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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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 Joint Hypermobility Syndrome / Ehlers Danlos (JHS / EDS).1 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 nerd anatomist, 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 a decade or so 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.

JHS / EDS is a group 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 JHS / EDS 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,2 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.3 This way I can stay selectively engaged. As an autistic person, I find this approach a lot more satisfying too.4 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 JHS / EDS. 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 myofascia5 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 JHS / EDS 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 JHS / EDS, 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. The terminiology of hypermobility is complicated and disputed among hypermobility clinicians. For the purposes of this writing, I use ‘Joint Hypermobility Syndrome’ and ‘Ehlers Danlos’ as two terms for pretty much the same thing. I also include Marfan Syndrome under this general umbrella.

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

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

4. 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.

5. 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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Attention Autism: a strange piece of writing about schools (special and not), Open Floor and Thoracic Ring Approach, sharks, love, trust, process and not having a conclusion yet

All this year I’m dancing one Saturday a month in a special school. As soon as I walk through the door, something about being here allows me to exhale. In the classroom where I got changed yesterday, there was an A4 print-out from Attention Autism tacked up on a cupboard. (I googled Attention Autism this morning and discovered the rather wonderful Gina Davies, a speech and language therapist who offers training to carers and professionals working with autistic children.) The A4 in the classroom was a series of reminders for group leaders about how to be with an autistic child – don’t insist on eye contact, if you want focus make sure there’s no background noise … The special school is the only environment I’ve ever been in where my presence as an autistic person is overtly acknowledged. Everywhere else, if I wanted to be taken into account, I’ve had to explain who and what I am and advocate for my difference. It’s as if in the special school I could just settle. Just breathe and settle.

I’m in two ongoing processes at present. One is the year-long Open Floor group which is dancing in the special school’s hall and is facilitated by Sue Rickards. We’re focusing on wishes, hopes and dreams, or at least it says so on the tin. The focus that’s emerging for me is just being, which could be, in a way, the anithesis of a wish / hope / dream: not the leap to somewhere else but what’s right here, right now. It’s a softening, a dissolving; subtly tuning in, accepting, trusting.

Yesterday morning, the invitation was to do something differently, so in the hot middle of things, I left the dancefloor and made a cup of tea. I am not someone who just leaves in the hot middle and makes a cup of tea. Or, at any rate, I have not been that person. Then I came back in and sat in a chair. Sat in a chair, for god’s sake! Sat in it. For the rest of the dance. Radical acts! It wasn’t an old fuck-you!; it was a new attention to the quiet impulses of my body and a readiness to respond to them through simple actions. And at the end of it all, I arrived in a kind of embodied presence I don’t think I’ve ever experienced before: full, unsheltered, without pulling or distortion, expansive and at rest.

I have outlawed so many parts of myself. In 1968, when I started school, autism wasn’t yet a thing. It existed, of course; autism has always existed; but there was no language for it. When you belong to a neuro-minority and you’re five, and you have no words to articulate your experience or to understand your difficulties, or visible forerunners to be that thing that you are in such a way that you know it’s more, so much more, than just OK … how do you make it tenable? How do you survive?

My response essentially was to shut myself down. I stopped eating. I rarely spoke. I suppressed my own information to the point where I was no longer even receiving it myself. I created an alternative structure, which I hoped made me look sufficiently like one of ‘them’ to avoid being eaten by the sharks. I lived and breathed like a cartoon shadow two inches outside and above myself.

This kind of displacement of self from the stream of impulse happens in a physical body, in myofascia and bones. Which brings me to Darren and Thoracic Ring Approach, the other process I’m involved in at present. We’re focusing on unwinding my ribcage. In a sense, though, it isn’t another process so much as a different emergence of the same one.

Thoracic Ring Approach sometimes seems to me to be a bit like horse whispering, or maybe it’s that Darren is a whisperer – a whisperer of ribs – I don’t know. Anyway, it’s a very subtle physical manipulation, so subtle that it seems to be at least equally neurological suggestion. As I understand it, underlying the less functional adaptive patterns in my body are older and more synergistic ones. Thoracic Ring Approach feels like slowly waking up to the original synergy. Because adaptive patterns are formed around experience, this must also be a somatic process – waking up to myofascial synergy catalyses waking up to behavioural synergy (and vice versa) – and a cathartic process, involving the re-emergence, sifting and integration of memory and the feeling and release of emotion. It devolves from body, but it’s a series of tiny and far-reaching shifts and recalibrations resonating through a whole person.

