The Dark Arts of Applied Yoga: Psyching Up

This is part 4 of our series on Russian physical culturist Alexey Faleev.     Part 1.  Part 2. Part 3.

Athletes do not grow stronger by training; they get strong by recovering from training and supercompensating. We use the workout as a brief, hard stimulus, and during this time Faleev wants us to psych up and focus our powers as intently as a man at war. But only for an hour or so! The instant the workout is over, before we even take off our sweatshirts, we must relax and luxuriate in the delicious pleasures of rest and heavy limbs. We worked out precisely so that we could recover afterward, so we want to plunge into rest and recovery just as intently and thoroughly as we went to war under the iron and not waste a moment of our precious recovery time.

We could imagine that Faleev wants us to develop an on-off switch. When we flip the switch on, we are psyched up, electrified in mind and body, and ready to fight. But in the next moment, when we flick the switch off, we do not merely end our sports performance, we positively immerse ourselves in an ocean of relaxation, pleasure, and languor.

Stated technically, what Faleev wants us to learn is to control our sympathetic nervous system (the “fight or flight” system) and parasympathetic system at will. We will be able to enter a state of hyper-arousal at any moment and be prepared to kick butt—breath quickening, nostrils flaring, and muscle fibers crackling with incipient tension—and then just as quickly pull the plug on that arousal and fall downward into a deep valley on the ocean floor of relaxation.

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TRIGGER WARNING: Do not google “Russian yoga” if you are psychologically vulnerable to disobliging jokes about alcoholism.

Reading this, you may not think “That sounds just like yoga!” because we associate yoga more with the pole of relaxation and calming. (And not without reason. Yogaścittavṛtti nirodhaḥ, says Patanjali: “Yoga is the cessation of mental fluctuation,” which if we take him literally would be a catatonic state!) But there are two sides to the yoga coin—tension and relaxation, quickening and calming—and yoga works both sides. Not sure what I’m talking about? Go to a Bikram studio and take a hot yoga class. For $15 you will get a 90-minute tour of heaven and hell. (Ok, mostly hell.) Then you will re-read this paragraph and nod sagely.russian1

Faleev does not mention yoga in his book, but he inherits a tradition of Russian breath work rooted partly in Soviet military research into pranayama that diffused into the world of Soviet sports, and it works on the famous yogic trio: body, breath, and mind.

Psyching Up

Faleev teaches three ways to hack the “fight or flight” system and switch it on at will. In fight or flight mode, there are three things happening inside us. Our (1) muscle tension and (2) breathing pick up to prepare us to run or fight, and we feel (3) emotional alarm or anger at the approaching danger. Before a big lift, says Faleev, you can deliberately create any of those three conditions and turn on the sympathetic nervous system artificially.

Breathing: Either take a deep breath and hold it for a few seconds, and/or tense your thorax and force out a thin stream of breath under high pressure, like a compressed air hose. Pavel Tsatsouline teaches the compressed air technique brilliantly as the center of his truly peerless system of “skinny strength,” and also a technique for purposely hyperventilating to pump your blood full of excess oxygen before a huge effort.

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This is a deadlift, and it’s a low-technique, brute force lift. Womenfolk, deadlifting will soooooo not make you un-feminine.

Hyperventilating does work, sometimes too well. In my experience, I get a few seconds of “beast mode” strength from hyperventilation, but I also get tunnel vision and lose a lot of coordination. So I can only use it to deadlift, since it’s a fairly low-skill lift; I wouldn’t use it in the squat or bench, which are more technical.

Muscle Tension:  Like rapid breathing, Faleev says, the subconscious associates a rise in muscle tension with danger and so we can hack into the fight or flight system by purposely loading our muscles with extra tension. “Instantly,” he writes, “all resources are mobilized – emotions change, adrenaline and anxiety hormones like corticosteroids are released, and the work of the internal organs goes into danger mode.” This works well together with the breathing tricks above, in my experience.

Emotions of Anger or Threat: More than in almost any other sport, weightlifters can benefit from emotional arousal bordering on blind rage. At powerlifting meets, you see certain competitors working themselves into hysteria before they mount the platform for a big attempt. They might scream, grimace with wide eyes and bulging veins, and maybe punch themselves or have teammates dish out slaps or other simulated abuse. It is easy to mock these displays–I confess I find them adolescent-looking and embarrassing to watch–but there is a legitimate purpose to their histrionics. “The blows cause feelings of rage” and arouse an “emotional spirit of danger and struggle.”

