Thursday, 30 October 2014

Move Your DNA by Katy Bowman

Move Your DNA by Katy Bowman

On the fiction front I've been reading David Copperfield.  No-one can accuse me of choosing short, easy books for this challenge!  Still, it is one of the few Dickens' novels I've not read before and I am enjoying it although it feels slow going - I'm about three quarters of the way through, so expect a review next week (not that Dickens needs a review from me but there you go).

The non-fiction book I finished last week though, was this one: Move Your DNA by Katy Bowman.  It was recommended by Mark Sisson of Mark's Daily Apple which is enough of an endorsement for me to buy a book anyway but this one had particular resonance.  As many people know I have had all sorts of pelvic issues for quite some time (see my review of Teach Us To Sit Still) and am currently going through various medical tests to find out why I have such bad pain in my lower back and right hip bone (not joint).  I am waiting to go back to the consultant for the results of an MRI scan.  

Since September, when I made a few changes to my lifestyle through following The Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod (review of that to come soon), I have had a dramatic improvement in my ability to stand for long periods of time without pain - pretty essential stuff for a teacher!  I am convinced that the biggest reason for the improvement is strictly following the Primal Blueprint lifestyle protocol.  It is something I have done on and off for six years and every time I do it properly the results are amazing.  In fact with the extra time and energy I've found from this I've started to take the Primal Blueprint Expert Certification course with the intention of setting up a website and classes delivering primal wellbeing coaching.  

So, where does this book come in?  I am not an natural exerciser.  It's pretty obvious that my idea of fun is curling up on a sofa with a good book. But pain is a fairly effective motivator and I am fascinated by the whole concept of giving our bodies what evolution has programmed it to expect.  (I feel that about babies too, so I might do a review of The Continuum Concept on here soon.)  There are a few evolutionary inspired exercise books out there such as Paleo Fitness, and Mark Sissan has the  big four Primal Movements as part of the Primal Blueprint, but they all take the focus of introducing the movement that your body should expect into your everyday life - definitely necessary and worthwhile but not completely addressing the situation I was in. 

Katy Bowman is a biomechanist so every principle in the book is firmly underpinned by thorough scientifc knowledge and understanding.  The premise of this book is, like that of other evolutionary fitness books, that our bodies as hunter-gatherers expect certain amounts and kinds of movement everyday and that our modern sedentary lifestyles simply do not provide that movement.  Other primal, paleo, evolutionary fitness books provide ideas for the necessary exercises that we can undertake to replicate some of those movements in a regular way and these are all brilliant. For example, I would love to attend a MovNat workshop and get a real hunter-gatherer style workout  but, apart from the fact that they are ridiculously expensive, I also know that in my current state of fitness I could not do one.  I realise now that twenty-odd years ago when I used to spend every spare moment caving, climbing or hill-walking I got that workout without thinking about it or 'doing exercise' and I would love to get back to that physical state and level of natural activity. 

Where this book differs from those others is that Katy takes our bodies as they are now and explores how they deviate from that evolutionary expectation.  It is not just that we do not get any where near enough movement in our lives now - even people who participate in sports and exercise programmes spend a considerable amount of the day sitting or standing still - but that there are some movements that we over-do.  For instance, our bodies are not designed to walk up evenly spaced steps or along perfectly flat, even ground.  We encase our feet in rigid shoes which do not allow our feet to engage with the terrain, we spend long periods of time sitting on chairs which force our spines into particular shapes when we were 'designed' to squat and we prop our heads up on pillows causing our necks to spend the whole 7-8 hours in one position instead of lying on varying surfaces at different heights and angles.

So Katy has provided some exercises which are designed, not to give us a primal workout, but to re-align those parts of the body which we are mis-using, under-using, over-using and deforming by our repetitive actions and sedentary lifestyle. The exercises are deceptive, the movements involved look miniscule, the results are amazing.

