BOOK REVIEW: The Modern Art and Science of Mobility by Aurlien Broussel-Derval & Stephane Ganneau

The Modern Art and Science of MobilityThe Modern Art and Science of Mobility by Aurelien Broussal-Derval
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book is designed to help athletes (and those who train athletes) increase mobility. The authors draw heavily upon yoga and martial arts drills (especially judo and jujutsu groundwork drills) in addition to the usual suspects of modern fitness – i.e. calisthenics, kettlebell, etc. It’s a visual book. The text is highly distributed toward the first half of the book. The heart of the book is pictures and descriptive captions of the exercises and practices described. This isn’t a complaint. I think there is sufficient discussion of the topics addressed and that said discussion was clear.

The book is organized into four parts, and — within each part — by anatomical region. The four parts are: Pain, Breathing, Movement, and Mobility. The section on pain offers many self-massage techniques, often using foam rollers or balls to counteract myofascial pain. I was particularly impressed to see an entire section devoted to breathing, and that it not only explored exercises to free up the diaphragm and intercostals (rib muscles) but also discussed issues such as the role of stress on breath. As mentioned the parts on movement and mobility are heavily oriented toward conveying exercise sequences graphically, and the chapters were oriented by parts of the body.

With a book that is so graphically-oriented, it’s important to mention that the photography, anatomical drawings, and diagrams are well done. The photos make it easy to see what is happening. It seemed to me that they used the right number of photographs to convey the movements involved, and they augmented these with arrows and lines to show direction of movement and alignments. It was usually quite clear what the movement was even before reading the captions. The photos are of varied sizes and orientations as needed to convey the exercise at hand. The anatomical drawings are clearly labeled.

I will say there were three exercises that I found troubling, but I gave the authors the benefit of the doubt as the book seems to be directed toward athletes. I don’t think these are things that will give most athletically-built people too much trouble especially when practice in moderation. However, as anyone may pick up such a book, I would be cautious of these three activities – especially if you haven’t been training in a while or are new. First, doing loaded lunges (i.e. barbells across the shoulders) with one’s knee way out forward of the toes. As the point of the book is mobility, I don’t have a problem with doing floor exercises on a knee this way, but that’s a lot of pressure to load onto connective tissue. Second, doing cobra (Bhujanga, or what they call “Sphinx”) with straightened arms and thighs resting on the floor. That almost always creates a sharp kink in the back with one spinal process prying into another. One can do Up-Dog (Urdhva Mukta Svanasana) with thighs off the ground or Cobra (Bhujanga) with your navel on the ground, but you shouldn’t confuse the two. Finally, they mention doing a roll up into shoulder stand. Unless you are extremely experienced, this is a bad idea because with the chin tucked into the chest there is very little room for error. Work up into shoulder stand slowly and easily. I will point out that this is what I noticed as a yoga teacher, individuals with other experience may see other issues, but I have some experience with the jujutsu drills and didn’t notice anything problematic.

That said, I thought this book was well done. The organization, explanations, and graphics were excellent and it will be a helpful resource for athletes working on mobility issues.

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BOOK REVIEW: Plyometric Anatomy by Derek Hansen

Plyometric AnatomyPlyometric Anatomy by Derek Hansen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book performs two tasks at once. First, it’s a guide to the broad range of plyometric exercises and how they can be conducted safely. Plyometrics take advantage of a phenomenon in which rapidly stretched muscles contract more forcefully and rapidly. However, you may recognize them as exercises involving jumping and other explosive movements that are used to build power. (Power being the ability to generate a force in as short a time as possible. This is in contrast to strength — a measure that’s only concerned with the amount of force generated.) I would go as far as to say the book could be useful for many individuals who don’t need any particular insight into anatomy, but who want to learn to do a wide range of plyometric exercises. (That said, if you are said person, you may want to shop around because you may find the one or two drawings per exercise may not be adequate for your purposes, and you may discover you need more guidance if you’re new to fitness activities.)

