#martial arts

Saying ‘Yes’ and Unlocking New Worlds

on Nov 18, 2012

Washington DC, Montreal, the Catskills, Boston, Brazil, Killington, Boulder, the Adirondacks, Puerto Rico, and Moab. The past year has been filled with new experiences, travels, and adventure. But it was not by accident. It required stepping out of comfort zones and flipping upside-down the very way I approached life.

Brazil – this is where it starts. I made almost no plans for this trip. I’d be there with friends from my capoeira academy and would go along with whatever they did. I’d for long wanted to become comfortable with personal travel and experiencing things by just going with it. Until then, I’d been an intrepid planner and became easily unnerved when plans weren’t in detail or when they became unravelled. This trip was just what I needed. On the way there, I missed a connecting flight after landing in Sao Paulo and had rearrange my pickup (this required figuring out a complicated phone system by asking around for help in Portuguese). Upon meeting my friends in Bahia, they asked if I was interested in a capoeira workshop that night. Of course. They then said that its location was a little sketchy and that locals told them “don’t get shot” (it turned out fine). The rest of my time there required handling such uncertainties, especially given the nature of ‘Bahia time’, where things move at a relaxed pace.

Boston – my bus lands an hour or two late. I’d miss the first group roller blading event. A past me would have been upset at ruined plans. But hey, the weather was beautiful and there was a new city waiting to be explored on skates. I dropped off my bag with the event hotel concierge and made my own skating “event”. The ad-hoc planning was rather appropriate. I’d purchased my bus tickets just two days earlier (despite “planning” to attend this event well ahead of then) and would not figure out where I’d be sleeping until that night. There is a method to this madness – I call it just-in-time planning. There’s two parts: have a rough sense of options ahead of time and act on them at nearly the last possible moment. For example, I knew that I could reach Boston by train, bus, or car and didn’t really worry about which until the trip neared. Likewise, I figured I’d be able to stay with some skater friend (I’m fortunate to have many) who has extra space or a patch of floor, or at worst I’d just sleep outside. I asked around and it worked out. Better yet: the good skater friends I stayed with became great skater friends.

New York – this flexibility and spontaneity spreads into my typical weeks, making them not so typical. I used to be a real stickler about making my usual weekly events, like the groups skates or martial arts class. Doing so paid off handsomely with my skills flourishing but this limited new experiences. Another flip: I began to miss usual events to explore new activities, new places, new friendships, and often all of the above, and learned a great deal about life and myself. I still really hate to miss a capoeira class here and there, but I know it’s for opportunities of great personal growth in self and open mindedness.

Each experience lends to build future experiences. Saying yes to one thing that is out of one’s comfort zone makes it easier to say yes to other things. Knowing that you can splice together a plan at the last second removes worries about how things are turning out and lets you enjoy each moment at the moment. Flexibility leads to profound experiences as unexpected details fill themselves in.

P.S. I really missed writing these posts. I hope my absence in writing is understandable. It means a lot to me when friends tell me that they liked my last post or ask when they’ll see the next one. Life’s been full of surprises lately – I hope to have some more writings for you soon 😉

Avoid Illness by Making Your Body Resilient

on Dec 18, 2011

It’s that time of year again. No, not just the holidays, but the time where it seems that everyone is becoming sick. Perhaps you’re one of the lucky ones that’s not [yet] been afflicted. So you’re avoiding making contact with people with symptoms – telling that coughing coworker to stay at home to spare the rest of your team. And you’re not touching those infested subway poles. And you wash your hands all the time, just to be safe. I call this mindset the contagion model, where a person becomes sick if they’re exposed to agents that contain infectious bacteria or viruses – people and objects included. While there’s a lot of truth to this way of thinking, I feel we rely too much on it. The contagion model is rendered moot by the resilience model, where one can avoid illness altogether by strengthening and conditioning their bodies in various means. This seemingly impossible feat results from developing a strong immune system and a stress buffer. Thus, even if a resilient individual is exposed to infectious pathogens, her body is able to resist and ward off the potential illness.

Although I’m not a doctor, I’ve mixed together a slew of information, from microbiology to stress research, with self-experimentation and introspection to develop this model. Here’s the kicker – as of this writing, I haven’t been sick since December 2005. That’s 6 years! At worst, I’d feel like I have something coming down which slightly bothers me for a day, and then it’s gone. Now, because I only have a single data point – myself – it’s not entirely clear what factors are more prominent to building resilience. Still, I have a bunch of ideas that I consider to be significant factors.

