What’s Your (Pilates) Dogma?

September 19, 2015 — 1 Comment

images-2Being so closely associated with ‘dogmatic’, it’s easy for dogma to be something of a dirty word. Yet, if we take my dictionary definition (overlooking the first, which is specific to religion) – “a belief, principle, or doctrine or a code of beliefs, principles or doctrines…” – then it seems essential to any purposeful practice. We may think that we have no dogma, or dogmas, but it is/they are probably always there. Ido Portal wrote about the necessity for, and perils of, dogma and speaks about it eloquently (if you’re at all curious about Ido Portal and want to know what he’s about, this is a great place to start), and he got me thinking about Pilates and my own dogma.

A recent Facebook post (so often the catalyst to writing) made me think about dogmas within the community of Pilates professionals – inextricably linked with the politics and associated flags that get waved, particularly on social media. In this particular case the postee (is that a word?) was expressing (she seems to be a ‘heart on sleeve’ kind of woman) her unease, guilt even, at having enjoyed movement that wasn’t ‘classical Pilates’ in a place that called itself a Pilates studio. What follows is not directed at any individual, aforementioned or otherwise.

If I had to pin it down I would say that my professional dogma (the code that drives, motivates, sustains and nourishes me) is ‘To help people toward their full movement potential.’ It might even be distilled to ‘To help people to feel better about/within themselves’. On the back of my personal experience, and the bulk of my training, Pilates is the method that I primarily employ, in accordance with this dogma. We call our studio a Pilates studio, I will argue for the importance of a systematic approach to Pilates, I will rail against the encroachment of ‘current knowledge and research’ into the Pilates teaching profession, and acknowledge the genius of Joseph Pilates, but my dogma is not ‘Teach people the Pilates Method’. And it’s definitely not ‘Teach Pilates the way Joseph Pilates taught it’. While the latter seems to be commonly viewed as a sign of integrity, or upholding the truth, I’m not sure that it’s even possible. We have various versions of ‘what Joseph Pilates taught’, some of which are asserted more vigorously than others, but they may all be equally true. I suspect the real truth is that only Joseph could teach Pilates ‘the way Joseph Pilates taught’.

If you are a Pilates teacher, what is your dogma? I’m writing this guessing that some teachers’ dogma will be ‘to teach people Pilates’. Perhaps even ‘to teach people true, classical Pilates’. I do believe that there’s value in seeking to preserve a pure ideal (however tricky that may be, in this context, to pin down). At the same time, does your dogma serve you, or do you serve your dogma? Is being good at Pilates an end in itself? Is this the motivation for the people that come through your door? Are many people motivated to learn Pilates as it was originally taught? Or is this comment on Facebook more accurate: “clients don’t seem to care. They want a work-out and they want to feel good about themselves.”?

In the Ido Portal interview that’s linked to above he quotes John Ziman on the subject of specialisation: “A scientist is a person who knows more and more about less and less, until [s]he knows everything about nothing.” If your dogma is to teach Pilates in the classical way (or however else you might phrase it), is there a danger that you become too specialist? It’s almost a law of sports science that specialists will eventually break, whereas generalists show greater resilience. We might say that the more you specialise the less able you are to adapt.

We have an understanding with everyone that teaches in our studio that the end goal, for anyone who walks through our door (regardless of age or ability), is to teach them the Pilates repertoire, on the basis that a) we call ourselves Pilates teachers, and b) Pilates is a very effective tool for at least beginning to move well, and for feeling good. If your dogma is to help people feel better Pilates may well offer the very best tools for most people, and if you’re research has opened other movement/exercise doors for you then you may have all sorts of tools for a given client – Mum of a baby and a toddler whose back pain is such that she can’t pick her children up, for example. However, if your dogma is to teach Classical Pilates (or ‘safe Pilates based on current research’, or Stott Pilates etc. etc.) your tools may be more limited – or worse, absent. In which case your dogma has ceased to serve you, and you are in service of your dogma. I think this is sometimes referred to as the tail wagging the dog.

I do Movement, Part 3

September 13, 2015 — Leave a comment

Or, if you haven’t already, you really should attend an Ido Portal workshop.

