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.

 

Testing Times

08.11.17

In the same way that there are multiple lenses with which to view exercise, there are also many uses or purposes of testing.  In classical education tests are mostly exercises in regurgitation, where the student with the best memory is able to perform the best.  Individual sports such as running or weightlifting are also a kind of regurgitation, or mechanical performance of techniques that have been practised over and over, where the rules and the task are well known.  In such cases we may wonder what the purpose of testing or competing is.  Is it to see how well we perform under pressure, or is it primarily a means by which to judge one’s self against others?  The aspects of competition or testing in these cases are very limited, because the participants are aware of what is precisely demanded of them, and have months and sometimes years to prepare for a relatively one-dimensional performance.  Because of this I don’t see competition and testing in their traditional forms to be very beneficial for would-be competitors.

Anticipation gives us time to prepare, and the existence of structured and routinely programmed tests, especially when we are told exactly what we’ll be tested on, remove the opportunity for surprise.  It’s as if most tests have been designed for the purpose of making sure that participants fail as little as possible.

If you suddenly found yourself stranded on a desert island and had to seek shelter, build a fire and find food, that would be a test.  But if you spent months learning and practising how to start a fire, make a shelter and find food on that exact island before being left there alone, it wouldn’t be much of a test would it?  Or, at the very least, it wouldn’t be the same kind of test.

At the heart of this idea is expectation, and that if we make plans and train based on expectations we limit our options for exploration and spontaneous adaptation.  In a sense, training for a known or anticipated scenario biases us and changes the way we view the world.  As long as there is a well-defined goal there will always be a most efficient solution to reach it, which means that most testing has the effect of getting us to focus on efficiency for the sake of reaching that goal.

Professional sports is one relevant realm where the goals are clear, and where efficiency is paramount because it leads to winning more, which ultimately means more financial reward.  But outside of sport the most efficient way often strongly correlates to whatever the majority happen to be doing, as following requires no self-reflection, personal investment or creativity.

Creativity and exploration demand uncertainty which is why it can be emotionally challenging to be an explorer or artist.  Living in constant doubt and darkness takes its toll, and so the explorer must return to the comfort of familiar territory from time to time, just as long as he doesn’t build his home there and then never leave.

So the real tests are not so much the ones we choose ourselves, except when we choose to submit to the challenge of unpredictable outside forces.  It’s too easy to select challenges that don’t do much to push ourselves beyond our comfort zones, and of course we must all start somewhere, but I believe that the direction must be towards more uncertainty and a relinquishment of control.  Training for Ninja Warrior on your backyard replica course is very different from entering the competition with little or no experience of the kinds of obstacles you will encounter.

For me, a meaningful test is an adaptation or improvisational challenge that should help stimulate growth and generate new information and perspectives about one’s self and the world around us.  This is why repetitive activity, including preparation for competitions gets old quickly, because the cognitive complexity is soon reduced to a process of primarily tissue adaptation after a relatively few exposures.  Thinking on your feet becomes mere foot strengthening.

Weightlifting, even bodyweight training is like having a predictable sparring partner who just takes more and more hits to knock down over time.  The anarchic, improvisational-challenge perspective is to change partners once you discover their weaknesses and then defeat them.

The balance needed to be a successful artist is between ultimate freedom and constraint.  Freedom is exciting, wild and scary, and can present a challenge in itself for those who are unorganised or used to having things habitually handed to them on a plate.  Freedom means that you must decide the operating parameters, the goals and the means to get there.  Freedom ultimately puts you in charge of defining the constraints.  We define, explore, refine and narrow down the list of possibilities until we reach a goal, a fork in the road, or a point at which we decide to go in a completely different direction or to just stop all together.  Wherever we go or end up though, there is always a constant movement between freedom and constraint, or else we stagnate.

If we have too much freedom we do nothing; too much constraint and we do the same thing over and over again.

In this case at least, balance isn’t about finding the centre point between the two and then staying there indefinitely, it is about developing an instinct for when to move towards one or the other, and then acting upon it.