The body is more likely to succumb to illness when it is placed under stress. So it’s important to keep oneself in tip-top shape by eating well, being very physically active, and getting plenty of sleep. I should note two important things I had done in 2005, when my illness-free streak began: I stopped drinking soda and I began serious martial arts training. My body has felt amazingly better since. Likewise, pursuing meaningful or enjoyable activities (in both work and play) and being social go a long way keep us unstressed and consequently stave off illness. If this perspective sounds familiar, it’s because this is core and time-tested health advice, not to mention a central point of this blog. I believe the way we live on a day-to-day basis most profoundly prevents sickness.

Shocks to the body are bad – like going from the toasty indoors to the freezing winter outside – so it’s helpful to acclimate oneself to the new season. Every Fall the past few years, I’ve gradually exposed myself to the colder outside temperatures. I tend to keep the indoor temperature on the low side, like in the 60s. And participating in outdoor physical activities, like roller blading, means putting up with moderately unpleasant cold temperatures as the season carries on. By the time the days get nastily cold, my body has a new set point and tolerance – I never have to feel the intense blast of cold in the dead of winter because my body is already used to the moderate cold. Reducing the cold imbalances in the season means reducing the chance of a cold in your system.

We should embrace germs instead of fearing them. I’m vehemently against the common use of antibacterial soap and hand sanitizers. Here’s why: not all bacteria are bad and we humans have evolved to coexist with many bacteria in mutually beneficial ways. There’s a trillion bacteria on our skin surface and most of them are either beneficial or don’t cause harm. The actual benefit is very interesting, because these typical skin bacteria often prevent the pathogenic bacteria from taking hold on the skin surface. Let this sink in – the bacteria that normally reside on our skin surface essentially give us a force field that protects us from infectious pathogens. Now what happens when we use antibacterial soap or hand sanitizers that kill off everything? The skin becomes a clean slate and an open invitation to all bacteria – good and bad. Think about this the next time you go for the antibacterial product.

The immune system is like a muscle. It requires a consistent workout to maintain its strength. Like an atrophied bicep that can barely lift a thing, a coddled immune system offers little protection when it’s called to action. Our bodies are designed to be exposed to the elements. A minor infection here or there gives the immune system practice and information. It helps us develop immunity and preps our bodies for the big game when flu season comes around. Hence, we shouldn’t be afraid to get a little dirty sometimes.

As I mentioned, these are a few ideas that have come from a lot of experimenting and consideration of the way the human body works. I understand that it may be a bit unconventional, or perhaps blasphemous. But at the very least, I know that something is working. It’d be nice to have some more data points. Have a healthy and resilient winter!

How I Make the Most of My Hours and Live an Awesome Life

on Nov 6, 2011

Note: I understand that as a young adult with no major family responsibilities, I have quite a bit more time than others, so this post is geared more towards my peers. Still, for those looking to make the most of their hours and also juggle family responsibilities, check out 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think

I like to think that I live an interesting life. My days are spent doing challenging work at my full time job. My nights are filled with physical activities that include roller blading, martial arts, and indoor rock climbing. Plus there’s the non-fiction books I finish every couple of weeks, the blog posts I write, and other less frequent adventures such as mountain biking. All without cutting back on necessities like sleep and seeing friends. When I tell new friends or coworkers about the life I lead, they often ask me how I have the time to do all this. The answer is: I make time. I fill every minute with stuff that matters and cut out the things that don’t.

Let’s start with a few things going for me:
I’m young and free of major family responsibilities – this is also the case for many of my peers
My job has a very flexible work schedule, and I eat 2 meals a day there
I live in the same house as my parents and have a mom that loves to cook

One major thing I don’t have going for me:
I have a very long commute – it would be close to 90 minutes to 2 hours by conventional means, but after 9 months of experimenting, I’ve got it down to about 75 minutes each way, which is still a lot.

Because I’m fortunate enough to have some very flexible work hours I typically wake up at around 8:30 or 9:00am. Now this “sleeping-in” might not sound like the most efficient start, but it’s necessary because I usually get home around midnight. I make sure to have breakfast – and then begins the commute.

In part one of my commute, I drive halfway across Queens, which is about 15-20 minutes each way (because I leave late enough, I don’t hit traffic and I can find parking without much trouble). Still I don’t let this time go to waste – I listen to audiobooks while driving. I’m presently listening to one on Portuguese survival phrases – I’m visiting Brazil soon. But previously, I was listening to a book about the balance between rules and wisdom in our institutions. I already have some podcasts lined up for future drives.

