Just Breathe

Having been involved in athletics my entire life, and music for almost half,  I have definitely known the importance of breathing, and mastering one’s breath in order to improve one’s performance. For whatever reason, my scientific obsession with health monitoring and tracking has largely focused around heart rate. Perhaps because it was more quantitative as opposed to qualitative (at least for tools readily at my disposal). In the past few months I’ve realised how under-developed my knowledge and use of breath training is, and it is something I am enjoying investigating. 

When I was a pre-teen I stumbled into middle distance running in track and field mostly as a means to keep myself in shape for soccer season. Funnily enough in the end, it wound up being track and cross country that helped pay my university tuition. I was a self-taught runner at first and initially started training by breathing through my nose. I’m not sure why. Nobody told me to. It felt the most natural and comfortable – regardless of speed or duration of my run. Towards the end of my first high school track season I was at a regional event running the 1500m and struggling. I had a horrible head cold, super runny and stuffed nose, and needless to say trying to nose breath was challenging. One of the coaches from a neighbouring school (who also happened to be a competitive middle distance runner) pulled me aside and convinced me to drop the nose breathing and a mouth breather was born, and I never questioned the approach after that.

Fast forward to university and I went on to compete in track and cross country all year, never questioning my breathing technique, or even practising any kind of breath work – with the exception of occasional yoga classes. When I finally did my post-degree teacher training, I had roommate and colleague who had been a voice major in university, and regularly practised yoga. Given that I was going to be teaching, and constantly using my voice she first inspired me to see some value in breathing and vocal exercises as a form of strength and conditioning. The meditative aspect of yoga also started to intrigue me as she was so chill, patient and calm most of the time. As someone with an overactive mind, I wanted some of that calm, and my interest in yoga began….although never really stuck with me because I found it so challenging to focus and stay present.

Moving ahead to more present day, I’m now 45yrs old, still very physically active, but realising that the restorative things I do are not only extremely inexpensive, they are also the most extremely effective solutions I have found to tackling nagging seemingly little chronic conditions that can lead to more serious health issues.  I also firmly believe these restorative practices are directly related to helping improve my sports performance as a “mature” athlete (insert joke Jimbo, lol). Over the last 2 months I have had the convergence of 3 wonderful things coming together that primed me to take on creating and implementing my own breathing practice. Firstly, there was my coach and friend Abigail Johnston, who I love to nerd out on several topics,  recommended the book “The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance”, by Steve Kotler. This book is about flow, not specifically breathing, but introduced me to some powerful examples of athletic feats by humans I had never heard of. As I read I kept stopping to research the athletes they described.

This lead me to Laird Hamilton, an exceptional athlete and someone known for breath work. He was heavily influenced by Wim Hof which added to my research pile. Then, as though reading my mind, at the same time, Kim Fox posted a series of videos (https://youtu.be/Rd4KilDaDIg) related to breathing and kettlebell sport. The exercises she demonstrated reminded me of some of the exercises I would do in gymnastics class, which then expanded my ideas about the applications a breathing practice could have on things like improving my anterior tilt due to hyperflexibility in my lower thoracic/lumbar spine. Fueled with some new ideas, I put them together into a program that would take me about 30 minutes to complete. My goal was to do it as close to 7 days a week as possible. The only change it required to my routine was getting up 30min earlier.

My routine looked like this:

Exercise Description
30 Wim Hof Breaths Simply some cycling breaths, inhalations and exhalations. I have been doing nose inhalations and mouth exhalations. Tuning into my own breathing pattern, not trying to force anything. Great way to get rid of a bunch of CO2 and a good warmup before the other exercises.
Laird Hamilton Breathing Warm-up ( start at 7 sets, add 1 each week) INHALE through the nose (count how long)

HOLD breath 3-4X’s the length of your inhale

EXHALE out the mouth double the time of your inhale.

REPEAT

Eg….if I did a 4 sec inhale, then I would follow with 12 sec breath hold, and an 8 sec exhale

Kim Fox exercise – Belly breathing and bracing with neutral spine Belly breathe – 1 min

Brace (spine flat against floor but also pushing through abdomen-360 degrees)

Breath through brace 5-10 breaths

Relax, return to belly breathing

REPEAT X5 sets

Kim Fox exercise –Belly breathing and bracing in child’s pose Belly breathe – 1 min

Brace (spine flat against floor but also pushing through abdomen-360 degrees)

Breath through brace 5-10 breaths

Relax, return to belly breathing

REPEAT 5-10 sets Rest 30 sec between sets

Kim Fox exercises – Band punch (2-3 sets, 20 reps) Anchor red band to post at chest height with you in kneeling position

Hold the band with both hands against the centre of your chest, arms bent

Hold brace position 360, nice and tight

Slowly extend your arms away from your body while still maintaining the brace!

Slowly return your arms back to starting position.

REPEAT

My consistency with this routine has been great. Definitely no less than 5 days a week, usually 7. One quantitative marker I can measure is blood pressure, but so far I haven’t noticed any significant changes, but I am hopeful with more consistency there will be. Here are some benefits I have noticed:

  • Improved ability to calm breath during kettlebell sport training, particularly sets near anaerobic threshold
  • Increased ability to focus and shut off my brain/ ignore distractions
  • Improved posture, better handstand line
  • Stronger abs and lower back
  • Improved sense of calm, less anxiety/ stress
  • Improved digestion – compression of breathing into quads and bracing in child’s pose position

Now that my brain radar is on to all things relating to breath, lol, I am seeing references everywhere. Doc Jen Fit on Instagram has some amazing free and informative posts on breathing and mobility, and I will definitely be cycling some of them into my routine. At the beginning of the week I posted a few exercises from my routine on instagram, and no sooner did I submit it when I saw Ryan Hurst – creator of GMB Fitness, published a post with an excellent review of the book “The Oxygen Advantage”, by Patrick McKeown. This has introduced me to the Buteyko method, and more reading I need to delve into. So stay tuned, as I am sure this practice is going to change over time. Feels like the story may come full circle as I rediscover the world of breathing with my mouth closed. We’ll see if it ever feels as natural as it did all those decades ago.

