Yin Yoga and Hypermobility

In the small but growing conversation about yoga and hypermobility, there has been quite a bit of interest lately in yin yoga and its suitability – or not – for people with Joint Hypermobility Syndrome / Ehlers Danlos (JHS / EDS).1 And if it is suitable, whether it needs to be modified. And if it does need to be modified, how.

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

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

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

It’s evident from reading forum posts on yin yoga and hypermobility that some people assume yin yoga to be a generic term for a gentle form of hatha yoga. No wonder, then, that they are puzzled as to why this kind of yoga might be inadvisable for a hypermobile body. So to clarify, the yin yoga that we are talking about is a specific form originated by martial arts master and yogi Paulie Zink,2 developed by Paul Grilley, and popularised by Paul along with second-generation teachers such as Sarah Powers. Bernie Clark, author of The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga, describes yin like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This kind of specificity in where and for how long I work is crucial to me in practising yin in a beneficial way. It’s complex and it isn’t usually within the capacity of a beginning yoga practitioner, or a practitioner who is only just discovering and coming to terms with their hypermobility. I rely on a lot of knowledge that I’ve emerged from working with a very good physio. I also don’t completely relax in postures, but prefer to squeeze and release and press into certain muscles and to relax into others.3 This way I can stay selectively engaged. As an autistic person, I find this approach a lot more satisfying too.4 Like Eva, though, I think it’s questionable whether this way of working is really yin any more, since yin is essentlally defined as a passive form in which we follow the bones, follow the line of least resistance and let go into the joints.

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

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

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

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

In restorative yoga the emphasis is on comfort and ease rather than stretching. Soft props such as bolsters and blankets support the body, and we slow right down to access the parasympathetic nervous system, creating opportunities for rest, integration, and physical and emotional healing. Clearly the potential for traumatic injury to myofascia5 is far smaller in this scenario; however, even a restorative practice can go pear-shaped for a hypermobile practitioner if they are already biomechanically out of kilter. Bear in mind that for many hypermobile people, sleeping is a high-risk activity. Those most severely affected may need to wear splints and braces at night to keep their joints in a neutral position; most of us are accustomed to waking up with joint and muscle pain. Restorative yoga can be counter-productive where fascial laxity is such that when the person lets go (allows postural muscles to switch off) they collapse into positions that distort the joints. Often in this scenario the resting position is further compromised by dysfunctional muscle patterns, in which some muscles are very tight and unable to release, whereas others are completely switched off and unable to fire, so that the person is biomechanically lopsided. In this situation, structural repatterning work (with a suitably skilled physiotherapist, yoga therapist or other structural bodyworker) may be of most benefit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1. The terminiology of hypermobility is complicated and disputed among hypermobility clinicians. For the purposes of this writing, I use ‘Joint Hypermobility Syndrome’ and ‘Ehlers Danlos’ as two terms for pretty much the same thing. I also include Marfan Syndrome under this general umbrella.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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 ©.

It is not the words: art, (dis)ability, thinking in pictures and speaking with the body

ImageJudith Scott was an artist (she died in 2005). She made large, intricate, colourful pieces by wrapping with yarn and strips of cloth. Inside these womb-like, containing spaces, x-rays reveal concealed objects: forks, rings – small daily items from her immediate environment. Judith also had Downs Syndrome; she was deaf and non-speaking and spent her life up to the age of 43 in institutions. Here, when she was a child, crayons were taken away from her because she was considered too ‘retarded’ to be able to use them – even though she clearly was using them, perhaps not in the way the staff expected, but artists do the unexpected with their materials. Judith’s medical notes record that after the crayons were taken away, she cried for hours.

The introduction to the video about Judith on karmatube poses the question, ‘Can something can be called art if it is made by someone who does not consider herself an artist?’ I wonder why it’s assumed that Judith didn’t consider herself an artist. Because she didn’t speak, write or sign? Because she didn’t articulate artist as a word? Is the word itself a magical signifier of reality? Folded into the assumption that Judith did not consider herself an artist is a second one that because she didn’t speak, write or sign, she didn’t reflect. But as soon as she got the opportunity, Judith spent every day, all day, making art, continuing sometimes until her fingers bled. It seems to me that her work is a body of non-verbal reflection and that she communicated her identity loud and clear.

