Crossing - Short Film

I’m late to posting this, but my friend Denver Carlstrom and I created a short film. I’d intended to get a write-up of the behind-the-scenes or something similar, but alas, I’ve been busier than expected and haven’t gotten around to it.

In lieu of that, here’s the more important bit anyway, the film itself:

Resistance is information

Resistance is information.”

I said this during a class I was leading, applying martial arts concepts to dance improvisation. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but the leader of the group brought it to my attention the next time we met; the concept had resonated with her. Her mention of the phrase’s particular usefulness got me pondering it more.

Resistance is a feeling or sensation that is often seen as negative, and something to avoid at all costs. Having someone resist our ideas is frustrating; fighting against an opponent’s strength without success or feeling our partner actively resist a movement we’re suggesting in a dance can be even more so.

But what I’ve learned from the martial arts is that resistance can be—and is perhaps always—useful and good. Resistance gives us tactile information about where the other person is. The more resistance and tension I feel through my sparring partner’s body in a given moment, the surer I can be of where they are now and where they are likely to move next. I can instinctively feel the areas they’re taking special care to hold strong, which in turn allows me to feel weaknesses elsewhere.

The dangerous opponents are the ones who are relaxed. Testing their structure yields no resistance, so you have a more difficult time determining where they are, and where they will move. They are fluid, ready to shift and give ground as you attack and then to surge back with their own offensive move without warning. In the martial arts, where you want to trick or otherwise limit your opponent’s ability to predict your next move, any resistance will telegraph your intentions about your own movement and your fears. Relaxation, by contrast, makes you opaque and difficult to read.

In dance—perhaps in any cooperative endeavor—resistance behaves in reverse. Resistance creates structure and a clarity of direction. If I’m sending tension into my palms and my partner is pushing back, any shift in direction or pressure is clearly communicated so that the other can respond. If one of us is too loose, that same signal is lost or delayed. Resistance here gives us the confidence to follow each other and take the risk of sacrificing our individual centers of gravity to the one shared between us.

Of course, the challenge in either case is that there’s an ideal level of tension at any given moment, and that ideal level shifts depending upon the situation at hand. A complete lack of tension would have us in a heap on the floor, unable to move, while too much resistance makes us into unstable pillars, unable to move as well, but easy to topple. In a sparring session, you’ve got to be relaxed enough to conserve energy and remain difficult to read, yet you do sometimes need to resist in order to return to a space where you can relax. In dance, resistance as a source of structure is useful for weight sharing, but too much structure turns to stiffness and limits the creative avenues. A more balanced structure to the communication opens up opportunities for slow or fine movements to reveal themselves through a gentle suggestion from a change in angle and pressure from connected hands or shoulders, or even from the intent broadcast through gaze and body language.

With practice, we can take the principles of balancing resistance and relaxation from the dojo or studio into other situations, recognizing that resistance will give us information to clarify where we stand and help decide our next move.

Exploration: Ballet, Modern, and T'ai Chi

Now for a different sort of post format. It’s a little more personal; just musings on a question that I haven’t yet answered, and to which there may be no ‘correct’ answer.

I feel torn between two different modes of moving. I’m practicing t’ai chi and other internal martial arts principles regularly, with both a focused session to begin most mornings and as my default way of moving through the day. I’m also learning modern dance, with a strong flavoring of ballet principles (and likely soon ballet itself). The demands from each are almost as opposite as they can get. In t’ai chi, a central tenet is to keep the hip joint loose and mobile, often actively rotating, and to move with bent, soft knees. In ballet and modern dance, the hips are kept stationary, with the legs and torso moving around them most of the time, and walking, balancing, and landing from jumps are done with straight legs all the way through or as soon as possible—it’s the ideal baseline to which the dancer returns. T’ai chi gains strength from softness, while ballet creates beautiful form from tension and structure. Ballet emphasizes raising up and standing tall; t’ai chi roots you into the ground.

