Archive for May, 2010

Stop!! Don’t drink that!

May 24th, 2010 4 comments

Here’s a good advertisement for water. Really, once we started thinking that “treats” were “staples”, this became inevitable.

I used to drink a lot of fruit juice, iced tea and pop, but this stuff is so much worse.

FYI: their recommended substitutes may be sponsored. And though they recommend “diet” sweet drinks, I recommend weaning off the sweet drinks entirely and going for water when you’re thirsty. Sweet drinks are treats, in my opinion, requiring some kind of physical activity to counter their effects.

Categories: nutrition Tags:

And … loving it!

May 21st, 2010 No comments

I found a good way to stroke the ball better in squash: pretend I actually like to play squash. Then it feels more natural and more fun. It actually brought back a childhood feeling of play, with no thoughts of proper form or fear of negative evaluation by some authority figure … or myself. It was fun. It reminds me of the Nike commercial showing Tiger Woods bouncing the ball on his club — why would anyone practice that if it weren’t fun? And look where it led him … golf-wise.

This is another mental cue helping lead the student toward the no-mind state. Of course, it’s necessary to be mindful in the training up to that point, but the occasional foray into no-mind state can be quite beneficial. For example, I believe that all music students should be allowed to occasionally venture into a state of play between the more disciplined practice sessions. This would lead the student to develop the ear, something that’s especially important for jazz musicians.

Work hard, have fun. Refine and repeat, no?

Categories: interdisciplinary, squash 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?

Gotta run …

May 6th, 2010 2 comments

I had a nice conversation with my friend Sava (the longtime runner) at the gym the other day. We spoke of running, fitness, heel striking, bad shoes and old favorites such as the Nike Oregon Waffle. We also discussed ways of determining the best shoe for someone, and what their optimum gait might be. Sava, who sells running shoes, just tells people to go run away and come back, then she analyzes their gait.

At first, the zen-like simplicity of this appealed to me. To a certain extent, it still does, and here’s why: my goal in all of this blogging business is to find a natural way of doing things, or a sort of unified fitness theory. I’ve found, and it may be true for everyone, that when I really need to peel rubber, when I need to get somewhere fast, I run rather well. (I noticed this while peeling down a hall at school recently.) It may then be true that when the purpose of the running is to get there fast, to go run away, we run naturally. This can be extended to other pursuits, but more on that later. From a Chinese martial arts perspective, it could be said that we’re running from our dan tien, or our center of mass, rather than our feet, legs, arms or whatever. It means we’re just running to get somewhere. Fine with me.

The problem with saying “just go run and come back” is that the natural mindset (or non-mindset) of that exercise needs to be maintained by the runner while he or she runs for fitness. Otherwise, the runner may be outfitted with ideal shoes, but out on the road, the runner may revert to old, injurious habits. When we’re out for a run, are we thinking the same way that we do when we’re running for the bus? Aren’t we a little more self-conscious when we’re out for a run? Maybe thinking about form? Maybe we’re bouncing up and down and jogging? Maybe we adopt a different motion, one that we believe is easier to sustain over a period longer than the short duration of the average emergency run? Maybe we get bored, unable to sustain the “gotta get there” mindset of the emergency run?

I wonder. You know, when was the last time you had to run somewhere for real? Were you late? Were you in a long enough space that allowed room for it? When you weren’t carrying a briefcase, Starbucks, whatever that prevented you from really running? As I sit here at my computer, expecting to drive home, work out … I can only recall the run in the hall, and possibly a sprint for the streetcar a few months ago. This might explain the great disconnect between the idea that running should be natural and the preponderance of running injuries out there: we don’t have enough opportunities to run for its own sake … instead, we just run for fitness or sport, if that.

I think I’ll try the “gotta get there” mindset next time I’m out for a run. I’ll get back to you.

Categories: East meets West, running, Zen-like stuff Tags:

Action and reaction

May 2nd, 2010 No comments

We were at Ikea the other day, attempting to buy a storage unit. (They have those?) Once we found the correct aisle/bin combination in the warehouse (not so hard) we rolled our nice flat cart right up to the bin so I could drag the incredibly heavy box out of the bin and onto the cart. I crouched down, since the package was low, and placed my body sideways to the bin. With visions of lower back pain looming large, I remembered to to use my whole body to pull the box out. So I just aligned myself, engaged the right stuff, and slid the box out, mostly feeling the load taken by the bottom of my feet. It took some effort, but it was no big deal. Before all this Chinese stuff, I might have twisted myself, or did something to my lower back.

I believe that some Tai Chi practitioners misunderstand the internal martial arts. The arts aren’t practiced to inflict pain or encourage aggression — you could do “mixed martial arts” for that. No, the Chinese internal martial arts (CIMA to some) are way too slow and boring for most of those guys. CIMA conditions our bodies and calms our minds, but more to the point, it helps us develop a full-body strength, using the entire body not just to resist an opponent/partner’s force, but any force we encounter in daily life. It can be applied to lifting boxes at Ikea or snow shoveling as well as resisting a partner in a class.

It’s not magical, it’s just aligning yourself and being sensitive enough to know when you’re aligned by feeling it from the inside.

(As for the Ikea unit, we plucked the wrong one from the bin, so I had to put it back. The one we wanted was out of stock.)

Categories: East meets West, Tai Chi, Yiquan Tags: