Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Bouldering movements

I have been watching IFSC bouldering world cups on Youtube lately. I am very happy to discover this spectator sport. It is super exciting to watch, actually. This takes place in several cities in Asia, Europe, and North America each year. It is not televised, but is live streamed and can be played back later on Youtube. There is a qualifying round, a semi-final, and the final, where only the top 6 male and 6 female athletes are given 4 minutes to solve a boulder problem (4 boulder problems total).

Just what is a boulder problem? For competition climbing, it is a bunch of plastic handholds and footholds that one has to move through ("solve the sequence") to get to the top hold.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7HgkRwiNQQs

In this video you see many athletes not being able to complete the problem at all, and the last guy completing the sequence, thus winning the competition.

What the video edited out is his previous 6 attempts, which is what I have enjoyed watching in the live stream version. In the first attempt an athlete often fails at an early stage. With each attempt the athlete "learns" the movements with his or her body, and gains some muscle memory. A good athlete usually improves with each attempt. If one doesn't run out of energy or time, one can often solve the problem within 4 minutes. A tall person often has reach advantage, but a short person can have better control of the centre of gravity and has better control of the body for explosive power movements. I just love to see the 4 minute progression where these world class athletes can go from totally failing to mastering a particular boulder problem.

I normally enjoy watching Youtuber climbers ranging from pretty good to really awesome monkeying around in their home gyms. But right after watching a World cup, where 22 year olds dominate the podium, the Youtuber climbers' movements seem somewhat sluggish. I guess right after watching Usain Bolt win a race, your friend who just won the local sprinting competition would look a bit slow too.

Does watching athlete boulder help with my own bouldering progress? Well, my progressions has been as follows:

Stage 1: Not able to do anything except what looks like a straight ladder climb on the wall (with big juggy hand and footholds).

Stage 2: Trying V1/5 climbs that require some shift in body weights. Not able to read routes at all. My hands would hurt after holding my body on the wall for >3 seconds so I would come off the wall right after starting a route.

Stage 3: Being able to shift my body weight a bit more so I could do the V1/5s.

Stage 4: Hands getting a bit stronger so I could get on the wall, stay there a bit while looking for the next hand/foothold.

Stage 5: Get on a boulder, imagine what a world class athlete would do for the next step (some power jump move to the next handhold), and then not strong enough to do it myself.

So I went from not knowing how to solve boulder problems to mentally knowing what to do but physically not able to do it. Believe it or not, this is a major improvement. Climbing is always both physical and mental.

By the way I just moved to another city (yet again). The boulder problems here are quite a different style than in my previous gym. I was doing 6A+s/V3/V4s. But now apparently V3s are out of reach for me here because they put dynos in (jump to the next hand holds... I am unable to jump while on a wall right now). So I will work on my balances and core strengthening (on the wall, not working out at a gym), hoping by the end of the year I will see some improvements.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

On writing, idea generation, and mental models

Today I came across Sam Harris's podcast with Shane Parrish about mental models. It's is also available in podcast format. This is a topic I am super interested in.

I'm sure my blog comes across as very scatterbrained. The thing is, I am trying to work on my writing. My writing skills has never been really good. When I was in Asia, the focus was on getting kids to produce standard essays. When I was about to start school, my mother bought me a set of books which contained standard essays written by children aged 6-10. Since I had amazing memory when I was a kid, I internalized the essays quickly. I then found out the teachers at school gave out essay assignments with the exact same topics as the ones in these books, so I just wrote my essays based on these internalized templates and got top marks. This practice was one of the single most horrific thing that was really detrimental to my creativity (if I had any creativity to begin with).

When I moved to North America, for unknown reasons I found it much more difficult to learn English well enough to write fluently. I actually majored in biology because the major only required me to regurgitate what I learned from lecture notes and textbooks and involved minimal essay writing. It took me until grad school with lots of practice on rewriting the same project proposal into many different lengths and formats (proposal, abstract summary, longer summary, Ph.D. thesis summary) to be able to become a little bit better at the generation writing that's somewhat coherent.

