This is the discourse I wrote as part of my assessment to become a life coach. The brief for the assignment was to relate coaching to another area of your life: leadership, community, family etc, encouraging us to make coaching relevant in other areas of our profession or daily life. When suddenly the concept of 'holding space' appeared in both disciplines -coaching and yoga- the subject to write my discourse on was given. Holding space for someone basically implies that you listen and watch them as they explore possibilities and boundaries. Below you can see my reflections on how coaching and yoga interconnect for me.
Coaching the body!
‘All you really need to do is to hold space for the student’
This is the answer I got from my yoga mentor upon the question, what is the key to teaching a good self-practice class. This statement provided me with a perfect ‘vine’ to swing on for my discourse. In a self-practice class (also known as Mysore style) you practice a known set of Ashtanga yoga postures in a particular order guided by the breath. Being a passionate yogi and yoga teacher I feel the parallels between the two methods are apparent. Despite the different means of language (verbal vs. body), doing yoga too serves to develop and problem-solve and can equally offer a feeling of clarity and purpose at the end of a practice.
I was drawn to this style of yoga myself some years ago after having attended taught yoga classes for a number of years. The main difference from a taught class is that self-practice is self-directed learning at your own pace. The teacher is only there to observe, listen and occasionally -through their expertise- guide the students’ progress with verbal or physical feedback, should the student need encouragement or be ready to progress on to a new posture.
The cornerstone skills in coaching are mainly of a verbal character and therefore the comparison with the physical feedback requires a bit of imagination and interpretation. So the ‘reflecting back’, where in coaching settings the coachee’s words are repeated, in yoga will not be done by the teacher but achieved through the students’ tenacious repetition of postures. Knowing the sequence of postures is the first step to learning self-practice yoga and the daily routine of repeating it becomes a self reflection and clarification in itself. This depth of understanding of the body’s strengths and weaknesses cannot be obtained by anyone but oneself. It is a lived experience. By learning to copy the sequence correctly and by perfecting the postures in all its nuances, our imbalances and alignment discrepancies rise to the surface and this provides an opportunity to look closer at weaknesses as well as aptitudes. The yogi is taught to observe the body and its abilities without judgment. As a consequence the persistent but gentle stretch and contraction of muscles and tendons builds up strength and flexibility, invigorating the body, leading to a feeling of well-being and a sense of achievement.
Like in a coaching situation all the student needs is someone to witness this, to ‘hold the space’, and provide a safe environment where they can face difficulties without feeling judged. So the clarification and reflecting is on-going for the student as the repetition is sustained and meanwhile a slow and solid foundation of trust between teacher and student is build up. Consequently it is then possible for the teacher to give more hands-on feedback. In the same way as questions in a coaching situation give the coachee an opportunity to go deeper in to a subject, the guiding hands of a teacher in a yoga session can allow the student to explore new depths to the body’s abilities. This is done through physical touch by pushing, pulling, lifting or generally guiding a particular part of the body in order to achieve a deeper posture. This sort of guiding is often referred to as an ‘adjustment’. The skill, as a hands-on yoga teacher, is to learn to read the body of the student and respond accordingly in order for the student to achieve the best result from the adjustment. If the student does not trust the teacher there will be resistance yet if the teacher does not give clear and firm feedback the student will be confused and not gain much from the adjustment.
Both being coached and doing yoga opens up to an experience of achievement and clarity and the key factor to being proficient at coaching and teaching yoga, is the ability to be open, curious and a good listener.
Most of us have a daily routine when we make our way to work. Out the door, to the left, through the park, up the hill, around the corner, cross the junction, to arrive at our familiar destination. Imagine one morning waking up, making your way out the door only to find that major roadworks had blocked your usual pathway. Your first reaction might be that of frustration by being held up... But what happens next when you still have to find a solution to getting to work on time?
This post will take its starting point in the article Constraint Satisfaction by Stephen M. Kosslyn taken from the book: This will make you smarter. The book is a series of short articles contemplating how to make humanity understand the world better. The question posed to 150 of the world's leading thinkers is: What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit? The full article can be found here.
