• Claire Higgins

Bracketing My Motivation to Practice Over Time



In qualitative research, bracketing is a process where the researcher pauses periodically to reflect on their study with an open mind. It dates back to the turn of the twentieth century when a German philosopher, Edmund Husserl, established the school of Phenomenology. In plain terms, this is the study of human experience and consciousness.


The bracketing process aims to reduce the potential for bias and subsequent misinterpretation of the research process and findings by the researcher before they undertake their research study and during its implementation and discovery of outcomes. Another way of approaching the concept is to view it as a process of suspending judgment and creating space to question and analyse the data that is emerging at all stages of a research process.


From a phenomenological point of view, experience and consciousness in people are phenomenon that require more open research methods to understand. For example, open-ended questions. In other words, you won't find a phenomenologist reducing data to numbers and trends as they don't believe that data can ever be purely objective. Their "drive" is to understand the nuances of everyday life in all its rich complexity.


As a researcher who crosses the disciplines of Psychology, Philosophy, and Physiology, I sit somewhere between adopting an open approach to research and recognising that numbers do have their time and place. For example, certain physiological markers such as cortisol levels can be relevant in studies on psychological stress. If a researcher is exploring which methods of stress reduction appear to have the most benefits for a particular group of people, obtaining multiple data sources through semi-structured interviews and lab-collected biological markers such as cortisol can offer different ways of viewing and interpreting the data.


Deciding whether to draw on qualitative or quantitive data, or both, and prioritise subjective or objective experience in research is linked to asking which research method and approach is most fitting for the subject of study at hand. There may not be one right answer to this question and consequently, the researcher will need to justify their chosen research method and be aware of its limitations and other viable approaches.


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I am now in the second month of a research study on the "Motivation to Practice Over Time." Six people have started what will eventually be six months of participatory research, and three more people are soon to follow. In total, there will be nine research participants whose subjective experiences of practice within a movement, exercise, and/or sport setting I will be exploring and analysing over the next six to nine months. All will be invited to interpret and analyse their own research data contributions.


The research method is Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis, known as IPA, which is one of several approaches to qualitative phenomenological psychology. This approach emphasises the meaning that research participants make of their experiences. Due to its in-depth nature, which includes interviews, diaries, and focus groups, the total number of research participants is usually capped at between six and fifteen, although the study may go a little over or a little under those figures. This is a stark difference to big data surveys that analyse hundreds and even thousands of responses.


In my study, I am drawing on individual interviews that take place every couple of months. Each interview is recorded and transliterated word for word before being analysed line by line for themes. This is a laborious process made easier by voice recording apps that can translate audio to text, albeit with quite a bit of editing afterwards to ensure the automated text and tone of voice is correct. What a relief given a 1-hour interview would usually take me 5.5 hours to transliterate solo and just 1.5 hours with the app-text support. Technology is a massive support to research!


Once each set of interviews is transliterated and analysed individually for themes, the collection of interview sets will then be analysed for group themes. Both of these processes may point towards theories around the motivation to practice over time.


Within Psychology research, plenty is known already about the motivation to participate in a form of movement, exercise, or sport. The risks and benefits of each are also well-known. This prompts the question, why does this research study matter? One of my answers to this is that there is still much more to explore in terms of principles of practice and how these may manifest in similar ways in different fields or areas of practice over time. There is also much to explore around what the concept of practice actually means and if/how practitioners differ psychologically across fields of practice.


For example, does a yoga practitioner with a daily spiritual practice differ that much from a competitive sports practitioner? Can't both spiritual and sporting practices offer the potential for meaning and personal development? How can we be sure that the competitive sports practitioner isn't driven by a spiritual motive while the spiritual yoga practitioner by a competitive motive? Is it really fair to judge a book by its cover? Can't people adopt practices just as a means of projecting a certain identity?


