Monday, January 16, 2012

How Sitting on Your Ass Can Wreck Your Body

I recently read a New York Times article that told me Yoga Can Wreck Your Body. It pointed to several injuries caused by yoga, and has generated a storm of coverage and defensive rebuttles from yogi’s.

But are we missing the point? What is the effect of not exercising? This article mimics the tone of the New York Times article to point out that yoga may wreck your body, but sitting on your ass will certainly put you in an early grave.

On a cold Saturday in early 2009, I sat down to watch reruns of Jerry Seinfeld, a talented comedian who has many awards for his works and devoted followers. Seinfeld and his group are typical of the kind of teacher you will find on television, relaxing 30 minute sit coms that are interrupted by brief suggestions to eat junk food. I watched him and many other television shows in the na├»ve belief that I wouldn’t succumb to the national obesity epidemic. Drug commercials further assured me that they, not regular exercise and good nutrition could cure any ill effects from a sedentary lifestyle fed by junk food.

The Center for Disease control confirms it, our lifestyle is causing diabetes, heart disease and a host of economic, psychological and physiological problems. Yet the popularity of a sedentary lifestyle continues to grow. Fast food resteraunts have doubled in the past 30 years and obesity has risen by 30-50%. Foods increasingly contain high amounts of sugar, fat and salt, and incidences of stroke, high blood pressure and diabetes are skyrocketing.

“I just don’t understand why I can’t loose weight” said Lu Ann, a worker at Burger King who get’s half her calories from SlimFast and the other half from her employer. “I used to exercise, but I am so busy lately”

Americans care about their health, and the media responds by warning people about the dangers of anorexia. Anorexia, and eating disorders are serious business, as is Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy, but there is a question of perspective. Remember that anorexia effects less than 0.2% of the population, while 63.1% of Americans are overweight or obese. It makes perfect sense that the bulk of coverage should focus on stories of supermodels being too skinny.

Every month a newscaster will warn you of the dangers of exercise. Remember Jim Fixx they jogging guru? He died of a Heart Attack. The media makes sure we know the dangers of being too skinny, or getting injured in exercise. Americans are concerned, and continue to watch hours of television in the hopes of a solution. But still heart attacks, strokes, cancer and other illnesses continue.

For me personally, my love of Taco Bell and television continues to grow my waistline. My one saving grace was exercise. But could the deluge of media attention on the dangers of roller blading, running and yoga lead me to think I should opt for a more sedentary lifestyle?

Yoga, when practiced poorly can lead to injury. I have been in hundreds of yoga classes and only rarely does a teacher fail to warn students not to go too far. But I have never seen a singl news episode about the near certain problems caused by laying there watching the news all the time.

People may think "why not just watch TV and eat what you like?" One death in a hot yoga class is covered nationwide while the daily deaths from our sedentary lifestyle get sheepish attention. While teenagers do tend to make poor choices in the hopes of being skinny, the overwhelming problem is not eating too little, but eating too much, and too little nutrition. Teenagers need to be told how beautiful healthy is, instead of being discouraged from trying to lose weight.

Do we need more studies to show us that our lifestyle of calorie dense, nutrition poor food coupled with lack of exercise is killing us? Or can we face the cold hard facts. Laying on your ass can be very dangerous.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Teaching Martial Arts

These are some thoughts from my teacher, Master Ali Brown, head instructor at the Tukong Moosul School in Austin, Texas. Master Brown has studied under the guidance of Grandmaster Wonik Yi since age 6 and is experienced at teaching all ages of students at many stages of their development. Here are a few thoughts he shared with us on teaching.

Qualities of a Good Teacher

Ali began by discussing three qualities of a good teacher.

