DAILY PHOTO: Llama King of the Mountain

Taken in the summer of 2011 at Machu Picchu

Taken in the summer of 2011 at Machu Picchu

DAILY PHOTO: Kotmale Reservior: Dark and Bright

Taken in May of 2015 at Ramboda Falls, Sri Lanka

Taken in May of 2015 at Ramboda Falls, Sri Lanka

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7 Stress Fighting Tips with Relevant Monty Python Song Interludes and Book Recommendations

In writing this post, I realized that Monty Python provides the I-Ching of life wisdom. If they don’t say it, it may not need being said. So I’ve let them expound upon my points wherever possible.


1.) Always  Usually look on the bright side: Our brains are programmed to constantly be on the look for potential problems and ruminate over solutions. This isn’t without its advantages. However, as your brain takes flight with this problem anticipation mode, it can begin to taint how one sees the world.

My high school psychology teacher told us a story of what he called the “gestalt of expectations.” The story goes like this: One is driving across southwestern America and there’s a gas station coming up, but one still has half a tank. Being from the East, one doesn’t realize how rare service stations can be in the desert, so one passes it by. Of course one runs out of gas (it wouldn’t be much of a story otherwise.) As one is walking back toward the service station, one begins to obsess over how the service station attendant is going to screw one over. After all, the unknown individual knows one is in a desperate situation. The more one walks under a burning sun, the more one inflates the gas station attendant’s ill-intentions, and one suitably escalates one’s mentally rehearsed response. Finally, disheveled and weary, one reaches the service station. A concerned-looking attendant bursts out of the station to meet one, saying, “Geez, you look beat, what can I do for you?” And that’s when one punches him right in the nose.

BuddhaBrainThe good news is that one can gradually train one’s brain to take a more positive perspective. A neuroscientist, Rick Hanson, has written a few books on how one can go about this cognitive rewiring. Buddha’s Brain is probably the most well-known of these books. The book lays out the science behind the brain and negative thinking in particular, and then goes on to present suggestions as to how one can change this cycle and yield the benefits of a more positive outlook. While the title of this book makes it seems like a religious tract, it’s really secular and scientific. If you’re still concerned, you might check out the more secularly titled Hardwiring Happiness.


2.) Make rest part of the process–and an essential one at that: Duh?  Yeah, it sounds self-evident, but  too many people think of rest as the slacking off that one does between doing “useful stuff.” What isn’t valued is given short shrift. Don’t think of rest as a necessary evil. Equating rest with goofing off results in two problems. First, the obvious one, people don’t get as much rest as they should. Second, while one thinks he or she is resting, one may be under chronic stress (the bad kind) as one’s minds churns over what they should be doing and the adverse impacts of not doing it. Just as one should have rests built into one’s workout for maximal effect, one should have rest times built into the day, week, and year.


3.) Find your bliss, and just do “it”: You probably think that by “it” I’m referring to sex. Actually, sex isn’t a bad “it,”  as its go, but it’s not the only it. Exercise, work the heavy bag, do a vinyasa (yoga flow sequence), go to work solving the problem at hand, or practice your Silly Walk. This also sounds like a “duh!” kind of statement, but far too many people wallow when they feel overwhelmed. What do they wallow in? Negative feelings. They worry that they can’t possibly hit the deadline or find the perfect solution. They worry that they’ll let someone down. They get angry at other people, the world, or a god or gods for putting them in their present predicament. They bristle at the unfairness of the universe. All of this snowballs into a stress monster–to mix my metaphors up nicely. If one can’t meditate or keep one’s mind on one’s breath, one may find relaxation in exhaustion. It’s all about inertia. It’s hard to get moving when one thinks one’s world has gone to shit, but that movement will make one feel much better–even if it doesn’t seem it can solve the problem at hand. One might need to change one’s life’s course altogether and become a lumberjack.


4.) Don’t create false monsters:  Remember what Michel de Montaigne said, “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened.” As this is really just expanding on a point in item #1, instead of elaborating, I will offer you this Monty Python skit to consider.


5.) Exhale: Each exhalation trips the “rest & digest” circuit (i.e. the Parasympathetic Nervous System [PNS])  just a little. Granted, this subtle relaxation effect is easily overwhelmed by the countervailing forces of stressors and even the antagonistic effect of inhalation with its–also minute–fight or flight mode (of the Sympathetic Nervous System [SNS.]) Still, if you don’t know what to do, controlling your breath while elongating each exhalation is a good start. This will help in two regards. First, it helps the PNS gain a little ground. Second, it’ll break your conscious mind’s obsession with the problem (or potential problem) at hand. One’s mind will wander and one will lose track of the breath, but the more one practices quietly returning one’s attention to the breath the better off one will be. Becoming frustrated with these diversions only strengthens the stress monster–so don’t do it.

