a boulder balances on two points; supports erode one grain at a time - until one grain too many
I saw something sad in the park this morning. A boy was trying to learn to ride a bicycle, but I could see that he never would — not with his present approach. Why? He had one training wheel, and the bike was leaning about 15-degrees off vertical as he struggled to use the bicycle as a tricycle. I could see that the metal arm that supported the training wheel was starting to bend from the strain — thus making the lean ever more pronounced. [Incidentally, with two training wheels, I think he might rapidly learn to ride because he’d experience tipping from one side to the other, through the balance point.]
I’ve told yoga students before that there are three timelines for learning inversions (upside-down postures, which all require one’s body to learn to balance 180-degrees out of phase with the balance we all mastered as toddlers.) The first timeline is if you are willing to learn break-falls (i.e. how to safely land when — not if, it will happen — one loses balance.) If so, one can learn any inversion (that one is otherwise physically capable of performing) in an afternoon. Second, if one gets near (but not up against) a wall, and only uses the wall when one is falling towards over-rotation, then one can learn the inversion in a month — give or take. Finally, one can lean up against the wall for a million years and one will not spontaneously develop the capacity to independently do the posture. Why? Because one’s center of gravity is outside one’s body, which means one is in a perpetually unstable state, and one cannot stabilize into a balanced position from a state of falling (and leaning is just falling with a barrier in the way.)
Finding balance requires that the body be able to adjust toward any available direction to counteract the beginning of a fall in the opposite direction. I was fortunate to have studied a martial art that required learning break-falls from the outset, this made learning balances (not just inversions, but also arm balances, standing balances, etc.) much easier because there was no great concern about falling. I knew my body could fall without being injured.
Without falling there’s no learning balance, and if you only fall into the under-rotated position, you are still not learning to achieve stable balance. At some point, you will need to experience the dread fall towards over-rotation.
Time to ditch the training wheels.
5.) Vīrabhadrāsana III (Warrior III):
What makes it challenging?
Substantial core strength is needed to obtain the capital “T” position. Straightening the lifted leg and getting it in line with the torso is the first challenge. Also, there is a tendency for the hip of the lifted leg to angle upward into an position in between Warrior III and Half Moon Pose (see below.) The front of the pelvis should be squared toward the floor. The drishti (focal point) at the extended hands also creates more of a challenge than looking straight down at the floor.
4.) Ardha Chandrāsana (Half Moon Pose):
What makes it challenging?
Largely, the same challenges that make Warrior III difficult. However, “stacking the hips,” i.e. getting the front of the pelvis squared to the wall (not the floor or at a downward angle) requires a high degree of hip flexibility. Hip openers may be necessary to be able to stack the hips without the torque of lifting the top hip up throwing one off balance.
3.) Parivrtta Ardha Chandrāsana (Twisted Half Moon Pose):
What makes it challenging?
Again, this posture shares challenges with Warrior III and Half Moon. While it’s less difficult than Half Moon in that it doesn’t require hip stacking, it makes up for it in that twisting motions tend to make staying on balance difficult. This is because one has to remain stable on the standing foot as the torso rotates and if one can’t stack one’s shoulders the weight distribution may be hard to keep balanced. Also, achieving the drishti (looking at the upper hand) without breaking balance is no easy feat.
2.) Ardha Baddha Padmōttānāsana (Bound Half Lotus Pose):
What makes it challenging?
The knees should be next to each other, but the knee of the folded leg wants to be forward and to the outside. Also, one must get the heel aligned on one’s centerline (below the navel) so that when one folds the foot is in a position where it can compress into the soft, fleshy tissue rather than being wedged between bones.
1.) Ūrdhva Prasārita Ekapādasana (Standing Split):
What makes it challenging?
Straightening the lifted leg without throwing oneself off balance is the big challenge. It’s possible to put both hands around the support leg ankle, to make it even more challenging, but one must have an exit strategy in case one loses balance.
