Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy: Bringing Complex Trauma to the Mat

This article is an introduction to Phoenix Rising yoga therapy (PRYT) for complex trauma. If you are experiencing complex trauma and considering booking a session with me, the article explains a little bit about what it might be like. Have a read and feel free to share.


The body is an ancient storehouse of not only our own but also our ancestors’ emotional experiences. These are stitched into our tissues – cells, organs, fascia, bones. Whatever we have been too scared, angry, young, overwhelmed, or frozen to feel, the body holds, until we are ready to let it into consciousness and express and integrate it. One of the gifts of a somatic practice … is that it offers an opportunity to unpick old seams. When the time is right, a particular movement or a certain touch can send a thread unravelling out of time, releasing memories and emotions we did not know were there. This is a process of clearing and making space, as a result of which we are able to move forward a little less encumbered by the invisible baggage of the past, with a sense of being lighter, freer, more joyful and at peace. (1)

What is complex trauma?
Complex trauma (also known as developmental trauma) refers to an accumulation of traumatic experiences most usually occurring during childhood. Traumatic experiences might be:

• Neglect (for example, caretakers not doing their best to provide clean clothes and a reliable supply of food, or absence of emotional support and boundaries). 

• Witnessing violence (for example, parents or caretakers fighting).

• Being bullied (for example, being taunted, terrified or physically harmed by a person or group of people).

• Sexual abuse (for example being talked about in sexual terms, touched sexually or being the recipient of unwanted sexual acts).

• Witnessing alcohol or substance abuse by parents or caretakers (or being forced or drawn into abusing drugs or alcohol).

• Physical abuse (for example, being beaten, thrown around or handled harshly).

• Emotional abuse (for example being told you are stupid or ugly, or being manipulated into meeting the needs of a parent or caretaker).

The website complextrauma.org explains:

The adverse experiences encapsulated by Complex Trauma typically begin in early childhood, are longstanding or recurrent, and are inflicted by others. Most often they are perpetrated within a person’s formative attachment relationships. Sometimes they are compounded by patterns of risk and dysfunction afflicting generations of families. Frequently, they intersect with structural and institutional forms of violence and oppression that beset certain peoples and communities, particularly those holding minority status within a given society. (2)

The term ‘complex trauma’ refers both to the originating experiences and also to the difficulties arising from the adaptations that traumatised people make in order to survive the traumatic experiences. Once life-saving, these adaptations can become a prison or a deep-freeze; they can make the person feel like the living dead, like a shadow, or like a time bomb about to explode. When clients first start trauma work, they sometimes feel a sense of hopelessness because the traumatic events have happened and that cannot be changed. However, the ongoing issue of trauma lies not in what happened in the past but in feelings, beliefs and behaviours happening in the present. As one of my clients says: ‘If trauma was the events themselves, they happened X number of years ago, and we are X number of years too late to resolve them.’ Luckily, we are not too late. Present-time trauma can be fully undone.

The body and trauma
When a person is living in a state of complex trauma, their unconscious brain, nervous system and body are fixed in an emergency response to dangerous events that happened in the past and have now ended. A large part of the process of trauma recovery lies in creating the conditions for the body to integrate those events, so that the unconscious brain can understand them as historical and can encode them as ordinary memories (rather than a volcano constantly erupting into the present), and the nervous system can down-regulate out of fight, flight or freeze. For a person living in trauma, making this transition can look like abseiling across an impossibly vast chasm on a piece of old string, but it’s actually a very simple shift – your body is always doing its best to create homeostasis, and given the opportunity, your nervous system will always choose to regulate.

Because trauma is happening not in the conscious mind but in the body and the nervous system, healing and processing have to happen in the body and the nervous system. Talk therapy can be useful to help you understand more about the causes of your trauma – and in the early stages of working with traumatic experiences, this may be as much as you are ready for – but ultimately, talking about what happened is unlikely to make much change to your present-day feelings and behaviours. In order for that transformation to occur, there has to be a somatic dimension to your work. ‘Somatic’ (from the Greek word for ‘body’ soma) indicates the body viewed not objectively, as it appears in an anatomy text book, but subjectively, as experienced by the individual person, replete with sensation, imagery, emotional connectivity and intelligence.

What happens in a Phoenix Rising session?
I often think about the work of Phoenix Rising yoga therapy as giving a voice to deep body. By listening, and then reflecting, with the help of the therapist, you are able gradually to weave an ever more adaptive web of synaptic connections, so that the flow of information from body to mind (and back to body again) becomes increasingly fluent, and as a whole embodied system you become more agile and responsive.

How does this work in practice? Initially, we take some time to settle in together, and I invite you to orient your awareness inwards, perhaps with your eyes closed, if that’s appropriate for you. This is an opportunity to offer attention to sensations arising in your body, and to notice any emotions, images or memories that emerge. Sometimes I may suggest that you make a particular shape with your body, maybe with the help of a bolster or some blankets; other times you may be simply sitting or lying; or I may be supporting you to follow your body into positions or movements that it naturally wants to make, without any prompting.

As you notice anything you feel in your body, I will invite you to reflect on and speak your experience – in a way that works for you. We may consider whether a sensation has a colour, a shape or an energy, whether there are emotions or memories that go with it, whether there are any words it would like to speak, or whether it reminds you of a person or time in your life. For example, a dialogue might go:

Jess: What’s happening now?
Client: I’m feeling a heavy sensation in my chest … It’s kind of diamond-shaped and it’s pressing me down like a big hand.
Jess: Is there anything else about the heavy, diamond-shaped sensation that’s pressing you down like a big hand?
Client: It’s dark … and it feels … foggy … like heavy fog …
Jess: Are you aware of any emotion that goes with the heavy fog?
Client: I’m not sure … No, I don’t think so … Yes … there is a feeling. It’s … sadness … Yes, it’s sadness. It makes me want to cry.
Jess: See what it’s like to stay with the heavy, pressing sensation in your chest and feel the sadness for a little bit. Let me know if it gets too much so that we can stop and shift attention elsewhere for a while.