Relaxation ResponseThe bible of the rest and digest mode is Herbert Benson’s Relaxation ResponseThis book was first written over a quarter of a century ago, but it remains readily available. It’s telling that Walter B. Cannon’s work on “fight or flight” mode predates Benson’s work by such a long time. In other words, the medical and scientific community were researching the body under stress for decades before it ever occurred to anyone to think in terms of rest mode as a state that could be studied and advanced–as opposed to just being the normal state of affairs. This should give one an insight into how the human mind goes about considering problems.


6.) Recognize that stress is like cholesterol–there’s a good kind as well as the bad: Acute stress can serve one well during instances of danger. We have this response for good reason. The problem is chronic stress. When one’s body is in a stressed state, it’s not taking care of general maintenance tasks like healing itself. That’s fine in a short term, but problems compound over time. Chronic stress brings a high likelihood of illness because the body isn’t dealing with its run of the mill chores as it should be.

ZebrasUlcers_SapolskyThere are a number of books that expand upon this issue and which offer advice for keeping one’s stress of a healthy type. Robert Sapolsky’s Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers is among the best. It’s a long book and goes into great detail, but Sapolsky’s sense of humor helps to continue reading when the scientific minutiae might seem overwhelming. Another book on this topic that I found to be quite informative was Lissa Rankin’s Mind Over Medicine.  Rankin is a medical doctor, and so she offers a little different perspective from that of Sapolsky. (The latter is a biologist / neurologist.)


7.) Realize that you are a speck in a vast universe and, so, how big or long-lasting can your problem be?: Yeah, it’s a double-edged sword because it’s–in a way–a demoralizing thought as well as a comforting one. Therefore, one should first watch this bit of Monty Python wisdom:


But then one can keep things in perspective through the realization that one is not yet dead.

DAILY PHOTO: Tibetan Horns at the Ready

Taken in March 2013 at Namdroling Monastery in Bylakuppe, India

Taken in March 2013 at Namdroling Monastery in Bylakuppe, India

BOOK REVIEW: The Elephanta Suite by Paul Theroux

The Elephanta SuiteThe Elephanta Suite by Paul Theroux
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

The Elephanta Suite is a collection of three novellas that feature Westerners out of their league in India. As an American living in India, I suspect anyone who’s had this experience will recognize instances in which—for good, bad, or a mix of each—one is swallowed whole by some feature of India that one couldn’t possibly have anticipated. The novellas aren’t interconnected, except by way of the themes that run through them and Theroux’s trademark use of what I’ll call—for lack of a better term—cameo references. These aren’t his own cameo appearances in the book—as he’s also been known to do—but rather minor instances in which the lives of the characters in one story brush up against those in another.

The first of the novellas is called “Monkey Hill,” and it features a tourist couple who are staying at an upscale resort that’s near a town with a large Hanuman temple. (Hanuman is the “monkey-god” of Hinduism, a popular deity with a monkey-like face and a man-like body who features prominently in the epic entitled Ramayana.) The resort grounds also have monkeys, and so there are two potential meanings to the title. Like many wealthy travelers to India, the couple isn’t really experiencing India—though, like the characters in the other stories, they end up doing so in a major way by the story’s end. Experiencing India in unexpected ways is a central theme across the three works. The couple’s only real experience of India comes through each of their respective dalliances with locals that are carried out unbeknownst to the other. (I would point out that characters who aren’t particularly high in moral fiber are another prevailing theme across these stories, but really such characters are a hallmark of Theroux’s writing in general.)

“The Gateway of India,” as Bombay visitors might suspect, is set in that city and the waterfront attraction features prominently in the novel. The lead in this story is a business traveler who’s staying in the famous Taj Hotel in Mumbai. (The hotel overlooks the Gateway and was allegedly built by a pissed off J.N. Tata who was irate because, as a Parsi, he wasn’t allowed to stay in any of the upscale hotels because they exclusively catered to Westerners. As a “screw-you,” he built the most elegant hotel in the country at the time.) At the story’s beginning, our business traveler is a caricature of business travelers to India. He’s too scared to eat or drink anything that isn’t from a five-star hotel—and even then he’s wary. He’s filled with disgust whenever he rides through town or interacts with locals in the street. By turns, he’s transformed over the course of the story. Like the couple in “Monkey Hill” his introduction to the real India comes from a sexual liaison with a native. That said, this story features the most positive character transformation of the three stories. This is the one “feel-good” transformation of the three.

