BOOK REVIEW: Yoga for Sports by B.K.S. Iyengar

Yoga For Sports: A Journey Towards Health And HealingYoga For Sports: A Journey Towards Health And Healing by B.K.S. Iyengar
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a book by the renowned Pune yoga guru who passed away in 2014, B.K.S. Iyengar, on how athletes can use yoga to build general health, prevent injuries, and combat postural misalignments that result from sporting activities that are asymmetric or unbalanced. A book on yoga for athletes might address any number of topics from core strength and stability to meditations to prevent choking under pressure, but this one focuses heavily on asana (postural yoga) – particularly – for improving flexibility and postural alignment. (It does introduce pranayama, but only the practices of viloma and ujjayi breathing.)

Iyengar is most well-known for an approach to hatha yoga that uses props to allow anyone to achieve a properly aligned posture, regardless of whether one has a yogi-level contortionist body (and most athletes don’t because of the countervailing requirements for strength necessitated by their sports.) This prop-centric approach is seen heavily in the book’s second part, which describes and demonstrates a range of basic asana (postures) along with relevant variations. I mention this because through the first part of this book, I felt it was much more of a book for yoga practitioners who might also happen to be amateur athletes than it was for athletes looking to introduce yoga into their training regimen. By that I mean that the photos of recommended poses in Part I are unlikely to be useful for athletes who have tight muscles from intense physical activity. However, if you’re feeling that way about the book, too, you may find that the second part’s variations are more reasonable for a person who doesn’t have an extensive background in yoga or stretching.

The book is divided into four parts. The first part consists of ten chapters that cover the topic of yoga for sports with broad brush strokes, covering topics like skeleto-muscular anatomy, common sports complaints, yoga for warmup, yoga for prevention and for recovery. It also deals with specialty topics like maintaining a healthy body in retirement as well as issues for women athletes (women may find this section to be a bit menstruation-heavy, as if that were the predominant challenge facing women engaged in athletics. On the plus-side there’s none of the bizarre and / or offensive notions about menstruation that have been known to presented in the context of yoga.) As I mentioned, during this first part I thought the book would not be so useful for the problems of athletes, and some may find that still seems to be the case after reviewing part two. The gulf between what is recommended and what the average practitioner can physically do is a perennial difficulty with books on yoga.

The second part discusses asana in detail, providing pictures, text descriptions, and notes on benefits and – where applicable — other considerations (e.g. contra-indications.) Here one can find prop-based variations to allow individuals who may be stiff or in recovery to perform the asana. Mostly, there is just one photo of each posture in mid-pose. However, where special guidance is needed getting into or out of the pose (which can be the case with prop yoga) there are sometimes multiple photos demonstrating a progression of movement. My major gripe with this book is that it was littered with typos (at least the e-book edition that I read on Kindle.) The typos were most notable in this section. I can’t remember if I saw any in parts I, III, or IV, but the errors stuck out in part two because there is a lot of repetitive directions for the poses that seem to have been copy / pasted such that the same missing letter typos appear many places throughout the section.

The third part is much briefer than the first two, and it simply describes props that an athlete might consider acquiring. It starts with basic kit and moves to bigger items, though it doesn’t discuss all the huge equipment that one would find in a fully equipped studio teaching Iyengar-style yoga. It provides text discussions of critical considerations as well as photos.

The last part is just a couple pages of testimonials of famous athletes saying how much yoga (in general) and Iyengar’s teaching (specifically) helped them to improve their games. These brief testimonials are presented in text-boxes and look somewhat as one might see on the opening pages of a novel.

As would be expected of a book on sports published in India, most of the examples are cricket-centric. (Again, not surprising as cricket is the 800-pound gorilla of sports on the subcontinent.)

I found this book to be quite informative. If you can bear the typos (and they may have been exorcized from the print editions,) you’ll likely find the book to be informative and well-presented.

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BOOK REVIEW: Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka

Chinaman: The legend of Pradeep MathewChinaman: The legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilaka
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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“Chinaman” is the tale of an alcoholic Sri Lankan sportswriter, W.G. Karunasena, who is attempting to write a biography of the man he considers the greatest cricketer to ever live, Pradeep Matthew. The two-fold challenge is that Matthew had a short and controversial career before disappearing off the face of the earth, and Karunasena is in a race to finish the book before the bottle finishes him off. [For non-cricket fan readers wondering about the title, Chinaman is a cricket term for a style of bowling. I also learned that a “ponytailed Chinaman” in Sri Lanka is (or was) slang for someone gullible.]

