Authentic Movement as Spiritual Discipline

When I moved to San Francisco in 1996, a few years out of music school and having decided not to become a Zen monk just yet, one of the first things I did was to find the Contact Improvisation jam. CI had appeared in my life the year before, while I was a student at Cornell in upstate New York, and this strange, intimate, wide open dance form quickly became the most interesting thing about getting a doctorate in music composition. After I dropped out of that program and went back to the Zen monastery for a couple seasons, and then left that training as well to make a go at an artist’s life in the city, I found myself as if with a clean slate. And it was obvious that movement, rather than music, would be the center of my work.

I found the Contact jam and started dancing every week with the beautiful radical artists that were there every week. CI jams vary widely in quality and culture, from places where technical dancing is the norm to less-skill-oriented social events that can sometimes feel skeezy. This one, at 848 Community Space in SF, was largely a place for serious dancing, and I was quickly initiated into a network of movement-training classes and teachers. Dance-based performance art started to become the primary genre I related to, and started making art within. I had found my community.

As with many disciplines, dance and movement practices can be thought up on a spectrum between more and less structured forms. The CI jam sat somewhere in the middle: completely improvised dancing based in a set of specific movement principles that were more-or-less common across international borders and regularly taught in CI skills classes. At the more-structured end of the practice spectrum are standard-issue dance classes where specific movements are taught in detailed ways and strung together in choreographed sequences, and I include most modern yoga classes in this. And at the less-structured end are more fully-improvised practices like the open dancing at something like Ecstatic Dance (which didn’t exist by that name in 1996, though its precursors did, in the rave scene and a hippy version of sober club dancing called Barefoot Boogie), and Authentic Movement.

As I made friends in the dance community, they started to bring me with them to the various classes they frequented, including a modern technique class taught by Kathleen Hermesdorff, which I loved, partly because she welcomed this clumsy beginner into a technical class I really wasn’t ready for! This is also when I began yoga practice in earnest, after dancer friends introduced me to Ashtanga at Larry Schultz’s SF studio called It’s Yoga. Yoga then as now was taught in a highly structured form, and Schultz was considered radical for offering a shortened version of the Ashtanga primary series he called the “Rocket Series.” The same friends that introduced me to this highly structured form brought me to Authentic Movement (AM), in almost every way the complete opposite of yoga as I was learning it. It quietly became, along with yoga āsana and Buddhist meditation, a pillar of my spiritual practice.

I practiced AM intensively from 1996-2002 with Bill McCully Heron, a student of Janet Adler, and use the form as a support for intuitive yoga āsana, energetic cultivation, relational inquiry, embodiment practice in Organic Intelligence, and creative process. I have taught AM in Yoga Teacher Training programs, as a discipline unto itself, and in the context of individual sessions with students. The framing structure of Mover and Witness is also central to my (now rare) work in live performance, and in my practice structure called Haṭha Yoga Sadhana, where it is a central form.

20+ years after my introduction to AM, I feel its influence and wisdom every time I sit in meditation or move in any conscious way, partly because the skills it trained have become a primary orientation for how I exist in the world, speak, and live in relationship. Here’s a short overview of this subtly radical feminist practice, excerpted from my PhD dissertation.

Intro to Authentic Movement

Authentic Movement (AM) is a mystical-therapeutic process work created by Mary Starks Whitehouse (1911-79), a dancer turned Jungian therapist who studied with modern dance pioneers Mary Wigman and Martha Graham. Whitehouse’s work distills the archetypal theatrical roles of performer and audience to two bodies in a room, Mover and Witness, with the Mover following inner impulse, or “being moved”.

When the movement was simple and inevitable, not to be changed no matter how limited or partial, it became what I call ‘authentic‘ — it could be recognized as genuine, belonging to that person.

‘I am moved’… is a moment when the ego gives up control… allowing the Self to take over moving the physical body as it will. It is a moment of unpremeditated surrender that cannot be explained, repeated exactly. … The core of the movement experience is the sensation of moving and being moved.