The second part of the commute is the subway ride, which is about 40 minutes each way. Here, I often read non-fiction books (the topics range from social science to business to self improvement). But I also keep my app phone synced with TED Talks and long articles or essays.

I arrive at work at around 11:00am but stick around until nearly 8:00pm to get stuff done (sometimes I don’t get as much done as I’d like and I’ll let it overflow to a weekend with spare time – it all evens out eventually).

Next comes the fun evening activity. Depending on the night of the week, it’s either roller blading (10-30 miles around the city), capoeira, indoor rock climbing, or karate. I get home somewhere between 11pm and 1am, which allows me just enough time to have something to eat and get a decent amount of sleep.

Weekends are for all the things I’m usually unable to cover during the week. This means seeing family and friends, doing cleanup and laundry, replying to personal emails (which includes looking through articles and videos sent by friends). Weekends also serve for more special activities, from going out on mountain biking trips to writing these blog posts (I typically draft several of these articles at a time when my mind is feeling the zen of writing). Oh, and there’s an awesome capoeira class every Saturday night. Weekends also serve as sort of an overflow buffer. Since I’m running on the margins during the weekdays, I’ll sometimes have a little bit of sleep to catch up on or maybe a project at work that I obsessed with finishing since it’s ready in my head.

It’s important to note that I’ve cut out some less than fully satisfying activities from my life. I don’t watch TV or play video games. For many years of my life, I was obsessed with both of these (in the case of the latter, it was practically my life). It’s not that I actively stopped either of these things. Rather, they just got pushed off the table as I became engaged in more and more interesting and fulfilling activities. Fortunately, it was a rather painless process. There are many timesinks in our media-centric culture – it’s essential to understand their pervasive opportunity cost.

Putting in the time to take care of oneself pays off in spades to avoid disasters and the resulting anguish and time loss. For example, I make sure to get plenty of sleep. The kinds of challenges I have at work are pretty mentally demanding so the day is a wash if my brain isn’t up to the task. Likewise, my body needs to recover to be ready to handle the next day’s physical activities – not getting enough sleep puts me at risk for injury. Likewise, by eating well, being physically active, and keeping social, I stave off illness (at the time of this writing, it’s been about 6 years since the last time I got properly sick).

It’s not my intention to gloat or show off with what I’ve said here (ok, maybe a little bit of the latter). I just want to point out that our daily or weekly lives can be full of all sorts of fun, productivity, healthfulness, and meaning. I grow disappointed when I hear someone say that they don’t have the time to read this book or try that new activity, or even worse, not take care of themselves. The true disappointment, however, is on the individual, because he or she will miss out on living an extraordinary life that spans into the everyday. Make the time, be awesome!

The Fountain of Youth

on Apr 14, 2011

Are you looking for the fountain of youth? Do you wish to remain young through the years or perhaps turn back the clock on your body? The fountain of youth does indeed exist and I’ve met quite a few folks that have found it. Their secret is in fact not a secret at all. It’s the same advice that’s been around for ages – be very physically active, enjoy every part of life while having the spirit of a child, and have an open mind along with a sense of curiosity.

Consider a couple of the masters from my karate school, both around age 60. One of them enjoys sparring. But he’ll only have it one way – traditional full-contact stand-up. He’s started up a weekly fighting class recently. It’s outrageous that he’s always on the giving end, nearly knocking out advanced students two decades younger than him. The other master is the head of the school. It’s incredible to watch him demonstrate technique – the speed is boggling. Once, the parent of one of my karate students said “he looks pretty good. How old is he now, 40?” Needless to say, this parent was floored when I revealed a more accurate number. While these examples are of individuals practicing for decades, I once came across a 70 year old karate student in training. He had a very youthful nature about him as he enjoys riding his bike and push scooter around the city. More striking was what he told me: that though he seemed closer to his age during the day, he felt like a 20 year old at night when doing his physical activities.

It’s an interesting phenomenon – one I call the “Yoda effect,” named after Yoda’s fight sequence in Star Wars Ep. II (he walked in slowly with a cane, then in the battle he flipped and flew all over the place with grace and agility, only to walk slowly with the cane afterwards). And it’s one I’ve experienced myself – sometimes my entire body will be sore from some crazy training, and yet I can get it un-sore temporarily – by doing more physical activity. Still, the effect is starting to see in others because it seems to visibly remove years off their lives. I often cannot guess the age, even to the nearest decade, of many folks I meet in capoeira (a Brazilian martial art with much playfulness to it), especially female practitioners. They all seem so much younger than their chronological age. The disparity becomes obvious when I see these friends in another context, like when out socializing, where the additional years are no longer masked.