I try to read at least one work of literature from every country I visit, and I chose “Chinaman” for Sri Lanka, and am happy with my decision. While the book is very much cricket-centric, it does offer insight into the familial and community dynamics of Sri Lanka. Given the time frames discussed in the book (i.e. the 80’s and 90’s), we also learn a little about the civil war that was going on at the time. But most intriguingly, one views the politics and underworld that largely remain hidden to tourists, and so the book has that appeal. The book contains many explanations, diagrams, and drawings to help clue those, such as myself, who are ignorant of the game into the fundamentals, but it’s not just about cricket.

The book is presented as a novel that’s only sold as fiction for legal reasons, but my little bit of research [including a short author interview] suggests that that is just a plot device to add to the feeling of intrigue.

The last two of five parts of the book, while less than 15% of the pages, are presented from a different point of view. This is a bit jarring because the reader has developed a great deal of affinity with Karunasena, and that kind of connection doesn’t have time to blossom with his son, the second voice of the book. However, the last to parts do give the reader a satisfying conclusion.

I enjoyed this book. It’s humorous and offers a glimpse into Sri Lankan cricket and everything it touches (which is pretty much everything.) I’d recommend it for fiction readers. Even if you aren’t a big fan of cricket, you’ll enjoy the story and the humorous dialogue. If you are a fan of cricket or want to know more about Sri Lanka, it will be particularly enjoyable.

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BOOK REVIEW: Plant-Based Sports Nutrition by D. Enette Larson-Meyer & Matt Ruscigno

Plant-Based Sports Nutrition: Expert Fueling Strategies for Training, Recovery, and PerformancePlant-Based Sports Nutrition: Expert Fueling Strategies for Training, Recovery, and Performance by D Enette Larson-Meyer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is an updated and revised edition of a book previously called “Vegetarian Sports Nutrition.” The name change not only reflects the rise of veganism and other more restrictive diets, but also an increase in “flexitarianism” — or the reduction (but not elimination) of animal-based foods that is driven by health factors, by environmental concerns, or by a combination of both. One of the things I like about this book is that it offers a balanced discussion of how to meet the nutritional needs of athletics through a diet that is mostly or entirely plant-based. That is to say, it’s not trying to sell the reader on a particular dietary approach, and, therefore, doesn’t fall into the trap of pretending that the move is purely upside. Those trying to persuade readers of a given diet tend to overemphasize the studies showing the benefits of plant-based diets while neglecting to discuss the challenges to meeting dietary needs without animal-based foods – particularly if one has the substantial needs incurred by athletes. [Which isn’t to say there aren’t health benefits — and even performance benefits — to be gained, but thinking that one can make the switch without giving thought to the details is a bit naive.]

The book consists of fifteen chapters that take one from an introduction to the various forms of plant-based diets through specific dietary considerations (i.e. meeting caloric requirements, macro-nutrient needs, and micro-nutrient needs) and – finally – to practical matters of what to eat and how to prepare it. After an opening chapter that lays forth background information, chapters two and three deal in the related topics of getting adequate calories and getting enough carbs. Vegetables, after all, aren’t typically calorically dense, and so salad and steamed vegetables – while a beneficial part of a diet — aren’t going to meet the needs of an athlete.

Chapter four delves into meeting fat requirements. While carbs have come to be wrongly villainized in current fitness environment, there are some who are still working under the old “fat is the enemy” paradigm. In truth, one needs a diet that includes all three macro-nutrients: carbohydrates, fats, and protein. Those on plant-based diets who don’t (or can’t) eat nuts and legumes can run into problems with getting enough fat. Chapter five rounds out the chapters focusing on macro-nutrients by exploring protein needs. This is the chapter many readers will be prone to make a beeline toward. Athletes who are considering a plant-based diet are most likely to be concerned that they can’t get enough protein. This is a contentious topic because vegan and vegetarian athletes often want to pull their hair out over what they feel is a great misconception. They say it’s no problem hitting protein targets on a plant-based diet, and — depending upon one’s sport and one’s body — that can be true. But for some it takes planning. (e.g. It’s true that one can get a complete protein by eating rice and lentils. The challenge is that if you do go about getting the 2 gms of protein per kg of body weight that some athletes require by just eating rice and lentils you are likely to find yourself becoming obese because those high-protein foods are even higher in carbs.)

Chapters six and seven shift into critical micro-nutrient considerations. Chapter six is about bone health, which is a greater concern with respect to some forms of plant-based diet than others. Chapter seven is about iron intake and absorption. One thing that I found very important and interesting in this book is the discussion of how foods and nutrients that one might think of only in terms of their positive effect can also have a negative effect. That is, some nutrients that we need in a given quantity will block the absorption of other nutrients if taken in excess quantities. Chapters eight and ten are about eliminating the need for multivitamins or other vitamin and mineral supplements. Another thing that I appreciate about this book is its emphasis on getting all of one’s nutritional needs through food. While it doesn’t take an iron-clad opposition to supplements, it suggests that one should first make great efforts to meet needs with food before considering any supplement.

