2017: My Year in Review

Lilla and I return to Bangalore on New Years Eve from a trip to Hungary by way of Vienna, Austria. It was my first time in Vienna since a similar overnight trip that I believe was over 20 years ago (i.e. my first trip to Budapest in 1994-ish, if memory serves–which it seldom does anymore.) Of course, the parts of the city that attract the eye look the same–the classic Viennese architecture. I’d be lying if I said I had any great recollections from the prior trip except that the weather was cold and drizzly and Vienna’s legendary cafes were much in need. (Fun fact: there’s a Cafe Coffee Day in Vienna. That will mean nothing to my non-Indian friends, but may be interesting to my Indian friends.) This time we had beautiful blue skies and a tolerable dry cold.

January was fairly unremarkable except for several trips to the dentist to get a tooth fixed that shattered upon eating a piece of hard but delicious food. Thankfully, the fracture of previously capped tooth was painless–as long as I didn’t drink beverages of extreme temperatures. And Lilla began her busy season that runs through the first few months of each year.

In the later half of February and through early March, I was in Rangsit, Thailand at the Muay Thai Institute to complete the third level of their Fundamentals course. Thailand is always fun and friendly, and I finally picked the right time of year for Thai-boxing training. [I’ve done the rainy season, and that’s no fun –when you sweat as intensely as I– because nothing ever dries, including one’s shoes. I’ve also trained during the hottest time of year, and the suckiness of that will be self-explanatory to anyone who knows how hot and humid Thailand can get.] On Sundays, I got to see a few new sites around Bangkok (e.g. the Zoo and the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall) in addition to watching the fights at the Rangsit Arena, but mostly this trip was training four hours per day, six days a week– leaving little time or energy for touring.

In April, Lilla and I traveled through four states of India’s Northeast (Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland, and Manipur.) This is a fascinating part of the country because it feels like a different country–except for Assam. It’s very tribal, and if one can imagine what Burma would be like if Christian missionaries converted most of the population instead of Buddhists having done so, that’s what Nagaland feels like.  Highlights of the trip included seeing Indian Rhinos from elephant-back and drinking tea with a group of tattoo-faced old men who’d once taken part in internecine killing. (FYI-This was cannibal country once-upon-a-time.)

 Our Northeast excursion continued into the early part of May. May was also notable for our participation in the TCS (Tata Consultancy Services) 10K run. This was the first time I’d run such a race and probably the first time Lilla ran 10 consecutive kilometers without stopping in her life. (This was not Lilla’s first race though, she’d participated in a shorter race (a 7k) earlier in the year.)

We also returned to stay at the Golden Mist Coffee Plantation Homestay near Madikeri. This is a quiet estate where they grow coffee, tea, and various spices, and it makes for a relaxing weekend away from the chaos that reigns in Bangalore. Golden Mist was one of the first excursions we made when we came to India, and the food and experience was true to our memory of it.

In June we returned to Zambia, and made short side trips to Botswana and Kenya. (The latter because the Kenyan Airline allows one to stay over at no additional cost.) This time Lilla and I made it to Livingstone to see Victoria Falls. During our previous trip to Lusaka, there wasn’t time, and so we were glad we got an opportunity to go back. (To put it in context, going to Lusaka and not going see Victoria Falls is like going to Flagstaff and not going to see the Grand Canyon.)

The trip to Botswana was to Chobe National Park which sits just across the border / Zambezi River. There is actually a point in the middle of the Zambezi River where four countries’ boundaries touch (Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia [which has a little negotiated neck of land that stretches to the Zambezi for water access]) and which I would have passed quite close to when crossing at the Kazungula border checkpoint.

In Kenya, I made a trip to Amboseli National Park. This park is most famous for: a.) its spectacular view of Mt. Kilimanjaro which many argue is better than the view in Tanzania (the country in which the mountain actually resides) At any rate, the volcanic cone was entirely socked in with clouds, and so I didn’t get this benefit the view at all. b.) the Maasai people, famous both as warriors and cattle-herders. and c.) the wildlife–and most especially a huge group of elephants who’re supported by the vegetation of a marsh created by Kilimanjaro glacial runoff. The wildlife more than made up for the lack of view of the mountain. In fact, the experience of viewing wildlife in Africa was mind-blowing–dare I say, life-changing. Being on the savanna in Kenya and reflecting on the origins of our species put the world in perspective.

