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I half-ass the warmup stetches, and you should too

by on January 19, 2016

I half-ass warmup stretches, and you should too.

Perhaps you’ve seen me in the back, barely leaning in to the stretches. I’ve done this for years. Am I lazy? Yes, obviously.

But there’s actually some reasoning behind this particular choice, and in my view, we would all be better off if several chunks of the standard JAA-lineage warmup were abandoned for good.

Let me take a few steps back.

I’ve been trying to do a better job of posting content to my blogs (yes, plural).

This idea was initially going to be a short post to my 207aikido blog. But, as I mulled the topic over in my head, I began to think it might be a good topic for my other blog as well.

If the phrase “JAA-lineage” didn’t make any sense to you then perhaps you’re reading this post on my paleo blog Reanderthal. I figured that the audience for a post about aikido etiquett or competition design might be quite different than the audience for a post about early human migration or the ancestral heuristic.

But of course, these topics bleed all over each other in my head, and sometimes the crossover might even be instructive. This is how a short post about a warmup routine quickly ballooned in my mind into a rambling essay cross-posted to both blogs. We’ll see how it goes.

The warmup

I don’t enjoy stretching. Never have.

In the late 90’s I was running cross-country in high school and was somehow subscribed to a runner’s periodical. I remember reading an article in that magazine about how static stretching was, at best, ineffective at preventing injury in subsequent training, and, at worst, actually harmful. What’s more, it definitely sent the wrong message to muscles and hampered performance. That was all I needed to hear. I was moving on.

Luckily in college our ultimate frisbee club didn’t have a coach or any enforcement mechanism strong enough to stop me from doing my leg swings and skips in lieu of the group static “warmup” stretches. By the time I was visiting the team during my younger brother’s tenure as captain, all the ultimate teams seemed to have caught up with the research.

In the JAA-lineage world of aikido it seems to be a very different matter. There is a standard warmup that is presented to beginners as if it were a carefully constructed kata.

I don’t actually know anything about the specific history of the warmup (and I don’t plan to do any research either) but I’m skeptical.

Old and new

In my view, when it comes to knowledge and wisdom, there are two periods of time which deserve the bulk of our respect: the distant past and the immediate present.

The ancestral heuristic applies not only to genes, but to memes as well.

Evolution only works so fast, and we are not yet fully adapted to our present milieu, which is itself changing faster now than ever before. The ancestral heuristic suggests that, when weighing diet and lifestyle choices, we should consider how long such foods or activity patterns have been a part of human lives. The longer humans have been exposed to a food or challenge, the greater the chance that our body is well adapted to it, or even expects it.

Refined sugar and industrial vegetable oils have only been around for a brief moment in ecological time, and it should be no surprise that our digestive systems are not well-equipped to handle them in large quantities. Staring at screens with a circadian-disrupting blue hue at night is an even newer challenge.

Some people cite the recent acceleration of human evolution to suggest that the premise for a “paleo” lifestyle is invalid. In fact, I believe the opposite is true. If a neolithic acceleration had been followed by a industrial-age deceleration, we might conclude that, as a population, we are generally well adapted to our environment. However, the acceleration continues, which suggests that more people than ever are vulnerable.

If you are like me, and likely to be in the “losing” group, you would do well to mimic the lives of your ancestors.

Ancestral Memes

There is a similar case to be made about knowledge and cultural practices.

A while back I read an article about Kurt Hahn, founder of Outward Bound among other things.

Hahn became known around the world for his distinctive educational approach, though he insisted that none of his ideas were original. In speeches, he often told the story of an American educator who came to Salem School for a tour with Prince Max.

Here’s how Hahn tells the story: The American educator, after getting a tour of the schools’ various campuses, said to the Prince, “What are you proudest of in these beautiful schools?” And Prince Max said, “If you go the length and breadth of them, there’s nothing original in them. That is what I am proud of. We have stolen from everywhere, from the Boy Scouts, from Plato, from Goethe.”

The American responded: “Ought you not to aim at being original?”

Prince Max answered, “No, it is in education as in medicine. You must harvest the wisdom of a thousand years. If ever you come to a surgeon and he wants to take out your appendix in the most original manner possible, I would strongly advise you to go to another surgeon.”

Memes are also subject to evolutionary pressure and mechanisms. New ideas come along all the time. Some are better than others. The longer a cultural practice or bit of wisdom has survived in a culture, the more likely it is to have value.

Don’t get me wrong, rational analysis and the scientific method may be the best way to approach a problem in the moment, but as people say, half of everything science now knows to be true will eventually be proven false – the problem is, they don’t yet know which half.


In 1978 Dr. Gabe Mirkin coined an acronym which laid out the “modern” way of treating a joint injury: RICE – Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. In recent years, the use of ice has come under increasing scrutiny, and, in fact, Dr. Mirkin has recently shifted his position stating “… it appears that both Ice and complete Rest may delay healing, instead of helping.” My friend and Vassar Aikido Club leader Jun told me that traditional Chinese medicine has always held that such injuries should not be treated with cold.

Ancient “woo-woo” knowledge: 1, 1978 vintage science: 0.

The problem with ancient wisdom is that it is couched in what amounts to a foreign language which we don’t understand, and are often prejudiced against.

