to risk letting myself be. One of the themes of my writing lately has been saying thank you to people who hold space for me in the realms of the body and somatic process, so I want to say thank you – very much – to Scott and Andy. I’m way beyond grateful when someone is willing to stay with me and witness what’s evolving, even when it’s itchy and antsy, because if it’s real, it often is. For me, teaching yoga isn’t so much about instructing asana as it is relational. We are all learning how to be more fully and honestly with ourselves, with each other and in community, whether in the moment we are in the role of teacher or of student. At Stillpoint, this feels embodied in the teaching and in the relationships within and around the shala. And that’s why, even though I don’t like New Mats, I’m trying to work with them.

Stillpoint: Old Mats. I am foreground right. © SYL.

  1. There’s a lot of essential learning in being your own teacher that you can’t get any other way. I wrote about it here.

Attention Autism: a strange piece of writing about schools (special and not), Open Floor and Thoracic Ring Approach, sharks, love, trust, process and not having a conclusion yet

All this year I’m dancing one Saturday a month in a special school. As soon as I walk through the door, something about being here allows me to exhale. In the classroom where I got changed yesterday, there was an A4 print-out from Attention Autism tacked up on a cupboard. (I googled Attention Autism this morning and discovered the rather wonderful Gina Davies, a speech and language therapist who offers training to carers and professionals working with autistic children.) The A4 in the classroom was a series of reminders for group leaders about how to be with an autistic child – don’t insist on eye contact, if you want focus make sure there’s no background noise … The special school is the only environment I’ve ever been in where my presence as an autistic person is overtly acknowledged. Everywhere else, if I wanted to be taken into account, I’ve had to explain who and what I am and advocate for my difference. It’s as if in the special school I could just settle. Just breathe and settle.

I’m in two ongoing processes at present. One is the year-long Open Floor group which is dancing in the special school’s hall and is facilitated by Sue Rickards. We’re focusing on wishes, hopes and dreams, or at least it says so on the tin. The focus that’s emerging for me is just being, which could be, in a way, the anithesis of a wish / hope / dream: not the leap to somewhere else but what’s right here, right now. It’s a softening, a dissolving; subtly tuning in, accepting, trusting.

Yesterday morning, the invitation was to do something differently, so in the hot middle of things, I left the dancefloor and made a cup of tea. I am not someone who just leaves in the hot middle and makes a cup of tea. Or, at any rate, I have not been that person. Then I came back in and sat in a chair. Sat in a chair, for god’s sake! Sat in it. For the rest of the dance. Radical acts! It wasn’t an old fuck-you!; it was a new attention to the quiet impulses of my body and a readiness to respond to them through simple actions. And at the end of it all, I arrived in a kind of embodied presence I don’t think I’ve ever experienced before: full, unsheltered, without pulling or distortion, expansive and at rest.

I have outlawed so many parts of myself. In 1968, when I started school, autism wasn’t yet a thing. It existed, of course; autism has always existed; but there was no language for it. When you belong to a neuro-minority and you’re five, and you have no words to articulate your experience or to understand your difficulties, or visible forerunners to be that thing that you are in such a way that you know it’s more, so much more, than just OK … how do you make it tenable? How do you survive?

My response essentially was to shut myself down. I stopped eating. I rarely spoke. I suppressed my own information to the point where I was no longer even receiving it myself. I created an alternative structure, which I hoped made me look sufficiently like one of ‘them’ to avoid being eaten by the sharks. I lived and breathed like a cartoon shadow two inches outside and above myself.

This kind of displacement of self from the stream of impulse happens in a physical body, in myofascia and bones. Which brings me to Darren and Thoracic Ring Approach, the other process I’m involved in at present. We’re focusing on unwinding my ribcage. In a sense, though, it isn’t another process so much as a different emergence of the same one.

Thoracic Ring Approach sometimes seems to me to be a bit like horse whispering, or maybe it’s that Darren is a whisperer – a whisperer of ribs – I don’t know. Anyway, it’s a very subtle physical manipulation, so subtle that it seems to be at least equally neurological suggestion. As I understand it, underlying the less functional adaptive patterns in my body are older and more synergistic ones. Thoracic Ring Approach feels like slowly waking up to the original synergy. Because adaptive patterns are formed around experience, this must also be a somatic process – waking up to myofascial synergy catalyses waking up to behavioural synergy (and vice versa) – and a cathartic process, involving the re-emergence, sifting and integration of memory and the feeling and release of emotion. It devolves from body, but it’s a series of tiny and far-reaching shifts and recalibrations resonating through a whole person.