Now, I enjoyed this book for all the theory and the science and the bio-mechanics, some people might not be interested in that side of things.  However, I struggled with following the exercises in the book and interpreting the printed pictures.  They are good, and Katy's descriptions are brilliant but it is always hard to read and exercise at the same time and also to judge a movement from a static picture.  But, as this was an e-book, so of course there were links to Katy's website: Katy Says where she, not only publishes a blog but also has various programmes available to download and buy the video tutorials.  I believe she also has a YouTube channel which is worth checking out.  The ideas explained in the book made such sense to me that I tried the trial 'Alignment Snack' as they are called, and I actually enjoyed it.  Since then I have downloaded 4 more 'snacks' at a cost of $5 each which works out at just over £3. I have been doing one of these snacks every morning for the past week and a half and they are unbelievable.  I now realise that I walk using my lower back, knees and thighs instead of my lateral hip muscles (the muscles running over the hips at the side of the legs) and my hamstrings.  I'm really focusing on strengthening and stretching these under-used muscles and taking the strain off my lower back which has been trying to do a job it was not designed for.  In only a week and a half I have seen a dramatic improvement and have even ventured as far as adding a 7 minute primal exercise workout to my morning routine.  If this continues, which I'm sure it will, then I will fly up Mount Ararat in August!

So, if you are interested in a primal lifestyle, in getting fit, or in dealing with chronic joint or muscle pain, then I wholeheartedly recommend this book. When I go back to the hospital for my results, I'll have to admit that I don't even have a problem any more. 

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Teach Us To Sit Still by Tim Parks

Teach Us To Sit Still: A Sceptic's Search for Health and Healing by Tim Parks

As you probably have realised by now, I follow the Miracle Morning routine from the book of that name by Hal Elrod.  The first three elements of that routine are Silence; Affirmations and Visualisation.  Now I am a something of a sceptic, atheist, non-believer in the power of the Universe who thinks that The Secret is a scam.  However, I am also a big fan of that other sceptic, atheist Derren Brown, so I am a huge believer in the power of the mind.  Unfortunately I have great trouble doing nothing so the SAV part of my morning routine was suffering because I just want to get it out of the way to get on to the fun stuff of reading and writing.  I asked the Miracle Morning facebook community if they could recommend any books on mediation, visualisation etc for sceptics.  Many people in the Miracle Morning community are religious or spiritual people so a lot of the books they often recommend include some spiritual element which immediately puts me off.  However, my request yielded this result: Teach Us To Sit Still by Nick Parks.  So, I gave it a go. (Gotta love Kindle 1-click!)

Nick Parks is a well-established, Booker prize nominated fiction author, although I've never read any of his other books (will be adding them to my list now though!).  A few years ago he developed what appeared to be a prostrate condition and this book essentially describes, in graphic detail, his search for a cure or at least some relief from his pevic pain.  The first few chapters are quite painful reading. He endures a battery of invasive, excruciating and often embarrassing tests and procedures in an attempt to discover the source of his symptoms.  However, once they were all complete, and every usual diagnosis exhausted he was left with the option of an operation to cut one of the sphincters in his urethra (!) which may or may not have any effect, or to live with it.  Neither of those options particularly appeals to him.  The risks associated with the operation were such that it could well end up making his sympoms worse and living with it meant putting up with such severe pain that he couldn't sit down and had to go to the bathroom five or six times a night.

As he investigated his condition, he discovered in old research literature, that there was a tendency for this condition to affect men who were "restless, worrisome, dissatisfied individuals" (p.31).  The more he dug into the research the more he found other examples throughout history of men who might have suffered something similar and he began his quest for an answer.

The book is clearly the product of a talented writer.  As he searches for his possible cure, Parks explores the lives and works of Hardy, Velasquez, Bernhard, Gandhi and Hemingway amongst others.  He runs, tries herbal remedies, immerses himself in extreme kayaking and even visits an Ayurvedic doctor in India.  As well as being a writer Parks, who lives in Italy, also teaches translation at an Italian university and he vividly recounts his encounters with students.  As an autobiography, even without the medical quest, this is a fascinating autobiography.

Then Parks comes across an obscure American book called, intriguingly, A Headache in the Pelvis by David Wise. By this time Parks has exhausted conventional medicine which declares that, apart from his symptoms, there is nothing wrong with him.  By now he is willing to try anything.  The Wise book suggests that a myriad of pelvic pain symptoms, of which Parks' fit quite neatly, are in fact caused by tension in the pelvic floor muscles.  Given how much research Parks has done up to this point it is surprising that this is the first time that he has come across any mention of pelvic floor muscles.  Parks is intrigued.  Unfortunately much of the treatment Wise recommends involves visiting his clinic in America and undergoing an intensive course of (expensive) treatment which Parks is not in a position to do.  However, Wise also recommends something called Paradoxical Relaxation, which turns out to be a form of meditation.  Although, again, Wise recommends that this is not something to be undertaken on your own, he does describe the process, so Parks, despite his scepticism, decides he has nothing to lose and begins his own programme of daily hour long mediation sessions.

At first, Parks finds this incredibly difficult.  He has acknowledged that he is a 'restless, worrisome, dissatisfied individual' and as a writer he finds it very difficult to switch off the words in his head.  But, all credit to him, he persists and, for the first time in two years, starts to get some relief from his symptoms.  He takes an important step in acknowledging that his symptoms are not hypochondria or 'made-up' but that they are pschosomatic in the sense that they are caused by they way he tenses when stressed which has in itself become habitual. The Paradoxical Relaxation is by no means a miracle cure but it provides sufficient relief for Parks to start to take meditation seriously.  He sees benefits in other areas of his life and decides to push the concept even further by going on a Vipassan mediation retreat.

Parks description of the retreat, and a second longer one he attends, is fascinating.  Despite his continued success with the relaxation he still has an atheist, sceptic attitude towards Buddhist philosophy.  But he persists, follows the instructions, carries out the activities (or non-activities).  We are treated to the inner war going on between the side of him willing to give it a go and the side that believes it is all arrant nonsense. This battle is both entertaining to the reader, but also enlightening, especially to me with my own conflict on the benefits of Silence, Affirmations and Visualisations.

It is not a spoiler to reveal that Parks is now a meditation afficianado and largely pain and symptom free without having to have had the horrendous operation.  I haven't yet embraced the silence fully, but as a sceptic with a history of pelvic pain and disorders, Parks has certainly made me reconsider the benefits of meditation.  More importantly he has made me realise that even though so many proponents of the practice like to 'dress it up' with a spiritual dimension, the techniques themselves are all about the body and the mind working together and attempting to break down that 'extraordinary mismatch between the creatures we are and the way we live' (p.2). So, I don't do spiritual but I definitely do Primal. When I look on these techniques as ways to reconnect with my evolutionary health and well-being then the conflict with my rational mind and my resistance to them disappears.

I'm expecting my next few reviews to have a primal focus as today I am signing up to do the Primal Blueprint Expert Certification course.  Wish me luck!

Sunday, 19 October 2014

18 Minutes by Peter Bregman

18 Minutes

Another book on reaching your goals and developing good habits that was cheap on Kindle.  A good introduction to the topic but didn't really say anything new.  The 18 minutes of the title are:
5 minutes scheduling your to-do list into your calendar every morning; setting an alarm to go off every hour throughout the day and spending one minute re-focusing and reviewing whether what you are doing is moving you forward; and then 5 minutes at the end of the day in an evening ritual which involves asking yourself three question - how did the day go?; what did I learn?; who did I interact with?

The basic premise of the book can be boiled down to the following:

  • Vision - know what you want to do, cultivate your passion or one thing
  • Plan - decide when and where you are going to do things
  • Focus - avoid distractions
  • Rituals - set up systems to help you get things done
  • Motion - getting started is the hardest part so start small
  • Environment - manipulate your daily cues to help you develop habits
  • Review - deliberate feedback is essential to success.
Overall a useful book which reinforces the messages of success. 

The Maze Runner by James Dashner

The Maze Runner

This was a great little Young Adult book which I know has been made into a great film although I haven't seen it yet.  I read this in a day, in between housework and marking, and it was brilliant for escaping.

There seems to be a trend for dystopian novels for YA at the moment and when you look at the news it's hardly surprising that teenagers are enjoying novels where they are to be the saviours of a messed up world. This is a cross between all of them: Hunger Games, Divergent, Millenium 14.  It is written in the first person by a boy named Thomas who is possibly about 15, although he doesn't know as his memory has been wiped.  He has been 'dumped' into a world of only teenage boys (imagine the smell!) who have sorted themselves into factions or guilds.  None of them have any memory of where they came from or how they got there.

Outside their camp is the maze which is patrolled by strange half biological half mechanical creatures.  A group of boys called runners go out everyday in an attempt to find a way through the maze and hopefully find the exit. If any of them get 'stung' by the creatures, they must receive a serum which prevents them from dying.  The serum itself though, has the side-effect of restoring some memories - however if they try to tell anyone else these memories they end up trying to strangle themselves.  A few boys who have experienced this 'changing' recognise Thomas and appear to have a deep loathing for him.

A week after Thomas arrives a girl is sent.  She is the only girl that has ever appeared in the camp and she is in a coma. Thomas feels he knows this girl, although he doesn't know how and it soon becomes apparent that they have a telepathic connection.

The book was pacey and exciting with sufficient mystery and tension to be a page-turner. It didn't engage me as much as Divergent, possibly because it was so boy-centric.  My only grumble with it, and this is a feature of pretty much all these types of books at the moment, is that it doesn't really finish.  The resolution is incomplete and so you are forced to read the second book (and presumably the third) to find out what is going on - good marketing strategy of course.  I have a feeling that there will be more girls in subsequent books, hopefully not just there to be rescued!

I'm looking forward to seeing the film now, and I'll hold off with the rest of the trilogy until after I've seen the film.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

It's Complicated by Danah Boyd

This morning during my non-fiction reading session I finished It's Complicated by Danah Boyd.
 Books are like buses, three all arrive at once.

I enjoyed this book but I'm sure it is of very little interest to anyone who does not work with teenagers using digital media literacy.

The book is basically a research dissertation in whch the author interviewed a considerable number of American teenagers about their use of social media.  Some of the chapters were particularly American, such as the chapter on race and gangs, so didn't really relate to my understanding of networked teens.  However, quite a few chapters were useful and provided some compelling insight into teens' behaviour online.

The overarching conclusion was that to today's teens social media is a public space like the mall or the park.  It is the place to go to meet people, to take risks, to assert independence from adults and to cultivate and develop an identity.  Adults, trying their best to protect teens from online predators and potential future embarrassment, try to regulate and monitor teens online activities, yet the teens themselves will always find a way to bypass these protective measures.

Are teens more at risk online then they were at the park? Are teens more cruel and more likely to bully online than in the school corridors?  Boyd's conclusion was 'not really' although she acknowledges that there will always be some teens who are more at risk than others. She also believes that many of the behaviours we see as risky and potentially embarrassing may simply become rites of passage that this generation consider normal and don't take too much notice of.  Time will tell if she is right or not - in the meantime I will continue to teach about online safety and the digital footprint.  What use the teens make of that information is then up to them.

The chapter which was the most interesting to me was the once considering whether today's youth are, in fact, digital natives.  Boyd concluded that the term was misleading and that kids today, even those born since 1999, who have never known a time without the internet, still need teaching how to understand digital media.  In fact, she believes becoming digitally literate is one of the most important skills they will need (good - keeps me in a job!).  They are not born knowing what to do with a computer and many of them still have limited access to online connectivity.  More important, though, is understanding how the content they see and read and watch online is mediated, how it is biased, how it serves the interests of a few interested in making money.  In other words interpreting digital media is just as complicated, just as necesary and just as compelling as the media has ever been.  Power is still in the hands of the media producers and now that anyone can be a media producer understanding their messages is vitally important if teens are not to be at the mercy of that power.

