Yoga teacher and trainer Karla Brodie talks with Body-Mind Centering (BMC) educators Olive Bieringa and Amy Matthews during a BMC somatic movement education programme in Melbourne, Australia, February 2020.
New Zealand born, Olive Bieringa is a dance maker, performer and certified teacher of Body-Mind Centering. She is progamme director and tutor of BMC somatic movement education programme in Melbourne and holds an MFA [Master of Fine Arts] in Performance and New Media from Long Island University in Brooklyn, New York.
Amy Matthews is a Laban Movement Analyst, a Body-Mind Centering® Teacher, an Infant Developmental Movement Educator, and a movement therapist and yoga teacher. Amy is the Programme Director for Sonder Movement Project (which offers BMC programs in the US) and co-director of Babies Project in NYC.
See more about Amy at:
This conversation is in three parts. This is the first part of that conversation:
Wild creatures and the relationship between Yoga and BMC
Karla: Thank you for being here. Every morning of training we’re starting the day with a warm up so I have a few warm up questions for you both.
Karla: Do you currently have a favourite wild creature and, if so, why?
Amy: [Laughs]. A favourite wild creature … A dragon, but why? Because they’re growly and fierce and, yeah, just because they’re dragons.
Karla: Okay. Olive?
Olive: Well I’d say that a sea dragon is pretty damn great … there’s something about breathing fire that is pretty great, but there’s also something about going under the tone and meeting my wombat - just hanging out and sleeping, and being down in the burrow … and bringing other animals into the burrow to shelter from the fire … and that’s sort of like soft.
Amy: We could share a burrow.
Olive: There we go!
Amy: Would you let me in your burrow?
Olive: Yes I would.
Karla: Would you let me into your burrow as a wild horse?
Olive: Oh, wow, yeah that’s pretty big, a pretty big burrow for sure!
Karla: Amy, a question for you. As an experienced yoga teacher what have you found to be the relationship or intersection between BMC and yoga?
Amy: I came to yoga while I was studying Laban Movement Analysis, so I didn’t start yoga cold. I had a really influential yoga teacher who talked about yoga being a practice of being present to yourself and being in relationship with yourself.
When I met BMC, Bonnie was talking about the same thing, she was talking about relationships and presence, so I don’t really think of BMC as being a thing that intersects with yoga, as much as it being a yoga practice, which is maybe splitting hairs in your question but what I’m interested in is the idea of having a movement practice and because yoga is the one that I started with, I call everything yoga:
My study of karate was part of my yoga practice … when I do contact it’s part of my yoga practice … when I do BMC it’s part of my yoga practice. Sometimes it looks like asana that has Sanskrit names and sometimes it looks like rolling around on the floor with Olive but it’s all a yoga practice by the definition of what brings me more into relationship with myself, so that I can be more in relationship with other people.
On a practical teaching level, the tools I have from the Bartenieff Fundamentals, and the toolbox of questions I have from BMC, give me different ways into the asana. I’ve never really taken on that there’s one right way to do an asana and I was lucky enough to be in New York doing yoga where you can go to one studio and they would be like: “this is the only way to do it, your feet have to be three feet apart and if you don’t do this your spirit will collapse and the world will end and your heart will implode and blah, blah, blah”.
Then you go two blocks down the road and the yoga teacher is saying: “your feet have to be two-and-a-half feet apart or the world will collapse, blah, blah, blah”. So going to all those different places and having them all say “this is the one way” just left me thinking: “what does each one do?”
To me, BMC is a way to ask questions: “Well what happens if my feet are three feet apart … what happens if my feet are two feet apart? …what happens if I think about my organs? …what happens if I feel into my nervous system?” … I let go early on to the idea that there was a right place to get to. So, then, we’re back to the practice ideal, just what is the practice of being in the question?
Karla: It’s a great thing isn’t it? The restraint of this rule and that rule… This idea of rules is something to explore and experiment with, and then have a longer narrative about. Rather than the dead-end idea of a rule as: “this is it! It’s, oh, okay, well I’m here and then what is there from here?”.
Amy: To me that’s the value in doing an asana practice. Like right now I have a practice: I do a set series of asana - the primary series of ashtanga - this is what I do, and every day it’s a different experience and I might bring a different question to it every day - but what I love or what works well for me and what serves me is having a form within which I see how much I can push on it because so much of my day doesn’t have any form to it, or is about asking questions.
I hold a lot of openness about what could happen so when I get to me and my practice, I don’t want to have to decide what to do. I know what I’m going to do but I don’t know what’s going to happen. Then within that knowing what I’m going to do but not know what’s going to happen there’s enough containment that universes explode in that little space on my mat, of that practice.
Karla: A friend shared a story: There was a bunch of children in a field and there were no fences, so the bunch of children stayed together because that’s where they felt secure. That container you speak of is almost like putting that parameter around something so that the children, or us, can freely explore that space without the limitation …
Amy: … I think it really depends on the person coming into it. I had a conversation with a Iyengar teacher named Kevin Gardiner where I was like “Huh! It’s getting more free form the more experience you get” – studying Iyengar Yoga. And he said “well you’re allowed to do that once you have the basics”.
