Gathering Movement

While I was listening to a podcast by Katy Bowman recently, my attention was especially caught by her discussion of the semantics of fitness. She observed the tendency to think of both movement and the fitness of our body in terms that focus on a hunting theme—on pursuit and battle. We favor intensity, pushing heart rates up, running as fast as we can to break our previous best, and in general straining towards our physiological breaking points to improve.

Important? Of course. Possessing the necessary the ability to sprint or express strength explosively can be a matter of life or death. So too can the capacity to move continuously for hours at the edges of your physical ability, carry considerable loads for distance, or move heavy objects be enormously useful in the right circumstances. However, our ancestors were not running all-out for their lives or their dinner literally every time they moved. That narrow focus has led to undervaluing other ways of moving.

For an example, as Katy points out, there’s little emphasis on movements that resemble our ancestral methods of gathering and foraging. Would you consider going out to the forest to pick berries and small plants—balancing and picking your way over rocks and roots, scanning your surroundings, stooping, squatting, and using your hands in finely dexterous ways—to be improving your fitness or movement? Probably not. You’d be going out for fun, to explore, or to gather nourishment. While I’d say that’s a better way to look at it anyway, it’s also helpful to recognize that this slower, often longer duration, movement is as valuable to us and to our health as the intense stuff is. It’s a different sort of training: one that requires and develops attentiveness, precision and sustained effort.

The intensity within the hunt encompasses only a fraction of the total time our ancestors spent moving. I believe we need to recognize and value these other, often less eye-catching or (apparently) physically strenuous, modes of moving. They’re just as important for a healthy movement practice and active life.

Toughened Individuals

I pressed my foot down on the clutch and guided the heavy gearshift into the spot for the lower gear, then eased my foot up, trying to be as smooth as possible. The engine had been rumbling along like normal, but all of a sudden the friendly rumblings stopped. This wasn’t the first time the engine had died on me. The tractor was the first manual-transmission vehicle I’d ever driven, and I was still in the learning curve; the engine would often cut out if I mistimed the release of the clutch. This time, though, it was on a steep hill.

The tractor began to roll backwards, picking up speed rapidly, and was soon hurtling down the perilously narrow path, squeezed between a fenced paddock holding several horses and the ditch. It was technically an irrigation ditch, but in Iceland that meant it was more of a ravine; nearly a mini-canyon—ten feet across and more than six feet deep, enough to walk several cows down it side by side with room to spare. And there I was, mere feet from tipping this massive, careening vehicle right down into the deep gash in the earth—a possibility that could very well result in serious injury.

I felt strangely calm. The engine dying wasn’t new, and I had brakes, which I’d pressed down as soon as I felt the wheels begin their backwards roll. But they weren’t engaging—the tractor didn’t stop or even slow down, and in the few moments that had already passed, the two-ton vehicle had gained even more momentum. I looked back to see where it was aimed: straight for the ravine. That should have been a moment for panic. Yet I remained effortlessly calm. I was oddly fascinated by this tranquil feeling, but filed that away to deal with the immediate and much more pressing problem. With only a moment to act, I focused my effort on steering the tractor back onto the dirt path, looking over my shoulder and carefully turning the wheel to follow the curve as it passed the horse fence and barn. After the path straightned out, I set the gear to neutral and turned the key to restart the engine—to no effect. Just then I remembered that the brakes could be finnicky even on flatter ground, and tried again, nearly standing on the pedal, mashing it to the floor. This time they engaged, and the tractor gave an abrupt kick and shuddered to a stop. I put it in park and jumped out, checking to make sure everything was alright, including myself. The tractor was fine, the fences were intact, and I felt no sign of the adrenaline rush that I would have expected—no shaking hands or body, normally paced heart rate, and no increase in body tempterature. I drove the tractor back up the hill to its parking spot and mentally noted the experience down as another odd case of performance under pressure.

Later, upon reflection, I postulated that my regular exposure to risk, albeit smaller and with less severe consequences for a mistake, through parkour and other movement practices is what allowed me to act so rationally under conditions with significant danger. While I understood that intuitively and had pondered and written about it in the past, it was confirmed more directly, and named, in the book Between the Hour of Dog and Wolf by John Coates—an unexpected source, as the book is focused on Wall Street traders and how their behaviors change when they’re either winning or losing. The name given for the phenomenon of calmness under pressure I experienced was being “toughened.” This isn’t just semantics, either; Coates describes the physiological differences in individuals with this quality:

“In a toughened individual, amine [dopamine, adrenaline, noradrenaline] levels are lower at rest, rise more strongly when stressed and shut off quickly. Since this person’s physiology is capable of handing the stressors being thrown at him, his homeostasis is not thrown out of balance, so he handles the stress without emotional distress [emphasis mine]. Physiological coping and emotional distress seem to be alternatives—if your body is coping, why get upset? As we saw when discussing homeostasis, emotions erupt, urging us to try alternative behaviors, when our body, left on autopilot, cannot handle a crisis on autopilot. The research into toughness has suggested that our brain silently compares the demands being made on us against the resources we can draw on (taking into account our training and skill). If our resources are sufficient we view the event as a challenge and relish it; if not we see it as a threat and shrink from it….

“What is remarkable about the research into toughning is the discovery that these amine-producing cells, like muscles, not only need a recovery period to rebuild their inventories, but can also be trained to increase their productive capacity. The greater this capacity, the less likely they are to become depleted during stress, the more likely we are to view events as challenges, and the less likely we are to draw on the more damaging cortisol response. A strong first response by amines is the sign of someone who is coping; a strong cortisol reponse, someone who is not.”

What’s fascinating to me is that the mindset of viewing novelty as a welcome challenge is echoed in the obstacles-into-opportunities narrative that underlies the philosophy and practice of parkour. I hadn’t realized it, but through my practice I was turning myself into a toughened individual.

After all, the key point about training to be toughened is frequent exposure to danger and potential failure. Parkour is a skill-based art, and every moment of practice holds the risk of failure. Between the physical nature, interacting with hard physical obstacles, and a particular part of the parkour ethos—dubbed “breaking a jump,” the act of successfully completing a jump or technique for the first time—the practice of parkour acts as an amazingly effective way to develop this resilience and toughness. There’s an emphasis within parkour on seeking out opportunities to break jumps, particularly those that are at the edge of ability your or comfort zone— and it’s these that will trigger the stressed state. Learning how to feel the fear and still act is what makes the practice of breaking jumps so potent and far-reaching for every other potentially stressful situation in one’s life.

It’s not a matter of never being scared. Confronting and acknowledging fear and acting anyway is exactly how one becomes toughened. Being toughened means you react to frightening and potentially dangerous situations calmly, allowing you to make the correct decisions in the matter of a moment without panicking or losing control. It also means you avoid the problem of constant worry, which wears down the mind and body. The resultant obstacles-into-opportunities mindset makes improving one’s health, relationships, career and life a breeze; even a game—you’re less afraid to ask for the date or promotion, tackle the big project, or head off on an adventure when you’re toughened.

So what does this mean for you? How can you train your mind and body to better handle stressful situations, from small annoyances to matters of life and death? The process is surprisingly straightforward: take small risks, consider failure a badge of honor and a demonstration of the fact that you’re trying, and do things that scare you every day.

Via negativa

Subtract, don’t add, to make positive changes. There’s a common thought in the pursuits of optimized training, diet, and lifestyle that you must always add to your routine to improve, rather than paring away the nonessential.

We tend to add more complexity, trying some new workout routine or diet plan or throwing ourselves into multiple habit changes at once. All this does is make each change more difficult for us to actually keep.

Better to simplify and remove the unnecessary first—and often you’ll discover that’s all you need.

