Escape through the me-shaped hole in the hedging at the front of our house, up the humpback hill, my wee legs all a-canter, past the collapsed stone wall shaded by rambling laurel, and finally through the bars of the cattle gate that was also very good for swinging on, and that kept my neighbour’s home safe from curious cows, stray sheep, or any other creatures incompatible with flower-filled gardens. That was how I would leave behind my strivings, usually unsuccessful, to be a "good girl", and find my way into the very different world that Mr’s Murphy, I called her Ma, created for me, where "being good" or "being bad" just never seemed relevant . Ma held no truck with convention and didn’t give a fig for keeping up appearances or any of the other absurd conventions of our local community. She wore oddly paired wellington boots, and tied her overcoat around her woolen-thickened waist with a piece of string. Her self-knitted hat was lumpy from scratching her head as she marveled at this sight or that. Cats trailed after her. She daily fed a fox with a handsome tail, and every child on the road knew and loved her.
I’ve been thinking of Ma because I’ve been thinking about play, combing back through time to my first memories of playing, and remembering how important the feeling of escaping and breaking with the ordinary is, and always has been for me. Playing with Ma was always outside ordinary time and space and almost always outdoors. As we hid and sought, she would help me to see things I wouldn’t have otherwise seen, a cheerful daffodil about to split its papery corset, a fox’s den, a wren’s nest in the parched hedging. Once, on a walk we took for no good reason, except perhaps to experience how wobbly legs can feel after a trudge through newly furrowed fields, we found a sycamore sapling. We begged its permission to bring it with us on our return journey, so as to re-home it in Ma’s garden. I think it’s there still. I sometimes wonder if there are children living in Ma’s cottage now (I think she’d like that), who have discovered how to climb up into the branches of that tree to lie like sloths there, or who have fashioned a swing to hang from the sturdiest of its branches, on which to spend hours becoming pendulums, powered by their strong legs and gravity.
It’s February now and already too late to mention this, but I repel New Year’s Resolutions. My skin’s not built to absorb or keep up with them. However, this year, at the year’s beginning, I wondered to myself whether or not life would be a little livelier, a little less grey and more vividly coloured, if I invited more play into my life. Feldenkrais practitioners often reference play. “Play with it”, “be playful”, you might hear in an Awareness Through Movement lesson, but what exactly does that mean, and isn’t it counter-productive to be commanded to play? Of course that’s doing disservice to your Feldenkrais practitioner, to figure their “play” as a command I mean. Your practitioner will of course be inviting you to “be playful” or to “play like a child”, but again, do you have a sense of what they mean? More importantly, what does it mean to you? When was the last time you felt yourself at play? Are you rusty? What would it take for you to brush off the rust and get yourself some of that play sparkle again?
“Man is made God’s plaything, and that is the best part of him. Therefore every Man and Woman should live life accordingly, and play the noblest games… what then is the right way of living? Life should be lived as play?”
So said Plato, many years ago! Can’t you just see him pontificating in his robes from on high? I can, but I cannot picture him playing chase, or hide and seek behind those magnificent Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns of ancient Greece…. Maybe board games like backgammon? Maybe dice? Maybe, for him, thinking was a playful affair? Many years later, historian Johan Huizinga, would rename Homo Sapiens, a classification of our species which underscores the centrality of our knowledge generating abilities, as Homo Ludens. In doing so, he placed at the centre of humanity’s culture building capacities, the ludic or playful nature of our species. Societies and cultures are emanations of play, he argued, a thesis we’ve no cause to debate here. Yet, there is much of interest in Huizinga’s study of play, and perhaps it can shed light on the “how to” of developing the qualities of play in our Feldenkrais practices.
Huizinga offers the following definition of play. All play, he suggests, is voluntary, lending it an air of freedom. It involves stepping outside of the real world. Playing, to put it another way, is a means of transportation to another realm, the realm of semblance, pretend or make-believe. In this realm, familiar oppositions such as wisdom/folly, true/false, and good/evil dissolve. Play is fun, played for its own sake rather than to assuage an appetite or attain a stated outcome. Indeed, it can often seem frivolous and unserious (note, I said seem not is, since we can play very seriously indeed). Play is always played within certain limits of time and space, has its own rules and creates its own version of order. Play, Huzinga is at pains to emphasise, is tense, since a testing of skills is involved. Even if we are not in contest with another, then we are in contest with ourselves. Last of all, but not of least importance, play correlates with affect; “the really important thing is the mood”. For Huizinga, play’s qualities of order, tension, movement, change, engagement and rhythm are such that they lend themselves to intensities, absorption and even going a little bit bonkers! Just think of that time you couldn’t throw a six to start the game, never mind pass go!
