Learning Through Body Play

Up until a few years ago, I was super scared of skiing and biking. I'd feel an immediate fear response in my body even when I considered doing them. Then I found a kind and generous teacher who was interested in teaching me both, and I started learning them very slowly.

Dr. Stuart Brown mentions seven types of play in his wonderful book, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul: attunement play (like between an infant and a parent), body play & movement (like when you do sports), object play (such as with toys), social play (like group play with social norms), imaginative play (like pretending that you are a dragon), storytelling play (like when you read, tell or listen to stories), and creative play (like when you make music or a sculpture). He mentions that while we all play all these types, we may feel more pulled to certain types of play than others, which brings about the eight play personalities: the joker, the kinesthete, the explorer, the competitor, the director, the collector, the artist/creator, the storyteller. (You can find out a bit more about each of them in this summary.)

When I first read these play types and personalities, I reflected on how much I miss kinesthetic body play. It has always had a very important place in my life; I danced for long years as a child and young adult. The best ideas always come to me when I go out on a walk. I turn up the music and have 10-minute dance parties by myself almost on a daily basis. Yoga is when I feel most present in my body. But lately, there is a lack of body play in my life. Like many other people out there with remote jobs, I am leading a mind-driven, sedentary, behind-the-screens life. I tend to forget that the natural world was meant to be experienced in a spatial, three dimensional, all-five-senses way.

Enter skiing and biking in the last few years. These two activities presented me with a great opportunity. Taking them on, I reconnected with body play, remembered its wonders, and allowed my body to move through fear again. I learned so much about beginner's mind, about learning and the growth mindset, about life and the human capacity to move through life graciously. As opposed to things I conquer mostly with my mind (writing, speaking French, starting a business, teaching mindfulness meditation, and so on), conquering things through my body, the lessons somehow felt more solidified.

Here are a few of those lessons I picked up from skiing and biking in the last few years:

  1. When learning something new, find a good teacher with whom you feel safe. It’s not that important that this teacher is the master of what they do. It’s more important that they won’t laugh at you when you lose your balance. They’ll sit with you when you’re crying your eyes out. They’ll have endearing eyes when you ask a lot of questions. They’ll reach out when you are struggling.
  2. When learning something new, find people who just LOVE doing it. This can be the same person as #1 above but teachers get caught up in ego sometimes and forget to enjoy. If you have such a teacher with whom you feel safe but don’t necessarily feel a resonance of LOVE for the activity, surround yourself with other additional people who just can’t stop doing this thing. Observe how they come alive on the ski slope, on their bike, in their activity. Allow your heart-mind-body to love this thing as much as they do. Loving something is the fastest way of learning it.
  3. On the ski slope, on the downhill, when doing something new, the first thing to learn is when to stop. Stop before you find yourself on the ground. Stop before you’re in the alarm zone. It’s okay; you can take off your skis and walk it out. Each day, stop before you get tired. Stop before you empty yourself of desire and inspiration. Before the energy spills out completely. Hear yourself say “But I don’t want to stop yet!”  and take that as a cue to stop anyway. Remember: Easy does it. With a bit of effort every day, you can go very far.  
  4. Show up the next day, the next week or in 6 months. Doesn’t matter when, but do show up. Let your teachers and peers (from points 1 and 2 above) guide you and invite you back to foreign territory, and when they do, accept their invitation. Life is mostly about hearing a calling and accepting it. Let the people you love be your calling.
  5. Fear is going to be there. Be thankful for fear. God knows what you would do without it. Listen to fear. Say thank you each time it tells you to go a little slower.
  6. Remember to ask, “Who else is in the house today?” See if courage shows up, or curiosity. A sense of adventure or foolishness. Humor or playfulness. Nod your head at all of them, place them around you in a circle and make sure to include fear. Pay attention to the full house of emotions when you’re on the ski slope or on the road.
  7. You will tense up. When you notice you’re tense, just relax. Let go in the shoulders. Relax the face muscles. Take a few deep, cleansing breaths. In the course of an hour, you might tense up a hundred times. So relax twice as much. This is the practice.
  8. If the seasons change and all you have in your house of emotion is worry, pain, sadness, and fear, give in a little. You don’t have to bike or ski each day. You can enjoy your book. You can cook a delicious meal. Follow your inner wisdom before anyone else’s words.
  9. Make micro adjustments. Learning something new doesn’t look like having big milestones each day. If you are always looking for big thrills, learn to love that capacity of pedaling for another minute. Learn to love how it feels when you can turn another corner with a tiny bit more balance.
  10. Everything is easier when you have some momentum. If you lose momentum, be willing with suffering a little until you find it again.
  11. Be more mindful of non-moving things: trees, parked cars, people stuck in their world views. As my driving school teacher once told me, “Don’t mind moving traffic. They’ll get out of the way, you’ll get out of the way, it will be okay. It’s the non-moving things you should worry about.”
  12. Have some cheerleaders. A few people you can turn to and say “Did you see what I did there???” Have them tell you, “Yes I saw it! Can’t believe you just did that!” Let your courage and playful attitude be recognized.
  13. Have your chin up. Don’t look where your feet are; have your eyes on a point far out ahead of you. Determine where you are going with your mind, then let your body lean in. If you try to control every micro-movement with your mind, you will very likely fall.
  14. Cultivate an ability to focus. Meditation helps a lot. When you have multiple things calling your attention like a speeding car on your right and another biker on your left, you gotta be able to focus your attention on that empty space in between.
  15. Moderate your speed. Every context calls for a different speed. Know the context and what is needed.
  16. Track your highs. Your highs can be moments of joy, relaxation, calm or total presence. Notice if your highs come fifteen minutes in or after an hour. Be willing to suffer those first fifteen minutes or the first hour. If the high never comes, accept that too. Track your highs anyway because this is what will make you come back to that foreign territory again and again.

Which of these lessons resonate with you today? What types of body play do you do and what have you learned from body play? Write to me! I'd love to know.