Look, we are here!

I just had to write another one of those comments on a well-intentioned but oh-so inappropriate social media post by a neurotypical yoga teacher about teaching autistic children:

As an autistic person, I’m feeling uncomfortable – once again – at being discussed as if I’m not here by neurotypical teachers. I don’t find it acceptable for all of you to be talking about us as if no one autistic could possibly actually be here and teaching ourselves. If this discussion was about white teachers teaching black students, or straight teachers teaching gay students, or male teachers teaching female students, how would it sound to you, and how is neurological status any different?

The problem in this case wasn’t so much the content, which wasn’t too bad, it was the actual and implied pronouns – the ‘we’ here and the ‘they’ there, and never the twain shall meet. Obviously ‘they’ are away rocking and spinning in a corner.

There are many autistic yoga practitioners. I guarantee that there will be one or two of us in any medium-sized general yoga class. A significant number of yoga teachers are also autistic. Many have not yet put together the two and two of their social and sensory experiences and made them into four. Others have embraced autistic identity but remain in the closet. Autism continues to be highly stigmatised and widely misunderstood.

The response from the posting teacher was along the lines of, ‘I’m sorry you feel upset’. But I don’t feel upset, I feel angry – incandescent with lava-hot rage. What’s so hard for NT teachers to understand about this situation? Neurotypical teacher, you march in in your three-mile boots, but do you really have permission to be an author here? And all of you other neurotypical teachers who ‘like’ this post and chime in with your expriences of helping the poor dear autistic children and how great an experience it was for them … how about shutting up and amplifying the voices you are talking over? Let’s hear from them how great it was. Or not.

Have you ever been minding your own business in a toilet cubicle when two people come in talking … and with slow horror you realise that they’re talking about you? The hot shame. The confusion. Do you hide and have to hear it out? Do you stop it and speak up … and then you know … that they know … that you know. Maybe you’re a yoga teacher and they were talking about your class. (Most yoga teachers have had this experience.) That’s what it’s like when I come across one of those neurotypical-person-opines-on-autism threads.

I know that if I speak up, I’ll be spoken over. If I’m lucky, there may be another out autistic person or two on the thread. Or there may be a teacher of colour who recognises something of their own experience and offers some intersectional support. (I always try to do that the other way round.) I know that I’ll feel ashamed, and exposed like the lone soldier on the parapet. I know that I’ll take a hit to my mental health and it will require time and energy to recuperate.

‘Nothing about us without us!’ has long been the watch word of the autistic self-advocacy movement. (1) You do not own the rights to our experience. It isn’t for you to tell us what we need, and if we want other neurotypical people to know, we can tell them ourselves. We keep communicating this to you, but you do not hear it. Are you listening now? Are you actually listening to this? Please stop appropriating from us. Please cease and desist. Please evacuate our space and give us back the megaphone.

Image: Patrick Fore.

1. Originally the title of a book by James Charlton and taken up by the disability rights movement.

Flourishing Online: What makes a successful pandemic yoga class?

Definitely having an established student base has been a bonus for me, but also consistency, showing up day in, day out, and being open with students about how I am feeling and coping in order to start conversations.” Ruthie Thomas (yoga teacher)

Unless you’ve been living on Mars for the past ten months, you won’t need any introduction to the Covid-19 pandemic, and if you’re a yoga teacher you’ll be acutely aware of how absolutely the coming of Covid has transformed the ways in which we offer yoga. What’s struck me in mentoring yoga teachers through this period, is what a different experience we’re all having of translating our work online. While some teachers are flourishing in the virtual space, others are struggling to generate any online participation at all. As I’ve listened to individual teachers’ stories, I’ve been contemplating what some of the factors might be that make an online yoga class successful. Of course, yoga teachers and yoga student cohorts are all very different, and it’s impossible to be systematic where so much variation is at play, but there do seem to be some common themes when it comes to creating an online class offering that feels juicy and and inviting to potential students.

Community
For me, and for many of the teachers I talked to in researching this article, far and away the biggest factor in motivating existing students to join virtual classes has been pre-existing yoga relationships. In this sense, the pandemic has clearly favoured established teachers who create and run their own classes over those who mostly work for studios and gyms. It was resoundingly clear from my conversations that independent teachers who have been proactive for many years in creating and fostering community among their students generally have very good retention of students online.

Community in the context of this article means that students care about one another, they notice when someone is missing from class and ask about them, they support each other through difficult life events, celebrate birthdays, go out together for coffee and make real friendships. As an outgrowth of regular embodied practice where authenticity is valued, yoga community is a space where it’s safe for people to be real and to have real feelings – the kind of space that has never been more necessary than during the pandemic. More on this below.

A feature of most successful community-based online classes is time given before or after practice for sharing in words. Yoga teacher Collette Crook says:

We created a community at the outset. The Zoom call would be open beforehand for people to have a cuppa and chat with their friends before I joined to teach. Then they could also remain afterwards.

Yoga teacher Tabitha Dootson adds:

It has been very important to have time before class to socialise. From helping cut fringes to sharing recipes, the pre-class Zoom time has been as supportive as the yoga.

At the end of most of my classes, we hold a virtual circle, in which everyone has time to speak about how they’re doing and how the practice has been for them. I cap classes at 14 to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to be seen and heard. When we first moved online, one student commented that he actually felt more connected to the other participants in the virtual class, because he got to hear from everyone – and sharings after practice tend to be especially genuine and heart-felt.

Commitment
As a Mysore teacher, I’m fortunate in that I’m working with possibly the most committed yoga tribe on the planet. Believe me, it takes a lot more than a pandemic to stop ashtangis practising! Students’ commitment to practice, was another factor that many teachers named as being key to sustaining yoga classes online. Yoga teacher Sunnah Rose says, ‘I have some amazing regular students that just want to continue to have yoga in their life.’ Yoga teacher / therapist Liz Brown Siggers adds:

I’m fortunate that the majority of my students are very commited yog(in)is; yoga is an important part of their life. They want to continue to develop their practice and find it a useful tool to cope during these difficult times.

Like community, commitment is a slow build, the product of many years of dedicated teaching, often to few people and for little money or kudos. Teachers with committed students are usually also notable for commitment to the laboratory of their own practice. These are teachers who are able to teach as an outgrowth of their own experiential learning, offering well rounded classes, from a solid knowledge base, focused on actual yoga rather than fitness or striking attitudes in designer leggings.

Consistency
When the pandemic hit, what my students really appreciated was that I was still there, and yoga was still there, and their practice comrades were still there, at the same time, on the same day, week after week, even when life as we knew it seemed to be crumbling around our ears. For me as a teacher, this kind of reliability felt like an outgrowth of love – of the practice and of the practising community – and of belief in yoga as a tool of embodiment that can enable us to live in a more conscious and compassionate way.

Adaptability
While consistency is important, there’s a balance to be struck between maintaining familiarity and adapting to changing needs. Yoga teacher Julie Elder says:

What worked for me prior to lockdown just wasn’t happening with Zoom – particularly daytime classes, when a lot of people are having to home school. I found that making classes earlier (about 7am) suited a lot more people. I’ve also added a 30-minute lunchtime chair yoga and other shorter classes, as well as meditation classes, which are gaining interest.

What works for you is going to depend on your demographic. Ask your students what they’d like and when they’d like it. While many teachers have shortened class times, mine are still mostly 90 minutes. Not everyone is able to take this long out of their day for yoga, but my students have appreciated having time to go deep and really immerse themselves in practice.

A safe space to feel
Aspirational straplines like ‘feel fabulous fast’ tend not to play well in pandemic yoga. Many people are not feeling fabulous, and their chief goal is to manage the challenges of isolation (or forced co-habitation), home schooling, unemployment, long Covid, and so on … with their mental health reasonably intact. Being frank about our own emotional challenges, while holding appropriate professional boundaries, can open up the space for students to acknowledge their own feelings, and can make it OK for them not to be coping superbly with all the difficulties pandemic life is throwing at them. This is what yoga can uniquely offer that the plethora of online fitness opportunities cannot, and is a reason that many people come to a live yoga class, rather than (or as well as) sticking with Youtube HIIT.

