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 ©.