This breath practice is only the beginning, and will definitely continue to develop and evolve, even when the year of kettle comes to an end. It’s too important, and I see too many valuable benefits for something that only requires the investment of time.  One of the most rewarding things about the year of kettle is being able to chase down these ideas and experiment without feeling guilty. In my usual world of teaching, spending time developing practices such as these seems like a luxury, that doesn’t pay bills. Treatment of medical conditions however,  is costly, and personally I would rather invest the time in trying an inexpensive lifestyle change, than gambling my health until more invasive treatments like medications and surgery are required.   

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YEAR OF KETTLE – QUARTERLY REVIEW

Sigh*** I know this precious year off is going to go by all too quickly. I wanted to try to break up the year into quarters so that I could reminisce on the amazing things I have been doing other than report cards, marking,  fighting the constant pressure of fitting in standardized assessments with actual learning…..all while trying to create a dynamic and relevant program that meets the needs of a variety of learning styles and abilities, and trying to make personal connections with students and their families…..yup….I wanted to write a post where I could focus on the things I would daydream about doing when I was back in the classroom. Next year, at this time, when I am counting down the days until holiday break, and freezing my ass off on yard duty, I will turn to this post and get my gratitude in check. For now, let’s get back to reminiscing. This post is also an accountability check so that I don’t completely slack off and waste my year on Netflix and social media. I’m very proud of what I have accomplished in this first quarter, but know this is the calm before a storm of more awesomeness.

Since I have built this year around my kettlebell sport training, I guess it makes sense to start here. Normally, when I am living the life of a teacher I train 3 times a week. I keep two of them on a week day and try to put the 3rd on the weekend to cause the least amount of disruption to my work schedule. During the year of kettle I have added an extra kettlebell sport training session because I have the time to properly recover. I have also made 3 of the 4 during the week so it feels even more like my new “office job.” The weather this fall has been amazing, and I was able to train outside for quite some time period. Even now I will still go outdoors to do my GPP. I love having the freedom to take my time and do a proper warmup and cool down. The recovery aspect is probably the biggest part of the year of kettle for me that is largely unseen. Each day my main priorities are to fit in my breathing exercises,  and mobility and flexibility training. My goal is to make it as solid a routine as brushing my teeth. Other than saying that my body feels great, and training is going well I can’t say if I notice any other differences from my new schedule. I’ve been doing some biometric measuring, looking at my hrv and blood pressure and collecting data to see how these change as I adapt to my new routines. No definitive results at this time, but hopefully in a few months there will be. There were 2 kettlebell sport competitions I attended that fell into this first quarter of my year.

The first was the CKA Toronto Girevoy Sport Open , held at the Fighting Arts Collective in August. It was run by the Toronto Girveoy Sport Club, masterfully lead by Robin Spencer and Alberto Isirido. It was an excellent meet, very efficient, great prizes, very positive and energizing atmosphere. My goal was to complete my first 20kg biathlon (one-arm). I knew lasting 10min for jerk was no problem, but I knew snatch was not in my wheelhouse yet. I must say that this went better than I imagined when I first registered for the comp. Having my coach and grand coach in Canada two months prior really made a difference. Nothing beats face time, both for receiving feedback, and learning. I’m a visual learner so being able to see what is being explained to me makes all the difference. Video is somewhat effective, but nothing beats real contact. My confidence went from questioning whether I was ready to snatch 20kg at all, to considering aiming for CMS snatch only numbers in biathlon. In the end I wasn’t far off the mark. Total score (and CKA record for 63kg weight class) 234 (148 jerks- pr for me, and 86 snatches – also pr since I had never snatched 20kg in competition before). I’m very excited because now that I have had that experience I feel so much more confident that I can improve on both of those numbers. My fear of 20kg snatch is dissipating. I know I have it in me to last 10 minutes. Just have to stay the course and keep putting time under load. I can feel the changes and adaptations happening with my technique, I just don’t quite have the power (and maybe confidence) to control them yet.

The CKA Toronto comp was at the end of August, and so there wasn’t much turn around time before the Agatsu Toronto Kettebell Sport competition in October. Feeling too soon to do another biathlon, I opted to give snatch only with the 20kg a try. Only to conquer fear and uncertainty is to throw yourself in the arena, and keep trying. During these training cycles I was still recovering from a shoulder issue on my left side, and I feel at this comp that my arm was physically more capable than what my brain trusted. I only lasted about 3.5 minutes on that side. Still, at 116 reps I hit my CMS ranking for GSU snatch only on my first go! When I think of the number of years it took to hit triple digits for 20kg oalc, and here in my first training cycle for 20kg snatch I had done it in a matter of months! To be 45 years old and still capable of growing and improving as an athlete is the biggest reward.  I know I have over 130+ reps in me (which is the Ketacademy requirement for MS). Back to my little training room I go.

 

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As I mentioned, the year of kettle was really more about having the time not just to train like a professional athlete, but to recover like one. All of the things we tend to think are unimportant enough we can skip, I wanted to diligently practice. Flexibility and mobility training has been a big part of that. My guru for this for the last few years has been Kirsty Grosart. I am very blessed that she lives only a few kilometres away from me and has been an invaluable resource to help me determine my areas of weakness in overall human movement. This is helping me in all areas of life, not just kettlebell sport. There are some dope skills like handstands that we work on for fun, and it is a challenging way for me to play with the strength I get from kettlebell sport. Mostly I focus on improving my overall posture, and creating the best range of motion in my joints as I possibly can…..within this development I get to play with a lot of different movements which has helped make me more confident to be more creative and play with improvising flow patterns. I’ve found I have to gently sprinkle in my time with my movement guru. Handstands and ground movements are very sensory rich on my wrists. Lots of weight shifting. With my kettlebell sport training volume, I’ve found a fine balance line where the body weight training works without being too much. Closer I get to competition the less bodyweight play I will do. My GPP programming for my current training cycle (and sprinkled in portions of last year) has largely been based around Kirsty’s analysis of my areas of need, and drills she has taught me over the years. Her teachings drive a big part of my active recovery regime.

