i can feel my heartbeat
i shouldn’t feel my heart beat
but i’m sharply folded
when i stand and blossom
the warmth rushes through me
and the pins and needles
trickle through my body
subtle the sensation
time attuned sensation
now i know my heartbeat
subtle silent heartbeat
5.) Adopt a power posture: There’s been a lot of research in recent years suggesting that posture isn’t a one-way street–i.e. body doesn’t necessarily have to follow our mental state. One can reverse the flow, improving one’s mental state by adopting a strong and confident posture.
One of the most thorough discussions of this phenomena is in Amy Cuddy’s book Presence, which famously mentions the “Wonder Woman” pose. However, another widespread example is using the up-and-outward fist pumping posture that is widely seen among humans and even other primates (i.e. with arms outstretched as Usain Bolt is seen above.)
4.) Master eye contact: This is dreadfully difficult for an introverts such as myself. We tend to look anywhere but the eyes.
If one is traveling in risky places, it’s important to have a grasp of the fine art of eye contact. If one doesn’t make any eye contact, then one risks looking zoned out–potentially inviting aggression. If one rapidly looks away, offering too short an eye contact period, one appears intimidated–potentially inviting aggression. However, if one’s eye contact is too long, it may trigger some primal fight impulse, or–at a minimum–suggest you have taken more interest in the individual–which may invite aggression. This means one has to balance a fine line that says, “I see you, you know I saw you. Now I’m going to do me and let you do you.”
3.) Adopt the opposing viewpoint: Say you find yourself obsessing about some perceived slight or wrong. While you want to address this issue, you want to be calm enough to avoid saying or doing something you’ll regret. You want to be seen as a sensible individual while being persuasive. The key is seeing both sides, and taking a moment to realize that your opposition is probably not the black-hearted villain of his own story. He likely has some reason for his behavior. Maybe it’s even a reason you can empathize with, given your own experience–i.e. being overworked and distracted, facing a decision that only allows for a best worst option, etc.
2.) Visualize it: It may seem as though anything that occurs solely in the mind can’t have that much force, but–in fact–it can. Visualizing can help one get over one’s anxieties. By systematically considering how events will unfold, one can break the cycle of worst-case scenario creation that the brain readily falls into. This will make an activity seem less intimidating and more manageable.
1.) Start small: Often when a person would like to be more kind or compassionate, she’s flummoxed or overwhelmed by the scale of the problem. She sees problems that she can’t make a dent in. So schedule one small act of kindness in a week or maybe a bigger one monthly, or as is possible. Do it, see its value, and be content.
One also sees a need for starting small with advanced physical practices. If you can’t do a yogasana or martial arts move, figure out what capacity building or modifications one needs to get to the end goal. Then take it on bit-by-bit. There are many videos on how to systematically build up to challenging maneuvers like the press handstand or planche, moves that almost no one can do with out a great deal of prep work.
This book examines the role of the nervous system in movement and bodily activity. It describes how one’s body is able to perform extraordinarily complex maneuvers that we often take for granted because they feel effortless. It investigates some of the ways in which the interface between body and brain go awry, as well as the various effects this can have. It also offers insight into how we can be deceived because we are experiencing the world less directly and more through the shaping activities of the brain than we feel is true.
The book contains ten chapters, plus a little forward and back matter. The first chapter is entitled “the body mandala” and it provides an overview of how the nervous system can be thought of as a series of maps layered upon maps that routes various input from outlying areas to the brain and commands from the brain to the outlying areas. A “mandala” is a symbolic representation of the universe [from Hindu and Buddhist traditions], and this notion is repeatedly revisited throughout the book.
Chapter 2 explores the mapping of the homunculus and its ramifications. If you’ve ever seen a 2-D or 3-D image /model of a human being that has gigantic lips and hands and disproportionately small torso and thighs, you’ve seen said homunculus (as the term is used in neuroscience.) The reason it’s scaled this way is that body part size is reflective of space in the nervous system dedicated to said parts and not their actual size. If you’ve ever seen one of those maps–called cartograms–in which the size of a country reflects a statistic, say, population (thus India, China, and Singapore are much larger than their physical size, but Canada is much smaller than its), you get the drift. This chapter also answers the question everyone wants to ask (and many do) which is “why–if the lips are so large because of their dedicated territory in the brain—are the genitals unexpectedly small in the homunculus?