But “all this can be done more quietly,” Faleev adds, “without … blows to the head and loud roaring.” How? “Remember some injustice.” Get mad. I knew a lifter who prepared for max attempts by remembering childhood beatings. I don’t use emotional triggers much, but when I do, it always involves some story of a man left behind to face the enemy alone or someone who throws his life away on purpose to buy time for the women and children. Faleev tells of a colleague who volunteers at searching for unburied remains of soldiers on the old Eastern Front. One day this colleague found an unknown soldier in the middle of nowhere, a man sent into a hopeless attack against German machine guns armed with just a stick and a bayonet. This man knew for a certainty he would be shot to pieces and end up as a bullet sponge, yet he went anyway. Since he had no dog tags, this man’s family will never know what became of him or what he did for them. Before you squat, Faleev suggests, ask yourself whether perhaps this man was your grandfather? Examine yourself: do you have even a fraction of his mettle?

In case you still have not grokked Faleev’s point, he spells it out: If using the emotional method, then “before your attempt, you should cause yourself an attack of rage.”

The emotional approach is not right for everyone. Personally, whenever I have used it in powerlifting competition, I have turned in my very worst performances. I get too wound up and lose good technique. Instead, since my teen years I have always competed best when I’m doing mindfulness meditation right up to the moment when I touch the bar. Eyes open and walking around, of course, but with a spooky, detached calm that reminds me of a scuba diver deep underwater, watching strange shapes move with crystal clarity through a glass mask and his ears filled with the sound of his own breathing.

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As you can see, even in the deadlift there is such a thing as over-arousal because you’re already fighting a ton of intra-thoracic pressure. This lifter managed to splatter the head judge, but she FINISHED THE LIFT! HOOAH!

Sports Spiritualism: Waxed Moustaches, German Nudists, and Russian Powerlifters

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.strongmen

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Yes. Naked Aryans juggling kettlebells in the Third Reich. Right from the 1800s, German “Körperkultur” included plenty of nudism and that got absorbed as a matter of course into Nazi art like Hans Surén’s “Mensch und Sonne.”

“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.

Alexandr+Zaichikov+2015+International+Weightlifting+b1M7urgGiWAlIn 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.

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Incidentally, some of the founding fathers of the Southern California hippy movement were (drumroll) German immigrant raw foodists and nudists! Instead of a military haircut and a Kugelhantel (kettlebell), William Prester has Unabomber hair and a guitar, but the history of physical culture is full of muscular naked German men.

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.

Torpid Taper

By the week before a competition, you’ve accumulated fatigue and it’s time to refill your tank with a week’s layoff. That means going easy and limiting yourself to foam rolling and active recovery (spelled “yoga”).

Everyone I know tries to screw this up. You’re resting and supercompensating from training stress and your body is gathering a huge charge of energy like a battery. You’re crackling with electricity and dying to discharge it, and even though your job is to restrain yourself and save your spunk for game day, you start to rationalize one more “moderate” workout … which itself is probably a bad idea and often morphs into a near-max effort. Or you get bored and monkey with your diet or embark on some other dumb eleventh-hour self-experimentation. Because you’re so restless and keyed up.

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Even the irrepressible Molly is infected by my lassitude.

But this week I feel none of that. I feel tired, sore, dinged up, and LAZY. Yesterday I napped for two hours and today I’d still like to camp on the couch. I’m worried I won’t get my mojo back and that Friday after dark, when it’s time to ruck til dawn, I’m going to want chamomile tea and a bedtime story.

Lazy Fitness

If you are a Lean, Solid Dog, you need a lot of rest.

By a quirk of history, Americans took much of what we “know” about fitness from a terrible source, bodybuilders. Why terrible? Because since the Seventies, bodybuilding has been transformed a few times over by steroids, and if you are training with “Vitamin S,” then you are operating with a whole different physiology than the rest of us. Therefore you don’t have much training advice that can apply to people not using mind-blowing “Russian supplements.” * Think of drug-assisted athletes (and they are now the norm) as almost a different species from yourself, and taking your ideas about training from them is like following the nutrition plan of a zebra.

It is from bodybuilding that Americans got most of our counterproductive “no pain, no gain” illusions about fitness. If you were juicing, you could get some use from that approach, just like the Incredible Hulk can perform great even without a rubdown and a nap. But you, dear friend, unless you are a professional hardman hardperson, you probably don’t need more than one challenging strength and aerobic session every week or so. What you do need a lot of is “active recovery.”

