10 Easy Pieces of Fitness Wisdom: and Why “Fitness Secrets” are Bullshit

A few weeks ago I did a post entitled, 10 Easy Pieces of Wisdom: and Why “Secret Wisdom” is Bullshit. That article’s premise was that understanding what one needs to do to be wise is simple, but the process of doing it is inescapably arduous–often to the point of seeming Sisyphean. (For those who aren’t brushed up on their Greek Mythology, Sisyphus was the guy who was punished by having to roll a rock up to the top of the hill only to let it roll back down, and the repeating the process ad infinitum.) I’m not saying that it’s a Sisyphean task, just that it can feel that way and one has to press forward through that feeling.


This post has the same premise, but applied to fitness. Fitness and wisdom have more in common than you might first think–they are both about improvement of the self. Unfortunately, the commonality that’s relevant here is that both invite crowds who will try to convince you they have an end-run around hard work. One of my past martial arts teachers, who was also in law enforcement, said that “cons only work on people with larceny in their hearts.” So it is that the con-men that are trying to sell “enhanced formula supplements” or “a 15 minute per week workout” can only sell to the people who want something for nothing. (Clue: what you get for nothing is nothing worth having.)


Without further ado, here are the 10 easy pieces:


1.) Know Thyself. This is a two-parter:

First, don’t let your ego write checks your body can’t cash. Some students want to jet right into the most advanced exercises. That’s like a third grader taking trigonometry; it’s ultimately less than productive. These are the individuals who tear ligaments, and who you don’t see again for six months–if ever. For virtually everyone, advanced exercises–be it a muscle-up or a yogasana like Urdhva Dhanurasana (A wheel pose, chakrasana, that is entered from a standing back bend)–require a lot of time spent in capacity building via fundamental exercises.


I’ll give an example, I saw someone on television yesterday doing the most horrendous single-armed push up. The only thing that kept this individual from damaging himself is that his range of motion was so tiny (he may have still injured himself.) His problem is that he heard that single-arm push-ups were cool, and he wanted to get straight to it. In reality, one needs to build into that exercise starting from a good solid standard push up, and then doing preppers (preparatory exercises) that gradually shift the load onto one arm. But maintaining form as well as one can. For example, putting one hand on a block off to the side, and gradually shifting it out to arm’s length.

IMG_3217 IMG_3218 IMG_3219


Second, on the other hand, don’t half-ass everything because you mistake discomfort for agony. This confusion cause people to greatly underestimate their capabilities. While you may think your teacher or trainer is a Sadist (only rarely are they are, really), the fact is that they are trying to give you one of the greatest gifts you can ever receive, which is the realization that you are capable of far more than you think you are–if you’re willing to gut it out through the challenging parts.


2.) Diet is the 800 pound gorilla of cutting weight. The simplified mathematics of this that adding exercise (while critically important to fitness) only marginally adds to the calories burned part of the equation. (Believe it or not one burns a lot of one’s calories just through baseline activities–breathing, walking, sleeping, etc.) However, when you cut caloric intake that’s all reduction from the intake side of the equation. However….


3.) Don’t make your goal weight loss, but rather to have a healthy and more functional body. Weight loss tends to be about external validation. That is, one wants to appear more attractive to someone else (or everybody else.) That’s a sucker’s game. People won’t necessarily notice–depending upon how often they see you and how self-absorbed they are. If you shed pounds at a healthy rate, people around you all the time don’t necessarily notice a day-to-day change.


On the other hand, as one starts feeling healthier and develops movement capacity beyond your previous capability, that can’t be taken away by anyone.


4.) When your body has been properly prepared through fundamentals, advanced maneuvers practically fall into place. I was taught a scorpion prepper  just a couple of weeks ago, and was surprised to find it was much easier than expected. I still have a lot of work to do to take it to the full pose. For example, I’m still using a wall so I don’t over-rotate in the arched back position,  but I bring my heels off the wall once I’m up. Next I’ll do away with the wall. Then it will be time to start bending my knees. My point is that  work on back stretches, core strengthening, and headstands made it relatively easy to get into the first stage.



5.) Reveling in small victories can kill progress. The handstand provides a classic example. In the beginning, one starts kicking up against a wall. Even this can be a challenge in the beginning. However, as soon as it becomes doable, one should start gradually taking the training wheels off. This may begin as cautiously as pulling one leg away from the wall at a time. Then do away with the wall altogether. Then the suffering begins anew as one sheds the kick up in favor of a more controlled manner of ascent into the handstand.


