An Interview with Amy Matthews and Olive Bieringa, with Karla Brodie
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.
Part 1: 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.
Part 2: 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: Karla, Olive and Amy discuss tone, touch and teaching
Karla: You shared your thoughts the other day about tone, can you say a little bit more about tone, particularly in relationship to yoga , from what you’ve seen in the yoga community over the years?
Amy: I would love to see, and I think it’s shifting in some places, but I’d love to see in the yoga world a broader definition or inquiry about what is recuperative for people. I hear a lot of generalisations about how everybody is stressed out, so we all need to lie down and do restorative yoga. I think there’s something about learning to lie down and be still but for some of us a recuperation would be to be really active.
I feel like there’s an assumption that if our tone is too high and we’re stressed out, what we need to do is drop our tone, it’s like go to the other end. What’s missing is, first of all, where does that serve me and then where can I find the middle where I’m adaptable and where I have resilience and where I can bring my tone up if I need to bring it up and where I can settle down and rest, if I need to settle down and rest.
In a lot of the yoga circles recently I’ve heard “well we need to balance the nervous system and we need to bring up the parasympathetic”. It makes me crazy to talk about the parasympathetic in such a broad way and I jokingly say “if we were only in our parasympathetic nervous system, we would be in a coma”. It’s not a binary: it’s not either sympathetic or parasympathetic, there is an amazing spread of possibilities that I can find all these different degrees of sympathetic and parasympathetic. I really think sympathetic has gotten a bad name and it’s not yoga’s fault, I mean the books say “it’s fight, flight or freeze” (or freeze has been shifted over into parasympathetic overdrive) and sympathetic just gets this bad rap.
We can’t live in the world without sympathetic engagement and I feel like there’s this idea that we need to bring up our parasympathetic, we need to not go too fast, we need to be not too quick, we need to counter that by being like this. I’d rather ask where do I need to be super engaged, where do I need to be medium engaged, where can I check out, how can I move between those.
Do we walk through the world loving everybody with our heart open? I don’t think so. I think there are people who deserve my rage and there are situations that deserve real fighting with. I mean I can have compassion for the circumstances that created a person who is abusive but I can also not love that person and we could go through the nuances of loving the person and hating the behaviour or whatever but there are situations where the appropriate response for me is to say “no, don’t do that”. I feel there’s a a problem with this - let’s talk about the epidemic of male teachers behaving badly: there’s a whole set of things going on where we’ve [women] been taught to be complacent and compliant and loving and kind and tolerate it and the implication of tolerance is super problematic to me and to me that’s a tone question about why should I not stand up and say “this does not work for me”. Either “what you’re teaching doesn’t suit me and I’m going to go and do something else”, or all the way up to “the way you are touching me is not appropriate and I’m going to push you away or hit you or knock you over” [chuckles].
Karla: Yeah, so the culture that I’m experiencing in the BMC training is all the wonderful things that you are speaking about, I can be in this space, I can have a lie down, I can run around and I can self-regulate, I have the support that I need in this space so it’s a really satisfying environment to be in, I totally agree I think there’s this idealism in yoga that everyone is super blissful and nice and there’s an authenticity I feel that is intrinsic in BMC and it’s such a rich environment to be in.
Amy: Mmm, we’re trying.
Karla: Yeah and it reminds me also of that question of meeting, so if someone is in high tone and then I think “oh well, I’ve got to take them to low tone” or have that opposite response in the nervous system for that person in high tone it’s like jumping off a cliff, it can feel really unsafe to go through that transition. So my learning over the years is well “how do I meet that person and have that dynamic with them?”, then shifting it and changing it up. It reminds me of contact improvisation: If I come in with high tone and someone else had low tone there wouldn’t be a meeting place.
Olive: Well there would be but the dots that would unfold from that thing would be this one thing and then at what point would you want to do something different, like where would you have a choice in there? I hear within your conversation this kind of pursuit of my agency or even questioning what is it that I want: how do I make choices, how do I say no and move away from something, how do I be curious and move towards something, how do I feel safe enough that I can hang out somewhere in the unknown for a while, so that I can understand what is my habitual way of being in the world and how do I get to open up questions around that to open up other possibilities?