July and August were fairly quiet, though we had an intense rainy season in Bangalore this year. In our first few years in India, the most intense rains all came after the rainy season should have been over. Not so this year.

In September I resumed teaching yoga. I’d been on a hiatus because our plans had been up in the air. Previously, we were supposed to be returning home to United States sometime in the summer or early fall of this year. At any rate, we found out that we’d be staying here almost until our five-year anniversary in India– beyond which Indian visa law prohibits residency. In other words, we are now scheduled to leave India in the summer of next year–i.e. July-ish of 2018. Where we will go remains anyone’s guess, but the Indian government–taking a line from Semisonic’s “Closing Time” says, “we don’t have to go home, but we can’t stay here.”  Anyhow, I co-taught a  shatkarma (cleansing practices) workshop for a teacher’s training with Amrutha Bindu Yoga Shala. That was a new experience for me, but mostly I’ve been teaching small classes and private lessons on asana (postural practice), pranayama (breath), and yoganidra (relaxation.)

Also in September, we made our first trip to Gujarat to visit Ahmedabad and some of the nearby historic sites. We saw some awesome temples and step-wells, some of which dated back as far as the eleventh century. Ahmedabad was in festival season splendor, heightened by having recently been chosen as India’s first UNESCO Heritage City.

In November I participated in National Novel Writing Month, and for the first time successfully completed the challenge of drafting a 50,000 word novel (novella) in one calendar month. I’ve started this challenge before, but it never really worked either because of ideas failing me or scheduling, but this year we only had one long weekend trip to Rishikesh and my teaching schedule, and so I was able to keep the required daily writing. This time I had the sense to work on a much less convoluted story than the draft that sits on my hard-drive, mocking me like some hallow-souled demon of the abyss.

Rishikesh was awesome and relaxing. We did some rafting on the Ganges, and saw a number of huge ashrams and temples.

That brings me to December. Lilla and I will be going to the Philippines in the latter half of the month for the holidays, with a day-long layover in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on the way back. This will be our first time in the Philippines, but our second time to KL. Besides a couple days in Manila, we’ll be in the Visayas, which is the quiet belt of small islands in the middle of the country–as opposed to Luzon (the big island to the North where Manila is located) or Mindanao (the big island to the South in which Muslim rebels are said to be active.)

As with this year, we should be back in Bangalore in time to ring in 2018.

5 Thoughts on the Conscious Mind in Martial Arts Training

In recent years I’ve spent a lot of time trying to quiet the conscious mind in order to let the subconscious do what it does best. There’s a lot of terminology that’s used to describe the mind state in which one’s actions are effortless and one can adjust swiftly to unforeseen challenges: e.g. “in the zone,” the Flow, Zen mindset, and (in the Kotler and Wheal book I just reviewed) ecstasis. However, regardless of the name, one key to this state is a reduced activity of the part of the mind that’s self-critical and overly cautious, and that requires not letting the conscious mind do what it’s prone to do.

 

However, taking a course on mauythai advanced fundamentals recently has reminded me of the important roles the conscious mind plays in learning. The challenge is to use the conscious mind effectively–without letting it running amok.

 

The conscious mind is largely driven by anxiety about uncertainty. This makes the conscious mind a planner and worst-case scenario generator extraordinaire. (In meditation, I’ve begun to not only note what thought popped into my head before I dismiss said distraction, but I also have a classification scheme of kinds of thoughts, and “planning thoughts” are probably the most common type of thought to hijack my mind.) This planning / forecasting  proclivity can be beneficial if one is doing a job that requires such planning, anticipation of possible hazards, and the need to adjust to complex difficulties. However, it can also make one neurotic, overly risk-averse, and pessimistic.

 

So, here are my five thoughts on the conscious mind in martial arts training.

 

5.) Feed the right wolf:  There’s a well-known story about a Native American man telling his grandchild that inside each person there are two wolves at war, one good and one evil.

The child asks, “Which one wins?”

The old man replies, “The one you feed.”