6.) Don’t be quantitative.  A journalist once asked Muhammad Ali how many sit-ups he did in his training regimen. Ali said, “I have no idea. I don’t start counting until they start hurting.”

I’ve heard guys pleased with themselves because they do “sets of 100 push-ups.” This is often impressive only until you see the person actually do the exercise, and then–more often than not–you notice that they haven’t actually done one push-up. Rather, they’ve done a whole lot of mild elbow bends from a roughly plank-like position. It’s better to do 10 push-ups with a full-range of motion and controlled ascent and descent than to fool yourself with weak form.


7.) Don’t mindlessly workout. Shun the distraction of headphones, television, or cellphones . If you find working out to be so mind-numbingly boring that you need a distraction, you should re-evaluate the nature of your workouts. You should be “listening” to your body throughout the process. If your goal is to have a greater command over your body and its movement, e.g. you are a martial artist, dancer, yogi, etc., then this is particularly important.


First of all, with respect to boredom, boredom is the product of a weak mind. So you might consider working the mind out as well. Secondly, if you are truly bored, you should be upping your game.


While this may be one of my least popular points in this post, if you don’t believe me, ask Al Kavadlo.


8.) Rest is part of the process. It’s not stepping away from the process. As your body rests, your mind should be alert and taking stock of the effect of the practice on your body. Rest breaks aren’t zone out time. Also, part of having a healthy body is building a healthy parasympathic nervous system and immune system. Your body requires rest to heal, and it can heal and fight off infections tremendously effectively if you provide the right conditions.


9.) Exercises that consist of the motions you will need for your particular life are the most important.  The term “functional fitness” is ubiquitous these days, but I first read this advice in Bruce Lee’s Tao of Jeet Kune DoLee said that actions like punching, kicking, and grappling practice should make up the core of a martial artist’s workout. That doesn’t mean one should do away with general fitness activities. (Lee certainly didn’t.) Martial arts provide a prime example of an activity that requires a well-rounded form of fitness. That is, one needs core strength, good range of motion, cardiovascular endurance, and extremity strength and speed.


10.) Don’t agonize over failures. Move onward and, carefully, upward. If you aren’t (safely) failing to achieve an occasional goal, then you need to kick your way out of that box of comfort zone you’re trapped in.


Uncle’s Shop, And Other Mysteries of The Indian Auto-Rickshaw

20140219_152150Where is Uncle’s shop? It’s where you are going if you got into an auto-rickshaw with a driver who has volunteered to drive you around for less than the metered rate. It may not be where you want to go, where you think you’re going, or where you’d like to go. But in the driver’s eyes, by taking him up on a reduced fare, you’ve entered into an implicit contract to be taken to a random store and nagged into buying something expensive enough that the shop can happily recoup the driver’s finders fee.

FYI- Bangalore auto-rickshaw fare is currently 25 rupee (Rs) for the first 1.9km, and 13Rs  for every kilometer thereafter. If the driver offers to take you around for 10 or 20Rs, you know they have plans. (Although there is a small chance that they are counting on you to be ignorant of the fact that the place they are offering to take you is 50 feet away.) Usually, a driver will offer to take you to a place for 4 to 8 times the metered rate (sometimes more if he has no idea where said place is–a not uncommon condition in Bangalore.) In other words, the driver will normally try to rip you off in the old-fashioned way (which eats at your pocket-book, but not at your time.)

If you find the new-fangled rip-off scheme to be a deplorable con, just remember to save some of your wrath for FaceBook, Google, and the other websites you commonly use. They almost all work on the same model. You get charged little or nothing to use said sites in exchange for agreeing to be shamelessly pitched stuff you don’t want or need.

What does Uncle’s shop sell? I hope you like a good mystery, because there’s no telling whether Uncle’s shop sells anything in which you have the slightest interest. If you are a single male, Uncle’s shop probably sells saris and pashminas. If you have a tiny apartment, Uncle’s shop probably specializes in 14 foot tall bronze statues of Ganesha. It could sell woven goods, knick-knacks, bric-a-brac, widgets, tsotchkes, or relics of a religion you know nothing about so you can engage in some low-grade impiety. (FYI- You may not realize this but for the devoted, it can be a bit offensive for a bunch of non-believers to be wearing “OM” symbols or having Buddha statues who aren’t Hindu/Yogic or Buddhist, respectively. Sort of the way many hardcore Christians feel about how Christmas was shanghai’d by a jolly old elf or Easter was overtaken by a giant bunny.) In some cases, Uncle’s shop will sell all of the aforementioned items and more.