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Another part of my recovery regime has been Yoga. I know, I’ve been down on yoga in the past. My previous entry on my experience at a yoga retreat in Costa Rica has changed all of that. Admittedly since coming back from Costa Rica I have only attended one class. Lol. A commitment of 2 classes a week is my goal for the next quarter. Feel free to check in on me and see if I am doing it. Despite my lackadaisical attitude towards getting to yoga class, I have been very fervent in what I am calling a Breathing Program. It really deserves its own blog post. I’ve had mentors around me my whole life who have taught me the importance of mastering your breath. I didn’t really feel compelled to give it more thought until I read a book recommended to me by my kettlebell sport coach, Abigail Johnston. Reading this book tipped a cascade of ideas for me, that made me want to adopt breathing work in as part of my recovery regime. It basically involves me getting up 30min earlier each morning and I have a series of 5 different breathing exercises I do that take about 6min each to complete. When I was in Costa Rica I bought a handmade mala necklace. Traditionally used as prayer beads, I use them as an abacus as I cycle through my breath patterns it helps me count and shut off my brain so that I solely focus on my breathing.

 

Abi’s book recommendation is a nice segue into my next category of active recovery – Reading. Nothing settles the mind like getting lost in the pages of a book. I don’t care if it’s fiction or not. This is something I definitely need to prioritize when I go back to teaching next year. I swear sports and reading were Ritalin for an adhd kid like me growing up in the 70’s….and frankly I am so thankful I did not grow up in the pharmaceutical era of today’s younger generation. It’s been so amazing to have time to read. Initially it did take some time for me to settle my mind enough to allow myself to get into a text, but it didn’t take long to come flooding back. Listed below are the books I read over the last 3-4 months. I highly recommend all of these. I won’t go into a review of them all, or what my take on them was, but feel free to drop me your thoughts and book recommendations in the comments.

House of Cyn First Quarter Reading List:

  • Rebus Detective series (up to book 4) – Ian Rankin
  • The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
  • The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance – Steven Kotler
  • Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable – Tim Grover
  • Breath by Breath: The Liberating Practice of Insight Meditation – Larry Rosenberg
  • As a Man Thinketh – James Allen

For the second quarter of the year of kettle, top priority on the reading list is Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. I am embarrassed to say that my friend Jeff (who passed away last year) gave it to me as a present and I still haven’t finished it. I need to read that wrong immediately! My friend BJ Bliffert in Texas, is another mind I like to interact with who has given me some wonderful book recommendations over the years that I haven’t completed yet either (sorry BJ, but I’m working on it!). There are also about 16 more books left in the Rebus series so I have my work cut out for me. To honour Jeff, I will be better.

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Nutrition is another big part of my recovery process, and with a Master’s degree in Nutritional Science, is something that I like to experiment with. I always considered myself to be on a fairly anti-inflammatory diet, with relatively even macros shifting towards higher carbs on training days, and higher fat on non-training days….and decent quality food sources (with only occasional bad choices). I thought I had found a balance where I was relatively easily able to maintain my body weight, and properly recover from training. One biomarker I had recently started tracking was blood pressure. Both my mother and sister have high blood pressure and take medication for it. At various times when I have been to the doctor for checkups I have been told that my blood pressure was high, and initially we were able to dismiss as white coat syndrome as when I would test at places outside of the doctor’s office it would read normal. I measured it daily over the summer months and I was consistently high to a point where I know a considerable number of physicians would probably encourage medication. I’m way too fucking young to be going down that road (in my stubborn opinion) so I want to exhaust some harmless/ less invasive measures first to see what I can do to make a difference. One of those is diet.

Enter the vegans in my life – I’ve been surrounded by them and they don’t fit any of the stereotypes I see them being teased for. They all have different reasons and approaches to their relationship with food, and they don’t push it on anyone. They are strong, active, beautiful, and most importantly – healthy men and women. So…I did what any scientist would do and started doing some research. I’m enough of a realist and scientist to know that for every study saying plant based diets lower blood pressure, there is one saying it doesn’t. Bottom line is there could be potential benefit to a plant based diet on lowering blood pressure. That’s enough for me to suspend my disbelief, and answer the question for ME….does a plant based diet have an impact on MY blood pressure? So, for the past 3 months I have been plant based, maintained the same body weight, and seen no detrimental effects on my training. I will admit to negligent monitoring of my  blood pressure this quarter so no noticeable improvement in my readings so far, but I’m still committed to giving this more time, and really enjoying my new food choices. 

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This takes me to the final part of my first quarter wrap up and monitoring my HRV (heart rate variance). If you don’t know what that is…wake-up and read my blog!! Lol, and of course there’s google. For almost 4 years I have been diligently collecting HRV data, and for the most part using it to guide daily decision making around my training. The longer I began to use it, the more I became in tune with the impact alcohol, poor sleep, arguments with co-workers or family, or hard training sessions would do to my hrv readings, and could even use it to make decisions about future predictions such as increasing my glutamine intake a week before my menstrual cycles starts. I was excited when I began working with Abi that she also collected data and used the app in her trainings as well. She introduced me to the Elite HRV software, which opened me up to a world of calculations and applications I had no idea existed.  Of course it is really for the nerd at heart- you have to honestly love collecting data and then take the time to sort through it to contextualize and interpret your results. It’s like the manual/physiological version of Escape Station , on yourself. Through monitoring various correlates you problem solve using a variety of strategies, different ways to increase your ANS response. What you escape are a host of chronic diseases. The gains – well, longevity and great health. You have to thrive off routine, but also think laterally when making connections between subjective and objective data. Naturally, I am stoked because all of that is in my wheelhouse. Through advertising on the app I saw their online course in the Foundations of HRV where I decided it was time to learn more about this since I had already invested significant time and money into the 3 years of data measurements I have already collected. The course was everything I had hoped for an introduction. I am looking to more advanced versions as they develop. For now I have so much to chew on.

Moving forward with my HRV levels I am more committed to doing weekly or biweekly reviews and looking for patterns related to my blood pressure scores. I’m hoping that the cumulative effect of reading, breathing exercises, yoga/ mobility training and the plant based diet will have cumulative positive effects on both my HRV and blood pressure, but I need more time and more measurements. Can’t wait to see what the next quarter will bring! No year of kettle would be complete without also mentioning how amazing it is to spend so much extra time with Stella. She is a huge part of my mental therapy. That forces me out of the house at least once a day. Usually first thing in the morning we will take an adventure walk in the neighbourhood or go to the beach. We’ve also been exploring new places and parks like Mount Nemo in Milton. Spending more time outside has been a much needed luxury I am very grateful for! Holidays are coming, I’m looking forward to connecting with friends and family!