Chapter nine is about timing of food and fluid intake for optimal performance. It’s one thing to know what to eat, but one must also know when to eat and when not to eat. Chapter eleven investigates common problems that are often attributed to food and fluid intake, namely cramps and inflammation. The part dealing with cramps was particularly informative, as I learned that much of what I’ve heard on the subject (and / or that is commonly believed) is either not well-established in the literature or is plain old poppycock.

Chapters twelve and thirteen are about building a meal plan to meet one’s requirements, and modifying the plan to cut or gain weight as necessary, respectively.

The last two chapters are about preparing meals to meet an athlete’s needs with plant-based foods. The penultimate chapter is more about the quick meals and snacks, and the last chapter provides a collection of recipes.

There are several appendices containing information about nutritional information and various approaches to building a balanced diet. There are also graphics including photographs, tables, and diagrams. I can’t speak to how effective these are as I read a review copy that was unformatted, but I do know they are frequent throughout the book.

I’d highly recommend this book for athletes, trainers, or coaches who are considering moving to a plant-based diet or who work with clients or athletes who are vegetarian, vegan, or otherwise eat a predominantly plant-based diet.

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DAILY PHOTO: Ball Court of Ek’ Balam

Taken in the Summer of 2009 at Ek’ Balam

BOOK REVIEW: Running Anatomy, 2nd Edition by Puleo and Milroy

Running Anatomy 2nd EditionRunning Anatomy 2nd Edition by Joseph Puleo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book explores anatomy (and to a lesser degree physiology) as it pertains to running, and shows how one can strengthen anatomy to increase one’s performance as a runner.

I will divide the book up into three parts, though that division is not explicitly made by the authors. The first three chapters discuss running fundamentals. Chapter 1 explores the nature of movement in running. The reader learns about the phases of the running gait and the muscle activation relative to said phases. The second chapter focuses heavily on the anatomy and physiology of the cardio-vascular system and the impact it has on muscle performance. Chapter 3 discusses external factors that can influence running performance such as air temperature, humidity, terrain, and altitude.

The second part of the book consists of the middle five chapters, and gets to the heart of the subject. These chapters investigate the role of musculature in running and show numerous exercises that can be used to strengthen said muscles as well as describing the activation of muscles in those exercises. Starting from the ground up, these chapters proceed as such: feet and ankles, legs, core, shoulders and arms, and chest and back. One might not think that the upper body is critical to running, but the authors demonstrate otherwise.The exercises selected assume the availability of a full range of fitness equipment: machines, free weights, as well as elastic bands and BOSU – though some bodyweight exercises are included.

The third part of the book explores some odds and ends that are crucial, but not covered in earlier chapters. Chapter nine explains how to avoid injuries. Running is an activity that offers plenty of opportunity for repetitive stress injuries because it’s an endurance activity involving iterated actions. Chapter ten explores alternative training programs (e.g. training in the swimming pool or on treadmills), and the pros and cons of such activities. The last chapter is about gear, and – not unexpectedly – much of it is devoted to shoes and questions such as whether one needs orthotics. It should be noted that the authors are firmly in the camp that favor footwear. (There are many advocates of barefoot running in recent years.)

There are many color drawings that show which muscles are activated by movements. The drawings are clear and effective. There is an index of exercises at the end that makes it easy to find various exercises.

I’d recommend this book for runners and trainers who are interested in how muscles can be strengthened and stretched to increase performance and minimize the risk of injury.

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BOOK REVIEW: Running Flow Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, et. al.

Running FlowRunning Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book examines how Flow can be achieved by runners. Flow, in this usage, means a specific state of mind in which the activity at hand becomes effortless, self-criticism quiets, and one becomes pleasantly fixated on a task. It’s a term coined by the book’s lead author, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, based on his research into how some people were able to slip into a mental state in which even mundane activities could become an almost blissful obsession. This was part of a broader inquiry into how people can achieve a higher quality of life at work or at home.

The book is divided into two parts. The first four chapters lay out the concept of Flow in detail, and provide the necessary background for readers who may not be familiar with the concept. These chapters describe the role Flow can play in running, examine the components of Flow (i.e. necessary conditions and outcomes), and explain what personality traits are most conducive to achieving Flow.