While the purpose of my blog is to practice writing, I have difficulties to focus on a single topic. Initially I did manage to focus on writing about yoga-related topics. I quickly found out I could only generate a blog post was right after a practice. A physical practice gives me a lot of experiential data that make me want to express in writing form. Since I have been doing more climbing than yoga, the blog has shifted into writing about climbing.

The act of meditation also generates ideas for me to write about. The practice allows me to realize the stuff that I ruminate about (eg. relationship issues with mother etc.), but it also gives space for more interesting (more rare) ideas to pop up in my head that warrants further expansion in writing form.

So what does this have to do with mental models?

I have known for sometime that how I think and operate is quite different from how majority of people think. This gives me great disadvantage at work and in relationships because of mismatched expectations and roadmaps to goals.

The podcast mentioned that while we would like to think we are rational beings, humans are deep down, ego-based thinking beings who make a ton of cognitive biases while making decisions. It doesn't matter how smart you are. Actually, the smarter you are, the more creative you are at coming up with convincing justifications of how you arrived at your (likely irrational) decisions. This is how most people operate. However, since I was brought up to follow templates and defer to teachers and elders, I have a bad habit of not taking responsibility for my decisions. I generate work, then I give my results to my boss, letting them judge the quality. Normal people would generate results, then defend the quality of their results when presenting it to the boss. Without the step of taking responsibility and defending/promoting my work, people don't think highly of it. My problem was that I assumed that all bosses knew better than I did and could make better decisions than I could. This is of course not true, and has been the source of my misery for many years of my life, since my work on its own, is not strong enough to speak for itself. I was also disappointed at the decision making processes I observed at the managerial and institutional levels. I was expecting people in charge of important positions to be responsible, rational thinkers who can take everything into account and can make the best decisions that can benefit everybody. Instead, the ones who get promoted to the highest positions are the ones who care the least about excellence, can speak in a way that makes the organization sound amazing and inspirational, and are best at doing incremental changes while maintain the status quo.

If I would like to get a few ideas out of my head into the world in interpretable form, I need to focus better, lower my expectations, and in the mean time continue to understand better my mental models and how it can fit better with other mental models in the world.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Soreness in the body from climbing

Climbing is an intense sport. The muscle soreness is so extreme I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night needing to stretch it out. It feels like the fascia is trembling and releasing energy sometime... it's a strange feeling.

The soreness occurs in different body parts every time: most often in the lower back (my core is still weak), the neck, the shoulders (different parts), the trapezius, the obliques, the biceps occasionally, the forearms, the wrists, the calves, the derrières, and the ankles sometimes.

The skin in the hands are usually pretty tortures. Calluses build up at the base of the fingers as well as in the lower 2 finger pads of each finger.

It is never the whole body at once, and usually one side is a lot more sore than the other side, which means this is a very uneven activity.

Today, while I was attempting to pull myself up while clenching hard on bad handholds while the body was in a funny position, I could feel weird pinching sensations in the shoulders, either in the nerves or in the tendon/ligament. Before I actually hurt myself I decided to take it easy. I went upstairs to the gym to lift some dumb bell weights instead to try to even out the force exerted on my shoulders (because the climbing movement was very asymmetrical, applying uneven forces on each  shoulder while the body was twisted). That felt like a good call at the time. We'll see how I feel tomorrow.

It seems like I really need to train my muscles antagonistic to my climbing (pulling) muscles. This feels like a lot of work for me :P . I can only do like 5 full push ups right now (with a lot of struggles to do the last one). I always feel like I need to stretch, but I'm not sure exactly which poses provide the most needed stretches. I'm usually sore for days after a climbing session.

I keep waiting for my body to get stronger so I will hopefully become less sore, but maybe that's wishful thinking. I think my core has improved somewhat, so the lower back soreness has been less severe than before. I have been climbing at the same level for awhile now, and will probably stay at this level for a least several more months. Hopefully the soreness will become less intense after awhile. 