  1. Know What you are Teaching – “we have all had an experience of someone trying to teach us something they didn’t know”.
  2. Love What You Do – It is important to have a genuine enthusiasm for martial arts which will transfer to your students.
  3. Be Invested In the Student – Do not separate yourself from the student, but rather enter into a relationship and dialogue with the student. Each person learns differently, and has a different body type. So we must realize that they will take what you learn and incorporate it in an “organic” way into their practice. Another part of this is a genuine commitment to the student’s progress, to the extent that you want them to learn it better than you. Master Ali elaborated on this quality at length.

Investment in the Student

“Teaching Martial Arts is not a one way process” Ali said, “It is not ‘I am going to impart my knowledge upon you’ as though there were only one of you learning “When one demonstrates a technique, they must present a concept, and allow the person to integrate organically. As a teacher you cannot know how they are going to integrate that technique.

If, for instance, we were to hook up a series of sensors and probes to Grandmaster Wonik Yi, and determine exactly how he moved in a technique, then imitate it, we would not have the technique. Grandmaster Yi’s body is different, so the energy will flow differently for him than for another.

A teacher can never know how a student will integrate a technique. Ali gave an example of how changing his foot in a basic form changed his practice. However, that exact same instruction would make no difference for many others.

“Teaching Martial Arts is like teaching someone to smile” he said “Or, making Kimchee.” One can analyze every element in kimchee, use the right ingredients, the right timing, and follow a set of steps precisely. Yet one person’s kimchee will taste very different from the other. “ he said “Only the taste will tell you if the kimchee is good.”

“You are learning from them” he said “If it were possible to simply give a set of directions, postures or instructions, we wouldn’t need teachers. That is the difference between a video and a teacher”; the teacher is invested in the student, guiding them through a personal relationship.

Three Types of Students

Master Ali described three types of learning. People learn three different ways.

  1. Visual – watch and imitate.
  2. Auditory – describe the technique in detail and they will perform it.
  3. Kinetic – need to feel the posture, sometimes you have to touch and guide them to the correct posture.

Master Ali discussed visuals and cautioned teachers about some weaknesses. Visuals seem to learn the technique very quickly. They are imitating it quicker than the other styles; however, they often do not truly understand the underlying principles.

He told a story of a friend who watched a Jet Li movie where Li performed a powerful, and beautiful kick. His friend watched it and very quickly was able to leap in the air and spin like Jet Li. “Then he tried it in a fight” Master Ali added and with a wry smile said “it did not end well”

A teacher needs to realize that teachers may have trouble helping a visual learn because the visual learner thinks they have done the technique. He recommended giving the visual learner something to hit, like a bag or pad.


Master Ali recommended that one should erase your attachment to how a student performs. This attachment is particularly strong in testing situations where a teacher takes pride or is disappointed in a student’s performance. It is natural for a teacher to feel pride in a student, but can be a hindrance to good teaching.

Teaching Children

The number one goal Master Ali has when teaching students is that they must love what they are doing. This is more important with children because they often have not made a firm commitment to the martial arts training when they come. If the child doesn’t love the class, they will, sooner or later, stop coming.

Hard vs. Tender

People have different energy and respond to different styles. It is important to distinguish when to be tender and when to be firm. Knowledge of the student is very important in this regard.

Similarly, one should never give an order that one doesn’t fully expect to be implemented. If a student refuses to follow through, you have lost credibility. Also never give an order you are not fully prepared to do yourself.

Master Ali told a story of his youth. As a new black belt he asked one of the junior ranks to do 100 pushups for a minor infraction. A senor (adult) black belt was standing directly behind him and said “Good idea! Ali, please join him in his push ups.” After that, young Ali Brown was more lenient in his pushups.

He emphasized this and another story where a student refused an order to bring the focus back to the investment in the student. Orders, instructions and discipline must spring from a genuine commitment to the student’s success. “You should want a student to do something better than you”.

Culture of the Student

Some people have difficulty teaching because they view themselves as a student. They wonder why they should teach when they have so far to go in their practice. Master Ali encouraged self respect. Humility is a good quality, but one should also acknowledge their accomplishments; even if you haven’t mastered everything you have learned a lot and should impart this to others.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Distractions from Training Part 2: Illness and Injury

In previous blogs I discussed distractions from training. Things which keep us from getting the most from our practice, and can lead to an end for a lifetime of health through practice.

