a dragonfly alights on a boulder, zipping to stillness
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
When I picked up this book, I did so with the hope that it would be to striking as Jiichi Watanabe’s excellent book “The Secrets of Judo” [now sold as “The Art and Science of Judo”] is to grappling. That didn’t turn out to be the case. If Watanabe’s book has a fifty / fifty split between science and judo, Swanson’s book is about 80 percent Karate manual and 20 percent science. It’s a fine book about karate techniques, but if you want to understand biomechanics and how to optimize your movement, I think you can do better (particularly, if you would like insights that apply beyond Okinawan Karate.)
The book had two failings, keeping it from living up to its potential. First, it didn’t use graphics as well as it could have to help the reader visualize what is being said, or to point out the subtleties under discussion. Second, it generally presents the science at a shallow level. I’d been pleased to see that there was a chapter on breath, because I think that’s one of the most important and under-discussed factors in any system of movement (martial or otherwise.) However, I was disappointed to see that there wasn’t much to it besides some philosophizing about ki-ai.
There were a few valuable tid-bits here and there, points about which the book adds to one’s scientific / bodily understanding. The best example of this is probably the discussion of Intra-Abdominal Pressure (IAP,) which is where the book most shines with respect to offering some food for thought.
If you study Okinawan Karate and are looking for discussions about the difference between how various schools perform techniques, this may be the book for you. However, if you’re expecting some science in a book entitled “Karate Science,” I suspect you can do better.
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My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book presents a pop science accounting of some of the more interesting scientific literature on the benefits of moving one’s body – be it through dance, martial arts, walking, or otherwise. That being active is an important element of maintaining a healthy mind and body will come as no surprise. Still, there are a number of specific points this book makes that may come as a surprise to many, such as that those who do an hour of intense exercise a day but otherwise live desk warrior lives may not be as well off as they think.
As the topic (and the scientific literature from which the book draws) is huge, the author focuses specifically on the mental benefits of physical movement, both attitudinal / psychological benefits and cognitive benefits such as improved creative thinking or memory. I found the book’s organization to be beneficial, and – in particular – believe it was a smart move to include chapters on breath and rest – topics that are integral to a life of movement, but which might not spring to mind. Particularly, the chapter on breath discusses findings on synchronization of breath and movement more than does many books on breath or movement, as well as offering extensive discussion of the benefits of 3 and 6 breath per minute (bpm) breathing.
There are a lot of books out there on this subject – though usually they focus either on exercise or on a particular approach to movement. Those who read extensively on the topic may not find much that is new in this book. However, I think “Move” holds its own, and also distinguishes itself in some of its fine points of emphasis. Certainly, if one is looking for a book to introduce someone to the benefits of movement, this is a prudent choice.
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a swallowtail lands; crashed into by another, it doesn't flinch; ten feet away, I lean in and it flutters away
even the branches of a brawny Kapok Tree sway in the wind
There are many downsides to being introverted, but one upside (at least in being a kinesthetic-oriented introvert) is that I can get out of my head and in touch with my body quickly and efficiently when I’m in motion. It can be a blissful state when the inner yakking pipes down and my awareness becomes attuned to sensation.
I would differentiate three types of movement that have very different effects on my state of consciousness. First, there are highly repetitive acts of movement such as running. Now, I do run because it’s great exercise, but it doesn’t tend to put me in the state of mind I’m talking about. Your results may vary. I know many people find “runner’s highs” or achieve a quieting of the mind when running. For me, running tends to produce a daydream-centric state of mind. I sometimes counter this by focusing my awareness on my breath, stride, or sensations, but — left to its own inertia — my mind goes into daydream mode.
Second, there are fixed sequence series of movements — preferably with a flow. The best example that I can think of — and which I currently practice — is taiji. I’ve been practicing Yang Style Taiji for a few years now, and find it’s conducive to this state of mind. However, the point that differentiates this type of movement from the next is that it takes some time to get to that point. One has to ingrain the sequence of movements into one’s body, then coordinate the breath, and then correct minute mistakes in the movement. It’s worth it, but it’s not an instant ride to altered consciousness. While you’re getting the fundamental movements down, the conscious mind is necessarily quite active and it’s hard to tune into the movement and the sensations.