At this stage, the principles I’ve learned about movement from conventional strength and conditioning, parkour, and martial arts (including t’ai chi) become interference patterns in my study of modern dance and ballet, causing hitches in my ability to pick up the movements and positions. It’s tempting to try to forget the other forms in order to allow new ones in, but I’m more curious to see what happens when I allow seemingly contradictory movement systems to become part of my postures and to shape my unconscious default movement. I wonder what might show up from that fusion. At the very least, I much prefer the idea of expanding my movement vocabulary continuously, and having access to as many words and phrases as possible, to structure my movement to suit the situation at hand, rather than being stuck in one dialect.

Movement and the brain

Of all the life on Earth, one of the most intriguing creatures to me is the sea squirt. The grown sea squirts look more like bulbous modern-art vases than living beings, but the baby sea squirt, which looks a little like a bubble with a tail, begins its life swimming around the ocean, equipped with a nervous system that’s obviously smaller than ours, but remarkably similar in structure, including a brain. That system enables it to move and survive, responding to threats and remaining flexible. A sea squirt becomes an adult when it finds a nice rock to anchor to, and, having no need to move for the rest of its life, eats its own nervous system and brain.

Like the sea squirts’, our brains exist for movement. We would have no need of such complex and metabolically expensive thinking hardware if we didn’t have such variable and adaptable movement needs, particularly concerning the use of tools. While our brains can be used toward myriad ends—speech, imagination, art, invention, empathy, and many others—the foundational piece that arguably enables the rest is the need and desire to move. We have always needed to move for our survival, whether that was escaping predators, hunting, exploring new territory, or building shelters and tools. We didn’t become the apex predator because we were the fastest, strongest, or meanest creatures out there, it’s because we are the wiliest: humans are extremely adaptable, social, and skilled makers and users of tools. All tools we use fundamentally require movement, although our modern tools focus mostly the fine motor skills of the hands—still movement, technically, but barely enough to qualify anymore.

We each have this massive, intricate brain, designed for and craving movement and novelty, and we’ve stuck ourselves and our brains in a modern world where the demands are less of the deadly-predator variety and more often the perceived threats of deadlines, tests, and boss fights. All these amazing skills literally sitting there during both work and play, wasting away due to neglect. It doesn’t have to be that way–we’re all capable of amazing feats of movement, it’s just a matter of getting moving and going out to play.


The Human Sea Squirt

Daniel Wolpert: The Real Reason for Our Brains (TED)

Stuart Brown, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul

Fear(less) Atrophy

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about resilience—specifically, the way one can exercise it, and make it stronger, becoming a toughened individual. I gve a few examples, but mostly the post was an intellectual reflection on the concept, meant to start a train of thought. I didn’t realise how soon after that I’d get to examine my own resilience up close, outside of my typical context for improving my resilience.

This past weekend I took part in a film hackathon. I’ve helped on a couple of films in the past, and I’ve certainly worked under tight deadlines to create other things. In this case though it was the first time in a long time that I was not just helping someone else create their idea, but shipping a finished creative project that I had more of an emotional investment in—and all under an extremely tight deadline. We had Saturday morning to create a concept, the afternoon and evening to film, and then Sunday at 4pm to edit together the final film. In total that was, at most, twenty four hours to work on the film from concept to completion.

Saturday was fine. My team of three had come up with a solid concept that seemed simple enough to execute. I wasn’t at all stressed about getting enough footage—in fact, we’d been successful at getting several longer interviews. Sunday was a different matter: it was time to edit, and as the one with the most experience in that area, I was going to be driving. At best I would have had seven hours to complete the edit. Now, a typical short video takes me a couple of hours to edit and polish, and my own videos are intentionally simple to cut, and I already have the storyline worked out before I sit down to edit. In this case we didn’t know the storyline going into it, and we had more footage to weave together (over an hour of interviews), so I knew this edit was going to take longer than usual. By the time we finished collecting and reviewing all of our interview footage and getting the good bits on a timeline to edit, it was past noon. I had less than four hours to complete the edit, and we’d be creating and tweaking our narrative on the fly during that time.

