Archives For Fitness & Primal lifestyle

“No Days Off”

February 15, 2013 — Leave a comment

A couple of weeks back PilatesTree.com asked via Facebook “how much self practice do you really put in?”. It’s a really interesting question to ask professional Pilates teachers, not least because we so often seem to prioritise teaching over working on ourselves. When I first started teaching I used to “do” the class that I was teaching, and it took me a while to realise that this was a really good way to develop some bad habits (never mind that my mat was not the optimum place to be teaching from all the time..).

I’ve struggled for some time with conflicting ideas around Pilates teachers’ responsibility to be aspirational figures (see ‘What should a Pilates teacher look like?‘) and, of course, what we do should be more important than how we look. If we finish teaching a class and then adopt a collapsed posture we’re doing a lousy job of reinforcing what we teach. “Do as I say, not as I do” is rarely a powerful teaching message.

One of the consistent messages of primal/paleo lifestyle authors, and indeed Kelly Starrett, my movement sensei, is that it is our responsibility as human beings to optimally express our genes – to be the best version of Homo sapiens that we possibly can be. This seems eminently reasonable to me, and also a great basis for a slightly different question from the one above: “How often should we be trying to be better?” or better yet – “How often should we be practicing being amazing?”

The answer, naturally, is ‘every day’. Hence, there are NO DAYS OFF. Practice making permanent = we become good at what we do often, which brings us back to the post-class slouching Pilates teacher. A state of fitness is not the result of a couple of hours per week of exercise. That may well form a part of fitness, but if we practice being great for 2 hours a week, and then the remaining 110 hours (assuming a generous 8 hours sleep per night) practicing being mediocre, or worse, we don’t need NASA to tell us what the outcome will be.

Typical view of living room floor (tissue paper is for the cats to play with).

Typical view of living room floor (tissue paper is for the cats to play with).

I was unusually reticent about answering the original question on PilatesTree….in part because I know that I can’t pretend to do anything resembling a Pilates class more than once a week. Preferring to answer my own question (“How often should we be practicing being amazing?”). As of this year, I do something in pursuit of being better as often as it crosses my mind, and this means at least every day. I don’t work out every day, but I try to practice something that I need to improve daily, whether that be a skill/movement, or mobility. I’m very lucky to be married to a woman who shares my passions/obsessions, and evenings in front of the TV usually involve one, or both of us rolling various body parts on sundry firm objects, or indulging in mutual ‘quad smashing’ (For a visual on how to do this to a massive weightlifter, or your loved one, click here, and remember: “Foam rolls are for children”).

Talk of my idiosyncratic home life may have me straying off the point. Here’s the thing: Yes, practice Pilates, yoga, boot camp, karate…whatever’s your poison (passion?), at least once per week AND practice being a better Homo sapiens every day. In the middle of a TV show I was watching the other night (I put my hand up here and acknowledge that I was making no effort to be better at the time), I heard the line “Clean water is a human right.” It sounded weird at the time – I think we’re often too quick to award ourselves rights (argh! Rabbit hole! Yes, ideally every living human should have access to clean water). Ethical quagmires aside, could we say that “an optimally functioning body is a basic human right”? I hope so, and if we’re agreed upon that, we have to remember that “with rights come responsibilities”.

We have the basic human responsibility to maintain our bodies in such a way that we are able to best express our genetic heritage.

In acknowledgement of the inspiration for this post, here’s Kelly Starrett. Not my favourite MobilityWOD video (and he no longer advocates icing) but maybe it can serve as a way in to the goldmine for you – he’s ALL about being better at EVERYTHING.

Adaptive Athletes

January 22, 2013 — Leave a comment

If I’m uninhibitedly honest, before last years Games, I used to view the Paralympics as a distinctly fringe event. Rather in the vein of “Ahh, that’s nice”, but of minimal personal interest.

Like many people, I suspect, last year was different, in that my family was making a point of watching many of the events on television (and trying to get tickets), learning the names of more athletes (no longer ‘Oscar Pistorious, and all the rest’), and becoming emotionally involved in many of the events.

A big part of what changed my perception of the Paralympics, was seeing GB track cyclist Jody Cundy’s reaction to his disqualification. You can see the full unedited version of what happened here, or the short version (all swearing, no back story) here. Suddenly I understood that, for the athletes involved, this was absolutely as serious as the Olympic Games is for anyone competing there, and that the level of training and commitment is at least equal. (I can only apologise for failing to grasp that previously).

Iliesa Delana clearing 1.74 metres (Courtesy of Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

Fiji’s Iliesa Delana clearing 1.74 metres
(Courtesy of Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

Over the ensuing days I was consistently awed, humbled, and moved by what I saw of the Paralympics. Some of the highlights for me were the men’s F42 high jump (for single, above-the-knee amputees), and the blind long jump (I can’t imagine many things more terrifying than sprinting and jumping into space blind). The fact that the relay runners with cerebral palsy are required to exchange the baton within the same distance as the ‘able-bodied’ athletes should have made some of the latter, who failed to get the baton round the track, feel distinctly inadequate.

In the following months, aside from the BBC’s ‘Sports Personality of the Year’ awards, paralympic sport seems to have drifted back out of the public consciousness, perhaps to be largely forgotten until 2016. Happily for me, the lustre of last year’s Paralympics, and my associated perception of ‘disability’ sport, has recently been restored by the video below.

The story of CrossFit Rubicon, in Virginia, both rekindled my esteem for ‘disabled’ athletes, and helped to reset my perspective, such that ‘disabled’ (finally) feels like un entirely inappropriate word. The owner of the gym makes it clear that the words ‘handicapped’ and ‘disabled’ are not acceptable within the gym, and he describes those athletes working out there, who may be without one, or more, limbs as ‘adaptive’. This seems like a wonderful way of acknowledging the obstacles that people may have had to overcome to be turning up at the gym to exercise, without bringing any negative connotations. I’ve always had an uneasy feeling about the name paralympics – the ‘para’ sounds to me like it refers to paraplegic, defined in Wikipedia as: “an impairment in motor or sensory function of the lower extremities”. The idea of impairment seems completely misplaced in relation to both the athletes from last year’s Games, and the men and women at CF Rubicon.

So how’s this for an idea? The Adaptive Olympic Games, instead of Paralympic Games. I think that labels are often useful for clear communication, and find that many of the attempts in the last few decades to ‘reclassify’ things with less pejorative, or stigmatising language  serve mostly to make communication less clear. ‘Adaptive’ seems to admirably walk the line between clarity, and a description that doesn’t suggest ‘less than normal’.

The video’s not short (27 minutes) but deserves the “heart-warming”, “life-affirming”, “uplifting” cliches of many a Hollywood film poster. If you watch, I defy you to be unmoved by the spirit of these adaptive athletes.

Videos from Channel 4, and http://www.journal.crossfit.com

There’s not enough THRUSTING

In a recent conversation with a personal trainer, he made the observation that the components of functional training are: “pushing, pulling, lunging, squatting and twisting”. Similarly, Mark Sisson refers to PEMs (Primal Essential Movements): Squats, Pull-ups, Push-ups & Planks.

A search of the web for components of functional exercise offers up the following “4 Pillars of Human Movement” (coined by ‘fitness maverick’, JC Santana): Standing and locomotion; Level changes in the body’s centre of mass (e.g.. squats, lunges etc.); Pushing & Pulling; Rotation.

Dr. Richard A. Schmidt (author of various books on motor control and learning) defined the six basic human movements as: squat, bend (deadlift), lunge, push, pull and twist.

CrossFit’s Training Guide describes Functional movements as those: “…that mimic motor recruitment patterns that are found in everyday life….Squatting is standing from a seated position; deadlifting is picking any object off the ground.”

You’re probably getting the gyst, and may be wondering what this has to do with Pilates. Well, Pilates is about teaching movement, and hopefully we can all agree that it’s a much better idea to be teaching functional movement over non-functional (isolation) movements.

One of the common themes to these lists is the presence of hip extension, which the CrossFit Training Guide (yes, I’m preparing for my Level 1 certification…) describes as”..the foundation of all good human movement” adding: “..without powerful, controlled hip extension you are not functioning anywhere near your potential.” Perhaps as a result of what I’ve learned from regular sessions of CrossFit, I’ve become somewhat obsessed with hip extension, and aware that the great majority of people that I see, both in classes and in the street, seem to be lacking ‘normal’ hip function.

Surely this is where Pilates should be coming in, and spanking everyone into good function? There’s lots of hip extension in Pilates, certainly when it comes to the equipment repertoire, (not so much in the mat work), so what am I on about? Here’s the thing – we typically approach hip extension, in Pilates, from a static trunk position. Take leg springs lying supine, or feet in straps on the reformer – both great exercises for teaching people how to move at their hip joint without compensating with their spine – but not allowing full hip extension. This doesn’t teach us that much about being upright. In addition, legs move in relation to the trunk, and there is very little Pilates repertoire that requires us to extend our hip joints by doing the opposite (trunk moving in relation to legs, or both moving simultaneously).

It’s been amazing to me to discover, both in myself and other Pilates teachers, how common the inability to dynamically extend the hips seems to be. When I was first asked, from a standing position, to flex at my hips and my knees, keeping my trunk stiff (something like the appropriate position from which to pick an object up from the ground), and then extend at my knees and hips to return to vertical, I couldn’t seem to do it without adding in some kind of spinal articulation. The short version of that rather wordy sentence is: ‘ I couldn’t thrust my hips’. Wanting to consider myself moderately virile, that’s a pretty humiliating discovery.

One of the things that I consider it my job, as a Pilates teacher, to convey to the people I’m teaching, is how to avoid substituting moving with their spines for moving in their hips – yet there I was, incapable of avoiding that substitution, when asked to do an unfamiliar hip movement. This is the crux – do we, or does Pilates, do a good job of teaching people to effectively use their hip extensors when they’re not lying down?

