Playful Practice

natarajasanaRiver
Natarajasana, Dancer’s pose. Photo by Joel Ford, taken near Mount Hood

“This is the real secret of life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.” -Alan W. Watts

As children, we played all the time – it was “our job” to do so. We were extremely dedicated to our play, so much so that it was the primary experience of all our days, and not much got in the way of this activity of paramount importance. Whether we were playing with others or by ourselves, playing was how we made discoveries about our bodies, others, and the world we live in. Somehow, along the way to adulthood, many of us have lost our connection with this rich, joyous activity. Why we fall out of the habit of play is beyond the scope of this article; however, I feel compelled to address how we can re-discover play in our yoga (and vocal yoga) practice. I will also address why a playful approach is so important.

One reason it is easier for a child to learn a new musical instrument than an adult is a lack of self-judgment. Yes, kids get frustrated, and children at different ages have different relationships with self-doubt. But on the whole, children tend to be more willing to try something new and, if it doesn’t work, to keep trying! Many of us have heard the quote from Samuel Beckett, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better!” and this pretty much sums up a young child’s approach to learning something new! If the child does not achieve the desired result at first, they will try several more times that same way, then playfully try in many different ways, until they succeed. Sadly, most adult beginners at yoga or singing, or any other discipline for that matter, have lost the playful tenacity they had when they were children. Rather than a “beginner’s mind” in which the object is play and discovery, there is often an underlying narrative that sounds something like “I’m not sure I can do this… I guess I might as well try. Okay, I tried once or twice (or even several times) and it didn’t go well, so I can’t do it, I may as well give up” or other such limiting thoughts. If you notice this kind of thinking come up for you, try being curious about what different methods can be used to achieve your desired result, and re-orient yourself towards play. This kind of curiosity is the essence of play, along with the dedication mentioned earlier. Imagine yourself as a child making discoveries! If you are getting tired or frustrated, take a break and come back to it. But do come back to it – don’t give up!

Here are some playful techniques you can use in your practice when you feel yourself getting frustrated:

First, take a break if you need to, and let yourself fully feel the emotions that are arising. Try not to attach thoughts or stories to those emotions – simply breathe and feel them.

When you are ready to practice again, try using these questions and statements: “What am I trying to achieve, and why?” “I wonder what tools I can use to help me work towards that goal.” “Do I remember a time when it was working well? What worked for me then?” And if not…”I wonder what it would feel like once I achieve that goal.” Imagine it in detail! Then, ask the big question: “What is the next right step for me to work towards that goal?” Remember, toddlers do not (usually) try to walk before they can crawl. They certainly do not get frustrated when they cannot run a marathon right away. The gift of a child is they are usually only aware of the next step – they are fully in the moment. Let yourself be in the now and call upon your higher wisdom to determine what the next step is for you.

Then, once you are practicing and working on that next right step for you, whether it is a pose or a vocal exercise or passage from a song, take that one short phrase or asana (or piece of an asana!) and really get to know it. Approach it playfully from different angles, try it over and over again, and then try it a different way over and over. Remember: “The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.” -Stephen McCranie.

Be willing to make mistakes! Remember, oftentimes subtle changes make a big difference, so change only one small thing at a time. Then, observe and describe the results. Try your best to describe objectively – stay out of judgment! Try using humor! And stay in the moment – describe immediately after, rather than during, the exercise itself. When you are in the doing state, commit fully and go for it!

Other tools to try: Organic movement – think outside the box! Wiggle/shimmy/dance as you are singing; melt, slide, or wriggle from one pose to the next and then back again, and let your body guide you.

Imagination – Imagine what it will feel like to perform the final version of an asana, or sing freely a passage or song of your choice. Try not to be attached to this vision – it may end up being better than you imagined! But still, imagine in detail and let yourself experience a taste of it.

Characters, images, animals – This is still along the theme of imagination, but now with a willingness to be silly, think outside the box, and use whatever helps! Try taking on different characters or animals while singing or performing physical asana, or picturing a waterfall or roots growing out of your feet… the possibilities are endless. Some of my favorites for singing practice are being different kinds of birds, picturing a jellyfish in my torso, and lately I’ve been enjoying the “tired vampire” character!

And last, but not least – celebrate each improvement, however small! Those baby steps really do add up, and even if it feels like two steps forward and one (or more) steps back, remember the process is not linear and it is important to positively reinforce your progress. But then, try not to let an achievement render you listless – jump right back in and continue the work (I mean play!)

During this process, remember to have fun and not to take it too seriously! A playful approach will truly pay off and help you achieve your goals faster. If you are having fun and enjoying yourself, higher brain function is enabled and your keen discernment (viveka) is awakened. The combination of keen discernment, dedication, and playfulness will truly enliven your practice and make it much more effective. Enjoy!

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