For my taiji students

I was talking to my brother about how I might best serve my students during the emergency, and the topic of on-line classes came up (as it has for everyone who teaches some sort of movement-based activity), and my brother pointed out that I should have been turning my study into a studio suitable for producing and streaming on-line classes.

(I meant to mention this in my previous post, but forgot.)

Sadly, I have not done so. If I were to try to stream classes from here, they’d mostly consist of pictures of the vast amount of clutter in my study, so they’d look like this:

I’ll spare you that for the time being.

But, if the emergency continues, I suppose it’s possible that I’ll get my act together to tidy up my study to the point where it could sort-of be a studio.

Maybe.

Watch this space!

In the meantime, there are a variety of videos of me and other people doing taiji and qi gong at communitytaichi.org (a few recent videos are here). If you want to see videos of me in particular, there are few taken by a couple of my students here.

My spring break is over

I was on spring break from teaching taiji when the governor’s “stay at home” order was issued, and my friends and I had already started social distancing on our own. So for the past week I’ve just carried on as I’d been doing the week before.

But now my spring break is over. Two weeks ago, I thought I’d be going back to the Savoy Rec Center tomorrow to teach the last six weeks of the final session before we took our summer break.

I’m sure I’m just a week behind everybody else who teaches—feeling bad for my students, uncertain as to what’s going to happen, wondering what long-term changes will be wrought by the whole thing—but those feelings are nonetheless genuine just because they’re a delayed version of what lots of other people have already had to face.

At least I don’t have the financial concerns of people who make a living teaching. (The little I earn teaching taiji is a small fraction of my annual income, plus I’ve already received most of what would have come in before we went on our summer break anyway. Besides which, they may well pay me for the class that had been started—I get a percentage of what my students pay, and they already paid a month ago. Maybe the Savoy Rec Center will refund the money to my students, but otherwise I expect them to pay me as usual. I’d be happy enough with either scenario.)

Anyway, although it’s purely a mental shift for me, my spring break is over.

I’m about to switch from “not teaching taiji because I’m on break” to “not teaching taiji because there’s a pandemic.”

Running the prairie

On Sunday I ran in the Rattlesnake Master Run for the Prairie 10k.

Usually I expect that I’ll write a post when I participate in an event like that, but it turns out that I don’t have a lot to say about it. It went fine. I ran very slowly, which I expected because I’d done all of my training very slowly, but I did not come in last, which was nice.

I’d suffered with a nagging sore foot for several weeks leading up to the race. The pain was in the heel of my right foot, which made me figure it was probably plantar fasciitis. I think I’ve figured out though that it’s actually peroneal tendonitis. Understanding that gives me a clue toward recovery. The peroneal tendon, which reaches down the outside of your ankle, through the heel, and then forward across to the inside edge of the front of your foot, is heavily involved in balancing, especially standing on one foot. I do a lot of single-leg standing as part of my taiji practice and teaching, and since figuring this out I’ve been especially careful about being gentle with myself in this part of the practice, and in just a few days I’ve finally seen dramatic improvement.

The realization didn’t help in time for the race though, and my foot was a little sort right along. It wasn’t so sore that I thought I was doing real damage though, so I just ran the race anyway. It did impact my gate a bit, which meant that my opposite-leg knee started hurting about halfway through the race.

Part of the reason for this post is to test the GPX exporting at Polar (which had been broken for a while) and the GPX tracking plug-in that I’ve got here (which has been updated a couple of times since I last successfully got a GPX track exported from Polar). So, here’s the track of my run. The heart rate data doesn’t seem to be working.

Total distance: 6.3 mi
Total time: 01:23:36

(I didn’t want to fiddle with my phone at the start or finish of the race, so I started tracking my run about 5 minutes before the start of the race, and then I forgot to turn it off until about 5 minutes after I crossed the finish line, so both the time and the distance are a little off.)

My official time was 1:17:13.4 meaning a 12:26/mile pace. That’s as fast as I’ve run in years. (Overall results. Age-group results.)

