Little kids love the feeling of running, jumping, whooping at the top of their lungs. They love spinning and tumbling down, swooping and soaring with arms outstretched as if they were birds or bats or airplanes. The body at play is capable of infinite invention. Playing opens up a wide aperture for creativity. Through the practice of Nia, I was surprised to learn to play again.
By the time Cliff and I had our kids, I had forgotten how to play. We still had a lot of fun together, taking family outings, reading wonderful children’s books, cooking, and making Christmas ornaments and decorating Easter eggs together. I just didn’t remember anymore how to make up stories or to play imagination games. The kids played all kinds of characters in their tunnel forts and while baking mud pies with grass frosting. Cliff helped them build a tree fort with a trampoline below. He helped them create castles with the sofa cushions and then crash them down with delight. The kids played, Cliff joined them….and I helped them with their homework.
The kids had all graduated from high school by the time and I had begun teaching Nia routines when I attended a workshop with Nia founders Debbie Rosas and Carlos Rosas on the topic of Floor Play (I always roll the words ‘Floor Play’ mischievously through my mouth when I’m teaching Nia class!) What I learned from Debbie was how important it is to brain and body freedom to spend time on the floor re-creating our developmental stages of learning: to undulate and roll, to creep and crawl. All that cross lateral activity of the limbs stimulates and integrates different parts of our brains. It reinvigorates the body, keeps it younger and smoothly coordinated. Floor Play provides the headspace to move and play in a pre-language state of consciousness.
What I got from Carlos was the raw experience of true play. Carlos was a man newly in love again and he had shed 20 years from his appearance since the last time I had seen him. He absolutely bounded as he moved on the floor. He bounced, he rolled, he twirled like a spinning bottle cap. He was about 55 at the time and he looked like a young boy as he did flying fish dive rolls through the air. Inspired by his example, I found myself beginning to play…truly play without thinking about it – just for the sheer fun. At one point I was on my side, rotating my legs as if I were pedaling a bicycle, only to find my whole body spiraling around on the floor. It was exhilarating. I didn’t know I could do that!
A funny thing started happening after that workshop. For most of my adult life, I seemed to have lost many of my childhood memories. The few memories I retained were mostly snapshots cued by specific photographs in the family album. After I experienced Floor Play, the memories started flooding back, kind of like waking dreams – they were kinesthetic memories of me on the playground. I began to have body memories of exactly what it felt like to be on a swing, a really long swing (before insurance companies made the playgrounds remove or shrink all the most fun equipment). I remember how my knees flexed and stretched as I pumped forward and backwards, my arms reaching and pulling, my whole body tipping. I remember swinging higher and higher until I reached that point – you probably remember what it feels like – when I had gone so high that there was no longer an arc to the downward swing and instead there was a sudden jerky drop that I felt in the pit of my stomach. Then I remembered how it felt to hit the the sweet spot on the upswing – that timeless moment that is just perfect to jump off the swing, fly through the air and land in the sand. That’s what our modern dance teacher Wailana Simcock would call pure ‘kinesthetic delight’!
I hope that most of you reading this have had the experience of playing on a metal, push merry-go-round on the playground – there’s just nothing more fun. I can still feel my feet and legs trudging through the sand, first slowly, then faster and faster as I held onto the outside bars of the merry-go-round, pulling and pulling until it gained momentum. And then IT was pulling me and I had to quickly jump on or just let go. When I clambered aboard and let the other kids push for a while, I loved the feeling of being on the outside edge, of how fast I was whirling around. I loved – maybe even more – the feeling of working my way to the very middle. It is the one physical experience of my life of being at the still center, with everything else circling around on the outside edges. It was a struggle to make it to the center and when I got to the middle, I just stood there, even and balanced.
I haven’t looked up the definition for play. I suspect that it has to do with doing something for its own sake, for absolutely no ulterior motive, just for the pure fun and delight of it – like the dolphins sporting joyously through the waves. It took all those childhood body memories of play to wake up my imagination from its deep, Rip Van Winkle sleep.
You know, when kids launch into one of their imaginary stories, they have absolutely no idea where they are going to go or how it’s going to end. Sometime after the Floor Play workshop, I took my Nia Black Belt training, where we learned how to “jump into the river of the unknown”. That meant taking risks and going places we hadn’t gone before without charting out the course. This phase of my Nia training would have been daunting had I not re-discovered how to play. As I jumped into the river of the unknown, I found myself making up all sorts of characters, becoming lizards and singing princesses and spaceships. I lost a LOT of inhibitions!
Now, when I teach my Nia classes, I don’t just stick to the choreography. I have a whole new bags of tricks to pull from. Learning to play again opened a new access to creativity for me. And I always find something new. Ceaselessly – there’s always something new there to be found! I don’t know exactly what the source of the fountain of creativity is. All I know is that it is possible through play to open up a valve that allows creativity to flow. It doesn’t matter anymore how silly I am. Now if we are squatting in Nia class, we may suddenly stick out our tongues out to catch flies, then hop up in the air and croak “Ribbit!” It tickles me to know that if our children bless us with grandchildren in the future, I will truly be able to play with them!
Resting in Stillness and Moving in Joy with you,
Take every opportunity to play!
12 Ways to Play
- Play air guitar to the music at Starbucks while you and a buddy wait for your cup o’ Joe
- Make mashed potato volcanoes with gravy and cranberry sauce lava at Thanksgiving before you dig into the yummy feast
- Build an elaborate sandcastle with mud drizzles, shell decor, feather banners and a seaweed landscape
- Make huge leaf piles and leap into them; then use your rake to play limbo-limbo with your fellow autumn revelers
- See how many of your friends/relatives you can stack up into a human pyramid – give an extra helping of dessert to anyone on the bottom row gettin
- Play hopscotch on the tiles at work during your coffee break
- Bring a bottle of bubbles to the park for your dog to chase and bite
- See how many cartwheels or forward rolls or wild spins you can do before you fall down dizzy
- Crush one aluminum can under each foot (with shoes on) and tap-dance your way through the house making as much noise as possible
- Lug a big bunch of bubble wrap into a room full of little kids and let them go wild – see if you can pop as many as they do
- Interrupt the meeting at work to hold a “silliest face contest”
- When you have to wash your hands at a movement sensor sink (like at the airport), do a little tap dance or some abracadabra moves to make the water turn on.