Retrogram: Falling Habits

Retrogram: I realized that although my practice of publishing essays on this site has been on pause, I was still writing off-the-cuff riffs on Instagram to accompany the videos that I share there. That wasn’t the case for all my Instagram posts, but for those that have thoughts worth expanding, I’m bringing them back home. In part, this is pragmatic: one shouldn’t lean overmuch on a platform you don’t control to showcase your art(work) or rely on income—the platform may shut down someday; a change in the developer’s priorities will make it effectively obsolete for your uses; or you could be banned or barred from use, whether that banning would be justified or not. On the creative side, it’s an opportunity to take the often rough thoughts written for the medium of Instagram, and improve and/or expand upon them. After I’ve mined my old posts this series will continue, sometimes with the same process, but also flipped to write here first before distilling for sharing on social sites.

Now that the prelude is out of the way, let’s get started.

With the bulk of my movement practice revolving around martial arts and Parkour, I fall a lot. If I didn’t pay attention to falling well, I would undoubtedly already have hurt myself much more seriously than the occasional scrapes or bruises I do get. All that repetition has built a solid foundation of habits for avoiding or minimizing injuries when falling, especially considering the hard surfaces I choose to train on or lack of total control when being thrown by an opponent/partner. These falling techniques are all practical and efficient, which sounds fine. However, my practice in the past year has expanded to include stunt and stage combat skills, for which the aspect of convincing storytelling is paramount. In these contexts, falling is a performance, and more often than not the falls called for by a story must look painful or even deadly. There’s much less room for the graceful recovery movements that my engrained falling and rolling habits exhibit by default. There’s a catch though: however frightening or painful the fall needs to look, it must still be safe.

At ground level with minimal padding, the stunt falling techniques are similar enough to what I already know that little modification has been necessary to change them from safe and efficient to still safe but nasty-looking. I’ve found that if you’re able to include a roll in the fall, it’s relatively simple to keep yourself safe and still sell the movement as painful. But there’s a whole category of stunt falls that require you to land deliberately on your back, and the physics of the fall limits the amount that you can mitigate the impact, so on-body padding and crash pads become necessary to make it a safely repeatable move. These are the falls where some good-in-other-contexts habits start to interfere with safety, especially as these types of falls are often done from considerable heights where minor technical errors are amplified by momentum (here’s an extreme example).

Now for specifics

Now we can get technical. Here are the habits I’m working on changing and the reasons why they need to be changed in the context of these particular falls. Which falls? The ones I’m practicing in this video. Other videos on this sort of practice will show up soon with further examples.

Working on modifying some falling habits. Got a few aspects of falling that are useful in martial arts and/or parkour contexts that become detrimental when working on higher falls into pads. Starting nearer to the ground here to help refine technique. Specifics (in rough order in the video) 1) Introducing rotation during takeoff; useful for acrobatics and rolls, but a really really bad variable to add in when the drop gets over 5ft. This is the trickiest one for me as it's so subtle and automatic. First and last clips are about as good as I got it. For this air awareness skill I'll be focusing more on practicing it on trampolines or from greater height--which creates the necessary space between the beginning of the fall and when you need to begin rotating. 2) Knees tucking up on back falls; useful for ground fighting, but liable to knee yourself in the jaw with the momentum from a bigger fall. This one I'm already making good progress on. 3) On back falls keeping the body line straight, rather than dipping the hips back as the fall starts. Great for setting up back rolls, not great if your goal ( as it is here) is to land with your hips and back at the same time. Plenty of room for improvement, video review is super helpful. More later :) #training #stunttraining #falls #movement. #habitrealignment #overlytechnicalIGpostings #practice

A post shared by Sean Rogers (@ninceur) on

  1. Introducing rotation during takeoff: useful for acrobatics and rolls, but a really really bad variable to add in when the fall is over 5ft without a roll to buffer the impact. Unrehearsed rotation will change where you need to land, creating the possibility that the pad/bag that you’re supposed to land on will be out of position. In the Instagram video, I was trying to remove this habit on very small falls, but in retrospect I think that it’s far more difficult to clear this particular habit on low falls. As I move forward, I’ll continue this practice the way I first learned it: with higher falls that leave enough time in air to experience a longer moment of falling before rotating into the landing position.