Second, the book educates the reader about what musculature is used in each exercise, and differentiates the primary movers from the secondary muscles. The book provides a happy medium useful for coaches and trainers. It doesn’t get bogged down in the anatomical and physiological minutiae, but provides enough information for individuals who want to see what muscles are working without drilling down into depths of great precision.

The book consists of nine chapters. Of these, the first two chapters provide fundamental background information. Chapter one examines how and why plyometric exercises work in a general sense. Chapter two gets into more logistical issues such as what equipment is needed (e.g. hurdles and medicine balls), what surfaces are ideal for practice (no small issue considering the loads generated), and how training progressions should be formulated.

Chapters three through eight are the core of the book. These are the chapters that describe exercises as I mentioned above. The first of these chapters presents foundational exercises. Plyometrics tend to be physically intense and so many individuals will need to build capacity before moving straight into a full-fledged plyometric exercise regime. The next five chapters explore (in order): bilateral lower body exercises, unilateral lower body exercises, upper body exercises, core exercises, and combination exercises (e.g. exercises that combine jumps with sprints or medicine ball throws with jumps and so forth.)

Each of the exercise descriptions consists of five parts: an anatomical drawing showing the action and the musculature involved, a description of how the exercise is safely performed, a text list of the muscles involved (divided into primary and secondary muscles as is the drawing), notes exploring unique considerations for that particular exercise, and variations for those who need to make the exercise more or less challenging.

The last chapter investigates injury prevention and rehabilitation. One learns how to evaluate some of the more high-risk behaviors and misalignments that must be corrected for exercises to be done safely. One also learns how a swimming pool can be used to help athletes rebuild their capacity after an injury, as well as how rehab activities can be done out of the pool.

There are graphics throughout the book. For the most part, these consist of anatomical drawings. These drawings show the body in transparent form so that one can see the muscles involved in each exercise. There is a reference section at the end of the book.

I found this book to be informative and thought-provoking, and I’d recommend it for anyone who is seeking to expand their depth of knowledge about exercise science – particularly coaches, trainers, and teachers.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Healer Within by Roger Jahnke

The Healer Within: Using Traditional Chinese Techniques To Release Your Body's Own Medicine *Movement *Massage *Meditation *BreathingThe Healer Within: Using Traditional Chinese Techniques To Release Your Body’s Own Medicine *Movement *Massage *Meditation *Breathing by Roger Jahnke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book examines how four techniques – movement, massage [specifically, self-applied], breathing exercises, and meditation — can be used to facilitate a robust immune system and to stimulate the body’s innate healing capacities. Jahnke, as a Doctor of Oriental Medicine, specializes in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM,) but he acknowledges that these activities aren’t the exclusive domain of that system. The book is designed to be one-stop shopping for an individual seeking to build their own self-healing practice either as preventive medicine or as a part of one’s treatment regimen for an ailment or infirmity.

The thirteen chapters of the book are divided into five parts. The first two chapters form the book’s first part, and they discuss the body’s innate healing capacity and the literature on the roles of mind and self-applied activities on health outcomes.

Part II forms the heart of the book, and it consists of chapters three through seven. Chapter three offers insight into the process of building a personal practice from the four key activities including guidelines for how to organize disparate parts into a whole and how to fit it into one’s life overall. The other four chapters provide examples and techniques for each of the four components of the system: gentle movement (e.g. qiqong), self-applied massage, breathing exercises, and meditation and deep relaxation techniques.

Part III expands on the issues touched upon in Chapter 3. That is, it explores in greater detail the nature of building and deepening a personal practice.

Part IV, entitled “The Way of Nature,” provides a philosophical context for a global self-healing movement and describes how a community can be built around this endeavor. There are three chapters in this section. The last part consists of only one chapter and it describes a potential future self-healing regime. Throughout the book there is a recognized that, while modern medicine is invaluable, it’s also developed a dysfunction by undervaluing the role of the body’s innate healing factor, while not only removing the patient from of the driver’s seat but also stuffing them in the trunk as a sort of cargo in the health and healing process.