I didn’t immediately feel physically stressed, but by 2:00 we were still constructing and restructuring the narrative. The film was still very rough, with many places where the cuts and transitions felt awkward, and I was doing my best to make quick intuitive cuts to save time. By 3:30 we had only just finalized the overall structure, but hadn’t included any cutaways to secondary footage, fine tuned edits, adjusted audio, or even touched the color. The mounting pressure from the deadline brought forth a notable, and steadily increasing, stress response: feeling warmer, narrowed focus, a palpable sense of the blood pumping, and a drop in fine motor control. It took extra care to keep my mouse hand steady and to click in the correct places. I had a fear of wasting any time on unnecessary mistakes, as correcting those would cut into the precious time we had left. 4:00 passed and we were still working. We reviewed the cut at 4:15, and I fixed a few obvious mistakes and cut out a section to get us under the five minute max. Ten minutes trying to balance audio as quickly as possible and prep for export. 4:30: exported! Finally, I could get up and move. I hadn’t realise how long I’d been sitting there, intently focused on the work—high stress while sitting is a challenge, it feels more difficult to dissapate it, as the body much prefers dealing with stressful situations through movement (the fight, flight, or freeze responses). I left the small glass conference room we’d been working in to take a walk.

I was still feeling anxious—showing your work always feels fraught with conflicting emotions, and waiting for the response often feels the worst, especially when you know that with more time you could have polished it more. I wandered around the space for a bit, working the kinks out of my body, still feeling plenty of adrenaline, and decided to try a vault (in my defense, I was around interesting architecture and was probably a squirrel in a past life). But with the stress, scattered focus and intention, and significant height (four and a half feet high, I’d guess), I clipped my foot (similar to before and fell. It wasn’t too bad, other than a few scrapes, and I immediately vaulted the next railing to keep that fall from locking the experience of pain as a block to future practice, but the point remained: my body was still stressed.

That stress didn’t go away until after our film was screened, and not knowing where it’d be in the order added a layer of anticipatory jitters to the process—and of course it ended up being nearly the last one shown. But once that perceived threat was over, the stress and adrenal state finally began to fade.

I don’t think feeling anxious or fearful are bad. Often they’re the signposts that point you towards worthwhile experiences that push you to grow, regardless (or really, because of) of how discomforting they may be. It’s when those fears impact your ability to excel or accurately judge risks that my issue with fear arises. Thus it’s why I find training to be toughened to be necessary and important: to experience fear and stress without interfering with my physical skill, intuition, or capacity to make rational decisions.

In that vein, I’m reminded by this latest experience that I need to maintain a weekly, or even daily, practice of experiencing discomfort, fear and uncertainty, and performing under some type of pressure. The practices I’ve found in the past that have helped have been cold showers, parkour (of course), and making videos…regularly. I’m experimenting with and adding others to that list, including dance rehearsals (a demanding, if different challenge), writing these more personal posts, and publishing more creative work in general.

Maintaining any one of those practices isn’t easy, but consistently dancing at your edge is worth it, and doing so with regularity maintains and develops your capacity to choose growth.

Better Defaults

Defaults are powerful. What we do without thought is what we’ll do the majority of the time, shaping us more than anyone else can or any conscious action we can take. A helpful default behavior can protect us and encourage steady growth over time. Whether you’re aware of it or not, negative defaults will always sabotage progress.

Defaults behaviors are impacted most by your environment. The ideal environment is designed so that the only possibility is the behavior you actually want. Trying to make change solely with willpower—trying to make yourself walk past the Chocolate-Coated Sugar Bombs in the pantry to get to the eggs every single morning, rather than just getting rid of the sugary cereal—without first changing your environment is a recipe for failure. As much as possible, remove even the option of the choice you’ve chosen not to make.

When you are faced with a decision that you can’t entirely control, better choices come from having default heuristics or clear rules. Without some system for choosing, decision fatigue can lead to poor choices, but training yourself into the habit of only choosing based on one or two criteria can save precious willpower. If you have filters that help you choose quickly, you have plenty of willpower left over to make considered choices when there is no clear best option.

Learn how to identify, understand, and rewire your default behaviors and patterns and you will discover your optimal method for limiting self-sabotage, maintaining momentum, and reaching your goals in any area of life.

(Slow) Hunting Movement

Today I’m continuing the thought from last week about types of movement other than the rapid, explosive ones often fetishized in modern exercise culture. I started by talking about gathering-type movements—slow, sustained, varied, and long-duration—in contrast to quick, high-power hunting and fighting movements like running and powerlifting. This time I’m examining the hunting-movement paradigm, but recognizing the other, just as important, aspects of the practice which I don’t see people training either: the practices of both complete stillness and the appearance of stillness while in motion.