  2. Knees tucking up on back falls: useful when grappling for keeping your opponent from gaining either a side or top mount on you after being thrown, but liable to make you knee yourself in the jaw with the momentum from a bigger fall. This one I’m already making good progress on. It’s a simpler fix because instead of attempting to remove an automatic response that has historically kept me safe while falling, I instead change/add a movement. In this case, that’s straightening my legs out once I feel that my hips and shoulders are parallel to the ground after the takeoff.

  3. Dipping the hips backward as a back fall begins: when the fall can transition into a back roll, the action of rocking back from foot to head smoothes out the movement, but it’s not great if your goal is to land with your hips and back at the same time to spread the impact out to the largest surface area possible. Instead, I’m keeping my body line straight as I fall.

That’ll conclude the brief ramble on the technical aspects of falling. It’s a fascination of mine that’s only growing further as I expand my skillset further into using falling as a performance tool. Before you go, if you also enjoy being more adept at falling safely, Amos Rendao currently has pre-orders for his course The Art of Falling up now. There’s no sponsorship or affiliate deal here; I’m just a big fan of Amos’s work on falling and am excited to see what he’s developed in the years since I briefly trained with him in Boulder.

Crossing - Short Film

I’m late to posting this, but my friend Denver Carlstrom and I created a short film. I’d intended to get a write-up of the behind-the-scenes or something similar, but alas, I’ve been busier than expected and haven’t gotten around to it.

In lieu of that, here’s the more important bit anyway, the film itself:

Resistance is information

Resistance is information.”

I said this during a class I was leading, applying martial arts concepts to dance improvisation. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but the leader of the group brought it to my attention the next time we met; the concept had resonated with her. Her mention of the phrase’s particular usefulness got me pondering it more.

Resistance is a feeling or sensation that is often seen as negative, and something to avoid at all costs. Having someone resist our ideas is frustrating; fighting against an opponent’s strength without success or feeling our partner actively resist a movement we’re suggesting in a dance can be even more so.

But what I’ve learned from the martial arts is that resistance can be—and is perhaps always—useful and good. Resistance gives us tactile information about where the other person is. The more resistance and tension I feel through my sparring partner’s body in a given moment, the surer I can be of where they are now and where they are likely to move next. I can instinctively feel the areas they’re taking special care to hold strong, which in turn allows me to feel weaknesses elsewhere.

The dangerous opponents are the ones who are relaxed. Testing their structure yields no resistance, so you have a more difficult time determining where they are, and where they will move. They are fluid, ready to shift and give ground as you attack and then to surge back with their own offensive move without warning. In the martial arts, where you want to trick or otherwise limit your opponent’s ability to predict your next move, any resistance will telegraph your intentions about your own movement and your fears. Relaxation, by contrast, makes you opaque and difficult to read.

In dance—perhaps in any cooperative endeavor—resistance behaves in reverse. Resistance creates structure and a clarity of direction. If I’m sending tension into my palms and my partner is pushing back, any shift in direction or pressure is clearly communicated so that the other can respond. If one of us is too loose, that same signal is lost or delayed. Resistance here gives us the confidence to follow each other and take the risk of sacrificing our individual centers of gravity to the one shared between us.

Of course, the challenge in either case is that there’s an ideal level of tension at any given moment, and that ideal level shifts depending upon the situation at hand. A complete lack of tension would have us in a heap on the floor, unable to move, while too much resistance makes us into unstable pillars, unable to move as well, but easy to topple. In a sparring session, you’ve got to be relaxed enough to conserve energy and remain difficult to read, yet you do sometimes need to resist in order to return to a space where you can relax. In dance, resistance as a source of structure is useful for weight sharing, but too much structure turns to stiffness and limits the creative avenues. A more balanced structure to the communication opens up opportunities for slow or fine movements to reveal themselves through a gentle suggestion from a change in angle and pressure from connected hands or shoulders, or even from the intent broadcast through gaze and body language.