The book has line drawings to help clarify the techniques. There are several pieces of back matter (an appendix, a bibliography, and a resources section) to help make the book more useful. [The appendix is a little strange and unfocused for an Appendix. It’s almost more of a Reader’s Digest Condensed Version for someone who wants to get to brass tacks, but it does offer some interesting insight into how a community built around these ideas has formed.]

I found this book to be informative and believe it offers a great deal of valuable insight into how to not only develop one’s own preventive medicine activities, but also how to situate those activities within a community of like-minded individuals. I thought the author did a good job of presenting scientific evidence for building a self-healing practice while not becoming too bogged down technical detail and offering a way of thinking about it for those who look at such activities in more metaphysical or spiritual terms. I’d recommend this book for anyone who is considered engaging in health enhancing activities.

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BOOK REVIEW: Taoist Yoga & Chi Kung by Eric Yudelove

Taoist Yoga and Chi Kung- For good health,better sex,and longer life.Taoist Yoga and Chi Kung- For good health,better sex,and longer life. by Eric Yudelove
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book was originally released under the title: “100 Days to Better Health, Good Sex & Long Life.” It offers a 14 week qi gong practice that proposes to improve health, sex life, and longevity. It’s presented as a step-by-step explanation of the practice aimed at those who intend to carry out the practice—as opposed to those who are looking for a more general explanation or overview.

The book offers a systematic presentation of the 14 week / 100 day practice. It’s divided into two parts. The first is a short explanation of Taoist concepts as they pertain to health building practices, and particular emphasis is given to the concepts of chi (energy / breath), jing (body), and shen (mind.) That emphasis is valuable as each of the chapters (i.e. the description of each week’s practice) is outlined according to these three concepts. So, each week there is a new breath practice, new bodily practices, and a new meditation or visualization practice. That said, these practices build on each other—i.e. starting with very basic activities and either adding to them or shifting to more complex variations.

The sections on breath and mind are fairly straight forward and mostly involve one practice each per week. Those practices become quite complex over the course of the book, but it’s one practice per week. This is in contrast to the middle section that has three or four subsections of activities per week. The middle section on Jing, or body, includes subsections on making sounds, self-massage, “sexual kung fu” (exercises intended to tone the reproductive system and prevent chi “leakage”), and the movement exercises that one might most closely associate with qi gong (chi kung.)

The book has many graphics in the form of line drawings used to clarify anatomy or how one is to visualize the practices. There is a glossary to help explain both Chinese terms and terminology in English that is specific to qi gong. There is also a two page bibliography that includes many works by one of Yudelove’s teachers, Mantak Chia, but also including works by individuals from other lineages and systems.

I have practiced through week eight. One may find the parts of the practice vary in their usefulness, but there doesn’t seem to be any harmful practices and there are many from which one will benefit. I’d recommend the book if one is looking for practices—as opposed to background. The explanations are systematic and the overall practice is well-organized. It’s not the kind of book that is much of a pleasure to read for reading’s sake. Much of the book is lists and bullet points of step-by-step explanation.

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BOOK REVIEW: Better Balance by Salamon and Manor

Better Balance: Easy Exercises to Improve Stability and Prevent Falls (Harvard Medical School Special Health Report Book 6)Better Balance: Easy Exercises to Improve Stability and Prevent Falls by Suzanne E. Salamon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Balance is one of those qualities that one takes for granted until it fails. Actually, given our bipedal stance, it’s extraordinary that we aren’t falling down all the time. Achieving a stable upright posture takes a lot of complex anatomy and physiology operating flawlessly. I picked up this book because I believe a yoga teacher should be cognizant of the range of capacities for balance that might be seen while teaching. If one teaches students in their 20’s to their 40’s, the need for balance modifications and capacity building might not come up much. It’s when one deals with the very young as well as older students that one sees flawed balance in large measure. [And—let’s face it—the very young can fall down 30 times, pop right back up each time, and be all the stronger for it, and so mature students are the major concern.]

