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.



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.

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!

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.

Hypermobility on the mat: some pointers for teaching yoga to people with Ehlers Danlos / Joint Hypermobility Syndrome and Marfan Syndrome

hypermobilityThese suggestions for working with yoga students with Ehlers Danlos / Joint Hypermobility Syndrome and with Marfan Syndrome (EDS / JHS / MS) are written in response to the many requests for help and advice I receive from teachers of hypermobile students. They are neither exhaustive nor gospel. They are the result of personal experience rather than expertise. I have been practising yoga with Ehlers Danlos (Hypermobility Type) since 1981 and have experienced many different attitudes and approaches from teachers. In the last decade-and-some, I have also been fortunate enough to teach many students with hypermobility.

While teachers with a normal mobility range are sometimes, understandably, anxious about how to work with hypermobile students in a beneficial way, most of the principles for teaching hypermobile people are also good practice for working with all students, so hypermobile people are easy to integrate into a general yoga class. Individual techniques for individual postures are outside the scope of this writing, but pretty much any principle for alignment and physical integrity you have learnt is potentially a great tool for hypermobile students. Feel free to use it. The following are some general possibilities to explore.

• Many beginning students share the popular view of yoga in our culture as the cultivation of flexibility. Frame physical practice as a movement towards balance and integrity. For some students this will mean working on strength and stamina; for others it will mean focusing on loosening restrictions in fascia and muscle. This approach will also serve your stiffer students, who may feel that they are ‘bad’ at yoga because they are not flexible.

• Guide hypermobile students to release (micro-bend) the insides of their elbows and the backs of their knees so that they are not supporting themselves by ‘hanging’ in their joints.

• If you are familiar with spirals, use them to guide alignment – as far as I can tell, it is impossible to spiral and hyper-extend knees and elbows.

• Guide students to draw their limbs into the sockets rather than pulling them out. The general principle is to draw back into the centre rather than extending to the extremities. If you teach a vinyasa style, bandhas are key here – and generally very helpful for hypermobile people.

• In a hypermobile body, overworked and very flexible muscles often compensate for tight, contracted ones. Look out for this and suggest ways in which the student might rebalance, by stretching the tight places and strengthening the over-extended ones.

• Hypermobile people, by definition, have difficulties with proprioception, the ability to sense 1) the position of one’s own body in space, 2) the orientation of one body part to another, 3) the range of movement in a body part, 4) the degree of effort involved in carrying out a movement, and 5) which muscles need to be switched on and which switched off in order for a movement to be made in the most economical way. At the same time, many hypermobile people (particularly those who are also autistic) also have heightened interoception – awareness of stimuli arising within the body – and so may be receiving an overload of other sensory information. Be mindful of the potential for labelling sensation-sensitive students as hypochondriac or self-dramatising because they are registering somatic experience in a range that for the teacher is under the radar.

• A hypermobile student may find it helpful to have something to push into – this provides greater proprioceptive feedback and de-emphasises extending the joint as the main action. For example: ‘Press your elbows into my hands’ (to work with hyper-extending elbows in downdog), or ‘Press your shin up into your hand’ (to work with a hyper-extending knee in utthita trikonasana).

• Educate students about edge as a range of possibilities. Because of the limitations in their proprioceptive ability, hypermobile people may need guidance to be able to feel the softer edges on the spectrum. If a hypermobile student consistently chooses a hard edge, be aware that this may be because it’s the only edge they can feel, rather than concluding that they are an aggressive practitioner.

• Be prepared to adjust the hypermobile student’s alignment, in the same place, in the same way, again and again. Because of the proprioceptive deficit that is integral to hypermobility, most hypermobile students will need to feel the new alignment many more times than a non-hypermobile student in order to embody it.

• Offer only one verbal / physical adjustment at a time, even if there are many things in an asana that you feel need attention. Proprioceptive challenges, together with interoceptive overload (which can act as a kind of interference), make it difficult for hypermobile students to integrate multiple or complex changes into their body and they will quickly get overwhelmed by too much information.

