Celebrating the gluteals Yoga practice (25 minutes)

There aren’t many of life’s questions that have an unequivocal, universal answer, but Arabella Weir’s “Does my bum look big in this?” is one of them. Alleluia, Yes! Whatever our gender, whatever our measurements, we have gloriously large and shapely bottoms, relative to our ape cousins, and most likely our Australopithecine ancestors (see Honouring the feet blogosophy). And improbably, no large bottom, no large brain.

To unpick. In last term’s blogosophy, we left our Australopithecine ancestor walking on two legs to seek the tough survival roots and seeds that they needed to supplement forest fruits, with large jaws, teeth and gut to chew and process these foods, and still with relatively long, strong arms to aid tree climbing, for safety. Their brains only somewhat larger than those of chimpanzees today, but perhaps with adaptations for foraging during the midday heat, when predators sleep, such as hair loss and copious sweat glands, and hands free to carry and use tools to greater effect; the more you pound and chop, the more digestible and nutrient-rich your foraging will be. And they must have cooperated intensively with each other, not least to carry infants, no longer able to cling piggy-back to fur. Like chimpanzees, although largely vegetarian, some protein-rich insect life and opportunistic meat-consumption was much valued.

Then, about 2 million years ago, the mostly hunted started to hunt, with meat forming roughly one third of the diet. This was the start of us, our ancestor Homo Erectus, initially with a brain only modestly larger than the Australopithecine model, but a body much like ours; embarrassingly incompetent in the trees due to long legs, and low shoulders, able to twist independently of the head and neck. And the beautiful, shapely gluteal muscles. How did our ancestors pull off this ultimate David-and-Goliath plot line, surely it must have been brain over brawn? Except that the run-away brain expansion happened after the switch to hunter-gathering, not before. Only meat and food-processing can generate enough energy, stored as fat, to power a large brain and shrink an energy-hungry gut, and only a large brain can innovate tools, control fire, manage complex food-sharing, child-caring relationships.

“Becoming awake involves seeing your confusion more clearly”


Enter that cliched trio of body fluids, blood, sweat and tears. David Carrier, a young researcher studying mammalian running in the 1980s, noted an Achilles’ heel in the otherwise far superior running capacities of our four-legged predators and prey. When you run on four legs, you have to breathe in strict rhythm; out when your thorax presses against your front limbs as they push off the ground, in when you’re up in the air. You can have a burst of speed, but eventually you need to provide the blood with more oxygen. And you need to rest to pant, to prevent heat exhaustion. Running humans cool down by sweating as they run, without need to stop to pant, and have more freedom in how they breathe relative to their stride; while slow, they have endurance. Enough to patiently persistence hunt in the midday heat, by running to make prey gallop away, tracking them while they pant and rest, so that they need to set off again before they have recovered, until eventually heat exhaustion brings an end to the hunt.
The counterintuitive idea that endurance running was what led to our evolution as large-brained, cooperative and innovative hunter-gatherers was duly ignored for 20 years. Then Dennis Bramble and Daniel Lieberman published a paper where they reviewed all the adaptations that homo erectus possessed and australopithecines did not, that are known to be linked to running. It was a convincing list, from a long Achilles tendon, to ligaments to stabilise the head, to free arms and shoulders for counter-swing while running, to long legs. And that large, shapely gluteal muscle, keeping the trunk aligned while the body is pushed forcefully forward.

“When a person responds to the joys and sorrows of others as if they were his own, he has attained the highest state of spiritual union”

Bhagavad Gita

And what of the tears? Carrier had his insight from observing actual persistence hunting, still practiced until recently by different groups of hunter-gatherers. One of the most impressive and moving films I have seen (San persistence hunt) is of a San persistence hunter, using his deep empathy to enter the mind of his Kudu antelope prey, to intuit where it ran to when out of sight. Finally shedding tears while stroking its face, as it dies of heat exhaustion, full of gratitude for its life, allowing his own family to live.

“For every one hundred men who can stand adversity there is only one who can withstand prosperity.”


Now that many of us can choose to make almost no physical effort to obtain calorie-rich, if unutritious, food, we have to exercise choice to travel actively and eat wisely, even when this is made hard for us. And we can honour our inner runner in this term’s practice; come and join me!