Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Exorcise Regimen- RIP Jack LaLanne

Isaan Stairmaster
I don't know if you saw it, but recently a story in the Times discussed a study finding that, oddly, "drinking (alcohol) is associated with a 10.1 increase in the probability of exercising vigorously."
Besides the fact that any experiment that includes getting rats drunk and lifting weights (actually,  just the usual wheel) seems like a wonderful way to spend tax dollars, the researchers conclusions got me to thinking about my own what I call "prison work out".  Here is what they speculated about the rats and the respondents to their questionnaires:

The authors don’t have a definitive answer. The survey results do not “follow expected patterns,” they admit, in which people who indulge in one unhealthy habit tend to indulge in others and vice versa. Smokers, for instance, statistically are less likely than average to exercise regularly and eat well. But this is not the case when it comes to drinking and exercise.  Maybe, the authors speculate, some of the drinkers are drawn to a “sensation-taking lifestyle” that includes adventurous, extreme styles of exercise. Alternatively, imbibers could be “socializing and drinking after participating in organized group sports.” Or they might be trying “to compensate for the extra calories gained through drinking or to counterbalance the negative health effects of drinking.”
Dr. Leasure suspects that alterations in the brain circuitry of drinkers and exercisers may also play a role. Drinking and exercising both preferentially alter activity in “the mesocorticolimbic neural circuitry,” she said, a portion of the brain associated with reward. Brain activity patterns there suggest that, for rats and presumably for people, exercise and drinking are rewarding activities; we enjoy doing them (although, in the case of exercise, it may be that we “enjoy having done it,” Dr. Leasure said, since the exercise itself sometimes feels like drudgery). When the exercising rats were deprived of their running wheels and the accompanying rewards, they may have sought a replacement in booze, which lights up the same brain centers. 

 While all those hypotheses sound rational enough, in my own case I see a connection between the way I drink (I really should say used to drink) and the way I exercise, and I think it is driven at least partly by another motivation-the desire to achieve a sense of, or perhaps it is a state of, ummm peace? forgetfulness? rest? dare I say grace? Quite a few posts ago a stranger asked me in a comment how one achieves a state of grace, an enormous and important question. One seemingly at the heart of every sentient moment, but almost never heard outside of sacred spaces. The quest is acknowledged and embedded in various institutional religions- the peace which passeth understanding, nirvana, etc. -and include methods such as prayer and meditation for getting there. It is also at the core of such alternative spiritualists as Eckart Tolle. The bulk of these practices head in the direction of stillness, silence, and physical renunciation. This makes sense since the mind is troubled by the body and its needs and the body decays. But isn't it true that the body itself is troubled by the body? There is a restlessness at my core and often niggling voices in my head, fires lit I assume mostly by biology - Thou shalt spread thy DNA! Thou shalt fear the predator and death!- and inflamed by society- Thou shalt be desired and popular! Thou shalt be powerful and rich! One could certainly posit that all social directives are ultimately hatched in the biological realm. As the trajectory of life is a brief, confused and callow upward arc, drenched in physical imperatives, followed by an inevitable descent and decline (and thanks to modern medicine and technology, in the first world at least, a loooong descent) and finally a passage, often physically painful, through a blank portal to an undiscovered country, is it any wonder why I am rarely at peace? In the physical marketplace there exist myriad responses to this restlessness (I think my Christian sister would describe it more as "unwholeness"), all more or less potentially perverse and destructive, depending on one's political and moral viewpoint and the obsessiveness in which they are indulged- sports and watching sports, shopping, sex, drugs, eating, alcohol, war - perhaps even the making of and consuming of art and music. It seems to me that the particulars of one's response to this restlessness is governed by a host of individualized phenomena including physical make-up, life experience, education, religious upbringing, etc., as well as the social mores and conditions of one's epoch. Would it be possible to create a critical school which, like the feminist, Marxist, and historical schools, examined the world through this lens? Looking at all of human history and art as a product of this urge to overcome restlessness or unwholeness? I wonder. In my case, it makes sense to make a division between physical restlessness and spiritual paucity. I think my body(and the small lizard brain embedded beneath the large hippocampus)was made for living in the forest (albeit a temperate one), where my days would be spent barefoot running, climbing, listening, sniffing the prevailing winds for trouble, scrabbling throughout the daylight hours for food sources, few and far between the empty, hungry days. Instead I sit at lunch tables and stuff myself with calories or in computer carrels typing on facebook or my blog. I don't want to overly romanticize that primitive state, but I imagine there would be a certain sensual wholeness, a certain living in the moment that would preclude, or perhaps more accurately include my physical restlessness. Certainly one would have a hearty appetite when food was located and sleep would not include "restless leg syndrome" for which they actually now make a drug. Beware, of course, the myriad side effects...
Well, for those of you whose eyes did not fully close after glazing over with my mention of an interesting Times article, I also read a one-sided and trite Times piece wherein the writer condemned the recently deceased Jack Lalanne as the primogenitor of a guilt laden, workout frenzied modern culture. The writer made so many unfounded and biased statements, based on such flimsy logic and evidence, I saved it to use in my rhetoric classes. I have a sentimental fondness for Lalanne, his zip-up unitard (dig the belt!), his unpolished, happy demeanor, and his famous workout chair- literally just a chair.

