Making Minor Major (less is more)

When we look back at the short talk by John Douillard featured in the last post we find that there is an alternative to the way we’ve learned to train the body as youngsters. When I begin to train with my mouth closed and began to resist efforts that necessitate mouth breathing I’ve found that much simpler exercises suffice.  Basic crunches, plank holds, quadrapedal motion and even jumping jacks taken in several small doses over the day can be seen in a profounder light.  Maybe in order to support longevity workouts like the following are not only not necessary but perhaps counterproductive.

I’m not saying that the kind of workout Tony Sentmanat is engaging in is bad or poorly designed for his purposes but what I am saying is that it is perhaps not optimal for function in old age.  If Tony is able to maintain such high levels of fitness into his middle fifties by continuing such workouts without interruption he would certainly prove himself to be the exception that proves the rule. To do so without significant injury would be nothing short of miraculous. For most of us the period of our life where we can sustain this kind of exercise intensity doesn’t last much past our middle to late 30’s and perhaps only then if we have already reached an elite level of fitness.

I am not an elite athlete nor do I see any elite athletes in my practice so I tend to limit my focus to what “every man or Frau” can conceivably accomplish with consistent application. Yes it’s important to train some of the population to elite levels of strength, speed and agility but I think the true measure of the health of a population is the physical and mental health of its aging population.  Is it enough to push up the statistical average lifespan of a population by maintaining a significant portion of the aged on a kind of pharmaceutical “life-support” for two decades or more?  Is there an alternative to the absolute negligence that the pharmaceutical age has engendered?

Our main goal is to maintain and optimize physical strength, flexibility, and balance for as long as possible until we reach the end of aging for our particular genetic phenotype. Our second goal is to find a way that we can really ENJOY doing this in a CONISTENT way over probably many decades. This takes a certain mentality and a willingness to be the tortoise rather than the hare. As older people we enjoy a slight advantage. We have seen our body decay, we have a tangible experience of the pain this brings but we have also had the opportunity to develop patience and farsightedness.  We should take advantage of this.  Many of the things we thought important as young persons have become relatively less or even unimportant and this is actually a help to us in staying focused on the long run.  For example, competition; while it may remain important for us to be good enough to be competitive, we may not have a win-at-any-cost attitude we had at 17.

In my personal journey to “Drewdom” I’ve begun, day by day, to reverse engineer the best kind of basketball player I can be.  This is essentially a creative process.  I then try to break these qualities down in to the simplest kinds of drills and exercises possible so that I can engage in them in a wonderfully consistent way.  We’ll look at a couple of them next time.


Self Perfection or Just Tryin’ to Cope

You have to consider that when I advise someone to try managing or coping with their stress with meditation my point of view is rather biased. I’m like a person who is totally into model railroading advising you about their beloved hobby.  I know there is something great and wonderful about my trains but I’m not sure how to talk about it with just the right mix of detail and simplicity that will keep your eyes from glazing over or my chest from filling with pride like a poisonous blow fish. Often its better to answer specific question when a topic is very broad so if you have any questions please ask in the comment section.

Receiving shiatsu often can get you to a “feeling place” akin to still meditation (whether seated or standing) and one of the things I like to try to do is to get my clients to replicate those “feeling tones” and states, from our work together, on their own.  If you already have experience with the goals and methods of meditation my particular emphasis then is on indicating ways in which you can shift the context and take greater advantage of your experience.  Remember, most (religious) traditions of meditiation look down on meditating with mundane goals like coping with the world banking crisis or anxiety born from getting mobbed on social media.  ‘If you’re not striving for enlightenment then we ain’t got nothin’ for ya.’ Its a delicate process to get people with this bias (me circa 1998) to see the more general usefulness of the skills they have acquired in yoga, with zen meditation or through prayer.

If you are someone that is on the other end of the spectrum then my job is to give you enough background and technique to allow you to apply them to the themes you have decided to focus on in our relationship as shiatsu  giver and receiver.  Month long teachings on the 37 practices of a bodhisattva just are not appropriate and in fact often extremely small snippets of advice and instructions can go a very long way for newcomers.

