Have you ever heard the term Combinatory Play? One can look at it as a process in which one takes different things (especially seemingly unrelated things) and combines them to spark new ideas and create new things—sometimes surprisingly useful things! It can also be a process by which we then tease things apart and put them together again in a wholly new, and perhaps even better, way.
The term Combinatory Play is often attributed to Albert Einstein. Here is one definition:
"Einstein described his scientific method as combinatory play. He famously used thought experiments, which are essentially elaborate analogies, to come up with some of his greatest discoveries. By bringing together what we know and what we don't know through analogy, metaphorical thinking strikes the spark that ignores discovery."
-James Geary, TED Talk (“Metaphorically Speaking”)
Clearly Einstein was unusual in his brilliant capacity to engage in combinatory play. But we, too, can engage in this process in our own tiny ways.
I am about to release the first installment of a series of video sequences called “Playful Practice with the Chair.” This project started as a curious encounter between my yoga chair, and me during one evening’s practice—a little story of Combinatory Play. But first—let's look at the chair.
A yoga chair is not at all like a human body. For one thing, it is made of metal. And a chair is usually an object we sit on. In yoga we might use the chair more creatively. We might sit on it, fold over it, stand on it, invert our bodies over it, or use it to support our bodies in numerous ways. It can help one experience the shape and architecture (both inner and outer) of a given asana. The chair can provide a type of scaffolding that allows the practitioner to relax the effort that might sometimes be necessary to do the pose in an unsupported manner and so pay closer attention to the breath and nervous system. This release of unnecessary effort can increase both proprioception (the ability to sense where our body parts are in relation to one another and the environment) and interoception (the ability to sense what is happening or arising within the body, especially in the viscera). The chair can help one engage, strengthen or enliven areas that might lack awareness or where there is weakness, stiffness, or muscular atrophy.
The evening in question was one in which I found my body and mind actively seeking space. I began to follow this inclination to make space in my body, and to tease apart some of the layers of bodily tissue that felt sticky and sluggish. I knew that space was in there, luminous space, and I wanted to try and uncover it. As is often the case when something feels illusive or unknowable, going with what is known or directly perceivable can serve as a point of departure. In my case, it was the combination of my perception of my own body (in that moment) and a familiar object called the yoga chair. And, of course, the force of gravity.
As I draped my body over the chair, anchoring certain areas while moving other areas, the force of gravity inevitably joined in the dance as the major player that it always is. A slow, relatively quiet dance of side bending, twisting, forward and backward folding movements presented themselves in this seminal dance with the chair. And that evening, in the peace and solitude of my little yoga space, an unexpected, delightful, and wholly new relationship was born. I had used the chair in my practice for years, and sometimes in novel ways—but not like this. This was different. It felt organic, intimate, private, and yes—new! The chair was no longer just a chair, it was no longer a fixed entity upon which to sit or do my usual poses. And my body no longer felt like a mere vessel meant to carry my brain and vital organs about in the world—or execute yoga postures with attention toward alignment. Both were mutable, malleable, simultaneously purposeful and playful. We were more than our form. And our form was transformable, as was our purpose.
This combinatory play experiment continued and a few months later, I found myself jet lagged in Warsaw, Poland. Unable to sleep, I sat staring at what was a bright pink yoga chair that had been given to me by my hosts in Warsaw to use in my yoga practice. I’m not sure if it was the color of the chair, the altered mind-state due to the combination of jet lag and a new city, but yet another chair dance began. This one was also slow. But this time the chair and I were completely down on the ground. Once again, the chair was not a chair at all—as I folded it up (and folded myself into it) it became a pink object with infinite potential. This combinatory play resulted in a yet another new relationship with my body (especially with my femurs, or thigh bones) my breath (especially my diaphragm and deep abdominal muscles) and the ground. This combinatory play brought me totally down and into the earth, which was where I belonged, especially that night. I needed to feel my bones and my breath down on the ground, in Warsaw. That quiet and playful process helped me move down and into the sleep that I needed.
When we combine different things (objects, ideas, inclinations) we begin an experiment in combinatory play. We actively engage in the realm of relationship. We play with the parts, combining them in different ways. And we get the direct perception that we are a part in a whole that is indeed greater than the sum of its parts. We are participating in what Walt Whitman called "the powerful play."
I have explored using the chair as a partner in every pose category and in just about every pose and variation I can imagine. The experiment, like all practice, is ongoing. The sequences in this video series represent a sampling of these explorations. And still, there are many days when I don't use the chair at all in my practice. Because it isn't ultimately about the chair, or the prop, or me. It is about the process of engaging in relationship, being a part of the "powerful play" that Whitman alluded to.
I wanted to share these experiments, because they were meaningful for me, and seem to have been meaningful for many of the students with whom I have shared pieces of this work. The students have been as much a part of this project as anything else. Because teaching, and learning, are also forms of combinatory play. The teacher/student relationship provides novel combinations that can ignite discovery. All these parts and people (or tiny stories) coming together in one space. Or, as the poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote: "The universe is not made of atoms; it's made of tiny stories."
This project has been a huge learning process and a labor of love for me and my amazing artistic collaborator and director, Jamey Welch. We are so grateful to have been able to include the wonderful musical contribution of Kevin Courtney. We were extremely fortunate to have been able to film in the beautiful golden space that is YogaShanti NYC. And the teachings of B.K.S. Iyengar and his senior students have provided immeasurable inspiration. And special thanks to Jen Roy, my amazing administrative assistant.
It is our wish that these explorations provide a context for which you can cultivate a sense of possibility in your own practice, body and mind. And that you will be inspired to begin your own experiments in Combinatory Play!
That the powerful play goes
on, and you will contribute a
-Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass