Play your way to self-acceptance, clarity and creativity with 5 whole-body, improv-inspired exercises.
Have you ever wondered how you could have fun accepting whatever is going on inside of you? How you could play with any feeling, any issue, or sensation? What might be possible if you said, “yes, and” to what’s happening within you?
Anything. Literally anything is possible. Because when you improvise with what is – transformation happens. It doesn’t matter if you’re on stage “yes, and”ing your scene partner, or in your room, “yes, and”ing your feeling. I’m going to walk you through five playful ways you can apply the “yes, and” magic to any inner experience.
If you’re not familiar with what it means to “yes, and”, it’s one of those things that’s simple to explain, but not always easy to do. You acknowledge and accept, “yes, this is what’s happening”. Then, the “and” is something that you add to what’s happening as a direct response to that acceptance.
Time to get real: resisting your inner experience is the quickest way to NOWHERE. Avoiding a feeling, dismissing a sensation, or pushing against an issue only gets you more of the same. You get to stay stuck. Like the pain of watching two improvisers ignore each other’s offers on stage – the pain of you resisting your experience is more than cringe-worthy; it’s stressful and can cause long-term harmful effects.
But here’s the thing I really want you to get. Accepting your feelings, sensations, thoughts and stories doesn’t have to be serious business. It doesn’t have to be WORK. In fact, if you’re used to “working on yourself”, and you’re hell-bent on that model of transformation, this article isn’t for you. “Working on yourself” often comes with a filter of self-criticism or self-blame. Basically, you’re saying that you’re broken and need to be fixed. You’re making yourself wrong for having your experience (psst, that’s the definition of resistance). Play is the new work. You learn faster, you’re more creative and you get a dose of happy chemicals that keep you coming back for more. Potent ingredients for changing your life. Unlike the work model, play provides sustainable fuel for transformation.
Improvisers have been playing with “yes, and” and experiencing the magic of transformation on stage for decades. However, it’s not just “magic”. Research in the last decade has shown the positive impacts of improv on the brain, specifically the concept of “yes, and”. An article by Clay Drinko, Ph.D. in Psychology Today quotes one of the most recent studies focusing on the effects of “Yes, And”:
Improv’s rule of Yes, and is the access point to the brain as it creates the safety, attunement, and flexibility needed to achieve these neurobiological changes. Whether one’s trauma has created a state of hyperarousal or hypoarousal, the conditions created by Yes, and drives the nervous system to self-organize towards integration and balance, thus shifting the individual from the mental state they are in to one better able to function cognitively, physically, behaviorally, and psychologically.Mary DeMichele, in “Short-Form, Comedy Improv Affects the Functional Connectivity in the Brain of Adolescents with Complex Developmental Trauma as Measured by qEEG: A Single Group Pilot Study“
So if “yes, and” creates a context of safety for neurobiological changes, then it’s the perfect stage for shifting from being stuck to making new choices. But we’re not going to just go through some mental “yes, and” exercises. I’m talking whole-body, get-out-of-your-head, transformational PLAY. That’s that kind of improv I love and that’s the kind of improv I’m going to show you how to do… with yourself.
We’re going to combine two powerful catalysts for transformation: improvisational play and whole-body involvement.
In my 12 years of studying personal transformation, coaching and leading my own groups, I have not learned a quicker, more enjoyable way to transform my experience than whole-body play.
The following five exercises – hold up, that sounds like work! How about we call them play moves – like moves you make in a game? These five moves invite you to embody “yes, and”. So there’s no half-assing it. You’re either in the game or you’re not. But hey, I’m not that tough of a coach – you get to choose what you’re willing to play with. I’m letting you know that once you start your move, only kinda “yes, and”ing is still going to take you nowhere. As in most things, commitment is essential. Are you willing to commit to playing full out?
1. Exploring and Heightening
Explore and heighten is a move as old as time, which is why I’m completely astounded that more people don’t do it. You notice what you’re doing (explore) and then do that more (heighten). Like all of these moves, I learned how to explore and heighten in both my improv classes and my transformational seminars.
To explore and heighten start talking or thinking about an issue or something you wish to shift in your life. Then notice what your body does in response. Look for repetition in any of the following areas:
- Movements – especially in our eyes, extremities (hands, feet) and position of the head
- Verbal shifts – tone, word repetition, word or syllable emphasis, paraverbal communication (like sighing).
- Attitude – overall posture, voice, tone and speech patterns
- Breathing – holding our breath, irregular breathing
- Posture – leaning left, right, front, back, etc.
- Sensation – tightness, spaciness, heaviness, etc.
Start by only heightening one thing at a time. Heightening is an art that takes some practice to master – start small. As you heighten, notice if you’re willing to go all the way while also being friendly to your body. I like to ask myself, “Am I having fun yet?” as a barometer for whether I’m taking myself too seriously with this move. If I’m not having fun, then I add, “Hmmm… I wonder… how could I have fun with this?”
