Implicit Motor Learning – Experimenting with the dual and multi-task method

20.04.18

I am experimenting using the dual task method of implicit learning, but with a task that I am already familiar with.  I am crossing the length of my 15m slackline while looking straight ahead and counting backwards from 50 or more, alternating between three languages: English, French and Finnish in this way – “fifty, quarante-neuf, neljäkymmentäkahdeksan, forty seven, quarante-six, neljäkymmentäviisi”, and so on.  So far, the effect is that I walk slower, but much more precisely and smoothly, and instead of struggling with the physical task, I distract myself by struggling with switching between languages.  What’s also interesting in this particular case is that I have moments where I am unsure of what language I have spoken in (I am counting out loud), and it is as if my brain simply recognises that it is the correct number in the sequence, rather than any acknowledgement of how that number is encoded.

The parts that I struggle with the most provide the greatest distraction, and would therefore seem more effective in maintaining the primary task unconsciously.  As it is a skill I have already acquired, I believe that implicit learning could possibly help change whether we operate consciously or not, or at least improve or maintain an old skill on a subconscious level.

My experiments today are actually multi-tasking, as counting backwards in English is a secondary task, but counting backwards in a foreign language alone is itself a dual task, so combining multiples languages in reverse order is enough to be difficult while just sitting, let alone when walking a slackline.  But this is the key point, we would expect poorer performance through multi-tasking, but in this instance the opposite seems to be true.

Multi-tasking was able to take me out of any thoughts of falling, which is a good example of how the advice “don’t look down” can be successfully applies in a practical situation.  We seem to understand that we can overcome fear with distraction, but the difficulty usually lies in finding and implementing that distraction.

As we advance in our practice of multi-tasking we adapt as with any training, but with the added benefits that come from doing so implicitly, and in the same way that load and exercise complexity can be and must be adjusted in order to keep progressing, the difficulty of dual or multi-tasks can also be increased to improve the primary physical skill.

The variety of avenues to explore is immense, because not only can we pair a physical primary task with a mental secondary one, we can choose any number of different combinations.  The multi-language counting or speaking game was something I already played on its own, and simply borrowed for this experiment.  In the future I would like to try different games using pre-acquired skills while attempting to disrupt my normal train of thought or non-thought as I carry them out.  Improvised word association, poetry and story-telling is something I wanted to do already as a means to break through mental barriers that result from, and in over thinking, which seems like it will be well-suited to dual and multi tasking.  Such an approach to increasing the cognitive complexity of tasks seems little if at all explored outside of circus arts and novelty acts, and my hope is that my own examples may provide insights or inspiration for others who are interested in exploring these relatively uncharted waters.

The possibility of being able to re-learn or regulate an already attained skill to a subconscious level is something that both professional athletes, dancers and performers could benefit from, as well as amateurs, people involved in physical jobs and activities, and patients undergoing rehabilitation.

Multi-tasking feels mentally draining, and I am experiencing similar feelings as when I have been using the errorless learning method to practise drumming co-ordination exercises: not only do I feel like my brain is fried, but there is also a sense of not having learned / achieved anything.  I think this arises from the fact that usually what we consider learning is to be able to explain, recite or regurgitate what we have accumulated, but in the case of implicit learning there is simply a void, as if you spent your maths lessons staring out the window at nothing in particular.  I imagine that this feeling is something we can learn to appreciate or enjoy, and I find that I am becoming more aware of it as it manifests itself in different areas of my life.

I have had moments of “overload” where I am unable to think or say anything, and I couldn’t “remember” or conjure up what number was supposed to come after 127 in any language.  Likewise, with the drumming exercises there are moments when my body is running on automatic and overload causes random things to come out.  In both instances it’s funny to experience, and laughter adds a whole other dimension of distraction and difficulty.

 

Implicit Motor Learning – External Focus

Implicit Motor Learning for Sports, Dance, Martial Arts and other Movement Practices

For an introduction to implicit motor learning see the following lecture by Professor Rich Masters of the University of Waikato.

