Archive for the ‘physical health’ Category

The Eight Brocades: a nifty little exercise

July 26th, 2016 No comments

On a 2007 trip to China, we were introduced to a little exercise called “The Eight Brocades,” “Eight Pieces of Brocade,” or baduanjin. Our instructor was a tall, beautiful dancer and Kung Fu expert whom we nicknamed “Jade.” She was one of those people who could stand on one leg and slowly extend her other leg up until it touched her head. No hands. Geeez.

Baduanjin is a little qigong (Chi Gong, Chi Kung) exercise that can be done whenever you want. It’s meant to be done slowly and with awareness of all your parts’ working together.

Dr. Shin Lin, a clever researcher (and good guy) at University of California Irvine has studied qigong since the sixties. He, and others have said that to be a qigong exercise, a moving exercise requires three elements:

  1. movement (duh)
  2. breathing
  3. intention

I know what you’re saying: “standing practice can’t be qigong, because you don’t move.” Well, zhan zhuang is referred to as standing qigong. Do it for a while, and that will make sense.

Back to the three elements: baduanjin is based on movement, but requires the other two in order to become more than just a gentle calisthenic. We need to synchronize our breathing with our movements, always keeping it deep, but gentle. Check out this little animation to help slow down your breathing.

There’s a standing and sitting baduanjin set, but I, like most people, do a standing set. However, I do it in a slightly different order from that of the set described on Wikipedia. Instead, I do the sections in the order taught to us by Jade:

  1. Hands Hold up the Heavens
    • I keep the arms round, not too close to the chest. I keep them slightly bent at the ends of the motion.
  2. Separate Heaven and Earth
    • I turn palms out relative to the sternum: palms up when above it, palms down when below it.
  3. Drawing the Bow to Shoot the Eagle / Hawk / Vulture
    • Breathe in when the arms come in, out when they go out.
  4. Wise Owl Gazes Backwards or Look Back
    • relax in order to maintain your balance.
    • See if you tend to shift to one side or the other, and gently compensate so you stay balanced.
  5. Sway the Head and Shake the Tail
  6. Two Hands Hold the Feet to Strengthen the Kidneys and Waist
  7. Clench the Fists and Glare Fiercely (or Angrily)
  8. Bouncing on the Toes

But you may ask: “what does this do? What’s the point?” Good question! Qigong practitioners make a lot of specific claims that seem pretty odd to westerners, but because they require some sensitive and complex navigation (well, I think so) I’ll have to tackle them in another post.

Caveat: to me, it’s not a stretching exercise. If you do it as a stretch, you’re doing a stretch, not qigong, in my opinion. By all means, stretch, but do it in addition to a non-stretching qigong version. By “qigong version,” I mean that as we do the exercise, we need to be sensitive to our feeling of physical unity and our physical energy. The energy feeling is pretty subtle, and can be misinterpreted pretty easily. I’ll go into my impressions of it later.

If you look for examples on the web, you’ll find a few different ways of doing the exercise. When I find a video that matches what I do, I’ll link to it. If you do start, pick a method (or order) that seems right to you. However, you should be prepared to change over time as you discover what actions feel best to you. I’ll write about my progress.

Right now, let’s just say that if it’s done slowly, with synched breathing and awareness of the feeling of how the body’s parts integrate, all parts moving and stopping together, the exercise helps me get going and focus in the morning. More to come.


One example of baduanjin. . If the left column were numbered down 1,2,3,4, and the left column were 5,6,7,8, I would follow this diagram in the order 1, 2, 3, 6, 4, 7, 5, 8, just because that’s the way I learned it.

Categories: chi (qi), physical health Tags:

“I just wanted to try something different.”

November 15th, 2010 5 comments

Breaking news: The End of Pilates as We Know It?

According to The Globe and Mail, Pilates is no longer on the Hot List of workout routines. To most of us, this isn’t a big deal, as Pilates is just another workout fad to most people … just like Step Aerobics, Jazzercise and Tae Bo.

So what does RnR have to say about this? Let’s use point form, because I’m in a hurry!

  • People who advocate slow, careful, introspective fitness correction are like mechanics who insist that people know how their car works, whereas most folks just want to drive the damn thing. (This analogy has less power in these days of computerized cars, of course) Don’t tell me how to find my center, I just want to feel the burn, baby!
  • The hotness of an exercise routine has less to do with its value than its appeal. In other words, it only has to do enough good to satisfy a basic feel-good factor. After that, it has to give people what they want at that slice in time. If their wants change, they move on.
  • An important factor in making a routine “hot” is how people feel when telling their friends about what they do. Trust me, I don’t tell people I’m doing Yiquan or Mizongyi when they ask what I’m up to — “tai chi” will do, and that’s acceptable only because I’m over forty.
  • Some fads may do a lot of good, while routines viewed as “old school” and “normal” may not be optimal.
  • As long as people have short attention spans, serious “refine and repeat” fitness routines that require patience and introspection will never be popular.