In addition I like my advice to stay kinesthetic in nature because, well, I’m a bodyworker, but also as Tom Meyers points out, (around the 25.12 mark) here in the West, we have an overwhelming amount of visual and auditory imput but increasingly small amounts of “felt” information for our brains. Its not just Gen X’ers bent over the latest and greatest S or i-phone series; shoulder- and buttock fascia slowly laminating into a hot mess who have seemed to have forgotten they live in a body. Even those of us who prefer sticks and stones as playthings, bemoan our loss of function as we age, rather than fight to preserve it; rather than go deeper into the body and the life of the body. Our personal goals become increasingly abstract, leaving little space for a cointinued striving for self-perfection through the vehicle of the body.  I think this is partly due a lack of appreciation for the aging body and our culture’s facination with the kind of beauty only the young posesss.  But what about the beauty of the aged? All that glitters truly is not gold.

Its important for you to take yourself seriously, to know within the continuum of your heart-mind that you can make improvements, that you can get to the bottom of your problem and that you can reach the end of the tunnel and bask in the light. I’m not encouraging you to harbor illusions. Have you examined yourself? Weigh your situation carefully and relax into that reality. Input from shiatsu therapy is like getting a second opinion on that physical, kinesthetic reality that you must then, in a consistent and responsible way, open to in your chosen methods of stress reduction and self knowledge. Don’t back down. Don’t succumb to your habit energy. I have confidence in you.

Barbell Complexes?

There is a condition effecting the fitness world called bigorexia but this post isn’t about that. There are a dizzying array of tools, techniques, and products associated with maximizing your potential for athletic success or simply getting fit for short. Barbell complexes are one of those ways. So there are nearly infinite paths and nearly infinite means to using physical culture, considered a lifestyle intervention by modern medicine, to augment and support anything you might want to achieve with bodywork. Its unavoidable, you have to make your own choices.  Your doctor or therapist can’t do it for you.  Making that choice will take some time because its a matter of lifestyle its not a 2-, 6- or 12 week program. You have to continually examine not only your motivation but your capacity and life situation as well.

I’ve found it helpful to consider the different aspects of fitness that training can be tailored for. You can train to increase flexibilty, speed, power, strength and endurance for example but these qualities are synergistic.  As you train one you necessarily effect the others because these are expressions of a human body and not an ideal theoretical human body but your human body. So these are categories or templates for your mind like yin and yang or fire and water in TCM or relative and absolute in buddhist philosophy.  Though its not PC to say it, some bodies develop some qualities “better” than others.  For our purposes knowing this helps us to keep focused on our own personal experiment.  We can of course compare ourselves to others but simply acknowledging that there are genetic parameters as well as questions of time, commitment, experience and goals help us to focus on useful comparisons rather than overly broad generalisations about what we can expect from our efforts.

I bring this up because I spent a great deal of time looking at plans from the standpoint of “I want to develop this kind of body” so I need to train in the way that someone who has this body trains. Besides being absolutly superficial and vain, this approach has nothing to do with me other than my opinion about what looks good. This has potential dangers not only because of perceptual and psychological issues like bigorexia, anorexia and orthorexia nervosa, but we are doomed to fail because we don’t consider any other aspect of our life other than our will to submit (albeit temporarily) to Bruce Lee’s workout plan because we want to be ripped like Bruce Lee.

It doesn’t seem to matter if unlike Bruce Lee, we’re a 6’5″ male of German and Scandinavian ancestory who only has 3 hours a week available to train; has seven children and never trained a day in his life before coming to the conclusion that he has to get down to 5% body fat. The above example is crude and obvious but comparing our self and workout plan with others has subtler faults and the main one is, as I’ve already mentioned, lack of razor fine focus on what we are doing and the process  of making these changes a lifestyle so that we can make the benefits longstanding.