The final novella, entitled “The Elephant God,” begins in Mumbai, but is largely set in Bangalore. This story features yet another class of traveler to India–the backpacker. This lead is a young woman who is traveling on a tight budget while staying at an ashram. Beginning the story in Mumbai allows the reader to see how the backpacker loses her traveling companion, an issue that will prove crucial to the story’s resolution. As one might expect of a backpacker, our protagonist has had a truer experience of India than the wealthy protagonists of the other stories. She knows a little of the indigenous culture and how real people behave faced with real world events. In fact, there’s an intriguing piece of the story line that involves a job she gets teaching English to employees of a call center for a multinational corporation. [It should strain credulity that she’d be able to get a job on the visa she would have, but this is India.] At any rate, she begins to realize that—by teaching the call-takers to speak to American customers in a way that will make Americans comfortable—she’s essentially turning them rude—all their endearing deferential mannerisms fade in the face of her teachings. She feels bad about this. The titular reference involves an elephant and its handler (mahout) that she befriends. (In two years living in Bangalore, I’ve not seen an elephant living inside the city, but I can’t say that I found this aspect of the story unbelievable. I have seen, for example, the equally improbable camel or two.) The elephant isn’t a major feature of the story until the climax, though visits do recur.

I enjoyed these stories and would recommend The Elephanta Suite–particularly for any Westerners who have spent, or plan to spend, substantial time in India. The book may not surprise or inform such readers, but it’ll probably resonate with them.

View all my reviews

DAILY PHOTO: Storefront in Yellow and Red

Taken in January of 2014 in Phuket Town

Taken in January of 2014 in Phuket Town

DAILY PHOTO: Pimped Out Auto-Rickshaws (Tuk-tuks)

Taken on August 23, 2015 at UB City by Lilla Gourley

Taken on August 23, 2015 at UB City by Lilla Gourley

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DAILY PHOTO: Lawyers’ Row in Kandy

 

Taken in Kandy in May of 2015

Taken in Kandy in May of 2015

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DAILY PHOTO: A Himalayan Columbine

Taken in Great Himalayan National Park in June of 2015

Taken in Great Himalayan National Park in June of 2015

Saving the Knees: Preventing Knee Injuries in the Martial Arts

Public Domain Image from Wikipedia

Public Domain Image from Wikipedia

 

The knee is a hinge joint. It’s designed to flex and extend with the thigh bone (femor) and the shin bone (tibia) in the same plane. A healthy joint can tolerate a certain amount of torquing or poor distribution of the body’s weight on occasion, but repetitive movements of that nature and /or severe uncontrolled movements can lead to permanent damage. Healthy knees are stable when straight (extended), but become slack when bent (flexed.)

 

Knee damage among martial artists is all too common, and the causes may or may not be self-evident. Martial artists whose practice includes kicks that require pivoting on a support leg or which involve landing leaping maneuvers may be intimately aware of the risks. However, the first martial art that I ever trained in had no twisting / pivoting kicks and few leaps (that were rarely practiced), but knee injuries were epidemic. The culprit in this case was low postures which required the thigh to be turned out (externally rotated and abducted) with the knee deeply flexed.

 

Well, I should say those postures were the culprit in conjunction with lack of flexibility and/or strength in all the right places. This isn’t to say that the individuals who developed knee problems weren’t strong or flexible, but the areas that needed work weren’t necessarily the big muscle groups that leap to mind when workout time comes around.   Emphasis on the big muscle groups (quadriceps and hamstrings) with neglect of the muscles involved with adduction, abduction, external rotation, internal rotation and stabilization can create some problems. If you’re a runner or a weightlifter (with good form) you may be able to get away with such a stretching and strengthening emphasis. [Note: I’m not advocating such an approach for anyone. What I’m saying is that if your knee is only worked with the knee straight below the hip and pointed forward in a hinge fashion, your risks are not the same as someone who works with a flexed knee with the thigh turned out. The likely injuries are different.]

Note: Knees pointing the same direction as the toes. (The back knee might be a little far back but that's an issue for the ankle health post.)

Note: Knees pointing the same direction as the toes. (The back knee might be a little far back but that’s an issue for the ankle health post.)

