BOOK REVIEW: Yoga for Sports by B.K.S. Iyengar

Yoga For Sports: A Journey Towards Health And HealingYoga For Sports: A Journey Towards Health And Healing by B.K.S. Iyengar
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a book by the renowned Pune yoga guru who passed away in 2014, B.K.S. Iyengar, on how athletes can use yoga to build general health, prevent injuries, and combat postural misalignments that result from sporting activities that are asymmetric or unbalanced. A book on yoga for athletes might address any number of topics from core strength and stability to meditations to prevent choking under pressure, but this one focuses heavily on asana (postural yoga) – particularly – for improving flexibility and postural alignment. (It does introduce pranayama, but only the practices of viloma and ujjayi breathing.)

Iyengar is most well-known for an approach to hatha yoga that uses props to allow anyone to achieve a properly aligned posture, regardless of whether one has a yogi-level contortionist body (and most athletes don’t because of the countervailing requirements for strength necessitated by their sports.) This prop-centric approach is seen heavily in the book’s second part, which describes and demonstrates a range of basic asana (postures) along with relevant variations. I mention this because through the first part of this book, I felt it was much more of a book for yoga practitioners who might also happen to be amateur athletes than it was for athletes looking to introduce yoga into their training regimen. By that I mean that the photos of recommended poses in Part I are unlikely to be useful for athletes who have tight muscles from intense physical activity. However, if you’re feeling that way about the book, too, you may find that the second part’s variations are more reasonable for a person who doesn’t have an extensive background in yoga or stretching.

The book is divided into four parts. The first part consists of ten chapters that cover the topic of yoga for sports with broad brush strokes, covering topics like skeleto-muscular anatomy, common sports complaints, yoga for warmup, yoga for prevention and for recovery. It also deals with specialty topics like maintaining a healthy body in retirement as well as issues for women athletes (women may find this section to be a bit menstruation-heavy, as if that were the predominant challenge facing women engaged in athletics. On the plus-side there’s none of the bizarre and / or offensive notions about menstruation that have been known to presented in the context of yoga.) As I mentioned, during this first part I thought the book would not be so useful for the problems of athletes, and some may find that still seems to be the case after reviewing part two. The gulf between what is recommended and what the average practitioner can physically do is a perennial difficulty with books on yoga.

The second part discusses asana in detail, providing pictures, text descriptions, and notes on benefits and – where applicable — other considerations (e.g. contra-indications.) Here one can find prop-based variations to allow individuals who may be stiff or in recovery to perform the asana. Mostly, there is just one photo of each posture in mid-pose. However, where special guidance is needed getting into or out of the pose (which can be the case with prop yoga) there are sometimes multiple photos demonstrating a progression of movement. My major gripe with this book is that it was littered with typos (at least the e-book edition that I read on Kindle.) The typos were most notable in this section. I can’t remember if I saw any in parts I, III, or IV, but the errors stuck out in part two because there is a lot of repetitive directions for the poses that seem to have been copy / pasted such that the same missing letter typos appear many places throughout the section.

The third part is much briefer than the first two, and it simply describes props that an athlete might consider acquiring. It starts with basic kit and moves to bigger items, though it doesn’t discuss all the huge equipment that one would find in a fully equipped studio teaching Iyengar-style yoga. It provides text discussions of critical considerations as well as photos.

The last part is just a couple pages of testimonials of famous athletes saying how much yoga (in general) and Iyengar’s teaching (specifically) helped them to improve their games. These brief testimonials are presented in text-boxes and look somewhat as one might see on the opening pages of a novel.

As would be expected of a book on sports published in India, most of the examples are cricket-centric. (Again, not surprising as cricket is the 800-pound gorilla of sports on the subcontinent.)

I found this book to be quite informative. If you can bear the typos (and they may have been exorcized from the print editions,) you’ll likely find the book to be informative and well-presented.

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BOOK REVIEW: Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka

Chinaman: The legend of Pradeep MathewChinaman: The legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilaka
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

“Chinaman” is the tale of an alcoholic Sri Lankan sportswriter, W.G. Karunasena, who is attempting to write a biography of the man he considers the greatest cricketer to ever live, Pradeep Matthew. The two-fold challenge is that Matthew had a short and controversial career before disappearing off the face of the earth, and Karunasena is in a race to finish the book before the bottle finishes him off. [For non-cricket fan readers wondering about the title, Chinaman is a cricket term for a style of bowling. I also learned that a “ponytailed Chinaman” in Sri Lanka is (or was) slang for someone gullible.]

