It came about innocently enough. An intro level Improv Comedy class being offered super cheap for my daughter’s high school’s fundraising auction last Spring. I had never done Improv Comedy before but it seemed like fun. I was the lone bidder and I won!
The four classes of Level 0 Improv that began in July delivered on its advertised promise of “0% Fear, 100% Fun.” So I decided to continue with Level 1.
This time there were requirements. You had to attend most of the classes, see at least two Improv Comedy shows, and participate in the graduation show at the end of the workshop. Like a professional student, I did all of my requirements, laughed so much in each the class and had lots of fun at our graduation show. Then it was time for a gut check – should I continue with the next Improv class? Yes! Level 2, here I come!
One of the cornerstones of Improv is to say “Yes, and…” in order to build momentum on what your partner offers and to expand on it. At its core, “Yes, and…” means being in agreement and open to possibility. I’ve never had a problem with saying Yes or with being agreeable. This is what I’ve been trained to do and how to be, even when there’ve been times that I should’ve said no.
The flip side of “Yes, and…” or rather what you’re told not to do in Improv Comedy is ask questions. By asking your partner an open-ended question – like “Where are we?”- instead of making a declarative statement – like “This beach is crowded!”– you’re putting the burden on your partner to come up with something interesting. It forces them to do more work.
But not to ask questions? This was challenging and took some real effort, as this is very counter-intuitive to my experience as a woman! Many women (and some men) ask questions to draw out others, to show interest and to connect with people. It seems right and natural to me. My mother was a specialist at this. As we grew up, she engaged my friends in conversations that started by asking them what they cared about and what was important to them. My friends loved my mother because she listened and truly cared. This is how I operate too. So I’m learning another new set of skills that goes against the grain of how I was raised and trained, which is to put myself out there, make strong choices and not ask questions.
As I’ve been immersing myself in the world of “Yes and…” and the openness that is called for, I also took a self defense workshop called Prepare! This powerful experience offered me a new and totally different perspective on dealing with people, namely by saying “NO!”, loud and clear.
When I saw the lovely and petite female instructor bellow “NO!” from deep and low in her body for the first time as the padded assailant approached her from behind and grabbed her, I was so shocked that I started to cry. I was overwhelmed by the all-powerful violence I was witnessing while she defended herself striking vulnerable areas of the instructor/assailant’s padded body. I’ve been following the yogic principle of Ahimsa (non-violence) since I was a child and have never been able to deal with watching anything on TV or in films with violent imagery, never, not at all. I was told over and over by my family who saw how upset I would become that “it’s only a movie and it‘s not real.” It doesn’t matter whether it is fact or fiction– violence disturbs me to my very core! And to this day, I continue to follow Ahimsa from the Yoga Sutras (II.35): Ahinsa pratishthayam tat sannidhau vaira tyagah – “If you make it a way of life to never hurt others, then in your presence all conflict comes to an end.”
Still, as much as I had been able to avoid violence, both real and imagined, here it was in my life – front and center in this self defense course. I was beginning to understand that by having avoided violence in my life, it didn’t create an end to violence; it created a lot of fear and tension for me. Now it was time to study how to protect my life. This is another definition of Ahimsa – Protecting Life.
At the first class, when learning the techniques, it was so challenging for me to yell “NO!” It hurt and I strained my voice. Yelling is not second nature to me at all. In my upbringing and my career in a dance company, I was trained to say yes, even when I meant no, and not to speak what was on my mind. But now I needed to rearrange some of my wiring, learn how to say and yell “NO!” as if my life depended on it, and learn how to use physical force to defend myself. I learned a number of physical techniques meant to disable an assailant—how to kick, hit, or elbow someone in the testicles, eyes, face and head. As I watched my classmates take their turns fighting their way out from being pinned down, I still cried. But, when it was my turn, still on the verge of tears, I managed to use the techniques and my voice without strain, along with a lot of pumping adrenaline, to get myself to safety.
These two recent excursions on my lifelong path as a student have presented me with two seemingly and diametrically opposing messages—“NO!” and “Yes, and…” There is goodness in clearly saying Yes or No. I’ll continue to approach the world with an open and accepting heart but now I’m more prepared to say No and act upon it if need be.
Learning isn’t always easy but it’s rewarding and fills my life with new enriching experiences. The next class I’m considering for the winter: Cake Decorating. I’m sure there will be something to learn about myself through butter cream.