Friday, April 26, 2019

Climbing and yoga for someone with mild hypermobility tendencies

When I warm up on the indoor climbing wall, climbing simple ladder-like structures, I always get a pretty intense feeling in the shoulders. I don't know if it's blood rushing to the area or if it's fascia slowly adapting to my body weight. I feel a stretch all along my side bodies. I try to hang a bit, let my body weight pull open up and warm up my side body. I can do that a bit with my back body as well, rounding my spine a bit to stretch the muscles and the fascia. I can actually simulate the feeling of stretching (not the intensity though) by simply reaching one arm above my head towards the ceiling.

I asked my boyfriend if he also got this intense feeling of stretching when he warms up on the wall, and he said no. The difference between us is that I have to warm up on very simple routes with next to no strains on my muscles; otherwise the first climb would feel extremely difficult. He on the other hand, already wants some difficulty in his warm up climb. It's like his muscles crave stress already while cold, and my muscles are not capable of fully engaging before the fascia are ready. After some stretching and warm up, then I can start to climb harder stuff -- routes that require more muscular activation.

When I practice yoga, there are a lot of moves where everyone else feel a lot: for example my boyfriend feels a lot in any asana that contains a spinal twist, whereas I barely feel anything in twists. In fact, I hate the lying down mild twists at the cool down phase of many yoga classes. I don't feel a stretching sensation at all along the body. I just feel like my vertebrae are crunched and I'm probably overstraining my connective tissues.

I was looking up hypermobility and climbing, and people describe pulley injuries in the hands. I guess I haven't reached high enough difficulty to strain my hands so much to start getting those injuries. My fingers also don't contort into the shapes that I see in the images I google online, so my hypermobility is not severe. I am also too chicken to dare to try as hard as many guys at the gym seem to do. The list below are typical characteristics for joint hypermobility syndrome (JHS), and how I match to these symptoms:

  • pain and stiffness in the joints and muscles [sometimes]
  • clicking joints [yes]
  • joints that dislocate (come out of the correct position) easily . [luckily no]
  • fatigue (extreme tiredness) [yes]
  • recurrent injuries – such as sprains [luckily no]
  • digestive problems – such as constipation and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)  [sort of]
  • dizziness and fainting [dizziness yes, fainting no]
  • thin or stretchy skin [no.... I think]
There was another list of symptoms that JHS can cause, many of which overlap with the above list. But there are some additional symptoms that I do experience:

  • back and neck pain 
  • night pains [not really a pain in my case; more like soreness and erratic energy currents flowing through the muscle/fasciae that I overworked during the day's climbing session] 
The fact that I need to strengthen my muscles to protect my joint is the obvious one. Given that I haven't severely injured my body that much given my age, I am probably too careful and never push my body to its limits, which is maybe a good thing for my body. I have a tendency to want to compare myself to others, but given my body composition is so different compared to most people I know, I really shouldn't do it. Currently, my boyfriend notices novel muscular definitions on his body pretty much every week, whereas I only notice muscle tone progressions on a monthly basis. He does not get neck pains nor does he wake up in the night from soreness.

The website suggests that people with JHS should stick to low-impact exercises. Currently I don't feel like climbing is overstraining my joints. I really like how the activity improves my muscle tones. I don't love the imbalance I feel after each climbing session. I have tried doing online yoga classes on my rest days, but felt like it was not a good idea to follow a led class. Instead I should try to stretch and try different asanas on my own, be more mindful how each asana feels in the body, and back off on the asanas that really irritate the specific overworked muscle groups. It is not that easy. For example, back bends feel great after climbing, since climbing involves some haunch forward-type movements. However, urdhva dhanurasana (upward bow pose) can feel great and horrible at the same time). It provides much needed stretches for some parts of the body, but the shoulders and back muscles can feel really overworked. I probably should find some alternative backbends that can accomplish the deep stretching that I crave but not put so much strain on the back muscles.

