John M.

John M.

Kenzai Member
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K Reach (3) GRADUATION – The jackknife test 

Back toward the end of KB2—for me, that was in the fall of 2015—Ward asked each of us trainees if there were any muscles we felt were really tight. He promised he would respond back with a stretch that hit the muscle each person reported in as being tight. For me, the choice was obvious: my hamstrings. Ward prescribed the jackknife, a pose where you hold your legs straight, lean back with your ass, bend at the pelvis, keep your back straight, and lean forward with your hands over your head in line with your torso.

It sounds like a classic yoga-style pose. Maybe it is, but it didn’t crop up as such in isolation during Reach. Regardless, it is very much like a fleeting portion of the transition from arching your back with hands outstretched to placing your hands down by your feet, which we’ve been doing right after the Mountain Pose at the beginning of the Sun Salutation.

Many times during this round of Reach, I went into the jackknife right out of bed to see how flexible I was feeling that day. I would do it later in the day, too, some days. It was a test. If I felt my hamstrings and glutes light up something fierce, it was a bad day. If they didn’t light up so much, it was a good day. The adjectives good and bad overdramatize. Let’s just say there were days on which I felt more flexible and days on which I felt less flexible. There was no discernible pattern.

You don’t turn into a Gumby like Thomas in the photos in the workout sheets overnight. You probably never turn into a Gumby if you weren’t one already. Rather, for me Reach was more about maintaining flexibility. Whatever modicum I’ve got, I want to keep. After the eight weeks, I was not transformed. Rather, I had been trained to do things that will help me hang onto what I’ve got. My purpose, once again, was to know how to stretch and how to make small improvements.

Since I was working with a physio and doing movements he was recommending at the same time as I was doing the program, I learned a lot. A lot more than I would have without the additional input and feedback. Although I first went to the physio to find ways to reduce my lower back pain, in the end my interaction with him combined with Reach turned into an intense educational experience.

One of the Lessons on PDF said it was OK to find that during each successive relaxation your increased range of motion might only be miniscule. Usually, they were exactly that. I am writing this on Day 56, and I haven’t yet done the final Flexibility Assessment, but if it turns out my increased flexibility is only miniscule, then that’s OK.

As always, the challenge is integrating this stuff into my life. Off program, well, I am off program. I know there are a lot of people who want to be on program all the time just to give them the kick in the pants they need to keep going. Others have transformed themselves into exercise nuts, so on or off program they find a way to work out every day. I haven’t. Often, they aspire to do Spartans or marathons. I don’t. For me, the food has never been the problem. The diet is the diet, and I follow it except when eating out. The exercise has been the problem. It’s easy to slack off when you’re off program. I often do.

I am starting with Kenzai Fusion tomorrow. According to an enticing email I got from Thomas the other day, in Fusion “you’re going to spend six weeks exploring the best of our strength, flexibility, balance, and posture programs! As a Kenzai veteran you’ll get a chance to see how all of the different disciplines you’ve explored play out in your body when you are practicing all aspects at the same time.” That’s something I’ve tried to do myself during K Life, but usually I end up doing what is prescribed rather than thinking out of the box. I hope Fusion will help me move in that direction.

Tokyo, Sunday, 10 November 2019, 19:29 UTC+9


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This week wasn’t a bad week by the low standards I became a little too comfortable swallowing during this time around doing Reach. I did the morning stretches every day. I did the workout three nights. I rarely did any evening stretches. I played squash on Saturday instead of doing the workout. This evening I will do my Flexibility Assessment to compare with how flexible I was feeling at the outset. I was not expecting miracles. Even with greater dedication, I knew from previous experience that increasing my range of motion is an glacial process, not a sudden transformation.

There was one night, Day 51, when I started the workout late and decided that I would skip the Sun Salutation. To do eight rounds of that usually takes me 15 minutes. I usually hold the Chaturanga for 3 breaths, the Up Dog for the same, and the Down Dog for the same. At the beginning I hold the Mountain Pose for about 3 breaths, too, before launching in. Without the Sun Salutation, I could do the whole thing in a little under half an hour.

I usually do the Sun Salutation on a mat. That’s because my toes hurt when holding the Chaturanga, transitioning to the Up Dog, and then again on the Down Dog. I do most of the other poses on the wood floor in the gym, however. The solid floor underfoot helps a whole lot on the balance poses. Something soft underfoot would make keeping my balance even more challenging that it otherwise is. So, I thought to myself, if I am not going to be on the mat, then there’s no reason to take my shoes off. (I jump rope with my shoes on, although I know there are devotees out there who do that barefoot, too. I am not one of them.)

Did it every say anywhere you have to do this barefoot? I have been meaning to ask this question but never got around to it. Just because Thomas is always shown doing the poses barefoot, must we? I recall doing some balance poses like the Flying Crane in other Kenzai programs, and for those I never took my shoes off, so maybe there is no need. For post-workout stretches like a Gassho Twist, while on a regular program I do it with my shoes on, so why not on the Knee Down version?

I did everything with my shoes on (today’s photo) that night. On some things, I think it helped. When balancing, I find that the most unstable part is often all the miocroadjustments I am making in the bottom of my foot to keep from falling over. The shoes remove most of that from the equation. On some poses, I admit that wearing shoes felt a bit awkward, but not on most. Thunderbolt with shoes on. Why not? Warrior I Flow? The second part of the flow is like a Flying Crane, which I have done many times with my shoes on. It felt a little strange grabbing a shoe instead of a bare foot on the last part of the flow, the Flying Dancer part, but then again, my approximation of Thomas’s picture-perfect form is so miserable that it certainly didn’t make a difference in the form. The Bow and Upward Pigeon have cropped up as stretches before, and I’ve done them with shoes on. So hell, why not?

