Generally, when we’re under stress, we do exactly the wrong things. We worry, drown our sorrows, lash out at people and stop looking after ourselves properly. And even though this doesn’t make any logical sense, that doesn’t stop it being a fairly predictable quirk of human nature.
In difficult times, a great use of your energy and attention is play and playfulness. Play can be a distraction and help to unwind tension, it’s often physical, which is a benefit in itself and a light-hearted approach helps you to see different perspectives. In fact, I am so pro-play, that if you don’t fancy reading this article and you’d rather just skip to the fun part, I’ll post a video here from the Yoga 15 collection that I think you’ll enjoy. It’s called Party Tricks and it’s hard!
A MANIFESTO FOR PLAY
“How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?” Ruth Gordon
Play is how we solve problems, try out new ideas, test our limits and develop better strategies. Play keeps us agile and adaptive. When we play, the goal is not to achieve a particular objective but to experiment and explore, uncover our blindspots and discover better ways of doing things. We play with rules, imagine alternate realities, turn things upside down and take unconventional perspectives. Play opens up new avenues and removes the barriers to entry. It is unexpected and unpredictable. It truly is the elixir of life.
THE BENEFITS OF PLAY
“The opposite of play is not work. It’s depression.” Brian Sutton-Smith
Play reduces stress, anxiety and tension, decreases self-consciousness and negative thoughts, relieves boredom, improves focus and concentration, triggers flow and opens up new possibilities. Play invites you to question assumptions, try new things and take on difficult challenges. It enlivens your body, boosts your mood, increases your energy, makes you more agile, improves your coordination and breaks habitual patterns.
Adopting a playful attitude means not over-thinking or attempting to control everything in your environment. It encourages you not to grip too tight or strive for perfection. It’s about trusting in yourself and going with the flow. Paradoxically, the path to our goals is sometimes shorter and less arduous when we stop trying so hard.
“If you’re in your head you’re dead.” Tony Robbins
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to be staying in a hotel in Sayulita that was taken over by the French National Stand Up Paddleboard team during the World Cup. I was fascinated to watch how these elite athletes occupied themselves between heats, and was surprised to discover that it wasn’t by meditating or taking naps. They played pointless games.
There was an enormous chess board in the main room of the hotel and they took it in turns to hold a pawn upside down in one hand, balance another piece the right way up on top, and toss the top piece in the air, attempting to catch it after one, two or three spins. This purposeless game got them out of their heads and into their bodies, distracted them from the pressure of competition and acted as a restorative. Their strategy, that appeared to be entirely natural and unself-conscious, was to act like children.
“Those who play rarely become brittle in the face of stress or lose the healing capacity for humor.” Stuart Brown, MD
Play is a great antidote to stress and pressure. It signals to your brain that everything is ok, that your survival is not under threat and that your central nervous system can safely switch into the parasympathetic, “rest or digest” mode. Furthermore, the novelty and unpredictability of play is so absorbing and engaging that the, often unhelpful, voice in your head takes a temporary leave of absence. When you’re in the moment, you lose track of time and everything else seems to fade into the background.
When we’re deprived of play over the long-term, our mood darkens and we fall vulnerable to negativity and pessimism. We become restless, fatigued, irritable, tense and have difficulty concentrating. Stuart Brown says, “A lack of play should be treated like malnutrition: it’s a health risk to your body and mind.”
LEARNING AND DEVELOPMENT
“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” George Bernard Shaw
Play is how we learn, as my 4-year old nephew is more than happy to demonstrate—hands covered in green paint and a fox-tail pinned to the back of his trousers. Freddie runs away squealing from imaginary lions and shouts at ghosts to leave him alone, as he pedals his toy tractor through the forest. Children don’t learn by following instructions, they learn through play, exploration and experimentation.