Just as we’re blessed with this fountain of youth, we’re cursed when we ignore its rules. Many people shun their innate child-like nature, thinking that this will make them more mature or responsible (oh how wrong they are). Likewise, these “adults” are too busy to engage in hours of physical activity. The consequence is scary – I know many people close to my age that seem so much older. They complain about their jobs and how tired they always are, and how they’re getting old. The body follows the mind in either case, and in this case, they’re putting their bodies on fast-forward. It’s a situation that deeply upsets me – young people who seem to have their spirits broken.

Still, I keep finding individuals, typically older than me (sometimes by a lot) that are full of life and energy. One good friend joined me and my superhuman friend, Ryan, on a dream week – hiking 50 miles of the major trails in Yosemite, followed by 100 miles of street skating in NYC. To put some perspective, this friend decided to go to law school in his 50s, and is already certified in two states. For the most part, he enjoys spending time with us young-ins, as he finds more common ground with us than with people closer to his age.

The list goes on: one friend, always with a smile on her face, that was doing an extended post-doc in biology after completing a PhD – she’s rock climbing in Spain. Another friend, hiked up Mount Whitney (tallest peak in the continental US) last year. She exhumes the personality and energy of a 4-year old as she yells “WOO HOO” before dropping into a double black-diamond ski trail. Yet she listens intently when others share their pearls of wisdom from life. And then there’s a regular on the weekly 20 mile skating event that started canoeing in the Hudson River last year. Note that she’s married and has kids that are close to my age. But she’s also full of childlike wonder and joy. And how about another skater friend that’s taking trapeze lessons despite a fear of heights…

Some takeaways to live young throughout life: Enjoy every part of life. Always smile at what you’re doing. Do physical activities – lots of different ones. Be open to trying and learning new things. Live as if you’re young – like a child. Your body will believe it. As for your aging friends, they’ll be the ones in disbelief.

The Adapting Magic of Our Muscles

on Oct 25, 2010

What’s easier to climb up: 100 feet of stairs or 50 feet of a gradual incline? For most people, it’d be the latter, but as I learned firsthand in a recent hiking trip, our bodies can adapt in strange ways through regular training.

A few months ago, a couple of friends and I went on several challenging day hikes in Yosemite National Park. The first day was a hike between Cherry Lake and the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which involved moderate elevation gain through gradual slopes. Still, my legs were feeling wiped out on the return hike. And this hike was supposed to be the warm up since the following days would feature significantly greater elevation gains.

The second day was the hike up to Half Dome and it began with gradual inclines. My legs were already feeling it. Shortly after, upon reaching the Vernal Fall, we were faced with a whole lot of stairs carved into the stone (that explained how we’d be covering so much elevation). As I walked up the stairs, I noticed something strange – it was eerily easy. And that I wasn’t walking up the steps – rather, I was running up 2 steps at a time. Was it that my legs were warmed up or was there something more going on? Perhaps it had something to do with the way my legs were shaped from my everyday physical activity (inline skating and two forms of martial arts).

The third day was more grueling as we hiked up to the Upper Yosemite Fall and across to El Capitan, where some portions of the trail have alternating segments of inclines and stairs. At this point, my legs were pretty worn out from the previous days of hiking. Upon coming across inclines, I slowly struggled my way up with my legs in pain. Then as the trail switched to stairs, I was sprinting with all the energy in the world. That is, until I the trail became a slope once again.

My suspicions were confirmed: my legs were clearly faring very well on steeper segments, such as stairs, and badly on less steep slopes. In essence, the steeper portions require a hiker to bend the knee more and use a full motion of the leg. This was a very familiar motion for me, because in my skating technique and my martial arts forms I get into a low stance and use my entire leg for the technique at hand. My legs were not only used to this motion, but were quite efficient at it from years of training. The less steep slopes, however, require the hiker to use just a small portion of their legs, and this motion is typically easier. This was certainly the case for one of the friends I was hiking with. He was fine on the gradual inclines, but the stairs proved to be challenging (and I surmise that this is the case for most people). Yet for me, the situation was drastically reversed. My body had been transformed from years of training to provide efficiency in very different circumstances.