Surely I will get an outstanding deal at Uncle’s shop, right? I mean, Uncle is not going to rip off his nephew’s customer, right? Wrong. First of all, there is an infinitesimally small chance that the driver is biologically related to the store owner in any way, shape, or form. It’s probably more likely that they’ve never formally met.

Second, let’s do some Uncle’s shop mathematics. We will call the wholesale cost of the product “C” and the bloated profit that the store owner would like “W” (for “wishful thinking profit”)  and the lowest profit “Uncle” is willing to accept “R” (for “reservation price profit.”) If you just walked into the shop off the street and bought said item you’d pay some amount ≤(C+W) and ≥(C+R).

However, now the driver expects a reward. [Granted, it may be nominal in the scheme of things.] We’ll call the fixed-rate payment to the driver “S” (for “sucker wrangling charge.”)  [You may wonder why I’m assuming this is a fixed-rate payment. Fair enough, if the driver is savvy, it will be percentage. However, my finding has been that between 60% and 80% of autorickshaw drivers in Bangalore don’t understand the concept of a map. I’m not saying they don’t know how to use a map. I’m saying that they don’t get that it’s a representation of the streets surrounding them. My point being, auto-rickshaw drivers are–as a group–not savvy. Granted, certain among them are really savvy. However, my point holds as long as we can except that S>0, for all S–whether fixed or a percentage.)

Long story short, now you will pay between (C+W+S) and (C+R+S), where S>0.  Long story shorter, going to Uncle’s shop with an auto driver will not save you money (unless you’re looking for something specific, and it will save you the value of time to have a guide to show you where to get what you’re after. Good luck with said guide being an auto driver, the driver doesn’t care what you want, he wants you to buy whatever Uncle’s shop is selling. You can buy what you want on your own time.) It’s true that you may find it worth it to pay the nominal extra amount for many reasons, i.e. convenience, a likable driver, etc. Just be informed.

How come it’s called Uncle’s shop, when nobody involved is the Uncle of anybody else involved? Indians use “auntie” and “uncle” as honorifics for older individuals who are in positions / stature commanding respect–it needn’t be a relative by blood. For auto drivers, this includes random shop owners who’ll pay them 50 rupee for dragging hapless tourists into the store.



TRAVEL TIP: Know Your Country’s Go-to Collision Avoidance Device


Bangalore traffic

It took me several months to master the art of crossing streets in India. Pedestrian crossing signals are as rare as gold crappers, and as useful as wings on a goat. There are many streets that one can’t cross in one fell swoop between the hours of 8am and 11pm. So, if you don’t want to spend the day trapped on your block like a jittery puppy, you need to plunge into traffic and take it one lane at a time.

Fearlessness. That’s the key–pure and simple. One will have crosstown buses whizzing past on either side. In the military, during Basic Training, we got inoculations via cattle vaccination-guns. It was an assembly line of shots. Take one step forward get a shot, one more step and get another shot. The clinic staff had a lot of recruits to inoculate that were standing between them and their morning coffee. The warning was, “Take one step and stand perfectly still.” Because as soon as you stopped, they would  “shu-shunk” that shot into your deltoid. If you wavered, the gun wouldn’t make a nice solitary puncture, but rather would gouge out a slit. Or so we were told. At any rate, the advice to a Bangalore pedestrian is the same, “Step onto the dashed line and remain perfectly still, because if you cringe, you’ll get a truck mirror up side the cranium and you’ll die.”

I traveled to Thailand this past month. I’ve been to Thailand on a couple previous occasions, but not with the implicit rules of Indian traffic ingrained in me. My first official act in Bangkok was to almost cause a multi-car pile up accident. Why? Because Thai people do this strange thing when a  pedestrian wanders into the street or an intersection in front of them, they apply the brakes. Now every Indian knows that the proper device to employ when someone crosses into traffic in front of one is the horn. As a matter of fact, the horn is the go-to Indian driving tool for almost every eventuality. It wouldn’t occur to most Indians to apply the brakes and certainly not to make a lane change for an encroaching pedestrian or other driver. If the pedestrian doesn’t get out of one’s way, you simply lean into the horn, putting all your body weight into it.