The intention of the dialogue is to enable a deeper and more subtle awareness of what you’re noticing, to include more dimensions, and to keep relating any reflections back to felt experience: images, memories, emotions and awarenesses that arise directly from your body. My voice is also there to reassure you that you are not alone, that you are still – always – being held in the safe container of the therapeutic space, and to remind you that your words are being witnessed. A traumatic childhood often includes experiences that are not allowed to be known and spoken within the family system, and definitely not outside it. Having these experiences be heard and received empathetically, when you are ready, can be a powerful agent of positive change.

It’s normal to find it hard to put words to somatic experience. In fact, being lost for words is a very good sign, because it indicates that the unconscious mind – the part that has no verbal language (and is not constrained by linguistic forms) – is leading the process, and the thinking brain is taking time to catch up.

As we explore together, we may also identify different parts of self in different parts of your body, and we can invite each of these to speak and act, and perhaps to communicate with the other. For example:

Client: I’m so furious with my brother for what he did to me I could kill him, just like that. I could pound him into dust … [Her stance changes and her body collapses.] But I can’t hit him because he’s much bigger than me and I’m too weak. I just want to run away so far that he can never touch me again … run away and hide where no one can ever touch me.
Jess: So there’s a part that’s furious and wants to pound your brother into dust … and there’s a part that wants to run away and hide.
Client: Yes.
Jess: And if you go into the part that’s furious, are there any sensations you notice in your body?
Client: I’m making a fist with my right hand, and my right arm feels really tense.
Jess: And if you go into the part that wants to run away, are there any sensations?
Client: I want to curl up in a tiny ball. There’s a sensation in my belly, a kind of fluttering. I want to curl up tight.
Jess: And if the sensation in your right fist and arm could speak, do you have a sense of what it might say?
Client: ‘Fuck off, just fuck off out of my sight. Never come near me again or I’ll totally fucking destroy you!’ [Braces arm and makes a fist.]
Jess: And what do your right fist and arm want to do now?
Client: [Makes a slow-motion gesture of punching.]
Jess: Does that movement feel complete or is there anything else?
Client: [Repeats the punching gesture several times, each one faster and with increasing energy. Then her whole body relaxes.]
Jess: And what’s happening now?
Client: I’m shaking a bit, and the fluttery feeling has sort of spread out over my whole torso. That feeling wants to say thank you to my fist. ‘Thank you, fist.’
Jess: And does your fist want to say anything?
Client: It says, ‘I am strong and I can protect you now.’
Jess: Let’s allow the shaking some time just to happen.

An important part of self that we always invite to the session is the one that holds the whole picture. This part already knows without having to think. It knows your whole story so far and has traced the map of the journey you still need to take. Words my clients have for this aspect of themselves include:

• Higher self
• Teacher
• God
• Higher power
• Deep self
• Buddha nature

This part of self is able to speak from a broader perspective and offer information and guidance that is not available to the parts embroiled in trauma survival and recovery. Every one of us has this part – and if you can’t find it or you feel that it isn’t there, you can imagine it. That works just as well.

Each session closes with a process of integration. You are invited to reflect back over what you have experienced, to notice which feelings, images or awarenesses were important for you, and to explore tools and strategies for taking these off the mat and into your life. The integration also functions as a kind of elevator out of deep consciousness, so that as we end the session, you are once again standing on solid ground, here in your present-day life. Returning reliably to a sense of capacity is an important factor in making this work feel and be safe. As one of my clients says:

The biggest fear for me was that I open a can of worms that turn out to be alligators, and I get packed off home with the open can and alligators and I’m alone with it. But each session, while experienced and owned by the client, is facilitated in such a way that we don’t break, we don’t get stranded in the past. There is support within the session to think about what we have encountered and how we can take care of ourselves until the next session.

It’s not yoga

When I went to my first Phoenix Rising session I thought I was going to a private ‘gentle yoga with a bit of meditation’ class. Either I didn’t listen or I couldn’t hear.

In a Phoenix Rising session you won’t be asked to hold complex postures, do breathing practices, mudras or mantras, or sit in meditation. If you practise yoga, you may be accustomed to viewing tightness and discomfort in your body as something to ‘release’. In Phoenix Rising, we’re not trying to get rid of sensations, but to invite them to be present, exactly as they are, so that we can fully feel them and listen to the important information they have to offer. A sensation is an ambassador from the land of deep body, and whether it is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral it is welcome, and we do our best to open our attention to what it has to communicate.

You may also be accustomed to using yoga as a way to cultivate peace and tranquillity. While peaceful states do occur during Phoenix Rising sessions, we are not trying to create them. Our business is to offer equal attention to whatever arises. When no threat is present and the nervous system is regulated, it is naturally calm and peaceful, but if we try to bypass anger, grief and other difficult emotions, we cannot experience nervous system regulation. Being in a regulated nervous system is different from feeling spaced out, ‘empty’, out-of-body or dissociated. When your nervous system is regulated, there’s a sense of being grounded and centred in your body, aware of your surroundings (but not hyper-alert), connected with your own sensations and emotions, and available to make authentic contact with other people. As the work of Phoenix Rising progresses, you will find that you spend more and more time in a regulated state.

It’s not bodywork
When you receive Phoenix Rising in person, there is potential for the therapist to hold, support and move your body, and to offer integrative touch. While people with complex trauma often experience muscle and organ pain, and while this pain may (or may not) dissipate during a Phoenix Rising session, the intention of our work is not to move or manipulate your body in such a way as to relieve biomechanical discomfort – as an osteopath or physiotherapist might. Our process is to inquire of the sensation so that we can learn something about the experiences it is holding.

Whereas if you go to see an osteopath or a massage therapist, they will take it as a given that you consent to being touched, a big part of the initial work in in-person Phoenix Rising sessions may be exploring your capacity to give consent for touch – and to refuse touch clearly when it isn’t what you want. If, for example, you have experienced childhood sexual abuse in which survival depended upon allowing another person unrestricted access to your body, it’s likely that at first you will be unable to say no to therapeutic touch, and part of our work will be getting curious about the discrepancies between apparent compliance and genuine body-based needs and desires. Part of my job as a Phoenix Rising yoga therapist is to communicate consistently, through both what I say and how I am being in the session, that you, the client, are in charge of what happens to your body, and it is always OK to say no.