I’ll begin by saying I’ve never done actual hunting of any sort, although it’s on my list of skills to acquire. Many of these thoughts come out of my recent experience in going through a class on scouting—the art of remaining hidden for either hunting or information-gathering—while attending the Firefly Gathering.

I’d already had many years of practicing various stealth steps, thanks to an early and lasting obsession with ninja and their techniques. In hindsight I realise I was expecting the first section of the class, which focused on silent movement, to be mostly review, but I ended up learning quite a bit about several new steps and gaining a fuller understanding of the context for ones I’d done before. The step pattern I was most familiar with is typically referred to as the fox step: you touch the outside edge of the forefoot down first, then gently roll weight towards the big toe before slowly bringing the heel down last. It’s my default for walking barefoot through the forest, as I can avoid committing weight to any step before I’m sure that there isn’t something sharp underfoot. After I learned a few other stepping techniques, it became apparent that the fox step is most useful on softer terrain, whereas the rock step resembles a normal walk, but dialed back until you can feel the subtle change in pressure in every millimeter of skin as your weight presses into the ground. Another one I hadn’t seen before was the mongoose step, which has you walking just on the ball of your foot to minimize the size of your footprint. Try it out—and if you want a real challenge, try it backward!

More than pure technique, though, what I got from this section of the class was an emphasis on slowness—extreme slowness. We played a game where one person would sit on the ground, eyes closed, with a metal water bottle placed in front of them. The rest of the group was arranged in a circle around them. Silently, the instructor would choose one person to creep up and steal the bottle without being heard. When I was in the center, everything seemed to get louder: picking up the tiniest rustle in the grass, dry as it was from the hot summer weather, was simple. The challenge was to differentiate and isolate the ambient noise from those sounds with intent. Was that just the whisper of a sudden breeze? Or the sound of a foot grazing a blade of grass? To further complicate matters, the challenge was not just to note the sound, but to point towards its source. It might sound fiendishly difficult, but the listener was most often the winner that day—even our instructor got during his first few steps towards the bottle.

As the bottle thief, I needed to move far more slowly than I ever had before—practically at a glacial pace. The only way around this was to immerse myself in the sounds around me and align faster movements with louder moments. But I didn’t find an opportunity use a burst of movement underneath a layer of noise, I didn’t get far at all. I was also caught within the first couple steps, despite my full attention to the nuances of each laborious step as I raised the foot up, scanned the ground visually for the patch of grass least likely to stir from contact, and gently lowered my foot, being ever-ready to pick the foot back up to re-adjust. Maybe I should have even gone even slower, at or near the speed we had practiced earlier in class—the rate necessary to not be noticed by deer, sixty-six seconds per step. Yes, per step! At that rate it you appear still, but you’re certainly in motion. It’s incredibly challenging to maintain that minute per step pace with your weight all on one leg and quite possibly positioned in some unusual way to avoid branches and other foliage—as capable of foiling your attempts at stealth as what is underfoot. Even practicing at that speed for a couple of steps gave me immense respect for the actual scouts doing this for half an hour, or longer.

The ninja had similar practices, and one demanding requirement of their training was the development of the capacity to freeze immediately and remain motionless until the threat had passed, whether that was thirty seconds or thirty minutes later. While it wasn’t addressed in the class I took, I imagine scouts trained with similar goals in mind. That sort of training requires incredible body control and endurance to accomplish.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen this type of movement emphasized in conventional training, except perhaps in yoga. Yet whether you’re trying to round out a hunting skillset or are interested in a more holistic approach to human movement, this kind of intensely slow movement, laden with intention, is as important as anything else we classify as exercise or training.

Can't vs. Don't

Can’t is an imposition. Can’t is a grudgingly accepted duty. “I can’t eat this.” “I can’t do that.” “I can’t feel what I’m feeling.” I’m not allowed. I’m not supposed to. It’s an order handed down from faceless authority. You fight against can’t.

