Play is a topic that is often left out of the conversation in fitness.
This is in spite of the fact that experimentation, exploration and going off script is at the core of many physical training disciplines—dance, martial arts, acrobatics, any sport you play. However, play is not just free form improvisation or what children do on the playground; it requires a foundation in what you are practicing.
In this episode, we get into a subject that is near and dear to our hearts and some of our other parts: how to play with yourself.
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Andy: [00:00:00] All right. All right. Welcome to the Autonomy Show. My name is Andy and I'm here with Ryan and today we're going to be talking about a subject that is near and dear to our hearts and some of our other parts: how to play with yourself.
Ryan: [00:00:12] I'm ready to play with myself. Let's do it.
Andy: [00:00:14] So play is something that tends to get left out of the conversation in fitness a lot of times, because a lot of the training methods that we use are based on really reductive ideas of trying to isolate strength from other activities, trying to isolate flexibility from other activities. We treat a lot of it like a research project rather than an actual physical endeavor that we're trying to improve.
So we've taken the play out of a lot of fitness, but if you look at a lot of physical training disciplines, like dance and martial arts, acrobatics, many sports, obviously sports, we say you play a sport, but there's this idea of playfulness and experimentation and exploration and going off script.
That's part of these things, improvisation that is part of these movement disciplines that we don't include as often in our fitness training. And so that's something that is very valuable to us. And it's very valuable to humans in general. It's not just because it's fun, but it's because it makes the things you're practicing actually practical and useful to you.
Ryan: [00:01:24] Yeah, absolutely. And the thing is where when we were kids, we knew how to do this and we wouldn't overthink it, but as we get older we tend to just think that we don't know how to do it. Having an actual framework for being able to properly play with yourself is something that I think that a lot of people would greatly benefit from. And this is something that we're going to be talking about.
Andy: [00:01:45] But when we say that play is something that you know how to do as a kid, it's important to also understand that it doesn't mean that we should stop being adults. And it doesn't mean that kids know everything there is to know about how to play productively because kids aren't trying to be productive.
Kids aren't the models of how we want to be physically as adults. For one thing, they're anatomically different in terms of proportion, levels of strength, bone hardness, things like that.
And also they don't have, for both better and for worse, they don't have the muscular control that adults have. But what that also means is they don't have the set patterns that we have.
Ryan: [00:02:24] Yeah.
Play - What is it in training?
Andy: [00:02:25] Yeah. So I think that's maybe a good place to start with. Maybe some of the beliefs that people have about play that maybe we should start by challenging or putting in a greater context. And I think one of the first ones to really address is the idea that play is either for kids or that it's best achieved by modeling kids. And I think that though kids are great at play, obviously kids do come equipped with an instinct for play. For adults trying to play like kids is probably not necessarily going to help us achieve our goals, unless our goals are just to have fun and laugh a little bit.
Ryan: [00:03:07] Yeah. I know what you're getting at. It's just basically just farting around goofing around and really thinking of that playground kind of thing, where we're just going from here to there and just doing random kind of stuff, whatever we feel like at the moment. And that's not really what we're talking about.
And that's just one example though, is that goofing around sort of thing. We can also look at complete improv in the sense that, just feel like doing something right now, you're just going to do it. That is good. I think that it is good to have that from time to time.
Within a practice portion, when we talk about practice we're talking about our workouts and things like that, using play as a way to help us to further learn about particular movements. And so that's really what we're after rather than just this random sort of thing, where we just wake up and all of a sudden, during the middle of our workout decide we're going to do something completely different from what our general theme is. And so there's no structure, there's no plan. There's no nothing involved with that. That's not really what we're talking about here.
Andy: [00:04:00] I think it's important to understand too is when you look at somebody who is a skillful mover or somebody who has a lot of physical control or is athletic, or has spent a long time doing a sport, if you look at somebody playing rugby and you watch them improvise a solution to an event or a play that they have never experienced before.
And we see these things. In that context, we understand it that this is somebody who has a lot of skills, so they're able to do that. And I think that it's important to, keep in mind as somebody who is learning, as we all are, or as somebody who's trying to improve something that just telling someone, "Oh, just improvise, just play. Just experiment," is not really giving a lot of guidance to people that don't have years of practice doing things.
If I just take a guitar and stick it in someone's hands and they've never really played before. I say, "Oh it's so fun. Just improvise."
Ryan: [00:04:58] Yeah.
Andy: [00:04:59] They're going to look at me like I'm the biggest asshole in the planet.
Ryan: [00:05:02] Exactly. And that's the thing here is really what we're getting at is the fact that you have to have these fundamental things. And you also have to have the experience of practicing those things for quite a while.