It’s not psychotherapy

In the beginning, I got irritated when Jess kept asking me what I felt in my body. I was thinking, ‘I came here to talk!’

While there are dialogue processes in Phoenix Rising (derived from Person Centred Therapy), the intention in a PRYT session is not to talk about your experiences or to recount stories from the past. This is because this kind of speaking and listening takes place in the cognitive brain, and that is not where trauma is happening. Phoenix Rising is ‘bottom up’, meaning that we go first to sensation and communicate upwards to thinking mind. It’s not that there is no meaning-making in PRYT. There definitely is – but this proceeds out of the felt experience of the body. When we have fully felt (physically and emotionally) what the body is communicating, then we can start to draw conclusions and set intentions for next steps.

In Phoenix Rising, we work with the fundamental understanding that while the thinking mind can play all sorts of tricks, information held in the body is always trustworthy. As Gabrielle Roth (3) says:

It’s not that the body never lies; it’s that the body can’t lie … The truth is what we carry in our bodies. The deceit is what we struggle with in our heads.

Titration and pendulation: ‘I’m scared it will overwhelm me’

Knowing I could trust Jess not to push me into flashback – and that if I went there, she could support – was really important in enabling me to trust the process.

Clients sometimes have the idea that trauma work is all about reliving traumatic events. Actually, in a Phoenix Rising session I’m working very hard to ensure that this is not what happens. When difficult memories arise for a client, I want this to occur in body time – gradually and in small, manageable pieces which are digestible by the body – rather than as technicolour epics that swamp the person, causing them further trauma. This process of softly-softly is known in trauma work as titration. Peter Levine explains:

Consider two glass beakers, one filled with hydrochloric acid … and the other with lye … These extremely corrosive substances … would cause severe burning if you were to place your finger in either beaker; indeed, if you were to leave that finger there for a few moments, it would simply dissolve … Naturally, you would want to make them safe by neutralising them; and if you know a little chemistry, you might mix them together to get a harmless mixture of water and common table salt, two of the basic building blocks of life … If you simply poured them together, you would get a massive explosion, surely blinding yourself and any other individuals in the lab. On the other hand, if you skilfully use a glass valve (a stopcock), you could add one of the chemicals to the other one single drop at a time. And with each drop there would be a small ‘Alka-Seltzer fizzle’, but soon all would be calm … Finally after a certain number of drops, both water and crystals of salt would begin to form. With several titrations, you would inevitably get the same neutralising chemical reaction, but without the explosion. This is the effect that we want to achieve in resolving trauma. (4)

Long before the beaker’s about to explode, my job is to guide you to ‘pendulate’, or shift your attention away from the difficult memory and onto something pleasant or neutral. For some people, it’s helpful to establish right at the beginning of our work a safe place (‘a warm sandy beach’ / ‘my woodwork shop’) or person (‘my nan’ / ‘my dog’ / ‘my best friend who always makes me laugh’) they can go to when they start to feel overwhelmed. Sometimes opening your eyes, breathing, and walking around the room while naming some things you can see works best. Sometimes just redirecting your attention can be enough. Once you feel regulated again, you can pendulate back to the difficult memory or sensation, and carefully excavate a little bit more. As you become more experienced at trauma work, and more tuned in to your nervous system, you will become aware of when and how it needs to titrate and will start to be able to pendulate instinctively.

Safety and trust

Trust was the overarching quality I needed to be certain of.

No trauma work can happen outside an ethos of safety and trust, and every single client I spoke to in connection with this article named building trust as a crucial element in their Phoenix Rising process. Indeed, experiencing a safe reliable space and a safe reliable person – and slowly developing the capacity to trust both space and person – is in itself a significant part of the work of resolving trauma. This requires of you, the client, courage, curiosity and a willingness to stay present over a period of time and through different challenges. As one of my clients says, ‘The level of trust required takes time to build and there will be many bumps and turns along the way.’

If you’ve ever adopted a frightened animal from a shelter, you will know something about this kind of trust-building. It’s a gradual process, consisting of lots of small acts of gentle presence, and repetitions of reliable structure: there will always be dog food at 8am and 6pm, in sufficient quantity and set out in the same place, and there will always be a walk at midday. You have to be patient and you have to demonstrate to your new animal companion that you are reliable, consistent and kind, and that you are not going to hit them, kick them or throw them out on their ear if they scratch the sofa or wee on the kitchen floor.

That wary animal that wants to trust, but can’t control its fear – that’s your nervous system when you first arrive in a Phoenix Rising session. The human autonomic nervous system, which controls the process of fight / flight / freeze, is a physiological survivor from our most primitive animal brain. In this part of our neurology there is literally an animal in charge. It doesn’t understand language. It needs to experience in action and through sensate experience that the environment is safe and that the people in it can be relied on. Just as your rescue dog gradually gains confidence in your company because it consistently experiences you as safe, so your nervous system will slowly relax into the secure holding of the therapeutic space as it recognises on a felt level that here is not dangerous.

Unconditional positive regard: ‘Will I be judged?’

I needed to know that I would not be judged about my experiences and also about my understanding of the process or Jess’s guidance.

An anxiety that my clients frequently express, especially in the early stages of our work, is that I will judge them. Traumatic experiences inevitably carry a freight of misplaced shame that can spill out indiscriminately, for example as the belief that this person despises you, while this other person thinks you can’t do your job, and that one thinks you’re a dirty slut or a worthless ex-druggie.

Carl Rogers, whose Person Centred Therapy informs PRYT, coined the term ‘unconditional positive regard’ to express the attitude that a sound therapist has towards their client and which enables the therapeutic relationship to promote emotional and psychological healing. When we have unconditional positive regard, we accept and support the client irrespective of experiences they disclose, ways they have responded to those experiences, what they say or how they behave. That doesn’t mean that we endorse the person’s views necessarily, or that we go along with any ways in which they may be behaving harmfully (to themselves or to others). And it doesn’t mean that we allow the person to cross our personal boundaries in their speech or actions. It does mean that we do not withdraw our fundamental love of and support for them. In other words, unconditional positive regard is about the person, not the behaviour. As a Phoenix Rising yoga therapist, I hold all my clients in unconditional positive regard. That’s all of them, and, yes, that includes you.

