A Confluence of Form and Formlessness:
Yoga and the Practice of Continuum Movement
By Beth Pettengill Riley
When I was first introduced to the work of Continuum and Emilie Conrad in 1978, I had already been initiated into an ancient Vaishnav yoga tradition by a guru who had been practicing vows of celibacy and silence for over 30 years. This initiation culminated years of searching and reading spiritual texts. The search had begun during my 18th year while at the Yosemite Institute where I had seen a short film narrated by Alan Watts, called "Buddhism, Man and Nature." The film depicted life as a metaphoric stream. While images of the stream trickled, splashed, sprayed and gushed through my consciousness, so did a deep recognition of truth. It was this truth that was realized in my initiatory processes in both Yoga and Continuum. The same year I was initiated by my Guru, I was invited to a workshop given by a woman "who moves like water." I was intrigued.
Despite my surge of devotion for Yoga, my encounter with Emilie Conrad, founder of Continuum, was even more thrilling. I experienced a creative, intellectual and eros-filled response to her words and movements unlike and including everything I had known before. I was holding two precious pearls at the same time - distinctly different but of the same origin. A strong internal struggle began. I continued my devotee path, silently curious about Continuum, while living at a Yoga Center on the coast of California for nearly 10 years. Now some thirty-five years later, I can describe the fruits of this process of holding a dynamic tension between the two that has allowed an inspiring unfolding to occur in my own personal practice as well as in the practice of my teaching. (Footnote: for more on my personal story see the article on my website: “Moving with Meaning”). In this chapter I will be describing what I have learned about Yoga through Continuum and how I have evolved the practices themselves, both personally and in classes. It is a radically relevant and urgent evolutionary call that Continuum has invited me to answer.
By now, 2006, most people in the U. S. have a notion of what Yoga is. Yoga has become almost ordinary - being offered in the majority of gyms and fitness centers across the country. Primarily what most people are familiar with are the practices of Hatha Yoga, more specifically asana (or poses) themselves. In the traditional approach to Yoga into which I was initiated, asana were only one of eight different aspects of Yoga. Ashtanga (8 limbed) Yoga is espoused in detail by the ancient sage Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras recorded in 200 B.C, following centuries of oral transmission. It is from this ancient text that virtually all yoga practices that we see today have been derived. Many books have been written on the subject of Patanjali’s work. As a devout practitioner I learned to chant the Sutras in Sanskrit (and their subsequent translations into English) as part of my detailed induction into "right livelihood."
The word “Yoga” translates into English to mean "yoke" or "union." Often interpreted as promoting the union of body, mind and spirit, Yoga has been beautifully described in its ability to unify by many. The great violinist, Yehudi Menuhin, writes in the forward to the 1976 publication of Light on Yoga by BKS Iyengar:
It is a technique ideally suited to prevent physical and Mental illness and to protect the body generally, developing An inevitable sense of self-reliance and assurance. In its very nature it is inextricably associated with universal laws: for respect for life, truth, and patience are all indispensable factors in the drawing of a quiet breath, in calmness of mind and firmness of will.
Iyengar himself writes in the preface from the same book: "Yoga is a timeless, pragmatic science evolved over thousands of years dealing with the physical, moral, mental and spiritual well-being of man as a whole." Its antiquity is often huge part of its appeal. It is loaded with ideas, concepts and directions for, ultimately, knowing God and a direct path to enlightenment ( more about this later).
During the late 1970's I trained extensively at the Iyengar Institute in San Francisco, Ca. Not since my rigorous ballet training growing up had I participated with such vigor in the challenges of physical exertion. It was satisfying and enlivening. The added boon in Yoga, as opposed to the classical ballet, was an orientation towards strengthening the inner landscapes as well as the musculature, with disciplined practice and support. With each deepening pose, more openness of mind and soul occurred. The growth of Yoga in the West has ushered in an explosion in practices of mindfulness and embodiment that are invaluable to our culture as a whole.
I continued a daily yoga and meditation practice for several years with great passion, while inquiring into the Continuum experiences of movement and the body as often as possible. Shortly after I began my intensive study of Yoga, Emilie Conrad and Continuum begged me to ask a very primary question which continues to unfold almost three decades later: “What is it we are calling a body?”
