When I attended Clarion in 2001, Steven Barnes was my week-one instructor. Of course the class was about writing, but Steve talked quite a bit about martial arts in general and Tai Chi in particular—things that were important in his own life and in his own writing.

Although I had been interested in Tai Chi even before that, I didn’t get it together to find a class until 2009. But I managed to find a great class; one that made room for my idiosyncratic movement issues. It quickly became a daily practice that continues to this day. For several years I taught Tai Chi. I’ve retired from teaching it, but I still attend a group practice session in a nearby park several times a week in nice weather. (It’s free. Anyone is welcome. Send me email if you’re local or visiting and are interested in attending.)

All of which is to say that I was very pleased to find that Steven Barnes was teaching three Tai Chi classes at this year’s WorldCon.

Teaching individual Tai Chi classes is a fundamentally peculiar thing. I mean, if you’re trying to learn a Tai Chi form, you can expect to spend a year at it, if you take two or three classes a week. In that context, it’s kind of hard to know what to do with a single class, and the issue actually gets even more fraught if you’re teaching three classes, rather than just one.

Steve threaded the needle by focusing a large part of each class on talking about living well.

I started this post wanting to talk about all the great stuff that Steve covered—about movement and about life. But I hadn’t taken notes, and became somewhat daunted knowing that I’d skip all sorts of important bits. But, given the choice between documenting a few of the bits that stuck with me and documenting nothing, I’ve decided to go with the former.

I would like to emphasize that all these things are colored by my own thinking, so it is virtually certain that Steven Barnes would look at several of these things and go, “Wait a minute! That’s not what I said!” Don’t blame Steve for anything I get wrong. But this is how I remember it:

Purpose of life

On the first day, Steve mentioned that the Dali Lama said the purpose of life was to seek joy and to be of service. Steve used that statement to go on a short rant about being of service—how it’s the real motivation that gets most people out of bed in the morning. “Even if it’s just to feed the cat.” But on the third day he told a story that added some context.

Originally, he said, the Dali Lama said that the purpose of life was to seek joy. But people criticized him, saying that it sounded selfish to say that was the purpose of life. And the Dali Lama pushed back saying, “But as soon as you find joy, you’ll want to share it, and immediately find yourself drawn to be of service.” But people continued to complain, and eventually the Dali Lama conceded to the complaints and added the “and be of service” part.

And I think it’s good to tell the story this way, so that you get the context that “being of service” is an automatic urge, as soon as you find joy. It has certainly been my own experience.

Expertise

People almost always reach a point while learning something, where they perceive themselves as no longer getting better at that thing, even as they continue to train. Different people will keep training for different amounts of time before giving up, but most people eventually give up, before becoming an expert.

That has certainly been my own experience. There must be a hundred things—playing chess, identifying birds, gardening, StarCraft—where I did it enough to get pretty good at it, then found that getting significantly better would be hard work, and didn’t make the effort.

Steve suggested that 100 hours of study or training will give you a passing familiarity with some topic or activity, and 1000 hours gets you good enough to participate in a conversation about some topic with an expert. He also made a passing reference to the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice that it takes to develop actual expertise in something, but mentioned in an almost off-hand way the same issues with that idea that I talk about in my post on practice.

Three areas of life

One thing that I remember Steve talking about at Clarion was that he evaluated people as possible models for himself based on whether or not they were succeeding in each of three specific areas:

  • Financial success: Does the person have some sort of career or business that supports them and could support a family at whatever standard of living that person aspires to?
  • Family success: Has the person put together and maintained the sort of family they desire?
  • Physical success: Is the person fit enough and skilled enough to be able to do the things they want to do?

Steve specifically evaluates people on these standards when they offer unsolicited advice. If the person trying to tell him what or how to do or be has all three of these areas under control, then maybe their advice is worth listening to. Otherwise, probably not. (I gather he has a different standard for when he’s the one seeking advice or a service. He probably wouldn’t refuse dental care from a twice-divorced dentist or to fly on a plane just because the pilot was out of shape.)

Pain

When I taught Tai Chi I would begin the first class of each session by telling students that nothing we did in class should hurt. If anything hurt, they should make the move smaller, do a different move, and just wait until we went on to the next move.

