Archives For Frank Forencich

Are You Human?

March 4, 2016 — Leave a comment
Still from 'The Brain That Wouldn't Die', 1962.

Still from ‘The Brain That Wouldn’t Die’, 1962.

I’ve had conflicted feelings about civilisation for a few years – I enjoy the products of both agricultural and industrial civilisation as much as anyone AND I recognise that human civilisation has exacted a terrible price both on us and all the other species of flora and fauna on the planet. (It’s hard to read ‘Endgame’ by Derrick Jensen and stay blind to the negatives.)

There are a few fundamental factors that have driven our evolution as humans, including avoiding predators (see ‘Sculpted by Cats‘ by Frank Forencich – and buy the whole book, it’s great), finding food, managing environmental conditions, and gravity. Basically, moving about, and managing external loads and forces (thank you Katy Bowman).

I mention gravity in particular because it would appear, based on listening to an episode of the Tim Ferriss show recently, it appears that some smart people, from Stephen Hawking to Jeff Bezos, believe that the future of humanity will not be on the Earth alone. Not only will it not be on the Earth but that it would be most sensible to get away from gravity all together, so that human life would continue on space stations rather than on planets. Perhaps, like me, you find your internal alarm bells sounding at this – “What about bone density?”, “What about muscle mass?”. Further listening/research suggests that this might be a narrow view of the future of humans. Maybe the future doesn’t involve physical bodies at all. I love how science-fiction this becomes, because I like how sci-fi’s so often questions the nature of existence. Could it be that the future of humanity is as the gravity manipulating “intelligence” in ‘Interstellar’, who don’t appear to have a physical presence. It must be amazing to work in fields where this kind of thing is being contemplated.

Fascinating as this is, we remain physical beings for the moment, and at least for our lifetimes, shaped by our evolution and the factors mentioned before. Our physicality is central to our existence, and to our health. If you’re not utilising and enjoying your physicality it’s as if you’re preparing for this non-physical future that, if it comes, may be centuries or millennia away.

 

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Who Is Your Teacher?

November 2, 2014 — 4 Comments

or The Trouble With Virtual,
or even I’m So Lucky

I really enjoy the opportunity to have dialogue with people that I have never met (and may never meet) that Facebook affords. The streamed classes that services like Pilates on Demand, Pilates Anytime and Pilatesology are a fantastic resource for students and teachers alike, too.

I’ve also read what both Frank Forencich and Mark Sisson have to say about the kind of social groupings that we have evolved to flourish within. I’m sure they are just two of many people commenting on the very novel (and who knows how ‘harmful’) phenomenon of superficial connection with hundreds, even thousands of people, rather than a ‘tribe’ of maybe 20-30 with whom we have a face to face and more intimate connection. Still, if you are able to have both then there are many potential advantages to a broad scope of opinion and experience that something like a Facebook group can offer.

The reason that I consider myself to be very lucky is that I live with one of the best teachers that I’ve ever encountered, with both a broader movement background, and many more years of practice than me. In other words, I always have a teacher on hand – someone who will give me feedback about both my own practice and my teaching, and whom I can go to for advice.

One of the drawbacks of the kind of qualification (in the UK) that will sanction someone to teach Pilates in health clubs and local authority facilities is that it can be gained without having a teacher yourself. I have met a teacher with this qualification who had never been to a Pilates class – all her own practice had been done following a DVD or online class. I imagine this will seem utterly bizarre to the majority of teachers reading this, and yet I suspect that, once qualified, it’s not so hard to get into a similar situation. Classes cost money, and take up time that you could be using to earn money – it’s an easy trap to fall into. Would anyone disagree that we all need a teacher (or teachers)? That there is any substitute for having someone in the room with you, watching you move, using the x-Ray vision that Pilates teachers (perhaps all teachers of movement) seem to develop? In fact, isn’t it essential to have a ‘live’, present teacher in order to develop those kind of skills?

Again, it’s an amazing resource, to be able to post a question in an international forum on Facebook, and to get feedback from teachers around the world with hundreds of years of experience between them. Truly this is one of the great benefits of the Internet. Then, sometimes, a question appears that makes me think ‘this is a question for your teacher’, hinting at the possibility that this person doesn’t have a teacher. If I wasn’t married to a teacher this might be me, and in writing this I’m reminded that I could be spreading my own net wider. Will I be more successful as a teacher if I don’t develop? Will I really develop as a teacher, if I don’t have one myself? So having a teacher isn’t expensive, it’s an essential investment.