Low production values
I’m not filming for Yogaglo or aiming to dominate the global yoga market, and my classes are definitely on the hand-knitted end of the spectrum. My typical class features pets, small children and partners entering stage left to make a cup of tea or spot a headstand, and low production values feel to me more in keeping with this vibe. Students who are less confident with online communications often feel more comfortable in this kind of setting and more willing to give it a go. If you’re able to stream from a spacious studio, I envy you, but if you can’t, bear in mind that your students will mostly be practising in their kitchen or or a corner of their bedroom, and a teacher doing likewise may be better able to create relationships that feel real and based on parity.

I teach with a rather old Macbook Air, which gets moved between a chair and a tripod, and I use the internal mike and speakers. A few teachers I talked to had invested in better cameras, sound equipment and monitors and were offering a much slicker production – and if that fits with your teaching ethos, go for it – but this was clearly not essential or even important in creating flourishing classes.

A word on music
If you share music from your laptop or phone via the regular sound share option on Zoom, it’s going to sound pretty awful. You also don’t have control over sound levels, so there’s no guarantee that you’ll be audible over the music. Possible solutions are to teach without music – I know it sounds radical but some teachers have been doing it for several decades! We live in a very noisy world, and a break from the onslaught of sound can be welcome. Another alternative that works for some teachers is to prepare a playlist on Mixcloud or Spotify for students to use if they want it. I’m also a conscious dance teacher so I have DJ software (Traktor) that enables me to share music via Zoom and have pretty good sound quality. This is designed for professional DJs, so it’s expensive and is not an install and go affair, and I recommend this route only if you really want to take your music use to the next level.

Be yourself
You don’t need to be Adriene or Kino in order to teach worthwhile and well attended online yoga classes. Your students really want to see you and hear your voice, particularly when so much around them is different and uncertain. Yoga teacher Charlie Merton says:

Do you, rather than imitating others you perceive to be successful. I’ve noticed teachers trying to up their game, which is fair enough, but in doing so they are sacrificing who they are – creating a persona for Insta rather than being honest and genuine in their approach.

Teachers with a strong grounding in their own authenticity are more likely to have something of worth to offer their students, and students – especially the serious, long-term ones – will recognise this and gravitate towards it. 

Don’t compete with the corporates
If you want a successful class, offer your students what they can’t get on commercial platforms: real beating hearts and in-the-moment presence. While we may not be able to put on a polished production in a large and pristine space, as independent yoga teachers we have much to offer our students that is not available from Youtube, corporate gym classes or huge Facebook streamings. An independent teacher can:

• Offer teaching geared to who’s in the Zoom room.
• Give individual feedback.
• Welcome everyone by name.
• Know each student’s history and practice.

All of these things contribute to making your yoga class more valuable to your students than the many free offerings available out there. 

Reconnect with students past
One of the unexpected boons of the pandemic for many teachers has been the return to online classes of students who have moved out of the local area. It has been truly delightful for our practice community to welcome some very much missed practitioners back into the online shala. Teachers with a national (or international) profile, those who travel to teach workshops and those who teach retreats have a particularly rich source of former students who can now attend classes from anywhere in the world. If you have students who have moved away or who you taught on a retreat, it’s worth dropping them a friendly line, reminding them that you still exist and sending them your schedule.

Freebies
In the world of pandemic yoga it can be extra challenging to expand your student base. A free event can help to generate new interest, while also giving back to your regular students and re-engaging regulars who have lapsed. Yoga teacher Julie Dodd says:

With my young son around I don’t have much time to promote my classes at the moment, but I tried something recently that worked and didn’t take long. I set up a free taster class via Eventbrite. If the event is free, there’s no booking charge. I’m certainly going to try it again in the future.

During the pandemic I have exchanged free workshops with colleagues in various places in the world, and during the first weekend back after Christmas, I offered a day of free yoga classes, which was hugely popular and has led to a few newcomers booking for paid classes. An event like this also gives regular students a hook to hang an invitation on for friends or family who have expressed an interest in yoga but not yet made the leap. You could also invite a physiotherapist or osteopath to talk about injury prevention, in exchange for publicity and some yoga classes, or invite a yoga teacher or therapist with an interesting specialism.

If you offer something free, make sure you follow up with paid opportunities to engage, and ensure that the relationship between free and for-a-fee events works for you. If the balance between energy out and energy back in is out of kilter, you’re likely to end up feeling resentful.

Stay in touch
While it’s not a good idea to deluge your students with emails (unless you want to shorten your subscription list!), it is helpful to remind your students regularly that you are there for them. Send them the schedule, including clear details of where and how to book. I’ve found that with all the stresses of the pandemic it’s particularly easy for students to fall off the yoga wagon, and they often appreciate a nudge to bring them back on board.

Concessions
Most of my classes have a scale of fees: regular income, low income, and financial hardship (which is free). Personally, I like to maintain some structure around booking and paying. I feel that it’s a part of the mutual commitment made by both teacher and student to the class. Other teachers are working on a donation basis during the pandemic, taking payment through Paypal or similar, and sending out Zoom links to their entire student list. How you do this is up to you, and will also reflect how dependent you are on your yoga work for income. Whichever system you use, make sure the agreement with your students is clear, just as you would for in-person classes. I think it’s a good idea to have a fee policy. Mine is here.

Help with tech
Many successful online teachers, especially those with older student cohorts, have been proactive in helping students to get online – walking them slowly through the process of booking, joining a Zoom meeting, muting and unmuting, toggling between views and so on. It can be helpful to explain to your students that it doesn’t matter if they lose their sound or appear upside down, that this is just a simple gathering for some yoga, not a BBC production. If you have a lot of nervous students, you could hold a free meeting simply for talking through Zoom and experimenting with all the different menus and buttons.

Seamless booking
A booking system with Zoom integration makes it simple for students to book and means that they can do it instantaneously. It also means that you won’t be chasing up payments or wondering how many people are actually coming to the class. I use Smoothbook, which is very cheap, and enables me to have tiered rates, including a free one, and to offer a variety of packages and memberships. However, there are lots of options, so have a look around.

Big up the advantages of online
While in-person yoga classes are never going to be obsolete, there are definitely some advantages to the online version. A Zoom class can potentially include students who are unable to access ‘real’ classes because they’re ill or disabled, don’t have transport or can’t afford childcare. Yoga teacher Fiona Agombar says:

I have a lot of people who have health conditions, and I realise that being online offers inclusion to those who would otherwise be too ill to come in real life. Some even practise from their beds.

As a student, I have really appreciated having the capacity to control my practice environment and to have more options about the way in which I participate. As yoga teacher / therapist Judy Sampath says:

You can set the temperature to suit you. You won’t be disturbing anyone if you move around to get props or use your furniture in new and creative ways. You can make as much noise as you like and give expression to what you’re feeling. You can leave the class how you wish: stay as you are, switch off quietly, unmute and have a chat, or write in the chat box if you need support.

While I miss the real physical contact of the Mysore room, my restorative and gentle yin class is infinitely better online. Students can wear pyjamas, make use of their own special props, wrap themselves up in their favourite cosy blanket and drift off to sleep at the end if they like – no need to snap back to attention in order to confront London street life and negotiate the bus home.

* * *

Online teaching isn’t right for everyone. Some teachers have decided that they simply don’t like it and don’t want to get used to it – and some students feel the same. If you don’t own your own student list or haven’t been teaching long enough to build your list up, it’s going to be challenging (though not impossible) to create viable classes online. If you’re a new teacher training graduate, you may be better served by attending classes, observing different teachers at work and developing your own practice until the traditional means of getting first teaching gigs (assisting established teachers and covering classes) come on stream again.

Covid-19 has caused a revolution in the yoga world, and one sure thing is that it will never be the same again. While there will always be a need for real-life classes, with their in-person teaching, 360-degree vision, potential for touch, and congregation of living, breathing bodies, the online version has also gained permanent devotees. For the teacher, there are fewer overheads, no need to scour the local area for an appropriate space, and from an environmental point of view the reduction in travel is a bonus. From now on in, there are going to be a lot more options for teaching and practising yoga.

Jess Glenny is a YRT Elder and C-IAYT yoga therapist, and is is the author of The Yoga Teacher Mentor: A Reflective Guide to Holding Spaces, Maintaining Boundaries, and Creating Inclusive Classes. You can find out more about her work at www.embodyyogadance.co.uk.

