Friday, 23 November 2012

Wabi-Sabi Fitness

I just read an excellent article on the Japanese concept of Wabi-Sabi.  It’s a concept that has fascinated me for a long time, and this provides a really succinct and thoughtful summary. Wabi-Sabi is a sentiment that I think is often felt by westerners as well (i.e. it’s universal to the human experience), but not well-articulated here because we don’t tend to have the vocabulary or the cultural context to capture it.  To me, it’s the aesthetic beauty - a kind of sad, melancholic beauty - to things that are transient and fleeting.  It carries over into an appreciation of the simple, rustic, humble, weathered and imperfect.  It’s the antithesis of the mass-produced, homogenous, throw-away products that are so common to modern culture – ironically, perhaps, since so much of those products are imported from Asia, where the Wabi-Sabi concept arose.  At its root I think is also a feeling of authenticity or naturalness, in contrast to artifice or something being contrived.

With the cherry blossoms gone
        The temple is glimpsed
                 Through twigs and branches.
                                 - Yosa Buson

For me, it’s always been that almost ineffable feeling that is produced by great haiku poems; or the beauty of an old crumbling stone wall, covered in different hues of green mosses; the a flight of departing geese at sunset; fragile, faded photographs; dew-covered spiderwebs at dawn.  It’s the somewhat pleasant feeling that things are beautiful because they are ephemeral – they exist only for a time.  And while it’s often in nature that these feelings are aroused, I think it can also be felt amongst urban decay:  a crumbling graffiti-covered wall; pigeons roosting in the eaves of buildings, old books piled high in second-hand bookshops, rust-stained concrete.
The concept is not exclusively Japanese, although it’s perhaps most beautifully captured through the aesthetics of zen rock gardens, tea ceremony, calligraphy and ink painting.  The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius felt it similarly when he wrote:

"Watch well the grace and charm that belong even to the consequents of nature's work. The cracks for instance and crevices in bread-crust, though in a sense flaws in the baking, yet have a fitness of their own....In ripe olives the very nearness of decay adds its own beauty to the fruit.  The bending ears of corn, the lion's scowl, the foam that drips from the wild boar's mouth, and many other things, though in themselves far from beautiful, yet looked at as consequents of nature's handiwork, add new beauty and appeal to the soul..."
                                                                                            - to Himself, Book III

Compare, in the Iliad, how the gods are envious of mortals for the precise reason that their lives are beautiful because they are so brief.  It also shows up in the Hellenistic Baroque period of art, when sculptors turned their attention away from the perfect, ageless forms of Greece’s Classical Age to explore subjects that were more flawed – an aged fisherman bringing in his catch; a battered boxer, scarred from his numerous victories; an old woman, with her deeply lined face.   

I think that the beauty of these things is that they remind us, in a gentle, sad way, or our own mortality and of the transience that we share with all of nature – the implacability of time and decay, and thus the admonition to squeeze every last drop out of the time that is given to us.
It’s a rebellion also against materialism, or that is to say against the constant churn of acquisition and disposal of material goods.  And therefore it seems to be focused on simplicity, austerity, sparseness and poverty (not in the negative sense, but in the sense of only having what one needs and nothing more) – on economy.  It is contingent upon the recognition, as in the Old English poem The Wanderer, that all material or worldly ‘success’ is only lent, and can vanish as quickly as it came:

"Wealth is lent us, friends are lent us, 
man is lent, kin is lent, 
and all the frame of the earth
shall stand empty" 

Han Shan, in his Cold Mountain poems writes about the pleasant simplicity that comes with this recognition of impermanence:

"A thatched hut is home for a country man;
Horse and carriage seldom pass my gate;
Forests so still all the birds come to roost;
Broad valley streams always full of fish.
I pick wild fruit in hand with my child ,
Till the hillside fields with my wife.
And in my house what do I have?
Only a bed piled high with books."  

How might all of this apply to fitness and training, you might ask (and rightfully so since that’s the subject of this blog)?  In several ways, I think, and firstly in the concept of economy and simplicity.  Good health and fitness need not be complicated.  It doesn’t require fancy machines and gadgets.  Often all that requires is a person’s own bodyweight and willpower.  To me, pull-ups done on a piece of old scaffolding or a tree branch have wabi-sabi; lat pull-downs done in an air-conditioned gym do not.  

