Pain: a post about holding on and letting go

These days when I get on my astanga mat, even my bones hurt. Call it what menopause does when it gets intimate with Ehlers Danlos, or just being 54. I turn it up this way and that, convinced that somewhere, if only I can locate it, there must be a feasible, pleasurable way to do this thing, to make it pliable, as I have always somehow managed to before. But my bones feel like china. They feel like fever, tender and vibrating in the marrow. My muscles fist, and my joints screech and twang like a poorly strung violin. So I’m thinking about cutting loose.

I know how it’s done. I did it before. I gave up ballet. It’s easy and it’s not. Of course, it’s a question of your identity and the patterns your body knows, how they hold you securely in being – and, in this case, of how I make my living. But, when the moment comes, you slip like a fish. That’s my experience anyway.

It’s the part before the moment that’s difficult. The gripping and shuddering and letting go and holding on. I do not like transition. I do not like the small blind jumps when you sense the abyss yawning lazily beneath.

For all that I know the instinctive flow that arises from under the heavy top-most layers of brain – the simple joy of it, and how it is just ‘right’ and easy – some other eternally stubborn and recalcitrant part of me really just wants to be in control. I’m autistic and borderline OCD; I have eating disorders, managed to greater or lesser degrees (it’s hard to know what that really means any more), and I’m human. When you’re 54, you know that these are just givens, and all that makes a difference is how you hold the small frightened animals in your hand, how gently and capaciously, which tends to calm them down.

My astanga practice became this writing, Saturday morning, 25 November 2017, resting on the whetted edge of cannot and do not know.

DSCN1255.JPG

A community of elders: the sustainable astangi

When you work with what’s available, the restrictions aren’t limitations, they’re just what you happen to be working with.”—Robert Rauschenberg

When I was young, I thought it would be dreadful to let go of things I experienced in my body as capacities, but actually it’s a relief, a relaxation. Every yielding creates a space, and every space invites a new becoming. It’s gentle and reassuring. There’s an easing of surface that allows the underlying texture to press through – roots, beetles, mulch, stones – something subtler, richer, more varied and surprising. None of this is easy – astanga is a practice – but it is rewarding. It offers a different kind of substance, and an expanded capacity for being.

At 53 and hypermobile, I often have a more or less adapted practice. I could fight for old territories, but I don’t want a war in my body. It isn’t exactly about no longer being able to accomplish physical structures – they approach and recede from day to day; it’s more about holding all of it lightly. This is impermanence here now, at home, in my body, and it requires me to be fluid and responsive. Sometimes a posture floats back into my ambit – and another one floats away. It’s funny, it’s unpredictable. It’s all so bloody liberating!

There’s a view out there in the astanga group-mind that this practice is about transcending our limitations.1 For me, it’s always been about meeting mine. There’s a softening that goes with acknowledging the inherent limits involved in being human. Expansion comes when I can recognise that less is more here, and it’s most helpful to pause, rest, backtrack, let go, relax into the cyclic process of begin again that has for me been central to creating integrity of structure in a hypermobile body. But, of course, we are not talking just about bodies here. Within the framework of a somatic practice, we are never talking just about bodies.

We’re all in a process of motion, and sometimes astanga is only a staging post in a life’s trajectory. You can move on or you can stay, and you can take what you learned and apply it elsewhere. This is good and healthy and alive. Me and astanga, we’re in it for the long-haul, as far as I can tell. Gymnastic ability, on the other hand, is a time-limited commodity. It will definitely diminish and sure as hell eventually cease. If the capacity to perform physically demanding sequences of asana is what we think astanga consists of, we’re all looking forward to exile from the warm circle of the tribal fire.

As a teacher (and I know I’m not alone in this), I’m invested in creating inclusive practice settings, where astanga vinyasa can flourish in the unique and different forms in which it arises in different people, with different bodies, at different stages of life. When practice is flexible and adaptable, it can be sustainable, for everybody, all the time, and our Mysore rooms will not only be galvanised by the energy of young people, but also grounded and stabilised by the presence of elders. We need this. We all do.

Namaste!

18peterparivrrta

1. Try googling ‘ashtanga transcending limitations’ and you’ll see what I mean.

NB I love this article by Anthony Grimley Hall on how experience modifies the practices of astangis.

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.

 

 

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!

Looking both ways

Here I am starting once again by announcing that I’m 48. My age feels important just now. Right here, in the middle of my life, I find myself, like double-headed Janus, looking both forwards and back. I’m still leaning into the new, still learning, still acquiring physical abilities, still going to places I haven’t been able to access before in my body, getting stronger, releasing more restrictions; but at the same time I’m facing into the time of dissolving. I experience more pain; there’s more wear and tear in my body; there’s less and less certainty of what I will and won’t be able to do on my mat on any given day; I have to offer more respect to the crazy wisdom teacher of my body. At 48, I’m about to crest the summit, and what comes next is dropping onto the downhill slope, the path of letting go.

I’m not yet ready to abandon the physical aspects of my astanga vinyasa practice, and I may not be for a very long time to come, but my practice has had to become more responsive to how I am in the moment. If I’m stepping onto my mat with the intention of practising a particular series, I always have that structure in my mind, but what emerges from my body may be more of a creative interplay with the structure than a straight reproduction of it. Sometimes it looks pretty much 100 per cent kosher. Other times it really doesn’t. I don’t have a huge amount of control over that, nor can I predict how my body will be on any given day. Nor am I interested any more in imposing a rigid structure on my body; I’m more engaged by how my body is in relation to the structure, where it meets it, where it doesn’t, where it needs to go off on its own therapeutic loop, and what that loop looks and feels like.

All of this has prompted me to wonder how, as Mysore-style astanga teachers, we can hold space for practitioners in the phase of dissolving. Perhaps other astangis have less of an issue with this as they age: because I have Ehlers Danlos, my body has always been full of anomalies, and it is even more so now. Nevertheless, as astanga vinyasa matures in the West, there are going to be more and more of us working with it as a practice of disintegration of the body, letting go of physical capacities, and readying ourselves for death.

I mostly practise on my own, mainly because, for me, practice is primarily about the intimate relationship between me and myself. But there are also times when I want to share in the energy of the group breathing and moving together, and I’m finding it difficult to find spaces where it’s possible for me to do this without harming myself or compromising the truth of my physical experience. In some ways I understand why this is so. In any Mysore practice space there are usually many people who are still establishing and embodying the structures. I know from my own teaching, that it can be difficult to keep these people on course if there are others in the room following their own choreography. It can be hard to know from the outside why a person is doing what they’re doing. It’s easy to make judgements, to assume that they lack self-discipline or are being disrespectful. And sometimes this may be the case. But if we don’t allow space for experienced practitioners in the dissolving phase in our Mysore spaces, it seems to me that we are offering a skewed, one-halved version of astanga vinyasa, one that is about youth, about physical ability, about attachment to forms.

I don’t have a simple solution to these complexities. However, if you’re a Mysore-style teacher who feels able to hold the complexities, I’m always looking for places to practise that feel safe and respectful.

Namaste!