I’ve already written (here and here) in the immediate aftermath of attending Movement X and The Corset, and then Movement X and Handbalancing and have been thinking for a while of trying to express my lasting appreciation for those experiences. I was galvanised into action by Ido’s ‘Day of the Teacher’ post on Facebook.

I wish this could be one of those “6 months of online coaching” posts, but I’m afraid that I have not felt able to make that commitment. So, if you’re like me and thinking “I can’t make that commitment quite yet” then I’m writing this to let you know that what you learn by attending Ido’s workshops will last you a long time, making them very easily the best value for money of any personal/professional development courses that I’ve done. Affordability is certainly relative, and if cost is an issue I won’t tell you that you can afford it, just that you really should. Not only is the content ‘gold’, it is delivered with a level of skill and professionalism that is, I believe, unusual in the sphere of movement workshops. I’m in the midst of a course in teaching adults and know that your own skill and knowledge counts for only a small percentage of your ability to teach. I’m almost more impressed by the quality of the delivery than the quality of the content.

To pick out a single example, once or twice per week my wife and I follow the handstand training plan that we learned at the Handbalancing workshop, and every time I marvel at how effective it is. I’ve made a lot of progress in the 3 months since we attended the workshop and I’m in no doubt that I’d be far ahead if I managed to make it 3/4 times per week. And this is just a small portion of what we learned over two days. It is, if you’ll pardon the cliche, the gift that keeps on giving.

Movement X blew my mind, and changed my entire perspective on movement and what’s possible for me, and for the people that I teach. The Corset has given me tools for every conceivable joint prep/mobility challenge and I’ll be exploring that material for years to come. So much gratitude to my teachers Ido, John and Odelia, and Josef (he was teaching a different method when I met him, and I still have good memories). I hope to be your student again soon.



Stott Reformers For Sale

September 13, 2015 — 1 Comment

IMG_2469 We are changing the reformers in our studio, in keeping with the way that our teaching is changing, so have 2 Stott ‘Studio’ reformers for sale. They were called Studio reformers when we bought them 7 years ago, though the same model is now called the V2 Max.

They have been very well maintained and are in excellent condition. One has 4 red springs and 1 blue spring, the other has 3 red springs, one blue and one white spring. We are including sitting boxes and jump boards. The sitting boxes have some minor nicks to the upholstery around the base.

The reformers will be available for collection from Ealing, London W5 (UK) at the end of October.

PRICE £2000 each

You can see the current UK price list for Stott apparatus here.

Please email mike@pilatesinmotion.org for more information.



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Easy answer….

I first heard the word carnism about a year ago, along with a brief definition: “a term used by psychologist Melanie Joy and others to describe the ideology that supports the use of animals for food, including meat. The argument holds that carnism is a dominant belief system supported by a variety of defence mechanisms and mostly unchallenged assumptions.
At the time it was easy for me to dismiss. As an enthusiastic omnivore I had little patience for what appeared to be an attempt by vegans to stigmatise something I consider to be entirely natural.

More recently I was reminded of the concept and something (probably that the reminder came via someone that I like and know to be both sincere and humble) made me reflect on the concept for a while.

Research suggests that beginning to eat meat 2 to 3 million years ago was what triggered an increase in the brain size of early hominids and made possible the evolutionary jump to homo-sapiens. The excellent “The Story of the Human Body” by Daniel E. Lieberman clearly describes this element of our evolutionary trajectory. Interestingly, other research also suggests that raw diets cannot grow or sustain big brains in a species, thus cooking also made us human.

The concept of meat eating as a belief system seems like quite a big idea. One that separates the behaviour from instinct or socialisation and proposes that viewing animals as food is akin to a religion. A religion that most of us have unconsciously subscribed to.

I’m assuming that the term carnist (a follower of the carnism belief system) is usually intended as a perjorative. Carnivore seems to be a perfectly adequate word to describe a meat eater. That said, if you describe yourself as a vegan it carries a meaning beyond ‘herbivore’ and suggests a belief system – if you base your diet and lifestyle choices on a belief system I guess it’s natural to frame other choices in the same way. So perhaps my knee jerk initial rejection was unreasonable.

