Sunday, August 2, 2009

Friday 8th May - Present day

At the time of writing this I have spent over two months primarily without wearing shoes, both in training and in everyday life. There have been occasions where I've worn shoes or flip flops, for instance when going to the gym, as it saves me the trouble of having to wash my feet all the time, but mostly my feet have been enjoying the fresh air and sunshine.

Originally I had planned to spend a whole week training and living without shoes, but I thought to myself that I had no good reason to wait until that time to start, so I began Immediately.

The hardest thing about going barefoot is taking the first step and removing your shoes and socks and putting yourself in situations where you would feel awkward because of it. I think for most people it is not that they don't wish to be without shoes, or that they prefer the feeling of wearing shoes, but that it seems to break some unwritten social code, both in their own minds and the minds of others.

Although I have largely gotten used to being shoeless, there are still times when I feel the awkwardness, and I may think that I'd prefer not to draw unnecessary attention to myself. But I know inside that what I really want is to be without shoes, and that it is more important for me to face my fears, than to live comfortably, merely wishing that I could do what I want.

I had a conversation with my mum about not wearing shoes, and how that sometimes the reason for doing it may be to prove some kind of point, or something other than the fact that you enjoy it and believe that you'll be better off for doing so. What I was saying, and what I'm saying now is that I'm not anti-shoe, nor do I wish to be, but rather I prefer to be without them. For example my wife wanted us to go to a restaurant that I hadn't be too before, and she said that on this occasion she wanted me to either wear a t-shirt or put shoes on, that she didn't want to go out with me in just a pair of shorts (looking kinda homeless). In this instance I opted to go shoeless and put on a t-shirt for once, but the point is that I aspire to be flexible, instead of discovering something new and then immediately making it a rule or law which to live by.

In the conversation with my mum I said that although going without shoes doesn't harm anyone else, it doesn't mean that I should use this as my reason or excuse to be without them in every situation. For example, there will be times when people being the way some people tend to be, will be disgusted or offended by the sight of someones feet in supermarket, or on the bus for instance. And that in situations where we become aware that we are contributing to someones upset, our preference for not wearing shoes should be overruled in favour of keeping the peace. After all, the point isn't simply to stop wearing shoes, but to enjoy life without them, and how can you really enjoy that experience when you are aware that it is indirectly upsetting another, and it is within your power to change that at least in some small way?

I'm a vegetarian, but I wouldn't say I'm anti-meat. I disagree with many of the issues surrounding meat production and consumption, but it doesn't mean I wouldn't eat meat if I had to. I'd be more than happy to go to the river to fish for my dinner.

My point is that it is very useful to become aware of if, and when our ideas and ideals have a negative impact on the way we are living, and are actually serving only to keep us from the peace and happiness that those same ideals were meant to protect in the first place.

I'm down for the cause, but I'm not a martyr for it.

During my stay in London I had the opportunity to train with some friends of mine who I had first met some time ago, but had never really spent much time with - which is probably true for many people I know. I went to train in the far reaches of North London with The Saiyan Clan, who run small, but lively classes for local teenagers, practically in their own back yard!

I was given the chance to help out with one of their classes, in so much as that I freestyled some demonstrations of movements that the kids could practice to build strength as well as coordination and control. I also made it along to some of their group training sessions on sundays, where we all got together and shared ideas, but without the structure or time constraints of the class. It was good for me to spend time training with other people again, and also to see newcomers returning to sessions to put the effort in that it takes to progress.

Although the actual lessons aren't free, they are very cheap and are intended to be non-profit. Cable and Blake take the time and the effort to teach and support these classes in a way that encourages their students to do their own thing, and to me it felt more like they were one big group of friends rather than a class. I thank them for inviting me along and giving me the opportunity to share my madness and methods, and also for the honorary Saiyan Clan t-shirt!

Peace Jam

The last week of May was the week that I originally intended to spend barefoot, as I had decided to come to central London every day that week to train, and so invited what few people I know to come and join me. The numbers that came on any given were barely enough to qualify as a group, but the company was good. I spent the week training rings, weights and Parkour, and felt surprisingly fresh by the end of it all.

I spent the last day in Vauxhall with various people from the Parkour Generations off the wall jam that was being held that day, and the place was literally swarming with people jumping swinging and vaulting off of everything in sight as there was also another big jam scheduled on the same date. I managed to get on and do what I wanted, although there were so many people out that day you had to pay even more attention than usual as it was likely you'd be hit by someone flying through the air if you weren't careful. Group training isn't really my thing, but I made the most of it and got to see a few old faces while I was out and about. Thanks to all those who turned up, you know who you are.

