Archives For February 2018

Since we first took part in a Fighting Monkey workshop I’ve been trying to find ways to explain both what Fighting Monkey is, and why I’m so drawn to their (Jozef & Linda’s) work.

Having recently returned from 4 days of their ‘Anatomy of Injury’ workshop, I’m wrestling with these challenges again. (Maybe I should stop trying to explain or understand, but that’s not my nature.) If I understood Jozef correctly, they don’t feel that ‘Anatomy of Injury”, along with ‘Earthquake Architecture’ & ‘Anatomy of Events’ are the appropriate descriptors of their workshops – instead he offered 3 stories/allegories to explain what the workshops are about. So, movement workshops that are best described not by “you will learn how to….”, “you will acquire the tools to…” etc. but instead described by, for example, the story of the wolf and the tiger (in the abridged form: what is the wolf, and can you metamorphose into a tiger?). Yes, you will have to attend yourself to have an inkling of how the story informs the work.

In fact, I think that my need to articulate the what and why of FM is a selfish endeavour – the effort of putting the experience into words may enhance my own understanding and therefore fuel my future practice. The trouble is, to quote FM: “We can never know. Our knowledge is unreliable.” (Actually, a more accurate quote is “We can never know our knowledge is unreliable” – a subtle difference that I take great glee in – but the full stop in the first version is what was intended, I believe). However, rather than interpreting this as “I will never know the what or why of Fighting Monkey”, this is more an invitation to embrace uncertainty, and to be open to new, fresh, conflicting information, or possibilities. Again, “We can never know” – certainty makes us vulnerable, in the same way that “Any great system creates great deficiencies” (another Jozef F quote).

So, in Fighting Monkey’s ‘movement situations’, we face uncertainty with every change of partner. More than the ‘rules’ of the game, the environment is created by the interaction, so the environment might change dramatically simply by changing your partner. We may be encouraged to be more soft in our movement, but everyone’s soft is different – and there’s no obvious gender divide in interpretations of ‘soft’.

Many of the movement situations that FM offer are exhilarating, there’s smiles and breathless laughs as we switch partners, but the deep learning, or deep enquiry often comes later, for me. Whereas, at first, I might come away from one partner feeling frustrated or bemused because they ‘haven’t understood the game’ – I’m as inclined to question my own approach to the situation as I am theirs. So instead of, or perhaps soon after thinking “what an idiot!” I’m wondering what it was/is about me/my approach that elicited their response. And this was not my own discovery, this is what Jozef taught me in our first FM encounter – “What does this situation teach you about you, about the way your respond to challenges, obstacles and the unexpected?” There might be benefits to my co-ordiantion, control, range of movement etc. but these are secondary to me understanding myself better. And understanding myself better is part of the journey to peeling off the layers of stuff acquired over a lifetime that get in the way of being my self. (Somehow ‘my self’ feels different from ‘myself’ – ‘myself’ might be me as I normally am, or normally present ‘me’ to the world, and ‘my self’ might be the real me that I don’t readily confront).

FM offers opportunities to ‘know thyself’ both emotionally/psychologically and physically. Their standing practice (‘Zero forms’) can be understood as an invitation to sense your own inner workings – to feel how you feel: the beat of your heart, the blood pulsing through vessels; the communication of your joints; the quality of your breath; the weight of your parts. While I suspect that they (Jozef & Linda) don’t share my enthusiasm for evolutionary biology as the lens to best view human biology with, I like the notion that this was once an innate human skill, in a time when we had to hunt, and survive without doctors and hospitals. At the very least I think this is a skill that I would do well to devote some time to cultivating.