My personal tendency is to approach issues from a rational scientific angle. Up until my sophomore year in college, I was practically allergic to any idea couched in “woo-woo” or pseudo-magical terms. But I experienced a few things in college which helped increase my tolerance.

One experience came on suddenly, and that was the deterioration of my gut health. I spent a lot of time in waiting rooms in the fall of 2003. Eventually “modern” medicine narrowed my condition down to four possible ailments, all four of which were considered mysterious (!) and incurable (but manageable through a lifetime of prescription drugs!). More interested in underlying causes than symptom management, I set out to find a less defeatist modality.

Today my gut is far healthier than it ever was growing up, but in order to get to this point I had to inoculate myself with a whole ton of “woo”.

I’m better for it.

Vassar Aikido

My other exposure to the woo came in my college aikido club. In my experience, Tomiki aikido groups tend to have a rational and methodical approach, which is a legacy of professor Tomiki’s analysis. However, we are certainly “ki-adjacent.” Over the years I’ve learned that sometimes, even if you don’t believe in the magic, sometimes you get better results when you act as if it were real.

Our ancestors did not have modern science, but they did have thousands of years of trial and error. The main issue with the wisdom they passed down to us is not its veracity but its comprehensibility. It isn’t couched in modern terms or for modern situations – how could it be? Our challenge therefore, is less about deciphering if it is true and more how and when it is true.

Unfortunately, our more recent ancestors, in their excitement over the dawn of a new rational and mechanized age, greatly discounted the value of the wisdom they received. They decided, in numerous spheres, to replace ancient wisdom with shiny new facts (and slimming (!) refined sugar).

Modern budo was no exception, and, at some point in the not-to-distant past, somebody created our standard warmup which looks a lot like the radio taiso to me. (Note: after having just watched the video now, I’m actually a bit intrigued by the history of the radio taiso…)

Hobbits, stubborn colds, and crystal worship

When genes come under threat, they don’t always disappear completely. Bacteria can escape antibiotics underneath protective biofilms. Homo floresiensis, isolated on a tropical Indonesian island, survived much longer than the Neanderthals, and it now appears that the Red Deer Cave People may have survived nearly as long in an area which “is a biological refugium owing to its variable topography and tropical location.”

Likewise, memes can stick around longer in some mental environments than others. When modernity fever grips the culture as a whole, some ancient memes can persist in unique corners. The brains of woo-woo new-age crystal worshipers are potential hosts because fruitcakes are usually much more resistant to rational arguments.

Communities with an unbroken tradition of ancestor-worship are another potential safe-haven for misunderstood memes.

Sometimes the best place to look for a powerful new tool is not the bleeding edge of science, but rather ancient wisdom which has yet to be properly translated into modern frameworks. It’s not that ancestor worship or magic thinking imbue any (much?) value on their own, but rather that they provided a psychic habitat which may have allowed memes to survive that might have otherwise have been purged.

Koryu budo schools are a great example. If the enlightenment and subsequent industrial revolution were antibiotics, clearing the world of superstition, koryu budo was one of the biofilms behind which some superstitious-seeming memes could persist in semi-dormancy.

If a physical skill takes 20 years of concerted practice to master, and if the possessor of said skill cannot (or chooses not to) explain the skill in rational scientific terms – perhaps a teacher who must simultaneously advertise his skill and obfuscate his methodology – then the skill is likely to be dismissed as bogus by impatient reformers.

“Modern” schools of budo founded in the late 19th or 20th centuries, such as judo or aikido, may be much more accessible for today’s students, but they are likely not the best places to mine for subtle ancient insights. Koryu schools on the other hand, are much less modern-user-friendly. They do not exist to be an after-school program, or even to maximize the ability of any individual. However, because they inherit a strong tradition of ancestor-worship, they are much more likely to have sheltered old memes.

Ultimately, some of the ideas contained in koryu systems probably have merit in our day and age, and others don’t. The issue is, the predominant rational reductionist frameworks are not yet sophisticated (or motivated?) enough to reliably tell the difference. The best thing to do, as far as I can tell, is to keep an open mind and try old ideas for yourself.

Worship your ancestors and science, ignore your elders

Here’s where things get weird. After the stampede of shiny new facts and refined food-like things, science continued to revise itself. Cigarettes were endorsed by fewer doctors, and trans-fats were banned in New York. Eggs were bad, and then eventually good again. 50% of new ideas were wrong, eventually discovered, and replaced with new ideas, (50% of which were also wrong).

Eventually hippies on frisbee teams were replaced by goons and the goons started skipping.

But not us. Not the inheritors of professor Tomiki’s legacy, because, while we have one foot squarely in the modern world, our other foot remains in Confuciondom. What’s more, we’re applying our proclivity for ancestor worship to precisely the wrong subject. Our warmup is new enough not to have survived the test of the ages – and old enough to have been disproved. It’s time to let it die.

I’m not volunteering to create a new standard warmup. That’s a monumental task, and I can barely write a quarterly post to my blogs. Such an undertaking would require hours and hours of research, either into pre-Meiji-era training practices, modern sports science, or, ideally, both.

Besides, every club has different needs.

This issue may remain unresolved for a long time, and I’m not going to do much about it.

I invite you to consider joining me in half-assing the “warmup” stretches.

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