The second most common reason for a break in training is an illness or injury. All human beings take ill on occasion, and if you practice yoga or martial arts there will be times when you injure a muscle or joint. This section on distractions from training deals

with continuing a lifetime practice by maintaining a level of training while ill or injured.


I recently have been experiencing a lot of congestion during my practice due to high cedar counts in Austin. The temptation was to take a day off and stay at home, but I forced myself to keep going to class.

Yoga classes are actually a really good thing to do when you have

allergies. Ujjayi breathing (making a sound like Darth Vader through the nasal passages) is particularly helpful if you are able to do it. Sun salutations invert the upper respiratory tract, then bring it back upright, which causes the congestion to move.

My Martial Arts practice also helped clear the lungs but less effectively. We were focu

sed more on moving, punching, kicking etc… It was quite challenging, and I was definitely “not in the mood” for such activities. In martial arts I huffed and puffed on some of the most rou

tine moves. I grasped for air and panted like a dog most of the class. But at the end of the class much of the congestions hadcleared.

So physically, the lesson learned was the when one has congestion due to allergies, it is best to exercise. Exercises that change the orientation of the nasal passages help cleanse the practice. When one is suffering allergies, be prepared to have a more challenging exercise, and accept that you are not “at the top of your game”.

Training the Mind when the Body is Sub Par

The more profound insights came from continuing my practice even though the body was

exhausted. I took a 9 hour yoga workshop with the amazing Shiva Rea on one of my worst days. Going into the workshop I was congested and generally tired and sluggish. I believe

I was also having a mild cold on top of allergies.

Shiva Rea began the class with a series of sun salutations. She added 16 chaturanga’ s (slow pushups) instead of the usual practice with only one chaturanga. The morning practice consisted 108 chaturanga’s wrapped in a series of sun salutation. I was able to do the first two rounds with little problem, doing full slow chaturanga’s. But I was getting less oxygen, so the practice was wearing me out quickly. By the third round I was starting to feel weary.

This is the point where the real practice began. I focused my will to push past the weariness. I made modifications to my postures to make them a little easier. Heat was building in my body. I monitored it closely to make sure that I didn’t overheat. I monitored my muscles to look out for cramps due to low oxygen intake. I took brief five second rests if I felt my breath getting out of control. I continuously pulled myself back into focus, exercising a calm but determined mind.

Now I don’t want to act like I did this perfectly. My friend looked over at one point and said “are you allright?” I was, but I sure didn’t look it. I was pushing myself right to the edge of my ability that day. This was hard to do because my edge was so much closer than usual. On a

good day I would have been challenged. On this day, round five was requiring extreme effort.

Oddly I began to get energized. I believe at this point I had purged all the congestion (as evidenced by the tissues filling a cup by my mat) and was able to do some powerful moves.

When ill, focus on the mental training

Certainly when one has the flu it is wise to cut back. But I have seen people with cancer, broken legs and rashes all over their body continue to practice. Those people tend to come back quicker.

Don’t push yourself to the extreme when you have an infection or virus. Rest is of utmost importance. So focus on the mind. Meditate, practice breathing techniques (even if congested), and listen to your body. I have found that if I am very sick I listen to my body. The last time I had the flu I knew the exact moment my fever started, the moment it broke, and when it was time to resume activity.


Injuries require special attention. Yoga in particular has given me a lot of insight into dealing with injuries and preventing them. Yoga emphasizes listening to our body. As I have listened to my body more I have been able to head the injury off before it happens.

Mindor injury example: I injured my large toe while kicking, and it gave me some insights into training through and injury.

