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The Power of Play

How the simplest of childhood pleasures can reinvigorate the mind, body, and spirit.

by Jonathan Ambar

Summer is a time for fun, play, and being adventurous; it can bring us back to the freedom of childhood, when summer meant school-free, carefree days. But as adults, finding the time to be carefree is a challenge. That’s why play can be so powerful: Activities such as hula-hooping and dancing are ways to cultivate a sense of wonder, spark the imagination, release self-judgment, and rediscover childlike enthusiasm. And they’re powerful agents of the mind-body connection: The visceral experience of physical expression can act as a doorway to opening our hearts and freeing our emotions.

Kripalu Yoga teacher Coby Kozlowski, who leads the program Divine Play: Hoop, Yoga, Dance, and Create into Bliss, is a firm believer in finding inner freedom through play. “Our natural state is to be happy,” she says. “The joyful, playful side of the inner journey often gets overlooked. There’s often guilt in joy because there’s so much suffering in the world, so a lot of people are resistant to it.” But once you open up to the possibilities of joy, acknowledging the light as well as the dark, inspiration can strike.

The Sanskrit word leela, which means “divine play,” is an essential component of Coby’s teachings; the idea is based on a process she calls joyful self-inquiry. The modalities Coby uses include vinyasa yoga and hula-hooping, an activity she sees not just as a fun throwback, but also as a yogic tool for self-empowerment. “Hooping awakens the chakras,” she says. “It opens up the inner channels, awakening the body, awakening the breath.” Stimulation through hooping’s circular motions can release “stuck” places in our bodies and emotions, creating a space in our being that allows self-expression to flourish. One of the beautiful things about play, Coby says, is that it gives people the opportunity to celebrate life just for the sake of it, not reserving it for birthdays and holidays.

Erin Maile O’Keefe, who cofounded CircusYoga®—a spirited program for kids and adults that melds basic circus skills with yoga and mindfulness practices—with her husband, Kevin, sees play as a process of finding the childlike wonder that erodes as we get older. “Kids are more connected with play as a vehicle for learning,” says Erin. “They’re curious and engage with the world through experimentation: the learning process is more organic; it isn’t dictated.” As we grow up, Erin explains, we move away from those experiences, so play is a way to rediscover our curiosity with the world around and within us. Thus, opening up to curiosity can be a profound practice. Being playful and open to learning allows us also to cultivate Beginner’s Mind, which, as Erin says, “is the mind that engages what’s before us in an inquisitive way, finding new ways to approach things.” Erin incorporates yoga, movement, theater, dance, and circus arts as playful tools for profound investigation: Whether on a tightwire or in Tree pose, for example, we’re exploring balance, how we relate to gravity. As Erin explains, it’s not about mastering balance, but rather engaging in the exploration of balance. “Play is about taking risks—we discover something new about ourselves,” she says. “It teaches us about our willingness to be fearless. We take fewer and fewer risks as adults, so through play we unleash our habits and what holds us back. In CircusYoga, self-discovery is fun, with no judgments—nobody makes mistakes in play.”

Toni Bergins, creator of JourneyDance™ and copresenter (along with chant artist Wah!) of Divine Journey: A Chant and JourneyDance Weekend, and a popular teacher of Kripalu’s noon dance classes, teaches play through dance. “Joy comes out of physically unleashing what’s blocked,” she says, and this joy can be expressed in everything from gentle movements to deep pulsations. Letting go of tension and apprehension through playful, unbridled movement is a hallmark of Toni’s teaching. During her JourneyDance class, dancers embark upon what she calls “funky connections”—dancing up to a random person while expressing affirmations to one another (“You’re so funky! You’re so wild!”). It’s light, silly, and fun for sure, but it’s also an opportunity to build trust, connect with others, and find appreciation. Being uninhibited is something we don’t often allow ourselves in our daily lives, Toni notes, and this repression can cause stress, anxiety, and depression. “When you dance, you feel new areas of your being open up,” she says. “The blood starts to flow, you are present, and endorphins are released. We hold onto so much stress in our bodies. Dance releases that stress.” In her class, people rely on their intuition, drop out of the thinking mind and tune into sensation and music, which enlivens the senses and allows for greater self-expression.

Keeping open to the possibilities of play can keep your perspectives fresh and your spirit light, no matter what life may bring, and it’s a great way to greet the summer. “People want to feel free, they want to feel alive,” Coby says. “By making space for play, we also create a place to find freedom in our lives.”

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail editor@kripalu.org.