This isn’t the first book in this series of Harvard Medical School Guides that I’ve read and reviewed, and probably won’t be the last. (see: “Your Brain on Yoga,” “Guide to Tai Chi,” and “Low Back Pain.”) I’ve found the series to be beneficial because it presents scientifically sound information, but isn’t afraid to give alternative approaches—such as yoga and tai chi—their due when the studies show that said activities are of benefit. This book is no exception. At several points the authors mention tai chi as being beneficial, and the book includes a yoga balance workout as one of the six that it contains.

The book is organized into 13 sections (i.e. chapters.) The first chapter describes how our vestibular (inner ear), visual, and proprioceptive (the nervous system elements that track where one’s body parts are) systems interact to keep us upright.

Chapter 2 presents an overview of a range of conditions that affect balance. Some of these influence balance specifically and exclusively, but many are conditions that one might not associate with balance problems though they’ve been shown to increase the risk of imbalance. There are sections about which medications have side-effects adversely affecting balance as well as what your doctor may be able to do about balance problems.

Chapter 3 is a “Special Bonus Section” and is of particular importance to mature readers or those who care for said individuals. The topic is preventing falls, and this section describes common causes of falls and offers checklists of considerations for setting up the environments in which those with balance problems will be active.

Chapter 4 introduces various types of activities that improve balance, and chapter 5 is a brief guide to considerations relevant to beginning a balance workout such as whether to consult one’s doctor and what safety precautions should be considered.

In chapter 6, the authors propose how balance workouts can be merged into one’s overall fitness plan. A lot of this chapter is an introduction to exercise—e.g. how much is needed, and what the benefits are. Then there are some tips about how to smoothly merge balance with other exercises.

Chapter 7 presents more specific considerations for beginning balance workouts. Unlike chapter 5, this section provides information about equipment, warm-ups, and how to interpret the instructions for the workouts. The latter is beneficial because the workouts are in a one page per exercise format, and this section negates the need to be needlessly repetitive.

The next six sections (chapters 8 through 13) are various balance workouts that are organized in an easiest to hardest format. The first is a beginner’s workout, which is performed with a chair—used for sitting in some exercises and as a prop in others. The second is a standing balance workout that features simple static balance maneuvers. The level of challenge is similar to that of the first workout, except that one is without a chair prop. The third workout adds in movement to help maintain balance through steps and motion. The next workout is similar but utilizes another prop, a 360 step (a circular step of similar height to the more common Reebok rectangular step, but circular.) The penultimate workout uses a pseudo-balance beam. The author’s mention a product put out by Beamfit, but other manufacturers produce a similar product. It’s a low, dense foam beam that sits on the floor. The last workout utilizes classic Hatha Yoga poses, and features both expected poses like tree pose (vrksasana) and others such as down dog (adho mukha svanasana) that might come as a surprise.

There’s a resources section and glossary at the end. The book presents many graphics, most notably photos of each of the exercises in the six workouts.

I’d recommend this book for anyone who needs an overview of the problems of balance and what can be done about them. It’s short, readable, and user-friendly.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Body Has a Mind of Its Own by Blakeslee and Blakeslee

The Body Has a Mind of Its Own: How Body Maps in Your Brain Help You Do (Almost) Everything BetterThe Body Has a Mind of Its Own: How Body Maps in Your Brain Help You Do (Almost) Everything Better by Sandra Blakeslee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book examines the role of the nervous system in movement and bodily activity. It describes how one’s body is able to perform extraordinarily complex maneuvers that we often take for granted because they feel effortless. It investigates some of the ways in which the interface between body and brain go awry, as well as the various effects this can have. It also offers insight into how we can be deceived because we are experiencing the world less directly and more through the shaping activities of the brain than we feel is true.

