Feel here, sense now!
Discovering the hidden treasures of Awareness Through the Body.
Among other, ATB offers sensorial, tangible experiences of attention in the body, so that by discovering how attention feels, and how to use it, one could begin to get to know yourself.
How is attention felt in the body? How does it impact the body? What is consciousness? How, through the body, can we have access to a deeper sense of self?
An interview of AVToday with Aloka and Joan about their approach to awareness in the body and how they have initiated this much appreciated programme to develop this in children and adults.
Feel here, sense now!
Discovering the hidden treasures of Awareness Through the Body
How did both of you become involved with movement, and how did that impact your relationship to your bodies?
Aloka: My work with the body began with Hatha Yoga when I came to live in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram forty seven years ago. A few years later, in the Ashram, I started to learn Rolf Gelewski’s improvisation techniques and Tai chi, as well as breathing techniques. It was by working with these different approaches in combination that I began to develop my own understanding and insights on exploring and expanding consciousness by using the body. My training as a Watsu therapist added a lot to my research on embodying consciousness. In the past, I thought that I would never be able to live without dancing. By plunging deeply into Awareness Through the Body (ATB), however, I feel I have discovered another type of dance. While there isn’t much movement outside, there is a tremendous amount of movement inside the body and the being.
Joan: My relationship with movement started with Judo. It was the first time I got in touch with the sense that working with the body, and specifically with attention in the body, was important for me. Over the years, I worked with several traditions of bodywork and mind control, including the Gnostic tradition, Silva mind control, Aikido, Taoism, Chi gun. I learned Shiatsu and worked with people trained in Somatic disciplines, like Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais. Over the years I went deeper into several body work techniques including Strain-counterstrain, Hanna Somatics and Living Somatics. This wide canvas of experience led me to see the common threads that these traditions offer us about ways of inhabiting the body consciously. I started working with people, exploring questions like: How is attention felt in the body? How does it impact the body? What is consciousness? How, through the body, can we have access to a deeper sense of self?
What motivated both of you to develop Awareness Through the Body (ATB) courses?
Aloka: Our process began in 1992, when we were asked by some teachers at Transition School if we could work with their students to help them improve their posture. As we began interacting with the children, we realized that in addressing alignment we first needed to support them in developing some basic but essential faculties, such as the capacity to sense and listen to what was happening in their body, sustained attention, concentration and relaxation. Soon our concerns extended beyond good posture. We began to
ask ourselves how we could enable children to become more self-aware. How could we empower them to better manage their emotions, exercise self- control, and develop the faculties of self-direction and responsibility. At the very core, we asked ourselves how we could help them develop the faculty of attention, the fundamental building block of our experience. How could we offer them sensorial, tangible experiences of attention in their bodies, so that by discovering how attention felt, and how to use it, they could begin to get to know themselves. This became the foundation of the work in ATB.
Isn’t attention at the foundation of all disciplines, all approaches to the body?
Joan: Yes! Yet, often disciplines overlook it. They assume that you have an inherent capacity to pay attention. How you know yourself depends, crucially, on your ability to focus and sustain attention, on your capacity to listen. But this basic ability is taken for granted and normally people do not ask themselves what attention is! What is the sensation of attention? What happens when you move attention? Are you paying attention?
They take for granted that we are able to sustain soft focused attention and to sense, to listen. But are we really paying attention? Are we really listening? Or are we following our mind or entertaining our emotions, filters that we may not be conscious of?
And more importantly, who is listening? What is the source of conscious, non-polarized attention? We often go through life having very little sense of ourselves. When we refer to our self, we are often not sure who we are talking about.
“Are you really paying attention? Are you really listening? Or are you just following your mind or entertaining your emotions, filters that you may not be conscious of?”
Aloka: Since we follow Sri Aurobindo’s teachings, the ultimate aim is to find the innermost centre or the psychic being, and then to align ourselves around this core. Our self is so complex and diverse; the easier parts to access in this amalgam are the physical part, the subtle physical, the vital, the mental and all their intermingling combinations.