In short the article Constraint Satisfaction discusses "'constraint' as a condition that must be taken in to consideration when solving a problem or making a decision and constraint satisfaction (as) the process of meeting the relevant constraint". So... as an example Kosslyn uses the illustration of furnishing his new bedroom knowing he has a bed with a headboard, a sofa, a chair and a lamp that he will need to fit in. That is already four constraints in place for this task. And by the time he places the headboard against one wall, satisfying the remaining three constraints is easier, as options for where the sofa and the chair will go are limited. As a matter of fact we daily encounter this principle when, for instance, we get dressed and decide "what goes with each other" in colours and style or when we look in the fridge to cook a meal, where the eggs, tomatoes and cheese are getting close to 'eat by' date.
Now you may be wondering how this relevant to improvisation. Well... as I was reading this article my work with the Mathilde improvisation collective came to mind and how we structure our rehearsals. This is what I thought:
Most of our Mathilde rehearsals evolve around task based exercises where we set a number of parameters to which we respond.
Examples of improvisation exercises:
The purpose of these exercises is to create a structure to generate the improvisation. If I'm told to improvise with my right hand on my head, standing on one leg while only making round shapes I have a limited amount of movement options. Kosslyn points out that there are often only a few ways to satisfy a full set of constraints simultaneously. As I aim to satisfy each constraint I liberate my brain and creativity to seek new connections and possibilities. With a given task I can let go of responsibility of 'making something up' and instead concentrate on fulfilling the task that is given and thus allow new movements to emerge. So paradoxically, limitations become freedom.
So the tracks of our physical pathways from home to work, become neural pathways in our brains creating bridges over time that we unconsciously follow unless an obstacle forces us to change them. Constraints obstruct the pathway and hence new connections are made.
Stephen M. Kosslyn finishes his article:
"Finally, much creativity emerges from constraint satisfaction. Many new recipes were created when chefs discovered that only specific ingredients were available — and they thus were either forced to substitute different ingredients or to come up with a new "solution" (dish) to be satisfied. Perhaps paradoxically, adding constraints can actually enhance creativity — if a task is too open or unstructured, it may be so unconstrained that it is difficult to devise any solution."
So although Kosslyn is describing a scientific concept it seems very relevant also for my artistic practice. Concluding that constraint satisfaction is already a part of my improvisation toolkit, the next question is then: how many constraints can you add before creativity starts decreasing? Or when does the constraint become a crutch that restricts the free improvisation? And even more relevant... (how) does improvisation work if there are no constraints at all?
With an array of topics to choose from, study and investigate I am putting together my first blog post for my website with some trepidation. How do you write your first post knowing that it will set the agenda for everything that comes after? I intend for this blog to be personal and a reflection of my life. Treat it as a live stream of consciousness put in to some sort of order!
In my studies of improvisation, yoga and coaching I spend most time actually practising but also an increasing amount on reading related subjects. So the posts on this blog will be a mixture of personal experiences and also references to things I read that I found interesting and relevant.
During my recent holiday in Italy my hours of relaxing on the beach was accompanied by a book about 'new scientific concepts to improve your thinking'. The book is called This will make you smarter and despite the slightly misleading subtitle many of the articles had direct relevance to my artistic work. One article that struck me as interesting was Constraint Satisfaction by Stephen M. Kosslyn. An article that talks about decision making and the process of meeting relevant constraints in any given situation. As I was reading it, my work with the Mathilde improvisation collective came to mind and how we structure our rehearsals.
In my next entry I will post the article by Stephen M. Kosslyn and following that, I will ponder on the question:
To what extend can constraints and limitation be an opening to more creative choices?
I would also like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has given me feedback and comments about my website so far. This has been really useful for me. Keep it coming...!
Welcome to my blog.
Here you will find posts about subjects I find interesting and that all relate to my disciplines in dance, yoga and coaching:
I am very happy to hear your feedback, so please comment below. Happy reading!