Looking back over my notes, both mental and written, I haven't really practiced much Parkour as such over the last year. June 1st marked my 6 month anniversary of rings training, during which time that is pretty much all I did, and since then I haven't done much in the way of practicing any techniques either. That's not to say that I haven't been out running and climbing, but it has been more of something I just do for fun on occasion, rather than any focused training or drilling of techniques. This is partly because I've been in a bit of a state where I don't know what it is I want to accomplish, but also because I've been having fun simply training for strength alongside swimming and cycling for the pleasure of it all. I've even begun to dance again, and made a promise to myself that I will set aside the time to do so more often.

Towards the end of May I decided to do a little test to see how much extra weight I could chin up. I was at a friend's house and had been helping him devise a new bodyweight only strength training regime involving the rings he had just bought, and there he had lots of weights as he was more experienced with bench pressing and so on. With the help of my climbing rope and the encouragement of my eldest brother I went about testing for my 1RM. The only thing I was confident would take my weight plus whatever I added was the rings, which wasn't ideal as the extra instability probably meant that I couldn't lift as much as I would have done from a solid bar.

Aside from having never done any weight training before, I had completed my usual rings routine the previous day as well as various exercises earlier on the day in question, so I wasn't in the best of shape, nor was I feeling too confident. Nevertheless, I went ahead and started straight away by adding 30kg to the rope, which at this point was slung over my shoulder. After feeling how easy it was to pull up I had decided in my mind that I would be satisfied if I managed to get to 40kg, so the weight went up in increments of 2 and a half kilos til I got to 40kg. I was feeling pretty pleased with myself and also close to the point where I thought I couldn't do any more, but my brother urged me on to try more, so I decided just an extra half kilo would be enough for now. To cut a long story short, I didn't make that 40.5kg lift, until I rested and begun to hang the weights off of my waist instead. After that I decided to set my aspirations higher and went on adding weight up until 50 kilos, at which point I could only pull up about halfway. So after more than ten separate lifts I settled for a personal best of 47.5kg, at a bodyweight of about 65kg. This was a very good confidence boost for me seeing how training bodyweight only exercises, if done correctly can lead to great strength when it comes to lifting weights. On that day I decided that I would again test my 1RM on weighted chins six months from now at the end of December, with the hope of being able to chin up my full bodyweight in addition, still staying away from weights and sticking to training with my rings. I took a few days off after that, and did think about seeing how well I would fair in pressing extra weight, but only got round to doing a pushup with my 50 kilo brother on my back. Regardless, it seems clear to me that what I had previously read was true; that gymnastics bodyweight strength conditioning has a good carry over when it comes to using weights, but the reverse is not true.

Self-myofascial release

I begun doing this a few years ago perhaps, but then fell out of the habit of doing it, and only just took it up again a couple of months ago, but all I can say is that I recommend it to everyone. Read the article and try it out for yourself, I've either been using a wine bottle or an old, large rolling pin, so no need to even spend any money!

For a change I had a few pictures taken of me by some other people before I returned to Finland. The first ones were taken during a session I had in a spot I had never trained at before. This particular place was right by a bus garage and main road, directly opposite a couple of bus stops and also the final destination for many buses, so it was by no means quiet and out of the way, which is what I tend to prefer. This was the reason I hadn't yet trained there, but on this particular day I had decided that I was ready to break the invisible barrier that kept me from going there, and feeling less liberated than I wished to feel. After the initial and predictable feelings of awkwardness I removed my shoes and climbed a tree where I left them along with the rest of my belongs, out of sight and out of reach, so I could focus on training, without the excess worry of having my possessions stolen.

Besides avoiding the unusually large amounts of broken glass everywhere, which in itself required good foot placement, I repeated a route across some small metal bollards, focusing on the feeling of what it is like to land with my toes gripping the surface staying well away from the middle of the foot. I also took the time to practice some underbars which I've never really liked, as well as the usual basics and other fun climbing, balancing and jumping related exercises. During my time at this spot I had two separate photographers take photos of me, and the ones by professional photographer Justin Kulaway can be seen here.

I don't usually like having my photo taken, but as long as I can just concentrate on what I'm doing naturally, then I don't really mind. It turned out to be quite a fruitful day and an overall positive experience that can be built upon.

The other photographs were taken by my infinite friend and all round manifester of interesting things Miss G Cook. For the first set we did a little night mission in the area around where I used to live in Crystal Palace, and for the second set all 3 of my brothers joined me for climbing fun and antics in the woods, which was a major milestone in our family history I'm sure of it! Some of the first photos can be seen online here.

