Balancing Your Practice For Strength, Resilience, Creativity, and Freedom

A fundamental skill for being present is increasing your capacity to be with the sensations of your body. One of the gifts of studying the Enneagram is the recognition that although everyone needs to develop presence, each of us is starting from a different place depending on our type, instinctual stack, and life experiences.

So what’s the best way to go about practicing to be more present? It depends.

When you know the Enneagram, you know that:

  • Some Enneagram types more easily gravitate toward structure and discipline while other types more easily gravitate toward movement and expression.
  • Different instinctual drives have different ways of moving in the world:
    • Self-Preservation Instinct tends to be more comfortable with containment and may need more practice expressing and flowing
    • Sexual Instinct tends to gravitate toward expression and outward flow and may need more practice in channeling and containing energy
    • Social Instinct movement can be variable and adaptable, depending on the type it’s paired with and the social situation
  • Other influences in your life (e.g. religious or cultural upbringing, trauma) affect your level of health and will influence the type of practices that are right for you

Periodically, it’s a good idea to reflect on your practices, and to think critically about what you want and need to continue to develop. What gets created when you practice? Why might certain practices or paths be beneficial for you?

Some Personal Reflections on Practice

Over the last 20 years, I’ve worked with many types of spiritual and creative movement. There are some disciplines I’ve found to be core to my particular needs, and others that I’ve tried and discontinued. I still try new things when the need arises, and enjoy seeing what they add to my ability to be present.

Many of the practices and lineages that have stayed with me over time have had a quality of “love at first sight.” I don’t fall in love easily, so it’s been interesting to track what combination of person and philosophy intuitively feels like a good fit for me.

For example, I was excited by the type of yoga I tried with my first teacher, and I ended up studying with her for many years and completing her teacher training. Then I attended a conference with her teacher (the founder of the yoga system she practiced), and he gave me the creeps. I never wanted to become officially certified in his system, and he later fell from grace in the yoga community.

I discovered that just because I like a particular teacher and system of practice doesn’t mean that everything about that system (including its founder!) resonates for me. What I learned about connecting with my body, mind, and heart from my original yoga practice has been invaluable and has endured for nearly two decades. And, I continue to evolve my physical practice as my understanding of my body deepens.

I’ve also allowed myself to be enrolled into trying various practices despite clear warnings from my gut. From those experiments, I discovered that I find some teachings to be intellectually sound, even brilliant, but the teacher or the method of teaching isn’t a good fit for me.

Thinking Critically About Practice

What about you? What can you learn from reflecting on your practices?

Here are some questions that can help you to effectively evaluate where you are, what you need, and how you can balance your ability to move in the world with access to strength, freedom, creativity, and resilience:

  • What qualities are being cultivated through your practices? How do you know?
  • How are your practices reinforcing or challenging the personality habits of your Enneagram type or your dominant Instinctual Drive? What do you need to expand out of your comfort zone?
  • Do your practices enable you to keep developing, or are you in a rut? That is, are you practicing consciously, inhabiting the movement to the best of your ability, or are you addicted to a particular practice or going through the motions?
  • How do your practices regulate the well-being of your physical body? Enable your spiritual development?
  • How do your practices support the development of your centers (body, heart, and mind)? Are you gravitating toward one center (perhaps the center that is “home base” for your type) or leaving anything out?
  • If you’re practicing with a teacher, how is the teacher embodying the practice? Do the teaching methods resonate with you? Why or why not?
  • How do you distinguish a genuine pull or inner knowing about a particular practice from your ideas and images about what constitutes “spiritual practice?”

To further stimulate your thinking, here are two ways of understanding practices at the opposite ends of a spectrum, from very tightly-structured practice to practices that are more free-flowing. There are also in-between practices, which may start by training you in a tight structure and then allow you to innovate or iterate after you’ve mastered the structure. Once you understand both ends of the continuum, you’ll be able to determine what is created by a particular practice and how it might serve you.

