Monthly Archives: October 2013

Conditioning for a Stronger Aerial Body

My silks teacher was ill on Tuesday, so I booked in for an aerial conditioning class instead.

I’m used to conditioning at the beginning of a class when I’ve still got energy. This involves two to three sets of exercise, such as beating and sit-crunches on the trapeze bar, or pencil-pike on the silks. But this Tuesday was the first time I’ve done an hour-and-fifteen minutes class just pure conditioning. I tried going through the fifteen or so exercises on rope that were on the exercise sheet, but most of the times I couldn’t hold on for as long as required, like a single arm and toe hang for 30 secs.. Other times I could only get through one set instead of two sets of exercise. In the middle of panting, bewilderment, and staring blankly at the ropes I asked myself why I was doing this.

Turns out I wasn’t the only one with the same question. Towards the end of the class a girl said to me, “Sometimes I wonder why I do this to myself?? I could’ve stayed at home in this rainy weather…”

Well, I already bought my train ticket so I HAD to come… Basically I’d gone all the way to London for self-inflicted torture.

But of course I know why we do conditioning. We do conditioning so we can execute more cool stuff in the air, to stay in the air for longer, and to enjoy that temporary moment of freedom. It’s the feeling of being at awe with ourselves (kind of narcissistic) that makes us go back for more.

But conditioning is pretty boring. It’s repetitive and I find it more self-defeating than learning a new move because there isn’t a reward in itself, like a pretty pose or a flashy move. But as with many boring things, it’s necessary. The repetition of conditioning helps strengthen the muscles and build muscle memory, and that’s the reward on the long run. When you’re stronger, you feel more confident and it reduces the chances of injuries or panicking in the air when you end up in a funny wrap. You train the muscles when you learn new moves, but when you’re stronger it makes the process of learning new moves easier.

I'd love to rig a trapeze under the tree one day.

I’d love to rig my own trapeze under the tree one day.

(Photo Credit: Martin Thomas under Creative Commons.)

The exercise that made the biggest difference for me was beating on the trapeze. By this I mean hanging on the trapeze bar in long arms, drawing my shoulder blades down, and beating with straight legs to the bar for a couple of times. My teacher told me that I don’t need to think too much about swinging my legs forward, but concentrate on swinging back, as the momentum will bring my legs to the bar. It’s important to try to keep your body in a straight line with an open chest, knees and ankles together side by side. (Please note that this is one way of beating. I’ve heard of another one called “flat beating” which I’m not very familiar with.)

I felt very anxious and nervous the first couple of times I tried beating because I was scared of losing my grip (plus it was really hard to swing my legs to the bar!). But when I got used to it I found that it really works the muscle group under the arm near the shoulder blade. Gradually I was able to hold myself longer with more stability in the air. Now that I can enjoy swinging beating has become one of my favourite conditioning exercises.

What do you do for a stronger aerial body?

The Ph.D. Fairy Tale

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Ah, Ph.D. fairy tale land.

(Photo credit: Josh Giovo under Creative Commons.)

I’m beginning to come to terms with the post-viva and major corrections trauma. I can finally look at the first few pages of the report and not feel completely weighted down by the examiners’ comments. I know I have to go through the cry-hate/curse-accept-do cycle several times again until I resubmit next year, but at least I’m not running away from it.

I ranted about my disillusion with academia and how sick and tired I was of my thesis to a friend. She kindly listened then said,

“You don’t want to your thesis to stay the way it is. Once it’s printed and bound, it will stay in the library forever and ever.”

“Forever and ever?” I laughed and was amused at how she stressed these words. She forgot to add that now theses are digitalized, so your thesis also stays in “the cloud” forever and ever.

“Yes! You passed! You didn’t fail. I know people who’ve failed, but you passed. Think of the corrections as a gift. It’s a chance to revise your thesis and make it the way you want it to be. Once it’s in the library you can’t change it.”

This conversation made me think about the rosy image I once had of academia, and hence the title of this post. A long, long time ago, I thought that after getting a Ph.D. I’d be able to use the degree to find a job and have an academic career. I would publish important work, live comfortably, and surely live happily ever after.

But midway through the Ph.D. I realized the fairy tale picture I painted for myself was deeply misguided by expectations of what academia was supposed to be. I thought of it as a place where I could escape the mundaneness of the office-cubicle. I really enjoyed going to conferences, presenting my work, and networking with academic whose names are printed on the must-read books in my field. These activities made me feel important, as if I was doing something meaningful in contrast to adding up numbers on an excel-sheet, or making promotional powerpoint slides about a company product I wouldn’t buy.

I forgot that all the conference and networking opportunities became possible because of the tuition I was paying and my affiliation to my university. Without the research student status, I wouldn’t have time or funding to go to these conferences.