"Poopedoutitis" indeed. Jack was promoting moderation and healthy, natural foods far ahead of his time. I remember my mother occasionally going on a 'fitness kick' with Jack on our old black and white television. He preached against the concept that we can live separate from our bodies and decryed the urge to rely on technology and western medicine to "fix" what we abuse. Maybe my mind was warped by those occasional hours spent with Jack, his voice haunting me like a ghost at my neck- "Peetah! I am cloose!"
Whatever the reason, though I am in training for nothing at all, I find it crucial and liberating to work out at least every other day. The less goal-driven I am about the exercise, the more I immersed I become in the totality of the physical experience and more likely to achieve mental hush. I love biking as there is enough going on that I exist fully in the moment,  alert to my surroundings- the wind on my face, the smells in the air, the ambient noises. When my cheap bike wore out I began confining my workouts in-house. I could go up to the army base and use the equipment but that is not at all what I am after. Instead I bought this high tech wonder called a jump rope for three dollars. I alternate this with the stairmaster pictured at the top of the post. I don't go by counting reps or timing. I just go as hard as I can until I can't. Indoors I prefer a mix of heavy beat trance music (thank-you Angus and Sarah), bands like Schpongle, and BassNectar and BlueTech and Younger Brother. Most of these bands market themselves to a drug eating crowd. Having fortunately survived a drug phase myself, I understand the allure of these drug shortcuts to the trance state, yet I know that, like the prescription restless-leg pills, hallucinogens are short on authentic rewards and long on physical after effects.
Still, the music itself is perfect for the way I proceed. When I get sick of trance music I turn to the most mindless pop I can find- because it is just that- mindless- providing a beat and no more. I think French pop online is the most vapid I have discovered so far. After I can't jump rope anymore or climb any more stairs, I turn to this push-up machine. It is spacious and very flat, ideal for engaging in the activity. The tile has a built in cooling  feature and as it is glazed tile it is very easy to clean after using.
Then I roll over and use my final machine, more expensive and high tech but doubles as a drying machine for my body after showering (I rotate the dirty ones in for exercise duty). The second layer, left here by my predecessors, doubles as an elite yoga mat.
This is where I do sit-ups, leg lifts, and this stupid looking thing where I lay on my stomach and raise a leg and opposing arm. I do all of these over and over until the limbs won't obey, exactly what Jack advised to do so many years ago. The snarky Times writer based much of his logic on the premise that the actual workout brings no enjoyment. Apparently he is not familiar with the subtler aspects of the pleasure/pain principal. Though I admit I prefer being out on the bike and I get jealous reading about Bill Gifford x-country skiing in the Bog, I know I am not alone in loving the mindless pushups and sit-ups. At times I indulge in the metaphor that with each repetition I am pushing back all the suffering and confusion of life, and I will admit to some of the old Rocky-Balboa-on-the-steps-in-Philly when I am done. Hey, that was a pretty decent flick even if the next 19 in the series stank...I know I am waging a losing battle if you look at it one way. Like Jack we all ultimately must go (yes, I am aware of some of the latest nano technology that may advance us beyond physical death- doubt it will be ready for me or if I would want it). I know I should probably transition more to that yoga mat, learning how to be still in equal measure. For now though, as long as that voice is there behind me (Is it the old Frenchie, Jack? Is it my dna? Is it some new Thai ghost?) I will just throw myself against the boulder one more time to see if I can't get the damn thing to stay on top of the damn hill.


  1. The "stupid looking thing where [you] lay on [your] stomach and raise a leg and opposing arm" is called a superman. At least that's what Jenny McCarthy told me.

    Just a fun fact for you.

    I also hate working out with machinery. (I don't have any reason to get super buff anyway.) Like you, I prefer the more intimate, just my mind and my body regimen. I skiied all day today by myself. I guess some might consider my skis as some sort of a machine, but I wouldn't... just an extension of my body. There was nobody there to push my limits except me, and I certainly did. I skied tighter and faster than I ever have. It was incredibly liberating.

  2. Interseting views.

    Challenging routine.

    I haven't had a drink in a while; now I can use that as an excuse not to exercise.

    Mostly I spend some time stilling the turbulent internal currents. I like what Carl Jung said about collective consciousness. It is enough of a work out for me to tune that music out; or at least reduce the volume.

  3. I agree, Hayli. When you can get a ski mountain somewhat to yourself, there is nothing that I have done that comes close to the exhilaration and connection- I am sure surfing and some of the new extreme flying sports must take it to a new level altogether.