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.

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.

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.

 

 

On the edge: wire-walking for beginners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ImagePhilippe Petit wire-walks between the Twin Towers

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!

Autistic movers and shakers: some suggestions for supporting autistic people in yoga, dance and moving practice

As lots of you reading this will probably know, I was diagnosed and came out as autistic (1) in 2013. Several of the blog posts here touch on my experience of being autistic as it relates to movement practice in different forms. Naively (and perhaps if I wasn’t autistic I would have foreseen this), I wasn’t expecting the gentle avalanche of requests that followed from colleagues, friends, and friends of friends for a ‘chat’ about autism. Some of these have been, poignantly, from closeted autistic people wanting to come out to me; some have been from people with autistic family members seeking ways to offer more useful support; some have been from professionals in the movement field wanting advice on how to work with autistic clients. All people with good intentions and a genuine desire for communication and greater understanding.

I have been touched that my experiences have resonated with other people and gladdened that there are those of you out there wanting to know more about autism and how to work in helpful ways with those of us on the spectrum. And yet at the same time I’ve found this desire for more of me difficult – sometimes invasive – if I’m honest. A foremost intention for me in writing is for authenticity and truth to my experience, and so I imagine my writing often comes across as intimate and confessional. And it is. But it’s also highly controlled. I’m selective in what I choose to share and how I choose to share it. And I’m autistic. Which means that ‘chatting’ to someone I don’t know well is never going to be high up on my list of easy and enjoyable experiences (I have social deficits and verbal processing delays) or one that I can take part in without expending a lot of energy.

It seems that autistic people are generally considered to be rare and exotic animals with mysterious behaviours and unguessable needs. And as the local tame autistic person, I’m regarded as a handy guide into the hinterland of the autistic habitat. Here we sit in the trees, hiding from David Attenborough and throwing banana peel on the heads of unsuspecting tourists … The thing is, unless you’ve spent your life meditating in a cave, you will already have met at least a handful of autistic people. We are living, working, parenting and participating in communities everywhere. If you’re a movement facilitator or a yoga teacher, it’s more than likely that any group classes you run already include people on the spectrum. However, because there is still a huge amount of stigma and misunderstanding surrounding autism, a lot of autistic people remain either undiagnosed or in the closet, so you may not be aware of who your autistic students, friends and colleagues are.

So this blog post is by way of offering a few suggestions for yoga teachers and movement facilitators working with autistic people. Please bear in mind that it’s subjective. While it’s probably safe to assume that some of what makes it easier and some of what makes it harder for me to participate in sessions, classes, groups and workshops will be general among those of us on the spectrum, I’m not a specialist in what other autistic people need, so if you’re about to start working with someone autistic and you’re not sure how to go about it, here’s my number one suggestion:

Don’t ask me, ask your autistic client
They are the expert on what it’s like to be them. Have a conversation – perhaps initially by email rather than verbally, as many of us find writing easier than speaking. (But check with the individual client: if they’re dyslexic, as many autistic people are, an email exchange may be difficult for them.) Ask them what they would like to get out of the sessions and what they need in order to be able to participate most fully. While there are commonalities, autistic people are individuals. As the saying goes, ‘If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person’. We wouldn’t expect all our neurotypical clients to want the same thing or to react in the same way. All autistic clients won’t either.

Sensory issues
Most autistic people are hyper-sensitive to some or all of: texture, smell, sight, sound and taste. Whereas someone from out-of-autistic-spectrum may be able to disregard a sound or a texture they find unpleasant, an autistic person is likely to have limited sensory filters and may not be able to stow the sensory stimulation out of the field of their attention.

In general, make the environment as clear, quiet and unfussy as possible. Check in with your autistic client about fluorescent lights (they interfere with processing for most of us and may feel painful), incense, particular textures, background sounds (your autistic client may be bothered by sounds you hadn’t noticed and can barely hear) … even colours. I have a reaction to the mauve shades of purple that amounts to physical interference. They make me feel as if someone’s running a comb across my teeth. They jangle inside my bones and create a buzzy feeling in my head. So I’d rather not have a purple yoga mat. On the other hand, I know autistic people who love purple so much they’ll want to get down on their knees and lick your purple yoga mat. No, not really. Although we are usually highly oral (and I do sometimes want to put colours in my mouth), we also tend to be more fastidious than the average non-autistic person …

… which means that things you find pretty inoffensive may be literally nauseating to someone with autism. Nobody (I think) likes toe nail clippings on the floor, spitting when you talk, stale sweat, rubbish bins overflowing with empty fastfood cartons and snotty tissues, snorting and other overly demonstrative methods of mucous clearing … but whereas a neurotypical person may be able to tolerate this kind of ordinary grossness or place it out of field, an autistic person may not have these capacities and may be able to focus on nothing else.