Going for a run in the rain and snow, subjecting oneself to the vagaries of mother nature, has wabi-sabi; running on a treadmill does not.  Utilizing found objects (old tires, sandbags, sledgehammers, cinder blocks, my favourite wheelbarrow, etc.) rather than the latest, greatest, hermetically-sealed and sanitized fitness equipment – these things evoke the same feeling of simplicity.  Compare, in Rocky IV – Rocky training in the old barn in the snow, carrying logs, hauling wood - versus Drago training in the state-of-the-art gym.   

In my mind, these rusted weights have a kind of wabi-sabi that pristine fitness equipment can't replicate:

That simplicity carries over to nutrition as well.  To me the same wabi-sabi concept can be felt in good, simple food – not too much of it – well-prepared and savoured.  A steaming bowl of sautéed greens, fish, boiled eggs; a cup of plain tea – rather than protein powders and ‘engineered’ meal replacements, or worse yet mass-produced pizza pockets and frozen dinners.

In its appreciation for imperfections, I think that wabi-sabi has important connotations for fitness as well.  It leads to an acceptance of ageing as a natural evolution, but not in any sense of giving-up. Rather, it’s an aesthetic appreciation of how a constantly-challenged and well-taken-care-of body changes, and how there’s no need to camouflage the progression of time with plastic surgery or other artificial means.  It’s the kind of strength that can only come as a result of hard work, experience and a refusal to take short-cuts – the kind that can’t be faked.

Furthermore, by the apprehension of wabi-sabi, one cannot avoid the sense that life is fragile, fleeting and sometimes all too brief.  That reminder, that all things (pain and discomfort included) are temporary, can be important motivation to squeeze out that one last rep, or to simply get up off the couch.  If that’s not an admonition to carpe diem, I don’t know what is.

The sound of the Gion Shôja bells echoes the impermanence of all things;
the color of the sâla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline.
The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night;
the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind.

     - The Tale of the Heike (trans. by H.C. McCullough)

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Rush hour

This was the view from my commute this morning:

Morning mist was just dissipating over the Ottawa River – temperature hovering around zero.  It was a beautiful ride.  I don’t have the chance to bike in to work every day – It’s probably twice per week on average, more in the summer and less in the dead of winter.  I used to much more consistent before having kids.  That’s not meant as an excuse – just that with one child in school and the other in daycare at different places, it’s often impossible to swing it with my wife’s and my work schedules.  However, the days when schedules do allow it, result in the best possible commutes.  Today’s was a roughly 18 kilometre ride.  The particular route allows me to spend 95% of the time on pathways as opposed to roads – most of it right along the river (Ottawa is a great city for pathways and greenspace – but I’ve seen many other great examples too).  It’s longer, but safer, and the scenery speaks for itself.

I can’t express how much better the morning feels after a bicycle commute, rather than a drive.  Aside from the gorgeous scenery, it’s probably the best time of my day for reflection, formulating ideas, etc.  Kind of a moving meditation, which I find I’m much better at than the seated kind.  It’s a bit different in traffic (which is sometimes the route I take) – in which case allowing the mind to wander is done at one’s own peril.  However, there’s a certain zen to that, I find – to not allowing your mind to wander to anything else – redirecting, as needed, back to the pavement, the cars, lights, pedestrians.  It makes a person realize how few opportunities we (well, I can only really speak for myself) to really focus on one thing, rather than multitasking. 

I ride pretty easy on my way in to work, so I don’t have to waste time with a second shower once there.  It’s still a decent workout though – well, not a real workout per se, but at least better than sitting around.   The other metabolic advantage is that it’s done in a fasted state, so it’s a good fat-burner.  I tend to follow a Leangains-style intermittent fasting eating pattern (i.e. I fast for roughly 16 hours per day with an 8 hour eating window).  That means that I don’t eat until about 1 or 2pm, and stop around 9-10pm.  So a morning commute is done while fasting.  It forces me to do something active first thing in the morning.  I totally applaud people who can get out of bed at 5 or 6 in the morning and get a killer workout in.  I just can’t seem to do it.  Prying myself out of bed is too damn hard!  And once the kids are up, our mornings are just too busy with getting them dressed and fed and off to school/daycare.  My best option is a lunch hour workout (more on that in a future post), whereby I can train in a fasted state and then eat my first meal of the day in the early afternoon.  But a morning bike commute is a good alternate/additional option because it allows you to get an easy workout in during time that was already accounted for anyway.