Image: Adrien Tutin

The art of relating (or ‘I have a difficult student’)

A good teacher does not so much fill the space as open it up for others.”—Parker Palmer

In some ways, teaching yoga is like parenting. This is not to say that our students are children (unless they are), but that as the teacher we are responsible for holding the situation, for creating a safe container and being the adult – even when we feel that someone in it is behaving badly. That we will be triggered by our students from time to time is a given. Teaching is a practice in and of itself, which means that at some point every piece of the psycho-emotional junk stuffed in our closet is bound to come tumbling out.

Going towards
When we’re experiencing difficulty with a person, it’s natural and human to want to move away. We may create distance by not adjusting the person, not greeting them or speaking to them at the end of the class, communicating with them by email rather than in person, and so on. One of my teachers, Andrea Juhan(who has been teaching conscious dance, and training conscious dance teachers for over thirty years) suggests that when difficulty arises with a student, we actually need to find a way to go towards them.

One of the most powerful ways to go towards is simply physical: we wait for a moment when we feel relatively grounded and centred, and visit the person’s space in the room. The intention is not to make the person behave better, or conform to a way we’d like them to be, or do a posture in the way we feel they should be doing it. It’s just to hang out with them for a few moments – to receive them, in a spirit of curiosity, and note any somatic information we receive: for example, ‘When I’m near this person I feel angry / sad / hot / cold / distressed / confused’. This information is about us, but it may also offer important clues to what the student is experiencing. While it’s important not to project our own feelings and sensations onto a student, it’s safe to say that if your general mood is positive but when you enter the student’s space you feel overcome by sadness, this is an indication of something the student is experiencing. Making this physical approach may in itself be enough to create a shift in the relationship dynamic, or it may suggest some other way that you might change how you are being in order to be able to accompany this person more effectively in their practice.

Yoga teacher Donna Farhi2 (another practitioner and teacher trainer of more than three decades) refers to the movement towards as ‘the yoga of vulnerability’,3 because entering another’s space naked like this – without assumption, or the need to be seen in a certain way, or the wish to make something happen – requires us to take a risk. We have no idea how we will be met, and we go on in in acceptance of that. We are willing to allow the student’s response to be legitimate and to be theirs – we don’t take it personally. Donna Farhi notes that when confronted by someone she finds difficult, she often initially spends a few days just witnessing her own aversions and projections in relation to them. This is important because our first impulse in this situation is often to shore ourselves up in the wrongness of the other person’s behaviour and the rightness of our own stance. In order to enter their space empty, however, we have to allow these kinds of self-fortifying thoughts to loosen. Rather than hardening around our own view, we melt a little. We become a little fluid – so that we are responsive and available to receive another person’s experience and perspective.

Reflection
Take some time to get embodied, before you respond to these questions.

1. Is there a student you have experienced – or are experiencing – difficulty with?
2. What did / do you feel when you are around this person?
3. Do aspects of this person remind you of aspects of yourself that you find difficult to be present to? Or aspects of someone else in your life – for example, a parent, ex-partner, friend, teacher?
4. Did you / are you noticing yourself creating distance between yourself and this student?
5. What is it like to imagine yourself making an approach of some kind towards this student? (Note that you do not have to actually make this approach if that feels like more than you can handle or you don’t feel ready.)

Isolation and exclusion
Donna Farhi notes that when a ‘difficult’ person is in one of her teaching spaces, she often becomes aware that the assistants have stepped back from them, leaving them in isolation. She offers this example:

I am remembering a student with severe scoliosis who was very unpleasant to my teaching assistants and to everyone in the group: like having a stinging wasp in the room! A few days into the intensive I asked her whether she would like to explore a new way of being in her body and when she gave me permission to enter into that inquiry with her, I said, ‘I can see that you have been very challenged by your spine. It must be very difficult to live in a spine such as yours.’ Within minutes, this angry, bristling bundle of tension, dissolved into tears, and the curtain came down for us to enter into a very warm and productive exchange. She became like a tender child again.

It’s not uncommon for other students to step back too, excluding the ‘difficult’ student from conversation before and after the class, and from any post-class activities, such as going for a coffee. Sometimes students will even gang up and seek to ostracise the student. Maria, a teacher participating in one of my monthly mentor groups, described how this happened in one of her classes:

I have a student in one of my vinyasa flow classes who likes to ‘do her own thing’. She’s very flexible and will always be in some sort of extreme ‘advanced’ version of any posture I teach. The other students have got really fed up with her showing off. They’ve even asked me if I can tell her to leave the group.

This is a very clear example of a situation in which no one in the class is being held. As she talked more, Maria noted that she often wondered if she was ‘too liberal’ in her teaching, whether she ‘let people get away with doing anything’. Sometimes when she taught a technical point she would see that no one in the class had taken it on board, but she felt uncomfortable about adjusting or verbally cueing the students back towards the teaching she had offered.

When a student is diverging from the ‘choreography’ of the class, the first response as teacher is to notice our own reactions: there will often be irritation, projection and judgement there. It’s human. Our minds work like this. If we can peacefully greet – rather than suppress or reject – the normal reactivity arising, it becomes easier to re-centre in the teacher place, which is one not of outrage but of service to the student. The second response is to witness the student. Although it can, by the by, elicit a lot of useful information, there’s no objective to this witnessing. It’s just a way of quietly being with the person – attuning with them. If you have a sense that the student may be receptive, the third response is to enter into an open dalogue with them. This is initiated by asking a question based on something you’re seeing. It’s important that the question arises not out of the need to make a point but out of the desire to serve in the most effective way possible. If you’re still feeling it for the point-making, you’re not ready to ask yet. An opening question might be: ‘Is your knee comfortable in this position?’, or ‘What sort of edge are you feeling here?’, or ‘Would you like some help with this posture?. There’s an infinite number of questions because there’s an infinite number of students in an infinite number of situations. You ask the question that feels kind, helpful and relevant. Based on this interaction, you and the student may be able start an exploration together.

Mainly, you’re seeking opportunities to listen and to collaborate. You don’t know why a student is practising in a way that looks show-offy to you. They may be in pain, they may be exhausted, they may be bored / scared / angry. They may be feeling uncontained and pushing to see if they can find a boundary. They may be having difficulty learning the sequence, or they may have missed some of the places where they can find the challenge in it. The student who introduces unelicited ‘more advanced’ versions of postures, is often hypermobile and dyspraxic, and is therefore receiving limited information about how much they are stretching, where their body is in space and how that relates to the positioning that has been cued by the teacher. This is a physiological deficit, not a part of their personality.4 If the student is also autistic (as a significant proportion of hypermobile and dyspraxic people are), they may also be limited in their capacity to ‘read’ the effect they are having on other people in the group.5

In the mentor group we used role-play to look at some practical ways Maria could keep the class moving and, at the same time, clearly and steadily adjust the off-piste student in a way that enabled her to find the boundaries of her own body, of the posture on offer, and of the class. In doing this, Maria was holding structure for the student in a basic, kind, unforceful physical way. We also discussed why the students in Maria’s class might appreciate reinforcement of her teaching with individual adjustment and repeated explanation and cueing – if people weren’t doing what she had taught, it might be that they hadn’t understood and needed help to integrate it. By making these kinds of interventions, Maria was not being dictatorial but was demonstrating to the class that she was holding the container and looking after what happened inside it. The class could therefore become a safer, more settled space for the students.

When the mentor group met again, a month later, Maria reported that she had found a new authority in her teaching from stepping in and affirming what she was inviting her students to do. The students were delighted and felt that they were learning a lot more in her class. The ‘difficult’ student had expressed appreciation for Maria’s new imput. She appeared to Maria more embodied. She was able to follow the form of the postures on offer more closely, seemed more ‘with’ the class energetically, and was noticing that she felt stronger. There had been no more requests that she be asked to leave the class.

Reflection
Take some time to connect with your body.

1. Have you ever had a student like Maria’s in your class?
2. How did you handle the situation?
3. Did you feel that the outcome was positive?
4. How might you look after this kind of situation differently in the future?