Image from Disney's "Wall-E"

Image from Disney’s “Wall-E”

I’ll be the first to acknowledge, if I haven’t on this platform already, that I tend to like research that reinforces my beliefs, and to dismiss that which does not. I know that correlation does not equal causation, yet correlation can still be attractive if it seems to hint that a belief may really be the truth.

It’s always been easy to dismiss studies (I’m referring to studies on humans) whose results I might find inconvenient, because it’s so difficult to account for every variable in any human study, be it lifestyle, gender, size, weight, ethnicity etc. Then we have to consider the possible bias of the researchers, and possible massaging of the results to fit the desired outcome. So, ‘The China Study‘ may appear to show a correlation between plant based diets and reduced mortality rates, but it certainly does not provide proof of any such thing. It seems that, in general, interesting correlations are the best information that we can hope for from human studies.

I’ve recently had a debate, of sorts, via the comments section of a previous post, on ‘neutral spine’ in Pilates exercises, and the relevance, or not, of Stuart McGill’s research into low back disorders. Earlier this year I heard Ido Portal being summarily dismissive of this and other research, into diet for example, as having been conducted on ‘Homer Simpsons’. In other words, if the research subjects do not have a similar lifestyle or diet to his (and have not had for years), then what relevance would it have to him? Subsequently, I heard the excellent Katy Bowman articulating a similar position, in a little more detail.

Just as Erwan LeCorre refers to “zoo humans”, Katy describes us as humans “in captivity”. In effect, post-industrial lifestyles have made us captives of our own inventions. The comforts that have become so normal as to be invisible have robbed our bodies of the inputs that many thousands of years of evolution led them to expect. Many of us have feet that have not touched real ground in years, except through the (desensitising) cushioning of shoes. Frank Forencich wrote an essay that I particularly like, called “Sculpted by cats”. He writes of a time when big cats were far more widespread than they are now, and preying on our ancestors. Thus, those ancestors’ behaviour was in part dictated by sharing the land with their predators, and evolving particular traits or skills as a consequence. As Katy explains, we are now “sculpted by chairs” instead.

Nutrition inputs for most of us have changed almost beyond recognition from those that evolution led our bodies to expect. Simply, we don’t live, or eat in the way that humans have for millennia – we are almost a new species – homo sedentarien? Homo diseasus?. If you have seen ‘Wall-E’ you’ve seen this species depicted.
If you’re interested in being a Homo sapiens, and not being some sort of post-industrial, corrupted-by-comfort variant, then does research conducted on subjects that aren’t like you have much relevance to you? If you move and eat in a way that nourishes your whole body, if you avoid ‘foods’ that promote inflammation, will it fall apart on you? Do you need to be concerned that, like an IKEA kitchen drawer, your joints have a finite number of movements in them (dictated by your genetics, perhaps) before degeneration? Can science tell you much about how to live, eat, play or work if it’s looking in the wrong direction?

 

Epilogue

This post is really an acknowledgement of some of the ‘giants’ upon whose shoulders I endeavour to stand, to optimise my current world view:

Frank Forencich

Ido Portal

Katy Bowman

My Primal moment

August 21, 2013 — Leave a comment

The story that follows is nothing compared to the stories of hundreds of thousands of people who have experienced danger, disaster, war etc. That said, it felt like I learned something useful about myself, and it also felt as though it justified the changes I’ve made to my lifestyle in the last couple of years.

Here goes:

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The view, on a good day…

I was recently on holiday in Southern France with my wife’s family. We were staying in a house that is about 350m above sea level, on the side of a hill (mountain?) that is 1050m above sea level. There’s a rough but easy to follow path from the house to the peak, and 3 of us set off to the top one afternoon.

Clouds had been building up, and after only 5 minutes or so we could hear a sound like a strong wind through the trees, that turned out to be a wall of monsoon-like rain coming toward us. Prudently we turned back, but set off once again after the rain had passed, only 10 minutes or so later.

Around the point that we had previously turned back, all 3 of us wearing shoes, shorts and nothing else, passed a family coming down the path, wrapped up in waterproof jackets and looking miserable. I’d be lying if I said we didn’t feel amused by the contrast between our party and theirs, though that was tempered by discovering some of the hailstones that had fallen earlier, probably on that poor family.

IMG_1399

My brother-in-law has spent many summers exploring the area so, when he suggested deviating from the main path to make a more circular than out-and-back journey, we had no doubts about the idea. This is a beautiful part of the world, there are stunning views to admire, and on this morning there was the chance to see the impact of heavy rain on the landscape, some paths still being mini rivers.