Don’t is an act of self-mastery. Don’t is a choice that’s already been made. Don’t is not a question. There’s no decision point, no pros and cons to weigh. It becomes a piece of your identity: this is who you are and how you operate. You fight for don’t.

A morning movement routine

I’ve always had trouble sticking to positive morning routines. I’ve experimented with many different ideas for morning habits and how to structure that first hour or so of the day, but rarely stuck to them for more than two weeks. The one habit that has stuck and cemented over the past two years, is to wake up, make a cup of tea (usually), and sit down with my journal. I love how writing helps me process my thoughts, setting the track and tone for the rest of the day. It also tends to lift my mood, especially now that the first task I set for myself is to write out three things I’m grateful for from yesterday—a good way to stack the habits of journaling and gratitude together, especially when I don’t have much time.

But on the physical side of things, that means a lot of my mornings have been looking like this: wake up, roll out bed and amble into the kitchen for tea (or just stay in bed), grab my pen and notebook, then sit down on the bed to write, sometimes for quite a while. Not a whole lot of movement going on.

About two months ago, I listened to an excellent interview with Shawn Stevenson about sleep. One point that caught my attention was his mention of how spending time in movement soon after waking up, teamed with exposure to outdoor light, could improve sleep and the physical recovery processes during it. It was then time for an experiment. The movement didn’t have to be strenuous, and walking was suggested, but I wanted to create a habit that develops some skill or capacity I haven’t worked on near as much as I’d prefer—as nice as it’d be to walk in the nearby forest every morning.

After more pondering, I realized I could combine a low-impact morning movement routine with meditation, an elusive habit I’ve never got to stick. I chose a movement from t’ai chi called silk reeling, which I’d been practicing off-and-on for the past year. It’s proving to be a wonderful choice, as it’s a meditative breath-focused movement that grows with me—I’m by no means an expert at it, and it’s a deep and nuanced skill that teaches me more every time I practice.

I began the habit by heading out to the secluded deck just outside my bedroom and doing one to three minutes of silk reeling before heading back inside for tea and journaling. After several months, that time has lengthened to average over five minutes, sometimes stretching past ten (about twelve in the video below). I’d like to get to a point where I can maintain this practice without fatigue for about twenty minutes.

In addition to the possible benefits to sleep and recovery, it’s simply something I enjoy doing. It starts me off with movement and breathing, and puts me into a more meditative mindset before attending to the day ahead. It’s also low impact and brief enough (if I choose) that I can easily stack it with more movement, whether that’s mobility, light conditioning, or otherwise. I may refine this routine in the future, but for now this beginning suits me well.

Gathering Movement

While I was listening to a podcast by Katy Bowman recently, my attention was especially caught by her discussion of the semantics of fitness. She observed the tendency to think of both movement and the fitness of our body in terms that focus on a hunting theme—on pursuit and battle. We favor intensity, pushing heart rates up, running as fast as we can to break our previous best, and in general straining towards our physiological breaking points to improve.

Important? Of course. Possessing the necessary the ability to sprint or express strength explosively can be a matter of life or death. So too can the capacity to move continuously for hours at the edges of your physical ability, carry considerable loads for distance, or move heavy objects be enormously useful in the right circumstances. However, our ancestors were not running all-out for their lives or their dinner literally every time they moved. That narrow focus has led to undervaluing other ways of moving.

For an example, as Katy points out, there’s little emphasis on movements that resemble our ancestral methods of gathering and foraging. Would you consider going out to the forest to pick berries and small plants—balancing and picking your way over rocks and roots, scanning your surroundings, stooping, squatting, and using your hands in finely dexterous ways—to be improving your fitness or movement? Probably not. You’d be going out for fun, to explore, or to gather nourishment. While I’d say that’s a better way to look at it anyway, it’s also helpful to recognize that this slower, often longer duration, movement is as valuable to us and to our health as the intense stuff is. It’s a different sort of training: one that requires and develops attentiveness, precision and sustained effort.

The intensity within the hunt encompasses only a fraction of the total time our ancestors spent moving. I believe we need to recognize and value these other, often less eye-catching or (apparently) physically strenuous, modes of moving. They’re just as important for a healthy movement practice and active life.