 

Pura Vida – Celebrating Flow in Costa Rica

For the last 4 years I diligently lived off of 80% of my pay to make taking this year off a reality.  My husband promised at some point during the year he would take some time off work so we could travel together. We’ve been married 12 years in December, never took a honeymoon together, and never travelled out of the country (not counting trips to the U.S with me for kettlebell sport). Carl and I wanted to choose a getaway where we could be active, eat healthy, and come home feeling invigorated, not like we needed a vacation from our vacation. 

A year before my sabbatical, Carl ran into a very close friend (and yoga instructor) Amanda Montgomery; who, with the Moksha North York yoga studio had been running retreats in Costa Rica for 7 years. She had just returned from Costa Rica in 2016 when Carl inquired, and told her we were in for 2017. We’ve known Amanda for over a decade, and she is special to us for many reasons. Being able to attend this trip with her we knew would be a memorable experience we were sure to enjoy.  Spoiler alert – The Blue Spirit Retreat in Costa Rica was more than we had imagined. 

 

 


Costa Rica is a beautiful country whose values I love. They are leaders in environmental stewardship which was visible from the plane before we even landed. As we flew in we could see many wind turbines, and as we drove out of Liberia towards the Nicoya Peninsula we saw a solar farm. The government has put global warming at the top of its national agenda and has initiated a program to become the first carbon neutral developing country by 2021. With no standing army since 1948, the country has chosen to inject more resources into health care and education, with the longest standing democracy in Central America and a 95% literacy rate. We found the culture and people to be very friendly and inclusive. The Nicoya Peninsula, where Blue Spirit is located, is known as the “blue zone”,  one of the five geographic areas of the world where people tend to live the longest. Blue Spirit derived its name from this concept.


Blue Spirit retreat is an excellent example of the eco-tourism Costa Rica has become famous for. They are role models in ecological sustainability with a natural water filtration system using bacteria , composting on site where the rich soil generated is spread upon the grounds and used to grow food, and all electrical cables are located underground to insure safety of local animals, such as the howler monkeys. Much of the food we ate was grown on the premises, with the remaining sourced from local farmers. The retreat lies on one of 3 beaches in the area that are protected turtle refuges.

The retreat provided us with 3 meals a day that were incredibly nutrient dense and super flavourful. Meals were buffet style and most options were plant based. For several reasons I had switched to a plant based diet two months before our trip, so this was not much of a transition for me.  I loved EVERYTHING I ate. The chef is amazing, and has recently published a cookbook I will definitely be getting!

 



Several activities are offered at Blue Spirit such as horseback riding, river kayaking, surfing, ziplining, as well as spa services (massages, energy work, osteopathy, reflexology, facials). On the 2nd day I had an intuitive massage by an amazing RMT named Gobinde. 

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Post massage bliss with Gobinde
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Following Gobinde’s homework

It was amazing and I felt the first real significant release of tension and anxiety. She also gave me homework (lol) that I needed to followup my treatment with some coconut water and a walk on the beach (and being a diligent student I listened). On a more serious note she also recommended I be more consistent with my yin yoga practice specifically focusing on my shoulders….which I must admit I have known as of course kettlebell sport and handstand training contributes to much of that tension. I definitely need to up my recovery game in that area.

This week I particpated in 2-3 yoga/meditation classes, totalling about 4hrs of training each day. I feel much more confident in my meditation practice and it is something I am looking forward to continuing to develop.  Classes were a combination of vinyasa flows, moksha practice, and yin yoga. We also were treated to 2 classes in which live music was played which added a really powerful and positive vibration to the already awe inspiring atmosphere. Each teacher brought unique and insightful aspects to both the movement and meditation components of class.

 

 

Mid week Carl and I took a day to go on a hiking/zip line canopy tour in the forests of Nosara, a town not far from Blue Spirit.  It was amazing. I was a teeny bit nervous at first, but the scariest part turned out to be about 12 of us riding in the back of this huge truck we had to take to get to our starting point, with bench seating, and only a skinny metal chain at the back to keep everyone in. Lol. It was about a 20min drive on narrow dirt roads with huge potholes, and it had rained a lot that morning (they had to cancel the morning tour we were originally scheduled for) so the roads were very soft, slick and muddy.

 

When it came to ziplining, our tour guides made us feel completely safe. They were very professional, and knowledgeable, but they were also very playful with a great sense of humour. We traversed about 8-10 (I lost count) ziplines , the longest one being about half a mile, and the largest drop was about 900 feet (which I did tandem with one of the instructors hands free!!). The scenery was amazing. We saw lots of monkeys, unique species of butterflies and birds, and learned about some of the plant and tree species.

 

 

If we’re friends on Facebook you are very much aware of my love/hate relationship with yoga. For the last 10+ years I have had a very inconsistent practice. Part of my dislike has come from negative experiences with different instructors, coupled with my adhd which makes the breathing and meditative aspects extra challenging to me. I’m horrible at shutting off my brain to the constant external and internal stimuli/chatter. As a result I avoided really trying something that offered the potential to be very beneficial if I was just more patient and consistent. My husband on the other hand is the opposite.  He has a dedicated practice, and has really cultivated some serious skills. Being way more zen than me, he really enjoys meditation. This trip was my attempt at being open to new experiences, and knowing how much Carl would benefit from this experience was enough motivation to get me on board.

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Yogi triple threat (left to right) – Darcy Hagerman, Amanda Montgomery, Jessica Lemon

Of course what wound up happening for me was very profound. Teachers make all of the difference and Darcy, Amanda and Jess are amazing, and I have so much gratitude and appreciation for them and the work that went into organizing this trip, and sharing their expertise with so much love and kindness. They are so intuitive and intelligent. Their combined experience is so vast, and multi-disciplinary, I found their approach to be a much more modern, refreshing and enlightening compared to other yoga classes I have taken. Being submersed so intensely for 7 days really forced me (in a good way) to not only really give it a full chance, but actually experience some flow. It was super powerful stuff. The studio we practised in everyday had the most amazing view of the ocean and forests. Being in such an awe inspiring environment made me feel connected to the earth in a way I haven’t felt before.

