Welcome to the first installment of my new column for Phalanx: Blood and Bones. The main goal(s) of this column is to inspire you to take your fitness and fight training to deeper levels of personal fulfillment and in essence view your journey of physical transformation as not “just physical” but rather alchemical in nature, with the physical transformation echoing a concomitant psychological / spiritual transformation as well.
I tend to think of this approach as an integral system of Eastern / Western paradigms whereby we can move beyond simplistic mechanistic views of the mind / body and find deeper sources of philosophical and often “metaphysical” inspiration which feed into our daily practices of training and conditioning. The journey of physical fitness is pathway to self-discovery, or at least it should be.
The traditional martial arts systems were ideal examples of this idea functioning as systems of harsh physical conditioning (exoteric) as well as unwavering mental / spiritual refinement (esoteric). In these martial systems, it is often hard to exactly pinpoint clear demarcations between the “inner” and the “outer” training. Yet in today’s climate, we often hear individuals claiming to only “want” or “need” one aspect of martial systems, usually the apparent “physical” aspect.
It is to this myopic confusion to which I would like to address Blood and Bones. In these columns I will explore unique ideas from the eastern systems of medicine, Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine, as well as cutting edge western ideas from Functional Medicine / Sports physiology in an effort to show how we can develop a more nuanced view of physical fitness and fight training and how this relates to our growth and refinement on a psychological and even spiritual level. This is reflected in the choice of the title, Blood and Bones. The physiological substance of blood is an excellent metaphor for discussing the nuances of eastern and western views of the body-mind complex.
While we know blood to be a distinct physiological substance which literally transports key life-supporting substances throughout the body, eastern systems of medicine also held that blood also contained subtle aspects such as “Qi” which were also foundational for health and vitality. We can clearly see this reflected in how various esoteric systems view blood as a mystical substance of alchemical import and spiritual power. Therefore blood seems to bridge two words, eastern and western; blood is a physical substance which can be measured by “science” yet contains echoes of more ancient primordial esoteric whisperings.
Yet we must be discriminating in our discussions and leave reason behind in an effort to create “new-age energy healing” disasters in our explorations, hence we use the structure of Bone to provide an architecture of intellectual stability to our discussions and explorations. Bone provide us with structure and stability, an infrastructure which we can build upon and form a solid foundation. Blood and Bone, each one morphing from Yin to Yang, substantial to subtle, depending upon one’s intellectual vantage point, each one in constant transformation; yet each one provides solid substance, protection and nourishment to the mind-body complex. Therefore I hope this metaphor of “Blood and Bones” serves us well as we explore ideas from the East and the West in order to build more complex blueprints for physical, mental and spiritual transformation without leaving behind common sense or practicality.
In this first installment, I want to examine five basic ideas which I see consistently ignored or overlooked by patients and athletes alike, amateur and professional. These five ideas are key factors for deepening one’s level of physical fitness and recovery. It is vital that we look at all aspects of training, and not just the actual activity of training itself. What comes before and after training is just as important as the training itself.
These five areas create a physical and mental environment wherein we perform the actual “training” per se. With hard extreme physical training or fighting, we must optimize all aspects of life if we wish to perform at a high level and avoid injury or over-training issues. And if we do incur injuries during training, each of these five areas can also optimize recovery, therefore they form an almost Yin-Yang relationship, each one overlapping and cross-pollinating in the process of self-discovery and self-transformation.
- Avoid Diet Cults
The subject of diet is of course a massive topic which cannot be summarized in one article. I will cover specialized concerns about dietary issues for training and recovery in future articles however in this one I want to address one key fundamental idea which seems to always be a chronic issues with all of my patients and clients who I coach, as well as with friends who train in martial arts. This issue is the fundamentalist approach to diet whereby one diet is espoused as the “ultimate” diet for all bodies. Each person’s lifestyle, genetics and training can be very individual, even when following a uniform training protocol.