Kinesthetic Literacy

During an interview on Daniel Vitalis’ Rewild Yourself podcast, Tom Myers, creator of Anatomy Trains, brings up the concept of kinesthetic learning and literacy. He talks about the three modes of learning that neurolinguistic programming (NLP) can identify: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. Specifically, he noted that of the three, kinesthetic is the most underused in our culture.

As I listened, it struck me that some of the processes I’d always thought of as kinesthetic learning actually weren’t. Watching your teacher and trying to imitate their movement is more visual than kinesthetic. Hearing cues that describe the movement as it’s seen, whether by an outside observer or by you observing your own body and position (e.g. “keep your knees over your toes,” “stand straight,” “bend with your back flat”, etc.) is auditory, but also based on a visual orientation.

Kinesthetic awareness, by contrast, is based on your internal sense of position, without necessary reference to visual cues. It’s knowing what a movement feels like, having an awareness of how your body moves, and being able to use that awareness to pick up new movement patterns and phrases.

The lack of focus on kinesthetic learning is a paradox—it’s both easier and more difficult to use. To teach using kinesthetic cues, you’ve got to know a movement well enough to verbally cue how it should feel to the student, rather than trying to get them to visually mimic the shape or movement. Even more effective would be to physically move your student into the correct position—a powerful method, but, due to the culture in the US around touch, rarely used. Myers references the case of a Balinese dance teacher who would drape themselves over and around their student to demonstrate a new position. It shifts the mimicry from a visual, outwardly focused one, trying to translate the way the teacher looks into your own body, towards mimicry through feel, with the teacher’s sense of weight and pressure conveying position and movement directly to the student.

Often, too, skills don’t feel at all like they look. Yuri Marmerstein observed that learning this movement was tricky for him because the feeling from inside the movement was completely different from how it looked. I’m noticing lately that this problem is particularly common with acrobatic skills, as the combination of speed and briefer contact with the ground leaves one with limited information to go off of.

All of this means that investing more time into developing your somatic awareness will improve the speed with which you can learn new movements. Pursuing a deeper practice of body awareness enables an ease of movement that comes from an embodied feel of posture and motion.

Learning kinesthetically is a critical piece in the journey of physical mastery. Why? Because you always have those kinesthetic senses (proprioception and kinesthesia, if you want the specific terms) available to you. Visual cues are often either difficult or impossible to obtain or actively detrimental to performing the movements. A perfect example of this is how dance is typically taught: in a studio, in front of a mirror. Your reflection is both helpful and distracting. It’s easier to fix subtleties of form with visual reference at first, because the internal awareness of what the ideal position or movement feels like isn’t there yet. But at the same time you can’t actually rely on a mirror to confirm your technique when you take that same dance to the stage or street. Moving from a visual to a kinesthetic understanding of the movement is essential to truly mastering it.

Handstands and Work

Handstands are hard.

There are many other skills I’ve been able to practice piecemeal, dabbling when the mood strikes me over months or years, and still seen noticeable improvements (QDR being a great example). Handstands are not one of those skills. While I’ve technically been practicing handstands for years, the best I’d ever had was maybe a ten second freestanding handstand, which was a total fluke and unrepeatable. In parkour there’s a phrase: “once is never.”

I’ve written before about the motivation for movement, making the pursuit fun and playful. For myself, at least, that’s difficult to do with handstands; they just take work. Logged hours, brutal drills, and progress slow to the point of being hard to see at all, in a position that’s the opposite of innate, with your feet completely out of communication with the ground…all the ingredients for a skill that’s more comfortable to quit than to persevere and conquer.

Looking back now I’m not surprised I never invested the time to properly learn the handstand before now. I didn’t want it enough. A handstand is just a cool party trick unless you’ve got a purpose for it. While there are many excellent benefits to learning it from a movement intelligence perspective—better alignment, improved shoulder strength, greater body awareness, and being comfortable upside down—those benefits were just intellectually interesting. I didn’t feel a tangible desire to learn; it was too abstract and distant at the time. It wasn’t clear how it would help either my parkour or martial arts practices, and even once dancing entered the picture (where it could conceivably be useful and interesting) I still didn’t feel compelled to do the work to solidify the skill.

