November 28, 2013 – I’m relaxing at my mother-in-law’s home following a vigorous Action Strength/JKD workout in her back yard.  It was a vacation week for me; I hadn’t all out killed myself, but was feeling strong and energized as I skimmed through my Facebook feed. Sandwiched in between posts about Thanksgiving, family and pumpkin pie was a post from Harinder Singh Sabharwal on the JKDAA group page calling out all Action Strength students and instructors to make December 2013 31 Days of the Great Gama – 15,500 Dands and 31,000 Bhetaks/ 500 Dands, 1000 Bhetaks daily.  Beginning December 1, 2013, ending December 31, 2013.

Wait….what?

As a relative newbie, I had only been Action Strengthing for a little over a year.  I had been cranking out a minimum of 50/100 Dands and Bhetaks daily during that time and was working my way up to higher numbers so that the next time I attended an A.S. workshop I could nail the 500/1000 challenge within 30 minutes along with the bragging rights and tee shirt, but 500/1000 every day for a month?  Was I ready for that?  I think I pondered that question for about a second and a half, turned to my wife, told her about the challenge and said, “I’m going to do it.”

“Ok,” she said.  That was all she needed to say.  She knew how excitedly I had embraced Action Strength training after the level 1 certification.  She knew my mind was made up.  I looked over the details, read how to break up the sets depending on my level of strength and decided I would be up to 250/500 twice a day to start, with the goal of 500/1000 non-stop by the end of the month.  I don’t think I took the challenge out of an ego thing; granted, the whole JKDAA Community was watching as the enthusiastic and committed comments poured in to the post, but I think I just wanted to see what I was capable of. In my short time Action Strength training, I had watched previous limitations fall away as my strength increased, so I was curious to see what I could do if I put my mind to it.  In retrospect, the “challenge” was exactly what I needed.  It was almost as if Singh had said, “Put up or shut up.”…drops mic.

So two days later I began the challenge and dug in see what I was made of.  Singh had pointed out that this challenge was more about forging an iron will than anything else.  I learned that lesson pretty early as I had to push past some substantial mental barriers to hit my regular groove, but once there it became familiar and even comfortable territory.  I could do this.  I would do this.

As the days and weeks progressed, I felt myself growing stronger and unconsciously I created a new strength set point each day from which to build upon for the following workout.  The whole process ultimately came down to forging new neural habits of strength and indomitability. As it turns out, 31 days was a perfect length of time for the challenge since research shows that new habits usually take between 21-30 days to be laid down in our brains.  Repetition is the mother of all skill.  By continually firing the same neurons again and again, we were creating the mental pathways for not only physical strength, but also those for mental fortitude and unconquerable determination.

Making my way through the month, I stumbled upon a handful of insights that helped me to make each day better than the last.  I will be adding these insights to my personal Action Strength notebook and will teach them to my students, but I wanted to share them with you as well in case you find anything that might help you with your training:

