Friday, 25 April 2014

On 10:01 by Victoria Stanham in , ,    2 comments
[In my last blog I reviewed the 4 great teachers we can have when it comes to learning something new. Today I’m starting a new series of blogs on how to take advantage of teachers 3 and 4: personal practice and ‘real life’.]

When you decide to learn something new or change a habit, you need to experiment with and practice using the techniques and tools learned in class, before using them in ‘real life’ situations. 

Experimentation and practice allow you discover three crucial things: see how the techniques actually work when you’re on your own, discover how much you actually understood of their use and which bits are still unclear, and to own the techniques, start making them yours, adapting them to you and your life.

For example, many of my students come to me for lessons to learn how to improve their posture and general body-mind coordination. In each lesson we see how to maintain a comfortable upwards attitude – both stable and flexible – during their daily activities of sitting, standing, working at the computer, playing tennis, etc. The students who make the fastest progress are those who ‘do their homework’ so to speak: they play with the tools, techniques and concepts learnt in class, testing them, trying to prove or disprove them… and they arrive to their next lesson with new doubts, questions, complaints and discoveries. All this is wonderful fodder to propel their next set of discoveries in class.

The problem for most students, however is that they can’t find the time and space to practice. Once the day starts, it seems difficult to stop their daily chores and activities in order to give themselves a few minutes of formal practice… there always seems to be something else to do, one more issue to solve, and at the end of the day they’re too tired physically, mentally and emotionally to practice something that requires their full attention.

This seems to be a universal problem for a lot of people (yours truly included): it’s not that we’re lazy or that we lack the will or desire to change our habits… it’s just that it doesn’t seem possible to insert a new practice in the middle of our already hectic and overflowing days.

My personal solution to this problema has been to consciously create a space for practice using three simple parameters: safe place, safe time, and safe context.

The first and most important thing is to create this time-space-context for practice consciously, that is deliberately. It’s really no use to tell yourself, “Tomorrow I’ll practice when I find a free moment”. You need to know exactly when, where and what you’ll practice, so that you’re not leaving things up to chance.

Safe place: Choose a place to practice where you’ll privacy and you’ll be free of interruptions. The idea is that you feel free, safe and comfortable, without any fear that you’ll be seen and judged on your performance.

Safe time: You must schedule your practice time in advance. Best time is whenever you have the energy and privacy to practice for the amount of time you’re roping off. I have found that my best times are very early in the morning, since I tend to lose focus, energy and willpower as the day progresses and I’m sucked into the issues of daily living and working.

Safe context: Finally you need to know exactly what you’ll practice, and make it something that’s meaningful to you. The best tactic for this is to “dress the new in old clothes”, that is, practice your new coordination or your new idea in an activity you need to do anyway. This way you are keeping your commitment to practice, while at the same time silencing that nagging voice in your head that only wants to do ‘useful’ things and not waste time on ‘superfluous’ activities.

Allow me to give you an illustration. I have discovered that in my own case the bathroom in my house fits all the above paratmeters. It’s a safe place: as unorthodox as it may seem to practice stuff in the bathroom, it is a place where I’m alone and unseen, uninterrupted, and I have full-body mirror. It’s a safe time: every morning I prepare for my day in the bathroom (shower, get dressed, comb my hair, brush my teeth, etc.) which means two things, (1) I don’t need to carve out a special time for practice (it’s already happening every morning), and (2) all the activities I do in preparation for my day give me ample opportunities for practice.

For example, if I’m practicing not gripping my feet, I can think of the space between my toes while I shower, remembering that my toes begin halfway down my foot and releasing them from there to the very tips. Or if I’m playing with my coordination and investigating movement patterns and unnecessary tension in my arms, I can brush my teeth or comb my hair, or do any other precision activity with my non-dominant hand (although I do not recommend putting on mascara or eyeliner with your non-dominant hand if you’re in a hurry).

The important thing is not to determine if I am doing it ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; what matters is that fact that every day I’m practicing this habit of ‘observing myself’ and being ‘mindful’ of my actions. Little by little, this self-observation habit starts to percolate to other times and activities, until I find myself naturally ‘practicing’ self-observation throughout my day.

To sum up, in order to make progress in what matters to us, we need to take the time, make the space, and create the context to practice it daily, if even for only a few minutes. It is this daily reminder of what really matters to us that will turn the new behavior or new way we want to do things into a habit. Only then will we start seeing real, lasting changes.

This week I invite you to find a time, space and context for your practice. Tell me about it in the comments box below. How or what do you do to practice the things that matter to you?

See you next week.


Friday, 4 April 2014

On 14:45 by Victoria Stanham in ,    No comments
Have you ever taken a lesson with a teacher (or session with a therapist) and, though you go through huge shifts during the lesson, you then find it difficult to translate those insights into your ‘real’ life?