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Clarence Bass, father of the “ripped” look, does strength and cardio once every 5-10 days. The other days he just walks in the hills. (Apparently in bikini briefs.)

It’s a cliché of training that “You don’t get fitter from exercise, you get fitter by recovering from exercise.” And it’s a cliché because it’s true. Your muscles don’t grow while lifting weights, for example. They grow afterward by taking in nutrition and thickening in case they get worked hard again.

That is how steroids work too. They are not exactly performance-enhancing drugs, they are recovery-enhancing drugs. They make you bounce back from training faster and higher, and that’s how they improve your performance indirectly.

For a lazy person like me, it’s wonderful to know that I can limit serious exertion to one or two weekly bouts and then use the rest of my “training” time on rest and recovery. Yes, it’s true that we really should get exercise every day. But what we’re looking for is “active recovery.”

You rest better and quicker through active recovery than passive recovery, i.e. sitting on the couch. You just do light activity that makes you breathe a little harder and get some blood and endorphins flowing, but that’s all! As a rule of thumb, you are doing it right if you are breathing a little more deeply but you could hold a conversation or sing a song without feeling short of breath. This could be just walking or riding your bike for transportation. Similarly for light (!) hiking.

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The late mountaineer Anatoli Boukreev was way ahead of his time in the West about preaching active over passive recovery. Here as in so much of exercise science, the former Communist bloc really had the edge over us.

For fairly serious athletes in any discipline, I think the king of active recovery is yoga. You go for the active recovery and in the bargain you also get invaluable prehab and rehab, which no one gets enough of, in an environment that is also a huge serotonin factory AND full of lithe, beaming people.

 

* Note: I don’t necessarily poo-poo drug-assisted training as morally inferior or easier. On the first point, I exercise because it makes me so happy, not so I can imagine myself as someone else’s better (as if anyone cares anyway). Second, drugs don’t exactly make training easier. If you think that, start squatting under a bar that’s 200# heavier than you use now—do it however you have to, I don’t care—and then get in touch to tell me about how easy your training has become.

The Science of Yoga Shorts

A mind is a terrible thing. If you are lucky enough not to have one, I counsel you to keep it that way.

If you do acquire a mind, you may end up like me. I have gone far, far down the rabbit hole in preparing for the all-night ruck, and it has led me into a monstrous, Faustian quest for Science.

Why? I’ve been warned that we will end up soaking wet whenever the race directors can arrange it, so I decided to find out what happens when I get my equipment in water. It has been a big eye-opener.

I found that some clothes get much heavier than others when soaked, and/or they dry very slowly. An over-eager mind with an excess of intellectualism, I broke out the scale and the lab notebook. I weighed everything dry, wet, and partially dry, and aside from having a more fun lab experience than anything in high school chemistry, I discovered surprising things.

Chiefly, my awesome, comfortable German shirt and pants turn to lead when wet. My favorite hiking shorts also hold more water than a llama, and those big pockets I like so much will stay damp and heavy all night.

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How about we just say I’m really secure in my masculinity?

What emerged in the lab as the hands-down winner? I am almost too embarrassed to tell you. My goofy yoga shorts. Yes, they belong on Steve Gutenberg in Can’t Stop the Music, but they weigh just 440g soaking wet. Almost everything else is two or three times as heavy.

That is not the truth I wanted. So I did what educated people always do with an unwelcome finding and tried to rationalize it away. Maybe the 1970s gigolo shorts would chafe, or allow my backpack to chafe. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to manage without cargo pockets. After all, these things can’t hold anything more than a few stripper singles.

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The vanquished DPM trousers

So today I conducted field trials: I put on the Goofy Yoga Shorts and a British DPM button-down shirt, jumped in a swimming pool, and then humped a pack up the Rock of Faeries, on the clock and with a notebook. Then I repeated the trial with the long pants that did the best in the lab, also British DPM.

The Goofy Yoga Shorts crushed the pants. I bopped up and down the hills with spritely steps like Steve Gutenberg on roller skates. Their only drawback was that they dribbled water down my legs into my boots. The pants could avoid that—I just wore the cuffs outside my boot tops—but in every other way they sucked by comparison. They bound my strides just enough to annoy me, and it only got worse if I tried to put something as paltry as a pair of gloves into the pockets. My conclusion was, my legs have enough work to do, they don’t also need to lift wet layers of cotton/poly weave. Whatever I need to carry in a pocket, I’ll put it in a shirt pocket or even hang it from my shoulder straps.