I spent a lot of my childhood being a horse. I didn’t relate to human beings very much at all, and for a while I insisted on eating from a bowl on the floor. (Children, if you want to freak out an adult, pick up your food with your mouth: it really, really disturbs them.) It wasn’t until some time in my forties, perhaps, that I fell in love with people. It happened through moving and experiencing the congruencies that arise in moving-with. It happened through touch: that thing with feathers, granules, veins. I had to learn outside social contexts, because social contexts were alien to me and only made me feel more dislocated from my real experience. I learnt to trust human beings, and I am very grateful for it, always. Because I learnt through my body senses, I’ve acquired – I think – the most reliable kind of guage of who to trust and who not, and so far I’ve never got it wrong.

Partly I wrote this article because I want to name the people who are currently holding transformative spaces for me. It’s a big-small thing we can do for each other; it’s a sacred task and it’s also very ordinary and human; and I’m extremely grateful that there are people with the capacity to do it for me. I want to name those people and I also want to acknowledge the level of trust that’s involved in relationship becoming transformative in this way. So, here goes: diving off the high board …

Gratitudes and acknowledgements
I’ve known Sue for about fourteen years now. In that time she’s been lots of things, not least a foremost ally for me in the reclamation of outlawed places. More than once I’ve been on the dance floor doing something that never appeared on the instruction sheet, some part of me doubting whether this can possibly be allowed to happen or whether the sharks are already stirring behind the rocks, and I hear Sue’s voice in my ear: ‘Trust it, Jess.’ I love you, Sue.

In a way, what I love about Darren (and actually I love a lot of things about Darren) is just that he’s willing to work with me, even though – and actually because – I’m super-complicated. I love that he keeps holding the box and doesn’t try too hard to veto poetic licence, that I always feel listened to and never coerced (which isn’t all that usual in my experience of physiotherapy), that what we’re engaged in feels like a collaborative exploration on the edge of what’s known. I always have the sense that if we both pushed at the same time, neither of us would fall over. I think that’s a measure of right relationship. Thank you, Darren.

All you need is love Afterword
It’s Tuesday. I’ve had this cold since right after the last lot of thoracic ring re-aligning, and I can’t shake it. I’m struggling to embody what’s pressing through to the surface. I want to collapse. I know what I need to do in my body, and physically I can do it, but somewhere else the horse is refusing the fence. I feel overwhelmed and submerged, and I hate being in this place. It’s sticky and uncomfortable, like wool against the skin. I don’t have much perspective and I definitely don’t have a conclusion.

Every time I write, I know in one atavistic part of me that that I have surely infringed several strange and unfathomable rules of neurotypical conduct and that I am therefore forever beyond the pale ­– but more compelling is the urge for self-exposure. I’d be burnt at the stake for it just because I couldn’t help it. I feel suffocated within the bounds of what’s speakable within neuro-normative culture. I know, too, that the places where we feel most unacceptable are the also the ones where we can potentially be most loved and that if we don’t expose them, we remain essentially invisible and unformed. So even though it feels like waving a bloodied rag at the sharks, I keep on speaking.

Image by Kenneth Geiger ©.

A Cascade of Epiphanies: in which I put my foot behind my head and end up writing about injury again

Recently I’ve been again in the strange and exquisite process of injury. I didn’t volunteer. I don’t always feel grateful. It’s almost a cliche that injury is a gift, but the gift is another of those bad-fairy ones: you-didn’t-want-to-sleep-for-a-hundred-years-but-in-the-end-you-get-the-prince kind of thing.

It feels like about a hundred years ­– easily – but despite a cascade of tender little epiphanies, I haven’t got the prince yet. And since I’m still in process with this one, I’m not going to write about particularities. Seeds need to germinate in the dark.

Practice without epiphany would be an odd kind of practice to me, but injury seems to act as a particular kind of awareness cluster – an escalation, an intensification, also often a redirection, a refocusing and re-envisioning. It’s a call to pay attention, an opportunity for a kind of meta realignment, which contains biomechanics – signposts for practical physical restructuring – but is also much bigger, carrying personal mythopoeic meanings with the potential to unravel, rewind and reorient. It speaks to the occluded histories of my body, to ways of being in the world so familar as to have become transparent to me, and through all of this to the potential for fuller human becoming.