I spent a lot of my childhood being a horse. I didn’t relate to human beings very much at all, and for a while I insisted on eating from a bowl on the floor. (Children, if you want to freak out an adult, pick up your food with your mouth: it really, really disturbs them.) It wasn’t until some time in my forties, perhaps, that I fell in love with people. It happened through moving and experiencing the congruencies that arise in moving-with. It happened through touch: that thing with feathers, granules, veins. I had to learn outside social contexts, because social contexts were alien to me and only made me feel more dislocated from my real experience. I learnt to trust human beings, and I am very grateful for it, always. Because I learnt through my body senses, I’ve acquired – I think – the most reliable kind of guage of who to trust and who not, and so far I’ve never got it wrong.

Partly I wrote this article because I want to name the people who are currently holding transformative spaces for me. It’s a big-small thing we can do for each other; it’s a sacred task and it’s also very ordinary and human; and I’m extremely grateful that there are people with the capacity to do it for me. I want to name those people and I also want to acknowledge the level of trust that’s involved in relationship becoming transformative in this way. So, here goes: diving off the high board …

Gratitudes and acknowledgements
I’ve known Sue for about fourteen years now. In that time she’s been lots of things, not least a foremost ally for me in the reclamation of outlawed places. More than once I’ve been on the dance floor doing something that never appeared on the instruction sheet, some part of me doubting whether this can possibly be allowed to happen or whether the sharks are already stirring behind the rocks, and I hear Sue’s voice in my ear: ‘Trust it, Jess.’ I love you, Sue.

In a way, what I love about Darren (and actually I love a lot of things about Darren) is just that he’s willing to work with me, even though – and actually because – I’m super-complicated. I love that he keeps holding the box and doesn’t try too hard to veto poetic licence, that I always feel listened to and never coerced (which isn’t all that usual in my experience of physiotherapy), that what we’re engaged in feels like a collaborative exploration on the edge of what’s known. I always have the sense that if we both pushed at the same time, neither of us would fall over. I think that’s a measure of right relationship. Thank you, Darren.

All you need is love Afterword
It’s Tuesday. I’ve had this cold since right after the last lot of thoracic ring re-aligning, and I can’t shake it. I’m struggling to embody what’s pressing through to the surface. I want to collapse. I know what I need to do in my body, and physically I can do it, but somewhere else the horse is refusing the fence. I feel overwhelmed and submerged, and I hate being in this place. It’s sticky and uncomfortable, like wool against the skin. I don’t have much perspective and I definitely don’t have a conclusion.

Every time I write, I know in one atavistic part of me that that I have surely infringed several strange and unfathomable rules of neurotypical conduct and that I am therefore forever beyond the pale ­– but more compelling is the urge for self-exposure. I’d be burnt at the stake for it just because I couldn’t help it. I feel suffocated within the bounds of what’s speakable within neuro-normative culture. I know, too, that the places where we feel most unacceptable are the also the ones where we can potentially be most loved and that if we don’t expose them, we remain essentially invisible and unformed. So even though it feels like waving a bloodied rag at the sharks, I keep on speaking.

Image by Kenneth Geiger ©.

This is a safe space: in which I want to turn the shoe box into a swimming pool but am afraid of being exterminated

This is safe spaceThis morning I handed over the shoe box, now containing, packed in the shredded paper, little pieces of my heart – tender casualties, torn, lost, gathered up and returned for safe-keeping by people who noticed when I didn’t, or when I couldn’t care less (or thought I couldn’t) – people in my communities: dancers, movers, astangi’s, people of queerness, autistics … I handed it to someone I trust to hold it. The thing is, it’s made of cardboard and for a while I need someone to keep it dry.

If you have any clue what the shoe box is all about, you will know already that I’m in a process of restructuring my ribcage. (If you don’t have a clue, read this.) When you start to change deeply held physical patterns, it goes without saying that you’re going to reveal deeply held emotional and behavioural patterns too. It’s like flakes of old paint lifting away and what’s left is a kind of transparency.