The book contains ten chapters, plus a little forward and back matter. The first chapter is entitled “the body mandala” and it provides an overview of how the nervous system can be thought of as a series of maps layered upon maps that routes various input from outlying areas to the brain and commands from the brain to the outlying areas. A “mandala” is a symbolic representation of the universe [from Hindu and Buddhist traditions], and this notion is repeatedly revisited throughout the book.

Chapter 2 explores the mapping of the homunculus and its ramifications. If you’ve ever seen a 2-D or 3-D image /model of a human being that has gigantic lips and hands and disproportionately small torso and thighs, you’ve seen said homunculus (as the term is used in neuroscience.) The reason it’s scaled this way is that body part size is reflective of space in the nervous system dedicated to said parts and not their actual size. If you’ve ever seen one of those maps–called cartograms–in which the size of a country reflects a statistic, say, population (thus India, China, and Singapore are much larger than their physical size, but Canada is much smaller than its), you get the drift. This chapter also answers the question everyone wants to ask (and many do) which is “why–if the lips are so large because of their dedicated territory in the brain—are the genitals unexpectedly small in the homunculus?

Chapter 3 describes how body maps can be in conflict and what effect this can have. It talks about why people who lose weight often still feel fat and move in ways that are not reflective of their actual figure. It also gets into anorexia (and the lesser known bigorexia) which reflect mismatches between perceived body image and actual body schema.

Chapter 4 investigates a fascinating phenomenon in which visualization can often result in strength and performance gains. Said gains aren’t on the same scale as among those who actually exercise or practice, but the fact that one can make gains without moving a muscle is certainly intriguing. Of course, the takeaway is that one can get the best of both worlds by augmenting physical conditioning and practice with visualization—one has a more finite number of feasible physical training hours in a day (i.e. there are diminishing returns on physical training at some point.)

Chapter 5 is the first of two chapters that deal with problems related to improper interaction between the nervous system and the body. Here we learn about “the yips” that plague golfers and other occupational dystonias. When one begins practicing any physical activity, the objective is to build up muscle memory so that the movements can be completed purely unconsciously. This works through neuroplasticity—the fact that sequences of neurons that frequently fire together become more strongly linked—but neuroplasticity can have a dark side at the extremes.

Chapter 6 considers the way in which the system of maps can fail such that one fails to recognize one’s own limbs, one recognizes extra ones, or the like. Chapter 7 is about peripersonal space—i.e. the physical bubble of space that one needs to feel comfortable, and which varies both culturally and individually.

Chapter 8 delves into the role that upcoming technology may have in changing how we look at the body-brain connection. Mirror neurons are the subject of the penultimate chapter. You’ve probably heard of these neurons which fire when we see someone else perform an action. Usually there is an inhibitory signal to keep our body from actual mimicry, but sometimes you may find yourself unconsciously mimicking the position or body language of another person when one is engaged in an engrossing conversation. (Yawning contagiousness is a featured example.) Mirror neurons play a role in how we learn so quickly, how we sometimes anticipate the behavior or emotions of others, and deficient activity in these cells has been speculated to be responsible for autism.

Chapter 10 describes the role of the insula in human activities. The insula has been found to be involved in emotion and rewards system by which humans are motivated to engage in a number of bodily activities.

The book has many graphics to clarify technical points, many of these being line drawings of the brain and other physiological structures. There is also a glossary of key scientific terms.

I found this book to be fascinating. It was highly readable despite its technical subject matter, and it described these systems and the research about them in a clear manner. I’d highly recommend it—particularly if one is interested in movement, fitness, and optimal human performance.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Sensual Body by Lucy Lidell

The Sensual Body: The Ultimate Guide to Body Awareness and Self-FulfilmentThe Sensual Body: The Ultimate Guide to Body Awareness and Self-Fulfilment by Lucy Lidell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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This is a book about body awareness. It explores the subject by presenting tidbits from a range of movement and posture systems.