Overall, a great book for me but unlikely to be much fun for anyone else.

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

Whilst I was reading The Weft and The Warp on my iPhone, I needed a paperback to read in the bath (as all my students know I am obssessed with not letting a drop of water near any Apple device - ever since I dropped my 80gb iPod Classic in the washing-up bowl).

I finished that last night too. First published in 1955, my copy is tatty old one which belonged to my dad.  I have read it before, but when I was still at school so I couldn't remember much more than the opening with Sophie and her six toed footprint on the wet rock.

John Wyndham is famous for science-fiction, most notably The Day of the Triffids which is one of my all time favourites. The Chrysalids is an interesting premise although the story is not as exciting as Triffids.  It is set in a post-apocolyptical world in which genetic disorders are rife.  The apocolyptical event is not made clear, the characters in the book call it the Tribulation and believe it was sent from God.  However, the genetic damage it has caused suggests some kind of nuclear catastrophe.

Society, and in particular the main protagonist David's father, believe that genetic mutation must be eradicated and that only those made in the image of God should be allowed to live.  The image of God is, of course, the one prescribed by them and as the novel progresses we see that it can be a fairly loosely interpreted if an economic advantage is gained, for instance when David's uncle buys some giant workhorses.

In the novel, David, his cousin Rosalind and several other young people discover they have the gift of telepathy and can converse with each other in thought-pictures over reasonably long distances.  Then David's mother has another daughter who appears to be 'normal' but reveals accidently to David and his friends that she has an immensely strong gift of telepathy.

Inevitably this aberration is discovered and David, Rosalind and Petra go on the run. Because their 'defect' is not instantly visible, the authorities, including David's father are not content to let them flee to the Fringes where all the other mutants live, and instead hunt them down.  However, Petra's immense gift allows them to contact a superior race of humans, who can all use thought-pictures, living thousands of miles away in Zealand.

The race is on to see who will get to the 'deviants' first.

This novel is clearly a commentary on the dangers of messing about with genetics and the possible catastrophic effects of nuclear fallout - it was written, of course, at the height of the Cold War.  However, it also explores the idea of normality and evolution.  Mutation, is after all, the way that evolution works and to see all mutations as inherently bad or wrong, risks stifling evolution and physical and mental progress.

As I said, it's not the most exciting sci-fi novel ever and not particularl
y fantastical.  The ending is a bit obvious.  For a novel written in the fifties though, it does feature some strong female characters and it's a great easy and light read.

The Weft and The Warp finished!

Last night I finished The Weft and The Warp by Cornelius Owen.  I loved this book!

It was essentially a set of mini-stories connected by a family tree which made its way through history starting in 1066 and finishing in 1965.

Every story had a clear protagonist who was always engaging and compelling, keeping me engaged through each historical event.  My favourites were William Hastings and Eric Stainsby who appeared during The Wars of The Roses, and although Stainsby was fiction the fact that Hastings really did exist and the events portrayed in the story did happen made it even more fascinating.

I also particularly enjoyed the tale set during the time of Oliver Cromwell and the emotional depiction of how a civil war can put family members on opposing sides.  Another character I liked was Theophilis Henry Hastings (who couldn't like him with a name like that!) and I was glad that he got his heart's desire in the end (without giving away any spoilers I hope). His brother George was spine-chillingly nasty.

I read the Kindle version on my iPhone which did not include a family tree which was a shame because it would have been really interesting to see that. The family tree is available in the paperback version.

So, I thoroughly recommend this book.  It might seem a weighty tome at first glance but each period of history works well on its own so it is very easy to pick up and get into without being overwhelming.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Betterness by Umair Haque

Betterness by Umair Haque

This is a short Kindle book which discusses the need for a new paradigm in economics.  It argues that just as in mental health, where the emphasis for many professionals, has shifted from curing illness to promoting and exploring wellness, so economics needs to stop focusing on a limited ideal of success based on GDP.

