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.


What Are Your Thoughts on “Dick Move Mondays” in a Dojo?

Going rogue with attacks

Gone rogue

So, the whole “dick move Mondays” concept may require clarification. First of all, some readers may be saying, “Every day is dick move Monday at our dojo.” However, readers who train at more orthodox schools may be wondering how such an apparently ludicrous idea would even come up. The idea’s origins are the result of seeking a martial art’s correlate to the “bad pass Fridays” that have been instituted in many basketball practices in recent years. On “bad pass Fridays” coaches give players passes that are catchable–but just barely. I’ll get into the scientific argument for this kind of training below, but for now suffice it to say that the idea is to have regularly scheduled instances in which the individual is taxed to his or her limits and forced to try to cope with worst case scenarios. While there needs to be some limitations for safety’s sake, I’ll argue that there’s some advantage to applying this concept from the sports science and motor learning literature to martial arts training. [Note: if your objective in practicing martial arts has nothing to do with being able to succeed in the context of a sporting match, an actual combat situation, or both (i.e. a situation in which an opponent is trying to clobber you and vice versa) then this isn’t really relevant to you. But feel free to read it any way.]


Here’s some low-down on the science. Historically, it’s been popular to teach / coach sports (and non-sport martial arts) using a “partial and blocked” approach. This method is extremely popular because: a.) it’s simple to organize and conduct practice sessions, b.) short-term growth is rapidly visible, and c.) it looks neat and tidy. “Partial” means that a particular skill (or even sub-skill) is extracted from the overall skill set of the activity at hand and practiced in isolation. This could be a throw, a strike, or a means of receiving or defending. “Blocked” practice means that one skill or sub-skill is practiced over and over again under the exact same conditions until it’s deemed time to move onto the next. “Whole and random” practice represents the opposites of “partial and blocked.” “Random” means that one drills a skill under an ever-changing situational context (e.g. one may still be drilling hip throws repetitively, but not against a static partner who’s standing in the same place–there’s movement and pushing and pulling, and possibly a few dick moves.) “Whole” practice simulates the actual event that one is practicing for–whether it’s a Muay Thai match or a parking deck brawl.


For a good explanation of the problems associated with blocked practice, watch the video by Trevor Ragan of “Train Ugly” that’s linked below. (fyi: “Train Ugly” is an apropos name for an approach that involves more “whole and random” practice because there will be more short-term failure and one won’t look masterful at what one is doing by the end of a practice session. However, long-term skill retention and the ability to integrate those skills and sub-skills into a more realistic environment is higher.)

As Ragan points out, the random approach requires one read the situation and environment and respond in a way that won’t leave one worse off. (I don’t like the word “planning” applied to martial arts because there’s never time to do any planning in the sense of using one’s conscious mind. However, I’d say reading is a very apropos concept, and there is a need to adjust to one’s context.)

So what would “whole and random” training look like in a martial art? First of all, one should realize that one doesn’t need to make every training session “whole and random” from the very beginning. In the beginning a lot of “partial and / or blocked” practice is necessary. The problem is that if one doesn’t ever move beyond that, one’s performance will be hindered. Second, all practice doesn’t have to be both whole and random; one can spend a lot of time with random drilling of a particular skill. One can drill a particular skill while moving around freely, applying counters, making timing more random, and making the approach less regimented. “Whole and random” practice in the martial arts involve sparring or randori. Jigoro Kano did a brilliant thing in making the techniques and practice environment safe enough that randori (free form) training became possible. For many years, I would have said that Kano Sensei made a system that was less “realistic” by paring out the dangerous elements of jujutsu. However, today I don’t see it that way. I’ve come to realize that the ability to train randori keiko actually added back in a great deal of realism. Who’s to say what the net effect on realism is. I certainly see the advantage over the old way in which one trained in a regimented fashion devoid free form components for years and then one day one went out on musha shugyō (warrior’s errantry) and may be the day you learned of a deficiency in your technique was the day you died.

So “dick move Mondays” is really a way to add randomness into training. One can’t ignore the reading portion of the attack because one never knows what whacky ass attack one’s opponent is going to come up with.

If you do implement “dick move Mondays” in your school or gym, you may want to review this instructional video by Master Ken because the “bitch slap” is sure to enter into your training.

[Disclaimer: Master Ken video included as farce. Readers are advised not perform any techniques suggested by Master Ken or his Amer-i-do-te practitioners.]

BOOK REVIEW: Faster, Higher, Stronger by Mark McClusky

Faster, Higher, Stronger: How Sports Science Is Creating a New Generation of Superathletes—and What We Can Learn from ThemFaster, Higher, Stronger: How Sports Science Is Creating a New Generation of Superathletes—and What We Can Learn from Them by Mark McClusky

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

McClusky’s book tells us how advances in sports science and technology are producing a new class of elite athlete. More usefully, it discusses which practices of high-level athletes can reasonably be emulated by amateurs. One may think that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. In this case, not so much. If shaving a hundredth of a second off your time isn’t going to affect your life’s course, there are many activities of elite athletes that simply aren’t worth the cost (in whatever terms.) For example, the loss of friendships due to rampant flatulence resulting from consuming large quantities of baking soda isn’t worth it if you just want a little bit stronger Sunday cycling ride. (Baking soda [sodium bicarbonate] counteracts blood and muscle acidification during exercise and makes it possible to keep moving strongly when fatigued would normally degrade performance. Incidentally, this practice has been shown to be effective only for events that last between one and seven minutes.) On the other hand, some of the lessons of sports science are relatively low-cost and high benefit, and might be just what one is looking for to improve one’s performance. (e.g. Replacing a pre-workout stretching routine with one of rolling out the muscles.)