1. Examine the cause: First, the mind body disciplines taught me to reexamine myself at the moment of injury. Why did I snag my toe? The short answer is that I was trying to impress the grand master and not being present with the moment. I learned a good lesson for that sore toe, focus on your practice. Good impressions may come later. Every injury is different, it may be you were practicing with a partner and not paying attention, or it may be you pushed to hard, or it may be you lacked some knowledge of your

2, Back off - The second insight came over the months of healing. I had to back off quite a few poses. I was able to do them, but it slowed healing of the toe, and thus, was counter productive. The body will heal itself, but not if you continue to aggravate the injury. So while I think training through an injury is good, I am not advising to put any strain on the injury. If your knee is hurt, don't put pressure on it until it heals. Come up high in your long stance; give it time to heal.

3. Learn from the injured body part - So if you can't use your shoulder, it is an opportunity to learn the different ways you use your shoulder. In my example, I learned a lot about the big toes importance. It is critical in guiding all motions of the foot, comparable to a rudder on a boat. It turns and the energy glides along with it.

4. Be mindful of even the smallest injury - Finally, I discovered the real danger of a small injury- it can compound. I caught myself compensating for a bad big toe by puting less pressure on it, causing an imbalance in the foot, and putting pressure on the outer knee. I was able to make the pose or posture look good on the outside, but the imbalance I was using was setting me up for more serious injury. Hence, the need to back off. If the knee starts to ache you may lean on the other foot, causing an impalance in the lower back, if the lower back aches you may hunch forward causing all kinds of problems. One great thing about yoga is it encourages balance in the body which keeps us from putting unnatural pressure on the joints. Be aware of how you are "cheating" to compensate for injury, and stop it.

5. Major injuries are more problematic. I don’t think a blog is a good place to deal with a major injury. In these case you have to work with a teacher and your doctor to come up with a good program. Some doctors will recommend you stop training. I advise dumping these types. A good doctor will tell you to modify (not stop) your practice so you can continue with a lifetime of good habbits, and let the injured limb heal. So if you break your ankle, work on the arms. If you break your neck practice breathing techniques. The practice of yoga, martial arts, or mind-body exercise allows for a broad range of activities suitable for any situation.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Lifelong Practice - Part 1: Maintaining Practice with Outside Obligations

Distractions from Training

I have come to realize that one of the differences between your average person and a person who excels at the arts of the mind and body is how they practice their art, despite, or even within the distractions of life which pull us from our practice.

Consider Patanjali’s statements on Yoga as focus without distraction. He classifies distractions as real and imagined. Most of the time the yogi or martial artists thinks of these distractions as occurring during meditation, and sometimes during practice of asana, or forms but rarely do we realize that these distractions are constant and ongoing. To truly master our art we must recognize these distractions and deal with them. In this multi part blog posting I consider some of the distractions from practice and offer advice on how to continually improve when distractions arise.

Types of Distractions

The following are some of the distractions that keep us from practicing our mind-body arts.

  1. Obligations – The most frequently cited reason for not practicing is “I am too busy”. We have very real obligations we undertake to our family, work and friends. Finally we oblige ourselves to other activities. I have heard quite a few parents say things like “my child cant come to martial arts because he is doing swimming, dancing, band etc…”
  2. Illness – when we are sick or hurt, we are unable to do many of the things we could do at peak health.
  3. Injury - Sometimes rest is the best thing for us. For example, if our shoulder is hurt we will only make it worse with pushups.
  4. Mood – sometimes we just want to take a day off.
  5. Cyclical – We all have periods where we have more energy, more enthusiasm, and more support from people around us. Anyone who has run a studio can tell you that bad or nice weather days have low turnout. There is also the Nov-Dec slump in attendance followed by a Jan. bump. It is natural to have some weeks where one trains hard, and others where training is soft.
  6. Leisure food and sleep – everyone needs time off, time to eat and time to sleep. For most people about half their day is spent doing things like cooking, cleaning, sleeping, showering, or just relaxing. In short, “get a life”.

I will post blogs over the next few weeks describing these distractions in detail, and suggesting remedies. I hope some of my readers will add thoughts to this discussion.