The book is divided into three parts. The first is a brief overview of the subject of bodily awareness. This section discusses what it means to be aware of the body, how body and mind / emotion are connected, and it sets up the need for the practices described throughout the rest of the book. The second part deals with a series of solitary activities that one can do to improve one’s quality of posture and movement. It forms the bulk of the book. The nine chapters of this portion of the book can themselves be divided in two. Three of them deal in aspects of bodily awareness: breathing / voice-work, grounding, and sensation. These sections borrow and adapt from established systems in a generic sense (e.g. the section on grounding uses a number of techniques drawn from yoga.) The other six chapters each deal with a system of bodywork, including: self-massage, African dance, Tai Chi, Eutony, Kum Nye, and running.

I’ll describe two of these specifically because they aren’t household names. I suspect most readers can imagine what the following look like: self-massage, African dance (even if it’s from a Paul Simon video), Tai Chi (from old folks in the park), and running. However, it’s probably reasonable to assume that some readers will have no idea what Eutony or Kum Nye are. Eutony is a system developed by a Danish teacher, Gerda Alexander, during the 20th century to use explorative movement to work toward more efficient movement. As far as I can discern, the founder is no relation to F. Matthias Alexander who developed–the more famous–Alexander Technique (AT is mostly well-known among actors, actresses, and would-be entertainers.) However, Eutony might be put in the class of techniques like the Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais that were developed last century and work toward improved use of the human body. However, the approach seems much different from Feldenkrais, which is highly structured, while Eutony is apparently not.

Kum Nye isn’t well-known either, but not because it’s a johnny-come-lately, rather because it’s ancient and obscure. Kum Nye is a Tibetan system of yoga. A lot of the techniques shown seem to be designed to help one gain the suppleness needed for extended sitting in meditation, but there are also “flying” techniques and other standing techniques that will help loosen one up, perhaps to free one up for more meditation.

The third part is shorter: three chapters presenting systems of partner-work. The first chapter is on Aikidō. For those unfamiliar, this is a Japanese martial art founded by Morihei Ueshiba that emphasizes harmony and flow. The chapter features a few basic drills from that martial art. The next chapter is on relating to others in a general sort of way, e.g. body language, emotion, etc. The last chapter is about massage.

Graphics are utilized heavily throughout the book. These include color photographs and drawings. Given what the book tries to do–showing these various approaches to movement–the graphics are essential. In the unlikely event that there are any prudes who read my reviews, you may want to make a note that there is a fair amount of nudity throughout the book. It’s not gratuitous or raunchy, but if you’re one of those people freaked out by nudity, this is probably not the book for you (nor the subject to be studying, for that matter.)

The book’s strengths are its valuable subject, its organization, and its use of graphics. Its weakness is in the number of approaches that it examines. There are too many for one to get any great insight into any particular system, but it’s too few if the goal is to give the reader a menu of movement and bodywork systems from which to find on right for them. I guess I wasn’t really clear what the objective was. If it is to show the reader a variety of paths so they can find the one best for them, the menu is too small. However, if it’s to show the reader one path consisting of all these elements, then it’s muddled. Among Western health and fitness purveyors there’s a tendency to think that if you take anything that’s good and ram it together with anything else that’s good, you’ll get something great. This is clearly not true; sometimes you get a pudding sandwich. This book feels a lot like a pudding sandwich.

If you are looking for a limited survey of movement and body awareness systems, and are okay with the list mentioned, you should check this book out. It also has some good general information about body awareness, though it’s a bit pedestrian for experienced practitioners.

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Flexibility & Power in Kalaripayattu: Confessions of a Gravitationally-Challenged Student

IMG_4269Learning third level material was when Kalaripayattu became daunting. Until then, it was just exhausting.