Now, it may sound like I’m giving Indian drivers a hard time. However, it occurred to me that either system works as long as everybody is on the same page. Those who’ve experienced roundabouts will tell you that they are at least as safe–and probably more so–than crossroad intersections. Even though roundabouts seem terrifying for novice drivers, they have a prevailing logic that is sound. By the same token,  it may be that the Indian approach is at least as safe. (It certainly makes a pedestrian more cautious.) The Thai approach, which is widespread though most of the world, is at once more polite but less trusting than the Indian approach.


BONUS TRAVEL TRAFFIC ADVICE: Anywhere in the developing world, always look both ways when crossing one-way streets. The prevailing view is that lane directives are optional for scooters and small motorcycles.


Two Things To Keep On You In India

20140316_160803If you though I was going to say “Passport and FRRO Registration”– WRONG! First of all, that would make the most boring blog post ever–not a distinction for which I have aimed (but I wouldn’t turn down the award for it, if it comes with a cash prize.) Second, I’d keep those items some place safe–like a hollowed out Ganesh (but that’s not where I keep mine, so don’t get any ideas.)

1.) Tiny pictures of yourself: After about the ninth time I went someplace random and was matter-of-factly asked for a “passport size” print or a “stamp-size” print, I asked whether it was common for Indians to carry a bunch of photos of themselves around on their person–because there seemed to be such a presumption that I would have a stack of selfies on hand at any random moment.  The answer was “Yes, yes we do keep photos on hand.” Not only is it common to carry a small pack of passport pics–some keep a stock in various sizes. Long story-short, a lot of places will want a photo besides government offices–more than you might expect.

Americans just take a billion pictures of themselves and post them to Facebook, and would be self-conscious about the apparent narcissism of carrying around physical pictures of oneself. The only Americans who carry physical pictures of anybody are grandmothers who haven’t figured out how to use their phones (admittedly, a large but shrinking demographic) and they carry pics of munchkins–not themselves.

2.) Change: That’s “change” as in coins and small bills–I’m not getting abstract on you. India has a crisis of change–still not being abstract. I’m not just talking about the auto-rickshaw driver who negotiates a fare that is merely twice the metered rate, and then when you get to your destination they inform you that they have no change for a 100 rupee note (and because only someone who values “the principal of the matter”  at more than 30 cents will argue, you end up paying too much.) I’ve gotten the evil eye at such places as restaurants, stores, and even the Metro counter (who should have coins in stock if not the metro counter?) In India, there isn’t a strong expectation that the business will be the one who makes change in a commercial transation–like it is in …well, every other place in the world that I’ve visited.

I’m not sure if this change crisis is created by an inability of the Central Bank to calculate how much small currency to release into the economy, or whether the vast number of beggars are bogarting all the coin.

At any rate, if you are a nice guy and always make change for every business you deal with, you will inevitably end up in a situation in which you desperately need a pay toilet and the smallest money you have on you is a 1000 rupee note.  As paying 1000 rupee to visit the most disgusting place on Earth (a third-world public toilet) is demoralizing, I suggest you horde change like everybody else.

BOOK REVIEW: 250 Things… by Chuck Wendig

250 Things You Should Know About Writing250 Things You Should Know About Writing by Chuck Wendig

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

You’re not going to get any visionary insight from Wendig’s book. What you will get is a lot of practical advice on writing salable commercial fiction delivered in a concise and humorous package. However, be forewarned, Wendig’s humor isn’t for everyone. It’ll appeal most to frat boys and others who enjoy the gratuitously bawdy.

The book really is arranged as a list of 250 pieces of advice on writing commercial fiction. These items are arranged logically into chapters covering topics such as character, setting, plot, description, screenwriting, and marketing your manuscript. The book offers a good way to review a lot of information if you enjoy the author’s sense of humor.

Rather than recommend the book without reservation, it may make more sense to make a couple lists of my own.

List I: People who will love this book.
-If you watch Robot Chicken and Archer, you’ll love this book.
-If you want to be the next Chuck Palahniuk,…
-If you send freakish porn to co-workers and are shocked by their stunned silence,…

List II: People who will hate this book.
-If you watch Downton Abbey and The MacNeil Lehrer Newshour, you’ll hate this book.
-If you want to be the next Chaucer,…
-If you are a deacon or lay minister in your church,…

Wendig’s language doesn’t leave a lot of room for middle-of-the-road views. His attempts to entertain as he informs will make the book quite readable for some and unpalatable for others. However, I suppose if you’re in the Venn intersect of those who watch both Downton Abbey and Robot Chicken you might have middling views on the book.

