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.

Image
Ante Gudelj.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Monkey Girl: me, my ribs, the speaking body and some physiotherapists I have known

Once, in class, I’d reached out to touch a coil of braids on the head of the woman in the seat in front of me. I hadn’t been thinking at all, overwhelmed by the need to feel that intricacy of hair. She’d turned around. ‘My head doesn’t belong to you,’ she’d said icily, leaving me stuttering an apology, horrified at the way my chimp nature still popped out when I wasn’t paying attention.”—Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Rosemary grew up with a chimp. While the chimp, in Karen Joy Fowler’s novel, acquires some human skills and characteristics, Rosemary also learns to emote and socialise a bit like a chimp. ‘There was something off about me,’ Rosemary says, ‘maybe in my gestures, my facial expressions or eye movement, and certainly in the things I said.’ Being autistic in a neurotypical world feels not dissimilar to this.

10482574_765329033510297_4537353880031777239_nI’m not horrified by my autistic nature – far from it – but I am very aware of its capacity for toppling things over. There’s a constant negotiation going on between my authentic monkey impulses and the way I know human beings are supposed to behave. The more I like someone, the more I want to bring all of myself to the table, but the bigger the risk of upsetting the teapot. I often feel like an over-large and over-enthusiastic dog who loves you just too much, and is just a bit too excited to see you. I’m scared I’ll knock you off your feet with the full force of myself.

There are some autistic people, I’m told, who show very little affect; I am not one of those autistic people. What I feel emits from my body like cartoon shock waves in the air. For many years, I tried to curb myself. This is called passing. It hurts. I walked around in an invisible straitjacket. I fitted right in. Unfortunately, I also had an eating disorder, ongoing low-level PTSD and chronic fatigue. I felt alienated not only from everyone and everything, but also from myself. I remember writing at the time that I felt like half a pound of bacon sealed in a plastic pack.

This is one reason why I live in the intersecting worlds of dance, movement and somatics. They’re speaking-body-positive. If I want to talk to one of my teachers on the Open Floor, I most often take their hand, partly because I can use and understand verbal speech more easily that way – touch closes that heart-stopping gulf that feels insurmountable by only words; partly because I feel plugged in when I’m physically connected. I imagine sonar detection must be a bit like this if you’re a bat. There’s a constant conversation of kinaesthetic chirrupings and whistlings when bodies are in contact, exchanges of information outside the closely defined meanings of verbal language.

Being hypermobile is for me intimately and inextricably connected with being autistic. It’s as if hypermobility were my body speaking autism. Just like autistic mind, crazy wisdom body is a maverick guide who navigates without a map. We find our trajectory by following footprints in the snow and parsing the arrows the birds make when they fly. Together we have ambled through a pleasant series of left fields, wire-walked precipital brinks and nearly drowned in a lot of raging seas. Never a dull moment, and our sense of direction must somehow have been good, because, by wit or wandering, we have finally made footfall on stable ground.

Since July, I’ve been re-aligning my ribcage. This means I’m embodying – slowly – a new and more functional form of internal support. For most of my life, I thought I had a congenital scoliosis. What I actually have turns out to be some kind of lopsided shiftingness which originates, I think, in the physical difficulty of getting upright at eighteen months1 and of staying at least periodically vertical for the following 50 years. As a hypermobile person, I’ve always found standing up a dizzy kind of challenge; with insufficient fascial integrity, the forces of nature tend inexorably towards collapse.2

What I’m doing with my ribs is called the Thoracic Ring Approach. It’s genius. I’m a little bit obsessed with it. If you grew up skew-wiff and ramshackle and sidling like a nervous horse, if you feel that some part of you has always been cowering in a corner, if your ribcage feels like a collapsed accordion and you’d like it to be a chamber that honours the fullness of your heart, if you’ve been leaning on that wall for fifty years and you feel it’s time to stand up and support yourself … Oh, wait, that’s me …

Thoracic Ring Approach emerged from the physiotherapy world, but in some ways it feels to me like a somatic practice that doesn’t know it is one. Like many somatic alignment processes, it presupposes that the body is naturally intelligent – that if you remind it where its ribs are meant to go, it will recognise the original template and recruit for itself the muscles it needs to support the new-old and more functional structure. In other words, it’s different from pulleys and levers and strengthening exercises for muscles which, if you’re proprioceptively challenged, you can’t isolate anyway. Give it a clue and the body will align itself towards optimum kinetic efficiency.

