Sports Spiritualism: Waxed Moustaches, German Nudists, and Russian Powerlifters

This is the second installment in a series on the physical culture system of Russian powerlifter Alexey Faleev. Read Part 1 here.

Why am I so charmed by Faleev’s system? Aside from how effective it is, what I love is his holistic “sports spiritualism” (my word, not his). Who else would write a guide to powerlifting with sections on Buddhism, the Gospels, how to talk to your spouse to ensure marital harmony, and the use of poetry for max attempts in the clean and jerk?

Then again, that is not so unusual among Russian “physical culturists.” In his book on breath training for combat sports, martial artist Vlad Vasiliev quotes the Bible in most chapters and talks as much about Hesychastic prayer as walking and jogging. In a typical passage Vasiliev remarks:

I have noticed, especially in the West, that many … close up when they are asked to pray to God in training. If this is a problem for you … try it just a few times. Take yourself to the breaking point in one of the breath-holding exercises and start saying ‘Lord have mercy’ in your mind. Do not let pride prevent you from doing this, you will be glad you tried.

Faleev for his part mixes a traditionalist respect for Russian Orthodox mysticism and old-time Russian foodways and health practices with a strong interest in Russian experimental psychology and what we could call “applied yoga.”

In the West, we had a related “physical culture” movement a century ago centered around exercise, healthy living, and human thriving for a population that was beginning to live in cities, eat an industrialized diet, work at desks, and get less exercise and fresh air. In these novel, urbanized lives, they were less physically vigorous and close to the land than their grandparents had been and some sensed that they were making trade-offs in health and happiness.strongmen

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Yes. Naked Aryans juggling kettlebells in the Third Reich. Right from the 1800s, German “Körperkultur” included plenty of nudism and that got absorbed as a matter of course into Nazi art like Hans Surén’s “Mensch und Sonne.”

“Physical culturists” taught ways to hang on to some of the old-time physicality and grit that they thought we moderns would still need to feel healthy and fulfilled. Think of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, Victorian strongmen with waxed moustaches, the modern Olympiad, the YMCA, “muscular Christianity,” Theodore Roosevelt, the Victorian vegetarian movement, German fruitarians and nudists, Seventh-Day Adventists, and anti-masturbation foods like Kellogg’s cereals and Graham crackers. It was an extremely broad movement, a diverse three-ring circus of eccentrics and visionaries, but they had this in common: they saw people as embodied souls who require physical vigor to be spiritually fulfilled. Phrasing it differently, they were a holistic health cult.

In the West, we stopped talking about “physical culture” much after the 1940s. The movement branched off into independent specialties and governing bodies—academic medicine and nutritional science, psychoanalysis, sanctioning federations for organized sports, sports media companies—and the adorably zany and heterogeneous old holistic health cult evolved and specialized itself out of existence.

Alexandr+Zaichikov+2015+International+Weightlifting+b1M7urgGiWAlIn strength training, the old-time strongman was replaced by distinct sports: first weightlifting was standardized as an Olympic event, then bodybuilding declared its independence in the 1950s, followed by powerlifting in the 1960s. The new sports were not obsessed with psycho-physical health nearly as much as with rankings, records, and titles and there were also organizational politics to navigate and publishing industries and supplement businesses to build. The competitors also had access to steroids for the first time, and increasingly they had to choose between staying natural and winning.

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Incidentally, some of the founding fathers of the Southern California hippy movement were (drumroll) German immigrant raw foodists and nudists! Instead of a military haircut and a Kugelhantel (kettlebell), William Prester has Unabomber hair and a guitar, but the history of physical culture is full of muscular naked German men.

Granted, after the old “physical culture” model broke apart in the post-war West, there remained a minority of people intrigued by holistic health practices. But instead of weightlifting, wrestling, gymnastics, and the like, they now gravitated toward yoga, vegetarianism,  novel practices drawn from dance, and New Age psychotherapies. For quick-and-dirty heuristic purposes, I’d describe their new home as more feminine than masculine, more pacifist than martial, and more Gandhi than Charles Atlas.

It was in the Russified world where physical culture (физкультура) stayed relatively intact and kept closer to the old holistic model. Yes, it too was permeated and changed by drugs and competitive pressures. But the Soviet fizkul’turniki stayed close to their roots in rough-and-tumble sports and they kept using herbs, folk medicine, ice baths, and saunas, and their sports scientists plundered yoga for breath control disciplines, relaxation techniques, and other Jedi mind tricks that athletes could use to lift, run, wrestle, box, or throw better.

In our next installment, we will learn the “how to” of Faleev’s holistic sports spiritualism.

5 thoughts on “Sports Spiritualism: Waxed Moustaches, German Nudists, and Russian Powerlifters

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