Categories: fitness, modern life, news, physical health Tags:

A manifesto?

May 10th, 2010 No comments

My high school English teacher attempted to drill into us the importance of clarifying meaning whenever a disagreement popped up. Clarifying our meaning and intent can often lead us to realize we’re actually in agreement, and if not, hopefully we can agree to disagree, possibly until some new information comes to light. To that end, here’s what could be called my “small “m” manifesto”, which you may or may not find interesting in light of your own point of view:

Goals: when describing them or using the phrase “my goal is”, I’m not usually describing the traditional Cartesian (as I see it) goal-setting approach of “I’m here now, and I want to be there later”, where “here” is a specific point or state, and “there” is another specific point or state. Even if it seems that I’ve done that in the past, as was the case with my desire to learn to squat, the intention was to reach a door and open it to a new beginning, not reach a terminus and wonder what to do next. No, my usual approach is more like a Euclidean vector, where I choose to apply a certain amount of energy in a particular direction and see what happens along the way. It’s intention-focused, not destination-focused. This approach allows for variation in the magnitude (energy) and direction of the intention, rendering the eventual destination uncertain.

Here’s a running example: Cartesian: “I’m training so I can run and finish the ScotiaBank marathon in under 3 hours.” Euclidean: “I’m increasing my running mileage a little bit each week.”  (up to 10 percent, of course) One is close-ended with the goal being the marathon, the other is open-ended with the intention being increasing the cardio. If it turns out to be too much, I’ll back off. This differs from the mindset of “keep your eyes on the prize”.

Also, I generally avoid the Cartesian goal-setting approach because at the outset, my impression of the end state is an illusion. Since I haven’t been there yet, I don’t know what that state looks like or feels like, so mapping it as a destination is imprecise. Once I get there, I’ll be different, and it will be different from what I thought. So it’s a mug’s game, a fool’s errand and so on. I also believe that the real goal isn’t the stated goal in many cases. In the case of the marathon, the real goal is often “to feel good about myself”. Isn’t it?

Of course, life has deadlines, so the Cartesian approach is useful on occasion.

My intention: After doing the stuff that I’ve done over the last ten years or so, my current intention is to move toward “natural action”, or “natural being”. By that, I mean that I want to continue to discover a more efficient or natural way of standing, moving and living. This way would be in accordance with the laws of physics and how the structure of my body interacts with those laws. When I imagine natural action, I imagine a jungle cat stalking its prey with no concern over how it’s balancing its weight, whether it’s keeping its shoulders down or whether it’s landing on it’s forepaws or mid-paws when it runs. It studies its prey, senses the reactions of its prey, senses the reaction of nature to the cat’s approach (snap!), then when it feels the time is right, moves: “go”.

Natural does not mean habitual, by the way.

How to achieve this: I am taking a roughly four-step process, which is cyclical or spiral if you add some sort of improvement measure as a third axis. 1) observe an issue with the body. 2) relax the body at the point of notice 3) align the body to distribute the forces (e.g. gravity) to another part of the body until I notice nothing special any more and 4) listen some more. Maybe 5) get back to whatever I was doing, this time more naturally. For example, if my lower back feels a bit funny, I’ll listen to it, align myself and usually transfer my weight to my lower body. Keep in mind that I’ve been doing this for years, and expect to do so for a while longer. Actually, the lower back is no longer a problem, probably due to the way I’ve changed how I stand and sit.

I expect to keep doing this for a long time, but I don’t expect to keep doing it in the same place for a long time. I expect to fix most things and move on, but for other things, I suppose I’ll accept them.

Correction and maintenance: I believe that these sort of actions and techniques are corrective, to restore natural being when it has been upset by outside events or by reversion to unnatural habits. I don’t believe that it will be necessary to constantly apply these techniques (as I’ve applied them) for the rest of my life. In some cases, I’ve applied the technique, and I’ve eventually “gotten it”, so I no longer need to apply the technique … as long as I don’t go back to old habits. If I’ve instilled good habits and avoid injury, I’ll never need to apply the technique again in that way. After all, we can learn, we do grow, we do change and we do move on. For example, my left arm/shoulder no longer hurts because I no longer “wing out” as a matter of habit,  so I no longer need to consciously apply a technique to change that habit (thanks, Caprice!). If, I happen to revert under stress, I’ll correct it again, but it’s not a given that I’ll revert. Herein lies the importance of sensitivity, awareness, and stress management.

As for maintenance, it’s a series of minor corrections in my opinion, necessary to correct what could be called minor injuries, or minor lapses in healthy behavior. Improvement is another story, but I also believe that restoring to a natural state is “improvement”.

