“Why boast of this age of science and invention that has produced so many marvelous wonders when, in the final analysis, we find that man has entirely overlooked the most complex and marvelous of all creations: himself?”
Joseph Pilates, Your Health (1934)
The motivation behind this post is an effort to reconcile my career as a Pilates teacher with my growing enthusiasm for the Primal/Paleo lifestyle, and to try to discover how much synergy there is between the two.
This first post will mostly be an attempt to discover hints of a primal approach to human health in Pilates’ own writing, specifically “Your Health”, published in 1934.
My understanding of the Primal approach to living boils down to simple guidelines related to nutrition, exercise, sleep and sun-exposure. (A fuller list can be found here). In essence, the idea is to use the lives of pre-historic humans as a framework on which we can model our own behaviour. We are apparently genetically virtually identical to our paleolithic ancestors, and will achieve the best health by eating, moving, sleeping etc. in the way that archeology and anthropology suggests our ancestors did.
Much of the output of blogs, books, and podcasts from the primal/paleo community are intended to help people suffering from the symptoms of metabolic syndrome (obesity, insulin resistance etc.), and diseases/ailments related to chronic and or systemic inflammation (degenerative joint conditions, gastro-intestinal problems, multiple sclerosis etc.).
The primal/paleo philosophy is that what is generally recognised as ‘normal’ for old age – steady physical decline, illness, disease etc. may be usual, but are not normal for our species. By following the guidelines mentioned we are capable of living to old age without suffering substantial physical (or mental) deterioration – one of Mark Sisson’s ‘slogans’ is “Live long, drop dead”. The advice on how to stay fit and healthy for as long as possible typically comes down to addressing nutrition, exercise, sleep and sun-exposure.
Pilates was obviously writing at a very different time, and the health problems that our society faces were quite likely unimaginable in the 1930s. Nonetheless Pilates clearly wasn’t happy with the condition of many of the people he saw around him, and certainly had a lot to say about health and longevity. He saw “Tuberculosis, heart disease, posture problems such as bow legs, knock knees and curvature of the spine, as well as a veritable legion of other minor ills..”. He was concerned with both the physical and ‘moral’ health of humanity:
“As civilisation advances, the need for prisons, lunatic asylums and hospitals should steadily decrease. But is this the case in our era? Certainly not!”
He was writing at a time when a lot of the working population of the United States were probably transitioning from more manual work to more sedentary work but with still much more balance between the two than is the case now. Some of his ideas, and some of the exercise repertoire that he devised may seem inappropriate now, but it’s quite possible that those things made more sense for his time.
Whilst he was certainly concerned with sleep quality, going so far as to design a bed, his primary interest was clearly exercise, or movement. Whilst contemporary pilates teaching may well have a slightly different emphasis, Pilates himself was promoting exercise that required, at the more advanced level, a combination of gymnastic skill, flexibility and strength. Typical workouts suggested by the Primal/Paleo crowd often involve those same combinations.
Frequent sun exposure and supplementing with Vitamin D are common recommendations in books such as Robb Wolf’s “The Paleo Solution”, and other Primal/Paleo media. Statistics suggest that, in the USA, something like a third of the population are deficient in Vitamin D and it’s safe to assume that the figures for the UK are similar, if not worse. The photograph on the left shows Pilates in what was apparently typical attire for him. In “Your Health”, though he doesn’t mention Vitamin D specifically, he lauds the ancient Greeks for preferring “to more or less expose their bodies to the invigorating air and revitalizing rays of the sun…”.
Pilates’ method is often referred to as ‘mind-body’ exercise, and he was convinced of the relationship between a healthy body and a healthy mind. Those relationships are less explicit within the Primal/Paleo world, yet there is a lot of discussion over the negative effects of, for example, over-production of cortisol on both a physical and mental/emotional level. In addition, via podcasts and articles, I have come across numerous mentions of links between diet and mental health, including a link between wheat consumption and schizophrenia and apparent links between poor insulin sensitivity (see ‘metabolic derangement’ above) and Alzheimers, leading to the suggestion of a Type 3 diabetes.
One significant gap in any connection between the two philosophies is that, as a part of his exercise regime, Pilates was especially concerned with ‘correct’ breathing. He believed that a great many people didn’t know how to breath properly, and that the action of fully filling and emptying the lungs has great benefit for ridding the body of toxins and maintaining vigour. I have yet to come across any specific mention of breathing habits in the ‘paleosphere’ but I think this relates to the notion that we have lost touch with our ‘natural’ selves, and therefore need to be retaught the most basic of human activities. This certainly fits within my understanding of the Primal/Paleo philosophy.
Pilates didn’t seem to be much of a one for going to the doctor. Concerning preventing or curing the ills of society in the 1930s, he wrote: “Can this be done through medicine? No! It can be done by following basic health rules and a simple exercise regimen,”. Again, there is some synergy here, as the wealth of shared information amongst the P/P community indicates – with many people eschewing conventional medicine and seeking to heal a variety of problems from autoimmune conditions to skin problems to metabolic syndrome and beyond, by means of lifestyle changes – very often dietary changes in particular. This is another area where Pilates and the Primal/Paleo camp don’t appear to have much in common, yet I’m inclined to argue that, had Pilates been alive now, he would have had a lot to say about nutrition. The so-called ‘Green Revolution’ was most pronounced in the years immediately after Pilates’ death (the term was first used in 1968, Pilates died in 1967). This went hand in hand with the acceleration of industrial food processing (a somewhat depressing timeline can be viewed here), leading us to the current situation in which we can make a choice when shopping, if we wish, to buy food, or food products. Inevitably, the massive advertising budgets are behind food products, rather than real food. I believe that Pilates, on the basis of much that he wrote to do with mankind in his/her natural state, would have abhorred the state of general nutrition these days, and would have been urging his clients to follow a dietary regime that looked a lot like Primal/Paleo eating.
In essence Pilates was a celebrator of the wonders of the human organism, and a proponent of living in a way that optimised the health and fitness of said organism. This seems to me to be exactly aligned with the more recently developed Primal/Paleo philosophy, which has more reference to evolutionary biology (and scientific studies), but the same underlying promotion of physical health and longevity.