Real life / online
Prospective clients often ask me whether Phoenix Rising, as an embodied form of therapy, really works online. The truth is, online PRYT is surprisingly effective, and is actually not all that different from receiving Phoenix Rising in person. The felt body connection between the two of us is still there. So is the therapeutic container – the dedicated safe space that client and therapist step into for the duration of the session. For some clients with complex trauma, the online space actually feels safer than a real-life session, at least initially. As one of my clients says, ‘Working online gave me a sense of being more in control.’ And for some clients, it feels more possible to shout, roar, jump up and down or dance when online in their own, familiar space.

The main difference between a real-life and an online session for me is that is that when we’re online, touch is not available. This can make things a bit simpler in online work, especially in the beginning, when the primary intention is to create a safe enough space for you to be able to stay. As time goes on and our work progresses, not being able to touch also means, of course, that there is no opportunity for learning to negotiate consent specifically around physical contact – although we can explore giving and refusing permission in other related ways, for example when you choose whether or not to follow a suggestion I might offer for a movement or physical position.

​* * *

The process of Phoenix Rising isn’t linear. It involves numerous double-backs and countless repetitions. Many is the client who thinks they’ve cracked it at an early stage and leaves … only to return a few weeks or months later when they realise that actually they have only completed one round of a much bigger recovery spiral. It can take a while to ‘get’ this work, to make a connection with your body and to understand on a felt level how that connection can initiate trauma healing in your life. But gradually you will start to notice small changes – perhaps a little less anxiety, moments of contentment, a sense of greater authenticity, the confidence to try for a promotion, a lessening in addictive behaviours, pleasure in a new hair cut, greater capacity to make good choices in relationships … As one client puts it:

This work is sooooo challenging. It’s like going through the worst kind of hell again and again. But the rewards … They’re pure gold. There’s no doubt at all in my mind that it’s worth it. Phoenix Rising is changing my life

References
1.  Jess Glenny, The Yoga Teacher Mentor: A Reflective Guide to Holding Spaces, Maintaining Boundaries, and Creating Inclusive Classes, Singing Dragon, London, 2020. Available to buy here.

2.  ‘Complex Trauma: What is it and how does it affect people?’: https://www.complextrauma.org/complex-trauma/complex-trauma-what-is-it-and-how-does-it-affect-people.

3. Founder of the 5Rhythms™ dance practice. Source unknown.

4. In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California, 2010.

Acknowledgements
Thanks go to my complex trauma clients old and new, all of whom have informed my practice of Phoenix Rising immensely, and especially to those who generously contributed words for this article. I am very grateful.

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Ante Gudelj.

Reflections on Practice

Thursday 17 June 2021: second series

Like a day in heather with a clear sky and tussocky grass.

Like a clear run.

You weren’t expecting this when you woke up muscle-sore from yesterday’s endeavours and intending only to glance over the surface. But then you surrender and the possibilities expand. You know it works like this, but still it always comes as a surprise. When it’s a trick you try to play on yourself it never works – not quite like this – although playing injured, even when not, was a way you made this practice tractable again, malleable, like a good dough. And then you were in, away and laughing.

The edge is always going to be a challenge – sitting just so on the rope, the pole finely balanced, not a teeter left nor a totter right. Even now, with all that you know, you still have to have just a taste out of Daddy Bear’s bowl – just the littlest bit – though it’s Baby’s porridge you actually eat. And you’re always the littlest bit burned.

If nothing was burning, if there was not this low tide of pain ebbing into sensation, so you don’t quite know the name of it, really, this hum … If not, would you know you were alive? It stands in for the missing proprioception. Comforting. Reminding you that you are in this body, that it has boundaries, that there is you and not-you, and other people can see. It reminds you that you are still coasting the surf of this wild sea. By some extraordinary grace. Today you are here.

Texture

Reflections on an ashtanga practice at nearly 58 …
Ehlers-Danlos … and how it’s all getting better and better

The texture has changed. This is what strikes me this morning about my ashtanga practice – the weekly full series. Like an ordinary miracle, all the body conditioning, weights, pilates, ballet barre – and of course not doing yoga every day (but rather a bit of this and a bit of that) has organised my tissues. I don’t feel so much like two pieces of knotted spaghetti (overcooked), more like a body of solids and fibres, levers and springs – calibrated.

Equation
Muscle density > proprioception > embodiment: the felt sense that I am here in this body, filling it, pushing through its pores, not just joints and bones and a few ragged sinews.

History
There’s a reason they call it ‘the change’. It becomes impossible to go on in the same direction. And from that surrender, that willingness to throw in the towel, came an invitation into something that turned out to be miraculously expansive. First there was the expansion of completely giving up: the exhalation, and the utter freedom, the wide open skies. And then the expansion in capacity. Followed by: the resurrection of fallen structures, old abandoned postures … an architrave becoming usable here, a surprising buttress, columns, pilasters, even the curly Corinthians standing up out of the rubble. It was impressive, and it had foundations.

Pandemic
Praise be also to pandemic life for the finishing touches: relief from choices, stimmuli, days that start in the small hours, running from pillar to post; for releasing me from exhaustion, first, and then into … energy. There’s no going back from here.

* * *

I’ve written so much in this place about aging with ashtanga as a process of reduction (or at least that’s my memory of what I’ve written): injury and pain and hypermobile tissues. And in the end, of course, all we have is only on loan. Eventually, the ticket’s up and we have to hand the whole lot back in. In the meantime, though, who knew there could be so much exponential increase, so much enjoyment, so much power, aged 57 (nearly 58) with Ehlers-Danlos? It isn’t a story I’ve heard anywhere else. But it’s the one that’s happening to me now.

Ashtanga vinyasa, wild horses and me

In any long-term relationship there are times of affinity, utter and complete, and there are times when you are like planets spiralling into different solar systems, and you feel you must leave – you must. I did think I would leave ashtanga, in the storm of menopause. Or I thought it would leave me. There were times when I hated ashtanga; it hurt me every which way, and none of my old strategies worked. At the same time, in another storm, Pattabhi Jois was being outed as an abuser, and a teeter-totter tower of bricks was tumbling down. I’ve never been to Mysore, and I knew nothing about the sexual abuse, but I knew about triangulation of power structures and injurious adjustments. I knew that I had internalised voices that told me what to do and how to do it, and that these overlords didn’t know about connective tissue differences or autistic learning styles – how we set out alone in the little boat to the anchorite isle.