In other ways, Thoracic Ring Approach is definitely physiotherapy. It operates to all intents and purposes as if the physical body were an isolatable entity that could be addressed apart from the emotional body, the body of memories, the cognitive body and all the rest. The neurological body, actually that one’s being allowed in. It’s scientific. To a somaticist (an actual one) like me, this abstraction of physical body is either funny or frustrating or stupid, depending on your orientation to it in the moment. Because, clearly, how I support myself thoracically is not only a series of physical events but speaks to how I stand up in myself in emotional, relational, cognitive and all other ways. Which means that the unacknowledged part of this work – or the part that’s acknowledged only by me – is the call to support myself really. Not the pleasing façade behind whose illusion of substance I’m actually riding roughshod over my needs, isolating myself or playing truant, but the structure in which I’m able to line myself up synergistically and inhabit myself in a steady, congruent, measured way.

How I stack up thoracically is also intricately linked with how I carry my heart. My default position for a lifetime has been rib-crests-first – in which the rib crests stick out in front of the upper thoracic ribs. I’ve always thought of this as ‘false heart’. It means that you don’t meet anything or anybody with your real one. It’s taken me 51 years to be ready to embody the centred heart. It’s a commitment not just to random acts of radical vulnerabilty, but to a permanent and thorough-going physical, neurological and emotional repatterning in favour of heart first: clearly, honestly, unapologetically.

Something else you’re supposed to pretend isn’t happening in physiotherapy is inter-personal relationship. In somatic modalities, we recognise that when two bodies walk into the same room, a third body arises. This body is the thing that’s greater than the sum of the two parts. It’s totally unique, and it holds the creative potential. Somaticists, psychotherapists, experiential dancers and movers, we take it as read that in a therapeutic relationship a large part of the capacity for healing lies in the third body. As much as techniques and technology, people heal people.

I may have had more physiotherapists than lovers. UCH is the home of the hypermobility unit founded by the wonderful Professor Rodney Grahame, hypermobility hero. As a result of – gasp! – listening to his patients, Professor Grahame was instrumental in recognising hypermobility as a thing. I’d had a few not exactly helpful physiotherapeutic interventions, but I reckoned that at UCH the physiotherapists might be a bit more than averagely clued in about working with hypermobile people, so I got myself referred – to the locum in charge of the department. For a few sessions she took a very long time to do not very much, then finally told me I was able to manage my own condition and didn’t need physiotherapy. To be fair, I probably was able to manage it better than she was doing, but I was in chronic pain, I really did need guidance, support and structure, and I felt abandoned. Well, fuck you too, UCH physiotherapy department!

The environment in the physiotherapy clinic at my local NHS hospital felt toxic. It required an enormous investment of energy and expenditure of executive function to make an appointment there and keep it, so god knows what it was like to actually have to work in the place. In a dozen or so visits, I saw three different physiotherapists. The first one was good, but on secondment from another hospital so I only saw him once. The second one kept telling me what hypermobile people like. Hello? Isn’t it my job to tell you that? (Of course, everyone knows that hypermobile people are actually a globule and we all like exactly the same things.) The third one made me cry with frustration, and I discharged myself. If I can’t stabilise my shoulder blade, a good exercise is not: raise your arm keeping your shoulder blade stabilised. (Actually this is essentially what I’m doing now, but by means so crafty that serratus anterior didn’t realise it was being asked to do something until it found out it already had.)

A friend recommended Richard at Harley St Physio. For a couple of years, until he went back to Australia, I had a really good time with Richard. Richard, if you’re reading this, I still have an extensive collection of your Thera-Bands (especially green), and I always channel you when I want to create an original latex-based exercise to address, well, pretty much anything. I resolved a longterm issue with a thickened flexor hallucis longus tendon this way when the NHS specialist foot physio said there was nothing for it but cortisone injections.

