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Wellness & Improv : A Cellular Change.

Updated: Sep 9, 2021

Warrior Women Like Me Photography by Emma Nathan.

A few years ago I met a colleague for a cup of tea before a big show in London. As we happily discussed critical race theory, community dynamics and what I was cooking up with Different Women, I floated the term ‘wellness’ as part of the description and smiled at their coy response - “ umm...yeah… what exactly is {wellness} ? ”

Associations of ‘wellness’ with vagina scented candles dreamed up by blonde women sitting on a mass of dollar bills, abound. The ‘wellness’ industry consistently throws the stereo-type of the able bodied, white yogi, clad in expensive leggings in our faces as the normalised gold standard of optimal fitness and mental well being.

Similarly, when we enter the improv world we are asked to normalise and assimilate to the standards of quick-wit, plaid shirts, black-box theatre and perhaps a bit of drinking at the pub.

They are both difficult to define, so we settle for a description of 'feeling good all-round' and 'making things up as you go along', as defined by standard westernised norms and traditions. Needless to say, these norms are deeply problematic. And so, we have commonalities both in terms of the two industries needing a shake up and in the fact that

Both Improv and wellness have an undeniable ability to create a global community that has the power to replicate and exclude, OR change and empower.

I often get asked why I choose to pair strong physical activity with resilience and decolonial work in my practice and what it has to do with ‘wellness’ & ‘improvisation’.

The answer, is that to harness change and empowerment, our methods need to fundamentally shift towards a more embodied method that connects the mind and the body unapologetically, whilst allowing different cultural view points into the room by embedding them into the structure of our activities, teams and intentions.

So how does combining wellness and improvisation produce change on a deeper level ?

Neuroscience tell us we only need to immerse ourselves in a feeling state for 30-90 seconds to instigate a change within ourselves.

That means that if you can count backwards from 60 whilst allowing yourself to sit fully immersed in discomfort- you will have overcome the hardest part of the process. That’s 1 min of your life to reset the energy flow to your vagus nerve, allow oxygen into your brain and mitochondria and with it- the ability to associate discomfort with something that can be overcome, acknowledged and breathed through.

But feeling something and allowing yourself to truly feel it is in fact a choice.

Enter improv - without the ability to make a choice, the improviser does not know where next to stand, how to speak, or play with the other partners in the scene joyfully.

Choice being such a fundamental human right means improv and wellness are inextricably linked by their very nature and upon this realisation, the importance of providing supportive and culturally representative content and frameworks that allow all to thrive becomes crucial.

As improvisers, we develop the ability to change our mind like we change our’s necessary for your mental, physical and emotional wellbeing in a scene, partnership, or any community in which true listening is needed. And when we resist change, both in a game and in our lives- we get our proverbial panties in a twist.

The first place we truly feel resistance to change is in the body, it may originate in the mind but it manifests, and so is brought to our attention, through tension and pain in our muscular and nervous systems. Through movement and the dissolution of tension, we prepare the mind to be nimble, articulate and clear; it may interest you to know that this is Yoga 101.

It also applies to most world-dance formats we know and love. Because many non-western cultures believe in accessing the mind and the spiritual (whatever you understand that to be) through movement. Not in isolation, or as a mechanism to lose weight but as a pathway to greater mental and emotional well-being. Speech as we know it, comes second and is enhanced through this connection.

Minimal bodily tensions + an activated right brain + safe environment = neural network repair.

This means we begin to associate freedom of mind, body and speech and so to CHANGE with joy, support and ease. From this state of 'wellness' we are much more likely to:

- Form more permanent bonds with others

- Be better heard & seen

- Drop the things and people who don’t allow our growth!

With Serotonin, Endorphin and Dopamine soaring through our systems, we begin to reduce stress and cortisol levels in the body and soothe the prefrontal cortex.

This activates our ability to embrace diversity (both physical and mental) from different sources, which in turn inspires us to stray from the norms and throw the rule book out when our worth is not reflected in other people’s choices both as creatives and as people.

So you see, this creative freedom, drawing from every culture, using every piece of the human apparatus, has the potential to transform us on a cellular level.

Now that’s what I call empowerment and change.

Ariane Barnes

Founder/CEO Different Women Project

Advanced Yoga Psychology (YTT300)

MA/QTLS Performance

BA (Hons) Acting.

Ariane Barnes is a performer, teacher and embodied diversity consultant.

She helps people embrace their unique core gifts from a place of power through performance, psychology & diversity as a pedagogy for leadership.

Email Ariane:

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