Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about spontaneity and structure in yoga and other mindful movement work and what it might mean to truly let go and flow.
In Yoga, developing our own spontaneous practice is one of the main long term goals of what we do, but in the vast majority of Yoga classes, the teachers dedicate little or no time to this. To paraphrase my own Zen Yoga teacher, Daizan Skinner, so much of our yoga practice is about going through the motions, but we also need to explore what it would be like to let the motions go through us.
Ido Portal, a pioneer of ‘Movement Culture’ has a great diagram showing us going on a journey from isolation to integration and then finally to improvisation (or spontaneity).
Master Pastinha, the founding father of modern Capoeira Angola said “The capoeirista isn’t the one who knows how to move their body, the capoeirista is the one who allows their body to be moved by the soul” – i.e. the one who can allow themselves to move with spontaneity and freedom (my translation and interpretation).
Before talking more about this, let’s look at some of the differences between a structured practice and a spontaneous practice - in my own life it’s easiest to see these differences when I go swimming.
When I go to the pool by myself, I go lane swimming. I swim up and down the pool 40 times. The first 10 lengths are breast stroke, the next 20 are front crawl, and the final 10 are breast stroke again, so in a 25m pool I cover 1km. This is what I call structured training. It’s not exciting, it’s repetitive, some might call it boring, and it’s almost always similar, but never exactly the same. Each time is subtly different, and you can measure how you are progressing against the static structure. When I finish, I know I’ve done a reasonable amount of swimming and I feel good.
When I go to the swimming pool with my daughter, I do the opposite. I play with her, I do handstands, pretend to be a shark, go underwater, pretend to surf, we throw and catch things, we jump up and splash each other. I basically become a big kid again, we play and it’s fun. This is more what I call a spontaneous practice. I don’t come with any preconceived ideas of what it will be like. Instead we just play and enjoy the moment. It’s messing around, but for me it’s also a way to do spontaneous training and most of the time I have a good workout and I love it, but not always – and that’s the unpredictable nature of a spontaneous practice – you have no idea where it will lead.
In Capoeira, when we train we follow the movements of a teacher, so there is little chance for spontaneity, but when we play together in the circle (or ‘roda’) we are then free to express ourselves and play as we please, and it is this side of capoeira which can make it feel so liberating. There are of course, still some elements of structure when you play in the roda – like the circle shape itself, the etiquette and traditions of the ritual, and being led and trying to connect your game to your partner and the music and songs which are played. You are expressing yourself freely, but within a structure.
Expressing yourself freely within a structure is a good way in to a spontaneous practice. It’s like if you are given a completely blank canvas, you will often have no idea what to do with it – but if someone gives you some guidelines then you will find your creativity starts to flow and find its way out.
When I did my Yoga Teacher Training course with Zenways, every day we had a timeslot for Spontaneous Yoga of about 30-45mins. Before going on this course, my previous yoga practice was mostly following a teacher, a video or a sequence from a book, so it was almost entirely structured. Here, the only real structure was the time, and the yoga mat, and then it was up to us. Not quite a blank canvas, but pretty close.
I remember feeling very awkward and unsure what to do. Having the other trainee yoga teachers there with me made me feel more self-conscious and distracted so it didn’t really help. But over the course of the fortnight, the awkwardness goes, you become more comfortable and less distracted with the others around you, and their presence starts to give you energy and inspiration for your own practice, rather than taking it away.
Nowadays I still follow some sequences and structure in my own Yoga & Capoeira training, but I also make sure I have time to play around and give a space for the spontaneity and playfulness to flow. Structure gives you consistency and this is a useful element for movement training, but what the spontaneous practice can give you is boundless and unlimited – like life itself.
If you’re Oxford-based and interested in exploring this, then I often run Spontaneous Yoga workshops where we practice together in a group setting – you can find up to date details on www.soulmovement.org.uk.
If you’re further away, my teacher Daizan wrote a great article about Spontaneous Yoga in Om Yoga Magazine - https://zenways.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Dancing-the-Wisdom-of-your-Body-OmYoga-Oct17.pdf
And Zenways also sell a video on Spontaneous Zen at their online shop - https://zenways.org/product-category/zen-study-resources/ -
Both of these resources can give you some useful inspiration and tips to start off by yourself.
One of the best ways in is simply to explore what movements give you joy and pleasure and follow these, without trying to control or manipulate what you’re doing. Drop the censorship and allow the freedom and fun to flow.