By Molly Stamell
As movers and practitioners of yoga, we know that the way we transition between poses is important to the ease and comfort of our practice. Off the mat, the transitions in our daily lives can likewise provide opportunities to tune into the way we embody our human form. The embodiment of transitions is also highly relevant to the time we live in. With so many unpredictable elements in our futures, it sometimes feels to me as though we are all living in a constant state of flux. Yoga offers us a tool for understanding the links between Us and what we perceive to be Other, between past, present and future, and our physical practice within the larger contexts of our lives. How do we embody transitional space and time? How does this embodiment manifest in our movement patterns?
As a teacher, the opportunity to offer seamless and comfortable transitions to my students is an important priority. This has real implications on a persons’ experience in my class. As my interest in transitions grew, and the more notice I took of my teaching habits and my students’ responses to them, the more the physical transitions between movements started to stand out to me. I teach both dance and yoga, and in both cases I was noticing transitions as a place of difficulty for many of my students. Whenever I notice a common thread where people are struggling, across physical disciplines and age differences, that is an immediate red flag for me. What was it about my teaching that was not communicating the physicality and mental state of being ‘in transition’?
As I began a new inquiry into how I embody transitions in my own movement practice, I was struck by something a parent of one of my young students said to me. She was explaining to me why they arrived late to a rehearsal, and as the story of their busy day unfolded, she said, “my daughter was just exhausted by that point in the day, so I took her home for some transition time before we came here.” At the time, I was so focused on ushering her daughter into the rehearsal she was late for that her comment about transition time didn’t even sink in until much later. But once it did, the significance of time became a focal point in my explorations. For example, children are sometimes allowed ‘transition time’ to shift from one activity to another. What they do with this time may differ significantly from child to child, but the objective is to give them time to process the experience they just had, and prepare them for whatever is coming next. As adults, we are allowed less and less of this kind of time. Not only that, we are expected not to need transition time at all. Whether those expectations are established by the people around us or by ourselves, they impose an urgency on how we function in our daily lives that does not allow for transitional time or space in which to process our lived experiences.
The developmental processes that shape our adult forms are time-based, just as the physical act of transitioning from one thing to another, whether it be an activity or two different asana poses, also occurs over a span of time. Certainly, we could look at the human life span as one long process of transition, from the rapid growth that occurs in utero, to the early movement patterns in the first year of life that lead us to standing upright, the infinite possibilities for movement thereafter and the eventual slowing of regeneration and return to the universal fabric from which we all originated. With this in mind, the embodiment of transitional space and time from a developmental perspective offers us a way in. In the same way that we can learn to embody specific aspects of our development, so too can we learn to embody the ongoing transitions that shape who and what we are.
Where do transitions live in the body? In other words, is there a specific place from which to explore the action of transitioning between poses? The consciousness of a transition, of being “in between” two or more things, suggests that space itself may be a good place to enter into transitional embodiment. The concept of space in the body can be misleading. On the one hand, as yoga practitioners we know that at the atomic level the human body contains vast amounts of space, but on the other, the body’s structures are not neatly positioned in close proximity with one another. Our body’s tissues and different anatomical structures touch and slide on each other. There aren’t pockets of emptiness that differentiate one thing from another. But as Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen has said, “The information is in the space.”
Using the developmental patterns as a template, the cells themselves provide a simple entry point for understanding transitional space in the body. Every cell has a bi-layer membrane surrounding it, comprised of two layers of lipid cells, in which proteins are embedded. The presence of two membranous layers is important. The inner wrapping of the cell interfaces with the internal world contained therein, while the exterior wrapping interfaces with the external environment surrounding the cell. This is very similar to the way our skin contains our entire body, with the inner surface receiving information from the inside, and the outer surface relaying sensory information from the outside. While these two layers of cellular membranes and their functions are fascinating on their own, it is the space between these layers that has implications for embodying transitions.
Each cell in the body is equipped with its own intelligence. It knows exactly what it is supposed to do, without us having to tell it so. Each cell takes in nourishment, oxygen, and sensory information, and excretes waste and feedback to the system of which it is a part. The substance and information passing through each cell is contained very briefly in the space between the two cellular membranes – it has to be, if it passes from the interior of the cell to the exterior, and vice versa. This process roots the act of transitioning in both space and time. The passage of information and substance through the layers of the cellular membranes occurs over a measurable span of time, and occurs in the space that differentiates these layers. Once we understand this on the micro levels of the cells, we can apply it to any structure in the body during transitional movement.