There are a lot of experts in this field it seems. Have a look at them all if you have the predilection.  Some are truly experts and that means you won’t understand a damn thing they say and some are profoundly real and authentic; maybe you can use their advice and maybe you can’t; and others are absolutely useless fakes, in which case you won’t understand a damn thing they say.

Traditionally shiatsu therapist prescribe hippie exercises from Do-in (dao yin), taiji, qi gong or yoga emphasizing qi flow and the feeling of a transclucent body full of light.  These exercises do work for emphasizing relaxation and for balancing posture, mobility and strength. These approaches evolved in a somewhat different context as western life today (strange and unique as that might sound) both philosophically and economically. Because we are so divorced from our bodies (sitting 12 hours a day and drinking 20 cups of coffee) we need work that will get our body to a place where subtle energetic work can actually do us some good.  I’m not saying we have the endurance of peasant farmers and the strength of a Qin soldier but I think its a lot to ask of the taiji form if all we do is sit on Facebook during the week and dance and party on the weekend. As far as qi flow is concerned I can’t really speak to that, the “mundane” benefits being enough for me right now.

Why do you want bodywork? Is that all that you need?  Would integrating certain other lifestyle changes into you daily grind have the synergistic effect of making you pop in all the right places? Are you willing to make a greater effort to focus on your own need for calm, and satisfy it so that the well is deep for others to drink from? Just don’t lose your patience.

Where Are You and Where Are You Going?

The fall is the season that, I personally, have traditionally chosen to assess, reasses and plan.  usually around September my creative juices start to flow and I begin to think about what things I’d like to change about my life. How can I make improvements on my current situation?  Sometimes its necessary to ask myself, “how can I escape my current situation?”

I try to apply self reflection to all areas of my life regularly but during the golden days of fall it is somehow especially important. What I often do is look back on things that I may have introduced to my life in the past year and re-evaluate them.  Often I’ve forgotten them, that process, or simply become lax.  If I can generate new enthusiasm then that’s a key indicator for me.  For example, I just dug up a notebook in which I did an exercise from Jack Canfield’s book “The Success Principals.” It was simply to write out 100 things you want to do before you finally buy that farm. I decided to type this list up and doing so was a big help in re-orienting me in a positive way.

1st meeting

Here I am on the left with my brother in the center and my father on the right. My father was just a little bit younger in this photo than I am now (I managed  to inherit the belly but not the hair). I’ve included this photo because it serves as a rough estimate of where I’m coming from in terms of physical fitness and also gives me an idea of where my genetic blueprint might be taking me. Although no one seems to enjoy looking in the mirror and seeing their parents, the truth of what may be reflected there is a tremendous teaching.  If you’re trying to stay healthy in a natural way with minimal supplementation and minimal surgical and drug intervention it makes sense to continue to listen to your parents.  This way of listening, of course, is of a different nature but it matters.

My family physician wanted to start me on blood pressure reducing medicines but I disagreed.  His reasoning was sound.  As an African-american my family history abounds with diabetes, stroke, enlarged hearts, obesity and cancer.  However I knew that although I had taken his lifestyle changes to heart, I hadn’t given it my best effort.  Body and mind not aligned. Although I was worried about my weight and the terrible bio-markers I was seeing, I delayed taking the medicine, chose a homöpathic remedy and was able to normalize my blood pressure in about 8 weeks with regular exercise.  Upon reflection I can say that my fitness program was not that good, but  it was enough to reach the important goal of lowering my blood pressure.

When my doctor recommended an ACE inhibitor was he simply following protocol? Was he looking at the statistics and saying, “blacks have a high incidence of this and so…” or was his thinking guided by some clear knowledge of my genetics? My father who was a physician in Los Angeles for over 30 years often said medicine was both art and science.  What does that mean? Does it mean we should question doctors that see cholesterol results over ‘x’ and immediately prescribe a statin? Perhaps we should question an insurance system that says, ” if said doctor does NOT prescribe a statin drug when a patients cholesterol level reaches ‘x’ we won’t pay him.” This situation doen’t seem to be very creative. To some extent I think that physicians have their hands tied, the amount information they have to sift through just to stay up-to-date is nothing short of enormous and often their patients (like me) are not as serious as they should be about their personal responsibility for their health. And of course, seeing 100 patients a day and 80 hour work weeks to boot can’t be conducive to cultivating a creative muse.