Chapter 3 describes how body maps can be in conflict and what effect this can have. It talks about why people who lose weight often still feel fat and move in ways that are not reflective of their actual figure. It also gets into anorexia (and the lesser known bigorexia) which reflect mismatches between perceived body image and actual body schema.
Chapter 4 investigates a fascinating phenomenon in which visualization can often result in strength and performance gains. Said gains aren’t on the same scale as among those who actually exercise or practice, but the fact that one can make gains without moving a muscle is certainly intriguing. Of course, the takeaway is that one can get the best of both worlds by augmenting physical conditioning and practice with visualization—one has a more finite number of feasible physical training hours in a day (i.e. there are diminishing returns on physical training at some point.)
Chapter 5 is the first of two chapters that deal with problems related to improper interaction between the nervous system and the body. Here we learn about “the yips” that plague golfers and other occupational dystonias. When one begins practicing any physical activity, the objective is to build up muscle memory so that the movements can be completed purely unconsciously. This works through neuroplasticity—the fact that sequences of neurons that frequently fire together become more strongly linked—but neuroplasticity can have a dark side at the extremes.
Chapter 6 considers the way in which the system of maps can fail such that one fails to recognize one’s own limbs, one recognizes extra ones, or the like. Chapter 7 is about peripersonal space—i.e. the physical bubble of space that one needs to feel comfortable, and which varies both culturally and individually.
Chapter 8 delves into the role that upcoming technology may have in changing how we look at the body-brain connection. Mirror neurons are the subject of the penultimate chapter. You’ve probably heard of these neurons which fire when we see someone else perform an action. Usually there is an inhibitory signal to keep our body from actual mimicry, but sometimes you may find yourself unconsciously mimicking the position or body language of another person when one is engaged in an engrossing conversation. (Yawning contagiousness is a featured example.) Mirror neurons play a role in how we learn so quickly, how we sometimes anticipate the behavior or emotions of others, and deficient activity in these cells has been speculated to be responsible for autism.
Chapter 10 describes the role of the insula in human activities. The insula has been found to be involved in emotion and rewards system by which humans are motivated to engage in a number of bodily activities.
The book has many graphics to clarify technical points, many of these being line drawings of the brain and other physiological structures. There is also a glossary of key scientific terms.
I found this book to be fascinating. It was highly readable despite its technical subject matter, and it described these systems and the research about them in a clear manner. I’d highly recommend it—particularly if one is interested in movement, fitness, and optimal human performance.
The laissez-faire and easy-going yoga community has spawned some phenomenally ridiculous mergers. I have “yoga” as a term on Google News, and almost every week I get fed a new example. I’m not saying every new approach to yoga is bad, but there’s one disturbing trend–i.e. the distraction yoga.
In the title, I refer to “hyphenated yogas,” but what I’m really ranting about is “distraction yogas.” A distraction yoga is one in which an element is brought into the practice so that one doesn’t have to keep one’s mind on one’s breath, alignment, and / or mental state. (Because who wants to think about that shit when one can be thinking “Wow, that kitten sure is cute.” or–believe it or not–“This beer has hoppy undertones.”)
Now before I get accused of hating puppies or beer, let me point out that nothing could be further from the truth. What I’m ranting against is the notion that you can marry any two good things and make a great thing. If you don’t believe me, please allow me to dip my nachos in your banana split. See, there are plenty of things that are awesome independently that make abominations when forced together.
I’ll include links as I go, lest you think I made this stuff up for hilarity’s sake.
5.) Beer Yoga: This is one of the most recent and intriguing distraction yogas. I’m not saying that one needs to follow a strict Vedic approach to life to practice yoga, but–come on–could you stop drinking for a couple hours to pretend your body is a temple (or at least that it’s not sitting in a trailer park with the windows busted out.) Unless “calf slaughter-yoga” catches on, it’s hard to imagine a less yoga-like practice than consuming intoxicants during the practice of yoga. By the way, there’s also a marijuana yoga, but I’ll lump these together as intoxicant yogas.