The Hidden Pathway

06.11.17

Some months ago I began writing a list of exercises for learning how to control the lumbar spine and how to differentiate between movement that originates in the hip from that of the low back.  As my list of variations grew an interesting pattern emerged: all of these exercises required and promoted “core” strength as a kind of side-effect.  I came to call this method “implicit strength training”, but at the time I hadn’t yet applied the idea elsewhere and it seemed paradoxical to think of training the core by not training it.  This concept drew awareness to the often hidden benefits to any particular set of exercises or method.

As the weeks went by, during various moment of my training I began to tune into the implicit strength aspects of what I was doing, while juggling and playing throwing and catching games I saw how I was also conditioning not just the skin on my hands but also the bones, through the repetitive impacts of catching spinning sticks and logs.

Returning to an even earlier point a couple of years ago when I wasn’t doing any type of training or exercise, I decided that without having any strong motivations for moving I would use manual labour as a point of entry, or excuse to introduce movement into my life again.  Sweeping leaves taught me a number of things that I had forgotten in my sedentary state, most importantly, that movement and physical effort or exertion were enjoyable activities in and of themselves, regardless of what outcomes they implied or lead to.  I was also reminded that for me at least, movement is often a meditative activity, I.e. one in which I am completely focused on the present moment, enjoying the different kinetic sensations that arise from any particular action.  In addition, I was aware of the strength requirements and eventual adaptations that would result from habitually moving in such a way.

Sweeping was not a mere chore that had to be finished and as quickly as possible, but it was an opportunity to benefit from an activity in multiple, non-obvious ways.  Each movement was something that could be practiced and refined if only we decided to give it our attention and deem it worthy of our time.  The irony being, that when we make the effort to give ourselves completely to whatever we may be doing we no longer wish for time to pass quicker, and we stop seeing things as being a “waste” of time or as obstacles to achieving our goals.

For Daniel, waxing cars and painting fences was a waste of time because he had wanted to learn karate, but what he didn’t realise at the time was that he was learning, and that in fact there were many such opportunities throughout the day to practice, to learn and to improve implicitly.

Just as parkour uses obstacles as tools with which to strengthen the mind and body, the implicit learning mindset takes this a step further by applying it to all activities and all obstacles, both physical and metaphorical.

What the implicit model of learning highlights is that in our attempts to decrease work and make life more efficient and convenient we successfully reduce exercise down to what we consider the bare essentials, to our own detriment.

The trend of isolating muscles in order to train them is actually a fool’s quest, because not only does the body function as a single coordinated unit both in daily life and in sport, but ironically, if we are successful in isolating  movements, NOT muscles, we call upon a much larger range of musculature to stabilise the body while one or two joints move under control. Badly executed barbell curls that resemble strange hyper-extended deadlifts are an example of someone who thinks they are isolating their biceps, but would benefit from a free ab workout among other things if true joint isolation were to be practised. Gymnastics rings offer the most difficult and purest form of controlled joint isolations imaginable, which makes the rings a great tool for practising and increasing the skill of paired stabilisation/mobilisation, and also a diagnostic tool for finding weaknesses or areas that lack necessary control.

In nature everything is experienced multi-dimensionally and has many implicit elements.  Problems begin to show up when we attempt to isolate and prise apart these elements from their intrinsic structures because in doing so we are ignoring the context in which they have grown.  If we cut off the philosophy (or fighting) from a martial art we are left with competition or meaningless movement.

As I have previously hinted at I believe that what is often referred to as the soul is actually a number of non-obvious, invisible and implied characteristics of an object, activity or being.  Martial arts minus philosophy is soulless, a person without strong guiding values, morals and purpose: soulless.  A meal from a blender or microwaved package: soulless.

In this way we could see that attempts to alter traditions whether they originate in martial arts, religions, governments or other areas of society are deeply felt threats that are more than simple challenges to beliefs and norms, but are threats to the very soul, that act on an emotional and not intellectual level.

Soullessness is simply a synonym for “there’s something important missing from this equation”, where that important thing might just be in the eye of the beholder.

I believe that soulfulness equates with wholeness, in other words, an appreciation and expression from multiple angles maximises soul, while anything isolated is soulless.  The soul needs a body to inhabit, and not just a few skin cells.