Part 1: Obligations

Practicing when you have Obligations

Obligations outside your practice to family work and yourself can interfere with your practice, but with a few alignments in your thinking you can still progress even in the most demanding times.

Connect with your love of the Art - Every single time you practice, cultivate a sense of joy and excitement. Consider all the things that brought you to the practice, and note how each session leads to an improvement in your life. If you are unable to find this joy, consider what can be changed to reconnect.

Finding more time - I do not recommend forcing yourself to go train more. We also need to be wary of neglecting our obligations for training. Both are, in the long run, short term fixes. However, is there some activity that you are currently doing which is not serving you?

Rearranging your schedule to get more time with a favorites teacher, or attending a workshop is no small matter. Consider a simple change, like getting up an hour early. If you skip an hours sleep, your mind

/body will eventually wear down, so you have to get to bed earlier every night. Getting up an hour early means you give an hour of evening time up. It is not a gain of time, but an exchange of time.

What do you do the last hour of the day? Maybe it is the time for vegetating in front of the television. If you give up this time, what effect will it have on you? It may seem a small thing to miss a sitcom, but you developed that habit for a reason, and changing it could lead to stress. We all need down time, a time when we are not doing something.

When you rationally evaluate how you spend your time, and what you can do to spend more time with your art, more time will appear. The time will flow naturally, as an exchange of activities that are less fulfilling to you. If you make it a chore, or an obligation, you will find yourself coming up with reasons for not practicing. When you are making excuses to train, rather than take a day off, you are on the right path.

Similarly, obligations to others are a central part of our practice. Did we neglect our job, our house, our friendships so we could train? Family, career and community support you so that you can move ahead in training. If you undermine this foundation you will find yourself hindered in training.

Perfect Practice Master Ali frequently asked us if practice makes perfect, then proceeded to state that perfect practice makes perfect. It is very easy to relax a bit in practice. I often catch myself during an extended yoga pose letting my body soften, and relax rather than engaging in the perfect posture that will stretch and tone the muscles. It is much easier to do a long stance with the foot pointed to the side rather than straightforward as our style demands.

Each time we practice the least optimal method of the pose we are losing the benefit. It is not a waste of time to practice less than perfectly. You can still sweat, brn calories, find peace of mine and grow your skill. But if you practice perfecly it is like adding hours of practice to your session. You not only gain the ability to achieve the next level, you don’t have to go back and spend hours unlearning a bad habit.

Two Minute Practice Most people will need to maintain obligations of family and friends. I found myself one year with an overwhelming set of work responsibilities. I was unable to regularly attend class, and even solo practice times were limited. But I improved my sidekick immensely during this period. I practiced my sidekick as I walked down the hall. I practiced it when I was (alone) in the elevator. I practiced it while waiting on water to warm in the microwave. Collectively these small moments added up to thousands of sidekicks. My teacher noted the improvement during one of my rare appearances in class. Certainly it is better to have longer, focused sessions, but taking a minute to practice can give immense benefits. Stretch your hamstrings with a 30 second forward bend. Meditate for two minutes in your office. Find brief, focused practices and your art will improve.

The two minute practice has great potential for the modern day practitioner. Beyond the extra time, the two minute practice engages you at every level of your life. A martial artist who practices for short, intermittent periods throughout the day is training his mind and body to be aware at all times. A yogi who inserts brief asana, or pranayama into their regular daily routine is constantly realigning her body and mind so that during dedicated practice she can take it to the next level.

Practice off the mat – In his fictional book “Musashi” Yoshikawa has entire chapters about the historical Miyamato Musashi dedicating himself to activities which seem unrelated to his swordsmanship. Musashi, in real life and in the book, saw his art in every activity he undertook. If he saw a lute, he considered the way it bended and vibrated, and applied this quality to dueling with swords. Musashi’s Book of Five Rings discusses how ways of the farmer, craftsmen and other ways apply to fencing (a term he uses for martial arts).