It took years to begin to actually consider the implications of the question. With a Masters Degree in Physical Education from Stanford, 10 years of professional level ballet training and another 10 years of rigorous Yoga practice, I carried with me a rigid and pervasive view of the body as a "machine," an 'object" to be honed and hammered into increasingly more pliable conditions. It was (I perceived) something that needed to be fixed and improved upon. It was the hope that the practices would bring health and wellness unending. What I began to allow in, through the vision of Continuum, was the possibility that the body itself is a living process in rapport with the larger biological processes of life on earth. In fact, within our very organismic self lies the secret of unfolding life - from cell to cosmos. I began to explore flexibility of the human organism rather than the musculo-skeletal system. What I found in my own body and in the thousands of students I have worked with over the past 32 years is that to the degree I can consider my self an open-ended process I can avail myself to conditions of limitless well-being.
Since the upsurge of Yoga in the west began some 35 years ago a particular emphasis on alignment and a specificity of attention to anatomical detail has literally cemented in this perspective of “body as object.” Most of the student’s attention goes towards an adherence to an outside “model” of an asana as seen in the eyes of the teacher. As a result, the very practice of Yoga has been infiltrated by what I call "the purification syndrome." As a "container" or "vehicle" for divine presence, the body is often referred to as the "temple." While this is a vast improvement over the body as “the devil's playground," (a view that derives from our historical roots in puritanical America), containers, vehicles and temples are all objects. If there is disease, discomfort, dysfunction or some other disturbance occurring in this "container," it would be quite appealing to engage in practices that clean out the toxins, abuses, excesses and otherwise extraneous additions to a natural, healthy body. This innocent quest towards good health often becomes an obsessive race after the latest techniques and diets to "rid" the "body" and mind" of all contaminants. Unfortunately, Yoga has become prey to this syndrome as people move into practices too fervently to allow the "process" of the body to fully integrate a new condition of wellness through an open-ended inquiry of movement, health and awareness. The result is a fast-paced, injury prone populace that leave Yoga discouraged and disheartened when, yet again, another approach to purify has failed them or hypnotized them.
Another significant occurrence in the pursuit of a body and life well lived is the issue of time. Yoga teachers today create efficient classes and practices that can be squeezed into the workday week. The modern experience of Yoga itself is virtually shaped by economics. Injuries and frustrations abound as Yoga is funneled into a cultural view of the body that is more industrial and mechanical than fluid and life giving. Yoga, when "used" like this becomes an overlay, a medication to alleviate stress (granted a healthier approach than substance or behavioral abuses). Just as fast food has become an approach to eating that doesn't allow a fullness of health and nutritional input, nor healthy digestion, so the practice of Yoga can get reduced to yet another fitness approach influenced and shaped by the cultural preference for a perfect body. If we carry out our Yoga practice with the same mind as we attend to every other situation in our cultural mélange, it becomes another way of maintaining a redundant level of assimilation and information. "Freeway" Yoga has infiltrated the ancient practice, as developing muscles and fit bodies take precedence over spiritual instruction.
After years of professional dance training and rigorous Yoga practice, Continuum offered a view of the body as a living process that was novel, inspirational, intensely creative, and capable of integration, wholeness and, yes, offering a union with life.
While lecturing to a university health class recently, I asked the group of 18 and 19 year olds what they thought a body's purpose was. A thick silence followed the question. Finally, one brave young woman said softly "transportation?” I took a deep breath and felt a sinking in my belly. How did this happen? How did our very basic understanding of our primary world become so distant?
Slowly over the past centuries the body sacred has turned into the body secular. The prevailing perspective on our bodies no longer links them to divine but rather views them through the lens of industrialization and the market place, as machines or commodities… The idea of life as machine is not some recent rubric. Rather, it is a belief that has been growing since the middle of the 18th century when machines, especially clocks, became the rage. As advances were made in anatomy, philosophers and scientist began to compare the body and its parts to popular mechanical devices. Thomas Hobbes, an early victim of the reductionist body mythology, wrote in 1651, “for what is the heart, but a spring; and the nerves, but so many strings; and the joints but so many wheels, giving motion to the whole body. — “Body Wars” by Andrew Kimbrell, SJ Mercury News 5/31/92
Much of the modern day approach to Yoga has its limitations as a result of this cultural assumption that the body is an object. While intellectually most of us know this is untrue, we continue to cajole our bodies through movements that are unrelated to its very nature and biological unfolding. Movements that are machinelike and angular are actions performed to achieve a particular result. The body is viewed as a complex conglomeration of various objects: systems, muscle groups, glands, organs etc. Rarely does the relationship between these get much attention and even more rarely do we address the organism as an expression of life on earth. After years of professional dance training and rigorous Yoga practice, Continuum offered a view of the body as a living process that was novel, inspirational, intensely creative, and capable of integration, wholeness and, yes, union with life.