Here’s what I’m left with: If the research can be trusted, our brains are as big as they are and thus able to wrestle with philosophical and ethical problems (that our primate cousins appear not to have time for) because our ancestors ate meat. So we owe our very existence, and our capacity (never mind the luxury of time spent doing things other than gathering and chewing) to think deeply about our behaviour, to the practice of eating meat.

Could anyone have coined the term ‘carnism’ without the hominid and human practice of eating meat? Framing language and philosophies to critique meat-eating our actually a luxury afforded to our species by meat-eating. Ironic, no?

ivory towerYes, I’m afraid I’ve been browsing Facebook forums again – and becoming struck by the tone of some teachers’ comments with reference to other movement disciplines, and other exercise professionals. Warning, generalisations follow.

Is it me, or is there something within our training that implants the idea that a knowledge of Pilates somehow gives us an understanding of all movement, or makes us a little more expert than other fitness professionals?
I come from a Pilates teacher training background where we were encouraged to believe in, and promote ourselves as having “the highest standard”. There was no-one in the country better qualified, more knowledgable than us. (Perhaps it is just me, or my egotistical interpretation of what I heard and saw…)
It was, and according to Facebook, still is fairly standard to look down on the methods and the level of knowledge of personal trainers, for example. I’m in no doubt that there are some shoddy PTs out there, just as I’m in no doubt that there are some sub-par Pilates teachers out there (let’s not forget that you don’t need to have ever attended a Pilates classes to gain a Level 3 Diploma in teaching Pilates in the UK).
Why do we appear to feel superior?

I have a certain affection for CrossFit so I may be particularly sensitive to Pilates teachers taking a swipe at it (though I’m sure that CrossFit HQ isn’t at all worried). It seems to be a widely held belief that CrossFit ignores bad form in its athletes, or maybe even teaches bad form. I’ve done the Level 1 CrossFit Trainer course and can attest that bad form is not encouraged, and that trying to coach someone who is moving at a speed not usually seen in a Pilates studio is a tricky skill. Never mind – looking in from the outside us Pilates teachers can see enough to ‘know’ that CrossFit is bad, the coaches aren’t bothered about technique, and the practitioners are sure to be injured soon. We may even crow that those poor mugs will be knocking on our door fro help once they have injured themselves – I’ve seen comments like this many, many times. In short, we (Pilates teachers) understand and can coach movement much better than a CrossFit coach can.

It may be true that more people injure themselves doing Crossfit than injure themselves doing Pilates, but just because you see something in a gym, or on YouTube that makes you wince, doesn’t mean that high numbers of CF athletes are hurting themselves. (On the other hand, figures suggest that in the USA, between 37 and 56% of people who run regularly are injured every year. Yes, up to half the Americans who run regularly are injured annually. That’s a dangerous activity, and one in which poor form and technique routinely goes unnoticed.)

Pilates is about whole body health so let us consider the health outcomes from CrossFit. I can’t speak for every facility, of course, but I believe it’s safe to say that the majority of regular CrossFitters will be encouraged not only to move a lot – to challenge their physicality – but also to think about health fundamentals like their food quality and their sleep quality. Not to mention that they are encouraged to “regularly learn and play new sports” (from founder Greg Glassman’s ‘World-Class Fitness in 100 Words’) Ido Portal, who does not suffer fools gladly, has said: “I think the CrossFit community is a very open community….they’re hard workers, they’re open-minded, mostly…..Most Crossfitters are not humble enough to see what is missing but, once you show it to them, they accept it.” Can Pilates teachers truly, routinely boast the same kind of outcomes, or the same kind of approach to overall health?

Getting back to movement, I will always agree with anyone who says that the pursuit of Pilates (in the original/traditional form) will provide an excellent foundation for understanding human movement but does this make us omniscient? Firstly, for Pilates to really teach you about movement I believe that it has to be treated as a system, without unpopular movements being left out, and to be seen as a series of patterns. It was very interesting for me to see recently that there was broad agreement among the Pilates teachers commenting on it that a particular picture of a press up represented ‘bad form’. However, when it came to solutions to fix this bad form the answers were quite varied, indicating a lack of (amongst that small sample) collective understanding. Most alarmingly, while none referred to the hip joint’s role in spinal stability under load, there were suggestions that abdominal muscles should be pulling into the spine. I suspect a great many CrossFIt coaches would know that you do not effectively create spinal stability, especially under high load, by drawing your stomach in.