With practice, we can take the principles of balancing resistance and relaxation from the dojo or studio into other situations, recognizing that resistance will give us information to clarify where we stand and help decide our next move.

Exploration: Ballet, Modern, and T'ai Chi

Now for a different sort of post format. It’s a little more personal; just musings on a question that I haven’t yet answered, and to which there may be no ‘correct’ answer.

I feel torn between two different modes of moving. I’m practicing t’ai chi and other internal martial arts principles regularly, with both a focused session to begin most mornings and as my default way of moving through the day. I’m also learning modern dance, with a strong flavoring of ballet principles (and likely soon ballet itself). The demands from each are almost as opposite as they can get. In t’ai chi, a central tenet is to keep the hip joint loose and mobile, often actively rotating, and to move with bent, soft knees. In ballet and modern dance, the hips are kept stationary, with the legs and torso moving around them most of the time, and walking, balancing, and landing from jumps are done with straight legs all the way through or as soon as possible—it’s the ideal baseline to which the dancer returns. T’ai chi gains strength from softness, while ballet creates beautiful form from tension and structure. Ballet emphasizes raising up and standing tall; t’ai chi roots you into the ground.

At this stage, the principles I’ve learned about movement from conventional strength and conditioning, parkour, and martial arts (including t’ai chi) become interference patterns in my study of modern dance and ballet, causing hitches in my ability to pick up the movements and positions. It’s tempting to try to forget the other forms in order to allow new ones in, but I’m more curious to see what happens when I allow seemingly contradictory movement systems to become part of my postures and to shape my unconscious default movement. I wonder what might show up from that fusion. At the very least, I much prefer the idea of expanding my movement vocabulary continuously, and having access to as many words and phrases as possible, to structure my movement to suit the situation at hand, rather than being stuck in one dialect.

Movement and the brain

Of all the life on Earth, one of the most intriguing creatures to me is the sea squirt. The grown sea squirts look more like bulbous modern-art vases than living beings, but the baby sea squirt, which looks a little like a bubble with a tail, begins its life swimming around the ocean, equipped with a nervous system that’s obviously smaller than ours, but remarkably similar in structure, including a brain. That system enables it to move and survive, responding to threats and remaining flexible. A sea squirt becomes an adult when it finds a nice rock to anchor to, and, having no need to move for the rest of its life, eats its own nervous system and brain.

Like the sea squirts’, our brains exist for movement. We would have no need of such complex and metabolically expensive thinking hardware if we didn’t have such variable and adaptable movement needs, particularly concerning the use of tools. While our brains can be used toward myriad ends—speech, imagination, art, invention, empathy, and many others—the foundational piece that arguably enables the rest is the need and desire to move. We have always needed to move for our survival, whether that was escaping predators, hunting, exploring new territory, or building shelters and tools. We didn’t become the apex predator because we were the fastest, strongest, or meanest creatures out there, it’s because we are the wiliest: humans are extremely adaptable, social, and skilled makers and users of tools. All tools we use fundamentally require movement, although our modern tools focus mostly the fine motor skills of the hands—still movement, technically, but barely enough to qualify anymore.

We each have this massive, intricate brain, designed for and craving movement and novelty, and we’ve stuck ourselves and our brains in a modern world where the demands are less of the deadly-predator variety and more often the perceived threats of deadlines, tests, and boss fights. All these amazing skills literally sitting there during both work and play, wasting away due to neglect. It doesn’t have to be that way–we’re all capable of amazing feats of movement, it’s just a matter of getting moving and going out to play.

References

The Human Sea Squirt

Daniel Wolpert: The Real Reason for Our Brains (TED)

Stuart Brown, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul

Fear(less) Atrophy

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about resilience—specifically, the way one can exercise it, and make it stronger, becoming a toughened individual. I gve a few examples, but mostly the post was an intellectual reflection on the concept, meant to start a train of thought. I didn’t realise how soon after that I’d get to examine my own resilience up close, outside of my typical context for improving my resilience.

