Elwood 5566

'Psychedelic' Exercises (이벤트탕) E-Bente-Tang

Posted in bathhouse and jjimjilbang culture, bathhouse Ballads by 노강호 on May 23, 2010

A Bathhouse Ballad

The e-bente-tang (이벤트탕) today  was scented with ginseng (인삼). For some reason the bathhouse has been incredibly busy this week . The  steam room has varied between 51-54 degrees and I made my first venture into the ice room (어름굴) since last summer.  The ice room is simply a large freezer with some chairs around the edges and as the weather becomes hotter and more humid, it is usually a good place to finish off  a session as it both dries your body and stops you sweating.

I have thought about several things this week as I wallowed: I am interested to know whether people dry themselves in a random fashion in which one might use a towel just a moment before used to dry their arse, on their face, or whether, in a sequence such as, head to toe. Yes, there’s so much going on in the world that I consider this pointless trivia! I don’t particularly care! In the west I was always moaning and ranting about the nastier aspects  of life  but in Korea I don’t even bother reading about world news and I’m a lot happier. Ignorance is quite a pleasant state of mind especially as the more I have studied, the more exams I have taken,  the un-happier it has made me. It seems  that once the clutter of mans’ inhumanity to man is removed, which is usually the contents of most world and national news, and the tools encouraged to analyze that world decommissioned or at least limited, pondering the sound of one hand clapping, or the manner in which a towel is used,  is wonderfully liberating. Thinking has never done me any favours and often quite the contrary. Thinking can actually be harmful to your health and in retrospect  has probably ruined my life, it certainly hasn’t made me happier. I would say an insect has more propensity to happiness than a human with a working brain especially if that brain is influenced by  ethical issues. Despite what we are told,  thinking is both anti-social and disliked and most bosses, even in education, dislike  either thinkers or those who are ‘educated.’  Most of the thoughts I have had in the last twenty years, basically since going to university, have  set me  in opposition against other people.

I think a lot wallowing in the e-bente tang but have to cast much of it aside as people don’t like to be remind of their impotency especially within a democracy. But what you do with your bath towel, where you put it and in what order, apart from being  a totally inane topic, is vastly more original in concept than the impending destruction of our environment and is far less likely to raise any hackles. Pondering the pointless is a new therapeutic philosophy I am pursuing. At the moment, my concerns about how towels are used is a subject in a state of infancy. Moving on…

Have you ever noticed that when Koreans do little exercise routines, especially in the bathhouses, they look like they have mad cow disease? Privates on Parade, a British black comedy movie (1982), contains a hilarious scene where John Cleese, a mad army officer, performs a very strange exercise routine. So complex and awkward is this routine that mastering it entails highly developed muscle coordination. Being a taekwondo instructor at the time I first watched this movie, I bought the video and set about learning the routine in the privacy of my bedroom. It was far too ridiculous to practice in a gym. At the same time as instructing taekwondo, I was also a military musician and my musical skills were beneficial in analyzing the rhythmical structures that were used. Basically, the legs started off in a wide ‘lunge’ position, in many martial arts known as a ‘front stance’ and this stance changed from right to left, at approx 1-2 changes per second.

A typical, left front stance

Independent of the legs (moving in musical terminology of 2/4 or 4/4 time), the arms performed a routine in 3/4 time but with each arm separated by one beat. The left arm began the sequence which consisted three parts, each synchronised with the changing stance of the legs: (1) slapping the thigh, (2) ‘pointing’ to the ceiling, (3) ‘pointing’ horizontally to the left. As the left arm ‘pointed’ to the ceiling, the right arm slapped the right thigh and so at all times the right arm was one movement behind the left arm Now, I describe the arm movement as slapping and ‘pointing’ except the pointing was limp-wristed and the elbows never straightened. The arms were more thrown out as if casting something unpleasant off the hand or waving something away. What makes the routine so amusing is the rhythmic asymmetry caused by the lower half of the body moving in 2/4 time and the top half of the body, both in 3/4 but with  a displacement between the right and left arms. I never really persevered with the sequence to perfect it and to have done so would have been a small accomplishment requiring considerable focus. Apart from its merits as an exercise it was also highly comical, even  more so performed by John Cleese and for me, it is the most memorable part of the film, even more so than the fact the entertainment troop Cleese commands, all get killed.

John Cleese and the famous Ministry of Silly Walks

If you performed this sequence in a British gym, you would undoubtedly attract some attention but in Korea psychedelic exercise routines are quite common. indeed, if you were to walk around the pools in a Ministry of Silly Walks fashion, I don’t think anyone would pay much attention.

This week, I have seen several people performing exercises that at first suggested some mental incapacity.  I have seen two men standing in a corner performing an exercise in which alternating arms are shaken as if flicking a turd off of the fingers. In this exercises, after approximately 10 flicks, the cheeks are vigorously slapped. Standing in the cold pool, holding onto the side and water jogging is also a common sight. Stretching is also very common especially in a steam room or sauna though this form of exercise is identical to those practiced in the west. Laying supine and raising the knees to the chest or swinging the legs over the head until your knees are by yours ears isn’t unusual, unless of course, your naked. However, more amusing, is laying on ones back, pointing the knees to the ceiling with a 90 degree angle between the back of the calf and thigh and  in this position doing small rapid steps in the air with the feet while concurrently tapping the scalp and face with the hands. Perhaps the most common psychedelic exercise, more common around apartment complexes and in fitness centers, but which may be seen in bathhouse with treadmills in rest areas, is walking in a brisk manner, palms open, and hands raised to face level pictured below. Even though I know it provides a better workout than conventional western style walking/jogging, I find adopting this custom as alien as wearing a face mask.

The typical Korean walking style