And coming back to the athlete side of things as well, when you're looking at a rugby player and he's able to play and do something that he possibly has never done before. That's simply a result of all the hours of his practicing specific techniques, conditioning and everything. Having that experience of doing that over the years. That's when it happens. And so that in that term, yes, everything is going to come back to the practice side of things.
And it would be not only irresponsible, but we'd sound like a dick if we were just to tell somebody, "Hey, here's some movement stuff that we can do in a seminar. We're just going to start off just by playing around and seeing what you do." If you don't know how to use those things, how the heck are you expected to be able to even try to explore those movements?
And so that's why just in terms of not having a plan and not having those fundamental movements to be able to pull from those is not going to allow you to have a good experience when you play.
Andy: [00:06:11] I think one of the most important things when we're talking about, what play really is as opposed to the way that we think about it is we need to not limit ourselves to the experiences of play we had as children or expectations we have about play being this happy, lucky freedom zone because the hardest thing to recognize, and especially when we talk about autonomy, is most people are not prepared for autonomy.
Most people don't have the equipment, the experience to really make a strong decision about what they need to be doing right way to do it. That's why developing physical autonomy is hard.
That's why you need a GMB in your life to teach you these things. Freedom is not something that you can just, "Oh, just have freedom. Oh, it's very easy."
Just saying, "Oh just play is not helpful." So we need to look, what are the real characteristics? It's not being childlike.
It's not just improvising. What are the actual characteristics of useful productive play for a grown ass adult who's trying to get better at using their bodies?
Ryan: [00:07:12] Absolutely man.
Andy: [00:07:13] And I think the two main ones are that one is that it's less structured than practice and less goal-driven than practice. In a sport you're playing to get a goal, but in between starting and the goal, there's a lot of things that happen. And most play isn't aimed at a specific outcome. It's just to see what happens. And there are guardrails and structures, but you're relaxing a lot of the safeties in play.
Ryan: [00:07:42] And you're using things that you already know, and that's really a big thing with that. And again, coming back to the earlier topic of where you already need to know how to do some of those things in order for you to start moving beyond looking at those specific things. And that's what we're looking at it.
Using exploration in order to move to slightly beyond our comfort zone in those things that we're already comfortable with, doing it in a way that for one is safe. And then also has a little bit of structure in terms of it's not, again like Andy just said having a goal necessarily. It's just taking something that we're already comfortable with and moving a little bit beyond it to see what happens.
Andy: [00:08:22] So the way that we use play in a way that we try to teach play in our programs, and when we work with individuals too, what's really helpful for someone trying to incorporate play as part of their training or practice is the idea of learning to push their limits, not necessarily against their capacity for strength or endurance but pushing their limits of what you're able to do with that and pushing them in a place that is not tightly controlled.
It's not just pushing more weight in a linear bench press pattern. It's not just doing a higher jump or crawling for longer time. It's finding a neat way to do things. Finding different ways to test it out. And what are the edges around which you have control and where you start to lose control.
Finding those points where you don't have full control, because part of really developing confidence and part of the developing confidence physically is knowing where you're safe and where you're not. And to find where that safety ends, you have to get to the limit of it while you're moving.
How to Play Effectively, Examples
Ryan:[00:09:34] And to give just a super quick example. Let's say that you can already do a handstand. And you can do a handstand let's say like for 10 seconds or something like that, and your legs are straight and your toes are pointed and you've been practicing this for quite a while.
Play in this regard could be, "Okay. I already have this handstand. What if I were to open my legs up just a little bit, what would happen to the structure?" Great, you're playing. That is really what we're getting after. Sounds super simple, but the thing is you're not aiming for a particular shape.
You're not trying to get a one-arm handstand or anything like that. You're simply taking something that you know, and shifting or maybe moving just outside of comfortable with in order to see what happens. By playing in this way, you're actually going to learn quite a bit. And it's going to help you for when you go back to that previous movement.
It could just simply be a matter of up until now you've done really well at being able to keep your toes pointed and everything like that. Okay, great. Let's relax your legs. Just simply relax your legs to see what happens. That way you're still in a safe environment. You're just slightly pushing your boundaries and your limits there in order to explore.
And this is just one example, but this might be an easy way for you to see where we're going at when we talk about play.
Andy: [00:10:47] Yeah. And another like kind of helpful metaphor is maybe take it outside of a human, physical body context. Like from a mechanical perspective, play literally means looseness. If you're looking at part of a machine, if something's got a little play in it, it means literally loose.
It can move around. It can wiggle. So that's what we're doing is we're relaxing and allowing a little bit of wiggle into things. Get a little wiggle in there, it’s good for you.