Because my strengths are great but at what point do my strengths become my weaknesses and what are the other possibilities that live inside my physicality, inside my consciousness that I can play with so that I can actually have more range, which then allows me to practice in different ways and allows me to connect with other people in different ways?
And how through that practice of opening up more range can I also modulate and be able to shift and have a readiness to respond to whatever the situation is? And I think that’s a larger question about really understanding where my support is and how I resource myself to kind of meet the situation?
Karla: Yeah. And to do with relationship as well, there’s been an encouragement [in the BMC course] to really dialogue, “oh, how is this?” or “how is that?” and there was a little bit at first of just touch or just don’t or this tension and then the more we’ve settled into it, it’s just very informal, it’s got a relaxed energy about it: we’re all adults, we’re all hanging out together. I feel in yoga that because of some dodgy people doing dodgy things in regard to touch, we now have movement toward teachers providing little counters or little cards: “touch me, don’t touch me, may be touch me”. It’s a whole set up in a yoga class about the teacher who is talking and the students who are not talking and they’re doing what is said rather than engaging in a dialogue and a conversation throughout so it’s really my joy with BMC that it is a conversation and it’s a shared learning and it’s circular rather than hierarchical.
Amy: One of the things I’m really interested in as a teaching question is recognising that I have expertise in some principles or the names of anatomical structures, but I don’t have expertise in the people in front of me, or certainly not more than they have about themselves and I feel like, as teachers, movement teachers in general, yoga teachers in particular, we’re somehow taught that we are supposed to know what someone needs without asking them and that I’m somehow supposed to have some magical insight by looking at you because I’m so in touch with whatever, that I know that you need this.
And after so many years of experience I have some guesses because what I see showing up in you might remind me of what I saw show up in someone else but it’s wrong a good part of the time. So, there’s more to the story or it is the same thing but the back story is completely different, or it’s completely the same but the thing to do is completely different.
Working with babies taught me this: to see what I see but not to assume that I know at the same time. The way to find out with an adult is to either put my hands on and see if they’ll let me know, or to ask them. And the thing about a baby is that they’ll pretty much let you know right away if it’s okay because until they’re about six months old they don’t have enough physical control to inhibit things. Starting at about six months they might just freeze, maybe earlier than that.
But in an adult I can’t tell by putting my hands on them necessarily. They might freeze because it’s the right thing to do and I’m in the right spot; they might freeze because they’re surprised; they might freeze because they don’t want to be touched but they’re trying to be a good student; and they might not even freeze, they might just go along but on the inside be like “get your fucking hands off of me’’.
And so, I don’t think we can know by touching someone what their experience is. We can know what we can feel, like I can know if I touch someone and their tone comes up under my hands, I know that their tone came up but I don’t know why. And if their tone goes down under my hands, I know that their tone went down but I don’t actually know if they relaxed because they feel safe with me or that they’re just giving up because I put my hands on them and I interrupted their process and they are like whatever, I’m going to check out.
I really, really think this dialogue is so important as a teacher so that I don’t think I know more than I know and also to shift against the trend towards “I’m in the teacher’s hands, the teacher knows best, I give up my agency to this person”.
It is absolutely true that someone outside of me might see things that I don’t see about myself, that is absolutely true and I can’t know everything about myself, I will never see myself in the way other people see me and they might really have useful insights but I should not abandon my perspective when I entertain theirs. And I think too much we’re taught that if your opinion of me is different than my opinion of me or my description of my experience, you must be right because you’re the teacher. That readiness to abdicate our sense of self is really problematic and I don’t think it’s the students’ problem, I mean it’s a problem for the students but it’s not the students’ fault, it’s the system.
Olive: It’s about how we learn to learn, right? It’s about our education system in general and then how that gets propagated within other class contexts as adults but I think that the practice within BMC is really kind of challenging or opening up or offering different ways of learning that allows people to listen or to look or to draw or to sleep or to touch or to move or to name things as a way to come closer to the material without a hierarchy or without saying this is the one way that you have to learn this material, so that people can be in a kind of multiplicity of activities within the classroom setting and we have to trust that they’re getting what they need, that they’re developing their own agency to be able to come towards the material and then move away as they need to so that they can self-regulate.
Amy: But I do think that’s a process that we actively have to help students do that.
