Ed Fellows - Yoga Teacher - Contributionsprintable version

What Is This Way Of Working?

I wrote this piece as a response to this question that I often get asked. The following is not an answer, just a description of what this yoga is for me today.

So how did I come to this way of working?

We had just entered a new millennium, the year 2000, I had just turned 30, and was taking on new responsibilities that the age seemed to have led me to. I was also becoming more established as a yoga teacher. Then gradually I started to develop a small aching around my lower back. At first it just interrupted me when I lent over the sink to brush my teeth in the morning. So I carried on not paying it much attention, expecting that the yoga would somehow sort it out. I started to tell my teachers about the growing problem, and they would give me exercises to do for “bad backs”.

None of this worked, in fact the problems got far worse, and within a few months, I was barely able to walk, or lie down for more than half an hour at a time. I hit an all time low, for nearly a year I had to hobble around, and just as I was falling to sleep the pain would escalate to the degree where I had to get up and limp round the streets to try to bring the pain levels down.

So what happened? What was I doing wrong? I led such a healthy life… This was the right question… What was I DOING wrong. I saw my problem as something I could manage with exercises, and the countless specialists I saw also followed this line of thinking, by manipulating me, wanting to give me drugs, and herbs. At best this did little good and offered only temporary relief, at worst it damaged me further. I was told by one specialist, that there was no way I could ever get better without an operation that would venture dangerously close to my spinal cord. When I asked what the likely hood of having no further pain after the operation I was told it was a 50/50 chance.

I didn’t have the operation and my spine is now as free as I can ever remember.

Now it seems obvious to me - the problem was what I was doing, not in needing to do more. I was caught up in the frame of mind that wanted to prescribe a cure but all the cures were only a way of avoiding taking responsibility for the causes. I was blocked, and yet it was all there for me to see if I could listen in the right way. What I eventually realised was that the problem presented the solution, told me what I was doing wrong and directed me to move in a way without pain, that I could enjoy, and heal.

I was lucky enough at this time to be introduced to Sophy Hoare and Diane Long who had both worked with and been inspired by Vanda Scaravelli. They emphasised the importance of finding one’s own way and understanding of the body. I observed a freedom in their bodies that I knew little about but which spoke to my body of the relief I could have from old habits of moving and even from my own limited perception of myself.

Freedom comes from playfully exploring what is given. When I hurt my back I was denying parts of myself and creating, even reinforcing my own limitations. I was struggling against myself. My body became defensive, uncooperative. Only after many years did I really start to question, “why am I doing this? What do I want from this?”

So what is this work?

This work is a practice, not a treatment, or an exercise as we tend to understand that word. Exercise can become repetitive and reinforce our habits. With awareness we can work to reveal the essential activity within each of our actions. This essential activity or functioning can become liberated from the layers of anxious holding that form a cage around us.

A fundamental example of this is breathing. I cannot teach myself how to breathe. I have tried, doing exercises that confuse my body and nervous system, even becoming dangerous. My body knows how to breathe; if I passed out from these exercises, unconscious, my body would continue without the interruption from my head! What stops me breathing freely are the layers of tension in my body that lock the breath in - start to release the tension and the breath flows.

By increasing our awareness and sensitivity we can allow myriad creative possibilities to show themselves. This is a celebration of the richness of life.

Yogas - Tim Hodgkinson

I had lightly dabbled in yoga over the last few years, but when I started going to Ed's classes, the thing took on a whole new dimension. Up 'til then yoga had been a way of keeping vaguely fit, or at least not desperately unfit, a way of stretching limbs, after days of crouching at my desk.

To begin with I couldn't understand much of what was going on in Ed's class. We seemed to be concentrating on details whose significance I didn't get. One moment everything seemed effortless and banal, the next it would seem complex and impossible. Gradually I realised that he was getting at something I could really use. There was sometimes the odd sensation that everything we did in the class was 'for' me. Then I noticed that other people felt the same. Each class was different, because Ed would always approach things from different angles. Yoga was something that had to be constantly reinvented. We were getting at a very subtle space which could not be experienced or thought in a routine way. I can conceptualise it now in terms of my own thinking, but that would just be one way of looking at it.

Here goes. Our knowledge of the world can seem to be made of bits that are sliced out from the whole and made to stand in relations of mutual exclusion to one another. Day is not night. Boys are not girls. I see this as corresponding to the way in which verbal language works. But it's possible to have another kind of knowledge of the world, and we all in fact do have this knowledge, because it's the way our biological, animal, bodily intelligence works, and that is by sensing the world in terms of fields in which different forces coincide and interact.

The thing that you are interested in, then, is not the fixed entity that pushes other entities away by saying I'm this and not that, but another kind of entity, a field, which lies precisely in between rigid limits, and which is unique not because it pushes away and shuts out other such units, but because of the unique coincidence of forces that coincide and interact within it.

How does this work concretely? Well, the first thing is that in Ed's classes, we are learning about in-between states rather than positions. Even if the in-between state approximates to a yoga position, it isn't approached as a position to be reached and held, even as an ideal. It's approached as if it were itself the most important thing, because it’s there that we learn how breathing, gravity and different muscle groups coincide and interact.

From this grows an understanding that the whole mind-body system is potentially such a field, if only we can learn to soften those mental routines we've been using to impose rigidity on what is the innately in-betweenish matter of the human being. From here the understanding can spread outwards, for example, to configure emotions as complexes of forces pulling in different directions, so that the idea of facing an emotion, rather than trying to escape it or repress it, can be illuminated by a better sense of what an emotion is.

Finally in all corners of life we need more of this way of seeing things - which seems so much better at registering the complexity of what life is.