The Dance of Shiva
What has "learning anything" to do with the Dance of Shiva?
I like to think of the process of learning as that of building a model inside of ourselves. The better this internal model or representation, the better our understanding of the thing that it represents and the better we can act based on this model with zero or minimal thinking effort.
Learning can include building a model in the first place, and it can also include improving this model.
Modeling Complexity (with Simplicity)
The dance of shiva is a complex system. It could represent anything that we want to learn.
It started of as a series of spiral arm movements with the constraint that the hands either continually face upwards (as if balancing bowls of burning oil) or outwards (as if holding a sword so that the edge is always orientated forwards or rearwards.)
Andrey Lappa taught me his version of dance of shiva which breaks these movements down into 8 clearly defined positions.
One reason for these positions is that they create clearly defined movement segments that can be easily learned, focused on and improved in isolation.
The movements can be defined by these endpoints.
Given the original movements, these positions allow a doer to isolate a problem area, refine their ability to do it (and thus their internal model of the movement) so that they can be do the movement with a better match to the original or with more smoothness, less effort, etc.
The limits themselves are arbitrary but what is most important is that they are clearly defined.
Memorable and Connectable
With clearly defined movements we have something to learn. Clearly defined means memorable.
If something is clearly definable or recognizable, it is so much easier for the brain to store and for the brain to recall.
It's like naming a file on your computer. If the name is meaningful and related to the subject matter, or is stored in a folder dedicated to that subject matter then it is easier to find.
Also important is that the movement segments are contiguous and easy to connect.
If you are building a model it makes sense to have pieces that fit together easily. And this is where clear definitions are helpful. Not only do they make pieces easy to store and recall, they also make it easy to assemble them meaningfully into a model inside of ourselves.
Limits create clear definitions. They also mark the boundaries where we glue individual pieces of a model together.
Now once the model is constructed do we still need the definitions?
This is because the purpose of the definitions is to allow us to reconstruct the model inside of ourselves. Once it has been constructed we no longer need those artificial definitions.
This is like gluing a plastic model kit together.
Initially the model comes in pieces with clearly defined limits. The process of gluing the pieces together destroys those clearly defined limits. But it doesn't matter because they've served their purpose, allowing us to assemble the model in the first place.
Practicing Without Having To Think
When a initial model is installed in our brain (or uploaded to our consciousness), we can practice the movements without having to think about how to do them. Instead we can work at improving our ability to do the movements. If there are problems, then we can create new limits that help us to focus on the area of difficulty.
Being able to define limits allows us to build models within ourselves or improve those models.
Once we've learned to do something without any problems, we can get rid of the limits. It's like getting rid of the training wheels on a bicycle. We know how to ride so we no longer need the restrictions that training wheels provide.
What is Important is the Ability to Define Limits
Limits Themselves are Temporary and Artificial
The better we are at defining, and where necessary, re-defining limits, the easier we can make the process of learning.
I used this principle when teaching myself to write Japanese, and then Chinese characters. I used it to learn sequences of yoga poses and to refine the way I teach yoga poses in general. This idea is often used in Aerobics classes.
But another possibility with limits is that it allows for the creation of more movements (or more possibilities). With 8 clearly defined positions in the Dance of Shiva we can ask the question:
How do we connect all positions to each other?
The answer to that question shows how dance of shiva is not only a guide to learning more efficiently, it's also a way of practicing being more creative. But lets stick with the idea of learning to learn.
The Theoretical and Flowing Modes of Consciousness
At this point it helps to further explore the theoretical and doing modes of consciousness.
These are important because the experience of both is different.
Two Points of View for Better Learning
These modes are also important because switching between modes is how we learn. The thinking mode is what we use to break things down. The flowing mode is what we use to actually experience what we are learning little bits at a time. And the two views, when put together, or assembled within our consciousness, are what help to build the models of what we are learning.
The Thinking Mode and the Flowing Mode
Many of us spend lots of time in the Thinking mode to the point that we don't even know there is another mode of consciousness. Or we tend to think of that other mode as rare and hard to get to, the realm of elite athletes and super yogis and martial artists.
