Moving with Meaning:
My Journey through Yoga to Continuum
By Beth Pettengill Riley
From Reckless to Renunciate
On a warm Friday evening, in the fall of 1978, a little performing group I was working with in Menlo Park, California, Dymaxion Moving Company, headed by Chloe Scott, took a fieldtrip to a workshop led by “a woman who moves like water.” I walked into the auditorium at Lone Mountain College in San Francisco. There was a penetrating and mysterious music coming from a group of musicians and instruments in one corner. We quietly slipped into some open spaces in the group sitting on the floor. No words were being spoken. On a large screen on one side of the room, image after image, mandala after mandala appeared, flooding the room with beautiful colors and complex patterns, piquing my curiosity. The music surged and softened as the pictures continued. Slowly my sense of seeing began to alter. I had no ability to organize any of the input I was receiving. Primed from my daily meditation practice, my mind was quiet and my awareness opened to an exquisite and passionate offering. It was a direct experience happening through my body, unmediated by rules, theory, dogma or restraint. Tears began streaming out of my eyes like rivers. My heart was beating wildly under my breastbone. I had had experiences of oneness with the divine a few times in my life (the great “AHA!” moments that keep one inspired enough to go on) but nothing this all-encompassing and confusing. It felt like a true baptism. I was immersed down to my bones. It was a cellular initiation.
Emilie Conrad and Susan Harper were working together to create this potent, resonant field called “Continuum.” Born out of Emilie’s experiences of movement and Haitian ritual and trance dances, this was beyond any cultural familiarity to me at all. Continuum, I learned that weekend, is an inquiry into “the movement of movements.” It is an investigation of the body as a verb. Emilie has said, “Movement is not just something you do; it is something that you are.” The same patterns and motifs of movement in the musculo-skeletal system can be witnessed in the movement of the breath, the movement of cells, the movement of the nervous system, the movement of thought, the movement of perception, the movement of relationship, the movement of communities, the movement of cultures, the movement of molecules, and the movement of stars. When viewed from this perspective every difficulty in being can be referenced through movement: Where do I stop moving and participating with my own passion or someone else’s? How can I MOVE with what I don’t prefer?
All weekend I struggled with my bound, dancer/yogi muscles trying diligently to move in the fluid way I had witnessed in the demonstrations. What I encountered were chunks of habit and holding. I could not measure my progress by how good I was, how far I could stretch or how long I could hold a pose. In fact, I felt very discouraged because I was so “bad” at moving fluidly after 20 years of dancing! All my need for structure flashed before my eyes: 15 years of rigorous ballet training, followed by rigorous yoga practice and eventually into the structured life of a yoga community where even meal times were set and the structures were in place. I could not sensorily feel my world, only my success/failure in adhering to the prescribed trainings and schedules. Yes, I was calmer and happier but I could not really embody the experience of being what I was: alive in every moment, a living process, a planetary organism.
I left that weekend with a stirring and an imprint in my soul. I knew that more preparation for this path was needed. I had an inkling that I had stumbled into what would become my lifetime work. I longed to make relevant the understanding I had gleaned over the weekend. Yet I was unsure. Up until now, I thought that I had a clear sense of my life path.
Earlier that same year, I had been initiated into a Vaisnav tradition of yoga and meditation. I had already spent two years studying asana at the Iyengar Institute in San Francisco and was attracted to pursue the very heart of yoga, reading ancient scriptures and carrying out the daily instructions of my beloved guru. I truly felt I had come home. My life path was clear…I thought. A few years before, I had been the lead singer of a small rock n roll band in Pittsburgh, PA, which I had joined with a wild and youthful exuberance following my graduation from college. The band had rented a barn in the country outside the city for practice sessions. The barn was also a yoga studio on occasion. It was here I fell in love with yoga and made a sudden shift of direction. Moving into a spiritual dimension was a broad-brush stroke, from reckless to renunciate. I was relieved. I thought I could rest. I threw myself into yoga with the same exuberance with which I had joined the rock n roll band and made youthful, exuberant commitments to this demanding path. I was smart. Yoga was a challenge to my intellect, my body and my spirit. Oh how I thought THIS was it.