It’s not as if there’s an absence of standing work in the studio (again, mat work is a different story), and maybe I just don’t teach enough of that repertoire – though there’s a lot more squatting and lunging involved in my classes than there used to be. Working from the basic premise that spinal articulation exercises are only to promote flexibility (thus facilitating stability), I wonder if we don’t tend to overemphasise articulating the spine, at the expense of efficient, powerful hip extension. You may argue that powerful hip extension (‘PHE’, from now on) isn’t a part of optimal posture, but I’m willing to bet that someone that has the facility for PHE has a reasonable alignment of their pelvis on the top of their legs. I was tempted to insert pictures at this stage, but it feels too objectifying. Suffice it to say that I was watching a promotional video (from a very well-known manufacturer of Pilates equipment) for a new piece of equipment. The model, who in fairness may not be a Pilates practitioner (though I know of a number of Pilates teachers whose shape is similar), had a pronounced angle at the front of her hips in standing, that speaks to me of lack of hip extensor activity – again, this feels like a common sight to me – generally more noticeable amongst women, but that may simply be down to clothing. In contrast, the elite female CrossFitters seem not to exhibit the same posture, but are ‘flatter’ through the front of their hips. Typical CrossFit movements: dead-lifting, squatting, kettle-bell swings, even gymnastic movements at speed like pull-ups and rope climbs, are dominated by PHE.

Could it be that we could help more people improve their hip function overall, and their posture specifically, by incorporating more standing (& lying) PHE?

For suggestions on how to achieve this (without doing CrossFit) please look out for a forthcoming project, that aims to help make Pilates easier, simpler, and possibly, dare I say it, more effective. Readers of this blog will be the first to know about it.

Rushing toward the end of the year (and having successfully negotiated the projected end of the world, unscathed) I’m probably not alone in contemplating resolutions for the next year. I’ve already made a commitment to be a ‘dryathlete’ for January –  no, NOT triathlete, my days of indulging in daft endurance challenges are behind me – the Dryathlon is a brilliant fundraising wheeze for Cancer Research UK, and will fit in nicely with my Whole30 plan.

I feel confident that I can go without alcohol for a month – I’ve done it before, just as I’ve done a Whole30 before (No: dairy, sugar, grains, legumes, alcohol. Yes: meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds – hell yeah!), these are not radical changes, and don’t represent a significant challenge.

There are plenty of other instances when I’ve found myself not doing something that might represent positive change, and I’m trying now to evaluate my reasons. I notice immediately, casting my eye back over the previous sentence, that I ‘found’ myself not doing something – how’s that for disowning behaviour? On the whole, I’m not referring to very significant life changes, or behavioural changes, but rather the small things that might make a difference to a single day, and accumulate over time into more substantial benefit. For example, if I practiced skipping every day (I’m really crap at skipping – do not ask me to do a double under yet) I’m sure that I would get better at it relatively quickly. I do practice from time to time but, if it crosses my mind to do so, my usual gut reaction to that ‘practice-skipping’ thought is, at best “tomorrow”, and at worst “f**k it, I’m not in the mood”. There you are: compelling reasons not to be better… Why is it that those negatives seem so powerful? Perhaps it’s just me, and I’m inherently lazy. Yet, even as I write that, my mind is compiling a long list of evidence to support the case for my not being lazy, and I can’t accept that notion.

Along with the evidence from my own teaching practice, I hear plenty of tales from the coach that I see regularly of clients that are resistant to making small changes to their lives – small changes that might have a large effect. It appears, too, that the great majority of people who seek treatment of a specific problem from a physiotherapist or other health practitioner do not do the exercises they’re given as homework. I’ve come across this phenomenon so many times that the people that do their home exercises take me by surprise. Often, on suggesting dietary changes to someone with a chronic condition, or body composition goals, I’ve seen the mental shutters come firmly down. I’ve tried to give up on making such suggestions, as nutrition seems to be as contentious a subject as politics or religion, (but I still wonder… does anyone truly believe that they may become malnourished if they don’t eat bread for a few weeks?)

I’ve strayed a little bit from the point – who am I to say that dietary changes would necessarily be positive? I don’t limit myself to failing to engage in physical challenges that would be good for me. How often have I travelled on public transport, with the option of either reading something, or playing some stupid game on my ‘smart’ phone, and chosen option B? I’ve not read any books of the “7 habits of highly successful…” ilk, but if I did perhaps I’d learn that one of them is that, faced with that internal “shall I make the small effort required to do X, or not bother?” dialogue, really successful people will typically make that little extra effort. It may well not be my destiny to be really successful, so I’m not going to worry about that, but I am resolving to make the negligible effort to do something useful with my available time, rather than taking the pointless option. It seems like such a simple thing, yet I know it will be a hard resolution to keep. I just need to hold fast to the truth that there are no compelling reasons not to make positive changes, or to take positive actions: “later”, “f**k it”, “tomorrow”, “I can’t be bothered” certainly will not qualify. As Frank Forencich writes in ‘Change Your Body, Change The World‘: “When it comes to making substantive changes to minds, bodies or lives, easy doesn’t work. Easy doesn’t transform….Easy doesn’t save time; easy is a waste of time.”