Implicit motor learning is when we acquire new skills but are unable to create explicit, verbal descriptions, instructions or rules about the movements needed to complete them.  Simply put, implicit learning results in improved performance, without direct knowledge of the “how?” or “why?” that underlies it.

For example, a coach might talk a student through all of the body positions that they must imitate in order to replicate a tennis stroke, which would engage the working memory and might essentially prove to be “too much information” for the student.  Implicit teaching of the same skill might involve simply using an analogy that imparts all of the necessary information but on a more subconscious level via the use of simile.

The benefit of implicit learning is that skills acquired using such methods are better retained and more importantly, replicated under pressure and fatigue as may be in the case of a performance, a competition or combat.

There are different proposed methods for learning implicitly, but the one I have chosen to focus on for this video is an external focus of attention.  What this involves is that instead of concentrating on what your body is doing while attempting a movement, you instead focus on something external; an object, an apparatus or something in the local environment that is affected by that particular movement.  For example, as with the tennis stroke again, you can either focus on what your arm is doing (internal), or you can focus on what the racket or even ball is doing (external).

As I am more a dancer than a sportsman I tend not to use apparatus, nor affect the external environment in any significant way when I move, which I why I decided that it would be interesting to begin exploring the ways in which different tools can be implemented “artificially” in order to create an external focus that would otherwise not normally exist.  The object, or the tool is only present during the learning stage, and in practice the movement is executed without it.  This concept can be potentially applied to many different scenarios, sports or activities along with the other methods of implicit learning, and with these demonstrations I hope to spark interest in others who will have their own specific needs, goals and ideas for practical application.

Although the purpose of this video is to demonstrate potential uses of the external focus method, the way in which I have structured the exercises naturally makes use of another method: errorless learning.  By breaking down the movement into small components each one can be practiced individually and with little need to call upon the working memory due to their simplicity.  As the task is simplified there is a greatly reduced tendency to think about what is happening or why, which means that successful implementation of errorless learning will lead to skills being acquired implicitly.  I will demonstrate use of external focus in tasks that are unrelated to one another, as well as ideas for creating errorless learning exercises in future videos.

Implicit motor learning is not currently something well known outside of academic circles, yet it has the potential to make huge changes to the way we think about movement (and how we might stop thinking) and how we perceive the teacher-student relationship.  This is because the underlying implication of implicit methods is that not only are they perhaps the best way to learn, but that we are all capable of learning in a more natural way that doesn’t require anything near the amount of interference and verbal over-complication that we have become accustomed to as language-led animals.  Instead of the almighty teacher passing on wisdom to the lowly student, the power roles are reversed, and it is the job of the teacher to coach in such a way that simply brings out the natural capacities of the student.  From this new perspective the teaching styles we are probably most accustomed to might not only be barriers to effective learning, but also barriers to realising our own power and importance within the process.

The following demonstration uses the example of the one inch punch as the final skill to be acquired, but as you will see the exercises themselves can also be used or modified to serve other purposes – learning never happens in a vacuum.  This is not a tutorial about how to learn an effective one inch punch, rather it is an exercise in generating ideas about how a theoretical model can be applied to different real-world situations.


 

 

Wrist movement and strength

The first clips show the initial ideas that I had, and as such, they are perhaps a little unnecessarily complicated.  The idea is that instead of simply concentrating on the stick, the resulting movement from the wrist is transferred along the stick, to the string and to the weight attached to the end (a pine cone).  Conceptually speaking, concentrating on the pine cone is supposed to be further removed from the wrist than either the stick or the string, thus being “more” external.  As the following example demonstrates, I took this external distance a step further by actively trying to hit a target with the pine cone, albeit a large one.  The (potential) problem is that in order to make the pine cone move in such a way as to strike the target with the greatest force, there is a certain amount of timing necessary, and the placement of the arm and length of the string play an important role.  These requirements may actually be beneficial in particular circumstances, but it’s unsure whether there is any advantage to making the focus more removed from the initiating movement, and it seems that by complicating the exercise in this way, it could have the opposite of the intended effect.  Thus, this variation is probably suited to more advanced learners.

