I have been reading back on my four recent blog posts about Mathilde improvisation, life coaching, yoga teaching and Improvisation Exchange to try and get an overview of themes or approaches that overlap.
Here's a list:
The first thing I get yoga students to do in my classes is to sit with their eyes closed. This is not necessarily to listen to sound but often to 'listen' to sensation. In my opinion the first and most important aspect of yoga is learning to tune in to sensations in the body. To allow emotions and subtle physical sensations to arise. I remember doing a Vipassana meditation course a few years back where I spent ten days in mostly complete silence meditating for hours a day from early morning till evening. By the end of day nine the ability to listen inwards had become super sharp! That is the kind of listening I'm interested in and which I feel applies both to yoga and improvisation. It creates an inner awareness that in a moment of dance improvisation encourages movement to be less 'in-the-head' and more embodied. This sort of listening in an improvisation context where we're in contact with others (if not physically then by observing or being in the same space) means that the meeting between bodies is likely to be clearer and more open and therefore conducive to responding without trying to second guess someone else's next move.
Finally, listening is the core element of life coaching. Not just hearing, but active listening, where you listen not just with your ears but with your body. This is often 90% of what is required when coaching, as allowing someone to feel truly heard and giving them time to think usually means that answers appear from the coachee themselves.
Being in the moment/Awareness and attention
Much is said indirectly about 'being in the moment' in the listening paragraph above. When we notice sensations arise or we feel connected to another improviser it's impossible at the same time to daydream or plan ahead. The function of listening, you could say, is precisely to be in the moment. Awareness and attention are again an extension or different wording for listening and being in the moment. Awareness or attention to your own sensations or to someone else comes from listening.
80 most frequently used words in my life coaching post, the Improvisation Exchange post,
Mathilde improvisation workshop post and the yoga intensive post
I was initially drawn to improvisation rather than choreographed movement because I was interested in composition and making artistic choices but less interested in filtering or selecting 'good' vs. 'bad'. I wanted to be deeply immersed in the dance and still try and have an overview of the piece and make informed choices. What's fun about improvising is that anything goes, but inevitably we're (almost) all inhibited by our cultural conditioning and to some degree also self-judgment. We constantly self-censor. In fact, it's much easier to do outrageous things when someone has told us to or allowed us to, as we then let go of the responsibility for our choices. Avoiding this self-censoring means letting go of expectations of self and others and letting go of 'labeling'. By labeling I mean putting names to things. Instead of saying 'I had a really good yoga practice' or 'this improvisation lacked coherence' is it possible to just do/be (improvise movement, listen and talk in life coaching or do a yoga practice) without putting some sort of judgment or label on it?
When I did my life coach training I remember my teacher talking about being curious when listening to a coachee. Like a young child that has no prerequisite for judging, can we be curious (not nosey!) about someone's actions or statements without drawing conclusions or making assumptions about what they mean to do or say?
So avoiding self-censoring is related to not judging yourself and others and this applies equally to a yoga practice as well as an improvisation or a life coaching session.
Essential to life, breathing is part of our automatic nervous system which implies that it's independent of our conscious mind. To actively bring it to the conscious mind and observe it and listen to it is the core practice of yoga. Movement comes after.
Here's a quote by Michael Stone from his yoga philosophy book 'The Inner Tradition of Yoga':
Deepen the breath, with immediate attention, and stay with the breath for a little longer, and all sorts of movement may start. Emotion may start to surface, and held-in emotion is yet another cause of reduced flexibility. (...) As the breath moves, the mind moves; as the mind moves, the nervous system moves; and you cannot separate the movements of mind, breath, and body any more than you can take the essence "onion" out of any layer of an onion.
What Michael Stone explains is that the breath works as a bridge between our mind/emotions and the physical body and only by keeping our attention on the breath can we access those emotions. The breath is where we meet our own inner life and -personally- where I find the motivation for and access to uncontrived movement. In the place where I let myself be moved by the breath, my yoga practice and improvisation practice meet.
As much as I love teaching yoga classes and conveying my experience and knowledge of the practice to students it is the Mysore or self-practice that really captures my heart. The reason for this is to do with the shared responsibility. Yoga as self-practice means that engagement with the body and the postures comes from an internal motivation. When I teach a class, students have an expectation that they will be led and taught and that I'm 'the boss'. But in my philosophy the practice itself is the teacher and my job is mainly to ensure the students do not hurt themselves or others. In a self-practice class the relationship between me and the student changes as I no longer place myself above them. The practice - together with the students' own ability to listen and respond accordingly - becomes the teacher.
Not surprisingly this is also the principle of life coaching. The coachee already has the answers to the questions they're asking and as a coach all I do is create a space where they can search for them. My job is not to tell them what is right and wrong (it would be presumptuous of me to think I know what's right for everyone) but instead to create an atmosphere where ideas and thoughts can be explored. In this way the self-practice yoga class and the life coaching session are rooted in the same ethos: the practice itself is the teacher.