WRONG: Note: if one dropped a line down from the knee it would be well inside the foot. That means the ligaments are having to work too hard and your skeleton isn't doing enough

WRONG: Note: if one dropped a line down from the knee it would be well inside the foot. That means the ligaments are having to work too hard and your skeleton isn’t doing enough

 

To do a posture like the one above, one needs the flexibility to keep the knee wide enough so that it points the same direction as the toes.  The joint shouldn’t be wrenched or torqued with load on it. The four ligaments (Anterior Cruciate Ligament [ACL], Posterior Cruciate Ligament [PCL], Medial Collateral Ligament [MCL], and the Lateral Collateral Ligament [LCL]) and the surrounding musculature keep the joint snug during movements. And, as mentioned earlier, when the knee is deeply flexed it’s more sloppy than when extended.

 

-Increase flexibility in the muscles that internally rotate and adduct  the thigh: When one goes into a wide-legged stance, one’s thigh is pulled away from the body’s center-line (abducted) and the thigh externally rotates. If the muscles that act in the opposite direction (pulling the thigh back on center and rolling the thigh inward) are too tight to allow the knee to move into proper position, then the load of the body weight will be going into the ground through a kinked joint. Furthermore, one will end up torquing through the joint as one moves. Below are a few hip openers that will help one achieve the requisite range of motion.

Utkatakonasana (often called goddess pose) variations will show you whether you're getting your knees and toes in line.

Utkatakonasana (often called goddess pose) variations will show you whether you’re getting your knees and toes in line.

Badhakonasana (often called the butterfly stretch): Work on getting those knees down

Badhakonasana (often called the butterfly stretch): Work on getting those knees down

Place one foot on top of the opposite knee (and vice versa for the other side) carefully shift weight forward. This puts an intense stretch on the hip joint to help rotate the thigh sufficiently

Place one foot on top of the opposite knee (and vice versa for the other side) carefully shift weight forward. This puts an intense stretch on the hip-joint to help rotate the thigh sufficiently

Same as the last from the side

Same as the last from the side

Upavistakonasana: put legs at about 90 degrees relative to each other, and then lean forward with a flat back placing the stomach, chest, and chin on the floor (in that order.)

Upavistakonasana: put legs at about 90 degrees relative to each other, and then lean forward with a flat back placing the stomach, chest, and chin on the floor (in that order.)

Padmasana (lotus): If you meditate in padmasana, you probably already have the range of motion necessary. Note: if padmasana hurts your   knees, you need to go back to hip openers and discontinue the practice.

Padmasana (lotus): If you meditate in padmasana, you probably already have the range of motion necessary. Note: if padmasana hurts your knees, you need to go back to hip openers and discontinue the practice.

 

-Strengthen the muscles that stabilize the knee-joint. One begins this process with the usual suspects of leg exercise. One just needs to focus intently upon alignment. Here are a few of the exercises you may already be doing.

 

Wall squat: just like sitting on a chair with one's back  to the wall--sans the chair.

Wall squat: just like sitting on a chair with one’s back to the wall–sans the chair.

The classic squat

The classic squat

Side lunge: This one is  particularly important to get the knee aligned with the foot.

Side lunge: This one is particularly important to get the knee aligned with the foot.

The basic lunge: can be done stepping forward, backward, or both (the latter in an alternating fashion)

The basic lunge: can be done stepping forward, backward, or both (the latter in an alternating fashion)

 

As one needs more challenge, one can achieve it in the usual ways (single-legged, unstable surface, add weight, or combinations thereof.) Below are a couple of variations that combine single-limbed work with an unstable surface.

 

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-Save static stretching for after the joint has warmed up. It used to be common to begin a workout with static stretching. While few do this anymore, it’s a practice that needs to be replaced. Stretch warm.

 

-Don’t neglect the opposing muscle groups: When I said that one needs to increase flexibility in adductors and internal rotators, that doesn’t mean to ignore the opposing muscles. Nothing  good comes of stretching or strengthening in an unbalanced fashion. Your musculature works as a team with agonists, antagonists, and stabilizers all working  in conjunction to produce effective movement.

 

-Don’t go overboard with stretching: If your aim is to be a contortionist, then by all means go ahead. However, highly flexible martial artists need to be concerned about joint laxity. Laxity is when the joint gets so loose that it’s vulnerable to popping out-of-place.  A martial artist needs a balanced style of fitness. Extreme flexibility results in weakness and lack of joint robustness, just like extreme strength training produces a body that lacks range of motion and stamina.

 

Most importantly, don’t ignore pain when it’s still at the minor twinge point. If you have knee pain you’re doing something that joint doesn’t like. One should reevaluate your movement and, if necessary, considering stepping back from your current practice to work on capacity building exercises.

 

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