Play facilitates learning in three key ways. Firstly, your brain learns faster and more effectively when you’re doing something you enjoy. If you’re under stress, your brain operates in survival mode, denying you access to higher level thinking and the capacity to learn. When you’re relaxed, your brain switches from defensive and vigilant to a state more conducive to development and growth. Secondly, when something feels like work rather than play, it’s harder to stay focused. We fatigue sooner and struggle to find our groove. Just being in an overly serious mindset creates stress and tension. And thirdly, play commands our full attention, which is a requirement for neuroplasticity (brain development). And since learning is rewarding in its own right, this fuels a positive cycle.
“What’s dangerous is not to evolve.” Jeff Bezos
The ability to play and adopt a playful attitude, when appropriate, gives you a distinct survival advantage. Not only is play how we learn, come up with new ideas and test our abilities but it’s also a way to connect, flirt and establish bonds with others in our tribe. Play is synonymous with adaptability, spontaneity and resourcefulness—all attributes that contribute to our being anti-fragile in an unpredictable and dangerous world.
Our survival relies on agility and curiosity. On adaptability to novel and unprecedented events. On trying random courses of action (experimenting) to see what happens. Maybe there’s a better solution that we’ll only find if we try something new. Evolution does not reward the uncompromising and intransigent.
THE DESIRE FOR FREEDOM
“If you must play a game, you cannot play a game.” James P Carse
One characteristic of play is that it is always a choice. And something that is crucial for our mental health is to maintain a sense of freedom. Within certain limits, we need to know that we have a some control and independence. That we are free to act with agency and autonomy. Through play, we can expand the boundaries of our freedom so that we don’t feel so oppressed and lose motivation. Play happens outside the parameters of everyday life. We create a universe in which we are free to make our own rules and set our own expectations. Even when many of our freedoms have been taken from us, play helps us to feel proactive, optimistic and enthusiastic.
BENEFITS OF PLAY FOR YOUR YOGA PRACTICE
“If it’s not fun, you’re not doing it right.” Bob Basso
Play is beneficial for your practice on the physiological as well as the psychological level. One of the problems with any exercise regime, when followed exclusively, is that overuse injuries can occur. Play can be a safeguard against habitually repeating the same movement patterns and alignment when there is actually a better way for you to move. The more we practise something, the more that pattern gets imprinted in our brain and the harder it becomes to make a different play. We default to habit—both good and bad. And a lack of diversity of movement can lead to dysfunction and pain.
From a psychological perspective, adopting a playful attitude to your practice can help with adherence. If yoga is something that you look forward to, you’re more likely to be consistent, and then you get better results, which in turn, stokes your momentum. Also, when you see yoga as fun and not something that requires discipline and sacrifice, we don’t see the backlash that can arise from a more intense attitude. We don’t feel the need to compensate with poor health habits. A playful attitude also frees you from the fear of failing or looking bad—both of which take you out of the moment and break your concentration. A lack of self-awareness allows you to focus, so you get better and feel more emboldened to push up against the edges of your competence. Playful yoga is engaging and effortless. It’s rewarding and satisfying.
HOW TO MAKE YOUR PRACTICE PLAYFUL
“It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note – it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.” Miles Davis
Moving playfully allows you to tune into your intuition. You can ask yourself: is there is a better way for me to align myself in this pose? Is a posture that was previously inaccessible easy when I approach it in a different way? How does my body move when I put on different styles of music? What about if I practice with my family or friends?
Using the cues as a starting point, you can take your practice wherever you want. Sometimes it’s best to follow the rules and sometimes it’s best to play around with them to find out if they’re out of date or not relevant to you. Be open to spontaneity and stay mentally flexible. There’s no right or wrong—just whatever feels good in the moment.
- Be open. Adopt a light, joyful attitude.
- Be curious. Ask questions—how can I do this pose another way, less seriously, with less effort?
- Be playful. Move in novel ways. Make it into a dance. No-one is watching.
- Be present. What you’re doing is more important than what you’re achieving.
- Explore. Move your weight around in the poses.
- Experiment. Play with different hand and foot positions.
- Improvise. You might stumble on something new and better.
I’d love to hear how you find this sequence and if you have other ways to bring a playful attitude to your practice. It might seem a little strange at first but it’s pretty addictive when you get into it.