Then he commented that he thought that “BMC is too easy because everybody is just free to pick what they want to do”. And I said, “For some people being free to choose what you want to do is the most terrifying thing in the world.” … which is maybe those kids - where there are no fences so they had to fence themselves in. But there are some people for whom I see BMC in its freest form is a kind of indulgence for them in what they’re already doing, so those people might be served by having some form sometimes, and by saying this is the question, what happens in this question
But I also meet a lot of people in the yoga world who are so intent on doing it right that they go places where they’re told how to know that it’s right and they stay on their mat and they do it just so, and those are the people who I want to take their mat away and take the form away and challenge them in the freedom of no form. But I wouldn’t say that one is better than the other - I see there are people doing free-form BMC that I think need the form of a practice and there are some people I see doing yoga who need their mat yanked out from underneath them: go roll around on the floor and see what happens. Not because one is better but because we should have the capacity to meet both, I think.
Karla and Amy discuss embryology
Karla: There is a strong component of embryology shared in BMC training, I’m finding it quite profound and really just grasping the potency of learning about this and embodying the elements of embryology. Can you speak a more about the benefits of diving into embryology for yoga practice?
Amy: Well I would start by splitting a hair by saying there are probably some people for whom it’s not beneficial at all.
Amy: And I don’t think that everybody in the world needs to study embryology to deepen their yoga practice. I don’t think everybody in the world needs to study anatomy to deepen their yoga practice. I don’t think everybody in the world needs to study BMC to deepen … I don’t think everybody in the world needs to do yoga. I don’t think we can guarantee anything is good for everybody. Having said that, what I find profound about embryology in relationship to how I feel many of us are taught to experience our bodies, is that it undermines the conception of ourselves as being mechanistic, biomechanical structures that can be mastered if we learn enough information.
So if I unpack that a little bit … We talk about ourselves as if we are parts and there are certainly wondrous things being done in the medical community like replacing a knee or replacing a hip but the idea that we are parts and parts can be replaced or your tibia could be swapped with my tibia and we would both work just fine, it doesn’t work that way…. and the idea that there’s some measurement of hip joint range that is appropriate for everybody is also problematic.
So my issue with slipping into the biomechanical question of things is that there’s a lot of discussion about a healthy range of motion for a hip joint, for example, then we can get attached to finding that range, either pushing ourselves to it or pulling back into it … my issue with that is that it’s not taking into account that the hip joint grew itself in relationship to the knee joint, in relationship to the ankle joint, all the joints in the foot in relationship to the SI joint.
If we look at Olive’s hip joint, I can’t talk about Olive’s hip joint compared to your hip joint. I can only talk about Olive’s hip joint relative to her SI joint and her knees, and her knee might move a little less and her hip joint might move a little more. And your hip joint might move a little less and your knee might move a little more, so we have to look at the whole person. We don’t need embryology to get this idea but it makes it really explicit that we did not grow separate parts that got strung together. We grew ourselves as a wholeness and I grew my leg, all of it, in relationship to itself. So all the ways of thinking of ourselves as parts shows up in our conception of how we engage with our body and I think it would be well served to be undermined. I also think that we sometimes focus on one body system like ligaments or connective tissue, or bones, or muscles - it’s certainly useful to zero in, to go down a rabbit hole with a single body system but, again, we did not grow one body system at a time, they all grew in relationship to each other.
When we follow embryology we understand that these systems came from the same set of cells, so they’re not so distinct in our bodies now. Their physiology is really different but we can also look at how they are alike.
That attitude towards the body that looks for differences should be balanced by the attitude that feels the wholeness. I also think that there is an idea in a lot of practices, I hear it particularly in the yoga world, that if I know enough and I think enough and I practice enough, I will be able to master my body. This idea that it’s a top down mastery and I’ll manage my nervous system and I’ll learn how to handle my digestive system and I will control my blood pressure.
This top-down control is very neuro centric, very nervous system oriented and very like ”if I just work hard enough, I will be able to control it”. What I get from embryology is how late in the process the nervous system comes, which means how much horizontal communication there is going on that isn’t directed by the brain and isn’t dependent on the brain. And, for sure, as birthed human beings we need our nervous systems, we can’t survive without our nervous system but the idea that my being is dependent on my awareness of myself is problematic: I could not pay attention to myself and still function just fine when all kinds of things are going on. I would love to shift our idea about what we’re doing in a movement practice like yoga, away from the idea of learning enough to control, to figuring out where I can participate and where I need to step out of the way and let my me-ness be … Embryology is not the only way to get there but it’s one way that’s really explicit and for some people really makes it clear.
Karla: I feel like what all the tutors have been sharing - last week it was organs and this week as well - is this celebration, I’ve been in so much joy, it’s like “oh, it’s this body system or that body system”. So it’s like a waking up to the awareness of that system … to have, in my experience, an intimacy, a play, or a conversation and that’s been really enlivening. I call it big toe consciousness, like “wow, right down there” and the whole world that the big toe has going on that can inform movement or lead movement or guide movement or reveal some movement pathway that I didn’t really know existed.
I have a piece where I ask students to draw themselves and most of them draw this whopping great head with a little stick figure body. And then, I ask well what would it be like to draw the heart first or the gut first or our relationship to the ground and playing around with those ideas about how we are with ourselves.
Amy: Irene Dowd, who is someone I have studied with a lot, does an exercise where she has people do a self-portrait with their dominant hand and then do a self-portrait with their non-dominant hand, which I think would also be really revealing. When I did it, a whole different self shows up.
Part 3 of the conversation between Karla Brodie, Olive Bieringa and Amy Matthews. In this part of the conversation, Karla, Olive and Amy discuss tone, touch and teaching.
Part 3 is coming soon.