Ayurveda is a key example of this recognizing different physical / mental body types which require a nuanced approach to both diet and training. But even without using a system such as Ayurveda, we must recognize the unique biochemical individuality of each person and not prescribe to a fundamentalist “one size fits all” approach to diet. We can acknowledge such basics such as adequate protein intake and watching overall caloric intake, as these apply to specific biochemical issues with performance, recovery and the immune system. But it’s both faulty science and faulty logic for anyone or any system to claim to discover “miracle” diets which work for everyone.
Above all, master the basics first: eat basic natural foods, avoid processed foods and monitor protein and caloric intake. These basics alone are the foundation upon which all successful training is built. After this, the individual must address any individual food sensitivities / food allergies which may be present. This is a crucial component which demands deep attention and must not be avoided.
I will give key piece of nutritional advice mined from the exquisite medical system of Ayurveda: eat with full undivided attention! Do not eat while watching tv, surfing the internet, or driving. Treat your meal times as sacred and this allows your body to fully digest the food on all levels, from the gastrointestinal to the cellular; slow down and pay full attention to your food, treat it as a blessing.
Bottom line: anyone or any book which tells you there is “only one way” to eat, promises miracles or claims “everything you learned about nutrition is wrong” is simply diet cult propaganda. Learn the basics, master the basics, and address food sensitivities / food allergies. This is the true “secret” to diet and nutrition!
- Find a mentor / consult a professional
In the world of google, social media, and the shallows of the internet, everyone has instantly become experts on anything and everything. It’s not uncommon for me to have patients or clients come in to my office with stacks of information off the internet with printed out self-diagnosis. In almost all cases, it’s all wrong information. Therefore it’s vital for anyone wishing to reach new levels of fitness or health to reach out to trained professionals and seek advice on a one-to-one level! Whether it’s a licensed Health Coach, Personal Trainer, Sifu or medical practitioner, find someone who is an expert in the field you wish you pursue and ask for help!
The sobering truth is that we can’t teach ourselves kung-fu and we can’t diagnosis ourselves online. This is the exact situation with teacher / student transmission in spiritual systems. Even if one has reached a high level of excellence, there are always areas which need to be adjusted and tweaked and this is the job of the expert / mentor. Seeking the advice and guidance of a qualified mentor also saves time as the individual can now focus all his or her attention on the actual key issue: training. I always tell my patients and clients: drop the ego and seek out guidance. Once this occurs, true levels of accomplishment and transformation can occur.
Bottom line: don’t try to find all the answers on your own, seek out mentors and ask for help.
- Cultivate patience
When one embarks on the path of physical training, self-improvement or self-transformation, one of the key ideas which must be embraced is the idea of Time. Even the most powerful will power or work ethic can’t overcome the power of Time. Therefore we must cultivate patience in all aspects of our lives as we train. We must be patient with our progress and patient with our recovery. This is in many way the “secret” to avoiding injuries. Most injuries occur because someone is impatient or hasty in their training and attempts to accomplish something which they are not prepared for on a physical level. Yes we must always push our training to test our limits however we must not be reckless or ignorant in our training methodology. We would not be reckless in a fight, so why would we be this way in our day to day training?
This is one of the main reasons why I emphatically recommend patients and training clients to learn and implement a daily practice of meditation. In essence, meditation is not to accomplish some mythical “enlightenment” but rather to cultivate a calm, still, focused mind which does not overreact or overjudge! We must give our bodies and minds time to grow and recovery and take the time to enjoy the actual journey of physical training and self-development. Self-transformation is not race and our lives will be over before we realize it, therefore take the time to enjoy the day to day efforts which in time can move mountains.
Bottom line: Cultivate patience and learn to implement a daily meditation practice.