Until, as a profession, we raise our game, do we have any business to be feeling superior to our movement teaching colleagues from other disciplines?



Ivory Tower image borrowed from: http://3menmakeatiger.blogspot.co.uk


She is NOT pulling her stomach in!

Regular readers (if you exist, thank you) will know that I’m a fan of Katy Bowman’s work. I’m particularly intrigued by her thoughts on compression garments, and how they may impact someone’s body while doing Pilates. For example, if one were to wear abdomen compressing ‘shape wear’ what impact might that have on breathing -diaphragm-ribs-spine etc? As Katy says, compressed innards don’t just disappear. They have to go somewhere. If you’re underwear is effectively shoving your abdominal contents up into your diaphragm what will that do to not just your breathing and movement but your digestion too. What if your ‘slimmer shape’ is actually  interfering with your food’s passage through your tubes?

“People’s shaping underwear choices have got nothing to do with Pilates!” I hear you say, and that’s true. But a recent podcast interview with Katy B got me thinking….. How many of us have taught people to pull their stomach in?

At the same time that I’m happy that ‘navel to spine’ seems to be gradually disappearing from the Pilates lexicon, I do think that some kind of ‘abdomen in’ cue may well be useful in certain circumstances. However, the trouble may arise when we, inadvertently or otherwise, help to create or reinforce the impression that good posture involves pulling your stomach in.  Let’s hope that we don’t, but if we do then we are in effect encouraging clients to be their own compression garments, and to use their muscles to squash their abdominal contents, thereby possibly interfering with digestion, breathing, continence, lymph circulation and so on. Spending your days trying to constantly compress your abdomen is not a good strategy.

‘Paleo Coach’ author Jason Seib introduced me to the idea that a fitness/exercise regime that is undertaken with aesthetic goals rarely works out. Instead, he advocates that the goal of any such programme should be health, and maintains that aesthetic goals will very likely be accomplished by achieving better health. That seems to be very much in keeping with Joseph Pilates’ philosophy, and the principle of Whole Body Health. ‘Flat Abs’ might be a short term selling point, but flat abs (or six pack abs, for that matter) don’t say anything at all about what’s going on ‘under the hood’ (your health, in other words), and they may well not be what a particular body needs.

Whilst there may be vigorous debate, and plenty of argument on social media’s Pilates teacher forums, it seems that there is usually broad agreement on the ‘teach the body in front of you’ mantra. I take this to usually mean that we shouldn’t adopt a ‘one size fits all’ approach to teaching, and make allowance for individual capacity, restrictions, pathology etc.

There wouldn’t seem to be much to take issue with there, except that (while I’ll never argue that human bodies aren’t totally amazing) we are so much more than our bodies. At least in the muscle, fascia, bones sense. I’ve often felt uncomfortable hearing a teacher say to their client at the beginning of a class “How’s your body?” The teacher may well know all about the non-corporeal factors influencing their client’s life, but I’m sure that there are times that the question is implicitly stating “I’m only interested in how you are physically, and not interested in anything else going on in your life.” I’ve met teachers who know nothing about their clients’ hobbies or interests, and even one who didn’t know what a client did for a living. Can you teach a body if you know so little about its context?

Are the exercises we teach actually helping people’s lumbar spines to become more stable? Unlikely. Is there something particular to Pilates exercises that helps people to ‘improve’ their posture? No – posture is a manifestation of our entire system, not of biomechanics alone (thank you to David at AMN Academy for helping me to understand this).

At a time when it seems we can be less and less certain about exactly how our teaching affects our clients, don’t we need to be teaching the person in front of us? Perhaps a bit like the ‘person-centred approach’ in psychotherapy – we help to create the appropriate environment for each individual to make their own changes.

‘Teach the person, trust the body’, maybe?

Ten months on from my first ‘live’ exposure to Ido Portal and his work, I’m sitting in a plane on the way home from another four days of the Ido Portal method in Finland. I’m writing to help me make sense of my thoughts/feelings, and to perhaps offer some advice/suggestions to the uninitiated.