  1. The importance of proper form (A.K.A. Posture) – This point although obvious, cannot be overstated. If you aren’t maintaining a neutral spine, correct hand/foot placement, and firing the three triggers – at such high numbers, you’re asking for an injury.  I found that as long as I kept correct form my tempo and endurance would eventually sink into a groove that I could maintain throughout the workout.  If my form fell apart, so did everything else.
  2. Correct breathing and Pranayama for recovery – Without the proper breathing cadence I couldn’t keep my system oxygenated enough to continue.  In other words, whenever I sacrificed my breathing to go faster or harder, I got gassed.  As in shooting, I tried to adopt the motto of “slow is smooth, smooth is fast” with my breathing.  Even, steady breathing made all the difference for me. And between sets, if I needed to recharge, the breathing exercises Sifu teaches were a major lifesaver and helped my system rebalance in time for the next set.
  3. Have a visual focal point – In yoga, the visual focal point is called a Dristhi, or focused gaze, and is used as a means for developing concentrated intention.  I can’t speak for others, but when I do Dands, I find it very helpful to place a small object on the ground about a foot and a half in front of my hands to as a visual focal point.  This serves two purposes; first, it obviously helps to keep your attention focused and not running willy-nilly all over the place.  Intention is a force of nature and it is harnessed through attention.  Locking onto one object helped to shut out distractions and kept my awareness on the task at hand.  Secondly, by keeping your eyes locked on that point helps to ensure that the spine remains straight between the neck and head.  If I looked down or back toward my feet, I broke the alignment of the spine and suffered a power falloff in the overall technique.  For the Bhetaks, I posted a small picture of the Great Gama on the wall at roughly eye level.  This helped me keep my head up and focus straight ahead.  Plus, it kept me inspired.  (I didn’t want to let the big guy down, after all.)
  4. Count mindfully and keep a tally of completed sets – This ties in with the previous point.  Staying focused and free from distractions is the key to success in a challenge like this. In fact, the mental focus needs to be almost meditative in nature.  I learned very quickly that when performing high reps of these exercises counting quality was vitally important. The counting of the repetitions is like a mantra used in meditation practice; it anchors you to the present moment along with the breath.  While subconsciously monitoring form and breathing, I found that the bulk of my awareness would rest on the count of repetitions. But just as in meditation, distractions will compete for attention. Sensations in the body, thoughts in the mind, and sounds in the environment – all would arise and fight for attention, occasionally distracting me enough to lose count.  (I found trying to use a clicker less than ideal).  And nothing’s worse than losing count and having to go back to the last spot you remembered to make sure you get your reps in – plus it jacks up your overall time.  The point is, lock your awareness on the rep count.  Make it the one thing you’re doing right now.  There will be time to think about other things later.  Just imagine, if you’re able to maintain your focus as you crank out your 500/1000, how much more easily can you keep your cool when you’re sparring or in a real fight?  I also kept a small dry erase board handy and hashed off each completed set of 50/100.  This helped me stay motivated by being able to look down and see how far I had come and kept me pushing to finish strong. But more importantly, it once again helped me to not lose count.  The last thing I wanted to do was accidentally miss a set and have to go back and do it over.  That sucks.
  5. Invoke images of archetypal strength – This one helped to power me through the days where I just wasn’t feeling it.  First thing in the morning or right after work, there were times when the whole notion of D&Bs (as I called them) wasn’t terribly appealing.  But once I tapped into an archetype of strength, be it Bruce Lee, the Great Gama, Rickson Gracie, The Mighty Thor, or whoever, I felt like I could pull it off.  Where attention goes, energy flows, and when you invoke the image of strength and superior will into your being, you are able to convert that mental energy into its physical component.  This also helped out when I hit a wall and was feeling like I was ready to give in.  One look at the Great Gama helped me dig deeper and activate those buried energy reserves.
  6. Start at a moderate pace and pick up speed – As I got closer to the end of the month, moving faster became more important if I wanted to hit my 30 minute goal.  But I also learned the hard way that even after being well warmed up, jumping right into Dands at a blistering pace was asking for injury.  My shoulders and hips protested and it set a cruddy tone for the entire workout.  So I chose to make my first set something of a warm-up in which I moved at a moderately even pace.  Actually, even by the first 25 reps, I would find my groove and could pick up speed.  The lesson here: start slow and progressively crank the speed as you catch the groove.
  7. Override negative self-talk – This might be the most powerful insight I gained during the challenge.  Know that you are stronger than what your mind tells you.  The bodily limitations you believe you have don’t exist in your body; they exist in your mind.  Through this challenge I learned that I was infinitely stronger than I had believed myself to be.  And, if it wasn’t for this experience, I would still believe in those limitations. When we push ourselves through the invisible walls in our minds, we discover a new source of strength, perseverance, courage and will.  We recognize that if this barrier falls, we can surely transcend other obstacles to our success.  Yes, the mind (ego) will complain and create seemingly convincing arguments to stop and give up, but the ego is ultimately an illusion that knows it’s losing some of its hold over you every time you complete your workout.  The ego is self-indulgent.  It wants things easy and without any effort.  And when you tell it to sit down and shut up so you can do what you have to do, it fears its own death.  Ignore it.  Move on.  Know that your mind will quit 100 times before your body does.  The idea of the impossible only exists in the mind.  Transcend the mind and work directly with the body.  It will be happy to show you what it can do when you get rid of the middleman.
  8. Persist – Just keep going.  These three words should be considered a mantra in and of themselves.  Half of forging an iron will is simply refusing to quit.  You’ll get sweaty, tired, perhaps sore, or simply exhausted.  Just keep going.  You may want to give up, puke, put it off, or make excuses.  Just keep going.  While this challenge helps to build a physically strong body, I found it was more about mental toughness than any other attribute.  You are fighting to overcome the weakness, self-doubt, and fear that weighs us down.  A challenge like this is a perfect opportunity to do battle with our own demons and send them packing, and in this case, we don’t take them on with a direct assault; we just outlast them.
  9. Listen to your body and be safe – Yes, it’s a challenge, and yes, we want to break through our limitations, but not at the expense of safety or long term health and wellness.  After hearing me talk about persisting and “Just Keep Going”, it might be easy to think that I’m suggesting you push your body to the breaking point.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  As a Yogi, I live to maintain mind-body balance in everything I do, Action Strength included.  And overriding negative and limiting self talk is very different than heeding your body’s warnings when you need to rest or take some time off.  Durning the month, I had to find a way to keep myself in balance while completing my daily numbers, working, traveling across the country, attending a mind/body workshop, and dealing with holiday visitors and get-togethers.  During all that, I listened to the signals my body was sending me.  If I felt low on energy, I made sure to take my time and not rush through to try and break some Gama land speed record.  I gave myself the rest and nutrition I needed and my body was able to recover and improve at a reasonable pace.  Ultimately, listen to what your body needs and honor your own sense of inner balance.
  10. Enjoy the strength – Lastly, be sure to appreciate the rewards of completing a challenge like this. Whether it was at the end of each day or at the end of the month, I found the sense of accomplishment from completing my numbers to be deeply satisfying.  Many would share their numbers on FB which not only served as an affirmation of achieving their daily goal, but also as an inspiration for the rest of us.  It felt good knowing that usually before most people were out of bed I had cranked out my 250/500 (or later in the month 500/1000).  I felt energized, invigorated and alive – and it’s a great feeling.  It’s unfortunate that most of the people you meet don’t really know what it feels like to be strong.  This isn’t a superiority thing – it’s simply recognizing that strength of this kind is a unique experience.  It’s empowering and rewarding; it makes you feel confident and believe in yourself.  I also think it’s humbling and gratifying to see what our mind/bodies are capable of.  It’s actually awe-inspiring to consider that with the correct training method, such incredible potential can be unleashed.  Our bodies were meant to be used, to be strengthened, and eventhough they are temporary and will one day wear out, we have an amazing opportunity to build and use our bodies to their fullest while we can.  A challenge like this is an assertion of our strength and an occasion to be grateful for our physical abilities.