Faster, Higher, Stronger consists of twelve chapters, each addressing a different aspect of the application of science and technology to sport, including: training methods, genetics, nutrition, recruitment, practice, performance enhancing substances (legal and illegal), elevation training, and the limits of performance.

One question that has always been of great interest is how much of a top athlete comes from his or her genes? In other words, can anyone can do it–given a willingness to work like a maniac of course. As with many other questions about heredity, it was once thought that there would be a precise answer to this question in the wake of the decoding of the human genome. However, the success of the human genome project showed only that the situation was vastly more complex than we’d imagined. It turns out that having certain genes isn’t the end of the story because there are many factors that influence which genes are expressed. Attempts have been made to put numbers to the influence of genetics. For example, one scientist is quoted as claiming that 50% of oxygen processing capability (i.e. VO2 max) is heritable. This translates to the fact that, while the average Joe has a reasonable chance of engaging in athletics at some level, only a 0.1 to 0.3 % can summit the pinnacle of elite level athletics.

In many ways, science has encouraged coaches, trainers, and recruiters to think outside the box—and to look beyond the traditionally engrained approaches. One fascinating story was that of how the British national rowing team held tryouts based only on height, with experience with the sport being not required. They ended up with a champion rower who’d first entered a boat only four years before. This is part of the evidence that controverts the once popular 10,000 hour rule that was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell–though Anders Ericsson is more properly considered the father of the idea. It turns out that 10,000 hours of practice aren’t required for most activities if one goes about it right.

McClusky spends a considerable amount of space on the questions of what athletes should and shouldn’t consume. In emulating elite athletes many amateurs are working at cross purposes. This is readily seen with the issue of sports drinks. If you’re guzzling down a Gatorade or snacking on Cliff Bars after your run, you may only be ensuring that you continue to gain weight despite working out. On the other hand, you may decide that chocolate milk or beet juice are good choices for you.

I’d recommend this book for those interested in the heights of human performance.

View all my reviews

The 4% Rule, Yerkes-Dodson, and Finding the Sweet Spot in Martial Arts Training

I was watching one of Michio Kaku’s Big Think videos recently that addressed American science education. The question of interest was how America continues to do so well in science and technology given that the American (primary and secondary) educational system isn’t up to par in science and mathematics with its technological competitors. The bulk of his talk (re: the H-1B visa and importation of brain power) isn’t germane to this post. It’s Kaku’s mention of a second secret weapon that caught my attention, and that’s how America is able to do a better job than many of its competitors in identifying and nurturing top talent. While math and science education is better in many Asian countries, those countries (e.g. Japan, Korea, or China) don’t excel at skimming off the cream of the crop. Dr. Kaku explains that this is because Confucian values teach students to conform, and students are loathe to stand out–even for exceptional performance. Even if a student wanted to show their talent in hopes of having it fostered, the large classes, lecture-centric teaching, and testing of memorization and standardized processes doesn’t offer much opportunity to grow one’s individual strengths.


Kaku’s statement resonated with me because I’ve been thinking about the pros and cons of traditional approaches to martial arts instruction. I’m particularly interested in the gulf between the traditional approach and what martial arts teaching would look like if one took advantage of the wealth of scientific knowledge about mind and body development. Most of the martial arts instruction I’ve received over the years is consistent with Confucian thinking. All the students are doing the same practice (or faking it to the best of each’s abilities if it’s beyond one’s current capacities), and each is trying to closely emulate the teacher-presented ideal as much as possible. There’s not much consideration of the individual student’s weaknesses or strengths. Emphasis is on trying to convey as high-fidelity a replica of the techniques that have been handed down through the ages. (While this may be a laudable goal, I’ll later offer explanations as to why I think it’s both death for retention of students and ultimately counterproductive.)


Let me first say that there are a number of advantages to the traditional approach to martial arts instruction. First, it’s easy to teach many students at once. This was probably a huge advantage when there were armies of men having to learn these skills. Second, [theoretically] it helps students reduce their egotism through discipline and conformity. The highly hierarchical nature of this approach means students spend years in a lowly position, with the hope that some humility may stick. (NOTE: I’m not certain that this works out in practice.) Third, it creates a disciplined learning environment that is conducive to helping a student keep his or her head in the game.


What the traditional approach isn’t so good at is producing students who all perform at the best of their abilities. I suspect that the traditional approach doesn’t do so well for student retention either. It’s a system in which new students are forced to drink through the fire-hose; while students who’ve been around for a while often feel like they’re stagnating.  As I’ll get to below, there’s good reason to believe that a proper match between the challenge of a task and the performer’s skill level is critical to creating an intrinsically rewarding activity and to helping students perform at their best.


My thoughts on this topic have been heavily influenced by learning and teaching yoga. While one’s vision of a yoga class may be rows of students doing the exact same posture (and huge classes and / or poor instructors may result in that condition),  but there’s often a degree of variation in a class. This variation results from two concepts that I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately, namely modifications and capacity building.