There is also this electric current issue that is not really addressed by western physiology, not well defined by yoga teachings (in the west), and too esoteric for me to understand in Chinese energy exercise teachings. I really hope that one day I can find a teacher with minimal BS, who has sound knowledge of the body's energy system, who doesn't try to sound like he/she is superior to other people, and who doesn't try to put students down. This energy system is linked to the connective tissues, to mood, to how tired or energized I feel, to the mind, and to the physical health of the body of course. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Yoga vs. Chinese energy practices

I felt triggered by an article written on Facebook by a Chinese osteopath master, shared by my cousin. He mentioned he is a practitioner of several Chinese kung fu / taichi / qigong practices, and he has treated many Chinese yoga teachers who got injured from over-stretching in yoga. He asked some of his yoga teacher patients why they hurt themselves over-stretching, and the yoga teachers replied that when they saw that some of their students could do certain asanas better than they can, they felt the pressure to "keep up with the students".  He explicitly declared he didn't know so much about yoga, but he felt that it is a dangerous practice, because the emphasis of the current yoga teachings seem to be on pushing students to get into the pretzel asanas whether their bodies are ready or not.

The osteopath went in-depth talking about the tendon, ligament, and fascia system, noting that a lot of his yoga practitioner patients had some body parts that are loose, say: hips, or hamstrings, but the ends of the bodies, such as attachment around the hands and feet, were very tight. This is because the whole connected fascia system needs some tension, so when we over-loosen some parts, other parts of the body would tighten up to compensate.

He feels yoga is a very advanced study, but not all students should practice the same asanas, because different bodies have different needs. He is also concerned that the teachers don't adequately teach how people should breath in each asana, for example, breathing from the chest or breathing from the abdomen. He feels that people could serious hurt themselves if they breath wrongly while going into these advanced asanas.

What he says about the connective tissues is fine, and his advice that people should not push to their absolute edge when they do an asana is also fine. What I have a problem is that he says "yoga is very dangerous" based on his patients. I guess his addressing women who turn off their common sense and decide to push their bodies to an extreme in order to look like "advanced yoga teachers".  Shouldn't it be that "lack of common sense" is dangerous? If you are hypermobile, please focus on the strengthening rather than the stretching aspects of asana. Even better, add some other exercises to your life, such as long walks, jogging, resistance exercises (lifting weights etc) or even dancing.

Secondly, a large part of his article is focused on his theories about connective tissues. This section sounded very complicated. I am not really sure if it applies to everyone or just "bendy people". As far as I know, my fellow yogis who constantly complain they feel stiff, even a decade later when their flexibility in the area they work on (say, hamstrings or hips) has gradually improved, still claim they are stiff. Having overly lax connective tissues just doesn't seem to be a problem for people whose bodies do not have hypermobile tendencies.  Even when they overstretch and pull a muscle, it seems to be quite local. However, this article was shared by hundreds of this master's fans, many of which are yoga teachers. I guess it's not a problem to tell everyone to be more careful when practicing yoga, but I just feel like people without hypermobile tendencies should have trouble truly understanding what he wrote, since they have never felt like their bodies are "too loose" while tight near the muscle attachments. But it seems like he got a ton of comments saying "So true!!" "Such a well written article!" "I learned so much from this article!" It left me seriously scratching my head.

Regarding breathing, he made it sound super complicated. People's natural reaction when they do a new, uncomfortable pose, is to hold their breaths. Or they can only do very shallow chest breathing initially. I feel like this naturally protects the body so people don't push past their range of joint motion on their first attempt. The solution is simply to back off from the full posture, and try to breath more deeply. Interestingly, he mentioned something about how good breathing should work based on his qigong knowledge, which basically describes mula bandha. I think what he means by yoga being very advanced, is when one grasps how mula and the other bandhas work, combined with correct methods of breathing, the nadis, the fascia system will be fully activated. Now, I have felt electricity running through my body sometimes during and after yoga practice, but sometimes I don't. I know some people who don't really feel the electricity at all. I'm not sure about other yoga styles, but for Ashtanga, the closing postures are quite important for containing all these activated prana/chi energy, so his worries are taken care of by the ancient wisdom of yoga.