The author convincingly argues that now that people in the West have moved away from an economy of just surviving, economics now needs to factor in important values such as fairness, satisfaction, health, the environment, etc., when measuring success.  

The bottom line should not be about production and growth and, as with the individual, there comes a point when more money or more profit does not equal more happiness.  He also argues that, as these factors become more and more important to individuals, so they will become more important to business and ultimately lead to more success.  

He argues that companies which have an ambition which is based outside of themselves and their own profits and shareholders have already started to see more success than those whose narrow focus is inwards.  

Whlst this was an interesting book, I'm not a business person so for me it painted a picture of how I woudl like to see the economy run rather offering any suggestions as to what I could do - other than only buy products from companies in line with my personal ethics and values.   It is possibly naive to think that business must become more ethical in the future and that ultimately it will lead to a fairer and more equitable planet.  However, I've also read the Rational Optimist and Better Angels of Our Nature and whilst at times the idea of ethical progress seems unlikely when history is viewed through a long lens it seems that things do continually get better for humanity if not for the planet, at least since the advent of agriculture, which was our fall from the Garden of Eden or as Jared Diamond puts it in Guns, Germs and Steel, the biggest mistake humanity made. 

Sunday, 5 October 2014

The Weft and the Warp by Cornelius Owen

The Weft and the Warp by Cornelius Owen

According to Kindle I am now exactly 50% of the way through this book and am now caught up in the middle of the War of The Roses. 

The book continues to rattle on apace.  I thoroughly enjoyed the journey through the time of the plague and, in fact, that part did remind me of The Journal of a Plague Year by Daniel Defoe which I might read again after this.

This is a very pacey book and is certainly brings history to life.  One of the isssues with a book which travels through history can be the lack of a central character to get involved and empathise with, but this book avoids that by having a clear, empathatic protagonist for each historical era.  The differing fortunes of William Hastings and Eric Stainsby is enthralling and they seem very realistic.  In fact, the book as a whole, seems very well researched and authentic.  As well as enjoying a jolly good read  I'm fairly sure I'm learning plenty too.

So, on that note, I think I'll get back to the book.

The 12 Week Year by Brian P Moran

The 12 Week Year by Brian P Moran

Yet another book recommended by the good people over at the Miracle Morning Community on Facebook.  This is a productivity book aimed at business people but applicable to anyone who wants to get more done.

The premise is simple - a year is too long to wait to achieve a goal.  By giving ourselves goals for the year we sabotage them before we even start.  There are several reasons why a year is too long and this book sets out to overcome them by getting you to work to the much shorter timescale of 12 weeks.  The author argues that using this system you should be able to achieve your yearly goals in 3 months. 

What I like about this book is that it works well with the principles set out in The One Thing and it is also very process orientated rather than results orientated.  I think this message is starting to sink in with me as it seems to have been the theme of quite a few of the books and blogs I have read lately.  Your goal might be to 'get fit' or 'be more organised' but those are results orientated goals and not very specific at that.  How do you now when you've got there? What happens when you do get there?  Is that the end of the goal - tick it off and find new one? By focusing on the process rather than the end result, you build daily the little habits which get you to the end result and beyond.  For me, the main goal of being fit and healthy and, especially, pain-free doesn't help much.  Whereas the process goals of eat clean, don't drink and do my fifteen minute exercise routine every morning, get me to that result.  Similarly my big goal of reading 80 books in a year can only be reached by reading daily and blogging twice a week - I can't have a burst of activity and energy as my deadline draws near, it will be too late then. 

The 12 Week Year is based on the idea that a deadline encourages effort and so setting a deadline for 12 weeks instead of 12 months ensures that effort gets distributed more evenly over the year. 

I am enjoying this book - nearly finished it - and am going to use it to get started on some of the bigger projects I've been dithering about such as getting the application proposal for a doctorate completed and doing the Primal Blueprint Expert Certification course and setting up a Primal Wellbeing Coaching website.

Let's see how that goes!