Play and Health


It's fall again. As we move away from the slow roll of late August and meet the increasingly punctuated time slots of work, school, and productivity, we tend to lose ourselves. Often we lose ourselves in activities of escape, which we associate with much-needed downtime and pleasure. Of course, throwing sensibility to the wind and eating an entire pint of ice cream can be pleasurable.

But pleasure is also waking up a different state of being than the one we have been immersed in all day. A state of being such as learning. Learning, for me, is the same as being inspired, feeling a flutter of wonder in the heart as you enter a realm of: 

what if?
what happens when?
what does this do?
where does this go?

It's a place where time slows down and your awareness floats around making non-cognitive, non-judgmental, and non-linear associations. It's not at all what I learned in grad school or the corporate workplace!

When your awareness lands on a new connection through sensing, feeling, and noticing, your sense of self comes into sharper focus. You feel more whole, more alive (what fun!) and, oddly, more productive. 

Play + Learning = Health & Healing

These days we need labels to remind us that food grown without chemicals is real food. Likewise, we need to be reminded to play. The lack of play is a growing concern in our society. Researchers write that without skillful play it's harder to deter aggression or socialize well, and I don't think they mean eating ice cream. Play, pleasure, and learning are intertwined. They help us relate, problem solve, and grow. For example, you could substitute "learning" for "play" in the statement below:

Play is the gateway to vitality. By its nature it is uniquely and intrinsically rewarding. It generates optimism, seeks out novelty, makes perseverance fun, leads to mastery, gives the immune system a bounce, fosters empathy and promotes a sense of belonging and community. (from the National Institute for Play) [learning-brain]
The importance of play became obvious when psychiatrist and internist Dr. Stuart Brown studied its absence in a group of homicidal young males. He left clinical medicine in 1989 to follow up on his conclusion that play is relevant to the accomplishments of the very successful and that there are negative consequences to a play-deprived life.

The National Institute for Play was founded in 2006 and emerged out of Dr. Stuart Brown's work. In 2000 he also wrote the three-hour PBS series, The Promise of Play, which I highly recommend.
Most importantly, play and learning can heal. The National Institute for Play says this best:

Kids have society’s permission to play, and most adults don’t. Somewhere between childhood and adulthood, most of us exchange play for work, and forget to play with the abandon and joy of childhood. Giving adults the “go ahead” and techniques to resume adult forms of play offers multiple benefits. Being capable of generating, recognizing and acting on the play signals of others establishes, or re-establishes trust, safety and adaptation to the unexpected or complex. Perhaps this truth has been buried in the usual win-lose contests that characterize most adult negotiations.

I truly think this comment should be emblazoned on all corporate mission statements. The comment that trust, safety and adapting to the complex or unexpected comes from generating and acting on play signals intertwines deeply with Moshe Feldenkrais's method of learning, which allows us to explore, respond, and engage in complex problem-solving in a safe, non-judgmental environment. By engaging in self-inquiry without the judgement of right and wrong but with guided directions for our open awareness, we can let go of compulsive responses and become more spontaneous and adaptive.

Dropping Fixed Muscular and Emotional Attitudes

Moshe Feldenkrais encouraged everyone to discover spontaneity through experimentation with novel movements to unwind muscular patterns that hold us back, cause injury, and limit our lives.

I found Feldenkrais as powerful, if not more powerful, than meditation. Becoming aware of muscular habits of attitude is like becoming aware of habits of mind in meditation, but it happens while you're moving. Although, at times you are moving pretty slowly! This is because you have to slow down enough to notice the habit and then be able to take in new information about your compulsive responses. Feldenkrais is more like meditation than any other "modality" I've encountered. I've done both for many years, including a year-long silent meditation retreat under the guidance of a Tibetan lama in North Wales where I also re-did my entire Feldenkrais training.

For anyone who encounters this kind of self-inquiry, the process leaves you feeling more connected, balanced, and joyous. You soon discover that experimenting with a Feldenkrais lesson reduces tension and anxiety. Why? Because the movements are so novel that they slip in the back door of the nervous system and the brain can't maintain its fixed muscular attitude no matter how attached you are to it. As you vary your responses to meet the questions posed by the lesson, you experience a fundamental shift in attitude of both body and mind. After all, we can't play if we're caught in a cycle of shallow breathing, tense muscles, chronic pain, or rigid posture!

Play requires spontaneity.

Spontaneity means reducing the repetitive, choice-less muscular patterns that lead us down the same garden path over and over again. Like throwing a stone in a river alters its course, novel movements pave the way toward playfulness, connection, and health.

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“You can learn more about a person in an hour of play than a year of conversation." --Plato