Placing transitions within our anatomical structures gives us a context for exploring them as a physical action. But directing our awareness to a particular structure or even a quality or sensation within the body is not enough. We must have a means of achieving transitional embodiment. In this case, I believe the breath provides the answer. The breath is truly the easiest way in, the simplest route to uncovering deeper layers of awareness. Yoga is a clear example of how the breath can be integrated with movement to balance the flow of prana, through the body. But it is not only the inhale and the exhale that are important. The consciousness of a transitional state offers us a clue here. In yoga, we practice the breath in four stages, not two. The pauses at the top of the inhale and the bottom of the exhale are of equal importance as the inhaling and exhaling breaths themselves. Pranayama practice includes many exercises in retaining the breath in or out to encourage longer pauses between inhalation and exhalation. Moving the body in transition during the pauses between breaths provided the missing link. Here is a concrete physical action and tool for accessing the consciousness of existing, however briefly, “in between” things. Although breathing is an involuntary action most of the time, we have the means to control it whenever we choose. By emphasizing the pauses between inhale and exhale during transitional movement, the body exists in harmony with the action it is performing.
Transitional movement involves a balance between control and yield to momentum, gravity, and ground reaction force. These three forces are responsible for the body’s movement, the primary difference between them being that the body is always at the mercy of gravity and ground reaction force, while momentum is initiated by us. It is the only one of the three forces that govern the body in motion of which we are in complete control. We can allow or arrest the force of momentum at any time. During an embodied act of transition, there is an act of surrender to these three forces, but there is also an act of will that enables the body-mind to either allow these forces to take over, or to sustain and control a transition if that is what is necessary or desired. At the level of the cells, the sensation of transition feels to me like a wash through the membrane layers, similar to an ocean wave. In every moment, there is a choice about how to navigate the forces moving through the body. To me, this feels like a diffusion of awareness throughout the entirety of the body’s form, rather than a pointed attention to one specific place.
Where does the support for the movement come from? What are the systems in play? What is the intention behind the movement, and how does the transition relate to what came before and what will come after? Exploring transitions in movement is one possibility for embodying the constant shifts of our lives. Transitions are happening all around us, from seasonal change, to the larger issue of climate change, to people transitioning between genders and the changing landscape of an increasingly developed world population. We live in a time of unpredictability, and learning how to balance the body with the changes occurring outside its boundaries is part of cultivating a deeper awareness of what it means to be embodied in the face of transition. Developing the tools and techniques to practice embodiment is all well and good, but how we apply this knowledge in our daily lives is where the information has real value.
Considering the act of transitioning from an embodied perspective, one of the questions we may ask ourselves is whether people retain the same behavioral habits during the transitions they encounter out in the world as in their movement practices? Do those of us who rush through the transitions between yoga poses also bypass the transitions in our lives as places to spend time in? Do those of us who collapse physically during movement transitions lose our sense of support when we find ourselves in the middle of a life transition? Possibly. Transitioning can be uncomfortable, and perhaps this is part of what it means to sit in the feeling of discomfort. If you stay in it for long enough, odds are it won’t be uncomfortable forever. It seems possible to me that if we have the capacity to embody transitional time and space, that we likely approach the uncertainty of these circumstances in habitual ways. If something works for us once, we are more likely to repeat it, and it becomes a pattern. Perhaps the key to cultivating an embodied movement practice in the midst of transition requires no more than an awareness of how the body-mind is responding to changing circumstances.
As a teacher, I am conscious of the process of arrival. There is a process of coming into the building, into the room, into the space. We arrive in the studio, or at the top of the mat, and there is a state of readiness that settles over us, if we allow it time to manifest, and don’t rush into action too quickly. For this to happen, we must also arrive in our own bodies and minds, before we enter a practice that engages the trinity of our beings: mind-body-spirit. As I write this I am engulfed in a transitional time in my life. I am completing, wrapping up and moving on from one thing, while the next chapter is unfolding before me. I stand with one foot on each side of the divide. And perhaps this is the true essence of this inquiry. Do we ever truly arrive? Or do we simply transition, seamlessly between two sides of something, existing always in the spaces and time in between the constructs that compartmentalize our experiences?