The second part consists of five chapters, and it delves into how a runner can achieve Flow. Chapter five explores in detail three of the nine components that were introduced in chapter two, and tailors the explanation for runners. These three are the antecedents of Flow: clear goals, a match of challenge level and skill level, and immediate feedback. Chapters six and seven suggest the ways in which Flow can be facilitated in non-competitive and competitive runs, respectively. Chapter eight discusses the limits of flow. Because Flow is associated with feelings of effortless performance, some think of it as a sort of panacea for all that plagues their running. Furthermore, it’s not a state that easily happens and consistently returns; it’s often fickle and elusive. This chapter not only disabuses one of such notions, but also explains how failing to achieve Flow need not be the end of the world (or of one’s race.) The final chapter takes Flow beyond the concept of running and suggests what it’s pursuit can do for an individual more broadly.

The chapters use mini-case studies in which the authors describe the experience of professional runners in races and the effects of Flow on their performance and their experiences of races. There are numerous graphics. Many of these are color photos of the athletes who the authors spoke to, but there are also diagrams used to clarify key concepts. There is a glossary and references section as well.

I enjoyed this book. I’ve always thought of running as a task for which Flow would be hard to achieve because the matching of skill level to the amount of challenge is so crucial to achieving Flow and the movement pattern of running is so repetitive and monotonous. (The reason this matching is important is that if one’s skill level is far beyond the challenge, then one is bored, and if it’s the other way around, one is frustrated and overwhelmed – and neither boredom nor frustration facilitates Flow.) The book is a quick read that offers runners everything they need to make their mental experience of running more enjoyable and productive.

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BOOK REVIEW: Greatest Ever Boxing Workouts by Gary Todd

Greatest Ever Boxing Workouts - including Mike Tyson, Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather, Roberto DuranGreatest Ever Boxing Workouts – including Mike Tyson, Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather, Roberto Duran by Gary Todd
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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This will be a quick review as the book is simple and straightforward in its approach. The author interviewed 30+ boxers, and each chapter corresponds to a boxer. A few of these boxers are household names, e.g. Tyson, Duran, Pacquiao, and Mayweather, but others may or may not be known to those who aren’t fight fanatics.

Each chapter consists of three sections. The first and longest of each is an overview of that boxer’s career, but it’s the other two sections that are most relevant to the book’s title and theme. One of these sections is an interview that asks a series of 14 questions about how the respective boxer organized his training day, and the other is a description of the boxer’s workouts (typically there was more than one workout—i.e. sparring v non-sparring days.)

If you’re a big boxing fan, this book will be interesting to you particularly for some of the insights about the boxers. The author is clearly knowledgeable in that regard. If you are mostly interested in the book from a fitness perspective, and seek to learn about working out for combative sports, it’s of decidedly less value. It still has some fascinating information, but you’ll probably find it tedious and of limited usefulness. The question and answer section elicits answers from one word to a couple of sentences and the workouts are a page each. What is fascinating is how similar the day in the life of a boxer is, and, specifically, how standardized workouts are. What I mostly found intriguing was when someone stuck out as having a different mode of operating. For example, most started their days very early (often going back to sleep after road-work) but a few were clearly night owls. One can also see a little of how approaches have shifted between the earliest fighters and the ones active until recently.

There are plenty of photographs in the book, but they are the only graphics. There isn’t much else by way of ancillary matter. (i.e. there is a section of pictures of the author with various boxers, but that—of course—is primarily of interest to the author.)

In one sense the book is quite limited and tedious, but it’s also interesting to see how thirty different fighters answered the exact same pallet of questions. There is some insight into nutrition, sleep schedules, optimal time for workouts, etc. However, the book doesn’t drill deep.

If you’re a fight fan, fascinated by boxers and their careers, I’d recommend this book. For those who are buying it thinking they’ll get some insight into how to prepare as a boxer, I’d say said insight will be extremely limited. That said, the book isn’t much of a time investment, and so if you can get it cheap you may find it of some benefit.

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BOOK REVIEW: Head in the Game by Brandon Sneed

Head in the Game: The Mental Engineering of the World's Greatest AthletesHead in the Game: The Mental Engineering of the World’s Greatest Athletes by Brandon Sneed
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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There are many factors that influence whether an athlete can reach an elite level. Physical factors such as VO2 max (maximum oxygen consumption) and musculature have long been at the fore in the minds of coaches and trainers, but they’ve never told the full story. There are athletes who have the muscles, lungs, and general physiology to dominate their sports who fall apart under pressure. One also sees the occasional athlete who is consistently good even though he seems puny by comparison to his peers. It used to be that mental performance was considered an endowed X-factor–you either had it or you didn’t. Coaches didn’t know how to coach for issues of the mind and often exacerbated problems with old school attitudes and approaches.

