Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A Graph of the Heart

As my hometown just won a major sporting event, I'm moved to write about kinesthetic motor intelligence, or the use of information through the sense of touch, muscles, balance, and movement to learn about the world.

It's not a subject I see written about or discussed frequently among Humanist communities where there are lots of sweat pants and not much s
weat. This probably helps explain why I didn't even know the Phillies were in the World Series until a week ago. Humanists tend to value intellectualism, especially scientific inquiry, philosophical skepticism, and general curiosity about the natural world. But what about the personal knowledge which can be gained through the experience of shaping our physical bodies? Humanists tend to value camaraderie built on shared social concerns. But what about the value of sportsmanship and the ecstasy of physical engagement? Perhaps many Humanists undervalue sports and other physical activities because we long to balance out the over-embrace of sports (often to the degree of cult-like fanaticism) alongside anti-intellectualism in mainstream American culture.

A few years ago, the Matrix movies inspired the creation of The Animatrix, a collection of nine short animated films set in the fictional Matrix world. One, "World Record," caught my attention in particular.
It featured a champion track runner, Dan Davis, who escapes the virtual reality of the Matrix through sheer kinesthetic motor intelligence. In an intense race, understanding of how his body works, its strength, speed, and in pushing it to its limits, Davis rips away the sham of the virtual world. When he suddenly awakens in the "real world" he is shocked, frightened, and confused, and I felt a deep sense of compassion, realizing that on top of having no literal concept of what he had achieved, in the "real world" his olympian muscles were atrophied and left him at the mercy of the machines. Yes, I know, the lesson is an oldie in the realm of science fiction - but a goodie!

I once dated a computer programmer who bragged about his rejection of exercise. Ironically, he later dated a woman who was so athletic that he, too, came to love biking and other physical activities long after that relationship dissolved.

People get physical for all sorts of personal reasons. My brother Geoff originally got involved with exercise and weight training to be more competitive on his high school wrestling team. As match day came closer, he'd fast and run in a garbage bag to knock off as many pounds as possible for the weigh-in. Later Geoff developed aspirations to become an actor, an unforgiving profession which requires constant physical maintenance and control. Over the years Geoff has become increasingly sophisticated about both his diet and body sculpting. Many of his former classmates didn't even recognize him at his ten year high school reunion and remarked that he had "changed the most" in his appearance. Geoff currently does an hour and a half of yoga a day and bikes wherever he can. His passion for yoga even inspired a side career, working toward certification in Budokonyoga with founder Cameron Shayne (pictured below engaged in Zen meditation.)

Two guy friends of mine both got involved in weight training to bulk up their naturally slim physiques. Just as too much fat is deemed unattractive by conventional standards of beauty, being too skinny - particularly in men - is considered undesirable.

My dad used to walk constantly, to the point of benefiting from the high of endorphins that physical activity releases. Years ago when he was a smoker, he'd manage to quit for short spurts of time by walking half a day's journey to his brother's house, spending the night, then walking back home the next day. The intensity of such extensive walk would actually take away his cigarette cravings for the following three weeks! Today my dad insists that walking is not enough. Just as his marathon walks didn't help him quit nicotene permanently (years of weaning himself off with chewing tobacco and then nicorette gum did that,) his walks weren't enough to ward off heart disease. After bypass surgury, my dad has become the model of physical health. His 10% fat vegan diet and morning workouts at the recreation center are treated with religious devotion.

I never had great coordination, but I was naturally thin, so in high school I ran track and cross country. I hated competition, but enjoyed the energy a good run would give me that lasted the rest of the day. The continued jogging for years after high school, until at the age of 23 I developed plantar faciitus. Plantar faciitus is the most common cause of foot pain. It involves an inflammation of a ligament which stretches across the arch of one's feet. Mine is probably caused by high arches which caught up to me as I slowly gained weight with age. At first I went into denial about the pain, continuing to run and making the problem worse. Eventually it got bad enough that I had to quit regular jogging for good, but after several years I've learned to manage and prevent the pain through simple exercises, good shoes, and a night brace. Losing my ability to run lead to years of foregoing regular exercise, which for the most part didn't matter since I, like my father, always walked a lot. But after graduate school, I got a job commuting. I gained fifteen pounds, suffered from frequent migraines, and became generally miserable about my body. I made a lot of excuses about why I couldn't exercise, but eventually my excuses ran out. It has taken a while to get into a consistent routine, but I've finally found a nice mix of biking instead of driving whenever possible, and doing regular pilates and some yoga.

My journey toward a regular exercise routine really took off with exercise videos. My brother recommended a yoga instructor, but that didn't work out. I'm not a huge fan of yoga. I become easily bored and frustrated with long poses. To be honest, most of the videos I've tried have ended with me shouting obscenities at the screen and deleting them from my Netflix cue within the first twenty minutes. What can I say, I'm picky. But I've found one instructor I like a lot.

Instructor Ellen Barrett(pictured here) did a series of videos through the NYC fitness center Crunch. My favorites are Fat Burning Pilates, Super SlimDown, and Burn and Firm, and I couldn't tell you how many times I've watched each one - each at least once a week for the past three months, with no sign of boredom. I've lost the fifteen pounds I gained the last two years, and much to my joy and relief, am no longer commuting.

Obviously everyone has to find their own comfort zone with physical activity. We're not all shaped the same way, and we all have our own limitations. Just as I found myself cursing at videos of the yoga instructor my brother adored, I'm sure many would find Ellen Barrett's classes corny, or a real bore. One friend of mine who happens to be heavy told me about a yoga class uniquely tailored for overweight people that she enjoyed.

The coolest part of biking, pilates and yoga for me is that I find myself flexing muscles that before I wasn't even aware of. I'll be rubbing a print and realize that I'm toning my abs, or walking up steps and feel the strength I've gained in certain leg muscles. It reminds me of when I learned something in math class as a kid, and then suddenly had an opportunity to use what I learned in real life. Indeed there is knowledge to be gained through exercise; the term "kinesthetic motor
intelligence" makes a lot of sense. It is my hope that the type of knowledge I gain from all this physical activity will help me deal better and even conquer some of my fears of pregnancy.

Of course what anyone gains from intense physical engagement is quite personal. Experiences can be described, but not shared. As in art, opposed to math, the emotional connection to physical activity is penetrating. If I wake up sad but have to bike an hour downtown and then back again, my mood is elevated and I go to bed at night content and happier to be alive. The dancer and choreographer Martha Graham wrote, "Every dance is a kind of fever chart, a graph of the heart." May we all recognize the joy and necessity of dancing every day.

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