A word on music
Sensory sensitivity has implications for those of us who facilitate movement to music. I may or may not like a track, but I can dance with it either way; this is an important skill for a dance practitioner that many of us have cultivated. However, if the track contains sensory triggers (for me usually very loud and insistently banging), I need to stop hearing it straightaway. Persisting in seeking ways to move with it will generally lead me to dissociate and / or melt down.

If you usually use music in the background, check whether this will be appropriate for your autistic client. For some of us, background music interferes with focusing and processing; for others (I’m one of these) it will be very, very stimulating. I can listen to music comfortably only when it’s possible to dance to it. If I can’t dance, I feel as if I’m going to explode – even if the music is ‘relaxing’.

Verbal processing delays
Many autistic people have difficulties and delays in speaking and processing others’ speech. Even if this does not immediately appear to be the case, check in with your client about their needs in this area anyway. Many of us have learnt to compensate for this deficit very skillfully and may appear – and actually be – highly articulate, but this does not mean that we are processing spoken language at normal speed and with the expected ease, or that we can do so in every context. Particularly if we are tired, stressed, overwhelmed by environmental static (other people talking in the background, strong smells, visual distractions) or bombarded with a lot of speech, we may be struggling to keep up and appear normal.

Someone with autism may find it difficult to decode and assimilate a long string of spoken instructions, so if, for example, you’re explaining the alignment of a yoga posture, it may be helpful to demonstrate it or have someone else demonstrate (quite a lot of us process visually), or use adjustments so that the person can feel it – but see the section on Touching coming up next.

Autistic brains are wired to focus intensely on one thing at a time, so language may be difficult to access if we are wholly absorbed in a physical process. I experience this as a kind of verbal drift, or as some words not being in the right boxes. I may stumble over words and say whatever comes into my head to fill the requirement for speech (even if the result has little relationship with what I’m actually thinking or feeling). It’s not uncommon for autistic people to lose speech entirely (mutism) in situations of stress. Last time I had a filling, the anaesthetic didn’t work (2). I went mute and so wasn’t able to tell anyone there was a problem. I have had similar experiences, when younger, with strong astanga adjustments in situations where I didn’t know the teacher well and / or the teacher felt to me very senior and carried a lot of kudos. (Even if you feel like a very new and inexperienced teacher, to your student you will almost certainly still carry kudos.) Check in regularly with your autistic client about how things are going from their point of view, and always – and repeatedly – communicate to them that their feedback is not only welcome but a crucial part of a two-way process. If your client can’t respond in words and seems generally frozen or passive, know that they are probably very upset, let go of the project, and offer them opportunities to calm down and find their ground once again. It may be an option for them to write, later, about what happened from their point of view and email their writing to you.

Some autistic people don’t use speech at all, and I’m hoping a few of you will comment on this post, because I do communicate by speaking (if sometimes reluctantly), so I feel unqualified to write about non-verbal autistic people’s communicaton needs, but I’d like to include them.

Touching
Before you envelop your new client in a warm hug, check whether they would like to set any boundaries around how they are touched. Some autistic people don’t like to be touched at all; others are happy to be touched in particular ways but not in others; some of us are definitely on the touchy-feely end of the spectrum. Light, floaty touch is unpleasant to many autistic people; some of us enjoy firm touch – which to me feels containing and offers a sense of body boundary that I generally experience only intermittently. But do check with the individual – it may be different for them.

Physical boundaries of course also depend on who’s doing the touching. The difference for autistic people is that our preferences may not be as socially determined as they generally are for those off-spectrum. I have good friends who I don’t like to touch me at all, whereas I’m sometimes happy to be physically intimate (on the dancefloor, for example) with a complete stranger. I can’t explain logically who is who and which is which; it’s just a feeling.

Be aware that if you have not checked with your client about physical touch – in a way that lets them know that their preferences are paramount, that they have control over how they are touched, that their wish not to be touched will not get in the way of the work of the session or offend you – they may be going along with a level of touch you have presumed to be OK but are squirming inwardly.