• Refer students to the internal – energetic, somatic, psychological – dimensions of yoga. Remind them that the intention of physical practice is to create a simulacrum for life, in which our habitual patterns (samskhara-s), so naturalised as to be transparent to us, can become opaque, and once visible may be worked with consciously. Physical practice is simply an opportunity in which yoga may occur; it is not itself yoga.

• In making physical adjustments, focus on helping the student to feel the dynamics of the posture rather than increasing the amount of stretch in it. Adjustment focused on stretch puts hypermobile students at high risk of injury.

• Be aware that wide range of motion is only one aspect of hypermobility and that EDS / JHS / MS is one of a group of overlapping conditions. A hypermobile student may also be experiencing:

Dyscalculia (difficulty with numbers and sequences).
Dysautonomia / POTS (disregulation of the autonomic nervous system: so they may feel faint coming up from head-down postures, and dizzy in head-back postures).
Fibromyalgia / chronic pain.
Chronic fatigue / general need for more rest than usual.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
Eating disorders / self-harm.
Higher than usual rates of anxiety / a sensitive nervous system that easily gets stuck in fight, flight, freeze / low-level PTSD / OCD.
Austism / Asperger’s Syndrome.

• Be aware that while developing strength is desirable for hypermobile people, EDS / JHS / MS is a genetic condition of the collagen. While muscle strength can compensate to some degree for lack of tensility in the fascia, it can never create the kind of stability that is inherently present for non-hypermobile people (i.e. people with normally coded collagen). This compensatory form of stability is not automatic and must be consciously turned on and maintained. For this reason stabilising their body can be physically and mentally exhausting for hypermobile people.

• Know that yoga is very often not easy for hypermobile people. In fact, EDS / JHS / MS presents many additional challenges in asana work. These may include chronic pain, difficulty in stabilising the body due to lack of fascial support, limitations in proprioception (which, together with stability issues can make balance very difficult), dysautonomia (which may cause faintness, dizziness, a racing heart and unusual fluctuations in body temperature), frequent dislocations and injuries (which may require a longer healing time in a hypermobile body), and difficulty in building muscle mass.

• Avoid framing the holding of a posture as a feat of endurance. A hypermobile student may lack the fascial tensility to hold a standing posture for what would be a normal period of time for other students, even when they have good muscle strength. Holding beyond their comfort range may not increase the student’s stamina but cause muscles to go into spasm, and tendons, ligaments and fascia to become inflamed and over-stretched.

• If you teach a yin style, be aware that for some hypermobile people an optimal yin stretch may be one to two minutes, and extending the hold time may result in damage to tissues. The appropriate duration will vary from person to person, and for the same person in different postures. Encourage students to track their own edge and emphasise that it is always OK to come out of a posture. The optimal hold time is not five minutes but when you feel ‘cooked’. I have written specifically about yin yoga and hypermobility here.

• Be extra-mindful of your own projections. Hypermobile students sometimes receive projections related to the teacher’s own desire to be flexible, and may be inappropriately praised or criticised as a result. Remember that hypermobility is not something that the student is doing; it is something they are being. There is no choice or agency involved in being hypermobile; it is simply a genetic condition.

• If you are teaching a student who regularly dislocates (and may also be able easily to put themselves back in joint), keep teaching towards stability and avoid communicating any sense of fear or horror you experience in response. Be aware that this kind of dislocation is an everyday occurence for some hypermobile people and for them may not be a big deal.

• If your student is not aware that they have EDS / JHS/ MS, it may be helpful to let them know that you cannot diagnose, but that you think they may be hypermobile. Many beginning hypermobile students struggle enormously with balance and stability, and may be having other unexplained health problems. It can be very useful for them to know that there is a reason for this. Explain simply and without drama, and offer as much information as they want to receive. For some students this will be a lot, for others little.

• Offer help to stabilise, strengthen and align the student’s extension rather than asking them to pull back out of it (or not to go so far). This way you are offering them something more rather than taking something away. Most students will be responsive to this approach.