I find that hierarchy is somewhat linked to judgment. Here's what I mean:
By placing something in a hierarchy it is often labeled as good or bad or as more or less important. The food pyramid is a great example of a hierarchy that is designed to do this. We put food into categories but indirectly place it in a hierarchy. While all the fruit and veg at the bottom of the pyramid are good for us, we're made to feel that the little triangle at the top, often made up of fats, sugar and alcohol is what's bad for us (unfortunately it is also sometimes what we crave the most and the prophecy of its place at the top of the hierarchy as a 'ruler' becomes self-fulfilling!). Categorising can be handy when it comes to putting socks in the sock drawer and t-shirts on the shelf where you expect to find them again later. But when it comes to categorising ideas, people or situations we often get ourselves in to a muddle. Not many people feel they belong on one shelf only.
Being part of the Mathilde collective means working in a non-hierarchical environment. Our work ethic is based on a mutual understanding that we negotiate responsibility both practically and creatively. In order for this to work, listening and openness is required. Recently a discussion came up about placing value on what we do. (One way we value something is by comparing ourselves to other improvisers and thereby putting ourselves into a hierarchy.) The discussion was about virtuosity and what that is. Is virtuosity to be able to play an instrument really fast, to harmonise in a particular way or to do triple pirouettes? Or can virtuosity equally mean to be skillful at listening, responding and improvising freely from the imagination? The technical vocabulary we learn as we excel in our disciplines help us to label/categorise what we do in order to make sense of it, but perhaps the down-side of that is that we feel that anything that does not have a clear label means it has no value.
Letting go for me comes as a result of the ability to listen, breathe consciously and to not self-censor. It's about moving away from being 'in-the-head' into having an embodied practice. The embodied practice is where the physical body moves (as) independently (as possible) from thinking, not trying to be clever or 'work out' what's the right thing to do or to censor what we think we shouldn't say or do. The most astonishing contact improvisation duets happen when the body takes over and the improvisers act by instinct and intuition. The most impressive yoga practitioners and teachers operate under the ethos of maintaining complete equanimity of the mind by not forcing postures or breath but letting go of expectations. A successful coaching session is one where the coach lets go of responsibility of answering the coachee's questions and lets 'not knowing' prevail.
With the inner awareness created through listening and by avoiding filtering what is right and wrong we can achieve letting go.
This is the end of my series of blog posts about my three disciplines. It has been a very interesting journey for me to write this and to juxtapose the sessions I have been teaching. I would love to hear your thoughts about the post or any of the previous blog posts so feel free to comment below. Thanks!
From the month of March through to May this year I have been very lucky to work in all three fields of my interests.
Impro at York St John Uni Coaching at NSCD Yoga workshop Yoga Kula Impro Exchange NSCD
Preparing these different workshops and seminars within a short period of time gave me an opportunity to look closely at how the three strands of interests correlate. Although I put on different hats when shifting between the different types of work I do, the source from which it arises is still me. These next blog posts will be a reflection on each of the workshops I facilitated, with the aim of highlighting their common denominators and understand where they sync.
My first post will be about teaching Mathilde improvisation workshop at York St John's University with Seth Bennett.
This is the first of a series of blog entries about working with Toke Broni Strandby, a dance student at Northern School of Contemporary Dance currently in his 2nd year. He is Danish like me -a happy coincidence! I met Toke when I was invited to teach yoga at Northern and he was in my class. Toke only has one arm; to be precise, Toke's left arm stops around the elbow. In my yoga classes Toke was often excluded from exercises and postures, struggling to hold a downward, upward dog and unable to do anything involving interlaced fingers or binding.
I found myself asking how I could help Toke to get more out of the classes.
Toke Broni Strandby
Apart from the restriction of only having one arm, Toke was experiencing tightness in the hips, legs and back, making forward bends, twists and hip-opening challenging. I went home and thought that he was actually the student who might benefit most from a yoga practice! I approached him to meet up and work together on developing a personal practice for him to find ways of stretching tight muscles using postures that would accommodate his disability (this is the word that Toke himself uses).
Working in this untested way (at least for me) felt like an opportunity to trial some of my coaching methods as well. Would it be possible to develop this programme through coaching?
This is an excerpt of the initial email I sent him:
"(...) It is very important for me though, that it all comes from you. I'm really not interested in imposing any exercises or solutions on you. Therefore i suggest that we meet the first time just to chat and have some time for you to share thoughts on what you would like to focus on and for me to ask questions.
After that we can meet as many or as few times as we find useful -perhaps 2-4 times over the spring- and develop some ideas and test them out. I'm very interested in thinking about the process of all this and so if it's ok for you I would like to document it. "
In the next blog post about Toke I will reflect on what was discussed at our first meeting.
A typical coaching scenario is a one-to-one session where you meet a client for an hour. It’s a confidential conversation where the coachee is given time to reflect and space to think about what they want to achieve. This can be a goal that is career related or a personal matter. The point is that they’re given private time with me, the coach, and I am there only for them. Conversations can take any direction over the course of that hour: I am simply ‘holding the space’ for them as they explore possibilities. In this situation I am of course in charge because I can use my coaching skills to guide them and prompt their thinking.