I got my answer. Although we often think of yoga as a barefoot activity—we all dream of living the simple life running around barefoot in an ashram doing yoga half the day, don’t we?—it doesn’t have to be, does it? Trainers, please correct me if I got something wrong. I did the subsequent workouts barefoot again out of habit, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Tokyo, Sunday, 10 November 2019, 18:04 UTC+9


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Last Friday we had a beautiful sunny autumn day here in Tokyo (today’s photo). In the sun it was still T shirt weather, although in the shade it helped to have a hoodie on as a second layer. That day I had scheduled an appointment with my physio, the first since I got back from my wedding in America. I didn’t have to meet any clients that day, so I wore jeans, a T shirt, and a hoodie to the office. Under my jeans, in addition to my underpants I put on the cotton shorts I work out in. When I am working with the physio, I take my jeans off before he and I leave his office and go out into the gym at the fitness club where he works. There he has me do stuff. It helps to be able to move easily. Jeans are very good at restricting movement.

I have gotten over the critical phase of my recovery from the lower back pain, so I took the opportunity of last Friday’s appointment to show him some of the things I have been doing in Reach. Then I decided I would focus on two bugaboos of mine, flexibility around my hamstrings and groin, and balance.

“Can you really make your muscles longer and stretchier?” I asked.
“Yes, with continued practice. It takes time.”
“What about PNF. Does that help?”

He knew exactly what PNF was (Of course he must, since he’s in that line of work.) and launched right in. “What I am going to do is this. You lie down on the table and I am going to grab your left leg and put if over my shoulder. What you need to do is tense the hamstrings in that leg for 10 seconds. After you do that, I am going to raise your leg higher and you should relax for another 30 seconds.”
“I usually count in breaths. Is that OK?”
“Of course, you can’t expect to be watching a stopwatch all the time while you’re stretching, can you now?”

While he was working with me on this, he explained the physiological principles involved. “When you tense the muscle, it uses energy and exhausts the muscle, so when you release the tension the muscle can elongate.” I am not sure I quite understood. It had something to do with the mitochondria that make up any muscle. I racked my brain to conjure up those illustrations in long-ago KB lessons that provided an exegesis of the internal structure of muscle strands and how working out builds muscle. When my physio finished doing PNF on my hamstrings, he added: “By the way, you can do what I did just now by yourself using a strap or towel.”

I knew that. That’s the Strap Hamstring Stretch that pops up from time to time in the Reach workouts, but never during the workouts had I got the same sense of satisfaction and understanding. It was miraculous. That little bit of instruction plus his assistance holding up the leg made it all come together. To be honest, the explanation in the Lessons had made it sort of clear how to do PNF, but those two minutes of interaction with the physio made it crystal clear.

Even before the appointment with the physio, I had taken to heart that Lesson about PNF a while back. Use it anytime you want to extend your range of motion, the Lesson said. I had been doing that with all sorts of movements. On the Forward Bend, PNF helped me get my hands to touch my toes and then even to hit to the floor with my fingers if not my palms flat. On my nemesis, the evening Wide Angle Forward Bend, PNF had gotten my legs from 90 degrees to 120 degrees apart. That’s saying something, even if it is far short of what Thomas can do. It helped that the Lesson had pointed out that the adjustment after the tension is released may only be miniscule. Don’t expect miracles, at least not within the span of eight weeks. I still can’t lean over much into that stretch.

The other thing the physio and I went over was balance. First, he had me stand on one leg, not in the Tree position but simply by lifting one leg with the knee bent. I managed to do it for 20 seconds, making micro adjustments, some graceful, some jolting, as I held the position. He told me 20 seconds is not bad. That bucked me up. I may think I’m dreadful at balancing, but maybe I am average if not better. Then he told me to do it with my eyes closed. That made it harder. He discussed the interaction among muscles, inner ear, and sight in how we maintain our balance.

Next, he had me walk a straight line across the gym, each time placing one foot in front of the other, just barely touching the toes of the foot behind with the heel of the foot in front. At first, I looked straight ahead and managed quite well. I was a bit tipsy but made it to the other side of the room. Then I turned around. This time he told me to look left and look right with each step. That made it much harder. The physio explained what should have been obvious, that so much of our proprioception is dependent on visual cues. They get all confused when you’re constantly looking around you while trying to do a tightrope act walking across the floor. Closing your eyes makes it harder yet for obvious reasons.

Finally, he had me stand on a Boson ball, one of those gizmos with a spherical bottom and flat top. First, he had me do it with my feet a hip’s width apart. It took me a while to gain my balance. But slowly but surely, I got to the point where I could shift my center of gravity and make the ball tip left or right or forward or backward without me falling off. Then he had me do it with my feet together. That was much harder. All the while he was observing me to see where and how I was making micro adjustments, sometimes in the legs, sometimes at the ankle, sometime in the bottom of the foot, sometimes with my arms in the air.

After the time I spent balancing on one leg, something very simple and eminently doable, the physio suggested, quite seriously: “For practice, do it in the morning while you’re standing at the kitchen counter making a cup of coffee.” In other words, integrate this stuff into your daily routine. Working on balance or stretching isn’t something that needs to be relegated to the time you spend doing a workout. It can be anytime. What a great takeaway. I should have known that anyway, but when life gets busy, it’s too easy to pigeonhole staying fit into a specific time slot rather than working it into your everyday activities in small ways. It took the physio to remind me of the big picture: Integrating fitness into my life is the goal, not losing weight or beefier muscles.