Without my research student status, I wouldn’t I have access to journal articles either. Research material is accessible only to a group of people. Once you lose affiliation to a university, you can no longer read the full-text of a journal article unless you pay for the subscription yourself. Restricted access to these research materials means that research is not free (but rather expensive), and this contradicts the concept of public good that academia advertises itself to stand for. Doing a Ph.D. is like buying a very expensive ticket for entry to an elite club.

Now I know academia is bureaucracy itself. Another friend described it accurately, “Every time I speak to an academic I feel I’m speaking around their ego balloon. I try to get it out of the way but it keeps bouncing back.”

Accepting the Ph.D. for what it is, as being part of a capitalist-consumption system is strangely helping me maintain a healthier attitude towards my corrections. Once you see academia as a bureaucratic system as any other, you can read the rules of the game much more clearly. Since there’s no fairy tale land waiting for me after the Ph.D., I’m concentrating on what I have to and can do now, rather than fantasizing about a better life after the Ph.D..

How Aerial Kept Me Sane

I’ve started doing a silks evening course at London’s Circus Space this term. If you want to do evening classes at the Circus Space but didn’t start at their Circus Level 1, you’re required to take an assessment. I did my assessment in July, and was lucky to be offered a place as their waiting list can be very long. I was hoping to book a rope class, so when they called me to say they had a cancellation in silks I was hesitant to take the place. The student canceled her booking two weeks before the course started, so the woman who called me wouldn’t let me think it over night as they needed to confirm places as soon as possible. If I didn’t take the place she’d had to move on to the next person on the list.

“Can I at least have ten minutes to think about it?” I asked.

“OK, how about I give you twenty minutes, and I’ll call you back.”

I was taken aback by the situation because the woman was a bit pushy. But I decided to take the place since I might not have this opportunity again. There aren’t any aerial classes open to the public where I come from, so I’m trying to learn as much as I can.

The evening course is a two-hour class that takes place once a week and includes a warm-up session. The Circus Space is almost militant about asking students to arrive on time to warm-up. If you arrive late, you’re not allowed to join the class. I guess this arrive-on-time policy is implemented with the good intention to lessen the students’ chances of getting injured and minimize disruption to a class, but it makes me a bit nervous because it takes me an hour on the train to reach London and the trains are often delayed.

Inside the Circus Space

Inside the Circus Space

(Photo above from Alan Parish.)

You also have the choice of booking inclusive supportive classes that comes with the evening course such as stretching and aerial conditioning. It’s a shame that I don’t have time to go to London twice a week so I haven’t been to these.

Before I started doing the course, I thought going to London once a week would be no hassle, but now I realize I hadn’t taken into account the time it takes me to get to the train station, which is already about half an hour. I need another half an hour from London Bridge to get to the Circus Space (even though it’s only six minutes on the tube). I surprised a girl in my class when I told her I was taking the train back the same evening. “I know, it’s a bit crazy,” I said. “We’re all a bit crazy,” she sighed. Turns out she’s doing three courses at the Circus Space this term.

I’ve been doing aerial for a couple of years now, and I’m still hungry for more. My friends have been surprised at my enthusiasm and dedication. I’ve always enjoyed sports but I’m not athletic, so I think they don’t exactly associate me with holding my body weight in the air. In fact, I love being in the air to explore the possibilities of body movement that seem to defy gravity. I also love the expression of body language. Different people favour different movements and tricks, so when you see a routine you can usually infer something about the performer’s personality through his/her choice of music and choreography.

Me in an angel on rope.

Me in an angel on rope.

Training has also helped me become more self-aware about my body in general. I need to sleep and eat well in order to have a good training session. This doesn’t always happen, especially not when I wake-up at three o’clock in the morning in cold sweat worrying about my thesis, but I know where my fitness level needs to be in order to execute a routine. I’ve become stronger and for the first time in my life, I have shy abs.

Even though training leaves me sore and tired, aerial is my highlight of the week and I rarely miss a class. It has kept me sane through the multiple setbacks of the Ph.D. When I get depressed thinking about my thesis corrections, aerial gives me something to look forward to. I struggle with finding self-confidence in the stuffy academic environment these days, but last week a girl in my class (the same one doing three courses at the Circus Space this term) asked me, “You have beautiful lines, were you a gymnast?” I secretly thanked for helping me feel better about myself.

Since I’ve been training consistently, I know most of the aerialists in the city I live in. I regard myself as a friendly outsider learning about the difficulties they face balancing training and working, performing and paying the bills. The economic recession has been cutting to the arts sector, so the work of performing artists has really suffered from the lack of funding. I’ve learned that being in circus is not only about a profession, but also a lifestyle and attitude. Most aerialists I know hold a couple of part-time jobs, but they love aerial and circus so they stick with it.

I don’t know how far I’ll go with aerial, but at the moment I still get very excited when I see a move I want to learn, or put a routine together to the music I like.