Steve had a different perspective. He told students that any pain they felt while training should never go above a level of 3 (on a scale to 10).

I pondered that quite a bit since then, and I think Steve’s perspective makes sense in a way, especially for students who have chronic pain. I never meant to tell my students that they couldn’t take my class if they had pain; just that they shouldn’t do any move that made their pain worse. Another population for whom Steve’s standard probably makes sense is serious athletes or serious martial artists.

Movement

We probably spent half of each class moving, starting with a very nice mobility warm-up. It’s rather a lot like what I’ve taken to calling my morning exercises, but focused on working all your joints through their full range of motion, leaving out the muscle-activation stuff that I’ve added for my own purposes.

The form

Steven taught us the first three moves of his Tai Chi form. The first move was roughly the same as the move called Preparation in the form I do, but Steve emphasized the breathing as the entry point into the move: You inhale, and the movement raises your arms (leading from the tops of the wrists), and then you exhale and your arms fall (leading from the bottoms of the wrists). The second move involved stepping forward, turning your foot, and then pressing forward with your hands facing one another (a move we call “ji” in our style). I’ve already forgotten the third move.

Martial art versus martial science

Steve made a distinction between martial art and martial science. Martial science is figuring out the best way to win a fight or battle. Martial art, like any art, is about expressing yourself, in this case through fighting or battle.

This is something I’ve just come to understand very recently—that the “best” or “most effective” martial art is very context dependent. If you’re going to be fighting a duel—hand-to-hand, with swords, with pistols, whatever—that’s very different from battlefield fighting, where you would find yourself with potentially any number of opponents, along with some number of compatriots.

As an aside, my own observation: Krav maga is an excellent choice of martial art, especially if you have a handful of opponents. It has downsides, especially if you have “opponents” who are not enemies. If your opponents are people that you wouldn’t be comfortable maiming or killing, Brazilian jiu jitsu would be a better choice, but perhaps not if you find yourself surrounded by four or five gang members on the street after dark.

The point Steve was making is that martial arts are only appropriate in the appropriate context. There are many circumstances where “fighting,” and “winning a fight” yields significant benefits, but they’re context dependent. He mentioned an important teacher he had who, upon being asked for instruction regarding the best move for some circumstance, said “You’re a primate. Use a tool.”

Being willing to die

Steve told a story about being bullied in school, about how when he was bullied to the point where he couldn’t take it any more, he crossed to the middle of the nearby busy street. Standing on the yellow line, with traffic zipping past in both directions, he dared the bully to come out there and fight him.

The bully realized that he’d made a mistake.

The line, as I recall it was, “You have to be ready to die, and ready to take him with you.” I think a whole lot of martial culture involves people who have reached that point.

Fighting to stay alive

One thing that got some pushback from one member of the class was the idea that anybody would fight to live: Even someone so depressed as to be suicidal, if you put their head in a bucket of water, would fight to survive. One member of the audience suggested that clinical depression was a matter of brain chemistry, which Steve did not dispute. But the student talking about it said that, when she was at her lowest, if you’d killed her she’d have thought you were doing her a favor. Steve suggested that, even if you’d think that way in the abstract, if you find your head thrust into a bucket of water, you’d do everything you could to to breath.

I have no doubt that Steve was right here. A person suffering from clinical depression might well wonder why they’d fought to hard to survive, but I very much doubt that they’d just breath in water and be glad to pass on, even if they were at the point where they might later that day have chosen to swim into the sea too far to be able to swim back.

Okay.

Those are the bits I remember from Steve’s three Tai Chi classes. There was a lot more—probably other things that were more important than these.

I find myself a little surprised that the “three areas of life” stuff stuck with me the way they did. At Clarion I was doing pretty well in two of them—I had a career in software engineering that provided for my family, and I was in a successful long-term relationship with my wife. But my physicality wasn’t yet on point: I was somewhat fit; I could walk a long ways, I could even run a couple of miles, but I was overweight and unhappy about it.