It was pretty cold at the start—cold enough that I didn’t manage to get my race number in my pre-race selfie:

It had warmed up a lot by the end of the race, when I captured the selfie up at the top with Jackie (who along with a lot of the Master Naturalists had volunteered in the race).

Writing in the morning

I know that I need to write in the morning if I’m going to be productive at fiction. Even just 20 or 40 minutes of early morning writing gets my head into the story space, and once it’s there I’ll continue to have story ideas through the day.

I’ve had trouble making this work since I started teaching taiji. For most of the year I need to start getting ready early enough to be out the door no later than 8:40 AM. I’m only gone for a couple of hours, which isn’t such a big hole in the day, but it’s big enough that it’s made it hard to get in the necessary early-morning writing session.

But after months—years, really—of not getting my fiction writing in, I’m taking a fresh stab at making an early-morning writing session happen.

I started a week ago so I could test-run the new schedule and get the kinks worked out before the last week of August, when the first fall taiji session starts. So far it’s working pretty well. I got my early-morning writing done every day except one, and that day I managed to get in a good writing session in the afternoon.

The obvious thing to do, of course, would be to just start even earlier. That isn’t easy because I’ve put together an early-morning routine that I’m finding really satisfying:

  1. Do a tiny bit of mobility work first thing.
  2. Weigh myself and check to see what my Oura ring says about my sleep.
  3. Sit down at my computer and record that info.
  4. Drink some coffee.
  5. Do the Daily Jumble with my brother and my mom.

After Jumbling and a couple of cups of coffee, I generally have breakfast, after which is my window to get some writing done before taiji.

What I’m doing differently is simply that I’m trying to start breakfast no later than 7:00 AM (ideally a little before), so that I can finish before 7:30.

I need to leave by about 8:40 to be sure I get to the Rec Center in time for my class, which gives me a generous hour to write.

If I manage that—spend enough time writing to get immersed into the story space of whatever I’m working on—then my brain gets started working on story problems. All through the rest of the day I’ll have plot points, possible story twists, clever turns of phrase, bits of dialog, and so on, popping into my head.

Until I start writing, none of that happens. It’s actually kind of awkward when I don’t get a chance to write during the day, and then try to squeeze in a writing session late, because then I’ll be getting those ideas while I’m trying to go to sleep.

Actually, it turns out it can be kind of awkward even when I do what I’m trying to do. Two days last week I skipped the group taiji practice session, but on Friday I did pretty much just what I’m planning to do going forward, and the result was that my brain was fairly fizzing with story stuff at the point I was getting set to head out the door. That’s fine for the summer practice sessions where I’m just a participant and not in charge of anything, but when I’m the teacher it’s my job to be fully present and mindful in the class, not in my latest fictional world.

It was okay this time; my fizzy brain had settled down by the time I was in the car ready to drive. But it’s another thing to take into account as I calibrate this new routine, which is why I wanted to have these couple of weeks for a test run.

Still, if I want to get fiction written, it’s best to get started early. And for a week now, I’ve been managing it. (And as a consequence, have finished a draft of my first new short story in a long time.)

Our 8-movement taiji form

I have always let my students make videos of me doing the form, for their own practice. This session it turned out that, instead of several people wanting their own video, everybody noticed one video being made and all asked for copies. So the guy posted the video he took to YouTube.

There’s both a front view (so you can see my hands) and a rear view (for following along).

If you’re a student and want access to the video to study or practice with, or if you’re just interested in the taiji form I teach in my class, here you go.

Front view:

Rear view:

I’m pretty pleased with how it turned out. Videography by Randy and Marti Markward.

How meditation is like weight lifting

On a recent podcast, Tim Ferriss and Peter Attia drew a parallel between weight lifting and meditation that really resonated for me.

Some people really like weight lifting. They enjoy the ambiance of the gym. They like doing the reps. They like “feeling the burn” as they finish a good set. They like the way their muscles feel trashed at the end.