Sensitivity and sixth sense
Many autistic people are highly sensitive to the unspoken and may be very aware of what you are feeling but not saying, and cogniscent of any discrepancy. Others are actually psychic. Know that your client may be relating less to what you are saying and more to who you are being, so – while maintaining appropriate client–practitioner boundaries – you may as well drop any social or professional masks from the get-go and meet us as you are. We will appreciate your honesty and straightforwardness.

Don’t feel slighted if, for reasons they cannot properly explain, an autistic client chooses not to continue in sessions with you. I have friends I know to be excellent practitioners, but I cannot work as a client with them. I feel them – physically – as dissonant with me. Often, they feel ‘purple’ – for me, a very high-frequency vibration that I cannot assimilate. Some modalities of work feel like this to me too. This seems to be some sort of objective energetic happening on a plane of experience we don’t have language for and rarely acknowledge. It isn’t personal, so, as much as possible, don’t take it that way.

Cut the small talk
We don’t do it, so don’t expect it. Just get down to business.

Neurotypical brains are primed for socialisation in a way that autistic brains are not. We find it difficult to learn and retain social etiquette, or to get the point of it, although some of us become consummate actors, able to fake it by running memorised scripts. As I’ve got older, my repertoire of scripts has become wider and more sophisticated, and I have become highly skilled at juggling them. Unless I’m tired or distracted (when the scripts get jumbled and vocabulary dislocated), it all looks very convincing, but don’t be fooled – I am not using social language spontaneously. Don’t be offended if your autistic client forgets to greet you or doesn’t smile when you expect it. The chances are they’re not upset or angry with you; they may just have forgotten that these kinds of behaviours are significant in neurotypical relationships.

Don’t expect eye contact
Some of us have learnt to mimic neurotypical eye contact in social settings and may fake it convincingly. Don’t be taken in – we’re not enjoying it. Avoid exercises that require your autistic client to make or sustain eye contact. I have heard autistic people describe eye contact as ‘agonising’, ‘painful’ and – when forced – ‘cruel’. I’ve written more about my own experience of eye contact on the dancefloor here.

It’s intense in here
Before I was identified as autistic, I always had the sense that I was feeling a lot more, and more intensely, than everyone else. It was – and is – often overwhelming. Now I know that this is not just an impression but a physiological reality for autistic people. Know that while some areas of the autistic brain are under-connected (for me, those to do with numbers, direction and sequencing, for example), other areas are hyper-connected (for me, vision, written language, emotion). According to a recent study, the brains of autistic children produce on average 42 per cent more information than those of non-autistic children when in a resting state. No news to autistic people. And bear in mind that that’s in a resting state. When we start doing, thinking, processing, interacting and all the rest, 42 per cent multiplies exponentially. There’s loads going on inside here, so slow down, remember less is more, and give us time to assimilate.

Communicate the structure
Most autistic people find unpredictability difficult to deal with and need a sense of reliable structure. This is why I gravitate towards practices based on repeated forms: the four series of astanga vinyasa yoga, the Five Rhythms of Gabrielle Roth’s dance practice. If I’m taking part in a workshop, it’s much easier for me to integrate work if I’m given an outline in advance of what’s going to happen when, and what the intention is. A known structure offers me a container within which I am able to surrender and allow spontaneous emergence.

Don’t change the structure or the boundaries
If you have given your autistic client a structure, know that you risk losing their trust if you change it. Unexpected deviations are difficult for us to deal with and may completely derail us. Don’t vary times either. Most autistic people are punctilious about practical boundaries. We will uphold them exactly and will expect you to do likewise. If you tell your autistic client the workshop will finish at 6pm but it actually finishes at 6.15pm, they may be scared, confused or angry with you for not honouring the agreement about timing.

We give one hundred per cent
Autistic people generally have very high expectations of ourselves and will frequently offer far more than you anticipated or asked for. We are, in general, self-starters and have an abundance of the motivation for working alone and over time that neurotypical people may struggle to find. A yoga student on the spectrum may immediately establish a daily home practice – finding in it the ritual and repetition that autistic people generally need and seek to create in our lives. An autistic dancer may research the background to the work in depth and detail, come up with ideas no one else has thought of, and ask the important questions that are generally placed out of the frame.

‘I want to be alone’
Being with other people is very demanding for those of us on the spectrum, and we will quickly become fatigued and overloaded. If you are facilitating a group, include plenty of time for working solo so that we can calm down, centre and find themselves again. While it is a myth that autistic people dislike or don’t need contact with others – in fact we are each social according to our own unique pattern of preferences and capacities – unalleviated interaction with others is experienced as a form of torture by people on the spectrum.

