Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy: Bringing Complex Trauma to the Mat

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The website complextrauma.org explains:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not yoga

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not psychotherapy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Safety and trust

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

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

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

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

Unconditional positive regard: ‘Will I be judged?’

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

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

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

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

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

​* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image
Ante Gudelj.

Reflections on Practice

Thursday 17 June 2021: second series

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

Like a clear run.

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

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

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

Yin Yoga and Hypermobility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image by Kenneth Geiger ©.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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/.

Bleeding words: I write about why it’s hard to write

Ernest Hemingway apparently once said:

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.

I may possibly not have the same relationship with bleeding as Ernest. While I think he’s probably intending razor blades or knives, or possibly leeches, I’m getting tides, the moon and the leg-collapsing sensation of drawing down, an organic cycle that transcends choice, desire or need and isn’t very dramatic. But it’s true there’s nothing to this kind of bleeding.

And I really wish I could write that way. I really wish there were a running tap or a tide, because nothing to me is more perplexed, trammelled, stilted and stuttering than making the little ants march across the big white spaces. For me, writing is more like wading through waist-high sludge than opening a vein.

In that case, you might reasonably be wondering why I keep on trying. Byron (I love Byron – I don’t really like Hemingway) explained, ‘If I don’t write to empty my mind, I go mad.’ I feel that. I often empty my mind by moving these days, but it’s a different kind of emptying. Byron is right: there’s something cathartic in tipping out the trash can. At least then you can see what’s mouldering and mulching; it’s no longer silently doing its inexorable organic thing inside your head. There’s a satisfying sense of compensatory aesthetic control when the inchoate is mustered and corralled, penned into neat black lines and grammatical structures – even if all they really do is frame its essential wildness.

But for me it’s not enough just to quietly lasso a few horses. I have this desperate need to be heard, seen and truly apprehended, to know that I am not sifting away like sand through an egg-timer. It’s as if some maniacal little Führer in my head is constantly yelling, ‘Listen, all of you! Listen! Just listen! LISTEN!’ Because otherwise I don’t exist. I’m whirling and whirling away, down the plughole, over the event horizon.

So, start where you are and all that, I thought I’d excavate it a bit, this feeling: the wool in my mouth, the thick tongue, gagging, choking. Just why is it so fucking difficult? Just why?

The thing is, when I write, I do feel as if my life depends upon it, and it depends upon it being good – so I have very high standards. It has to sing for me; it can’t clunk or collapse with an exhausted sigh. Writing is something I do well or I don’t do at all – which you can see is a crippling position to begin from. Who the hell can write like that? Like it has to be perfectly finished before it’s even started?

In some ways, this urgency, this sense of life-depends-upon, begins in a response to synaesthesia. I think in images. I see my thoughts, all of them, and then translate them into words. A writer friend – neurotypical – once told me she was envious of what she saw as my ability to generate images in poetry. I wanted to explain to her that I don’t have to generate anything. The inside of my head is an overwhelming prolixity of multi-layered and inter-penetrating images. Images are for me the ground of consciousness. The difficulty is in sifting and sorting. It requires a huge amount of executive function, and if you’re autistic, you don’t have a lot of executive function.

The first time I heard an autistic person describe the way they think as a movie, I was puzzled. Why was this something that needed explaining? How else was there to think? I still find it difficult to imagine what it’s like to think in words or how it’s even possible. Words seem such a sophisticated product of consciousness, like an aeroplane or the iPhone, so removed from the primal mud of the source. How can they arise pristine and fully formed?

I love films (actual ones), especially when they create their own landscape and communicate mostly through it. They are for me a form of direct apprehension: visual to visual. It’s a jaw-unhingeing relaxation to inhabit this kind of instantaneous world in which meaning presses through the surface like colours in a dirty sponge and soaks unmediated into my consciousness. Sponge to sponge.

When I write, there has to be the interpolation of another surface, one that must be negotiated and surmounted, and with it comes a sense of impotence. The thing is, when you think in images, so much of everything that matters – detail, colouration, mood, tone, and a kind of slidingness between one thing and another that allows for multiplicity, for more than one thing to be true at the same time and for everything to be connected to everything else – so much of this slips though the spaces between the words, leaving you with something at best diminished, at worst tangential to its actual meaning or signifying absolutely bloody nothing.

I also feel in images. My emotional experience happens in intense, rich, brightly coloured moving pictures, saturated with metaphorical meaning. I am one of those autistic people who experiences an overwhelming amount of emotion (whereas others report feeling almost no emotion at all). There’s so much going on in here that I often feel in danger of drowning in myself, and I struggle to experience a sense of containment. Like many autistic people, I find it difficult to name and categorise emotion. Partly, this seems to be due to the sheer volume of it happening all the time. Partly, it seems to devolve from the fact that no words have been coined for many of the emotions I see-feel. They exist like outlaws beyond what is languaged, defined and accepted as a known emotional experience. I need fifty words for snow. These days, given time (I’ve practised a lot), I can usually match what I see roughly to a fully accredited word for a feeling, but it’s a very broad category that loses much of the particularity, aesthetic wonder and intensity of the actual emotion. It communicates a lot less than it leaves out, and this is mightily frustrating.

There’s something else too. It’s biographical. I came to dance, but in my family dancing was considered a bit like masturbating – embarrassing and better done behind closed doors. So while I was always a secret dancer, writing became my first public practice and discipline, the first expressive form where I was witnessed. It also became the dungeon where my dancer was tied up and hidden. While I have set her fully at liberty in the world (another story), writing continues to be freighted for me with the frustration, limitation, dislocation / relocation of something that is not my first means but which had to be reached for, manipulated into. Maybe that’s why dancing is indeed for me like Hemingway bleeding: an open vein, a running tap.

Just lately I allowed myself to notice something else: writing and reading are erotic experiences. It’s the name I didn’t name of that intensity of being intimately read – by school English teachers and onwards to mentors and lovers I’ve written to. While I was fiddling around, turning the compost for this article ­– writer’s fore-play, essential to the writing act – I typed some words I like by Matthew Remski:

Language is continually overflowing its consensus meanings … When we use it playfully, it co-creates with us. But when we domesticate it to a conceptual purpose, our most serious grammar and richest vocabularies become very fragile nets through which most of the world escapes.

And as I typed, I was overtaken by this swoony, vertiginous feeling, of one thing collapsing into another – time, space and personhood. And for a moment I could not quite recollect … Who do these words belong to? To me? To you? Where did they come from? And I wondered, do you press through into another person’s consciousness when you re-write their words? Do you? Is it like lying naked, mind to mind, but still essentially unknowable? Are words really sex? Did my family get it all wrong?

And somehow I waded through the mud to the end – and the bit of writing I really love: polishing, refining. I’m autistic; I’m a details person. I have no eye for the big picture, and the process of emerging a structure is laden with anxiety for me. I can’t always bear to stay present for it. It’s got better since I embraced the associative nature of my thinking. I no longer look for lines, but drop in a pebble and follow the rippling out. And the rippling out and the rippling out … until the ripples dissolve into a sort of stillness.


It seems that it’s controversial, and Ernest Hemingway may never have said that.

threads of yoga, Matthew Remski, 2012.

On the edge: wire-walking for beginners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ImagePhilippe Petit wire-walks between the Twin Towers