ATB offers a way to come to know these different parts of one’s being, to discover how we are made, and how we function. This, in turn, empowers us to develop self-knowledge, self-direction and self-control and allows us to exercise real choice and freedom. Of course, this may take a lifetime to achieve! Our intention is to provide space for that to begin to happen, to offer the tools and exercises through which one can work on this, starting from wherever one is.
The observer stance seems to be central to the practice of ATB. Can you tell us about that?
Aloka: Yes, the Observer or the Witness within us is an important aspect of the work. In order to truly explore the different parts of our being, we need to be able to observe all that is occurring within us without identifying ourselves with it, without judgement or analysis. This offers an opportunity to refine and internalize the senses, to become aware of our own perceptions, and to practice freeing sensations and perceptions from judgments and preconceived ideas. When we remain in this detached “observer mode”, we are able to notice all our inner and outer movements more clearly, without filters, and over time we can dis-identify our core, our deepest centre, from our thoughts, feelings, emotions, reactions and physical sensations. Ultimately, this is the goal of all the work in ATB.
Joan: For this the body is a powerful tool. It offers us simple, tangible sensations through which we can listen to what is present in our whole being, to notice changes and to differentiate between the levels and layers of perception and experience.
We can, in this way, make more intimate contact with what it is that we are and what is happening around us.
How did you develop the repertoire for ATB? From where did you source your material?
Aloka: Both Joan and I have been influenced by all that we have learned and practiced. I use my experience with breath, Watsu, dance and Hatha Yoga in ATB. In my practice of Hatha Yoga, for example, I consciously looked for what each position offered, how it affected my breath, the way 1 perceived myself in it, and how the asana brought me in contact with my inner being, my centre. All this awareness and consciousness has found its way into ATB. However, while we may have borrowed tools from diverse sources, it is Sri Aurobindo’s precise mapping of the human consciousness in The Synthesis of Yoga that has provided the framework for ATB. Throughout our process, this text has been our manual.
Joan: In ATB, a specific tool or exercise is never an end in itself. It is how these tools are used that is most representative of the work. We use it to bring awareness to the moment. Everything is designed to assist the child to ease into the present moment, to be aware of what he or she is sensing, feeling, thinking and perceiving in the now.
Ultimately, the aim is to assist him or her in becoming aware of being aware, and thereby developing self-knowledge and self-regulation.
In this sense the real material of ATB is attention and awareness, and how these are sensed in and through the body.
“Bring awareness to the moment. Ease in the present moment and be aware of being aware. The aim is developing self-knowledge and self-regulation. “
Can you explain what you mean by that?
Joan: In ATB, our first task is to find ways to make people feel attention as a sensation. We do this by using combinations of exercises that cause individuals to use their attention in different ways – they can focus it or spread it, move it or share it. For example, we may ask people to work in pairs, with one person blindfolded and the other “pulling” her towards him with sound as they move around the room. An exercise such as this would produce focused attention and create a sensorial reference for it. Another game, through which people can experience moving attention, involves them running from a wall in the room to the opposite wall a few times. The facilitator then asks them to sit down next to a wall, close their eyes, bring the attention into their body and now move only their attention to touch the opposite wall, stay there a moment and then bring it back to their body. Once people are able to move attention consciously, we can ask them to share their attention with several senses simultaneously. For example, they can look at a particular place and listen to a far-away sound, while noticing their posture, easing into being aware of all three at the same time.
As we do these exercises, we ask individuals to scan their bodies and notice the sensations, as well as the changes in the sensations. We ask them questions like, what is the sensation of paying attention? How do you know that you are paying attention? What happens in your sensations and perceptions when you move or share attention?
Are you able to tell when your attention gets stolen away? This helps them gain an embodied experience of attention and build their own personal sensory landmarks for different kinds of attention and for being present.
In facilitating such a process, many means, many tools may be used. If we are attentive to that, and if a particular tool is not working, we can return to the tool box and get a different one. This distinguishes ATB from other approaches. Having said that, we have some basic exercises that we use consistently because we found them to be very useful and very clear when practiced.
