Improv and Yoga
Over the last few years I've had an incredible opportunity to teach an improv module for Yoga Teacher Training offered by Carolina Yoga Company. Last weekend I worked with a dozen future yoga instructors, helping them to make each other laugh and internalize 3 core principles from the YesAndLife philosophy, skills that can be applied in the yoga classroom and in everyday life. When I see people experience the joy of discovery, that moment when they realize they can do something they were afraid to try, that keeps me inspired to share improv and the philosophy of improvisation with every person I can, to create opportunities for positive impact. When students embrace uncertainty, say yes to the work and jump headfirst into a space of creative play, I know I am in the right place and doing the work I am meant to do. Feedback from students and clients about the impact of improvisation has always been my oxygen.
1. Say Yes
As loudly and enthusiastically as you can, Say yes. More often. Say yes unless you must say no. Be courageous. Be vulnerable and say yes. Take the risk and see what happens. Try and fail. In practicing Loving Kindness in yoga our meditation boils down to to saying yes, to ourselves, our family and the world, even your enemies, we say yes to good ideas and bad ideas. Even if we are not acting on the bad ideas or connecting with the bad people, we mindfully say yes, we acknowledge them and send them light. We offer positive energy to them, that they may be happy, be safe and be free.
There are three basic reasons why people must say "No" — only three reasons, budgets, schedules and the law. Any other reason you might say no boils down to a personal preference. Now, preferences are not negative. We can and absolutely should have them, but we must recognize that preferences always come at a cost. It may be small but the cost will be the energy we used to assert that preference. So, weigh each preference you might have against the cost and decide what you really want. The preference "No" can start to shut down our sense of wonder and possibility — if we still have those. The negativity can start to shut down our own creative output and creative contributions from the people around you. And saying no as an act of power or authority will always backfire. I promise. The energy of no will eventually permeate your mind and heart and the wave of negativity will ripple outwards.
This may be one of the most human and honest comments a student has shared after an exercise in a long time. In an activity focused on resilience in the face of negativity, the student tasked with saying no became exhausted just by the idea of repeatedly rejecting the ideas of the other person. Alternatively, support and raw positivity inspired enthusiasm of delivery and unlocked a demonstrable difference in the ease and quantity of idea generation.
2. Practice Awareness
There are no scripts. The end has not been planned. The middle has not been planned. We are only just starting and we must be aware in order to stay present in the moment. Most yoga teachers ask students if there are areas they would like to work on before class, and it often feels like a large number of yoga teachers still do whatever they had planned before they asked. If you are confident enough to embrace the uncertainty, maybe a request for core work (god forbid!) could change the entire set of sequences you had planned for the class. However, if you are always concerned about the plan or that you may not know exactly what to say if you change things up, afraid you may say the wrong thing, life (and yoga) can be terrifying. Now, simple awareness of the fact that there are no scripts won’t magically help us say all the right words, but that awareness can release us from the expectation that we should have had our lines memorized at all. We must realize there are no right or wrong ways to teach class, to parent, to introduce ourselves to a stranger, to have a difficult conversation with our significant other, to live everyday. We can always improve. Of course. We can always strive to be and do better, but fear will quickly take over when we believe in our heart that there's only one path, only one right way. Replace your expectations of what should be with appreciation of what is and you will unlock the freedom to fail. The most important job you have as a yoga teacher (and human) will always be to pause. Give yourself the gift of perspective, start by acknowledging your fears and insecurities. Let those fears know they are seen and practice acceptance. Awareness will always be the first step. Acceptance, second. Then you can move forward and do the work you were meant to do.
3. Embrace Vulnerability
One comment stood out this weekend when I asked the group what they would be taking away. A student loudly shared, "When I heard improv, I was terrified." She was scared. Why? She told the class she was afraid she would embarrass herself. I could understand. Many of us are afraid of public speaking and wouldn’t be caught anywhere near a stage — even if we knew exactly what we were supposed to say. This student was not prepared for improv (gasp!) since my workshop was a surprise. In reality, this student made the exact opposite impression on everyone, myself included. Whenever I needed volunteers she was the first person to jump up. Not once, but every single time. She was brave and her fears were released as she laughed, as she made the entire room laugh out loud. If she had turned away from the opportunity it could have increased the internal volume of her fears and would have created greater internal pressure to do each exercise the right way. Instead, she embraced the uncertainty and was vulnerable. This future yoga teacher wore a purple shirt featuring a unicorn in low cobra farting and she was afraid she would be embarrassed. However she felt, whatever she was wearing, she had the courage to run full speed into her fears AND SHE WON. We invite our students to take risks, we give them permission to try and fail, to do the best they can, insisting they make adjustments if necessary and that they can always drop into child’s pose (which has saved my practice many times). Sadly, we rarely give ourselves the same permission. We judge ourselves constantly for failures we have yet to make and this judgment creates a full stop. Be vulnerable, challenge yourself to be brave, to go first, to face your fears and see what happens.
I am humbled by the courage it takes for students to take that first risk (showing up!), inspired by their willingness to be present and share themselves with each other. I will always be grateful for the connection the following student made last year and what she shared regarding her own experience with improv.
This student also sent me a great interview from All Things Considered (you should listen!) about how improv helps kids with autism and, as the universe would have it, I was lucky enough to meet the research scholar interviewed by NPR months later at an improv retreat and we had a great conversation about his work and how to leverage play and improvisation while parenting and educating children on the spectrum.
When I found yoga, I was hooked — I spent almost 3 years in a practice that had me in 3 classes per week, mostly moderate flow classes. I had a short immersive yin period and I even went to a Kirtan, maybe more than one. Surgery put my physical practice on hold (still working on coming back!), but my fascination with yoga was reinforced after that first class. I realized that mindfulness, curiosity and a respect for the universe was central to how I wanted to show up in the world, how I wanted to parent my son and how I wanted to treat other people. Concepts were clarified for a philosophy I had held for a long time. Improv and yoga are the same. That was clear immediately.