Holding boundaries: the third way
Maria had a core belief that holding boundaries was something to do with making people follow directions. This is a not uncommon view – lots of us went to schools with a do-as-you’re-told ethos. This belief produces a binary in which freedom is equated with absence of boundaries, and everyone can do what the hell they want. In actuality, boundaries function in a third way that stands beyond this binary. A strong, clear, expansive structure creates a safe space for the people in it to explore, ask questions, take measured risks, and express feelings and preferences. In this kind of structure, it’s safe to be yourself. Our students want secure but elastic holding, in which there is permission, but there is also containment. When we we are able to be this kind of container, we are serving their needs.

Whose attitude is it anyway?
Whenever I hear someone – one of my mentees or another teacher – refer to ‘a difficult student’, I wince. Perhaps in part because I know I’ve probably often been seen as that student, but also because for me this statement expresses an abnegation of responsibility. A key aspect of the teacher role is being the one who holds the difficulty. When a person in our class presents us with a challenge to relationship, it’s our responsibility – not theirs – to breathe, feel and find the space where something can transform creatively. Whenever I feel tempted to describe a student as ‘difficult’, I find it helpful to pause, reflect and turn things around: ‘I am having difficulty with this student’. This shifting of the onus is crucial and powerful. My student is just being my student. I am the one having difficulty. This is about me.

Sean brought this experience to online mentoring:

I had a difficult student on my retreat. I don’t mind if people modify postures because they’re injured or there’s something they can’t do, but it wasn’t that. The guy told me he had done a teacher training course, but his alignment was all over the place and he seemed to have no understanding of the basics. I tried to correct him, but he just ignored me, so in the end I left him alone and focused on students who were more willing to learn. Was that the right thing to do? Should I have insisted that he did what I was teaching or was I right to let him get on with it however he wanted to?

The language Sean used to describe the interaction between himself and the student was striking to me: ‘difficult student’, ‘correct him’, ‘he ignored me’, ‘students more willing to learn’, ‘insisted’, ‘let him get on with it’. It spoke to me of a polariisation in Sean’s thinking about the teacher–student relationship in which the teacher directs and purveys the ‘correct’ information, and the ‘good’ student responds by taking on the teacher’s view and doing what they say. I asked Sean how it would be if he considered teaching as a shared exploration in which the student held some information and the teacher held some other information, and they shook it all up together to see what emerged. A few days later, Sean wrote to me:

When I really thought about it, I realised that underneath, I’m not all that confident as a yoga teacher. I’m quite recently qualified and I rely on the rules I’ve been taught about alignment. When someone comes into my class with a different background and different rules, I suppose I’m confused, but it makes me want to impose my rules on them. I think in this case, that antagonised the student and made him want to completely ignore me. Maybe I could have found out more about his approach to yoga and seen if there was some way I could work with that.

Outside the window of tolerance
The window of tolerance is a term used in trauma work to refer to the experiential space we are able to inhabit with full, easy presence. There may be challenges within this space, but we are able to meet them adequately and process our feelings about them. When we operate beyond our window, we move into either fight / flight mode (for example becoming rigid, obsessed, impulsive or resorting to addictive behaviours) or into freeze mode (disconnected, depressed or shut down). The window of tolerance is different for each of us, and for each of us may be different in different moments and different situations. For those of us who are are engaged in practices of awareness, it’s likely that over the years our window will gradually expand.

We all, at times in our teaching life, encounter students in relationship with whom we are not able to stay within our window of tolerance, and it’s healthy to be able to recognise when this has happened. In this situation, it’s not only OK to refer the student on, it’s necessary – from the point of view of your own and the student’s well-being. Explain to the student that you feel you are not the right teacher for them at present and that you think they would do better with this teacher, or in that teaching situation. Don’t backtrack. Don’t waffle. Be kind, be clear and be firm.

Students with developmental trauma
A significant proportion of the students we perceive as ‘difficult’ in our classes will be the survivors of serious developmental trauma – ongoing early trauma such as neglect, and physical, emotional and / or sexual abuse. When trauma is thorough-going and happens very early in a person’s life (sometimes starting before birth), it has profound effects on their neurology and their capacity to formulate an effective sense of self. A person who has not experienced unconditional love, a safe environment or secure boundaries as a child will have immense difficulty in understanding, believing in and identifying these things as an adult. The force of the trauma often causes them to reconstitute the traumatic events around them again and again – so if you are teaching a person with a traumatic history, you may find yourself cast in a series of roles that seem to have little to do with who you actually are and how you are relating to the student. These may include abuser, idealised mother, and even victim (with the person believing that they have done something awful to harm you).

Tom was one of my yoga therapy clients, so I already knew he had a history of profound trauma when he joined a group yoga class. Before he left each class, he would always tell me, usually more than once, what a brilliant, inspiring teacher, and wonderful, nurturing person I was. These affirmations were uninvited, inaccurate and felt thrust upon me. Any disavowal of them, however, was to Tom just proof of how modest and self-deprecating I was.

Tom continued attending the class for a few weeks, never failing to praise me disproportionately at the end. Then he stopped coming. A few weeks later, I received an email from Tom, asking if he could carry over classes he hadn’t used in his block-booking. It was stated in the terms and conditions that block-booked classes weren’t transferable, so I explained to Tom that unfortunately this wasn’t possible. (Because Tom had developmental trauma, I was aware of the need to uphold particularly clear boundaries with him.)

Tom replied that he felt hurt and disillusioned. ‘I thought you were such a kind person, but now I see it’s all about money for you.’ I responded that in order for our work to be effective, we needed to be clear about the exchange we were making and the boundaries we were setting around it, and that Tom was very welcome to come back to the class at any time. A week passed. I then received another email from Tom: ‘I’m so sorry I hurt your feelings. I really didn’t intend to. I don’t know why I was so horrible to you. You’re such a lovely person. I’ve been really mean. I’m so sorry.’

When a profoundly traumatised student is in your class, you may have a sense that they are not in their body. Traumatised people have often learnt to make this separation in order to protect themselves from physical, emotional or psychological pain. Sexual abuse survivors, for example, may describe how they floated out of their body and watched the abuse from the ceiling as if it was happening to someone else. Traumatised people may not be able to feel basic sensations or to follow simple body-related cues. They may breathe in a stilted way and be unable to relax. They may appear like a rabbit in the headlights, frozen and unable to run.

It’s beyond the scope of this book to offer a protocol for teaching yoga to traumatised people. Several have already been created – perhaps the best known is the Trauma Center’s Trauma Sensitive Yoga (TCTSY).6 However, the following are a few general suggestions for avoiding some of the pitfalls that can arise when we attempt to include traumatised people in a general group yoga class.

Hold clear, strong boundaries
Traumatised people have often had little or no experience of appropriate boundaries. By definition, their own most basic personal boundaries have been violated repeatedly. Typically, traumatised students will test every boundary you set – often by what feels like covert means – and will become upset, angry or ashamed if you try to point out to them what they are doing. This is because on a volitional level, they did not set out to transgress. The tugging and pulling at the limits is happening outside their conscious awareness and control. As a result of their dysphoria around boundaries, these students have often ended up in abusive adult relationships with teachers and therapists. You will best serve traumatised students, yourself and your other students by clearly stating and simply insisting on basic boundaries. Don’t be tempted to make any exceptions. For any reason.

Be a safe person for the student in class
A traumatised person may have a pronounced startle reflex and may appear very jumpy. Don’t approach them suddenly. Let them see you coming and give them time to acclimatise to your presence. Be mindful about physical adjustments – but don’t assume that a student with trauma won’t want them either. This is a place for sensitive dialogue. Be aware that some traumatised people cannot give meaningful consent because they have been conditioned to consent to everything and feel that they have no choice. Be slow and gradual with any agreed touch, and use your intuitive and animal senses to feel into whether the person really wants it, regardless of what they are saying. Re-check with them often and encourage them to give you verbal feedback on how they are experiencing the adjustment – in a way that acknowledges their power to change it: ‘Is this too strong, just about right or not strong enough?’ ‘Would you like me to stop?’ ‘Would you prefer not to be adjusted at the moment?’