The thing with new year’s resolutions is that they always seem to be finite, like my dryathlon will be. The real challenge, then, is to make avoiding the easy path into a life strategy, rather than a new year’s resolution.

where-the-magic-happensImage courtesy of blog.unstash.com

One doesn’t have to search very long on the web to find critiques of CrossFit, there are many, and many of them valid. This seems to be largely down to the fact that it allows (fosters, perhaps) an obsession with the number of ‘reps’, or the time taken to do the workout, over practicing good technique. In essence, the idea of learning skills and then challenging one’s ability to remain skilful under duress is a really interesting idea. If you read any of the CrossFit training literature the same message is frequently repeated – form is everything. There is not an official edict that says “Finish the workout at all costs, never mind your technique”. Unfortunately, this point seems to have been missed by a number of certified coaches who fail to scale workouts appropriately for different people, and fail to teach the imperative of proper technique. CrossFit then earns a reputation for being dangerous, and causing injuries.

I will agree with anyone who suggests that becoming a certified CrossFit coach should be a little harder, but the arguments against Crossfit based on poor coaching are the same as the Daily Mail “How pilates can make your bad back worse..” type articles. Once you get passed the eyebrow-raising headline, the article essentially says ‘if you have a poor teacher, things may not work out too well’. As another blogger (whom I’m afraid I cannot credit, sorry) put it: “Crossfit is not dangerous. Bad coaching is dangerous. Poor movement is dangerous. Ego is dangerous.”

Enough about the problems with/for CrossFit (‘CF’ hereafter). This is about why I love it.

Maybe teaching Pilates for as long as I have (coming up to 10 years) had made me slightly jaded. The pressures of running a business during one of the longest recessions of my lifetime might have played a part too. Before I discovered CF I was still a firm believer in the possibilities of Pilates to work, something like magic, in transforming the lives of people with chronic pain, and other physical challenges, but I had fallen out of love with Pilates, a little. (That may also have something to do with my perception of the dominant trend away from building strength and fostering empowerment in UK Pilates teaching). In stumbling upon CF, and recognising their common threads, I’ve rediscovered my original zest for Pilates.

Aside from the philosophical similarities with Pilates that I referred to here, CF consistently teaches me about myself, in a way that no other discipline or type of exercise has. I’ve run marathons in the past, and done long training runs as part of the preparation, and I certainly found myself looking inward then. It’s probably true that I’ve suppressed some of the memories of what I may have seen. What I remember was the struggle to find a way to overcome physical fatigue, and some pain (and, to be fair, the stakes were high – nobody wants to train for 6 months to run a marathon, and then fail to finish). It also took a long time – both the activity, and the recovery. The soul-searching that I might do during a CF workout is different, and it’s a more humbling experience. On a number of occasions I’ve wanted to give up on finishing a workout, not because I was too physically tired to continue, but because my mind was telling me that I’d had enough. It was quite a surprise for me to discover that (with the motivation of, for instance, seeing my wife carry on when I wanted to stop) I’m capable of pushing myself beyond my previously perceived limits, which opens up a variety of new horizons.

There’s a camaraderie in doing CF workouts with others that I’ve never found in Pilates – perhaps because you’re more likely to be exploring the limits of your capacity. I’ve seen plenty of official marathon t-shirts with slogans that imply that being a marathon-finisher puts you in an elite group. Whilst the sentiment resonates with me, I also find it somewhat obnoxious. At the same time, there’s something about sharing the experience of a workout like Diane (Deadlift 225 lbs, Handstand push- ups, 21-15-9 reps, 3 rounds for time), especially doing it together, that forges connections. (CF is widely recognised for its community-building aspects).

Kristan Clever’s Diane at the 2012 CrossFit Games regionals

If you watched the video, there’s a clue to the humbling element of CF – not only is my ‘Diane-time’ about 10 times slower than the woman featured, it’s also slower than my wife’s (who of course has minimal interest in how long it took). It’s a curious feeling to set about something, believing myself to be bigger and, therefore, stronger, but to find that my wife is actually stronger than me. She’s a very accomplished Pilates teacher, and I admire her teaching a lot, but it doesn’t compare to the feeling of witnessing her steel herself, and push back the limits of her physical capability. For her too, more often than not, it seems that it is pushing past mental boundaries, that extends the physical ones. I’m finding it hard to adequately describe – there are moments at the end of a workout when, gasping for breath, I see deeper into myself than I have done during other physical pursuits. I wonder if it’s too much of a leap to suggest that it helps me make a connection to my primal self – the one that was born to run and hunt and struggle for survival…

Your Health

December 4, 2012 — Leave a comment

I heard recently that the NHS in the UK spent £8.6 billion on prescription drugs last year. Four of the top five most prescribed drugs are used to treat ‘lifestyle diseases’ – cardiovascular disease, diabetes etc. More recently I heard a news item about a suggestion that patients needing treatment for those kinds of illnesses should have to pay toward their treatment, on the basis that their condition is self inflicted.

