“Once a system is well-defined, or “boxed”, it becomes vulnerable.”
We’ve now been hunkered down at Alexa’s parents’ house for 7 weeks. We are in Northern Westchester, so not too far from the city, but it feels like the country. The house is surrounded by a nature preserve and the roads are a mix of paved and dirt. The homes here are spread far apart, so most people can’t see their neighbor’s house. Aside from sitting down for homecooked family dinners, my favorite thing we do is take walks in the neighborhood. Alexa’s parents go on a 5-mile walk (at least) every day. Most of the time they do their “loop”. The loop has a number of hills, some rocky dirty roads, and is circular in the sense that you leave the house in one direction and return from the other. Sometimes we join and sometimes we do it on our own. This past Sunday morning, while Alexa was out for a run, I decided to walk the loop on my own. I’d been wanting to listen to Michael Pollan’s new audiobook, Caffeine, and figured a walk would be a great opportunity to take it in. It was a little rainy, but not enough to slow my roll. So, I downloaded the book, tossed in my earbuds, zipped up the raincoat, and walked out the door.
As I began to climb the first hill, I couldn’t help but notice a sea of wet leaves to the side of the road. It looked like a Jackson Pollock painting. I was hypnotized. There were no straight lines. A landscaper hadn’t primped and polished them to perceived perfection. It was beautifully organized in its disorganization. And, as I admired the forest floor, I was reminded of a Movement Brooklyn LIVE lesson from a few days prior. I had been teaching some organic strength material (creative strength in non-linear scenarios), and was explaining the value of this kind of work. I said, “It is important we include this in our training because life is crooked.” What I was staring at in the leaves was the crookedness. I snapped a photo.
Our culture is suffering from a denial of our creatureliness, a term and concept I became aware of when reading The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker. We refuse to accept that we are animals, that we are part of nature. Instead nature is what we see outside our window, and there is no way we’re animals because we poop in a toilet and they do it on the ground. As a denial of our creatureliness, we crave to control nature; flatten, straighten, and organize. However, nature has problem solved over billions of years to develop its wonderful unpaved randomness.
Through my ear buds, Pollan was describing how he’d chosen to abstain from coffee as an experiment for the book, and the “fogginess” that came with the first day withdrawals. While I reminisced about the delicious cup of coffee I’d finished just before leaving the house, I looked to my left and discovered a tree dancing with a rock. It was quite a SLOW dance; even slower than how we use to sway to K-Ci and JoJo at middle school dances. The roots had found their way in and around the exposed crag. The tree was leaning to the right, and the rock didn’t have a single right angle, but somehow, they’d come together in perfect structural harmony. Despite not having a flat forest floor or ideal soil, the tree had thrived, and appeared quite strong.
A bit further down the loop, I came across a rock wall surrounding a home. Stones of different shapes and sizes were put together like puzzle pieces to create the wall of equal height and depth. I found some beauty in the organization of imperfect stones to create the straight lines of the wall. It was a pleasant collaboration of the organic and linear. There was also a sense of craftsmanship in the structure; like whoever had committed their time and energy to this wall, this work of art, had put a piece of themselves into it. Of course, I couldn’t help but wonder how many trees were missing dance partners.
Our attempt to control and deny our participation as creatures of nature has seeped into the fitness-sphere. It is a world full of protocols, definitions, and isolated movements. There is little, if any, spontaneity or creativity. Walk through an Equinox and you’ll hear the term “perfect form” thrown around like a beach ball at a Phish concert. But what is this “perfect form”? Why don’t all the other animals practice it? Movements are given names and definitions to clarify this “perfect form”. If a movement doesn’t have a name, it isn’t part of the “perfect form” system. However, we are capable of an infinite number of shapes and movement patterns; watch a contemporary dancer, BJJ practitioner, or rock climber. So, what about all these movements that fall outside of the “perfect form” system? What happens when I’m asked to perform tasks outside of the system? This discussion came up during a Movement Brooklyn LIVE session recently. A student named Nelson, who joins us from Brazil, said, “This is why the word fitness is perfect, because it fits in a box.” We’ve allowed the human organism to be treated like a machine with parts to work on; when it is much more complex than that.
While I trekked down the longest and steepest hill of the walk, I listened to Pollan talk about the English coffeehouses of the 17th and 18th centuries; interestingly Lloyd’s of London had started out as Lloyd’s Coffee House. As I walked around a hairpin turn, I came across an incredible display of a human’s attempt to control nature in all its grotesque flawlessness. What appeared to be 3 football fields lined up next to each other was actually the lawn for a driveway to, what Alexa calls, a McMansion. Judging by the surrounding forest, someone, at some point, had cut down every last tree and flattened out the ground to lay down manicured grass. The randomness, disorder, and uniqueness I had been fascinated by in the leaves and tree/rock slow dance had been removed. Any disruption to the human idea of perfection had to be trimmed or cut down. It reminded me of people who sing “perfectly”, but no one knows who they are, and of the inverse scenario, like Kurt Cobain. I quoted Tao Te Ching a couple blogs back, and I use it here again, “True perfection seems imperfect, yet it is perfectly itself.”
I soon arrived at my favorite part of the loop, the dirt roads. My shoes have thin soles, so I tend to drift toward the most bumpy and jagged stones in the road to get the full foot massage. As I enjoyed my foot rub and listened to how bees are as addicted to coffee as we are, I kept noticing my ankles and knees falling into misalignment as I walked over the uneven surface. I tuned in to the corrections my body was making to address the changes in the surface with every step. The ankles, knees, and hips were constantly adjusting to the instability, and my torso was being asked over and over to rebalance to the changing terrain. The chaos of the ground was giving my body new stressors to learn to address. Over time, this new information could make me more adaptable; the instability would help bulletproof my joints and the rebalancing would give more tools for organization. I’m certain that this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of information being delivered to my nervous system, most of which I’ll never even be aware of.
There is room for collaboration between the straight and crooked, linear and organic, deliberate and spontaneous, systematic and chaotic, and logical and creative. One cannot occur without the other. Both sides of the coin need each other to exist as one, heads and tails; yin and yang. Our practice and training should reflect this. Too much of one side leaves vulnerability on the other side. We should have “perfect form” squats, exact reps, and timed rounds; as well as imperfect squats, play, and randomness.
As I turned the final corner, Pollan was wrapping up his story. I’d learned the good, the bad, and the ugly about caffeine. Perhaps the most fitting take-way from the book was how coffee has played an integral role in developing the focused, linear, and systematized world. Prior to coffee, the psychoactive drug of choice was alcohol, which obviously does not have these properties (you should listen if you’re interested). It was wonderful to enjoy the loop on my own, and take in the details that had normally slipped by. Despite the name, the loop is not a perfect circle. It twists and turns, goes up and down, and is flat and bumpy. Like life, the loop is cooked.