In almost 3 decades of maintaining a rigorous movement practice, I have often struggled to define myself as a mover.
Classical ballet, surfing, Brazillian jiu jitsu, juggling, trapeze, Capoeira, gymnastics – I have done all of these and more, but no term truly fits or encompasses me fully.
At 21, having recently landed on my head on a trampoline, I met a woman named Anat Baniel, who was a student of the world famous movement practitioner, Moshe Feldenkrais. For the next 6 years, I embarked on an extremely rigorous course of study in a modern variant of the Feldenkrais Method. The principles of this work are simple: move slowly, with attention, and practice variation in movement slightly beyond your usual patterns.
Then in 2017, I met Johnny Sapinoso, who was a mentee of the world famous movement coach, Ido Portal. I immediately became obsessed with Johnny and the movement community he was building, as well as Ido’s teachings. This community provided the intense, physical counterpoint to the softer, more internal work of my Feldenkrais practice. And for the first time, I found a community of practice that brought together techniques from the dozens of different modalities I have studied over the years.
These two practices – The Feldenkrais Method and the teachings and community of Ido Portal, form the basis of my movement practice today.
I’m Robin Zander, and you’re listening to Zander Strong, a podcast about movement in the modern world.
Today: the story of how I learned to surf, and the simple tactical steps that you can use to begin surfing right away.
It has been an eventful last couple of years! In February 2016 I came up with the idea to run a big event. In September 2016, having sold 250 tickets and raised sponsorship from the likes of Microsoft and Accenture, I put on the 1st Annual Responsive Conference. Somewhere in the middle, I also opened up a café.
Meanwhile, throughout this, I’ve maintained a physical practice. Over the years this has meant a variety of things: ballet, martial arts, gymnastics, other forms. At the end of August, I re-discovered surfing.
I grew up around the ocean, and first tried out a surfboard on a beach in Costa Rica in 2003. The board was terrible — waterlogged, the surf rough — but I’ve always planned on going back. I visited the San Francisco Bay Area’s Linda Mar beach this August, and have been out surfing almost every day for the last few months. Here are a few things I’ve learned.
Form Follows Function
I’ve long believed that “form follows function” meaning that good form — including posture, positioning, or physique — follows from the movements we do. What I haven’t explored before is how significantly my mental state follows from my physical practice.
Surfing can be scary, don’t get me wrong. But there are also long stretches of peace, sitting on a board out on the waves. Surfers don’t generally talk much — at least not to a newbie like me. And there is something inherently pacific about sitting on the ocean, looking for the next big wave.
September 21, 2016 was a big day for me. It was the day after my 250-person Responsive Conference. For more than 3 months I had worked 7 days a week to make sure that the event was a success, and throughout that time had practiced Thai Kickboxing — an aggressive martial form that I tackled in intense 50-minute bursts.
Walking into my fight gym the day after the conference, I was hit by the familiar smells of old sweat and testosterone. Leading up to my conference, the aggression of Thai Kickboxing was exactly what I needed to combat the intensity of my work. That afternoon, I was surprised how unappetizing they were. I realized I no longer needed such physical intensity, closed my account, and went surfing.
As I do when I become obsessed with a new physical form, I’ve read a lot. By far the most engaging book I’ve read is the 2016 Pulitzer Prize winning Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life. This autobiography is a coming of age story about the author’s relationship with surfing, of waves from around the world, and about an addiction that I’ve just begun to explore.
Another little tool that has been incredible in learning the ins and outs of the surf scene is Surfline. This free app shares buoy data and live video feeds of prime surf spots. It has gotten so that when I ask a local about the surf at our favorite spot, he’s likely to say “Fair to Good,” quoting the app.
Even as a young surfer, just beginning to transfer to an intermediate board, I’m struck by how much catching waves and not falling off comes down to mindset. As I’ve grown more confident, I’ve attempted larger waves — 6ft, 8ft, even 12ft. In the moment that I’m looking down from the top a sheer face of water, if I can control my fear I’ll be alright. When I remain calm, I stay on top of my board and don’t get pummeled. But even on 3–4ft days, if I get frightened and let that emotion run unchecked, the wave lands on top of me. My mental and emotional state, in that fraction of a second, shape the entirety of the experience.
Even amidst some professional success, entering in an entirely new industry, and managing two teams totaling more than 15 employees, some of the most memorable moments in 2016 and 2017 have occurred on the waves.
In mid-September 2016, amidst 16-hour days of event planning and logistics, I stole a few hours on the surf. Pacifica was fogged in, and I could hear fog horns in the distance. The waves were breaking 50 meters offshore, and birds were circling further out.
After 30 minutes on the water, it became clear that the birds were circling with purpose, and looking closer I thought I could see something in the waves. Then, a whale breached. For the next hour, I let promising waves go by to catch glimpses of the mammoth of the sea, slowly making its way north.
As usual, when I find a new physical form, I’m enamored. Whether this new love affair lasts weeks or years, it is special and new.