So I started gathering my own stones, from this place and that, also sticks, small animal bones and pieces of strangely degraded plastic, oddments of shape and colour that pleased me and which served the architecture inside my head, and I began building foundations again.

If a yoga practice doesn’t help you to move well in daily life, something is surely out of kilter, but that is not enough for me. It’s sufficient to walk functionally only if you are slow-walking into a song that your body is singing. The definition of yoga can be whatever you like, but for me it is that I am poised on the brink of creation, and I am thinking, what can I form from my clay? How can I throw my pot, temper my steel, spin my yarn into a bright cocoon in which the parts join up and it is more than the sum of the words?

I no longer bleed, but I still practise ashtanga, and it is both the same and utterly different. Wild horses did not become less wild, but I whispered in their ears and together we slipped the traces and set out. We’re listening and we’re weaving in threads of many different weights and colours, but we are maverick, and you cannot tell us what to do. Or what to think either. Well, you can, but we are not listening.

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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.

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Patti Smith riff

M Train is a book about nothing – about the in-between spaces, the wadding of human life. Patti makes the crevices feel fertile and itchy with green, ‘nothing’ like rich, dark, velvety boxes lined with stuff. Patti makes it permissible to expend days in wandering at random, musing, writing, and sitting too long at off-times in cafes. She makes it possible that this is itself a life.

Sometimes, serendipitously, Patti meets a strange personal idol. She seems to have no sense that she is herself a famous person and that her idols are probably awe-struck and delighted to meet her.

I wonder if Patti is one of us.1 Her father spent many years devising a handicapping system for horses, but he never placed a bet. He had ‘a mathematical curiosity … searching for patterns’. He was ‘kind and open-minded’ but ‘dreamily estranged’. Hiroshima and Nagasaki ‘broke his heart’. ‘Question everything’, he told his children. He always wore the same thing: ‘a black sweatshirt, worn dark pants rolled up to his calves’ (surely an autistic touch) ‘and moccasins’. At the weekend, the children were ‘obliged to give him some privacy as he had little time for himself’.

Patti talks to inanimate objects, which have personalities and a view. Myself, I would have thought this was normal, except that I have become aware it isn’t. She spends days roaming around on her own, coming upon people, places and things. This, too, seems normal to me, but I’m autistic. Patti is obsessive – she says so herself. I think perhaps rather, though, she is immersive. She immerses into worlds – of books and lives and TV programmes – like blotting paper sopping into a dish of ink. She is herself an immersive world. A mood. A music. A dish of ink.

I first became aware of Patti in in 1978. ‘Because the Night’ and the iconic cover of Easter. I was 15. She was upraised arms, white camisole, and flagrant dark armpit hair. She embodied something I couldn’t define and didn’t understand, but wanted inchoately. I’ve always adored armpits with their soft, tender hair – the shape, the undulations and hollows, the suggestion of hidden places and sex. Patti didn’t conceal hers or do the polite thing and depilate. She flaunted them, these beautiful, unseemly, ordinary things. I was slow. It took a lot longer for the penny to drop. I had lovers who were men, and I liked their silky armpits. At some point, eventually, it occurred to me that I could have my own, and ever since I have. It’s kind of farouche and fuck-you and normal, dammit. It’s me, and it’s mine, and here I am.

I wrote this in the wrong book, at the back of the Mysore class register. It arose in the interstices – a weed on a page not intended to cultivate actual writing. I wrote it in Patti space, drifing an hour or so, in the Picturehouse downstairs, cake for breakfast,2 rain drilling the tarmac, slick olive trees – yes, olive trees – St Alfege’s, massed and matronly, presiding. It’s not about practice, but it’s hiding out now in this blog, an outlaw, whisky-toting, red kerchief, hooves on rocks.

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1. Autistic.
2. The cake was delicious.

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!

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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.

Yin Yoga and Hypermobility

In the small but growing conversation about yoga and hypermobility, there has been quite a bit of interest lately in yin yoga and its suitability – or not – for people with Hypermobile Ehlers Danlos, Syndrome, Hypermobility Spectrum Disorder and Marfan Syndrome (hEDS / HSD / MF): the hypermobility syndromes. And if it is suitable, whether it needs to be modified. And if it does need to be modified, how.

First off, let me say that I am neither a doctor, a physiotherapist, a scientist nor any kind of expert. What I know about yoga and hypermobility is experiential. It arises from 35 years of practising yoga in a hypermobile body and 18 years of working with hypermobile people as a yoga teacher. Among other things, I am a yin yoga teacher – I trained with Paul Grilley – though what I offer these days is mostly a restorative form of yin.

I’ve come across some fairly dogmatic opinions about yin yoga and hypermobility, and I don’t want to add another one. I feel that it’s inappropriate and pointless to pronounce on what another person’s practice should or shouldn’t be. This is something that can be known only from the inside. An authentic practice emerges, resonates, informs, pleasures. It has the capacity to repattern and recalibrate on a whole-person level. It leads us into the centre of of our experiences and reveals increasingly subtle sensations, emotions, and mental and nervous system activities, so that over a period of time, the practising body becomes an ever more intelligent system. This is an intimate and personal process, and it remains the exclusive property of the person experiencing it.

HEDS / HSD / MF is a grouping of – very many – genetic mutations, a few of which have been identified, the majority of which have not, all of them causing laxity and fragility in the connective tissue. When we think about connective tissue, we tend to imagine ligaments and fascia, but in fact connective tissue is a major component not only of the musculo-skeletal but of all body systems (vascular, reproductive, urinary and so on), and a person with hypermobility can experience the consequences of having ‘different’ connective tissue in some, all or many of these systems.