If you have other ideas for dealing with distractions let me know. The next Blog will focus on other factors, like illness and mood.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Physical Culture in Yoga

My friend Matt Borer posted something on his wall that really made me think.

“Asana is to yoga, as a hammer is to a house;
a useful and necessary tool, but it is not the house.”

This comment got a lot of support from teachers and yoga practitioners. But I wasn’t so quick to hop on board.

I pondered and contemplated. What is the role of physical practice in this thing we call Yoga? Truly Matt and I are fellow pilgrims through this multifaceted training, but I am fascinated at the differences in our views of physical practice. For me this thing we call yoga has an indispensible physical culture component. If yoga was all about chanting, praying, meditating, contemplation of out actions, sutras and focus of the mind without distraction, I would have nothing to do with it. I view the physical practice as the foundation of any spiritual growth.

So odd that I would find myself (who can’t do many of the “fancy” poses) embracing the physical culture of yoga more and more while people like Pamela Beauchamp and Matt (who are amazing physical practitioners) are kind of seeing it as a smaller and smaller component of your yoga. I could never see the physical practice as irrelevant; I see it as part of the any house I live in.

There is this prevailing attitude in the ATX yoga community (and beyond) that the physical practice is not as important as the “spiritual journey”. Oddly this attitude often comes from those, like Matt and the people responding, who have a vigorous physical practice. I understand their viewpoint that yoga is not simply a set of acrobatic, contortionist moves. There is something more going on when we get into these poses.

However, sometimes I think the “spiritual practice” of some is every bit as hollow as those people who take a fancy pose with no spirit. How could we neglect this beautiful physical vessel and claim spirituality on any level?

Maybe it is simplistic, but living in that moment of practice is more sacred to me than rubbing beads in my hand and speaking a prayer in a language I don't fully comprehend.

Please believe me when I say I am not demeaning praying with beads, I know there are some who chose this path and I respect them. I am simply stating how it is for me.

When I see some people do those “fancy” poses, I DO see them reach a spiritual state that is quite beautiful to behold
. Sure I notice some people who do the beautiful pose and have no....spririt, and that is empty exhibitionism. Yet, as I write this I think of Pamela in Warrior 1; who would say there was nothing spriritual?

I remember this man I knew from Tai Chi, and his physical practice was (to be blunt) terrible. He always wanted to discuss the metaphysical aspects, which he espoused were the true essence of Tai Chi. But his movements in the physical practice were disjointed, lacking integrative integrity. Because he lacked integrity in his physical practice, I could tell, in a very real way, he had no clue about the metaphysical things he discussed. The physical practice showed a lot about him and the state of his spirit. He was a good person, I just felt he was really missing something. In contrast, I knew a woman with Lupis who engaged her weakened body and SHOWED her big beautiful spirit.
The physical practice also allows us to connect, as a community without religious barriers. When we practice the phyisical asana of yoga, we are able to connect in a fundamental way that transcends our religious thought. Christian, Hindu, Muslim and Atheist can all find common ground in the physical practice. The physical practice leads us in a subtle way to certain truths about ourselves as humans. Because it is rooted in the undeniable presence of our physical body, unsupported dogmatic beliefs are burned away. We are left with a pure, undeniable (and unexpressable) bond, shared in our Kula.

So I say to you Mr. Matt, Mizz Pamela and all you beautiful people in my Kula, please keep at your physical practice and show me your big beautiful poses they are an inspiring spiritual expression.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Breaking a Fall

Last night we practiced sweeping and throwing. As with many martial arts techniques, I think this family of techniques can teach a lesson that transcends the mat.

Fear of Falling

I must confess that throwing (or rather being thrown) scares the hell out of me. I found myself reacting in a way that is not typical in a Tukong class. My intense spirit is challenged by these techniques. After slamming to the mat a couple of times, I find my enthusiasm, and strength wither.