Don’t take it personally
A traumatised person is, to a greater or lesser degree, a captive of their past experience and is continually replaying the past in the present. This may blinker them to what you are actually saying and doing. Their tendency will be to fit you into a limited repertoire of known roles from their past. When they can no longer square the circle of who you are with the role in which they’ve cast you, they may catapult you into a different one. This dynamic is happening on a neurological and somatic level, and this is where resolution needs to happen. The person cannot change their beliefs or behaviour by thinking about them and rationalising, or by trying. The most helpful way to be with this is to remain completely neutral, letting the student’s projections slide off you like the proverbial water off a duck’s back. This is, of course, a lot more difficult than it sounds. Subconsciously, the traumatised student is constantly trying to hook you into their drama, and they will be very good at this. Expect to feel alternately protective, insensed, afraid, compassionate, confused and more when you are interacting with a student with trauma. Know that this is not about you, or about the student, but is about the way that trauma impacts upon a human being and how they relate with others.

Refer appropriately
If you are over your edge, it’s ethical to tell the student that you feel you are not the appropriate person to teach them. Make yourself aware of trauma yoga teachers offering classes in your area (see Note 5), and of somatic therapists, yoga therapists and body-based psychotherapists with a specialism in working with trauma, so that you can have some referral suggestions ready. Ideally, rather than feeling ditched, the student should have a sense that you are concerned about their welfare and guiding them to a place where it can be looked after more effectively. Trauma yoga teachers teach yoga to traumatised people in an appropriate way, but they do not work therapeutically, so you may need to refer the student to a teacher for their yoga practice and to a therapist for deeper, more thorough-going work.

It goes without saying, but let me say it anyway … Your job as a yoga teacher is to teach yoga. Never attempt to address the person’s trauma in (or outside) a yoga class. And even if you are trained to work with trauma, do not attempt to do this in a class environment. A class is not a safe or appropriate container for a therapeutic intervention.

Don’t be attached
It’s easy to believe that you can be the one to turn things around for a traumatised student – especially when (as often happens at the beginning of the relationship) the student is idealising you and constantly telling you how beneficial they are finding your teaching to be. Yoga and other body-based practices can indeed be very helpful to traumatised people, but trauma is deep-seated, and change usually happens gradually, over a long period of time. It’s common for traumatised students to disappear suddenly and unexpectedly. Their lives are often internally and externally turbulent. Their window of tolerance is quite narrow, so they quickly hit the limit of how much they can integrate. Embodiment can be fraught for a person whose only experience of body is rape, violence or humiliation, and even simple and apparently unthreatening embodied practices, such as noticing a sensation or feeling their breath, can trigger traumatic memories for them. Know this, and allow the person to disappear without notice or explanation when they need to, and leave the door open for them to return if and when they’re ready.

Be prepared for things to go ‘wrong’. It happens – regularly – even to those of us who are experienced at working with trauma. As my own trauma therapy supervisor, reminded me, the real work of trauma recovery happens through relationship, and the painful lumps and bumps of relating, are essential to this process. Know that, as the space-holder, you did your best, and take what may feel like failure in your stride.

Davina was new to yoga when she joined a restorative yin yoga class, where she was receiving help from an assistant teacher as well as from me. She didn’t declare trauma on her client history form, but it was quickly obvious that she was traumatised. She appeared terrified, breathed shallowly, had difficulty identifying simple sensations and seemed to be floating several inches above her body. She was unnaturally ‘co-operative’, and it was difficult for us to find out what she was actually experiencing in different physical positions and therefore to know if / how to help her to modify them.

Davina found it difficult to organise props and place herself in a comfortable position, but we kept working slowly and steadily, and she kept coming to the class. One day, I spent some time helping her to place a bolster and blanket in a supported back bend. I left her with the assistant teacher and when I next turned around was startled to see Davina rushing out of the room with tears in her eyes as the assistant teacher looked on stunned.

When I went out to find out what was happening, Davina said, ‘You’ve been unnecessarily harsh with me. I just don’t need this. I came here to learn yoga, not to be told off. I think you’re being really strict and it isn’t nice.’

I hadn’t told Davina off; I had been trying to find out where was comfortable for her and what support she needed. But Davina wasn’t experiencing me or my interventions; she was re-living an event from the past and re-construing the meaning it had had for her then around what was happening now.

Reflection
Take some time to connect with your body before reflecting on these questions.

1. Do you ask students about PTSD / developmental trauma / history of physical or sexual abuse in your client history form?
2. Do you have students who have divulged developmental trauma? Or students who you suspect have experienced developmental trauma? How does the trauma show up in the way they are in your class and how they relate to you?
3. Have you experienced any difficulties in working with these students?
4. Are there ways that you might want to change how you work with them?

Autistic students
Autistic people are another group often perceived as ‘difficult’ in yoga classes. Autism is a variation in neurological processing style, with a variety of ramifications in terms of the kinds and amounts of different types of information the person receives and how they make sense of it. The needs of autistic people in a general yoga class is a big subject, and I’ve written about it at more length elsewhere (see Note 4). Here, I’m going to touch just briefly on some of the main misunderstandings that can occur when an autistic person enters an allistic (not autistic) setting. Be aware that not every autistic person in your class will have a diagnosis or any inkling themselves that they are autistic – autism is still massively under-recognised. And even if they do have a diagnosis, they may choose not to declare it on your class joining form. Autism is still very stigmatised, and many autistic people are closeted. But autism is also fairly common, and it would be unusual if you never had an autistic person in one of your classes.

Articulate the ‘rules’
An autistic person may not pick up the unspoken social rules about how to behave in your class in the way that an allistic person would. So if, for example, an autistic student asks a question in the middle of savasana, it’s probably not because they are being demanding, but because you told them questions were welcome but didn’t say that savasana is a silent section of the class. If they place their mat at right-angles to everyone else’s, or at the front next to yours, it’s less likely that they are showing off or trying to be disruptive and more likely that you have not explained that all the mats should be level with each other and parallel, with the short end facing the front. ‘Everyone else is doing it like that’ may not strike an autistic person as a good reason to do it like that too. We tend to do things in original ways.

Be aware that even if the autistic person in your class appears to be socially adroit, they aren’t. Some of us are adept at imitating others and using learnt scripts to fake social intelligence. This method is not foolproof, and we often get it, if not totally wrong, then a bit off-kilter. Those autistic people who ‘pass’ in this way are perhaps the most at risk of being branded ‘difficult’ rather than seen simply as lacking capacity to ‘read’ socially.

Linda told me:

In my big classes, I have teaching assistants. They usually practise along with the class until I need them. In one class, I gave the nod to my assistant, Morag, and she got up and went over to help a student who was struggling to keep up with the sequences. I quickly saw that things weren’t going well between them. The student didn’t seem to be taking on board what Morag was saying and was more or less ignoring her. Afterwards, Morag said she was really rude and unco-operative and didn’t seem interested in learning anything. I decided to investigate, and the next time the student was in the class, I asked her whether it had been helpful to have an assistant working with her. She looked puzzled. ‘You know, when Morag helped you in the last class?’ I said. The student went bright red and stared at the floor. Finally, it emerged that she hadn’t realised Morag was an assistant. She had thought she was another student who had just started telling her what to do! I later found out that this student was autistic. I now realise that I should have explained to the student that Morag was an assistant rather than assuming she would just get it.

Create a low-sensory environment
Autistic people are very sensitive to sensory stimulae and may be driven close to the threshhold of sanity by a humming light fitting that you can’t even hear, or by the sensation of the carpet, or by a (to you) almost invisible dirty smudge on a wall in their sight line, or by the vestigial smell of incense from a class three days ago. Deirdra, a dynamic vinyasa flow teacher, told me about this experience:

Part-way into one of my classes, an autistic woman who is a regular student told me she was having difficulty with the body odour of a couple of the people in the class. To be honest, I didn’t take this very seriously. I mean, everyone gets sweaty in a dynamic class, and it’s something you just have to live with. Anyway, they didn’t smell that bad to me. I thought she was being a bit melodramatic. I suggested that she move her mat, helped her relocate it, and didn’t think anything more about it. Some way into the class I became aware that she was curled up on her mat. When I went over to find out what was wrong, I realised she was actually retching. The body odour was so intense for her that she was literally nauseated. Until I talked to you, I didn’t know that autistic people have heightened senses. At the time it all seemed a bit weird, but now it makes total sense.