I’m surprisingly pleased that I’ve managed to get all three under control. That same career lasted long enough (and I boosted my income enough with writing and teaching Tai Chi), that I’m able to support myself on my pension and my investments. I’m still married to the same woman I was married to when I went to Clarion. And since I was in Clarion I lost around fifty pounds while at the same time developing the ability to move in ways that would have been impossible when I was younger.

My Tai Chi practice was important to all those things. Perhaps it seems even more important than it was, because it was my entryway into moving better. Since stepping through that door I’ve explored a wide range of natural-movement practices. During the pandemic I (to an extent) switched back to an exercise- (versus movement-) based paradigm, but really just because exercise suited the circumstances. As the pandemic winds down, I expect I’ll switch back to movement rather than exercise as the focus of what I do.

Looking for a Steven Barnes link to use here I found this post in which he talks about the very classes I was in:

I was very pleased to be able to take another class—three classes!—from Steven Barnes. I enjoyed them, and I learned a lot.

You don’t have to know much about me to know that the latest video from The Bioneer on training for longevity is like catnip for me:

You will not be surprised to learn that the advice comes down to move more, move more diversely, and learn a lot. (Of course, adding diverse complex movements is learning.) But there is also specific useful advice re: power, bone density, tendon strength, etc.

I have long made it a general practice not to blame my age for any declines or limitations in my capabilities. It’s not that I don’t think my age matters. It’s just that I can’t do anything about my age, so blaming it doesn’t seem useful.

I now realize that I’ve been enabled in this by the fact that I spent my 20s, 30s, and 40s as a sedentary office worker. I did “exercise” some, but not a lot, and not very effectively.

The result of that was that when I finally started making exercise a priority in 2008, I was improving my fitness from a pretty low level. That meant that all through my 50s I was able to report, pretty much every year, that I was in the best shape of my life. (It was in 2014, when I was about 55, that I initially reported that I was getting enough exercise. A year and a half later I wrote this somewhat smug post on the myth of age-related illnesses of middle age. (I tried pretty hard not to be too smug about becoming fitter all through my 50s. Smugness is never very attractive, and it definitely doesn’t age well. I think that post holds up okay as being not so excessively smug.)

Looking back on it, I think my conclusions were the result of having a pretty skewed picture of what sorts of improvements in physical capability can be expected in an “older” person, based on have started from such a low base. Based on my experience these last two years, I’m beginning to think that I’ve made about as much progress as I can expect to make.

A photo me in in the Winfield Village fitness room doing shoulder-taps.
Me doing shoulder-taps.

That’s not definitely true. I continue to exercise. I continue to seek out new modalities of exercise. Maybe one of those will yet do great things for my physical capabilities. And it’s still true that I’m in the best shape of my life. But for the first time in a decade, I’m not in better shape than I was a year ago.

Still, I think I’ll hold off on blaming my age, at least for a while yet.

I wrote this a while ago, after seeing two articles in two days ragging on fitness tracking devices, and suggesting that they’re bad for you. Both articles warn against outsourcing your intuitive sense of “how you are” to some device. And, sure, I guess you can do that. But if you actually are doing that, I’d suggest that what you have isn’t a harmful device. What you have is a device disorder.

I was going to make an even stronger statement along these lines, comparing a device disorder to an eating disorder. I think the comparison is valid, even though, upon reflection, it weakens my argument. Sure, some people have an eating disorder. But anybody is likely to engage in disordered eating when they eat industrially produced edible food-like substances. Maybe that’s a fair comparison with industrially produced fitness-tracking devices. Unlike with industrial food though, I think the data from fitness trackers can be consumed safely.

“… sometimes I would wake up in the morning and check my app to see how I slept — instead of just taking a moment to notice that I was still tired…”

Source: Opinion | Even the Best Smartwatch Might Be Bad for Your Brain – The New York Times

I get this, because I joke about this myself. My brother will ask how I slept, and I’ll say, “I’m not sure—I haven’t checked with my Oura ring yet.” Or I’ll say something like, “My ring and I agree that I slept well last night!” But I’m just joking. I know how I slept, I know how recovered I am from the recent days’ activities, and how ready I am to take on a physical or mental challenge.

