Many children, up to a certain age at least, tend to enjoy it when their family members tickle them. An actual observation of the exchange bears a fair amount of ostensibly contradictory evidence, because the child enjoys fits of laughter whilst simultaneously squirming to get away. When the tickler finally relents, the child might take a few moments to laugh off the experience and recover her breath before physically leaning in for another round.
The quintessentially bubbly laughter of the tickle game is surprisingly indistinguishable from the types of laughter that children experience during other forms of physical play. Even when racing each other on foot, genuine laughter overwhelms both my young nieces to the extent that it sounds exactly like a mirthful tickle-fit. How do these little human beings find themselves so spirited away by such a rush of joy in this strenuous, ostensibly competitive activity such as running, when their fully-grown counterparts could hardly conceive of doing so in an analogous situation? In my attentive observation of runners on the streets, I would approximate that perhaps 1 percent of them have an expression on their faces which I would deem to show enjoyment (with a liberal interpretation of that word). Many runners look simply bored, and the vast majority genuinely appear as though they are suffering excruciating pain.
So why the disconnect? What makes us so unwilling or unable to tap into the effortless ecstasy that we took for granted as children? One obvious culprit is of course that society encourages us to push children to take these competitions more seriously as we get older. As adults, even those who do not play to compete with others often aim to achieve ever more impressive personal bests. Society’s encouragement of this type of attitude serves as a reasonable extension of traits that natural selection shaped within us: members of our species could not avoid physical competition for the vast majority of our existence. Those whose genes predisposed them to thrive on competition tended to survive at the expense of those pre-wired to take things lying down. In other words, we are all descendants of a long line of victorious fighters.
Stephen Pinker lays out the evidence indicating that childhood sources of enjoyment such as the tickle game may be an early form of preparing for the physical competition which our ancestors needed to be good at. The person on the receiving end of the tickle often exhibits what we might call reflexive behaviours which are often rather combative, and it is clear that tickling does elicit a reflex which we could very easily see as a mechanism for exercising a certain form of self-protective behaviour. As he puts it:
Many primates, and children in all societies, engage in rough-and-tumble play as practice for fighting. Play fighting poses a dilemma for the fighters: the scuffling should be realistic enough to serve as a useful rehearsal for offense and defense, but each party wants the other to know the attack is a sham so the fight doesn’t escalate and do real damage.
The concurrent laughter response likely informs both people involved in the tickling event that, in spite of the hypothalamic "fight or flight" response that tickling produces, no genuine harm is intended. (There remain those, of course, who do indeed become genuinely angry when tickled, so it makes sense that some aspect of the nervous system interprets the event as a form of bellicosity. I probably fall into that category, so please do not use the knowledge of my ticklishness as an attempt to have fun. I can promise that it will not be fun for either of us.)
But as we grow into adults, we learn to take our play just as seriously as we take our work. And particularly in capitalist economies, we endeavour to take our work very seriously indeed; if we do not, somebody else will, and they will reap the spoils that only hard work can attain. This type of attitude very easily makes all of life into a zero-sum game. A byproduct of this perspective is that play activates the stress response, which ironically often causes our play to be a whole lot less fun.
I do in fact believe that competition has its place, and that our species would not be altogether likely to tolerate a system in which we had no means of expressing this intrinsic need. The impulse to fight with other creatures originates in the limbic system, which is the deepest (and evolutionarily oldest) aspect of the brain which people refer to in popular terminology as the “reptilian” or "lizard" brain. Some of the drives which are most hard-wired in our nervous systems are located in this deep layer. Biologists and psychologists have canonised our competitive drive, along with the other basic animal options we immediately consider upon encountering another living being, as the four famous Fs: fighting, feeding, fleeing, and sexual activity. Yet for the majority of people who live in rich countries, the “struggle for life” does not actually have the same life-and-death consequences as it did for our ancestors. As Bertrand Russell so aptly put it, “What most people fear when they engage in the struggle is not that they will fail to get their breakfast next morning, but that they will fail to outshine their neighbours.” This is one reason we no longer need to take our competitive instinct so seriously.
Furthermore, we have evolved an aspect of consciousness which allows us to be selective about how we express our drives. Think, for example, about one of the most basic drives all life forms have: the final F. We are certainly no exception in the animal kingdom with respect to our need to fulfil the instinct to replicate our genes. Yet our consciousness does make us exceptional in that it allows us to express sexual urges while simultaneously maintaining an ability to prevent unwanted reproductive consequences. The amount of planning and worrying about such a possibility serves as a testament to our ability to have our evolutionary cake and eat it. There are of course individuals who set out to ignore their sexuality altogether (often for religious or spiritual purposes), and there are also a fair number of people who are coming out as genuinely asexual (that is to say, they do not experience sexual urges and nor do they consider this a problem to be solved). Nevertheless, we can safely say that the vast majority of human beings have sexual needs—whether or not these needs are tied to reproductive goals. Viewing healthy sexual expression as a basic human requirement can help us to see that, for the average individual, suppressing that need is likely to lead to suffering and distress. Often this distress does not even limit itself to the life of the individual who tries to stifle their own urges; I’m sure we can all call to mind a number of situations in which such attempts have boiled over in unhealthy and reprehensible ways. The behaviour-monitoring executive function of the prefrontal cortex may eventually fatigue and more basic drives inevitably get the upper hand.
Similarly, the notion that we should (or even could) stuff down our drive to compete must give us pause. If we see it as a basic need in our interactions with others, how healthy can it possibly be if we were to try to ignore it? Does it not follow that avoiding our competitive natures carries the risk that they will make themselves known in ways that are much less controlled, and therefore much more dangerous? For that reason, one healthy place for competition could be deliberately competitive sports and games. It is interesting to consider the fact that as organised global sporting competitions have been on the rise, violent international conflicts have actually been falling. Whether or not the case could be made for a direct correlation, I feel in fact that countries should settle their enmities through football tournaments rather than wars. If you think about it from a rational perspective, warfare is exactly as arbitrary as sport; however, sport has the advantage of being less costly in terms of both casualties and economics.