Farewell British Army, namaste Lululemon. Let Science reign.

Steamy Yoga

Hot yoga, very hot. At the front of the room, someone gets so into the distinctive, raspy throat breathing that he sounds like he’s, um, with someone very special to him. With this door opened, the rest of the room gets equally disinhibited until it sounds like we’re at an orgy on Fire Island. Or an after-party at the Modern Language Association.

The Neanderthal and the Yogi

If you were ever hectored about your posture, you were probably told to “stand up straight” and maybe to turn your chest out or pull your shoulders back. Those are good cues, but nobody mentions the most important thing: “elbow pits forward.”

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Jerry shirt, jerry can

To stand up straight up with your chest out, you only need to move your spine, but most of us have another problem too, with how our upper arms are rotated. Freeze right now and look down to see where your elbow pits are facing. (If you aren’t sure, just curl your forearm up to your bicep and back without moving anywhere except at your elbow. Whatever plane your arm is moving in, that’s where your elbow pit is facing.) Almost everyone I know has their elbow pits turned inward most of the time, toward the body’s centerline. That’s because we sit a lot and constantly use keyboards, pens, and other tools centered in front of our bodies, and to touch them we have to angle our hands inward in what’s called “internal rotation.”

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From Barbara Loomis at alignmentmonkey.nurturance.net

6202089c5b66daf6e242805cc358a7faStrength athletes suffer terrible internal rotation, especially in America where we fetishize the bench press, and that gives us a familiar “Neanderthal” look: thick in the pecs, wide in the lats, and short-necked and slope-shouldered. Once I was asked by a dancer I had only just met whether I’d once wrestled. My answer was, “Yes, very badly” and I was amazed at her clairvoyance. She explained that she could usually spot wrestling types by “the way they move.” I have a hunch (get it?) that she is tipped off largely by that caveman-like internal rotation.

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blog.discountdance.com

Contrast dancers: they are easy to spot, at least when assuming their stage presence, by that distinctive upright carriage. They are taught to imagine a string gently pulling the crown of the head upward, drawing them erect with necks long. But I think that a lot of what we recognize as “dancer posture” is that they aren’t internally rotated like the rest of us.

For us, probably the only place where we unlearn this deformity is in a yoga class. Often teachers don’t emphasize it or articulate the lesson well, but in effect they are trying to train your elbow pits forward when they cue you to “draw your shoulders down away from your ears” and “broaden the back.” (Unfortunately those aren’t great cues because you can follow them even when your elbow pits are still turned inward just by engaging your lats.) In my experience, this is the magic of a pose like downward dog or upward dog. If you follow all the directions (spread your fingers, pronate the palms fully, “lengthen” the collarbones, fire the lats hard) to “broaden the back and pull the shoulders away from the ears,” you are definitely turning those elbow pits forward.

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yogauonline.com/yoga-pose-primer

And that is a wonderful thing. You get stronger (e.g. deadlifts, pull-ups, and all the presses), you avoid a lot of joint problems and injuries, and you look healthier too. In fact, what people see as “big pecs” or “well-defined shoulders” is largely about the shoulder joint being rotated out to a healthy position. Men and women both look fitter instantly, without gaining any muscle or losing any fat, just by turning those elbow pits forward. And for me, it even affects my mood: when I’m rotated out, I also feel more buoyant and cheerful.

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The hunched back starts with the knuckles being turned forward, and that rotates the elbow inward.

Why am I getting all didactic about elbow pits today? Because they were so hard for me to control on my walk! For some active recovery, I carried the jerry can (45#) up the Rock of Faeries and it was much harder than a kettlebell. The wider, clunkier shape tries to make you hold it farther out to your side. That’s a little more tiring and so instinctively you try to inch the can fractionally closer by turning your elbow in. And soon you’re a Neanderthal again. (Look at the picture on the right that Skadisdottir took of me carrying the archery target at my birthday party. You can see how stooped I am.)

So today I did my feeble best to treat carrying the can as a kind of yoga asana, focusing less on moving the implement than on keeping good position. On game day I won’t fuss overly much about form–the point will just be to move the f****** can, not to look like a ballerina–but on training days it’s much more important to reinforce good habits than squeeze out a little extra performance by cheating on fundamentals.