In my work as a coach, facilitator of the breath and yoga and meditation teacher, over the last 18 months I’ve noticed that spontaneous moments of play have lessened significantly for my clients and for so many of us.
It’s said in many spiritual traditions that joy is our natural birthright, and yet, for many of us, it can feel like joy hasn’t been in abundance over the last year and a half. So how can we connect to this divine birthright of ours? Through empathy, compassion, innocence, connection, trust and playfulness. Knowing that when we feel truly safe and seen, we can’t get being who we are wrong. First we need to understand what’s been hijacking our joy and playfulness.
Let’s begin by exploring some of the reasons that joy may have been elusive for so many of us. As we start, let’s also take a moment to honour and normalise that it's wholly understandable that we may not have felt fully joyful and playful during these times.
While the cliché ‘Happiness is an inside job’ may be a truism, a series of tough lockdowns separated us from our in-person support network of communities, friends and loved ones. Connection became interchangeable with separation and isolation.
Our bodies experienced a shock. Our autonomic nervous systems (ANS) became dysregulated. Our sympathetic nervous system responses (fight, flight, freeze, facade) became hyper aroused, resulting in our lizard brains leading the way rather than our logical brains. We became reactive rather than rational, fearful rather than hopeful, overwhelmed rather than focused, angry rather than calm. This state of being switched ‘on’ affects our respiratory and cardiovascular function as well as immune system function. Extended periods of hyper arousal compromise our health mentally, emotionally and physically.
With extended periods of hyper arousal, what’s required as an antidote is a balanced ANS where our rest and digest function (parasympathetic nervous system) comes on line and we feel more responsive, calm, safe and aligned, and less triggered, burned out, overwhelmed and exhausted.
Emotional self regulation is a term used to describe how an individual can use tools and techniques to create a sense of balance, calm and safety within themselves - a window of emotional tolerance. Emotional co-regulation is where individuals can find this window through working together exploring a sense of agency, collaboration and choice. This is where healing can take place.
Emotional dysregulation is where neither of these means of managing experience and emotion are available, the window of tolerance skews and emotional imbalance occurs triggering extended periods of anger, grief, sadness, overwhelm, anxiety etc. This is where the seeds of trauma are sewn.
It’s understandable how emotional dysregulation has affected so many people, particularly if there’s dysregulation and dysfunction within family and broader society. Society on many levels unconsciously represents the structure of family after all. Dominant adults as the caretakers and guides tasked with the nurture and protection of the innocent children who in return offer their safety and trust.
The political, economic and cultural systems we exist within ( ‘society’) influence us both consciously and unconsciously, affecting our ANS, and our ability to self and co-regulate.
As yoga practitioners, we understand the concept of unity; that we are united in walking this earth together, breathing the same air, cohabitating this planet. A multiplicity of societies, cultures and ideologies sharing the natural resources of their shared home. Astronauts often experience what’s known as the ‘overview effect’; seeing the earth without borders, without nations, without constructs such as race and gender. They report witnessing a fragile planet with a paper-thin atmosphere, made up of landmasses and oceans, with weather systems, seasons, orbits and solar systems. As yogis it’s not such a stretch for us to see a bigger picture.
However, society isn’t in most places and in most cases, run on yogic values and this causes us challenges.
Neuroscientists have observed that empathy forms in functional family units; that understanding motivations, effective communication, relating to emotions and experiences, involve mirror neurons in the brain. Mirror neurons support intimacy, connection, growth within relationships, trust and so much more. Mirror neurons have been observed in primates and birds too. Our brains are, though, susceptible to ‘suggestion' (think hypnosis, where mirror neurons are used).
Within the family unit, more dominant members of the family, skilled in the art of ‘suggestion’ wield influence and control, convincing other family members that their point of view is right and definitive. When this works well the family, or in the broader sense, society, functions as one in line with the leader’s point of view. However, when this doesn’t function well, when ‘suggestion’ isn’t received well by family members, this results in a schism, a split in the family - where different groups form that hold true to their own sets of values based on their own ideologies and we end up with dysfunctional ANS and dysregulated emotions.
The adult caretakers in the family either lead and create harmony and trust, or create disharmony and mistrust, and the children are conditioned into specific behavioural patterns based on the messaging they receive from their caretakers, and whether there is reward or punishment as a consequence for the behaviours. Either way, acceptance and safety within the family is conditional upon compliance. In a real family, the children learn how they matter, are loved, find safety, meaning and value, through the type of attention they do or don’t receive from their caretakers. These behaviours are carried into their adult lives and this will play out unconsciously throughout their adult lives. This is known as childhood attachment.
When the caretakers provide chaotic, uncertain and overtly polarizing messages, we end up with a polarized and somewhat chaotic society. Order and a sense of control and certainty is provided for the members of society (the children in the family) as social psychologists note, through finding a common enemy. The benefits of finding a common enemy (think race, immigration, nationalism, anti xyz’ers) are that a society is united against a suggested threat. The challenges of a common enemy are that society becomes divided because of the suggested threat and compassion and empathy are replaced by polarization in the form of binary constructs - you are either for or against. The colours of the rainbow reduce to black and white. Nuance fades into absolutes.
The polarizing messages of shame and blame, the sense of chaos and inconsistency in communication, and incongruence of words and actions not matching from the caretakers, are the conditions within a family unit that create trauma, dysfunction and dysregulation.
This is why the art of play matters so much. Because play brings us to co-regulation and a healthy functioning family, a well-adjusted society that is based upon trust, safety, nuance, compassion and empathy. Play takes us out of these binary constructs, polarities and absolutes and into an open, welcoming, hopeful and childlike state of curiosity. A means of exploring the world through the eyes of kindness and friendliness. Warmth and invitation. Compassion and openness. Play is a tool for healing trauma because it’s a technique that can create a sense of connection and safety.
It’s an act of spiritual and cultural revolution to intentionally plant and cultivate the seeds of hope through the art of play.
The yogis say that joy is a fundamental, never-ending, permanent aspect of our being. Satcitananda - often translated as Sat: Truth/Ultimate Unchanging Truth/Reality; Cit: Consciousness; Ananda: Joy/Bliss.
The art of play is fundamentally the act of intentionally seeking a pathway to joy in any given moment. It could be intimacy and connection through eye contact, shared laughter, conversation and flirtation, collaboration and childlike curiosity. A way of creating both self regulation and co-regulation. It’s finding common ground, using gentle humour, active listening, invitation and compassion.
Pause, notice sensations in your body, allow the sensations and feelings to be observed without judgement and practice self regulation, and co-regulation if you need support with this.
Once the sensations of the body feel calm, work on softening the breath, breathing in and out through the nose. Allow time for the breath to calm and relax, for the jaw and throat to relax and the shoulders to soften.
When the body and the breath feel calm, ask yourself “How do I like to be playful?” “What makes me laugh?” Note down what comes up for you at this time of calm.
Laughter, playing music, riding a bike, cartwheels in nature, building sandcastles, skinny dipping, dance, spontaneity, connection, creativity and any other number of ways that you can feel connected to the joyfulness in life.
The art of play is the opposite of being controlled and serious. It’s the revolutionary act of humour and humility married together.
Andy Nathan is a coach, breathwork facilitator, yoga and meditation teacher and writer.
Andy will be leading a live kirtan vinyasa class at Soul Circus as well as facilitating meditation, breathwork and coaching workshops over the weekend.
Insta & FB @andyjnathan