Posts Tagged ‘overlearning’

Note: If you just stumbled upon this post, it’s part of a loose series. There is no need to read the whole thing, but you might want to scan this post for context.

One of the things that I value most about teachers of physical skills is where they are able to translate their knowledge to the context of my body. I’m a middle aged man who did nothing at all resembling physical activity from for my teens and early twenties, I’ll never have the same kind of physique as even a middle aged man who kept in shape his entire life.

So what are some of the differences in body type that have affected my practice of Kung Fu, Yoga, Dance, etc.?

Age, sex, muscle mass, stretchiness (there’s got to be a better word for this one), proportion of length of arm to length of leg, difference in core strength, proportion of torso to limbs, lots of other internal proportions, nimbleness of ankles, proportion of my height to my partner’s in partner dancing, proportion of my everything to my partner’s when sparring. Okay, I’m getting the bit off more than I can chew sensation again. But let’s see if I can take a couple of these to illustrate and I may have to come back to this list later.

The incident that spurred this line of thought was in yoga class. The (female) teacher was taking the class through a pose that was fairly new to the series that the school is putting together – the finger stand pose – (if anyone can tell me what the sanskrit name for that pose, I’d appreciate it). The way this teacher had been teaching the pose previously was to advise people to work their hips up and back between their hands until they could kind of fall into their hands an lift their legs. The last time she taught it though, she gave an alternative of thrusting your hips back and using the momentum to pull your legs up. When I asked her about it after class, she said that she added the alternative because a male student noted that he was incapable of doing the particular hip contortion that was necessary to manage the first variation.

But I do worry that male/female differences in yoga practice in particular can be overlearned. My favorite counter-example is Urdhva Dhanurasana (upward bow pose) – my sister used to do this all the time when we were growing up. I tried it a couple of times and failed (when I was 5 or 6) and assumed that it was something that was just easier for girls so just gave up. But that particular pose was introduced recently in a class and not only could I do it, but it feels really good. Beware of overlearning.

Another body type of difference that has been top of mind recently is the proportion of heights when partner dancing. Mrs. Reboot and I have been taking various forms of beginning swing lessons recently (East Coast, West Coast, Lindy) where holds are relatively loose and substantial height difference can pretty easily accommodated. We’re taking group classes where you might end up dancing with twenty partners of radically different heights during the course of the class. It is amazing to see the number of leads who lift their hands the same amount (or at least try to)when turning a sub five foot tall follow as a six foot tall follow. And then the worst variation of that is when they blame the follows on the extreme end of the height spectrum for not doing something right (I’m not quite sure what the “something right” is in their heads). But one of the great things about taking a group class like that is being able to quickly go through the various adjustments one can make to accommodate partners of different heights.

An alternative for a specific activity might be to find a coach who is as close to my type as possible. That’s never worked very well for me. Possibly in part because that tends to poke at my competitive instincts, but also the matrix of differences is so big that I’m not sure it’s really feasible to find that kind of match in all dimensions. So that brings me back to valuing coaches who can do the translation from their type to mine. And where partners/fellow students are involved both observing and learning from what they can do differently based on their physical differences.

I suspect it’s because Tap Dancing is the one completely new physical skill that I’m working on right now, but it seems like a bunch of the ideas I’ve been playing with keep getting re-enforced by incidents in tap class.  Here are two quick examples before the slip out of my all too  sieve like brain.

On my first class back after the honeymoon hiatus, we were practicing a technique called power rolls when the teacher came up to me and said,  “you are taking my comment about not brushing too literally.  You need to move your foot back a little bit when you do that, not just straight up and down.”   That’s a case of overlearning if I ever did see one.  Now I just need to figure out how to stop that without spending too much time on meta-analysis while actually dancing…

And the second example is not new – it happens over and over and over again (possibly like a power roll gone out of control).  One of the ways that we’re learning drills in class is that we’ll start with a basic movement and then the teacher will indicate through gestures how many reps and which side to tap on as well as well as changes in rhythm.  I understand all this, but I get absorbed by the actual technique and forget to keep the teacher in enough focus to catch the changes.  Is this over-focus or am I just slow?

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about focus lately.  It’s one of those things that I started thinking about  a bit a while back and is now popping up at every turn.  I’ve generally been very good about being able to focus in very closely on a task, but I’m now convinced that this is an overlearned skill, at least for me.  Or perhaps it’s a borderline hyperfocus issue, although I really do try to avoid self-diagnosing psychological disorders, otherwise I’d drive myself crazy.

There are about a dozen aspects of this concepts flying through my head (so much for being overly focused), but lets start with three.

Speed Reading:

I am interested in increasing my reading speed.  I mean, geeze, there are like a million fiction books on my to read list and then there is all of the technical reading that I can’t seem to keep up with.  And that doesn’t even count getting lost in the internets for extended periods of time.

One of the techniques I’ve seen that makes a lot of sense is to learn to scan down the page rather then scanning each line horizontally.  This would involve learning to de-focus enough that you register an entire line at a time.  Now to add a bit of weight to this idea, one of the fastest readers I know says that when reading a old fashioned paper book (remember those), she would routinely register spelling errors on the right hand page while she was still reading the left hand page.  Pretty impressive, no?  In any case, I’ll take that as at least anecdotal evidence that a particularly speedy reader is utilizing a wider focus than I.


