Thursday, 31 December 2009

Interview with Frank Forencich

Following my last post on human movement, I've been looking deeper into this issue and I think much of what I've found will inform my exploits in 2010 (more on that another time).  I've just finished reading Frank Forencich's book "Exuberant Animal" and wanted to hear more from Frank and also offer readers of this blog some of his insights, so Frank kindly agreed to a short interview.  Here it is - enjoy.

Al: Tell me a bit about your background, in particular your Martial Arts training.

Frank: I trained intensively in kenpo karate and then aikido for a total of about 14 years. The transition between the arts was very difficult for me, but extremely educational. I had to completely re-wire my body and my movements. I was also fascinated that so many teachers would lay claim to knowing the single "right way" to move. What was correct in one dojo was ridiculed in another, just down the street. This led me to a deeper inquiry and a search for common principles. In turn, I became intrigued with the study of human origins and was inspired to travel to Africa. I wanted to know about the universals of human movement, not just particular styles. I still do some martial art movement, mostly in the context of Exuberant Animal, play-based classes. 

Al: In relation to your “Exuberant Animal” philosophy, how do you perceive the martial arts should be approached/trained?

Frank: Like many, I'm a fan of Bruce Lee's philosophy of Jeet Kune Do, or "the style of no-style." Obviously, when you're in combat, there' s no way to predict how an opponent will move or behave. Therefore, it's just crazy to train in a single method. I've seen people develop extremely deep neurological ruts that would be a tremendous liability in a dynamic situation. The key, as athletic coaches are starting to realize, is to be "adaptable, not adapted." This calls for a diversity of training, a diversity of challenges and movements, always looking for general qualities of power, speed, flow, agility and grace. And in this sense, martial can share a lot with the world of dance.  

Al: You’ve spent time with some hunter/gatherer tribes – did you see any martial traditions there?

Frank: I did not. Primal peoples were extremely dependent on tribal cohesion for survival. Cooperation in the hunt was essential; this was the social priority. Population density was low, so battle between tribes was probably infrequent. Consequently, there wasn't a great need for martial training. We see some evidence of combat weapons (spears and shields), but compared with the modern era, these were probably used more for bluff than for actual killing. This, by the way, is what we see in chimpanzee behavior: males frequently engage in threat and dominance displays, but actual violence is not as common. Jane Goodall observed "warfare" between chimp tribes at Gombe, but we can't forget the bonobo, the highly-sexualized, peace-making hippie primates of Central Africa. We have both of these tendencies in our lineage.

Al: Are you familiar with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu- what are your impressions?

I've only trained a little bit in this art. I found it to be enjoyable and incredibly effective. It strikes me as high-quality physical education, although I also see a fair bit of macho chest thumping in the competitive ranks. 

Al: I’ve just read your book “Exuberant Animal” and what I loved about it was the warning that we risk losing what makes us human – our interactions with each other, the environment, our own bodies, but also that you offer thoughts and solutions on a way back. 

Frank: We're at a really interesting and exciting time in the history of the body. Our physical relationship with the modern world just isn't working  and it's time for trainers, coaches and physical educators to step up and lead the way to a new physical culture. We have to do more than just be good athletes who study high performance. We need to be speaking out and changing the culture, the schools and the workplace. In addition to training individuals and classes, we need to be writing and speaking, taking our insights to a wider audience. The forces of physical apathy are immensely powerful and well-funded. We need to offer a compelling counter-argument to the status quo. 

Al: I’ve got five year old twins and I love to watch how they play, move, even play-fight (parentally controlled of course!).  It’s so fluid and natural!  I mourn the loss of that.  What can I do to ensure my kids retain at least some of that and try to recover some of it for myself, even in the face of the onslaught of the “Human Zoo”? 

Frank: Rough and tumble play is essential to child and human development and we need to keep it alive. Above all, we need to get outdoors as much as possible and avoid the lure of computers, TV and video games. The real leader in this regard is The Barefoot Sensei. See the website for his story and his inspirational lifestyle. Take off your shoes and feel the earth as much as possible. Keep sensation alive in natural settings: walk more, touch the land. Also, devote more time to authentic communication with other people. Avoid email. Real-time, face-to-face communication is the core of tribal cohesion and in turn, social health.  

Al: I’ve noticed a trend recently for lots of “back to basics” exercise regimes – Kettle bells, hitting things with sledgehammers, clubs, but they all still seem to me to have the gloss of a “brand” – a trend.  What are your thoughts on this?

Frank: Yes, well, everyone has to make a living and this is a bit of a conundrum. When you get right down to it, all you really need for basic conditioning is terrain, gravity, momentum and human bodies. Add in some rocks and sticks and you've got a pretty complete outdoor gym. If people want to promote this as a "style," I'm not too concerned. Just don't try to lure me into a big-box gym packed with machines!  

Al: I feel that you and people like Erwan Le Corre have a lot to offer to society at large at a time when the human race seems hell-bent on doing everything that is counter-intuitive to the species, but it feels like a “quiet revolution”.  Is this how you see it? 

Frank: Yes. But perhaps it's time to stop being so quiet about it! I keep looking around for more passionate voices in defense of health and the human body, but I'm not hearing much. Where are the militant PE teachers? Where are the militant coaches and trainers? The militant doctors, nurses and therapists? We need to speak out and speak up. 

Al: What are your plans for Exuberant Animal?

Frank: 2010 will be a big year for us as we refine our identity as a "Health leadership organization." We have some extremely talented people on our team. They have diverse physical training backgrounds, but all are inspirational health leaders in their own right. We will soon have a certification process in place and a lot of events coming up. And of course, I'll be speaking up and speaking out whenever I get the chance. My new book "Change Your Body, Change the World" is due out later this year. 

Al: Frank, thanks for taking the time to chat.  I hope to catch you at a UK seminar sometime and wish you all the best for 2010!

Frank: Yes, hope to meet you in the flesh.

Many thanks to Frank!

Frank is holding a seminar in London in April, hosted by Wild Fitness in April

Check out Frank's Website at www.exuberantanimal.com

Check out some examples of Frank's training here on You Tube  

A happy and healthy 2010 to you all,

Al

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

I like to move it move it!



Over the almost five years of my children’s lives so far, I’ve sat through many kids’ films. Some of them are tedious beyond belief (bloody Barney the Dinosaur!) but many of the Pixar/Dreamworks etc films are excellent fun. One of them, “Madagascar”, details the adventures of a bunch of animals from New York Zoo as they make a bid for freedom and somehow end up in Madagascar. From their pampered lives in New York they find themselves ill equipped for survival in the wild and comedy ensues as they slowly discover what it is like to be wild animals back in their natural habitats.

Through a series of magazine articles, I’ve recently picked up on the notion of “the Human Zoo”, a term first coined in his book of the same name by Zoologist/Sociobiologist Desmond Morris back in the late 1960s. He drew remarkable similarities in humans with captive zoo animals and looked closely at the aggressive, sexual and parental behaviour of the human species under the stresses and pressures of urban living. The theme of the Human Zoo is also picked up by Frank Forencich – a human movement and health expert who heads up his own movement known as the “Exuberant Animal”. Take a look at this article. It’s clearly a fictional, sociological and political commentary, but it highlights the absurdity and dangers of what we’ve largely become – urbanised animals, detached from our natural environments, conditioned and unable to move the way nature intended and eating processed foods that are far removed from what we evolved to exist on. Forencich promotes exercise through play and drills such as this (taken from Jiu Jitsu Brotherhood) are perfect.

Once you start digging into this philosophy that we have unwittingly become captives in this “Human Zoo”, you start to uncover a wealth of complimentary viewpoints and movements that subscribe to this outlook.

First up is the “Paleo Diet”, created by Professor Loren Cordain, based on his own, and others’ scientific research into the diets of our hunter/gatherer ancestors. Cordain hypothesises that our modern western diet which contains high proportions of processed foods and cereal grains has only been with us since the advent of agriculture, which, in human evolutionary terms, is the blink of an eye. Simply, we have not evolved to cope with the modern diet and should, in the interests of health, return to a diet closer to that of our ancestors. This diet, not touted as a weight loss programme, but a healthy way of eating, follows simple rules such as, if you can pull it off a tree, out of the ground or kill it, then you can eat it, or lean protein and as much fresh fruit and non-starchy vegetables as you want. In his book, Cordain sets out the scientifically proven advantages of this way of eating, dispels some myths (such as those surrounding eating fats and red meats) and makes a compelling case for how and why we should make this diet part of our way of life once more. I’ve been following a self adapted version of this diet for about a month now and have found that I always feel full, have plenty of energy and, considering I’m eating almost all day (mainly snacking on fruit and nuts), my waist line is dropping! I’m eating tasty lean meats and fruit in probably greater quantities than at any time in my life. It just makes sense…to me at least.

Sharing some ground with Forencich and linked to the “back to basics” approach of Cordain is Erwan LeCorre and his MovNat concept. Central to the MovNat philosophy is the need to be “fit to be free”. LeCorre’s training methods involve natural, functional movement, lifting, running, jumping, fighting, swimming, bounding - anything that intertwines your movement to the world around you.

It’s a philosophy that, once again, makes perfect sense. Our ancestors, who created the evolutionary need for our bodies to become what they are today didn’t stand in front of mirrors, in rows of treadmills, weights machines and MTV in order to become physically fit, they simply got on with the things they needed to, using their bodies as they were designed. Sure, the world has moved on and we do not hunt for our food or fight off wild predators, but there’s no reason that we should not get outside, connect with nature and get our bodies working in the myriad ways that nature intended. Gyms have constrained our fitness by limiting the body to a collection of named exercises, range of movement limited by pulleys and pivots, done under fluorescent lights in sweat-tainted air conditioned rooms, headphones on and no social interaction. (recent research has shown that exercising in groups is more effective and boosts happiness). The futility of the gym is borne out of in own experience. BMF puts my body through tougher workouts, more ranges of movement and is infinitely more enjoyable than the gym ever was. And how about Jiu Jitsu? A raw physical workout that’s often more like play, with friends and some crazy body movements that challenge even the most accomplished. It’s no coincidence that LeCorre has studied Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Forencich is an accomplished Martial artist including studying Aikido.

Even what we wear holds us back. There’s growing evidence that training shoes have changed the way we run and actually cause more damage than they prevent. How many hunter-gatherer tribes do you see wearing trainers? Those that do have footwear have little more than rudimentary foot coverings. Trainers change our natural running motion, decrease sensitivity and feedback to our bodies. Even Nike are in on the act with their Nike “free” – an attempt to reduce a trainer to the minimum and allow the foot to move as it was designed. I’m not in any place to ditch my trainers, but I find the evidence presented by people such as John Woodward, Mick Dodge and Ken Bob Saxton among many others, compelling. Do we wear trainers in Jiu Jitsu? No! We need the use and sensitivity of our feet to both attack, defend and give us feedback on our base and balance.

In Jiu Jitsu, a form of conditioning has evolved and is taught at The Jiu Jitsu University under Alvaro Romano, known as Ginastica Natural (I’ve mentioned it before, here); a blend of gymnastics, yoga and Jiu Jitsu movements, using the body as a tool and minimal equipment. Once again, it’s a back to basics system of exercising the body and rejoicing in the possibilities of human movement.

I’ve recently been reading “The Last Wrestlers” by Marcus Trower and, as I sat at my desk, vegetating and ruining my posture as an exhibit in the Human Zoo, the following words resonated like a clanging bell:

"I couldn't really believe that people really took office world seriously, that this was where they really wanted to be and what they fundamentally wanted to do..."

"I thought everyone knew that the real route to happiness was through the body..."

As a society, we marvel and celebrate the physical courage and achievements of the select few “professionals” as if full and effective use of our body is reserved for an elite minority. I’d argue that it’s a shared inheritance and one that we all need to get back in touch with before it’s too late. We’ve become conditioned by the confines of the human zoo, obsessed with rules and what is deemed to be “safe”, sleepwalked into a shockingly unnatural way of moving, eating and living.

Jiu Jitsu shares a lot of ground with the philosophy of those trying to find ways to escape the zoo, but we need to keep an eye on what Jiu Jitsu is really about. For me, it’s simply the joy of human movement and possibility – an effective method of self defence is an added bonus. The rest is frippery.

Let's get back to basics and just move.


Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Surrounded by positivity...

I’ll open this entry with a bit of a catch up on recent training. It’s been a bit patchy for me recently what with trips up North doing my Dry Stone Walling and the odd evening away due to work. It’s amazing how out of it you can feel just missing a week or so of training… consistency really is the key to progress. Anyway, for about as long as I can remember back, we’ve been working on using the open guard…drilling, drilling, drilling, week after week, but it’s paying dividends. I’m not great at it at all but I feel a whole lot more comfortable using this position than I used to. I think it’s good to major on aspects like this until you really start to feel at home in a certain place. Using the open guard well in a defensive fashion leads to so many offensive opportunities it really is worth the time and effort.

One thing I have felt though and this has been compounded by missing a few sessions is that I’ve slipped backwards a bit at worst and plateaued at best in terms of the whole movement/sensitivity thing that I was kind of getting. I feel I’ve resorted to a much more grappling/strength game lately and not only does this feel mentally disappointing, but it’s a whole lot tougher. I also feel that a lot of the guys around me are moving ahead. Simon is just awesome these days, but the other guys are making good progress too…don’t get me wrong…it’s great to see and I’m dead chuffed for anyone that improves – this is more of a commentary on my own self-perceived stagnation at the moment. Over the last couple of sessions, both Simon and Dean have given me a few pointers which have reminded me of where the real Jiu Jitsu lies. Time to get back to the source!

I’m finding my schedule tough at the moment too:

Monday nights – Jiu Jitsu,
Tuesday nights – BMF
Wednesday – off
Thursday nights
BMF Followed by Jiu Jitsu
Friday Off
Saturday morning – BMF, occasional Jiu Jitsu p.m.
Sunday – Off

It’s not awful, but Thursday is really tough, but I’m keen to get three BMF sessions in a week as this is where my fitness and weight loss comes from…plus it’s really good fun. It just means I arrive at Jiu Jitsu thoroughly knackered. However, on the upside it also means I have to work good techniques as I’m too tired to give it the strong man, plus this risks all out cramp…every cloud etc. It’s OK – just have to make sure I’m hydrated and that I get plenty of rest between sessions….not easy with my kids waking up with the sunrise at the moment!

I want to spend the rest of this entry talking about surrounding yourself with positive people, positive friends.

As an opener, I want to congratulate one of my good friends, and previous cast member of this blog, Big Dean. Some time back, Big Dean switched his training to Roger Gracie’s Academy in Kilburn, mainly out of convenience of its schedule and location. The last time I saw Dean train, his improvement was dramatic – he’s clearly getting a lot from his four + sessions a week and the excellent tuition available there. Well, A couple of weeks back, there I was, browsing the forum over on EFN and there was the news of Dean’s promotion to Purple Belt. I’ve already spoken with Dean and given my congratulations, but here it is again….really well done and well deserved. And to have gotten it from the current undisputed world champion in Jiu Jitsu and one of the Gracie family's most successful competitors (Roger) is just awesome. Nice one Mate.

So, yeah, positive people, good friends. In the course of my work, I’ve hosted a number of sessions with various people on motivation and positive mindset. I’ve also heard on a number of occasions about top sportsmen and women who make sure that the set up around them, their training partners, coaches etc etc are all the right people – people that make them feel good – positive and encouraging. This is distinct from “yes” men as I’m talking about people that you intrinsically trust to have your best interests at heart, even if giving you tough feedback.

The importance of this is so true. Negativity just drags you down. I mention this as something happened to me recently that made me realise that all of my friends in Jiu Jitsu are a great source of positivity. I’ve spoken many times about my good friends in Jiu Jitsu and I’ve just realised what it is that makes them all such great people to be around. They’re all always really genuinely happy that you’re there, interested in how you’re doing. They all want to help and create the right climate for good things to happen. Without fail, they’ll always energise me, make me feel positive about what I’m doing, comment if they think I’ve lost weight, small stuff like that, it really matters – it’s just a really encouraging and positive place to be. Although I don’t have the same friendships at BMF (I’ve only been there a few months), the atmosphere is the same. I love it and I thrive on it – it’s a good place for me to be.

Outside of this setting, there are always people at work and elsewhere, people that claim to be friends that will seek to undermine your credibility and confidence in horribly Machiavellian ways – I just don’t understand or like it. Equally I don’t understand what it is about some settings, like Jiu Jitsu, that make it so unlike the rest of the world “out there”. It must just be a shared experience, interest, hope and aspiration. In counselling, they call it Unconditional Positive Regard (UPR) – valuing someone at the most fundamental human level.