 

This is a variation on the theme–not so much about good and evil as about positive and negative outlook. In martial arts training there are often competing emotional states. On one hand, there is often anxiety about either being injured or even about the embarrassment of being bested. (Surprisingly, it seems like the magnitude of the latter is often greater than the former.) On the other hand, there is an intense thrill that comes with making progress. For those who don’t understand how martial artists can put themselves through what they do, this is the part for which you’re probably not understanding the intensity of the high. When it clicks and you’re getting it right more often than you previously did, the feeling is transcendent.

 

So, when one sees either of these two feelings arising, choose the latter. If one notices the anxiety, remind oneself the promise of that awesome feeling of having it fall together.

 

4.) Scanning for lapses in form: The process of learning a martial art–like any movement art–is repetition of the movements until they become ingrained in one’s procedural memory. Early in the process, this feels clunky as one has to scan for imperfections in form with one’s super-intelligent but slow and cumbersome conscious mind. However, increasingly, the body begins to incorporate these movement patterns and they start to become second nature. The trick is to keep this in the moment and not let one’s thoughts linger on what one just got wrong, or any perceived ramifications of getting it wrong.

 

3.) Try visualization: This once would have been thought hippie guff, but now it’s entered the mainstream. Of course, the advice from #5 must be kept in mind. When I think of the technique of visualization, I’m reminded of a story that Dan Millman told about a girl that he was coaching in gymnastics. He came to check on her only to find her repeatedly cringing and grimacing. He asked what was going on, and she said she kept falling off the balance beam whenever she visualized her routine. It sounds silly, but attitude is a powerful thing, and I lot of people sabotage themselves in ways not much different from this. It’s your mind, you have the power to do the move perfectly every time, if you take the proper mindset.

 

2.) Conscious mind as governor of action and agent of trust: The subconscious mind can be feral. As one spars, one has to match speeds with one’s opposition so that learning can take place. While sparring looks reminiscent of fighting, the goal of sparring is learning, whereas the goal of fighting is winning (or–as a minimum in actual combat–not being destroyed.)

 

This is another role for the conscious mind. It can keep reminders to the fore to keep one’s movement appropriate to the occasion. It can inject an awareness that there’s a relationship of trust rather than warring competitiveness between. That one needn’t respond at the same magnitude that one would under attack.

 

1.) Dropping the Conscious Mind Out of the Equation: While the conscious mind is critical in the learning process, eventually one must do something that feels uncomfortable, which is shifting subconscious operations to the fore and quieting the conscious mind. Overthinking can be death in tests, competitions, not to mention, I’m told, actual combative situations. At some point you’ve got to have some trust in what you’ve trained to do up to that point. It might fail you, but not necessarily as spectacularly as if you let your conscious run amok, getting caught in a death spiral of self-criticism and futile guesswork.

 

Since I’ve been watching quite a few muaythai fights recently at the Rangsit Boxing Stadium, I’ve begun to wonder just how useful corner advice is. I know that people think it’s beneficial because it’s done in droves. Not only is the fighter’s trainer trying tell them what to do, but also his parents, his siblings, his granny, and a hundred random people who may or may not have put money on him. It would be interesting to see a scientific study of how fighters performed who tuned everything out between rounds versus those who tried to take in all the advice. I tried to look up whether any such study had been done, but a cursor Google search came up empty.

 

What comes of all the corner talk?

What comes of all the corner talk?

DAILY PHOTO: Vigilant Referee

Taken February 19, 2017 at Rangsit International Boxing Stadium

Taken February 19, 2017 at Rangsit International Boxing Stadium

 

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2016: Our Year in Photos

New Year's Day sunrise over Bai Tu Long Bay, Vietnam

New Year’s Day sunrise over Bai Tu Long Bay, Vietnam

JANUARY:

-Travel: returned from our December 2015 visit to Vietnam

-Began RYT300 (Int / Adv) yoga teacher training at Amrutha Bindu Yoga

Taken at Kesava Temple in  Somanathapura

Taken at Kesava Temple in Somanathapura with the RYT300 class

 

FEBRUARY:

– RYT300 course continued

Teaching yoga at Socare

Teaching yoga at Socare

Learning to cook Indian food at Manju's

Learning to cook Indian food at Manju’s Cooking School

 