Habits: habits can be changed. If they couldn’t be changed, we’d still be acting as children do. I believe that part of natural action is acting through good habits. Now I sense that mindfulness advocates might be getting their backs up, and that’s fine, but maybe they should be mindful of why they’re gotten their backs up before we go on. …….. Mindfulness is great and necessary, but I believe that it should be applied to that which is most important at the time: to that which can be corrected through mindfulness, or to that which is nourishing, such as mindful eating. We can be mindful of the nourishing things as long as we live, but I expect that once something (which needs correcting) of which we are mindful is corrected (such as posture) to a more natural state then we can let it slip away, so we can be mindful of the nourishing things, such as how nice a day it is.

Now some may say that it is natural for the body to correct a habit (such as compensating for a dropped shoulder by tightening somewhere else), but I believe that the original shoulder-dropping is not natural. It could be said that everything is natural since it is made up of components from nature, but not everything is healthy. So then, to me, natural means “healthy”.

Mindful and no-mind: By “no-mind”, I do not mean “mindless”, I mean 1) a state of natural action, and 2) a state of high, but relaxed awareness, not hooked or attached to any one thing. I also do not mean “free of intention”. If we imagine an elite athlete “in the Zone”, that athlete surely has an intention, yet is not hooked on or attached to an external outcome while in the Zone. To do so would distract the athlete with thoughts, words, and so on. The intention is simple, and as I can only extrapolate based on my moments in the Zone (not being an elite athlete), the intention is explainable in simple terms such as “smooth”, “there”, “go”, “connect” or whatever works for the athlete. The details have been taken care of by practice and the cultivation of good habits and natural action. If the athlete were mindful of every detail, he would be lost. In the example of martial arts, the saying is “the best technique is no-technique”, meaning that in the heat of a contest, the fighter must be in a state of no-mind, acting on practiced habits and trained instinct, not  carefully considering every possible response to a given attack. Of course, the fighter must study, practice and learn techniques in a state of mindfulness, but the preferred state in a contest is the fully-aware, yet unhooked, unattached no-mind state. Mindful in training, no-mind in execution.

Internal vs. External direction: As an example of external direction, one might say “touch your toes”, with the internal direction being “stretch your back — how does that feel?”. In physical matters, I believe a balance is necessary, but the instructor must know which is which and when to apply one or the other. It seems that most of the time, to get in the ballpark, external directions are needed, since our chronic uncorrected habits may have led us to perceive our bodies inaccurately, believing that we may be standing straight when we are leaning to one side, for example. The Alexander Technique seems to be based on correcting such perceptions, assuming (correctly) that in most cases, our body image isn’t very accurate when it comes to balance, alignment and positioning. However, I believe that once a student has successfully used an external source such as a mirror or instructor for feedback, it’s time to look inward, for the student to use proprioception to determine his or her level of balance and alignment at a very fine level. This requires sensitivity, developed over time. Refine and Repeat. My concerns are that many instructors have not been able to direct their students to this point, or that instructors do not want to teach the students to take charge of their own health, because that would make the instructor redundant. I’ve had two chiropractors in my time: one who wants me to keep coming back for regular maintenance regardless of how I feel, and one who gives me exercises and trusts me to do them. One is right for one kind of patient, and one is right for another, I suppose. However, I believe that we are all responsible for our own health, and that the path probably lies in the external directions first, then internal directions for refinement.

This is how I feel at this time. Any questions?

Signal to Noise

March 4th, 2010 3 comments

I just found a new metaphor. Finding them is a hobby of mine.

Signal-to-noise ratio is a technical term indicating the efficiency of a transmission of information. For example, let’s say you’re trying to talk to someone. Your speech is the signal, and the club noise is, well, the noise interfering with the clarity of the transmission of your message. If you’re in a noisy dance club, the signal-to-noise is low, but in a quiet room, it’s high. The goal is to have a high signal-to-noise ratio for the sake of clarity.

I was planning to tell my design students about signal-to-noise in the context of delivering a message graphically, when I stumbled upon an article in today’s Globe and Mail about running. With a berating of a poor Running Room salesperson on the subject of heel striking still clear in my mind, I made the connection:

When running, moving forward is the signal, and all other movement is the noise.

Bouncing up and down and from side to side would be the noise, then. I don’t expect that it’s a good idea to reduce it by tensing up and holding things in, but there should be a sweet spot — an optimal state.

That covers the spatial noise, but there’s also a kind of long-term temporal noise: noise that interferes with the signal over time, or your ability to run smoothly forward over the long term. (Am I stretching the metaphor?) That noise would be inefficient habits such as stretching forward with the leg to land on the heel, tensing body parts, running with a wide gait … that sort of thing. Given that the signal is to run forward, these habits interfere with that signal over time, so they constitute noise.

Now sometimes, noise adds color and texture, but then it’s not really noise, it’s part of the signal … like the overtones added to a smooth sine wave to turn it into the sound of a violin. So there.

What’s your signal? What’s the noise interfering with it? Can you reduce it?