I was introduced to the Thoracic Ring Approach by Darren Higgins at Vanbrugh Physio. I love Darren (yay!). Some of what I like about this relationship is that I feel contained without being constrained in it. I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about the problem of containment in a hypermobile body. With intermittent proprioceptive feedback it’s difficult, perhaps impossible, to establish a consistent sense of body boundary. It’s like being a dot-to-dot person, parts of me constantly threatening to trickle away through the in-between spaces. Because I’m also experiencing the autistic 42 per cent extra resting brain activity3 (and the exponential multiplication of 42 per cent when, most of the time, my brain isn’t resting), there’s an awful lot more that needs containing: a babbling stream of images, emotions, thoughts, ideas, interoceptive information. To encompass the range, multiplicity and shiftingness of it all, any kind of external relational holding also has to be elastic. If there isn’t room for expansion, I feel that I’m going to overflow the space – a frightening prospect of disembodiment and dispersal.

My friend Bruce values in a teacher something he calls ‘gravitas’. He’s queer and Scottish, so imagine it with a rolling ‘r’ and a camp sort of lilt. I think what he means by ‘gravitas’, is a kind of robustness that comes from having done what you do for a long time, from knowing the back and the front and the top and the bottom of it. It comes from confidence that this is enough, awareness that there’s always more, and the recognition that whatever you hold to be known, it’s never going to be the truth for everyone. I think he also means you have a sense of humour about yourself, and that you’re grown-up enough to be able mostly to roll with things, even if they’re a bit unusual. And I think he means that on the whole you don’t get toppled by over-enthusiastic dogs.

As a series of procedures that have to be followed the way they have be followed in order for the thing to work, Thoracic Ring Approach is itself a container. I always see it as an off-white shoe box, no writing or logo’s on it, and a lid that lifts completely off. It’s new shoes when I was five. This is a very good sign, because I love shoes. When I was five, I wanted to work in a shoe shop. You know when you go to empty the shredding bin and you take the lid off and all these little curls of paper spring out? That’s what’s in the shoe box. It’s really a bit too much. Once the lid’s off, you can’t keep it all in. That’s me. Bits of me keep escaping the process. So I like the boxiness of the box and the fact that Darren keeps putting errant bits of me back in. And that other bits spring out. And he puts them back in. Though lately, I’m getting quite good at staying there.

Just now, the process is still in process. I can’t quite do this ring thing independently yet, though one day I will be able to, and in the meantime I’m relying on Darren to hold the structure – energetically because he keeps being in the process with me; and practically because every time I get creative and maverick he stuffs me back in the box; and physically because he keeps manually putting my ribs back where they’re meant to be, and telling me when I’m holding them and when I’m letting them go, so we’re – slowly – creating proprioceptive intelligence over more sustained periods of time and across different activities. And in the meantime, new and more functional emotional, relational and professional structures are aligning themselves around me. But it isn’t really linear, more like butter forming in a churn.

1. Many hypermobile children start walking late. This is a great link: http://www.skillsforaction.com/infant-joint-hypermobility

2. Hypermobile people generally find standing difficult and tiring. Because our fascia lacks the tensility to hold us up effectively, we have to recruit a lot more muscle than a non-hypermobile person does in order to be upright. For many of us, hypermobility is coupled with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), which means we may also feel faint when standing still.

3. I’ve written elsewhere about this too. According to a recent study, the resting brains of autistic children produce 42 per cent more information than those of non-autistic controls.

Closets

Earlier this year, I was diagnosed with autism by a ground-breaking psychologist who is also a foremost advocate for and supporter of autistic women and girls. In parting, she warned me that many people harbour misapprehensions about those of us with autism. She suggested that rather than use the A-word, I could explain, ‘I’m the kind of person who … gets overwhelmed in social situations / functions poorly in bright lights and noisy places / needs a lot of time to process their experiences …’

Well, I’m the kind of person who likes to call a spade a spade, so I went straight to facebook to publish my new status. I also updated my professional website, identifying myself as autistic and welcoming other people on the spectrum to the different opportunities I offer to move, feel and witness. I’m the kind of person who occupies her own territory. So far, I haven’t experienced any sort of adverse reaction. I’m fortunate in the circles I move in and the kind of work I do.