Yet despite our species’ ongoing successes at transmuting the urge to fight into more organised, peaceful competitive activities, we have given ourselves a more subtle problem: most of us unconsciously associate physical activity with these competitive situations. Unlike our ancestors, who were physically active in just about all their pursuits, a large proportion of human beings tend only to engage their bodies in meaningful ways when it comes to sports or other competitive recreations. Like Pavlov’s dogs, we are all subject to classical conditioning. For a brain that so closely relates physical movement with competition, it probably seems completely normal and automatic to turn all of the physical aspects of yoga into some sort of contentious tournament. As the saying goes, neurons that fire together, wire together. This presents a particularly challenging problem in the context of yoga, in which not only is competition unnecessary, it is actually counterproductive. Because the nervous and endocrine systems engage the stress response in competitive environments, the de-stressing effects that we are looking to connect with on the yoga mat essentially become a dangling carrot. Our ambitious attitude tends to push away whatever peaceful benefits we may accrue due to the exercises themselves.
So if we want to feel the full benefits of the practice, how do we slice through these unnecessary associations? We can think about it again from a sexual perspective. People typically relate to each other sexually with the purpose of fulfilling some goal. Sometimes we see it as an activity which to direct toward the aim of having children; however, more often than not the desired intention is to achieve an orgasm (whether the orgasm you are trying to bring about is your own or your partner’s). In either scenario, we regard both intercourse and our sexual partners as means to some end. Like most other things in life, a disproportionate focus on the end result can create a situation in which we are unable to appreciate powerful experiences that we are having in the present moment. Take a look at the following video, for example (don’t worry, it’s not a sexual video). Be sure to do your best to accomplish the task at hand.
According to Cristopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, the creators of this experiment:
..when we did this experiment at Harvard University several years ago, we found that half of the people who watched the video and counted the passes missed the gorilla. It was as though the gorilla was invisible. This experiment reveals two things: that we are missing a lot of what goes on around us, and that we have no idea that we are missing so much. [Emphasis mine.]
I doubt that any of these subjects paid as much attention to the number of passes on the basketball court as they would pay to the possibility of having an orgasm! So one can only imagine how focusing on such a hard-wired goal would distract us from noticing other obvious and potentially experience-enhancing moments with our partners. This very idea provides a major aspect of the framework for the tantric sexual practices: a retraining of our awareness so that we can be present, in a more relaxed fashion, during lovemaking. Diana Richardson writes extensively about the ethos of these practices in a series of books, beginning with The Heart of Tantric Sex.
Tantra directly addresses the mind and the restlessness of the psyche by re-aligning us with our essentially sexual nature...By bringing intelligence into sex, by experiencing sexual energy in an innocent, playful, childlike way, absorbed beyond any preoccupation of outcome, we begin to sever our ties with our conditioned personal and collective pasts, and open up to a new world of experience.
Logic should, in fact, raise a rather obvious question: Why are all of us looking so forward to sex all the time when, as soon as we start having it, we start looking forward to the end?
Although it may sound ridiculous when we frame it that way, this very perspective drives how we relate to most moments in our lives. Each instant feels insufficient, so it becomes habitual to ignore it in favour of some future moment when we think everything will finally be satisfactory. In this view, if the present moment is good for anything, it serves as a running scoreboard: If we do what we are “supposed to” right now—and crucially, if we do it better than everybody else is doing it—we will somehow help ourselves “earn” a moment when we can finally chill out and enjoy life without comparing, competing, or striving for some goal. But let’s be honest: if that moment comes, how long does it last? The advice that Richardson and other tantric sexperts give us suits the yoga mat as nicely as it suits the bedroom. What if you allow yourself to be where you are? What if you focus on the sensations you experience as you breathe and move? Such a mindful decoupling of the desire for intimacy (whether with ourselves or with somebody else) and the need to “achieve” something can become an incredibly mind- and heart-opening occurrence.
I have a hypothesis that the way we approach our yoga practice—or whatever we might practise with a certain level of intention and focus—can very easily influence how we go about the rest of our lives. Mona Anand, a wonderful colleague of mine, often says that “if you are too serious on your yoga mat, you’re going to end up being too serious in life.” This rings absolutely true for me. On both a psychological and a physiological level, the unnecessary tension which a competitive attitude engenders doesn’t simply go away when we leave the yoga studio. We carry it out with us into our lives.
Ironically, this habitual tension can actually interfere with our ability to succeed in our competitive pursuits. Conversely, the sense of easy attention that we can harness in yoga can become incredibly useful when we do decide deliberately to work or play competitively. Think of any of the true greats of the sporting world: Michael Jordan’s apparent ability to defy gravity on the basketball court;
Simone Biles’s powerful freedom of expression on the gymnastics floor;
Lionel Messi’s mind-boggling skill to look as though he has all the time in the world, in spite of being surrounded by men who are anxious to stop him from scoring.
The common thread amongst all of these top-class competitors is that they can make these amazing things happen whilst seemingly looking unstressed. What’s more, their competitive edge is enhanced by their ability to express their joy in what they do. It’s something we might simply expect of those who have made play into a successful living. But the rest of us have the capacity to learn how to do just the same. By coming to yoga as a place to find freedom and fun, we stand a much better chance of bringing a fulfilling, life-enhancing sense of play off the mat and onto the court, into the bedroom, and into every moment of our living.