This week I feel as though I maintained (and possibly gained) my physical strength and conditioning, while experiencing the most profound changes mentally and spiritually. Ever since my friend Jeff passed away ( and probably even before) there has been this ball of anxiety/stress/negativity/anger/resentment building and residing deep in my chest, and with each class I found I was able to free myself of it, a little bit at a time. It’s amazing how much stress and adversity that we needlessly create for ourselves, and how much it takes away from really living fully.

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Spending a week in the mountains of Costa Rica, breathing such oxygen-rich air, so close to the ocean really reinforced my connection with nature and my sense of duty and purpose to help repair the incessant harm we are doing to mother earth. Ecoanxiety is a new term that sounds completely ridiculous, and yet, something I feel impacted by. Environmental advocacy and literacy has been an increasingly important practice for me as a teacher. I find myself feeling deeply affected by the way in which we treat the earth, and each other. I constantly question if I am doing enough, and worry about the world we are leaving to future generations.

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Had to do a #take3forthesea even without Stella

Everyday I teach I am constantly bombarded with the amount of waste we create as a society and how we deal with it. I wonder if I am reaching my students and whether or not they are being mindful of their daily habits based on our lessons. The amount of (plastic litter) I see on a daily basis when I walk my dog, and even here in Costa Rica on a protected beach really saddens me.

This experience hasn’t taught me how to completely quiet the noise in my brain, but it has allowed me opportunity to step back from it and see it more clearly for what it is. Through yoga I have found a more productive way of coping and taking care of myself that works in so many ways. It’s been a challenge to feel worthy of this gift and feelings of guilt surfaced this week over having this year of freedom, even though it was something not handed to me, but that I worked very hard for.

Jess, Darcy and Amanda reminded me this week that self-care is not selfish, and that I shouldn’t feel guilty about wanting to be my best self. It makes me a more effective teacher, wife, sister, daughter, friend….person, that it actually allows me to give more of myself to others. Given that so much of my identity is tied to being a teacher, this is very important to me- to be as real and authentic as I can, and hopefully motivate my students to treat themselves (and each other) with love and respect and know that they are worthy of it.

Pura Vida

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Looking forward to more adventures with my bff

 

How I Spent My 2015 Summer Vacation

Although I have read no scientific literature on it’s absolute necessity, I have always held the firm belief that body weight training is mandatory for anyone that competes in any form of weight lfiting. Afterall, why would I ask my body to support substantial external loads, if I am incapable of supporting myself? Initially I wanted to write this post as a research based article on either the importance of gymnastics as a form of physical therapy for kettlebell sport lifters, OR the importance of body weight training to weight lifters. Instead of nerding out reading as much peer reviewed literature as I could find, I decided to just train. I conducted my own experiment and this post is a summary and reflection of my results and where I plan on taking things next. Of course the overall big picture of any goal I take on is improvement. In some way it has to make me better – and right now if there is the potential to help improve my efficiency as a kettlebell sport lifter, I’m going to be open minded about checking it out.

As a kid I was always obsessed with gymnastics. During the summer Olympics, I would say without question- track and field, gymnastics and swimming are my top 3 sports I LOVE to watch. Not gonna lie – when I was growing up there were next to no role models I could relate to in either gymnastics or swimming. They were sports I thought were made for skinny white kids….lol….but I was always envious and in awe of the control, skill and grace these athletes had in addition to a ton of strength. By the time I was able to see more diversity within the sport and even see some successful Canadian role models, I felt way too old to participate. I was clearly wrong. Upon discovering kettlebell sport and making the decision to be a competitive 40+ year old athlete I decided right from the start to do things right. Here there are also many amazing role models. Multi- world champions Sergey Rudnev and Sergei Rachinskiy are similar to my age and known for their physical feats with their own body weight as well as with kettlebells. All the things I ignorantly took advantage of in my youth I was going to make a priority – eat well, sleep well, respect the warmup and the cool down and put time into a flexibility program.

Over the last 3 years I have consistently worked on my mobility and flexibility and definitely give it credit for keeping my body healthier than just lifting kettlebells alone. Even with these awesome changes however, all is not right in the House of Cyn. I still have weaknesses and imbalances I need to be working on daily. Ofcourse I am not going to sit by and watch myself struggle in the same places or feel sore and weak in the same spots….nope. I tackle that shit head on. If you ever attend a workshop or certification with Shawn Mozen from Agatsu Fitness – that dude can lay some pretty dope advice if you are a good listener. He pretty much gives away the secret to being successful when learning any new skill, and you can tell (if you follow any social media) who does it and who doesn’t quite easily. My summer experiment was to enroll in a gymnastics class, which was going to make me confront head on my feelings about being too old to try it, combined with forcing me to confront the weaknesses in my lower kinetic chain and poor core control.

Words of Wisdom #1 – Spend time with people who are better than you. For the 8 weeks of summer I decided to take a gymnastics and focused flexibility cert by one of Gold Medal Bodies (GMB) lead trainers – Kirsty Grosart.  I have known Kirsty for a couple of years now so I know what a phenomenal athlete and coach she is. If I was going to confront the issues in my lower kinetic chain and core stability I needed some hands on help. The skill development and learning curve I made this summer has made me feel more confident to try out other amazing people I know in the handstand and flexibility world such as Sara-Clare Lajeuness from Agatsu and Andralyn Zayn from Deflying Fitness. I have a 3-5 year plan of courses I would like to take with each of them in addition to the yoga teacher training with Yoga Detour. So much time….so little money. Lol. Seriously though, if you want to learn to move your body better I recommend all of these people.

Words of Wisdom #2Invest the time to develop a consistent practice. Often times I hear people say “I want do more pullups, or I want a muscle up….or I want __________________.” They say this, but then put no real effort towards their goal. They don’t reaallllly want it! For 8 weeks I had the accountability of attending class twice a week for 2 hours. On the days I wasn’t in class I incorporated movements into my lifting warmup and cool down. I realized it was as simple as adding 4 extra movements to my routine to see improvement. Moving forward I feel much better equipped to maintain my routine and keep progressing.