Around the time that the sky was turning particularly blue-grey, it was acknowledged that we had missed our uphill path, though on the hillside what appears to be a path can quickly disappear into the undergrowth. The solution was to simply head upwards, negotiating the vegetation in the way. So far, so undramatic. When the rain started we experimented with sheltering under trees and scrutinising the pallor and movement of the clouds, confident of a break in the rain. It didn’t come, so we decided that being on the move was better, and carried on uphill. It had already crossed my mind that I wasn’t feeling the need to hold F (my brother-in-law) responsible for our predicament -weird.

It seems counterintuitive but the vegetation became denser the higher we got, and the way (not path – definitely no path) got steeper. Did I mention the rain was unrelenting? So the purchase on mud/stones/roots was increasingly tricky. I’d had my favourite eggs, bacon and avocado breakfast, and was feeling energetic and strong. P, the youngest of our party, is what I might (in a judgemental moment) call a ‘sugar-burner’ – bread and jam for breakfast. He’s young, and was raised that way, so the choices he makes are more habit than real choice. Anyway, P was beginning to shiver, and the novelty of our situation had evidently worn off. (I later discovered that, in the conditions, his shoes were disintegrating from the inside out, so his crappy breakfast may not have been entirely to blame for his mood).

F was regularly assuring us that we were nearing the top so, of course, it felt as though we weren’t. Amazingly, the rain became more intense and we decided to try to shelter again. This was when I had my ‘epiphany’. Squatting under a tree, with hail cutting through the leaves of our ‘shelter’, and with rain water running into parts of my body that even a shower won’t always get to, I was amazed at how I felt. Again, I wasn’t blaming anyone else, and in years gone by I know I would have been angry with F for leading us to this point. I was reminded of scenes from ‘Platoon’ when the grunts are sitting in the jungle drenched under the incessant rain (yes, I do know that we were in no danger of being shot at). I wasn’t cold (daily cold showers paying off?), instead feeling incredibly resilient. I was a bit concerned about P, whose shivering was intensifying, but at the same time I knew that I was strong enough to carry him to safety if I had to. Our situation was ludicrous and, again to my surprise, I wasn’t at all dispirited.

Deciding once more that we were better off on the move we set off for the ridge, where the vegetation disappears. There is a track running the length of the ridge which was a river a few inches deep at this point. Our way back meant following the track a little more up hill before meeting the path back down to the house. We jogged our way to the top of that path, and then sped up on the descent. Now the rain eased. The path is rough, alternating from stones to gravel, clay to chalk, and with roots here and there to add spice. Once running it was hard to stop, and I have rarely felt as invigorated as I did then – concentrating hard on each footing and feeling agile and powerful. Some 4 hours after we set off we arrived back at the house with, for me at least, a feeling of triumph.

Again, I’m well aware that this isn’t a tale that involves much peril, or endurance, and we all came out of the experience unscathed. Nonetheless, it felt to me that 2 years of ‘primal lifestyle’ had made me better able to cope with adversity. I’m better nourished; stronger; more resilient; my immune system is stronger; and, perhaps most importantly, I’m aware of how empowering it is to, instead of blaming someone else, own responsibility for my actions and any resulting predicament.

Thanks for reading.

Older is not better

May 31, 2013 — 2 Comments

There was a report in the news last week relating to research into the safest place for a baby to sleep. According to the researcher I heard interviewed, the conclusion of the study was that the safest place for a baby to sleep is ‘in it’s own environment’. This struck me as rather curious, since I’d also read recently about the almost constant contact that babies in indigenous cultures enjoy with one or other of their parents.

A couple of days later I was talking to a pregnant woman, and mentioned this, at which point she said “Older is not necessarily better”, and went on to point out that in the past many more babies died than currently do. (This is a favourite theme for anyone rejecting an ancestral model for lifestyle choices. That or, ‘no-one lived past 40’…) It wasn’t the time to be pursuing that debate, but I cycled home musing on it that night.

It’s certainly true that because humans have done something for a long time it does not follow that it’s true. There are many examples of horrific practices that, happily, we have left behind us. I’m also aware that it’s rather easy to romanticise a, perhaps, simpler time, or a simpler life. (Years ago I was on holiday with friends, one of whom was from a farming background, and with far more working class sensibilities than I can pretend to have. We were on the island of Tobago, and I was very taken with the lifestyle of the fishermen in the village that we were staying in. They positively glowed with health, and whilst they obviously had to work hard, they seemed to be quite well rewarded. I was attracted to what seemed to be a very ‘natural’ and healthy life, with a straightforward effort/reward equation, and incurred the disgust of my friend for my privileged ignorance of the realities of hard work/hand-to-mouth existence.)