Tokyo, Sunday, 3 November 2019, 16:34 UTC+9


The blog police have bugged me again, for the second time this program—or is it the third already?—to get up a blog. As you know, there is a saying that no news is good news. In other words, if you haven’t heard from someone for a while, it means things are going swimmingly.

That saying does not describe my current situation. For someone who used to be obsessive-compulsive about following a program to the letter, my approach this time has been unconventional to say the least. A better way to describe it would be slacking off. Let’s call a spade a spade.

Most days, I have been doing the morning dynamic stretches. They are similar to what my physio has had me doing to stabilize my lower back. I am happy to report that whatever hurt my back two months ago has gone away. Thanks to the yoga? Some days, I have been doing the prescribed workout. It has gotten to the point where it makes no sense to try to catch up. On those days when I do a workout, I do the one for that day. Looking back over the record in the app, there are more days when no workout got done than when one did. On very few days have I done the evening stretches.

I have stuck to the diet for the most part when it comes to the three meals and snacks, but indulgences have crept in maybe 2-3 times a week lately. I have been a dreadful teammate, rarely reading others’ blogs or commenting on them. My apologies. The silver lining in all this is that sleep therapy has been flourishing. Lately, on a night when I skip a workout (I do them in the evening after work.), I have gone to bed at 10:30 PM. I know for some of you that's SOP, but for me that is unheard of. Having gone to bed that early, I will have gotten eight hours of sleep even if I wake up earlier than usual. It's miraculous how well rested I feel.

I think this program is among the best Kenzai has to offer, certainly for me with my tight hamstrings and difficulty balancing. Witness the fact it is my third time doing it. That fact does not, however, absolve me, nor does all the busyness around the time of my wedding on October 19. That has subsided. Next time I report in, I hope to report that I am getting back into the swing of things.

Tokyo, Wednesday, 30 October 2019, 22:23 UTC+9


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The blog police have been after me to report in, and the diet/photo police have been after me to get up a weekly photo. Guilty as charged. Here’s the blog I owe you.

I know it’s no excuse, but I got married in the middle of a program. I have been eating a lot of wedding cake (today’s photo), both at the wedding on Saturday and leftovers since then. Most uncompliant, although happily I see that our optional indulgence has arrived. Let’s just say I have been indulging for days. Between the Friday night pre-wedding dinner, the reception and dinner on the day, and the post-wedding brunch on Sunday, I’ve been eating out a lot. In between, there have been some compliant meals at our apartment here, but not many.

Don’t even ask about the workouts. Till the Thursday before the wedding, I was getting in the morning dynamic stretches and the Skillful Movements. The evening stretches were not getting done, however. Since the day before the wedding, I can’t recall having done much of any of them. The Lessons have been going unread. If one of the purposes of the blogs is to confess one’s sins, here I am. Trainers have mercy on me.

A couple of years ago I quipped in a blog post that the Kenzai site can have an unintended side function as a dating site. I got to know Janet L. through blog posts and comments on the site around the time I was finishing up KB2 in 2015, and by the time we were both doing K Run 10K in the spring of 2016, we had progressed to exchanging real email addresses. We finally met in person in Tokyo in May 2016. Janet’s and my shared interest in working out and eating right certainly was part of the attraction. It is she I married last Saturday (also in today’s photo).

Hopefully, my next blog post will report a return to the straight and narrow. Right now, we’re visiting my mom. She’s 90 and on oxygen, so she could not come to the ceremony. On Friday, we’ll be back home in Tokyo, where there will be no excuses for not eating right and getting in the workouts daily.

Jennersville, Pennsylvania, Tuesday, 22 October 2019, 17:38 UTC-4


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The combination of biweekly visits to the physio and Reach has heightened my awareness of many muscles, particularly those that hurt a lot when stretching. Before this round of Reach, I was pretty aware of my tights spots, which are mostly around the hips and hamstrings. Now, I am hyperaware of them.

Working with the physio has been helpful because of all the little tips he gives me on form. Slight shifts in the orientation of the feet or legs, for instance, can sometimes make a big difference in what muscles get worked. We all saw that with the Side Toe Tap Flat Foot. By pointing the toes straight ahead instead of up, the flat foot version hits the groin, IT band, and buttocks, not so much the hamstrings.

The physio pointed two things out to me that I was unaware of. First, when doing squats, if your knees are forward of your toes, you rely on the quads. If you sit a lot as I do, the quads are overdeveloped and the hamstring shortened, so it’s a naturally tendency to rely on what you’ve got the most of. If, by contrast, you place your knees further back by deliberately pushing your buttocks to the rear, the hamstrings and glutes are activated. For my recent back problem, the physio has wanted me to strengthen those two muscles, so that slight shift in the center of gravity of the body makes all the difference in the effectiveness of an exercise.

Second, pronating the feet, which is to say pointing the toes out to the side so the feet are not parallel to each other, provides greater stability in the groin, so for me with my moderate level of flexibility, doing that is a natural tendency. Keeping the feet parallel to each other, on the other hand, stresses the groin and activates the hamstrings more. Pointing the feet inward, which feels quite unnatural, activates the IT band. Having had this pointed out to me has led me to focus on the placement of my feet in Mountain Pose and at the beginning of the Sun Salutation. I make sure to plant them parallel to each other. Yet at the end of the Sun Salutation, having been so busy coordinating my breathing with my movements, I lose focus on how my feet are placed and always seem to end up with my feet pronated (today’s photo). In a word, my body is doing what it’s most comfortable doing, and my job in the yoga is to challenge it.