I get to work feeling more energetic, less stressed and appreciative of a little bit of time spent in nature.  It saves money too, that would otherwise be spent on gas, maintenance, parking, transit fees, etc.  That’s win-win in my mind. 

Monday, 19 November 2012

Don’t tell a 4-year-old something unless you want it taken literally

I’ve been a little lax with the sprinting of late, so I took my kids down to the local sports field yesterday afternoon for a bit of wheelbarrow racing (See the Hobo Prowler Sled post).  Now, if you’re questioning whether or not to do this type of exercise, let me just say that the bewildered looks that one gets from passing motorists (I have to push them a few blocks to get to the field), while pushing two little helmeted toddlers in a wheelbarrow, are worth the price of admission on their own.

Yesterday I started off by doing end-to-end sprints (close to 100 metres I guess) with both kids in the wheelbarrow.  These don’t sound like much but, let me tell you, I’m totally gassed at the end of one of them and need a minute or two to recover before doing another.  4-year-olds are of course known for their patience, so I made the mistake of telling my daughter, immediately after one sprint, “Hold on, Daddy just needs 10 seconds to rest.”  Well, she took that as a signal to start the clock, “1, 2, 3, 4…10, ready, set, go!).  And she counts fast too!  So then I was off again, sucking in some icy November air and trying not to slow down before reaching the other end of the field.  

After about 8 of these, I was done.  But I learned an important lesson.  I don’t usually strictly police my own rest periods and, I imagine as a result, sometimes take a little bit more time than needed.  Of course, I train alone, and when doing sets of 10X3 deadlifts or squats I can do a pretty good job of calculating when I’m recovered enough for the next set.  But it’s a bit haphazard.  That problem is compounded if you lift in a gym, where there are other distractions like water fountains, conversations with other people, etc.  Just something to pay attention to, unless you want to bring a tyrannical and merciless 4-year-old girl around with you to all of your workouts.

After this, I got the kids out of the wheelbarrow and we did a few lengths of the field chasing each other.  Then we stumbled upon a new exercise that was even more hilarious (from a kid’s perspective that is) than the first.  It involved me holding them by both wrists and basically sprinting along as fast as possible while alternating swinging them up into the air and having them touch down briefly with every sixth or seventh stride I took – kind of giving them the feeling that they were bounding along on the moon with minimal gravity.  By alternating sides each time, for me it was kind of similar to doing a diagonal kettlebell swing or reverse woodchopper each repetition - Compounded by the fact that we were running continuously.  It was hard to get them to take turns with one another, and the concept of Daddy resting between ‘sets’ was out of the question.  Finally I had to basically collapse into a heap for them to take pity on me.

All told, it was a pretty decent workout, and the kids got some good exercise in and fresh air too.  So, if you feel (like me) that you might be occasionally milking your rest periods for a bit too long, you could get a timer/stopwatch....or you could save the money and bring your kids along.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Hunting haiku

Deer woods at grey dawn
trying to make the forest 
forget that you're here

Friday, 16 November 2012

On Gear

This post is going to have a bit of a negative tone to it.  I don’t know, maybe it’s the dwindling daylight hours affecting my mood, maybe it’s the start of hockey season and the associated stories of parents buying their 9-year-old kids carbon fibre sticks and $700 skates.  Or it could be something else entirely. Nevertheless, if you want something light and optimistic you might want to keep on clicking.  

That said, it’s something that I’ve felt a desire to verbalize for a long time, and a recent post over at RossTraining (where he shows the multitude of exercise that can be done with simple furniture sliders) may have been the catalyst for me to actually write about this:  People’s obsession with ‘gear’, with having the latest, greatest, high-tech equipment/clothing for sport and exercise.

I think I first started to really notice this phenomenon back around 2005.  I was living in South Korea at the time and was doing a lot of mountain-climbing and hiking.  Not technical climbing by any stretch – these were 600 – 800 metre peaks, with trails, good weather for the most part, but still a lot of great exercise and beautiful views.  What always got me though was the clothing and equipment you’d see on the mountains.  Korean hikers invariably were outfitted like they had just left the Everest base camp – Gore-tex head to toe, climbing poles, fleece everything, high tech mountaineer boots, and the like.  In contrast, I’d usually be wearing an old shitty pair of running shoes, a t-shirt (maybe a sweatshirt if it was reaaallly cold – and by that I mean just below zero, which is as bad as it ever got), and usually jeans.  And of course there was a huge market for that kind of gear over there.  Not only specialty stores, like here, but even the standard department stores and grocery stores would have aisles and aisles of expensive paraphernalia, moisture-wicking this and that.  Now I hate to bemoan it too much, because it was nice to see a lot more of the general population (however not generally the youth, unfortunately) out being active – more so than here in Canada at least.  But it all had a very commercial feel to it, as if the genuine participation was tainted by a desire to simply buy the gear, rather than to actually go out and use it.