As the next videos show, I simplified the exercise while gaining an improved sense of feedback from the impact with the metal bar, which I eventually changed to the punch bag which allows you to hit with greater speed without the stress of contacting an entirely solid object at speed.  Any object could potentially be placed or hung at the desired height, but as I demonstrate the exercise can be performed with the arm in different positions in order to change the emphasis and stress.  The movement is also done in the opposite direction with the stick facing behind, so that strength can be built symmetrically.  Other factors that can be altered include: how close to the end of the stick it is gripped, how long or heavy the stick is, and how thick it is.  Positioning yourself so that the impact is near the end of range of motion, near the beginning, or somewhere in the middle is also a variable to consider.

The final wrist exercise is a similar movement that only requires a stick, the other difference is that it is the opposite hand that is absorbing the impact, so this also functions as a conditioning exercise for the hands.

In all wrist exercises the movement should come from the wrist alone, and not from closing the grip around the stick as if simultaneously squeezing and lifting up.  More movement can be created this way, but it gives a false impression of the role, and therefore strength of the wrist.  Both can be practised though, as transitioning from a loose grip to a tightly-held fist is another useful skill.

Torque and force transmission

Utilising the stick and punch bag once again, I devised this technique for teaching the hips/torso how to generate power.  With the stick held firmly against the body it is left up to the body to determine how to move, while you simply concentrate on hitting the bag with the stick.  A solid grip on the stick means that you will not be able to use your arms to assist with the movement.

The next variation is a step up which could be regressed into a step forward, or modified further by being incorporated into different lunges or striking at different stages of the lunge/stepping movement.  In the first example I am stepping with the right leg while turning in a clockwise direction, and then using the opposite leg while still turning the same way.  The same is then repeated in an anticlockwise direction.  The movement has been made more complex by forcing the body to generate force from a single leg which requires more involvement from the surrounding stabilising muscles.

Other progressions might include increasing the height of the step, decreasing the stability of the standing leg, adding resistance to the movement either on the body or the stick, or calling for the movement to be executed more explosively with a jump for example.

It’s important to note that although I am demonstrating the hips and torso as one, the position of the stick can be changed in order to isolate just the hips, or could be carried out in a sitting position in order to isolate the upper body.

The next exercise is essentially the same movement, except that with the stick and the arm outstretched we are now turning rotational force into forward force, which is perhaps the most important element in maximising how much can be generated from a static position.  Failing to generate or transfer force from the lower body means that you will be relying solely on the relatively smaller muscles of your arm to do all the work.

The more the arm remains in both the same horizontal and vertical planes, the less energy is wasted and will be transferred into forward motion.  Although I practised this concept by feel, having a precise target to focus on should help ensure that the arm does not waver.  This is a good example of when the use of a very light stick would be better suited to the task, as the excess weight can make it difficult to maintain a straight line of movement.

This longer clip is just me experimenting with putting the pieces together while still using the stick to give me a feel for how well the movements were occurring.

The final piece is an example of how precision could be practised, although it would be unnecessary and even counterproductive to train at full speed in the learning stage.

 

Reverse Capoeira

 

“There’s more to fishing than catching fish”

In the documentary A Passion for Angling this sentiment, or philosophy rather, is made eloquently clear through the tales and adventures of two old friends and fishing partners, Bob James and Chris Yates.  It’s almost as if the actual act of catching a fish is merely a bi-product of the activities that surround it, with particular emphasis on time spent in peaceful appreciation and contemplation of nature.

To this day it remains an inspirational souvenir from my childhood that captures many different qualities that I still find important, all wrapped up in the myth of the traditional fisherman.

Having been hunter-gatherers in a not-too-distant past, it seems likely that we are all inseparable from the non-obvious rewards that accompany such activities.