My fear about my upcoming launch kept building within me. I had 15 things left on my to do list and time was ticking down. And still, I kept cleaning, aka, procrastinating. Does anyone else’s house get really clean all of the sudden when a deadline is about hit? The worst part was that my mind was on my launch, but I was cleaning. I felt disconnected, worried and irritated.
Trying not to change anything about my thoughts or feelings, I shifted my attention to exploring what my body was doing: Lots of straightening up things around me and my clothes, holding my breath and then sighing it out, and rubbing my eyes and forehead with my hands. I chose to heighten the rubbing my eyes and forehead with my hands. I did that more – gradually amplifying that move. Soon my hands were rubbing all over my head, but then I noticed that my head was actually trying to push through my hands. My head was trying to get through the resistance my hands were creating. And a clear thought popped in, “I’m trying to get through this head first.”
Of course I am. Because that’s how we do it our head-centric, big-brained world. Head-first is also how I came into the world so it makes sense I would choose this way of birthing my own project into the world. With this insight, I felt a sense of “ah, I get it”, a sense of clarity. That’s what I’m doing. I also felt a desire to play with this pattern more. I share how I played with it under our next play move, “Experimenting with New Choice”.
2. Experimenting with New Choice
New Choice is a game where you try on new ways of doing or saying something in order to shift your experience and shake up the scene. In improv, New Choice is often played where whenever someone shouts “new choice!”, the last thing that was said is “erased” and something new is said. But new choices can be literally anything, not just changing the words that were said. It can be a new physical posture, a new tone of voice, a new movement, or a whole new character.
I love to play this game when I notice I’m stuck in a repeating behavior pattern or telling the same story over and over again. I particularly love changing the context, rather than the content. The content is what we say, it’s the story. The context is everything else: our body language, tone, inflection, rhythm, timing, quality of sound and movement. It’s what makes up the majority of our communication. Most of us try to change the story without changing the context. It’s why you can think you’re telling a new story about your life, but all your friends are like, “oh yeah, here we go again.” New choice is a way to say yes to your story and change something about how you’re telling it.
Remember how I heightened rubbing my face with my hands and discovered that I was trying to “get through it head first?” Immediately, I thought, “how much fun could I have getting through with other parts of my body leading the way?” Experimenting with new choice, I used my doorway as a symbol for “going through it”. I started with my head. Ploughing through the doorway head-first. When I got to the other side, my attention was critical and focused on what was wrong in the room. I played with dancing butt first, sliding hand first, crab-crawling feet first, and wriggling shoulder first. Now I was having WAY more fun. I chose the most fun move, dancing butt first, and noticed that my attention was on the spaciousness of the room I was leaving. I decided to apply this to my to do list. I looked at what I had completed so far and appreciated myself for all that before moving on to what was next. In this way, I interrupted that typical pattern of ploughing ahead (ha! get it? A head!) by pausing to turn around and celebrate all that I’ve completed.
3. Whole-body Expressing
Ah, the joy of expressing with your whole body… and no, you don’t have to be an interpretive dancer to do this. Anyone can use their whole body to express their inner experience. We’re just so used to only using our pie-holes (aka, our mouths) because that’s what we were told was “appropriate”. “Use your words, Susie”. Well, I’m here to tell you NOT to use your words. When you first start expressing with your whole body, I want you to drop the words and only use sound and movement. For two reasons: 1) words can keep you stuck in your head and get in the way of fully expressing 2) some experiences simply can’t be communicated with words – it’s not because you’re inarticulate.
I once came home from a seminar and was so excited about what I had experienced. I wanted to share it with my partner, but in the past when I’d tried to, I wasn’t satisfied with my communication and it never felt like it really landed with him. So this time, instead of using words, I expressed with my whole body through sound and movement (I’d just learned this in my seminar). For the first time, I was able to fully express my experience of a transformational seminar and felt totally satisfied. Meanwhile, he let me know that he felt like he “got it” better than ever before.
Whole-body expressing is used quite frequently in improv through gibberish games and silent scenes. The mother of improv, Viola Spolin, called it whole-body involvement and was the creator of gibberish games. She designed these games to give improvisers the experience of direct communication – communicating without adding any analysis. I want you to let your body communicate directly with you. Let your experience LAND.
4. Interviewing a Persona
Persona means mask or character played by an actor. Theater actors used to have to wear special masks to help them project their voices (per – through and sona – sound). So they wore masks that represented the characters they were playing. Later persona also became known as the mask or character that we show the world, rather than our true self. I like the definition by Drs. Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks: A persona is a role we learned when we were young to get positive attention or avoid pain as distinguish from our true self.
Your personas are going to show up from time to time. We all needed to get attention or wanted to avoid pain at some point in our lives. So why not “yes, and” them and see where you go together? (Spoiler alert: “Yes, and”ing your persona leads you straight back to your true self.)