Years of casual observation across and participation in movement forms such as yoga, martial arts, and dance, and various exercise approaches and sports, have taught me that practice can be as much about the inner experience as it can be about the show. There may be an intrinsic motivation that reflects who we are and an extrinsic drive to portray a certain version of ourselves to the world. Practice can also be a performance with goals and strategies attached as well as a process of cultivating personal qualities, character strengths, and skills. Quite often on a journey, it is a mixture of both.


There is an embodied aspect to practice, meaning that it isn't just about thought, belief, or ideology. It is experiential and, I would argue, a way to remember who we are and what we value through the action of doing rather than just thinking.


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Prior to their first interview, research participants are asked to reflect on the following questions:


  1. What is practice?

  2. What is your practice?

  3. How did you begin this practice?

  4. Describe your practice environment.

  5. What does your practice mean to you?

  6. Why does your practice matter to you?

  7. Do you benefit from your practice? If so, how?

  8. Have you encountered obstacles in your practice? If so, what were they and how did you overcome them? If you didn't, does it matter?

  9. Has your practice changed over time? If so, how?

  10. What motivates you to practice today?


The conversation often flows from the first couple of questions, touching on all the question areas in no particular order.


As the researcher, I find the research participants' answers to these questions fascinating. I also find myself reflecting on these questions in between the interviews. So far, I have resisted putting pen to paper to capture my answers in more depth, as I wanted to allow space and time for my thoughts to settle.


My experience in practice has meandered through movement, exercise, and sport since the age of five, when I started competing in swimming. It has taken me through multiple types of movement and levels of practice, including teaching. As a result of such a complex and long journey (38 years!), I have found the process of wading through experiences from different phases of my past and synthesising answers that ring true today a journey in itself. Finally, I'm ready to commit to writing some answers down...


What is practice?


To me, practice is a purposeful, meaningful, and embodied process that reflects core aspects of who we are. For example, our values and virtues. In the early phases of practice, our focus may be on skills acquisition and development. This requires a process of cognitive-based learning and repetition. Later on, the purpose of our practice shifts to the actual experience. Instead of driving our practice forwards in a conscious manner, our practice begins to drive us forwards.


You could say that practice is a process of self-development, self-actualisation, and for some eventually, self-transcendence. As we engage from a place of depth with our practices, there is a sense of becoming what we practice. There is also a kind of personal wisdom that emerges as our practice deepens and takes root. We have learned something by doing and as a result, we embody our practices. Our thinking also evolves. This influences how we show up in the world.


What is your practice?


This has been a difficult one to answer. The reason why is that part of the motivation to conduct this research was due to the fact that gradually, over a period of three years, my own practice had fallen apart and I hadn't noticed this happening. A geographical move, a return to university studies, another house relocation, a few personal catastrophes and then a new line of work took much of my focus and energy. Practice as I knew it - in the mind-body-spirit sense through Yoga and Martial Arts - became less of a priority.


As a result of these life changes, I turned to physical exercise as a substitute for practice. The motivation for this less spiritual and more physical/mental engagement was more about achievement-based goals such as lifting a heavier weight and relieving mental stress. Sometimes I used my fitness qualifications to develop my own routines. Other times I downloaded WOD's (workouts of the day) from online programmes.


The latter option became much more convenient over time as I just wanted to be told what to do. There was too much thinking elsewhere in my life (mostly at work) and this meant that being led was an easier option. I also didn't want to learn new concepts around physical exercise, which was unusual for me. My past self loved to learn but during this 3-year transition period I felt too saturated and strained to take on any new information. I had plenty of knowledge and skills to draw on, too much perhaps to put into action at any one time. So these 3 years also became a process of forgetting, of stripping my practice back to its bones and exploring what was left.


Today, I'm grateful that I could fall back on physical exercise during this time. At least it kept me moving! It has been a helpful instrument and within a broader mind-body-spirit-based practice, it most certainly has a place. Recently, I have been enjoying reading a book titled, Working Out, Working Within by a sport psychologist named Jerry Lynch and Chungliang Al Huang, a recognised authority on the Tao and a Chinese calligrapher. It reminds my that physical exercise can have spiritual components if I can find a way to connect the dots between mind, body, and spirit in my exercise habits.