Auditory sensitivity can combine with verbal processing difficulties, as in this story that Darryl told me. He was teaching a private class for an autistic student in a studio space divided by curtains:

I was explaining something, and for some reason – I didn’t know why – he was looking increasingly distressed. Then he put his hands over his ears and buried his head between his knees. A few moments later, he got up quickly and left the studio. When I found him outside, he explained to me that he couldn’t separate my words out from what he could hear other people saying in the other curtained-off spaces. The words had got all jumbled up and he had felt as if his head was going to explode.

Reflection
Take some time to get in touch with your body.

1. Do you ask students about autism and other neurodivergence (ADHD, dyspraxia, dyslexia, etc) in your class joining form?
2. Do you have autistic students or students you think could be autistic? How have you helped them to manage the physical environment and the social expectations of your class?
3. Have there been any misunderstandings? Were you able to rectify them in a positive way?

To sum up
It’s not unusual for a teacher to come for mentoring annoyed because something in their interaction with a student seems to be getting in the way of them actually teaching the student: ‘They’re resistant and don’t want to listen to my instructions’. In my view, this is back-to-front. I see teaching yoga as essentially relational. It may look as if we are teaching postures, alignment and breathing techniques – and these are not unimportant – but they are the structure, not the content. They are a pretext for one human being (the student) to come into relationship with another human being (the teacher) in such a way that the student is offered an opportunity to witness their own emotional, physical and mental tendencies and perhaps change some of them. In fact, this is a two-way process. Our students offer us an opportunity to notice our tendencies too – which is one reason why teaching is also a practice – but for the teacher this is something that happens not in the company of the student but in the alembic of our own reflective space, and perhaps with the help of our own teacher or mentor.

The shift to teaching from this perspective can be transformative. When you work in collaboration with your students, in service to their own process of discovery and with their best interests at heart, you no longer have to be an expert with an answer for everything. Phew! What a relief! You are simply an interested and informed companion, committed to creating conditions in which each person’s own authentic embodied intelligence can emerge.

bothsittingPhoto by Shawn Ballantine Photography.

References and more information
1. Andrea Juhan: www.openfloor.org/about-us/founders

2. Donna Farhi: http://www.donnafarhi.co.nz/wp

3. Donna Farhi, ‘Embracing Vulnerability is the Most Powerful Yoga’ (Body Mind Love blog, 2017) http://www.yogauonline.com/yogau-wellness-blog/donna-farhi-embracing-vulnerability-most-powerful-yoga

4. For more about teaching yoga to hypermobile people, see my article ‘Hypermobility on the Mat’ and my book, Hypermobility on the Yoga Mat: A Guide to Hypermobility-Aware Yoga Teaching and Practice.

5. For more about working with autistic people, see my article ‘Autistic Movers and Shakers’.

6. The Trauma Center’s Trauma Sensitive Yoga: www.traumasensitiveyoga.com. London TCTSY trainings are hosted by The Yoga Clinic: www.theyogaclinic.co.uk. The Yoga Clinic will soon have online a register of UK-based TCTSY teachers

This post is an early version of a chapter in my book The Yoga Teacher Mentor: A Reflective Guide to Holding Spaces, Maintaining Boundaries, and Creating Inclusive Classes. All names of people have been changed, and some details have been altered in the examples in order to maintain confidentiality.

Xanadu: Mrs Burton’s class – a tale of autspace

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea
.

Looking back, it’s clear to me that Mrs Burton was autistic. But this was 1972 and we didn’t yet have a word for ourselves. We didn’t have an ourselves. Mrs Burton lived in a bungalow in Gudgeheath Lane. The garden was overgrown and full of rescue animals. The year before I was in her class, Mrs Burton rescued a lamb from a slaughterhouse and somehow managed to keep it in the school field. Perhaps it wasn’t so hard. This was long before OFSTED was thought of, and the notion of a standardised primary school curriculum was still dystopian. Our headteacher was a socialist who ousted Christianity in favour of classical music at assemblies. Once, for a few experimental weeks, he instituted the Summerhill system1 and we chose which lessons to go to. The lamb was called Larry.

Mrs Burton lived in an amorphous middle-ground of age. She wasn’t young, but she wasn’t old. I suppose in actuality she might have been in her early forties. She wore shapeless tweedy skirts that finished just below the knee, loose blouses with blouson necks and floppy ties, the ubiquitous tea-coloured tights, and flat shoes. Her dark, straight hair looped over her ears and around the back in a kind of shambolic Victorian bun. I remember her with dog-brown eyes – sharp but not unkind. However, I may have made that up.

I didn’t especially love, or even like, Mrs Burton. What’s remarkable about my time in her class is that, for the first time in my school life (I was nine), I felt comfortable. It’s hard to convey how extraordinary and unfamiliar an experience that was. I gave no thought to this at the time, only I remember once trying to explain it to my mum. It came out much smaller than it felt, and I could tell she was puzzled. I described it, I think, as being at home in Mrs Burton’s class, feeling that I belonged. I understand now that this was because in subtle, silent, unspecifiable ways, Mrs Burton’s classroom was autistic space. She didn’t try to make it that way. Inclusivity hadn’t been invented yet. It was because she was.

I still remember the geography of the tables in Mrs Burton’s classroom. They were were anchored like continents in a stable and unshifting world. I sat at a long one – two tables placed end to end – near Mrs Burton’s desk. I was on the desk-ward side, and there was a window several chairs down to my left. I moved to another, big square table, to learn about evolution – fish crawled out of the swamp onto a land forested with enormous primeval trees; stegosaurus gave way to brontesaurus, to tyrannasaurus rex; proto-people crept out of the undergrowth with stones. There was a new and thrilling cassette-tape episode every week.

We must have done maths with Mrs Burton I suppose, but I don’t remember any. In my memory the classroom thinned and cleared repeatedly around pools of fantasy space. Mrs Burton read us magical books like The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Wizard of Oz. She read us Coleridge’s opium-inspired ‘Kubla Khan’, probably not generally considered an appropriate poem for nine-year-olds, but I loved it. I didn’t completely understand the words, but I absorbed the music of the language, and I intuited meanings that underlay the literal one. ‘Kubla Khan’ still loops through my head from time to time.

It’s hard, it seems, for allistic2 people to understand how – and how much – autistic people are excluded. This is, in my experience, particularly in-your-face and frankly fucking horrible in the happy clappy world of alternative practices. Serendipitously, while I was writing this piece, I came across the work of disability activist Mia Mingus. Mia blew my mind. She had not just words, but formed thoughts and cogent sentences for something I had dimly sensed, experienced constantly, but never been able to knead out of flour and water into the useful consistency of dough. Mia coined the phrase ‘access intimacy’. She says:

Access intimacy is that elusive, hard to describe feeling when someone else ‘gets’ your access needs. The kind of eerie comfort that your disabled self feels with someone on a purely access level. Sometimes it can happen with complete strangers, disabled or not, or sometimes it can be built over years. It could also be the way your body relaxes and opens up with someone when all your access needs are being met. It is not dependent on someone having a political understanding of disability, ableism or access. Some of the people I have experienced the deepest access intimacy with (especially able bodied people) have had no education or exposure to a political understanding of disability.3

In Mrs Burton’s class, I experienced access intimacy.

In 2017, school regulation makes it difficult for an autistic teacher to survive, never mind thrive. Our genius is at the back of the room doing it differently. We don’t / can’t / why would we want to? stick to the manual. Autistic children in the UK can now be diagnosed and statemented, and should, in theory anyway, receive specialised help to negotiate school, but they’re unlikely to experience the kind of truly autistic space I lucked into in Mrs Burton’s class.

This is not just a celebration of a single teacher, but a paeon to the whole awkward, eccentric tribe of us who’ve thrown away the instruction book and are spinning it out of our own bodies like spider web. The best autistic spaces are strange, capacious, ingenious places where it’s safe to be. They inspire. They contain but they don’t constrain. They’re vast in their scope and particular in their attention to detail.

Mrs Burton loved words and, being autistic, could get a bit pedantic about them. She told us when we wrote a letter we should never contract our county name to the awful ‘Hants’ but should allow it the full expansion of ‘Hampshire’. I think she’d like that I write. I hope she’d be pleased that I’m writing about her, but I think she’d probably be a bit embarrassed.

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I wrote this piece as an assignment for the Open Floor teacher training.

