Thursday, September 21, 2017

Opening your kua increases the benefits of Tai Chi

Image result for chen zhonghua kua
One of the joys of teaching Tai Chi to older adults is that you can see progress as they develop. The people who come into my class for the first time have very little balance or coordination so if they decide to stick with it you can clearly and profoundly see your impact as a teacher.

Knowing the impact of falls on that population and helping some people avoid some of those negative outcomes is quite rewarding.

The major challenges I see in people when they enter my class is not knowing the location of their center. This becomes increasingly evident when they are constantly overreaching, which places a heavy load on the vertebrae, and makes them top heavy. They also do not have their feet flush on the ground, which can again result in a fall. Overall, there is little coordination between the upper and lower half. I am always discussing the importance of the top half and lower half moving in agreement with each other and that discussion leads directly to the person responsible for the popularization of Tai Chi, Yang Cheng Fu. Yang Cheng Fu promoted the health benefits of Tai Chi, and created a list of 10 important points to do Tai Chi correctly (below). An excellent book on his teaching can be purchased here.

Yang Cheng Fu’s 10 important points:
1. Empty Neck, Raise Spirit  
2. Contain Chest, Raise Back   
3. Loosen Waist  
4. Differentiate Empty Full
5. Sink Shoulders, Drop Elbows
6. Use Intention not Exertion
7. Upper Lower Mutually Follow
8. Inner Outer Mutually Harmonize
9. Continue without Interruption
10. Move from Centre, Seek Calm

One of those important points is, "Upper Lower Mutually Follow" where I see most people have difficulty when they are learning Tai Chi. Most older adults I teach think that the Tai Chi form is a series of choreographed dance moves and want to memorize steps and hand positions. I guess being American and older they come to class with their prior experiences from square dancing and other American dance forms they grew up with. What they are missing is their whole structure is a shell with little or any understanding of the internal work that Tai Chi demands.The one exception to this is a woman who was married to a Spanish gentleman and they did a lot of Latin dancing. She had a very well cultivated understanding of her dan tian and could root quite well. Currently, she is 82 years old and still going strong.   

I often share with my students Yang Cheng Fu’s important principles because I think they are essential to truly practice Tai Chi. In fact, my teaching of Tai Chi focuses on cultivating these principles rather than rote memorization of the 24 form, because if you can attain some level of proficiency with these principles it will be more beneficial to your health and well-being.

One of the things I continually notice in class as people age is they use their kua less and less, and those who have the most balance issues seem to be the most rigid in their kua (Pictured below). The kua is known anatomically as the inguinal crease or the grove where the femur meets the pelvis. In a quote from Zhang Xue Xin, a renowned Chen-style Tai Chi master, “Americans know how to use the hips and not the kua.” (this quote is from the hyper link to a paper on the kua above)

The kua and the dan tian work together to create a kinetic chain that:
  • Is the glue between the upper and lower halves of the body.
  • Keeps the center of balanced aligned and sunk.
  • Provides better alignment of the body for smoother movement with less chance of sprains.
  • Creates a "mutable" joint that increases leverage and disperses force by tricking the opponent as to the actual location of your center.
  • Increases power output.

The dan tian is a Chinese term that means “Sea of Qi.” If you read ancient Taoist texts there is a lot of mystical abilities attached to this area. I will elaborate on this in a another post to come. Suffice to say, that the dan tian is the center of balance for people, it is located 1”- 2” below the navel and midway between the lower abdomen and the spine. Many people argue about exact locations but this is not meaningful to our purpose here.  There is no anatomical distinction for the dan tian. It is however your true center and that is the most important thing to remember. Every object has a center of balance because gravity makes it so.

One of the best explanations on opening the kua is by Chen style practitioner, Chen Zhonghua. He has a trailer for his video that can be purchased here. Unfortunately, I can not find anyone on youtube who explains it as clearly as he does. 

Training your body to move from the kua and its relation to the actual physical center of your body (dan tian) is a real game changer for your practice. If you were to go up to the average person on the street and ask them where their center was, they might point to their heart or to their stomach area but I will bet you most will not be close to knowing where it is. Imagine you have this body and every day you are walking around on this earth and you are completely clueless as its proper alignment with its true place in the universe? This awareness changes your life because for years you have walked, played and slept thinking it was way higher than it actually is and once you embody its placement your body is unlocked and you can experience so much more of life.