Last year my wife and I took both the ‘Movement X’ and ‘The Corset’ workshops, delivered by Ido and Odelia. Those four days were extraordinary, to the extent that, in the immediate aftermath, I wasn’t sure that I would be able to resume teaching Pilates. I had heard Ido on a podcast describe people crying, and saying Movement X was life changing. At the time I’d been sceptical but, depending on the degree to which you can surrender to and engage with what’s being taught, I’m certain that ‘life-changing’ is a possibility. (You can read about that first experience here).

This year we signed up to repeat ‘Movement X’ and to do the ‘Hand Balancing’ workshops. It was great to be back in Turku, and we were curious to see how different ‘Movement X’ would feel second time around – would we hear the same jokes and stories? Would the material have changed? As they arrived I instantly recognised Odelia, and in the same instant that I registered that Ido was not there, recognised John from a YouTube clip I’d seen of a jaw-dropping one-arm ring routine. I have cherished the experience with Ido and surprised myself that I didn’t feel any disappointment that he wasn’t there. (The promotional material usually makes it clear that workshops will be presented by members of the team – there’s no guarantee that Ido will be there). I knew for sure that we were in for a new experience.

The chemistry between Odelia and Ido seemed like something very special last year, and I feel very lucky that we had the chance to see and feel it in action. Of course, the combination of Odelia and John was different, and I really enjoyed Odelia leading the sessions, which hadn’t happened before. Much has been said about Odelia and her teaching before, suffice it to say that she is an extraordinary woman and a wonderful teacher – her seriousness and expectation tempered by her warmth and kindness. John is not Ido, and I can imagine that puts pressure on him sometimes. If it does, he never shows it and he teaches with the same combination of assuredness and humility that Odelia has. And to see them move……I can’t help grinning with delight when I see anyone making the difficult look easy, and there was a lot of grinning over the four days. This time I began to understand the level of commitment and dedication that is required to do what Ido’s team do. I’ve never seen anything like it, to the point that it’s almost scary how far beyond my own capacity it appears. I doubt many Olympians train this hard, and they’ve both clearly done their research and have knowledge of a wide range of disciplines and human function, biomechanics etc.

To business. It took two goes for me to see that ‘Movement X’ represents a taste of the four main spokes of the Ido Portal Method: the Corset, hand balancing, locomotion, and upper body strength. I think I was too blown away the first time around by the variety, complexity (and simplicity) and playfulness to be able to see the wood for the trees. So this is probably the place to start (and I’d recommend repeating). Time-keeping for the start of the day is strict, and not at all strict at the end of the day. Day one finished sometime after 7, day two around 8.15. Aside from 90 minutes for lunch there are no breaks, so you do A LOT of moving. My current practice means that I may do 1 hour a day, so at the end of two days I’d probably packed in two weeks worth of movement. The exhilaration only slightly diminished by the feeling of having been beaten all over (like Angelica Houston and the oranges in ‘The Grifters’, perhaps) only without noticing that it’s happening. This is down to the workshop being so well structured, and the material being high quality. Many many squats and lunges are hidden in a game – hidden because you’re so busy trying to manage all the other demands on your nervous system (“Sound is the mark of an inefficient mover”) that the game imposes. And this wasn’t the best game that we played. If you’ve attended Movement X you’ll probably know the game I’m thinking of, and if you haven’t I don’t want to spoil the surprise.

The upper body strength segment makes the most strength demands (weird!) and is also the segment when there is most scaling. There’s a way for everyone to tackle the movement and, while you may be taken well outside your comfort zone, no one is pushed beyond their limits. It’s also when it was most clear to me how much thought, experimentation and perfecting has gone into Ido’s methods of teaching, for instance, chin-ups and muscle ups.

It must be very rare that anyone attends ‘Movement X’ and isn’t asked to do something that they’ve never done before, or doesn’t discover a gap in their skills, mobility or capacity. This too is why John and Odelia are so impressive – not only do they need to be able to deliver the material but they are most likely substantially better at all of the movements involved than everyone else in the room.