I try to read at least one work of literature from every country I visit, and I chose “Chinaman” for Sri Lanka, and am happy with my decision. While the book is very much cricket-centric, it does offer insight into the familial and community dynamics of Sri Lanka. Given the time frames discussed in the book (i.e. the 80’s and 90’s), we also learn a little about the civil war that was going on at the time. But most intriguingly, one views the politics and underworld that largely remain hidden to tourists, and so the book has that appeal. The book contains many explanations, diagrams, and drawings to help clue those, such as myself, who are ignorant of the game into the fundamentals, but it’s not just about cricket.

The book is presented as a novel that’s only sold as fiction for legal reasons, but my little bit of research [including a short author interview] suggests that that is just a plot device to add to the feeling of intrigue.

The last two of five parts of the book, while less than 15% of the pages, are presented from a different point of view. This is a bit jarring because the reader has developed a great deal of affinity with Karunasena, and that kind of connection doesn’t have time to blossom with his son, the second voice of the book. However, the last to parts do give the reader a satisfying conclusion.

I enjoyed this book. It’s humorous and offers a glimpse into Sri Lankan cricket and everything it touches (which is pretty much everything.) I’d recommend it for fiction readers. Even if you aren’t a big fan of cricket, you’ll enjoy the story and the humorous dialogue. If you are a fan of cricket or want to know more about Sri Lanka, it will be particularly enjoyable.

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DAILY PHOTO: Ball Court of Ek’ Balam

Taken in the Summer of 2009 at Ek’ Balam

BOOK REVIEW: Greatest Ever Boxing Workouts by Gary Todd

Greatest Ever Boxing Workouts - including Mike Tyson, Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather, Roberto DuranGreatest Ever Boxing Workouts – including Mike Tyson, Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather, Roberto Duran by Gary Todd
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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This will be a quick review as the book is simple and straightforward in its approach. The author interviewed 30+ boxers, and each chapter corresponds to a boxer. A few of these boxers are household names, e.g. Tyson, Duran, Pacquiao, and Mayweather, but others may or may not be known to those who aren’t fight fanatics.

Each chapter consists of three sections. The first and longest of each is an overview of that boxer’s career, but it’s the other two sections that are most relevant to the book’s title and theme. One of these sections is an interview that asks a series of 14 questions about how the respective boxer organized his training day, and the other is a description of the boxer’s workouts (typically there was more than one workout—i.e. sparring v non-sparring days.)

If you’re a big boxing fan, this book will be interesting to you particularly for some of the insights about the boxers. The author is clearly knowledgeable in that regard. If you are mostly interested in the book from a fitness perspective, and seek to learn about working out for combative sports, it’s of decidedly less value. It still has some fascinating information, but you’ll probably find it tedious and of limited usefulness. The question and answer section elicits answers from one word to a couple of sentences and the workouts are a page each. What is fascinating is how similar the day in the life of a boxer is, and, specifically, how standardized workouts are. What I mostly found intriguing was when someone stuck out as having a different mode of operating. For example, most started their days very early (often going back to sleep after road-work) but a few were clearly night owls. One can also see a little of how approaches have shifted between the earliest fighters and the ones active until recently.

There are plenty of photographs in the book, but they are the only graphics. There isn’t much else by way of ancillary matter. (i.e. there is a section of pictures of the author with various boxers, but that—of course—is primarily of interest to the author.)

In one sense the book is quite limited and tedious, but it’s also interesting to see how thirty different fighters answered the exact same pallet of questions. There is some insight into nutrition, sleep schedules, optimal time for workouts, etc. However, the book doesn’t drill deep.

If you’re a fight fan, fascinated by boxers and their careers, I’d recommend this book. For those who are buying it thinking they’ll get some insight into how to prepare as a boxer, I’d say said insight will be extremely limited. That said, the book isn’t much of a time investment, and so if you can get it cheap you may find it of some benefit.

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BOOK REVIEW: Head in the Game by Brandon Sneed

Head in the Game: The Mental Engineering of the World's Greatest AthletesHead in the Game: The Mental Engineering of the World’s Greatest Athletes by Brandon Sneed
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

There are many factors that influence whether an athlete can reach an elite level. Physical factors such as VO2 max (maximum oxygen consumption) and musculature have long been at the fore in the minds of coaches and trainers, but they’ve never told the full story. There are athletes who have the muscles, lungs, and general physiology to dominate their sports who fall apart under pressure. One also sees the occasional athlete who is consistently good even though he seems puny by comparison to his peers. It used to be that mental performance was considered an endowed X-factor–you either had it or you didn’t. Coaches didn’t know how to coach for issues of the mind and often exacerbated problems with old school attitudes and approaches.