Deriving a sense of pleasure from life-saving, life-preserving and life-creating activities can be seen as nature’s way of reinforcing itself through ourselves and through multiple secondary benefits.  It also seems likely that we enjoy spending time immersed in the natural world because it was a necessary part of hunting and gathering.  Now our search-engines do all the hunting, and consequently all the legwork, and the gathering is carried out by third parties in the third world.

Unless we are to return to such primitive ways of living, there remains this untapped innate connection, and the opportunity to live a more fuller life through exercising neglected aspects of our humanity.  But conversely, there are other, non-desirable aspects that we would be better off without, this is why violence and war will continue to linger for the foreseeable future, provided that humans are still around, because these harmful activities fulfil age-old needs, despite huge differences in our environment and social structures.  In the same way that we can benefit from making use of our biology in healthy, non-destructive ways, we also remain vulnerable to exploitation in the form of superstimuli, and higher powers who wish to manipulate us for their own purposes.  The most obvious example of this in practice is war.  Young individuals, mostly male, are shipped off to die heroic deaths, to exercise their fight or flight response in the most realistic scenarios possible, and for those who do make it back they have likely undergone the most powerful of bonding experiences the modern world has yet to replicate elsewhere than the battlefield.

It’s easy to dismiss war as a barbaric tradition, yet its worldwide prevalence is a testament to how much we need it, or at the very least, something that closely resembles it.  Computer games don’t create heroes, nor help fulfil such myths as they lack skin in the game, except perhaps that of the thumbs.  They are essentially play-play-fights carried out visually and sedentarily.  Team sports take things further by allowing the creation of an “other”; an opponent to be “beaten”, which has the advantage of implicating the spectators who can also enjoy a slice of the contrived conflict, albeit from a position in the stands.  From this point of view, football hooliganism seems like a natural re-evolution of what the sports and fanaticism all stood (in) for in the first place.  It seems that some prosthetics may just never be enough for some people.  And while computer games present us with many forms of play-play-fighting, sports such as boxing and cage fighting represent the grown-up and brutally organised end of the spectrum.  The blood, sweat and tears are all real, yet the motives are often empty and meaningless.  This is how civilised human beings agree to bash each other’s heads in.  By these standards wrestling theatrics are merely symbols for the enjoyment of the half-hearted fan who is unwilling to lay anything on the line, who instead of play-fighting, pays to watch others do it for him.

Despite our innumerable successes in manufacturing addictive and harmful superstimulants and in exploiting our primitive brains, we have yet to make progress in turning our weaknesses to our collective advantage.  The secret lies in first acknowledging the vulnerability in question, and then testing various potential, healthy replacements and diversions.  it may be the case that we cannot eliminate all evil in one fell-swoop, or go cold turkey on war, and that instead we must settle for the current lesser of the evils.  All of this remains highly personal though, so one man’s martial art may be another man’s war.  The key is to concentrate on searching for and developing alternative outlets.

If war and violence are not simply about defeating the enemy, then understanding those secondary, and non-obvious aspects of physical conflict can help shed light on what kinds of activity may be beneficial in the process of weaning ourselves off of this particular drug.  Differentiating between the icing and the cake itself is a useful exercise for a culture that eats too much cake in the relentless pursuit of icing.

I realised some time ago that sports and other physical activities were actually just starting points, or excuses to enjoy and explore the different uses and capabilities of my body.  This idea became more solidified as I began to engage in and seek out manual labour “for the sake of it”.

Music is as much of a physical practice as it is an audibly expressive one, and just as different sports require different skills and parts of the body, so too does each instrument.  I have progressed from the piano to practising coordination exercises for drumming which makes everything that bit more explicitly percussive, while changing the involvement of the limbs and the complexity of their use – two hands vs ten fingers.

If you limit your physical practice to those things only currently accepted, categorised, reinforced and promoted as being valid options, then you cut yourself off from the vast sphere of all possible options, which includes a huge chunk of (personally) unexplored terrain.  The difference between moving thousands of kilos of furniture and an equivalent weight in the gym is not really down to the environment or the shape of the objects, but the context of the intention.  Either one could be both a chore or a pleasurable workout or challenge and so on, they key is the mindset which is always separate from the environment and the apparatus.  The mindset is mobile, and having a mobile mindset is imperative to adaptation in the long run.