(Mary Starks Whitehouse)

Authentic Movement offers participants a ritualized external structure consisting of the space and time established for movement and the core dyad of Mover and Witness as roles, but leaves the movement field completely open in the service of spontaneous arising. In practice, the Mover’s task is to follow impulse toward that which feels “inevitable,” while the Witness’s task is to observe not just the Mover’s visible actions, but the Witness’s own inner state and ever-fluctuating experience.

Working within the safe refuge of the formal structure, the Mover may practice releasing the intention toward volitional movement for the “unpremeditated surrender” of being moved. For the Witness, the structure creates space for the practice of deep seeing of an Other, including confrontation with the habits of projection and identification that are the manifestations of Suffering (dukkha) in the relational field. For Whitehouse, and her protégé Janet Adler who developed AM into an intentionally mystical practice, the consistent ritual score between Mover and Witness becomes a framing structure that supports healing and inner inquiry for both members of the archetypal relationship dyad.

For further introduction to AM, here’s an article from the American Dance Therapy Association.

Authentic Movement & Haṭha Yoga

While modern yoga training can be extremely specific around movements, alignment, and sequence, it’s almost certain that pre-modern practice was more improvisational. Like meditation, once the basic principles are internalized, practice largely proceeds as an individual exploration, the yogi using the various exercises they’ve been taught in an intuitive way. There’s no way to systematize the moment to moment adjustments and interventions that are the heart of long-term practice.

In āsana, the physical aspect of Yoga practice, it can be easy to think that if we are just making the right shape, we’re “doing” Yoga. But exactly in the way that sitting cross-legged does not mean that you’re meditating, taking various other shapes with your body doesn’t mean you’re doing Yoga. Yoga might be said to differ from non-spiritual exercise practices in terms of how it trains attention, mindfulness, devotion, and consciousness in general. If this is true, then it is what we are doing with our minds that makes Yoga a spiritual practice. To work on the mind in Yoga, however, means we have to get the details of the physical practice out of the way.

Authentic Movement is a beautiful cross-training form for dedicated Yoga practitioners because it emphasizes a quality that is imperative for deeper practice, but not addressed directly in much modern yoga training. In order to move away from just making shapes with the body and hoping they have spiritual results, we need a skill I call Deep Listening, or Following Impulse. AM teaches movers to sense the subtle force moving through the body we can call “impulse,” and allow it to express through movement. In this way, it does an important task in Yoga: connecting us to internal energy and volition. In many schools of Yoga, purification of perception by drawing attention inward (pratyāhāra) and cultivation of wholesome volitional action (yama and niyama) are central disciplines. Spontaneous movement in the way practiced in AM connects inner attention with action in a subtle but direct way, allowing yogis to work right at the edge of knowing and not-knowing, deepening in embodiment and presence through movement. I think this kind of embodiment is near to the heart of what Haṭha Yoga is meant to cultivate.

Here’s an article I wrote for Yoga International that explores bringing Deep Listening into Yoga āsana practice.

More speculatively, if spontaneous movement can be said to hinge on contact with an impersonal impulse or vibratory energy, Authentic Movement may be a contemporary way of cultivating awareness of the energy of life, which when it is felt strongly may be called pītī (in Theravāda Buddhism), prāna, śakti or kuṇḍalinī (in Śaiva Tantra and Hindu Yogas). Taking this further, using the image of the Hindu tantric deity Śiva dancing the oscillation between Being and Non-being, called tandava, AM may be thought of cross-culturally as a form of mystical dance or spontaneous yogāsana flow. In that vein, here’s a completely speculative exploration of Authentic Movement as Tandava.

Blessings in your practice always, and may the energy of life move you in a way that brings power, insight, and liberation. Gratitude to my teachers of dance and Authentic Movement, who brought this new Western mystical vision into intimacy with the South Asian paths on which I focus my work.

1 thought on “Authentic Movement as Spiritual Discipline”

  1. Pingback: Hatha Yoga Sadhana – Sean Feit Oakes, PhD

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