To illustrate this, another thing I stumbled across on the EFN forum is the story of a guy that trains at Gracie Barra Birmingham. I think his name is Steve Fan. He recently discovered that he has cancer in one kidney and his lungs. I’ve never met this guy but really feel shocked by his news… I can’t imagine how that must feel to be given that news. What’s so great about this shocking story though is the resultant messages of support from the rest of the Jiu Jitsu community. Such positivity must really give Steve a great boost and give him the positivity to fight his situation. It’s just great and I wish Steve every positive outcome.

I’ve mentioned before another blog titled Jiu Jitsu Brotherhood. A great title – descriptive of how friendship should be and can be.

Al

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Review - myprotein.co.uk

Bit of a review and a plug, but thought it may be of interest.

Recommended by a BMF instructor, I had a look at
www.myprotein.co.uk - a sports supplements company trading solely on the internet selling “unbranded” sports supplements in bulk at a snip of the price of other brands. BMF’s pretty tough and with this, combined with Jiu Jitsu, I need all the supplementary help I can get to recover my weary muscles.

In the past I’ve dabbled with sports supplements – mainly protein shakes as a post-workout recovery drink. The main brands I’ve tried until now have been Myoplex, Maximuscle and Protoplex (Holland & Barrett). The first two are typically expensive (around £30 for just under 1kg) and Protoplex about the same cost for slightly more.

Myprotein’s Impact Whey Protein costs about £12.50 for a kg of flavoured powder. The cost alone makes them a winner.

But there’s more. The taste is excellent – so far I’ve tried, Strawberry, Banana and Chocolate and all taste like reasonable milkshakes – not too sweet and a decent flavour. Some of the other brands taste pretty bad, almost “stale”. Then there’s the mixability – shaken up in a blending bottle (also available from the website), the result is a smooth drink – not gritty like some others. A big plus for me is in the ingredients – myprotein are transparent in what their products contain and importantly, contain nothing artificial, especially Aspartame. It seems that you can’t buy anything these days without Aspartame being hidden in it and from what I’ve read it’s not something that I want anywhere near my body. Just google it – nasty stuff…take a look at this for starters.


Take a look around at the rest of the site and there’s plenty of stuff to keep the hardcore bodybuilder happy, but even everyday supplements like multivitamins are cheap here and good quality.

The customer service is excellent – delivery is usually within a couple of days and you can choose what service you wish to use. I’ve phoned their helpline for guidance a couple of times and the call handlers are friendly and knowledgeable about the products.

If you want to give them a low-cost try, most of their products are available as 99p samples, most of which is recoverable on placement of a full order.

If you want to give them a try, enter the code MP135819 when you checkout your first order and get a 5% discount.

Great products, great service – not much more you could ask for.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Hear the drummer get wicked!

I need to open this post with a big “Congratulations” to Roubel who got his Blue Belt at the end of May. Roubel has been training for something like eight or nine years (with some breaks) and in my humble opinion was at Blue belt level a good few years back. It’s always been the lack of opportunity to grade within Rickson’s Association that has meant some pretty long-held belts within our club. Under the Association, gradings are formal affairs and administered by “licensed” Black Belt examiners (of which there are now only a few still in the Association).

But the times have changed.

Rickson’s Association seems to be really only that by name. Rickson is back in Brazil doing his own thing and running his seminars. Many of Rickson’s Black Belts (whilst still loyal in spirit to Rickson) have gone on to do their own things. Association is mainly through loyalty to Rickson’s name and this is the case in our club. Rickson is Dean’s Instructor…that’s a strong enough link for us to be a “Rickson” club, but the loyalty is to him, not necessarily the Association – the two seem to be increasingly separate entities. It’s interesting that even Kron competes under the Humaita banner…

These changes ultimately enabled Dean to speak with his friend, Romolo Barros, one of Rickson’s Black Belts and close friends and seek permission to award a well earned belt. It goes without saying, but Dean is well qualified to understand how a Blue Belt should perform against the standards that Rickson sets and it was this, combined with Romolo’s knowledge of Dean’s Jiu Jitsu that allowed Romolo to sanction the award.

This is great news for Roubel and I’ve confessed to him a degree of envy that it was Dean who gave him his belt. I’ve said it before, Royce is a good name to drop, but ultimately, it is Dean that is our instructor and has guided us through, and I know that Roubel cherishes this accolade. I also feel that I can now wear my belt with some credibility – despite knowing (and having been told) that I’m the worthy holder of a Blue Belt, it always felt strange wearing it knowing that there were guys better than me still wearing white belts – sure, it’s all cosmetic and about opportunity, but nonetheless….

Roubel’s one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet and since he’s been back training regularly his Jiu Jitsu has become just great, aided by his naturally good movement and athleticism. When I roll with him, he reminds me of all that good technique and movement in Jiu Jitsu is…something that’s easy for me to forget. It’s great as I feel that between Roubel’s technique and movement and my size and strength, we can both develop each other’s games.



Training

Training’s going OK at the moment – we’ve been covering probably one main technique per session and really drilling it for the whole session. This is a really great way of learning as you get to fully understand the technique and the movement variations that can occur. If we’d have done this a few years back I think I’d have been impatient to move on to the next technique, but now I really value the depth of understanding that I can gain within each technique. It’s the difference between good and very good Jiu Jitsu. A lot of what we’ve been doing has also really highlighted the use of efficient leverage, which, when combined with sensitivity and movement is really what Jiu Jitsu comes down to. It’s great and adds a whole new dimension, but it’s tough trying to overcome the mind and body’s natural urges to use strength as a substitute. It’s great training.

At the moment, I’m training 2-3 times a week, which is great as I love it, but work seems to be getting in the way a lot lately – a bit of travelling and a few overnight stays. Another problem, (but an infinitely nicer one to have) is that the summer brings with it, more opportunities for family days out…don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a complaint – I wouldn’t have it any other way, just it necessitates the odd missed session here and there.

My back has been playing up a bit again recently too – not sure what’s going on but it’s certainly not as bad at it has been in the past. This has meant that my movement has not been all that I want it to be and when I’m rolling with the likes of Roubel, this is highlighted even further. I think it’s this that has led to a bit of frustration for me in my training recently. I have known and felt a better way of rolling…at times my movement has been good – now it sometimes feels like I’m regressing. I’m hoping that just as past “dips/plateaus” have come and gone, this one will too, but it’s always tough when you’re in the middle of it.

BMF

I’ve been going to BMF for a few weeks now and I’m still really enjoying it. As with Jiu Jitsu, work has been getting in the way of the two sessions a week I’d like to attend but overall it’s going well. Gains? I’m not sure…I think I’m upping the intensity slightly, but haven’t lost any weight as yet (need to fix my diet!!!). In my last entry I told you how I’d plumped for a Blue (novice) bib. Well last Saturday we had a Fitness Test. These are held roughly every two months and consist of a timed 1500m run, max press ups in 2 mins, max sit ups in 2 mins, max burpees in 2 mins and timed 15x 20m shuttle sprints. In doing this you are able to assess where your fitness lies. I set myself the target of getting the minimum scores needed for the Red bib group. I managed this in all but one of the exercises, which I was really chuffed with – to be wearing a red bib, you need to get “red” scores in at least three of the exercises. Sit ups was my worst exercise as I find these really make my back hurt…and I’ve got rubbish abs!

Still, I hit my targets and next time I plan to wear a red bib. Granted, I’ll be at the bottom of that group, but it means that I’ll get worked harder and have something more to aim at. Another good feature with the BMF Fitness Tests is that all your scores are put into a series of graphs in your member’s area of the website. They show your exercise scores overall and then your scores for each exercise against the highest, lowest and average scores for the group. These are great for me as I work well with targets to hit, so now I’ll have scores to beat at the next test.

One thing I am struggling with at BMF and have done with Jiu Jitsu also, is what to eat when. Tuesday is fine as it’s after work so I can plan my eating at work and time it well so I’ve got enough energy but am not full. Saturday morning however is harder as the time between waking and training is short so trying to eat enough but without feeling bloated and getting stitch is a challenge. One week I’ve felt close to being sick, another I just had no energy and lagged at the back of the group all session. It’s just a case of experimenting and finding a formula that works I guess.

Kodo

One last thing that I have to mention is the show that I went to this last weekend. I went to the Royal Festival Hall to see the Kodo Drummers from Japan. Now, the linkage here with Jiu Jitsu is tenuous at best, apart from, maybe a shared Japanese lineage and physical exertion, but I just had to post about this. I’ve always been interested in all things Japanese – I just think it’s a fascinating culture. I first heard of Kodo from a mate of mine who shares an interest and he told me about how he was blown away by them, so I’ve waited about a year for them to come back to the UK.

