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Your Path to Mastery

Most of us who choose a career as movement professionals don’t do so out of a motivation to acquire great wealth or power, and those who do would be well advised to reevaluate their life plan, but rather we tend to be driven by a passion for the work, intellectual curiosity, and by the simple joy of moving.

As we embark upon our careers we start with learning the basic choreography and concepts of our chosen method, then how to communicate these to our clients in a coherent and engaging manner. But then what? How do we continue to grow as teachers, staying enthusiastic and inspired, and therefor inspiring to our clients or students?

I often see trainers take the tactic of learning as much programming as possible, ticking off one workshop after another, in an attempt to amass knowledge very quickly as they compile an impressively long list of qualifications on the bio page of their websites.

And while I’m strongly for continuing education I wonder at times if some of these trainers are making the best choices to support their journey toward the mastery of their discipline.

First of all, what even is “mastery”? This could be defined in many ways, but for our purposes here, I’m referring to an exceptionally deep understanding of the work that becomes so integrated into your consciousness and perception of the world that your teaching goes beyond an intellectual or habitual drive. Your teaching stems from instinct, but this instinct is based on a deep well of knowledge and experience accumulated through many years of focused practice. You’ll find you spend much of your teaching time in a satisfying flow state.

With mastery, you can look at elements of the work, turn them upside down and inside out to see new elements in old familiar concepts without losing clarity. You’ll see subtleties of directionality, of pull or of stagnation, under the surface of the skin without deliberately looking for them.

Do you remember when you first started teacher training and your Master Trainer pointed out movement details on a fellow student, saying things like “do you see how this side is shortened?” or “do you see the bone glides like this?”, and maybe you just couldn’t see it? But then over time you developed your “eye” and these nuances became as clear as if you’d always been able to see them. As you grow toward mastery your eye develops more and more, and you’re able to see deeper levels of information in an instant, without specifically looking for anything in particular.

Mastery does not mean you know everything and are done learning. In fact, more likely gaining mastery will make you even more focused in your search for deeper understanding.

Recently this subject has been coming up with a lot of my students as we chat over coffee during a break or have a glass of wine after a long day in the studio. How does a trainer achieve mastery of their discipline? They want to know how to go from being just a trainer, to being a master of the work. To be clear, this doesn’t mean one needs to gain the title of “Master Trainer” to achieve mastery. This is something you can strive for and achieve regardless of your specific career path. Here are some points of advice I’ve been giving my students.

Learn in your body. While note taking and an academic approach to the work can be a helpful component to gaining and retaining information, nothing replaces the experiential physicality of actually doing the movement. The process of navigating the movement patterns for yourself, and then continuing to explore the movements to find more and more within them, is absolutely critical in fully, deeply understanding the work. When in the course if the teacher asks if anyone wants to try something again your answer should almost always be yes.

You must practice regularly. I know you’re busy and that at the end of the day you just want to leave the studio and have your dinner, but you must make the time for regular self practice. Your body is forever changing over time and your knowledge should be continually growing. This means you can constantly find new sensations and understandings in familiar material. Don’t forget to keep coming back to the basics, even as you learn more complicated, advanced programming. There’s a lot of good, juicy content in the basics and only as you mature in the work will you be able to find the depths of it.

Choose your continuing education courses wisely. There’s a lot of pressure to “keep up” with what other trainers are doing, and to feel pressured to take a specific workshop because everyone else is and you don’t want to miss out, or somehow lose your competitive edge as a trainer by having a perceived gap in your knowledge. If you give into this sense of urgency, as I think many trainers do, that will become the driving force in your learning path. You’ll be coming from a place of reactivity, and then trying to cram in the next course-full of material before you’ve fully assimilated the last material you learned.

Try to pause and listen to yourself, acknowledging and then tuning out the noise of what you think everyone else is doing. What are you curious about? What inspires you? I know most of us have curiosity about ALL the courses, but we can’t do them all right now. So what work truly calls to you? By choosing the courses that will resonate most deeply with you, you’re more likely to take in the information on a deeper level, practice it, and apply it, all in a way that moves you forward on your path to mastery.