I wanted to, at some level, but it was a casual desire. I didn’t care enough to move from wanting to acting.

Then I discovered the local circus and acro yoga communities. For me, being able to balance myself on my hands, just for its own sake, wasn’t enough. But if it meant being able to work on higher-level skills to try with other people, well, that was my ticket to physically desiring a better handstand.

It helps that many of the partner acrobatic skills that have you balanced while inverted are easier to hold than an actual freestanding handstand, so I was able to experience what balancing upside-down felt like. Plus, with knowledgeable folks there to correct and teach all the subtleties of the handstand position, progress has begun to feel less sluggish.

In my case, the path to enjoying the process has been to focus on making improvements towards a handstand press, which is addressing my weak point in the ability to pull the legs up from the ground while keeping them straight. Handstand line drills are still maddening, as is learning how to sense the ideal hollow position, but it’s all feeling more worthwhile now that I have both a community to make use of the skill and the neccessary feedback to improve more quickly.

Once I found a purpose for the skill, backed by a community, the desire coalesced into action.

Going slowly

During some of my dance practice yesterday I was doing movements at the barre, working on footwork interspersed with pliers (knee bends or squats). During this practice I was challenged to go slower. Now, just a moment before I had thought I was going slow enough. I thought I had been matching my teacher’s tempo. Yet he was, perplexingly, asking me to go more slowly.

As someone who’s spent most of his time in movement practice working on explosive movements, whether through martial arts or parkour, this whole deliberate slowness feels unusual. Relative to what I’ve been used to I’m sure I felt I was going slow enough, but upon reflection that slowness was not equal throughout—there’s often a suddenness to the beginnings and transitions in the movement, with the middle of the movement feeling like a fight to keep it slow enough.

That wasn’t what he was looking for. Instead what I discovered was that I needed to have a relaxed control and an evenness of speed throughout the movement. Maintaining that constant speed as I moved bent my knees then also as I came back to standing straight was still quite effortful, yet it felt different. There wasn’t the typical sense of strain and feeling the muscles fatiguing as the motion continued—though it was still tiring, I discovered after class that my legs felt more rubbery than expected. Instead there was a heightened awareness of the wholeness of the movement, a feeling of what each muscle was doing to hold the correct posture while moving from standing to the bottom of the plier, and then back up.

After I finished the sequence to his satisfaction my teacher said that (and I’m paraphrasing) by going slowly one can sense every detail in the movement and learn what the correct path through the movement feels like. After that class I’m excited to explore slowness in other techniques, in order to gain a greater sense of the nuances of the techniques themselves, but more importantly of how my body moves.

A play trick

Play is underrated and misunderstood. I love the word, yet I find that it’s assumed to be frivolous and without a point, clearly as adults we don’t need any of that. But we do! We need play. Play is one of the best ways to learn and playing can be more then something superfluous and silly…and even if it isn’t, so what? But it’s often hard to give ourselves permission to play.

A trick I use to get over the resistance to playing is framing play as outcome independent experimentation. I’m playing the inquisitive scientist with a love for the process, not madly seeking progress or breakthrough—enjoying the failures as much as the successes. A question will arise or I’ll have an idea wander in and instead of judging its merits I’ll try it, driven by curiosity to see what happens. Sometimes this experimentation process looks quite serious: trying to solve some movement puzzle, failing over and over, and making focused adjustments to my approach until I solve it. During those times I might have that intense focused face, but I’m still deeply engaged and loving the process. At other times these experiments are ridiculous looking and its hard not to laugh after each attempt. Either way I’ve snuck myself into a playful mindset by donning this scientist persona.