MARCH:

-Completed the RYT300 course to obtain my RYT500 certification

The RYT300 Class at Fireflies Ashram to learn Shatkarma

The RYT300 Class at Fireflies Ashram to learn Shatkarma

 

APRIL:

-Traveled to Varkala and Amritsar

-Taught a two-week Kids Camp at a1000 Yoga, Kormangala

Varkala, Kerala in early April

Lilla in Varkala, Kerala in early April

 

Golden Temple (Harmandir Sahib), Amritsar

Lilla at the Golden Temple (Harmandir Sahib), Amritsar

 

MAY: 

-Travel: Thailand, Zambia, and Dubai

-Completed the Muay Thai 2 (Int.) at The Muay Thai Institute in Rangsit, Thailand

With MTI teachers and students after a successful fight by a German student

With MTI teachers and students after a successful fight by a German student (shirtless)

 

Zebra at the Chaminuka Game Reserve near Lusaka

Zebra at the Chaminuka Game Reserve near Lusaka

 

Lilla and I amid the dunes in the UAE near Dubai

Lilla and I amid the dunes in the UAE near Dubai

 

JUNE:

-Between travels and trainings, a quiet month in Bangalore

Back again with the kids at Socare

Back again with the kids at Socare

 

JULY:

-Travel: Kolkata and into Jammu & Kashmir for our August travels

Quintessential Kolkata (Calcutta)

I’m afraid you can’t jam more Kolkata (Calcutta) into a photo than this

 

AUGUST:

-Travel: Jammu & Kashmir (Srinagar, Sonamarg, Great Lakes Trek, Leh, Nubra Valley, and Pangong Tso) and into Chennai for the beginning of my Vipassana Meditation course

Lilla on our first night camp site on the Kashmiri Great Lakes trek

Lilla (green hoodie) on our first night camp site on the Kashmiri Great Lakes trek

 

Lilla and Eeyore in Leh

Lilla and Eeyore in Leh

 

Lilla and I at the (reputed) highest motorable pass in the world

Lilla and I at the (reputed) highest motorable pass in the world

 

SEPTEMBER:

-Travel: 2 trips to Chennai; the first for my 10-day Vipassana Mediation Course, and the second for a wedding

Chennai (Madras)

Chennai (Madras)

Lilla henna'd and bangled for the wedding

Lilla henna’d and bangled for the wedding

 

OCTOBER:

-Travel: rainy season in Goa

-Anniversary month (22 yrs.)

-Took the 5th level test at Kalari Academy but promptly threw my back out–an injury from which I’m still recovering (although it’s down to a mild leg tingle) [I wouldn’t mention it but I think I’m obligated to by the rules of year-end / Christmas letters to mention any health issues.]

Lilla in front of the Se Cathedral in Old Goa (Velha Goa)

Lilla in front of the Se Cathedral in Old Goa (Velha Goa)

 

NOVEMBER:

-Travel: Singapore

Lilla in front of the Marina Bay Sands

Lilla in front of the Marina Bay Sands

 

DECEMBER:

-Travel: We’ll be in Hungary (fingers crossed) in the latter half of the month

-Finished a draft of the novel. I don’t know what version this counts as, but it’s the only one so far even close to having an ending that I can tolerate.

-I’ll probably have read about 100 books by the end of the year.

Here’s a pic from another winter trip to Budapest:

Budapest a few years back

Budapest a few years back

A more recent Budapest Winter pic; this was our most recent winter visit 2014

A more recent Budapest winter pic; this was our most recent winter visit-i.e. 2014

Principles of Muay Thai

Source: Muay Thai Institute of Rangsit, Thailand

Source: Muaythai Institute of Rangsit, Thailand

 

Walking around the lobby of the Muaythai Institute [MTI]  is an education unto itself. There are many photos, articles, and memorabilia–as well as a few educational placards. Over the office and weight room there are a series of old photos from an earlier era in the development of this martial art. Of course, Muaythai already had a long history before there were cameras around to document it. (As witnessed by the presence of boxing gloves in the photo above [and most of the other photos here.] Gloves were probably a relatively new addition from the previous rope hand-wraps at the time of many of these photographs.)