So far, so very like taking yourself, of your own will, into the space of a Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement class. Yes, I’m suggesting that the functional movement explorations in Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement potentially make a snap-happy match with Huizinga’s definition of play...under certain conditions! I don’t want to overlabour the analogy, but many of the elements Huizinga describes map very well onto our Feldenkrais movement practice. We are outside ordinary time and outside ordinary movement just by virtue of lying down, slowing down, and paring down functional movements such as reaching or turning, to their micro-components, and refining these. We are not in an imaginary or pretend world in the same way as a group of children playing pirates, although I have participated in some eye lessons wearing a dodgy eye patch! From an evolutionary perspective however, the “pretend” element in play entails exploring self-organisation options and strategies in conditions of safety that ensure we are prepared for future challenges. Kittens pouncing on a moving beam of light, for example, are preparing themselves for future encounters with zippy mice and hoppy rabbits and practicing their strategies for being their most effective selves when that real challenge arises. Similarly, in our lazy, but lazer-focused explorations of movement in ATM, we are preparing for future movement challenges. I’ve often instructed a class, exploring patterns of reaching overhead to imagine they are reaching to whack off their unwelcome alarm clocks, so that they can take those few extra moments of slumber, surely a most important skill to aim to refine!
Huizinga builds a picture of play by tracing its origins in language and its transitions through various historical epochs, their cultures and institutions. The picture he builds emphasises the ways in which movement, rhythm and the tension of testing oneself can absorb and enrapture the player. Unmitigated, direct participation in the movement or rhythm at hand is both the player’s best means of testing and improving their skill, and the player’s optimal frame of mind or mood. Could it then be, that the condition upon which play hinges (once the condition of total safety has been satisfied) is the mood, the attitude, the frame of mind? Diane Ackerman, writing in her usual poetic style, describes for us in her book on Deep Play the affective state I’m pointing to here:
"my mood was a combination of clarity, wild enthusiasm, saturation in the moment and wonder".
Admittedly, Ackerman’s book describes play writ large and for sublime emotional experience, play such as space travel, mountain biking steep ascents, or climbs up Mount Everest. In Deep Play, excepting a chapter on poetry, Ackerman describes going out into the world and facing its most testing elements. All the same, I don’t think Ackerman would disagree with me in thinking that an even more uncharted territory and more testing place for some people to be, is the interior, close to and in relation with themselves, and their often deeply buried habits of thinking and moving.
Ackerman insists that:
"The spirit of deep play is spontaneity, discovery, and being open to new challenges. As a result, it allows one to happily develop new skills, test one’s limits, stretch them and maybe refine the skills and redefine the limits".
Doesn’t this sound a little like Dr Feldenkrais’ hope that in each Awareness Through Movement lesson we are making the impossible possible, the possible easy, and the easy elegant? Much in line with Dr Feldenkrais’ latent critique of modernity and the varieties of hunched, collapsed and feeble postures he saw it producing, Ackerman suggests that in play, we shed our culture’s limescale of preconceptions and haggard third-hand habits of responding, so that we can open to the world in a new way. Cultivating awareness to the near and interior, rather than what’s out there grabbing for our attention, is already a means of stepping outside of the social and cultural pressures of our terrifyingly speedy, terrifically busy and attention hungry world. When we risk coming closer to ourselves, when we slow down enough so that the details and subtleties of our moving and non-moving parts can reveal themselves to us, it is not really that difficult to be enraptured and filled with wonder at what we are perceiving. Is it? What we perceive after all is life and its sensations moving in us and through us. Is this what play is? Being open to being surprised and delighted by how life moves through us, and at the same time being open to trying out new options as to how we move ourselves through life?
