Shoulders down, back straight (or Overlearning, part II)

Posted: May 17, 2013 in Exercise, Learning, Mental Reboot
Tags: , ,

Since my main goal this year is to tune the way I learn, I find myself going back to the concept of overlearning (over, and over again).  Since my last post on the subject was in December, I’ve been looking for an excuse to revisit the subject.  And lo – what should happen but the teacher brought up the very subject in yoga class the other day.  Which then devolved into a lengthy discussion after class between her and another student who happened to be physical therapist.

While I’ve been obsessing about my own particular brand of overlearning, which I do think is a bit pronounced,  I find that there is a general pattern that doesn’t seem to be specific to me.  Surprising, no?  Maybe I’m not so special after all.  It seems like many group classes that are a combination of learning a skill and physical exercise are either one level or pretty coarsely grained.  So either everyone from the first day student to the person that’s been taking the class for decades are all in the same class or there might be a small number of levels.  I can see  many advantages to that setup, not the least of which is that from a business perspective larger classes are better and over-differentiating proficiency level is a good way to work yourself into very small classes.  But I also think this is a major contributor to overlearning.

The specific example that came up in yoga was the position of the shoulders while doing chaturanga (yoga push-ups), which tend to drop down and makes the exercise that you are purportedly doing for health actually mess up your shoulder joints and back muscles.  Which lead to a couple of things that you hear in yoga all the time.  “Keep your shoulders down” and “keep your back straight” – both of which are reasonable shorthand for what to do and a good first pass approximation.  But once you’ve mastered the basics, how do you start refining things to become an expert in the skill when you are getting the same instruction as the person next to you who is doing yoga for the first time?  Well first, let me back that up a moment.  The best teachers are able to keep an eye on everyone in the room, make sure no-one is doing anything dangerous and give individual corrections while still keeping the class moving.  And certainly all of the teachers that I study with regularly fall into that category.  But even with the best teachers you might get one or two corrections in a class and if you’re especially lucky (and have the time) an expanded explanation after class.

This certainly doesn’t fall into the category of deliberate practice as described by Ericsson.  So where does that leave me?  For this kind of group class, just going to class is still really good exercise, and with some self-awareness probably pretty healthy despite what I said in the last paragraph.  But it’s almost certainly not the most efficient way to learn.    A healthy ration of home practice, reading about poses, and possibly seminars seems to be the way to go, combined of course with regular classes to maintain momentum.  But that brings me back to the self-study vs. class dilemma that I touched on a few weeks ago.  I think my tendency is to lean towards self-study for more mind focused activities and towards classes for more body focused work.  Perhaps it is time to flip that a bit?

  1. David B. Gray says:

    The world of academics is struggling with classroom vs. experiential/self-study though experiences. In class the students all are looking at their smart phones or paying games on their computers. Our new ‘education’ leader is struggling with meeting the professional accreditation standards and the learning via electronic media – blackboard. Another approach is to give a problem to a group and have them develop a solution. This type of assignment often leaves one or two people in the group doing the work.

    Just some thoughts

    • ohdwg says:

      All great points.

      I always found group projects to be frustrating when I was assigned them in college. There was too much lopsidedness in who did the work. Now I’ve seen that this happens all too often in the context of real world projects. It would be nice if part of group projects of all kinds in school was including tools to help the team balance their workload. I also think that a way of giving more credit to the brighter or more motivated students for coaching their peers to contribute rather than just doing all the work themselves would be helpful.

      On e-learning, Alicia and I just took a community college driven writing course (not for credit, that’s a whole other bag of worms) – I’ve got to say that as much as I want things like that to work at least this particular instance wasn’t there yet. On the other hand, I do get a lot out of listening to lectures online, but I certainly am not learning the subject at the depth that I would if I were taking the class.

  2. GlennN says:

    Hmmm, in theory it should work right? We used to say that at work all the time. Sadly, it isn’t so; application is always harder, at least to me. Stuff gets in the way, we need to refine our understanding, gain some feedback. For example we do a “pose” similar to your yoga push-up in our exercise class, we call it a gator. I get the shoulders down, back straight, but I can’t feel it in my own body, what feels flat to me actually looks more like this ^, yikes. I need feedback. My point is, I need both. I like incremental, learn and then apply, gain some experience, more importantly some feedback, and repeat. In a class setting (think collective), experiencing what others excel or struggle with gives me feedback that I might be able to apply, learn, or refine. Make sense? Are we saying the same thing?

    • ohdwg says:

      Heh, I still find the “It should work” phrase bouncing ironically through my head on a regular basis. I guess it got etched in stone early on.

      Yes, understanding how your body sits in relation to the rest of the universe (and itself) is a really important part of any healthy exercise. And as I’ve commented before, I’m really bad at that, but hopefully getting better. In Kung Fu class if you stuck your butt up doing push-ups the teacher would come over and step on you to get you straightened out. That said, one of the things that has helped me with all variations of pushups is to practice some against the wall and then on the knees and feel how my back is shaped then. Once you get to full plank versions your body should actually be the same shape as when you’re standing up – which isn’t actually straight, you still need to keep the natural curve of the spine.

      We’re definitely on the same page with the more general concept though. Landing on the optimal mix of learning with a group, learning on my own, learning with private instruction, and teaching (to learn) is what I’m trying to figure out how to do. The hard part is this is probably different not just for each individual and each skill but for each person’s level of competency in a particular skill. Talk about Meta 🙂

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