4.) Goat Yoga: This is one of many “animal yogas.” Like the others, the point is to have cute creatures around. How it’s supposed to help one’s yoga, I can’t fathom. Actually, I can fathom the suggested logic, probably something to do with calming and engendering feelings of compassion and well-being. But, ultimately it’s distraction by cuteness. Note: you can also do yoga with cats, dogs, horses, and probably river otters.
3.) Karaoke Yoga: Talk about distraction–nothing better than pounding music and reading a prompter to keep one’s mind off that ache in one’s hamstring.
2.) Rave Yoga / Club Yoga: This might be a cheat because it’s similar to the previous one on the list, and I’m trying to lump these together so as to not be too repetitive. However, it’s not exactly the same, and is the perfect example of a distraction yoga. (There’s also Harmonica yoga and other musical yogas, but I won’t double-dip anymore.)
1.) Tantrum Yoga: It wasn’t easy to determine whether I’d include this one or not. On the one hand, it’s not a distraction yoga in the sense that the others are. On the other hand, it takes the award for being least yoga like on the grounds that it’s not about dispassionately witnessing one’s emotional state but rather feeding one’s negative emotions. Note that I don’t group laughter yoga into the same class. I’m not sure whether laughter yoga is beneficial (or to what degree it’s a yoga), but I know that many people benefit from it because it bolsters positive emotional states.
Now, one may have noticed that there are many seemingly strange (hyphenated) yogas that I haven’t mentioned. I haven’t said a thing about surf board-yoga, stripper pole-yoga, or acro-yoga–and I specifically excluded Laughter Yoga from the wrath of my rant. That’s because this isn’t a rant about people being innovative or non-traditional, it’s about people missing the point of what yoga is supposed to be (i.e. a means to quiet the mind.) I don’t know whether I can see myself doing yoga on a surf board or a stripper pole, but I’m certain that one has to give it one’s full attention–it’s not about finding a distraction to make yoga more palatable to hipsters.
This is a book about body awareness. It explores the subject by presenting tidbits from a range of movement and posture systems.
The book is divided into three parts. The first is a brief overview of the subject of bodily awareness. This section discusses what it means to be aware of the body, how body and mind / emotion are connected, and it sets up the need for the practices described throughout the rest of the book. The second part deals with a series of solitary activities that one can do to improve one’s quality of posture and movement. It forms the bulk of the book. The nine chapters of this portion of the book can themselves be divided in two. Three of them deal in aspects of bodily awareness: breathing / voice-work, grounding, and sensation. These sections borrow and adapt from established systems in a generic sense (e.g. the section on grounding uses a number of techniques drawn from yoga.) The other six chapters each deal with a system of bodywork, including: self-massage, African dance, Tai Chi, Eutony, Kum Nye, and running.
I’ll describe two of these specifically because they aren’t household names. I suspect most readers can imagine what the following look like: self-massage, African dance (even if it’s from a Paul Simon video), Tai Chi (from old folks in the park), and running. However, it’s probably reasonable to assume that some readers will have no idea what Eutony or Kum Nye are. Eutony is a system developed by a Danish teacher, Gerda Alexander, during the 20th century to use explorative movement to work toward more efficient movement. As far as I can discern, the founder is no relation to F. Matthias Alexander who developed–the more famous–Alexander Technique (AT is mostly well-known among actors, actresses, and would-be entertainers.) However, Eutony might be put in the class of techniques like the Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais that were developed last century and work toward improved use of the human body. However, the approach seems much different from Feldenkrais, which is highly structured, while Eutony is apparently not.
Kum Nye isn’t well-known either, but not because it’s a johnny-come-lately, rather because it’s ancient and obscure. Kum Nye is a Tibetan system of yoga. A lot of the techniques shown seem to be designed to help one gain the suppleness needed for extended sitting in meditation, but there are also “flying” techniques and other standing techniques that will help loosen one up, perhaps to free one up for more meditation.
The third part is shorter: three chapters presenting systems of partner-work. The first chapter is on Aikidō. For those unfamiliar, this is a Japanese martial art founded by Morihei Ueshiba that emphasizes harmony and flow. The chapter features a few basic drills from that martial art. The next chapter is on relating to others in a general sort of way, e.g. body language, emotion, etc. The last chapter is about massage.