Modifications are a two-way street. If the task at hand is beyond the student’s current abilities, he or she may be given an easier variant that allows him or her to work toward the fundamental form. On the other hand, if the task of the moment is old hat, a student might be offered a more challenging version on occasion. I’m not suggesting that one shouldn’t drill the basics throughout one’s martial arts career. Repetition of fundamentals is key to drilling them down into one’s nervous system. However, the brain loves novelty and hates drudgery, and it will become harder and harder to remain engaged if the overall challenge level doesn’t rise. The science suggests that one needs to keep upping one’s game if one wants to perform at one’s best.


The nature of modifications in martial arts may not seem as clear as it is with respect to yoga postures. For randori, sparring, and other free-form training, it’s easy to envision how one can adapt the practice to reduce or increase the challenge to a level more apropos of the student’s skill level. One can practice a restricted form. For example, one may work only on sparring with boxing rules to kicks or grappling out of the equation until a student builds up his or her confidence and abilities with recognizing and responding to punches. Alternatively, an advanced student might be presented with armed or multiple attackers. There are some practices, such as specific techniques, for which modifications may not be an option, but that doesn’t necessarily let a teacher off the hook for helping a student who’s challenged by the technique. That may be where capacity building exercises come into play.


Capacity building goes beyond offering an easier modification to suggesting exercises to help the student build the physical capacity to do the technique repetitively WITHOUT INJURY. I emphasized those last two words for a reason. In some martial arts, the need for capacity building exercises maybe clear because of the acrobatic insanity involved. However, practitioners of more pragmatic martial arts may say, “We don’t do all those fancy spinning back kicks, so we don’t need capacity building. Anybody can do our techniques because they’re simple and direct.” Maybe that’s true, but if multiple members of your school have the same (or similar) repetitive stress injuries, it’s not true at all.


What kind of capacity building are we talking about?  If the technique involves jumping or leaping and the individual is gravitationally-challenged, then plyometrics might be the prescription. On the other hand, if the problem is the inability of the student’s joints to withstand the technique, there might be need for exercises that build up stabilizing muscles, help him / her to cut weight, or both. If a student can’t do a throw without risk of injury, maybe that individual needs to spend time practicing with elastic bands or inner tubes or working on their balance.


RiseOfSupermanWhat is this 4% rule? I read about it in Steven Kotler’s The Rise of Superman. As background, there’s a state of mind called “Flow” that’s associated with performing at one’s best. In this state of mind, which some call “the zone” and others probably once called satori or samadhi, one’s concentration on the task at hand is at its greatest, unnecessary features like sense of time and sense of self fall away, one’s inner critic shuts the hell up, and–at least afterwards–there’s a blissful state. Flow can be described as the shutting down of specific elements of the pre-frontal cortex (PFC)–largely involved with the consciousness mind. It can also be defined neuro-chemically by the hormones released (i.e. Serotonin, Endorphins, Dopamine, Anandamide, and Norepinephrine) and neuro-electrically in terms of one’s brainwaves (around 8 Hz.)


There are conditions that favor achievement of Flow, notably: 1.) clear goals, 2.) immediate feedback, and 3.) a good match between the level of the challenge and the level of one’s skill. Flow is a key factor in why some activities are intrinsically rewarding (whether or not they are rewarding in other ways) and why almost any activity can be intrinsically rewarding if it’s sufficiently challenging relative to one’s abilities. What’s sufficiently challenging? That’s where 4% comes into the picture. While it’s by no means an exact or universal value, it turns out that when a task presents a challenge that is roughly 4% above one’s present skill-level is when this state of mind is most accessible. This is why one may see students drop out if they find the level of challenge stagnant. On the other hand, one may not keep new students either if the challenge is constantly beyond their abilities.


How about that Yerkes-Dodson? The two early 20th century scientists for whom the Yerkes-Dodson Law are named discovered that performance increases with arousal (one might do best to think of this as anxiety level rather than the colloquial use of that word) up to a certain point, beyond which performance either levels off or plummets–depending upon the nature of the objective.  The point is that keeping the training environment too sterile has it’s disadvantages. In free-form practices like sparring, a little nerves can be a good thing, but being overwhelmed can be detrimental.

Yerkes-Dodson Curves. Source: Wikipedia

Yerkes-Dodson Curves. Source: Wikipedia

Adjusting one’s instruction to the abilities of one’s students is challenging. Traditionalists may hold that it’s far more important to keep the tradition intact than it is to cater to the individual needs of students.  That is, said teachers may prefer to focus on the aforementioned high-fidelity transmission of the teachings of the lineage. There was a time during which I probably would have echoed that sentiment. However, it increasingly occurs to me that producing the best and most engaged students is the best way to keep a tradition alive.

The Jujutsu Murders, Plus Some Brain Science


Imagine you’re a detective in Edo Period Japan (1603-1868), and you’re told to investigate a case in which three highly-trained practitioners of one of the most well-respected jujutsu schools have been stabbed to death. Each of the three bodies has only one mark on it–the lethal stab wound. The wound is on the right side of the abdomen in all three cases. There are no signs of a prolonged struggle, despite the fact that each of the three had many years of training and none of the men was an easy victim. The stabbings happened independently, and there were no witnesses to any of the killings. So, who or what killed these three experts in jujutsu?