My ongoing interest in the martial arts has not been kept alive by the inextricable kicks and punches, but by the training methods, and the simple idea that if you do something for long enough, you will get good at it: the same concept that gives fingers a mind of their own helps humans gain inhuman strength and capabilities.

I also have a particular fondness for the training regimes of boxers; the hard grind and cardio that leaves people in a heap of limp, sweaty mush by the end of the session is something to be admired.  While I had these myths and ideas in mind as I purchased a second-hand punchbag, my intention was never to become a boxer, or martial artist even, but to use the bag as a novel movement stimulus.

Capoeira is sometimes said to have evolved from the need to train a martial art in secret, and so it was disguised as a dance.  I like to dance while disguising my movement as something more practical, and more deadly.  I call it reverse capoeria.

 

Mobility, Metaphors and Cached Selves

06.11.17

The book Metaphors We Live By has been a great inspiration to me ever since I read it earlier this year.  One thing that came to light while reading was the way in which my relationship with my body was shaped by unhelpful metaphors.  The first that I noticed was the idea of mobility or flexibility as being an unobtainable object.  This idea of mobility as an object can be demonstrated by such phrases as “what will you do with your new-found mobility?” and “I’ve lost my mobility since last year” for example.  But for me, mobility wasn’t simply an object that you either have or do not have, it was impossible for me to get it no matter how hard I tried!

The second part of the metaphor describes a binary state which hides the reality that mobility is pretty much always present in varying degrees, as long as we remain alive.  When imagined as something perpetually out of reach the metaphor is successful in preventing me from exercising whatever mobility I do have, which is perhaps the most important point, especially as far as adaptation is concerned.  This isn’t just a philosophical idea; if we focus on what we lack instead of the things that we have available and perhaps take for granted, it’s quite possible that we let opportunity go to waste along with various physical and mental attributes.  Use it or lose it.

This realisation was like a fog suddenly lifting to reveal the sun that had been there all along.  I wasn’t at all as immobile and helpless as I had felt and acted, and instead of mobility being unobtainable it was an ever-present quality to be deliberately expressed.

The second metaphor that I unearthed dates back at least 10 years, and is one that more people can possibly relate to which is energy or strength as a limited resource.  While it is less obvious that this concept is a metaphor it works in similar ways to the first, which is that it limits our actions by conceptualising strength itself in a limited way.  In my own experience and no matter how absurd it may seem, what this meant was for me was that once again I failed to express what strength and energy I did have, and as my dad might say, I was “coming from a place of scarcity”.  I felt at the time, all those years ago, that I was almost “saving” my strength for some other, more important occasion that of course, never came.

As with the first metaphor, the implications are that by failing to express my strength I missed the opportunities for further growth that would have stemmed from regular, unrestricted use of what I already had.

Energy and strength are limited in a real sense, but the real-world restrictions are not well-represented by their metaphorical counterparts.

In my own case at least, it appears that metaphors were not the only things at work, and I suspect that consistency bias played a role too.  By proclaiming my inflexibility or weakness I would trap myself in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, propped up by cognitive metaphor.  Memories of myself declaring and acting in accordance with my apparent inflexibility would help form an almost unbreakable self-image over time.  Even if I attempted to change this image, it’s likely that my view of such attempts would be biased by my prior beliefs.  I.e. my beliefs would influence not only the quality and quantity of attempts to change, but my opinion of those attempts would also likely overstate the effort I put in while understating the results.  In this way, our past actions are used as a rough template of how we expect to behave in the future, which saves us the trouble of having to go out and create our self-image from scratch every morning.  The problem is we can get stuck with an undesirable self-concept and not know how to change it, or even realise we have it, as in the case of metaphor.

This is one reason I believe that much more importance should be given to psychological factors and influences when it comes to understanding one’s relationship with the body and exercise or movement.  The mind provides the foundation for a willing body to follow.