The big takeaway from this experience is that our bodies are very good at adapting to specific circumstances. It was obvious from my experience that my muscles had become very efficient in motions generally considered difficult. And vice versa – that my body was less efficient at smaller movements that most people find comfortable. It’s certainly something to think about when training oneself and in facing physical challenges. What style of activity are you training? What is your body becoming naturally better at? In some ways we may be able to face seemingly difficult challenges with ease and, in my case, be humbled by challenges we’re not accustomed to.

What Does Your Brain Think In? Words? Pictures? Motions?

on May 3, 2010

In an earlier post, I discussed how there appeared to be a tradeoff between social skills and other abilities, and how this was a consequence of people having different kinds of minds, as Temple Grandin described in her TED talk. Temple also discusses how people differ in the internal mechanism by which they process and understand the world. For her own self, she described how she thought in pictures and how that gave her the ability run like virtual simulation models in her head. While these were some pretty extraordinary capabilities, she experienced tradeoffs – for example, she was terrible at algebra, a more abstract discipline.

At the same time, we see that some people think more verbally (in fact, there was strong myth that language was essential for complex thought – the myth led to prejudice of deaf people). These people are probably very good at expressing themselves and communicating in general. They may very well be the more social (and perhaps less geeky) type.

Coming back to thinking in ways beyond language: consider non-human animals. They most certainly don’t think in words, but they have their own extraordinary capabilities. Temple Grandin gives an example of the dog sniffing the fire hydrant – he knows who was there, when, and what to make of that information. Or consider a cheetah running across the plains at 60mph, amazingly avoiding rocks and controlling movement masterfully.

For many years, I’ve deeply thought about the way my own mind processes the world. I know for sure that I don’t quite think in words. It’s as if my mind interprets things in some higher-level manner and puts together a model like a puzzle. While this means I have a really powerful and deep way to understand things, I’m left with great difficulty to explain what’s on my mind. I can’t easily put the model or thoughts into words.

This thinking style – modeling – might give clues to a connection with cheetah example. Friends know me as being outrageous when it comes to physical activity. [I don’t mean to gloat but] I’m considered an incredible inline skater and fantastic martial artist. Fellow skaters and and martial artists are impressed with the technical sophistication behind my activity. They say that I make it look so simple and easy, though they understand the sheer complexity behind my abilities. This is very much the same skillfulness of a non-human animals’ physical prowess. Interestingly enough, when I’m learning a new martial arts technique or sequence, I need to build a mental model before trying it out. If I don’t have this opportunity (it does take a bit more time), I fail terribly at executing the move. However, if I can put it together in my head, it comes out beautifully.

Is my style of processing the world, seemingly by feel, its own category; something more kinesthetic? Or is it just another manner of visual thinking as Temple Grandin discusses? I’m inclined to think it’s more a form of the latter since visual thinking also entails motion. Either way, I know what my advantage is so I leverage that to learn better. I avoid getting frustrated in the beginning because I understand the need to get a model down.

This virtual modeling thinking works beyond physical activity. It is in a way an engineering mind because it allows one to build something mentally before building it for real. This could account for my infatuation of creating things, between computer programs to theories of human behavior. As great as this is, it does come with tradeoffs, often involving communication or social skills. It’s important to understand that no mind can have it all. Acknowledge the weaknesses and manage them. More on that in a future post.

There’s still so much to ponder regarding the mechanisms by which our minds work. Still, it seems things are becoming clearer and are mapping onto the real world. The unique abilities of different minds are a strong asset when working together.

Make Physical Activity Social

on Mar 9, 2010

Doing physical activity can be immensely more enjoyable in the company of others. We humans are social creatures and are built to respond strongly to social influence. Why not use it to our benefit? A recent NYT article discussed how many people have leveraged this fact so strongly that the prime motivating factor is the social event, and that the exercise itself is a secondary benefit. Hey, it works! And as I’ve stated before, it makes exercise seem less like a chore and more like a fun activity. You’ll certainly train better and be more committed, not to mention have others call you out on when you’re not.

There’s plenty of ways to go about this. Going to the gym with friends or significant others works well. Being part of a team sport is another. Or how about joining a grouped activity, like running, cycling, or inline skating (pictured above and among my favorites)? Martial arts is an exceptional one. Students push each other and help keep their energy up even as the training gets tougher.

There’s plenty of other activities. What’s your favorite and what tips do you have to get involved in social physical activity?