Are you aware of the many types of systems for observing, understanding, and communicating about human movement? Have you ever studied any of these, to find it can offer insights that can be beneficial in your yoga instructor work? Laban Movement Analysis (“LMA”) is one such system. Like yoga, it regards people as complex systems of emotions, thoughts, physical qualities/tendencies, and more – all aspects that are engaged in constant interaction with one another.
Rudolf Laban was a German choreographer and movement theorist in the early 1900’s. During WWII, he analyzed factory workers’ movements to determine ways in which they could perform their daily work more efficiently – and thus increase their output. From this, and further investigations, he created a system for analyzing, classifying, and modifying human movements. The result is Laban Movement Analysis, a large body of work that fields such as concert dance, Somatics, and Dance/Movement Therapy call upon. What might it contribute to yoga practice and education?
If yoga instructors and practitioners have a basic knowledge of LMA’s rudimentary principles, they have more tools for understanding and describing certain aspects of yogic practice (in asana, pranayama, and the physical placement aspects of meditation). I will describe the applications of the Effort System in this article, and space considerations (including socio-emotional meanings of movement in separate planes) in a separate article.
Laban’s 4-part Effort System can offer a unique way of finding new dimensions in movement. Those can help to deepen one’s yoga practice, or simply lead a yoga practitioner find the qualities that are more in tune with their needs (physical, spiritual, mental, et cetera) on any given day. One’s sense of Space can be on a spectrum from Direct to Indirect. Direct space is the quality one has when zeroing in on someone across the room whom one was looking for. In contrast, a feather or leaf floating to the ground travels in an Indirect manner. Such images can guide practitioners to have a clearer, stronger drishti in balance poses. Conversely, in Mountain Pose, we often guide students to close their eyes or keep a “soft” (Indirect, as another way of thinking about it) gaze. That gaze can have that same quality of a floating leaf or feather.
One’s quality of Time can vary from Quick to Sustained. Rushing down the street, late for an appointment, one moves in a Quick manner. That same person walking more slowly (yet continuously), such as when strolling on an unhurried Sunday, moves in a Sustained quality. We can encourage students to have a more Sustained quality – with more ease and flow – in asana practice, through guiding them to finding subtle movements of expansion and grounding. Those include finding length in the spine on inhales, and depth further into postures on exhales. Moving in a Sustained quality can also help practitioners to not move so fast that they lose connection with their body’s initial reactions to certain postures, and any adjustments that they make to those postures. In the worst cases, such lack of awareness can lead practitioners to injure themselves. On the other hand, thinking of certain pranayama exercises as Quick, with corresponding images (as described), could be a useful mental framework. Those include Dog’s Breath and Kapalabhati (“Skull Shining”) breath.
One can have a quality of Weight ranging from Light to Strong. As with all these Effort system “spectrums”, is it about one’s relationship with weight – managing to resist gravity’s pull or giving in to it. For instance, a child skipping through a meadow – seemingly just about ready to float to the sky - has a Light quality. A parent telling him that it’s time to leave, her crossed arms and rooted feet showing her frustration, will have a Strong quality. Yoga students can feel more grounded in standing postures through visualizing having strength through their feet and legs. At the same time, they can find more expansion in the upper body through imagining having lightness in their torsos.
One’s sense of Flow can range from Free to Bound. Free defines relative lack of muscular effort, and Bound conveys its presence. On a day off, without significant pressures, we likely move in a Free manner. Back in another stressful workday, however, tension leads us to move in a Bound quality. For the most part, a balance between Free and Bound qualities can support yoga practitioners in executing asana practices that have clear alignment and necessary muscular engagement, yet lack limiting tension. It could be a useful way for yoga students to conceptualize that balance as where they are “free” from muscular effort that does not serve them in their practices, such effort as something that they do not have to be “bound” to – not without their consent! Maybe, just maybe, they might find that quality on their mats - and then be able to bring more of it into their lives off of them.
A key part of the system is the fact that at any given point, we move with a certain level of each of these qualities in combination – to result in our overall movement and self-presentation at that time. If we can see that a student has an effective balance of Free and Bound Flow, but could benefit from a more Sustained quality as they transition from asana to asana, we might have clearer and more helpful language with which to guide him/her to a more fulfilling practice. As always, dear readers, I would love to hear your thoughts on the topic, and if you have further questions about Laban Movement Analysis. Stay tuned for a following article on special considerations of LMA’s Space theory in yoga instruction. Namaste!
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