Nobody knows who killed them, but a rigid approach to training contributed to what killed them. As you may have guessed, the killer took advantage of knowledge of the school’s techniques, i.e. their “go-to” defense / counter-attack for a given attack. It’s believed that the attacker held his scabbard overhead in his right hand, and his weapon point forward in a subdued manner in his left. All three of the defenders must have instinctively responded to the feigned downward attack as the killer stabbed upward from below with the unseen blade.


It’s a true story. I read this account first in Jeffrey Mann’s When Buddhists Attack. That book offers insight into the question of what drew some of the world’s deadliest warriors (specifically, Japan’s samurai) to one of the world’s most pacifistic religions (i.e. Buddhism–specifically Zen Buddhism.)  Mann cites Trevor Leggett’s Zen and the Ways as the source of the story, and Leggett’s account is slightly more detailed.


This story intrigues because it turns the usual cautionary tale on its head. Normally, the moral of the story would be: “drill, drill, drill…”


Allow me to drop some brain science. First, there’s no time for the conscious mind to react to a surprise attack. The conscious mind may later believe it was instrumental, but that’s because it put together what happened after the fact and was ignorant of the subconscious actors involved. (If you’re interested in the science of the conscious mind’s stealing credit ex post facto [like a thieving co-worker], I refer you to David Eagleman’s Incognito.)  Second, our evolutionary hardwired response to surprise is extremely swift, but lacks the sophistication to deal with something as challenging as a premeditated attack by a scheming human. Our “fight or flight” mechanism (more properly, the “freeze, flight, fight, or fright” mechanism) can be outsmarted because it was designed to help us survive encounters with predatory animals who were themselves operating at an instinctual level. (If you’re interested in the science of how our fearful reactions sometimes lead us astray when we have to deal with more complex modern-day threats, I refer you to Jeff Wise’s Extreme Fear. Incidentally, if you’re like, “Dude, I don’t have time to read all these books about science and the martial arts, I just need one book on science as it pertains to martial arts,” I just so happen to be writing said book… but you’ll have to wait for it.)


So where do the two points of the preceding paragraph leave one?  They leave one with the traditional advice to train responses to a range of attacks into one’s body through intense repetition. Drill defenses and attacks over and over again until the action is habitual. This is what most martial artists spend most of their training effort doing. A martial art gives one a set of pre-established attacks or defenses, and it facilitates drilling them into one’s nervous system.


Of course, the astute reader will point out that the three jujutsu practitioners who were killed had done just what was suggested in the preceding paragraph, and not only didn’t it help them but–arguably–it got them killed. I should first point out that the story of the three murder victims shouldn’t be taken as a warning against drilling the fundamentals. As far as their training went, it served them well.  However, there’s a benefit to going beyond the kata approach to martial arts. One would like to be able to achieve a state of mind that once would have been called Zen mind, but–in keeping with our theme of modern science–we’ll call transient hypo-frontality, or just “the flow.” This state of mind is associated with heightened creativity at the speed of instinct. (If you’re interested in the science of how extreme athletes have used the flow to make great breakthroughs in their sports, I’d highly recommend Steven Kotler’s The Rise of Superman.) Practicing kata won’t help you in this domain, but I believe randori (free-form or sparring practice) can–if the approach is right.

6 Science Books That Martial Artists Should Read

When one has a passion for an activity,  it’s easy to get tunnel vision and miss out on the many avenues of information by which one might improve oneself.  I’ve done many posts on martial arts books, but I thought it might be useful to do one about books that aren’t about martial arts per se, but which have none-the-less contributed to my thinking as a martial artist.


1.) On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by LTC Dave Grossman

OnKillingWhat it’s about? Psychologically, it’s a lot harder to kill another human being than one might think. Even when one is a combatant in a just war, the reluctance to kill–even one’s sworn enemy–is intense. Grossman examines the roots of this reluctance, what methods have been employed to get soldiers over it, and what the cost of doing so is.

The book also goes into a topic one might find surprising: video games. Not to give too much away, but military researchers discovered that getting infantrymen to kill required conditioning them to shoot targets that look human. This resulted in moving from bulls-eye targets to silhouettes, pictures of humans, and even Firearms Training Simulators (i.e. FATS, systems that run shoot / no-shoot scenarios on a screen, like an interactive movie.) It turns out that shoot-em-up video games may contribute to a child’s conditioning to be willing to shoot another human being.

Why it’s a good read for martial artists? Martial arts vary radically in realism and relevance to combative situations, but it’s easy for students of the martial arts–even martial arts that seem “hardcore” and self-defense oriented–to have unrealistic notions about the realities of combat. As François de La Rodefoucauld said, “One cannot answer for his courage when he has never been in danger.” By reading this book one might, perhaps, begin to rethink one’s assumptions, and change how one prepares to defend oneself and others.

Further reading on related topics:  I’ve heard good things about the works of Rory Miller–particularly Facing Violence and Meditations on Violence, but I haven’t gotten around to reading his books yet. If you have, please feel free to comment with your thoughts.


