When I was very young there was a radio programme called “Listen with Mother”. We didn’t have a television, and I listened to this nearly every day (with my Mum, of course). Without fail, the show began with “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.” (I’m not sure whether it’s a positive or a negative that this is etched in some recess of my brain).
These days, with the increasing number of studies suggesting that sitting is bad for us, it seems to be a particularly interesting question. The answer may well be “Hell, yes!” (“I’ve got this fantastic well stuffed, reclining, cocooning, i-pod docking super-sofa and I’m as comfortable as anyone ever has been.”) Of course sitting is comfortable, or certainly can be. And, it turns out, it shortens your life, makes you fat, possibly metabolically deranged, possibly pre-diabetic – never mind the possible reduction in range of hip movement.
However, I’d like to leave the bulk of the anti-sitting stuff aside, valid as it is. It seems to be getting a reasonable amount of attention. Instead, I’d like to concentrate on the “comfort” part of the equation. A little while ago I saw a Tweet from @NocturnalOutpos: “Our lust for comfort is the biggest thief in our lives…”, which resonated for me. I think there can be no doubt that the technological advances that have given us easier access to greater comfort have also weakened us as a species, or at the very least made us less resilient (Nassem Nicholas Taleb would say ‘more fragile’). (Back to) sitting = more hip dysfunction & back/knee problems, for example. Controlling every aspect of our living environment makes us less well able to cope with the unpredictable. Can we survive without electricity and telecommunications. Most end-of-the-world disaster movies that I’ve seen assume that we can’t (at the same population level).
Evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa writes: “All living organisms in nature, including humans, are evolutionarily designed to reproduce. Reproductive success is the ultimate end [goal] of all biological existence.” So, yes, having children is pretty much our reason for existing as a species. The hunter-gatherer existence of our pre-agricultural ancestors would have had its own pragmatic population controls. It is simply not practical to live that semi-nomadic life with lots of children tagging along, and the food supply would have been a limiting factor.
When the agricultural revolution came along things became more comfortable, in that it was possible to stay in the same place, procuring food was no longer everyone’s task, and food became more abundant (though less nutritious). Consequently it was possible for the human population to explode – all the natural population constraints of the HG existence were lifted. Terrific. As a result we now enjoy all the fruits of civilisation, both positive and negative. Negative in that our numbers, ingenuity and technology have allowed us to overcome or resist many of (what I perceive to be) Nature’s attempts to maintain some balance by keeping our numbers in check.
I’m writing this sitting in a cafe on a Saturday morning, as it fills up with people, especially families. It’s noticeable how many couples have several children, clearly born in relatively quick succession, and the part of me that is certain that there are already far too many of us on the planet can’t help inwardly asking ‘Why?’ Why are you having all these children? (In this instance ‘all these’ denoting more than two). And the answer that I come back to is, we are too comfortable. It’s too easy to procure food, shelter, water and energy, so we trick ourselves into thinking that what may be sustainable in at a local, insular level is equally sustainable for humanity as a whole.
On a less ‘end-of-the-world’ note, it’s common to talk of one’s ‘comfort zone’ these days. It’s not an unusual idea that we need to leave our comfort zone to make changes, or to achieve more. Being uncomfortable thus is the route to progress, perhaps success, or becoming stronger. And the inverse is true. Comfort makes us weaker. Comfort encourages stasis. Comfort anaesthetises.
I’ll still be sitting comfortably on the sofa for a while this evening, but more fool me if I do so for long.
Most people, if you stopped them in the street to talk about nutrition, would probably know that butter and saturated fat are bad for you. They may well also know that those fats will raise your cholesterol level, and that high cholesterol can kill people. They may well also have some ideas about what constitute healthy fats. After all, this information has been very well disseminated by governments, medical professionals, news media, and producers of healthy fat and cholesterol lowering products.
I know how easy it is to make butter. I made some once when I was overzealous in my cream-whipping, trying to impress someone. Margarine, or Benecol (“Benecol is a range of foods that contain a unique patented ingredient, Plant Stanol Ester, that is proven to lower cholesterol. Benecol is available in a variety of delicious products including yogurts, yogurt drinks and spreads.”) is a different story – I’ve no idea where to start, so I looked it up, and apparently making margarine goes something like this:
It appears that olive oil is also relatively simple to extract from an olive. Certainly the process is mechanised these days, but it’s easy to find instructions for the home enthusiast, requiring nothing more complicated than millstones… It’s also pretty easy to render lard – animal fat, heat, a pan, a jar and some cheesecloth are all that’s required.