All you brain lovers out there, please be at ease. Yes, play enhances the brain. Let me appease you with a quote from Intelligence researcher Scott Barry Kauffman who tells us:
"If there is one fundamental function of play, it is to contribute to the growth of a flexible brain that is primed for creative thinking or problem solving".
Just what Feldenkrais, in his own words was after, a flexible brain! Of course, you may know intuitively or otherwise that play is a fundamental and necessary part of the development and growth process. From very early on in life, we humans (and we are not alone in your youthful shenanigans), love play, live play, need play. The early months, what Piaget calls the “sensory motor stage”, can be characterized by seemingly playful (spontaneous, quick, light) movement of the spine, the limbs, the trunk and the head. These playful movements lead to complex co-ordinations and a detailed learning of the placements and positions of the various moving parts that make up an embodied self who has who deal with Mother Earth’s stern gravitational field. “Laurent seems to be content to play with his mouth and tongue muscles”, Piaget observes in one of his notebooks, and really why wouldn’t he be? Play helps the brain to wire in connections, by testing, experimenting and discovering. Discoveries made spontaneously, like flopping over onto the belly are repeated playfully until they are reproducible. This kind of activity is no chore, though it can seem difficult and arduous to begin with, but it is engrossing and all encompassing. A child’s attention is totally taken up with it.
A phenomena of the early years that I’ve been even more interested in, is the play relationship between an infant and its caregiver. Play, it is suggested, in the very early months, helps to teach infants how to regulate their emotion and connect to the world. Play does not just calm and soothe infants, disclosing to them the possibility of diffusing negative feeling states like fear, through rocking or gentle touch, for example. Play in these first months also reveals to the infant, how positive states may be attained and sustained. How do the infants know that their caregiver is willing to play? The caregiver wears a play-face! You know that face don’t you? It’s soft, the eyes have a light tricking through them, there’s a hint of a smile across the face, a smile that could at any moment break wide to let golden laughter come through. Now you know why your Feldenkrais practitioner sometimes asks you to try the movement with a smile on your face. Checking in with your face during your Awareness Through Movement practice might be a way to gauge exactly how playful you are allowing yourself to be.
Where there is play, there is meaning, Huizinga says. In the Feldenkrais Method everyone makes their own meaning of their movement, playful or not. I, for myself, think of Ma’s hand holding mine, her other hand gesturing or pointing at something new happening in the Garden, in the rookery at the end of the wheat field that backed onto her cottage, or somewhere else we were adventuring in. I take her as my model of play. She was so kind, so patient, and so lighthearted. Her face always had that smile ready to spread and be shared. She was always hunting that small thing that could bring delight. Now, in my micro-experiments in playing with movement, I would like to treat myself that way, to let myself be glad and even delighted for the small and large discoveries I make, to be absorbed by the rhythm, the trialing of options and the trialing for improvement. Perhaps the mood I seek is childlike, but it is not childish. I am very serious about this play that I’m engaging in as my study of the Feldenkrais method continues. It is childlike most of all because I believe there is always something new for me to discover and learn, and I am not afraid to go wrong or to fail. I was not afraid as a child. It was becoming an adult that made me afraid.
So, I begin this New Year (yes, I know I’m late to the party), with a pledging of myself to all things playful. Play begins with small movements, exploratory movements, spontaneous movements. Why not start there, maybe in a Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement class, or maybe, right now, you could give yourself a playful shake and just notice how it makes you feel to do that. Or, maybe give yourself some time to time-travel. By the power of the memorieswithin you, send yourself back to the playful creature you once were as a child. Remember yourself as a player. How did you play then? Could remembering play’s powers help you to give play a larger part in your life? Would you like that? If nothing else comes of it, at least, the next time your Feldenkrais practitioner asks you to be playful, you might have an exact sense of what they mean. Then, since play can and must only be undertaken entirely voluntarily, in conditions of total freedom, and total safety, you can choose, whether play’s the thing for you, or are there better things to do? But let me be very firm here, the only command I will give you for now, chase all bullies from your playground, from your play time and your play space. Bullies spoil play. Be done with the bully in your head that believes you should look like this or that, or move like this or that. Give the bully in you a clown’s nose and clown shoes and laugh when they fall over as you chase them away with your play-vitalized self.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!