It’s evident from reading forum posts on yin yoga and hypermobility that some people assume yin yoga to be a generic term for a gentle form of hatha yoga. No wonder, then, that they are puzzled as to why this kind of yoga might be inadvisable for a hypermobile body. So to clarify, the yin yoga that we are talking about is a specific form originated by martial arts master and yogi Paulie Zink,1 developed by Paul Grilley, and popularised by Paul along with second-generation teachers such as Sarah Powers. Bernie Clark, author of The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga, describes yin like this:

Most forms of yoga today are dynamic, active practices designed to work only half of our body, the muscular half, the ‘yang’ tissues. Yin yoga allows us to work the other half, the deeper ‘yin’ tissues of our ligaments, joints, deep fascial networks, and even our bones.

In yin yoga we do this by holding a passive extension for a long time (about five minutes on average, but sometimes less and sometimes more). Paul Grilley explains that the nature of fascia is contractile. If we don’t counteract the contractive process, as we age, the fascial wrappings around our joints, muscles, internal organs and whole body beneath the skin, become progressively tighter and more restricted, often along distorted planes that affect our capacity for functional movement. The theory is that fascia responds to long, slow stretching by lengthening and unkinking. Gentle stressing in this way, according to the yin yoga paradigm, also makes the fascial tissues stronger (in much the same way that doing repetitions with a bar bell strengthens the biceps by causing muscle fibres to break down and rebuild).

If stressing / stretching connective tissue is central to yin yoga, and hypermobile connective tissue is delicate and already lax, it’s easy to see why there might be concerns about the suitability, helpfulness or even safety of this practice for a hypermobile body. But are these valid? In practice, I have taught hypermobile people who love yin yoga and find great benefit in practising it, and I have taught hypermobile people who have found they get overstretched and injured by yin and avoid it like the plague. Eva, Liz, Micky and Deborah say:

In yin classes I was always told to let go, yield, etc. If I let go in paschimottanasana or a split, I go to the maximum of my flexibility and it will either increase my hypermobility or will give me an injury. I’ve tried different approaches to yin, such as strengthening some muscles or not letting go completely, but I don’t think this is really yin yoga and I don’t find these approaches relaxing.

I think it’s important that we each find our own safest practice. For me, a mindful modified yin practice is very nourishing. But I do not dislocate and most of my [other] practice focuses on building strength.

I find yin extremely beneficial. I like the fact that with yin you work passively. I’ve noticed that every time I practise yin, it alleviates the usual aches and pains that I get during my morning astanga self-practice. It helps with letting go of emotional and therefore physical tension, and it’s great for the parasympathetic nervous system. Often a practice like astanga can create an accumulation of tension, and yin has taught me to let go of the subtle tension, or at least to be aware of it.

I love yin yoga, but I am getting to the opinion that yin doesn’t like me very much, especially when I have some damage somewhere. The stretching feels soooo good, but I’m pretty sure I over-stretch something that should be healing. And moving out of the posture can be really painful. Also, even on the good days, I do need to engage a few more muscles than classically you should do, particularly in my hips and core, to stop me collapsing as the ligaments relax.

In my own experience it’s observable how my responses to yin practice have shifted across different phases of my life. I used to practise yin fairly regularly – for a while every other day, and then about once a week. A year or two ago, I stopped doing yin altogether. The practice itself usually felt fine, but on several occasions afterwards I had been in pain – probably as a result of some torn muscle fibres, or muscles spasming to protect a joint. Lately, though, I’ve noticed that the balance of flexibility in my body has changed as a result of not having yin in my movement repertoire. I wondered if this is contributing to issues in my hips and pelvis, and I have re-introduced some yin practice. In the meantime, I have also experienced some significant shifts in my somatic and proprioceptive understanding, and it seems as if now I may be able to re-encounter yin in a more creative and adaptive way. Our bodies change over time, as does our capacity to understand and integrate the subtleties of different practices. Some we outgrow, others we grow into, and sometimes a practice we thought we had outgrown may become available to us on a level that we hadn’t realised existed.

Paradoxically, while too much yin can cause muscles to go into spasm, just enough yin can also help to release a spastic muscle. Most people assume that a hypermobile person will present as extremely flexible – and we often do – but where hypermobility has been accompanied by inactivity and deconditioning, and widespread muscle spasm has gone unchallenged, the person may be very, very ‘tight’ – although they will still often have tell-tale hyperextending joints, sometimes with subluxations and / or dislocations. In this scenario, a modified yin practice could be very useful, probably with shorter than the usually recommended hold times (over-stretching will cause muscles to go into even tighter spasm, remember) and with very carefully targeted work. An experienced teacher can help the person to avoid flopping into familiar and already overstretched areas, and instead to access areas that may have gone offline, so that more functional, less painful movement patterns can be established.

This kind of specificity in where and for how long I work is crucial to me in practising yin in a beneficial way. It’s complex and it isn’t usually within the capacity of a beginning yoga practitioner, or a practitioner who is only just discovering and coming to terms with their hypermobility. I rely on a lot of knowledge that I’ve emerged from working with a very good physio. I also don’t completely relax in postures, but prefer to squeeze and release and press into certain muscles and to relax into others.2 This way I can stay selectively engaged. As an autistic person, I find this approach a lot more satisfying too.3 Like Eva, though, I think it’s questionable whether this way of working is really yin any more, since yin is essentlally defined as a passive form in which we follow the bones, follow the line of least resistance and let go into the joints.

Although yin is a passive form, it’s not necessarily gentle. Most yin postures have fearsome potential as stretches, and if practised to an extreme in terms of range of movement and duration can be highly agressive to ligaments and tendons. And herein lies one of the gifts of yin. It has important lessons to offer about edge: where is too much, where is too little, where is the sweet spot that holds the potential for expansion into our experience in all dimensions – physical, emotional, mental, transpersonal? This is an especially important learning for a hypermobile person because a deficit in proprioception is part and parcel of hEDS / HSD / MFS. While we are innately endowed with limited proprioceptive resources, we can work with what we’ve got to cultivate our capacity to feel into and differentiate between edges. If practised with sensitivity and appropriate intention, for some people yin yoga can be a fertile terrain for this exploration.