Stay tuned for the others as they will appear on my own flickr page some time in the future when then becomes now.

The one significant thing I practiced while in London was more routes that started in awkward positions , lying down close to, and at odd angles to things that would immediately have to be vaulted upon getting to my feet. I found that by taking out the controlled and calculated run up to any obstacle made things more difficult, but more fun as it completely changed how I had to move. This way of training I used in conjunction with the games I mentioned in my previous post, and together it feels like by using them I am developing the ability to react quicker and make better use of the skills I have spent time learning in the past. Being more deliberately random and unpredictable is a good test of how well you can actually put into practice what you spend all your time learning.

The week after I returned to Finland we went on a little trip to a city called Turku on the west coast, where I met up with some guys visiting from Ireland as well as a couple of Finns who also practice Parkour.

On the day we arrived in Turku the temperature was so hot I had left the house in nothing but shorts and eventually had to resort to rolling them up, and felt grateful to be barefoot in such unforgiving weather.

Led by Tomi, one of the local traceurs, we moved slowly through the city centre to a couple of spots before stopping off in a park where Tomi later held a class. I set up my rings in a nearby tree and later on Tomi put up his slackline so we could take turns on that too. I didn't really do much that day, but it was good to have met up with Tadhg, Tony and Darran, on their visit from Ireland.

Along with Aleksi, Tomi invited me climbing the following day, a short car trip outside of the city to a place called Kustavi. I was collected early in the morning from outside our hotel on yet another hot day, with probably not enough rest, and definitely not enough to eat. After reaching a road that turned to dirt we parked up and then walked a short distance into the woods, further still away from civilization. The path led to a wall complete with huge boulders that must have been part of the same rock formation many years ago. Where larger pieces of rock had fallen away they created a network of gaps and tunnels which where ripe for exploring, and the whole area was ideal for training Parkour in a natural environment.

We came to climb though, and as I've never climbed on real rock with ropes, and heights are my number 1 phobia I wasn't looking forward to it. I watched a while as people slowly went up the impossibly flat wall, and didn't rate my chances very high. I slipped into Tomi's climbing shoes and got strapped up, before positioning myself in the shadow of the impending rock. I've never used chalk before, so that is how I did my first climb that day, feeling scared for my life pretty much from the moment my feet left the ground. There was a point about a third of the way up that I almost gave in because of how terrified I was, but at that moment the other part of my brain kicked in that said I have to keep pushing on to go past that, and push on I did until I reached the top.

On that day Aleksi had introduced me to an activity which I think has yet to be named, but could be described as primeval screaming, which is often accompanied by the hurling of large and heavy objects, sometimes from great heights, and sometimes in combination with running. Earlier that day I launched myself into this strange new world, along with a large tree branch from the top of the rocks that overlooked the surrounding area. I don't think I've ever made a sound with so much intensity and conviction as I did then, and it was liberating like nothing else. Upon reaching the apex of my first ever climb, and still feeling the adrenaline I let out a victory cry over my long standing nemesis, to let fear know that I'm here to stay.

That day I enjoyed two more difficult climbs which I persevered with and made it through, as well as more rock running, slack lining and mosquito dodging than you can toss a 40 pound log at.

Good times indeed.

On our last day in Turku we went to the beach to enjoy the ridiculously hot spell Finland seemed to be experiencing at the time, but shortly after we arrived with our suitcase in tow the rains began to fall and sent the fair weather beach bums packing. My idea was that if we sat it out long enough under our makeshift umbrella, the light rain would eventually stop, leaving the beach a lot less crowded than it was when we first arrived. But alas, it was not meant to be. The gods were angry and lashed us with rain that was truly unlike anything I've ever experienced before, it was literally as if buckets were being poured from the sky, and with so much force and determination it even worried me a little. We made it to the shelter of a nearby cafe, completely soaked through, looking like we had just been washed up on the shore like a couple of shipwrecked tourists. After dripping off and eventually changing into something dry, we both had hot drinks, by the end of which the sun had made it's comeback as if it had never gone, and we were once again ready to enjoy the sand and sea like we had originally intended.