Norwalk, Connecticut, Sunday, 13 October 2019, 19:53 UTC-4


It’s been a disastrous week for yoga. Well, maybe that’s an overstatement. Let's just say it’s been far from perfect. I was behind and trying to catch up, and I didn’t. Looking at the app, I see that I completed Days 15 and 16 and today’s Day 21 muscle building. I am doing the morning stretches every day because they are so helpful, but I didn’t do the Skillful Movement and evening stretches on Thursday, Friday, or Saturday. On Thursday I worked until eleven at night. On Friday, some depressing news arrived and Janet and I were out of sorts. On Saturday we played squash, she for her alternate cardio in Chisel, I instead of doing the Reach workout. Squash is more fun. I have indulged in some uncalled for treats, a blueberry muffin here, a piece of apple pie a la mode there. Meals have been 100% compliant except for a couple in a restaurant. Let’s pray I get back on track during Week 4.

It took a day or two to get things right on the Sun Salutation, starting with committing the sequence to memory. The first day or two I was constantly referring to the pictures. Once I had the sequence down pat, I focused on getting the inhalations and exhalations timed right. I also started extending some of the poses: two breaths on Chaturanga, two or three on Upward Dog, three on Downward Dog. The Sun Salutation is an enjoyable routine, but after doing it my toes hurt. It all starts with Chaturanga. Besides the challenge of holding myself up with my triceps, I am standing on my tippy toes. When I move on to the Upward Dog, I wouldn’t say my toes roll over each other, but I do somehow switch from toes facing up to toes facing down, and it hurts a little. Holding Downward Dog also puts pressure on the toes. It’s a relief to stand up again and arrive in Mountain Pose.

The evening stretches are fearsome. Yes, I think that’s the right word to describe them. A couple of them are not painful, but most are. Very. Painful. Holding them for even the minimum time takes it out of me. The Cossack Stretch was close to impossible. I see a lot of runners bouncing in and out of that position, but holding it for two to three minutes is an entirely different matter. My knee doesn’t bend as tightly as Thomas’s, and my hamstrings hurt like hell when stretched. Plus, I have to put a lot of effort into holding myself up with my hands. My palms are not flat to the floor but rather my fingers are splayed trying to hold me in position.

I read the lesson telling us that the point is not to fight but to relax—so you can sink deeper into the stretch—and took it to heart. Putting that into practice is an entirely different matter, however. I am light years away from achieving that kind of relaxation. My overwhelming sense during the more difficult evening stretches is: Ouch. God help me.

Tokyo, Sunday, 6 October 2019, 20:19 UTC+9


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I have fallen a day behind. Despite my good intentions, on Monday I did not do the evening stretches but rather went straight to bed. On Tuesday, I thought I would double up and do the Day 8 poses in the morning before work and the Day 9 poses in the evening after work. I only got around to the former, and that was in the evening. The morning stretches are getting done without fail, happily. They don’t take a long time. More to the point, they are essential to my well-being. I need help getting moving without discomfort in the morning, and they do it for me. Wednesday night I did the Day 9 poses. Last night, it was the Day 10 poses. I went to bed rather than doing the evening poses. Tonight, I’ll do the Day 11 poses, and hopefully the evening poses, too. My record’s a little spotty.

Ward gave me some good advice the other day in a blog comment: Don’t be afraid to play around with the Skillful Movements. I understood that to mean it’s OK to tweak the form a little if you need to make something bearable or, equally if not more important, to achieve good form. The Details mention that, too. There may be perfect form for the very flexible, but for mere mortals there is acceptable form.

Janet is doing Chisel right now, so her workouts take longer than mine. That has given me the extra time to play around, since we like to finish at the same time—to get on with our dinner, which comes frightfully late in the evening. (A sin, perhaps, but that’s how it slots into our day.) I am doing most poses at least three times. Sometimes I may cut short the number of breaths and get on with another rep. If I do a pose more than one time, on the second and the third times I may try to plant my feet a little differently or pay attention to different parts of my form than the first time. It’s good practice. You can feel the difference often, and that kind of feedback is worth its weight in gold. If you do it just once, you have nothing to compare.

The Day 8 evening stretches brought back generally pleasant memories. In the spirit of playing with the form, I didn’t lean too hard into the Seated One Leg Forward Bend. I didn’t want to reach so far down that my back would arch. I never reached my toes. On the Seated One Leg Side Bend, the most difficult thing is keeping that hand up in the air. That and the side stretch it entails take work. Once again, I didn’t reach my toes, nor did I push myself to. On the Wide Angle Forward Bend, well, let’s just say that what Thomas does in the photographs and what I do are miles apart. My legs are at maybe 100 degrees to each other, not close to 180 degrees. Can I lean down much? No. Just holding my legs apart and putting my hands down in front of me stretches me plenty. If I can hold my legs a little farther apart and tip just a bit in eight weeks, I’ll declare victory.

The Day 9 evening stretches brought back somewhat unpleasant memories. If anybody tells you the ultimate hamstring stretch is the Forward Bend, don’t believe them. For me, it’s the Front Split. Holding that front leg forward hurts. I don’t push it to the point where the leg is straight. A little bend in the knee takes the edge off the pain in the hamstrings. My palms are not flat on the floor either. Just holding the position with my arms takes a lot of effort. I held it for the minimum two minutes and then switched to the other side. The right hamstrings hurt more than the left.

The weather has taken a turn for the better. To me, that means cooler and less humid. In the evening, the cries of the cicadas have been replaced by the chirps of the crickets, a sign that fall is approaching. Hallelujah. The past three evenings it has been in the low 20 degrees Celsius, and it has not been humid. Perfect weather to walk home in. My walk home takes 35 to 40 minutes. It involves descending a hill at the beginning, walking down a valley, and then at the end climbing up a hill close to home. That uphill stretch (today’s photo) is my measure of fitness. If it feels like a slog, then I am less fit. If it feels effortless, then I am in good shape—and in a good mood. This week it has felt effortless, a sign that something must be going right. I wonder why. The weather probably helps. Or might it be the yoga?