While there may well be some less physical/visceral self-discovery within the standing practice, the movement situations and, particularly, the co-ordinations are places in which I feel that I learn the most about myself from a personality/emotional aspect. I love the challenge of FM Co-ordinations almost as much as I hate them. Of course I don’t really hate them, but they make me frustrated, and sometimes angry. And THERE is the learning: how do I handle myself when things are going badly, when I’m feeling incompetent? A year ago I would have been inclined to give up – ‘this is for the dancers’, ‘they’re going so fast I can’t even see the basic steps, so it’s pointless to try’ etc. While I still get very frustrated, I now recognise Co-ordinations as a river that I have to jump in (if I’m going to get anywhere). For the most part I’ll be looking like a man on the verge of drowning, arms flailing and legs thrashing helplessly. But there may be fleeting moments when it feels as though I can swim, more like a dog than a fish, but even dogs can look efficient in the water, if not graceful. The river does not stop flowing, but it’s a river of opportunities (I apologise if this is becoming too corny an analogy) and if you stay standing on the side they will all pass you by. Unlike a real river, nothing bad will happen when I’m flailing – this is a safe space for failing/falling/flailing. Instead, if I’m smart and patient enough I might learn something about confronting challenges in my personal or professional life. This is not about strength, or range of movement, or agility but rather it is about humility and a willingness to expose yourself in front of others – to be yourself (though, to be honest, they’re probably not watching because they’re too busy with similar struggles).

All of my musing was given a fresh perspective when I started reading ‘Tao Te Ching’ (at the first FM workshop we attended I was surprised to hear this was the only book recommendation Jozef gave when asked for further reading suggestions, but back then I obviously didn’t have a good grasp on the path that we’d started down).

Rushing into action, you fail.

Trying to grasp things, you lose them.

Forcing a project to completion, 

you ruin what was almost ripe.

Therefore the Master takes action

by letting things take their course.

He remains as calm

at the end as at the beginning.

He has nothing

thus has nothing to lose.

What he desires is non-desire;

what he learns is to unlearn.

He simply reminds people

of who they have always been.

Things are starting to make much more sense – if the ‘Tao Te Ching’ is The Book of the Way then a Fighting Monkey workshop might be the Collaborative Movement Practice of the Way. It might be, because I think it’s perfectly possible to participate in an FM workshop and miss or ignore the philosophical, esoteric elements, and just have a really good time exploring movement with a diverse mix of people. However, it occurs to me that, if you are interested and able to look below the surface, a Fighting Monkey workshop is like the door at the back of the wardrobe into Narnia (Jozef as Aslan, and Linda as the White Witch has its appeal as an image but isn’t accurate or just), entering a parallel world of light and dark, where all is not as it seems and, having been there, you will be changed forever.

 

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It’s not normal!

February 10, 2018 — Leave a comment

From Cirque de Soleil’s ‘Ovo’

One of my favourite Katy Bowman-isms is that ‘No-one is out of shape.’ All of us are in exactly the shape that our environment and our behaviour has led our system to create. Another idea that I find very useful is championed by Robb Wolf, author of ‘The Paleo Solution’ and ‘Wired to Eat’, namely that if you want to understand anything relating to the human body, you need to view it through the lens of evolutionary biology. An idea that I heard Dr Andreo Spina expand upon: homo sapiens evolved as hunter-gatherers. Our ancestors spent hundreds of thousands of years evolving according to the demands of hunter-gatherer existence. Our bodies are essentially the same as those of our h-g ancestors and, therefore, are wired to expect the same kind of activities/inputs. So, if you want to understand dysfunction, or function as well as possible, identify the things that you do that are NOT h-g activities, and find ways to mitigate the impact that those activities have on your function.

I have to admit to taking perverse delight, from time to time, in being told by someone I’m teaching that the movement I’m showing them is ‘not normal’, or even better, ‘not natural’. Mostly I enjoy this because it gives me an opportunity to explore, with the person I’m teaching, what they mean by normal, or natural.

It appears that we are very good at normalising dysfunction. For example, it’s normal that my back aches in the morning; or it’s normal that I always get indigestion, and have to take pills to control it; it’s normal that I can’t look over my shoulder when parking my car; it’s normal that I wear orthotics in my shoes to stop my ankle hurting etc. etc. In other words, ‘normal’ is used as a synonym for ‘usual’, or ‘habitual’ – much in the same way that ‘not natural’ is used instead of ‘not normal’ or ‘unusual’. I’m very used to hearing, when demonstrating scapular circling on all fours, for example, that it looks weird, it doesn’t look natural.