As a queer woman, I was already well acquainted with the issues pertaining to closets, the ins and the outs and the intermediate positions. It’s a dance of complex, improvised choreography, in which we are always on the back foot coming forward. We are the torn out pages in the dominant narrative. ‘Everyone’ is straight, aren’t they? Just as ‘everyone’ is neurotypical, and the onus is on the rest of us to stand up and declare ourselves.

I’ve never had any time for closets. They’re too damn small and claustrophobic. I want to inhabit the full expanse of myself in the world, and I want you to see me doing it. In my view, if I tell you I am queer or I am autistic, and you have a problem with this, you have a problem.

But some closets feel more insidious and more difficult to emerge from, like the one constructed around my relationship with eating, which, from the time I started school up to now has run the gamut of pretty much every form of disorder other than bulimia, and that wasn’t through want of trying. Over the years, the extremes have gradually worn themselves out, along with the consuming guilt and the operatic drama. I know too much to want or to be able to sustain anorexia as a position or to find myself eating white flour and water at two in the morning when all the shops are closed. I used to feel a lot of shame about my crazy, disorderly eating, and now I really don’t any more. But still, I can’t claim even now – even by the fuckaroo standards of the culture I live in – to have a simple, untroubled relationship with food.

Until I started reading women’s first-hand accounts of what it’s like to be autistic, and the penny clattered to the floor, I was always puzzled by the violence and persistence of my eating behaviour. It seemed to be impervious to insight, therapy, mindfulness, moving, drawing, writing, processwork … According to some recent research and to anecdotal evidence, around two-thirds of women and girls diagnosed with an eating disorder also meet the criteria for autism. The driving need I feel alternately to establish control and to smash it apart now feels characteristic of autism and therefore rooted to a large extent in neurology rather than the presumed psychological dysfunction that I have spent so much time and energy trying to identify and resolve.

Yo soy la DESINTEGRACIÓN (Frida Kahlo)

Yo soy la DESINTEGRACIÓN (Frida Kahlo)

I don’t have much sense of physical containment. This seems to be the product of both autism and Hypermobility Syndrome (which affects many, but not all, autistic people), in which there is a deficit of proprioceptive feedback, so it’s hard to feel where I end, to formulate myself into a discrete, impermeable whole and hold all my pieces together. Controlling myself provides a means of encompassing myself and my experience, which often feels overwhelming in amount and intensity. Unleashing chaos offers a way of piercing the tension when it becomes unbearable. This may be a given; it may not be susceptible to change.

Above all I desire to be truly known. At the same time, by virtue of what I do for a living, I’m aware that I am often the recipient of a variety of wide-of-the-mark projections from clients and students who want to believe that a yoga or movement practice is going to beam them up out of the steaming shit heap of their own life. If you are one of those people, I have to tell you frankly that in my experience, practice is more like the fan in the axiom. What actually happens is the shit hits and you get to be more intimately acquainted than you ever thought possible with what comes out of your own arsehole. And this is the thing of beauty, this its very self.

What has tended to happen for me, what offers some loosening and breathing space, is that I have become quite a bit less reactive to my own shit. Because what’s the big deal anyway? We all shit, don’t we? It’s really very human. I haven’t stopped shitting, or being queer or autistic, or being perplexed by my other than shiny-magazine-paper relationship with food. But I feel that in some much bigger picture all of this is OK, just OK.

Since I have written publicly about being autistic, several people in my practice communities have confided privately that they too have a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. I feel sad and dismayed that autism still carries such stigma that the majority of them are unwilling to be openly autistic. So if being an out autistic weren’t vital to me because it’s the way I can be truly myself and clearly seen as who I am, it would still be very, very important because if we each own and speak ourselves, as honestly as we can, in all our dimensions – and especially those of us who are teachers, facilitators and therapists – together we become a body of living, breathing practice that others can be received into. No one has to become more perfect than they already are, and healing can be what I think it mostly is, an expanding sense of acceptance, rather than a surreptitious self-improvement project.