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!
Improvisation Exchange workshop
What: Improvisation Exchange is a monthly workshop led by artists exploring different approaches to improvisation. On this occasion I was leading the workshop which was entitled 'Improvise from the breath - move from the moment'
Where: Studio at NSCD (Northern School of Contemporary Dance) When: 11 May 2013 11-1 pm workshop followed by 'jam' 1-3 pm
Who: Workshop was open for all levels of participants interested in movement improvisation.
In many ways this workshop was the culmination of the previous workshops I'd been teaching. Read my previous posts here: Mathilde Improvisation workshop, Life Coaching session and Yoga intensive.
As stated in the blurb below, I used my experience and vocabulary from the disciplines of yoga and life coaching as a frame to structure the workshop.
'To listen inwards to sensation and to listen outwards to others and surroundings is the most immediate way to enter the moment. This is the lesson of my yoga practice and work as a life coach for my improvisation practice. In this session, we will start with the breath so that movement emerges from listening inwards and listening outwards, exploring physical play alone and in response to a partner.'
The most wonderful thing about the Improvisation Exchange is the mix of people. Many professional dancers and students from NSCD attend, but also less experienced movers come along and ages range from 18 to 60. It's very beneficial for all participants that the experiences are mixed as everyone brings something different but very valuable to the floor.
I began the workshop with a score I first did with a teacher I met in 2008 called Al Wunder. We started his workshop every day with a score or exercise called 'primary movers', in which you bring awareness through joints of the body and investigate their ability to rotate, lengthen and move through space. You explore the joints as initiators of movement but also how moving them reverberates through the rest of the body. It's a score that sharpens your awareness as the instructions are very tangible. Working with eyes closed can be a valuable tool to bring awareness to inner sensations but also to be less self-conscious about how you move.
Life coaching and yoga in improvisation
In life coaching the use of eyes is an important element when showing a coachee that you're paying attention. The last 'primary mover' "joint" was therefore the eyes. How does movement of the eyes affect the movement of the rest of the body? How does really seeing something: someone's yellow t-shirt, a mark on the floor or a fellow improviser spinning very fast, how does this influence how we move? After warming up body and awareness of others I got the improvisers to return to a more introverted aspect of movement: breath. Coming back to stillness we explored the breath for a while, simply observing and listening like you do in a mediation or yoga practice. The final 'primary mover' was therefore breath. The score was simply to listen to breath and allow it to move you. As soon as you lost the connection with it (you forgot about breath and realised you were moving for other reasons) you had to acknowledge this by coming back to stillness until connection with the breath was reestablished. Then you would start again.
In to partner workImpro Exchange Photo: R. Meneghini
With the same score the participants partnered up and took up roles as 1) mover and 2) witness. The witness role was simply to watch and 'hold space' for the mover to play with the 'movement from the breath' score. We often judge or label things we see as good or bad or according to whether we like them or not. An essential principle in life coaching (and in yoga) is not to judge but to learn to see things for what they are - so, to witness not to watch. A task for both mover and witness was to make a note of something during the minutes the improvisation lasted to afterwards tell the partner in one sentence. Short and sweet. The only constraint was that they had to make an observation stated in neutral or positive terms (I suggested they began the sentence with 'I enjoyed...'). For me this was an important element, as being encouraged to observe both self and others with a 'neutral (or positive) eye' can help us move without censoring ourselves. More about this in a later post!
After changing roles, I added 'vision' and the use of eyes, i.e. the scores from the beginning of the class. While movement from the breath was still at the core of the exercise, how would 'seeing' determine direction and relationship with others? While in this score the witness was still passive, the following score had the witness change proximity to the mover. Very close, as far away as possible, below, above or turning your back. How would this change their relationship?
Initiator and responder
Going in to more direct partner work I introduced another score: 'initiator and responder'. Again an adaptation from Al Wunder, this score invited the witnessing partner in to the movement score. Mover 1 returned to working with their eyes closed moving from the breath/stillness and as a consequence became the initiator of the 'duet'. Mover 2 responded to the movement/stillness - now an active part of the dance. I chose this score particularly because I liked the use of vocabulary. 'Initiator and responder' brings a more non-hierarchical feel to the score than 'leader and follower'. Without having directly encouraged it, many of the duets towards the end had moved in to contact improvisation.The couples still exchanged observations in the pause between swapping roles.
Trio into 'jam'
Towards the end of the workshop we went from working in partners to working in trios. The final score was an extension of the previous one, now with one initiator and two responders. First each trio designated the roles clearly between them but eventually the roles blurred and the participants could then decide for themselves which role to take on; whether they wanted to initiate movement or respond to others. The score was to stay true to the initiator/responder role but at the same time with a constant focus on the use of breath and 'seeing'.
Moving into the 'Jam'
The term 'jam' derives from the musical vocabulary of 'jamming', suggesting a free improvisation without predefined arrangements. In the same way, a dance improvisation jam is a practice session for free improvisation where you can dance on your own or in contact with fellow improvisers. It's often done as a conclusion to a workshop/class and gives each improviser an opportunity to put what they learned in to practice, and also just to play. There is no organised structure to a jam and you can enter and leave the dance space as you wish. What has proven to be useful for the Improvisation Exchange, though, is to kick the jam off with a few instructions so that the free improvisation has a starting point. I chose to let the end of my workshop lead in to the jam by simply suggesting to the participants, as they were still in their trios, to open their eyes and awareness to people in other groups and slowly to let go of the scores I had given them.
This is the fourth of four blog posts about working within my three disciplines: two posts on improvisation (Mathilde impro here), and one each on yoga and life coaching. I decided to keep each post focused on the execution and content of the session and I will continue, in my next post, with a more in-depth analysis. My aim in the next post is to highlight the common denominators between the three disciplines by putting the sessions next to each other and looking at where vocabulary, intention and outcome correlate.
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