Нow does this process unfold when you work with children?
Joan: When we do this work with children, we first make sure that they are interested, that we have their attention. Without this we have nothing! We do this by combining different kinds of games in quick succession. Some games produce quick, automatic attention and reactions, others generate focused, quality attention on one particular sensation, such as balancing a toy or balloon on one finger tip. In the beginning, we don’t look to sustain attention for long stretches, but rather for quality attention, even if it is only for a few seconds.
We also make sure that there is a lot of variety in what we do, so that the element of novelty and surprise keeps the children interested. For this reason, ATB has a very vast repertoire. There are exercises that focus on different kinds of attention and concentration, others that bring awareness to the sensations of breath, weight, balance, touch, inner and outer space, to the senses as well as to the subtle physical body.
Aloka: As facilitators, we juggle between the existing capacity of the children and their potential to develop that capacity, between following the interests of the children and expanding their interests over time. Gradually, the balance between quick dynamic activities and exercises that generate quiet focused attention is reversed. Where earlier the majority of the time was spent in games, as children spend more time and gain experience with ATB, longer periods of time can be given to activities that require quiet, sustained attention and exploration.
Several children in Auroville have been practicing ATB for a long time. How have they benefitted? How has it affected them in their everyday life?
Joan: We get many different kinds of feed-back. At the end of the school year, children are asked what they use in their daily life from ATB. While some children have quickly found its application in life, others have not seen that link so Joan and Aloka clearly. Often the impact is difficult to measure as what children have practiced and experienced in ATB becomes ingrained in them. To pay attention and hold awareness in certain ways has become natural for them.
Aloka: At the same time, children notice changes in themselves. One boy, who had difficulty managing his emotions, reported that now he was almost always able to refrain from getting into fights with other children. This meant that he was beginning to be able to observe and manage a part of his being that was earlier out of his conscious control. Others have said that they are more aware of their actions and the consequences of their actions. Some children use this work to protect themselves in challenging situations with friends, in school or at home, to focus their attention when they feel scattered or stressed, or to relax and fall asleep. There’s a lot of work in ATB on “me and the group”, where children build awareness of others and of themselves when amongst other people. Over time, they realise that they blame each other less, communicate better, and cooperate even with people they do not consider their friends.
You also offer ATB as a practice to adults. How do you adapt the work to adults?
Aloka: Our work with adults began when we proposed sessions for teachers at schools where we were taking classes. We offered teachers a space where they could meet each other in ways that were different from the meetings and discussions they were accustomed to. We believe that adults are very similar to young people; the difference is that they are bigger. Everyone, no matter the age, needs to work on developing, or further developing, the capacities to sustain conscious attention, to be pre-sent, and the abilities for sensing and self-sensing.
So, though adults have a longer attention span, and are able to travel further within themselves due to their life experience, we have not felt the need to change the exercises themselves.Joan: On the other hand, ATB brings out some marked differences between children and adults.
Children tend to be very malleable, while adults have more deeply ingrained programmes. Also, some adults think of themselves as fully formed, which creates a subconscious resistance to new sensations and perceptions as they take for granted that they are able to pay attention and be present.
Both of you have worked together to create ATB for nearly 3 decades. How has the collaboration worked?
Aloka: Working together is like dancing together. Sometimes you have the power and lead, at other times you follow, sometimes you move and at other times you help the other move. Of course, there are moments when one steps on the other person’s feet and or where it hurts. But that too is part of the dance! We have learned to dance together with respect, adapting and adjusting to each other.
Joan: And the fact that the focus was on the work has helped a lot. We did not have a finished product that we took to schools to test. Instead, we were constantly pulling things together, arriving at things and slowly giving them form. It has been a flexible, organic process.
Aloka: I always think that ATB in reality is not ours. We are like the people who, looking for gold, suddenly hit upon a vein. We are just following the vein. We keep going and it keeps unraveling. On and on…