Heidi Watts PhD – preface ‘Awareness Through the Body’
ATB on Transitionschool
I am observing in a science class at Transition, an elementary school in Auroville, when the bell rings and a rush of children, eyes sparkling, come chattering into the room, telling the departing class: “Just wait until you get to Awareness Through the Body!”
Joan and Aloka asked me to write an introduction for this Manual and immediately images, then recollections, finally stories began flipping through my mind like the pages of a photograph album. Here are some of the images Awareness Through the Body brought up for me.
A group of kindergarten children of all sizes, shapes and colours gather at the entrance to the hall, which is covered by a blue cloth. Aloka explains that they are going to go on a journey to the moon and they will need to be very quiet. They are going to go up a tunnel and come out the other side. She also explains that they must not touch the “ground” on the moon, but they can cross to the other side of the moon in other ways.
All eyes are on her as she dramatically pulls the blue curtain and there is a sharp collective intake of breath, ahh! as the children see they are facing into a large blue tunnel. One-by-one they squirm up the tunnel and come out on top of a ladder which leads to a series of platforms constructed of planks and set between stools, chairs and another ladder. There are two adults in the room, for coaching and spotting, but other than the low brook-like murmur of the coaches the room is quiet; the concentration so intense you could touch it with your hands.
One-by-one as the children emerge from the tunnel they begin their journey across the moon, going carefully down the ladder, feeling their way onto the planks, some of which slope up, others down: the moon is not, apparently, a flat place. At the end of the course, triumphant they spill back into the place where the tunnel opened.
A boy of about eight, blindfolded, is feeling the bark of a tree, head resting on the trunk, almost hugging the tree as he traces the round ridges of the bark with one finger, totally engrossed.
Awareness Through the Body class in Auroville
I am a 74 year old aging academic who has spent far too much time sitting in front of computers, sitting in a car, sitting in meetings, sitting over a book. When I come into the afternoon adult ATB class and see on the floor of the hall round wooden platforms with half a ball beneath, my heart does a drum roll.
Some of the other members of the class are already balancing on these small platforms, teetering, but feeling their way to some kind of equilibrium. “Oh, no,” I think to myself, “I will never be able to balance like that.” But gradually I realize that whether I succeed or not is of no importance to anyone except perhaps myself. What I become aware of in myself, my own reactions, how my physical responses affect my mental or emotional balance is what matters here.
Joan says quietly in his coaching voice, addressing no one in particular, “Balance is always a matter of imbalance” and as I absorb that bit of wisdom I stop thinking in terms of success or failure, and begin to focus on feeling and understanding the seconds of balance or imbalance as I too teeter on the balance board. Later I ponder over other instances in my life where balance was a matter of adjusting to imbalances. Here is the wisdom of evolution and growth which challenges us to continuous subtle changes and movements essential to maintaining equilibrium in response to other changes, internal and external.
If at first glance, browsers think this is only a recipe book of physical education activities they couldn’t be more wrong. Slivers of wisdom like this are embedded in the text, but more than that, they permeate the thinking and the suggestions is such a way that the adults and children alike absorb the wisdom without any sense of being preached to.
I ask a group of teenagers what they liked best in Transition and with one breath they say “Awareness Through the Body”. When I ask them to be specific they say:
“It makes the physical body much more real and you discover things about yourself.”
“They gave us exercises to quiet us down and then exercises to bring us back, exercises on how to develop the body senses and awareness, and how to use the senses and how to recognize feelings.”
“It made me more aware of everything around, and it made me much more open.” “When I get nervous, now, or angry, I always return to my breath to cool down.”
“They taught through games and we still learned a lot. It helps you in your relationships with other people, makes you very open and understanding.”
“You can use it subconsciously, for balance and coordination.”
“The group work was very important. You learn how to find your own way in a group and one thing we learned is that if it didn’t work in one way we could try another. That was when we were ‘Crossing the River’. It gives you a spiritual opening without anybody ever mentioning the word spiritual. It helps you to find your own spiritual centre more than any other activity. It brings up things in you which remain.”
Tension and relaxation
It is the end of a class to illustrate the difference between tensing, stretching and relaxing. The children have been “contracting” newspaper, “relaxing it”, “tensing it” and then “smoothing” the paper. They have tried doing the same thing with their bodies: contracting, tensing, stretching, relaxing until the concepts flow from the abstraction into the actual and back again. Now they have all the newspaper in bits and pieces about them. With more in reserve, the teachers start throwing the paper at each other and at the children. Soon the room is a blizzard of shredded paper, the children laughing, jumping and tossing the paper about wildly. At any moment a class may move from being deeply focused and intensely serious to the purely playful. Often it is impossible to tell where work ends and play begins, or play ends and work begins.
The wisdom of ATB
These snapshots are an attempt to catch the wisdom, the vitality and the beauty of Awareness Through the Body in action. With skill and the same philosophical stance, any practitioner could recreate these situations with the ensuing and gratifying results in children’s growth and appreciation. Most of the special materials required are easy to obtain: broom sticks, metal camping plates, candles, rope, old newspaper, bean bags, and so on. You do need large open spaces, but a gym, a classroom with the furniture pushed back or an empty playground will often suffice. You do not have to be athletic or skilled in one of the arts of the body like dance, hatha yoga or martial arts; many of the exercises are as simple as breathing, though breathing itself will not seem simple when you summon awareness to the task.
Carefully and precisely Joan and Aloka describe each activity, walking the reader through the exercises as they do them with the children, often sharing every aspect from introduction to concluding relaxation and discussion. What is more, they have included the “why” as well as the “how to” explaining in a variety of ways not only what they do but why they do it. When you are cognizant of the reasons behind an activity then you are empowered to make adaptations, and to create your own variations while still being true to the spirit, if not the letter, of the instruction.
Value in this work
As the images from ATB were flipping before me I began making a mental list of what I most respect and value in this work.
Here it is:
1) An equal and integrated address to all aspects of the person.
2) The omnipresent thread of reflection which runs through all the activities: learning through witnessing, learning from doing, and from noticing what you are doing, the opportunity to make mistakes in a safe environment, and to learn from them.
3) An unspoken but implicit trust in the students to find their own way with the right balance of challenge and support; and respect for the strength and competence they do not even know they have.
4) The integrity of the work which remains true to its principles in every manifestation; in attitudes, instructions; the pacing and structure of activities, the processes, the forms of evaluation, the tone of voice.
In a fashion similar to the way the work respects the learner, the Manual respects the reader. You may go through this Manual, trying out the activities at your own pace and in your own sequence. The instructions are specific enough to provide guidance and support, but the adaptations you will have to make for your own students and your own circumstances challenging enough to give it zest and variety. It may be hard work but it will be lots of fun and the results may surprise you. In Catalan, Bon Viatge!
Heidi Watts, Professor Emirita, Antioch New England Graduate School, Keene, New Hampshire (USA).