I only wish I’d done it sooner.

Why I Left Facebook… Well, Almost.

Can one leave facebook completely?

Can I leave facebook completely?

(Photo above from mkhmarketing.)

I’m not slamming down facebook.  In fact, I enjoyed many of the simple pleasures it offered. I was excited when I reconnected with my primary school best friend whom I thought I would never hear about or see again. I’ve done my fair share of raising pets, growing plants, and expanding my restaurant. I’ve also shared news links of social issues I thought were important, posted photos of me having a good time, all the while waiting for the “likes” to increase. I’ve also written a few “thoughtful” posts that generated a long thread of discussion that satisfied my vanity.

So why am I leaving facebook? I’m not leaving it for its privacy issues, a topic that plenty of others have discussed. I don’t think facebook is completely evil. It is a great social media tool that has become indispensable for raising awareness of issues. I’m leaving it because it has sabotaged my productivity.

The watershed moment came at the beginning of this year.  I was nearing the end of writing up my thesis around January. My university holds two graduation ceremonies a year, one in the summer and one in the winter, so graduates have a choice of which one they want to attend to fit their schedule. Revising my thesis in the middle of the night, I couldn’t resist checking facebook in what was probably the fifth time that day, and I saw a couple of friends who graduated that day had already posted their graduation photos on facebook.

Throughout the years I’ve had plenty of friends who’ve posted their graduation photos, from master’s to Ph.d.’s, and I would always congratulate them by either leaving a “well done!” comment or clicking “Like.”

But that evening I panicked. Browsing over my friends’ smiling faces, dressed in their graduation gowns, apparently having a good time with their families and loved ones, I was envious and jealous, and for the first time I didn’t feel like congratulating them. I wanted to be there with my family and friends. I wanted to wear the ph.d. graduation gown (even though our department gown is kind of, um… an ugly combination of orange and blue). But most important of all, I wanted to be the one posting a graduation photo, not revising my thesis in the middle of the night and cursing myself for logging onto facebook.

I did not want to see another graduation photo. “They all look the same anyway,” I thought.

So this is when I realized facebook was not only sabotaging my productivity but also turning me into a sour grape. By this time I was already a facebook addict. Even though I’d quit playing harmless games that involved buying clothes for my pet or exchanging ingredients so I could cook another dish for my restaurant, I couldn’t resist the temptation of checking facebook whenever I got stuck in my writing. I would, of course, turn to my notes or read another journal article in order to find the answer to the conceptual problem I was trying to solve, but most of the times it was the immediate satisfaction of checking facebook that provided a quick relief of angst, and tempted me to log on several times a day. If this sounds like a drug addiction, it’s because it felt like a drug addiction.

Scholars researching digital media describe people’s short attention span in our digital age as “a butterfly mind.” This usually refers to how information made accessible by the internet makes us “jump” from one website to another, or from one link to another, consequently shortening our attention span. Applying this description to my relationship with facebook, its availability as a form of a “break activity” contributed to my compulsory habit of logging in. Because it provided distraction, subconsciously I wanted to log in more and more in order to escape the stress of facing an unfinished sentence or paragraph. Every time I told myself I would check my friends’ updates for just 10 minutes, the short break ended up being half an hour to an hour.

I certainly feel that my attention span has shortened considerably compared to when I was a high school student writing an essay. I could spend undistracted hours writing, revising, and editing. Maybe a high school essay is simply easier to write than a thesis, but I do miss that unrelenting concentration.

So I’ve left facebook. Well, almost. I’ve managed to stick to my plan of logging on to facebook only once a week. I’m wondering whether I should start making it once a month. Last week I almost forgot to check facebook on my “facebook day.”

I don’t think I will be able to leave facebook completely though. I still want to know what close friends who I don’t get to see often are doing, and I also want to use my account to save contacts I meet at conferences. I live away from home, so I also use facebook to see what my cousins have been up to lately. But not relying on facebook for communication has made me realize that, the people I interact with most on facebook, are the people I interact with most in daily life anyway. Not the guy who I used to have a crush on in high school.

So why blog, you might ask? Isn’t blogging going to distract me from thesis writing? I started blogging to create an outlet for my post-viva trauma, but also to sharpen my writing skills. My examiners told me I articulated the concepts that are fundamental to my argument clearly in the viva, but these concepts are missing from the thesis. I’ve been thinking about why my work gave this impression, because from my perspective the concepts they’re concerned about are clearly in there. I think there was probably a problem with my writing style. I wasn’t able to communicate my ideas and argument to my examiners effectively. Blogging language is not the same as thesis/academic language, but keeping an audience in mind helps me think about how to communicate more efficiently and clearly.

Two friends about my age–and I’m not that old–have never used facebook, and probably never will. I used to tease them and secretly made fun of them for their stubbornness and for being out of the loop. Now I applaud them for never having started.