The coach who writes my programs recently included handstand play on one of my hand balancing days. “Set a timer for ten minutes. Play with different entries to handstands. Try and catch the balance for 3 seconds. Note which variations feel interesting.”
This particular aspect of my movement practice made my Tuesday. I’ve been practicing handstands consistently for a year. I have spent time developing the strength, endurance, and flexibility needed to do a basic handstand. This can be thought of as the foundational work.
At some point, progress slowed, which is what happens during the foundational work. We tinkered with volume, and while I continued to refine the basic skill of handstands, I wasn’t finding them quite as interesting as I had when I was noticing lots of improvements.
We (humans and other mammals) are hardwired to seek reward. There are actual chemicals that are released when we successfully complete something we perceive as challenging. One way to stay interested is by trying something challenging. Each time you succeed, you get a shot of dopamine, which makes you try again.
Playing with handstand entries is interesting because I’m not always successful. Because I am me and I pay attention to things like the quality of my hands against the floor and how I place my hands on the floor, varying the hand positions adds a fascinating layer to the practice. There is so much I can learn about my tendencies simply by paying attention to the experience.
There is a theory in contemporary psychology call the Big Five personality theory that looks at five traits and how they shape a person’s reactions in different situations. One of the traits is something called “openness,” which indicates pretty much exactly what it sounds like it would indicate—how open someone is to new experiences.
Otherwise known as “openness to experience,” this specific trait means you have the ability to recognize and appreciate the beauty of your surroundings and the beauty of an artistic composition. People who exhibit openness are aware of their emotions, curious, and lean towards nontraditional values. You know the person who can look at a room and see six different ways to use that room that have nothing to do with the fact that it’s a kitchen? That’s someone who probably scores high on openness to experience.
These are the same people who can come up with 25 different ways to use a dry wash cloth. They see value in novelty and view the world in a more fluid way. The result: they don’t usually respond well to rigid rules and too much structure doesn’t suit them.
Like everything, too much novelty seeking can prevent the foundational work from taking place. Attaining a level of expertise or competence in any skill, whether it’s movement, writing, or learning how to sew requires spending time getting really, really good at the basics. And this is based less in novelty and more on that shot of dopamine you receive when you perform the skill well.
But if you never leave the rigidity of the basics, you stop seeing all of the possibilities available within a movement, a phrase, or a piece of cloth.
In the course I am taking on “The Science of Creativity,” we learned that openness is a key personality trait in people who create throughout the lifespan. If you don’t feel like you possess a high degree of openness, there’s good news—you can develop more openness through practice.
Let’s say you regularly go for a walk at the same time every day. One way to begin exposing yourself to openness is once a week go for a walk at a different time. Or, instead of walking the same route you always do, do the route in reverse (this only works if your route is looped). Or maybe even try walking part of your walk backwards. Or sideways.
You can do something similar with your strength training routine. If you always do dumbbell rows, change the way your hand is rotated as you are rowing. Or change the angle of your body as you row. Or try it standing. Or try it with a sand bag or a kettlebell or a dumbbell. Or perform rows after squats instead of before squats. These small changes to a very familiar movement can make the movement feel new again.
I strongly believe movement should be rewarding. That occurs when you have the basic strength to support your life and you have the flexibility to move a little differently and play. Maintaining openness to experience throughout your lifespan can lead to less rigid—and more fluid—thinking and movement.