At the same time, some organised group activity may be appreciated by some autistic people as a way of facilitating participation which they may find hard to initiate and sustain without an externally held structure.

Autism is exhausting
For an autistic person, processing speech and dealing with sensory stimulae takes a lot of energy, a commodity already in short supply (3). If your client is also hypermobile (see below), sitting, standing and generally being upright will also require extra energy. Keep sessions short-ish and offer breaks. Don’t expect an autistic person to participate in lengthy spoken communication, or a hypermobile person to stand for more than a minute or so, and make sure that there are possibilities for the hypermobile person to support their back if sitting.

Stillness and stimming
Most autistic people stim. A stim is something like a repetitive fidget – finger rubbing, hair twirling, face stroking, ankle circling. The word ‘stim’ is derived from ‘stimulating’ and was obviously coined by a neurotypical person, as it’s a complete misnomer. Stims are actually soothing – good god, the last thing an autistic person wants is more stimulation! After years of socialisation, I never managed to eradicate stims totally. Videos made of Phoenix Rising yoga therapy sessions for the four-yearly recertification required for PRYT therapists show me rocking and twiddling my thumbs. Over the past couple of years I have gradually thawed my neurotypical-mimicking holding patterns and allowed my stims back into public space.

Know that being still may not be an option for an autistic person, even if they’re trying very hard. If you have reified sitting still and see it as synonymous with meditation, presence or paying attention, your autistic clients may be about to bring you back to reality. Stimming helps autistic people to stay present. It assists us in processing the rolling boil of thoughts, feelings and sense impressions; staying calm and focusing. It’s inhumane to force an autistic person to be totally still – and if they are also hypermobile, prolonged physical stillness may well also be somewhere in the range from uncomfortable to acutely painful.

Co-existing conditions
Dyspraxia
When I asked some autistic people what they would want a movement professional to know about working with an autistic client, most of them mentioned not issues around autism itself, but those associated with the co-existing condition dyspraxia.

Many – possibly all – autistic people are also dyspraxic. This means that we may have difficulty following sequences and in knowing where we are in space; our balance may be poor; we may appear generally clumsy, wobbly and uncoordinated, and we may have poor motor skills. A dyspraxic person may need to see a movement sequence many times in order to embody it. If you are demonstrating a sequence, they may be unable to mirror you, and they may find it difficult to follow left / right directions. If asked to replicate a shape you are making, a person with dyspraxia may reverse it or be paralysed by confusion. So keep any sequences simple, face the same way as your student when demonstrating, and be prepared to prompt and realign them again and again. Be patient. Remember, they are finding this a lot harder than you are.

Ehlers Danlos / Hypermobility Syndrome
Many autistic people also have Ehlers Danlos / Hypermobility Syndrome (ED / HMS). I’ve already written at length about teaching yoga to people with hypermobility, so all I’ll add here is that, as in the general population, ED / HMS often goes undiagnosed in those of us with autism, so be aware that it may well be present even if your client hasn’t declared it in their medical history, and it will affect how you need to work with them, whichever modality you are offering, but particularly if you are teaching a set movement form.

This writing isn’t a list of things you need to get right for us. Most autistic people will be forgiving if you forget that Nag Champa makes them feel sick or they can’t stand being touched on their back. It’s the intention that matters. Generally, in my experience anyway, autistic people in group settings are expected to take care of our own needs, fit in and get on with it. We so rarely receive active enquiry about what would help us to be present and to access the work that we’re likely to be overwhelmed with gratitude that you even asked.

If you have been offered the opportunity to work with an autistic person, you are very lucky. Autistic people are often highly creative, unusually sensitive, off-the-wall and out-of-the box (box? … what box? … was there a box?). When engaged, we are focused like no other, and we have a phenomenal eye for detail. We will bring original ideas and open up new and unexpected spaces for you. Remember to check in with us regularly about what you are doing well and anything you could be doing differently, and enjoy the ride!

1. An excellent definition of autism is by Nick Walker: http://neurocosmopolitanism.com/what-is-autism.

2. A common issue for autistic / hypermobile people (there’s a significant crossover): http://hypermobility.org/help-advice/local-anaesthetic.

3. Research suggests that there are differences in the mitochondria of autistic people, pointing to a cellular origin for the issues of fatigue and low energy that are frequently an aspect of autism: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3885720.