Third, this is what I would call free movement. Some people think of it as a kind of dance, but not one with a fixed choreography, which would fit more in the second category. Free movement is just letting your body move (usually to music) with awareness to the body, but without conscious direction. While the feel created is much like that of the second type of movement, mentally it bears more resemblance to free writing, which I discussed last month. That is, one is trying not to direct the body consciously, but rather let the movement come about (perhaps mediated by the music.) Rather than trying to consciously direct the movement, the conscious mind is used to direct and maintain awareness of sensations. Sometimes, I keep my awareness on the soles of my feet, feeling how various movements — subtly or unsubtly — change the distribution of weight on the feet.
In doing this, I find that sensitivity to sensations — external and internal — dials up. While I’m focusing on internal sensation. I often notice tactile sensations that would usually not register. There’s also a more visceral experience of the effect of music, which is another subject in its own right. The blissful effect of music seems to be amplified by the body in motion.
In thinking about the difference between the second and third types of movement experience, I was reminded of the argument that a ritual is an essential element of plumbing the depths of the mind. As the argument goes, there’s something about inggraining a sequence of actions into one’s muscle memory and continually performing them that tunes one into something vaster than the self.
I’m still planning to do two more posts in this series, although I’m bouncing around alternative subjects for November and December, those joining this experience in progress and curious about previous posts can find them:
January – Psilocybin Mushroom
February – Sensory Deprivation / Float Tank
March – 30 Days of Meditation
April – Hypnosis
May – EGG Feedback
June – Breathwork
July – Lucid Dreaming
August – Sleep Deprivation
September – Free-writing / Poetry
This book is designed to help athletes (and those who train athletes) increase mobility. The authors draw heavily upon yoga and martial arts drills (especially judo and jujutsu groundwork drills) in addition to the usual suspects of modern fitness – i.e. calisthenics, kettlebell, etc. It’s a visual book. The text is highly distributed toward the first half of the book. The heart of the book is pictures and descriptive captions of the exercises and practices described. This isn’t a complaint. I think there is sufficient discussion of the topics addressed and that said discussion was clear.
The book is organized into four parts, and — within each part — by anatomical region. The four parts are: Pain, Breathing, Movement, and Mobility. The section on pain offers many self-massage techniques, often using foam rollers or balls to counteract myofascial pain. I was particularly impressed to see an entire section devoted to breathing, and that it not only explored exercises to free up the diaphragm and intercostals (rib muscles) but also discussed issues such as the role of stress on breath. As mentioned the parts on movement and mobility are heavily oriented toward conveying exercise sequences graphically, and the chapters were oriented by parts of the body.
With a book that is so graphically-oriented, it’s important to mention that the photography, anatomical drawings, and diagrams are well done. The photos make it easy to see what is happening. It seemed to me that they used the right number of photographs to convey the movements involved, and they augmented these with arrows and lines to show direction of movement and alignments. It was usually quite clear what the movement was even before reading the captions. The photos are of varied sizes and orientations as needed to convey the exercise at hand. The anatomical drawings are clearly labeled.
I will say there were three exercises that I found troubling, but I gave the authors the benefit of the doubt as the book seems to be directed toward athletes. I don’t think these are things that will give most athletically-built people too much trouble especially when practice in moderation. However, as anyone may pick up such a book, I would be cautious of these three activities – especially if you haven’t been training in a while or are new. First, doing loaded lunges (i.e. barbells across the shoulders) with one’s knee way out forward of the toes. As the point of the book is mobility, I don’t have a problem with doing floor exercises on a knee this way, but that’s a lot of pressure to load onto connective tissue. Second, doing cobra (Bhujanga, or what they call “Sphinx”) with straightened arms and thighs resting on the floor. That almost always creates a sharp kink in the back with one spinal process prying into another. One can do Up-Dog (Urdhva Mukta Svanasana) with thighs off the ground or Cobra (Bhujanga) with your navel on the ground, but you shouldn’t confuse the two. Finally, they mention doing a roll up into shoulder stand. Unless you are extremely experienced, this is a bad idea because with the chin tucked into the chest there is very little room for error. Work up into shoulder stand slowly and easily. I will point out that this is what I noticed as a yoga teacher, individuals with other experience may see other issues, but I have some experience with the jujutsu drills and didn’t notice anything problematic.