Stepping into the Stream
What would be the implications of considering a different view: The body as a verb, an evolutionary point, mostly fluid, a living process within a larger living process? With this as the primary perspective, entering into a Yoga class becomes a very different experience. As a teacher I am looking for signs of life rather than dysfunction and inadequacy. Is the breath free? Is there a sparkle of excitement and exhilaration in the eyes and the skin? Is there interest and engagement? Is there participation without self- punishment or self-judgment? While maintaining an atmosphere of inclusivity, I can start to introduce challenging movements and concepts that allow for a student to participate with a playfulness that engenders health and optimal well-being.
Both Yoga and Continuum use “the body" as a primary diving board into spiritual/union process. This is good news, as our culture in America has been derived in its founding roots by religions that abhor and outlaw any association with the body that is more than utilitarian. Pleasure, sensuality and dancing were all punishable offenses in early colonial life. Women who explored such adventures were burned at the stake and accused of being witches. This does not bode well for the future of embodiment. In this light, the mass appeal of Yoga and fitness can be celebrated. Yet in the shadows the abhorrence remains: physical fitness is derived from military training exercises used to train soldiers to kill (the Royal Air Force Academy calisthenics gave rise to the shapes and ideals of current weight machines and popular "boot camp" approaches to fitness are sad reminders of what our attitudes towards the body have become).
The Primacy of Breath
Both Yoga and Continuum focus on the breath as a central and necessary focus for well being and spiritual growth. In Yoga philosophy, the breath is the carrier of “prana” or “vital energy.” Yoga philosophy states that “prana” gives rise to all of life and can be encouraged and increased through the practices of Yoga and meditation. The vast array of pranayamas presented in many Yoga classes (breathing exercises: literally translated as the "control" of vital energy) with their different shapes, sounds, inhalations and exhalations, gives us access to an invisible yet powerful presence that carries us from birth to death and beyond. Many of the exercises have associated counts attributed to the inhale and the exhale. (i.e. nadi shodan : inhale for a count of 4 through the left nostril hold the breath at the top for 16 counts and exhale through the right nostril for 8 counts ). We are instructed to work our way up to longer holding but the relationship to inhale and exhale should always maintain the same ratio. In addition at the top and bottom of the breath various locks or kumbakhs are applied to "seal" in the vital energy inside.
While Continuum also focuses on the breath, the particular inquiry is very different. Rather than attempting to control the breath to increase prana (sanskrit word for vital energy), Continuum, as a process of inquiry, suggests that we approach the breath and inherent prana with curiosity. In so doing, we directly experience an up-to-the-minute kind of template of our way of living and breathing. The texture, shape, size and character of our breath directly influences our physical form, our association with self and place, in short our primary reality and identification. Emilie Conrad has said: “Movement is something we are as well as something we do.” Where I have "frozen," thus suspending my own life force, is very obvious in my own breath. By moving with breath in a variety of ways, an organism is given some new options for freedom of movement that can profoundly affect the rest of the body and its overall sense of wellness. In Continuum explorations we use various sounds as audible breath. The sounds are not mantras, associated with any particular culture or belief system, but rather they are vibrational tones that move within the tissue in a variety of ways, allowing a different perception of "body" to unfold and a unique expression of a life to be felt.
From my own experience, it is more evident that in Yoga practice I was more in relation to the count and the goal of elongating the breath than to any particular information, uniqueness or life force in my breath itself. All of my patterns of freezing were being passed over in lieu of the "contest" of the breath. My unique breath “song” was irrelevant and unheard. As I brought more awareness to my breath within the inquiry of Continuum, what began to grow was an understanding of all the ways I had forced myself to adhere to someone else’s view of how my body and my life should be. Through Continuum I began to experience the unique expression of my body and my life nurtured by inviting a more open-ended “play” of breath and sound.