Vegetable oil, or seed oil is, like margarine, a different story, as this video shows. In the US they call it ‘canola’, in the UK we call it ‘rapeseed’. (You may not fancy watching the whole thing. If you do, listen out for key words such as: ‘solvent’, ‘chemical extraction process’, ‘wash with sodium hydroxide’*, ‘bleach’. You’ll be glad too to hear that they deodorise the final product…)
It’s pretty much the same process that’s outlined in the flow chart. (Clearly not instructions for making Benecol, because there’s no mention of adding those plant stanol esters….)
What, might you ask, has this got to do with God? You can say God, if you like, or you might choose Mother Nature, for the sake of this particular argument. I’m inclined to simply call her Nature. And here’s my point: someone who is very dear to me is a regular consumer of industrial food products like Benecol margarine, and also happens to be a practicing Catholic. He eats Benecol on his bread (there’s a whole other problem) because medical professionals, and advertising have told him this is what’s best for him, and because I’ve got no credentials for getting into an argument with his doctor.
I don’t practice any religion, so I’m guessing how the thinking might go. At the same time I believe that human evolution has been intimately entwined with us making use of the things that nature provides us with, just as is the case for most living things. Predatory carnivores pick their food from herds of herbivores, antelope graze, killer whales eat seals, seals eat fish (some of the really mean ones eat penguins!), many fish graze on algae etc. Technology changes many things for us – it’s very much easier for us to control fire the it used to be, we don’t need to hunt wild animals any more because we’ve learned how to corral and domesticate them. That list can go on and on. The thing is that technology tends to make life easier for us, and tends to generate revenue for the inventor and/or manufacturer. It doesn’t necessarily make us better (Yes, this was last week’s subject.) And when we’re talking about fat, we’re talking about nutrition. Say it out loud: ‘NUTRITION’ – thatwhich nourishes us. There’s hardly anything more important than this in our lives. If we make changes to how we nourish ourselves, surely they should be based on making us better – not based on making life easier, or generating huge profits for industrial food corporations? (By the way, isn’t it weird that the same company that makes Cornetto, also makes Comfort fabric softener?)
Back to my Bencol eating, Catholic friend. Because it feels cruel, I’ve resisted saying to him: ‘God has given us all this bounty with which we can nourish ourselves. Do you really think that we can manufacture better nourishment in a factory, using enormous resources of energy, chemicals and precious water, than God has seen fit to make easily available to us?’ Again, I’d rather be talking about ‘Nature’ than ‘God’, but that’s largely irrelevant. What kind of arrogance leads us to believe that we are somehow different from any other lifeforms on the planet, and that despite millennia of successful nourishment, garnered with the assistance of some simple hand tools, and fire, we can ‘create’ food that will do a better job of nourishing us?
Of course the real truth is that it’s probably a combination of greed and fear that leads us to the point where we believe that readily-derived-from-nature is bad, and chemically/industrially manufactured is better. However, if we can strip that away (tough, because fear is what drives capitalism so well) then perhaps we can see that it is vanity and arrogance that tricks into thinking that we (or our doctor) may know better…
Special bonus video (reward for perseverance)
*Yes, it’s caustic soda, but don’t worry, it’s of a higher grade than the oven cleaning or sink unblocking kind.
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’.
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?
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.
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…
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)
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….
A couple of weeks ago I received an email from the person who handles marketing for a yoga centre at which I teach a (Pilates) class. All the centre’s teachers were being approached for their input in an idea to tie the London Olympics into the centre’s publicity, with an ‘Olympic challenge’: “The idea is to get who ever does the challenge [as] fit as an Olympic athlete through Cycling, Yoga , Pilates, Nutrition and treatments.”
I was fascinated by this idea on a number of levels.
The first to get out of the way is incredulity at the idea that a combination of the above would produce similar results to the training regime of an Olympic athlete, unless we’re considering pistol marksmen/women, or some similar sports person. I think most people conjuring the idea of an Olympic athlete will come up with someone like Usain Bolt, Jessica Ennis, Chris Hoy, Tom Daly etc. I know that Usain Bolt is notoriously lackadaisical about his training but I cannot believe that a similar physical condition could be achieved through yoga, pilates and nutrition, with some treatments thrown in.
I specifically referred to Usain Bolt’s physical condition to avoid using the word fitness. This is the part of the ‘fit as an Olympic athlete’ concept that I find really interesting. How are we to define fitness? And will Olympic athletes fit into that definition?