The internal struggle began before I even tried the techniques. When Master Ali demonstrated the throw, my eyes widened and my jaw dropped. “I can’t do that! I thought. “I am over 40, isn’t there a modification? That looks dangerous”

We began to practice, and Haemy, a young lady who is probably half my weight, threw me over her hip. She actually had doubts that she could throw me. However, she executed the technique quite effectively. When I hit the mat I was stunned for a moment, but still had the presence of mind to shrug it off, laugh and smile; there were a lot of lower belts around and I didn’t want them to get scared. I even managed to make a good point, laughing and saying “That technique is quite” rubbing my butt “effective against a larger opponent.”

However, in my mind a struggle was beginning. I was getting very anxious about the days practice. I glanced at the clock; we were only halfway through class, and already we were going in the air.

As we progressed to an over the shoulder throws, the falls got even higher and harder. I started to feel weak, like “that is enough for tonight”. I had a pain in my hip and ribs, and I was inflating it to a potential fracture in my mind. But, when I truly examined the pain I could tell it was just a minor soreness. I was not injured, yet I was convincing myself I was because I didn’t want to do that technique again.

Realizing this, I immediately lined up with my brother Casey who slammed me to the mat even harder. Also, because I was freaked out, I didn’t control my fall. Martial artists learn to fall well, to spread the impact out, and land on the most resilient body parts. I think they can even distribute the impact into the floor. But I haven’t learned this yet. When I am flying through the air, I go blank for a moment, until the floor wakes me up. So, I was just being flopped around.

Why Falling is Hard

Personally, I am not surprised that I would find falling a hard technique to master. Balance and centering are some of my better qualities in Yoga and Martial Arts. Even without the extra body fat I carry, I am a pretty solid dude who can lower his center well. I love standing on one leg, or getting into horse stance. In sparring I often grab my opponent and pull them off balance before striking. I like wrestling and grappling.

I consider the ground my friend, my support, and the source of all power in my techniques. But, all these tools of balance, lowering your Tan Tien and grounding are not available when you are thrown. You are without support for a moment, hanging in space. So instead of having support from the ground, it was now a weapon, which was slamming into me.

Consider falling, essentially, when being thrown the martial artist must handle a moment where they have absolutely no support. We are free falling and can only prepare for the mat which rushes up to meet you; sometimes we hit something harder than a mat.

Off the Mat: Breaking a Fall

In our day to day existence, everything we count on can fail. Our jobs can disappear. Our savings and investments can dwindle or sharply decline. Our house can lose it’s value. People we love can become distant at precisely the moment we need them most.

In fact, like the ground in throwing exercises, things we counted on can even turn on us and inflict pain. The bank can be your savings, or take your house. Sometimes families turn on each other in times of crisis.

So, what should one do when they are falling, with no support?

Don't Fall: First, I highly recommend learning to balance and center one’s self. Find the ground and root down into it. If someone, or something is trying to throw you, lower your Tan Tien, and let them pull themselves over. Give ‘em a little push if they need help. I think it is best not to get thrown.

Throwing an Opponent: If you are in conflict with a highly grounded opponent, remember that they probably cannot deal with losing the support. So if you are having a conflict in your life and need to exert your will, remove the opponents base, and they will likely lose all control. Undercut their authority or reputation and they will crumble. More importantly, be very wary if an opponent tries to undermine your reputation or authority. In other words, don’t get thrown.

Be Prepared: If one is not ready to be thrown, then when that moment happens, and you find yourself in the air, you will lose your mind, and the impact of the fall will hurt. So we must be prepared to be thrown. The key to success is breaking your fall.

Break Falling: There are several different directions the human body can travel, and for each there is a way of falling that can make the impact negligible. For instance, if you are thrown forward, one can tuck, and roll along the ground. I have personally experienced this on a bicylcle, flying over the handles, hitting the pavement, rolling and coming to my feet unharmed. We call these techniques “break falls” in martial arts.