A final, more obscure example of how thoughts have influenced my behaviour also dates back at least a decade.  I recall a dream I had in which I found myself dancing in front of a large audience, where I was aware of being extremely self-conscious because I felt that everyone could see through me, as if the act of dancing rendered my thoughts and emotions visible.  Although this was a dream, at the time it made me realise that this was how I saw dance, and that I didn’t want to actually express myself in this way, or that perhaps I had just wanted to be different, to be someone and to feel something I would be proud to express.

This metaphor of dance as a display of emotion or of my “true self”, as it had felt to me in my dream, undoubtedly played a significant role in retarding my growth, just like the other metaphors seem to have done.  Feeling depressed, worthless and incapable, meant that as a reflection of these thoughts and emotions, dance itself became an act that reinforced my poor self-image, which in turn limited how I danced in public.  The circle was a vicious one.

Lately I have been dancing again, but from a new perspective, utilising more useful metaphors to promote a healthy self-image.  There is a lot of work to be done and a lot of harm to be un-done, but I am already beginning to feel physically and mentally different, in all likelihood due to a combination of my relaxation practice and a deliberate attempt to exercise and appreciate the qualities I already have.  Whatever the root causes, I am feeling more positive about the future.

The Art of Movement?

Coe (1992, p. 219) defines art as:

Color and/or form used by humans in order to modify an object, body, or message solely to attract attention to that object, body, or message. The proximate or immediate effect of art is to make objects more noticeable.

 

My interest is not in making the body more noticeable as is the case with adornment and decoration, as this type of body art is strongly linked to the goal of attracting a suitable mate, and nor would I say that my practice is the art of movement.  For one thing, the term “movement” is very vague and yet seemingly all-encompassing due to the fact that “doing” is an act, and all acts imply movement of some form, but when we examine the practices of those who align themselves with such a label what we see is a much more limited set of ideas and products, but more importantly the art of movement implies an emphasis on movement and aesthetics, drawing attention to the movements themselves, and in turn the body.

My goal is not to get caught up in worshipping a particular physique or type of movement, but to draw attention to the wonderful variety of human capacities that stem from having large brains and being bipedal with opposable thumbs.  This incorporates a lot of physical activities, skills and qualities, but above all, the capacity to acquire them through continuing challenge, practise and discipline.

I think that self-change, an expansion of experience and capacity to appreciate and also empathise are at the heart of what I am aiming for.  A humanistic art that celebrates and consciously seeks to benefit from our innate abilities and characteristics, and that inspires a broader perspective of what life is and can be.

So while a body is necessary for being human, it should be seen as a facilitator of experience rather than simply a means by which to render one’s self more desirable.  My art is human-centric, not body, or even mind-centric.

Nevertheless, we can’t escape the fact that as humans we love to watch each other, especially when we perform, so while we can exercise our humanity in the enjoyment of watching or being seen, we should just accept this as an inevitable phenomena and not confuse it with our person aims.

Sheep are thought of as being dumb animals who follow the herd without thinking, but humans are very much the same as we too are highly influenced by social proof.  I was watching one of our kittens play with a ball of paper and saw how this interested the other, which got me thinking that all activity, but physical activity in particular functions as a stimulus to outsiders, and perhaps even works across species.  Have you ever seen a child only begin to take an interest in a particular toy once another is playing with it?  From our definition in the introduction this would be akin to the art of doing or the art of interacting, making objects seem more interesting by taking an interest in them.  I have already experienced something similar when out photographing various things.  When encountering other people with or without cameras they take my regard as a sign of something interesting, something to be interested in.

I now think that the best way of getting people to take an interest in activities and ideas, especially new ones, is to publicise your own involvement and interest in them.  I imagine that this works better for ideas that can be presented visually through photos and videos that portray a person actively engaging, rather than mere images of something which is supposed to be of interest, or videos shot from first person perspective.  This also implies that writing may be a relatively poor method of generating interest, as writing is always read inside the head of the reader, instead of experienced through the mouth of the speaker.