That said, I thought this book was well done. The organization, explanations, and graphics were excellent and it will be a helpful resource for athletes working on mobility issues.
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 was watching one of Michio Kaku’s Big Think videos recently that addressed American science education. The question of interest was how America continues to do so well in science and technology given that the American (primary and secondary) educational system isn’t up to par in science and mathematics with its technological competitors. The bulk of his talk (re: the H-1B visa and importation of brain power) isn’t germane to this post. It’s Kaku’s mention of a second secret weapon that caught my attention, and that’s how America is able to do a better job than many of its competitors in identifying and nurturing top talent. While math and science education is better in many Asian countries, those countries (e.g. Japan, Korea, or China) don’t excel at skimming off the cream of the crop. Dr. Kaku explains that this is because Confucian values teach students to conform, and students are loathe to stand out–even for exceptional performance. Even if a student wanted to show their talent in hopes of having it fostered, the large classes, lecture-centric teaching, and testing of memorization and standardized processes doesn’t offer much opportunity to grow one’s individual strengths.
Kaku’s statement resonated with me because I’ve been thinking about the pros and cons of traditional approaches to martial arts instruction. I’m particularly interested in the gulf between the traditional approach and what martial arts teaching would look like if one took advantage of the wealth of scientific knowledge about mind and body development. Most of the martial arts instruction I’ve received over the years is consistent with Confucian thinking. All the students are doing the same practice (or faking it to the best of each’s abilities if it’s beyond one’s current capacities), and each is trying to closely emulate the teacher-presented ideal as much as possible. There’s not much consideration of the individual student’s weaknesses or strengths. Emphasis is on trying to convey as high-fidelity a replica of the techniques that have been handed down through the ages. (While this may be a laudable goal, I’ll later offer explanations as to why I think it’s both death for retention of students and ultimately counterproductive.)
Let me first say that there are a number of advantages to the traditional approach to martial arts instruction. First, it’s easy to teach many students at once. This was probably a huge advantage when there were armies of men having to learn these skills. Second, [theoretically] it helps students reduce their egotism through discipline and conformity. The highly hierarchical nature of this approach means students spend years in a lowly position, with the hope that some humility may stick. (NOTE: I’m not certain that this works out in practice.) Third, it creates a disciplined learning environment that is conducive to helping a student keep his or her head in the game.
What the traditional approach isn’t so good at is producing students who all perform at the best of their abilities. I suspect that the traditional approach doesn’t do so well for student retention either. It’s a system in which new students are forced to drink through the fire-hose; while students who’ve been around for a while often feel like they’re stagnating. As I’ll get to below, there’s good reason to believe that a proper match between the challenge of a task and the performer’s skill level is critical to creating an intrinsically rewarding activity and to helping students perform at their best.
My thoughts on this topic have been heavily influenced by learning and teaching yoga. While one’s vision of a yoga class may be rows of students doing the exact same posture (and huge classes and / or poor instructors may result in that condition), but there’s often a degree of variation in a class. This variation results from two concepts that I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately, namely modifications and capacity building.
Modifications are a two-way street. If the task at hand is beyond the student’s current abilities, he or she may be given an easier variant that allows him or her to work toward the fundamental form. On the other hand, if the task of the moment is old hat, a student might be offered a more challenging version on occasion. I’m not suggesting that one shouldn’t drill the basics throughout one’s martial arts career. Repetition of fundamentals is key to drilling them down into one’s nervous system. However, the brain loves novelty and hates drudgery, and it will become harder and harder to remain engaged if the overall challenge level doesn’t rise. The science suggests that one needs to keep upping one’s game if one wants to perform at one’s best.