Tokyo, Friday, 27 September 2019, 21:46 UTC+9


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Janet and I got back from our weeklong vacation in Vietnam on Sunday. It was a night flight, only five hours long, so we didn’t get a lot of sleep. We napped into the afternoon to catch up on sleep. Sunday evening we played squash to satisfy Janet’s alternative cardio for Chisel. The squash didn’t fit into my Reach program, but it is so much fun I couldn’t resist—and I skipped the prescribed muscle building. I did that this evening instead.

I have been religious about the morning stretches. They are so helpful, and they nicely complement the ones my physio has recommended I do daily. When I first get out of bed in the morning, I feel stiff around the waist. After half an hour or more of various stretches, I can get on with the day without discomfort in the lower back. I won’t do the Day 8 Skillful Movements tonight but will get to them tomorrow morning before going to work, and I’ll do the ones for Day 9 tomorrow evening.

I will do the 20 minutes of stretches before bed tonight. I remember them vividly from my previous two rounds of Reach. They hurt! They’re a tough way to finish the day. The Lesson said you should start off easy and slowly ease into them as your muscles get accustomed to the stretch and you can sink deeper. My recollection is easing did not describe the experience. Sinking deeper was hard and painful. Maybe I was overdoing it in my zeal to imitate the form super-flexible Thomas is able to achieve in the photos on the workout sheet.

Certainly, overdoing it describes my previous experience on my nemesis, Downward Dog, but today I made huge progress on that one. You can see the results in today’s photo, which I also posted as my End of Week 1 photo. I ditched my ego and took Ward’s advice to bend my knees. It took the load off my hard-to-stretch-without-lots-of-pain hamstrings, and lo and behold, I was able to keep my back flat and bend sharply at the pelvis. And it didn’t hurt. (Should no-pain-no-gain apply to yoga, too?) If anybody else out there is having the same problem with Downward Dog, try bending your knees. When I don’t bend them, my hamstrings hurt really bad, I don’t bend sharply at the hip, and my back arches out. When I do, voila, the pose is eminently doable—and doesn’t kill me.

Reach is meshing nicely with my discussions with my physio. I’ve learned a ton about all the interconnections between hip flexors and hamstrings and glutes and abs and the big long muscles that run the length of the back. Of course, I was vaguely aware of them before, but what we’re doing right now has raised my consciousness of them to a new level.

Tokyo, Monday, 23 September 2019, 23:43 UTC+9


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Chaturanga on Day 4 was a reminder of how much strength some of these poses require. Even supposedly easy ones like Warrior 1 (today’s photo) are taking it out of me. I get into the pose and then start counting my breaths, trying to keep them slow and measured, and deep. Getting to the minimum number isn’t easy sometimes. There is the effort in the legs and arms, and on top of that there is some discomfort in the lower back. Warrior 2 was the same. Looks easy, but takes effort to sustain it. Thunderbolt. Ditto. The irony is that while I was dreamily thinking I could make it to the maximum number of breaths, I am finding that hard for all the exertion going into holding even the simplest poses. The only exception seems to be Shavasana. I can hold that for a long time.

In response to Ward’s blog comment based on the decrepit Downward Dog in my starting photo, I took a new approach today. I got real and decided to bend my knees. More to the point, I realized one of the things to focus on in doing Downward Dog, maybe even the main point, is to bend sharply at the hips. I have never been good at that, witness my starting photo. Previously, when doing Downward Dog, I was focusing on keeping my heels on the ground and my legs straight. Wrong. My back always wants to arch once I get past a certain point.

Since I can’t bend sharply at the hips with my legs straight, I swallowed my pride and took Ward’s advice: Bend your knees and reach your arms further forward. It worked. I looked in the mirror and saw a straight back. The angle between my legs and my torso was nowhere close to what Thomas is doing in the photos, but I have got to start somewhere. I don’t know what muscles that guy has got that I don’t, but I think they’re a lot longer and a lot more elastic. I know eight weeks of Reach won’t get me there, but will years of yoga—and less sitting—get me to some nirvana where I have the longer hamstrings and hip flexors my masseuse says will make me more flexible?

Danang, Friday, 20 September 2019, 22:09 UTC+7


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In school, repeating a course means you failed the first time around. In Kenzai, repeating a program means you can’t get enough of it. This is my third time doing Reach. Call it an inseparable part of my flexibility maintenance program. I need a refresher at least once a year.

Doing the initial assessment on Monday, I had visions of myself slowly turning into a tight ball of 64-year-old muscles that can’t be disentangled. Touching my toes when seated? No way. Happily, I was able to reach my ankles. Legs in a V shape with my hands on the floor and trying to lean forward? You have got to be kidding. Stiff as a board trying to lean. Downward Dog? Ouch. With legs straight, an arched back. With knees bent, still a struggle to keep the back straight and tilt sharply at the pelvis.

I have had problems with my lower back twice since the end of June. I am now doing the exercises my physiotherapist has prescribed. Doing them relieves the stiffness around my waist that I experience when getting up in the morning. The morning dynamic stretches Reach is prescribing complement them nicely.

I am thrilled to see Ward is our trainer. Other members of Team Padmasan, pleased to make your acquaintance. I don’t think I have run into any of you before. If you haven’t run into Ward before, let me tell you he’s been my trainer on Kenzai programs more times than not, and he’s great.