Like many (though not all) autistic people, I think in images and translate into words. My thought-pictures are evocative, textured and intensely compelling. I also experience emotion as image and similarly have to slowly deduce – or maybe it’s more like seduce – the terminology for the feeling from the colours, lines, tone and content. It’s a kind of internal pathetic fallacy. For some visual thinkers, see-thinking is realistic. Temple Grandin, for instance, explains that her visual memories are like computer files stored in her brain. They are accurate and precise and make her a highly skilled structural designer. This way of thinking enabled her to note design faults in the Fukushima nuclear plant and predict the disaster that occurred there as a result of the tsunami in 2011. For me, though, see-thinking is mythopoeic. It’s an arthouse movie, an expanding, interconnecting sequence of images that carry meanings on multiple levels, psychological, emotional, somatic.

It’s only very recently that I realised most other people’s mental processes don’t happen this way, and I’m still puzzled by how it’s possible to think without seeing it. It turns out to be equally difficult to convey to non-see-thinkers what it’s like to see-think and how the translation process works. For a start – in my mind anyway – there are always many layers of interpenetrating images going on at the same time. I say ‘going on’ because they’re not static like paintings; they shift and change, and I can move between, into and through them. I can also alter them, though where this ‘I’ is located, what is volitional and what arises organically beyond ‘my’ control, is not entirely clear to me. I suppose it’s really a dialogue of unconscious and conscious mind. Once I start to transpose image into word, the words themselves arise as image – sometimes typed in Courier on a strip of paper – and then generate more images, so the richness and multi-dimensionality of meaning is often overwhelming.

In the process of paring and refining into language, much of the expansiveness, beauty and subtlety of the original vision gets lost frustratingly in the gaps between the words. And there are experiences and feelings that simply have no words in the English language, or for which language fails to provide fine enough distinctions:

When the phone stopped ringing she perceived a peculiar silence. One of many. Which one? There is a silence of perception. It wasn’t that. Thoughtless silence? Forced silence? Chosen silence? Silence because you’re listening. Fearful silence. Because the radio’s broken. Hesitation. When you don’t say it because you don’t want to hurt the other person. Enraged silence. When you don’t say it because it’s not going to do any good. Waiting. Thinking. Not wanting to be misunderstood. Refusing to participate. Self-absorption. When a loud sound is over. Shame. (Empathy, Sarah Schulman)

I wouldn’t be surprised  if someone like Judith Scott found verbal language just too much of a dispersal of creative energy. I’m not deaf and I find it very exhausting. I have hyperlexia – defined as a significantly higher than average ability with the written word, coupled with a lower than average ability to comprehend spoken language. My intuitive sense is that I read body language and facial expression preferentially; I definitely find speech harder to understand when these are not available, and I detest the phone. My hyperlexia seems to me a paradox. I feel that it arises out of the secondariness for me of word as a mental process and a sense of the urgency of translation if I am to swim in the shoal. Because no one wants to be eaten by a shark. Yet I write seldom. It’s too arduous; the sense of the breadth of the of the gulf to be bridged too daunting. While in a sort of way words allow me to feel connected, they also fix me in isolation – because words are cyphers, and the actual experience always floats silently between them just out of reach. As Hamlet says, ‘My words fly up, my thoughts remain below.’

According to research, 70 per cent of interpersonal communication actually occurs not through the clipping of words but through the body, so perhaps hyperlexics are actually more tuned in than the average person to the full range of human expression and are in fact listening where it really counts. And it cuts both ways. My hands are very articulate. I speak with them a lot. They often carry meanings from inside that I haven’t yet been able to understand verbally or that words lack the subtlety and finesse to encode. When I began to investigate the possibility that I might be on the autistic spectrum, I learnt that body-speaking is a defining ability of autistic people. There’s a term for it. The term is ‘flapping’. Yes, ‘flapping’ … as in penguin. Many autistic people who have been in special education aimed at training them to pass – to appear as seamlessly neurotypical as possible – recall the instruction, ‘Quiet hands!’, meaning that they should sit on it and shut up. God forbid you should get the crayons if you don’t know how to use them!

It’s no news to anyone, I think, that in our culture the mind is prioritised and privileged, while the body and its productions are denigrated. Whereas in earlier times the suppression of the body took the form of a kind of moral demonisation– even furniture had to be clad in tablecloths and antimacassars in case it got too exciting – today the body is undermined by industrial-scale prostitution. It flaunts itself in a window in Amsterdam, infinitely purchaseable and totally silenced. Even loci of somatic enquiry and embodiment, the holy asylums of the speaking body, have been infiltrated by commercial pimpery. The reified yoga body is a multi-billion-dollar cash cow. Who would have thought we could be brainwashed into buying ‘improved’ versions of our own bodies? Never mind that these digital manipulations are not realisable in the living, breathing world. No wonder so much energy goes into silencing the autistic body. A body that speaks irrepressibly its own meaning has the potential for very exciting subversion. Maybe this is why I don’t own a pair of lululemon yoga pants.

