Perhaps this is a heretical question…. the importance of ‘good posture’ to health and well-being is so widely recognised that it is beyond question. Certainly, in the world of Pilates, it would seem to be doctrine. Jillian Hessel tells us that good posture is “essential to a healthy, well functioning body.” The good news is that Pilates apparently has a solution – Pilates For Posture’s website declares: “Evidence has shown Pilates to….improve posture…” (These are two examples out of many, and just happen to be near the top of my search results. See here, and here, for a couple more).
I accepted the importance of posture for years, as well as ‘postural optimisation’ being a reasonable goal for someone’s Pilates practice, and I was a little irritated by, for example, Todd Hargrove questioning links between posture and pain – why ask the question at all when we know that bad posture is bad for you? I started to be curious and question my own orthodoxy on this subject first when I noticed that people I was taking workshops with, in particular with MovNat and with Ido Portal, who were effortlessly wonderful movers, had (to my Pilates teacher, good posture obsessed eye) crappy resting positions. In other words, when they were relaxed, they were really relaxed, and clearly not trying to hold themselves well. To reiterate, when they wanted or needed to move they were graceful, supple and strong. When they didn’t need to move they did not seem to be controlling the form their body took.
Needs some postural training?
More recently someone I was training with said “posture is reflexive”, which really got me thinking. It ties in with ideas of energy efficiency that I gleaned from basic evolutionary biology – as a species we are ‘programmed’ to use as little energy as possible; and with an idea I got from Katy Bowman: no one is ‘out of shape’, we are all in the shape that our brain/body thinks is best for us, based on the environment and inputs (nutrition, movement etc etc) we receive. So ‘posture is reflexive’ means that at any given moment your brain will organise your body according to the best (most energy efficient) strategy that it has available, based on the information it has received. You can consciously organise your posture, until your brain is occupied with something else – if your job is to sit or stand up straight that’s great, but if your life requires you to do anything else then postural organisation will quickly take a back seat. To say that your posture is a determinant of your health is putting the cart before the horse – your posture is a manifestation of your health, and ‘fixing’ your posture, however fleeting that might be, will not fix your health.
Problematic postures are only problematic when they indicate poor movement strategies. If someone’s default standing position is a swayback, and they have ‘glute amnesia’, the solution will be to teach them to move, not to teach them to stand. If someone’s sitting position appears to be causing them problems with their neck, shoulders, back, digestion, breathing etc. the solution won’t lie in teaching them to be better at sitting (just as a more ‘ergonomic’ chair won’t help), but might lie in helping them to sit less and move more. I understand, too, that someone’s posture can be a product of their emotional state. In this situation teaching posture doesn’t present a solution, and teaching movement actually might.
Assessing someone’s standing posture may be useful in terms of having quick/simple clues as to what kind of movement they have the most urgent need for, and perhaps there’s a movement assessment that will serve the same purpose, or do better. Beyond that, is there any point in teaching someone how to stand, or sit?
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….