Other people hate all those things, and loath every minute that they spend in the gym—but they lift weights anyway for the benefits that result: stronger muscles, stronger tendons, stronger bones, healthier joints, improved insulin sensitivity, increased neurogenesis and brain plasticity.

In much the same way, some people really like meditation. They enjoy the sitting (or standing, or moving). They enjoy the centeredness. They like bringing their attention to their breath (or their mantra or their mandala). They like the focus. They like the stillness. They like the peace.

Other people hate meditation. They find it boring. They find it uncomfortable. They find no stillness or peace. Their attention constantly wanders. Their efforts feel like repeated failure.

While everybody knows that you go to the gym and lift weights to get stronger—not to prove that you’re already strong—many people fail to understand that the same is true of meditation. You don’t meditate to prove that you have great focus. You meditate to get better at noticing when you’re thinking and better at letting your thoughts go.

The point of a meditative practice is not to have a 20-minute session that feels like a success. When you are sitting and you notice that you are thinking, and you let that thought go, and return your attention to your breath—that’s a rep. That’s what you’re practicing. If you do it twenty times in a five-minute meditation session. . . . Well, that’s twenty reps. That’s an extremely successful session of meditative practice.

My point here is that doing the work of practicing meditating is worth doing, even if the meditation sessions themselves feel like one failure after another. Just like the point of lifting weights is to be stronger in the other 23 hours and 40 minutes of the day when you’re not lifting, the point of a meditation practice is to be better at paying attention the other 23 hours and 40 minutes of the day when you’re not meditating.

Movement in 2018

This year’s review of my movement practice will be a bit less detail-oriented than last year’s, when I included a long list of exercises, and a long list of non-exercise movement that I’d engaged in over the year. This year I exercised a bit less and moved a bit more, and came to a balance that I’m pretty happy with—that I don’t feel much urge to analyze.

I continued the winter exercise regimen that I described a year ago for the rest of the winter, but then let most of it go in favor of less-structured movement. As I say, I’m pretty happy with what I ended up doing, although the result was a decline in some of the strength increases I’d made.

Summer included a lot of solo walking (mostly in natural areas very close to home) and a lot of walking with Jackie (in a wide range of environments, including natural areas somewhat further afield).

One major piece of our walking was our big trip to Utah, where we got in plenty of hikes in Bryce Canyon, Zion Canyon, and Arches. (See image at top.) The length of any particular hike was nothing to write home about (although we did write home a bit), but the ruggedness—and especially the steepness—made the hikes very different from anything we manage at home.

Basically, summer was great—lots of time spent in the sun, lots of walking, lots of time spent with my sweetie, lots of time spent alone.

As summer transitioned to fall, I had the same problems I usually do, perhaps slightly worse this year than average because the transition seemed more abrupt, with early fall being unusually cold. Happily, late fall was no worse than early fall, and what was unusually cold for early fall is actually rather mild for early winter.

One thing I have done this fall is get back to running. In the past I’ve always meant to establish a running habit that I can carry forward into the cold months, and I have nearly always failed. This year, so far, I’m doing okay, getting in a couple of runs a week, with long runs of 5 miles or more. With just a little luck (not too icy, not too much bitter cold) I’ll be able to carry a lot more aerobic fitness into the spring than I usually manage. That would make it possible to do a spring running event, if I want.

I’ve had very good luck this year on the injury front, managing to stay healthy though the whole year.

I still teach taiji, both the beginners class and a class for continuing students, and it remains rewarding it all the ways it has been—physically (I get my own taiji in), mentally/emotionally (I get my meditation in), socially (I gather with a group of friends several times a week), and financially (admittedly in a small way).

Looking ahead, I’m rather inclined to stick with a movement focus, spending more time doing stuff (moving) and less time preparing to do stuff (exercising).


Weird (horrifying) study of human movement

A couple of weeks ago the New York Times linked to a new study on age-related declines in human movement. It’s an odd study, but not because of the result (which shows that children start moving less at age 6), because that seems entirely predictable to me, despite the general understanding previously having been that the decline started in adolescence.