Before the show, I was lucky enough to attend a talk with Kodo’s Cultural Director who gave a bit of history of the troupe and their work and lives, which was fascinating. Kodo are an ensemble of musicians, dancers and mainly Drummers who live on Sado Island in the North of Japan and their mission is to preserve the traditional Japanese cultural arts. For them this is done mainly through the use of the Taiko - the drums. The drums themselves are amazing – the larger ones hewn from single tree trunks and covered with animal hides.

The show itself was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Drumming stirs a primal energy in all of us and the power of these drums makes your entire body shake. The skill, composition and timing of the pieces performed was amazing, but what really blew me away was the sheer physical exertion put into each performance. The largest drums are beaten with what can only be described as baseball bats wielded with huge speed and power for pieces that can last over ten minutes. Even some of the smaller drums are beaten fiercely with Rounders bat sized sticks. The deep postures the drummers hold are essential to be able to wield the power needed to strike the drums and these postures alone would challenge even the fittest people – add knocking ten shades of ssss out of huge drums, in perfect rhythm for ten minutes and these feats are not only artistically awesome but also super human feats of endurance! One piece was performed almost exclusively on the largest drum of them all – about 2 ½ times larger than a man with the drummer wearing little more than a fundoshi (loin cloth). This served undoubtedly to keep the drummer cool as by the end of the piece he was dripping with sweat, but it also showed the strain of every sinew in his body as he struck the drum. With the loudest beats you could see his whole body lift the baton into the strike with the kind of audible exhalation that only comes with violent physical exertion. After this piece these drummers then moved onto smaller (but still huge) drums that were played from what I can only describe as a half sit up position. Simply awesome. Holding a half sit up for the duration of the piece whilst laying into a drum skin in perfect artistic timing… awesome is the only word that springs to mind. I couldn’t help but shake my head in disbelief at what I was seeing and hearing. The two standing ovations were well and truly earned.

If you have even the faintest interest in Japan, drums, performance or simply human endurance go and see Kodo if you get the chance. I was blown away.




Take care

Al

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Stand by......GO!!!

Earlier this week I went along for my free trial class with British Military Fitness. This was something I’d written about doing in a previous post.

I turned up at their Mote Park venue in Maidstone nice and early and as 7.00 pm approached I noticed a group of healthy people gathering to the side of the leisure centre (ironically, most of the people to’ing and fro’ing the leisure centre looked anything but healthy, many red faced after their “workouts”, lighting a cigarette on their way back to the car!!).

Anyway, disclaimer in hand, I approached one of the instructors – a strong looking guy wearing DPM combat trousers, called “Danny”. All of the BMF instructors are either former or currently serving military – most Physical Training Instructors (PTIs), all with fitness instruction qualifications to their names. Danny gave me an overview of what would happen in the classes and talked me through the three different groups within the class – Blue bibs, Novice, Red bibs, Intermediate, Green bibs, Advanced. Unsure what these fitness standards meant in reality, I plumped for Blue… I didn’t want to overestimate my level of fitness and embarrass myself. Apparently it is for each individual to decide which bib they wear at any given session, which is cool as I guess you could up yourself and really cane it, or drop down if you needed to take it easy. I think the bib system is also good in terms of progress – it gives you goals to aim for, much in the same way as the belt system works in Martial Arts.

We jogged off to an area of the park for the warm up, which I had been warned would be the worst part. It consisted of a series of shuttle runs, gradually increasing in pace, with various exercises in between to warm up the major muscle groups. This was followed by a range of exercises and runs in groups, Greens, obviously running furthest and doing the most reps.

Then the whole group was split into two – one group of Blues with a few lower end Reds, the other group Greens with upper end reds. The session was then a series of short runs interspersed with various forms of abdominal exercises, squats, burpees (the exercise loathed by all who’ve ever done military PTI – we used to call them “bastards” in the RAF), various types of press ups and so on – all done in reps of 10-20, numerous sets so the overall number of reps is quite high. If you follow the PTI’s instructions and keep moving then you are doing something continuously for an hour, but there were a good few in my group that either found it hard to keep up or simply slacked off (which I have trouble understanding given that they’d paid to be there and to get fitter – each to their own). At the end of all this, there was a warm down run and some stretching.

The session lasted an hour and as I’ve said, if you keep moving, it can be an hour of non-stop movement which is good (how many gym sessions of an hour are a full hour of exercise?). The body weight exercises were in quantities enough to be challenging, but I found the aerobic aspect easy – I barely broke a sweat, but this has given me a bit of confidence in my existing level of fitness. I think, given that there was 1 or 2 lower end reds that were ahead of me and that I found some of the later press ups hard (damn you lactic acid!), I’m likely to stick with the Blues for a few weeks until I feel I can give a reasonable account as red – certainly I’d want to be at the head of the group I was in last night to feel that I was ready to move up….much like Jiu Jitsu – unless you’re at the top of the heap against all other white belts then you shouldn’t be thinking about a blue belt (IMO).


I went along to another session yesterday (Saturday) which was with a different instructor and was far harder - after some exercises my legs were like jelly and I found it really tough - great!! (Then I went and trained Jiu Jitsu for three hours straight after!!! - actually it was quite a good antidote.) Apparently there are some fitness tests coming up which should be a good way to guage where I am and also to track progress with future tests (approx every 2 months).

I can’t really think of any downsides with the experience. The instructors are friendly, knowledgeable, approachable and game for a laugh and any images anyone has of a PTI shouting into your ear commanding you to drop face first into the mud and give them infinity should be dismissed. Even in the regular Forces, I never met a PTI that needed to resort to that to get the best out of people – they just have a genuine desire to see people give their best. Do that and you’ll get along fine. The other participants are friendly and encouraging (I’d guess that 70-80% of the membership are women), it was well organised and exercising with other people, in a sociable way, outdoors is simply so much better than the sterile gym, full of posers and slackers. The other advantage is that there are no limits that will create routine, which can be a killer of even the most committed gym-goers. I know, from what Danny told me, and from experience that every session will be different – all you have to do is turn up and do your best with what the PTI gives you to do.

I feel I can make rapid gains with this, so I signed up for unlimited sessions per week - £38 per month where I live (it does vary region by region) which is only 50p more than my gym membership which I intend to cancel. I’ll be able to attend twice a week normally – Tues eve and sat mornings. The other advantage is that if I’m away somewhere with work, there are enough locations around the UK to be able to pitch up and train anywhere now that I’m a member.

Overall, it’s a great sociable, directed workout which I think will motivate me far more than the gym. I also like the format which, if you have the right mindset will encourage you to push yourself further than being alone on a treadmill will. Big thumbs up from me.

Catch you soon.

Al

Saturday, 18 April 2009

It's not just my belt that's blue...

I’ve been thinking about posting about this subject for some time now. I’ve wondered whether it’s something that I should keep to myself as there can be a lot of misunderstanding and prejudice around the subject. But I always intended this blog to be an honest account of my BJJ journey and the topic in hand is very much part of my relationship with BJJ. I also think that with, statistically at least, any one in four of the people reading this will be going through something similar and I hope, even if only in a modest way, that if I can help someone to see that it’s all very common, then I can break some of the confusion and stigma.

I’m talking about depression.

I’ve been properly diagnosed with depression for about four years now, but with hindsight I can think back to having lived with it for at least the last decade. It’s a difficult topic to discuss and all I can give is my own personal experience. I guess I’ll start with how it feels, and I’m pretty sure this will be different for every individual. And I apologise in advance if any of this seems disjointed…it’s mainly a flow of consciousness.