This feels like an important bridge for me to cross and a question is raised: What have I missed over the past 3 years by not engaging regularly in my Yoga and Martial Arts practices?


Of Yoga, I have missed the familiarity of a style I trained to teach around 12 years ago - Ashtanga. I miss the morning practice that was known as Mysore, where a group of Yoga practitioners would gather to go through their set routines side by side but not necessarily at the same pace or level. The room was often dark with all doors closed, leading to a build-up of heat and energy by the end of practice. The practice began with soft chanting and ended with a long corpse pose on the floor.


I went on to train in and teach other styles of Yoga, all of which were beneficial in terms of physical and mental health. However, at a personal level, it was the formal routine of Ashtanga that drew me the most. There is a specific order in which poses need to be performed and while there can be modifications, the order should remain the same. I find comfort in repetitive movements and while I enjoy practicing in a group, I also enjoy having my own space. I enjoy physical challenges too, such as arm balances and working on flexibility. Ashtanga offered me all of this but somehow, when my love of learning and desire to teach Yoga to other people took over, I found myself moving further and further away from the very practice that had once drawn me near.


There was always something else to learn in Yoga, usually to help someone else feel better. Ashtanga is not a practice that is easily accessible for the general population. It is also one with many years of practice required to become certified to teach, which I was not, and I doubted whether I could fulfill the years of practice ahead of me and if it was worthwhile from a teaching perspective when market demands lay elsewhere.


As a result, my yoga energy and attention became scattered over time. I moved from Restorative to Yin to Women's Yoga, mixing a little here and there and diluting the origins of my practice. The concentration of practice intention - known as drishti - was lost. So too was my energy. The sweet relief of physical and mental tension, and connection to myself, that I used to feel at the end of an Ashtanga practice was gone.


What does this remind you of?


In my Karate practice, I was particularly fond of kata, which are forms of choreographed fights. I enjoyed the process of learning new techniques and ordering them in a sequence, memorising the sequence, then challenging myself to improve my tempo, speed, and breathing. I enjoyed the experience of power surging through my body, and the feeling of physical strength. I never quite captured the feeling of lightness or agility that I sought and that lack of fulfilment kept me reaching further.


Unlike other forms of movement I have tried, Karate wasn't something I was naturally "good" at. My breathing patterns often sucked and despite reaching second dan (a second degree black belt), I never quite grasped the experience and expression of kime, which is an integral part of this martial art. Without kime there is no real power in the movement. Karate practitioners aren't taught this explicitly, rather it is an internal process that emerges through practice over time. Some people grasp it much quicker than me. My theory is that my kime just takes longer to boil!


If truth be told, I never wanted to stop Karate. I had dreams of progressing further so that I could eventually teach and run my own dojo. I even had a name for that space, Cherry Blossom Dojo, and once wrote a book on my martial arts journey by that same title. But finding a teacher to train me and students to train with had become difficult over time. When my last teacher whom I often trained with solo lost his teaching space, I was on my own. It was a not a place I was ready to find myself in and in that void, my training in Judo and self-defence instruction took over.


What stands out most on reflection now is how much of my Karate practice was about developing my kime. I liken this term to the activation of one's spirit, or the personal energy that each of us brings into this world. I believe I was born with a strong spirit that needed physical movement to bring it to life. I'm a physical person with a strong capacity for intellect that can also wear me down. Martial arts such as Karate and Judo offered a dynamic and challenging means through which to connect with and activate my spirit, and balance my energy. So too did the more challenging aspects of Ashtanga practice. When I don't engage in vigorous movement patterns, my spirit can stagnate.