Graphics are utilized heavily throughout the book. These include color photographs and drawings. Given what the book tries to do–showing these various approaches to movement–the graphics are essential. In the unlikely event that there are any prudes who read my reviews, you may want to make a note that there is a fair amount of nudity throughout the book. It’s not gratuitous or raunchy, but if you’re one of those people freaked out by nudity, this is probably not the book for you (nor the subject to be studying, for that matter.)
The book’s strengths are its valuable subject, its organization, and its use of graphics. Its weakness is in the number of approaches that it examines. There are too many for one to get any great insight into any particular system, but it’s too few if the goal is to give the reader a menu of movement and bodywork systems from which to find on right for them. I guess I wasn’t really clear what the objective was. If it is to show the reader a variety of paths so they can find the one best for them, the menu is too small. However, if it’s to show the reader one path consisting of all these elements, then it’s muddled. Among Western health and fitness purveyors there’s a tendency to think that if you take anything that’s good and ram it together with anything else that’s good, you’ll get something great. This is clearly not true; sometimes you get a pudding sandwich. This book feels a lot like a pudding sandwich.
If you are looking for a limited survey of movement and body awareness systems, and are okay with the list mentioned, you should check this book out. It also has some good general information about body awareness, though it’s a bit pedestrian for experienced practitioners.
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.]
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.
-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.
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.
-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.
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.
2.) 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.
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.”
I completed three books this week. The first was Richard Wiseman’s Night School. I wrote a lot about this book in my last Reading Report. Night School examines what happens when we sleep, what happens when we don’t, and a host of events that happen in and around our sleeping life (i.e. nightmares, night terrors, sleep walking, etc.) The notion that dreams and nightmares are our subconscious working out waking life problems is well established, but there was some interesting discussion of how to change one’s dreamscape (i.e. lucid dreaming) that was fascinating.
The second book I finished was Sam Harris’s Free Will. I had high hopes for this book, but they didn’t pan out. It’s a very short book (less than 100 pages) on the subject of free will–or the lack thereof. There’s a well-established scientific literature supporting the notion that free will is an illusion. This conclusion was reached by observing that subconscious parts of the brain involved with decision-making light up well in advance of the conscious parts of the brain. The most illuminating example offered is an experiment in which participants were asked to press a button to select a letter or number of their choosing from among a string of rotating letters / numbers. Some subjects became convinced that the scientists had mastered precognition (a class III impossibility according to physicists–i.e. impossible according to the laws of physics as we know them.) What was really happening was an exploitation of the lag between when the individual’s subconscious decided and when they became aware of their decision.
While I’m normally a big fan of brevity, Harris could have put some more pages to good use. First, he barely mentions a couple of the neuroscience experiments, and expects that the reader will treat this all as law. That is, we are to accept that always and everywhere people’s subconscious minds decide some measure before their conscious minds. Harris also scoffs at the suggestion that perhaps the conscious can overrule the subconscious. He seems to deem this as not worthy of study because it would just be the subconscious making a second decision. So we learn about a couple of studies in which a.) the decision-maker has no stake in the decision (is it possible the mind treats decisions about picking a spouse or a house differently than picking a letter or number in which there is no more costly outcome?) b.) those studied are a random sample of individuals who have no particular expertise with their minds. (If I drew a random sample of people and asked each to lift 300 lbs over his or her head. If no one could do it, would I be safe in concluding that lifting 300 lbs was something forever beyond the capacity of every member of the human race? In other words, what if exercising conscious control over decision-making requires training and expertise with the mind.) Maybe all of this has been studied (e.g. high stakes cases and cases with monks and meditators), and we can safely conclude that free will is always and everywhere an illusion–but Harris didn’t make this point. He concludes we will take it as a given just as he has. (Much like he suggests that anyone who truly studied their mind would understand this point already. Would it surprise Mr. Harris to learn that there are people who have spent far longer alone with their minds than he, who have concluded quite the opposite?)
Second, if the conscious mind is just a Matrix Revolutions-style (and Rube Goldberg-style) machine for tricking us into thinking we have choice and control over the direction of our lives (what happened to evolution not over-engineering?), what guides all of these “decisions?” Given that they produce, I might point out, a fairly orderly world. Harris doesn’t answer this. One might guess that he would point to Dawkinesque suggestion that it’s all about genes advancing their own agenda. (A proposition that seems to me has trouble explaining a corporeal who throws himself on a grenade to save his comrades.) I shouldn’t put words in the author’s mouth. Quite frankly, I have no idea whether he believes there are rules or some guide to these subconscious decisions, because he doesn’t tell us. (Maybe he thinks they are random neuronal firings, but I doubt it.) From what I’ve heard of his other books, he doesn’t think it’s a god making these decisions–a sentiment I share. However, there must be something underlying these decisions, and an author writing about this topic should at least make some effort to address it. Black boxes aren’t persuasive.