2.) The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance by Steven Kotler

RiseOfSupermanWhat it’s about? Kotler examines a state of mind that is widely call “flow,” and how extreme athletes are tapping into flow to achieve unprecedented advances in performance. There are a number of ways by which this state of mind can be defined, e.g. neurochemically (i.e. a neuro-cocktail of serotonin, anandamide, endorphins, dopamine, and norepinephrine), neuroanatomically (transient hypofrontality), neuroelectrically (high theta / low alpha wave–i.e. between meditation and resting wakefulness), or psychologically (intense concentration on a challenge that’s just beyond one’s present skill level.)

Kotler proposes that risk is an important trigger for entering a deep state of flow, and that this is why extreme athletes are proving so much better at achieving these states (and translating them into radically increased performance) than many other groups who seek to master flow.

Why it’s a good read for martial artists? It should be noted that not only is flow not a newly discovered state of mind, but it sounds a lot like the state of mind that martial artists have sought for centuries in the practice of their arts–often in conjunction with disciplines such as Zen or Vajrayana Buddhism. What is new, which makes this book worth reading, is an understanding of the science behind flow states. By moving beyond the hazy mix of truth and falsehood embodied in systems of spirituality, one may be able to find a way to more reliably increase one’s performance.

Further reading on related topics:  Flow in Sports: The Keys to Optimal Experiences and Performances is a book that is co-authored by the granddaddy of flow research Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.


3.) Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero by E. Paul Zehr


What it’s about? (Arguably, this is a martial arts book, but I’m including it because one wouldn’t get that from the title or blurb.) This book’s central question is whether a real life person could achieve the level of crime-fighting bad-assery that is the Batman, and–if so–what combination of genetics, training, and conditioning would be required. It also addresses what would be the cost in terms of wear and tear on one’s body and how long one could be expected to maintain said abilities. (Also, for the martial artists of feminine persuasion, how Batgirl or Catwoman might fair in combat against Batman.)

Why it’s a good read for martial artists?   There is tons of great information relevant to martial artists about the toll of extreme practice and regular fighting on one’s body (e.g. concussions, broken bones, etc.), what the limits of human performance are, by what means those limits are approached, and how realistic it is to have an unreciprocated policy prohibiting lethal weapons.

Further reading on related topics: Actually, if you know of any books on related topics, I’d love to hear about them. There are a number of such books, but they’re on textbook pricing (i.e. insanely expensive.)


4.) Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger by Jeff Wise


What it’s about? This book is about the mental and physical effects of mortal peril, and why some people’s performance excels under dire threats while other people just let themselves die while cowering in a fetal ball. The book asks what we can all learn from those people who manage to keep their heads about them when death seems certain.

In the interest of full-disclosure, as of this writing I’ve not completed this book. I just started it and am only in the second chapter. However, so far it’s been both informative and interesting.


Why it’s a good read for martial artists? Much like On Killing, I think this book may be valuable because there are many martial artists with daydream-induced misconceptions about how they will perform in dangerous situations. This book may help one evaluate one’s true state of preparedness, and discover how to go about making changes to improve one’s level of preparedness for a worst-case scenario.

Further reading on related topics:  If you want a scholar’s account, the book Anxious by Joseph E. Ledoux may be more your style. (Wise is a popular science writer.) I see that Ledoux is cited a lot in books I’ve been reading as of late, but I can’t say I’ve read any of his books yet. However,  I know he’s widely regarded as one of the foremost experts on fear. It looks like his book isn’t so much on mortal peril as Wise’s book, and covers all kinds of anxiety and fear.


5.) Faster, Higher, Stronger: How Sports Science is Creating a New Generation of Superathletes–and What We Can Learn from Them by Mark McClusky

FasterHigherStrongerWhat it’s about? The super-long subtitle says it all. It’s about how athletic performance is being improved by bringing scientific methods to the study of sports, and–as the second half of the freakish subtitle suggests–it explains how amateurs can put this information to good use. There are some methods used by elite athletes that aren’t at all suitable to the run-of-the-mill martial artists (e.g. don’t consume mass quantities of baking soda.) However, there are other approaches to nutrition and training that are readily translated to amateurs without much downside.

Why it’s a good read for martial artists? You may or may not think of yourself as an athlete. I can hear some martial artists saying, “I don’t practice a sport, I’m a martial artist. I deal in lethal combat, not games. yada, yada, yada…” Maybe so, but fitness, nutrition, and conditioning matter. If you want to be able to hold your own against more skilled opponents, you need to improve your capabilities and capacities. Fitness matters. If you think technical proficiency will get you through any situation, you haven’t run up against someone who is both technically skilled and highly fit–and when you come up against said person, your disillusionment will be swift.

Further reading on related topics:  As with the Becoming Batman book, most of the books on this subject are textbooks and are outrageously priced. If you know of other books in this vein, I’d love to hear about them.


6.) Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rick Hanson et. al.

BuddhaBrainWhat it’s about? This book turns the lens of modern science on the serene, immovable state of mind that martial artists have historically sought out through Buddhist and yogic systems. It discusses how Buddhist practices help people to be more cognitively effective and less prone to emotional manipulation or disturbance.

Why it’s a good read for martial artists?  If one reads the works of warriors–ancient and modern, one will discover that the greatest warriors place a premium on the importance of the mind.