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Yin-Yang of Survival: Toxic Masculinity, and Taoism

Once in awhile when I am resting on the weekends I will watch a reality TV show. Unlike many people I find of them interesting to see how people behave in certain stressful situations. Last week, I got caught up in the Naked and Afraid XL season. This latest offering featured 12 people who had already survived for 21 days in the wilderness with a single partner totally naked. So these 12 naked veterans were tasked with surviving in the wilds of the Orinoco river basin in Colombia with two other veterans, who were chosen by the producers. They were only given a knife, a bag, and each person got to chose one survival item: either a water container, a net, a fishing kit, or a fire making kit. So no one person had everything they needed to make it the whole 40 days. They were not given food, or water, or clothes.

There were four groups of three. The only group I am going to analyze is the one with a male, who described himself as, “The Alpha Male” and specifically said that he is not “an” alpha male but “The” alpha male. He was matched with two women, one of whom was a vegetarian. Literally within minutes of arriving the alpha male started cutting large trees down and building a massive shelter. The one item he chose to bring along was a bow and arrow. He tried hunting for food but was unsuccessful. In the first few days he expended lots of precious energy doing many tasks. He derided the women for being lazy and hurled other abusive insults at them. The women stood their ground and cautioned him against expending too much energy. At one point he moved into a separate camp, which he had to build himself. After he had completed that and expended even more energy, he realized he had no means of making fire, as the women had the fire starter. So he went back to them asking for the fire starter. He tried to make amends but he was not clear in his intention and could not resolve the conflict he instigated. This decision left him without the means to start a fire, a necessary part of surviving. Needless to say, the women chose a better survival strategy and they made it the full forty days by having a wise understanding of resource conservation and “the” alpha male tapped out early and was sent home.

The reason why I took the time to explain that show is because this is a clear cut example of how Taoist principles can work and how toxic masculinity can lead to one’s downfall. I say Taoist principles, but clearly the women in the show did not say what their philosophy was so I am kind of using their survival strategy as an example of Taoist principles in action. Come to think of it, these woman gave a better demonstration of Taoist principles than some old dude with a man bun posting his lecture on YouTube.

The alpha male in the show was the poster boy for toxic masculinity, with his need to be right, to not listen to “weak” women, and a vegetarian no less. He ignored numerous cautions, at his own peril. As a Tai Chi instructor who has been teaching older adults since 2001, I have seen this play out time and time again. In fact, most older males do not chose Tai Chi as their exercise and would rather drop their wives off to their “dance-like” exercise. Those women being dropped off have taught me many lessons about checking my own masculinity. I have learned that women are more likely to go to the doctor’s and older men who live with their wives go to the doctor more and live longer. Women are open to feedback and listen to others more and they live six and a half years longer than men in the U.S.. Whether by script or by personal choice the women in the show clearly demonstrated the qualities Taoists would characterize as Yin, or soft.

Taoist models of gender account for the fact that feminine qualities are important and even superior to male qualities. Before we go any further, it must be stated that Chinese culture did not bring about a gender revolution by any means and there are numerous accounts of women that have been persecuted. However, it must also be acknowledged that Taoism is unique in that it gave a highly significant placement of women and feminine qualities in its value system, especially when comparing it to other systems of that era like Christianity, and Buddhism etc..
The main symbol for Taoism is the Yin-Yang symbol, or Tai Chi doh, with a Yin half, that is soft, dark, and feminine, and Yang half that is hard, bright, and male. Yes, it is a binary view of the universe but it is important to note that each half has a bit of its other within it. That significant dot means that each has the other within them, meaning there is always a little masculinity in a female, and a little femininity in a male. The most important part of the symbol is that both aspects are intertwined and equal in the creation of the universe.

In chapter 6 of the Taoist classic by Lao Tzu, as translated by Gia Fu-feng and Jane English, he mentions the valley spirit,

Tao Te Ching - Lao Tzu - chapter 6
The valley spirit never dies;
It is the woman, primal mother.
Her gateway is the root of heaven and earth.
It is like a veil barely seen.
Use it; it will never fail.

Stand by the door of any Tai Chi class in the world and you will hear talk about using hard force as opposed to soft force. Hard force is usually characterized as a male trait, which is in juxtaposition to the female trait of yielding, that is considered to be the highest level of internalizing the Tao.

The ultimate expression of Yin energy is in Wu-Wei, or non-action. I was always thrown off by that, and many Americans have difficulties grasping it, instead they see it as Jesus-take-the wheel, kind of non-action; totally letting go without any “human” help. I confess it took me a while to understand, but now I have come to understand it as “strategic” or thoughtful non-action. So the women in the alpha male’s group definitely exhibited Wu-Wei. They did it so well that the alpha male called them lazy but they were not lazy at all. Instead of cutting massive trees down they used a sparce shelter, even though they used the shelter the alpha male built, remember they did not ask him to build it, they would have made a simplier shelter. Additionally, while he was out hunting and climbing trees, they wove a fish trap and foraged for fruits and nuts. The vegetarian was practicularly smart in her awareness of her nutrient intake. She rationed her foraged food to make it until the 40 days. They also met up with another group which created a larger team effort. The women were able to work with in another group and therefore increase their chances of surviving.