I spent nearly a decade practicing Kung Fu.  One of the core skills is to be able to spar.  It was never my favorite part of the class, I was much more interested in learning forms – the choreographed set of movements that at least in theory one could then decouple and use whilst sparring.  In any case, while I was never great at sparring and I’ve heard many times that some people are ‘fast-twitch’ and some are ‘slow-twitch’, one thing that really helped was to defocus my eyes.  Just look at in the general direction of the person I was sparring, not at any particular part of them.  Or looking at it slightly differently, focusing too much on a particular aspect of your opponent is a really good way to miss some other part of him or her heading your way.

Sight Reading:

As I’ve mentioned before, I am diving back into music after half a lifetime  of not practicing.  Or perhaps I’m just sticking my toe in the water to check the temperature?  No, I’m pretty sure I’m doing a cannonball.  Anyway, one thing that I was never very good at was sight reading, so I’d like to correct that this time around.  Sight reading on the piano is quite a task.  Here’s just a very simple sample of  a piano staff with lyrics for those of you that don’t read music.

Piano Staff

The notes on and around the top five lines or treble clef are generally played by the right hand, the notes on the bottom five lines or bass clef are generally played by the left hand and the words in the middle are sung (okay, duh on the last part).  It’s not uncommon for a number of verses to be written in the middle so that the distance between the clefs is greater.  There is also a common variation where the melodic line and the lyrics are written out above the piano part, but I think that’s generally intended for someone other than the piano player to be reading.  It’s relatively easy once you’ve got the basics down to read any of the three components.   It’s a matter of practice to get fingers (or voice) to reproduce what is written.

The thing that I’m obsessing about right now though is the ability to follow all three things at the same time.  I know people who can do this cold, so it’s definitely humanely possible.  I have no doubt that there is a large component of practice in that ‘cold’ is a bit different for someone that has been reading music for decades than someone who is just starting (or restarting).  If for no other reason than that as a beginner focus has a tendency to shift to one’s hands on the keyboard and then all hell breaks loose. But it seems like there is some fundamental ability to track those three things slightly separated on the staff that I should be able to get to click.

So that’s where I am.  I need to figure out how to defocus.  I’ll probably not go back to sparring, but I am going to take another run at speed reading training to see if I can find a tool or program that works for me.  And I might take another pass at improving my touch typing speed while I’m at it.  After all there are all those books out there just begging to be read.

When one reaches a ‘certain age’ it is probably not uncommon to find oneself in a situation where if all of the life lessons that one has encountered are learned broadly and deeply one might find one’s-self curled up in a fetal position in a dark closet quietly mumbling “no more, no more.”  I think that age for me was probably 29, or maybe 36 (or possibly both).  Fortunately I am nearly a decade past the latter of those dates and still enjoying sunshine – at least when the vagaries of the Northwest climate allow.

I do like to occasionally play with what I think of as the  Scottish usage of ‘one’ – does anyone know if the above technically counts as Illeism ?

But let’s move back from the completely melodramatic for a bit.  I feel like overlearning has been a theme for me in recent times.  I hope to eventually figure out how to file off the serial numbers enough that I can feel comfortable about sharing some of the bigger lessons that I’ve been careful not to overlearn.  For today I wanted to share a couple of small examples.  Because I really think that this is a case where the micro and the macro inform each other.

First example:  I’m a software engineer by profession and I can’t keep my fracking computers running.  I spent way too much time battling an issue with windows 8 – for some reason most of the built in immersive  applications  started timing out at launch and the DRM on my Zune installation went whacko.  I probably spent a cumulative day over the course of a week trying to get the darn thing up and functional again.  Annoying, no?  But these things happen, that’s one of the reasons why I keep my Windows Home Server running and doing nightly backups.  It took me about a half hour to restore the machine back to a state that was working perfectly with no data loss.  Well, why didn’t I do this after an hour of trying to fix the problem?  Because a month ago I tried to restore my ASUS Zenbook, which suffered from a fried SSD – but lost a day to driver scariness since it doesn’t have a built in Ethernet card and it seemed to be impossible to get the thing to load the drive for the USB->Ethernet dongle.   Okay, totally boring technobabble for some.  But the point is, I massively overlearned the lesson of my backup mechanism not working for one machine when I ran into an issue with another machine that did not have the limitation that caused the problem with the first machine.  To the point that it didn’t even occur to me to try the backup until I had sunk way too much time on the issue and was about to wipe the fracking thing.  That, my friends,  is overlearning on the small but frustrating front.

Second example: I can’t stand up straight.  No. Seriously.  I’m now not even convinced I know what it means to stand up straight.  As I’ve mentioned before, I practice yoga pretty regularly.  I started with Bikram yoga and still take classes at two of my local studios on occasion. But I’ve also been lucky enough to find a local studio, Breathe, that does a more relaxed hot hatha yoga practice based on the Ghosh tradition.  A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to take a standing series workshop with the owner of Breathe and learned many new things about my practice.  The thing that stuck with me the most was that I had difficulty adjusting my tree pose (Tadasana in the Birkam tradition or Vrksasana in some other traditions) and some of the other standing postures to get my forward to back angle of my torso and hips lined up ‘correctly.’  I think this is because early on in my Yoga practice I was weighted too far back in these poses (possibly due to some habits from Kung Fu training) and I then overcorrected by settling too far forward.  Or perhaps I was too far forward and then over-corrected to too far back and then over-over-corrected to far forward- you get my point, right?

The bottom line for both of these examples is that I have to be very aware of understanding what I’m learning and how to figure out when I’ve learned it ‘right.’  This is somewhat easier in the microscopic examples, but I think holds true for bigger things like when to change jobs and when to just outright quit.