 

Yesterday, I noticed the following poster describing the principles of Muaythai:

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Poster in the gym at the Muaythai Institute

 

As it’s difficult to read, I’ll paraphrase the contents:

First, the three principles of Muaythai:

1.) Feet apart

2.) Elbows close to the body

3.) Hands guard the head

 

Second, there are the five principles for professional Muaythai fighters:

1.) Use all Muaythai weapons [i.e. fists, feet, elbows, and knees.]

2.) Protect oneself completely.

3.) Be powerful.

4.) Tolerate (persevere) attacks.

5.) Be clever.

 

I started to think of these guidelines in terms of the concept of budō-kun, which are the guiding principles of a given school of martial arts or even a specific teacher. The budō-kun concept is seen in Japanese martial arts, and at first blush it seems quite different from the muaythai principles stated above. While budō-kun typically have a philosophical / moral bent, the Muaythai principles seem quite pragmatic.

 

However, one can see broader meanings in these simple statements.

 

1.) The admonition to use all Muaythai weapons can be seen as a suggestion to be flexible and adaptable, and not to latch onto a single approach. I find the talk in judō about “favorite” or “match-winning” techniques (tokui waza) to be intriguing. Historically,  martial artists seem to have avoided giving the impression that they had a favorite techniques. The logic behind this secretiveness can be described by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote: “If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument.” Or, expanding further, if I know your feelings on a subject I can respond to them to my advantage.

 

2.) “Protecting oneself completely” can be seen as valuing one’s body over one’s ego. In Thaiboxing, as in almost all combative sports, one sees instances in which a fighter drops his guard to either encourage an attack or just to showboat for the audience. Sometimes this works out as desired, but often it results in the fighter waking up on his back.

 

3.) Be powerful seems self-evident, but incumbent in the statement is the need to train hard. One doesn’t become powerful without working hard to develop both form and fitness.

 

4.) Being able to tolerate being under attack is another point that may seem less than profound, but it speaks to the realization that both fitness and capacity to “take a licking and keep on ticking” matter. Sometimes the outcome hinges on the durability and resilience of a given fighter–much as we might like to think that technique always and everywhere trumps all.

 

5.) Being clever speaks to the creative element. One must be able to adjust to changing circumstances, and sometimes victory hinges on actions that are unconventional.

 

I’m curious about the interpretations of others on this subject.

 

 

DAILY PHOTO: 1300 & Out

Taken in September of 2014 in Bangkok

Taken in September of 2014 in Bangkok

“The title of this post doesn’t make a lick of sense?” you say.

But it does. This is my 1,300th post, and I’m going on travel for a few weeks to train muaythai at the Muay Thai Institute in Rangsit, Thailand. I may or may not post during the next three weeks depending upon what kind of pummeling I sustain to the brain-pan region.

The photo above as taken about a year ago on the Chao Phraya in Bangkok.

I’ll leave you with a thought for the day: If everybody around you holds the same beliefs as you, you’re not a member of a community, you’re a member of a cult.

The Legend of Nai Khanomtom: Hero of Muay Thai

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Muay Thai Institute in Rangsit, Thailand

In 1767 the Ayutthaya Kingdom of Siam fell to the Burmese. Burma occupied Siam only briefly because Burma’s king, King Hsinbyushin (a.k.a. King Mangra), was forced to withdraw his troops to combat a Chinese invasion to his homeland. The Thais were fabled to be valiant fighters and even had a numeric advantage, but they were easily put into disarray by Burmese forces. Even King Mangra was said to have declared that he couldn’t have taken Ayutthaya had the leadership of the opposition been more effective. [Keep in mind that even if he did say this, it might have been more a dig at his Thai counterpart than an expression of his true feelings.]

The Burmese captured a many prisoners during their Thai campaign and true warriors were particularly coveted as prisoners. One such fighter was Nai Khanomtom (fyi: it’s also written Nai Khanom Tom.) Nai Khonomtom was renowned for his skill in Muay Boran, an early Thai fighting style related to Muay Thai. This made him a logical choice to headline for the Thais in a tournament that would pit Muay Boran against Thiang–i.e. the indigenous martial arts of Burma (e.g. Lethwei and Bando.) The tournament would be part of King Mangra’s seven day festival in honor of Buddhist relics, the festivities of which would also include plays, comedians, and sword fights.

