Yoga, Alexander technique and the art of exploration

The art of explorationWhen we start to practice yoga, we generally do someone else’s practice. We go to a class and we do the poses. Many people find this an enriching and empowering experience. Some find that these practices suit them and they can continue them as a life long practice.

Even if a particular sequence or approach to the practice works, there are times when we need a more individualized and personalized approach.

This is where cultivating the skills of exploration, inquiry and experimentation are useful. They are ways of setting your own learning goals, whether it is to modify an existing sequence or come up with completely new sequences. And as we progress towards a more mature or advanced practice, we’ll be moving from generic approaches to something that is uniquely your own.

This can a phase of your practice which is exciting and full of potential. But, there are many people who avoid truly making a practice their own through modifying or changing it for fear of being excluded from a group, a method or by a teacher from whom they’ve studied for many years.

Unless they are successfully negotiated, these all too human fears mean that the practice can atrophy. The students prioritise fitting in above their own individual needs. In truth, we need both a communal, shared practice and one that honours our uniqueness.

Most methods will give you a form of some sort, something that you repeat again and again under the guidance of a teacher. Hopefully, this is a deeply meaningful practice that will give skills in more than just the form. But what happens when you want to vary it?

The first thing is create safety. I want to set it up so that when I practice, and when I teach other people to practice, there’s a good chance of success. There’s a whole skill to learned in setting up an exploration, an experiment that feels manageable, contains some challenge and also feels safe.

How to do that?
Deciding what you want to do, when and where. Then reflect.
Set intentions. Intentions are wishes for emotional conditions that will support the practice. I find it good to start with intentions for the type of emotional support that can go missing in action. In my eagerness to succeed in the practice, or just because I’m in a little bit of a rush, I start to lose contact with important parts of my emotional support.

In fact one of the early warnings of a practice that is heading towards strain and injury is a practice that has lost contact with support, physical or emotional.

Here’s what I notice going missing most often in my practice.
Truth and honesty about my own body. So; setting an intention to be with the truth about your body is a good start. But being brutally honest, while a good idea to unblock something that has really been blocked, can sometimes lack compassion.
So, compassion is a good one to add in. One of the early warning signs of a practice that has got into fear based learning is a loss of empathy or compassion. It’s the sign of an inner dialogue that is starting to go towards finger pointing and blame.

Why is all this important? Well, we know that human beings perform poorly under normal conditions when under influence of fight / flight / freeze / fidget conditions. Your adrenal glands are over stimulated, you have a number of hormones circulating in your body which result in decreasing sensitivity so that you can literally save your own life. That’s the problem, unless there’s a real life threatening situation, then you are just giving yourself problems. This is why it’s important to pay a lot of attention to creating safe environments for learning, we’re moving out of habitual trauma based patterns into something more resilient.

So how do we create containers for safety and structure?
The containers I use are:

1. Time.
Just setting aside time, preferably a regular slot is in itself incredibly good for structure and safety. It affirms all sorts of good things about practice. This can be a major obstacle for some, better to take a little time here and there if a regular time seems an unmanageable challenge. Then there are times within the practice, shorter is better than longer.
Like: for the next minute, I’m going to focus letting my breath happen.

2. Range.
I can always vary the range of my movement by choosing a different end point. Smaller better than bigger, you can always grow into bigger. I find that a common mistake in most beginner practices is to be ambitious with the range of movement and then find that either you have switched off when it comes to the quality of the movement, or find that you have powered on through.
Like: I’m going to move my arm and not worry about how far I go, only the quality of the movement in this moment.

3. Pace and rhythm.
Many yoga practices link breath to movement. It’s an easy, natural way to create pace and rhythm in movement which then creates structure. But all too often, that can become a habit. Why not try doing a movement without worrying about whether you should do it on an inhale or exhale? Why not explore seeing what your comfortable pace is and then consciously varying it? What happens? Do you get pushier the faster you go? Tend to switch off if you go slower?
Like: What does it feel like to do that movement slower and still be present? What does it feel like to do that movement faster and still be soft?

After exploration and experiment is done, then reflect. Not before or during! It’s another common mistake with movement practices, to decide in advance how it should feel or look and then to go back into habitual pushing or switching off.

Having started with a one size fits all practice and then going on to more explorative practice, I’ve found that my movements and practice have gained in flexibility, creativity and just plain enjoyment!

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© Kevin Saunders, Yogaground 2016

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