My Oura ring

That doesn’t make the data from the Oura ring useless. My intuitive sense of how I am isn’t perfect. Many’s the time I’ve let wishful thinking convince me that I’m ready for a long run or a tough workout not because I really am, but because the weather is especially nice that day and the next few days are forecast to be cold or rainy. Or because I have some free time that day and the next few days are going to be busy. My Oura ring has been a useful counterbalance to that. If I had a hard lifting session yesterday, but I feel great today and my heart rate lowered early last night, maybe I am really ready for a long run today. On the other hand, if my heart rate took the whole night to get down to its minimum, and its minimum was higher than usual, that’s a good sign that I’m not fully recovered, even if I’m feeling pretty good.

If you have an eating disorder, do your best to avoid triggers that lead to disordered eating. Similarly, if you have a device disorder, it makes good sense to avoid using whatever sort of devices lead to disordered behavior. But that doesn’t make the devices bad, any more than eating disorders make food bad. But any particular device might be bad for you, just like any particular food might be bad for you. (And, I admit, industrially produced edible substances are probably bad for everybody.)

If I’m serious about training to get better at everything—and I am—then I need to think seriously about how to fit in, and recover from, all that training. This post is my first cut at documenting some of my early thinking on how I might do that.

A plan to fit in everything needs to start with eliminating having whole days devoted to just one particular kind of exercise: strength days, running days, etc. Instead, most days will have to have at least two (hopefully complimentary) exercise activities.

I had already started work on thinking about the best ways to combine exercise activities in ways that would reinforce one another, based on the ideas of Adam Sinicki (aka The Bioneer). But more recently the work of Mark Wildman has provided what may be the solution: What he calls “the Tetris of training.” (That’s a link to the first of a series of videos where he talks about program design in those terms.)

The basic idea here is that you divide your workout into pieces: Maybe a kettlebell squat piece, or a single-arm club-swinging piece, maybe a running piece, etc. Then structure each piece as a specific block that can be done in a specific amount of time, and organize those those blocks into a sequence to make a workout that can be done in 30, 60, or 90 minutes (including a warmup at the beginning and a cooldown at the end), and lay those workouts out on a weekly timeline, with appropriate rest days.

Another key part of the idea is that each of those pieces should be its own progressive program, running on its own schedule, but arranged with the others so that they’re not all progressing upward at the same rate.

Me swinging an Adex adjustable club (adjusted to 10 lbs). Here I’ve just caught after an outside circle and have rotated back to center to prepare for the next swing.

This can (and probably should) get pretty fancy, because there are all kinds of considerations. You want to:

  • Cover all the basic movement patterns (walk, run, crawl, lift & carry, climb, throw & catch, etc.)
  • Hit all the large muscles in your body (glutes, quads, hamstrings, pecs, lats, traps, etc.)
  • Work all the basic directions of movement (Roll, Pitch, Yaw, Heave, Sway, Surge)
  • Avoid working the same muscle patterns two days in a row (to allow for recovery)
  • Make sure the important muscle patterns get hit at least twice a week

Besides all that stuff, I particularly want to include some “skills” training, where I’ll work on things like parkour, HEMA, rock climbing, fencing, etc.

I roughed out a plan along these lines, and gave it a try last week and this week. I have a couple of external constraints that I’m working around. One is that I want to be able to join my tai chi group in our Monday/Wednesday/Friday practice sessions. Another is that I want to include time each week for both a long run, and a long hike with Jackie—and both of those activities require flexibility related to the weather. Last week I ditched two of the tai chi sessions, but got in both a hike with Jackie and a long trail run. This week I couldn’t do one tai chi session because of rain, plus I had to take two unscheduled rest days because I tweaked something in my hip.

Today my hip seems to be recovered. I’ve done my heavy club swinging for the day, and I’ve gotten in a long run. Now I need to look at my draft schedule and see how to restart my workout plan, given all my many constraints.

Is it okay for someone who looks like me to seek or follow any sort of indigenous practice? Probably not? When a descendant of colonizers makes use of any indigenous practice it’s very likely to be an act of cultural appropriation. It doesn’t have to be, but to a first approximation, it probably is.