RESULTS

Short story – the words of wisdom work. End of story. No real need to read further. Below I will post some pictures and highlight what improvements I noticed. I’ve divided my results into 4 sections. These are areas I think not only address my weaknesses but also important areas required for kettlebell sport. I am definitely going to continue to use photos to monitor (and hold myself accountable to) my progress as I continue forward with my practice. The process has also made me more curious about GMB’s programming and something I look forward to learning more about.

Spine

CynBridge

On top is my beginning pic and below is after. This was already a strength for me going in, but after 8 weeks I did notice more openness in my shoulders which allows for a better shape and ability to kick over. Moving forward I want to be able to work on going in to bridge from standing.

Hips, Knees, Ankles, Hamstrings

CynRSplitCynSquatCynPancakeCynPike

This section was the toughest for me. I did notice improvement in my hamstring flexibility but I still have significant work to do with my hips and ankles. Overall I think my progress was slightly hindered during the this testing period because I had done a kettlebell competition only a few days before these photos were taken. Still, to be completely honest and accountable I didn’t practice my lower body drills as much because of the discomfort and challenge. Moving forward I am going to attack this more tenaciously.

Shoulders

CynShoulders

This one bums me out a bit because I did try to work on my shoulders much more diligently during this 8 week period. Again I blame a little bit on the timing of the pics falling after a competition and will admit my shoulders were feeling sore. Still….this is something I will add extra focus on my next training cycle.

CONCLUSIONS

A part from working on my weaknesses, adding some variety to my gpp, having serious fun acting like a kid and doing things I haven’t done in decades…I was hoping this work would really provide assistance to areas that would make me stronger and more prepared for kettlebell sport. The competition I had towards the end of this training cycle was my first 16kg biathlon. I pr’d by 10 reps in my jerk with a 170 total and did 128 snatches for a personal best total of 298. Although still a long way to go I did notice improvement in my core control and glute activation. I definitely do not attribute any negative impacts from the gymnastics training on my lifting. I do feel confirmed in my hypothesis of its importance and I will continue to strive to improve my badassery of physical autonomy for life! 🙂

How Does Anything Happen? Move Past It!!!

The title of this post will be a test of your character. If you recognized it as a line from the show “Always Sunny In Philadelphia” then we would be fast friends! It’s brilliance is in the simplicity of it. Any potential stalkers out there may recall posts where I mention one of my dearest friends – Bryanna, and about our pact to do one thing daily that scares the crap out of us. I can get really comfortable in routine and the idea of changing things up can make me anxious. I’ve found the best cure to be to completely mix it up and throw myself into a new situation and confront my fears head on. Look, I was going to write a blog post recapping my year in kettle. When I began this sport just over 2 years ago I only had the intentions of attending 2, maybe 3 competitions a year. In October it will be my 5th competition, and in all likelihood I will be in Texas in December which will make it my 6th. It had been suggested to me that a year in review would make for an interesting post. Yet, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I didn’t want to go back. I made some excellent progress this year, but I am more excited about using those experiences to reshape my future, then to look back and reflect. The timing of this discovery was followed by a friend of mine posting this meme….or maybe the meme made me have the thought in the first place? Whatever. Let’s just move past it.

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 I would rather tell you about my most recent experience that I feel has made me (and will continue to make me) a better kettlebell lifter. This summer I went to camp. That’s right. Full on day camp for adults…obviously perfect for teachers but mostly filled with other fitness professionals. Master’s of Movement is a very unique fitness experience and I have to say, I needed this. I needed to throw myself outside my comfort zone to find out which skills/energy systems of my kettlebell training would transfer over to activities that were completely new to me, or that I had not done for several years, and which skills/energy systems I still needed to develop. There was absolutely no question that Sara-Clare Lajeunesse and Shawn Mozen of Agatsu were the ones to do this with. A couple of years ago I had hired Sara for some private sessions to help me work on some body weight skills and knew she’s a brilliant teacher with a smile that makes you happy for days. I had the opportunity to get to know Shawn better when I took the Agatsu Upper Body Level 1 Mobility Certification.

These two really are masters of moving pain free and I honestly attribute much of my transformation to better health because of the prehab work I put into my warmups and cooldowns to work both mobility and flexibility. I’ve spent a lot of time crafting my routine from ideas I have gotten from my coach Jason Dolby, Steve Maxwell and Erwan LeCorre mostly. Agatsu is another place I love to go for professional development in this area. Basically, I chose their summer movement week so I could spend more time with them AND because they had booked the Mayhem Bros to have Hip Hop dance as one of the activities we would be exposed to throughout the week. I had worked with Mayhem Bros before – you may remember they helped choreograph a dance routine that I used with my grade 4 class (where Awesometown was born). I had been dying to have an opportunity to learn from them for ME. I knew with those 2 elements I would have a great time so I didn’t even pay attention to the rest of the line up (true story). Here’s just a small snippet of what I took away with me this week:

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Photo Credit – Shawn Mozen/Agatsu Inc
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Photo Credit – Sara-Clare Lajeunesse/Agatsu Inc

  1. Opposites are Good.

For 5 days I had the great opportunity to learn olympic weight lifting from the great Alexander Varbanov. If you do not know who he is….shame on you and go do some basic internet research and come back. I had actually known this would be a part of my week and I was also excited about this opportunity. I totally assumed being a kettlebell sport lifter that I would have the most in common with this activity compared to the rest, and therefore assumed I would enjoy it the most. Although I did enjoy it – it challenged/frustrated me way more than I was expecting. By the end, it had tapped into my competitive spirit in a way that is different from kettlebell sport, but I had to reign it in and avoid lifting beyond the capabilities of my right shoulder that was still sore after NorCal Open. For me, oly lifting was the most challenging of everything we did this week (with the exception of juggling and some of the club work). Lifting under tension has become a bit of a foreign concept to me…but it was exciting to reawaken and have the opportunity to practice. Spending time under tension made me more aware of the relaxation I am able to create in my kettlebell lifting and how that translates into increased endurance and reps over time. I also love exploring ranges of motion beyond what I need for kettlebell sport. It feels so awesome to squat deep and I know it has helped relieve the repetitive tension and limited range of motion I accumulate from continuous quarter squats jerking.

