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The Dance of Shiva

A Model for Learning how to Learn

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What has "learning anything" to do with the Dance of Shiva?

Learning as Model Building

I like to think of the process of learning as that of building a model inside of ourselves. The better this internal model or representation, the better our understanding of the thing that it represents and the better we can act based on this model with zero or minimal thinking effort.

The "model" does the "thinking" for us.

Learning can include building a model in the first place, and it can also include improving this model.

Modeling Complexity (with Simplicity)

The dance of shiva is a complex system. It could represent anything that we want to learn.

It started of as a series of spiral arm movements with the constraint that the hands either continually face upwards (as if balancing bowls of burning oil) or outwards (as if holding a sword so that the edge is always orientated forwards or rearwards.)

Andrey Lappa taught me his version of dance of shiva which breaks these movements down into 8 clearly defined positions.

One reason for these positions is that they create clearly defined movement segments that can be easily learned, focused on and improved in isolation.

The movements can be defined by these endpoints.

Given the original movements, these positions allow a doer to isolate a problem area, refine their ability to do it (and thus their internal model of the movement) so that they can do the movement with a better match to the original or with more smoothness, less effort, etc.

Going back to the original spiral movements, haven broken them down and practicing them in pieces, it is then possible to do the original spirals a lot more smoothly.

The limits themselves are arbitrary but what is most important is that they are clearly defined.


Clearly defined means memorable. With clearly defined movements we have something that we can practice and learn.

The clear definitions mean that what we have learned is easy to upload to our memory and also easy to access.

We give the memory a hook, the equivalent of a meaningful filename or tag so that we can recall it easily.

If something is clearly definable or recognizable, it is so much easier for the brain to store and for the brain to recall.

It's like naming a file on your computer. If the name is meaningful and related to the subject matter, or is stored in a folder dedicated to that subject matter, then it is easier to find.


Also important is that the movement segments are contiguous and easy to connect.

If you are building a model it makes sense to have pieces that fit together easily.

And this is also where clear definitions are helpful.

Not only do they make pieces easy to store and recall, they also make it easy to assemble them meaningfully into a model inside of ourselves.

Construction Artifacts

Now once the model is constructed do we still need the definitions?


This is because the purpose of the definitions is to allow us to reconstruct the model inside of ourselves. Once it has been constructed we no longer need those artificial definitions.

Model Kits

This is like gluing a plastic model kit together.

Initially the model comes in pieces with clearly defined limits. The process of gluing the pieces together destroys those clearly defined limits. But it doesn't matter because they've served their purpose, allowing us to assemble the model in the first place.

When a model is installed in our brain (or uploaded to our consciousness), we can practice the movements smoothly, going from one to another without the need to think of how to do it We don't need the initial limits.

However, if we choose to refine the model, improve our understanding or skill, then we can define new limits to practice within.

Defining limits allows us to build models within ourselves or improve those models.

The idea of learning, is to be able to get rid of the limits, like learning to ride a bike with training wheels and then getting rid of them once you are ready.

Creating Limits on the Fly

Being able to define clearly defined limits can make the process of learning easier.

The better we are at defining, and where necessary, re-defining limits, the easier we can make the process of learning.

I used this principle when teaching myself to write Japanese, and then Chinese characters. I used it to learn sequences of yoga poses and to refine the way I teach yoga poses in general. This idea is often used in Aerobics classes.

Basically, you practice a small set of ideas till you can do them without having to think about how to do them. You might not be able to do them perfectly, and that's allright. The idea here is to learn or memorize the idea of the movement so that then you can practice without having to think about what it is that you are trying to do. You can instead focus on trying to do it.

You could divide memory into three types, short term, midterm and long term.

The initial idea is to practice a small enough practice set that you can retain it easily in short term memory.

That means you can practice it without having to think. This then moves the current practice set into mid term memory. You then learn the next small set, moving the particulars of that set to midterm memory. Then you practice the sets together. Then you add on the next set.

Mid term memory also seems to be limited and so what you may find is that after practicing a particular number of small sets and gluing them together, you then find you are "full" and thats when it is time to rest. The next session you can rehearse the sets learned. If there are problem areas you can focus on them, perhaps first in isolation and then in the context of the whole set, then you can again work at learning more "little bits".

One of the main advantages of the dance of shiva is that each small movement is clearly defined. In Tai ji a movement called "part wild horses mane" is quite complex. The movements in Dance of shiva are already quite simple. Each movement connects two clearly defined positions and as a result it is very easy to either break movement sets down into smaller elements or combine them into larger elements. You can thus practice exactly the right bite of movement.

Learning the Possibilities

With 8 clearly defined positions in the Dance of Shiva we can ask the question:

How do we connect all positions to each other?

Increasing Potential

Previously the movements might have been done as separate from each other. Now we have the possibility of moving between positions in different planes. We thus have the potential for creating more movements.

And that is one of the advantages of models of understanding, as well as enabling us to predict what may happen it also, depending on the complexity or simplicity of the model allows us to come up with different possibilities.

The advantage of the dance of shiva with this regard is that we can practice this with our own body. As we practice we build up a progressively more complicated model that is based on simple positions and movements. it becomes a model for learning in general.

The Theoretical and Flowing Modes of Consciousness

At this point it helps to further explore the theoretical and doing modes of consciousness.

