Is preparation overrated? What I learned about the art of improvisation.

I had a panic this morning while teaching a yoga class. When I clicked ‘play’ on my iPod I noticed the songs in the playlist were in a different order from how I had painstakingly placed them!

My mind seized on all that could go wrong and I was certain that the song I planned for savasana would play right when I wanted the quick tempo drum music and vice versa. Dreadful thoughts flooded my mind. Would my class be ruined by the music? Can I fix it? Should I change to a different playlist? Should I forego the music? 

But then I realized that something worse than having a screwed up playlist was occurring I was abandoning my students. Sure, physically I was there in the room, but my attention wasn’t. I was getting caught up in my disappointment that things were not going as I hoped. If I chose to fret over what music was going to play when, then I couldn’t be fully present. At that moment I had to let go of my vision of the “perfect class.”

it's time to let go

In her book, Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up, Patricia Ryan Madson draws on her experiences as a drama teacher and founder of the Stanford Improvisors to share some of the best ideas and tips I’ve read for living life to the fullest by focusing on the present.  I relied on the wisdom of  what she calls the “13 Maxims of Improv” to get back to where I needed to be; such as:

  • Say Yes (#1) – “Say yes to everything. Go along with the plan.”  It might not have been music the way I planned it but it was the program now in front of me. I chose to go with it.
  • Just Show Up (#3) – Giving students my undivided attention was the most important thing I needed to do at that moment.  Any time spent worrying and wondering served nothing except to keep me from being altogether there for them. 
  • Be Average (#5) – I needed to stop focusing on perfection.  My new personal mantra comes from Madson’s tale of the owner of the construction company whose motto”Perfect is close enough” changed during a time he faced challenges in building his own property. The new motto is “Close enough is perfect.”

Madson’s book is a little 160-page gem filled with great advice. “Instead of preparing an outcome, ready yourself for whatever may come,” she writes. “Open your eyes, breathe fully and attend to just this moment. Focusing attention on the present puts you in touch with a kind of natural wisdom. When you enter the moment with heightened awareness, what you need to do becomes obvious. You discover that you already have the answers.”

So I eased up on my plans for the class and while the music played in its newly found order, I refocused on what mattered most: teaching my students about yoga and leading them in the practice. As a result, maybe they too are now better prepared to improvise when needed.

2 Replies to “Is preparation overrated? What I learned about the art of improvisation.”

  1. your post just inspired me to buy Patricia Ryan Madson’s book, “Improv Wisdon…” I wish I could just let the music play out…

  2. I am honored to have the ideas in my little book serve as an inspiration to you in that “moment of insecurity.” Your response couldn’t have been better. And, I’m not against planning . . . it’s often really responsible. But, as you pointed out, life is what happens around those plans. HOW we respond is a measure of our growth, I believe. Brava to you for improvising those moments with attention, and thanks for helping to pass on the word about my book.

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