Consider the famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi. Musashi was exceedingly successful in defeating his enemies by making them angry. He would show up late and behave disrespectfully, and he would make his own mind imperturbable. This allowed him to easily defeat warriors who were considered at least his equal in terms of technique.

Further reading on related topics: There are many books that look at similar questions.  Zen and the Brain is probably a better book in terms of the amount of information / insight provided, but it’s a much more daunting read. I wouldn’t put the latter in the category of “pop science” as much as just “science.”  (Zen and the Brain is also a much older book.)


These are my recommendations, I’d love to hear about yours in the comments section.


The Science of Inversions: or, Why and How to Get Off the Wall

IMG_0835Inversions are a class of postures (asana) in which part or all of the body / limbs are raised above the head. The classic inversions are: headstand [shirshasana], shoulder-stand [sarvangasana], plow pose [halasana], forearm-stand [pinchamayurasana], and handstand [adho mukha vrksasana], but there are many more–some of which are easier and others of which are more challenging than these basics. Other than a few partial inversions (e.g. down-dog [adho mukha svanasana] and leg-up-the-wall pose), inversions tend to be daunting for beginners (and even intermediate students) at a mental as well as a physical level.

In this post I’ll focus on headstands. Most students seem to achieve shoulder-stands and plow pose relatively easily because it feels more stable. I’ll note that those two asana require as much or more care and caution as any inversion given the flexed state of the neck. On the other hand, by the time one is perfecting one’s handstand, one will likely be over the issues that I’m addressing in this post. I’ll save those poses for a later post with a different thrust.

Let’s first consider the effect inversions are supposed to have (and then the effect they tend to have in reality.)

What inversions are supposed to do:  The story is supposed to go like this: 1.) The body inverts. 2.) Our body’s sensors recognize that the blood flow to the brain is far beyond its needs.  3.) The body quiets our vital signs.

What inversions (too often) actually do: It may surprise some readers that inversions are supposed to have a calming effect because the chain of events is often as follows: 1.) The body inverts. 2.) The amygdala fires, triggering the physiological responses associated with fear. 3.) One’s conscious mind imagines the pain and suffering of falling. 4.) The amygdala fires some more. One is in “fight or flight” mode, and the flight the body wants to make is to a right-side-up position.

While I’ve had to work hard to improve my inversions, I had a much easier time with this issue than many. Before you dismiss me as a narcissist, let me state unequivocally that I have no special gift for inversions . I’m not claiming to be a yoga prodigy by any stretch. Why was it easier for me? I’ve practiced a martial art for many years that required training in breakfalls (ukemi.) Therefore, I had no particular fear of falling over onto my back, because my body is trained to tuck and roll. [My only fear when I first started doing headstands in studio sessions was that someone, e.g. the teacher, would walk into my blind spot. Note to all: don’t walk behind someone’s back when they’re inverted unless you’re sure you’re out of the “timber” zone.]

Why are breakfalls so beneficial to the development of one’s inversions?  Because it allows one to get off the wall. A lot of practitioners get addicted to the wall. “Addicted” may sound like a harsh term, but like addicts they think they can quit anytime and that they will quit at some undesignated point in the future–sometimes they do, but often they don’t. Reliance on the wall is reinforced by the fact that one may find one can only spend a couple anxiety-filled seconds inverted without the wall, but one can spend minutes comfortably against the wall. There’s a reason for this great disparity, and understanding this reason is crucial for knowing why doing 2 or 3 seconds unsupported (at first) is better for one’s long-term development than staying for three minutes leaning on the wall.

Here’s the deal. When you invert, your body needs to make subtle corrections to keep you on balance–at least until you reach the level of yoga genius. If you stand up with your feet together, your eyes closed, and you pay attention to your feet and legs, you’ll see that this is true when you’re upright as well. It’s just that your body is used to being upright. It knows how to make all these micro-corrections without conscious thought. The good news is that one’s nervous system rapidly learns to do the same thing when one is upside-down. When I say “rapidly” I’m not talking about the first, second, or even the twelfth time you try to do an inversion. [Trust me, despite what your mother may have told you about her darling genius, you didn’t achieve stability upright on your first few tries either.] The first several times, you’ll fall down almost immediately. However, if you keep trying, your body will learn and you’ll achieve progressively longer inverted stays. You can’t make these corrections at the speed of conscious thought. But the beauty part is that your body will learn to achieve stability solely through practice without any intellectual activity whatsoever.

Why doesn’t your body learn this when you use the wall? The cornerstone biological principle for those interested in fitness, movement, and sports is: Your brain and body are lazy; they will not develop any capability that you don’t force them to by challenging activity. Your muscles don’t get bigger without overloading them and causing little micro-tears in them that they must heal up better than before. Your bones don’t get more dense unless you put more load on them (see: Wolff’s Law.) And your nervous system will not wire itself to keep you upright in an inversion if you’re propped up against a wall. You can invert against a wall for a thousand years and not get the same benefits as from an hour of struggling to get off the wall. This principle is reflected in nature from Darwinian evolution onward.  Gazelles don’t learn to run 500 miles an hour. Once it can accelerate (on average) fast enough to survive the cheetahs that prey on it, it passes on genetic material and the evolutionary pressure is off. Gazelles don’t keep getting increasingly faster than their predators for shits and giggles.