All arguments about the practicalities of implementing such a system aside, why does it seem that many of us are willing to accept that ill health is inevitable, and beyond our control? There are plenty of scholarly books/articles written on the subject of ‘civilisation’ being our downfall as a species. The further we get from our origins as a species, the more prone we become to physical degeneration. The very things that make our lives easier are the things that make us more prone to sickness. As Frank Forencich writes (in ‘Change Your Body, Change The World‘): “by engineering our environment to take care of our every physical need and desire, we have simultaneously disempowered ourselves and bought disease upon our bodies.” (It’s perhaps worth noting part of his solution: “..we need to find creative and interesting ways to make our lives harder, in some cases much harder.”) Have our disconnection from our origins, our comforts, and medical interventions allowed us to believe that ill-health is somehow a natural state?

Since I began writing this, a few weeks ago, I’ve heard a few more snippets of information that have fed my thoughts on this subject. I heard a trailer for a radio programme concerning research conducted on animals, to investigate treatments for Alzheimers, diabetes, and obesity – estimated to cost the UK tax payer £35 billion/year. Separately, listening to episode 160 of The Paleo Solution podcast, I learned why ‘low GI’ foods are a hindrance to losing body fat. (It’s obvious really, and I should have figured it out before – our bodies need our blood sugar level to drop below certain levels in order to trigger the release of fat as an energy source. If you eat food that will specifically elevate your blood sugar level over a prolonged period you will be inhibiting your bodies ability to mobilise fat for energy).

The trailer for the above radio programme described scientists using their experiments on mice to find “treatments” for these diseases. Treatments that perhaps might be more effective than recommending diabetics eat low GI foods, one hopes…. But why ‘treatments’? It feels like an acceptance of the inevitability of these diseases to set about developing drugs (procedures, perhaps?) to treat them. If we don’t accept that our bodies have built in obsolescence, or that it’s ‘natural’ to become sick (please don’t!), then there has to be an alternative. How about honestly facing up to what behaviours lead to these problems, and giving people advice and support to change these behaviours – maybe then we’d find that it’s all the ‘treatment’ that is required.

Maybe everything comes back to money. There are so many vested interests in making us believe that we do not have control over our own bodies, and health – All those industries: the media; pharmaceuticals; food; ‘health food’ & supplements; fitness etc. This all adds up to a potent mix of misinformation, and contradictory information, that may well leave most of us with our heads spinning, or the impetus to bury them in the sand. In terms of diet alone – ‘fat is bad for you’; ‘carbohydrate makes you fat’; ‘saturated fat is very bad for you’; ‘red meat causes cancer’; ‘sugar is bad for you’; ‘reduce calories to lose weight’; ‘everything in moderation’; ‘calories don’t matter’ – not to mention all the miracle healing foods: cranberries, goji berries, acai etc. If you face serious struggles with body composition there is a minefield of advice in the media, of questionable value. And then in the supermarket: ‘fat free’; ‘no added sugar’; ‘low GI’; ‘high in fibre’; ‘heart-healthy’; ‘wholegrain’; ‘one of your 5 a day’ (funny that fruit and vegetables never get labeled with nutrition information… If you’re buying a packaged food item that makes this claim, I’d be deeply suspicious of its nutritional value).

This could become a tedious list very easily, so I’ll try to change tack. In short, the barrage of advice and consumer pressure all seems to add to a collective sense that we are somehow programmed to malfunction, and that the answer is either pharmaceuticals, surgery, or buying the right food product. This isn’t helped by government advice, both in the UK and the US, perhaps the rest of the developed world too, that is patently unsuccessful. How many people are following that advice and becoming fatter, or sicker? The lack of declining obesity rates should answer that.

In pursuit of an overall project of owning responsibility for our own health, along with remaining physically active (as I imagine you all are) – Pilates; lifting weights; walking; running; climbing; jumping, and all of that good stuff, here’s a challenge for you (I’ve just decided it’s called the “Don’t Play With My Food” challenge):

For the next 7 days only eat food that has not been packaged in plastic, tins, polystyrene or cardboard boxes (glass is allowed, as are cardboard trays for fruit, eggs etc.). The beauty of this is that you won’t need to look at ingredients lists, or nutrition information – you’ll be eating real food that doesn’t require labelling. Please let me know how you get on via the comments…

Primal 101

May 11, 2012 — Leave a comment

It turns out that at least one reader wants me to explain the Primal lifestyle more than I’ve succeeded in doing previously (and doesn’t want to read ‘The Primal Blueprint‘). So, aiming for brevity, here goes:

Eat meat, fish, eggs, lots of vegetables, and some fruit, nuts and seeds.

(Red wine and 85% chocolate if you wish).

Fuel your system with fat, instead of sugar.

