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:
- being in the moment/awareness and attention
- avoid self-censoring
- letting go
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.
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.
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.
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.