Shiatus therapist don’t usually have access to the devices that can give hard data upon which you can hack yourself.  We’re masters of the parasympathic nervous system though.  We help you turn down the noise your nervous system is making so that you can think clearly and be creative again; even if your doctor doesn’t have time to be.

Take time to look at where you’ve been and where you’re headed.  You can do this at any level of detail you feel relevant. You can simply reflect on your own habits and trajectory, you can look at your parents at your current age or you can even today get DNA testing done to determine any particular SNPs you may have that could inform your health approach or give you an early warning for the potential for Alzheimer and other diseases. Yet knowing, for example, that you have a SNP that makes it difficult for you to obtain folic acid from food, does not mean there is nothing to be done about it.  $the two controls are about epi-genetics.  Remember our genes are just 25% of the picture, your enivroment and your thoughts and actions have and essential part to play.

A Thousand Miles of Track

Recently I got a chance to sit zazen with practitioners in Suzuki Roshi’s practice lineage.  There was a class afterwards and we discussed right conduct.  I felt very relaxed and comfortable at the Clear Water Zendo in Vallejo California and if you’re ever nearby I would encourage you to drink from that stream.

Not long after this I began a 62 hour train trip from California to Michigan and I was reminded of Suzuki Roshi’s analogy of the train track.  He said, in effect, that the bodhisattva’s way, the wish to attain enlightenment in order to benefit others, must be like the rails we travel upon to our mundane destinations.  It is necessary that the tracks maintain their perfect and unwavering relationship to each other.  It would not do if one rail were to deviate from its path.  Even if the other rail would remain steadfast it would still spell disaster for both man and machine.

In Buddhist philosophy the two rails could be likened to concentration and wisdom, or insight and skillful means or perhaps the two, ultimate and conventional, truths.  If we don’t walk a sure path between relative and absolute truth we will lose our way.  In the context of caring for our health if we don’t balance our efforts at understanding theory and our practical purpose; between acting with ease and joy and strictly applying what we’ve learned from the research, we will have little hope of achieving our long sought after goals.

So as always, take it easy. Look before you leap. Don’t Be Afraid the Clown’s Afraid too.  A diet plan, a strength training plan, a qi gong form, the use of a particular supplement; these are just iceberg tips for honing awareness. Of course, as you learn a particular taiji form, you are using it as a template for your body and mind. You are coming into a special relationship with a method. Yet how your body looks while doing the form, or your intellectual grasp of the martial applications of the form, should not be your ultimate aim (well they could be but I think there’s more to be gained, especially in the context seeking a dropping off of the mind-body.) Even developing “mysterious energy” may not be the best and final goal for you. Yet no one can determine these things for you, not even your hair dresser. You are the boss. You take control. You go girl. Stay stable and balanced, upright and clear.  If you need help don’t waste time thinking about how your mother never needed help, go get help.  If you need a bar of chocolate don’t f*ck around, there’s plenty of  chocolate out there to be had.

In the sutra path, the bodhisattva’s way is thousands of lifetimes long and just as my transcontinental train ride required consistently parallel tracks, the life of the body and mind require evenness and balance. We don’t always have to walk straight and narrow, life’s trials need the ability to adapt, but as we adapt we have to consider the physical, the social, the financial, the spiritual and so on without picking and choosing;  balance them as evenly as possible and take good care not to over steer the mark and come off the rails.

Don’t obsess.  Don’t obsess about your meditation. Don’t obsess about your diet.  Don’t obsess about your disease. Just don’t.  Simply wind your way gently through the canyons completely at ease, never pushing the pace. If you can do that then I’m certain you’ll make the grade.