Now, I’m not innocent here.  When I was a teenage kid, I fell into this trap of thinking I needed the best stuff to be a great athlete.  I played basketball and for about three consecutive years I convinced my mother that I absolutely needed the new Air Jordans.  I remember they were about $150 at the time, and I can guarantee now that they didn’t improve my game one cent.  I can recall going into shoe stores with my friends and actually picking up shoes to try to find which ones were slightly lighter, honestly believing that those extra few grams were what was preventing us from throwing down 360 dunks left and right.  I began to see, as I grew up a bit, that it was usually the guys with the best gear that sucked the most.  It was compensating.  A crutch.  The guy you should fear is the guy playing in jeans and pair of old flip flops.  He also tends to be the guy that is still out shooting baskets in the dark, when all the gear-heads have already gone home.

Recently I watched a CBC documentary on humanity’s evolution as runners, and on the dominance of Kenyans and other East African distance runners.  Now obviously there are some genetic components at play here, but it was also the case that the researchers found that the most successful Kenyan runners tended to come from the poorest, hillside villages, where they were raised walking, running and doing manual farm labour barefoot.  The theory was that this forced the muscles in their feet and ankles to develop better and become stronger, giving them an advantage over those raised with ‘better’ footwear.  I don’t know, but it sounds plausible.  From my own experience, it makes sense.  The summer before last, I dislocated my foot playing basketball, to the extent that it was pointed 90 degrees to my leg in the wrong direction.  The ligaments and tendons were obviously stretched and damaged to a great extent.  One of the things that I did to help with recovery was, as soon as I could put weight on it, I started to do a lot of barefoot running.  It hurt a tonne at first of course and I mostly used a treadmill to limit the potential for missteps and re-injury, but I think it really helped in retraining the proprioception and strength of the foot muscles.  I know both the orthopedic surgeon and physiotherapist who did the follow-up were very surprised at how quickly I recovered from it.  By 3 months I was doing almost full speed sprints and by 5 months it was essentially back to normal.

Another perfect example of great success with very simple, rudimentary training tools comes from a documentary I watched on UFC middleweight champ (and probably best MMA fighter on the planet) Anderson Silva.  Now, granted, Silva has a long background in training and has probably used a plethora of both high and low tech equipment and techniques.  What I was struck by however, was a simple drill where he would stand with his back against a brick wall while his trainer repeatedly tried to whip a tennis ball at his head, from about 15 feet away.  To me, when I watch Silva fight, the results of this kind of simple training are so evident in the way he’s able to essentially stand directly in front of his opponents (often with his arms down) and dodge incoming strikes by effortlessly moving his head from place to place, biding his time and then choosing the right moment to counterstrike.  And lo and behold, a tennis ball costs virtually nothing – but it’s a viciously effective tool in this instance.  It’s a low-tech, simple thing that anyone (regardless of income or circumstances) could use to improve their reflexes and reaction time, provided they put in the time and effort.

Now, I have no doubt that, at the highest levels of athletic competition where the tolerances and margins of victory are razor thin, a good case can be made for the lightest, strongest, and costliest equipment available.  But let’s face it, most of us (and if you’re reading this blog, you can probably consider yourself in the same boat) are nowhere near this level, and are simply looking to stay strong and fit throughout life and make progress toward some personal performance goals.  For those people, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you need the latest gadget or technological innovation to be successful.  Retailers rely on it.  Huge stores devoted to sell weekend warriors shit that they don’t need - stuff that probably spends more time looking good in a closet than in the great outdoors.  And it won’t be the kids with the $700 skates that will end up in the NHL, or the lightest, fanciest shoes that will make the NBA - it’s the ones that love the game enough to work their asses off to get there.

Anyway, the rant is now over.  The only piece of advice (for myself too) is to never let the absence of ‘stuff’ prevent you from the real task of ‘doing’.