Avoid grains – they’re pro-inflammatory, calorically dense and nutritionally poor and, in the case of wheat particularly, associated with a broad array of ailments (from skin rashes to schizophrenia…)

Avoid legumes (beans, pulses etc.) – also potentailly pro-inflammatory, and the gas that they have a repuatation for causing is a product of your body trying to cope with things we’re not made to digest.

Move about frequently, at a slow pace.

Avoid ‘cardio’ exercise of the hamster-in-its-wheel variety (treadmill, crosstrainer etc. for half an hour plus). It doesn’t serve any useful purpose.

Lift heavy things regularly – squatting, deadlifting, pressing etc. (ideally have someone competent teach you how to do this)

Sprint occasionally. (High intensity interval training).

Get plenty of sun exposure (without getting fried) – it’s great for your vitamin D levels, and vitamin D has a role in a variety of crucial functions.

Get plenty of sleep, ideally in a totally darkened room. If possible, wake up naturally.

Stay alert – be as attuned as possible to your environment (maybe avoid walking around texting, shutting out sound with MP3 player etc.) This is about avoiding silly mishaps/accidents.

Don’t hold other people responsible for your own well-being.

Learn new skills.

Play (have fun) – there’s plenty of research to show that playing is both a fundamental part of learning, and a means to keep stimulating brain activity as we age.

That’s about it….Easy.

PrimalCon 2012

April 28, 2012 — 2 Comments

With some REALLY nice people I met at PrimalCon

This post feels a bit like “What I did on my Summer holidays”, and PrimalCon may be of limited interest to anyone who isn’t a primal or paleo lifestyler. Nevertheless, my trip to California has had the effect of shifting my view of Pilates, and teaching, along with a variety of other plusses (and minor minuses) that may be worth a mention, and a couple of readers have encouraged me to write about it.

I decided to book a place for the event late last year, based on the expected presence of two particular presenters, Frank Forencich and Erwan Le Corre, both of whom I really wanted to work with, even if only for the brief period PrimalCon would allow. Talk about nutrition, exercise and rubbing shoulders with like-minded people would be an added bonus. At the same time, California is a long way to go for 3 days of convention, so I started looking for courses or workshops around that time that would help to justify the journey. I was aware of MobilityWOD from mentions on various blogs, and had filed the site in my head as ‘must look at later’. A one day ‘Crossfit Mobility Cert’ presented by the creator of MobilityWOD, Kelly Starrett, was the only opportunity for professional development in the LA area that my searches threw up, so I signed up. I had my misgivings about the Crossfit methodology so, while the course sounded interesting, I didn’t have very high expectations.

A few weeks before going to California I came to realise that I was hoping that PrimalCon would help me to figure out what it was that I had been seeking to augment my Pilates teaching. When I discovered that Frank Forencich would not be presenting after all I was heartily disappointed, but hopeful that Erwan Le Corre’s MovNat might prove to be the way forward for me (exercising in nature, in a functional way – terrific).

The day after I landed at LAX I was heading for Crossfit Balboa feeling slightly uneasy. For those of you unfamiliar with Crossfit there are plenty of videos on YouTube that will give you an idea of what it’s about. Suffice it to say that many practitioners are big, strong and gymnastically fit (some emphatically not, but there’s a separate story), and I was definitely feeling like the puny Pilates teacher. First revelation of the trip (no, I was relatively puny) was that Kelly Starrett is a brilliant presenter – engaging, funny, endlessly enthusiastic, dynamic, and apparently able to deliver a whole day of material without notes. The really exciting part for me was that, although he was speaking the language of strength and conditioning (squatting, deadlifting, pressing, pulling, handstand push-ups etc), he was often sounding a lot like Pilates. I’ve referred in the blog previously to revelations about the synergy between Pilates and S & C, but this was really underlining it for me, and making me understand some of Pilates writings/exercises better than I had done previously. Why didn’t Joseph Pilates teach reformer footwork with internal hip rotation? Was it because he hadn’t thought of it? No, I bet it’s because he understood that it’s a crap position in which to do footwork. Naturally I was delighted to discover that Kelly was also going to be presenting at PrimalCon on the following weekend.

So, the main event. I got to Oxnard, home of PrimalCon, on the Thursday evening, and duly made my way to the beach park for the informal gathering of participants, meeting, amongst others, a woman who competes in “fig-yur”. Turns out it’s a kind of non-bodybuilding physical exhibition sort of thing that doesn’t seem to have made it’s way across the Atlantic (small mercies etc.). As mentioned, the event was being held in a beach park, so it was a bit of a blow when, shortly after the 7.30am registration,  a rainstorm of biblical proportion settled over the town for the bulk of the day. No problem, we’re Primal, we love evolutionary theory because it explains everything we do, so we adapt to circumstances, and move into a ballroom in the neighbouring resort hotel.

