This is the second installment in a series on the physical culture system of Russian powerlifter Alexey Faleev. Read Part 1 here.
Why am I so charmed by Faleev’s system? Aside from how effective it is, what I love is his holistic “sports spiritualism” (my word, not his). Who else would write a guide to powerlifting with sections on Buddhism, the Gospels, how to talk to your spouse to ensure marital harmony, and the use of poetry for max attempts in the clean and jerk?
Then again, that is not so unusual among Russian “physical culturists.” In his book on breath training for combat sports, martial artist Vlad Vasiliev quotes the Bible in most chapters and talks as much about Hesychastic prayer as walking and jogging. In a typical passage Vasiliev remarks:
I have noticed, especially in the West, that many … close up when they are asked to pray to God in training. If this is a problem for you … try it just a few times. Take yourself to the breaking point in one of the breath-holding exercises and start saying ‘Lord have mercy’ in your mind. Do not let pride prevent you from doing this, you will be glad you tried.
Faleev for his part mixes a traditionalist respect for Russian Orthodox mysticism and old-time Russian foodways and health practices with a strong interest in Russian experimental psychology and what we could call “applied yoga.”
In the West, we had a related “physical culture” movement a century ago centered around exercise, healthy living, and human thriving for a population that was beginning to live in cities, eat an industrialized diet, work at desks, and get less exercise and fresh air. In these novel, urbanized lives, they were less physically vigorous and close to the land than their grandparents had been and some sensed that they were making trade-offs in health and happiness.
“Physical culturists” taught ways to hang on to some of the old-time physicality and grit that they thought we moderns would still need to feel healthy and fulfilled. Think of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, Victorian strongmen with waxed moustaches, the modern Olympiad, the YMCA, “muscular Christianity,” Theodore Roosevelt, the Victorian vegetarian movement, German fruitarians and nudists, Seventh-Day Adventists, and anti-masturbation foods like Kellogg’s cereals and Graham crackers. It was an extremely broad movement, a diverse three-ring circus of eccentrics and visionaries, but they had this in common: they saw people as embodied souls who require physical vigor to be spiritually fulfilled. Phrasing it differently, they were a holistic health cult.
In the West, we stopped talking about “physical culture” much after the 1940s. The movement branched off into independent specialties and governing bodies—academic medicine and nutritional science, psychoanalysis, sanctioning federations for organized sports, sports media companies—and the adorably zany and heterogeneous old holistic health cult evolved and specialized itself out of existence.
In strength training, the old-time strongman was replaced by distinct sports: first weightlifting was standardized as an Olympic event, then bodybuilding declared its independence in the 1950s, followed by powerlifting in the 1960s. The new sports were not obsessed with psycho-physical health nearly as much as with rankings, records, and titles and there were also organizational politics to navigate and publishing industries and supplement businesses to build. The competitors also had access to steroids for the first time, and increasingly they had to choose between staying natural and winning.
Granted, after the old “physical culture” model broke apart in the post-war West, there remained a minority of people intrigued by holistic health practices. But instead of weightlifting, wrestling, gymnastics, and the like, they now gravitated toward yoga, vegetarianism, novel practices drawn from dance, and New Age psychotherapies. For quick-and-dirty heuristic purposes, I’d describe their new home as more feminine than masculine, more pacifist than martial, and more Gandhi than Charles Atlas.
It was in the Russified world where physical culture (физкультура) stayed relatively intact and kept closer to the old holistic model. Yes, it too was permeated and changed by drugs and competitive pressures. But the Soviet fizkul’turniki stayed close to their roots in rough-and-tumble sports and they kept using herbs, folk medicine, ice baths, and saunas, and their sports scientists plundered yoga for breath control disciplines, relaxation techniques, and other Jedi mind tricks that athletes could use to lift, run, wrestle, box, or throw better.
In our next installment, we will learn the “how to” of Faleev’s holistic sports spiritualism.
During the Buddhist Backpack Pilgrimage, I acted as your personal bodhisattva, dear readers, and compassionately offered myself as a sacrifice for your welfare. How? By venturing out to do the whole 34 miles in jackboots (sapogi) and footwraps. In our previous field test we’d shown their value in wet conditions, but we still didn’t know how they would compete with hiking boots on hard, dry roads and rocky moonscapes. And who else would be lunatic enough to do so?
Hyperbole aside, I really was a little leery about this. It’s one thing to don strange footwear for a walk in the park, it’s another commit to them irrevocably for two days of hard walking.
The boots I chose were surplus West German “Knobelbecher” (“dice-cups”). They’re heavy (1.1kg each), older than I am, and I bought them for $20.
My feet I wrapped in my homemade Russian-style portyanki. (In the world of footwraps, there is a Russian style and a very different German style called Fußlappen. Don’t worry, we’ll experiment with those too in due time!)
What did we learn? First, jackboots are awesome on roads, hardpack, and the forest floor. I’ve remarked before on how they make me walk by swinging my foot from the knee instead of from the hip. For whatever reason, on flat surfaces I sometimes felt like the jackboots were walking me or like I was a Bionic Marching Man. Not for nothing do Germans call them Marschstiefel, “marching boots!”
The jackboots also performed nearly as well as hiking boots on loose gravel and decaying roads. The only time I really wished I could change into hiking boots was on certain stretches of Mad Max-level rubble where your ankle rolled a different way with each step. With hiking boots you can plow straight over the rocks, if the ground is stable, as if you had little ATVs on your feet. With jackboots, you have to do a little extra work with your own foot and leg muscles, and I have to think that over time your knees absorb more torque.