So a month later, I completed the challenge, achieved my goal of 500/1000 in under 30 minutes and accomplished far more than I expected from two simple exercises and what amounts to an “I dare you” contest.  I changed as a person, strengthened my will, and had a glimpse of the potential that lies hidden within each of us.  How do I feel?  I feel strong, capable, empowered.  But most importantly, I feel grateful.  Grateful for the opportunity to learn this training method, grateful for my fellow Action Strength brothers and sisters, and grateful for Sifu Singh for inspiring us to roar.

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Recap 2013

January 3, 2014

Although I’m a little late to the 2013 recap party, late is better than never and while a part of me resists posting a year in review, another part looks back at everything that happened in a short 365 days and realized that it’s worthwhile to recapitulate those experiences and reflect on how each one has changed us for better or worse.  Ultimately, all of the experiences we have matter in one way or another, although they may or may not have the epic importance we often assign to them.  Either way, each event becomes metabolized and integrated into our mind and body, transforming biography into biology.  We become our experiences and to paraphrase the Vedas, if you want to understand your health and body now, look at your past experiences; if you want to know what your body will be like in the future, look at what you are experiencing now.  So, as with many of my posts, awareness is a recurring theme.  Putting your attention on your past experiences can reveal a great deal about what brought you to where you are as well as inform the choices you make going forward.

In that spirit, I’d like to take a high level, quick pass through some of the more memorable experiences of my 2013: Having a front row seat to a Magic Kingdom Flag retreat ceremony honoring my brother-in-law, Mike Hall, a returning Army Veteran; Celebrating 20 years as a Walt Disney World Cast Member and enjoying a pretty epic Cast Service Award Celebration; Aligning myself with the Jeet Kune Do Athletic Association, an amazing group of folks dedicated to perpetuating Bruce Lee’s philosophy and lifestyle and wading back into the comfortable waters of martial arts instruction through teaching my first Damini Project Self Defense Program; Attending a super-memorable Seduction of Spirit meditation workshop at the Chopra Center for Well Being with my wife Dana and good friends Sujata and Nick; Re-upping my JKD training at the JKDAA East Coast Retreat in May; Taking an incredibly road trip from San Francisco to Seattle, seeing old friends and family, tasting wine and encouraging Dana’s amateur studies in Volcanology; hitting the one-year mark for exclusive training in Action Strength and feeling stronger than ever (see a previous post); Celebrating 7 years married to my wonderful wife; Continuing to teach some incredible yoga and meditation students including 20 or so WDW Executives for a special event; Deepened my own understanding of yoga, meditation and Ayurveda and made some new friends during the Chopra Center’s Perfect Health Program; and wrapped up the year by participating in a 31 Day Gama Challenge (15500 Hindu Push-ups and 31,000 Hindu Squats).

Some experiences have been less than ideal, especially situations in which I’ve had to watch those that are close to me experiencing health challenges or simply struggle to cope with the reality of existential suffering (impermanence, sickness, old age, death).  I’ve also experienced the loss of friends and family, (some close, some I knew only long ago) and felt grief, sadness as well as the twinge of my own mortality, an ever present reminder of the impermanence of physical existence.

No matter what happened this year however, I’ve tried to remain grounded in gratitude.  Each event, each experience, each beginning or ending relationship is an opportunity to learn and grow, to expand rather than contract.  Life is a continuum of experiences and the way we not only live, but interpret our experiences determines how those perceptions will affect us.  Living in mindful gratitude helps us to experience our lives, the good and the bad with grace and fulfillment, happiness and equanimity.

So, as I say goodbye to 2013, I want to thank my family, friends, students, and teachers who served as companions and guides over the past year.  Without you, I would have nothing.  You have my heartfelt thanks for making 2013 a year to remember.  You have also inspired me to make 2014 the best I can make it.

May the New Year lead you to all the peace, happiness, and fulfillment you could ever desire.

Namaste,

-Adam