1. Summerhill is a British school run on democratic principles that had become notorious in the seventies as an establishment of mayhem and misrule following the publication of A.S. Neill’s book Summerhill School.

2. Allistic: ‘non-autistic’.

3. Mia Mingus: https://leavingevidence.wordpress.com.

A community of elders: the sustainable astangi

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

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

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

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

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

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

Namaste!

18peterparivrrta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Containers not contents: reflections from the Open Floor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More about my dance movement work.

armsjohnand partner

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

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

3. ‘Pendulate’ in Somatic Experiencing language.

 

New mats / old mats: a shala story of feeling, speaking and gratitude again

At Stillpoint Yoga London, where I practise, it’s been getting busy lately, which has prompted a rearrangement of the mat layout. The way the mats were before, I could be pretty much anywhere in the room and have my back to a wall and the door in my sightline, and I could see everyone in the room. There was no unpredictable movement behind me and no surprise engagement with teachers. None of this is so any more.

When I first arrived at Stillpoint, I think perhaps some time in 2011, I’d been practising alone for the previous few years.1 My longtime teacher had moved away from astanga, and my other trusted teacher in London was too far away to get to for early-morning practice. It was also clear to me that in the context of a teacher relationship I was not able to articulate – or most of the time even feel – my own needs or clearly hold my own boundaries. At that point, I had also recently become aware that I was in a state of ongoing low-level traumatic stress, and I had started to find ways of creating a more fluid and responsive relationship between sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, but I didn’t yet have any useful awareness of autism and I didn’t understand why it was that that the cat had got stuck up a tree and needed the fire brigade to get it down.

So in 2011 or thereabouts, just stepping into the room at Stillpoint felt like – and was – a huge risk. It was possible because Scott told me he was willing to have me practise without offering any teaching or adjustment. He did what he said, so there was a basis to trust the situation, and we started from there.

Most people don’t notice that I’m communication impaired, but I really am. Several years ago, I lived for a while with an autistic partner. We started out on opposite sides of the Atlantic, so we did a lot of emailing. But even when we were sharing the same house, we continued to email each other when we had something important to say, or just because we wanted to. When I told neurotypical people about this, they often thought it was funny, but many of us on the spectrum communicate a lot more easily in writing than in speech. It’s called hyperlexia. My capacity to think verbally, and then actually to articulate the words, has increased exponentially over the years, but there are still woolly, strawy things that get stuck in my mouth and will not enunciate. Incapacity to speak creates panic, and panic creates more incapacity, which creates more panic … and in extreme situations I can end up completely mute.

I was reading an article earlier this week called How to Explain Autism to People. The article lists several communication differences of autistic people, but I was particularly struck by this one, as it’s very significant for me and I’ve never seen it named before.

• Difficulty expressing needs and desires.

And it occurred to me that when it comes to self-advocacy, this one is such a double whammy.

Self-advocacy is hard. It requires a big vision and a willingness for something like delayed gratification, because in the short term it’s much easier to suppress, hide, conform and look as if you’re coping – don’t rock the boat: the sharks are out there circling – than it is to acknowledge and communicate real feeling. But I know from experience the cumulative effects of decades of containing and managing and never expressing a need or asking for help. it’s a world made of of hard surfaces. You shut down. You become a series of infinitely smaller images receding inside yourself. I have made a commitment not to do that any more, because it’s highly self-destructive, and I actually want to inhabit myself fully and openly, not fizzle like a Disprin or go away and live in a cupboard. This means, one, that I can no longer ellide my difficulties; I can no longer look obliquely and think I’m doing OK; and, two, that I have to find ways, ongoingly, to communicate my actual experience to other people and negotiate for what might make things a little more workable.

Which is why, even though I didn’t want to do it, some kind of communication around the New Mats at Stillpoint felt like a necessary act of presence. As in: I could (a) sit down and shut up and erase myself a little bit further or (b) actually speak something that feels true. So I did (b), I’m not sure whether well or appropriately (this kind of ongoing self-doubt is part and parcel of being autistic and therefore not very atuned to social cues) – or actually what doing it ‘well’  or ‘appropriately’ would look like. I don’t know yet what, if anything, I need to emerge in this particular situation in practical terms. But I think none of that really matters if there’s a genuine mutual intention to deepen relationship and expand understanding. Relationship is always kind of clunky, and it’s process, not a resolution.

If I looked disabled, I think in some ways advocating for myself would be easier. I often feel as if people think I’m making it up. Sometimes even I feel as if I’m making it up. I’ve written a lot already about passing. Studying and mimicking neurotypical communication styles became a survival mechanism for many of us with autism before we were old enough to be cogniscent of what we were doing. Passing is a form of self-displacement – we pass successfully when we cannot be recognised as ourselves – and it’s invidious. It also generates a state of chronic anxiety. We’re always waiting for the mask to slip, and at some point it inevitably does. The sanction for slippage is public humiliation and being left out on the mountainside for the wolves.

I’m actually rather good at passing, but it’s that cupboard again, and it’s small and claustrophobic. At this point in my life I’m choosing instead to cultivate my capacity for agitation and crying and losing the words and letting all the joins show. It feels like an honest and direct way of talking to you that I think some of you can understand.

Or, at least, I’m trying. It’s like restoring an old work of art. I no longer know really whether this bit of the picture was originally blue or green. I’m lifting off tiny flakes of paint one by one with tweasers, but the painting is so old to me now that I don’t always recognise the original any more. I don’t know how I really speak, or when I don’t, or whether that is a distant clutch of trees or there’s a bird, or is that an accidental splodge or a much later traveller another artist entirely painted in?

The elemental force of my reaction to New Mats was huge and overwhelming and barrelled in completely left field. It picked me up and shook me around, and I had no idea when it was going to put me down or whether it has yet. Fundamentally, though, I trust the relationships I’ve developed with Scott and with Andy enough to risk letting myself be. One of the themes of my writing lately has been saying thank you to people who hold space for me in the realms of the body and somatic process, so I want to say thank you – very much – to Scott and Andy. I’m way beyond grateful when someone is willing to stay with me and witness what’s evolving, even when it’s itchy and antsy, because if it’s real, it often is. For me, teaching yoga isn’t so much about instructing asana as it is relational. We are all learning how to be more fully and honestly with ourselves, with each other and in community, whether in the moment we are in the role of teacher or of student. At Stillpoint, this feels embodied in the teaching and in the relationships within and around the shala. And that’s why, even though I don’t like New Mats, I’m trying to work with them.

Stillpoint: Old Mats. I am foreground right. © SYL.

  1. There’s a lot of essential learning in being your own teacher that you can’t get any other way. I wrote about it here.

Threads of Yoga: a response to Matthew Remski’s book

Threads of Yoga is definitely the most erotic book of yoga philosophy I’ve ever read. And that’s sort of the point. One of its foremost intentions is to reinsert the body as a felt organism with interoception and messy biological needs into the clean white envelope of the Yoga Sutras. In this sense, it groove-joins the old text to contemporary asana practice, in which a dominant paradigm is somatic connection:

While multiple streams of inquiry are now breathlessly searching for the ‘mindbody connection’, many yoga practitioners carry the feeling that this ‘connection’ does not need to be found or forged – it was simply never missing.

Threads of Yoga also sutures the dissevered limb of the solitary meditative seeker back onto the body of the environment. In scenes of graphic intersubjectivity, it peoples the lonely cathedral spaces of the Yoga Sutras with grass, sex, children, flowers, birds; its hard edges are replaced by a kind of porosity that soaks us all into each other. What was high, holy, vaulted and up there becomes immediate, tactile, equally holy and down here. For we are not lonely monks wandering in the forest, desert fathers, saints clinging to a windy skellig (1), but we are inter-related subjects living in a sensory world of mingled flesh and tangled relationship. We are all in it together, and we need soft-bodied texts that breathe us into our togetherness.

Threads of Yoga also punctures the Emperor’s new clothes conceit / deceit of omniscient authorship. The constructed Patanjali identity, presumed to have reached full awakening, to have surpassed the ordinary things of ordinary human beings, and to be here to tell us how we can do it too, is nudged off the shelf and replaced by someone who hasn’t. If, like me, you’re not wholly convinced by enlightenment, the horizontality of Threads of Yoga is a lot more relateable. It speaks to my personal experience of practice and integration, which is real and immediate, not particularly pristine, and tends to bed me more into the everyday here-and-now compost of dirty human being.