So how do we do this effectively? How do we break this down as a bit of a process? And I think the most important thing is just to keep play in its place not necessarily as a goal, but to keep it as a foil to practice.
Practice is where you try to have optimal controlled environments, controlled inputs. You wanna have a level floor if you're practicing handstands, right? You want to have a little bit of padding if you fall or whatever, right?
Practice is where you have everything optimal and you're trying to do it perfectly. You know exactly what your next step is and perfect doesn't mean necessarily goal. It means perfect for your next step. And so you're just trying to get as close to that next step for you under optimal circumstances.
Play is where you relax optimization and you allow more wiggle in there. So if you just try to play on its own, and sometimes in our programs, we'll have a session that's only play or only practice. But as a whole, we try to balance both of these two types of training because we find that they're really complementary.
So play, first of all, foremost, if you're trying to figure out how to incorporate play, think of it as a foil to whatever skills you're practicing. Look at the things that you're really practicing your form and technique on. And those are the areas where you want to be trying to use play as a complement to that practice.
Ryan: [00:12:42] Yeah. Yeah. And again, this is great. I gave the example of the handstand where we were practicing our handstand as perfectly as possible, so that when we play, we could just say what if I bend my toes.
And this could go for any sort of movement that you already have control with. But to bring this back again, to what you said, it does need to have that controlled environment so that when you do slightly go out of that comfort zone, you're not going to hurt yourself.
And so this could be if you're using a locomotion movement like the bear and just simply saying again, "What if I turn my hands out to the side when I'm doing the bear? Or "If up until now I had my legs completely straight pushing my butt up into the air, what if I were to drop my hips just a little bit?"
And literally could just be just a tiny bit in order to explore, but it's basically really what you were practicing earlier. And so you already have that particular skill down that you're working on, or you're trying to get at as perfectly as possible so that when you go to play with it again, you're comfortable, you're going to be safe when you're doing it. And you're simply trying to explore a particular variation of that movement that you were practicing.
Andy: [00:13:41] That's key, just like we said earlier with the guitar. Play happens after you have already a little bit of experience of the basics. And I can remember the first time I actually worked with a teacher for guitar, I had been playing for three or four years already.
And I was, yeah, I was getting pretty good. I had a pretty good feel and ear for things, and my fingers knew basically what to do, but I didn't know anything about that. I basically knew what to do, and then he taught me some different modes and scales and said, practice these things. And then he did the cool part that got me to play is he played some chords that were in those right modes where I literally could not hit a wrong note if I tried.
He knew what he was doing. He's a good guy, but it was like, "Okay, now play an A minor G major D Dorian. You'll play through these modes and I'm going to, I'm going to hit this thing. Just hit all the notes that you learn all up and down the next and these things, and you cannot screw up."
And that's what play is because I had already practiced all of those things. And then I could not screw up no matter what order tempo arrangement that I put them in. I could not screw it up at that point. And that's what play really is. So you can't just start from zero with play, right? You have to have something to play with.
Ryan: [00:14:55] There you go. Yeah.
Maintaining Safety in the Unknown
Andy: [00:14:56] Yeah. Yeah. But then also I think Ryan, you brought up a really important part is safety and both physical safety in terms of knowing that you have the strength or the mobility to be able to do something safely or that you're not injured or whatever, but also the psychological safety, which becomes a huge thing in inverted things like handstands or also acrobatic movements and things like that.
Yeah. Because you can't learn things efficiently or enjoyably in an unsafe environment. You'll be too stressed out or worried about what if I fall or what if this happens or what if I can't do it and you just won't let yourself learn from that productively.
Ryan: [00:15:37] Absolutely. And related to that fear and going into the next thing here also is looking at the complexity of that particular thing that you're doing, and actually trying to reduce that complexity, because you are going to have that fear because you're exploring something that you possibly never done before.
And so if you're trying to push yourself at a level that's way beyond mentally where you think you should be there, then it's going to make it even worse in terms of you actually being able to explore. You're not going to be able to do it. That's why reducing the complexity of that particular movement or whatever you're doing as well as the number of things that you're trying to do.
And so when you play, let's just look at one single thing, one single thing that you can explore and do it in a manner that's going to allow you to be fully aware and in control of being able to do that. And so like your teacher, he really just said, "It's just this, and we're just going to cover this one single topic that you've already practiced, but here's something that's going to go over the top of it and I'm doing it with you. So now you can get that."
Andy: [00:16:40] And he provided an environment in which I didn't have to worry about anything. I couldn't screw it up. All I had to do was explore what he had given.