First on the schedule for my group was Kelly Starrett, presenting, essentially, a small segment of the one day course I’d done previously. The jokes were still funny, and it was a welcome reminder of some of his key ideas – I hadn’t been able to write fast enough to get everything down on the previous weekend. I was also left with questions practically spilling out of my head – always a sign for me that I’m in a stimulating environment. Next up was the MovNat presentation – yes, that which I was pinning my future hopes on. Clearly, learning about a movement program that is based on the outdoors is somewhat diminished by being inside a hotel ballroom, and Erwan Le Corre appeared to be duly flustered and frustrated by the circumstances.  We got underway with him explaining some theory that was certainly interesting – ‘Becoming fit through the practice of efficient movement skills enables a physical and mental conditioning that is the most effective and applicable to all areas of life.’ – and then practicing a few drills: how to jump and land, for example. Around this point in the presentation someone asked if there were resources, such as videos on the MovNat website, that would help us to priorly practice these skills later. The answer: No. The follow-up question was naturally ‘How then can we practice this more?’ The answer: Do a one day or two day MovNat course. It’s worth mentioning at this point that Kelly Starrett’s motto is:

“All human beings should be able to perform
basic maintenance on themselves”

and his MobilityWOD website has in excess of 400 video clips, freely available, to show you a huge array of techniques/exercises to increase mobility/range of movement/movement efficiency etc. To be honest, having spent a lot of time trawling around the websites and blogs of the primal/paleo community, I’ve come to expect that people are sharing valuable information for free, because it appears to be the norm. Never mind what’s the norm, the brusque manner with which Le Corre dealt with people who were expressing an interest in learning more was disappointing. There was enough interesting material in the short time that we had for me to still be interested in the certification courses that he mentioned before the finish, so I took the opportunity to ask him for more information. His response was along the lines of: ‘It’ll be on the website”, before turning his back to me. Now, call me old fashioned if you wish, but if someone approaches me to tell me that they’re interested in Pilates, and would like to know about my studio/where I teach etc. my first reaction is going to be appreciation for the fact that they’re interested , and some enthusiasm for telling them more. Consequently I was starting to wonder if Erwan was someone I wanted to be giving thousands of dollars to….

The afternoon’s agenda started with Mark Sisson’s (author of ‘The Primal Blueprint’, and PrimalCon creator) keynote address. One to one, or in small groups, Sisson didn’t seem terribly comfortable, but standing in front of a large audience he was very impressive. He spoke mostly about nutrition (apparently without notes) in considerable detail, emphasising the benefits of being a ‘fat burner’ rather than a ‘sugar burner’ – decreased oxidative damage, greater cell longevity, decreased inflammation, improved insulin sensitivity etc. Perhaps most impressively, he fielded a number of questions, some of them quite complex (even multifaceted – bravo Ozgur) and managed to give detailed answers, sometimes slightly tangential, without losing track of what he was talking about. He has 15 years on me and his memory appears to be decidedly better than mine – maybe if I follow his lifestyle tenets for another 10 years or so it’ll improve…

There were plenty of other presentations – running technique, kitchen skills, weight-lifting and gymnastic skills, nutritional advice, etc. with a lot of time given over to ‘free choice’ – meaning that the various presenters were around and available for questions and discussion. This meant that mini-workshops spontaneously occurred around the beach park which probably constituted the most valuable part of the weekend. Inevitably, still full of questions, I gravitated toward Kelly Starrett most of that time, and he didn’t disappoint – seemingly always available and eager to talk about movement (and happily, a keen advocate of Pilates). In contrast, Mr MovNat was much less available, and I became certain that his work does not present my way forward. In that respect PrimalCon was a failure for me, because I’d been hopeful of leaving knowing that I would enrol on a training course that would help to develop my own work. On the other hand, I learned so much from the time I spent listening to Kelly (and having my calf/thigh/shoulder mashed) that it was huge success. Not to mention that, though my Pilates teaching has already changed a little, what I learned feels like a doorway to much much more that I can be excited about discovering. I’ve realised that learning what you don’t want can be as valuable as learning what you do want.

Making new friends, and developing what I’m doing professionally, along with reminders of some things that perhaps I knew but had let slip, and lots of sunshine made the whole trip worthwhile. If you have the will to keep reading there’ll be more to follow shortly on specifics in relation to Pilates.

Here’s a bonus for making it to the end of this post….

Why go Primal?

March 15, 2012 — 2 Comments

Around June 2011 a friend of mine (let’s call him Glen, since that’s his name, and he may often make an appearance on this blog) told me about a book that he was reading, ‘The Diet Delusion‘. It sounded interesting, so I bought it, and was amazed by what I read in the first few chapters.  I won’t go into details here, suffice it say that the author dismantles, with the help of an astonishing array of references, many of the ‘sacred cows’ of healthy eating that I had believed in for years (the book is pretty dense, for a summary you can watch this video).

Talking to Glen about what I’d been reading, he suggested looking at the website Mark’s Daily Apple. Discovering this site was the watershed for me, and before long the shelf above my desk looked like this:

‘The Primal Blueprint’ is the manifesto of Mark (‘s Daily Apple) Sissons, and became my guide to applying the information of “The Diet Delusion’ to my life. The blurb on the cover offers “…effortless weight loss, vibrant health, and boundless energy”, and Sissons is very clear that the Primal Blueprint concept is not a diet, but a lifestyle. Nutrition is a significant slice of the Primal pie, but exercise, sleep and sun also play a part.

