Saturday, February 23, 2013

Exercise... exorcise... exorcist.

Let's get on to something practical, shall we?  We'll call it, physical activity.  Because that's what it's called.  These days, working out feels a little like exorcising demons.  It's just about as vigorous and spiritually exhausting.  And if you've never exorcised any demons, I suggest you give it a go and find out what I mean.

First, a little background.  I've been exercising since the age of 7.  In fact, I don't remember when I started working out, but I use 7 as the base age because that's when I joined my first martial arts school.  I starting training very early, for whatever reason anyone wants to do anything before they develop the capacity for abstract thought.  "This will allow me to improve myself physically and teach me valuable life lessons while maintaining an emotional and psychology balance," I might have said, had I been old enough to entertain such thoughts.  But instead, I probably just said, "Hey, it would be pretty sweet to learn how to kick a dude in the junk until he throws up," and bothered my parents until they took me around to look at different schools in the area.

I joined my school for a very simple reason.  They wouldn't let me sit and watch like the others.  They forced me to jump in and participate.  And so, at the age of 7, I began training in Muay Thai, Kali, Boxing, Kenpo Karate, and Japanese Juijitsu, with a smattering of nanchaku and bo staff thrown in for good measure.  I made my assistant instructorship in Muay Thai when I was 16.  My instructors were unconventional, and I came to find out that it was much more difficult than the generally accepted assistant instructor test.  It was, in fact, the most grueling physical test I've ever endured.  And although I became sidetracked and never made my black belt in Kenpo and Japanese Juijitsu, I was only two ranks away.  I went on to study Brazilian Juijitsu, and round out my MMA game later on, a few other weapons styles.  In college, I joined a mixed martial arts fight team.  In NYC, I trained with a world champion.  Aside from martial arts, I've always been very active.  I was on both the baseball and basketball teams all through grade school.  I ran, sparred, lifted weights, and generally kicked ass.  In college, I met the best shape of my life, working out with the fight team and going to the gym daily with one of my best friends in the world -- a shape I still have yet to get back to, although there's still time.  After all, there are all those commercials about 40 and 50 year old doctors who are in better shape than their 18-year-old sons.  They're all full of shit and trying to sell you something, but we can pretend.

After my corporate job was over, I started training seriously again.  My goal was to get back into fighting shape.  I even had a fight scheduled for the fall of 2011, before I was diagnosed with cancer and had to move home.  I was feeling good at that point, and perhaps more importantly, I was looking good.  I won't deny that I took a great deal of pleasure from the fact that I had a firm and toned musculature, and that the opposite sex generally appreciated it very much.  That made me happy.  More on this later perhaps... ;)

For now, I want to discuss physical fitness post-cancer.  It, in a word, sucks.  Immensely.  And I'm sure anyone who's had a period of forced sedentary behavior can understand and appreciate how daunting it is to get back into shape.  As I look over my shoulder now, back to a time when I was in pique physical condition, I get upset when I turn my head around and look at the path ahead.  Getting back to the point where I once was may never happen, and it might not even be very practical to do so.  But I'd like to think that with effort and discipline, I'll be there soon-ish.  And I plan to pursue formal training again, as soon as I can.

In the meantime, I need to get myself back to the point where I can compete with others again.  And that's all up to me.  Through treatment, I tried to keep up some degree of physical activity, but it was irregular and not very intensive.  I tried to follow a workout program while undergoing immunotherapy, and after a week of it I found myself lacking the ability to stand up.  So that experiment was scrapped.  And even though all that is over now, it's tough to know my limits, and also frustrating to admit that I have any in the first place.  Because I never had before.

Since treatment ended, I've been using the elliptical regularly, and increasing the duration and intensity as I go.  Recently though, I've decided to get back to basics.  This philosophy, if you don't already know and apply it to your own life, is the most important you could ever entertain.  Period.  There are certain things in life a person can't live without. And if denied these things, that person will undeniably cease to function at an optimum level.  It's sort of like suppressing a part of your very soul.  And you can't expect to hobble along with much functionality if you're lacking pieces of yourself.  Mine are writing, martial arts, and music performance.  If I go without any of these for extended periods of time, I get grumpy in a very fundamental and existential way.  So, I've started shadow sparring again.  I started slow, doing three rounds of Thai/boxing, the first round with weighted hand wraps, and concentrating mostly on regaining proper form and testing muscle memory, which is, fortunately, intact.  Then today I picked up the Kali sticks and the nunchaks and did drills until I was sweaty and exhausted and my hands were covered in blisters.  It was a hard blow to realize my hands aren't callused anymore, and it makes me worry about what other kinds of conditioning I've fallen out of.

All this falls far short of hours of training and round after round of drills and sparring with cardio intervals capped off with a death-defying ab routine, but it's a start.  Even the most impatient of us (myself included) have to start somewhere, even if we've already been there.  We have to find the strength to understand that physical fitness is not a goal to accomplish, but a lifestyle.  Physical fitness can never be "accomplished."  It's a daily battle of willpower, a daily decision.  You act as your own drill sergeant, conditioning yourself to revel in bodily punishment.  For me, it's been almost a spiritual journey, rivaling that of the Indian ascetics or the Shugendo practitioners of Japan.  The satisfaction of physical punishment in exchange for self-improvement was once the greatest satisfaction.  Now though, being out of practice for so long, I complain about my muscle aches and pains like everyone else.  I feel average, in an area where I've always felt superhuman.  And it will take great effort to pick myself up and gradually climb back up the ladder, rather than give in to the urge to give up and forget about it, and remember fondly the days when I could move heaven and earth with the strength of my physicality.

If you have a similar situation, or if you're getting in shape for the first time, or simply looking for ways to improve yourself, let's do it together.  I could really use the motivation.  I want to get back into fighting shape, but whatever your goals are, let's help each other.