I suspect that the advent of the online video has been responsible for relatively more copycat acts than the democratisation of the printed word ever did.  Could it be that videos and certain photos are in fact motivational superstimuli?

Before You Run

29.10.17

I began an experiment examining my movements while walking, beginning with my normal gait.  I filmed myself for five minutes each time as this was the recording limit on my camera, but this length of time was enough to allow me to settle into my posture which would possibly be altered by the knowledge that I was filming myself.

After the first five minutes of normal walking I then did a further five with an emphasis on relaxing the arms, followed by the legs, then both, and then finally I finished with various walking styles that over-exaggerated certain movements or particular areas of the body.

What I learned through analysing these various clips was that just as there was a gap between the feeling of relaxation and actual relaxation, there is a distinct general difference how my movements currently feel and look.  In short, I have to make a concerted effort to over-exaggerate my movements and positions in order for them to better resemble how I want and imagine them to be.

In addition to this primary insight I also discovered that I have no strong images of what a more relaxed and confident walk may look like, despite obviously being able to spot one when I see it (perhaps there is a link between being able to accurately visualise a movement and being able to perform it).  My initial self-observation was that my neck and upper back are too stiff and seem stuck together instead of being independent and articulated, but for now at least I am unable to imagine how loosening their association will change my walk.  In any case it’s not sure that reverse-engineering gait is desirable or even possible, but I do believe however, that being more relaxed generally should also affect my moving posture, and I have at least some confidence that acting, pretending or behaving as if I was more relaxed should not only lead to real relaxation eventually, but it should also confer similar benefits along the way.

These videos will now also serve as a record of my movement quality during the very early stages of self-treatment.

I have also chosen to explicitly abandon the idea of improving my posture through mechanical means such as stretching, myofascial release or strengthening.  Instead, inspired by other experiments in brain-body connection I will focus on tackling this challenge from the opposite direction, concentrating my efforts on mental techniques such as meditation, and building a greater sensitivity to, and awareness of my mental states and their relationship to certain postures, types of movement and exercises.

I currently feel that I’ve improved my sensitivity and that I am becoming better at imitating relaxedness in certain contexts.  Much of my “training” so far has happened within designated sessions, but already, perhaps simply through spending more time focusing on, writing about and pondering the nature of relaxation, the practice is spilling over to daily life in a more general way.  For example while sitting at the computer I am more aware of tension or discomfort, but more importantly I am quicker to do something about it.  This reactivity is a necessary part of the equation when we increase sensitivity, for what use is knowledge if it is not acted upon?

 

Sedentary Athlete’s Dilemma

“Not to beat the car metaphor to death, but you have to look at every athlete as a complex engine with thousands of moving parts. And you, the coach, are trying to squeeze every single drop of horsepower you can out of that engine.”

 

Movement is never a simple black and white dichotomy, and we can never understand movement and how it relates to the individual from visual examination alone. The exterior is often misleading, and many beginners start the learning process by simply imitating their references. It’s also hard for a beginner to have strong motivations for something they have never done before, and only have surface knowledge of. In any case, the exterior is what attracts people and what gets most exposure regardless of our intentions.

We may look at someone doing a plank and think that they are training their abs, but that is from our outsider’s point of view. There may be any number of motivations behind the exercise which as spectators we do not have immediate access to, particularly when we are virtual spectators.

Purpose is not an intrinsic property of exercises or movements, and if we use a little imagination we can create our own novel purposes from pre-existing ones. With this in mind we shouldn’t be so quick to take what we see at face value.

Examples of different lenses with which to view movement:

What am I learning?

What am I reinforcing?

What am I exploring?

What am I strengthening?

What am I stretching?

What am I challenging (mental/physical)?

What am I enjoying/benefiting from in the immediate term?