The final book I finished this week is entitled The Sensual Body. This is a book that discusses a number of systems of movement and bodily activity as means to increase bodily awareness. Among the systems included are Tai chi, Eutony, Kum Nye, running, Aikido, and massage. It’s an interesting overview, but without sufficient detail of anything in particular to be of practical value. It’s the kind of book one might read to see what kind of classes one should take or what more focused books would be of benefit.
Besides the aforementioned books, I spent most of my reading time on two books that look at two very different subjects from the viewpoint of neuroscience. The first is Wired for Story, and it’s a how-to book for writers that sets itself apart by explaining how humans are hardwired by evolution to love stories. Just as a few notes produce an infinite variety of music. There is an inherent limiting / shaping structure to stories that is ignored at the writer’s peril. Much of the advice offered isn’t that different from other books on writing or storytelling, but one gets insight into which advice one should really treat as inviolable because it touches upon something fundamental to our human nature.
The other book is the only book I purchased this week. It’s entitled Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control and is by Kathleen Taylor. So far the book is intriguing. The chapters I’ve read so far provide an overview of brainwashing and cults. The middle section of the book delves into the neuroscience behind brainwashing, and the final section gets into practical matters such as how one can make oneself resistant to thought control techniques.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book’s author, Mary Bond, was a UCLA-trained dancer who became an Ida Rolf-trained Rolfer. If that sentence makes no sense, you’re probably unaware Dr. Ida Rolf and her self-named system. Rolfing was popular decades ago, but fell out of favor—possibly owing to its reputation for being agonizing. (However, I did recently read an article suggesting renewed interest in this practice.) Rolf’s system is generically called Structural Integration, and it’s intended to better align the body with respect to the force of gravity. The heart of the practice (though not addressed in this book) is a massage-like system that focuses on fascia (connective tissue) rather than musculature (as massage generally does.)
[This paragraph is background, but isn’t about the book per se. Feel free to skip it if you are familiar with structural integration or don’t care.] It should be noted that Rolfing is controversial. I’m not sure what to make of this controversy. On the one hand, the system hasn’t been helped by zealous advocates and practitioners. In any such system, zealots often suggest their beloved system is a panacea for all that ails one. Furthermore, the more hippie-esque practitioners try to reconcile / unify Structural Integration with ancient systems like Ayurveda or Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM.) This neither helps to validate those ancient systems nor improves the case of Rolfing as a methodology rooted in science. On the other hand, not even yoga has been free of haters. There is a sector of humanity that is openly hostile to the notion that the only way for many people to feel better is for them to do the work of improving their bodies (e.g. posture, range of motion, strength, etc.) (i.e. If your problem is rooted in your shoulders not being over your hips or you have an imbalance in your core between your ab and back muscles, there is no pill nor surgery to cure you—you’ve got work to do. And—it should be noted–both of my examples can cause a person to feel like crap in a number of different ways.) Another element of controversy is that Structural Integration places special emphasis on fascia (connective tissue.) While it’s not clear from scientific evidence that fascia deserve special attention, I’m also not sure that Rolfers don’t have a point when they note that everyone else completely ignores this tissue.
Having written all that, The New Rules of Posture isn’t a book about Rolfing as massage-like practice. Instead, as its subtitle (how to sit, stand, and move in the modern world) suggests, this is a book about how one can improve one’s posture, breathing, and movement (i.e. most notably walking). It’s arranged as a workbook, and it contains over 90 exercises and observations for the reader to perform. The author calls these exercises “explorations” and “practices”; the latter are more extensive and are more likely to require revisiting.
The ten chapters are arranged into four parts: awareness, stability, orientation, and motion. Each part has two or three chapters. The author divides the body into six zones (pelvic floor, breathing muscles, abdomen/core, hands, feet, and head)—the first three of which are associated with stability and the latter three with orienting the body. The six middle chapters (parts 2 and 3) are each tied to one of these zones. The book uses vignettes and side-bars in an attempt to make the material more palatable to readers who aren’t deeply interested in the topic.