Incidentally, this is also why you should keep challenging yourself, and not rest with getting the basic form. There’s always somewhere new to take it. For example, one can look at moving between splits like so:



Alternatively, one can work on a different form of the pose, such as the tripod headstand. Transitioning from crow pose [kakasana] to tripod headstand is a good way to start to learn the bodily control that will serve one well in intermediate and advanced practice.



Yet another option is to practice a controlled descent. The inverted “L” is quite a challenge. Not as one might think because it requires tremendous core strength, but because it requires gradually leaning into the direction of falling backwards in order to counterbalance the weight of your legs.



A few notes on headstand breakfalls:

– Make sure you have room in all directions to fall without crashing into anything or anyone. While it would be nice to always fall back onto one’s feet, it’s neither realistic nor beneficial to your development. Why not? If you’re always distributing your weight to fall onto your feet, you will be keeping muscles tense and will have trouble finding a relaxed state of balance. Furthermore, there is a tendency toward panicked motion if one starts to lose balance in the wrong direction, and speed is your enemy in inversions.  (One wants to do everything from entering the inversion to falling in as slow and controlled a manner as one can possibly manage.) If you get your feet up high enough to be on balance, you need to accept the fact that you’re as likely to roll onto your back as on to your feet.

– If one is doing the basic forearm-supported headstand, don’t tightly interlock one’s fingers. “Tightly” is the key word here. It’s alright to interlock your fingers, but one doesn’t want to create ridged hands such that one’s neck rolls over a 3 to 4 inch (7 to 10 cm) ledge if one falls backwards.  One wants the hands to collapse.

– Tuck and roll. Don’t reach back with your foot / feet and try to arrest your fall. If you have enough strength, flexibility, and timing to make that work you probably don’t need my advice and haven’t read this far. (i.e. you have advanced gymnastic skill.) If you’re the more typical yoga practitioner, you’re more likely to injure your back, toes, feet, or some combination thereof by arching into a back-bend to arrest your fall.

– Counter-intuitively, you probably don’t want to put anything behind you to soften your fall. You don’t want your spine rolling over surfaces that are at different levels–even if one them is relatively soft. It’s usually best to roll over a level surface, even if that surface may be a bit hard. Furthermore, if you think you’re going to save yourself by working entirely on a softer surface, you’ll probably find yourself falling more often and for a longer period. Softer surfaces are harder to maintain balance on. That’s why one of the primary ways that we make an exercise more challenging is to do it on a softer (more rolly) surface.

– Don’t let your neck crumple. On a related aside, never look around while you’re in a headstand. If you need to see something, e.g. the teacher’s demonstration, come out of the headstand.

– However you come out of an inversion, don’t neglect the counter-pose. For the headstand, child’s pose is a common counter posture, and you should spend some time there upon exiting the pose.

– It’s best to begin one’s practice of inversions under the supervision of a qualified teacher. As one develops confidence and one’s body begins to learn how to maintain stability, one can make these postures an increasing part of one’s practice.

It’s hard to get get a good sequence of pics to show how to breakfall–given my limited photography skills, that is. But here’s my attempt.

So it begins with crumpling balance

So it begins with crumpling balance

Get those fingers open so your neck doesn't flow over an interlocked fist

Get those fingers open so your neck doesn’t flow over an interlocked fist

Tuck and roll

Tuck and roll

Don't arrest your roll.  Let momentum carry you forward. Gradually dissipate the energy.

Don’t arrest your roll. Let momentum carry you forward. Gradually dissipate the energy.

Happy inverting.

DAILY PHOTO: Kandy Dance

Taken on May 23, 2015 in Kandy, Sri Lanka

Taken on May 23, 2015 in Kandy, Sri Lanka

These are some shots that I took at the Kandy Cultural Centre. They do daily performances of indigenous dance and performance art.

IMG_0403 IMG_0385 IMG_0431

3 Levels of Movement Coach

I.) New teachers and coaches often over-rely on their personal experience. In other words, one may think that the skills that came easily for one will be a piece of cake for one’s students as well. Conversely, such a teacher tends to be more sympathetic and lax when it comes to skills that kicked his or her own ass. This may work for some students, but it’ll be way off the mark for others. There’s a risk of pushing students too hard on skills that may be dangerous for them, and / or not helping them achieve a breakthrough that they are capable of because of one’s own baggage.


II.) The next level of coach recognizes that there are different body types. Such teachers put this knowledge to use in determining what skills present greater or lesser risk for a student given the strength, power, speed, flexibility, etc. associated with such a body. This coach will recommend modifications and capacity building exercises based on the student’s body type.


III.) Then there is the coach or teacher who can see the individual idiosyncrasies of a given student’s body and make recommendations based the unique conditions, strengths, and weaknesses of a particular person.

9 Lessons Learned During Children’s Yoga Teacher Training

I recently finished the course requirements for Registered Children’s Yoga Teacher (RCYT) training at a1000 Yoga in Bangalore. (As of this writing, I still have a kid-specific teaching requirement to meet before I can add this to my Yoga Alliance certification portfolio.)  When I did my seva (charitable teaching) requirement for RYT-200 at an orphanage, I discovered that teaching kids was a different monster. That’s what led me to take up this specialization, and I thought I’d share some of what I learned.