This explains another part of the internal dilemma I had about creating my own non-martial art, which was the feeling that I was somehow contributing to a less-soulful universe.  I realised that I had successfully isolated many disparate ingredients for my home-brewed concoction, and that I now needed to put them together, to create something new and above all, whole.  I needn’t have worried though, as my intention has always been to move away from efficiency and towards deeper meaning and purpose stemming from honest self-expression.

How did I do that?  How did I get here?  These are typical feelings of those who learn implicitly, and ironically it was such a question, along with a desire to know more for the sake of self-improvement and ultimately sharing my experience with others, that lead me down a long tunnel away from self-knowledge and a naturally instinctive approach to everything in life.  I learned a lot of interesting things during that time, in a backwards, inside-out kinda way, but despite it being interesting most of that information did little to benefit me in any practical way, and more importantly it left my original question unanswered.

Now I know that I don’t want to know.  My new question however, is how can others be taught, or should I say guided towards the path of implicit learning and instinctive exploration?  Bruce Lee would have called this a study of unnatural naturalness, and I have already begun experimenting recently with novel techniques designed to facilitate skill acquisition in an unconscious manner.  My past experience though, is grounded in accidental strength, but it remains to be seen whether I can take that experience to build a useful model for others, and whether or not the other implicit qualities can be successfully integrated along with all the additional, less physical, but nevertheless important aspects of my non-martial art.

This is the challenge facing anyone wishing to design their own ritual: how to mould separate and unrelated elements together in order to form a coherent whole that appears as natural as possible, while providing the benefits you want without introducing problems.  This is another example of unnatural naturalness, but on a different level.

Perhaps the pursuit of a purpose-built, all encompassing way of life, philosophy and culture will suffer the same problems my other non-instinctive activities did, except this time on an all-encompassing scale.  I see the problem as ultimately being an artistic one though; a challenge of creating a sense of order from chaos, of building a whole that is greater than the sum of all its components.  I have already chosen the main ingredients instinctively, what remains now is how they are put together, and it seems highly likely that the result will be a surprising one.

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

Fast Food

01.10.17

I officially began a 7-day fast yesterday, although I had eaten very little the day before, and didn’t at all consume an evening meal.  I had experimented with fasting as a child, but no longer than a day at a time, and if I remember correctly my fasting periods were often during school hours.  I think it was my mother who once encouraged me to try, and I soon discovered how easy it was, and what’s more how I could save my lunch money to be able to afford a better meal the next day.  My motives were hardly spiritual or noble in any way, but it was nevertheless an unusual experience that further separated me from my peers.

I have challenged myself to do certain things over the years, most recently to live without time.  Not being tied to a routine job allowed me to remove all artificial evidence of time in the form of clocks, and to experience life according to the rhythms of nature, becoming more attuned to my own feelings and learning first-hand how much influence this powerful concept has over us.

On my first day of fasting I realised how much food and time had in common, and that much of our experience with food is tied to routine and expectation.  In the same way I had seen how time would dictate whether we ate or not, mealtimes themselves seemed to give meaning and order to the day, so that when eating (or time) is removed from the equation things fall apart and we are left feeling lost.  There are unexpected benefits to fasting that all amount to having more time on your hands, due to the fact that you no longer have to prepare food, eat, and clean up afterwards three times a day or more.  Now that’s something I could get used to.

My first day of fasting went smoothly until around 6 or 7pm when I began to feel very tired mentally.  I went to bed around 9:30 but had trouble sleeping, unable to shut off yet mentally exhausted.

When I woke up this morning I was still tired and felt physically weak as I went out to do my daily exercises.  When I came back in I lay down in bed as I didn’t feel any better and was also quite cold, which appears to be something that comes and goes throughout the day.  A little while later I drank some black tea but was sick shortly after.  At that moment, like many other people who have had one too many to drink, I told myself “never again”.  Surprisingly though, or not, if you think that one always feels better after chucking up a gut or two, I felt much livelier and more awake than I did before.

My day went from me thinking that this is the hardest thing I’ve ever put myself through, to feeling that it’s not so bad after all.  The hardest parts of the day are when my girlfriend cooks and the smell wafts in, more enticingly than ever.  I realised that I must have pretty good self-control though, as I don’t allow myself to dwell on the thought of food and have avoided making a lip-smacking mental list of all the thing I intend to feast upon once these 7 days are up.  Ok, at least not a complete list.