One possibility for making yin yoga safer and more user-friendly for hypermobile people is to give it restorative slant. Micky described his yin practice to me as partly restorative. Eva and Ellen say:

After years of practising yin yoga and not having a clue what I was supposed to do or feel with my body, I’ve come to the conclusion that we hypermobile people should do restorative yoga rather than yin. I am convinced that the only way to do it safely and really let go is with the use of props.

The only yin that works for me is supported positions that don’t involve a stretch. Probably technically more restorative yoga than yin.

In restorative yoga the emphasis is on comfort and ease rather than stretching. Soft props such as bolsters and blankets support the body, and we slow right down to access the parasympathetic nervous system, creating opportunities for rest, integration, and physical and emotional healing. Clearly the potential for traumatic injury to myofascia4 is far smaller in this scenario; however, even a restorative practice can go pear-shaped for a hypermobile practitioner if they are already biomechanically out of kilter. Bear in mind that for many hypermobile people, sleeping is a high-risk activity. Those most severely affected may need to wear splints and braces at night to keep their joints in a neutral position; most of us are accustomed to waking up with joint and muscle pain. Restorative yoga can be counter-productive where fascial laxity is such that when the person lets go (allows postural muscles to switch off) they collapse into positions that distort the joints. Often in this scenario the resting position is further compromised by dysfunctional muscle patterns, in which some muscles are very tight and unable to release, whereas others are completely switched off and unable to fire, so that the person is biomechanically lopsided. In this situation, structural repatterning work (with a suitably skilled physiotherapist, yoga therapist or other structural bodyworker) may be of most benefit.

There’s more to yin yoga than stretching, though. Yin is also a meridian system. Paul Grilley explains:

Spiritual adepts from the earliest times have described an energy system of the body that is vital to its health. In India they called this energy prana and in China they called it chi. The Chinese Taoists founded the science of acupuncture, which described in detail the flow of chi through pathways they called ‘meridians’. It is chi, in all its forms, that keeps us alive.

Central to Paul’s approach to yin is the work of Dr Hiroshi Motoyama, a yoga-practising shinto priest who is also a double PhD scientist with a long track record in researching the science of bodymind. Motoyama’s work suggests that the meridian system is located in fascial tissues. Another well-known researcher in the field, Dr James Oschman, explains:

All movements, of the body as a whole, or of its smallest parts, are created by tensions carried through the connective tissue fabric. Each tension, each compression, each movement causes the crystalline lattices of the connective tissues to generate bio-electric signals that are precisely characteristic of those tensions, compressions and movements. The fabric is a semiconducting communication network that can convey the bioelectric signals between every part of the body and every other part.

If this is indeed the case, the implications for hypermobile people – those of us who have a different sort of fascial tissue – may be immense, complex and wide-ranging. As far as I’m aware, these possibilities have been discussed little if at all. Maybe it’s still all a bit woo woo for the majority of people to contemplate.

I’m often asked if I can give guidelines for working as a yoga teacher with hypermobile people. I can’t. While it’s possible to make some suggestions as a starting point (I already have – you can find them here), the way hypermobility presents is very individual, and it’s really necessary to encounter and be in collaboration with the particular hypermobile person in order to offer anything meaningful. Some people with hEDS / HSD / MF are almost unbelievably flexible and able to perform the most mind-bending contortions with no pain or other unwanted complications even into later life. Others may not have such breathtaking mobility but suffer from very debilitating fertility issues, digestive problems, chronic pain, sleep disruption, anxiety, prolapses, incontinence … Perhaps to some extent this diversity is due to the range of different gene mutations involved in hEDS / HSD / MF, although, of course, there are many factors that determine how our genes express. When I’m working with a hypermobile person, I do my best to let go of theories, pre-formed solutions and paradigms, and approach with beginners mind and waving antennae. I use my eyes, and I rely on the body of experience I’ve accumulated, but it’s also through my hands, my skin, my nerve endings and that intuitive sense that lives who-knows-where in my body that I feel into what might be this biomechanical system, this emotional experience, this nervous system response, this neurology.

Yin yoga and hypermobility: good thing / bad thing? I don’t really know. It all depends. I do feel that that yin yoga as a practice is sufficiently rich, alive and malleable to be different things to different people, that there’s enough elasticity in it to allow for varying slants and approaches. If a practice attracts you, I’m all for wriggling through the wire and finding a way in.

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1. I’ve never met Paulie, but he looks pretty damn hypermobile to me. Check out the pictures on his website.

2. This is pandiculation (yawning or the kind of intuitive stretching we do when we wake up). There’s an interesting article here.

3. It’s well recognised by autistic people and by those who work with us at grass roots level (especially with children) that there is a significant intersection between HMS / EDS and autism. However, there is a reluctance among medical professionals to acknowledge the relationship because there is little, if any, scientific research on the subject – and if there’s no research, it doesn’t exist, right? Autistic people generally don’t do well with physical stillness. We need to move in order to regulate our nervous system – after all, this is what stimming is all about.

4. The interwoven complex of fascia, ligaments, tendons and muscles.

References
The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga: The philosophy and practice of yin yoga, Bernie Clark, White Cloud Press, 2012.

Yin Yoga: Outline of a quiet practice, Paul Grilley, White Cloud Press, 2002.

Being Flexible About Flexibility’ is a good article on hypermobility, flexibility and yin yoga by my friend and colleague Norman Blair.

My very good physio is Darren Higgins at Vanbrugh Physiotherapy Clinic.

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Am I subversive? An autistic person navigates the Open Floor and wonders how inclusive we really are

I was described as ‘subversive’ in the Open Floor mentor group the other day. It set me thinking about all the ways in which autistic modes of being are constantly interpreted / misinterpreted in allistic1 culture – often so thoroughly and insistently that eventually we as autistic people incorporate the interpretation as reality. Throughout my life I’ve repeatedly been referred to ‘subversive’, ‘anarchic’, ‘rebellious’ and other variations on that theme. Sometimes it has been with affection; other times it has come with a backwash of judgement and disapproval. Up to now, I’ve pretty much taken it on and defended it, as if it belonged to me, but there comes a moment when a tipping point is reached. Something’s got to fall off the top of the heap.

