At this point in our understanding of childhood development, play is a necessity for proper behavioral development. This is true not just in people but in all mammals. No matter the environment in which a mammal lives, all mammalian children engage in play behaviors. This play is important as it teaches us necessary lifetime skills - all the way from motor skills to the necessary behavioral traits for survival. As animals get older, their ability to play diminishes as focus necessarily has to shift away from play to survival of self/pack/and progeny, but it doesn’t go away completely. In Stuart Brown’s book Play, he discusses the need of animals to play even into adulthood. Brown observed adult ravens sliding down their backs on snow covered hills, flying to the top, only to do it over and over again. It is well documented that adult river otters juggle rocks. While there is practical application for the dexterity it creates, anyone who’s seen it happen can’t deny that they are having fun. In an analysis of animals who engage in play it turns out that the animals who play the best survive the best. Play allows our minds to remain plastic throughout our lifetime. As play diminishes so too does our capacity to change the coded patterns in our brains. By playing, animals (including humans) maintain the ability to adapt to situation with much greater easy and less anxiety.
Our drive to play is internally generated and, like all drives, the amount we engage in any of them is bound to our survival. If we don’t believe we need to play to survive, the internal generation is diminished and replaced with other “more useful” drives. Play has many positive impacts on our brains, showing it’s as important as any of our secondary drivers (obviously ensuring you and your family have food is more important than play). Sadly, even though play is very important we tend to lose our capacity to play as we age. Once we start entering adulthood other things get in the way. We have more and more obligations and believe that we just don’t have time to play anymore. Unfortunately research shows that if we don’t play we will burn out quicker and become less able to function the way we need to in order to be successful in all our daily activities.
Play doesn’t have to be a big thing, and we don’t have to set aside hours a day for structured play to reap the benefits of it. Sometimes it’s making a game out of a boring activity or telling a “dad” joke. Play is an attitude we can take towards how we interact with our day-to-day life. If you do have time to set aside for play, do so, but understand it’s not the only way we can fit the benefits of play into our lives (essentially it doesn’t have to be a big deal). When we make space for ourselves to play we become more optimistic, and creative. Play allows us to see our world though many lenses and allows us to develop new skills and attitudes. When we are willing to play we are also willing to do for the sake of doing (not for the outcome). Once we develop the ability to do, we become more courageous in the rest of our lives, taking chances we wouldn’t have taken before and opening up new doors and possibilities in our lives. When we become willing to invite an attitude of non-attached playfulness to our asana practice it provides us with an avenue to start playing on the mat. After repeated practice we learn there is a positive outcome for play (consciously or otherwise), and we might begin to notice that that attitude begins to leak off the mat. Accordingly, play on the mat can become an avenue to play in the rest of your life, opening the door to greater levels of joy and happiness.