For me, thinking back to my worst times, I can only really describe it as absolute, desperate sadness. Your whole world becomes void of light – the image of a grey cloud is a good one...except that it doesn’t just hover over you and rain periodically, it envelops you and constantly drenches you. It’s not just a case of being “a bit down” – it’s an insidious presence that completely alters reality…and it’s clever. You never see it happening. It becomes you. It becomes your reality and you don’t even notice. Despite even the best intentions of those around you urging you to not “let it control you” or the worst one, “get a grip”, you can never see anything except the bleak reality that exists for you. There’s a sketch by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore as “Pete and Dud”, called “The Futility of Life” which sums this up nicely – here’s an excerpt:

PETE: No words can convey the merest inkling of my innermost thoughts.
DUD: On the contrary. What you've just said has conveyed to me in detail the nature of your malaise. You're feeling a bit droopy.
PETE: A bit droopy? You're the sort of person who'd have gone up to Joan of arc as the flames licked round her vitals and said,
'Feeling one degree under? Like a nice cup of tea?'
DUD: You know what my mother would say?
PETE: No.
DUD: 'Somebody has got out of bed the wrong side this morning.'
PETE: If your mother said that to me today, I'd smash her in the teeth with the coal scuttle.
DUD: Oh, I see. You're feeling a bit temperamental. As Dr Groarke would say 'half temper, half mental.'
PETE: These glib platitudes are, if anything, exacerbating an already unbearable mood of depression.
DUD: If you're depressed, there's no point sitting around feeling sorry for yourself. That won't get the washing up done.
PETE: Dud, your uncanny grasp of domestic trivia is of negligible therapeutic value, and if you tell me to pull myself together or snap out
of it, I might well do something rash.
DUD: I wouldn't say anything like that. Get a grip on yourself, look on the bright side.
DUD and PETE (together): Count your blessings.
DUD: Ooh, Mr Acid Drop himself. Come on, you'll feel better if you get it off your chest. You can confide in me. I mean, what am I here for?
PETE: In your fumbling way you have actually articulated the fundamental question. What are you here for? What am I here for? What is the purpose of life?

Depression is a horribly self-obsessed condition where your whole world turns inwards, as far as you’re concerned, no-one else understands what you’re going through and whatever is going on, it always feels worse for you. This is distinct from self-pity, which I think casual observers and cynics dismiss depression as being. Reality is in the eye of the beholder – we all see things differently and just because someone else sees that you have nothing to feel sad about, will not, and does not, make it so.

There have been many times when I’ve just wanted life to stop. I’m not talking about suicide…I’ve just felt it would be easier to not exist…”stop the world, I want to get off!”. This is why I’ve often found myself curled up under the duvet, with tears in my eyes trying to pretend that the world outside is on hold while I try and get some respite. All kinds of thoughts enter my head when I’m in a depression - a kilo of self-loathing, a few ounces of self-doubt, a cup of cynicism, a few tablespoons of hatred and a good dollop of anxiety and anger – key ingredients for a maelstrom of spiralling negativity.

You get moments of clarity when you start to see the roots of some of these thoughts and see the persona that you’ve become…you realise that you’re no longer the person that you used to be. For me, I became withdrawn and irritable and it’s true what they say – you always hurt the ones you love most. In public, you manage to maintain the persona that everyone wants to see, in private, you become moody, irritable…downright unpleasant to be around. That in itself is a huge cause for concern and grief and you can feel at a loss as to how you can get back, or even if you can.

The good news is, you can. Thankfully, my wife understands what’s going on and can very objectively see the changes when I’m slipping into a depression and prompt me to seek help. I’m lucky in that I have a great GP who is very knowledgeable about depression and takes an interest in me and my family and wants to see us all well. In the past I’ve taken Fluoxentine (“Prozac”) which at the time, faced with depression and anxiety was a great way to even out my emotional state. It brought me to a point where I felt I could cope again and even managed to come off it. However, for me, it evened things out too much – I didn’t experience the desperate lows any longer, but the cost was that I was also unable to experience the highs – to quote Blur’s “Country House” – “It’s a helping hand that makes you feel wonderfully bland”.

I’ve spent a lot of time reading about and trying to understand my condition and I’ve come to view it quite objectively as the illness that it is. Some people have diabetes and take insulin to control it, others have asthma and take ventolin. You break a leg and you wear a cast to help it heal. You can’t see my illness, but like all the others, from time to time, I take a medicine to control/alleviate it.

There is a scientific basis for depression – in my case I do not have enough Serotonin available to regulate my mood. Some of this is genetic, some of it is brought about by my brain using neurochemicals too quickly due to stress, some of which can be caused by the way I think and feel about certain things. The physical link between thinking patterns and mental health are well established – literally a case of mind over matter. Many anti-depressants are what’s known as Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) and these work by controlling the amount of Serotonin that is used by the brain to ensure that there is always some available to the brain, thus regulating mood, which in turn, helps control thoughts. For me, the neurochemical/thought pattern process is a bit of a chicken and egg quandry – I’m not sure which way round it operates, but once the cycle starts it’s a pretty rapid downward spiral that needs intervention to help it.

I came out of a major depression with the help of Fluoxetine, feeling strong and capable, like I’d beaten the illness. In many ways I was grateful for the experience – it can give perspective on life, that, actually, it’s pretty great and you can only really appreciate that if you’ve seen the other side. I was also certain that having had the experience that I’d recognise the signs if it were to return.

I didn’t. Like I said, it sneaks up on you. It’s a con artist. It obscures your vision so that the false reality that you experience becomes true reality and before you know it, you’re back in that dark place again. For anyone that’s seen “The Matrix” – it feels like that to me. Like you’re trapped in a reality that you accept, but something tells you that it’s not right, that it’s not really your reality and it’s a battle to get out of it.

Right now, (I hope) I’m on the lower up side of the curve from a recent down. I’ve been taking Citalopram (another SSRI) which, whilst having more initial side effects (nausea, problems sleeping) – and I suspect will be harder to come off, has been very good. It has stabilised my moods and hasn’t numbed me in the same way that Prozac did. I’m also, at last, after a long wait, getting some help through talking therapies which I hope will give me further insight to my thoughts and ways of moving forward.

There are also plenty of other things to help you along: loads of reading – I’ve recently finished reading “The Art of Happiness” by the Dalai Lama, which had some great perspectives. At the moment I'm reading "The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness" by Williams et al, which describes a grat way of using meditation to overcome depression. This book comes with a useful CD of guided meditations, and I've said before that I find meditation useful. Topics like Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) are useful and interesting. The web is an amazing resource for scientific data, support, experiences and so on. One of the most useful I’ve found is the Mind website (UK based mental health charity). I’ve also bought a “Bodyclock” from Lumie – an alarm clock that wakes you with a simulated sunrise - far more natural and civilised way of being woken on a dark winter morning (the seasons do have a major effect on my mood) and there’s also a sunset feature for use at bed time to lull you into a more natural sleep. I’ve found this excellent. Also from Lumie, I’ve bought a desktop Lightbox to give me my dosage of light each day, again, especially in the Winter months. Whether this has worked or not, I’m not sure – I haven’t used it long enough to know, but I feel it may have reduced the fatigue I feel on grey days and all I can say is now that the lighter days are here, I feel my mood has improved dramatically. I’ve also looked into the linkages between diet, supplementation and mood and there’s compelling data around on this subject – well worth reading up on and there are a host of more natural remedies like St. John’s Wort and 5HTP than can help, although you do need to read up as there are interactions between various types and prescription drugs.

There’s one last thing I want to talk about and that is others’ perceptions on mental health. Some of my good friends have also had bouts of depression – some worse, all different in their own way. It’s really common…more common than you think because many people will not tell others about this problem for fear of being judged “a malingerer” or a “nutter” or some other prejudicial term. I was on the Tube the other day and I saw a series of posters for the “Time to Change” campaign which is a joint project by some of the main mental health charities to end discrimination faced by people who experience mental health problems. Such a project is well overdue and is supported by some familiar faces, some of whom you would never have known suffered from mental illness. Please take a look at this valuable campaign.


Time to Change Stephen Fry Banner

Those close to me know I have this illness. Others do not – this is certainly the first time I’ve spoken about it publicly. Because it’s been hidden I’ve heard others making judgments about people. I work in an HR function and regularly hear people off work with stress and depression being labeled as “Skivers” or worse. Now, I’m not na├»ve and there will always be a percentage of people who play the game, but for someone who is in deep emotional pain to be labeled a “skiver” is disgraceful and offensive. Because there are no outward signs of suffering does not mean that the pain felt inside is not acute. I challenge everyone to consider what life might be like living with mental illness and not be so quick to judge. Please take the time to understand and challenge your own perceptions…it’s statistically in your interest to do so as one day either you, or someone close to you will suffer from some form of mental illness.

So what has this got to do with BJJ?

Everything.

In a recent post, I wrote about meditation and this meditation is great relief from the inner thoughts that can send me into spirals of negativity. It’s great exercise and exercise is a great remedy for depression, so much so that some doctors have prescribed gym membership to patients. It allows me to connect with something tangible, something where I can see, that with application, I can make progress – a metaphor for life and something to give me hope that I can do the same in other areas of my life. But I think most of all, it’s the people. Meeting like minded people who do actually care about how you are, what’s going on with you, like you – it counts for so much. It’s so important to keep active and social (god knows it would be easier to succumb and not) and having such great people around you makes it easy and pleasurable. So thanks to all my good friends in BJJ.