How-To and Mental Resilience
There’s a moment of thrill when you catch a wave, whether that is a two foot wave or a ten. The moment when you go from moving at the speed of your own arm strokes to be carried along as fast as the wave can carry you. Sometimes I experience a moment of panic, other times I am so much in the zone – in flow – that there’s just bliss. Of all of the parts of surfing, I believe that catching waves is probably the most important for a novice surfer. Getting familiar with the moment of riding a wave and that transition from powering yourself to be carrying by the wave is the hardest to describe and the most essential to understand. That said, don’t try to put all of the pieces of surfing together your first day out. It is not important to catch a wave in the moment that it breaks and try to stand up and try to steer all in one go. Go out on a slow day and rather than try to swim out past the point where the waves are breaking, ride some of the chop after the wave has crashed and as the waves are coming in towards shore. I am no expert, but I recommend a beach break where surfers gather in an area where the ocean breaks onto a stretch of beach, so that you don’t also have to contend with rocky terrain, shallow rocks, or coral. It’ll become a common mantra, but don’t try to tackle all of the aspects of surfing, or any physical form, in one go. Instead, find that small step – in this case the feel of catching a wave – and work to understand that experience and hone that skill.
Close your eyes. Notice how you are sitting, standing, or lying at this moment. Notice how you feel. Imagine that you’re lying on your belly on a surfboard. There are seagulls above you, the sounds of the ocean around you. You are in the lineup which is the area where waves begin to break. You see a wave growing behind you, and you begin to paddle towards the shore. It’s big but not so big that you are scared. You look over your shoulder and see the wave behind you and paddle even more furiously until suddenly you are no longer moving yourself but you’re being carried on the wave downhill and very fast. It’s almost like the wave has slingshotted you down the face of the wave.
Here are a couple of pointers that will make your entry into surfing much easier.
Start small. If you try to do every aspect at once, you’ll have no fun and won’t keep coming back for more. However, if you tackle small steps at a time, you’ll see much easier successes and begin to find the joy and the small victories that will keep you coming back.
Don’t go out on a big day. As much fun as it is to surf big waves, even as a novice, start smaller. You don’t have to go out in your first couple of surf sessions on the biggest days in order to catch waves or even practice standing up. Instead, go out when the waves don’t look intimidating, and even try to surf waves that have already broken so you are really just riding the white water into shore. Even those experiences can give you a taste of the thrill of catching a big wave and learning to steer.
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Thanks for listing in for another episode of Zander Strong: The Future of Fitness.
In this episode, we examine breathing, which is one of the few human functions that is both automatic and directly within our control.
Most of us walk around with our bellies tightly held. The equivalent would be if we walked around with our fists permanently clenched. It would substantially limit how we use our hands and fingers!
Instead, the chest and belly should both be able to flex and release – to be used, functionally. In this episode, Robin guides you through a movement meditation, which will give you direct control over your breathing, highlight, and then help you to overcome physical limitations in your chest and belly.
Could you do me a favor?
If you’ve listened to any of these episode, could you please leave a review on iTunes? I’d love your feedback and reviews make a big difference in show ratings!
I’m Robin Zander, and you’re listening to Zander Strong.
Today: the importance of squatting. How this long-lost physical practice makes the difference in health, and how you can learn to squat with ease.
We so rarely think about how we use and bend at the waist. We are on our feet hours each day but don’t frequently pause to think about how they our pelvis feels, and how we might use them more effectively.
This episode is about squatting. That characteristically human movement that in modern life we have abandoned. Most adults are not able to squat on their heels with their feet flat on the ground, but you can learn to do so.
I was first exposed to squats through ballet, where they are called plies. The grande plie, specifically, is a classic movement in ballet that is essentially just a squat with the legs in a slightly different turned out position. Years later, when I learned the basics of the squat in weightlifting, my teacher was impressed that I was able to squat so close to the ground because I had spent years practicing the movement in a different context.
What is required to do a full sitting squat is mobility in your ankles and hips and this comes not through force or disciplined practice but through paying attention and using subtle movement to increase your awareness and range of motion.
In conducting my annual review, one of the things that became clear was the importance of a week that I spent in Puerto Rico in June 2017 co-teaching a workshop based on tools that I practice daily but rarely ever speak about or teach.
For background, in the Fall of 2008, I met Anat Baniel. At that time, I was about a year into a very severe neck injury resulting from landing on my head on a trampoline and was looking for ways to recover. I was also fresh out of college and looking for a path forward. I did my undergraduate research – a year long research project culminating in an oral defense and 150 page published dissertation – on how people learn movement. So, in retrospect, it was oddly fitting that I spent several years after college trying to learn again how to move without pain. In meeting Anat, it was immediately obvious to me that this woman knew a lot about how we learn, and I was determined to study with her. While the majority of my college peers went on to their PHDs (Reed College has the highest number of PHDs of any University in the country), I spent four years practicing very subtle movement, first on myself, and then with a wide variety of clients, and then with children with special needs.
As I began to practice with clients, I recognized a need for verbal tools as well as the non-verbal physical coaching that I was providing and ended up studying at the Option Institute for an additional three years. There I learned a form of socratic dialogue and the practice of being completely present with another human being regardless of what they are going through, and how to ask them loving questions.
I’ve continued to practice and refine tools I learned from these organizations, my study of behavior design BJ Fogg at Stanford University, and more tools I’ve picked up over the last decade.
Fast forward to June of 2017, where I taught a small group leadership training on retreat in Puerto Rico. This was the first time that I had taught these tools in public.
When I conducted my annual review, I was surprised to find that the Puerto Rico training stood out even among the many other personal and professional successes of 2017, and I’ve decided to double down on fitness education for the 21st century.
Thus, it is my great pleasure to announce the release of my new podcast, Zander Strong: The Future of Fitness, where I teach tools for cultivating physical health and mental resilience.
These podcasts are short, under 30 minutes, unlike my long form podcast, The Robin Zander Show. Each episode focuses on a specific tool or tactic that you can apply to improve your physical or mental performance.
Please enjoy Zander Strong and subscribe to the show on iTunes.