This past weekend I took part in a film hackathon. I’ve helped on a couple of films in the past, and I’ve certainly worked under tight deadlines to create other things. In this case though it was the first time in a long time that I was not just helping someone else create their idea, but shipping a finished creative project that I had more of an emotional investment in—and all under an extremely tight deadline. We had Saturday morning to create a concept, the afternoon and evening to film, and then Sunday at 4pm to edit together the final film. In total that was, at most, twenty four hours to work on the film from concept to completion.

Saturday was fine. My team of three had come up with a solid concept that seemed simple enough to execute. I wasn’t at all stressed about getting enough footage—in fact, we’d been successful at getting several longer interviews. Sunday was a different matter: it was time to edit, and as the one with the most experience in that area, I was going to be driving. At best I would have had seven hours to complete the edit. Now, a typical short video takes me a couple of hours to edit and polish, and my own videos are intentionally simple to cut, and I already have the storyline worked out before I sit down to edit. In this case we didn’t know the storyline going into it, and we had more footage to weave together (over an hour of interviews), so I knew this edit was going to take longer than usual. By the time we finished collecting and reviewing all of our interview footage and getting the good bits on a timeline to edit, it was past noon. I had less than four hours to complete the edit, and we’d be creating and tweaking our narrative on the fly during that time.

I didn’t immediately feel physically stressed, but by 2:00 we were still constructing and restructuring the narrative. The film was still very rough, with many places where the cuts and transitions felt awkward, and I was doing my best to make quick intuitive cuts to save time. By 3:30 we had only just finalized the overall structure, but hadn’t included any cutaways to secondary footage, fine tuned edits, adjusted audio, or even touched the color. The mounting pressure from the deadline brought forth a notable, and steadily increasing, stress response: feeling warmer, narrowed focus, a palpable sense of the blood pumping, and a drop in fine motor control. It took extra care to keep my mouse hand steady and to click in the correct places. I had a fear of wasting any time on unnecessary mistakes, as correcting those would cut into the precious time we had left. 4:00 passed and we were still working. We reviewed the cut at 4:15, and I fixed a few obvious mistakes and cut out a section to get us under the five minute max. Ten minutes trying to balance audio as quickly as possible and prep for export. 4:30: exported! Finally, I could get up and move. I hadn’t realise how long I’d been sitting there, intently focused on the work—high stress while sitting is a challenge, it feels more difficult to dissapate it, as the body much prefers dealing with stressful situations through movement (the fight, flight, or freeze responses). I left the small glass conference room we’d been working in to take a walk.

I was still feeling anxious—showing your work always feels fraught with conflicting emotions, and waiting for the response often feels the worst, especially when you know that with more time you could have polished it more. I wandered around the space for a bit, working the kinks out of my body, still feeling plenty of adrenaline, and decided to try a vault (in my defense, I was around interesting architecture and was probably a squirrel in a past life). But with the stress, scattered focus and intention, and significant height (four and a half feet high, I’d guess), I clipped my foot (similar to before and fell. It wasn’t too bad, other than a few scrapes, and I immediately vaulted the next railing to keep that fall from locking the experience of pain as a block to future practice, but the point remained: my body was still stressed.

That stress didn’t go away until after our film was screened, and not knowing where it’d be in the order added a layer of anticipatory jitters to the process—and of course it ended up being nearly the last one shown. But once that perceived threat was over, the stress and adrenal state finally began to fade.

I don’t think feeling anxious or fearful are bad. Often they’re the signposts that point you towards worthwhile experiences that push you to grow, regardless (or really, because of) of how discomforting they may be. It’s when those fears impact your ability to excel or accurately judge risks that my issue with fear arises. Thus it’s why I find training to be toughened to be necessary and important: to experience fear and stress without interfering with my physical skill, intuition, or capacity to make rational decisions.

In that vein, I’m reminded by this latest experience that I need to maintain a weekly, or even daily, practice of experiencing discomfort, fear and uncertainty, and performing under some type of pressure. The practices I’ve found in the past that have helped have been cold showers, parkour (of course), and making videos…regularly. I’m experimenting with and adding others to that list, including dance rehearsals (a demanding, if different challenge), writing these more personal posts, and publishing more creative work in general.

Maintaining any one of those practices isn’t easy, but consistently dancing at your edge is worth it, and doing so with regularity maintains and develops your capacity to choose growth.

