Cross domain expertise, or why the mirror is my yoga debugger

Posted: May 31, 2013 in Exercise, Learning, Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

On the face of this it is probably one of the weirder ideas that I’ve had recently (and the bar is pretty high).  But please bear with me, if I can get this across I think it sheds some light on some of the body consciousness aspects of yoga and exercise in general that I’ve been trying to get a handle on.  And by some strange coincidence I was recently listening to a man that managed The Grateful Dead for twenty-five years talk about that  experience – and his refrain was (paraphrased) – It was the weirdest thing, but weird can be good.  So hopefully this is some good weird.

I’ve been reading this book about debugging, which purports to be a generalized book about how to debug problems of both design and implementation in technical systems as well as more generally.  I’ll post more about it if it holds up to its promise.  In any case it got me thinking about applying my own pretty highly refined but also very specialized diagnostics experience to the domain of learning and refining yoga poses.

And then, coincidently, I ended up in a very crowded Bikram yoga class over Memorial Day Weekend and was in a position where I could not always see myself in the mirror and even when I could there was a seam in the mirror that was distracting.   Which got me to thinking about how I use the mirror when learning to exercise.  Now this isn’t particularly profound in and of itself, but it is a way to see if I’m standing straight and how limbs are aligned with respect to my body and the room around me.   But in Bikram studios in particular you generally have a mirror in front of you but not to your sides or behind you, and the class is run in a way that discourages one from moving around to, for instance, see a side angle of one’s self in a particular pose.

Now switch back to the high tech world. I’ve spent the majority of my professional career writing programs that are generally classified as diagnostic tools, and a good chunk of that time on a kind of program that is actually called a debugger (I still get a kick out of that term).   Debuggers (and other diagnostics tools) generally allow a programmer to look at some part of the internal state of a program while it is running or records that state and lets you look at it later.  Thank you any non-techies who have actually stuck with me this far, I appreciate your patience. At this point I hope everyone can see that there is a pretty obvious parallel between a mirror (or for that matter a video camera) when debugging a physical skill and a debugger (or profiler) when debugging a program.

The thing that makes the parallel interesting to me though is that there are some (for myself) well internalized caveats with using a debugger or other diagnostic tools to find a bug in a program that translate over to the use of debugging tools like mirrors and video cameras when learning a physical skill.

First and foremost is that while these tools (in both domains) are incredibly useful, getting too dependent on them may restrict your ability to actually master the skill.  In the case of programming, being able to catch an error in the debugger and blindly fix it is not a substitute for actually understanding how your code works, as this is an excellent way to introduce regressions.  In the case of yoga (or Kung Fu or Dance), depending on a mirror to help with a pose may interfere with thinking deeply enough about how your body is working because you’re depending on the surface level understanding that is, literally, right in front of you.  So you might, for instance, get yourself into a situation where you can’t figure out if you are standing up straight, as I noted in my post on overlearning.   I believe this is why the very traditional Kung Fu school that I studied at for many years had a dearth of mirrors.

Then there is the issue that if you’ve become dependent on a particular tool to diagnose issues with your program, you will inevitably run into a situation where the tool won’t help.  Whether that’s because it’s not available on the machine where the bug is reproduced or any of a dozen other reasons, there is some variation of Murphy’s law that states that this will happen when your job is on the line.  And of course I lead with why this is true for yoga – even in a very standardized Bikram environment there will be times when you just can’t see yourself well in the mirror, should that be a reason for your practice to suffer?

So where does that land me?  Well, I’m not entirely certain.  But I think that for now I will take it as validation that at least some parts of my brain that have perhaps been overdeveloped in one domain can actually be useful in new domains.  Because what I’m really trying to do here is optimize my ability to learn in general, so it seems that some kind of cross domain transfer is an essential part of the process.

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