The Dark Arts of Applied Yoga: Psyching Up

This is part 4 of our series on Russian physical culturist Alexey Faleev.  Find links to all installments here.

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.
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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.

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. Please find the full table of contents 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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Of Sapogi and Sixguns

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“我不下地獄,誰下地獄?” (“If I do not descend into hell, who will?”)

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.

Bundeswehr_Knobelbecher_OriginalThe 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.

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You know how I treasure revolvers, but this is too ugly even to be Russian. And yet now I can see the genius of it.

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.

US Soil Literally Ground Under Heel of Communist Jackboots

Since our posts on footwraps and jackboots, Lean Solid Dogs has been flooded with queries from peace-loving people of all fraternal nations. In response, I conducted harsh field trials on the Russian-style jackboots and footwraps, equipment worth over $20.05, assuming a value of one nickel for the remnants of my old pillowcase. Nothing but the best for you, dear readers!

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To me they still look like I should be rounding up Polish hostages.

I’d been told that where jackboots and footwraps excel is in water and damp. However, I had doubts. Sure, jackboots have high sides, and no doubt some of them are well sealed too. But it seemed like once they did flood, you would be doomed and your feet stuck for your whole walk in knee-high water buckets. At the recent GORUCK challenge, I’d chosen exactly the opposite strategy, wearing a second-hand pair of “Moab Ventilators,” so named because of the mesh sides intended to let water drain out like from scuppers on a ship’s deck. But whatever the designers’ intended, the Moabs stayed wet all night, encrusted on the outside with a thin cement of caked-on sand and moistened from the inside by my waterlogged wool socks.

20180815_121935And just as Krushchev predicted, the Communist jackboots buried their pricey, effete capitalist counterparts. I tried to flood them all the way and could not! First I stood in a creek up to my ankles, patiently waiting for water to find its way through the seal, but it never did. Impressed, I knelt down in the creek hoping that water would rush over the boot tops like Soviet tanks through the Fulda Gap. Still no joy. As I have mentioned before, the portyanki are so long (90cm/36”) that you wind half the fabric around your calves, and to my amazement this sealed the boot tops so thickly that water could not cascade in. I had to wiggle and fishtail around, trying to coax water into the jackboots, til after about 30 seconds I had to be satisfied with getting my feet about 40% soaked.

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See the ring of creek filth around the calf? The portyanki created a thick cloth seal there that kept out the dirt, and most of the water too.

I walked the next mile that way and found it perfectly satisfactory. I had wondered whether water would continue to drip down my calf and slowly make a sopping, sucking fishbowl around my feet, but this never happened. Either the footwraps pack up all the loose space around your feet and leave little room for water to gather, or as Lars from Survival Russia suggests, maybe the footwraps really do wick it up and out.

Certainly I was amazed at how well the wraps dried out. After a mile, I stopped to turn the wraps around. This is something that portyanki fans like Lars are always try to sell you on: “Instead of changing into dry socks,” they’ll say, “you can turn portyanki around and wrap your feet from the other, drier end. The wet end will get a chance to dry out, now being wrapped around your calf or even sticking out your boot top. It’s like having a dry pair of socks built right in.” Without impugning Lars’ integrity, I must confess I thought that sounded almost as fishy as Lenin’s “democratic centralism,” but he was right. After a mile, not only had the top end of my footwraps dried enough to be comfortable, they were also drier than my pant legs, which were directly exposed to the air!

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Turned around, re-wrapped, and almost as good as dry socks. The wet end is now poking out the top.

Score one for East then. No, the footwraps did not dry out completely until I took them off at home and hung them up, but now I was inspired to try some serious Marxist science. I soaked the portyanki and my favorite wool socks and hung them in the sun, side by side to make a fair trial, but the outcome was never in doubt. Unsurprisingly the thin, single-ply footwraps with their huge surface area dried in half the time.

So will I seriously wear these things in place of hiking boots? I certainly would in wet muck. I might even wear them on other terrain just for the fun of doing things the old-fashioned way, just like I prefer to shoot revolvers. Loyal readers of this blog know that I am a sucker for the seductions of kludgy but ingeniously designed Communist gear, and friends know that I suffer from Ostalgie, an aesthetic nostalgia for the lost world of the socialist Eastern Bloc. The city of my young adulthood was an actual Stalinist metropole, and it left me with a sentimental fondness for the blocky, heavy, dim, cheap, kitschy material culture and aesthetic that—as far as I can tell—originated in Moscow and was exported to all corners of the Second World as part of what might be called the “Stalinist cultural package.”

Jokes aside, let me be clear: Lenin, Stalin, and the state they made were evil, an evil unsurpassed in the 20thcentury, and it’s bizarre that they get a pass from so many bien-pensants in the West. I’m just saying that if (Heaven forbid) I were going to conquer and enslave half the peoples of Europe, I would definitely consider doing it in actual Communist jackboots.

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.