I close this post with these few thoughts. For those that know me, please don’t think differently of me having read this. I’m still the same person I always was – just now you know something different about me. I don’t walk around near suicide every day. Mostly life is normal and I enjoy it. For those that don’t know me, thanks for reading – please think about what I’ve said and if you identify with anything here then I hope you found it interesting and useful.

Wishing you good mental health…

Al.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Ye olde curiositie shoppe

I wanted to share with you a little piece of Jiu Jitsu trivia that I just picked up. Bored (as I often am) at work, I decided to browse e-bay to see what Jiu Jitsu related items were around. The usual mix of MMA gear, the odd Gi and instructional DVDs popped up. But also amongst the mix was a cutting from “Punch” magazine dated 1910, titled “The Suffragette that Knew Jiu Jitsu: The Arrest” by Arthur Wallis Mills.


What I thought was curious about this cartoon was the spelling of “Jiu Jitsu” which is often reserved nowadays in connection with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu whilst the Japanese original is often spelt “Ju”. It seems clear to me that it is only in recent times that any spelling of the Japanese word meaning “Gentle” has been standardised, hence the spelling in this cartoon.

However, I still felt that this was a nice little bit of trivia that would look good in a frame, so I put in my bid, forgot about it and lost. To be honest, I was a little bit gutted – you can by prints of this cartoon, but I felt I wanted the original with all of its history still clinging to it. That’s just me.

I put in a call to my Sister-in-Law, Tammy, who, with my Brother-in-Law and her Dad run a business in the US called “Bakertowne Collectables”. Here’s a quick plug – they buy and sell all types of collections and collectables and trade over e-bay…they’re a great place to try if you have some unique collections to sell or are looking for an obscure item or publication. Anyway, I thought that Tammy, with her connections might know where I could get a copy of the original. Almost instantly, the reply came “I have that edition right here in my hands!”. Schweet! It’s not what you know…

So I now have this original cartoon – monetary value is small, but I think it will look just great mounted and framed. Now I have it though, it has prompted me to do a bit of research on it and the history around it…the martial arts side. Women’s suffrage is well documented, but their involvement in Martial Arts is not so well known.

So where to start? Well, this cartoon is a good place. “Punch” was a weekly satirical zeitgeist publication and published this cartoon shortly after the release of a series of photos of Edith Garrud demonstrating Ju Jitsu techniques on a policeman (or at least a man dressed as one).

Garrud’s husband, William was a student of Sadakazu "Raku" Uyenishi - a Judoka who ran a Dojo in Soho in the early 20th century and was the author of the “Text Book of Ju-Jutsu as Practised in Japan”. William became the instructor at the Dojo when Uyenishi returned to Japan. Edith Garrud was active in the Women’s suffrage movement, the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Sylvia and from her makeshift dojo at no. 9 Argyll Place, London (near Oxford St) she taught women of the WSPU the art of Ju Jitsu.

The need for women who were part of this movement to defend themselves became abundantly clear on “Black Friday” - November 18, 1910. In response to the Prime Minister quashing a women’s voter bill, 300 suffragettes marched on the House of Commons. Police were caught on film assaulting unarmed women attempting to march past. Unthinkable isn’t it? For a few still, this happened within living memory…

Ju Jitsu became an empowering force for a number of women in the Suffrage movement as shown in the article “Ju-Jutsu as a Husband-Tamer: A Suffragette Play with a Moral” From a publication called “Health & Strength”, April 8, 1911

In researching this, links to a Martial Art known as “Bartitsu” were also thrown up. Bartitsu was created by Edward William Barton-Wright who, while working as a railway engineer and surveyor in Japan, studied at two ju jitsu schools including the Kodokan Jiujitsu Dojo, possibly with Jigoro Kano, in Tokyo. He later incorporated stick fighting, Boxing and Savate into his learning and created an eclectic system which he named after himself – a pioneer in cross training and MMA if you will.

Barton-Wright was also one of the earliest people to open his doors to women, although, after the demise of Bartitsu, Edith Garrud’s Dojo became one of the most prominent places in London for women to learn self-defence.

Incidentally, Bartitsu was immortalized by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as the fighting system employed by Sherlock Holmes – a feature not missed in the movie starring Robert Downey Jr released later this year, directed by Guy Ritchie. The movie is rumoured to contain plenty of fight scenes featuring Bartitsu - interesting since Guy Ritchie is, I think, a BJJ Brown Belt under Renzo Gracie, so I’d expect to see a distinct influence on the Ju Jitsu components of Downey’s Sherlock’s Bartitsu.

Anyway, it appears that Ju Jitsu was seen, at the start of the last century to be an effective way for women to defend themselves – a thought I’ve often had about Brazilian Jiu Jitsu today and yet, there are still very few women involved and this is a real shame. Rather than veer off on this subject myself, take a look at Meerkatsu’s blog which has a good article on this subject and also some of the links provided here by Slideyfoot to women in BJJ’s sites – they can give you insights that I certainly can’t.

Take care,

Al
Main source of info and links here

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Mind, Body and Spirit

It’s been just over a month since I made my last post…and how time flies! So here’s an update on all that’s been happening (or at least what I can remember!).

Jiu Jitsu: The Next Generation

Some congratulations are due! On the 1st March, Dave and his wife Toyah welcomed their daughter Nieve into the world. Both of them train with us and are Sensei and Senpai respectively in Kyukoshin Karate…I’d imagine with that pedigree, young Nieve has got an awesome journey in martial arts ahead of her! On 16th March, Simon and his wife Anna finally (long overdue) said “hi” to Marcella, their second daughter. Congratulations to you both!! And it doesn’t end there… Ram and his wife are expecting their first and Ian (AKA “Monkey”) and his wife are expecting their second not so long away. A ready made batch of Jiu Jitsukas!

Really, congratulations to all of you…it really is the greatest thing a person can ever be bestowed.

We can rebuild him…

I’ve already written about my quest to get fitter and slimmer so I thought I’d update on this. Since Christmas I’ve now lost about three quarters of a stone. It doesn’t sound much but when I’m being uncritical of my self, it’s actually quite good. I’ve made lots of small manageable changes to my lifestyle – mainly in the food I eat (although I’m still playing with this trying to get the right foods, right amounts an frequencies to get maximum benefit) and the result so far is slow, but steady weight loss. All that I’ve read has said that this is the way to go if you want to keep the weight off so hopefully this is good progress. Certainly my trousers feel looser which is always a good guide. There’s a long way to go yet though.

I’ve also become somewhat obsessive about my fitness training…but in a good way I think. At the moment a typical week looks like this:

Mon – 2.5 mile run at work
Tues – Jiu Jitsu (min 2hrs)
Weds – Gym (4 mile run, 10 mins row, 10 mins cross trainer all at average 70-80% MHR)
Thurs – Jiu Jitsu
Fri – 2.5 Mile run at work or Gym (as above)
Sat – Jiu Jitsu
Sun – Yoga and /or rest

I think that’s pretty good, but I’ve now started doubling up, so, for example, last Friday, I did my run at work and then went swimming in the evening. Yesterday, I went swimming at lunchtime and Jiu Jitsu in the evening. Swimming’s great for this as it’s quite aerobic, but low impact.

The sun has been out all of this last week, which makes my runs enjoyable, but I’m also starting to think I should dust my bike down and start cycling to work again now the lighter mornings and evenings are here (believe me – I have lights and reflectors galore but have still had far too many close shaves to want to cycle in the dark!).. It’s about 6.5miles one way so I figure this could also be a good, practical and functional way to add to my weekly regime.

I’m in a bit of a quandary about what to do with Yoga. It has been great, but one session is not enough to really progress. There are no other sessions and we are encouraged to do daily practice (which I don’t!). I would say, after around four months of Yoga, I have a good idea of the principles of the basic poses and the things I need to be aware of (but there really is no substitute for a teacher making corrections!). I have a book by the founder of Iyengar Yoga containing the main poses. I’m starting to wonder if I actually need to get up every Sunday morning to go to Yoga, or, with the props that I now have, whether I can simply practice at home. I do need to keep on with flexibility and core strength so it’s a tough one to call. Not sure what to do at the moment.