On my mat this morning. Solstice sunrise. Light and darkness shifting in the balance. The last bit of rib rejigging, which in the moment seemed like barely anything at all, afterwards unleashed a crazy tumult of feelings too big and too swirling to categorise into words that name emotions. It’s said that autistic people lack capacity to recognise emotions. This is called alexithymia. I think the issue is actually that the English language lacks vocabulary with the finesse to name the breadth, depth and particularity of autistic emotions. And that we need time. It takes a while to process 42 per cent extra multiplying exponentially. Especially when, like me, you feel and think in images, and words are a second language.

What floats to the surface of my consciousness on my mat this morning is fear. The kind that seizes your heart, yanks it up and takes your breath away. I’m afraid that this process is going to be ended before I’m ready. It’s something about being sloughed off that seems to have happened to me again and again: being taken for my surface, which appears more capable than I am, when really I could hold myself only by contorting and contracting, and ending up with a ribcage doing something like a double helix. I’m afraid that there isn’t time, and at all costs I have to beat you to it, because it’s shameful to be left behind and unbearable to be abandoned. I notice that, subtly, surreptitiously, I’ve started rushing and pushing and working physically where I can’t quite maintain it. It’s a bit painful, a bit over my edge. I notice that instead I could breathe, slow down, consider expressing a need and just resting – breathing – in the vulnerability of it all. I could stay soft and vibrant. It’s a possibility.

As an autistic person, I’ve always been panicked by neuro-normative timeframes; developmentally, I’ve spent a lot of my life running – futilely – to keep up (and now that I’m over 50, it seems I don’t know how to age like a neurotypical person either). I first became aware of the discrepancy between me and the neurotypical plotline when I started school. It was like being tossed to the wolves. I didn’t know any pack rules and neither did I have any innate capacity for learning them. It was also a multi-sensory overload of about 1,000 per cent. I ‘coped’ by cutting myself off, shutting myself down and not eating.

If this seems extreme, you may be underestimating the force of neuro policing and the stringency of the sanctions for non-compliance. Thoughout my childhood I had nightmares about living under tyrannical dictatorship – often by daleks or Nazi’s. I felt like an occupied country. The only way not to be killed under their thumb was absolute obedience. It’s the ultimate form of passing. They don’t have to destroy you; you obliterate yourself.

I realise on my mat that maybe this is some of why I was crying. After the last ribcage thing, I cried off and on for two days: an outpouring of grief that overflowed storm drains and leached into every crack and crevice. A cumulative grief of no fixed abode and no singular origin.

I’m grateful for the shoe-box, but I need to expand it. What’s happening for me is so much larger than the paradigm, and I can’t legislate for the depth and dimensions of the process. The first expanded container I emerged was a metal water tank – the kind of thing that might be in your back garden. You could keep a mermaid alive in a water tank. Just. But then, like the transformation scene in a high-end pantomime, it all began to change, and what started as two-foot-by-three-foot became an Olympic swimming pool. All that water! Now what could you do in a container like that?

Every time I negotiate for autism-friendly space I feel as if I’m going to die. It’s a swooping, heart-stopping rollercoaster of a feeling. I want to hold my breath and close my eyes. It’s as if I were seeking something that isn’t legitimate, rather than just room to be and to feel. It’s an extraordinarily vulnerable and frustrating place of wanting and testing and hoping and holding myself back. I often fear that there’s something manipulative in seeking structures in which I don’t have to distort or circumscribe myself in order to relate to you. There’s a dance I sometimes do in which I tie myself up in my own clothes. That.

It occurred to me recently – I don’t know why I hadn’t seen it before – that I have internalised a rigid set of what I take to be neurotypical boundary regulations, and that while a part of me swings willfully back and forth on creepers across the divide, another part brutally polices the borders. Underneath is a powerful distrust of my own native way of boundarying relationship. It often feels deeply and shamefully dysfunctional. I’m only just starting to know that, though it may look different from your way, I can actually trust it. And so can you.

I don’t know yet what needs to happen to the pieces of my heart. I imagine some sort of reintegration, but what or how hasn’t come to me yet. Maybe it’s in the swimming pool. They’re in a safe space for now.


A Safe Space is a place where anyone can relax and be able to fully express, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, religious affiliation, age, or physical or mental ability.The Safe Space Network.

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.

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.