The Yin, feminine trait of yielding allows clarity and opens up the opportunity of using the force of the earth. So in Tai Chi we relax so that we can use the force of the earth (gravity and leverage) more effectively. If we relax (let go) and don't force it, we can increase our impact. If we move with fear and tension Yang or male qualities, then we have to use even more non-Wu Wei force. Thus creating a non-harmonious trajectory. Often Wu-Wei is poo pooed by martial artists and fighters as weakness or fantasy. More on that in a few paragraphs but first I have to address the binary approach.

I can see that feminists might object to this binary approach because Taoism assigns traits to gender. But this is where the Yin-Yang comes into play, a female can have male traits, and a male can have female traits. So in Tai Chi, I consciously cultivate Yin- female traits to temper my Yang- male traits. Sometimes in everyday life, I get frustrated and become aggressive, which leads to as my wife says, me manhandling things. Tai Chi, helps me temper that Yang aggression and bring about a clarity of action and peace of mind. Just because we say that there are male traits and female traits doesn’t mean that gender assignment is rigidly in one group, the Yin-Yang symbolizes fluidity between gender and the transformation of energy from one group to the other.

All this talk of Yin energy does get dicey though, especially when it comes to martial arts, In combative situations things happen fast and there is a time and a place for the use of Yang force or violence. But right now in our time period violence is low but this could change. The alpha males of the world might rise again. This is why I see liberal idealism as too idealistic because it doesn’t acknowledge a world in which there are violent alpha males. All too often, liberals try to explain that behavior as it being socially constructed, where as the Taoist approach understands it is a way in nature, but not the best way, not the way of the Tao.

I grew up in Brooklyn in the late 60s and early 70s. It was not for the faint of heart. Men there were very aggressive, I witnessed my maternal grandfather beat up a guy and his wife after we left a restaurant. They had a disagreement about who had the right away and it came to blows. All this is typical male machismo of that era, but liberals seems to think this behavior is gone for ever. Unfortunately, I believe it is just dormant. I have a Hobbesian view of nature. So if the group from Naked and Afraid XL that I have been discussing were in a Hobbesian world, where there is no governing body, he could have cannibalized one of the women, taken the fire starter and made the other women his wife or in a less dramatic turn of events, the women might have seen him as more of an asset than an ass because of his 6 foot 5 stature and bold nature. So even the alpha male strategy is a viable solution in certain contexts and it is not socially constructed as many social scientists would have you believe. But again, following the Tao leads to a more fruitful relationship and even in a Hobbesian world working as a team with full support is better than cannibalizing each other. My point here is that hyper-masculinity is not socially constructed and it is important to practice martial arts because the Hobbesian world is never far from civilization.

This is why martial arts, especially Asian martial arts, like Tai Chi, Aikido, Judo, Jiu Jitsu, Wing Chun and others preach tempering hyper-masculinity and using one’s mind to leverage the anger in others. Anger creates a loss of balance and a lack of clear vision, and tempering doesn’t only work on Yang energy, it also can bring up Yin qualities. My friend Bishop, who is a university policeman and a Wing Chun instructor, told me that he discusses the balance/blending of Yin and Yang energies to his students all the time. “Too much of one or the other is never a good thing, but when COMBINED in the right way, the result is greater than the two parts.”

My close friends in martial arts, Dave, Larry, and Bishop all work on using Yin traits when dealing with angry male behavior, specifically Dave and Bishop who work directly with that behavior in public settings as a bouncer and a university police officer. I have heard countless stories of how they have used their martial training, specifically leverage and a cool clear head to not engage in the heightened emotion that often happens when young males, who have been drinking alcohol, come in contact with the opportunity for sex. My other friend, Larry teaches younger professional fighters the discipline it takes to check your wildness and throw accurate punches that hit their target with brutal efficacy. Larry and I often discuss the difficulty many of his students, mostly males have with listening and controlling their hyper masculinity. He has said that the ones who do become great are the ones who don’t get trapped by their hyper-masculinity/overly aggressive nature.