Even so, I find much that I like in various indigenous movement practices, which makes me want to find a way through this ethical thicket. And, I have come up with a couple of ideas.

First of all, my people have our own practices. Genetically I’m descended from people of Northwestern Europe—Scots, Irish, English, and Dutch that I know of. Just going by appearance, I conjecture that Celtic genes dominate.

There’s been an effort to recreate Celtic spiritual practices. I don’t know of any similar effort related to movement practices, but that’s probably just my ignorance. A single on-line search brought me to this page on Celtic martial arts which has a bunch of links to ancient sources, and to sources that are merely old, such as the fencing manuals I’ve become familiar with due to my interest in historical European martial arts. Finding that much so easily makes me imagine there’s probably more out there.

Culturally I’m descended from the broad line of Western culture going back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, who had very strong movement practices. Interestingly, our movement culture was largely crushed by Christianity just like cultures all over the planet. (The Catholic church believed that any effort to improve the body inevitably distracted from what they viewed as the much more important effort to improve the soul. There’s a nice discussion of this in Daniel Kunitz’s book Lift, which I wrote about here.)

There is a vast body of work on ancient Greek movement culture—ancient sources, translations, compilations, analysis, etc. In his book Natural Born Heroes, Christopher McDougall discusses various aspects at some length. I wrote about that book here.

What started me down this path was discovering Well For Culture, which bills itself as an “Indigenous Wellness Initiative.” Poking around their website I found all sorts of messages that resonate with me. And yet, as I described at the top, I hesitate to simply appropriate their cultural knowledge for my own use.

Which brings me to my second idea, which is that perhaps it’s okay to examine those portions of their cultural knowledge that they choose to make public, and use that knowledge as a lens though which to examine my own cultural traditions. Where there is overlap, I can consider emphasizing those aspects in my own movement practice. Where there is divergence, I can consider whether the differences spring from different histories, different environments, different purposes, or some other source, and let that consideration inform my own practice.

I continue to struggle just a bit with this. Are these indigenous practices being made public with the goal of helping everyone? Or are they being made public—in English, on the internet—because in the modern world other ways of reaching their own people are so limited?

In some cases I’m pretty confident that my use of indigenous knowledge is intended and supported. For example, the tai chi that I have learned and practice used to be held very closely within individual Chinese families, but has for some time been taught much more widely, with the evident goal of sharing those practices with everyone.

As another example, I’ve started exercising with steel clubs, in the tradition of Hindu (and Persian) club-swinging training. Doing this for exercise is a clear case of cultural appropriation: the British colonizers of India brought the practice back to England in the 19th century. Perhaps—hopefully—the cultural appropriation aspect is somewhat mitigated by the fact that clubs (as weapons) were used by every human culture, going back 10,000 years that we know of.

Me with my 15 lb steel club.

I’ve looked quickly to see if there’s any evidence for the use of clubs as a training tool, aside from its use as a weapon, and found that E. Ferdinand Lemaike in 1889, in his book Indian Clubs and How to Use Them, had this to say:

The Greeks and the Romans made great use of them, and gave them a prominent place among their various gymnastic exercises….

Not definitive—he cites no source for his statement—but it at least suggests that people in England thought they were following indigenous practices of their own culture.

He goes on to say:

That the club is the most ancient weapon nobody can deny; it is also the most natural and handy that could be found, and consequently the first used by man, for we find that Cain slew Abel with a club. The ordinary weapon of the athletic god Hercules was a club; and though he also used the bow and arrow, he is always represented with his club.

Although in this post I’m focusing on movement practice in particular, I should mention that Well For Culture emphasizes a more broad-based set of practices intended to produce wellness, including diet, song, ceremony, and much more. That fact makes me all the more inclined to look to my own cultural traditions for analogous practices and teachings.

A delightful article (from 100 years before my birth) on the history of exercise:

“Nothing so pleasantly combines mental occupation with bodily labor as a pursuit of some one of the natural sciences, particularly zoology or botany. If our means allow a microscope to be added to our natural resources, the field of exercise and pleasure is boundlessly enlarged.”

Source: The Gymnasium – The Atlantic