The nature of modifications in martial arts may not seem as clear as it is with respect to yoga postures. For randori, sparring, and other free-form training, it’s easy to envision how one can adapt the practice to reduce or increase the challenge to a level more apropos of the student’s skill level. One can practice a restricted form. For example, one may work only on sparring with boxing rules to kicks or grappling out of the equation until a student builds up his or her confidence and abilities with recognizing and responding to punches. Alternatively, an advanced student might be presented with armed or multiple attackers. There are some practices, such as specific techniques, for which modifications may not be an option, but that doesn’t necessarily let a teacher off the hook for helping a student who’s challenged by the technique. That may be where capacity building exercises come into play.
Capacity building goes beyond offering an easier modification to suggesting exercises to help the student build the physical capacity to do the technique repetitively WITHOUT INJURY. I emphasized those last two words for a reason. In some martial arts, the need for capacity building exercises maybe clear because of the acrobatic insanity involved. However, practitioners of more pragmatic martial arts may say, “We don’t do all those fancy spinning back kicks, so we don’t need capacity building. Anybody can do our techniques because they’re simple and direct.” Maybe that’s true, but if multiple members of your school have the same (or similar) repetitive stress injuries, it’s not true at all.
What kind of capacity building are we talking about? If the technique involves jumping or leaping and the individual is gravitationally-challenged, then plyometrics might be the prescription. On the other hand, if the problem is the inability of the student’s joints to withstand the technique, there might be need for exercises that build up stabilizing muscles, help him / her to cut weight, or both. If a student can’t do a throw without risk of injury, maybe that individual needs to spend time practicing with elastic bands or inner tubes or working on their balance.
What is this 4% rule? I read about it in Steven Kotler’s The Rise of Superman. As background, there’s a state of mind called “Flow” that’s associated with performing at one’s best. In this state of mind, which some call “the zone” and others probably once called satori or samadhi, one’s concentration on the task at hand is at its greatest, unnecessary features like sense of time and sense of self fall away, one’s inner critic shuts the hell up, and–at least afterwards–there’s a blissful state. Flow can be described as the shutting down of specific elements of the pre-frontal cortex (PFC)–largely involved with the consciousness mind. It can also be defined neuro-chemically by the hormones released (i.e. Serotonin, Endorphins, Dopamine, Anandamide, and Norepinephrine) and neuro-electrically in terms of one’s brainwaves (around 8 Hz.)
There are conditions that favor achievement of Flow, notably: 1.) clear goals, 2.) immediate feedback, and 3.) a good match between the level of the challenge and the level of one’s skill. Flow is a key factor in why some activities are intrinsically rewarding (whether or not they are rewarding in other ways) and why almost any activity can be intrinsically rewarding if it’s sufficiently challenging relative to one’s abilities. What’s sufficiently challenging? That’s where 4% comes into the picture. While it’s by no means an exact or universal value, it turns out that when a task presents a challenge that is roughly 4% above one’s present skill-level is when this state of mind is most accessible. This is why one may see students drop out if they find the level of challenge stagnant. On the other hand, one may not keep new students either if the challenge is constantly beyond their abilities.
How about that Yerkes-Dodson? The two early 20th century scientists for whom the Yerkes-Dodson Law are named discovered that performance increases with arousal (one might do best to think of this as anxiety level rather than the colloquial use of that word) up to a certain point, beyond which performance either levels off or plummets–depending upon the nature of the objective. The point is that keeping the training environment too sterile has it’s disadvantages. In free-form practices like sparring, a little nerves can be a good thing, but being overwhelmed can be detrimental.
Adjusting one’s instruction to the abilities of one’s students is challenging. Traditionalists may hold that it’s far more important to keep the tradition intact than it is to cater to the individual needs of students. That is, said teachers may prefer to focus on the aforementioned high-fidelity transmission of the teachings of the lineage. There was a time during which I probably would have echoed that sentiment. However, it increasingly occurs to me that producing the best and most engaged students is the best way to keep a tradition alive.