Friday, November 30, 2007

Controlling Our Emotional Reactions

The only thing we really control is ourselves, and every time we get angry, we've allowed someone else to manipulate us by pushing our hot buttons. When we feel emotions rising, we might want to ask ourselves how we are playing into someone else's game. Are we really that easy? If we allow ourselves to act unconsciously, then yes, we are.

One of the benefits of meditation is creating space within ourselves to be able to observe how our own thoughts and emotions arise. When we learn to separate ourselves from such phenomena, we gain greater control over our ability to choose our own direction for ourselves.

Think of difficult people as challenges to our own self-control. There are many who will test us simply because their own lives are uncontrolled. Their sense of self-worth is validated externally, so by provoking us they feel as though they exist and have importance, forcing the world to acknowledge them. Calmness may fluster them because they don't understand it. They don't feel at peace within themselves. If they can get others to match their own internal state, then they feel a sense of recognition; they live within their own world of stormy emotions and so invite us to join them there.

Conversely, if we remain calm and weather their outbursts, we may be able to plant a seed of calmness within them, creating an anchorage against the pain of being tossed by what they themselves cannot control. At the least it may allow their own rage to expend itself, until they are too tired or bored to continue their assaults against ourselves. Think of advice given for dealing with aggressive animals. If a dog or even a bear charges and we run, we become a moving target to be taken down. On the other hand, if we stand in place (dogs) or curl up in a ball (bears) we have a much better chance of surviving.

Cats that run from dogs will be chased and killed if they cannot escape. On the other hand, those that sit immobile may still attract initial attention, but after nosing around, a dog will generally get bored and leave. I've witnessed both. Why do deer freeze when caught in headlights? It's because that is their defense against drawing predators into the chase.

Aggressive humans are also predators. Think of them as emotional vampires who feed off the response of their victims. They may seem strong, but in reality their weakness is their need to feed off of others. If they do not get the reaction they seek, they are lost.

I've been in dangerous situations where remaining calm defused assault, and I know women who have avoided rape in the same manner. Even if we have to fight, it is better to do it with a clear head than one clouded by fear. Fear has its place as a warning, motivating a response, but do we want others to be able to use it to pull us into their trap? If we consciously note rising emotions, we can deal with them before we hit crisis mode, and that generally is the better response.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Illness in the family

My mother went into the hospital on Friday for shortness of breath from congestive heart failure. Saturday afternoon she had a major stroke. She's already beaten the odds and surprised everybody by recovering significant motor function in the affected arm and leg. She lost speech, but within a day was able to say a few things we can understand and is very expressive in letting us know that she can hear us, either in person or when the phone is held for her. She's certainly very aware of her circumstances, remarkable in itself for someone 96 years old.

It's certainly hard to see her struggle, but she's one of the toughest and most resilient people I know. She's gone through dental work and other procedures without wanting or taking pain medication, things that make most of us cringe at just the thought, using her powers of visualization to revisit old memories, imagining herself far away in beautiful places like Hawaii. She also taught singing for several decades so she knows how to use breathing effectively. She's taught me a lot about the power of the mind to control the body.

I may be away from my computer more than usual, but I'll get back to posting some pieces I've started when I'm able to get them done.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Sport Science - debunking myths?

I just caught part of a Discovery Channel's "Sports Science" ( episode #70), on debunking sport myths. One myth was whether "the shout" (kiai) actually makes a difference, and another was whether sex before events hurts an athlete's performance.

The kiai test used a world champion break artist. With a shout he generated about 2000 lbs. of force to shatter a stack of bricks. Without the shout, he only produced about 1500 lbs. and the bottom brick didn't break, rebounding the energy back up into him. I thought that single test, dramatic as it was, cannot be definitive because it was only a single sample. It did seem to substantiate the fact that a kiai helps release adrenaline as well as focus the mind. The martial artist clearly felt inhibited trying to match his previous break while holding back on part of his technique.

For comparison they should have also tested someone who felt confident breaking without a kiai, then having that person add a shout. What I'd really like to know is whether a focused exhalation without a kiai would be equal to using one. Again, I think that would require multiple repetitions and multiple test subjects to get reasonably objective data. Anecdotally throughout history, though, the grunt or shout has been understood as a byproduct of maximum exertion, so I think there is merit to the process. Withholding it may well inhibit performance, but does emphasizing it increase performance or is it a distraction?

The sex myth involved testing a world champion boxer in several categories, including leg strength, lower and upper body cardio endurance and blood testosterone, both before and after a night of sex with his wife. In the follow-up he tested higher in almost every category (cardio results were equivalent) including testosterone levels in his blood, the one result he couldn't fake. The concensus on this was the myth against sex was in fact without merit and quite possibly exactly wrong.

Something I remember from a documentary on Babe Ruth wasn't that sex itself tired out the athlete, but rather the effort in chasing women and carousing beforehand that did the damage. In other words, for guys in a steady relationship, it shouldn't be an issue. The only rationale I can see might be to make a man ornery, or as Eddie Murphy put it in "48 Hours" (and quoting Richard Pryor, perchance): "Lack of p***y makes a man brave!"

Thursday, November 15, 2007


Here's the first piece I said I'd get done in the post from earlier today. It's about a deep self-healing process I've gone through this week. - JF


Yoga means “to yoke”, meaning integration of mind and body to a higher spiritual consciousness. For most people, however, it is a form of exercise, and that is what I’ll address here.

One problem I see in learning something like yoga or martial arts is that people learn it as an external form, something they do according to precepts they’ve memorized without internalizing it and making it their own. This is why I chose to call this “self-yoga”, because it is something that should be unique to each individual according to their needs. It is important to understand principles of stretching and using the breath, but the actual use of these principles should vary according to one’s own innate wisdom.

The principles are pretty simple: First, come out of a stretch by reversing the way you went into it. When we stretch we lengthen muscle fibers. I see people go into a stretch one way and then jump out of it without thought, in a completely different movement pattern. This can cause fibers to cross and bind, creating more problems than were there before. Old-time kahunas in Hawaii used this principle to punish troublemakers, twisting joints to cause crippling pain. The only one who could unlock the damage was the person who created it in the first place, being the only one who knew the direction in which the movements had been chained together.

The second principle is using the breath. Most folk think they know how to breathe because obviously they’ve been doing so since birth, or else they wouldn’t be alive. Yoga has made a science of using the breath, however, which goes beyond merely inhaling and exhaling. While those are the two directions of airflow, the effect of breath on the body can be profound. Through the interconnectivity of muscles, tendons and ligaments, it is possible to direct the force of the breath to any part of the body. By focusing our attention where we desire an effect, we can direct the pressure of inhalation to stretch or open up areas of tension, and use the exhale to release the tension. Using different postures or positions (asanas) is a way to direct this effect to specific areas. If we hold a stretch, the relaxation on exhale lets us take up the slack which is created during the tension part of the cycle. The next inhalation can then deepen the stretch. Exhale to move into a stretch, and use the inhalation to move back out of it. Inhaling is like filling a balloon with air; imagine yourself as one of those big parade balloons rising as it fills up. Let the breath create the movement and pay attention to the quality of your stretch, both going in and coming out. You’re working on your body to heal it, so don’t rush; mindfulness is significant!

The third principle is to not use force. Often when we try to do something that is not comfortable, the body will tense up and create resistance to protect itself. If we consciously remind ourselves to relax, this allows the body to trust what the mind is telling it to do. It may take a moment, it may take many sessions to learn, but once the trick of letting go has been learned, one can feel tension melting away as the breath opens up the area of focus in the stretch.

There are some exceptions to non-force. One is dynamic tension. This is a process of tensing parts of the body for brief moments, and can be done either through internal resistance, such as tightening a muscle internally, or by pressing or pulling to create the resistance against other parts. This has several effects. On the one hand it increases blood flow to the muscle, and uses what Eastern arts refer to as “local chi”, energizing that specific body part. At the same time it tends to fatigue the muscle, which by using up excess energy allows it to reset to a more relaxed state.

Some teachers advocate holding the breath for 8-10 seconds while tensing, others say to allow it to release slowly. I tend to use whatever feels appropriate to the moment. If I’m just exercising I usually release the breath, but if I’m trying to unlock a difficult to reach area of tension in my body, I may hold the breath to force it deeper into the spot that I’m squeezing tightly. Generally I’d say that the slow and gentle method will get the job done, but once in awhile I’ll use this method when I can’t seem to reach an area that has become chronically locked up.

This past week I had a very dramatic example of self-healing using these methods. About two weeks ago I got a kink in my back, right between the shoulder blades at mid-sternum level. Most of us think of the sternum as a single plate, but this is a spot known to more knowledgeable chiropractors as a hidden joint of the body. I’ve had seven whiplashes, the result over the years of being hit multiple times from behind while stopped at red lights in my car. Consequently this area has been tight, the result of my body holding the tension from fear of further injury to a spot previously hurt. I’ve been to a number of chiropractors who have had limited and varying success in releasing this. I’ve been told that at best it is something I’ll probably have to live with, that the best they can do is relieve the worst of the symptoms.

Now the only real difference between something like chiropractic treatment and yoga is whether the activating energy is external, internal, or a combination as in acupuncture. Just think of any of these as ways to move energy. By this past weekend, the pain in my back was pretty severe, affecting my breathing and posture, to say nothing of my mood. I began waking up in the middle of the night from the pain, rolling on the floor and stretching to try to release the spot where the tension was held. Finally on Tuesday I awoke around 4am and decided I’d had enough; without expectation that I would get help from anyone else, I realized that I would have to use what resources I knew on my own to get in and try to fix things.

I was beyond using preset patterns of stretches; this was writhing to get to the source, which is where intuition came to my rescue. There are two processes I used to get results. One was rocking, the other stretching.

The rocking process is one I came up with on my own. I’ve studied a variety of massage methods since 1977, and the closest I’ve seen to this is Breema. As my spine seemed misaligned from mid-upper back to the base of the neck, I began by laying on my back, interlocking my fingers and cradling the back of my head in my hands, flexing alternate wrists to rock my head side to side. At times I pushed the heels of my hands closer together, raising the head up, and pressing with the heel of the hand to change the angle and range of movement. As my neck began to release I changed position to standing. This allowed me to move my head forward or back with the rocking, hitting tension at different angles.

After awhile I felt the need to work lower, so I unlocked my hands and dropped them onto my upper chest, rocking my upper torso side to side. By anchoring my hands this way, my shoulders and chest moved as a single unit, as opposed to letting the hands swing separately; it is a different effect. I stopped a few times to use dynamic tension, pulling my shoulders back to try to isolate and break up the tension, then returning to the rocking motions.

As I felt things grinding and loosening up, I then went into an upward stretch, locking my fingers together except for the index fingers, which I pointed upwards to direct and extend the stretch. As I filled with breath, I would stretch upward, then hold the position in the exhale; classic yogic breathing. With the next breath I’d continue to stretch. It felt like the breath was climbing inside me, each one progressing upward a few centimeters at a time.

Several years ago during a bout of bronchitis I learned to breath into the left or right side of my chest separately, and to cough the same, in order to clear the lower part of the lungs. Now with this I was discovering how to breathe into, and clear, the upper parts of my lungs, and consequently found myself clearing large and unexpected amounts of phlegm. Nasty, but that’s how it works; tension accumulates in a variety of ways. In this process one learns to be aware of the internal architecture of the body in unexpected ways.

Finally, as pressure from the breath focused into my neck, I instinctively began bending backwards. Over the next 8-10 breaths, as I found myself in a deep back bend, feet firmly anchored, I then began to use the breath to lift the chest upward while remaining in the back bend. I found it curious that I felt so stable in this posture, but being focused on the process, I felt secure and in control. I could feel my shoulders opening up and releasing tension, until there was a tiny “crack” from the center of my pain, and it was gone.

At that point I stopped stretching (after about 2-1/2 hours total time) and began doing some morning chores. About an hour later for some reason I reached over my shoulder and touched my back, and my hand came away wet! I thought it might be blood but it looked clear, so I went to a mirror to take a look. There, in the center of my back where it had hurt the worst, a patch of skin about the size of a silver dollar had split and peeled away, looking like a bad sunburn!

As I examined this in the mirror, I began rolling my shoulders and was surprised at the fluid range of motion, and the complete lack of pain. I then did another quick upward stretch and realized my arms were behind my ears, when for many years they had been alongside or even slightly forward!

The result of this experience is that my range of motion is vastly increased from what I’ve had in a long time, both in my back and my right shoulder, which has been impaired since a motorcycle accident in 1982. Both shoulders now move about the same, and pain-free. Whatever spot was locked up in my back all these years, has now been broken up.

For those familiar with the concept of kundalini, I feel like I’ve been raising and releasing this energy for the past few months. One possible reason is I’m in a relationship with a new girlfriend. We have a deep connection, and that has brought new energy into my life in many ways. I believe that when we are healthy and happy we don’t compartmentalize ourselves. Conversely, we create blockages when things aren’t going as well. By entering a new state energy was freed up, but the old block at the heart chakra had not yet been released. When energy hits a block, something has to happen. As long as the block was there, the energy built up until it manifested as pain, and continued to do so until I was able to dissolve the block.

Does this mean the process is complete? Of course not, because being alive is itself a process. I can feel that most of that backed-up energy has moved upward, just like heat from a flame.

As the neck and tailbone tend to reflect each other, I later did some stretches in deep horse stance to open the hips. These consisted of resting my hands on my knees to support my body weight so I could swing my hips freely. This resulted in a powerful release in my right hip that went right down to my knee, unlocking a block I hadn’t even fully recognized. I then wondered if I could extend the release into my foot, and with a couple of weight shifts I was able to release the pain I’d had in my right ankle since dislocating it nearly 2 years ago! This went all the way to the big toe, eliminating a hot pain I’d been carrying in the instep of my foot. Didn’t I say everything was interconnected? I haven’t felt this good or connected in years!

Now I have to monitor these results to see what comes next. Old patterns don’t just disappear, so though I’ve felt incredibly good the past 48 hours, I recognize that tension can again accumulate in a habitual manner. It’s so easy to forget how hard it was to get to this point and just return to business as usual, when in fact a breakthrough like this should be the start of a new phase and not just the end of the old.

As I said at the beginning, this is about trusting one’s own inner wisdom, letting intuition be the guide rather than being a slave to technique. Though rooted in established principles, the actual methods I used were unique and unorthodox, but allowed me to achieve exactly the results I needed so badly. I’ve outlined the process and results as guidelines only. I know that many people carry aches and pains on a daily basis, the result of living in a body. If we depend on others to fix us, we will never be as free as when we are able to find our own solutions and follow through to reach the goals we set.

Quick Update 11-15

Hard to believe I haven’t posted in awhile, but it’s been a busy time. I’ve started several posts but gotten sidetracked with shop projects and yet another birthday.

I’ve been learning new skills for making my training blades as I’ve incorporated several new pieces of equipment into the shop. The main goal is to work safer. One of my students wanted a kerambit, and it was too dangerous to make that on the router because of the small size and the multiple curves. I now have ways to do these on the new machines, and I’ve sold every one I’ve made except the one I absolutely had to keep for myself.

A byproduct of the new gear is that they’ve allowed me to create new techniques that add to the repertoire of cuts and grinds. These create distinctive appearances to the pieces I make. I now have three ways I like to finish handles: straight grain, patterned grain, and pattern stamped.

Last Sunday a friend, a former world karate champion, picked up a kris to take back to Hawaii. While at her friend’s house, the husband insisted he’d seen the “wood” I used, even after I said it was plastic. He went into another room and came back with an elaborately carved letter opener from Madagascar. We examined it side-by-side with several of my pieces and even photographed them together. They were virtually indistinguishable. I did some research online and found that Madagascar is famous for rosewood. I then pulled out a couple of guitars with rosewood fretboards and yes, that is the match!

I’ll see about finishing some of my other articles. One is about corner fighting, another is about a method of self-massage and stretching I just developed. My back hurt pretty badly for about two weeks leading up to my birthday and nothing was helping, so I decided to follow my own intuitive yoga. Not only did I fix the kink in my back, I released tension that has been held there for decades! The results have not only been local but global, releasing several old and deeply held injuries! This is something special, so I need to think about how to explain what I did so others can resolve their own aches and pains.