I guess my annoyance comes from the fact that the Chinese way of teaching energy work is that "the body is very dangerous! Only move it in the way I, as a master, tell you to do so, and don't you dare to play with your body or your breath on your own! You will hurt yourself!" The thing is, in the beginning, the students feel nothing, because as beginners, we are not moving or breathing in the "right" way that facilitate the chi flow. The teacher then goes on and on about how powerful the practice is. While it is true when the students eventually do it correctly, it is sort of untrue for the first months, or even years. What ends up happening is a ton of people bragging about all the miracles of  Chinese energy practices before actually experiencing anything real. For the beginners, the movements are so mild that they don't really get a work out for the muscles.

With yoga, initially people only experience the superficial stretching, and balancing, and muscular work.  The movements are more dramatic. I sincerely believe that while most people get a workout while others increase their range of motion, many never experience the deeper work on the subtle body, at least not consciously. To them, yoga is an exercise routine. As for those who are hyper-focused on the human-pretzel aspect of yoga and who end up screwing up their connective tissues, well, I can only say I hope they realize one day that hyper-flexibility certainly does not equal health. I wouldn't say "yoga is dangerous!!" For me, that warning implies that everyone should stop practicing yoga immediately.

To summarize, I guess I have a problem with the Chinese way of viewing health and life. The west generally promotes that exercising is healthy (based on many many scientific studies). Yes, there are people who over do it and need joint replacement surgeries much too early in their lives. As long as  these people enjoy what their bodies can accomplish in marathons, skiing, cycling etc, I think the purpose is justified. This thinking of "don't breath or move the wrong way or you will hurt yourself" applies to people without basic fitness. The idea of training baseline cardiovascular and muscular fitness is good for you is just not fundamental in the Chinese culture. You can build some chi in the dan-tien (diaphragm) area, and/or you can also just build some core muscles. Both protects the body. I wish that in addition to warning which exercises or movements can hurt people, these kung fu / qigong masters could also warn people the danger of inactivity, which can be just as bad for people. The masters also need to realize that some people will claim they understand and can access the chi, but they never actually get it. Getting people to sweat and increase their heart rates are much more straightforward way of promoting health.

Sorry this post is so longwinded and scattered. I have many thoughts on different aspects of this issue that I just need to write them out on a page before re-organizing them.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Spiritual Teachering

Recently I have been watching Youtube videos of a self-proclaimed spiritual teacher. Her teachings are essentially a combination of pop psychology, spiritual teachings from various traditions, some chakra stuff, some aura stuff, some quantum mysticism New Age stuff, some yoga teachings, etc. A lot of her teachings make sense to me, since she rehashes existing sound teachings. The way she reinterprets these existing psychological theories / spiritual teachings and comes up with her own examples illustrating the theories are very relatable to people, which makes her very popular.

The problem that she claims her knowledge comes from communicating with higher dimensional beings, rather than through reading many books and attending counselling sessions herself.

It seems like she has built quite a following and people will pay big money to go to her retreats and attend her workshops. Her audience would prefer to obtain knowledge from mystical beings rather than from science (psychological research) or  ancient (human) sages. Or maybe they know she learned from books rather than from clairvoyance, but they want the knowledge to be presented to them in an entertaining and charismatic manner. I guess it's human nature. I just worry that when people idolize a teacher, they do not question anything he or she says, and no one person knows everything, so people might take in teachings that may or may not be totally accurate.

The overabundance of real and false information today has made us more anxious than ever. We want uncomplicated answers to our anxiety. We want somebody to have the answers to our general problems. Problems with relationships, with our health, with our womanhood (or manhood), with love, with our careers, with family, with our finance. Those who are charismatic enough to claim they have answers to it all have potential to make significant financial gains.

