Relax - and learn from the neck down

April 25, 2003

Don't scoff, body awareness exercises really can ease the panic and release creativity, says Marilyn Higgins.

Our education system focuses on the neck up - it ignores 90 per cent of our bodies. But if the body is stressed and not working well, what chance has the brain? While there has been a great surge in the use of creative-thinking techniques by companies in the UK, this has been slow to filter through to higher education. But with universities under pressure to produce graduates who are thinkers and innovators, it is time academics gave serious consideration to teaching approaches and techniques that stimulate creativity.

To this end, I attended a workshop at the UK Centre for Materials Education, based at Liverpool University, organised for lecturers earlier this year as part of its Creative University Project. It changed my life: I not only teach differently, but breathe, hold myself and drive differently.

Out of four creativity techniques in which we received training, I agreed to put the whackiest into practice at my university, Herriot-Watt in Edinburgh. This involved mind-body techniques developed by Mike Metelits of Nothing Special and breathing and relaxation exercises in pairs with a lot of touching.

These techniques aim to help individuals get in touch with their bodily sensations and use them to centre themselves. It involves recognising all the tension and stress we may be carrying, sometimes since childhood or as a result of old injuries.

I tried the techniques first on my urban design class of 23, mostly male, town-planning students, undergraduate and postgraduate. I got rid of the desks and arranged the chairs in a circle. When the students came in, I told them: "We are going to do some breathing and relaxation exercises."

They responded by looking like rabbits caught in the headlights. There was embarrassed shuffling and titters. But they all did it.

I used this body awareness to help with their oral presentations. I encouraged them to put their whole bodies into a creative vision for the site they had to design because, in my experience, non-designers frequently "freeze up" when they have to draw. Creativity was an explicit assessment criterion.

The class met Metelits as part of my further training and got the full-blown works: the breathing, centring exercises, invasion of personal space and touching. Some students felt sensations more easily than others.

Even though the undergraduate males looked embarrassed, to my surprise, they opened up and said far more than in other classes. At the last class, when I arrived 15 minutes early to set up, there were already eight students waiting - an unheard of number. They had arranged the chairs in a circle.

The students completed an anonymous evaluation. Only one said he/she had felt so self-conscious that it was negative; six said that the mind-body connections really hadn't done anything for them. The other 16 had a range of insights, such as "I learnt to control the immediate panic when you get a creative block - relax and it becomes clearer"; "it got me in touch with the character and aura of the site"; and "my only negative feeling was that this sort of learning has taken so long to filter down to university level".

Interestingly, the marks for the project this year were much higher than last year's, yet, if anything, this year's students were generally less academic and less motivated.

It was tougher working with nine staff on an awayday. We did a couple of hours of relaxation, breathing and centring exercises at the start. But they started intellectualising and kept correcting my spelling and punctuation on the flipchart. Some said they couldn't feel anything.

But the sportsmen in the group were well acquainted with the idea that you were at peak performance when relaxed and not trying too hard. A colleague from Xian, China, pitched in that Chinese children are taught to use their whole body when they breathe. This struck a chord. Years ago, when I was nervous about giving my first university lecture, I asked my four-year-old son how teachers could help students learn. He smiled and said: "You'll be all right, mum, just put your heart into your breath." I can only surmise that little children know instinctively about the connections between all parts of our bodies. Shame about middle age.

Marilyn Higgins is a lecturer in the School of the Built Environment, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh.

Creative University Project: www.materials.ac.uk/projects/creative.asp

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