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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflection
Take some time to connect with your body.

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

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

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

Sean brought this experience to online mentoring:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Linda told me:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bothsittingPhoto by Shawn Ballantine Photography.

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

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

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

4. For more about teaching yoga to hypermobile people, see my article ‘Hypermobility on the Mat’.

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

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

This post is a version of a chapter in a book I am currently writing: Being a Yoga Teacher – A Mentor Book. All names of people have been changed, and some details have been altered in the examples in order to maintain confidentiality. If you’re interested in receiving notification when the book is available, please contact jess@movingprayer.co.uk.

 

A community of elders: the sustainable astangi

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

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

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

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

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

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

Namaste!

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

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

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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Tissue paper and glass

I once heard an interview with a hypermobile contortionist whose act involved fitting himself into tiny boxes.1 He explained that he had learnt how to dislocate and relocate his joints at will when he was a child. This seems to me a very clever neurological adaptation, because in my experience dislocating is like touching fire. I’m out of that place much faster than I can think. My body knows where its parts are meant to be, even if it’s sometimes a bit rubbish at keeping them there.

Three days ago, I made an awkward movement while adjusting my left foot in ekapada sirsasana. There was a big clunk on the right side that felt an awful lot like my SI joint subluxing. The immediate feeling was a kind of suspension: a long second or two of grace before sensation surged in, and with sensation testing and assessing, seeing what I could move and working it out. Grace addled with fear really. I know those clunks. I know what they mean. I know that pain and immobility arrive like a caravanserai, slowly, throughout the day, one camel at a time.

Photo on 24-12-2015 at 21.10 10.39.00What’s difficult about writing for a public space – so difficult that I rarely do it – is creating form and structure. Form and structure are really protective distance – between me in the nakedness of the experience and the person reading about it. I’d much rather sketch, in a few scant lines, but going straight in, deep. I’d rather silk spooling out of spinnerets, easy, casual, letting myself down, winding myself up, and down again. But it’s exposing.

For the rest of the day I felt skinless. I could hardly bear the shiver of feeling. Sounds were acute, grazing, shocking. Inside was grey, grainy, gauzy, like the spaces through a very old net curtain … like winter trees scribbling across the sky, cross-hatched and mobile. Still, now, that membraneous feeling comes and goes. It’s a bit like having very bad flu: tiny sensations are enormously expanded, clean sheets like an iceberg; turning over, the revolving of a planet from night into day.

At present I’m somewhat hobbling. My right piriformis is in spasm, and I’m starting to think my right foot problem may be a stress fracture. I often feel as if I’m made out of tissue paper and glass. But when I’m in the thick of practice – at the deep beating heart of it – I feel melted into a fluidity in which all my parts coalesce. There’s a sense of resolving into an entity that isn’t about surfaces but coheres from the centre outwards.

I really believe in moving, no matter what. The more limited I am, the more important it feels to me to get up and move what’s here. As I get older, I see how well this has served me over the years. For one thing, I’ve seen what happens to hypermobile people when we don’t move. It isn’t, for the most, part a pretty picture. More significantly, sites of restriction, injury, places where continuing feels utterly impossible … these have been the loci of the most fundamental repatterning for me. This sort of recalibration happens in my body but not just to my body. It’s a whole-person event.

Practising, for me, isn’t about pounding away – same old, same old. It’s about feeling into the subtle differences, becoming awake to the more functional in the new. In my personal experience, occasional injury is inevitable when I’m practising on this edge. Partly because I have Ehlers Danlos, but more fundamentally because, by definition, I’m working – out of a secure foundation of established practice – into a territory where I don’t totally know. It’s risky.

This hypermobile body teaches me about impermanence and the inherent fragility of that. It’s brave to step up and inhabit this precariousness, but there’s also a kind of freedom in living there.

1. The contortionist is Captain Frodo. You can read an interview with him here. He also sounds a tiny bit autistic.

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/.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Namaste, amigos!