July 12, 2016 - Comments Off on Kettlebell Swings and Meditation Cushions
In my life I've been witness to and participated in the death of traditional martial arts. I took karate classes as a child, punched from the waist and hurt my hand trying in vain to break a piece of wood. I assume this was to prepare for the impending invasion of our small upstate New York town by the Tree-Folk but I'll never know for sure, as the karate school closed for good pretty soon after my parents pulled me out.
Throughout the 80's and 90's the martial arts were mostly doughy white men with mustaches combining the power of raw undeserved machismo with new age flavored nonsense. Basically it was this:
Then mixed martial arts (most notably the UFC along with Pride and others) came along and practicality became the name of the game. Once you could actually test these martial arts in competition that allowed for grappling and striking, several core disciplines survived and thrived. From 1993 on there has been a startling evolution in martial arts, with hundreds of years of tradition being thrown away in favor of the most effective solution.
For sure there's something a little sad about the loss of tradition and spirit of those martial arts, but it's difficult to argue against effectiveness - especially when it comes to a spectacle as black and white as combat sports are. There are plenty of videos on YouTube of Kung Fu masters being strangled by Jiu Jitsu practitioners if one cares to look. Unfortunately the untested qualities of these arts allowed for bullshit artists to creep in, and when the cold reality of a proving ground was introduced we lost some of the spirit and meditative qualities as those traditions were left on the side of the road.
Kind of like this, if Holly Holm were strip mall Karate schools and Miesha Tate were integrated MMA.
It's also not particularly surprising it was a distinctly American/Western entity (UFC) that took that practicality and effectiveness to it's capitalist zenith - having just sold to a media conglomerate for over four billion dollars after holding a landmark 200th event.
Interestingly there's been a corollary evolution in the sphere of pure fitness by itself- with the rise of functional, varied exercises notably championed by the brand Crossfit. Like anything popular Crossfit has taken it's share of lumps for being a "cult" whose acolytes won't stop talking about it - but I've personally found the surge in popularity fascinating to watch. There is a real community among it's members, and a shared sense of purpose and support to complete a physically challenging daily task.
In a country where churches and places of worship are becoming more and more empty, it seems like we're organically finding new places to gather and commune. And testing oneself physically can be a very spiritual practice, whether you're aware of it or not. As someone who's gone through the crucible of several rigorous exercise disciplines over the years I can attest to the fulfillment one can achieve through pushing the physical body to it's limits. There's a state of consciousness reached at peak exhaustion that can become a healthy addiction, and leveraged properly, lead to serious insight.
Kettlebells are really the best.
And this is a very good thing - I believe physical fitness is crucial to a well functioning mind and this country is sorely in need of well functioning minds as we move into the future. These are already tricky times (see: Donald Trump) and sharp, clear heads are going to be absolutely crucial as we deal with seismic social shifts that will only be exacerbated by the exponential technology growth we're currently living through.
Crossfit is thriving as chain gyms like Crunch and Equinox experience decline for many reasons - community is only one of them but it is powerful. I think the same forces of practicality, metrics and effectiveness that choked out the traditional martial arts is also subtly at work here. Admittedly it is less drastic than seeing a Dimmak "master" debunked:
But I think the functional, practical aspects of a Crossfit style workout, combined with the communal & supportive nature of the environment has contributed in no small part to it's current status. Chain gyms on the other hand tend to be solitary experiences, treadmill farms where everyone has headphones in, watching TV.
Now the exercises done in Crossfit gyms aren't new. They certainly haven't invented the squat or Olympic lifting. In fact when I was training at Ronin Athletics we had conditioning classes that were remarkably similar to what Crossfit became before anyone (to my knowledge) had heard of it. What is innovative is that Crossfit made fitness into a new discipline and brand that stands by itself. You can "do" Crossfit. You can "be" a Crossfitter.
I know I will always be involved in a fitness discipline. I don't function optimally without it. I'm pretty convinced that other people don't either. There is too much evidence for the positive effects of exercise on the brain to argue otherwise, as far as I'm concerned.
Now I've also been getting pretty deep into meditation for the past few years. And, as I continue to learn, I've been considering what prevented me from practicing these techniques before as well as reflecting on how I finally did buckle down and begin.
In my opinion, as a discipline and field of study meditation has yet to really find it's footing in the United States - although that is changing. There are interesting intersections of technology too - applications like Headspace have gained in popularity and businesses like MNDFL are receiving good press and doing good work. Headspace even started creating some well-designed meditation pods.
The success of Indian yoga in the west speaks to a little bit of both the community and spiritual hunger here - and despite how you may interpret my previous blog post I do think there's a lot of value in that discipline. Some aspects of meditation and mindfulness are addressed but often not wholly integrated or focused on - and occasionally ignored entirely.
Personal aside: there have been two monumental perspective shifts that happened in my adult life - one was when I began regularly (3+ times per week) training my body and mind in mixed martial arts (and the requisite strength & conditioning training). My aggression and anger decreased dramatically, my mood improved, and I began sleeping better.
The other was when I started doing Kum Nye and regular meditation. I remember specifically getting a very angry phone call from a client's lawyer at Layerframe - lots of cursing and screaming in a Long Island accent came over the line. What was strange was my first reaction was to feel sorry for him, rather than cursing back, being angry or acting out of anger. It wasn't something I was trying to do, it had just happened naturally and was quite a surprise.
So I've been thinking about how to try and blend these two components - Kum Nye already does a great job anchoring the mind in the body for meditation but it does not emphasize physical fitness. This is in part because it (admirably IMO) aims for a broader audience, and airs on the safer side of exercises.
As technology brings human beings closer together, it's also bringing up a host of issues that require some serious conscious thought and action. A community of fit and happy people, flexible of mind, body and spirit is going to be crucial in the immediate future. I think it's worth investing creative energy into, a new Human Development System to help us deal with the pull of smartphones, virtual reality and Pokemon Go.
I think that a new type of fitness discipline - one that truly integrates both body and mind - is not only necessary for modern society but inevitable. By applying the lessons learned from the evolution of physical exercise/fitness and martial arts, I wonder if these principles of practicality, community, and measurable effective results can be applied to an integrative practice. Could the kettle-bell meet the meditation cushion?
One thought is that classes and exercises could be themed around an awareness or mindfulness practice - for example a Balance themed class could incorporate postures influenced by yoga, single-leg deadlifts, and gymnastic exercises, with a guided meditation on finding Balance within thoughts and mental events. Flexibility, Endurance, Energy Stimulation and even Breathing could be suitable topics for discussion, exercise and practice.
An online component could help to foster a community, with participants able to share their experiences in applying awareness techniques during "real life" outside their practice sessions. Quantifying mindfulness and meditation techniques is obviously a little bit of a challenge, but perhaps a standardized questionnaire or something like a "Mind Coach" who interviews you could work as well.
Religion tends to freak people out in the United States but a more secular approach to Buddhist teachings could inform design elements and some of the primer content. That's a little tricky as well, you would have to pay proper respect and be very careful using those teachings - but there is obviously a ton of material and tradition to source from there that I find personally very valuable.
So this is something that came up as I've been rolling some of these ideas around my brain - if you're into it or have thoughts please let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading!