Life: Let’s Not Be So Guess-So About It

“Walk on the road.  Walk right side, safe.  Walk left side, safe.  Walk middle; sooner or later, get squished just like grape.  Here, karate same thing.  Either you karate do yes, or karate do no.  You karate do guess-so, squish, just like grape.  Understand?”  Mr. Miyagi; circa 1984.

This is true everywhere in our lives, right?  We get up from the couch to go to the kitchen to do whatever, but our mind is on a completely different subject and we slam our shin into the coffee table.  Squish, like grape.  When we’re not fully present, we burn ourselves while grilling, spill our drink, and forget to get off at our exit.  Sometimes  we end up in a room and forget why we went there.  Relax, we’re not losing our memory; we were never fully engaged in the first place.

While we like to think we can multi-task, there are a number of recent studies showing that we actually suck at it.  Our brains just don’t work that way and things go sideways.  But, we continue to try at our own peril.

To get the most out of an experience, keep our shins intact, and actually complete a project that doesn’t need to be redone due to errors, we need to be there completely.  Or, at least the greater majority of our brain does.

We should never do karate guess-so, which is why we need to center ourselves.  At the beginning of Hapkido class, before physical warm-up, we practice Ki breathing.  Ki, in Korean or Japanese, is like Qi or Chi in Chinese.  Hapkido, Aikido, Qigong, Tai Chi.  Ki is the universal energy that binds all things.  It is our life force; our breath.  In yoga, it is Prana.  And pranayama is the controlling of the breath.

At the beginning of yoga class, we take a few minutes to center ourselves by focusing on our breath.  It switches our brain from the strobe-light effect to just on, while getting our brain ready for the practice to come.

To balance on one foot or to hold a twisted pose takes concentration, effort, and attentiveness; complete presence in the here and now.  These poses (asana), along with controlled breath, brings the mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical aspects of our being into a state of harmony.

When performing Ye Ma Fen Zong in Tai Chi, Osotogari in Hapkido, Vrikasana in yoga, or the infamous crane technique in Miyagido Karate, that physical task demands our full mental focus.  This brings a stillness to the mind, allowing our consciousness to expand and access a higher state of awareness.  Strength, flexibility, and other health benefits come as byproducts of the practice.  Bonus!

Wait: A higher state of awareness?  Expanding our consciousness?  Am I getting smarter?  Uh …

Does it always work?  No.  “What was that move John Wick did to that guy?”  “What are we doing this weekend?”  “Ooh, frozen yogurt sounds good.”  And … it goes on.  This happens in martial arts as well.  It happens in basketball, driving down the highway, and playing poker.  “Why did I go all in with a Jack-Seven off-suit?!”  Well, at least now you’re out of the game, giving you freedom to think about that crap you were thinking about when poker was getting in the way, right?  Jack-Seven off-suit gets you squished, like grape.

Guess-so is okay, when its okay.  But when life matters, let’s not be so guess-so about it.  Squished grapes aren’t bad either.  I like a nice red blend.

Photo by Tianshu Liu on Unsplash

An Absolute Doorway to the Soul

“The cold is an absolute doorway to the soul.” – Wim Hof, The Ice Man

I’ve run four Tough Mudders and five other obstacle course races.  Why do people do this?  Everyone has their reasons, but for me, when I’m in the freezing ice-water, crawling through claustrophobic pipes half filled with water, jumping off platforms into more cold water, crawling through mud, getting electrocuted, and pushing my brain and body through 12 miles of that shit, it’s a vacation!  A vacation from the mundane and the rigmarole of distraction throughout our daily lives.  The chatter, the multi-tasking, the dishes, dinner, laundry, phone, news, work, the lawn, traffic, and wait … what’s for lunch?  All that goes away and you’re there, completely engaged with the universe.

I’ve trained and worked with MMA fighters and many will say this about being in the octagon: When you’re in there, everything else goes away. It’s not office politics or life drama.  For that short period of time, you’re there; completely.  All that outside noise is gone.  It’s liberating and refreshing.

As for training with Wim Hof, it’s not something I’ve done.  Not yet.  Maybe not at all; I haven’t made up my mind.  I’ve read his books and follow the method on his website.  I love the breathing and concentration part.  I hate the freezing cold water part.  So, we’ll see.  But as he says, when you’re in that cold water, all you can focus on is survival.  Your mind, body, and soul are all engaged in the same place and it’s an amazing thing to experience.

So, if we don’t want to get our face kicked in, get hypothermia in a lake near the north pole, or use our body as the bottom of a twenty-foot tall human ladder, while eating someone’s muddy Adidas, what can we do to get this same feeling?

Binge watch Game of Thrones?  Stranger Things?  Billions?  No, that’s not it.  But yes, watch these shows.  It’s not yoga, but not everything needs to be.  Sometimes it just feels good to see what The North is going to do next.

Run a 5k?  A half-marathon?  A whole marathon?  An ultra- … wait; no, just stop.  I’m not running that far.  Ever.  After two miles, my brain strobe-lights content due to the boredom.  I’m everywhere, but “there”.  Ugh, running sucks!  But, for those people who immerse into the run, it’s their yoga.  The breath, the rhythm, the trance.

The gym?  Yeah, because wearing earbuds with our face in a cell phone between sets, sitting on a machine, surrounded by TVs is total focus, right?  No.  But, there are some people who lose the world around them, during that squat and for them, that is their yoga.  The focus, the technique, the effort.

Yoga means union.  Union with the universe, where our brain, body, spirit and focus all come together as one with our environment.  Whatever our yoga is, it should be an absolute doorway to the soul.  For me, it’s yoga.

Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

 

A Gray Matter

Gray matter: “It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s (f)ears and the summit of his knowledge. You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind.”

Thank you, Rod Serling.

Our gray matter; as much as we know about it, is still kind of a mystery in how it actually works.  We could, almost verbatim, plug in our latest weird dream into a hit twilight zone episode.  It’s crazy what goes on in there.

Our brain is our CPU and as we age, it ages with us.  It takes longer to upload, download, and process information.  It’s slower to access the memory cache.  It gets sluggish, maybe a glitch here and there, and we forget why we walked into this room.  Where are my keys?

We used to think we couldn’t do anything to prevent this and thoughts about reversing damage was just as crazy as the fifth dimension.  As it turns out though, we can, through neuroplasticity.

Our brain has the ability to reorganize itself by forming new connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows the nerve cells in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or changes in their environment.  Our brains are malleable, like plastic.  And this plasticity can be improved.

Through neuroplasticity, undamaged axons grow new nerve endings to reconnect neurons whose links were damaged.  Basically, if the outlet on our wall is damaged, the television won’t function, so we reroute the power cord to another outlet that works and we’re able to watch Stranger Things.

While neuroplasticity is rewiring, neurogenesis is growth.  The production of our brain’s neurons is most active while we’re still in the womb, but we can still develop new neurons into adulthood.  Yeah; this is big.  Really big.

As we age, or get closer to our twilight years, our gray matter shrinks, but we can prevent it and maybe even increase it.  Wait … what?  How?  Movement.  Nutrition, sleep, and removing toxic substances such as aluminum all play important roles, but the star of this episode is movement.

Engaged, whole-body exercise.

By “engaged”, I mean mind and body together.  Yoga and many forms of martial arts produce incredible results, because we have to move our bodies through space in a specific way that requires concentration, mindfulness, and focus, as well as lots of breathing.  Social aspects and connectedness also play a big part.  Cortisol (stress hormone) causes significant damage, but engaged mind-body exercise regulates this problem.

Regular exercise is associated with increased size of the hippocampus (memory) and reversing volume loss.  It increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain and produces a greater release of accumulated toxins, while producing Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF), which increases neurogenesis.  We also improve angiogenesis, synaptogenesis, and the synthesis of neurotransmitters through exercise.

Anything else?  Yes.  Meditation.

Meditation can actually alter the physical structure of the brain.  According to researchers at Harvard, Yale, and MIT, meditation practice can promote cortical plasticity in adults in areas important for cognitive and emotional processing and overall well-being.

Neuroplasticity:  It will keep our gray matter from getting lost in the twilight zone.

Photo by Natalya Letunova on Unsplash