Better Defaults

Defaults are powerful. What we do without thought is what we’ll do the majority of the time, shaping us more than anyone else can or any conscious action we can take. A helpful default behavior can protect us and encourage steady growth over time. Whether you’re aware of it or not, negative defaults will always sabotage progress.

Defaults behaviors are impacted most by your environment. The ideal environment is designed so that the only possibility is the behavior you actually want. Trying to make change solely with willpower—trying to make yourself walk past the Chocolate-Coated Sugar Bombs in the pantry to get to the eggs every single morning, rather than just getting rid of the sugary cereal—without first changing your environment is a recipe for failure. As much as possible, remove even the option of the choice you’ve chosen not to make.

When you are faced with a decision that you can’t entirely control, better choices come from having default heuristics or clear rules. Without some system for choosing, decision fatigue can lead to poor choices, but training yourself into the habit of only choosing based on one or two criteria can save precious willpower. If you have filters that help you choose quickly, you have plenty of willpower left over to make considered choices when there is no clear best option.

Learn how to identify, understand, and rewire your default behaviors and patterns and you will discover your optimal method for limiting self-sabotage, maintaining momentum, and reaching your goals in any area of life.

(Slow) Hunting Movement

Today I’m continuing the thought from last week about types of movement other than the rapid, explosive ones often fetishized in modern exercise culture. I started by talking about gathering-type movements—slow, sustained, varied, and long-duration—in contrast to quick, high-power hunting and fighting movements like running and powerlifting. This time I’m examining the hunting-movement paradigm, but recognizing the other, just as important, aspects of the practice which I don’t see people training either: the practices of both complete stillness and the appearance of stillness while in motion.

I’ll begin by saying I’ve never done actual hunting of any sort, although it’s on my list of skills to acquire. Many of these thoughts come out of my recent experience in going through a class on scouting—the art of remaining hidden for either hunting or information-gathering—while attending the Firefly Gathering.

I’d already had many years of practicing various stealth steps, thanks to an early and lasting obsession with ninja and their techniques. In hindsight I realise I was expecting the first section of the class, which focused on silent movement, to be mostly review, but I ended up learning quite a bit about several new steps and gaining a fuller understanding of the context for ones I’d done before. The step pattern I was most familiar with is typically referred to as the fox step: you touch the outside edge of the forefoot down first, then gently roll weight towards the big toe before slowly bringing the heel down last. It’s my default for walking barefoot through the forest, as I can avoid committing weight to any step before I’m sure that there isn’t something sharp underfoot. After I learned a few other stepping techniques, it became apparent that the fox step is most useful on softer terrain, whereas the rock step resembles a normal walk, but dialed back until you can feel the subtle change in pressure in every millimeter of skin as your weight presses into the ground. Another one I hadn’t seen before was the mongoose step, which has you walking just on the ball of your foot to minimize the size of your footprint. Try it out—and if you want a real challenge, try it backward!

More than pure technique, though, what I got from this section of the class was an emphasis on slowness—extreme slowness. We played a game where one person would sit on the ground, eyes closed, with a metal water bottle placed in front of them. The rest of the group was arranged in a circle around them. Silently, the instructor would choose one person to creep up and steal the bottle without being heard. When I was in the center, everything seemed to get louder: picking up the tiniest rustle in the grass, dry as it was from the hot summer weather, was simple. The challenge was to differentiate and isolate the ambient noise from those sounds with intent. Was that just the whisper of a sudden breeze? Or the sound of a foot grazing a blade of grass? To further complicate matters, the challenge was not just to note the sound, but to point towards its source. It might sound fiendishly difficult, but the listener was most often the winner that day—even our instructor got during his first few steps towards the bottle.