Practising martial arts and internalizing the principle of Yin-Yang deepens one’s understanding of themselves. It shows one how to take control of anger and hyper-aggression so that one can think clearly and make better decisions that lead to positive outcomes. Moreover, it also gives us an insight into human nature because you have seen the ugliness become tame.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

I Literally Walked into Sacred Geometry

In teaching Tai Chi to older adults it is best to combine teaching the internal principles along with the form, which means you are basically reteaching people how to walk and move completely differently. After warm-ups, I have everyone pick a linoleum tile and place the feet heel to heel in a right angle on a corner on a tile. We stand like that for a moment and I have them take a step forward and 4" over with their left foot, leaving their right on the square. As you are reading this you might be trying to visualize a bunch of older adults assembled in rows standing on a grid-like pattern.

taichi-wisdom.ppt (2).jpg

I have been teaching Tai Chi to older adults since 2001 and it took me awhile to catch on how to difficult it is for older adults to get into a bow stance and especially when turning 180 degrees with clear aligned movement. After so many students having difficulty I started using the tiles on the floor along with a cardinal directional sign on each of the four walls. As I started to create these methods of teaching people to do Tai Chi I realized that there was a geometric logic to how we align ourselves to the earth. When looking at the illustration (above) you can see one possible way sacred geometry developed. If you stay in one place facing north and turn around in a complete circle it will be 360 degrees. Then going back to basic geometry you can divide that up an infinite amount of ways but typically we divide it up first in quarters and then in eighths, hence the origin of the bagua (Pictured below).
Related image
That inspired me to seek out geometric relationships in Tai Chi, moreover, when I was exploring Tai Chi I became aware of Feng Shui and their usage of the bagua.  I also knew that the original 13 postures of Tai Chi are patterned off of the very same bagua symbol; eight main postures and five secondary ones (pictured below). These connections made me appreciate Tai Chi even more because the whole Taoist system worked in concordance with one another. There was not too many contradictions, although there are smaller discrepancies with certain assignments of what fits into which area, for instance, an animal and an emotion and actually everything in existence is prescribed to each cardinal direction.   

As the caption states in the 13 postures of Tai Chi, there are 8 energies and directions, which are also added to the elemental directions of the 5 elements, north, south, east, west, and center.

The chinese created a compass (pictured below) that linked up the waxing and the waning of the moon with the 8 directions and this was used to predict floods and then more was added on to it. The I Ching or book of transformation was also created from there. Early Chinese figured that significant events occur during the seasonal changes, ie floods, winter, harvest season etc. The idea is that by understanding the natural forces one could prepare ahead of time and avoid more acute emergencies.

Other cultures have discovered many of the same ideas, stonehenge follows same circular formations and the Kabbalah also has a similar numerical structure. So the phases of the moon are based in reality but the socially constructed aspect of attributing certain emotions, elements, animals to each phase is where there is not cross cultural corroboration. This doesn’t mean it is not worth studying. I view it more as an art form that deserves respect and consideration. An interesting fact is how deeply our psychology and physiology is tied to night and day. Circadian rhythms and seasonal patterns are strong determinants of hormonal secretions and

they play a major role in our psychological functioning as well of the well being of our vital organs.   

As you can see there are many connections with codified symbols found in Taoism that connect the heavens to man and to the earth. Another example of this intense connection is  the 64 hexagrams, 32 yin and 32 yang found in the I Ching, and their exact match with the 64 codons found in DNA.
Here is the conclusion of a paper on the connection between DNA and the I Ching:

“ —We defragged three I Ching representations of the genetic code while emphasizing Nirenberg's historical finding. The synthetic genetic code chromosomes obtained reflect the protective strategy of enzymes with a similar function, having both humans and mammals a biased G-C dominance of three H-bonds in the third nucleotide of their most used codons per amino acid, as seen in one chromosome of the i, M and M' genetic codes, while a two H-bond A-T dominance was found in their complementary chromosome, as seen in invertebrates and plants. The reverse engineering of chromosome I' into 2D rotating circles and squares was undertaken, yielding a 100% symmetrical 3D geometry which was coupled to a previously obtained genetic code tetrahedron in order to differentiate the start methionine from the methionine that is acting as a codifying non-start codon”

So the depth of the early Chinese is astounding even today this at least 4000 year old symbol still influences and explains phenomena in our lives. I think the reason why is that these early Taoist masters discovered a spiral network of energy vectors that determine all growth on this planet. They called these energy vectors “Chi” or “Qi,” admittedly the word Qi did not arrive until later years after the I Ching was created, nonetheless is it currently used in this manner to describe these energetic vectors and hence the 8 energies of the Tai Chi movement. So from a simple joint lock, to the structure of DNA to the Milky way solar system we are constrained by a spiral force that connects all life and all inanimate objects to the earth rotation and its evolution around the sun. Just to be clear that doesn’t mean EVERYTHING we do is determined. I know this kind of thinking has led to over use to put it mildly. I am speaking from a physical science perspective. That said it has an affect on us and it is hard to figure out just how much because there is no counterfactual ideal. We do not have another galaxy to measure its effect on the beings there. You may think I am starting to go off the deep end,  and I understand that. There are people who I have run into who love sacred geometry but end up tying the origin of it to aliens. Believe me it gets even weirder with when the illuminati conspiracies start piling up.