 

I’d been doing a lap of the kalari consisting of high kicks flowing into Hanumanasana (a scissors split.) Each split is on the opposite side from the last. By yoga standards, my split alignment was off. My hips weren’t perpendicular to my legs, but I’d allowed them to twist open to make the split easier. However, that was probably the least of my errors, and–unlike in yoga practice during which one might take minutes to ease into this intense split–the cadence in kalari was kick – split – struggle to one’s feet. [Okay, the “struggle” shouldn’t have been, but it’s an accurate description of my rendition.]

 

This wasn’t the hard part, by the way. I’ll get to that. The structure of the class up to that point was logically arranged to facilitate those splits. The practice started with warm ups of rapid repetitive motions that got the muscles and core warm. Then there were a series of kicking exercises that also served as dynamic stretches. Next, there was a vertical version of the splits done in a static form. With the inner edge of one’s bottom foot posted along the base board, the heel of one’s upper foot is slid up a piece of wood lathe worn smooth that has been tied vertically–perpendicularly to the steel burglar bars that one uses to pull oneself into the stretch. (This is an inner city kalari, and not the traditional version dug into the ground.) Then one revisits a high kick, swinging the leg with greater intensity. Only then does one do the lap of splits.

A traditional kalari looks like this. This is the Kalari Gurukulam in Chikkagubbi (parent school to the one at which I train.)

A traditional kalari looks like this. This is the Kalari Gurukulam in Chikkagubbi (parent school to the one at which I train.)

 

The next piece is where the third level kicked my butt. One’s hamstrings and quads stretched to the max, feeling more like limp noodles than coiled springs, one is now expected to work through a series of leaping maneuvers. There are seven leaping exercises (besides some basic warm-up leaps): a leaping circle kick, a spinning kick that takes one 360-degrees, a split kick in which one leaps up and kicks out laterally in both directions simultaneously, a split kick in which one leaps up spinning 360 degrees [theoretically] and does the same split kick in the middle, a flip kick in which one kicks up and forward and flips one’s body over in mid-air to come down on one’s hands and feet (in a lunged position with palms down next to the feet), and then there are two versions of leaping/spinning kicks that proceed down the length of the kalari.

 

IMG_1661Why does one do these plyometric techniques in the wake of such intense stretching? I suspect that experts in exercise science would tell me this isn’t the best way to improve my leaps. One should do the leaps when one’s muscles are more like rubber bands than al dente linguine. Still, I dutifully comply. Maybe there’s an ancient wisdom at work here. Maybe there’s not. There’s no way to find out without giving it a try. I fall down a number of times that first day, and on all subsequent sessions. As I write this, I’m now learning level five material, but I continue to revisit the leaps every session for two reasons. First, I’m not happy with my abilities. Second, I want to find out whether I can improve my balance of flexibility and power, and whether the kalari approach does the trick. (Note: I’m using the word “power” in the specific sense of work performed per unit time. In other words, it’s not synonymous with strength. It’s a function of both speed and strength.) At any rate, I still fall down.

 

IMG_2278However, looking beyond my own limited capacity to have my cake and eat it too (i.e. retain flexibility as I gain power), I see evidence of the success of this approach. There are a number of advanced people who’ve been using this approach for many years and have a preternatural balance of flexibility and jet propulsion. Said individuals seem to go from deep stretches to phenomenal vertical leaps without difficulty.

 

If nothing else, I’ve learned a great deal about my muscular composition. While I’m challenged by ballistic movements, my stamina is quite respectable. Type I (slow twitch) musculature seems to be disproportionately common in comparison to type II (fast twitch) in my body. While I’m including more power building training in my workouts, my progress is glacial. If I was smart, I’d take up long-distance running or some other endurance activity. But I tend to find such activities tedious, while I love the martial arts. And so I struggle.