We’ve now entered a new era in which a bevy of techniques and technologies are being exploited to strengthen the mind and improve psychological deficiencies, just as gyms have always been used to build the body and combat physical deficiencies. These range from techniques of meditation and visualization that have been known to yogis and Buddhists for centuries to advanced technologies that have only become available in recent decades and which are constantly improving and being made obsolete. Sneed examines the gamut of these approaches as they are applied to improving performance in sports: from the meditative or therapeutic to the electronic or pharmacological. One no longer need give up on athletes who are great at their best, but who get the yips at the worst possible times. The performance of mediocre athletes can be improved and that of the best can be made more consistent.

Sneed has a unique qualification to write this book. He counts himself among the athletes who couldn’t reach his potential because of inconsistency rooted in psychological challenges. His willingness to be forthright about his own problems makes the book more engaging. His own stories are thrown into the mix with those of athletes from football, basketball, soccer, baseball, adventure sports, and mixed martial arts (MMA.)

The book’s 19 chapters are divided among four parts. The first part lays the groundwork, helping the reader understand the rudiments of how the brain works, doesn’t work, or works too hard for a competitor’s own good. A central theme is that the ability to analyze and train through the lens of neuroscience has removed some of the stigma that has always been attached to psychological issues in sports (not to mention the days when they were written off as weakness.) Much of the six chapters of Part I deal with assessment of the athlete’s baseline mental performance. The last chapter (Ch. 6) covers a range of topics that have been around a long time as they’ve been reevaluated through modern scientific research. These include religion, faith, superstition, meditation, visualization, and the immortal question of whether sex is good or bad for athletic performance.

The second part consists of five chapters taking on one fundamental truth: mind and body are not two disparate and independent entities. This section starts at the most logical point: breath. Practitioners of yoga (i.e. pranayama) and chi gong have known for centuries that breath can be used to influence one’s emotional state and level of mental clarity. Sneed evaluates the technology that is being used to help athletes master the same age-old lessons. Having laid the groundwork through breath, the section advances into biofeedback technology. There are two chapters in the book that deal with pharmacological approaches. One is in this section and it deals with legal (at least in some locales) substances such as caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, nootropics (alleged mind enhancing drugs), and marijuana. (The other is in the final part and it deals with hallucinogens.) There are also a couple of chapters on technologies used to produce or enhance desired mental states.

For most readers, the third part will be seen as the heart of the book. Having considered how to evaluate an athlete’s mental performance (Part I) and how to influence mind states by way of the body (Part II), this part explores the range of technologies that are used to exercise the mind in a manner analogous to working out the body. These technologies focus on a range of areas including improving the nervous system’s ability to take in information, process that information, and respond appropriately. Much of this part focuses on video games; albeit video games using state of the art virtual reality and which are customized to improvement of athletic performance. Some of the games are used to train general cognitive performance (e.g. Ch. 13) but others are specifically tailored to the game in question (i.e. Ch. 14.) Just as simulators are used in aviation, part of the advantage of these games is the ability to put players in progressively more challenging conditions.

The last part of the book was the most interesting to me, personally. [It’s also the part of the book that will be the most relevant and readable a few years down the road because it’s not as modern technology-centric as most of the book—especially Part III–is.] It’s entitled “The Spirit” and it explores X-factors to performance, but sans the assumption that these are endowments, but rather under the assumption they are trainable. The part has an important introduction that presents the research about how “soft” factors like gratitude play into outlook and performance. Then there are the Part’s three chapters. The first describes an experiment involving taking elite athletes into physically arduous conditions of the kind normally experienced by military special operations forces in survival training. The second tells the story of MMA fighter Kyle Kingsbury’s use of hallucinogenic substances (most intriguingly, ayahuasca, a powerful drug long used by Peruvian shamans.) Finally, the last chapter deals with sensory deprivation—a technology some will associate with the movie “Altered States” but which many athletes swear by.

The book has an extensive section on notations and sources organized by chapter. There are no graphics.

I enjoyed this book and found it to be informative. There are a number of books that explore the techniques and technologies of optimal mental performance, but this one develops a niche by focusing on the realm of sports and some of the technologies that are only available with the kind of deep-pockets seen in professional sports. The book is heavily weighted toward the technology part of the equation, which is both good and bad. If you’re reading it now (2017), it’s great because you’re getting an up-to-date discussion of the subject from the perspective of entities that are awash in money for tech. The downside is that this book won’t age well, at least not as well as it would if there was more emphasis on approaches that aren’t based on cutting-edge technology.

I’d recommend this book if you are interested in optimal human performance, and if you have an interest in sports, all the better.

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