Positive excuses

Often during my life I’ve found reasons to not do something, excuses for avoiding what I needed to do. Whether that’s to get up, go outside, and move around, to talk to that interesting stranger next to me on the bus, or to do the dishes before they become a foreboding mass. We use excuses all the time. Our minds have the incredible ability to justify just about anything, regardless of how twisted the logic needs to become to justify the decision. It’s as if there’s a team of the sleaziest copywriters on the planet in your head, tasked with selling you on the idea that the laziest, most stagnant, and boring version of you is the one you want to be.

The challenge is that you can’t stop generating excuses, but that’s okay. What you can do is either ignore the internal excuse generator (a trainable skill) or like a good martial artist, flip its power in your favor.

How? Positive excuses.

A negative excuse is a reason NOT to do a task.

A positive excuse is a reason to DO a task.

Positive excuses change the question from an avoidant “Why not?” to a playful “Why not?” The easiest road into practicing positive excuse making is for handling boredom. If I find myself bored or in one of those moments in-between during the day I often will cook up a movement challenge. When I used to take the bus to and from town all the time I’d practice balancing on one leg. Waiting in line at a store I’ll often do ankle conditioning, standing on the outside edges of my feet. If I’m out walking somewhere I’ll begin a floor is lava game, or balance alongside an edge of the sidewalk. If I’m doing a chore like sweeping or doing the dishes I adopt the Shaolin mindset of treating it as part of my practice, attending closely to the quality of the movement.

Another way to use positive excuses is to consciously choose to make it harder. When I was living without a car in college I would often get groceries and then not take the bus back, walking the 1-3 miles back to my apartment with two filled-to-the-brim bags of groceries instead. Other ideas include choosing to use the stairs over the escalator (unless you’re running backwards on it!) or elevator; taking the shorter route while walking, even if there are obstacles to get over; or choosing the longer but harder route if the short one isn’t challenging enough.

When the choice is the mundane or inactive, choose active and interesting. When the choice is between boring and challenging choose challenging. When the choice is between self-love and self-hate, choose self-love. After all, why not?

Breathing power

Breath is a deep subject and a major area of exploration for me. In lieu of writing an epic piece about some of that exploration, for today it’ll be an anecdote about breath from training earlier this evening.

I had driven out to the UNC campus with the plans to teach, but it was one of those nights with no students. When this happens I make a point to practice rather than head straight back home—a habit that I created when I was teaching multiple nights every week as a means to maintain my own practice, otherwise at risk of becoming forgotten. These sorts of training sessions are more spur-of-the-moment than usual, as I had students’ training plans in my head, not my own. The upside is that I’ll often default to working on the basics or exploring some movement(s) that are currently piquing my interest.

Of the basics the one movement I always practice when I’m out, even if just once, is the climb-up. Even after seven years of practice I still have improvements to make on it, and greasing the groove makes for steady progress over time. As I walked up the hill towards my practice spot for climb-ups I was reminded of a challenge: do 25 of each movement you know within a single training session…Completing the whole thing was out of the question today, a combination of recovering from a long weekend of contact improv workshops and needing to return to finish some work (this writing included!) meant I knew immediately I wasn’t going to attempt it, but I could modify it to suit my current constraints.

The wall I headed to, a frequently visited spot, has a set of stone walls, one at chest height set at an angle, and a taller wall about seven or eight feet high. While I wasn’t going to do every movement I knew, I came up with a sequence of three I could do using these walls: a jumping grab from the low wall to the high, doing a climb-up to get on top of the higher wall, and executing a drop jump back to the lower one; a good mixture of physical and mental challenges— climb-ups are always physically taxing and drop jumps are one of the skills I have the worst flinch responses to, regardless of the size of the gap involved.