The modern progression has been towards training and turning people into athletes, I.e. the focus has shifted to a single, easily measurable outcome: increasing productivity. This is in direct comparison to the changes that happened during and since the industrial revolution which has lead to the mechanisation and automation of processes, along with the division of labour and specialisation. Humans began to create and use ever more complicated machines and means in order to enhance their exercise sessions and themselves. The emphasis changed from being on the individual (the interior) towards the object (the exterior). This implicated not only exercise equipment, but a whole range of supplements, aids, treatments and merchandise which now appear as necessary elements in a complicated equation which is both alien and alienating for outsiders (beginners) and the experienced alike. Health, fitness, movement, or simply put, a personal relationship and ownership of one’s own body are unimaginable and out of reach for all but the elite.  We can no longer know or govern ourselves, and must rely on the authorities to tell us what is best for us.  The only problem is that many authorities only have their best interests at heart.

Athletes (people) train (move) to achieve very specific goals which are based around competition with external agents and the potential rewards of fame and financial gains. The human becomes a specialist in the name of efficiency, and the spirit (hidden elements at the heart) of movement is lost because it was not an obvious external component.

The vocabulary itself speaks a lot about the nature of the practice. “Training” implies at least one explicit and extrinsically motivated goal of some sort, which in turn demands an often regimented procedure and means of objective measurement. An event or specific end is what we train for. We train to pass the physical tests to join the army, we train to win a particular competition or to beat a particular record for example. Training is the fundamental opposite of instinctive and improvised movement, but it is my contention that without allowing the training mindset to suffocate the natural or instinctual, plastic and playful side of things, we can use training for the benefit of our physical-self-studies. It appears to be a delicate balance though, which is made more difficult by the fact that many of us who search for a stronger mind-body connection are residents of a society in which everything is geared towards convenience and efficiency. We want our meals to be fast, and healthy, we want our exercises to give us “the most bang for the buck”, and we’d gladly make meditation more efficient if only we could. It therefore becomes natural for this way of thinking and behaving to extend its way into other areas. The idea of having time set aside to train is itself a symptom of strange relationship with our bodies and our health, in a society that depends on ritualisation for the sake of efficiency (again). Nowadays we have to schedule spontaneity and take classes on how to use our initiatives, which is to say that what should be personal has been rendered impersonal and the power of the individual has passed into the hands of someone else. We have (im)personal trainers instead of movement-based-self-actualisation-guides or elders. But much of this wouldn’t be necessary if we didn’t lose our capabilities and playful mindset in the first place, therefore much of what the fitness industry represents is ad-hoc solutions to environmental and cultural/ social problems.

Athletes are touted as being the peak of human fitness, and this is a huge problem with the myth.  Athletes are not made (trained) to last in the long run, they are shaped to perform a relatively simple job at extremely high intensity, and thus for an artificially limited period of time.  Athletic values are in fact the opposite of all that is healthy, while maintaining a heroic physique and facade that is easy to sell to a vulnerable public.

Not only are we expected to work hard 5 days a week from the comfort of our ergonomic office chairs, but we also must train as athletes in our spare time, lifting more, maintaining low body fat and breaking PR’s.  This understimulation/overstimulation cycle is characteristic of life in a domesticated society where there is very little middle ground between the extremes.  It soon becomes painfully clear though, that one cannot mix and match a sedentary lifestyle with the training regimen needed in order to become the mythical athlete or even just have his body, like as sold to us by the magazines, photos and online videos.  The bitter pill to swallow is that the environments we have been raised in do not provide the ideal conditions to become the kind of person we are pushed to be, in fact the societal ideals are at odds with the environmental and societal conditions.

Instead of asking ourselves “is my training functional and transferable to real life?”, we should be demanding whether or not our daily lives are dysfunctional, and if they are conducive not only to what we want to do with our bodies in the immediate and long term, but more importantly to what we want to achieve in life.  In this sense, the concept of “functional training” is often looking at the problem in reverse, hoping that a bunch of treatments, whose content is still informed by the idea of building a stronger human instead of a more holistically healthy and mobile one, will compensate for the inadequacies of our lifestyles and our inability to accept them.

Human ≠ Athlete ≠ Machine