Tight Structure Practices

These practices ask you to focus your attention, breath, and movement in very specific ways. Many of them have roots in ancient practices that are designed to create specific physiological and/or spiritual outcomes. Examples of practices with tight structure include:

  • Gurdjieff movements: A broad series of practices aimed at cultivating presence and finer energies. The movements are highly choreographed and impossible to do without full attention.
  • Pranayama: Yogic breath practices that control the pace, location, flow, or volume of breath, such as the quick exhalations of kapalabhati to invigorate and heat the body, or the slow movement of breath through a narrow opening in the mouth (sitali) to cool and calm.
  • Some Zen meditation: Singular focus on the breath with no movement in the body. In some zendos, the monk monitoring the practices carries a wooden stick to “wake you up” if you move or fall asleep.
  • Many Asian movement practices, from aikido and taekwondo to tai chi and qigong: These practices have enormous variations in approach and form depending on the type and lineage of the practice. Some are more vigorous, taught specifically for sparring with partners; others more slow and gentle, for working with one’s own energy. Core to most of them is the cultivation and movement of qi (vital energy), mental focus, physical discipline, and working with physical leverage and balance.
  • Some yoga asana practices like Ashtanga or Bikram yoga: Ashtanga yoga has three series of structured poses that are practiced six days a week; the primary series must be mastered before moving to intermediate and advanced series. Bikram is a prescribed series of 26 poses done in heated rooms that Bikram refers to as “torture chambers.” (Disclaimer: Although these are good examples of tight structure yoga practices, I’m not a fan of either.)

There are many benefits to engaging in the discipline of a tight-structure practice. When you are caught in the trance of personality, your mind, body, and heart move toward what you know and prefer rather than what might best serve you. Having a tight structure teaches you to be faithful to practicing regardless of your preferences. It builds strength and resilience to face life however it shows up for you. It teaches you to gather, channel, and refine energy into specific forms, and to move in ways that correspond to Essential patterns of movement.

The downside of tight-structure practices is that if you engage with them without consciousness, discipline can harden into rigidity. You may experience expanded spiritual or energetic states, but injure your body or lose your ability to discern whether the practice is truly beneficial. You may become attached to the discipline and “one right way of practicing” rather than finding the essential freedom within the structure.

Simple Frame Practices

Simple Frame practices allow for exploration from a basic orientation or principle. These practices can draw from multiple disciplines: some spiritual in origin, some stemming from the creative arts. The outcomes tend to be more variable, individualized, and unpredictable. Examples of practices with simple frames include:

  • Integrative Breathwork: Simple frame is “breathe in a circular motion, with no pause between inhale and exhale.” Done with an experienced practitioner, either in individual or group sessions, this practice generates states of non-ordinary consciousness that guide you to whatever needs to be attended to in your body, heart, or mind.
  • Latihan: A Javanese practice where the simple frame is to stand and “surrender to the Divine and follow ‘what arises from within.’” Done in groups, although each individual focuses on his or her own experience.
  • Contact improvisation: Movement improvisation practiced in pairs. The simple frame, from a definition developed in the 70s: “the dancers remain in physical touch, mutually supportive and innovative, meditating upon the physical laws relating to their masses: gravity, momentum, inertia, and friction.” Allows exploration of movement in dynamic response to a partner.
  • Automatic writing: Simple frame is “keep your pen moving.” Allows raw expression, feeling, and insight to arise through you without the censorship of the inner critic.
  • Sensate exploration: Simple frame is “use touch to explore the sensations of your body.” A great practice to connect with your sensuality and/or sexuality.

Simple frame practices allow you to explore how your energy naturally wants to move and where it gets constricted or stuck. They create a basic container of focused attention and energy where you can surrender to the unfolding of movement in real time. Simple frame practices are useful for learning to increase and expand energy without censorship. They are a space to experience a broad range of sensations and feelings without judgment, and to build a felt sense of how you can express your energy in creative response to life.

The downside of simple frame practices is that if you lose the frame or the boundary, you lose your ability to integrate these energies. Simple frame practices have the possibility of encouraging catharsis over actual growth. You may become attached to “spiritual experiences” that have high energetic charges without bringing this energy effectively into your life, or to “doing what I want/what feels right” without attending to what is actually needed in yourself or the other. Without clearly-established boundaries, simple frame partner practices may generate unwanted physical or sexual contact.

Using the Enneagram to Evaluate Your Practices

Whatever you choose to practice with your body, heart, and mind has significant effects on how you show up in the world. Take the time to reflect on what you know about your personality patterns and to discover what practices can support you to cultivate your connection to something deeper and more substantial in yourself. When you bring your conscious attention to the type of movement that you practice, you enable yourself to expand who you’re capable of being in the world.

Artwork: “Birthright” by Julie Harris

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