• Be aware that for all sorts of reasons, hypermobile people do need to stretch. We all do. Unstressed tissues are degenerating tissues, and many hypermobile people have some muscles in a state of chronic contraction.

• Be aware that in people with the, less common, vascular type of EDS the blood vessels, gut wall and uterus are very fragile and at risk of rupture (which may be life-threatening). Prevention of trauma to the skin (eg bruising) is very important. A person with vascular EDS may need to pad vulnerable areas of their body and avoid any postures that might cause them to fall. Be very careful of their skin if you make any physical adjustments.

• If you teach an aerobic form of yoga, be aware that for people with Marfan Syndrome (a form of hypermobility that also affects the heart and circulatory system), aerobic exercise is usually contraindicated because it can place too much stress on fragile tissues in the heart, veins and arteries and may lead to heart attack. Whereas many people with EDS / JHS are unaware that they are hypermobile, those with Marfan Syndrome are most often already diagnosed. This is because EDS/ JHS runs genetically true to type, so it is likely that there have been instances in their family of early heart attack without the usual indicators of coronary disease (for example, a relative with low blood pressure, low cholesterol and a normal weight who had a heart attack in their forties). It is recommended that people with Marfan Syndrome do regular low-intensity, low-impact activities in which their heart rate does not go above 100 bpm. They should work at about 50 per cent of maximum effort. A strenuous yoga class is unlikely to be appropriate for them. You can download a guide to Marfan Syndrome and physical exercise here.

• If your student is an experienced yogi, by all means offer suggestions for change, but be mindful not to sweep in and reconfigure their practice for them. Remember that the practice is the student’s. Because of the proprioceptive deficits involved in hypermobility, most hypermobile people receive limited information about where they are in space and where their body ends. As a result, control over their own body may be an issue for them and they may feel threatened by any suggestion that you are trying to take over. If your student appears resistant to your suggestions, consider this as a possibility and explore how you could work with them more collaboratively. A style that supports what they already know and adds value to how they already practise will generally be well received. Be aware, too, that hypermobility sometimes attracts a surfeit of technical imput. You may or may not be giving the experienced student something new. Enquire and offer rather than impose.

• Some people with EDS / JHS / MS are housebound wheelchair-users, others are elite dancers, gymnasts and circus performers. In a yoga class, some hypermobile people will easily be able to enter physically challenging postures and will travel swiftly through progressive yoga practices such as astanga vinyasa, becoming adept practitioners of advanced series. Others will be dogged by injury and chronic pain. One possible reason for this disparity is that EDS / JHS / MS is in fact not one but a group of many different genetic variations in the collagen. As genetic testing becomes cheaper and easier to carry out, more of these variations are being identified. Avoid evaluating hypermobile students on their physical performance. An EDS / JHS / MS student who is often injured may not be weaker or more pushy or more inconsistent in their practice than another who sails easily through increasingly more challenging sequences of asana. They may simply each have a different genetic variation in their collagen.

In general, hypermobile students try really, really hard, love working with their body and are a joy to teach. Trust your instincts, and honour and enjoy this opportunity to explore together.

I offer occasional workshop days on EDS / JHS / MS for (non-hypermobile) yoga teachers and for hypermobile yoga practitioners. For more information see www.movingprayer.co.uk or email jess@movingprayer.co.uk.

Articles about yoga and hypermobility
‘Six Tips for Teaching Yoga to Hypermobile Students’ – very good article by yoga teacher and physiotherapist Ariele Foster.

Hypermobility and Yin Yoga – another article by me.

General information about  EDS / HMS
A Guide to Living with Hypermobility Syndrome, Isobel Knight, Singing Dragon, 2011.

Teaser for a documentary on ED / HMS by Lara Bloom – a really good five-minute introduction.

The Hypermobility Syndrome Association (UK).

Ehlers Danlos Support UK.

The Ehlers Danlos Foundation.

Ehlers Danlos Syndrome Network CARES Foundation (US).

The National Marfan Foundation (US).

Postural Othostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS)

Useful article on POTS in the British Journal of General Practice.

Dyspraxia Foundation.

The National Autistic Society.

Autism Womens Network.