Berkana Blog

Play, Connection and Resilience

by Erin Maile O'Keefe on December 29, 2011

“Play is training for the unexpected…”
—Marc Bekoff, Evolutionary Biologist

Kinesthetic Learning

I grew up dyslexic and learned at an early age that if I could build, move, act, dance or in some way experience the learning process in my body, the information would then penetrate my brain. If I engaged in body play, I retained the learning. Today I identify and am identified as as a kinesthetic learner. Of course, we were all kinesthetic learners in our early development and tons of research now supports the connection between brain function and physical movement. Over the past decade, play has become an emergent topic in neuroscience research.

In college, I wanted to further address an underlying feeling of disconnection and separateness through collaborative learning, so I founded an interactive arts festival at my university. As a young adult I was called to teach, or well, actually kind of pushed at times. I had a lot of ideas about how education should and could be more inclusive of fringe learners like myself and how the experience of learning could be more powerful and engaging if active. I also realized I absorbed much more and my own creativity was enhanced when I learned in relationship with others.

Creating Culture

When I moved to New York City I began teaching collaborative story making, improvisational theater, creative movement and yoga in a public school. It was around this time I met my husband Kevin, who ran a circus arts in education program. We were equally passionate about engaging kids’ learning through kinesthetic arts. It was not just the physicality, but also the ability to provide a medium for the fullness of their being to be expressed. We were clear that we were both really teaching life skills more than anything else, and fostering a culture of communication, cooperation and collaboration. The one piece that was missing for us were these kids’ parents. We could see that our programs had great impact on the children’s ability to make powerful connections in themselves and with one another, but if we were to really make a difference, we knew we had to reach whole families.

The Space Between

Kevin and I have been leading multi-generational workshops and residencies for nearly 15 years. We employ and design ways of connecting groups in co-authored play. We draw upon our experiences in circus, theater, dance and yoga, calling what we do CircusYoga. We engage communities through practices that are physical, social and co-authored.



One example is a game we invented early on called Push Sticks. It’s simple and played by two people with two wooden dowels. The partners suspend the dowels between them with a light push of their pointer finger at the end of each dowel. The dowels become a physical conduit for their connection, giving shape to the space between them. We model various communication dynamics for the group, demonstrating active and inattentive listening, leading, following, dominance, passivity, distraction, risk-taking and synergy. We demonstrate how the sticks drop when imbalances arise, creating a call to awareness. With music playing we invite partners to find their unique conversation and to notice their own tendencies. After the initial round we encourage partners to “get into a situation.” At first, a situation might look like being stuck. We clarify that these situations are not problems but opportunities that make the conversation interesting, in which we can explore how to work together at the edge of our comfort. Sticks may drop to the ground, but now it is a call for invention and creativity as partners find new solutions and ways to stay connected at their edge. This practice offers profound reflections in relationship through fun and embodied play.

Taking it Home

A few years back a mom named Andes and her seven year-old daughter Arenal joined us for a weekend retreat and experienced Push Sticks for the first time. I got an email later from Andes describing how while she and Arenal were playing, her daughter exclaimed “Mom! We got into a situation and it didn’t turn into a problem!” This is exactly what we hope for—these activities providing nourishment for family cultures. Andes went on to write, “I want you to know I feel so different as a parent. I seem to have turned a corner under your juggling, soul searching and laughter.” What did we offer? A laboratory in the shape of a circle where everyone is seen and holds an equal place, where we can explore our connections to self, other and community. It is in the safety of this space that we have nothing else to do but connect. This is our sole purpose when we play games, build human pyramids, walk on a tight wire, invent partner yoga and acrobatics, juggle, fly on one another’s feet or create human mandalas. It’s all about exploring the breadth and possibility of our connection.

Comments (4)

  1. Mjsattinger on December 29, 2011 at 10:36 pm

    Your sharing elicited an unexpected reaction from me, weeping. My daughter has been engaging in various non-traditional yoga forms in the last couple of years and while I’ve maintained an interest in hearing what she is immersed in, not until reading your blog just now have I recognized the power and potentiality of what you are offering ! I want to thank you for your creative engaging and sharing with others. Perhaps one day I will find the courage to engage in Circus Yoga ! Namaste, Martha

    • Erin Maile O'Keefe on January 5, 2012 at 9:44 pm

      Dear Martha,
      Thank you. I’m so glad that my story landed in you, helping to shape your reflections on your daughter’s practice. I sense that INCLUSION is at the root of your moving reaction. Of course, Yoga takes many forms, but in its essence it excludes no one. I have found in most situations, I am, in fact, the one that excludes me. So, I continue to hold the question “how can I create a space and practice that supports anyone to feel included?” Sometimes this takes a bit of trickery—moving fast enough or with complexity of focus—so the typical self-excluding messages don’t come into play. I believe we all want connection. And I want to provide a direct experience of it. I hope you will muster up the courage and join us some day soon! Thanks, again.
      NowMustPlay,
      Erin Maile

  2. Lynda Meeder on December 30, 2011 at 11:25 pm

    I encourage any one who feels a connection to what Erin wrote in this article to find a way to do a Circus Yoga Event. The experience is a way to experience joyful transformation.
    Lynda