The footwraps were positively delightful. They stayed put on every kind of terrain, and it was nice to refresh my feet by sitting down every few miles, turning the portyanki around, and rewrapping them. I also tried out wearing a pair of wool socks with the footwraps over them, something common in winter, and found that very comfortable too.
A final thought on trail guns. I’d always wondered why someone would buy the Ruger LCRx, a misshapen 5-shot airweight .357 with a 3” barrel. It seemed like an overpowered pocket rocket that won’t even fit in your pocket! But after my close encounter with the bears, when I’d almost been too lazy to carry a gun at all, I saw the LCRx in a whole different light. It looks like a perfect “just in case” backwoods beater gun for when you’re weighing the annoyance of a real belt gun against the pathos of your family getting your remains back in a wet, 2-quart Ziploc bag.
Following an idea from the Manly Monk of Vilnius, I declared this weekend the Great Buddhist Backpack & Beads Pilgrimage. The idea was, one step, one mantra, and in 27 miles that would make fifty-five thousand mantra reps. That’s got to be enough to make you a buddha in this very lifetime (即身成佛), right?
But a meditation retreat is always a hilarious circus of human foibles. My mind took the the last song I heard, “Billy Jean,” and for three miles it composed ribald lyrics.
Then came the bears. A mother and two cubs CHARGED across the trail, 20 yards in front of me, like OJ and his blockers. Thank heaven they kept going and started crashing around in the bush. But I couldn’t tell from the noise where they were going—“Do bears circle around and take people from behind?” I wondered—so I walked the next stretch very quickly and “mindfully,” shall we say, before I took my hand off my gun and remembered anything about a mantra.
Yes, there is a tradition of Buddhist pilgrims with weapons, and we just saw why. Bears eat you alive and screaming, even if you’re Buddhist. Mama Bear begins her meal as soon as you’re pinned down, without so much as a break-your-neck.
“Wait,” you ask, “you would really shoot a charging bear, Mr. Buddhist?” It’s “Dr. Buddhist,” thank you very much, and HELL YES! Ain’t no precept tells you to yield meekly while The Three Bears eat your liver.
Some wiseacre will now point to folklore where bodhisattvas (superhero-saints) offer their flesh to starving carnivores as an act of compassion. (Sigh.) But those are hyperbolic hero tales, like a Wonder Woman comic, not practical instructions for conducting yourself on a camping trip.
Much gratitude to Remi Warren for his lesson about this, or I’d have been lazy and carried my gun in my pack. As they say, “You almost never need a gun, but when you do, you need it real bad.” This whole thing started and finished in 2 seconds.
For a few miles after the bear encounter, the only mantra I was repeating was “HF!! WTF!!!” which is not officially sanctioned. But after that I settled my breath and my feet back into a happy rhythm, and in 5 miles I almost forgot that it ever happened. Feet, breath, mantra, all thumping along cheerfully in time with each other, far from the proverbial smoke and fire of human settlements (人间烟火)–well, it’s pretty close to heaven.
Between the bears and Billie Jean, I only got in maybe 30,000 good reps in, but I’ll take it! Svaha!
We all made it! The all-night ruck confirmed some clichés that are cliché for good reason:
1) People metamorphose in shocking ways. A bantamweight guy who struggled with sand bags early in the night turned into the Incredible Hulk around 5am. Either he was free-basing something or he’s really, really a morning person.
2) When you feel completely smoked, you’ve only used 10% of your work capacity.
3) The mental chatter (雜念) that Buddhists hate so much stops for almost nothing. During surf torture, I had the added torment of Rod Stewart’s “Do You Think I’m Sexy” on autoplay in my head and I was obsessively analyzing the beach stench of putrescent sea life. (Final conclusion: it smelled half like brimstone and half like unwashed baby bottoms.)
4) Shared adversity bonds people. “Ain’t nobody Superman,” as an old coach said, and even strong performers sometimes flag and need to be “carried” along by the others, so everyone gets chances to take care of everyone else when they’re weak and needy.
I had my first encounter with one of the hill dwellers who, I’d been cautioned euphemistically, “isn’t real social.” As it turned out, we just ignored each other. I was taking a break at the side of the road, he was watering Some Kind of Plant Life 100 yards away, and neither of us acknowledged the other. Moments later I was on my way.
When you wander far into the boonies alone, it is an act of faith in people. Where phone service is hours away and the sheriff another hour or two after that, anyone you happen upon with a vehicle or a friend has an almost insuperable advantage over you, and if they wished you harm, they could do it with a free hand and complete privacy, and they would probably get away with it forever.
And yet the people I meet in the middle of nowhere prove cordial and downright benevolent. Most recently it was a couple of thick, rough men with neck beards in a Suburban who stopped to exchange a few words and offer water or a lift, and as they rolled away their parting words were “Stay safe.” I marvel at how nice people are even when they have no reason to be.
I’m not offering an ecstatic panegyric about the innate goodness of
humankind personkind, just noticing that we are such social animals that even in settings where we can harm people with impunity, we mostly still do the opposite.
It doesn’t hurt that both parties can virtually take it for granted that the other is armed: an armed society really is a polite society. But by itself that would only explain a wary indifference, not the warmth, concern, and fellow-feeling that’s actually out there.