In answer to your questions, Ward, and for everybody’s information: John M. here. I live in Tokyo. I spend most of my weekdays in my office. My job involves no travel. Sounds glamorous, does it? Well, a lifetime of doing that has left me with one mess of a posterior chain. My hamstrings are way too short, I suspect. On the home front, there is Janet L., another Kenzai devotee. This time, by rare exception, we are not doing the same program. She’s on Chisel right now, but we still work out together. You’ll love her blogs. She’s what you might call an influencer, and very inspiring. I must think so, since we’re getting married next month.

At home, there is also Fido, my 16-year-old miniature dachshund. I’ll make sure to post a picture that includes him sometime during the next eight weeks. This week, I am on vacation in a tropical resort by a beach in Vietnam (today’s photo), so I am getting much more sleep than usual, and the conditions are optimal for getting the workouts done well and on time because…I have lots of time on my hands. Back home in Tokyo, I am always pressed for time.

If I had a magic egg, I don’t know what I would do with Kenzai. It’s helped me uncover an athletic side to myself under the bookish veneer. I am an architect, BTW. I started KB1 in 2015, and since I’ve learned to run, to jump rope, to stretch, to use resistance bands, to swing kettlebells. It’s been transformative. I only wish that I had gotten onto a program like this 30 years ago. And if I were stranded on a desert island, I would make sure it was stocked with a limitless supply of chocolate cake. Forget about ice cream or wine or beer.

Last but not least. Put me on the strict diet, please. Not only have I been sleeping more than usual on this vacation, but I’ve been running into a lot of chocolate cake. I haven’t laid off it.

Danang, Wednesday, 18 September 2019, 22:52 UTC+7


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By my usual standards, Kettlebell this time—I did it once before two years ago—could be viewed as a disappointment. Usually, I aim for perfection. This time, by contrast, I didn’t do all the workouts. I had more than the one indulgence allowed. I used lighter weights than last time. All those things would by some standards be considered a regression, not a progression.

But it wasn’t a disappointment. It was an object lesson in learning how to stay active within the limits set by what I can do—safely. All this is part and parcel of a topic that comes up from time to time in Kenzai Lessons: Ditch your ego. It’s OK to not do every exercise to the point of failure. It’s OK not to use the heaviest possible weight. It’s OK not to be perfect on the diet. Of course it’s commendable to aim for those things, but to be crestfallen over not pushing yourself to the limit or over minor infractions is a bit obsessive-compulsive. I can be that, but I also know that the perfect is the enemy of the good. The goal is to do your body good, not to have bragging rights.

I also learned that, for me at least, a couple of detours from the straight and narrow on the diet are not a calamity. I had no intention of losing weight, but toward the middle of the program I down about one kilogram. This was a clear case of the outputs exceeding the inputs. The combination of lots of jumprope scattered throughout a workout and only 80 grams of carbs at dinner will shrink me a little. My Kenzai Life diet has me eating twice that at dinner. The fact I stick to my Kenzai diet all the time on and off program means I don’t see a lot of fluctuation on program.

What threw me for a loop was a pain in my lower back on the right side. It developed suddenly, out of the blue, while doing the Figure Eight on Day 15. I decided to lay off the workouts, see a physio, and wait it out until I felt my back was in good enough shape for me to take up the assigned workouts again. It was the right choice. It meant that I lost momentum and lagged behind. At the beginning of Week 4, I picked up where I had left off and completed the Week 3 exercises a week behind schedule. Eventually, I skipped over some workouts so that by Week 6 I was pretty much in sync with people who had done every workout. I got the full experience, albeit in abridged form. It was the second time for me, so it was a refresher in how you can use kettlebells to mix things up during your regular workouts. After all, the point is to learn how to improvise between programs, isn’t it?

I am not good at that. Usually, between programs I open up the app and do a K Life workout slavishly. I’ve written this time and again, but I need to get into a mindset where the point is not to do assigned homework but to keep moving every day of the year, to make working out regularly a habit without which no day is complete. Kenzai has taught me how to run, how to use bands, how to jump rope, how to do dynamic stretches before and static stretches after workouts. And how to use kettlebells. Putting that knowledge to use regularly is easier said than done.

Grit and guts are important, but even more important is fun. Workouts shouldn’t be a grind. They should be fun. Speaking about fun, during Kettlebell squash was my usual go-to for alternative cardio day. It involves moving all four limbs as suggested in the Day 40 Lesson, whose other chimpanzee-like movements I have still to try. I need to work them in somewhere when improvising a workout.

Having been busy playing catch-up, of the Week 6 workouts I did only Days 36, 37, and 39. I skipped resting and doing nothing on Day 38. On Friday evening, before leaving for a one-week vacation in Vietnam (today’s photo, taken from my hotel room), Janet and I did the Day 42 finale. To answer the question in that day’s lesson, I used the 10 kg bell for all the Kettlebell Swings and most of the intervening movements and the 8 kg bell for some things. That puts my effort somewhere between the weight of a moose and a giraffe.

Next, starting tomorrow, Monday, I am launching straight into K Reach. It’ll be my third time doing that. With my short hamstrings and various imbalances impacting my lower back, that program is always deserving of repetition. I took Ward’s advice and am taking off the few days my older body needs to recover before launching into the new program. Meanwhile, I am also doing the various exercises my physio recommended to deal with the lower back.

Today, I am going to jump rope for maybe 10 minutes and fool around a little with the free weights and machines in the hotel’s fitness gym. I write fool around since I really don’t know how to use them properly. When it cools off before sunset, I’ll go for a swim in the outdoor pool. Those are pretty good ways of keeping moving, don’t you think? A totally improvised routine. I just made it up. There was no science behind it. But that’s OK.