I found out about Judith Scott from Emma Roberts. Emma is a Five Rhythms dance teacher, a dance artist and a fellow explorer in the badlands of the moving body. As a child, Emma was told she had ‘ants in her pants and poor concentration’. But what if she was concentrating on the ants in her pants? After all, she went on to train in classical dance, which requires a great deal of focus – and a lot of ants. What if the ants in her pants were the way she was communicating? What if she was just speaking her primary language?

Since I was diagnosed with autism earlier this year, I’ve been thinking a lot about ability and disability and what, if anything, these words even mean. As someone on the autistic spectrum, I’m likely to give you the wrong change and the wrong date, my short-term memory would shame a goldfish, and I don’t know left from right or the difficult bits of the times tables, but I do have a first-class degree and a doctorate (in Pictures and Words, of course – I’m frightened of the sharks). I can’t stand or sit with my back unsupported for more than a minute or two, and I really need a seat on public transport because of Ehlers Danlos / Hypermobility Syndrome, but at the age of 50 I have an astanga practice that would be beyond most people in their twenties. Both autism and ED / HMS involve binaries of deficit and hyper-ability – what autism specialist Tania Marshall calls super-powers. It feels dishonest to describe myself as disabled, and dishonest to describe myself as not disabled.  I live in a floating space of both / and, neither / nor. Judith Scott’s deficits  appear far more evident, and yet they bleed so seamlessly into her genius as an artist. It seems incontravertible to me really only that Judith Scott was Judith Scott.

Judith Scott: http://www.judithandjoycescott.com

Emma Roberts: http://www.shapingtheinvisible.co.uk

Thinking in Pictures, Temple Grandin, Doubleday, 2006.

Empathy, Sarah Schulman, Arsenal Pulp Press, 2006.

Loud Hands: Autistic People Speaking, The Autistic Self Advocacy Network, 2012.

Closets

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yo soy la DESINTEGRACIÓN (Frida Kahlo)

Yo soy la DESINTEGRACIÓN (Frida Kahlo)

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

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

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

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

Look into my eyes: autism on the dancefloor

A 2011 fMRI study … found that the brains in a sample of high-functioning autistics and typically developing individuals seemed to respond to eye contact in opposite fashions. In the neurotypical brian, the right temporoparietal junction (TPJ) was active to direct gaze, while in the autistic subject, the TPJ was active to averted gaze … The study found the opposite pattern in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex: in neurotypicals, activation to averted gaze; in autistics, activation to direct gaze. So it’s not that autistics don’t respond to eye contact, it’s that their response is the opposite of neurotypicals’. The Autistic Brain, Temple Grandin (Harcourt Miffflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2013).

A few weeks ago. I am on a 5Rhythms dancefloor. It’s near the end of the dance, and here it comes again that instruction: look into your partner’s eyes. But a couple of things have happened since the last time I was asked to do this. One: I have a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), aka Asperger’s Syndrome, aka autism. (I prefer ‘autism’, because whereas ‘ASD’ and ‘Asperger’s’ are a having, ‘autism’ is a being, and I am autistic.) Two: I have recently got to this passage in Temple Grandin’s book.

While it isn’t natural for me to look into another person’s eyes, like most older women with autism, over the years I have trained myself to hold all sorts of gaze, in all sorts of different situations, in neurotypical-mimicking ways, so on a purely technical level, I can do this exercise really well – better than many neurotypical people. But the thing is, my gaze is a very skillful forgery – so skillful that unless you know what you’re looking for, you’ll never spot it.

After a minute or so of eye-gazing, I see that my partner’s eyes are beginning to tear up. And I am feeling …  at first it seems nothing … but if I stay with myself and keep watching … there it is: I feel pinned, like one of those asphyxiated butterflies impaled on a tiny cushion. I feel incandescent with fury, hot little flames licking up my belly, because once again I have been compromised, manoeuvred, forced, and the only way I know to break through this fakery and blast my way into truth is to get up and walk away … but this is such a fundamental transgression of a human – neurotypical human – rule of intimate engagement that I do not dare. And, yes, it would be one hell of a dance, but if you have ever been in a minority, if you have ever felt the weight and surprising omnipresence – look, it’s even here inside me! – of the arm that polices, you may understand why in this moment a few weeks ago, I cannot stand up and do that dance. So I am left with this nasty-tasting insinuation, this snaky voice in my head, whispering that I am all wrong and that you, neurotypical person, are all right, because you have the tear of the majority in your eye, and the way my brain is wired, this isn’t intimate.

