by James McLaughlin
Many trainers are used to writing – preserving their experiences, their systems of training, and their worldview in words. What is often forgotten is that there is more than one person in the studio, that the discoveries of the ‘master’ are due to the work of the ‘student’, and that the thoughts, voice, and discoveries of the students might be as valuable to understanding the phenomena of training as those of the trainer. A desire to demonstrate this was the impulse behind this collection of posts from five students who I have led through a version of Phillip Zarrilli’s psychophysical training at the University of Greenwich this year.
The Covid-19 pandemic set up a unique experience for me and the diversity of the students’ reflections shows that I am not alone in this. Alicia Bowditch-Gibbs’ piece shows the compromises made to allow an injured body to acclimatize to the training and the way a new training can resonate with older strata of training in the body. Paul Cole writes of recovering from Covid and the adjustments and innovations he was forced to make to fully engage with the work. To put these into context, I will introduce the student contributions with my own background with the training. In a follow-up post, three more students will reflect on the role of breath, spirit, and neurodiversity in training.
I first came to Phillip Zarrilli’s psychophysical training through the MA in Theatre Practice at the University of Exeter. I had been looking for something to reinvigorate my performance practice after studying drama as literature for five years, completing a two-year Meisner class, and developing a career in improv comedy. To make sure I knew what I was letting myself in for, Phillip told me to read, ‘“On the Edge of a Breath, Looking” Cultivating the Actor’s Bodymind Through Asian Martial/Meditation Arts’ (Zarrilli, 2002: pp.202-220). The approach to performance this described and the training it required was arresting. There is a clarity to the writing that illuminates the complex processes of the actor’s work. It draws support from the traditional practices of yoga, t’ai chi ch’üan, and kalarippayattu to complicate the western distinction of the body and the mind. This philosophical debate is played out around the narrative of Phillip’s own discovery of the training and the insights it yielded to him. I was convinced that I had found the thing that I needed.
Over the year of my MA and a week-long Summer Intensive course I applied myself to the psychophysical training. I was not fit, I was not flexible, and I had to set aside instincts and approaches I had spent the previous decade relying on. I pursued the traditional disciplines to align my body and mind, develop my awareness, and to foster the ability to modulate and direct my energy. Although I was never to attain the virtuosity of others who brought with them more complementary experience, or worked with Phillip for longer, this experience began my own fifteen-year practice in which I have found my relationship with the work evolve and deepen over time. I cannot claim the authority of Phillip who devoted so much of his life to learning these forms from masters in their original cultural contexts and developing them in the studio, but I found that my relationship with the work was my own. This relationship changes with each encounter I have with it depending on the place I inhabit and what mood/feeling/physical state I come with.
Leading others through the training rather than executing solo practice illuminates different aspects of the work. Those I guide show me unconscious habits that have crept into my process over the years and they sometimes identify a principle I hadn’t been able to fully appreciate until that point. Leading the training this year on video calls has brought about further new discoveries, all stimulated by what the students have shown me…
Reflection on the psychophysical training
by Alicia Bowditch Gibbs
Throughout Intercultural Performance, a very important part of the module is the psychophysical training, as it draws upon teachings from different cultures. A combination of yoga, an Indian tradition, t’ai chi which is a Chinese martial art practice, and kalarippayattu which is a South Indian martial art. These teachings require a level of fitness and flexibility with each having physical and mental health benefits. We began learning how useful mediation is, the importance of controlled breathing and the power of hand mudra which appear in varying religions and traditions.
My own personal journey with the training started off slowly as I had an ankle injury, however that didn’t stop me and I learnt the importance of controlled breathing in yoga. In yoga, meditation was a big help to me, especially at the beginning. The training did not just relax me but helped massively with clearing my mind of the pain, the fear and anxiety that I suffer with. For example, Sivananda Saraswati, who was a Hindu spiritual teacher, once said, ‘A yogi measures the span of life by the number of breaths, not by the number of years’ (Sivananda and Singh, n.d), explaining how focusing on your body and especially breathing has many benefits to health rather than being ruled by abstract time. I also learnt to breathe with the mudra Jjana, this mudra is a basic mudra that represents wisdom or knowledge. In this mudra, ‘the thumbs represent a spiritual connection to something ‘higher’ or greater than ourselves. The index fingers represent the individual consciousness, our mind and thoughts that create our own reality’ (Tomlinson, n.d.). The seal you make with the two fingers locks in the energy able to travel through your body.