 

Photo Credit - Shawn Mozen/Agatsu Inc
Photo Credit – Shawn Mozen/Agatsu Inc

2. We are all full of shit.

All of our days were spent being engaged both mentally and physically. There were a couple brief moments of down time where we could sit and absorb new ideas… but still mentally were very much challenged. One of these moments was with Dhani Oks, co-founder of the Academy of Lions which was also the host location. Dhani provided a series on Coaching and Cueing really centered around many different ideas so I can’t even begin to sum up his talk here. But I will highlight one idea that made me feel something. He introduced me to the idea of the Pyramid of Shit. To oversimplify his model for the purposes of time – basically the higher the pyramid, the more emotional baggage you have in terms of how you deal with adversity. So at the top we would see those people with a negative world view (the world is shit), or a negative self view (I am shit) in response to something that didn’t go their way (e.g. a poor performance on the platform at a lifting competition). If you have ever been a coach you know that it takes a lot of creativity and emotional energy to pull these people into reality and further down the shit pyramid. These folks are the most difficult to coach.

Lower down on the pyramid you have those that can separate their shit and see it for what is. After lifting poorly in a competition they would not say “I am shit”, but rather “my lifting was shit, or I stepped in shit.” It is much easier to progress with a student who has this level of awareness because you can get right to the root of what needs working on, where the true focus needs to be. I realized that I have a Jekyll/Hyde with this pyramid. As a teacher/coach I am very low on the pyramid. I spend my days motivating my students and helping them escape the loneliness of the top of the pyramid. When I have a student caught in that shit funk I look for new and creative ways to pull them out of it while being sensitive to what they’re going through, but not taking it personally or attaching their shit to me. I get it, I’ve been there. It’s cold at that altitude, but I love to help.

As an athlete/student I realize that when I am trying to overcome the adversity of learning a new skill, or pushing through a barrier I can be very hard on myself and at the top of that pyramid. It sucks and I admit I can have a hard time pulling myself out of it. I’m very fortunate I have people around me that are experts at helping me and each new seemingly impossible challenge becomes easier and easier to face. My big take home was first and foremost having empathy for my coach – it ain’t easy… that’s when it hit home that I think it is important for coaches (who can especially have a tendency to be hard on themselves) to have good coaches in terms of their ability to communicate and deal with their shit. That relationship will be more solid if the person you have entrusted that role to is someone who can remain at the bottom of the pyramid and help pull you down off the frozen peak of shit when you need it.

Photo Credit - Dave Anderka
Photo Credit – Dave Anderka

3. Adaptive Bodywork is AMAZING!

The Agatsu mobility cert introduced me to the idea of muscle distraction and it’s use with mobility to help warm up joints. I started adding variations to my warm up. It definitely made me aware of “sensory rich areas” that were quite painful. Some I knew I had been avoiding and some areas I’m often surprised because I didn’t even realize they were sore. I have learned that the more I confront the sensory rich areas and work on releasing tension at the root cause, the better I feel, and the faster I heal. During my week of day camp we were able to experience a session of adaptive bodywork with John Sutherland. This was just a small taste of what is actually possible and my mind was blown at how much more effective it was than my current routine. I honestly believe that this will be one of the keys to keeping my joint integrity as I age and help me move the way I am now for a long time. I am definitely going to be pursuing certification in this at some point and will try to see John whenever he comes to Toronto!!!

Photo Credit - Sara-Clare Lajeunesse/Agatsu Inc
Photo Credit – Sara-Clare Lajeunesse/Agatsu Inc

4. Find love where you least expect it.

I love surprises! Possibly because I am terrible at giving them…so when they do happen, I remember how awesome they are and I should work harder at being better at them! Just another reason taking risks is awesome. You discover cool new things you had no idea you could do! Last year I had really wanted to attend Masters of Movement pretty much solely because Deflying Fitness was one of the presenters delivering a handstand series. Being able to go in and out of a controlled handstand is one of my top 3 goals. Anyway, my true love kettlebell sport was calling during that week last year and I was at a competition. I pretty much zoned out of everything else Deflying Fitness had to offer. I’m such an idiot. I had no idea what I was in for. A whole pile of awesome was what I fell into!!! For me it was such an interesting and challenging use of body weight strength. Some movements I was surprised were easy – but because I have put them into my regular practice (e.g. bear grylls). Other movements I felt as though I had the strength and mobility to execute but my brain just couldn’t send the right signals to the right places!

I have no problem being upside down, but I haven’t spent nearly enough time performing movements upside down. It felt amazing to scratch the surface at trying to create that new kind of awareness and has made practicing kind of addictive. I had no idea I was about to find an entirely new and fun way to work on my shoulder mobility. The entire workshop paid for itself the first session we used our wrist strap that came in our goodie bag. We did some awesome exercises that opened up my shoulder, deltoid and bicep like nothing else I had tried. It also gives me awesome feedback on how prepared I am for ring and bar work. Similar to gymnastics many of the movements and positions require a strong hollow body and ribs closed position. This is a challenge for me but I am finally able to distinguish the two positions and create more awareness of what each offers. Although break dancing was super fun and badass….the Deflying Fitness sessions were by far my favourite. Andralyn and Duane are pretty much the best people ever. I will definitely be doing handstands and flexibility with them…hopefully soon in Oakville…

Photo Credit - Shawn Mozen/Agatsu Inc
Photo Credit – Shawn Mozen/Agatsu Inc
Photo Credit - Shawn Mozen/Agatsu Inc
Photo Credit – Shawn Mozen/Agatsu Inc

  5. Always Attempt the Impossible

This week I felt the difference my kettlebell sport platform battles have given me in physical preparedness and mental confidence. My body was much better conditioned to participate fully in all of the activities. Olympic lifting was the only activity I was cautious with as I didn’t want to risk an injury.  That being said I still worked on my technique and was able to perform numerous repetitions. Anyway…. my point was that if I had tried this week of movement back was I was 35+ lbs heavier it would have sucked. I would have gotten through…but it would have sucked…and just barely in that “sucks so good” kind of way….mostly in the “if you’re lucky you’re just broken down, if you’re unlucky you’re injured”. It reminded me of the 5 day MovNat retreat where I was that heavy and by the last group workout my knee was the size of a grapefruit.  I did not miss a beat at the Master’s of Movement week, and I have to say the order of programming was exceptional. The sequencing I’m sure also contributed to how much better I feel compared to what I was expecting.  At the end of the week I was more mentally and emotionally tired than physically tired. Despite 5 days of constant activity I was more than ready to get back to training on Monday. Nothing gives me greater satisfaction than doing things I previously thought I couldn’t do. In 5 days I took some risks, tried some new stuff, got uncomfortable, got too comfortable, collected new tools for my training tool box, met awesome people, drank great coffee, and felt super appreciative of my training and hard work….oh yeah, and smiled and laughed lots!!!!