Danang, Sunday, 15 September 2019, 14:31 UTC+7


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Seriously, this program may be called Kettlebell, but it’s really a jumprope program with some bells mixed in. My jumprope has been all over the map this week. After my previous blog, in which I was proud to report a 10% increase in revolutions per minute during speed rope relative to my normal pace, things went downhill.

On Monday, I kept up the momentum from last week and did the Day 31 workout starting around 22:00. I ended up working out without Janet, because she had to get on a conference call that, unexpectedly, ran over and didn’t finish until 22:45 at night. At that rate a workout together would not have started until 23:00. Sleep trumps that. On Tuesday, I left the remaining workouts from Week 5 undone and skipped ahead to Day 36. We worked out together.

And wouldn’t you know it? I jinxed myself. Having occasionally topped 170 rpm on previously workouts, maybe I thought I was invincible, but I wasn’t. Every time I skipped Tuesday night, my mind told me I was going to trip, so I did. I couldn’t escape that mindset. I tripped on every bit of jumprope from the initial three-minute warm till the penultimate one-minute speed rope. Only on the last one-minute burst did I not trip. Wednesday my mental state was better so I tripped less. My average speed did not qualify as speed rope, but at least I was making it through most one-minute bursts without a trip. I even had an outlier to 172 rpm, which was nice. Today, I was blazing, averaging 170 rpm with an outlier to 178 rpm.

I have always enjoyed cycle workouts. The first time I encountered them was in Kettlebell in 2017, and I seem to recall them from Chisel and maybe another program. If the principle is to keep your heart rate going the whole time, I am all for it. Cardiovascular throughput, it said in the Lesson. For some reason, my memories of the first time I did Kettlebell had already dissipated, so how much jumprope there has been this time took me by surprise. You do a couple of things with the bells and then, boom, you have to jump rope again. Over and over and over. But I prefer skipping in little bursts over doing it for 15-20 minutes without interruption. If I am going to jump rope for 20 minutes, this is the way I like it. Thank you.

The food front has been a little shaky this week. This evening my company had an awards banquet, and at the end of it I got a big award. To celebrate, in addition to the low-vegetable, high-protein (and probably high-salt and high-fat) dinner, I had some desserts. Plural. They were tiny Japanese-size desserts, thankfully: a piece of soft layer cake, a piece of apricot tart, and some chocolate mousse. I know that getting an award shouldn’t be an excuse for living large, but I was in an expansive mood, fueled by some nips at the champagne that was served at the beginning toast, too. I didn’t finish the glass off, though.

Yesterday, I went out for a sushi lunch with a colleague. She knows about my diet because she sees me sitting in the office every day eating my brought-from-home lunch out of my plastic food storage containers, but I had promised her I’d go since she and I hadn’t had a good chat for a long time. I ordered maguro donburi. That’s tuna over rice, and it came with a salty miso soup and a small salad. I brought vegetables from home in the knowledge a sushi lunch wouldn’t offer many, and I ate them in mid-afternoon. But I did not bring any protein and carbs from home in the expectation the sushi lunch would be enough. It wasn’t. At four in the afternoon, I experienced something I never have on my generous Kenzai portions: hunger. Rather than wait for my fruit snack, I went to a convenience store, bought three onigiri rice balls (today’s photo), took them back to the office, and downed them in no time flat. It was a transgression, and then again it wasn’t. It was the only way I could hit my 200 grams of lunchtime carbs, and even at that, I have been losing weight. Is it all that jumprope, do you think?

On this program I have deviated from orthodoxy more than on any other program before. Maybe orthodoxy is the wrong word. Slavishly, unthinkingly following what’s on the workout sheets is what I mean. Ironically, it’s been a good thing. If the idea is to learn more about your body and its limits, this round of Kettlebell has done it for me. My lower back problem during Week 3 hurt like hell at first, but the road to recovery got me focused on form above all else. If the idea is to learn more about when to take it easy and when to hit the exercises hard, this round of Kettlebell has done it. If the idea is to learn about eating the right amount even if it’s a little off-piste, this round of Kettlebell has done it. Rigor is good, but if it gets in the way of a common-sense approach to leading a healthy, active life, it isn’t.

Tokyo, Thursday, 12 September 2019, 23:27 UTC+9


Yesterday, starting right after eating a compliant lunch, I had the strangest sensation. I can’t remember the last time I felt like that. When I was a kid? Thinking back that far, the only words I could come up with to describe the feeling were: tummy ache. I racked my brain for what might be the cause. Was it a tummy ache caused by my unconventional breakfast?

I had eaten two eggs and lots of vegetables at home but left out the dairy and carbs because I expected to get them in during a breakfast meeting with a friend of a friend from San Francisco. I did get them in. We ended up in a Starbuck’s and I had a regular-size caffe latte (dairy, right?) and pastries (non-compliant, I admit). I started off with a piece of apricot tart and a chocolate croissant. The latter was filled not with chocolate but with chocolate mousse. My friends wanted more pastry, so I went along and had a second chocolate croissant. It was all very delicious, and it was very off-piste. I certainly went over on fat and sugar, but probably not on the weight of the carbs in the bread.

Later in the afternoon, I thought to myself: Maybe the tummy ache is the result of having done the Transverse Ab Pump with a 10 kg bell on my tummy. Did it take so much effort to hold that thing up with that deep abdominal muscle that it was now aching? The ache kept me from playing squash as vigorously as I normally would have. I didn’t feel like lunging as far or running after the ball as much. All I can say is that this morning when I woke up, the tummy ache had gone away. Janet suggested it might be that I am not used to rich food like the tart and croissants I had downed the previous morning. I think she was right. Once you’re on the Kenzai straight and narrow, stuff like that can really get to you. So, it was probably an old-fashioned tummy ache—from food.