That other mode, Flowing, is a non-thinking mode that is never-the-less marked by intelligence. And it can be enabled when we learn things to the point that we don't have to think to do them.
For instance, dance of shiva is easy to figure out on the fly. You can think about what move comes next.
You can figure it out.
But if you take the time to practice to the point that you don't have to think or figure out the movement ahead of time, if you take the time to memorize, or learn deeply, then you can focus on flowing.
And this is what it means to have a model inside of ourselves. We can do things without having to think about how to do them. We know.
Comprehensive Models Enable Us To Flow
When the model is good enough it does the thinking or mental processing for us and so we can enjoy the experience of flowing; watching ourselves respond to internal or external circumstances instantaneously.
It's actually the state a calligrapher enters when painting.
Instead of having to think about how to paint a particular character (Chinese or Japanese), the model of that character and many others, is a part of that calligrapher's brain. And so they can paint without thinking.
Rather than the exact same character each time, the character can be responsive to the mood of the calligrapher, to the ink, the brush, to the poem that it is a part of and to the characters already painted and the space left and the characters yet to be painted.
The painting becomes a response to what was happening at the time the calligrapher painted it guided by the integrated models of all of those characters inside of themselves.
In the same way, someone who is skilled at motorcycle riding, who has a sufficiently refined model of motor cycle riding inside of themselves can handle a bike with aplomb no matter the condition of the road or what is on it.
Making Learning Fun: Flowing While Learning
Now the interesting thing is that we can enter this state while learning. And one of the advantages of dance of shiva, because it's positions are movements are so clearly defined, is that it makes it easy to practice entering the flow even while learning.
This is what can make learning fun.
Short Term Memory, Know the Limits
The key, when learning new movements, is working within the limits of short term memory.
Here, learning can be taken to mean "memorize".
Memorizing is the first step to flowing freely. When learning something new the idea is to break something down into small enough chunks that you can hold a single chunk in short term memory.
You can then practice repeatedly until what you are practicing has been moved into mid term memory.
Mid term memory can be used to stack these smaller chunks together so that within a single practice session you can then practice, from memory the summed chunks of what you have been learning.
This is actually the process I've used to make learning to paint Chinese characters easier and it's the same process I used to learn the Ashtanga primary and secondary sequences and it's the same process I've used to learn the various tai ji forms that I've practiced.
I'm using the same process to learn to listen in foreign languages, currently russian. Rather than listening to a whole passage, I'll use audacity to isolate a part of the passage and then listen to it (and say it) repeatedly. I've found that using this technique I can understand a phrase even if it's spoken quickly.
The senseless flow of a language becomes meaningful because I've taken the time to listen to little bits at a time repeatedly. My brain can then store those bits temporarily in mid term memory and then pick them out of a stream of words even if spoken quickly. This to me seems the same as the process google uses to canvas the web.
An important part of learning is to see the same thing in different contexts. That's why instead of listening to individual words I think it is more helpful to listen to those words in different contexts. And this is where dance of shiva is really cool.
There are 64 possible movements from each of the 64 possible positions. By practicing the a movement from different positions you begin to learn it and understand it. Each position provides a different context for the same move. And so when learning the dance of shiva the idea isn't to learn different moves all at once. Instead it is to practice the same move from different positions.
The really nice thing is that because the positions and movements are so easy to recognize, it's easy to figure out moves and easy to spot mistakes. But the goal of practicing little bits at a time is to get to the point where you can do moves without having to think about them.
For more on learning the dance of shiva (and its benefits) and tools for learning it, including videos and ebooks, check out the dance of shiva page.
Neil Keleher is a Systems Design Engineer with a bachelor's degree from the University of Waterloo.
He has taught yoga for over 22 years. He specializes in anatomy related to proprioception and movement.
He illustrates his own anatomy articles.
His classes focus on improving body awareness while at the same time building strength, stability and flexibility.