NOW LET’S LIFT!

…and go back to school…summer is almost over 😦

House of Cyn Certification

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I’m a hoarder of information. I love collecting ideas. I read them, mull over them, and eventually act on them. This is pretty much how my teaching career has gone anyway. I have book shelves exploding with books. Unfortunately too many of them have never been read. I just can’t keep up with giving them the attention they deserve, at the rate I seem to be able to collect them. This pattern of behaviour is crossing over into my kettlebell sport training. I’m surrounded by amazing lifters with awesome ideas as to how to improve performance/health and movement efficiency. I’ve started collecting a bunch of resources for my “library” based on their recommendations and before I knew it I had accumulated a pile of books, manuals and videos that I had not yet taken the time to explore. Now that summer holidays are here – NOW is the time!! For the month of July I am going to be very centered on my training for the competition in August. Everything I do is going to somehow benefit that event. So I decided it was time to go through some of my resources, be exposed to new ideas and try new things.

The beautiful autistic side of me has created a schedule for my first official week of holidays. I’m going back to school and can be found either at home or the beach or a park soaking up information. To some it may seem like a strange way to spend a holiday but I’m really looking forward to this. I have many resources to get through and I’m not expecting to get it done in one week. My plan is to spend a little bit of time with each resource I want to research. At the end of the week I will take an inventory of how much I was able to get through, and what I am interested in really pursing more in depth. Then I will make a new schedule for the following week. The only thing that won’t change is my kettlebell workouts, or “practice” as I like to refer to it.

One other change starting next week is I will be switching from 3 days of kettle practice to 4 days a week. I had to practically beg my coach to let me try this…he is naturally reluctant because he’s kinda over-protective and because I have been kicking ass at 3 days a week. This is something I just want to experiment with for the month of July. July is my most stress free month, and I have the most amount of time to dedicate to my training. If there is a possible benefit to be received from it, I think it is more likely to happen now. If it turns out to be a bad idea there is still plenty of time to recover before August.

Here’s my week 1 plan:

Mon-   July 1 Tues –    July 2 Wed –  July 3 Thur – July 4 Fri –  July 5 Sat – July 6
9:00 – 11:00amKettle Practice 9:00 – 11:00amZ-Health Neural Warmup 9:00 – 11:00amKettle Practice 9:00 – 11:00amKettle Practice 9:00 – 11:00amZ-Health Neural Warmup 10 – NoonTeach at StrengthBox

Noon – LUNCH

1:00 – 3:00pmSupple Leopard 1:00 – 3:00pmConvict Conditioning (Handstands) 1:00 – 3:00pmSupple Leopard 1:00 – 3:00pmSupple Leopard 1:00 – 3:00pmConvict Conditioning (Bridging) Noon – 2pmKettle Practice
3:00 – 5:00pmHRV/ Maffetone 3:00 – 5:00pmHRV/ Maffetone 3:00 – 5:00pmHRV/ Maffetone 3:00 – 5:00pmBook of 5 Rings

Muscle Up Plan of Action

Muscle ups are tricky… to the regular people of the world. Gymnastics – damn you all!!! I wish my parents hadn’t pulled me out of gymnastics after only 1 session.  To a gymnast (or other fit lithe, free human being) it is the easiest move in the world. It just goes to show how out of touch with movement and our bodies we have become in this modern world. I am determined to reclaim this and get multiple repetitions of this move down.

A few years ago I dabbled in some specific training targeted at trying to get my muscle up. I wound up losing patience and getting frustrated and basically giving up on it. It is too vital a climbing technique to ignore. With renewed interest and fire in my belly I am going to take on this pet project for the next 4 weeks and see what happens. I feel leaner and stronger than I have felt in years so I feel primed to take on this challenge. Here’s how I plan to do it…

HOUSE OF CYN PUSH-PULL CHALLENGE 2013 (courtesy of Crossfit Wollongong)

Pushups/Pullups Pushups/Pull-ups Push-ups/Pullups Push-ups/pullups
Monday  = 38/12 Monday  = 15/35 Monday  = 22/38 Monday  = 11/39
Tuesday = 31/19 Tuesday =   19/31 Tuesday = 25/25 Tuesday = 9/41
Wednesday  =  25/25 Wednesday  = 28/32 Wednesday  = 27/33 Wednesday  = 35/15
Thursday   = 16/34 Thursday   =  44/6 Thursday   = 10/40 Thursday   = 32/18
Friday  =  9/44 Friday  = 9 / 41 Friday  = 37/13 Friday  = 21/39
Saturday =  60 push ups Saturday = 70 push ups Saturday = 80 push ups Saturday = 45 push ups
Sunday =  rest Sunday = rest Sunday = rest Sunday = rest
Total  = 179push/134 pull Total  = 185push/145 pull Total  = 201push/149 pull Total  =153push/152 pull
  Pushups Pull-ups
Monday Standard pushup from toes (chin/chest/thighs touch) Ring muscle up from knees
Tuesday Ring Pushups Dead hang pullups
Wednesday Standard pushup from toes (chin/chest/thighs touch) Bear Grylls or Leg-Assisted Muscle ups on climbing structure
Thursday HSPU Kipping pullups
Friday Standard pushup from toes Bar Muscle Up Using Band
Saturday AMRAP first, then broken as needed

I’ve posted the video of my first muscle up. I haven’t really attempted multiple repetitions of muscleups and now is the time I will train to go get them.