Today I saw how food, mealtimes and other related rituals are important for their symbolic aspects in ways that mechanical representations of time are not.  Food isn’t just a bunch of nutrients to be consumed as efficiently as possible, food is a vital symbol of self and group sustenance that not only concerns the end product in the form of a meal, but also encompasses the rituals and practices of hunting (sacrifice), harvesting (nurturing) and preparation.  This is why the metaphor of fast food extends much deeper than simply reduced cooking times, for the whole concept of food itself is reduced.

Recently I began not saying grace, but simply having a moment of often silent appreciation for the food and favourable circumstances that allow me to eat regularly.  Now into my fourth day of fasting my appreciation of food has grown even stronger, along with an awareness that every meal, every bite is an opportunity to enjoy the simple, necessary act of eating.  Bringing a consciousness to our eating habits and practices is another element missing from fast food culture, as we tend to consume our meals as rapidly as they are prepared.  There is a distinct lack of practice in savouring our nourishment and we treat carefully prepared meals just as fast food or protein shakes to be wolfed down out of necessity.  Fast food and the under appreciation of real cooking could be seen as a side effect of a time-bound culture that is both driven and sustained by convenience: we not only strive to make life more convenient for ourselves, but technology and modern infrastructures allow us to continue in this general direction by eliminating the need for effort and personal input, with an array of time-saving devices.  Convenience is all-encompassing, meaning that it is likely to affect multiple areas of your life.  It takes a lot of willpower and strong motivations to avoid becoming automatic when we live life according to the rigid routines of our jobs.  But instead of seeing a lack of time as the ultimate excuse for our failing to suck out all the marrow of life, we can instead take the opportunity and first steps towards a deeper appreciation of daily experiences as they are presented to us, and that moreover, we can liberate ourselves from a stressful sense of not having enough time.  For when you fail to enjoy the simple, humble occurrences that regularly pass you by, no amount of free time will satiate your hunger.

After being vegetarian for almost 30 years I became aware that I had slipped into a comfortable routine of eating the same things, despite enjoying cooking since I was a child when I would prepare 3-course meals for the whole family.

The closest I have come to making a new year’s resolution was saying to myself that I would pick up the recipe books and begin to experiment again, to change my diet and develop new tastes for the sort of things I’d habitually avoid due to prejudices and knee-jerk reactions.  Although I’ve yet to fulfil this non-resolution, my starved mind is eager to dive into this endeavour once I begin eating again.  My goal is to use the cookbook as a pre-defined constraint, meaning that I will follow all recipes and eat all meals, challenging my own consumption assumptions and expanding my knowledge and capacity for appreciation in the process.

I have already begun to venture outside the boundaries of my culinary norms with the discovery and joy of mushroom hunting last autumn.  I have never been a fan of cooked mushrooms due to their slimy appearance and texture, but realised that by developing a closer relationship to my food and also to nature, I became less repulsed and actually began to enjoy the smell and then taste of freshly-picked wild mushrooms.  Initially I would just help search for them, but later found it a bit of a shame to spend time collecting them without getting to savour the final product.  Now, not only have I been regularly eating mushrooms, but the proportion of my food that comes directly from nature and the garden as opposed to the supermarket has significantly risen, although remains relatively small for the time being.

I find it strange how something so important as the production of food has become so obscure and alien to the general population.  Not only are people ignorant of how to prepare their own food, they are also oblivious to the origins of their ready meals and constituents, and children fail to correctly identify vegetables, let alone know how to grow them themselves.

There appears to be a great source of untapped personal power, respect and gratitude in cultivating a more food-centric culture that re-connects humans to the earth through healthier (for body and mind) practices for eating and consuming.  Instead of merely waiting at the table with an eager knife and fork, the human must re-invest himself in all parts of the process.