To me, subversive suggests an intention to subvert. But I’m actually not interested in disruption for its own sake. What you’re witnessing if you see me engage with Open Floor is just an autistic person engaging with Open Floor. I am really searching out ways of understanding and offering this work that feel authentic and meaningful for me, ways of being in it, both as a praxis and as a community of practitioners, that feel nourishing and supportive rather than dysregulating and overwhelming. As someone autistic, I often know only vaguely and two beats behind everyone else what is the ‘normal’ (read ‘allistic’) and expected response; and even then it’s a kind of intellectual apprehension; it doesn’t register on my internal compass. I seldom have an intrinsic sense of the ‘rightness’ of it being the way allistic people presume it’s going to be. So I am always wobbling on the pointy edge of producing what you expect me to produce or allowing the expression of what naturally wants to push through to the surface.

It’s challenging to be in a curriculum which is so fond of referring to itself as that, and in which the language of ‘teaching’ and ‘student’ is so valorised. Autistic people are most often our own teachers. We will research every angle, but in order truly to know, we have to take the whole thing apart and reinvent it, generally in wild, strange and unanticipated ways. We take nothing as given. As one of my autistic clients says, ‘It’s never enough to be told; I have to go through it myself to know for certain.’ This is why innovators and ground-breakers – those people who revise cultural, scientific and artistic understandings – are often autistic. Yet while the results may be revolutionary, the autistic person is usually far more absorbed in the stuff of their specialism than they are interested in what society makes of their break-through productions.2

It felt really, really good to shuck off ‘subversive’ ­and reframe it as what it actually is. And I’m grateful that the mentor group is the kind of receptive space where it feels possible to up-end perceptions in this way, knowing that different realities can be received and held. Not all spaces are like this.

I’d love for there to be more genuine inclusion on the Open Floor. My experience is that while there’s a wish and a willingness to include up to a point, it doesn’t extend far enough to motivate most of those who organise and facilitate actually to do things differently where this entails some disruption to their own habits and preferences. You can be included if you’re willing to make all the accommodations yourself. If you’re unable to stand, for instance, (I can’t for long), you can sit down during the standing circle, but – as if you don’t actually exist in the group – there will still be a standing circle.

It has been an enormous struggle – over many years of remaining upright through pain, fatigue and dizzy-faintness – for me to be able to stand up (sit down) for myself in this simple way on the dance floor. It takes A LOT of self-confidence to offer yourself as the big sore thumb in a large international workshop with a high-profile teacher who has not made any enquiry into the special needs of individual dancers on the floor. Make no mistake about it, this is a powerful statement. A teacher who is more involved in control than in listening and receiving may judge you as lazy, uncooperative, challenging, or, oh yes, subversive. Even in a small workshop with a relatively unknown facilitator, power dynamics are surely in play. Many of the people we as facilitators hold in our dance spaces are drawn to movement practice for reasons that make them vulnerable in multiple ways. They need our help in listening to their authentic needs and in holding their genuine boundaries. We have to take care that we are not only talking the good talk but are really engaged in helping them to do this work. For all of us, the extent to which we are managing to offer this kind of supportive inclusivity must be an ongoing open question.

It’s not that I haven’t received help like this – I have, and I’m super-, heart expandingly-grateful – but it was over a decade before I was able to make known that I needed it. It was like the crackling of glacial surfaces and an ice age coming to an end. We are all growing older, wiser and more decrepid, and as a result some of our spaces (I’m speaking here of the Five Rhythms and all of its children, of which Open Floor is the youngest) are becoming kinder, more open-minded, less attached to the delivery of cherished teachings and more responsive to the needs of the dancers in the room. I feel so anyway. I hope so.

I’m in another mentor group. We are seven autistic women. I told the group my ‘subversive’ story. These were a couple of the responses:

I totally recognise that. I’m often described as awkward, contrary, rebellious, perverse or non-conformist. Some are disapproving and others admiring, even envious. I’ve kind of taken on that identity with pride, but reframing it now, it’s all about our intention being misconstrued. I never set out to be rebellious, but I guess I’ve taken it on because I was being seen that way. There have been more than a few times when I wanted to say (and sometimes have said), ‘Actually that’s not my intention at all.’

I recognise this only too well. I get misinterpreted by a certain kind of person who thinks that my desire to play with concepts and excitedly share information is trying to prove I’m cleverer than them and that my willingness to do things that frighten other people is me being ambitious and having ideas ‘above my station’. I had a supervisor who was a classic example of this. I’m not ambitious in the way he believed. My motivation is around services for clients, or my desire to learn new things, or be creative, not to empire-build or grab opportunities for personal promotion.

It seems that it’s difficult for the neuro-majority to really ‘get’ that the way they process and perceive things is only one possible way of processing and perceiving. If you want to make an autistic person incandescent with rage, try telling them, ‘We’re all on the spectrum.’ We are not. People who are autistic – and only people who are autistic ­– are on the autism spectrum.3 Maybe the recital of the dread sentence is well intended; presumably it’s a misguided attempt at empathy; the problem is that it whitewashes and belittles the very real and unique difficulties that autistic people routinely face in allistic society. As one autistic woman commented, ‘You wouldn’t go up to someone in a wheelchair and tell them how you sprained your ankle once so you know how they feel, or say to someone with Alzheimer’s that you are really forgetful too.’

As I feel for an end point to this writing, it strikes me that ‘subversive’ as a descriptor is really a way of excluding. What ‘subverts’ is the thing that the school or the teacher or the teachings or the practice container is not yet elastic or expansive enough to encompass. By bringing our difference, our unexpectedness, the uniqueness of our perceptions, our left-field, autistic, one-directional determination and ‘cussedness’, together with our absolute commitment to honesty and authenticity, we can challenge the container to grow. And if it’s a good container – a vital, generative, evolving one – it will respond.

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1. Allistic: ‘non-autistic’. This is a good article about the language of autistic and other neurologies.

2. Steve Silberman’s acclaimed book Neurotribes is a a brilliant discussion of this.

3. I like this – very autistic – explanation of the autism spectrum.

Containers not contents: reflections from the Open Floor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More about my dance movement work.

armsjohnand partner

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

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

3. ‘Pendulate’ in Somatic Experiencing language.