The other day my friend GlamPro–she is a glamorous professor—sent me an email about her new fitness program. “I saw my trainer this morning and we did a workout based on a book he read over the holidays called Original Strength. You may already know about it, but the argument is that we need to regain the mobility we had as babies in order to reset our bodies in the present. My workout included stretching and moving, but it ended with crawling, which if done as babies do it (head up, knees off the ground, hips not swaying) is incredibly difficult.” Here is the link to the official web site: http://originalstrength.net
Obviously, I was intrigued. On the face of it, this kind of training makes sense, and reconfirms what I have been learning about my own body for the past few years. I have spent a lot of time crawling, mostly on my hands and knees with a 35 pound weight on my back. This workout drill is otherwise known as playing “horsey” with my son. I also crawl like a crab and with my knees off the ground while playing with him, something I find relatively easy after practice, though I doubt that I could do it for ten minutes. See http://originalstrength.net/2013/11/how-and-why-to-crawl-for-10-minutes-straight/
I squat down on a regular basis to interact with my son, and now find this pose quite restful, another return to a child-like body posture. Other movements that I perform on an almost daily basis include: lying on my stomach while stretching to reach underneath the couch for a block or toy; climbing up playground equipment and sliding down slides, again and again; bending down to pick things off the floor, or wipe up cereal with a cloth. I can confirm that moving like a child or because of a child can improve mobility and flexibility, though it can also kill your back and knees.
So the Original Strength fitness trend makes sense to me, and it also provides yet another way to train, which is always good.. Changing up your movements and trying new drills can only be positive. At the same time, this focus on crawling and stretching like a baby is clearly yet another marketing ploy, and no wonder. Given the current glut of fitness products, it is hard to come up with something new that will appeal to trainers and clients alike. The situation is getting pretty desperate. Yoga with cats, anyone? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TR_urcJfQYE
The theory of Original Strength appeals to a current form of nostalgia, a kind of neo-primitivism. A number of recent fitness or wellness programs purport to “return us to our past” so that we can recover something natural that we have “lost.” Think paleo diet, a way of eating that is based on sheer fantasy about the eating habits of cavemen, even if some aspects of it are worth considering. The Original Strength program is rather similar. In this case, however, you “remember and regain the strength, mobility, and stability you once had as a child” according to the Original Strength web site. Apparently, we were all once strong, flexible and mobile—never mind developmental diversity—but then became rigid, fearful, and sedentary. Unfortunately, we moved from a state of nature to one of culture. We “progressed” from a primitive condition of bodily control and ease to one of modernity, in which the body is a burdensome sack of aches and pains. According to Original Strength, growing up in our modern world means taking a giant step backward. We have all timidly stepped back with a shortened stride, tight hip flexors, and corn-riddled feet. I think you are beginning to smell the bull shit along with me. Is this yet another mythology of paradise lost, yet another fantasy of the return to a blissful origin that never really happened?
Probably but the idea of “resetting” the body back to the past is marketable for a number of reasons. It means that we were once fit and can (and should) return to that state. This invention of the past could encourage people/clients to see their bodies in a new light, filled with potential rather than lack. At the same time, the “mythology of return” fuels the diet and fitness industry, inviting us to recreate the bodies that we had in high school, on the figure stage, or on our wedding day. The narrative of “fitting back into our wedding dress” is alluring to some, especially those who actually have wedding dresses stashed somewhere in the closet. Another version of this return to the past is the old pair of jeans or little black dress that we vow to wear again. The narrative of return is commonplace and understandable in our contemporary culture. It can also be damaging, neglecting to recognize that bodies change, injuries happen, and ageing is real, not some kind of personal failure.
Yes babies are flexible and can roll about with great abandon. They also have soft spots in their heads and fall down on a regular basis. Returning to an infantile past offers another fantasy of escape from modern life but we should recognize that it, like the paleo diet, is based on sheer fiction. Children are not that stable. Have you seen babies learn to walk? They fall awkwardly and hit their heads all the time. They do not yet know where their bodies are in space. This understanding of limitations and gravity is learned over time, quite a long time. It is an achievement. The body as a system is in fact gradually comprehended through engagements with culture, through working towards an object [aside: Merleau-Ponty reference that you can feel free to ignore]. The body does not always already exist in a state of perfection, only to be ruined by sitting down a lot. At this point, you might want to curl into a fetal pose and practice a primal scream. But that would be so 1970s, so passe.
I know that it is easy to critique a fitness trend like Original Strength. It is also important to think about why this particular form of training, this particular story about the human body, would be marketable and engaging today. As for me, I will continue to perfect my childlike movements, without trying to be a big baby. I am a 48-year-old woman who is fit, but nevertheless I am experiencing ageing. I now wear multifocal contact lenses. There is really no way to turn back the clock completely. Do we really want to?