The beach was indeed much less clogged with humans when we returned, although I was slightly surprised by how quickly people had taken to volley ball and frolicking so soon after such epic weather. Nevertheless I decided to set up my rings in the shade of a tree overlooking the water to go through the first day's strength training in a new cycle. Immediately after finishing I changed into my swimming trunks to go for a much deserved and also needed dip in the sea. I saw a girl playing around attempting to pull herself out of the water and climb onto the platform that reached out across the water and was quite someway above head height. She didn't make it with the help of her legs, but it inspired me to muscle up directly from out the water as I thought it was something that would be quite useful if you were in a situation without the means to simply step out of the water. Regardless of it's usefulness it was fun, and a nice evening was spent in the sun once again.

During the last six weeks that I was in London I did split squats three times a week with around 75lb as a sort of introduction to weight training, meanwhile continuing to work flexibility drills and practicing squatting with a barbell so that I could begin squatting with weights when I returned to Finland.

For the past three weeks I've been on a beginners training program for weighted back squats that initially starts out using an empty barbell and then progressively adds 2.5 kg every workout, providing that the previous workout is completed successfully. This is a 5x5 program, meaning 5 sets of 5 reps at any given weight, and the reason I chose this was because I didn't want to immediately jump in and try to lift as much as I could without the experience of lifting weights beforehand. And although I had been doing various exercises and stretches in the months leading up to beginning squatting with weight I didn't want to rush into things, and took it as an opportunity to learn something new entirely from scratch with as good form as possible, something that I would rarely if ever get the opportunity to do when practicing Parkour.

My first venture into the weightlifting area of the sports centre I go to was quite daunting, wandering into alien territory that was once only seen from my position on the high bar over the foam pit, or from atop the balance beam. There can potentially be 5 people squatting at the same time at the various stands and racks, and to my surprise there are plenty of men and women who do come to train their legs through barbell squats, as well as the usual hoardes of people bench pressing, lifting dumbbells and using the array of exercise machines that I can't make head nor tail of.

Overall, my confidence and technique have been steadily improving since I started, and practicing on my rest days has helped with both also. I've been trying to get to the gym as early as possible as it can get quite crowded and I wanna be able to get in and out as soon as possible.

Recently I've been going upstairs from the weights area to where there are a number of dance studios that can be freely used without booking, mixing up strength training with doing something creative and quite opposite in nature. When I'm finally done I cycle the short distance to the beach and maybe have something to eat and a swim in the sea before beginning the journey home. I've been pushing myself to do more swimming in the sea as it's something that has scared me in the past along with the power of the current, and not knowing how far or how long I am capable of swimming for is something I'm interested in experimenting with. As always the psychological aspect of the physical exercise is very apparent to me, as I can see how I perform so much better when I am able to keep myself relatively calm. The fear of the unknown and what may be below me, sometimes plays a big part in how long I swim for, but lately it hasn't even been in my focus at all, as I simply set my sights on the orange buoy in the distance and do what is necessary to get there. Without really intending to I find myself counting my strokes along the way, which I also think helps me to focus and stay calm. Just being in the open water under a wide blue sky is sometimes a scary and beautiful thing.

Before I began training at the gym I was going to the local woods to train with my rings as I had done in winter, but then afterwards I would make my way closer to the river and move downstream to a spot where I would park my bike and set my things down on a rock while I took a dip in the waters. Sitting in a river in the middle of a forest in the evening sun is not only a nice way to end a day's training but it really strikes me how so much pleasure can be had from the simplest of things around us. I think this is the thing about Parkour that sticks with me most - the ways in which through Parkour I have been exposed to and rediscovered the natural environment and the innate bond that we all have with it. That's not to say I couldn't have found it some other way, as I have done with fishing, but the combination of physical activities and just being outdoors with the elements is something that takes me back to my childhood and perhaps a more 'natural state', and stirs in me the desire to just do what I feel.

I also find that when I am surrounded by nature, often with no other signs of human life around it's very easy for me to relax, take things slower and focus better, whereas in the city this is a state that I have to actively try to recreate when I train. It's in these moments that I feel so far removed from the drama and endless struggle of trying to play catch up with whatever everyone else is doing it doesn't even matter if I train at all. I think that is partly why I've been training less and just enjoying myself more, because the environment I most often find myself in doesn't stimulate the same kind of response.

I may have briefly mentioned it in an earlier post, but here in Finland you can find wild berries growing almost anywhere, and a couple of weeks ago when on our way to a lake for a swim we found a nice patch of blueberries growing by the side of the road tucked into the edge of the forest. Getting to eat a freshly picked handful of berries reminded me of how strange it seems that you can find foods naturally growing and just go and help yourself, because our modern ways of living have separated us from such experiences. Plucking fruit from a tree or even catching a fish from a stream is so different from what we do when we go to a supermarket and just select whatever we want from the shelves, because immediately we have a direct connection to their origins and more input in the process of feeding ourselves and ultimately our own survival. That moment brought me right back to the feeling I first had when eating wild berries here, and it made me want to live a live where those sort of experiences and feelings were more common.