Before beginning my foodless journey I had read that when fasting for a week or more the first days are the most difficult and then things het easier, but in my experience it was the opposite.  In the beginning I was able to function normally, to exercise and continue my daily routine without much difficulty and with a clear head.  As the week progressed I became much weaker and my calves felt like every step was a workout for some reason, and time itself slowed to a crawl.  Standing made me dizzy and I lost the desire to do anything, remaining seated and relatively motionless during the final days.  Strangely, throughout the fast I woke up before sunrise and didn’t feel like I needed as much sleep as before, despite being physically weaker.

I decided to end my fast early as I felt that there was nothing more to be gained from continuing in such a state, so on the morning of the 6th October, six and a half days after my improvised fast began I ate a banana.  That very instant I began to feel life return to my body, and I realised that this was the closest I had ever come to dying.

A week later and now everything seems like ancient history: distant and impersonal, yet I have created new boundaries for myself by removing one of life’s most essential comforts, and in the process altered my perspective.

Low and Mighty

24.09.17

As self-domesticated animals we retain strong links to our primal history and physical nature through our relatively unchanged biological makeup, particularly that of the brain.  But despite this fact, or perhaps because of it, we seem to be focusing our efforts on moving further away from, denying and even erasing all traces of this shameful past.

We place ourselves above animals and even use this as a derogatory term to describe other.  Flies, dogs and pigs to list a few, have all had the misfortune of having their names sullied by the connotations of man.  Animals are evidently lower life-forms, and thus, humans who share animal characteristics are repulsive pigs who deserve to die like dogs.

But the relationship we have with our beastly brethren as evidenced by our common expressions is only just the beginning of the story.  Perhaps the most significant aspect of our domestication is the move towards a sedentary lifestyle, and particularly the rejection, stigmatisation and devaluation of physical labour.

On one hand, slavery, mechanisation and technological advance are all about reducing the physical input of the individual for the sake of convenience and ultimately profit, but at the same time there are interesting, perhaps unintended consequences of such systems.  Physical work becomes associated with poverty and lower status, in the same way that pigs are linked to filth, grime and unsanitary living conditions.  If your job is manual labour, it usually signals that you are not clever enough, or well-educated enough in order to easily obtain a more sedentary position.  Moreover, it places you firmly at the bottom of a hierarchy which is quite clearly delineated between not just rich and poor, but between those roles that require the body, and those whose primary focus is the intellect, or at least just the brain.

The slave was liberated, only to become the operator of a piece of time-saving machinery, having once been the machinery himself.

So physical effort is viewed as something to be avoided, which also means that opportunities to benefit from Darwinian happiness associated with the body in movement are wasted.

There are however, well-paid physical jobs such as those of professional sportsmen, but despite their million-dollar income, football players remain manual labourers, and lack the status of other competitors in other sports such as horse or motor racing.  In both the previous examples there is a large financial barrier to entry: most children cannot afford a horse, a racecar, or even lessons, but what they can do is learn to use their own bodies with minimal equipment.  In any case, the divide can be seen within sports and physical occupations themselves.  Professional boxing has different physical demands and financial constraints compared to golf for example.

A loss of contact between humans and their animal heritage is profoundly mirrored in their actual loss of contact with the earth itself.  Squatting has been replaced with sitting in chairs, shoes separate our feet from the ground, and mats mask our contact with the floor.  The earth is dirty, like the animals who roll in it, and separation from this dirt is a sign of wealth.

Compared to the outside world, a modern gym is a sterile environment in which to habitually re-enact contrived movements for the sake of “health” or aesthetics.  In this way, humans can take their necessary movement medicine without having to get dirty, and risk the damage to their status that comes from contact with the earth and their animal nature.  A practice that not only embraces, but demands connection with the floor is fundamentally counter-culture, just as eating with cutlery is deemed to be civilised.

We are not upstanding citizens, we are low-down, dirty dogs, and these ideas are clearly reflected in our cultural metaphors.

Stand up for your beliefs by stooping so low and remaining grounded in physical activity I say.  In fact, we could even think of construction metaphors in which foundations are laid and built upon, as reflecting the same idea that domestication is about moving further away, not only from the ground and eventually the earth itself (think space travel), but from our ancestral roots.  In this sense, the negative connotations of being on the floor (down and out) may arise as a direct consequence of several metaphors which are based on the concepts up = good and down = weak.