- Prioritize Sleep
When we discuss ways or methodologies for improving athletic or fight training or even basic overall self-improvement, it’s very easy to focus myopically on the endless minutiae of the physical activities of the daily grind. However one key aspect which plays a massive role in physical fitness and mental health which is commonly overlooked is sleep. Sleep is perhaps the most important facet of recovery and long-term health when undertaking intense physical training or even navigating the stressful waters of everyday life in the modern environment. It does not matter how hard we are training or how much protein we are consuming, if we are not experiencing deep restorative sleep on a daily basis, we will methodically break the body down rather than build it up. It’s true that the goal of hard training is to break the body down in some ways in order for it to grow stronger. However the key aspect for this to occur is adequate recovery, which entails nutrition and deep restorative sleep. It’s rather easy for individuals to grasp the ideas of drinking a smoothie post workout, but it’s often difficult to convince individuals of the massive importance of sleep for physical recovery and anabolic processes such as increases in muscle mass and mineralization of bones. Missing just one night of deep sleep can cause disruption in the immune system and if this occur 2-4 nights a week the body will start to experience significant disharmony of the nervous system as well as the immune system. Therefore it is imperative that anyone wishing to reach new goals in physical fitness and training to prioritize sleep. I will write a future column on key ideas for improving sleep quality, but for now the main ideas to bring home if for individuals to begin to envision sleep as a primary factor for quality health and vitality.
Bottom line: Make sleep a priority. Even if you are buying the most expensive high quality protein and training with the most qualified coaches, missing sleep will derail the best efforts for improvement. Sleep quality effects mental health as well and is key for a positive mindset and calm focused awareness, therefore make it a priority as important as nutrition.
- Address Digestive Issues
The resolution of digestive issues is a key factor in long-term health and vitality which effects all aspects of health, mental and physical in nature. Modern research is finally catching up to traditional systems such as Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda on this topic. These ancient systems of medicine all made digestion a fundamental priority of health and modern research on such issues as “leaky gut syndrome”, SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) and microbiome research are all revealing the importance of a healthy digestive tract. This is vitally important for athletes as digestive issues can be a major factor due to consuming larger amounts of macronutrients such as protein and carbohydrates in order to fuel both performance and recovery.
This topic is massive in content and beyond the scope of this first installment however we can touch upon some basic foundational ideas. The most important factor to start would be to be aware and make note of any gastrointestinal issues one might be experiencing such as chronic gas or bloating or chronic heartburn. If any such issues are common, then they must be addressed. These can often be a sign of food sensitivities / food allergies, which I touched upon earlier. Or they can be a sign of poor food combinations and a lack of digestive enzymes. The recommendation of slowing down while eating and eating in an aware mindful state, so often discussed in Ayurveda, directly targets the issue of digestion. Digestion is a complex process which starts with the tongue and ends in the intestines, with factors such as smell, palatability and appearance also coming into play. We must be sure that the digestive system is functioning in an effective manner and this must be a focus for long-term health and maximizing sports performance and recovery. I will cover detailed ideas on this topic in future columns as this subject is immense and deserves deep discussion.
Bottom line: Make note of any chronic digestive issues and formulate plans to resolve these issues. Don’t ignore them as they are key signs of inner imbalance which can lead to long-term health setbacks.
I hope you enjoyed this first installment of Blood and Bones! In future articles, I will be covering many of the aforementioned subjects in greater detail, and I will also discuss other, relevant topics. However, these five key ideas are the most common ones I see ignored or downplayed by patients and clients in all walks of life. We cannot dismiss these areas if we wish to achieve greater levels of health, fitness or self-improvement. Therefore take some time and examine these key foundational ideas and see if any of these areas are trouble spots. If so, then simply formulate a plan for bringing it back into balance. Just as we mentioned in regard to the Time issue, we cannot rush healing and we cannot rush transformation, therefore take it slow and steady in healing, cultivating patience as we slowly bring the body back into balance.
Besides covering some of these topics in greater detail in future articles, I will also be bringing in guest writers who I admire as experts in particular areas of focus or who inspire me with dedicated passion and commitment to excellence. Until then, take care, don’t waste precious time, and train hard!