Limits create potential

How creative and flexible use of limits can make teaching and learning more effective


Limits Create Potential

Limits are how we define ideas, relationships and systems. We can use them to divide large systems into smaller subsystems. We can use them to define ideas within a system. We can then use them to define relationships between those ideas.

We can use limits to define a really large system, separating it from its environment with a system boundaryfor the purpose of understanding the system and how it relates to its environment. We then have the system, its inner environment, which is everything within it boundary and its outer environment which is everything immediately outside its boundary.

We could limit the outer environment by defining a system horizon. This would mark the limit of what the system can detect or relate to in real time. We could thus think of the outer environment as the system's now.

We can use limits to define systems in different ways. How we draw a set of limits changes what is inside the limits.

The ability to choose limits can make it easier (or harder) to understand the system in question.

Because of this, the selection of limits can be a trial and error affair. However, if we are aware of this, we can recognize when the limits we are using are effective. We can also recognize when we might need to change the limits we are using.

When using limits to further divide a system into relationships and ideas, we can choose the level of detail that we use.

What this means is that we can change the way we divide a system depending on intent.

Another thing that we can change when defining a system is our point of view or perspective of the sytem.

Limiting the level or training based on intent

As a rough example of the variable use of limits, as a soldier in basic training I was taught basic stripping and assembly of whatever small arm we were using (SLR or SA80). We needed to be able to take our weapon apart enough to clean it and oil it. That was it.

Undergoing armourer training, we learned a far more detailed level of stripping and assembly. We generally took each weapon apart to the very last pin. And put them back together again.

As armourers we needed to be able to take a weapon apart to inspect, fault find and fix it. Thus the limits we worked within where a lot more detailed.

Limiting the breakdown of Chinese characters based on intent

With respect to Chinese characters, it is possible to break them down into elements as small as brush strokes, perhaps even pairs of brush strokes.

This can be handy when learning to write Chinese characters, particularly if having trouble with the transition between a couple of brush strokes. However, if using character decomposition to learn the meanings associated with particular character elements, then breaking down to brush stroke level is a waste because by themselves, individual brush strokes don’t have meaning.

(There are exceptions, but not enough to warrant this level of breakdown.)

Using limits for modularization

One way that the judicious selection of limits can be helpful is in modularization. If you pick a level of breakdown that is small enough but not too small, it’s possible to re-use the components that you define.

As an example of this, when learning anatomy, my focus is generally on bones, muscles, joints, joint capsules, tendons, ligaments. I rarely go to the level of cells or the structure of muscles themselves. Instead, I focus on muscles, and on learning to feel and control them in my own body. While I tend to do this in the context of yoga poses because I’m a yoga teacher (or at least used to be), I teach this level of detail because the ability to sense and control our own body via muscle control (or more accurately by sensing and controlling the forces that muscles generate) is something that can be applied to any physical endeavor.

Using variable limits to teach more effectively

Another endeavor where the ability to use limits flexibly is with teaching.

Teaching yoga, I’ll often stumble across some interesting combination of muscle activations which I’ll then explore in a class. I’ll then try to teach the same thing in another class. The trouble I often ran into was that the students in the next class didn’t have the necessary experience to learn what I was trying to teach. So I redefined what I was trying to teach.

As an example, I when through a phase of teaching quadriceps and hip flexor activation. I eventually figured out that a large portion of the class couldn’t activate their quadriceps and hip flexors, and thus couldn’t feel them. And so I added some exercises to help them activate their quadriceps.

Rather than then jumping back to the originally scheduled exercise, I then helped them reinforce this learning so that in the future they’d be able to activate their quadriceps at will.

Using limits to refine instruction sets

Generally when I teach yoga, I use limits to define the movements that I am teaching. As an example, I was teaching my students to feel their hip crease, both while opening it and closing it. Teaching them to open and close their hip crease by rotating their pelvis relative to their standing leg, some students felt a particular position opened the hip crease instead of closing it.

I realized after a while that the reason why was that they were changing the sideways tilt of their pelvis as they rotated it.

So then I further refined the movement instructions, imposing further limits. Keep the pelvis level while turning.

Using limits to make learning easier

Note that activating the quadriceps, and feeling them can be difficult if you are in the middle of a pose and also focusing on a bunch of other muscle activations. And so this is where limits are again very handy. Instead of teaching the whole body, I’ll often focus on parts of the body in relative isolation.

As an example of this, I was recently teaching a hip centering action to a long time student via facetime. In one pose he got distracted and was also trying to focus on his lower back. I told him to focus on the hip (and also the foot) for now. As a result, he got a better feel for his hip. In another session we could then focus on the lower back.

I’ll often use this same approach in my own practice. I’ll focus on a clearly defined area for a whole set of poses so that I can learn the part that I am focusing on. While there will be activation elsewhere in the body, I focus my attention, my awareness on the part in question so that I can learn it.

One way in which limits create potential

Now when I titled this piece, Limits Create Potential, I was thinking of a slightly different way in which limits create potential. My primary example of this is Dance of Shiva. This is a movement practice that mainly use arm movements. I learned it from Andrey Lappa about 20 years ago.

It is based on a set of four clearly defined arm movements for each arm. My teacher divided these four basic movements into a set of four movements each, each clearly defined by four positions. Where before we had 16 possible movement combinations using both arms (4x4), with the movements subdivided, we now had 64 possible movement combinations (8x8). But in addition, since these 8 new movements used 8 clearly defined positions, what we also had was 64 positions, where before we had none. So combining positions and movements we had a total of 64x64 possible movements.

The point here is that a clearly defined set of limits created potential for more movements.

Limits can make learning (and teaching) more effective

While this is one way that using limits creates potential, another way that they create potential is when learning and teaching.

When teaching, the ability to change the limits we work within increases the potential for us to teach effectively. Applied to learning (or teaching ourselves) the creative and flexible use of limits can make it easier for us to learn things. What we then learn gives us the potential to create or do things using that learning.

Limits are imaginary

One point about limits in finishing is that they are, in general, imaginary. That's why we can create them and use them at will. And it's also why we can discard them when no longer useful. And that reminds me of another example that I used to like using.

Limits are like training wheels

Imagine if you will that training wheels are actually a useful way to learn how to ride a bike. Imagine that you learn to ride while using training wheels. Once you've learned you get rid of them. You don't see Tour de France riders using training wheels. They don't need them because they've already learned how to ride.

Training wheels are a way of limiting what is possible on a bike. As a result, they supposedly make it easier to ride.

A possibly better way to learn how to ride is to take of the pedals. Kids can then practice balancing without having to worry about controlling the pedals. They can also learn to steer.

And perhaps another thing to add to bikes like this would be breaks. Sure you can use your feet, but why have the option of learning to use brakes also.

The point here is that these bikes also show the use of limits. And again the Tour De France offers a nice contrast. Can you imagine riders in the Tour De France riding without pedals?

Published: 2022 04 29
Defining ideas, relationships (and change) for better understanding, problem solving and experiences