Ryan: [00:16:50] And that's it. And that's really it. And that's what we're getting at is that, everything that we talked up until now, it's having that knowledge, if you will, the experience of the things, and then just simply taking and looking at it in a way that you know that you can expand upon with one single theme and do it in a way that is safe, yes.
Andy: [00:17:11] And that's not to say that play should be a hundred percent safe because there was no such thing as a hundred percent.
Ryan: [00:17:16] Yeah.
Andy: [00:17:17] There's always going to be this tension between the unknown, which is part of what play is an open-ended, you don't know where you're going. And also the feeling that you can still get back to, you can still get back to safety.
Ryan: [00:17:31] Yeah. That's good. That's a good way to bring it up.
Andy: [00:17:33] You may be in water that's over your head, but you know that you're close enough to the side of the pool that you'll be alright.
Ryan: [00:17:39] There you go. That's a great way of looking at it. Exactly. Yeah.
Andy: [00:17:42] Yeah. So it's a balance. And like you mentioned Ryan, reducing the complexity, reducing the speed can help you bring a little bit more feeling of safety, even to things that you've never done before. And then you can ramp those back up once you do feel that you're in control enough to then start pushing a little bit more.
But you keep that gradual and it allows you to be in control of that balance, that tension between safety and the unknown. Exploring that tension is what play really should be.
Ryan: [00:18:16] Yeah. And yeah, just a couple notes. It's keeping an open mind. I think really when you are thinking about play again, we're not trying to nail something. It's really about noticing and simply being aware so that you can adjust. And then also bring that awareness back to the other things that you were practicing.
This is why, one reason why play is so important is because the fact that you are trying to explore just a little bit outside of your limits there is going to make the thing that you are practicing even better. And actually in some cases, a lot easier because now, " Oh, I can go and I've expanded it just a little bit."
So you actually come back to something that feels even more comfortable and that you're more familiar to you.
Andy: [00:19:01] Because what play is not is just trying to mess around until you get to a goal.
Ryan: [00:19:07] Exactly. It's not work, right? Yeah. Yep.
Andy: [00:19:09] But what it really is messing around and keeping an open mind and noticing opportunities. Noticing when you turn your hand a different way, noticing when you shift your weight a different way, noticing when you speed up or slow down, does that give you an opportunity to?
For example, if you're just, if you're doing a bear walk, and you slow it way down and you notice that there's a spot, like you're moving your hand and there's a spot where you're balanced. And instead of putting your hand where you always put it, maybe you could put it out to the side further.
And just, you notice, if you keep an open mind, you notice that there's an opportunity, a door that isn't there at your normal speed that you could open up and walk through now that you're slowing it down and see what's on the other side of that. That is what play is practically in motion while you are, as a foil to the practice of the skill.
Ryan: [00:19:55] Perfect.
Andy: [00:19:56] And noticing these things as they come up and then you can adapt to them, adjust to them, experiment with it. That's where you really learn, not just the steps of a movement, not just what it should feel like or look like or the correct form. This is where you really get in its pants and feel around and find out what's down there. Yes. That is how.
Ryan: [00:20:20] I'm trying not to laugh, but yes.
Andy: [00:20:23] But you have to get inside the movement, not to be crude.
Ryan: [00:20:27] No, but that no I totally. And that's the thing. And the more familiar you can get with what you're playing with the better off everything else is going to be, and that's really where we're going with that and it's options. That's the thing is that it gives you more options.
But again, when you go back to that previous movement, whatever you're practicing, it's just going to be better. It really is. Really is.
Andy: [00:20:50] Yeah. The main thing is that I am sick of people saying, "Oh, we should all just play like children." No we shouldn't. Unless you're playing with children, in which case, please play like children, enjoy it. That's whole different thing, but that's not what we're talking about.
We have things as adults that we know that children didn't know, at least I fucking hope so. If you peaked at three and it's all been downhill since then, I'm sorry. I am sorry, but the rest of us, we've got a few edges on kids, so don't just try to emulate children. Think with your big adult brain and use all the things that you've learned and developed since then.
And you'll learn to play lovingly with yourself as a full grown ass adult.
Ryan: [00:21:30] Yeah. Yeah.
Andy: [00:21:32] There's a lot of ways you can define it, but just remember that play is the other side of the coin of practice. These two things are like peanut butter and chocolate, Hall & Oates. They go together. You can try to separate them, but they're just better. They're better when they're between the same slices of bread together.
Ryan: [00:21:52] Oh, this is really good. Yeah. Yeah. So basically what we're getting at is play with yourself every single day because you'll enjoy life much more, much, much more.
Andy: [00:22:03] Yeah, that's it. That's the end of the show. Thank you for listening.
Ryan: [00:22:06] Thanks for listening everybody.