Rather, what makes the study seem odd to me is the weird blind spot the researchers seem to have about when and how organisms (including humans) choose to move.

In the study itself the researchers make clear that they had considered the obvious presumption—that kids start moving less when they start going to school: “The overt explanation for this earlier decline could be the increased sitting times due to school.”

The  blind spot I’m talking about is presented in the next sentence, where they immediately qualified that:

However, time-specific analysis of [physical activity] has revealed that in addition to the increased [sedentary behavior] during school hours, there was also a distinct decline on weekends, out-of-school days, and during lunchtime.

Schwarzfischer P, Gruszfeld D, Stolarczyk A, et al. Physical Activity and Sedentary Behavior From 6 to 11 Years.Pediatrics. 2019;143(1):e20180994

What’s weird and horrifying is that they make that statement seemingly without it occurring to them that forcing children to sit still for hours on 5/7ths of the days of the week might affect their behavior on the other 2/7ths of the days.

Right off the top of my head I can think of four obvious reasons that would be true:

  1. The required behavior in school normalizes the behavior of extended sitting.
  2. Even a few weeks of enforced extended sitting will result in the kids becoming deconditioned aerobically, making physical activity more difficult and less appealing.
  3. Extended periods spent in any static posture—especially the static posture of sitting—will begin the process of reducing their range of motion (they’ll pretty quickly lose the ability to squat, for example), again making physical activity more difficult and less appealing.
  4. The addition of “physical education” to the kids’ daily schedule sets the pattern of replacing movement with exercise—a time-bound, regimented activity which attempts to pack the health benefits of a week’s worth of movement into just a few hours. (I’ve written about this before.)

Just one instance of this blind spot is bad enough, but it shows up again in a key reference. The researchers say that it is accepted that physical activity declines with age: “A natural and biologically determined decline of total [physical activity] throughout the life span seems likely.” They support that assertion with a couple of references, one of which looks specifically at movement in non-human animals.

Unfortunately that study (Ingram, D. K. Age-related decline in physical activity: generalization to nonhumans. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol. 32, No. 9, pp. 1623-1629, 2000, which is sadly behind a pay-wall.) has exactly the same blind spot: All the animals studied were captive animals. That study looked at how animal movement varies when an animal is moved from its “home cage” to some other cage. I can’t say I’m the least bit surprised the behavior of those captive animals closely resembles the behavior of children moved from home to school and back again.

I would be very interested in studies that included some free-range animals. (Which isn’t something I can do, but which seems at least possible now that accelerometers  are cheap.)

Of course school isn’t the only factor that inhibits children from moving more. The restrictions on self-directed play so well documented by Lenore Skenazy of Let Grow no doubt feed in as well.

So it would be great if there were studies of movement in free-range kids as well.

The final weird and horrifying thing isn’t anything new, but is something I hadn’t really been aware of before: The assumption that an age-related reduction in movement is “natural and biologically determined,” has led directly to public policies that normalize it:

This decline is also represented in recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO): preschool-aged children should accumulate a minimum of 180 minutes per day of total [physical activity], children and adolescents (4–17 years old) at least 60 minutes per day, and adults only a minimum of 30 minutes per day in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA).

To which I say, “Argh!”

I probably wouldn’t be so struck by this if I weren’t already tracking my own movement. (Cheap accelerometers again.)

For some time now I’ve been working to a goal of 105 minutes of movement per day, and over the last few weeks I’ve come pretty close, averaging just over 102 minutes of movement per day, according to Google Fit. (This number, based primarily on steps, somewhat underestimates my movement. In particular it gives me almost no credit for the time I spend teaching taiji, because although there’s plenty of movement, there’s not much stepping.)

The WHO recommendations make me strongly motivated to upgrade my goal for movement to 180 minutes per day.

Why should kids under 6 get all the fun?

(The image at the top is topical only in that it is is a photo from our afternoon walk yesterday.)