My favorite way to play with my personas is to interview them. And again, I love Drs. Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks’ persona interview process. This process has been tested and refined over decades of coaching.
This example is really vulnerable for me to share. And I want to share it and show how you can use these moves to deeply listen and be with yourself.
I’ve been struggling with feelings about my cat’s health since she was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism. I was able to get her on medicine and she got much better. However, in the last couple of months she started to get sicker again. Every time I say I’m going to take her in to the vet to get her checked out again, I create some sort of excuse and don’t do it. I keep giving her the medicine and hoping she just gets better.
In order to discover which persona is running this repeating script, I began expressing all of the reasons why I haven’t taken her back to vet and used whole-body expressing to really get into it. I asked my persona what it wanted to be called and got “Bad Pet Mom”. Then I went through the following questions:
Bad Pet Mom, what’s the most important thing to you?
To just keep trying.
Bad Pet Mom, what are you most proud of?
Nothing. I’m really bad no matter how hard I try.
Bad Pet Mom, when did you make your first appearance?
When I was about 10 years old and babysitting a friend’s hamster and it suddenly died.
Bad Pet Mom, who did you learn your style from?
Maybe my dad.
Bad Pet Mom, what are you most afraid of?
Not doing enough and being responsible for my pet dying.
Bad Pet Mom, what do you most want?
I most want support with this. I want friendly encouragement to face my feelings and take action.
I had a lot of feelings come up with this exercise, most of which were tied up in my old story about being a Bad Pet Mom. By tied up I mean, I wasn’t able to fully feel all of my feelings about my cat being sick because I was stuck recycling this scary, guilty story from my childhood. When I finished, I stepped out of that persona and back into my whole self and let myself feel my feelings. Having created some space around this issue, I decided to ask my partner and a friend to help me with this so I take care of my kitty the way I really want to.
Here’s a blog I wrote which includes a video of a persona interview. Personas often mask unfelt feelings, deep desires and unexpressed communications. Playing with your personas gives them the friendly attention they desire, dissolving their need to replay their script over and over and freeing you up to make new choices.
5. Playing with Space
Playing with space is probably the trickiest of all the moves because it’s so far out of the imaginary box. Like object work in improv, you interact with space like there’s something there that isn’t. In this case, you play with your experience like it’s a real thing in space.
Say, what now?
Here’s the thing, your issue or feeling is taking up space inside you already in the form of thoughts and sensations, why not put them in the space around you? As you act out how you’ve been engaging with your issue, you’ll gain a different perspective.
I’ve struggled with balancing running my business and homeschooling my son. When I thought about this issue, I immediately felt stressed and scared. After noticing my inner experience for a moment, I asked myself, “hmmm… I wonder… what am I trying to control that’s beyond my control?” I asked myself that question a few times, taking a couple connected breaths between each.
The answer: My son’s happiness. I imagined putting his happiness in my hands. It looked like a very fragile, small white egg. I kept it very close to my chest, cradling it. Every time I tried to put it down, I felt like I couldn’t. It was too fragile to be left alone. I thought it would fall and break. So I held onto it protectively and anxiously. As a result, I couldn’t do anything else (including take care of myself or my business), because all my attention was on it. It also couldn’t grow, change or do much of anything.
After a couple of minutes, I was willing to let go of trying to control his happiness. I opened my hands and the egg transformed into a small bird and flew about the room. My breathing became easier. I felt lighter. And, I was ready and willing to give my attention to what I needed and what I could actually control.
From Here To Space To Somewhere New
In each of these moves, I’ve shown you how you be with what’s present – what you’re experiencing in the moment. When you start by playing with what’s here now, you create space for what’s next. In my experience, if I try to add something new without creating space, I just layer on a bunch of conflicting thoughts and feelings. I’m not a fake-it-til-you-make-it type of person. Ugh, I’m cringing just writing that line.
Remember the difference between content and context? We often “fake it” by making up a new story while clinging to the context from our old story. I hate to break it to you, but anyone with the slightest bullshit meter can detect that you’re trying to overwrite your feelings. Including the most important person of all… you.
I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to push through your fear, cover over your sadness or dampen your excitement to have fun and get stuff done. “Yes, and”ing yourself can lead to easy self-acceptance and the clarity to know what you really want. The creativity and fun that playing with “yes, and” generates will give you the resourcefulness and energy you need to create what you most desire for yourself.
All of these moves encourage you to say YES to what’s really going on within you AND they invite you to weave in a simple, transformational play move. That’s how you Yes, And… Yourself!
If you want help applying these moves to your experience, I invite you to join my “Yes, And”… Yourself Playgroup. We’ll meet for 5 Thursdays in a row beginning April 29th and ending on May 27th. Each meeting, we’ll play games and do activities that promote presence, spark connection and fuel play. We’ll specifically be focusing in on these 5 play moves outlined here. When first beginning to practice these moves, it can be very helpful to have supportive listening partners. Sign up today and let’s practice “yes, and”ing ourselves together!