The Cobra and Beyond
One of the most simple yet challenging asanas in Yoga system is the Cobra pose. Allowing a back arching of the spine that is an antidote to modern life's over abundance of mildly forward bended positions like sitting (in cars and at computers all day long...), the cobra has symbolic origins that belie its simplicity. Through the movement of fluid, Continuum touches at the root of the cobra, Yoga, and indeed, most ancient spiritual traditions. The movements of water expressed as the serpent, represent the possibilities of lithe transmutation and transformation possible in spiritual growth. Following the shedding of skin, the cobra becomes a metaphor for a living process that informs our bodies, our relationships, our lives and our world in ways outside of our understanding. By allowing a larger meaning to imbue a physical movement we are harboring a vast array of possible outcomes. This goes far beyond mere physical comfort and pain management.
In fact, most asanas can be treated as diving boards into a larger perspective of the body as a living, primarily fluid, system within the larger process and biological reality of Life on Earth. While introducing asanas, I will often invoke water either by directly referencing it as our origin or in some way drawing a kind of fluid attention to seep into the asana once the pose has been established. Because we humans have such a tendency to think of ourselves as solid, I will encourage movement in and out of poses more quickly than many Yoga teachers. If we are holding a pose for longer, it is through attention to the breath and the fluid spiraling through joints, skin, blood etc that stamina is increased. This allows our basic substance, fluid, to be the primary focus, rather than the posture itself which is a construct from a bygone era. Again, I will constantly draw the attention away from “body as object” and back to the living process of “body in relation to itself, its origins, and the moment in which it is exploring.”
In a Yoga class I will often work with an anatomy picture (please note anatomy drawings are almost exclusively derived from cadavers and thus have to be used with a warning lest “object-consciousness” take hold). In the picture there is always an evidence of fluid presence in the soft arc and curve of a bone or an organ, the striation patterns of muscle and connective tissue fibers or even in the strata and expressions of shapes in the brain. It is interesting to teach the relational placement of bone, muscle and blood as an unbroken expression of wholeness. From the body's point of view there are no systems or muscle groups.
Breaking the Bonds of Time
In Images and Symbols, Mircea Eliade a religious scholar of great renown, speaks about the purpose for all forms of Yoga being that of breaking the bonds of time. Through the process of “cosmicising” the body, the Yoga practitioner begins to be connected to a larger reality, or a ”Great Cosmic Time” outside of ordinary consciousness. Likewise, during one of our teacher’s trainings, Emilie Conrad kept reiterating: “Form is time. Form is TIME. FORM IS TIME!” Slowly the words sank into my deeper understanding and allowed me to let go of techniques and structures that I had held dear for many years. Unfortunately, Yoga practice as it has come into the West is more and more form oriented, having the potential to bind us IN time instead of being a royal road into formlessness and freedom FROM time as it was designed to be.
Historically, Yoga was a transcendent practice. It continues as such. Yoga grew out of the culture of ancient India and the origins of the practice, as recorded in ancient scripture, was created for men by men. Transcending the horrors of the culture was part of the drive of the practices. Now in the 21st century, we are being given an opportunity to participate with the very evolution and future of our species and our planet. Transcending the matter could actually be to our detriment. Our times are demanding a rigor, not in muscular effort, but in spiritual prowess, dexterity and adaptability that cannot possibly be met by practices of such a different culture and different social system.
While Yoga has given us a taste, both personally and culturally, of profound wholeness, the rigidity of mainstream practice and instruction actually limits our ability to meet the ongoing current of our own species' organismic wholeness in a relational world of crashing cultures and belief systems. In a recent invitation to the annual Guru Purnima celebration at the Yoga center where I lived, the chosen quote from the Guru was a reminder about viewing life as "bondage".... encouraging the practitioner to hold this awareness deep in the heart so the thrust to "get out" would be adequately fueled with purpose and meaning. This was the only hope in the intolerable condition of ancient India. Often it is the only hope now. Continuum offers another view and another way.
As a performing artist and choreographer for many years I learned that, though a product was inevitably desired, I had to surrender completely to the process of creating a piece if it was to move forward at all; so, too, with the process of life in the body. The goal of "enlightenment" or "awakening" becomes a dark cloud shadowing the actual experience of aliveness available to us in every moment. In every Yoga class this goal of enlightenment is the hidden agenda. How are people being instructed to bear reality, as it is if there is such a hunger for another state? This emphasis suggests that one's own direct experience of what is actually occurring becomes far less valuable than what could be happening if only...
