I was lying on a Yoga mat at a recent Yin Yoga teacher training. But while I was practicing stillness in my body, my mind had other Ideas.
What was meant to take me on a journey of rest & relaxation practices turned into a rapid 25hr write-athon on all the things I learned about bodies, that might also help me be better at systems change.
1. Layers of Connection
Among many things, practitioners of Eastern wellbeing practices acknowledge that the body is one system of interconnected parts that all depend on each other - and influence each other in our health outcomes.
Similarly, as systems practitioners, we acknowledge that in order to work with - and change - systems, we need to look at and consider the whole when working with and within its parts. A view that this training has offered me, is the multitude of layers of connection that make up our body system.
Let's take bones, muscles, and fascia. As you may be able to guess, each of these has unique qualities and properties, or plasticities. For example, bones are hard and largely fixed, get porous over time as we age, and suffer - sometimes to breaking point - when we put too much pressure on them. Muscles on the other hand are elastic, and grow and strengthen through increasing amounts of pressure. Anybody going to the gym or playing high intensity sports knows that progressive overload will get them the results. Fascia, the third connector layer, has plastic consistency, meaning that it can be moulded and remoulded to support our bodies through change and transition while also retaining its shape when not being stretched to adapt.
Applying this to systems change - are we considering the different types layers or relationships that connect each part of the system to another? And are we taking into account that each of these ‘layers’ of connection or relationships may respond to different types of change 'pressures' depending on their ‘plasticity’?
2. Core System Architecture
During the training, my teacher spoke about 9 fascia lines that essentially act as the architecture that prevents our bodies from being a puddle of body parts on the floor. Yes - it's not our bones but our fascia that keeps us upright and frames our human shape! These run across the front, back and sides of our bodies and based on the way we live and exercise, some of these may be tight or otherwise out of alignment.
Translating this into systems - what are the core architecture lines that uphold existing systems? Are we working with these intentionally to drive change and impact, in line with their unique ability to adapt?
When thinking about building alliances and partnerships as an important consideration in systems change activity - are we partnering strategically to work around core architecture lines to focus the change ‘pressure’ we can exert in a particular direction? Or are we building partnerships in parts of the system that would benefit from a ‘stretch’ in a different direction?
3. Change Pressures
In yoga, we distinguish between tension and compression. Tension, indicating a state of (mild-moderate) discomfort where we are working to create elasticity that creates space between bones. Compression on the other hand occurs when bones or tissues are hitting against each other (ouch!) and cannot move any closer. But many practitioners aren’t able to distinguish the difference until after the fact. In an attempt to strive for perfect form, we injure ourselves despite the signals our bodies are sending us.
In the context of systems, what pressures create conditions for change, vs those that reduce the likelihood of change to unfold and evolve? And how might we sense which type of pressure we are creating or experiencing as systems change agents?
4. Phases of Change before the Change
One of the many things that I found fascinating during this training is that tissue in our body has to undergo a set of 'phasic' changes before we can even reach the fascia - which is the target tissue in a Yin practice. This is why we hold poses (with support) for long periods of time, sometimes up to 8mins. We start at the ‘edges’ of our capacity - at about 60-70% and then, expand into higher stretch ranges through relaxation. Time is our ally, and the less we force, the further we get into the tissue we’re seeking to work with.
With systems change, are we sometimes trying too hard, too fast? Could we go further, faster if we would go slower and allow ourselves to be drawn into change?
5. The Stillness Condition
Both Eastern and industrialised science agrees that change in the body happens in stillness. We grow muscles that we have worked on in the gym, when we sleep. We build strength in the tissue of the fascia during the ‘rebound’, when we have come out of a pose to rest in stillness. When we are sick, we are told to rest to get better. In this context, rest is not just passive - it is a phase of active growth and repair.
What does it look like to be still in the context of changing systems? How do we design for moments & spaces of stillness after activity so that new ideas can take root, relationships can mend and strengthen and strategies and perspectives can evolve. And what - for us as change agents would it mean to have a stillness practice?
My yoga teacher also talked about stillness as a container that allows for spaces of nourishment, healing and strength to emerge. And to build these containers, we seek support - from the floor, a towel, blocks, straps or bolsters.
In this context, support is not an indicator of weakness, it's a prerequisite for expansion.
Is the container building & holding space for stillness the actual work of agents of systems change? How might our models and methods reflect this?
Over to you.
Artwork by Sirin Thada
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