There's no other way you can truly understand what I'm talking about other than to actually go out and experience such things for yourself. And then you will understand the truth behind the cliche that we have lost touch with our environment.

Being barefoot for so long has shown me that it is one of the best ways to learn how to be more precise and conservative with movement as you can't afford to be lazy or careless, especially when training in more natural surroundings. It's my belief that it's much easier to train barefoot in the city where there's lots of flat, even surfaces and everything is more predictable. As an example, it can be very difficult to tell how stable the forest floor may be, or what sharp or loose objects are concealed beneath leaves and twigs just by looking. These are things that you only find out once you are walking or running across them. In the city my main concern is gravel or glass, or perhaps suspicious wet patches, but I think they're easier to avoid. If you take the idea behind good climbing technique - to put your hands and feet in the right positions first time, every time, and to make as few moves a possible, and then apply it to whatever you do or practice, you can develop a very useful habit, and fluid way of moving. This is something I'd like to work more on in the future.

It seems that the gymnastics rings are really catching on with more and more people getting into rings conditioning, and if you haven't yet got yourself some but are interested go to which is where I bought mine from. Currently I'm focusing on developing my core and pulling strength for front lever, as well as working towards strict non kipping, muscle ups without any forward lean. This is really the first year that I've been able to do a muscle up, as I started completely from scratch in December with jumping muscle ups and negatives, slowly following the progressions in order to build the most strength and best technique, long before I even try to do them on a straight bar again.

It's interesting looking back to not so long ago, and seeing the difference in the way I thought and approached training, and with that in mind it now also appears to me that in general Parkour training still seems to be quite a haphazard affair on the whole. I think trial and error is good for people who don't have any other options, but it's far from optimal. There may be some who don't want to train in the most efficient way because Parkour isn't about jumping the furthest or climbing the fastest, but it seems to me that the vast majority of people do want to excel at such things, and are simply not going about training for them in the best way.

Being someone who is primarily self taught when it comes to Parkour or dance I can say that the way I have trained in the past was in no way the best, but it was right for me at the time. I also believe that learning optimal techniques doesn't suddenly take away your freedom to create or do what you want, and in fact it probably allows you greater freedom to do so, as your energies aren't then wasted on trying to discover your own technique for the move you want. As an example if you teach someone the correct procedure for learning a back somersault and they follow it precisely they would have saved time on trying to iron out bad habits that may become unconsciously ingrained if they were just to go the trial and error route. The move is not the ultimate goal, so in any case why deliberately make learning it more difficult? Whether you do Parkour for fun or for some other deep and spiritual purpose, I'm sure you'd want to be able jump further, run faster and climb higher than you currently can.

Parkour doesn't become a competition by simply switching to optimal training methods, as it's your own motivations that determine what it is to you. If you're ever worried about any 'true' or 'original' meaning being lost, all you have to do is remain true yourself.

We went to a local swimming pool on Friday where there was a diving pool with two different heights from which to jump, the highest being 5 metres. Having never really jumped from anything remotely high into water I made sure that I jumped from them both. I think it was something that I would have normally avoided, but I knew that I didn't want to pass up the opportunity to face my fears again in a relatively safe setting. It turned out to only briefly be scary, but now my brain is still full of water.

I had started writing a book which is semi-autobiographical abstractical, but then I put it aside in favour of reading, and then drawing, and then I began writing a diary in Finnish. I'm a few days behind at present, but it's been going ok and I think it should help me get to grips with the language more. I'm contemplating whether or not to begin posting the pages from my book that I've finished so far, because my original plan was to upload the whole thing in one go once it was complete. But as completion dates are a rare thing around here and there's probably only so much of my handwriting and writing style that one can handle at a time, I'm thinking it might be a good idea to post it in installments, perhaps weekly. Anyway, keep an eye on my flickr page as usual.

Nothing much else to report really, unless I've forgotten something really important, in which case I won't sleep easy. I applied for a local evening job, but have yet to hear a final response, so I shall continue looking, or finding, depending on your philosophy.

It took me absolutely ages to even bring myself to begin the task of writing this, as is always the case, so forgive me for not updating sooner.

I've also been adding things to my favourites on youtube at long last, in order to highlight videos that aren't so well known and are sometimes quite random. You gotta start digging up those gems!