My practice is cyclic. I’ve been fortunate in that hypermobility deprived me early on of any illusion of linearity in these things. There are times of more; there are times of less. Over-arching this one-step, two-step in the realm of performative physical capability, is a boader pattern of integration, enlargement, attunement on an increasingly subtle level. What seems to arise is on the one hand a more precise and intuitive faculty of discrimination ­– viveka – and on the other, the slow inexorable seepage of love.

A long time ago, I put myself in apprenticeship to my body; it’s the teachings that emerge from being a body, and from reflecting on and as that body, that really inform me. I have little interest in abstract yoga philosophy. I’m sceptical about enlightenment and the ‘higher’ states of awareness: samsara as something attainable, something ‘over there’. What’s happened to me is more like a slow settling, a sifting and shifting, like an old house on friable ground. The more it settles, the more the walls crack. The situation is essentially imperfectible. It’s the humanness of this that absorbs me.

After 33 years, I feel that my practice is really just beginning to get interesting. Maybe I”m a slow starter. Matthew Remski’s WAWADIA project has produced quite a bit of discussion of a kind of asana plateau, which happens, apparently, somewhere around three to five years into practice – like the yoga version of the seven-year itch. Maybe this has to do with the limited attention span of neurotypical people (a source of ongoing amazement to those of us on the spectrum). Autistic people are orientated to detail and pattern. We will happily do the same thing every day for years and years, because it never is the same thing. Repetition is revelation: my practice is always full of surprises.

I think it also has to do with an essential human resistance to change. Few of us embark on a yoga practice with a knowledge of how deep and thorough-going will be the transformation it requires of us. We expect yoga to be contained in the magic one hour or ninety minutes. We expect it to be pleasant and enlivening. We don’t expect it to crack out of stasis our old habituated patterns, or to surface deeply embodied historical trauma. The most commonly given reasons for coming to a yoga class by my beginning students are: to get fit, to increase flexibility, to lose weight and to relax. When practice starts to require of them much, much, very much more, they frequently slide silently out.

I know that many schools consider two years’ practice to be sufficient to embark on yoga teacher training, but to me, two, three or five years is scarcely a beginning. To me, a practice becomes a practice when it’s seen you through at least a couple of generations – through births, deaths and marriages, love and loss. It seems to be symptomatic of the Tesco superstore mentality afflicting our culture that we jump ship so readily. If there’s always another product on the shelf with another promise of youth, fitness and vitality, why bother to negotiate inconvenient and difficult obstacles? Why bother to learn anything at all?

Matthew reckons that most people enter yoga in search of some kind of therapeutic outcome. I’m not most people, so I don’t know whether this is true or not. I started practising yoga when I was eighteen, I didn’t have any physical parts in obvious need of fixing, and I couldn’t have told you why I was doing it. In retrospect, it’s clear to me that I was hungry for embodiment. I was autistic, anorexic and out of my depth, and everything was a last-ditch stand. No habitat I could locate felt vast or wild enough to reflect my internal experience. I was desperate for a sense of containment, of physical integration, of the parts adhering to the whole. I urgently needed to discover some kind of coherent centre. I suppose that, in a very broad sense, this could be seen as a therapeutic motivation, but really I viewed it more as an artistic mandate, in which I was both the art and the artist. I still do see it that way.

Most of my life I’ve lived to move, not moved to live. I tumbled head first into astanga vinyasa because I was enthralled by the movement and captivated by the preoccupation with edge. I wasn’t all that interested in what it could do for my health and wellbeing. It turned out that many of the arrows pointed in both directions, but I can’t in honesty say that all of them do. The ongoing challenge is to nudge the situation into some form of do-ability. As I’ve tipped over onto the descending flank of the hill, my orientation has shifted – a little bit. The materials are in slow metamorphosis. They are gradually producing a different kind of art and a different kind of artist. At 51, I know that each day of astanga vinyasa is a day of grace. I know that one day the practice will spit me out – not, I hope, before I’ve been thoroughly chewed up by it. I’m going for complete mastication. I’m giving it my all.

Foot behind head


It takes a village to keep a hypermobile body in something like working order. I would like to thank Darren Higgins at Vanbrugh Physio. I can’t tell you how long I’ve been looking for a physio I can actually work with – found one! I would also like to thank 
my wonderful osteopaths and much – very much – loved companions on the path of the dance Indi Ajimal and Cyprian Londt. And where would I be without Scott Johnson and Andy Gill at Stillpoint Yoga London? Lots of love, guys.

 

 

On the edge: wire-walking for beginners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ImagePhilippe Petit wire-walks between the Twin Towers