As with many of the phenomena I write about, I am able to parse out the wheat from the chaff and where there is unknown I simply leave it at that. I don’t need to believe in aliens or a personal god either to substantiate the physical reality of certain things. I also don’t need to deny it all and be an atheist either.
Image result for flower of life

Another thing that happened when I was teaching the 180 degree turns was I saw how the foot positions fit within a box grid and if you draw diagonal lines and add circles it can become a flower of life. The flower of life (pictured above)is something in many cultures together, even Leonardo Da Vinci drew this in his Codex. Of course explaining the relationship between Davinci, stonehenge, the Kabbalah, and the I Ching could be an endless exploration that is not suited to the purpose of this blog post. If you are interested there are hundreds of videos and books on this topic but be forewarned that you will be hearing some crazy theories.

Anyway back to Tai Chi
I have always wondered why all the Tai Chi forms don't sync up with the bagua (8 directions), wu xing (5 elements) (pictured below) and ultimately the I Ching. Fortunately, I found Tai Chi According to the I Ching by Stuart Alve Olson who brilliantly tackled my dilemma. Per usual for Olson, he breaks everything down and backs it up with the ancient texts to support his reasoning. I have been searching for a truly symmetrical form for years and thanks to Mr. Olson I finally have that..   
Image result for wu xing

One of the reason why I love Tai Chi is because there is this internal logic that starts really small like with a step and then expands outwards to encompass the whole universe, the Chinese call it the microcosm and the macrocosm. Is it scientifically sound? I  am not sure but I think it is worth investigating. Moreover, humans love symmetry we seek it out whenever we can and I find discovering the underlying symmetry in Tai Chi increases my love of it and enhances my personal practice.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Every Time I Hear “Opioid Crisis” It Makes Me Angry!

I have been teaching Tai Chi part-time in Oxford, Mississippi on and off since 2001. I love teaching and recently, I had to reluctantly send an email to my Tai Chi class saying that I had to cancel because of a backache. I was laid out in pain for 5 days. I did go to work but I was in unbearable pain. I called my chiropractor, John Gianini and my massage therapist, Shireen Mullink, and set up a bunch of appointments. After two weeks and over $400 out-of-pocket, I was much better.

While I was laying in bed, I got a chance to catch up on current events. One of the stories that struck a chord was The Opioid Crisis! It seems like there were all of a sudden hundreds of articles on this one issue. It appears that people are worried about chronic pain only when people are overdosing. Obviously, my back pain drove home all the components of this issue for me such as, cost of treatments, time off from work, pain, pain and more pain. It sucks to be in pain.

So the Opioid Crisis is an important issue without a doubt, one person dies every day from an opioid overdose in the US and many more have misused them and some even resort to heroin after they are no longer able to get their prescribed drugs. Government agencies are taking this serious and arresting doctors for selling them illegally and suing pharmaceutical companies for not disclosing risk levels and recommending that doctors prescribe them for diagnoses beyond their proven effectiveness.

So why does hearing about the opioid crisis make me angry?

All the aforementioned activities are great but what you are not hearing about the Opioid Crisis is that it is about pain, real pain people are feeling and zero promotion of nonaddictive alternative treatments for their pain. In one 2006 study that sampled a total of almost 8,000 people, 262 of which were opioid users, of which 59.3% of those had chronic lower back pain, and 89.6% of those 262 people also suffered from multiple pain issues. So for the most part the opioid crisis is affecting two groups, older adults in pain, and younger adults who are abusing opioids to get high or experiment. It looks like we need to separate out target populations and address substance abuse in younger adults, while addressing chronic pain in people over 40.

In this story by Vox entitled, How to Stop The Deadliest Drug Overdose Crisis In American History, there is not even a sentence regarding alternative non-addictive, non-drug treatments, like chiropractic, acupuncture, massage, Tai Chi and yoga.

From’s website, “The bulk of American patients who need relief from persistent, moderate-to-severe non-cancer pain have back pain conditions (approximately 38 million) or osteoarthritis (approximately 17 million.) “ It mentions nothing about alternative treatments for chronic back pain.