Planning the session (with courtesy of RD1st)
In September 2012 I was presented with an interesting challenge: to introduce coaching for the students at Northern School of Contemporary Dance, a dance conservatory, offering high standard professional dance training. The college had scheduled a ‘Healthy Dancer Day’ to encourage the students to reflect on the different aspects of keeping the body and mind fit for the vigorous training they go through. The brief for my session was to get them to think about self-motivation, communication, taking responsibility and choosing to learn and engage. I was not interested in hearing myself talking about the benefits of coaching for an hour and giving examples and lecturing the students. Based on my own experience of studying at Northern, I know that what a student really needs is someone to help them think about how to utilise their unique skills that gave them a place at the college and how to maintain physical and mental health in the face of the ups and down of being a dancer. But, if I wasn’t interested in giving a lecture about coaching, and if coaching is usually done one-to-one, how could I go about coaching fifteen or so people at the same time?
Studio at NSCD and class of 2005 in rehearsal
I was provided with an empty dance studio for the session. Not knowing what coaching was, many of the students came with an expectation of being ‘coached’ in a more traditional sense: how to optimise physical performance. I got a few confused looks when I asked them to sit down and grab pen and paper. We sat in a circle to begin with, cross-legged, lounging, like dancers do! Not having chairs and tables felt very casual and diminished the distance between me and them which really worked.
The first thing I got them to do was to spend three minutes on their own, writing down five things they would like to develop over the next three months. I deliberately chose a short time frame to make it more immediate and attainable and for goals to be tangible and real. Although long term goals are crucial in the coaching process, the articulation of such goals requires time and a patient listener to explore. Short term goals in this setting seemed more appropriate. Now the biggest challenge arose. I wanted them to have an opportunity to explore one or two subjects that they had just been writing down. Ideally I would have coached them individually and taken the responsibility for this process but with 15+ students this was simply not an option. The only alternative was to get them to coach each other. Encouraging them to keep the conversation private and intimate, they paired up and spread out in the space. The task was for one person to talk for four minutes about one of the five things they wanted to develop.
I wanted to be true to my principles as a coach, which means I wanted to encourage ‘active’ listening in a non-judgmental environment. I didn’t want the pair work to turn into a chit-chat between mates, which is what often happens by default when we’re not given a framework.
Therefore I decided to introduce these simple and straightforward tasks:
· Listening without interrupting
· Listening with an open mind and curiosity
· Talking without being interrupted!
· Allowing silences
Although I acquired many coaching skills through training there are some aspects that are common sense or at least can be brought out when certain restrictions are given. In coaching we avoid giving advice, interrupting, finishing other people’s sentences, making grimaces of disapproval or staring out the window/looking at the clock/checking your phone!! If you can simply stay focused on the other person and give them your full attention, they will feel safe to verbally explore options.
I wanted this pair work to be a challenge not just for the person sharing their thoughts but also for the listener taking on the coaching role. So I prompted the listener to be open and more than anything not to interrupt or even speak for those four minutes. The latter seemed to be the biggest challenge for some. It made me realise how often we have conversations where listening is simply an intermission while we’re waiting for our turn to speak. In the end the students shared with the group their experience of talking and listening. The students definitely seemed surprised with the difficulty of listening and of controlling the urge to contribute. But interestingly talking without being interrupted was equally challenging. It’s so ingrained in our culture to bounce the dialogue backwards and forwards that when given time to say more we stall. For some the moments where the speaker had a possibility to reflect and think became a void of embarrassing silence. However, what some students seemed to gain from this was the opportunity to relax into the monologue and not fight to hold on to the right to speak. There was no threat of being interrupted or someone giving out their opinion. The gaps between formulating thoughts gave an opportunity to process what they had just said. And it’s often when you get through the superficial layers of thinking that the more meaty and deep-felt thoughts arise. It made me understand how powerful this process is. In the four minutes they were given at least a couple found themselves resolving issues just through talking to someone uninterrupted. Think what you can do with 60 minutes!
Contemporary class in studio, NSCD
I don’t know if this was the ideal way of approaching a group coaching session. I think many of them came away with an idea of what the coaching process can do and perhaps some encouragement to set more mini goals for themselves. I hope it also made some of them aware of their habits in terms of listening and speaking!
Coaching a group rather than an individual definitely helped me to think outside the box when it comes to using coaching in an untraditional way. With my deep fascination with the abilities and meaning of the body I’m interested how this could carry over in a more physical context. My next step is to start thinking about how I can transfer this technique to a more movement based activity. What if the coachee was using movement instead of talking? What would coaching then look like if I –the coach - simply listen, reflect back and ask question only using movement? Watch this space…
Yoga, improvisation and coaching connect like a web for me. Links arise between practices, as components interweave between them, overlapping and appearing in new places. My task at the moment is finding head and tail in this and beginning to understand how the philosophy of the three practices can fuse in to one holistic hybrid. When I look at the spider diagram I see an invisible spiral emerge, starting from the middle with the Intelligent Body at the core and then moving in a circular motion away from the core passing through each component of my practice:
Meditative flow of practising Ashtanga Yoga
the free and expressive movement of improvisation
how does this connect??
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.
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:
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