One thing that might make the decision easier is that I’m toying with the idea of trying British Military Fitness (BMF) once a week on Saturday mornings. It’s something I’ve wanted to do ever since I left the RAF. I’ve said before, I’ve never been fitter than when I was in my training in the RAF – the mix of functional exercises, aerobic workouts, camaraderie and genuine encouragement from PTIs (the image of PTIs shouting in your ears as you cry into the mud whilst doing your 1000th press up couldn’t be further from the truth – in the RAF at least!) is the most awesome recipe for rapid fitness gains. I decided to take a look at their list of locations and in the 8 years since I left the RAF, they have expanded enormously and now run sessions in a park not too far from me. The first session is free so I figure what have I got to lose?! However, if I try it and like it, then to be fair to my long-suffering wife, one of the weekend morning sessions is going to have to go (lie-ins at the weekend are very important when you have twins!). If I enjoy the BMF sessions, then I think the decision will be simple as I know from experience that the gains from that type of exercise will far outweigh the gains I’m making from one session a week of Yoga. I’ll just have to get some discipline and ensure I keep up some yoga practice at home! I’ll let you know how I get on if I give it a go.

Lastly on the body thing, yesterday I had my second session of Osteopathy. Since before Christmas I’ve had a tightness in my shoulder blade that has extended up my back, into my neck and had started to give me bad headaches in the base of my skull and started to disrupt my sleep. Some things just go on their own, but this one was just getting worse so I decided to get some help. After an initial consultation and some prodding, my Osteopath found the offending tissue and said it was probably due to some kind of knock during my late teens. Nothing significant sprang to mind, but my late teens/early twenties were my best Rugby years and I took knocks every week. Anyway – he certainly did, literally, hit the right spot – there’s not much, even in BJJ submissions that has hurt more than when he massaged the offending knot of tissue – if tapping would have made him stop I’d have been doing my Michael Flatley impression. The improvement after one treatment was noticeable and yesterday he went even further and deeper. I also got a full spine crack – neck, shoulders, lower back – wow, that always feels amazing and I arrived at training feeling lighter than air. Honestly, my back hasn’t felt so good in years. I’ve decided that £32 for a session is money well spent to keep everything doing what it should be so I’m going to have a session once a month as part of a “maintenance” regime. I’d recommend it – don’t suffer hoping things will just get better. You could be storing up problems for later – go get yourself seen to. Your body will thank you for it.

The melting pot…

One of the great things about Jiu Jitsu is that it creates a common bond amongst all who train it. People come from all walks of life, wear the same gear and train the same things. Life should be a lot more like Jiu Jitsu. Last night we had a discussion about religion and it just served to highlight how great Jiu Jitsu is. In our club, we have Anglicans, Catholics, Mormons, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists and each person is genuinely valued and respected for who they are, whilst at the same time, their religion being a total non-issue. We all share a mutual respect for each other and a love of the art we practice. Perhaps the world just needs more Jiu Jitsu?!

Training

Training has ticked along well lately. We’ve been training mostly techniques of late – a good number of sweeps and submissions, mainly from butterfly guard. Dean has also been majoring on the good use of leverage. This has been the “yang” to the “yin” of the softer balance/sensitivity stuff we’ve been doing. Dean has his sights set on training with Rickson sometime in the middle of the year and this has focussed his mind on the fundamentals of Rickson’s teachings – the things that are most basic and effective in Jiu Jitsu and it’s been great to be a part of Dean’s preparations as his work effectively rubs off on us, his students. It’s great to see, practice, feel and discuss, how the hard and soft aspects of Jiu Jitsu work with each other – each having their time and place. For me, it’s great…I’m starting to get a good sense of how I need to move, feel, wait for the right times and also understand when to be hard and unyielding and remove options from my opponent. I need to work hard not to lose sight of the softer, free flowing stuff I’ve worked hard on – it would be easy to default to hard, static Jiu Jitsu, so I think some movement drills would be good sometime soon.

This month has also been the month of Steves. Tugboat Steve has been back – great to see him and always a challenge. His strength is awesome and can challenge the best technique – a great guy to have to train with. Also, we saw French Steve for the first time this year. Even having not trained for possibly six months, he still doesn’t give an inch…great to see him back and looking forward to another visit in April.

Training’s been good – what more can I say? I could bore you with my technique breakdowns but there are plenty of other blogs that do that much better than me and a myriad of books. On that subject, I’ve just had my copy of Saulo Ribeiro’s “Jiu Jitsu University” delivered. I’m a big fan of Saulo and Xande’s as I know how much they’ve trained with, and been inspired by, Rickson. On first scan, it looks like the best instructional book I own. I’m going to take a much closer look and I will review on this blog sometime.

Catch ya soon(ish) ;P

Al

Monday, 9 February 2009

Marcelo Garcia Seminar - 7th Feb 09

L-R: Roubel, Simon, Marcelo Garcia, Me

On Saturday I went to a Seminar with Marcelo Garcia (2 time World Champion at Black Belt, 3 time ADCC Champion). It was held in Hove near Brighton and organised by Grab and Pull, which is, I think, a BJJ related venture run by Gus Oliveira of Brighton BJJ. The seminar was scheduled over two days – 1st day being Gi, 2nd Day being No-Gi. Cost for one day was £50, both days, £80. I attended just the one day – the Gi day. The session ran from 2p.m. To 4p.m. with just under an hour of rolling at the end and the chance for photos.

Given the snow that had beleaguered most of the UK during the week, Si and I had a reasonable journey down to Hove and met Roubel there too. We had a good chat with a few guys we knew from other clubs, tournaments etc and I was also able to put faces to names of some of the guys that contribute to the EFN forums. As we were chatting, Marcelo walked in – just a normal guy – really quite small but he had a smile and a handshake for everyone – straight away you got the feeling he was one of those people that everyone enjoys being around. And there were no heirs and graces – he was in the thick of it with the rest of us (I’ve been to seminars in the past – mainly traditional Martial Arts I have to say – where the seminar instructor has been treated like Royalty…big entrance, separate changing room etc etc and many a lot less well known or accomplished than some of the top BJJ guys).

The seminar was held in the sports hall of the King Alfred Leisure Centre, which was absolutely freezing…something not lost on Marcelo as his opening remark was that this was his first trip to the UK and he couldn’t believe how cold it was. So after a quick warm up and stretch it was down to the business of the day.

Marcelo opened by explaining that although the two days were Gi and No-gi, the techniques he was going to show were applicable across both as this was how he trained in order to avoid the need to have two separate “games” depending on what type of tournament he was entering – sound logic (this was also indicative of his style which was very competition oriented, with mention of points and time considerations – that’s the world he moves in and where he’s made his name). He explained that day one would look at work from the top position and day two, the bottom position with all techniques building up an array of options from one position.

So, I’ll try to go through the details on the techniques he showed, but note that these explanations are given in ways that enable me to remember so I apologise in advance if they’re not always clear.

1. Starting from standing, at the feet of seated opponent using open guard. First try pushing opponent back or grabbing ankles to tip back. Grab ankles and place between thighs and kneel tight in to butt of opponent. This will, to an extent, trap opponent’s legs. Move hands in through between opponents legs, placing elbows at hips, head on chest. Move head to side of opponent’s body that you want to pass to. Hold knee of same side. Kick opposite side leg up so that you effectively end up almost doing a headstand, clearing any potential hooks from opponent and come down into kneeling cross side and secure with underhook and clinch around head.

2. Starting as above, but this time, as you kneel, the opponent is able to push your body away. To counteract this take grips on the side of the gi, then post weight with one arm and bringing hips in behind posting on the balls of your feet, head up. From here, using other hand, push opponent’s knee inwards and swing same side leg to posted arm up and around the head to slide own body down and across opponent to end up in cross side. Secure position.

3. This time, whilst aiming to do the above, the opponent is able to place feet on your hips and push you away. Reach through and post arm on chest as before and place other hand on top of same side knee. With knee that is same side as posted arm, work into centre position so that foot is near opponent’s butt. Push opponent’s knee down to get other leg outside of opponent’s. In one movement, push opponent’s knee down and swing centre leg back and up to clear hooks and swing back inwards to opponent’s body to take knee on stomach. If opponent tries to escape, follow and then drop into kneeling cross side. Secure position.

4. Whilst aiming to do the above, opponent manages to get half guard on centre leg and may also have grabbed posted leg (if you weren’t careful to keep it far away enough). As before, post arm on chest and place other hand on knee. Move leg to back of half guard (if this breaks it then great) and immediately shoot knee forward to land at opponent’s diagonal opposite hip. Take kneeling cross side and secure position.

5. As above, but this time the opponent has blocked any movement from the trapped leg (and again, may also have grabbed posted leg (if you weren’t careful to keep it far away enough). Posting and hand positions the same as before. But as with technique number 2, swing free leg round opponents head to slide down body. From here, turn body to face opponent and use free leg and shrimp movement to free other leg still trapped in half guard (if still trapped). Cross side and secure.