Long before I ever took a yoga class, I was doing a kind of yoga. It may have even had its roots in India, but it also might have blossomed independently. In the Japanese martial art I study, we called it junan taiso, and many of the poses would be recognizable to a yogi. While it didn’t include the complex and balance-challenging poses seen in yoga, stretches like the butterfly (Poorna Titali Asana), straddle stretch (Upavistha Konasana), and the back stretch (Pashchimottanasana) were virtually identical. As with yoga, the manner of breathing was as important as the nature of the stretch.
Flexibility is key in the martial arts, and not just the ones with high-flying kicks. Even grapplers and practitioners of the less fancy striking systems gain from increased flexibility, but it isn’t only increases in range of motion that yoga offers.
Let’s consider a modest front kick to a target no higher than the solar plexus. One might be inclined to say, “I don’t need yoga to help with that, I do that kick all the time, and have no problem reaching my target.” Do an experiment. Take a full 30 seconds to do the kick, from the time the foot leaves the floor to the time it extends out, and then hold it for 15 seconds, or so. If you succeeded in this without any problem, you may be good to go.
However, there are three problems that might plague one, and yoga is tailor-made to fix two of them. First, you may not have adequate range of motion. You may have thought you did because you can kick at speed and reach the target. But, you say, “Why would I need to kick in slow motion?” You wouldn’t, but this exercise shows you that you are having to use inertia to kick through the resistance of your own muscles. Unless you’re a hardcore bodybuilder that resistance might not seem too daunting, but you are essentially having the brakes applied–albeit softly–to your kick and that’s costing you speed and power. Yoga can help you develop that range of motion. Consider the pose below, which requires the same type of flexibility.
Maybe you can raise your leg, but keeping it cantilevered in place is too much for you. This means you don’t have the strength to support your own leg. Either your leg is heavy, your strength is lacking, or both. Building this kind of strength isn’t necessarily yoga’s forte. There are styles and approaches that may help you build that strength, but there are other things you can do that may be more efficient for that purpose–not the least of which is doing a whole bunch of kicks one after the other without a break until your leg is burning, and then doing some more.
You may have had the strength and flexibility, but found it hard to stay on balance. The naysayer says, “Yeah, but that imbalance would never be noticeable at speed. That is (as with the lack of flexibility) one can hide weaknesses with speed. While there maybe some truth in this, a lack of balance will cost you in subtle ways, and yoga can help. There are a number of postures that enhance one’s balance, balance on one’s foot, one’s head, or one’s hands (the latter could be useful for the ground grapplers.)
There are a couple of other areas in which yoga can help one’s performance as a martial artist. One is expansion of bodily awareness of issues of alignment and posture. These might not seem so crucial, but if you are in the martial arts for the long-haul, then having the awareness to make small adjustments can be the difference between chronic ailments or a lack thereof. It can be difficult to discover a misalignment in the quasi-combative environment of martial arts training. It’s easier to notice these issues in the slow and controlled practice of yoga.
Postures like Warrior II and the Side Angle Pose and show you where you are holding tension that you might not otherwise be aware of.
It must also be remembered that asana (postures) are only a part of yoga. Another aspect that can be extremely helpful for martial arts is pranayama, or the discipline of breathing. There’s no substitute for cardio, but that doesn’t mean that one can’t benefit greatly from learning more about how to breath, and the science of breath. This is an area in which yoga excels. The great yogis made extensive study of breath and the effects that are achieved by various types of breathing, and these exercises can expand and strengthen the diaphragm and the muscles of the rib-cage. One tends to see the coup de grace strike and think, “There’s your problem.” However, often it’s fatigue that’s the underlying culprit. Better breathing can reduce fatigue.
Of course, meditation is another critical skill for calming the mind and learning to live in the present. Many martial artists already practice some form of meditation, but this is another option.
There is one more benefit and that is building greater confidence in your ability to exercise control over your body. There are many challenging postures in yoga. I don’t advocate all asana that have been taught historically because there can be such a thing as too much flexibility for a martial artist and some poses exercise joints in ways that were not meant to operate. There needs to be a proper balance of strength and flexibility, a proper tension within /between the skeletal and muscular systems. However, there are many poses that just take a bit of time and effort to develop the skill without putting too much wear on the body.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is Deepak Chopra’s attempt to capitalize on society’s fascination with superheroes. By “capitalize” I’m not necessarily saying to “make money off of,” but perhaps to “use to his advantage in conveying his lessons.” [I’ll leave it to the reader to make judgments about the former.] There are books on the physics of superheroes, the philosophy of superheroes, and the mythology of superheroes, so why shouldn’t there be a book on the spiritual life of superheroes?
The book uses both the superheroes of mythology—i.e. Indian, Greek, Judeo-Christian, Muslim, and others—as well as the superheroes of comic books. While Chopra’s knowledge of the former is considerable, he enlists the co-authorship of his son Gotham (not named after Bruce Wayne’s hometown) to offer insight into the latter.
This book is also intended to capitalize (again, take that as you see fit) upon Chopra’s best-selling book, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, but without rehashing the same laws. The Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes format is as straightforward as its title. There are seven chapters, each corresponding to one of Chopra’s laws. Said laws address balance, transformation, power, love, creativity, intention, and transcendence.
As I read the book, there was something that rubbed me the wrong way about the writing. It wasn’t that I had major disagreement with Chopra’s ideas, but rather the way he was stating them. At first I thought this was the use of gratuitous assertion. He often began chapters with detailed statements about what superheroes are, do, believe, and understand without much—if any–substantiation of these claims. However, as I got into the first chapter I noticed that he would put one section in each chapter that discussed an example in-depth, offering at least anecdotal support for his claims.
This still left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. It was because he used general statements like “superheroes know…” and “superheroes understand…,” and then provided a solitary example that fit his statement well, but leaving a vast cast of heroes that didn’t. It seemed a low form of inductive reasoning. In other words, he was attributing an enlightened way of thinking and acting to characters like Hulk and Wolverine.
Chopra and his supporters might make the claim that saying, “The Hulk understands X [insert any of the laws here]” doesn’t necessarily mean he understands them as an intellectual exercise, but rather that he shows this understanding through his behavior. Let me give a story that may make my meaning clearer.
An economist is giving a lecture on consumer behavior. Someone in the audience says, “Professor, how could consumers possibly behave in the way you suggest? Your theory requires complex Lagrangian optimization mathematics, which very few of them understand?”
The Professor replies, “Most of them don’t understand Newton’s work either, but they obey the Law of Gravity without fail.”
I thought about Chopra’s statements from this perspective, but concluded that his point was probably something entirely different. As an author of self-help books about the mind, when Chopra says “Superheroes understand X,” he’s not saying “Each and every superhero understands X,” but instead he’s saying, “If you want to be a superhero, you need to understand X.”
Accepting that that’s what Chopra meant, only one more qualm with the book remained. Laws can be clearly stated (OK, perhaps not tax law, but laws of physics—which seem to be more the kind of law he seeks to emulate), but Chopra’s discussion of his “laws” is vague and ill-defined. Each chapter begins with a large-font italics statement. I don’t know if this is supposed to be “the law” or not. It usually begins with a definition (some vaguely stated) and then statements that superheroes comport themselves in accordance with said definition. Maybe the unstated laws are supposed to be, “Superheroes live a life of balance,” and so on for the other chapters. As one trained as an economist, I’m well-aware of the wide-spread overuse of the term “law,” and maybe the ill-defined nature of Chopra’s laws is a recognition of this.
This book is written for Chopra’s usual audience of seekers of enlightenment. I don’t know that it’ll do well with hard-core science fiction or comic fans, and I don’t know that the Venn intersect of “spiritual self-help readers” and “comic book fans” is as big as Chopra would like. (But, I could be wrong.) Some of Chopra’s ideas about the potential spiritual ramifications of “quantum entanglement” are quite popular with sci-fi fans, but I’m not sure that that offers this book a clear audience. (It might. Chopra is a trained physician, and has some scientific bona fides—unlike many who share shelf space with him and who exist in a spiritual plane entirely unrelated to the world as we know it.)
All this being said, there are some thought-provoking ideas in this book, and the superhero and mythological examples help entertain and—in doing so—become the spoon of sugar that makes the medicine go down. Another testimonial is that I read most of this book in a single sitting, and I tend to jump from a chapter in one book to another book unless something really holds my interest.