I was fortunate to see a Cirque de Soleil show recently, which included many moments of disbelief at what we were witnessing – definitely a lot of ‘not normal’ physical feats on display. This got me thinking about what the capacity of homo sapiens truly is, what are our natural attributes without the interference of industrialised/post-technological revolution culture, and the language and mindsets of limitation and fear. Perhaps the Cirque de Soleil artists ARE the ‘normal’ humans, doing things that we absolutely evolved to do, and I think it looks extraordinary because their skills are way beyond mine, just as me circling my scapulae around my ribcage seems to be beyond some of the people that I try to teach it to.

I know that if I don’t routinely express the full range of movement of a joint, the soft tissues and muscles around the joint will adapt to the reduced range that I am making use of. If I don’t fully lengthen and fully shorten a particular muscle, my nervous system will calibrate accordingly. My system’s perception of full range will now be less than my physiological full range (and, of course, my nervous system is in charge), so it will take considerable retraining to re-callibrate my system’s perception of full range to my actual full range.

A few years back, when I was regularly teaching an open level Pilates mat class, I began to realise that over months, and years, of accommodating what appeared to be the typical available ranges of movement of the group in the class, I was adapting exercises and movements to fit them. After perhaps two years of semi-consciously modifying movements it dawned on me that I was no longer teaching what I set out to teach but rather I was teaching, in some cases, a modification of a modification of a modification of the exercise. You might argue that, in adapting things to the ability of the attendees, I was being a responsible and inclusive teacher. However, I now look back and think that I was actually resetting ‘normal’ for most of those people. Instead of showing them the possibility of more, and helping them to achieve it, I was actually helping to reduce their options. I never stopped intending to teach people to the best of my ability, I wasn’t being lazy, or uncaring – instead I think I’d lost sight of the difference between natural and normal, or between natural and usual, or most common.

It’s a terrible (and terribly true) cliche that the magic happens outside one’s comfort zone. I think that ‘normal’ is a part of fortress comfort – the very high walls of fortress comfort, in fact – concealing from us the possibilities that, rather than being bizarre or outlandish (‘women doing push-ups! ludicrous!’) were our birthright, as in, we were born to do them. Heck, why not call them ‘gifts’ instead of ‘abilities’ – we are given the gift of life, and part of that gift is a physicality that has astounding potential. As Ido Portal has said, of all the animals, we will never be the fastest runners, the best climbers, fliers, diggers etc. but we can do a bigger combination of these, and so many more things, better than any other animals can.

Ido Portal famously proposed that we should train ourselves in improper alignment, and I believe that this is another way of saying ‘reset normal’ or, better yet, ‘expand normal’. Functional training sounds very sensible and rational (though good luck with finding a clear definition) but, to use the most basic explanation of the term, training to make the activities of daily life easier doesn’t sound like it’s going to be pushing many boundaries. As the Mayo clinic suggests in their description of functional training, squats are great preparation for sitting down and getting up again – and I don’t think that they were trying to be funny… It appears that functional can be code for ‘normal’ – and functional training is to make you better at doing the stuff that you normally do. It’s almost completely at odds with Ido’s argument because, by definition, it doesn’t aim to expand on what is normal, for you. I have heard Jozef Frucek, of Fighting Monkey fame, argue that rather than ‘functional training’, we are better off doing non-functional training if we want to be better able to handle what life throws at us. (Fascinatingly, to me, he also suggests not to ‘do your best’, because that will result in you doing what you usually (normally) do, so trying something other than ‘your best’ instead.

To carry on quoting Jozef (I’m writing this just days after spending 4 days listening to him), “diversity breeds immunity”. To suit the point that I’m trying to make, I might twist this into “normality breeds vulnerability”. So if we’re presented with an activity, or an idea, that provokes a “That’s not normal” response, maybe we’ll be best served by pausing long enough to suppress that response, and discovering what possibilities, and potential benefits ‘not normal’ has to offer us.