We’ve now entered a new era in which a bevy of techniques and technologies are being exploited to strengthen the mind and improve psychological deficiencies, just as gyms have always been used to build the body and combat physical deficiencies. These range from techniques of meditation and visualization that have been known to yogis and Buddhists for centuries to advanced technologies that have only become available in recent decades and which are constantly improving and being made obsolete. Sneed examines the gamut of these approaches as they are applied to improving performance in sports: from the meditative or therapeutic to the electronic or pharmacological. One no longer need give up on athletes who are great at their best, but who get the yips at the worst possible times. The performance of mediocre athletes can be improved and that of the best can be made more consistent.

Sneed has a unique qualification to write this book. He counts himself among the athletes who couldn’t reach his potential because of inconsistency rooted in psychological challenges. His willingness to be forthright about his own problems makes the book more engaging. His own stories are thrown into the mix with those of athletes from football, basketball, soccer, baseball, adventure sports, and mixed martial arts (MMA.)

The book’s 19 chapters are divided among four parts. The first part lays the groundwork, helping the reader understand the rudiments of how the brain works, doesn’t work, or works too hard for a competitor’s own good. A central theme is that the ability to analyze and train through the lens of neuroscience has removed some of the stigma that has always been attached to psychological issues in sports (not to mention the days when they were written off as weakness.) Much of the six chapters of Part I deal with assessment of the athlete’s baseline mental performance. The last chapter (Ch. 6) covers a range of topics that have been around a long time as they’ve been reevaluated through modern scientific research. These include religion, faith, superstition, meditation, visualization, and the immortal question of whether sex is good or bad for athletic performance.

The second part consists of five chapters taking on one fundamental truth: mind and body are not two disparate and independent entities. This section starts at the most logical point: breath. Practitioners of yoga (i.e. pranayama) and chi gong have known for centuries that breath can be used to influence one’s emotional state and level of mental clarity. Sneed evaluates the technology that is being used to help athletes master the same age-old lessons. Having laid the groundwork through breath, the section advances into biofeedback technology. There are two chapters in the book that deal with pharmacological approaches. One is in this section and it deals with legal (at least in some locales) substances such as caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, nootropics (alleged mind enhancing drugs), and marijuana. (The other is in the final part and it deals with hallucinogens.) There are also a couple of chapters on technologies used to produce or enhance desired mental states.

For most readers, the third part will be seen as the heart of the book. Having considered how to evaluate an athlete’s mental performance (Part I) and how to influence mind states by way of the body (Part II), this part explores the range of technologies that are used to exercise the mind in a manner analogous to working out the body. These technologies focus on a range of areas including improving the nervous system’s ability to take in information, process that information, and respond appropriately. Much of this part focuses on video games; albeit video games using state of the art virtual reality and which are customized to improvement of athletic performance. Some of the games are used to train general cognitive performance (e.g. Ch. 13) but others are specifically tailored to the game in question (i.e. Ch. 14.) Just as simulators are used in aviation, part of the advantage of these games is the ability to put players in progressively more challenging conditions.

The last part of the book was the most interesting to me, personally. [It’s also the part of the book that will be the most relevant and readable a few years down the road because it’s not as modern technology-centric as most of the book—especially Part III–is.] It’s entitled “The Spirit” and it explores X-factors to performance, but sans the assumption that these are endowments, but rather under the assumption they are trainable. The part has an important introduction that presents the research about how “soft” factors like gratitude play into outlook and performance. Then there are the Part’s three chapters. The first describes an experiment involving taking elite athletes into physically arduous conditions of the kind normally experienced by military special operations forces in survival training. The second tells the story of MMA fighter Kyle Kingsbury’s use of hallucinogenic substances (most intriguingly, ayahuasca, a powerful drug long used by Peruvian shamans.) Finally, the last chapter deals with sensory deprivation—a technology some will associate with the movie “Altered States” but which many athletes swear by.

The book has an extensive section on notations and sources organized by chapter. There are no graphics.

I enjoyed this book and found it to be informative. There are a number of books that explore the techniques and technologies of optimal mental performance, but this one develops a niche by focusing on the realm of sports and some of the technologies that are only available with the kind of deep-pockets seen in professional sports. The book is heavily weighted toward the technology part of the equation, which is both good and bad. If you’re reading it now (2017), it’s great because you’re getting an up-to-date discussion of the subject from the perspective of entities that are awash in money for tech. The downside is that this book won’t age well, at least not as well as it would if there was more emphasis on approaches that aren’t based on cutting-edge technology.

I’d recommend this book if you are interested in optimal human performance, and if you have an interest in sports, all the better.