These are important because the experience of both is different.
Many of us spend lots of time in the thinking mode to the point that we don't even know there is another mode of consciousness. Or we tend to think of it as rare and hard to get to, the realm of elite athletes and super yogis and martial artists.

Flow is a state of non-thinking that is never-the-less marked by intelligence. And it can be enabled when we learn things to the point that we don't have to think to do them. For instance, dance of shiva is easy to figure out on the fly. You can think about what move comes next.

You can figure it out.

But if you take the time to practice to the point that you don't have to think or figure out the movement ahead of time then you can focus on flowing. And this is what it means to have a model inside of ourselves.

When the model is good enough it does the thinking or mental processing for us so that we don't have to think. Instead we can enjoy the experience of flowing; watching ourselves respond to internal or external circumstances instantaneously.

It's actually the state a calligrapher enters when painting.

Instead of having to think about how to paint a particular character (Chinese or Japanese) because it has been painted so many times the model of that character and many others, is a part of that calligraphers brain. And so they can paint without thinking.

Rather than the exact same character each time, the character can be responsive to the mood of the calligrapher, to the ink, the brush, to the poem that it is a part of and to the characters already painted and the space left and the characters yet to be painted.

The painting becomes a response to what was happening at the time the calligrapher painted it guided by the integrated models of all of those characters inside of themselves.

In the same way, someone who is skilled at motorcycle riding, who has a sufficiently refined model of motor cycle riding inside of themselves can handle a bike with aplomb no matter the condition of the road or what is on it.

Now the interesting thing is that we can enter this state while learning. And one of the advantages of dance of shiva, because it's positions are movements are so clearly defined, is that it makes it easy to practice entering the flow even while learning.

Here, learning can be taken to mean "memorize".

Memorizing is the first step to flowing freely. When learning something new the idea is to break something down into small enough chunks that you can hold a single chunk in short term memory. You can then practice repeatedly until what you are practicing has been moved into mid term memory. Mid term memory can be used to stack these smaller chunks together so that within a single practice session you can then practice, from memory the summed chunks of what you have been learning.

This is actually the process I've used to make learning to paint Chinese characters easier.

It's the same process I used to learn the Ashtanga primary and secondary sequences and it's the same process I've used to learn the various tai ji forms that I've practiced.

To work within the limits of short term memory, break down what you are learning into definable chunks so that you can practice those chunks without having to think. In other words, so that you can practice while flowing. I'm using the same process to learn to listen in foreign languages, currently russian. Rather than listening to a whole passage, I'll use audacity to isolate a part of the passage and then listen to it (and say it) repeatedly. I've found that using this technique I can understand a phrase even if it's spoken quickly. The senseless flow of a language becomes meaningful because I've taken the time to listen to little bits at a time repeatedly. My brain can then store those bits temporarily in mid term memory and then pick them out of a stream of words even if spoken quickly. This to me seems the same as the process google uses to canvas the web.

An important part of learning is to see the same thing in different contexts. That's why instead of listening to individual words I think it is more helpful to listen to those words in different contexts. And this is where dance of shiva is really cool. There are 64 possible movements from each of the 64 possible positions. By practicing the a movement from different positions you begin to learn it and understand it. Each position provides a different context for the same move. And so when learning the dance of shiva the idea isn't to learn different moves all at once. Instead it is to practice the same move from different positions.

The really nice thing is that because the positions and movements are so easy to recognize, it's easy to figure out moves and easy to spot mistakes. But the goal of practicing little bits at a time is to get to the point where you can do moves without having to think about them.

If you are completely new to the dance of shiva the first step is to learn the positions. You can do this one arm at a time and to make it easier focus on only four positions at a time. The video below focuses on the basic horizontal positions.

This next video focuses on the vertical positions.

The positions using both arms make up 64 positions which can be divided into four groups, Q1, Q2, Q3 and Q4. The first group contains positions where both arms are horizontal. The second group contains positions where both hands are vertical. The third group includes the positions where the left hand is horizontal and the right vertical. The fourth group contains the remaining positions.

Once you've learned the basic positions the next step can be learning the movements that join those positions.

Cyclic movements are movements that travel through four positions before returning to the start. These include: Forward, Backward changeForward, changeBackward (F, B, cF, cB).

Acyclic movements take the hands between just positions. These include Transquarter, change, changeTransquarter and zero (T, c, cT, z).

Here again there are 64 movement combinations. From each position there are 64 movement possibilities including the zero case. These can also be grouped. Grouping can be for the sake of learning. Movements in the same group can be easier to learn together since they have similar characteristics.

Individually movements can be categorized as being non-changing (F, B, T, z) and changing (cF, cB, c, cT). And as mentioned, Cyclic and Acyclic.

Using the latter grouping as a starting point we can have three main groups, Cyclics, Cyclic-Acyclic combinations and Acyclics. In the first group both arms do cyclic movements. In the second group one arm does a cyclic move while the other an acyclic move. In the third group both do acyclics.

Sub groups are then based on whether both arms are changing or non-changing or whether one arm does a change and the other a non-change.

One final set of sub groups is based on the positions. The first sub group includes Q1 and Q2 starting positions. The second group the latter two groups. For limited time the second group of starts (Q3 and Q4) can be left out.

This video includes a sampling of movements from Cyclics 1.

This video includes a sampling of movements from Cyclics 2.

This video includes a sampling of movements from Cyclic-Acyclic 1.

Published: 2017 06 24
Clearly defined poses, exercises and stretches for improving stability, body awareness and flexibility.
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