Once my ankle was better, I was able to engage fully with the training which I was excited to do. I was really excited when we began doing more flexible training as I was a gymnast and I knew I was going to excel in this part of teaching. However, as I have not done any work for a while it was challenging at first. With practice, the salute to the sun sequence warmed, strengthened, and aligned my body so that I was able to gradually do the tree pose, also known as a handstand. This strengthened my arms and core which shows I still have control over my body even after many years. As Amit Ray, the author of Yoga the Science of Well-Being says, ‘Yoga is bringing fitness in body, calmness in mind, kindness in heart and awareness in life’ (Ray, 2016).
In conclusion, even at the start with an ankle injury the training helped me in the present time with strengthening my body, while also benefiting me mentally and aiding me to start a healthier day. Overall, because of the training I feel at peace, stronger and have better well-being. I will be doing these in my daily life after this module, as well as carrying on learning the teachings of yoga, t’ai chi and kalarippayattu.
Sivananda, S. and Singh, A., n.d. Why Is Breath So Important in Yoga? | DoYou. [online] DoYou. Available at: <https://www.doyou.com/why-is-breath-so-important-in-yoga/> [Accessed 31 March 2021].
Ray, A., 2016. Yoga The Science of Well-Being. [Accessed 31 March 2021]
Tomlinson, K., n.d. An introduction to mudras | Ekhart Yoga. [online] Ekhart Yoga. Available at: <https://www.ekhartyoga.com/articles/practice/an-introduction-to-mudras> [Accessed 31 March 2021].
The Importance of Breath Control
by Paul Cole
At the beginning of my psychophysical training sessions (yoga, t’ai chi and kalarippayattu), I was suffering with and then recovering from the coronavirus; short breaths were all I could manage, so I was not able to properly evaluate my breath control during training. I assumed I was struggling to extend my inhalation and exhalation because of the illness and discovered that deep breaths through my mouth instead of my nose were more effective.
When I was back to full health in Week Three, I continued breathing through my mouth but found I was unable to extend my breath to last for complete movements. In the salute to the sun movement during the yoga section I would inhale when raising my arms above my head, but at the halfway point I would have to hold my breath until my arms were in position to perform an exhale movement. I encountered the same problem during t’ai chi, with multiple movements happening in one breath. I was struggling to sync the two and it affected my concentration and the flow of my training. At first, I faked it. The breaths were a subtle action and for every singular deep breath everybody else was taking, I was taking two.
In the first five weeks, I ended each of the psychophysical training sessions out of breath and panting and I began to wonder if fixing my breath control would help me finish the sessions more relaxed and with a more peaceful state of mind. Yoga teacher Gurudev Amritiji Desai says, ‘Breath is the bridge between the body and the mind; and the body and the soul’ (Desai, 2016), so it was important for me to learn techniques in order to build this bridge and benefit from the training as a whole.
When researching techniques, I found an article that explained that the reason breathing through the mouth is easier than through the nose is because there is less resistance. Mouth breathing can create less panic, which equals more control. However, breathing in through the mouth can lead to dehydration and cause shallow chest breathing. In the same article, it states that breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth can and is an acceptable method; ‘by breathing out through pursed lips, you can extend your exhalation through conscious control. Lengthening your exhale will create back-pressure in the lungs that opens the airways and allows more time for oxygen exchange in the air sacs’ (Knoesen, 2020). This seemed like an ideal solution for the issues I had encountered.
In Week Six, I applied this technique and found that I was able to extend my breath, sync it with the movements and finish the training in a calmer state of mind. In the weeks following, I was able to concentrate more on the feelings and movements without being distracted by my lack of breath, resulting in a deeper understanding and a more enriched experience of yoga, t’ai chi and kalarippayattu. While my psychophysical training has been completed, I hope to continue exploring yoga in my own time, implementing the techniques that have benefited me on a personal level.
Desai, Gurudev Amritiji, ‘Breath: The Energy Bridge, AmritYoga at https://amrityoga.org/breath-energy-bridge/ (accessed 09/02/2021)
Knoesen, Jen, ‘Nose Breathing vs Mouth Breathing’. YogaLight at https://yogalight.nz/nose-breathing-vs-mouth-breathing/ (accessed 09/02/2021)
by James McLaughlin
Reading back over these posts now, they have both given me a fuller picture of what the trainees were bringing to the sessions, the way this complicated or resonated with what we were doing together, and new ways that I might lead the training. Respecting the individuality of circumstance and experience in the studio does not dilute ‘pure principles’ I am trying to ‘hand down’ but instead expands the potential of what the training can be. As I seek to develop my own practice and my work with students, the students’ voices in these reflections have been a source of surprise, challenge and inspiration. The follow-up post will contain further diversity of perspective on the same experience, serving to remind me of the complexity of the negotiated relationships of training.