Containers not contents: reflections from the Open Floor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More about my dance movement work.

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

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

3. ‘Pendulate’ in Somatic Experiencing language.

 

Whose practice is it anyway?

I love teaching myself. I taught myself Russian when I was sixteen, and I have taught myself Sanskrit. When I can follow my own thread, mark out for myself the territory and press into my own exploration, I feel liberated, as if there is finally enough room to extend and to breathe. I am autistic, and autistic people are generally autodidacts. We are also, on the whole, highly focused (some would say obsessive), self-sufficient and happy to do things for the most part alone. So neurologically – autism is hardwired: my autistic characteristics don’t change if I work on myself or meditate a lot, although both those things offer me skills to deal with the challenges of being autistic, just as they offer you skills to deal with the challenges of being neurotypical … Neurologically, I have a particular angle on what it means to practise and on the kind of relationship I want with teachings and a teacher.

I am also an astanga vinyasa practitioner: I belong to a tradition that is strongly guru-oriented. Astangis generally speak with reverence of their teacher, and when I first meet another astangi, a question that usually comes up early in the conversation is, ‘Who’s your teacher?’ My answer is always, ‘I am.’

I don’t in any way deny the valuable teaching I have received from many wonderful teachers, for which I am very grateful, but none of these people has ever felt like My Teacher. In the two instances when I have been very close to teachers (in the yoga therapy and dance movement areas of my work), both relationships have felt more personal, more fluid, more equal, and more full of the human flaws of both of us than the traditional astanga teaching relationships described to me appear to be.

For me a yoga practice is a somatic, psychological and emotional exploration within a physical framework. My mat is a place where my essential humanness has an opportunity to come out to play: my feelings, responses, compulsions and escapes, my crazy mindfucks and moments of searing beauty, my ego trips and the way that I navigate all of this. I’m an anchorite in a leaky coracle. There’s nobody else in the boat.

Because I want to witness all of this, when I choose to go to a teacher it will be to someone who mostly lets me be and just puts a finger on when the whole thing is threatening to overturn. It will be someone with the humility not to know where I’m travelling or whether what they can offer is what I need, but the willingness to offer it anyway, without attachment to if or how I use it.

I’m not sure that it started out this way or that the result is the product of the intention, but much of the traditional practice of astanga vinyasa appears to me to be unhealthily  focused on the word from Mysore, which many devout students observe like papal bulls. One of the most ludicrous astanga ‘rules’ to emanate from Mysore – and I have no idea if anyone at the Shri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute ever actually made it, and if they did whether it was intended as a general edict or as a particular instruction for a particular student – is that you shouldn’t warm up before practice. What?! I have no doubt that this works for some people, because almost everything works for someone, but I am fifty and hypermobile. Do I warm up before embarking on a highly gymnastic practice? You’d better believe it! It’s essential in order for me to be able to complete my practice reasonably safely. I also often teach stretches and strengthening exercises to indivdual students who I think could benefit from them, and I suggest that they do them before they practise.

If we give ourselves over without discrimination to a teacher, without consideration of whether an instruction is appropriate to us (you will know this not by evaluating it in your head, but by trying it on in your body and seeing how it feels), then we lay ourselves open to losing the true, experiential centre, the connection with the internal locus of our practice. I love receiving suggestions from a teacher, but that’s what they are: suggestions: generous offerings for the student to explore and implement if they work. If my practice consists of introjecting the teacher’s received word, what am I really practising? Isn’t it fundamentalism?

I would really like to be an anchorite. Every time I unroll my mat, I feel as if I’m rowing to the island: seabirds, rocks, unpredictable tides, and folded into the familiar wilderness, the tiny daily surprises. One of my motive springs has always been to resolve to what is essential; I am constantly paring down my life, not to diminish it, but to uncover the core of inner meaning and feeling that lies irreducible there. Paradoxically, this place is passionate, rich and expansive. This feels like a personal and mostly private undertaking. Too little contact with the outside and, it’s true, it could fatally involute, but too much and it could die of exposure.

I don’t care whether my teacher goes to Mysore or whether they know how Sharatt is teaching bharadvajasan this year. I do need them to have used their own practice over many years and through different phases of life to penetrate layers of their own understanding, to weather life crises, to expand, to deepen, to perceive with increasing subtlety. It is through engaging, regularly and over the years, with this ground of practice that, as teachers, we have something to offer students beyond the architecture of the postures, which are not in themselves yoga, but simply a context and an invitation for yoga to occur.