IMG_4275

 

 

BOOK REVIEW: You Are Your Own Gym by Mark Lauren

You Are Your Own Gym: The bible of bodyweight exercisesYou Are Your Own Gym: The bible of bodyweight exercises by Mark Lauren
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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As the title suggests, this is a guide to bodyweight exercises, and—specifically—periodized callisthenic training without equipment. Periodization is an approach in which the volume and intensity of workouts is in constant flux, as opposed to the regular approach that used to be the norm. It’s with regard to coping with a lack of fixed equipment that this book really seeks to separate itself from the many high-intensity interval training (HIIT) books in bookstores today. Obviously, calisthenics require much less equipment than weight training. However, without at least a pull-up bar and dip bars, it’s hard to get a well-rounded bodyweight workout. You Are Your Own Gym shows the exercises done with makeshift apparatus where necessary. Some of the suggested substitutes look safer than others, and a few of them (e.g. door pull-ups) work muscles a little differently than the basic. However, the examples get one into the habit of considering how one can use one’s environment creatively to get a good workout. [I would recommend exercising caution and safety when using the demonstrated improvised methods.] Even if one has access to equipment in day-to-day life, frequent travelers often have trouble getting a good workout in on the road. This book can be helpful in assisting one in avoiding the dead spots in one’s training regimen due to inability to get to a fitness facility.

The author, Mark Lauren, is a former Combat Controller and Special Operations fitness instructor. For readers who aren’t familiar with the US Air Force, Combat Control is one of two special operations career fields in the Air Force (excepting pilots and crew who fly special operators around.) Combat Controllers usually serve with Army Special Forces, facilitating the provision of air support in the midst of combat operations. Lauren certainly has the bona fides to write intelligently on the subject.

The book consists of 12 chapters, but it’s the penultimate and final chapters that present the meat of the work. Chapter 11 presents a thorough collection of bodyweight exercises organized by the area of the body worked. In most cases, the exercise descriptions include a photo, as well as modifications to provide a more or less strenuous version of the exercise. The latter feature makes Lauren’s program nicely scalable. The reader can optimize exercises to his or her needs.

The last chapter lays out the program. Because varying the characteristics of the workout is the key to the periodization approach, varied workout structures are discussed. These include well-known approaches such as interval sets, super sets, and tabatas, as well as less familiar approaches such as stappers (cycling through a fixed number of repetitions of a few exercises for a set amount of time without rest periods—but with a low enough number of reps to avoid failure) and ladders (i.e. long sets in which one does on rep, rests for one, does two reps, rests for two, etc. up to just before the point of failure, and then working back down to one rep in a symmetric manner.) While one can certainly make up one’s own workout with the knowledge gained to this point in the book, there are 10-week sample programs at four different levels (starting with beginners and working toward advanced practitioners of calisthenics.) If you’re not sure which level is right for you, the author provides a set of exercises that one should be able to carry out as a minimum to begin work at a given level.

The first ten chapters deal with a range of subjects including: diet, strength training myths, motivation, intensity, and the nature of bodyweight exercise. These short chapters lay out basic concepts helpful to engage in the program. There are three appendices that discuss equipment issues, a summary of guiding principles, and a discussion of the science of the program. The latter is beneficial, given some claims by the author that old school fitness buffs might find hard to accept–such as the lack of need for high volume endurance activities for cardio (i.e. one doesn’t need go for a run to get cardio benefits.)

I found this book to be beneficial. I like the fact that Lauren addresses the science of the approach rather than just throwing his approach out there with all the fad workouts. I found the advice to be sound, and have become more creative when considering how I can get a good workout on the road as a result of reading the book. As I write this, I’m in the 10th (and final) week of one of the sample workout sequences. I believe I’ve gotten good strength workouts from the program. I enjoy the scalability of the program, and have taken advantage of both easier and harder variants of the exercises.

I’d recommend this book if you’re looking for a bodyweight exercise program—particularly if you travel a lot, don’t have access to fitness facilities, or just like to workout at home.

View all my reviews

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.

 

IMG_1537 IMG_1532

 

-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.