Within two months of my initiation, my guru recommended that I continue my education with a graduate degree in dance (I had danced very seriously for 15 years during my early life). I willingly complied and was in my first semester of a Master’s program at Stanford when I ventured into the workshop at Lone Mountain. My world-view was suddenly shaken. It was unexpected and deep.
The Gestation Period
I continued on with my spiritual commitments. I received a degree, had a child, married another follower and moved to a residential yoga community where we proceeded to build our dream home. On the surface it seemed perfect. Yet, while yoga means union, my seven years in the yoga center were slowly tearing me apart. It was true that the more I practiced yoga, the deeper my experiences of inner silence became. But what also began to grow was a sense of disparateness to my own surroundings. My attachments to “the world” were indeed falling away. I felt safe and complete in my awareness that “I” was constant and beyond fluctuation and could “live in the world but not of it.” But I had a longing to connect. I directed this longing to “God” and to my guru.
Gradually, I noticed I was having a harder and harder time in social conversations with people. My ability to feel comfortable with anyone not involved in yoga felt distant and patronizing. Small talk was next to impossible. I was certainly not experiencing oneness at times other than when I was practicing. I was feeling more and more separate. “Detachment,” I understood, was a sign of spiritual progress. So, I stayed the course. Following instructions like a good patient.
In my quest for enlightenment through yoga, I was aiming for a “place,” a non-moving, unchangeable state of bliss where I would be unaffected by the changing colors of human existence. Human nature is such to seek comfort. It is virtually instinctual for each of us to gravitate towards what is familiar and predictable. As the pursuit of higher consciousness had become more and more comfortable, I began to feel an internal dis-ease. It seemed that something was missing. I felt a dampening of my own vitality and aliveness. Most of my former creative expressions as a singer, dancer and poet had ceased. But the creativity of living water was stirring in me and in Continuum I found a refuge where I could feel my own significance.
Through the process of counterpoint with yoga and Continuum I began to discover that the actual seed of truth and mystery is found, not in the attainment of the state of enlightenment (union) but in the movement of uniting. I understood that the process of uniting IS yoga itself. Continuum emphasizes the awareness of movement as life. Everything that lives, moves. When things begin to move less, stagnation sets in and the creative forces of life cannot wield their transformative powers. I was trying to establish a feeling of dynamic equilibrium in my life: wanting to feel the pulse of aliveness along with a sense of stability. The paradox felt too huge, the ambiguity immense. I could feel my own places of static positioning in my life with yoga being challenged by the movement inside, as my immersion into Continuum deepened. I had to begin to address the way in which my practice of yoga was becoming s form of paralysis. The striving for “the state” had become so intense I could not feel my own vitality.
As Continuum is an inquiry into all movement, I let the questions surface again: Where was I shutting down? How could I live without my deepest sense of self? Daily life truly became the practice ground. Every moment became an opportunity to move with what was happening or not. How did my participation with myself as a living process become paralyzed?
I could begin to thrive within the environment of Continuum. Here movement and change were not only possible, but deeply valued as signs of positive growth; things to be invited courted and participated with. The Aescylepian Dream Temples of ancient Greece were an early model for Continuum. Ancient cultures knew the value of creating context and that, at significant turning points in a life, a prophetic dream was often needed and best retrieved in a context where dreaming was the main event. People would sleep in the temple to elicit the dream. Nothing else went on there, so the atmosphere in the temple was conducive to opening and informing. Continuum is the dreaming temple of our modern times. How is my life moving? How do I keep creating the same condition over and over in my own physiology? In my relationships? As a living system? It is participation that elicits growth. It is movement that allows something new to occur.
Out of the Birth Canal
I left my yoga community, my marriage, my hopes and dreams, my ideas about being on “a path” and entered a true bardo. The darkness and confusion were immense and I was left without the instructions of an outside expert to guide me step by step. I began to feel my way with movement and attention through each day, each week, each month. I attended to the moments where I could feel the movement of new life springing forth and follow those, steering away from those moments that felt black and ink-like in my veins. When I didn’t know the difference and the lines became blurry, I waited, hovered, feeling the movement of breath. I stopped looking for comfort and settled into the movement of movements, the movement of what was happening, as I had learned in Continuum.