I'm just wondering if it's better for a spiritual teacher to be honest about their lineage of teaching, or is it okay to mix and match different teachings, but claim it's from one source. Or is it okay to claim psychic abilities.

I have a desire for people to be more truthful, useful spiritual teachings or not, but maybe that's too much to ask for in this world. 

Friday, March 29, 2019

Noticing my habitual thinking patterns

Meditation really is a brain training exercise that is so useful for life, but can be difficult to understand the process. I guess without brain training, the mind is kind of on autopilot mode. I have always assumed that anxiety, fear, anger, and general helplessness are part of my nature.  Mean people make me anxious. Unfairness and injustice make me angry. Recently I have realized that external situations are not what make me helpless and angry. It is a habit of mine to react this way to most unfamiliar and/or uncomfortable situations. It is a form of learned helplessness.

I grew up observing my mother solving every issue at home. My dad is a hardworking man. However, he only feels responsible for bringing home the pay check and nothing else. He is what you would today diagnose as autistic: he has trouble expressing his feelings and opinions; he cannot have a conversation with you if he is not interested in the topic, which includes politics, some history/geography, and not much else. He has near photographic memory. He does not participate in decision making processes at home. My mom, being a housewife much less educated than my dad, has to make all the major decisions, such as buying and selling our home, raising children, etc. She learned to put on this very tough, confident, brave, authoritarian front while she made these decisions without much prior knowledge or understanding of the world. She did this to hide her anxiety and low self-esteem.

While this behaviour helped her survive her anxiety, it also gave me a lot of anxiety. Since her husband never participated the decision making process, of course there is no place for her child to get a say in the decisions that she made, even though I really wanted a say in which schools I should go to, interior decorations in our home, which extra-curricular activities I should participate in, etc. I felt my opinions didn't matter, no matter how much I complained. In fact, I got into this pattern of always acting out, complaining I didn't want to do the activities my mother had arranged, be it ballet, or tennis, or go to the schools my mother had picked. My mother would just shout me down, not allowing her authority as a mother to be questioned.  In the end, I would grumpily attend these activities, full of resentment. My mother would triumph that her authority was maintained, strongly believing that it was all for my good, and that I would thank her when I grew up.

My habit of resentment never stopped. I resented everything. Whatever didn't go my way, I would blame my mother. As a child, my mother always forced me to do things her way. She also never got me to stop resenting her. We would just shout at each other. So when I became an adult, when a teacher or a boss wanted me to do something I didn't want to do, I would bite the bullet and do it while secretly resenting them. A better alternative would be to express my thoughts and perhaps offer an alternative solution. But because I have had zero practice at this growing, I didn't even realize that this was a possibility until much later in life, but still now, I am not good at this.

It didn't help that in academia, professors get next to zero training in people management. To be honest, all of my bosses sucked at management. They are more reasonable than my mother, but they needed their students and staff to be good communicators and good at gently pushing back and offering solutions, which can be quite difficult for me to do, since I have always worked on complex topics using bleeding-edge technologies, where knowledge about the topic/issues can be lacking. I often felt tongue-tied, which my bosses would interpret as I knew nothing, when I was merely being overly cautious.

Recently I had to deal with a salesperson who made me feel helpless and that I did something wrong. But since this is not a boss-employee relationship, I realized that this is just my default way of feeling when I am in an uncomfortable situation with another human being. I have had neither training nor  practice taking charge of a situation among a group of people.

What does meditation have to do with any of this? Well, without meditation, I link my anxiety and meekness directly to the situation. With meditation, where I sit daily to observe ongoing thought patterns, breathing patterns and feelings in the body, I am able to put some space between me and these habitual patterns. These patterns are not fundamentally who I am. They are just habits.

I have always wished I could have better training from my mother or from school. Now that I am old enough, I realize most people, including my mother, are mostly in self-preservation mode, despite their claims that they want to do what's good for me or for everyone. I have to train myself to get mentally stronger and to reprogram my brain. Recognizing the habitual thinking patterns is a first step towards making changes.