Amy: And I think that even in BMC sometimes there’s an assumption that, and like you said, we’re adults, we know how to take care of ourselves. But I’m continually struck that in a group of adults there’s still, “I don’t know what I like, I don’t know what I need, I don’t know what I want”. Like we’ve been taught to wait for someone to tell us. So part of my curiosity in teaching BMC is how do I as a teacher take responsibility for helping people, for creating circumstances where people can figure out what they need or want, not to help them figure out what they need but like can I ask a series of questions that will get people to like “oh, I actually have an answer to this”, like that’s my big curiosity.
One of the big debates, at least in New York, around the sexually abusive behaviour of some of the yoga teachers was about the women who were abused – there are some that have argued that the abused women chose to stay in the abusive relationship … and it’s coming up in the Harvey Weinstein case also, there are people saying that these women shouldn’t have put themselves in that position.
We need to start from a premise that there’s a whole group of people who have been raised to not make those choices for themselves - we’re not all starting from an equal playground. If a powerful man who is white and, as your teacher, says “do this”, it takes extra oomph to overcome that, and I think that is part of our job in BMC to open up the possibility for people to start dialoguing about what they need and want and recognising the issue that in relationships we don’t all agree on what we want and it’s okay that it’s not all sweetness and light.
Karla: I relate to what you’re saying about what do I need and what do I want, it’s not just one thing, it’s “oh, well I’ll try this and then maybe I’ll try this and oh, this is interesting, interesting, interesting” rather than right/wrong, good/bad, so it’s pulling back all of that to be experiences, experiences. Then I can be having a really shit day and rather than going “I’ve had a shit day … it’s oh, I’ve had this day and this day has had this range of sensations and emotions” and it’s not to overly load them up with bad.
Amy: Yeah, yeah, or it’s bad or it’s a shit day but it could change in a minute. Because I don’t want to make it that we can’t have these negative; like I can have a partnership that doesn’t work, like me and my partner we can’t meet each other, we just can’t meet each other. I mean I’ve had students like that where I used to think that my job was to teach everybody who came. I mean in something like BMC my job is to teach whoever shows up in the room but that kind of connection where it’s like we resonate with each other, what I say works for them and their questions make sense to me, that is not going to be every person.
And the way that I teach will not work for everybody and people can love the way I teach and other people can hate it, and they can both be true. And that idea that I have to reach everybody, like one of the things that I love about BMC training is that there are three different teachers and we’re different, you know I’m really good with “I’m going to tolerate Amy’s class and I’m going to get it in Olive’s class and I’m going to wait until Mary Lou says it because when Olive says it, it doesn’t make sense” and that’s so powerful if there are several different ways to engage with the material.
Then it kind of comes back to form like “can I figure out what works for me? The way Olive says stuff makes sense, I want to learn from her but then I want to see where I can get the range to also get inside Mary Lou’s experience or figure out what the hell Amy is talking about, like I don’t have to love everybody and there’s something about figuring out what works for me and also being teachable and being adaptable and being like so what is that about? There must be something. I don’t have to love it but can I learn from it?”. But that kind of curiosity can’t come until we have some sense of ourselves, I think. And if I just go “well, I have to love Amy and I have to love Mary Lou and I have to love Olive” I mean that’s great if it happens.
Olive: And I have to love that partner I’m supposed to be partnered up with doing hands on and I have no curiosity or we have no shared interest in this moment and so sometimes it’s such a great learning experience and sometimes it’s also like okay, I’m not ready for that one right now, or I can’t figure that out and now I know that and I’m not going to necessarily go there again in this mood with this person.
Karla: Yeah, there’s such a potency isn’t there? Well I’ve found with teachers that I have had a reaction to “oh, what’s that about?” or as you were saying “what’s the learning for me in that?”. Jens, last year, what a creature, just such an amazing human and when he first came out I thought “this dude is super casual” and he’s chilled out and he’s cracking jokes and it was new and it was fascinating for me and I just found his teachings really profound. He’s very light and very spacious so I’m absolutely valuing that with the training.
I’m not even looking who is teaching next, it’s that “ooh, I wonder what it will be like turning up?”. So it’s wonderful! So thank you both for sharing your wisdom and words, what a joy.
Amy: Thanks for the chance to go on at length about the things I get really excited about [laughs].
Olive: Thanks Karla.