Give yourself space between courses. Sometimes we’re on a roll and enthusiastically soaking in information from a series of course after course. And that can be fun and beneficial. But it’s important to make sure you’re not always packing your courses so close together that you haven’t fully absorbed as much as possible from your last course before plunging into the next one. You need to give yourself time to practice what you’ve learned and to integrate it to the level that you’re teaching it organically and in your own words and, as your own expression, and not simply regurgitating what you just reviewed in the manual. Take some time to “be” in the new material before taking on more.

Approach your courses with a “beginners mind”. While you don’t want to leave all your knowledge and experience at the door when you attend a course, it’s wise not to let it get in the way of learning something new. If you go into a learning environment with the attitude that you already know a lot, and know how to do all this stuff, you’re probably not going to be so open to the gems of inspiration that come from hearing it all fresh and in a new voice. Experiencing familiar information presented slightly differently may shift your understanding, layering in more nuance than you had before. Maybe you’ve been holding a simplified version of a concept too concretely in your mind, and now it’s time to let that go and see things with a new layer of complexity and detail.

Or perhaps the teacher’s demeanor or appearance taps into a preconception or bias you may have and you might dismiss valuable information because the presenter doesn’t fit your image of a brilliant movement teacher. Try to let go of your biases, both for people and concepts, and you’ll probably learn a lot more than you’d expected (trust me, our biases will most likely still be there if we want them back later).

Put your time in. If you’re teaching as a part time gig for just a few hours a week, mastery will come very slowly, if at all. You need to immerse yourself in the work. Not just the physical self- practice, but teaching many, many bodies and working with just as many personalities. Much has been made of the theory of “10,000 hours”, the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of focused practice to gain mastery of a discipline. There’s some debate over the specifics and accuracy of this, but I think we can all pretty much agree on the idea that if you want to get exceptionally good at something you have to put in a lot of time. And that means not just showing up and clocking the hours, but putting in focused, heartfelt, dedicated time of the blood-sweat-tears variety. I don’t wish upon you actual bleeding and crying, but you should at least be sweating a good bit.

Cross disciplines without losing your path. Exploring other disciplines is key to creativity, inspiration, and deeper learning. Whether that means a deeper dive into anatomy and dissection, studying manual therapies, pursuing an artistic interest, or learning another movement modality, a cross discipline can provide another perspective that opens up your path toward mastery.

But I’ve seen some trainers fall into the trap of what could be considered serial dabbling. By doing so many diverse trainings back to back, with little time to digest it all, there’s a danger of becoming slightly proficient in a lot of things, but not truly masterful at any one thing. This is not necessarily bad. If you’re having fun and enjoying the novelties of life, that’s totally valid. But if your intention is to become exceptionally proficient in a particular area, it’s important to keep enough space open in your life for that pursuit.

For example, I like doing yoga. I’ll drop in on yoga classes or do some at home with a yoga app. But long ago I decided I’d never do the teacher training courses to get certified because that would take too much time and space in my life away from my focus on the GYROTONIC® and GYROKINESIS® work, along with maintaining my connection with Pilates. But I do make time to get to dance classes several times a week, and I continue studying anatomy, as I feel these support my journey without taking me off track.

I don’t mean to say you shouldn’t explore a training or certification in an area outside of your primary discipline, only that flitting from one training to the next without putting the time in to fully follow through probably won’t lead to mastery anytime soon.

And then what happens when you finally achieve mastery? Well, you just keep going. Mastery isn’t a definitive destination on the railroad. It’s not as if that’s the end of the line and so you stop there and you’re done. There’s always more to learn and more to explore. I often think of a story a I heard about cellist Pablo Casals (which may or may not be true). It’s said that when asked in his eighties why he continued his daily practice he replied “I think I’m making progress. I think I see some improvement”. On our individual paths toward mastery these seem like pretty good words to live by.

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