It’s like your lesson belongs to one world, and your ‘real’ life to another… and they are so different, and you are so different in one and the other, that they appear to be different realities altogether… making communication between them all the more difficult.
A lesson is a ‘constructed’ situation with the aim of connecting you to certain knowledge. But the ‘real’ world isn’t constructed along the same lines; in it, it is you who has to activate the newly acquired perspective on your own. This isn’t always easy nor self-evident: what was obvious during the lesson might seem inaccessible or inapplicable in your ‘real’ life.
How is it that we can make this translation of knowledge and resources from one situation to the next?
There are 4 ways of relating to the process of learning new things. Distinguishing between them can help you generate and integrate changes. Each way serves a specific purpose, and facilitates the process in its own manner.
These 4 great teachers are:
1. Learning in an individual lesson (the guide)
2. Playing and experimenting in a group (your peers)
3. Rehearsing and practicing at home (you)
4. Real-life application (Life)
Let’s look at each in turn.
1. Individual lesson: The purpose of your lesson with a teacher or therapist is pushing the limits of what you know further into the unknown; i.e. learning new things. This is challenging in itself and may throw you into a panic at times. That is why it’s so important to choose your guide wisely. The more at ease and safe your feel in the learning situation, the faster you’ll make progress, the more you’ll learn, and the more involved and enthusiastic you’ll be about uncovering all your latent potential.
In each lesson you may look at concrete ways of translating the newly acquired knowledge to ‘real’ life situations. However, knowing the theory does not equate to being able to apply it. Sometimes the stimuli in your ‘real’ life are too strong and erratic for you to be able to act in the newly learned way. The easiest thing to do then is to fall back into your old, well-known, ‘safe’ and ‘comfortable’ ways. If this happens again and again, your process of transformation becomes arrested, and you, frustrated.
This is where the second way of relating to new material comes in handy.
2. The practice group: A practice group can be a formal (a study group or therapy group) or informal affair (a friend or partner who shares your interest). The purpose of being in a group is to practice the use of the tools and resources you learned in your individual lesson, but doing so in a safe context where the agreements are clear between participants. These practice moments are also ‘constructed’ situations, but they are nearer to what goes on in ‘real’ life because you have to relate to peers, respond to their stimuli, and manage your own reactions.
Sometimes practice groups are created specifically for the purpose of training in the use of certain tools (i.e. a study group). But this isn’t necessarily requisite. For example, if you are taking individual lessons to correct your postural faults and coordination, you might join a Pilates or Yoga group where you can practice the use of the tools you acquired in your individual lesson. The Pilates or Yoga groups wasn’t built specifically for that, but their structural characteristics are such that make them ideal places to train yourself in the use of your psychophysical re-coordinating tools.
3. Individual practice time: In the safety of your home, away from peeping eyes, you can practice and experiment with details (securing what was integrated and revealing what wasn’t). This practice time is analogous to a musicians solo practice time, when he/she takes the time to get to know his/her instrument, and himself/herself in relation to it.
Individual practice time is paramount for polishing off rough areas, to experiment with variations on a theme, to elaborate interesting questions for future experimentation with group and/or guide. Your time in your individual lesson with your teacher is going to be a lot more profitable if you have done your homework… we all know that from our school days… it’s what we tell our kids and students… and yet, do we follow our own advice?
4. The role of applying the knowledge in ‘real’ life: Finally you have to take the risk of trying out your theories in the world-out-there, in order to prove, disprove or amend them. However, you don’t need to do your first tests in the most stressful conditions you encounter in your daily life. Much like you do in the other 3 learning ways, you can start simple, safe and controlled, and progress onto more emotionally complex situations as you master each step.
For instance, if you are experimenting with a new way of reacting and relating to food, trying to eat more consciously, perhaps it’s not the best idea to start your experiment in the middle of a noisy family dinner or at a friend’s birthday party, when your main focus of attention is on other things. Start with going out on your own (or with your study-buddy) for a cup of coffee or tea, move on to consciously eating your packed-lunch at work while relatively undisturbed, and little by little add other dining situations when there are more stimuli to manage. Get the picture?
You won’t always have a guide or group readily available. Sometimes you have to, or prefer to, start by learning from a book, video, or blog. That way you also get a chance to study the material and decide if you really want to take the plunge into its serious practice and application. If you do, you’ll eventually want to go deeper, to really commit to change, and then a guide and group will become indispensable.
But remember that you always have your individual practice and your ‘real’ life experimentation available to you. Even when you do have a guide and group you are not excused from not taking the acquired knowledge and making it yours, embodying it. If you really mean to change, this is your responsibility.
Next week, we’ll look into some concrete ways of translating kinaesthetic knowledge from a lesson to daily living. I’ll start by sharing with you the practice and observation exercises I give my individual pupils. I invite you to try them out, play with them, ask me questions, and give me feedback on them.