Playing with Play

PLAY 051416

Friday 8am. Julia’s yoga class. We’re in a wide-legged forward fold called
Prasarita Padottanasana. No surprise, we do it in most classes.


“From here,” she says, “Why not take Firefly?”

Firefly? I’ve experimented with several arm balance poses with little success but Firefly? An arm balance with the legs wide and lifted off the floor? But, shazam, why not? It’s Friday morning with Julia!


I lower my hips, bend my arms and gingerly lift my toes. For a second, just like its namesake, I hover over the ground…and then tip over and dump awkwardly onto my butt. I snort because, butt-falling.

Julia is all for it. “Yeah! Falling is great! Yoga can be so intense, serious and challenging, it’s important to bring a sense of playfulness to it.”

“Samuel L. JACKson,” I think. “LIFE can be so intense, serious and challenging. It’s important to bring a sense of play to everything!”

Years ago, I read Stuart Brown’s book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul and it profoundly changed the way I think about play in my work and in my life. We’ve all experienced the State of Play at some point. Executives call it The Flow. Athletes call it The Zone. No matter what you call it, according to Dr. Brown’s research, some characteristics of play are:

  • Purposelessness, that is, the activity is done for its own sake. It is intrinsically rewarding.
  • Timelessness – an engrossing activity in which the player loses her sense of time (you know, “time flies when you’re having fun”).
  • Safe – In the state of play, we are incapable of failing.
  • Pleasurable – of course, play is fun!

Our culture tells us that play outside of childhood is silly and pointless but research shows that it is essential to people of all ages. Part of the reason the practice of Nia has been consistently interesting to me for more than 16 years is this element of playfulness. It’s also a big reason I love my husband (and cat) so much.

In Nia we use play to train, condition and heal the body and by practicing play we develop an effective way of learning, improving processes, increasing creativity and solving problems. In his May 2, 2016, post “Thoughts on Play” Todd Hargrove defines play as repetitive movement with variations. This definition gets directly to the integrated nature of play.

Imagine seeing someone doing a repetitive movement with no variation. This would look rigid, like work, not like play.

Now imagine seeing someone doing movement that had no repetition at all and was only variation. This would look like crazy chaos, not play.

But if you saw someone repeatedly doing something with slight tweaks and variations – like throwing a ball or skipping rope. That would look and feel like play.

Dr. Dan Siegel, UCLA professor of psychiatry and overall neuroscientific badass says, “Integration is health.” Without integration, a person, group, system, or organization swings either to rigidity or chaos. Play, then, is a healthy place to be.

Playing with play is the human way of learning, creating, and healing. How can you play today? In anything you do ~ from dreaded chores, tricky conversations, creative conundrums or physical challenges ~ incorporate playful tinkering to see what happens.

Integration is health and play is integration so go play.

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