Nai Khanomtom was pitted against a Burmese champion, a man who was clearly the audience favorite. Timed rounds didn’t exist in those days. Fights stopped when one of the fighters was physically unable to continue, and not before. The Burmese fighter wore a kind of sarong that was the usual attire for the men of Burma, and Nai Khanomtom wore a loin cloth tied up in the traditional Thai style (see the statue pic above.) Each fighter wrapped only ropes on their forearms and hands, and each may have had some padding over the groin–though not as insurance against an accident, but because crotch kicks were fair game.

Nai Khanomtom began with a Wai Kru, which perplexed the Burmese. Wai Kru is a pre-fight ritual that has several purposes, the most important of which is to show respect for one’s teachers, deities, and the audience. The practice can take several minutes and some variants of it can be physically demanding.

When the fight started, Nai Khanomtom charged over the fight space taking the fight to his opponent and laying down a barrage of kicks, knees, elbows, and punches. By some accounts, his victory was declared invalid by a judge, who’d been distracted by other festival events (and who–no doubt–wasn’t pleased by the swift defeat of the Burmese champion.) The decision was made despite the fact that the Burmese fighter had been knocked unconscious.

The King was thrilled by the fight and offered Nai Khanomtom his freedom if he could fight nine more Burmese fighters. Nai Khanomtom didn’t get breaks between these fights, and as soon as an opponent went down the next was queued up to come after the Thai fighter. And so it was that Nai Khanomtom took on the Burmese fighters in an ironman fashion. The last of his opponents was a famous martial arts master teacher from Rakhine, a coastal region in Burma’s southwest. Nai Khanomtom went after the Rakhine master with flurry of kicks. It’s worth noting that in those days Burmese fighters were said to have relied much more heavily on hand strikes than kicks, and so the kicks may have given Nai Khanomtom a range advantage while presenting his opponent with attacks that the Burmese fighter was less practiced at defeating.

At the fight’s end, King Mangra honored his agreement, and Nai Khanomtom was granted his freedom and provided safe-conduct back to Siam. There are varying accounts that say that Nai Khonomtom returned home with either two Burmese wives or a number of his fellow prisoners as an additional payment for providing a spectacle that the Burmese king found gripping. In these accounts, Nai Khanomtom is usually said to have turned down a cash payment.

There’s a quote that’s often attributed to King Mangra that goes, “Every part of the Thai is blessed with venom, even with his bare hands he can fell ten opponents.” [FYI-It should be noted that seeing the same words quoted by several sources isn’t proof of truth, because the quotes could have a common (and false) point of origin.  So take it all with a grain of salt.]

[Note: The details of this story vary. So you may hear–or have heard–a slightly different version of events. The exact details are likely lost to history and–when that happens–embellishment may creep in. That said, the variations that I’ve heard are neither great nor particularly significant. It’s also worth noting that these events are celebrated in Thailand every March 17th on what is called Boxer’s Day or National Muay Boran Day.]

DAILY PHOTO: Golden Nai Khanomtom

Taken in August of 2014 at the Muay Thai Institute in Rangsit, Thailand.

Taken in August of 2014 at the Muay Thai Institute in Rangsit, Thailand.

As the placard states, Nai Khanomtom is considered the father of muaythai (Thai boxing.) He lived during the 18th century, and is most famous for his defeat of between 9 and 12 Burmese Lethwei (or Let Whay, the Burmese style of boxing) fighters–depending upon the retelling of the story.

 

One account states that the Burmese king had Nai Khanomtom kidnapped after watching from afar as the Thai legend devastated one Burmese soldier after another in close quarters combat. Other accounts hold Nai Khanomtom was one of many Thai prisoners captured. By all accounts, Nai Khanomtom was pitted against multiple Burmese opponents–some of the best the country had to offer–in a boxing match and defeated them one after another without [significant] rest periods.

I probably should have posted this on March 17th, which is Thailand’s “Boxer’s Day” (not to be confused with the post-Christmas Boxing Day recognized in much of the Western world.)