View all my reviews

Picture Your Unhappiness in its Underwear

I was writing some six-words on Smith Magazine the other day. I do this now and again as an exercise to get the creative juices flowing. There are a series of themes, and I try to write in as many of them as I can in less than 20 minutes, writing in a free form, stream of consciousness style.

When I got to the category HAPPINESS the first six-word to jump to mind was: “Picture your unhappiness in its underwear.” This one drew a nice response, which began me thinking about whether this advice might have actual merit–as opposed to being a non-nonsensical statement that might at best function as a Zen koan.

As I thought about it, three legs of the stool came to mind.

1.) Have a sense of humor. Anger and sadness have a hard time taking hold if one can manage a good laugh. I’ve found that being able to dance personal tragedy into comedy has been a great coping mechanism. One does have to be conscientious about not becoming a snarky person. One risks beginning to see the world through a crap-colored lens just as a means to comic fodder (or from a martyrdom complex.)

Perhaps even if one can’t formulate humor, one can still use laughter. There’s a system called laughter yoga that is based on the belief that you can create the same range of physiological responses from “forced” laughter as one does from spontaneous laughter. It’s a sort of chuckle pranayama (breathing exercises.)  While I don’t know much about the system, I can believe that it has merit based on what I’ve read about human emotions.

2.) Lay the source of your unhappiness bare. This sounds simple enough. One must know what is making one unhappy in order to turn that frown up-side-down.

That being said, human beings have an astounding ability to attribute all negative happenings in their lives to external factors. Like politicians, we like to take responsibility for what is going right (regardless of whether we are responsible or not), and we love to place the blame for failure firmly elsewhere (even it it’s mostly our fault.) This may be an evolutionarily-hardwired coping mechanism, but it can keep one in the doldrums.  If one continually says, “He makes me so mad” or even, “His actions make me so mad,” then you’re forfeiting control over your emotional state. Jerks and bitches might be an intermediary cause of unhappiness, but ultimately one’s own perceptions and responses lead to the negative emotional state.

This is where the hard work of mind training comes into play. Instead of being swamped by negative thoughts, one has to recognize them early, find the root cause, and recognize that our desire to for things to be a certain way is ultimately what makes us unhappy. We may want people to think we are smart or beautiful, and intimations to the contrary (whether intended or not) make us fume.

Don't be an angry monkey!

Don’t be an angry monkey!

One of the few things I remember explicitly learning in high school was about what our psychology teacher called a “gestalt of expectations.” Like most ideas one remembers though only taught once, I remember it because it had a memorable story attached to it. The story goes like this: “A man is driving through the desert in the American southwest. Now, out in the southwest, gas stations can be few and far between. So the man runs out of gas, and realizes that the station he passed 20 miles back is his safest bet because–contrary to what he had thought– the next one going forward might be another 50 miles.  So he starts walking. It’s hot. He’s hungry. He’s thirsty, and only has some lukewarm water that’s getting hotter by the minute. The backs of his hands and his face are getting sunburned. He starts thinking about how the little two-pump gas station is going to gouge him. He realizes he’s desperate, and so he figures the attendant is probably going to sell him gas at $6 a gallon, a bottle of cold water for $8, and don’t forget the jerrycan at $20.  These thoughts and the heat keep making him madder and madder. Finally, he gets to the station, and the attendant comes out and say, ‘Oh my, Mister, you must have had a horrible time.’ And so the man on the verge of heat-stroke punches out the attendant, a kid who only wanted to help him out.” Once one starts attributing one’s unhappiness to external sources, one can easily mis-attribute unhappiness because one thinks one knows what is in the minds of others, when really one doesn’t.

3.) Unhappiness, like standing around in one’s underwear, is–at most–a temporary state. As Taoists have been known to suggest, one’s darkest hour is a time to rejoice, for surely it will  get better from there. The only way one can remain in a perpetually unhappy state is to carry it with one long past its time. Just like the only way that can always be rained on is if one carries around a complicated mechanism with a showerhead and tank and keeps refilling that tank so that the shower never runs out. Otherwise, the dry season will come eventually.