The author gives attention to a wide variety of modern-day activities that can have an adverse impact on bodily alignment such as driving, computer time, and rushing about. I suspect this book will offer something useful to almost anyone.
The book’s graphics are line drawings—some are anatomical drawings and others demonstrate postural problems or exercises. The drawings are clear, well drawn, and useful. In addition to the usual front and back matter, there’s a brief bibliography and a resources appendix.
I’d recommend this book for yoga teachers and those interested in the body generally and movement and postural improvement specifically. If you’re having problems that you think may be linked to postural problems, this isn’t a bad place to start thinking about how one might improve one’s situation. It’s very readable and clear.
Welcome to a special–not really–Friday the 13th edition Reading Report. Were I one to plan ahead, I might have read something horrifying for this week, but I’m afraid there’s nothing to inspire dread… well, I don’t really know what your dread threshold is, but unless you have phobias about good posture or classic literature, I think you’re safe.
I bought The New Rules of Posture this week, and spent a lot of my reading time with my nose in it. It’s one of those books that has one periodically getting up to try some movement or postural experiment, but I’m about 2/3rds of the way through nonetheless. It’s written by a dancer turned Rolfer, and offers good insights on the subjects of posture and breathing for those of us who are interested in evaluating and improving such things. The line drawings, many anatomical in nature, are helpful and the readability is high for a such a book. I suspect I’ll finish it in the upcoming week and will have a review up within a couple weeks.
I finished only one book this week, Why Do People Get Ill? I’ve mentioned this book in earlier reports, and will soon be doing a review, so I won’t spend much time on it now. It’s essentially about the roles that stress and the inability to articulate one’s feelings about illness play in catching a disease as well as its progression.
As one can see, I’ve been on a body-mind nexus reading kick lately. I’m trying to educate myself about anatomy, physiology, and related biological sciences as a means to improve the operation of body and mind. In addition to the featured titles above, some of the other books I’ve been reading during the past week include: Zen and the Brain (there was a fascinating chapter on indigenous opioids–i.e. morphine-like substances produced within the body–among this week’s chapters), The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook, and The Sensual Body.
Moving beyond the body / mind books, I did do some reading that wasn’t research related. I’m about 40% through The Painted Word, having read the entries for the letters D, E, and (part of) F. My favorite word from the week was “dromomania” which means an intense passion for travel or wandering. As in, “I, Bernie Gourley, have a bad case of dromomania.”
The short story collection that I’m currently reading (I try not to neglect this medium) is Meeting the Dog Girls. I read about half-a-dozen stories this week (most of them are short, and a few of them–it could be argued–don’t really constitute stories), and I’m about 20% of the way through. Absurdism is a prevailing theme, though in some stories more than others. So far, I’m enjoying this collection. It’s mostly light and easily digestible reading, but has some intense moments.
With respect to novels, I slipped away from Mo Yan’s Life and Death are Wearing Me Out, and resumed reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables–a book which I started a while back. I’ve got to admit that reading 19th century literature can be a struggle, and–at the risk of offending–Hugo could’ve used a modern-day editor. (I realize that an alternative interpretation is that modern-day people–myself included–could use an attention span.) I’m only about 10% in, but I got through a powerful moment during which the gendarmes bring Jean Valjean before the Bishop. If you’ve read it (or seen one of the movie or theatrical adaptations) you’ll know what I’m talking about.
The only other book I spent any significant time was The Taiheiki, and if–like me–you think reading a translation of 19th century French literature can be a challenge, try reading a translation of 14th century Japanese literature. As I’ve mentioned, this book is research for the novel I’m working on. The challenge is the vast cast of characters. It’s a blend of history and fiction, and if you don’t know who was allied with whom during the war between Emperor Go-Daigo and the Hojo, it’s hard to figure out who you should be rooting for–unless it’s talking about the legendary warrior Kusunoki Masashige or one of the few other really well-known samurai. (Kusunoki was the lord of a small and inconsequential province and his name would likely have been lost to history–despite being a brilliant General–had he not become Japan’s national paragon for the virtue of loyalty.)