6. As above but having swung leg round, opponent has managed to grab back, preventing you turning to face him. Turn opposite way and take under grip and clinch around head. Place shin of free leg near trapped leg and roll your opponent onto his back whilst prising with legs to open half guard. Slide knees forward to escape half guard and take mount.

7. Submission #1. Progress as per movement 5 to point of having freed both legs. Post uppermost leg out and drop lower knee to hip of opponent. It’s important to be sitting up in good base otherwise you’ll just be rolled off. Push up so that you are effectively sitting on top of the opponent, straddling him You should be able to have taken his uppermost arm over your leg so that the hand sits near the hip. From here you can take an arm bar, wrist lock or a shoulder lock by squeezing your own knee towards the other, or by placing your foot over the opponent’s head, sitting to the floor then executing by squeezing in with your knee.

8. Submission #2. Progress as per movement 6. As you sit to the side, facing away from your opponent, wrap your closest arm round the back of opponents head. Keeping weight on the chest to keep opponent flat, work round to North/South position. Push hips back and to the floor. Bring free hand under to meet other hand and squeeze. Done properly, this should be a good, quick strangle but done badly can end up as a neck crank.

Wow, didn’t realise there was that much until I’ve just written it and I hope I’ve remembered it right – there’s always the risk of confusing the odd bit, but there were three of us from the club there so I guess we can always work it out.

One point to make about all of these – at every stage, Marcelo was very clear about the need to have good base, posture and to control the opponent and his hips, especially when in cross side type positions.

I was really impressed with Marcelo’s instruction – clear, precise with great attention to the details that make a difference. During the practice he was walking around paying careful attention to everyone, answering questions and making corrections. I really enjoyed the simplicity of the majority of the moves and was taken by the speed with which Marcelo was able to execute them.

The rolling at the end was done in rotating four minute bouts and was very enjoyable – no one going insane. I think the tone was set well by Marcelo and everyone followed his calm lead. I wasn’t fortunate enough to roll with him but those that did all commented on his amazing grip strength, lack of use of the Gi and his ability to almost magnetically grab and utilise anything of his opponent that was available. At the end Marcelo thanked everyone and seemed genuinely appreciative of the time and money people had given to go and see him – another mark of his humility. Then it was open season for the usual post seminar photo opportunities, again, all done in the same spirit as the rest of the seminar.

All in all it was a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon, learning some new concepts from someone recognised as one of the best. The things I took away from it were (a) just what a nice guy Marcelo is, (b) that good jiu jitsu is simple and (c) it’s good to work up a range of scenarios starting from one source – the techniques I’ve described above all stared from being at the foot of someone’s open guard and I can see now why Marcelo is as good as he is. If his whole game is like this, then he pretty much has an answer for just about any eventuality and all of them are drilled to instinctiveness.

Value for money? Pretty good I’d say – about average for a BJJ seminar and for tuition of that quality and from a name like Marcelo Garcia, it’s hard to fault it. Thanks to Gus and his team for putting together a good seminar in the UK with a top name – I look forward to many more!

Monday, 2 February 2009

Slowing down...


I’m pretty sure it’s something I’ve mentioned before in previous posts, but the parallels between Jiu Jitsu and mediation are many. In fact I would go as far to say that good Jiu Jitsu is meditation. There’s an interesting post on this on Jiu Jitsu Brotherhood and I can concur with everything written there.

A couple of years ago, I went to the London Buddhist Centre (LBC) in Bethnal Green for a day long introduction to meditation. I think it cost about £25… I know they still run them. I went along having read lots on Buddhism, a rudimentary knowledge of meditation and, I guess, looking for some answers. What I got was a relaxing day with some nice people, some methods of focussing meditation and some nice vegetarian food. Really enjoyable and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in getting started on meditation.

Just recently I’ve noticed a lot of “noise” in life and with a mail shot from the LBC my mind turned once more to meditation as a possible way to deal with this noise. The LBC runs drop-in lunchtime sessions from 1300-1400, costing only £1. So, with Bethnal Green only a couple of Tube stops from my office in London, I decided that, this year, meetings etc allowing, if I was working in London, I would spend my lunch times at these sessions. So far I’ve managed to attend twice.

The LBC is a great little oasis of calm in a busy city and the shrine where the mediation takes place is stunning – it just has an immediate feeling of calm. It’s a bright space, the air laced with incense and the giant gold Buddha that dominates the room gives the room the sense of reverence that it deserves. Two mediation practices are taught at the LBC – “The Mindfulness of Breathing” and the Metta Bhavana. Here, I’ll give a quick outline of the mediations, but I’d advise that you do further reading around these to understand them in their context, or better still, find somewhere that will guide you through them as they’ll be able to give context and also pointers on things like posture.

The mindfulness of breathing is probably the most accessible. You simply focus on your breath which is a constant and readily available feature that you can meditate on.

Stage 1: You begin by counting at the end of each out breath – do this ten times and repeat, initially for five minutes.

Stage 2: You count at the start of each in breath – as above. This is a very subtle but definite shift in focus.

Stage 3: You drop the count but focus on the experience of breathing – how it feels, how the body moves, pretty much any experience associated with breathing.

Stage 4: You take a single element of the experience of breathing (for me it was the sensation of cold as the air hit the back of my nasal cavity) and focus on that.

Each stage was five minutes. As you practice, it is possible to extend the duration of practice, and, I guess to become less reliant on the “introductory” phases. You do (I certainly did) experience “wandering” of the mind, but the trick is to notice this and come back to the practice, but the overall aim is to reach a single point of concentration that is here and now. It is this that takes you away from thoughts of past or future, problems etc and this that helps to restore peace to our minds. It is this same principle that is applied to all “mindfulness” practice – being aware of what is happening in the moment that you are experiencing rather than letting the sometimes damaging and rampant internal dialogue that we all have from taking over our experience and making us unhappy.

The Metta Bhavana (translates as something like “Cultivating Loving Kindness”) approaches a somewhat more spiritual angle on meditation, aiming to allow us to grow compassion and understanding towards ourselves and others, which I guess is no bad thing regardless of your religious views. Again, in the introductory practice that I have undertaken, the stages are done in five minute segments, but the aim is to extend the practice as you become more experienced. During the stages, you make the following “wishes” for the subject of your mediation:

- May they be healthy

- May they be happy

- May they be free from suffering

- May they make progress.

Simple, but nice sentiments. But these are not words, you need to feel that they hold a meaning and almost picture your subjects benefitting from these sentiments.

In stages, you apply these sentiments to:

1) Yourself

2) A close friend. It is recommended that this is someone same sex and not someone that you are romantically interested or involved with.

3) Someone you know but not well – this could be a shopkeeper, postman, receptionist – the point is that this is someone that features in your daily life but you are not well acquainted with.

4) An enemy – someone that you find difficult, perhaps even “hate”.

5) You open up these sentiments to the world around you.

I find this meditation a little more difficult – my mind wanders a lot more with this and a few times I’ve even felt myself falling asleep. Also, wishing well to an enemy is an alien concept and very difficult sometimes. But I think it’s worth persisting – to acknowledge that every person has hopes, dreams, desires and a wish to be happy, just like yourself, is a useful and grounding thing to do and if it cultivates a more open persona to others, then surely that’s a good thing…? I have found it a grounding meditation, especially in the last stage - realising that you are a small part in a much bigger worl that surrounds you.

The goal of any meditation, is, as I’ve already said, to focus the mind on a single point of concentration, to stop the mind from drifting into uncontrollable thoughts about the past, which no longer exists, or the future, which doesn’t yet exist and to experience more of now. By doing this, we experience more of life, calm our minds and increase our ability to focus and concentrate.

And this is why, in my mind, Jiu Jitsu, when practiced with a right mind, is meditation. Two or three times a week I put on a gi, step onto the mats and meditate. My mind is occupied with Jiu Jitsu, its movements, its sensations and it is immediate and single pointed. That’s what mediation is and if you are so minded, it can be likened to a spiritual experience. Jiu Jitsu allows you to experience life in the moment and without distraction – how many other parts of your life can truly do that?

Sure, Jiu Jitsu is a great physical workout, but how many people really give their mind a workout….and I’m not talking arithmetic, memory, IQ type exercises, I’m talking something deeper, something more spiritual. This is why, for me, Jiu Jitsu will never be a sport, a workout or a recreational activity – it is all of those things on a physical level, but its so much more. It’s the piece of the puzzle that is far too often missing in modern life. It gives the time and space to “be”.