Life is movement. We can nurture life by thinking in ways that allow movement. By focusing on "enlightenment" or being awake" as the goal and a state to be achieved, we are inadvertently polarizing ourselves away from direct participation with a vitality that would evolve human life and our own personal lives into the rich tapestry that they are. If we constantly talk about what it’s like to "wake up,” we imply our own sleepiness and what ensues is the continuation of a tension of opposites that we are trying to resolve, not the bigger issues that plague Life on Earth.
As Yoga is "modernized" and lived into, there are those who can grasp a fuller perspective and allow another possibility to come forward in many body-centered practices. George Furstein, a well respected Yoga scholar and practitioner, writes in the preface to his book The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice:
The fulcrum of spiritual life is self-transcendence as a constant orientation. As I understand it, self-transcendence is not merely the pursuit of altered states of consciousness. It also implies a constant willingness to be transformed and, in Meister Eckhart’s sense, to be "superformed" by the larger Reality whose existence and benignity are revealed to us in the meditative and ecstatic condition.
It is this constant willingness that creates the atmosphere for change and allows the actual experience of a larger reality to be a regular occurrence. Continuum offers a direct access to this larger reality through the felt experience of Life, as it exists in the tissues, fluids and membranes of a human system in relationship with the larger processes of all life - from body to Earth to universe to cosmos. Through sensation and detailed awareness of the dynamic movements of interplay within our own organisms as well as between organism and environment we can find a basis for our very identity that is inclusive and highly adaptable: very crucial aspects to navigating the divisions of race and culture that now plague our world.
It is particularly evident that something more is being called for in our times in both the culture and in our bodies and lives. While the current practices of Yoga are allowing a great and in-depth rise in mindful awareness and stress reduction, it is a deeper contact with the natural world that is missing. Through the practices of Continuum we can directly touch the wilderness of life on earth in our own skin. A responsive participation with one's own inherent movement and life processes, the direct invitation of Continuum, allows the bio-intelligence we all embody to inform us in an on-going way as individuals, families, communities and beyond.
I am grateful for all of my experiences in Yoga and for all of my Yoga teachers. To be able to delve into the body as a refuge continues to be a great joy, one that I first learned in a Yoga class. Now 35 years after my first experience with Yoga, I can look back and see that Yoga practice can be an overlay to the incredible complex and beautiful intelligence that continues unabashed whether I join it or not. With this understanding, I still use Yoga as a diving board into a deeper understanding of body as biological process, both for myself and for my students. Often Yoga is a necessary scaffolding (especially asana), which can be used for stability while exploring new areas in new ways. However, eventually, the asana go, the pranayamas go, the guru goes, the chants go and I am left with my self and my life. As I look honestly, am I moving with life in ways that are fruitful for self, community and planet? In the context of a Continuum class this immediately begins when the practice is laid out. Each person is exploring a sequence of sounds and movements on their own, without a leader's timing or inclinations. This is the most radical offering of Continuum: self-empowerment.
in a yoga class each asana is led, either by example or by talking through, every moment is choreographed and determined by the teacher. If you are drawn to linger and move in ways that are not being espoused, options are limited. The protocol in a Yoga class is to “follow.” This is an integral part of the system. You can hone a deeper contact with “The Self” by following a master. But what happens when the master fails or cannot move intelligently with a situation or is abusive in some way? Have I developed my fluid nature enough to respond in direct relation to my own life force rather than being "good" and true to the system? This is what is being called for now: Increasingly intelligent responses to our personal and cultural challenges with all their twists and turns; responses that reference life itself, the 4 billion year old process of evolutionary creativity that continues on in us, as the true and only teacher.
But how are we to love when we are stiff, numb and disinterested? How are we to transform ourselves into limber and soft organisms lying open to the world at the quick: By what process and what agency do we perform the Great Work, transforming lowly materials into gold? Love, like its counterpart Death, is a yielding at the center. Not in sentiment, nor in the genitals. Look deep into my eyes and see the love-light. Figured forth in intelligent cooperation, sensitive congeniality, and physical warmth. At the center the love must live. Love is not a doctrine. Peace is not an international agreement. Love and Peace are beings who live as possibilities in us. —M.C. Richards: Centering, p.54 -
Iyengar, BKS, Light on Yoga
Furstein, George, The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice
Eliade, Mircea, Images and Symbols
Richards, M.C., Centering
© Beth Riley 2013