In Judo I had a similar experience of searching for an embodied state that eluded me, this time that of kuzushi, or unbalancing an opponent. I may have won a national gold medal competing in Judo, winning by using my non-dominant side for an unexpected throw of a stronger opponent, but I also wasn't that great. I had much more to learn about the subtleties of movement and this motivated me to learn more and practice Judo over time. I was motivated by technical development and continuous improvement.


Unlike Karate, I was much more of a novice in Judo and only in the lower ranks. When training with the black belts, I could "feel" their energy. They easily unbalanced me when we engaged in stand-up grappling and would gently threw me to the ground. They also moved with fluidity on the ground when rolling me into submission. Thankfully, they also gave me opportunities to learn by holding back and showing me how to execute movements with more accuracy. But the one thing that they couldn't teach me was kuzushi. That I had to learn how to feel within myself.


In Judo, my size and strength meant that I often had an unfair advantage over the lower ranks or those at my level. I could easily use brute force to submit my opponent but where was the art in that? Where was the mastery of technique? I knew this was a short-cut and knowing that truth didn't sit well with me.


By the time I entered the world of reality-based self-defence, I well and truly knew how little I actually knew! I may have trained for years in Martial Arts but the outcome of my journey was just a fraction of what lay ahead. The first time I rolled with a self-defence expert (also highly trained in martial arts), I didn't get very far at all. That was when I was introduced to a fourth aspect of practice, after drishti, kime, and kuzushi - that of biomechanics. In a real-life attack, biomechanical leverage coupled with a certain degree of fitness and fighting spirit can also take you far.


Why does this matter to you today?


Well, reflecting on how my practice has evolved over the years has helped me to realise that physical exercise - or fitness capacity - has underpinned all of my Yoga and Martial Arts practices. The concepts of concentration of intention (drishti), activation of spirit (kime), balancing (kuzushi) and biomechanics are present in them all.


It makes me wonder, what next? This question gives me an incredible feeling of hope. Over 3 years, my passion for mind-body-spirit practices almost ground to a halt as my teachers faded, my trust in some of them fell away, and the teacher within me was spread too thinly. I also haven't felt well-connected to myself or "at one" with myself, although this could be partly caused by the geographical shift from 40 years in the Middle East, surrounded by urban deserts, to a new life in the UK where I live in a hamlet of four homes and two farms in the countryside, just off a major highway.


Today, I don't lack any knowledge or skills to be able to practice. My past teachers did a good job sharing with me what they knew and I have committed much of this to memory. But memory is not practice and this is what matters today.


What motivates you to practice today?


This morning I paused before work to practice Ashtanga. I wanted to re-connect with a missing part of myself, one that has been lying dormant for years. I was thankful that my physical exercise over the past few years has included stretching and foam rolling, as my body was still supple enough to work my way through most of the moves. My memory for the order of poses was intact, signalling depth in my past practice (or my body's natural aptitude to remember what it was taught!).


I have in mind a gentle transition back to a mind-body-spirit practice. One of allowing myself to be pulled to practice a little more each day rather than an aggressive drive to return. Perhaps Ashtanga before work and Kata and Judo rolling (groundwork) after work. I'm reluctant to let go of my fitness training, maybe as it offers some kind of a security blanket or something to fall back on if I fail to gather those lost parts of my practitioner-self. So I anticipate I will integrate the lifting and vigorous cardio aspects of exercise into my evening Martial Arts practice.


I feel incredibly sad that years can pass where a practice honed over many years can become lost to the practitioner. That sadness also motivates me. Recognising how much of my practice I lost makes me realise how empty and distanced from myself I have also felt inside. As a researcher, that points towards an exciting area for further contemplation. Could it be that over time, our practice becomes an integral or authentic part of who we are? And if this is the case, how is it so and how can such a connection to ourselves ever become lost?


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Claire Higgins is a Positive Psychology Practitioner & Researcher and Self-Defence Instructor. She holds a Masters degree in Exercise & Sport Psychology and directs Inner Athletics.