Some of what I love about Matthew is that he’s a radical deconstructor. This appeals to my autistic soul. Because, to an autistic person, the cultural constructions ‘we’ invest with a socially agreed thing-ness, actually appear pretty arbitrary, so it’s a relief when someone knocks them down and there’s just a great big pile of lego pieces lying on the floor. Now we have creative potential. Not that I necessarily go along with everything Matthew makes with the lego. Some of it seems to me fairly off-the-wall. I’m not very keen on psychoanalytic theories. I find many of them over-determined and hetero-normalising. And I’m fairly sure I don’t feel traumatised by axial and pre-axial age practices of infanticide. Or even that convinced that they were widely prevalent. But, anyway, I’m glad we have reappropriated the lego and we can build strange stuff.

Another thing I love about Matthew is that his vocabulary so choice. Y’all know me as a mover and a shaker, but my background is also in poetry and the written word. One of the reasons I got into Buddhism ten or so years ago was actually that the writing was so much better than anything the contemporary yoga world had to offer. So much yoga writing was drab, pedestrian and totally lacking in the capacity for original thought. Hallellujah, this is finally changing, and Matthew is part of that. Threads of Yoga is touched by poetry. It has that necessary quality of scintillation and surprise, and sentences with musical phrasing. Gosh, a yoga book written by a writer! But if it was about fishing or gardening, I’d probably still read it, because the prose delights me.

Those who have taken exception to Threads of Yoga seem largely not to have read the subtitle. You can’t really object to a book for being an inaccurate translation when it describes itself as ‘remix’ and ‘reverie’. Really, it does exactly what it says on the tin. It samples Patanjali, drops some unexpected and eclectic beats, and give us all the chance to dance like lunatics. You can’t say fairer than that.

Threads of Yoga: A remix of Patanjali’s sutras with commentary and reverieMatthew Remski, 2012.

(1) Even if that’s a favourite landscape of mine: https://movingprayer.wordpress.com/2013/07/21/whose-practice-is-it-anyway/.

Crazy wisdom body: pain, injury and practising with what is

“There is nothing that does not grow light through habit and familiarity. Putting up with little cares, I’ll train myself to bear with great adversity.”—Shantideva

For a period of my astanga life, I referred to my practice as ‘the path of pain’. I was joking, but only a bit. The path of pain was nothing to do with masochism. I tried very hard not to hurt myself and I got intensely frustrated when I hurt myself anyway. The more I endeavoured to move ‘forwards’, the more I seemed to be pushed ‘backwards’ into a situation increasingly ‘imited’ by injury.

I was told that astanga injuries are the result of aggressive practice – an observation in some instances with sound foundation. I believed that in some subtle way, beneath my conscious awareness, I must be forcing my body. But this was puzzling because I would watch more robust types pushing themselves obviously much harder than I ever did and with no apparent deleterious effects. I now also felt guilty and wrong, but I didn’t know how to be right.

I don’t remember exactly when it began to dawn on me that I was hypermobile. I was formally diagnosed with Hypermobility Syndrome: Ehlers Danlos Type by Professor Rodney Grahame in 2007. By then, it was confirmation of what I already knew. When Rodney Grahame asked me what I wanted to get out of diagnosis, I explained that I would like to be able to set better boundaries for myself. What I meant was that I wanted to believe myself; I wanted to give weight to my own experience; I wanted to move into my own internal authority and be able to proceed consistently from it.

I have chronic tendonitis, triggered trigger points, over-stretched ligaments, frequent minor subluxations, and a hole in my right medial meniscus. In the medical model, these would be termed ‘symptoms’ of hypermobility. I prefer to relate to them as phenomena. This way, I’m less likely to problematise them and more likely to get interested in them in an open way. It’s my tendency for anxiety, dissatisfaction and a kind of improving antsiness that turns ‘little cares’ like this into a thing. But after several years of familiarisation, pain no longer feels like pain in the troublesome sense. I can only hope I’m a bit more prepared for great adversity.

Buddhist mythology tells us that throughout his life the Buddha received regular visits from the demon-god Mara, bearing doubt, discouragement and temptation of every kind. Each time Mara arrived, the Buddha’s servant, Ananda, wanted to bar him entry. He was, in Ananda’s eyes, the daddy of all bad influences. But every time, the Buddha welcomed Mara in, greeting him with the words, ‘I see you, Mara’ and inviting him to sit down for tea. Pain became a path for me when I started inviting my body for tea – not the fictional body, but the one that actually exists, with its tender joints, strung-out hamstrings, travelling carpals and all the rest. Because the reality is that none of these things is a distraction from my practice or an obstacle to it; they are themselves the ground of my practice, the royal road to enduring presence (‘enduring’ meaning ‘hard’ – a presence that remains solid and reliable), out of which flowers a particular kind of resilient joy.

In our culture, the sublimely perfected ‘yoga body’ is much desired. That it is also imaginary and therefore ultimately never attainable makes it the ideal commercial product, ripe for the commodification that it has richly received. The sexed-up, fantasy photoshops of adverti-media are in our faces all the time, while we rarely encounter images of actual bodies doing actual yoga or text describing the process of yoga as a real experience. Those of us who teach yoga are both products and promulgators of the industrial yoga machine. We, too, in our publicity most often depict the practice of yoga as blissful, love-evoking, leading smoothly to radiant health and a younger-looking body. We seldom offer an honest perspective on the actual complexities involved in the relationship between practice and product (pun intended – think about it, people), or of the intersections of yoga practice with our habitual human patterns of addiction, overwhelm, neurosis, anger and pain. No wonder. Such views feel tantamount to taboo.

It’s a radical act to acknowledge what we’re really experiencing in our bodies, on our mats, here and now. It’s revolutionary and it’s evolutionary. Hell, yeah! Let’s do it, people! Let’s put the kettle on, crack open the chocolate digestives and drink tea with the bodies we actually have. Because in the words of that great teacher Dr Doolittle, ‘It’s the truth, it’s actual, everything is satisfactual’. It seems that we are habituated consistently to prefer the fugitive promise of the dreamed-for body to the always-ready-and-waiting satisfactuality of the real one. But it doesn’t have to be like this.

That injury is a teacher is almost a truism, but it took me a while to understand how profound these teachings can be. They are not simply biomechanical in nature but have also to do with how we are in our whole life, as it manifests in our body. From where I’m standing, my body often appears unpredictable, illogical and capricious. Just when I think maybe I understand what’s going on, it throws in something that knocks me completely sideways. When the only possible response is to burst out laughing, you know you’re in the presence of a bona fide crazy wisdom teacher.

My physical technique background is in ballet, so I’m well schooled in the heroic capacity for carrying on regardless. And in a way, I’m very grateful for that training. It has been a valuable precursor to its meta-quality, which contains commitment and consistency, through rough-going as well as smooth; it’s a kind of indestructible self-discipline that keeps on keeping on, even when there is no apparent way through. It’s the habit and commitment that the bodhisattva Shantideva refers to in the quotation. Rather than forcing my body, denying the pain or trying to breathe through it (which to me would be anti-practice), this meta-quality entails getting on my mat anyway and doing what is do-able today. It invites mindful exploration of sensations and the emotional responses they evoke (or vice versa) without seeking to fix or change anything, but simply allowing any resolution to emerge, or not. It includes what’s happening on all levels, so that as little as possible gets swept under the yoga mat. Anger, resentment, envy, fear, grief – these too: chocolate digestives.

Being fully in our real, actual body, whether it’s obviously injured and in pain or not, requires of us sensitivity, honesty and patience. It invites an awake, listening receptivity to what is – whatever is. Because this is what’s happening now, and this, and only this, is the teaching. If I frame my reality so that it’s only ‘good’ yoga if nothing in my body hurts, I’m always going to be in the wrong, partly because I’m genetically hypermobile so some degree of pain and injury is tantamount to a given, no matter how or what I practise; partly because as a human being it’s a dead cert I’m going to encounter the full range of human experience. We breathe in, we expand, we integrate, we grow; we breathe out, we contract, we dissolve and die. A holistic yoga practice is a process of creating a container big enough and elastic enough to include all of this – all of this.

Namaste, amigos!