I didn’t start reading either of these books thinking that I needed to lose weight, but I certainly knew that I ate more sugar than was good for me, and had had a nutritionist point out to me that my diet was dominated by wheat. My daily food might look something like: toast and jam for breakfast; pain au chocolat and perhaps a croissant too during the morning; sandwich, with fruit, and probably chocolate for lunch; muffin/brownie/chocolate coated peanuts and maybe more fruit afternoon snack; and pasta or pizza for dinner. On the whole I considered myself to be reasonably fit and healthy (on reflection I may be very lucky with my genes…) and I knew that cutting back on sugar was very difficult for me. The transformation in my eating began, as I learned about the role of carbohydrate in fat storage, with trying to increase my protein intake – opting for sausage and egg croissant instead of the pain au chocolat, for example.

The more I read (and one of the things I enjoy about the Primal/paleo community is how much information people offer for free), the more I started to believe that eating grains was a bad idea, and with that I found it surprisingly easy to cut back on my wheat consumption. The shift in my eating probably took four or five months, and was amazingly easy. At first it was very difficult to find ‘primal’ snacks when I was out of the house but as my eating changed more I discovered that I don’t need snacks – four to five hours without food is perfectly manageable if you’re not carbohydrate dependent. A year ago I could easily eat an entire bar of Green & Black’s creamy milk chocolate (36% fat, 50% carbohydrate) – I might have felt a bit sick afterwards, but that wouldn’t have stopped me. Now I find one square of milk chocolate a) doesn’t taste of chocolate at all and b) is so sweet I can hardly bear it. At the same time Lindt 90% cocoa dark chocolate (55% fat, 14% carbohydrate) tastes truly wonderful.

As I mentioned earlier, ‘The Primal Blueprint’ isn’t just a diet book, so what else is there?

These are the 10 Primal Blueprint Laws. Some may need a bit of elucidation: ‘avoid trauma’ in an earlier edition of the book was ‘avoid stupid mistakes’, and is essentially to do with being more conscious of one’s environment, so as not to get hurt; ‘avoid poisonous things’ largely refers to eating foods that contain anti-predation chemicals/elements that we’re not made to digest – these would include almost all grains and legumes (I’m not the ideal person to explain why – please click on the links for Sisson’s own explanation).

I’ve not done so well with the insect eating, lots of sleep is sometimes tricky (especially when living with an excitable kitten…), and I don’t play as much as I might, but on the whole it’s been a very positive experience trying to stick to them. In fact, the changes to the way I eat, and approach exercise have led to one of the biggest transformations of my life.

Pilates definitely had a hugely transformative effect on me – it freed me from 18 months or so of chronic pain, and opened the door to the first real career that I’d ever wanted (and I met my wife through Pilates). It’s inspired me to learn, and allowed me the chance to be a part of running a thriving business. Probably because of my nature, Pilates also allowed me to have a somewhat entrenched view of ‘proper’, or worthwhile exercise, and a limited perspective on physical health. (Let’s be clear, these are my shortcomings. Please see my earlier post for more thoughts about Pilates and health).

And how has the Primal lifestyle transformed me? I’ve lost body fat (I had no idea I stored so much fat in my legs…); I feel like I have more energy; I’m stronger; my eczema is a thing of the past; I don’t feel bloated after eating; I’m less gassy, and my digestion from (ahem) start to finish is generally better. The weightlifting appears to have made me more flexible, and has also made me work some muscles much more than I’d managed previously – I’d never felt my back extensors work like they have to when I squat properly. I’ve also learned that activities like weight lifting have more in common with Pilates than I might have imagined – the language and the application is different but you still have to work from your centre, and the load is supported from your centre.

Physical things aside, there are plenty of other benefits. I’ve discovered that I really enjoy cooking, and, better still, the pleasure of cooking for friends and family who appreciate the food. I’ve developed a relationship with some of the people that I buy food from, and get a surprising kick from the whole process of eating, from the buying of fresh ingredients to the preparation and cooking (no more ready meals in our house…). As well as taking up weight-lifting and other high intensity exercise, I’ve also been introduced to other approaches to exercise/movement like MovNat and Exuberant Animal (see ‘Useful Links’), that I’m really excited to be learning more about. My inspiration to learn is greater than it has been in a long time, and I’m optimistic that I will be able to offer more to my clients over the coming years as a result. I’ve been led toward quite diverse reading material that has helped me to reframe thoughts about a variety of subjects, and to be more considerate of how my actions effect my immediate environment, and the larger world.

In the same way that we try to encourage clients at our Pilates studio to feel responsible for their health and well-being, the primal lifestyle really  fosters personal responsibility  that, in turn, encourages a positive outlook. If I believe that I’m in charge of my health, and I’m making sensible choices to support it, then I can feel optimistic about remaining healthy, fit and strong as I get older.