Today’s workout was excellent. Having played squash yesterday, today I did the Day 30 workout intended for last Tuesday (I am behind but catching up by skipping ahead) plus the Kettlebell Swings, both weightless and weighted, intended for the free cardio day. It goes without saying that the weightless swing felt exactly that, weightless. It was a strange sensation because it stood in sharp contrast to the swings that had come before in the Day 30 workout and those that came after. My kinetic memory said to me while doing the weightless swing: Your bell is featherweight. You can try something heavier.

The icing on the cake today was the speed rope. Do you know what the secret to speed rope is? Forget about a lightweight rope intended for speed. Do it with your regular rope and just up the number of revolutions slightly. That's better than pushing hard for breakneck speed and tripping. Today, the one time I tried skipping much faster with the lightweight speed rope, I tripped. When I did the speed rope with my regular medium-weight rope and upped my pace slightly, I averaged 172 rpm. On the very last set I even got to 177 rpm. Figuring 160 rpm as my usual jumprope speed, we’re talking no more than a 10% increase. I am not sure it’s something to write home about, but it gave me a little psychological boost.

So did the rest of the workout. Today’s workout may have included the #oneperfectset you asked for back in the Day 21 Lesson. I did the Kettlebell Swings with the 10 kg bell. I used the same bell for the One Arm Row and Dynamo Twist. For the Triceps Extension that has you holding the bell behind your back, I used the 8 kg bell. I used it for the One-Arm Lunge Press as well. Earlier today I had been reading some of the lessons I was catching up on, which reminded me of little details like trying to keep my knees behind my toes in most squat-like stances, shifting the arm holding the bell directly overhead rather than off to the side when pressing upward, and of course my bugaboo, keeping my back straight. I tried to avoid what I think I had been doing before. I was mistaking arching my lower back by tilting my pelvis forward in an exaggerated fashion for a more neutral straight back. With the advantage of hindsight, that exaggeration is what I was doing back on Day 14, when I blogged about the S shape in my spine. It was the following day that I hurt my back.

Live and learn. For a perfect workout, how heavy the bell is—neither too heavy nor too light—is important but secondary. Really good form is paramount.

Tokyo, Sunday, 8 September 2019, 21:01 UTC+9


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I know it’s not kosher, but last night I hit the fast forward button and did the first Week 5 workout, Day 29. On Wednesday night I had done the Day 24 workout since I was a week behind after having taken Week 3 off to let me back relax. To make matters worse, this past week I skipped the workout on Tuesday and Thursday.

It has taken some courage for me to get over the disappointments I’ve encountered since June. On Day 11 of Blast Beach Ready, my back started hurting unexpectedly while doing the Switchfoot Jump. I bowed out of the program altogether. This time, on Day 15, my back started hurting, again unexpectedly, while doing the Figure Eight. At first it was a minor sharp pain, but within a few hours it had become an much broader sensation of aching muscles all around my midsection. (For details, read my Day 19 blog.) I took a time-out but got back on the bandwagon on Day 21.

I have always liked to be the A student, doing my homework as prescribed and on time. With the lower back pain, this was not possible. It’s good I took that week off, but I am left with a sense of not having done this round of Kettlebell with what a commenter on one of my blog posts referred to as fidelity. Faithful to the program. It’s an important skill, getting over things that disappoint. After I picked up the program again, I decided it would be best to stay on the light side. The first few days I used only the 6 kg bell. Lately, I have used the 8 kg and 10 kg bells again, but I will not venture any heavier. I am careful, and usually go lighter, when doing any exercise where the bell is supposed to be held out away from my center of gravity.

Having fast-forwarded to Week 5, I did my first workout with speed rope. I loved it and I hated it. Doing 17 minutes of skipping when it’s broken into a 5-minutes warm-up and then 12 one-minute speed rope sessions is, well, easy. What I hated was the constant tripping during (attempts at) speed rope. It was the same last time I did Kettlebell.

Yesterday I attempted speed rope with three different weight ropes (today’s photo) just to keep things interesting. As it turns out, in my world there is no such thing as speed rope. When I push myself to speed up, regardless of the weight of rope I ended up tripping. With my light rope (yellow with yellow handles), intended for speed rope, tripping is almost inevitable once if not more times during a one-minute push. The same holds for my the medium-weight rope that is my usual one (orange with blue handles). Try to go really fast, and I usually trip. As for the heavy rope (orange with black handles), it’s not intended for skipping fast, but it doesn’t slow me down much either. In Johnland, skipping is done at around 160 rpm. Period. All the time. With the heavier rope, 155 rpm is average. If I am having a slightly faster than usual bout with my regular rope, then around 165 rpm.

It’s a narrow range. Really, it’s all about coordination. It’s also a psychological game. The thought of speeding up beyond my usual range somehow gets met into an I-bet-I-am-going-to-trip frame of mind, and then I do trip. Well, believe me, I have gotten over this disappointment. Skipping is great. My usual pace is pretty frenetic anyway, so if I can’t push the revolutions per minute much higher, that’s OK.

I’ll keep on trying to up the revolutions on the speed rope, but if it doesn’t work out, I’ll get over that ambition. Looking back over what will soon be five years of Kenzai, I’ve worked hard on getting things right, on slavishly following the assignments. But there are limits. I do what I can to the best of my ability. When I can’t do something, I don’t like it but have come to terms with it. Knee Cappers. I do a feeble imitation. Squat jump rope. Sorry, that’s not going to happen. Ultimately, the point should be not to get an A and a pat on the back from my trainer but to get into a mindset where no day is complete without at least some form of exercise.

Tokyo, Saturday, 7 September 2019, 18:01 UTC+9


May 22nd, 2016

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