The real issue at the heart of this crisis is that the conventional medical world promotes pain pills and surgery for many problems when they are not needed and they scoff at chiropractors, acupuncturists and anything outside their area of expertise. There has been a battle in this country since the advent of conventional medicine. I am not going to go into the whole issue here but complementary and alternative treatments for back pain have been researched and much of it looks promising, for acupuncture , Chiropractic, massage, yoga and Tai Chi. I say the research looks promising but some of it is older and it is not as rigorous as other medical interventions because frankly the funding for research is not there for these treatments. In other words, they do not rake in huge profits for the power elite of the medical world. Another part of the problem is that many of these alternative treatments are part of the anti-vaccine crowd, which irresponsibly encourages the public to stop vaccinating their children and they promote of unverifiable theories regarding how the body works, i.e chi, prana and meridians. These types of issues make it hard for medical professionals to promote alternative treatments. However, it is possible to separate out what is effective and what is not, just like what we have to do with many medical practices.

In the first paragraph in this article I said I had been teaching Tai Chi since 2001, and that was also when I started my first healthcare job in an elderly facility as an activities assistant. After a few years of working with older adults, most of whom had some kind of disability, I noticed that many disabilities were totally preventable and had they done some kind of alternative treatment might never have needed to enter an assisted living facility. I started to formulate a larger mission to my classes and was soon teaching at the local community center. There were difficulties in funding which curtailed the growth of the class and I was against creating a business because I wanted to reach all older adults, most of whom are on a very tight budget. That vision prompted me return to university and get my BA in psychology, and on to graduate school to complete a master in public health. I chose public health because I wanted to prevent these easily preventable disabilities with Tai Chi and other alternative treatments. I enjoyed my time in academia and published a few papers. Unfortunately, I was so naive to think that Tai Chi would be accepted as a credible intervention. I even did my master’s project on Tai Chi as a prevention for cardiovascular disease. I found that the evidence required to prove the effectiveness of Tai Chi is hard to acquire because there are only a few good studies out there. Basically, it all comes down to funding. Recognizing this I shifted my focus on nutrition and worked with some nutrition researchers documenting dietary behaviors and their association with indicators for cardiovascular disease. It was a great learning experience but it was also a departure from my life's vision, which is the use of Tai Chi and alternative healing for the prevention of chronic disease and disabilities.

One of the things I attribute to my success as a teacher, an activities person and as a researcher was that I also suffer from a chronic pain problem. As I have written many times before, when I was 19 and working my way through college I fell off a ladder while painting a giant boiler in an office building. It resulted in a broken scaphoid bone, which is a small bone in the wrist. The problem with that kind for break is that it “heals” quickly and is often misdiagnosed as a slight sprain. Once the sprain "heals" many, myself included don't go to the doctor,. The real problem starts as one ages because the hand becomes weak and then pain increases. Then you go to the doctor and it is often misdiagnosed as carpal tunnel syndrome. So years later when I finally went to see a doctor for the pain in my wrist, I was given a carpal tunnel syndrome diagnosis and he only wanted to give me pain meds. I was 30 years old at that time and I thought that was weird; surely there was something else? I didn’t see how pain meds would cure my pain.

That off putting experience with a conventional medical doctor prompted me to seek out an alternative doctor; I soon found a naturopath. He suggested I find a Tai Chi class and he also offered acupuncture in his practice. I tried those treatments and they have been successful in managing pain and maintaining my range of motion. I am 52 now and have been working with these healing treatments consistently for the past 22 years. My wrist is not healed in the sense of a normal injury. Scaphoid injuries never truly heal for a number of reasons, so I suffer from avascular necrosis and feel pain daily. I do take pain meds every so often when it flairs up. Since I have been living with this for a very long time I know myself and my body and have come to realize that massage works the best because the pain builds up from being used when other parts of my body are tight and exacerbate the pain in my wrist. A massage works out the stress in my forearms, shoulders and hands, which reduces the wrist pain. Unfortunately, the problem is massage costs anywhere from $70 to $100 dollars for an hour visit. And I do not always have that kind of money to spend. I feel if I were able to get at least one massage and a few chiropractic adjustments per month I would much better manage my chronic musculoskeletal pain. 

Unfortunately, alternative treatments are not promoted by the professionals who are on the front lines of this pain epidemic. When someone sees a doctor, few if any doctors are going to offer an alternative treatment. Moreover, even if doctors did recommend an alternative treatment it would have to be paid for out-of-pocket as few insurers reimburse for them. I believe that if our health system integrated and reimbursed for alternative treatments for pain we would see less people becoming addicted to opioids.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Martial Arts Restored My Self Respect

As I have mentioned in a few blog posts already, my parents were hippies from Brooklyn and moved to a working class town where there were no hippies, while I was in elementary school In the early 70s. I already discussed my first steps on the martial path but in this post I am going briefly review what I went through and then detail how I went about restoring of my own self-respect.