In life, we can practice the art of breaking a fall by being aware at all times. While you are in the air, keep your mind strong. Don’t give into fear, panic or despair. Instead, relax your body, feel the direction of your fall, and with great and speedy calculation, prepare your body to hit the floor in the least painful way. A martial artist sends the force of their impact into the surrounding ground, preventing injury to themselves. In daily life we can distribute the impact by relying on friends, family, even strangers to help us. If your support network wont help with all your problems, get them to help a little, ask a friend to help a little, and even ask help from acquaintances, strangers and institutions. If you remain calm and relaxed, you will hit the ground with minimum impact.

We often cannot control how life comes at us, even our own body will cause us pain. We have very limited control. But we can engage in a form of practice where we maintain our calm, and relax. So that when we hit the ground, with great force, we can spring to our feet and take on the next challenge.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Role of Community in Martial Arts and Yoga

Recently I had the priveledge of moving with people I knew from BOTH martial arts and yoga. This gave me thought about the way that mind-body practitioners work to build community. In fact, it is a critical part of both practices.


Do you remember when you got your first car? The thrill of independance? Your sudden ability to go so many places with no help, even take others? Driving is one of the greatest times for independance. For all it's hassles, I love getting behind the wheel of a car. I feel so in control, moving this vehicle around at high speeds.

But on this moving day day I found myself backing a U-Haul truck and totally dependent. You need someone to stand behind your truck and guide you back. At first I found myself trying to look around for myself, but it is hopeless. You cannot drive and see behind the truck. So the best thing to do is to rely almost entirely on the person backing you up; in fact, you have to be totally dependant on their ability to guide you. So suddenly, something you have to depend on others for something you have done a long time without help.

Off the Mat: How Mind-Body Practice Builds community

Now consider the application to martial arts and yoga. Our practice is largely our own, but true parcticitioners of these mind body arts realize that they are practicing within a community. That is one of the reasons teachers are so venerated. The Kula and the Dojang rely on constant development of community and helping each other. This is one reason why I like it so much more than a gym, or other form of exercise.

Training on the Mat for Off the Mat Community

Sure there is a comradarie in many activities, but yoga and martial arts incorporate the building of trust within almost every lesson. From the opening call for brotherhood in a Tukong Moosul class to the closing Om of yoga, one is reminded that your practice is part of a whole.
  • The martial artist must trust that the person who is working with you on self defense will have the judgement not to punch you. I remember my sparring partner messing up and feeling his wiskers as I pulled a punch to his jaw. It is an almost daily occourance that someone comes at you with a crippling blow, then stops short before impact. Without this trust one could never develop a high level of skill; you have to get a feel for the human body.
  • Yoga is kind of different. Although sometimes you get help with a pose, it is very rare that a yogi risks serious injury if their partner fails. However, there is some kind of nurturing love built from the sensitivity of the practice. Yogi's in a group are very much aware of each others practice. Even the notoriously cold Ashtangi's can tell you all about someone else in their class. Yoga also draws out a personality from the practitioner.
On a personal note, I have to say that martial arts was a much more practical training for the task of backing a truck. My martial arts brother and I were very used to cueing each other, and working out the best way to do things. This is born of trying to figure out how to train in combat exercises, or even line people up for sword practice. Yogi's on the other hand just pretty much practice on their own. What you do doesn't really effect your neighbor on the mat beside you. But for both, the trust was 100% there.

Not an Option

I believe it is no coincedence that these two arts emphasize community. At their core they are both about living life in a full and meaningful way. From the earliest days of mankind we have realized that this means depending on each other.
You get a lot of power from the practice of a mind/body art. One might be tempted to think they don't need others. Private practice is indeed encouraged. But in the end, the highest aspiration of most practitioners is to teach others, to build on the art and move it forward. This goal cannot be achieved alone. If you wish to progress, you must depend and be dependant on your community.
So if you are a serious practitioner of Martial Arts and Yoga realize that community is not an option. In fact, is there any human endevour where this is not true? Sure one can drive a Nissan Maxima with no help, but some things, like backing up a truck cannot be done without help.