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?

5 Lessons One Learns Teaching Kids Yoga

During the last half of April, I taught a kid’s camp at a1000 yoga‘s Kormangala studio. Below are some ideas about my experience.

Playful Scorpion

The Playful Scorpion

1.) Kids can’t down shift from 4th to 1st like adults. This was once a major point of frustration for me in teaching kids. When you ask kids to settle down after an activity they were really excited about, there’ll be a lag. There’s a temptation to see this unresponsiveness as a lack of respect, but it probably isn’t. (Which isn’t to say that the kiddies never attempt to test the waters.) The fact is that adults don’t get so amped up, and so it’s not so difficult for them settle down. Instead of getting frustrated with the kids, maybe one should feel sorry for the adults.

 

2.) Kids need a more advanced class, but not because they’re more advanced. Attention to detail isn’t a child’s strong suit. They have difficulty focusing on the finer points of alignment and breath–unless they’ve found a fun challenge in the pose. During the camp, we played with vrschikasana (scorpion pose) during the first few days. That’s not something I would do with adults. Kids get in the zone and, therefore, they don’t tense up and injure themselves so easily.

 

3.) Kids are natural flow hackers. If you don’t know what “flow” is, I’d recommend Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow, Steven Kotler’s The Rise of Superman, or Marer / Buzady / Vecsey’s Missing Link Discovered. (Depending upon your point of interest: psychology, athletics, or business, respectively.)  However, in a nutshell, flow is the state of mind in which we perform at our best because of a combination of concentration and the quieting of one’s inner critic. One of the keys to catching the flow is finding a challenge of the appropriate level. The challenge should be just beyond one’s current capability. If it’s too easy, one gets bored. If it’s too difficult, one gets frustrated. Children instinctively seek out the Goldilocks’s zone in challenges.

I noticed this when we were playing a game in which each kid had to cross the floor walking only on wooden yoga blocks. This helps with balance, which tends to be a weakness among kids. Every time all the kids have finished crossing, a block or two is removed. So, the game gets harder the longer it goes on. The position of the remaining blocks can be adjusted, and, after a while, the kids wanted to adjust the blocks themselves because I was making it too easy. In other words, they wanted to make gaps that they would have to stretch to their utmost to succeed.

 

4.) Don’t assume that kids experience fear the same way you do. I suspect there may be some readers who will say, “that guy had kids doing scorpion on their second day of yoga, he must be a complete lunatic.” But, adults superimpose their fears on children. Kids’ excitement more easily overcomes their anxieties. In my last post on yoga, I referred to a FaceBook meme that I saw recently that said, “A child who falls down 50 times learning to walk, never says, ‘I don’t think this is for me.'” Somewhere along the line, people become mortified of failure or the risk of a bruise, but it’s not in childhood.

Have you ever seen a child fall down and start to get up–everything apparently fine–until he or she sees the gasp from mom (or another adult,) and then the child bursts into tears? If you’re the adult in the aforementioned scenario, let me suggest that teaching kids physical activities isn’t yet for you–at least not until you can manage your own anxiety a bit better. That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with such people, but a teacher’s job is to show the child a world of possibilities and not to infect them with his or her own limitations.

 

5.) Finding the balance between inner child and outer adult can be a challenge, but is necessary. My working theory is that kids don’t trust an adult whose inner child doesn’t show through at least a little bit. Kid’s yoga is typically taught differently from the adult version. When teaching adults, one doesn’t practice alongside the students, but that’s the norm in teaching kids. (Kids can mimic better than they can follow complex verbal instructions.) The kids enjoy having the teacher participate, but one must also ensure that it remains clear who is the teacher. Otherwise, kids may be confused. When you’ve been participating in practice, playing games, and letting the children have some say in what they do (which is also a sound practice to some degree) they may gradually start to forget about your role as authority figure.

The 4% Rule, Yerkes-Dodson, and Finding the Sweet Spot in Martial Arts Training

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.

 

RiseOfSupermanWhat 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.

Yerkes-Dodson Curves. Source: Wikipedia

Yerkes-Dodson Curves. Source: Wikipedia

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.