A SOJOURN WITH DIANE LONG IN VARANASI, INDIA
Movement is the song of the body. Yes, the body has its own song from which the movement of dancing arises spontaneously... This song, if you care to listen to it, is beauty.
My interest in the work of Diane Long was sparked many years ago at my yoga school. I stumbled upon a book called "Awakening the Spine" by an elderly Italian lady called Vanda Scaravelli. Vanda wrote: "There is a way of doing yoga poses that we call "asanas" without the slightest effort." It is a stunning book with wonderful images and when I read it, its poetic expression stayed with me for a long time. Vanda Scaravelli was a friend of B.K.S Iyengar and T.K.V. Desikachar and was taught individually by both of them. She later discovered her own way of doing yoga which worked with gravity and the breath to naturally awaken the spine. Years later she took on some personal students of her own. Diane Long was her student for over 25 years.
A strange rollercoaster of events last year found me walking tentatively up some stone steps and knocking on a small brown door of a simple pale yellow house overlooking the Ganges River, among the ancient ghats of Varanasi, India. The journey that led to that little brown door had its origins in the training I had in a combination of the Viniyoga tradition and the joyful creative approach to yoga of Mangala Yoga Studios. In recent years, I had also had the privilege of working with an Alexander teacher and leaders of a dance form called Contact Improvisation. In the Alexander technique, the teacher often uses a wordless, hands-on approach to help a person rediscover (over and again) the source of energy and support that comes (in its own time) from resting more fully into the spine. In Contact, dancers seem to play exuberantly with the rebound effect of resting well into their own and other people's skeletal structure, sending them spiralling and flying in multiple and unexpected directions. Both these groups of people pointed to a sense of freedom that could come when one started to work with gravity rather than against it. They appeared to have parallels with Vanda Scaravelli's approach: "The liberation of the upper part of the body (the head, neck, arms, shoulders and trunk) produced by the acceptance of gravity in the lower part of the body (legs, feet, knees and hips) is the origin of lightness and dancing is its expression." Elsewhere I had read Diane as saying, "It's so important to keep it simple and clear so that the work can become play in expressing itself". Play, I thought. Sounds good to me. And so a few moments later the door fell open and a small Japanese girl said "Oh hi, come in." "Is this Diane Long's house?" I queried in half disbelief (After three days of airports and crusty hotels). "Yeah, she's upstairs doing her practice if you want to say hello." And so this article is a subjective statement in time – a gathering of my remembered impressions of three weeks' study with Diane, of my current bodymind experience, and perceptions of some discoveries made in complementary awareness practices.
When I saw Diane demonstrating postures I was impressed by the fluidity of her movements, and also that she had a supple kind of resilience which allowed her to explore movement within postures. Others have described it as an animal-like, instinctive quality and I would add that she really seemed to be enjoying herself. We never stayed long in a position. We were always either preparing for it, on the way into it, or resting from it. "Play a note and it is gone." Thus, you could say that the asana practice was process orientated, not ends orientated. Who knows if you will get to the "posture" or not. Who cares. It could all be seen as a constant process of preparation. Although the work was intense, I never felt forced, in fact she often urged us to stop, rest, and start again as soon as we noticed the action becoming heavy or tight. It was a way of refreshing ourselves – not just in body but in our attention. There seemed to be a rhythmic, cyclical approach to the practice: resting (into the ground and into the back), making space (always wider, deeper), growing from the ground through the spine ("always be surprised by what movement comes up the spine"), and resting once again, making space... "You want to take the weight of the spine down the back of the heels, and free yourself from the ground upwards." Vanda wrote of our three friends in asana practice: gravity, breath and the wave (connected with the supple movement of extension along the spine). This has helped me to feel more clearly the movement of breath which is focussed on in the Viniyoga tradition. With the exhalation, the spine lengthens slightly as the hips drop down with gravity, freeing the lungs so that breath is released up like smoke from a volcano. Hands and feet can be emphasised as a way of inviting the whole length of the spine to wake up and participate in the breath.
During the classes I tried to grasp onto statements I thought described concrete techniques, alignments, instructions, only to have them taken away from me the next day. I learnt that everything can only be understood in terms of the whole being, and becomes useless when it is broken into parts. Practising with Diane helped me to remember that yoga was not about positions but rather about aliveness, and always from refreshing our connection to the ground and space around. "You can't come [to practice] with instructions for yourself," she said. "Don't come with details! Details have to pale in comparison to the sense of beauty, wholeness, space!" Lessons with Diane seemed to emphasise the quality of attention which yogis from Patanjali and beyond have directed us towards: 'It's not about more effort, it's about clarifying your attention". Attention allows us to find alternatives to restrictive habits, and to move towards a life of less effort. But what is effort? Moshe Feldenkrais says that "the sensation of effort is the subjective feeling of wasted movement" and "is due to other actions being enacted besides the one intended." "In good action," he writes, "the sensation of effort is absent, no matter what the actual expenditure of energy is." Therefore, we are not talking about no effort as flopping around but about a source of energy and strength which does not come from forcing or contracting. Perhaps it can be felt in those moments when we give ourselves completely to what we are doing. I enjoyed Diane's phrase of "an intelligent undoing of tension." It seems that ironically it can take tremendous work to really find out how to let go and relax.
My teacher Peter has often said that yoga should help us to break out of patterns of habit rather than entrenching them. How can we do this? By being a beginner. In some ways we can gather knowledge about techniques but we cannot really accumulate knowledge about yoga. It can only be experienced in the moment.