During that 5 to 6 year period of being bullied, I truly felt horrible about myself. I dreamed of killing my classmates often. I wanted nothing out of life but revenge and I thought of little else, my grades plummeted and I was put into Special Education, after the football players in honors class kept punching me when the teacher turned his back. People laughed at me daily; teachers were of little help; and girls stayed far away from me. To this day, I remember those kids surrounding me in the bathroom, while the head football player peed on my sneakers. They all just sat there laughing but that was the moment I said enough is enough!

When I saw Bruce Lee's movie, I knew what I had to do, I enrolled in a Karate class. Even though it sounds a lot like the movie Karate Kid, this happened 5 years before the movie came out in 1984. I got into weapons right away. I was also in shop class and I started making my own weapons, like wooden swords, a Kai, which is a Japanese oar used in traditional Karate, Tonfas and many others. Even though, I didn’t see it at the time, it was an exciting period because  I was unifying my creativity, my physicality and my mind, as I began doing my own research. I started going to the library and bookstores finding the information I needed to solve my bully problem. School had a little value to me, no one there either cared or tried to uncover what was going on with me. I may have put up a wall I am not sure. Irregardless, for the first time in my life I had a plan, it was plain and simple revenge.

At 14 years old, I was the youngest person in my karate class, most of the people were in their 20s and 30s. When we sparred they knocked me on my ass. This was not a kid's class. I started training regularly and I would find peace of mind for the first time in my life, when I was doing the numerous katas I had to memorize in my backyard. I loved karate weapons but my teacher would not teach them to anyone until they were older. So I had to find access to weapons on my own. I made a lot in shop class or when my family went to Chinatown in Manhattan every now and again, I would go to the kung fu shops and buy Bruce Lee posters, nunchaku, throwing stars, etc etc.  I loved everything about karate and kung fu. It gave me a purpose and things really started looking up for me for the first time in my life.

Then one day after school, as we were all chaotically heading to the buses, one of the bigger football players confronted me in the parking lot. I don't recall the details as I was pretty nervous, but I do remember that he made a move to grab me and I let go a round house kick to his head. All the students stopped motionless, and he hesitated and backed off. This was no small feat, no pun intended, because a few months ago, I was this kid who didn't do anything when a group of kids peed on his new sneakers, and now that little cry baby just kicked him in the head in front of everyone in the school. Luckily for me it shocked him so much that he left me alone that day. I really got lucky because a few weeks earlier he had beat up one of the larger hippie freaks, yes this was the era of the freaks and the jocks. Not only did this football player beat that kid up but he had hit him so hard that the hippie went into convulsions while he was unconscious on his back. I did not witness it but it was the talk all over the school for weeks and here I am kicking this guy in the head. Well, my luck did not last long, I soon became labelled as a fighter and being 130 pounds soaking wet, people were eager to test me and the football players smelled blood. So the stakes increased and on top of that my karate school closed down. My father also said we couldn't afford it. I cried and cried I still feel the pain of that closure. I did not have the luxury of withdrawing in my shell, I had to adapt to the new circumstances.

One of the very few positive moves my father made was to buy a home with a wood burning fireplace in it and he made me chop all the wood for it. I should mention that I was diagnosed with dyslexia and there wasn't much being done for people like myself in the 70s. If it had been today I would most definitely have been given Prozac because in my later years I was diagnosed with ADHD. So my father knew I was a handful and this "prescription" of chopping wood was perfect for me. My strength and power increased tremendously but I no longer had a teacher. I searched and searched, remember this wasn't the day when there was a school on every block. That school was the only school in town.

The karate school closure coincided with the rise in popularity of boxing, between Rocky movies, and Martin Scorsese's The Raging Bull, and famous fighters like Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns people were really into boxing in those days. Being Italian-American the movies really spoke to me and one of my friend's brother was a boxer in the Marines.  He taught me a few moves informally. I began to train. I sold my karate and kung fu weapons for boxing equipment, a heavy bag, a speed bag and a jump rope. I began running and training daily. I developed a routine, I would come home from school and instead of practicing my katas, I began running, and training hard by shadow boxing, hitting the heavy bag, jumping rope and doing push-ups. I did this routine right up until dinner time. I knew that the football team trained hard and even had their own weight coach. So if I was going to fight them I would have to work as hard as them. As I started to train word got out, people saw me running around town throwing punches in the air. Since boxing was popular many people got into it. People began asking me to spar with them. I had my own informal sparring ring in my basement, instead of rope it had brick walls. I began sparring and sparring and sparring. I sparred as much as I could. I even had to promise my friends, who wouldn't spar with me otherwise, that I wouldn't throw any punches and they could try to hit me. We did that often and I got good at dodging punches, and I have the scars on my left eyebrow when I let them hit me as hard as they could until I bled-I had to imitate that scene when Jake LaMotta told his brother to hit him in the face in the movie the Raging Bull. I was Italian-American after all.