I asked a friend of mine, Pilates teacher Suzanne Scott, “an anatomist with physiology leanings”, to define fitness for me recently, and this is what she came up with: “greater tolerance to shifts in environmental parameters and biologically mediated challenges”, which, aside from being marvellously worded in a very science-y way, captures an evolutionary notion of fitness rather well, and I shall return to this. Biology online says: “In biology, Darwinian fitness or simply fitness of a biological trait describes how successful an organism has been at passing on its genes. The more likely that an individual is able to survive and live longer to reproduce, the higher is the fitness of that individual.” Hence ‘ survival of the fittest’ – those that are best adapted to be able to successfully pass their genes on to successive generations. (This perhaps calls for a separate post on how our species has nearly circumvented this simple evolutionary rule by inventing agriculture, with its attendant advantages and disadvantages).
So what has evolutionary theory got to do with Olympic athletes? If we were to define fitness as the ability to perform a narrow range of specific tasks repeatedly and, perhaps, particularly fast, then an Olympic athlete may well be the model of fitness. However, in keeping with my primal/paleo bias, I have an imaginary prehistoric framework in which an individual’s fitness is tested – a wild place, untouched by ‘civilisation’, in which there are a variety of hazards to be negotiated or avoided, and great skill at a narrow range of tasks will not do. Survival, or better yet, flourishing (for that’s what I hope we all strive for), in this environment requires many attributes: keen senses, agility, speed, strength, endurance, ingenuity and so on. All of these attributes may well be possessed by a number of Olympic athletes, so why not call them fit? It isn’t a new idea that the most successful Tour de France cyclists are those that can tolerate the most pain. Similarly, it is well established that competing in endurance events (Ironman Triathlons, for example) causes more cell damage than it’s possible for our bodies to fully recover from, chronic inflammation, and has a corresponding impact on our immune systems. (A brief trawl of Google will proffer plenty of articles linking prolonged training for, and participation in, endurance sports to increased risk of various conditions from heart disease to cancer.)
As sports science and our understanding of human physiology and biomechanics has developed the level of performance has risen to a staggering degree (world best marathon time teetering on the brink of the 2 hour barrier being broken!). To be ‘elite’ means monitoring the minutiae of an athlete’s life and training, and competing at the very edge of one’s potential. Pushing to that ‘edge’ inevitably means that many athletes seem to be, even when performing very well, on the verge of injury and/or illness. To be really successful as an athlete means maximising your adaptation to your chosen activity. This adaptation ultimately means that an athlete’s body starts to dispense with any tissue that doesn’t help perform the relevant specialisation, whether it be muscle, bone or brain! If you need to be as light as possible to be really good at your chosen sport then your ability to store energy is going to be compromised. This is fine if you have a ready supply of food, but could lead to catabolism (something like your body ‘eating’ your muscle tissue) if not. However impressive a lot of sporting achievements are, and how much I enjoy watching them, this doesn’t feel like a model of fitness to me. While some elite athletes might do very well within the prehistoric framework mentioned above, I suspect that many would have trained the necessary versatility out of themselves, in order to be highly skilled at their specific event.
An honourable mention is due the Olympic decathletes, like Brian Clay (pictured), whose multi-sport discipline of running, jumping, throwing and vaulting (an amazing combination of movements) requires them to have a truly impressive combinbation of strength, speed, stamina and agility.
Okay, so I’ve succeeded in arguing that actually some Olympians do qualify as really fit – not my original intention. I still stand by the argument that, very often, the requirements of elite sporting performance are incompatible with a Darwinian interpretation of fitness. Given that, let’s return to what does qualify as fitness, or what does “greater tolerance to shifts in environmental parameters and biologically mediated challenges” really mean? Can you cope with unexpected challenges to necessary or normal activity? (I wrote about how Pilates relates to this here).
If you’re a slight framed woman driving an Audi Q7 around London’s streets (yes, I’m a cyclist), and an electronic malfunction means that your power steering is disabled, can you control your vehicle? If you live on the 6th floor, and the lift is out of order, can you get your 20 kilos of groceries upstairs to your home? If you’re a 70 year old out for a stroll and some lunatic on a bike appears from nowhere heading straight for you, do you have the speed and agility (and balance) to get out of harm’s way? I’m sure we could come up with infinite examples of such scenarios. An answer of “yes” would suggest that, having a greater tolerance to …, you are more fit than some. Let’s not say that a ”no” answer means that you are unfit, rather that you could be fitter. The truth is that many, many people will get by, and quite possibly even thrive, without the skills to make it within the prehistoric framework. I would suggest that this only serves to show that our species is weaker than it once was.
“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.
Joseph Pilates, aged 54, working on his Vitamin D levels
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.