I got started without planning to focus on anything in particular during the challenge. After about ten repetitions though I was beginning to feel a combination of minor fatigue and the slight jitter of adrenaline from working through the flinch on the drop jumps each time. To manage both I shifted my focus to my breath, taking care to have full slow breaths between each round especially as I stepped up to my takeoff point, setting my sights on the edge of the wall I wanted to grab. When I succeeded at doing a full inhale, without excess tension or anticipation, right before beginning the jump I noticed two unexpected changes. The first was that my first go success rate was higher. Many of the 25 rounds of this jump, climb-up, drop jump sequence included getting caught at the last moment by a fearful hesitation to begin the jumps—which from experience I use as a signal to abort the attempt rather than half-ass it. But if I maintained steady and full breathing and kept my body relaxed until the exact moment I exploded into motion that fear stayed out of the way of clean execution.

The second was a change I’m surprised I hadn’t noticed before. I’ve known and advised for ages that you should exhale as you begin explosive movements. Yet it’s one of those tidbits of knowledge that’s easy to preach, but also easy to forget to practice. The exhale as you take off aids relaxation of the body in preparation for landing. In this case I was landing on the side of the wall, with the goal to use the force of the landing to rebound into a fast climb-up onto the top of the wall. When I wasn’t attending to this breathing pattern those climb-ups often had a slow transition from the landing on the wall to the pull to get over it, making for an okay but clunky feeling technique. When I had the breathing dialed in, with a full exhale on the jump, I would make contact with the wall, spring immediately out of the landing, and casually end up standing on top as if I’d floated up.

Practicing breathing might not seem exciting or sexy, but the benefits of doing so certainly are.

Movement systems

I’m not a fan of rigid. codified, systems especially for movement. I may just be echoing Bruce Lee’s idea of “Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless, and add what is uniquely your own,” but that concept is worth remembering and applying beyond the martial arts. Because systems are packages of knowledge that the creator(s) found worked for themselves and those they taught. Systems can be wonderful pathways towards mastery when they work for you, but you can just as easily get stuck in them, unaware of the knowledge and experience you’re missing out on by not exploring beyond their bounds. After all, you’re a unique individual and it’s up to you to find what moves you. With access to the internet and global connectivity we have unfettered access to immense knowledge. With that access comes the ability to explore just about any movement art, seek out communities, and discover what works for you and what doesn’t.

From my experience it isn’t the what portion of any given art or system that matters, but instead the approach each has to movement, and whether (or how much) that approach aligns with your own. Why is this important? Well, first, if you find a system that suits you then by all means, stick with it. At the same time I encourage you to experiment with other arts to see how it can improve your main focus. If there’s anything that has become increasingly clear to me, it’s that everything is connected. While we can codify a system with a set of movements, nothing makes it so distinct an art that you can’t draw parallels and find links in other movement arts.

For fun and to provide more concrete visuals here are a couple recent examples I’ve noticed in my own practice of connections between arts:

  • The Thai kick, a powerful sweeping kick aimed at the thighs is best executed with ballet-esque posture. The standing leg is straight, with the foot turned out as maximally to open the hip, and as the kick begins the whole body is held tall and open, from kicking leg to the head.
  • Watching a Martha Graham style modern dance piece I saw lots of circus style acrobatic lifts.
  • Belly dancing’s standing posture resembles that of many of the Chinese internal martial arts: knees bent, tailbone tucked, and upper body kept relaxed and stacked on the hips.

Thus for myself I’ve become less and less interested in picking a system or defining myself as any one type of movement artist (a traceur, a ninja, a modern dancer, a t’ai chi practitioner, a climber, circus performer, yogi, etc.) the more time I spend learning about movement. Instead the new approach I find myself attracted to is simple: improving my physical intelligence. I do have several core practices that I maintain, those that align best with my preferences and philosophy, but I’m now remaining open to learning movement from anywhere. In the past I’d rejected learning from gymnastics or ballet, yet now I’m exploring both and finding that they’re improving my body awareness and control, in addition to proving useful to my parkour, martial arts, and other dance practices (the non-ballet styles). Exposure to different viewpoints and ways of moving keeps you open to breakthroughs, improves your movement vocabulary, and often can deepen your core practice(s).

And we’re back to Bruce Lee’s idea again, craft your own approach to movement: “Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless, and add what is uniquely your own.”