As my skills were improving and I started turning the tables on those bastard football players, I decided to enter the Golden Gloves tournament in NYC. Without any coach or anyone but my uncle and my dad in at my corner, I entered the ring against a seasoned fighter from Fort Apache Bronx Boxing Gym. They put out top professional fighters.  As soon as I stepped out when they called my name to fight, I was bombarded by lights and TV cameras. The ref made us touch gloves and bam bam, this guy was all over me and the ref stopped the fight within two minutes of the first round. I did not get knocked down but I was totally outclassed and overwhelmed.  

After that experience, word must have spread about me in my little town, and some old Irish guy, named Pat Finneran showed up at my house asking if I wanted to learn how to box. He was 72 years old and worked as a boxing coach in the Bronx. He was the first person to actually genuinely express interest in my well-being. He was the first person to show me why discipline is so important. He made me shuffle with my left leg leading up and down my driveway over and over again. We didn’t do all kinds of crazy drills, or 20 different punches. He simply made me shuffle in and out, with a left jab over and over again. He eventually added a right cross and a left hook and that was all we worked on for 6 months. After those six months no one was able to hit me or to last long with me. I totally outclassed everyone. I fought most of the football team members and beat them bad. The only one who I could not beat was the one guy who peed on my shoes. He was 6' 3" or 4" and around 200 pounds. He was captain of the football team and an all-star baseball player. I fought him 7 times and one time he busted a blood vessel in my eye but I kept fighting him. After those fights no one ever messed with me again. I was liberated and could say and do what I wanted and no one called me names or tried to bully me again.

After accomplishing that I felt like my self respect had been restored and with my new coach I signed up for the next golden gloves tournament but then I met a girl. It was my first girlfriend ever and I was about to graduate high school. I was on top of the world and I went to Pat Finneran and told him I didn’t want to fight anymore. Looking back at myself at that moment I feel terrible because here was a person who really helped me and I left him without so much as a thank you. I hope he knew how much he helped me in my life. When my second son was born I named his middle name Finneran.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The A.B.M.S. Mindest


  • Always
  • Be
  • Making
  • Stuff

As I have mentioned in other posts, my parents were hippies that made hand-sewn leather goods and sheepskin coats for people in the 70's. As a young child to young parents I would play with the scraps while they were working-I have the scars to prove it. I specifically remember gluing together a leather bag with those scraps. My parents were very creative people and set me off on the road towards making stuff.

When I graduated high school I wanted to be an artist and began taking classes at a community college. I started in drawing and painting but soon found myself in sculpture. I started carving wood and researching primitive carvings and carving across cultures. I loved anthropology and incorporated many styles in my work. I have carved totem poles and small work alike.

Then my wife and I decided to move to Mississippi, where she was born. Whenever we visit her parent’s land I head off to the woods. They live in a small rural town that doesn’t even have a police station. I call my jaunts in nature, a bushcraft walk because when I go I always do some bushcrafty activities like, build a shelter, identify wild plants or make cordage from plants. I also gather materials and spot and identify them. It is a like a mini-adventure. When I was a kid I loved those shows about a jungle expedition where someone always got stuck in quicksand. Anyway, this is my little way of having an adventure. I have been doing that for over a decade and haven’t gotten caught in quicksand yet.

After doing some research I purchased VHS tapes from Ron Hood’s Woodmaster series. In them, he demonstrated all kinds of projects to make with wood and other natural and found materials. Watching those videos I realized that I could make that stuff while I was in the woods. What really grabbed my attention was the innovative, out of the box thinking, which I think is the hallmark of bushcrafting Ron displayed. In one, he magnetizes a small thin piece of metal and places it on a leaf in a cup of water to determine north, and in another, he sharpens both ends of two 12” long sticks and interlocks them to make a primitive weapon. There were tons of ideas that you can make from everyday items around you.  From that moment on I was hooked and it became a life long hobby. It also paired well with my background in the arts and it made me feel more confident in nature.

To me ABMS is a daily mindset, I am always looking for a resource and seeing what I can make from it. I also try to make something everyday, even if it is a little feather stick and a small fire. Now these things are not pieces to sell at a crafts fair but they keep the juices flowing. The ABMS mindset puts me in creative mode, it builds body heat (during cold days), teaches me about the properties of different materials and finally it keeps my mind occupied. I don’t know if you are like me but my mind is constantly racing around, so this activity keeps me positive and focused.