When movement is the informer, the partner and the path, we are connecting to thousands of years of history and being. Snake, spiral, wave, paired bones, tails, gills, water (rivulets) are all occurring within us, all beginning in ancient times. There are no straight lines or precisely symmetrical shapes within the body or within the natural world, from molecule to cosmos. Angular, repetitive movement has given rise to aggression and conformity in our military structures. The aerobic fitness phenomenon of the last 40 years grew directly out of military training exercises. It is no wonder we struggle with our duty to exercise. It is no wonder we struggle with the level of violence we are now witnessing. There is something inherently destructive about this type of movement. On some level, I could feel this.
As I relinquished the need for outside instructions, using sensing and feeling as the primary guides in my life, I began to find my way towards the movements that felt most nourishing. My daily practice began to flower out of my own organism. The movements I chose were curved, arcing, swirling circuitous pathways in which my organism could feel itself as whole, as part of something larger. All of its parts were communicating, just as the connective tissue inside my skin was participating in a variety of shapes, planes, speeds and gradations of movement. “Performing” asanas by going through the motions now became impossible. My sense of belonging blossomed, as I began to feel a palpable connection between the movement in my body and the meaning of my life.
The Pathless Path
Continuum uses as its primary model a concept known as “Embryongenesis.” Exploring the moving intelligence of life in utero we can begin to understand our planetary life and its origins in the primordial sea. Through movement, sound and breath, we make inquiry into the rhythms and biological interactions that give rise to new life within the amniotic fluid. By referencing movement themes in this primary world, we create atmospheres that allow our own growth and perception of life to continue to be “born again.”
Richard Grossinger in his brilliant treatise Embryongenesis; Species, Gender and Identity, has described it thusly: “Embryongesesis lies at the heart of our riddle. It is the unadulterated text of both creation and evolution. Every time a creature forms anew out of raw atoms it makes a replica of life itself. The way in which it organizes its body and complexifies is the way in which meaning was invented.” (p xv-xvi)
Creation truly remains the source of mystery. Meaning and mystery are contained within movement. By imposing my will upon this mystery in the performance of postures, techniques, and ideas about what is “good for me,” I am limiting my very ability to experience life and how life exists within me. The way I move in my body will affect the way I see and think. Can I be alert to the pitfalls of my own perceptions? The innocent eyes of the unborn deliver information about the true magnitude and mystery of living.
Continuum offers a way of participating with the unfolding of the self and the evolution of our own species through moving explorations in which something that never existed before is allowed to come forward and be participated with. We are in accelerating times. Our social systems are no longer functioning in a way that sustains our life or the life of our planet. How can we move into the next phase of our life, either individually or as a species, with more compassion, inclusivity, kindness and responsibility?
During the past twenty years I have taught at colleges, universities, hospitals and clinics everything from AshtangaYoga, Mindful Movement and Meditation to Choreography, Modern Dance, Ballet, Aerobics, Creative Movement, Improvisation, Jazz and Hip-Hop. Each class would begin in a fairly straightforward way, true to its subject, exploring traditional yoga asanas or classic dance steps. But before long, in every class, I would be weaving in an awareness of Continuum through movement and sensation. I noticed a distinct presence and vitality beginning to grow as students began to move with themselves in a direct, compassionate, and less structured way. The focal point gradually would move away from technique and toward each person’s own experience of internal sensations, movement and aliveness. What emerged from this experiment were human beings who could greet the world, in whatever form it presented itself, with intelligence, aliveness and compassion.
As the meaning of my work and the meaning of my life have become inseparable, I have let go of teaching anything but Continuum now. I am honored to be teaching graduate level courses in somatic psychology based solely on Continuum. The movement of movements has become my true teacher. And so, I ask students to bring their life into the room, not leave it outside. I try to encourage less and less separation and more and more inclusivity so that every breath becomes relevant to the one breathing, in class or out of class.
I gratefully acknowledge the work of Emilie Conrad and Susan Harper for clearing a pathway of unfolding beauty. Their continued investigations into the nature of human life have given birth to so much mercy and compassion and I am deeply indebted.
© 2001 by Beth Pettengill Riley