My capacity for social interaction is limited. It’s an effort for me, even now, after decades of practice, to read the signals, and I quickly become exhausted and overloaded. One of the reasons I gravitate to the dancefloor is that, by and large, it offers me an opportunity for engaging with others that bypasses the social and moves directly into a space that I can read and negotiate with fluency. This is a place beyond what can be spoken, beyond the mask of social expression, a space that drops suddenly and sheerly, deep into the hinterland, the silent wilderness of emotion, of a wordless bodily knowing of which thinking mind is mostly unconscious. This is my natural habitat. It’s the place where the real me lurks, half-concealed in shadow behind the social forms. It isn’t a place I choose to live – though I wouldn’t choose to live anywhere else – does a lion choose to live in the jungle or a fish in the sea? It’s a habitat written into my genetic code.

My capacity for intimacy is profound. I have no doubt about that. I have had two relationships with people who, in hindsight, I recognise to be autistic. We never looked into each other’s eyes. It wouldn’t have occurred to us. But I experienced a depth and detail of intimacy in those relationships that none with a neurotypical person has ever come close to. I’m not saying that neurotypical people are less capable of intimacy than autistic people, though I do feel that in some ways neurotypical people experience and express intimacy differently. But I know that there are autistic people who are primed for an intense, surpassing intimacy that feels oceanic in it’s bigness and wideness and the fierceness of its tides.

In any form of moving meditation practice, we hold the intention of staying with our experience, of continuing to move with and into it, of continuing to witness it, so that gradually, moment by moment, day by day, year by year, we expand our capacity to include. Our bowl becomes ever more capacious. At the same time, balancing this willingness to be present to whatever arises, is a discriminating awareness that holds the potential to move us away from situations of harm and towards places, people and practices that hold out the possibility of knitting us into wholeness. Where this discriminating faculty is not present or not honoured is the potential for abuse.

When I look into somebody’s eyes and experience the opposite of intimacy, I know this won’t change if I work on it; I know it says nothing about my capacity to connect intimately in many alternative ways; I know that I am simply experiencing my own neurology. Well, I’ve experienced it now, and my sense is that experiencing it repeatedly in this way isn’t going to serve me. In fact, it feels masochistic – or maybe sadistic, because I don’t feel as if I ever consented, not really. I don’t feel as if I was given the opportunity to make an informed choice.

My own experience as a participant is always educating me as a facilitator. How can I create something like this in my own work or not create something like that? So in a way this is myself talking to me here, but I’m also talking to you, out-there facilitator. If I know the structure right at the beginning, I have the opportunity to make a choice about whether or not it’s going to be helpful for me to be in it, because I don’t want to be unnecessarily bruised. I can give informed consent.

For me, offering choice in this way means that we are willing to let our students be adults. We are prepared to honour their personal experience and their inherent ability to feel into what they need, even if they have just walked in the door and never encountered the practice we are offering before. It means we are holding the intention of being as alert as we can to all the subtle ways in which we might be imposing our own preferences and aversions, our maps, our ways and our styles, even our own neurology, on our students. In a sense, we are all imprisoned in who we are, so this requires many leaps of the imagination. I have to be comfortable in my ignorance of you, willing to let go of cherished notions about how I offer my work and how you receive it. I have to be willing to go beyond the point where I think I’ve already done all of this.

I found it very difficult to emerge the ending of this article. I think I wanted some sort of resolution, which, for me right now, isn’t there. I wanted not to offend anyone – always a killer. What I’m actually left with is a sense of conflict. I’m an out autistic in a neurotypical world. Part of me wants to fit in, because that way you survive. You even get to access some of the privileges: work, community, a nice house. The awareness of how absolutely crucial it is to acquire neurotypical behaviours, to be able to pass seamlessly, was borne in on me the day I started school, and I spent many years learning how to look normal and say the right things at the right times. The alternative was to be an outcast. Now, with a diagnosis, an awareness of (dis)ability politics and a commitment to neurodiversity, I’m trying to unlearn some of this. It’s painful and laborious, like peeling off filo-pastry layers of skin. I have naturalised a lot of neurotypical behaviours. Although they aren’t innate, I’ve repeated them so many times, they almost could be. I’m like a person who left her homeland as a small child and learnt a whole new way of life, but deep inside still moves to the beat of the old country. Or as an autistic friend of mine put it, it’s like being an undercover detective. In the end, the two lives become so ravelled up, you hardly know which one belongs to you any more.

And I still don’t know how to finish this article.