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DAILY PHOTO: Fight Arena in Monochrome

Taken on February 26, 2017 in Rangsit, Thailand

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: Rangsit Fight Night Takedowns

Taken on February 19, 2017 at Rangsit Boxing Stadium

Taken on February 19, 2017 at Rangsit Boxing Stadium

 

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BOOK REVIEW: Judō: Skills and Techniques by Tony Reay

JudoJudo by Reay
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Tony Reay wrote this book when he was both a 6th degree black belt and Development Officer for the British Judō Association. So his qualifications are beyond a doubt. The book is an overview of the sport of judō that covers techniques, etiquette, rules, warm-up exercises, grading approaches, and other specialty topics. It covers the gamut of issues related to the sport of judō, but without going into much detail. It would be a suitable book for a youngster who is considering whether they might want to get involved. I emphasize that it’s about “sport judō” because there are those who consider judō to be an approach to self-defense and others who think of it as a whole-life philosophy. This isn’t the book for those who want to learn more about judō as anything other than a competitive sport.

The eight chapters of the book cover: history, the grading structure, recreational judo, fitness, techniques, competition, the judō instructor, and judō as an art. However, most of the chapters are cursory. The bulk of the book is devoted to showing 69 of the art’s most fundamental techniques, including: 40 throws, 12 holds, 10 chokes, and 7 arm-locks. For each of these techniques there is a line drawing and a brief description. In a few cases there are black and white photos taken of the technique being performed in competition. This overview of techniques is mostly of value for learning names and accounting for what techniques one has (or hasn’t) learned. There’s not enough detail–either graphically or textually–to help a practitioner improve a technique that they’ve learned. (The latter isn’t a point of criticism, but rather to let people know what they are and aren’t getting in the book.) Still, there are tips scattered throughout the book that might help a practitioner improve their techniques in a general sort of way.

There is a glossary of Japanese terms commonly used in judō.

I found this book to be a fine overview of the sport of judō, and would recommend it for that purpose. While I’ve found other books on the art much more useful for my purposes, I think this is a fine book for someone looking to get into the sport from ground zero. I should point out that the book is from the mid-80’s, and so there will probably be details on rules, scoring, and grading that have changed, but the bulk of it will remain of value.

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BOOK REVIEW: Võ Dân Tộ Martial Arts by Hữu Ngọc & Lady Borton

Vo Dan Toc / Martial Arts (Handbooks of Vietnam Culture)Vo Dan Toc / Martial Arts by Hữu Ngọc
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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This book is part of a series that is subtitled “Vietnamese Culture: Frequently Asked Questions,” and that tells one a little about both the content and the format of the book. It’s better described as pamphlet than a book. At about 75 pages, it’s in bilingual format (i.e. one page is in Vietnamese and the adjacent page is the English translation.) So it’s about 38 pages in English that answer 11 questions about Vietnamese martial arts.

The 11 questions addressed by the book are:
1.) How have martial arts developed throughout Vietnamese history?
2.) How were training and examinations for martial arts organized by the court?
3.) What are the schools of Vietnamese martial arts?
4.) What are the main sects of Vietnamese martial arts in France?
5.) How did Liễu Ðôi become a village with a great wrestling tradition?
6.) Who killed a ferocious tiger in 1770 in Sài Gòn’s Tân Kiểng Market?
7.) How did the famous school of Lady Trà-Tân Khánh martial arts begin and develop?
8.) How did President Hổ Chí Minh keep himself fit?
9.) Who played a key role in the success of Thúy Hiển, the world wushu champion?
10.) What do foreigners think of Vietnamese martial arts?
11.) How did the female master Hổ Hoa Huệ impress the Europeans?

The listed questions tell the reader what the book is about. It starts with some general history from centuries past, and then goes on to discuss specific events. I have no idea to what degree propaganda / myth has seeped into the text—maybe not at all or maybe a lot. I purchased the book in Hue, and am not sure if it’s available outside Vietnam. As one can see from the questions, this book won’t give one much insight into the details of Vietnamese martial arts tactics or philosophy. Instead, one gets a bit of history that some readers will find interesting and others will not. There are black and white photos (about 8) that show static instances of Vietnamese martial arts practice, and there is a glossary.

I picked this book up because I was curious about Vietnam’s martial art history—knowing that it must have had an impressive one. There isn’t much English-language information available about Vietnamese martial arts other than Vovinam. Vovinam is a martial art that allegedly developed in the modern era utilizing pieces of other martial arts and arranged to be ideal for the typical Vietnamese body type. However, what one sees of Vovinam on-line is just a poor-man’s version of that signature move of Black Widow from the MCU movies, so I don’t know whether there is any substance there or if it’s just for show.

Considering that it’s only about $0.67 USD in bookstores in Vietnam, I’d say it’s worth picking up this little book if you want to learn something about Vietnam’s martial history.  [If you buy pay alot for a copy on-line, you’ll probably be disappointed.]

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