Who happened to be my Grandfather.
My grandfather (my father's father) was Mescalero Apache. He was born just around the beginning of the reservation days in the late 1800's. He spent most of his life working as a ranch hand in South-Eastern New Mexico. Unlike my father, my grandfather escaped the indignity of being shipped off to a boarding school as a child, which allowed him to keep more of his culture, and to learn from men and women who knew what freedom was. He could not read or write, but he had a memory that was unfailing and knew all the stories that were important.
He was my first running coach, my first martial arts instructor (very important if you were the only blue eyed kid in twenty miles). He taught me to hunt, track and live happily in the desert and mountains.
Much of what he taught me started with short pithy sayings that allowed me to index and remember the material with ease (even after all these years).
So here are some of the lessons, with a little commentary.
"An Apache finds life in running upward"
During the time when the Apache people were at war with the United States, the way to escape the army, or settlers, scalp hunter and the like, was to go where they could not. This most often meant running into the mountains and going where a horse could not. This was one reason why it took so long for the military to subdue the Apache, The army had developed its strategy for Indian wars against the Plains Tribes and came to rely way too heavily on cavalry.
My grandfather would have me sprint uphill over and over as well as do longer runs up mountain paths. One of the things this did for me was force me to learn to run with a forefoot strike. You can't run uphill with bad form, you would fall on your face. The conditioning from doing this was also superb.
"If you run silently, you run well"
My grandfather emphasized being able to walk and run making little to no noise. This had the effect of making you very conscious of the ground beneath your feet, your posture, even your clothing. If you move silently your foot strike must be very light rather than the common plodding pace that we see with so many people today. Also moving quietly means that you have to befriend and work with gravity, to use it to help your legs and feet find their proper position in your stride.
Following this rule will give a person a loose, graceful stride that is easy on the joints and sustainable for hours.
"Run to the Sun"
This one is a bit harder to explain. It refers to a traditional practice found in many Native American tribes of getting up at dawn and running eastward toward the rising sun.
The way we would do it is to start the run the moment the first bit of sun could be seen and to end the run when the full disk of the sun was above the horizon.
The main benefit of this is spiritual I suppose, but it also helps to keep you in tune with the natural rhythms of the earth, and you tend to have more energy when you start your day this way.
My grandfather thought that doing this was particularly important for children.
"Ducks can't run"
This is something he would say if he saw our feet turn toes out. One of the first things I learned as a kid tracking-wise was that Anglos tend to walk duck-footed whereas Native people tend (though this has changed with the last couple of generations) to walk with their feet pointed forward.
You cannot run well unless your feet point forward. If they do not, you put huge amounts of stress on the ankle, knee and hip joints. You also waste a lot of energy and will tend to have weak balance.
Sadly, because of the epidemic of obesity among Native Americans, the loss of traditional sports, forms of play and traditional living in general, and the wide adoption of Anglo footwear, Natives have begun to adopt the toed-out walk of the White Eyes.
"Observe the snake, the snake can not work against his own breath".
The snake is basically just a big ribcage and lung. If it wants to breathe it has to move in harmony with itself. If a snake is contracting it will exhale, stretching it inhales (this is of course a generalization, but you get the idea). Humans can learn a lot about breathing by keeping this in mind.
Try a simple experiment. Take a deep breath, hold it, then bend over and touch your toes. Now relax your chest and belly, bend over again and allow the natural compression of the movement to press the air from your lungs as you bend. As you come back up, stay relaxed and allow air to come back into your lungs by means of the movement. Which felt better? Which gave the greater range of motion?
This is, according to my grandfather, the natural human way of breathing; flexible, adaptive, cooperating with the environment as it is experienced. This breathing method, when mastered allows one to gain energy for breathing from the movement of running rather than using just active muscular effort.
This I think, may be the hardest thing to learn. There is good news though.
Warning, Shameless Plug ahead
There is one place I know of where You can learn something very much what I am talking about here, more sophisticated than what I initially learned as a matter of fact. My friend Scott Sonnon, who I mention from time to time on this blog (I'm not trying to bask in his reflected glory, no really, I'm not...he just happens to be really good at this stuff) did a DVD quite some time ago called "Be Breathed" which teaches one to do exactly what I am trying to describe here, turn your whole body into a bellows pump for your lungs. Like the last video program of his I mentioned this is not one of Scott's best known programs, which is a pity, because it is one of his most important, foundational statements about what he teaches.
The DVD takes you through a simple progressive set of exercises which do a great job of teaching this principle, which Scott coined as "body as bellows". It works because Scott is one of the very few White guys I have ever run across who moves like an Apache. You see it strongly in his walk.
So if you want to understand this last idea, Be Breathed is a really good place to start.
After all that, here is a bit of theme music, Ulali performing "Mother".
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Who happened to be my Grandfather.