Come and play yoga
Learning to embed fun, play and exploration in our yoga practice... for all ages. By Maria Oliver
Being in play, being in the state of mind that says, ‘I wonder what might happen if I tried this’ and then not worrying or being afraid of the outcome, is a state of mind that can cope with the unexpected." - Michael Rosen, Book of Play.
Isn't life serious? We have to achieve and make progress all the time. I'm starting to notice this mindset in my children, too. They are both early teenagers, and I can see the danger of the joy being sucked out of everything they do for fun.
Who is getting picked for which sporting team? Who gets picked to be front and centre or have the main part in a performance? Who is placed at the back, out of the way? Who is substituted so they don't play much of a match?
I've had discussions with other parents at school about the anxiety of not being considered good enough by teachers and peers, and how this can lead to children deciding that they won't bother any more. Girls, in particular, drop out of sport due to low self-esteem.
Wouldn't it be brilliant if we could take a non-competitive approach to sport, too? Bear with me.
I'm not saying this because I'm a bitter parent making excuses for my children's lack of sporting ability. They are both athletic and talented at what they do. It amazes me, because my own childhood was very different.
I had crippling asthma. I was picked for the school swimming team, but no other team. I was uncoordinated and couldn't catch. I did gymnastics, but was not very flexible — I couldn't, and still can't, do the splits despite teaching Hanumanasana in my classes every now and then. If I went running on a cold day, the air would attack my lungs and give me chest spasms.
Yet I had a conversation with my son recently about athletics, as he'd just started doing it at school. “I liked athletics,” I told him. “I wasn't picked to represent the school, but I liked it.”
I surprised myself by saying this, as it was true, but I'd forgotten it.
I liked the high jump, the long jump, the hurdles, the javelin, the discus. I liked the techniques, and learning how to use different equipment. I liked how it made me feel, regardless of whether I was doing better than anyone else. I don’t remember any teacher encouraging us to focus on the enjoyment of the activity for its own sake. We were always being judged on whether we'd win competitions for the school.
On the other hand, as an adult, I've discovered so many events that are about sport for fun. I found in my mid 20s that I could run without having a massive asthma attack — I think that pranayama practices helped to strengthen my lungs and now I'm a slow but steady runner. I've done Cancer Research runs, triathlons where half the fun is making sure the transition from one event to the other is smooth, and Park Run, whose catch phrase is: 'It's a run, not a race'. The joy in many of these events is the community, possibly shared fundraising for a common cause, the fact you’ve chosen to get out there and do it. There are so many opportunities for adults to exercise for fun, to challenge yourself, to satisfy yourself, to focus on feeling good. Why can't that joy be instilled at school?
Which brings me onto yoga. When I attended my children's and teen yoga training courses, we were advised that when approaching schools, we should emphasise the non-competitive nature of yoga. That it can help those children who have already turned their backs on competitive sport. That it offers them some form of physical activity when they may have rejected all others. That it focuses on whether you feel good inside, rather than whether you are more bendy, or fast, or tactical than someone else. That if we just keep moving, whether it's competitively or not, it's so good for our mental health, too. I loved the playful approach on the courses I did, the emphasis on fun rather than perfect alignment.
Over the years, I've tried to bring more fun and enjoyment into my adults' classes as well. There are various yoga poses that I need to modify in order to demonstrate, having tight shoulders and hips and a stiff thoracic spine. You'd think that practicing yoga for years and teaching several times a week would have loosened me up a bit — and maybe it has — but I just can't do certain poses without belts or blocks. Or walls. Or chairs. I used to think that the goal of yoga was to work on my flexibility, to push myself to the edge and beyond. In the back of my mind were further goals: to make my right and left sides more symmetrical, cure all ills, iron out all the kinks and basically achieve physical perfection! Not only have I abandoned those 'goals', I've actually learnt to love my body more and be grateful for what it does for me.
So I can't bind when performing Ardha Matsyendrasana. But oh my goodness, the stretch I get in my latissimus dorsi when I internally rotate my front arm. Just by sending my hands in the vague direction towards each other gives the pose a different focus and er, twist.
I can't get my hips to the floor in Hanumanasana, but having let go of the notion of 'succeeding' in the pose, I now enjoy the feeling of deep opening in my hip sockets.
I can't do Gomukhasana arms without a belt, but I realised that my stiffer shoulder is more muscular, and works harder to serve me in everyday life.
So now, when I declare in class that we've been working towards a particular pose, and my adult class members groan because they think it's going to be too difficult — I invite them to play. Let's play around with this pose. Let's not get attached to any ideas of what success looks like. Let's not compete with each other. Let's not get annoyed with our bodies for not bending the way we want them to. Let’s be curious about what happens next. Let's take time to explore. Let's stop if it doesn't feel right, or change it so that it does.
Let's play yoga. Playing yoga is also about mindfulness: having a curiosity about what will happen when we explore a pose, and not being attached to the outcome.
I hope that by sharing my love of yoga with class members young and old, that they can bring that joy and playfulness into other areas of their lives too. Yes, I love it when I see my children win. But isn't sport something that you...play?