So, acknowledging that I may be wearing my rose tinted specs, I’m still fascinated by the idea that populations with less of the trappings of western civilization might enjoy a closer connection to their environment than we generally do. And this connection imparts a kind of wisdom that we turned our backs on many decades ago. This is a subject that many writers seem to be delving into at the moment – Mark Sisson’s “Primal Connection” is directly related to this, and it’s a theme that Frank Forencich regularly writes about. Doubtless there are many more. Perhaps people that live in closer contact with their environment make choices for the health of their environment, rather than ease of living, as ‘civilisation’ and the industrial revolution have allowed us to do for the last century and a bit. If you know that your food and shelter is dependent on maintaining something of a symbiotic relationship between yourself and your surroundings then you are highly likely to behave in a way that preserves that relationship. The chances are that this way of living has been ingrained for centuries, so that it is interwoven with your learning, play and life in general as you grow. In other words, perhaps it’s unconscious – you know what’s important without knowing that you know. Again, this is my rose-tinted perception, reinforced by wonderful books like ‘Wild‘ by Jay Griffiths.

In contrast, industrialisation and technology have allowed us to disconnect from the natural world more and more. (Aside from the practical implications, there is a rich vein of research into how this impacts our mental/emotional state). I’m certainly not about to give up a home with central heating, but I can believe that some time amongst trees and plants nourishes me in ways that food cannot.

Perhaps as the basis of postmodern theory (which I understand, highly simplistically, to be something like; ‘reality has been replaced by symbols and simulations of reality’ – apologies to Baudrillard if I’m way off the mark) we seem to have become very good at identifying problems that we have created for ourselves through technological advances, and remedied them with more ‘technology’. MBT shoes seem to be the perfect illustration of this idea – We recognise that there’s a problem with shoes, and pavements, flat ground etc. So instead of removing our shoes, and trying to spend more time with our feet on a more natural surface, we develop shoes that move us further away from true connection to the ground, whilst trying to represent that connection. Duh.

How about ‘ergonomic’ chairs? We recognise that sitting at a desk in front of a computer screen, controlling a mouse, and typing isn’t working out to well for us. No surprises there – we’re not ‘built’ for sitting for long periods, the load on our spines increases two-fold when we go from standing to sitting. The solution is, of course, to design a chair that makes us ‘better’ at sitting. One that actually requires less muscular connection in order to remain in the same dysfuntional position.

We no longer have the innate sense that should tell us that sitting for hours at a time is a bad idea. It reminds me of a conversation I had years ago with a martial arts enthusiast (and osteopath). His theory was that Pilates is essentially the same practice as yoga, tai chi, karate, kung-fu, kendo etc., but modified for a Western sensibility. One of the crucial differences is that, in the countries from which those other movement practices originate, children would be practicing them form a young age – repeating movements over and over again. By the time that they were old enough to question why they were going through these movement patterns, they had no need to ask the question because their body had learned the answer through the action. His argument went on that people doing Pilates often need to ask, or understand intellectually why they are doing particular exercises because they have not had the opportunity to develop that innate ‘body intelligence’.

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Could this be the perfect squat?
Sorry, can’t find who to credit for this image….

A brief search on YouTube will quickly elicit plenty of video clips of toddlers doing ‘perfect’ squats, deadlifts etc. – the evidence seems fairly clear that we ‘know’ how to move well at a very young age, or at least that moving well is woven into our early development. Things seem to go wrong around the time that we start to put children in shoes, and make them sit for prolonged periods of time. Shoes and chairs are simple examples of technological advances that are creating problems for us, far beyond what surely could have been imagined when they were first conceived. Just as ‘older isn’t better’, newer is not better either. More importantly, increasing the disconnect between ourselves and our environment is a recipe for newer, perhaps more complicated problems (I’m envisioning later scenes in the excellent Pixar animated film ‘Wall-E” – if you don’t know what I’m referring to, please put this blog post down immediately and remedy the situation – I guarantee it’s way more entertaining).

So older is not necessarily better, but wisdom might trump technology. Returning to the subject that I started with, of baby’s safest sleeping place, isn’t it strange to think that a baby should have its own environment, that is separate from that of its parents? Does that occur in any other species of mammal? Is this perhaps a sign of our fundamental loss of sensitivity to our surroundings, that an adult’s sleeping space is inherently dangerous to a baby? Or have we truly figured everything out better than any of our ancestors did?

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…