1. Eight is [soon] enough:  The traditional age for introducing children to a practice of yoga is eight. This doesn’t mean that kids aren’t taught postures (asana) or other yogic techniques earlier, but for younger kids it’s typically done as play. Traditionally, surya namaskara (sun salutation), nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing), and Gayatri mantra (a particular chant) serve as the core of the child’s practice.

Why eight? It has to do with a number of physical and mental development factors including lung development, the state of the pineal gland, and the arrival of abstract reasoning capacity.

Kids_contortionism2.) There are no youth-related contraindicated postures: I expected to spend a fair amount of the course learning what postures one shouldn’t teach children and why. However, instead we were told that kids could be exposed to any Hatha yoga postures.

Of course, this is predicated on: a.) the fact that one is dealing with a child eight and up; b.) one recognizes that the strengths and weaknesses of children will need to be taken into account and modifications or capacity building may be necessary in some cases. (For example, the flexibility of kids may allow them to achieve postures that few adults can, but at the same time their lack of strength and balance may be limiting factors for some postures.); c.) obviously, one needs to take into account that kids may have contraindicated conditions that aren’t age-related but are due to their particular physical condition.

It should also be noted that children are typically not taught breath retention (khumbaka) as part of their (breath exercise) practice. So it’s not true to say that there are no contraindicated practices.

3.) In stillness, your results may vary: One of the nice things about a yoga practice for kids is that it acknowledges that most kids, by nature, don’t want to be still. As opposed to mainstream education, which attempts to force stillness upon them, yoga offers a mixture of activity and stillness. However, it was interesting to see the range of abilities to remain motionless during yoganidra (“yoga sleep,” i.e. a hypnogogic state) practice. There is, of course, an age component to this. That is, young kids have a harder time staying still than older kids. However, that isn’t all there is to it. A few of the older kids couldn’t stay still in savasana (corpse pose) for five seconds, but a few of the young seemed able to be still for as long as required–not necessarily awake, but still.

the exception

the exception

4.) Balance isn’t in a child’s wheelhouse:  I knew that strength was ill-developed in prepubescent children, but I didn’t realize how challenging kids would find even simple balance postures. They’re a little like drunks in this regard.

Obviously, kids tend to be freakishly bendy, and so it’s not a surprise that most of them could learn to do chakrasana (wheel pose, i.e. a full back bridge) from a standing position in short order. In fact, the challenge for those who had one was more likely to be confidence with not falling on one’s head than with a lack of back-bending flexibility.

The moral of the story is that one must recognize that children are a little like senior citizens in this one domain. That is, consideration must be given to the risk that they will fall down during balancing poses. Unlike seniors, they don’t have too far to fall, and they’ll heal lickety-split if they do, but–still–they’ll fall like a drunken sailor.

5.) Teaching kids’ partner yoga requires a different approach:  The usual advice is that one should teach kids from “inside the circle.” That is, one shouldn’t set oneself off at the head of a class like one would usually do with an adult class. One sits with with the kids and does the class with them. (You probably won’t be doing 6 classes a day that way.)

I had the opportunity to teach a pairs yoga class and found that an entirely different approach was needed. First let me say that pairs (partner) yoga is a great approach for teaching kids. Many kids will enjoy the interaction, and they can learn about teamwork and (in some cases) take advantage of the stabilization of additional limbs / grounded surface area. However, because it requires so much attention to be focused on the partner, it’s best not to teach it from inside the circle. One won’t necessarily be able to see what one’s students are doing, and that can be dangerous.

6.) There’s a yoga for special needs children: Among our guest speakers, we had a yoga teacher from Prafull Oorja, which is an organization that teaches special needs children using yoga, dance, and various other methods. These approaches are used to increase bodily awareness, which is a common problem across many different afflictions. We learned about the range of challenges faced by such children and how the usual approach is varied to adapt to their needs.


The course included information about several non-yogic methods that could be used to complement yoga practice to achieve the objectives of a yoga course. I write this by way of explanation as to why the last few lessons seem to have little to do with yoga.


7.) Stories must be physical, animated, and repetitive for small kids:  These features serve to help adjust to the child’s limited vocabulary, while helping them to build vocabulary. We had a speaker from Kathalaya (House of Stories) who offered a great deal of insight into story-telling for kids.

Lest one think that story-telling is just filler in the yoga context, I’ve been learning a great deal about how our minds need stories, and am inclined to believe that one’s insight into the mind will be limited if one doesn’t understand story and why stories appeal to our minds. I recommend the book Wired for Story by Lisa Cron.

8.) Games used in theater can go hand-in-hand with yoga practice:  I was completely new to the idea of theater games before this course, but we had someone teach us a number of these games, and the logic behind building our own. Games which aren’t too cerebral can go help build some of the same skills that are sought in a course of yoga. Such games include practices that help develop one’s voice and physical expressiveness. These games can also help bring some kids out of their shells so that they are more ready to actively participate in a yoga class.

9.) We need mental hygiene as much as dental hygiene: This actually comes from a quote by Sir Bat Khalsa, a Harvard Neurologist who studies the effects of yoga. When I was doing research for my final presentation, I ran across said quote, which goes:

“There’s no preventive maintenance. We know how to prevent cavities. But we don’t teach children how to be resilient, how to cope with stress on a daily basis… We’ve done dental hygiene but not mental hygiene.”