As the bottle thief, I needed to move far more slowly than I ever had before—practically at a glacial pace. The only way around this was to immerse myself in the sounds around me and align faster movements with louder moments. But I didn’t find an opportunity use a burst of movement underneath a layer of noise, I didn’t get far at all. I was also caught within the first couple steps, despite my full attention to the nuances of each laborious step as I raised the foot up, scanned the ground visually for the patch of grass least likely to stir from contact, and gently lowered my foot, being ever-ready to pick the foot back up to re-adjust. Maybe I should have even gone even slower, at or near the speed we had practiced earlier in class—the rate necessary to not be noticed by deer, sixty-six seconds per step. Yes, per step! At that rate it you appear still, but you’re certainly in motion. It’s incredibly challenging to maintain that minute per step pace with your weight all on one leg and quite possibly positioned in some unusual way to avoid branches and other foliage—as capable of foiling your attempts at stealth as what is underfoot. Even practicing at that speed for a couple of steps gave me immense respect for the actual scouts doing this for half an hour, or longer.

The ninja had similar practices, and one demanding requirement of their training was the development of the capacity to freeze immediately and remain motionless until the threat had passed, whether that was thirty seconds or thirty minutes later. While it wasn’t addressed in the class I took, I imagine scouts trained with similar goals in mind. That sort of training requires incredible body control and endurance to accomplish.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen this type of movement emphasized in conventional training, except perhaps in yoga. Yet whether you’re trying to round out a hunting skillset or are interested in a more holistic approach to human movement, this kind of intensely slow movement, laden with intention, is as important as anything else we classify as exercise or training.

Can't vs. Don't

Can’t is an imposition. Can’t is a grudgingly accepted duty. “I can’t eat this.” “I can’t do that.” “I can’t feel what I’m feeling.” I’m not allowed. I’m not supposed to. It’s an order handed down from faceless authority. You fight against can’t.

Don’t is an act of self-mastery. Don’t is a choice that’s already been made. Don’t is not a question. There’s no decision point, no pros and cons to weigh. It becomes a piece of your identity: this is who you are and how you operate. You fight for don’t.

A morning movement routine

I’ve always had trouble sticking to positive morning routines. I’ve experimented with many different ideas for morning habits and how to structure that first hour or so of the day, but rarely stuck to them for more than two weeks. The one habit that has stuck and cemented over the past two years, is to wake up, make a cup of tea (usually), and sit down with my journal. I love how writing helps me process my thoughts, setting the track and tone for the rest of the day. It also tends to lift my mood, especially now that the first task I set for myself is to write out three things I’m grateful for from yesterday—a good way to stack the habits of journaling and gratitude together, especially when I don’t have much time.

But on the physical side of things, that means a lot of my mornings have been looking like this: wake up, roll out bed and amble into the kitchen for tea (or just stay in bed), grab my pen and notebook, then sit down on the bed to write, sometimes for quite a while. Not a whole lot of movement going on.

About two months ago, I listened to an excellent interview with Shawn Stevenson about sleep. One point that caught my attention was his mention of how spending time in movement soon after waking up, teamed with exposure to outdoor light, could improve sleep and the physical recovery processes during it. It was then time for an experiment. The movement didn’t have to be strenuous, and walking was suggested, but I wanted to create a habit that develops some skill or capacity I haven’t worked on near as much as I’d prefer—as nice as it’d be to walk in the nearby forest every morning.

After more pondering, I realized I could combine a low-impact morning movement routine with meditation, an elusive habit I’ve never got to stick. I chose a movement from t’ai chi called silk reeling, which I’d been practicing off-and-on for the past year. It’s proving to be a wonderful choice, as it’s a meditative breath-focused movement that grows with me—I’m by no means an expert at it, and it’s a deep and nuanced skill that teaches me more every time I practice.

I began the habit by heading out to the secluded deck just outside my bedroom and doing one to three minutes of silk reeling before heading back inside for tea and journaling. After several months, that time has lengthened to average over five minutes, sometimes stretching past ten (about twelve in the video below). I’d like to get to a point where I can maintain this practice without fatigue for about twenty minutes.

In addition to the possible benefits to sleep and recovery, it’s simply something I enjoy doing. It starts me off with movement and breathing, and puts me into a more meditative mindset before attending to the day ahead. It’s also low impact and brief enough (if I choose) that I can easily stack it with more movement, whether that’s mobility, light conditioning, or otherwise. I may refine this routine in the future, but for now this beginning suits me well.