It seemed like chance at the time and now I’m grateful that ‘The Corset’ was the second workshop we did, not least because the content is so broadly applicable. It’s described as something like “how to make flexible armour for your whole body”. Some of the Corset protocols appear in Movement X, and there were a lot of them included in the Hand-balancing workshop. Having some prior exposure to them felt very helpful so, in an ideal world I’d suggest Movement X first, then The Corset, then whichever of the other workshops appeals to you the most.

The Hand-balancing workshop is mostly geared toward teaching you Ido’s progressive method for gaining a 60 second freestanding handstand. Odelia will tell you that this is the best method there is, with thousands of success stories and when you see the process you will most likely believe it. Again, it’s very well structured. There were more games to play, lots of joint preparation drills to strengthen and increase range of movement, as well as a lot of time on our hands. On the morning of day two my chest and shoulders were so sore I couldn’t imagine spending any more time on my hands, but the warmup easily took care of that and a lot more time was spent on our hands – and not just in handstands. We were left with a clear program to follow, scaled according to your starting point. It will take a lot of commitment and work, but if I do commit and put the work in I’m convinced that I’ve got the tools to make it happen.

I was impressed by how many people attending the 2015 Turku workshops seemed to have very little idea of what was coming and were just ‘dipping their toe in the water’, especially those that were there like us for all four days. They were, for me, very physically demanding. And yet just the day after I feel great. Perhaps it depends on individual preference, going in blind, or doing some research. Personally I’d recommend listening to Ido’s London Real interview prior to attending, just to get a sense of the man and the philosophy that underpins the work.

Ido offers online coaching, and it’s made very clear that they only want to work with people who will make the time commitment they deem necessary. Similarly, if you turn up at one of his workshops I think he and his team have high expectations for you. If you look like you’re not giving your best you may get short shrift, but they recognise and appreciate your effort, regardless of your ability.

Of course, all the attendees influence the feel of the workshop and with all four that I’ve done I’ve been lucky to meet some wonderful people. If you’re one of them reading this, thank you, it was fun to be moving with you.

Other things I’ve learned

You can’t judge a fabulous mover by their resting posture. (Don’t believe me? Just look at cats.)

Learning, and quality teaching deserves optimum focus. Be quiet, look, and listen. (Yes, this IS hard on the afternoon of day four).

Don’t try to integrate if you can’t yet isolate.

Variables may vary but standards are non-negotiable.

Speed is something you have to earn.

Wipe; look; lift; reach; replace. (Sing it with me!)

Last words

Find a Movement X event that you can get to, and sign up. Do it!

The Dirty Secret

April 4, 2015 — 11 Comments

Or, ‘Clinicians, what have you done to Pilates?’100910doctor

“We only hire experienced Physiotherapists trained in Pilates to teach in our Pilates studios: we dig the bloke that started it, but can’t understand how you’d let anyone who can’t relate your pain and pathology to your problem come anywhere near you!” 

(‘Clinical Pilates’, http://www.sixphysio.com)

There seem to be frequent scuffles in the Pilates teaching world (at least in the forums that I see) between ‘classical’ and ‘contemporary’ Pilates teachers. I’ve no interest in pursuing that particular debate here, not least because I think it may not be the right on to be having. Rather, I’m interested in the influence of physiotherapy and ‘clinicians’ on Pilates, and the profession of teaching Pilates.

It seems appropriate that, over the years, different teachers developed what may be termed ‘pre-Pilates’ exercises, to provide a kind of ‘on-ramp’ to the original work for those who may need it, for whatever reason. I guess that this is how some ‘contemporary’ Pilates developed. However, I suspect that ‘contemporary’ Pilates is routinely intermingled with ‘clinical’ Pilates, and the ideas that underpin the various ‘clinical’ Pilates brands (yes, there are lots of them) are increasingly exerting a pernicious influence on much of Pilates teaching.

Why the ‘Dirty Secret’ title? I was recently listening to an interview with Kelly Starrett, a physiotherapist particularly well know in the CrossFit community. In the interview he refers to what he calls the “dirty secret” of physiotherapy – the phrase “within normal limits”. He describes the tenets of physiotherapy training as getting the patient functional -‘can you do your daily activities’, and resolving pain. Clearly these aren’t bad things but, as Kelly says, “within normal limits” does not mean “full function”. So, allowing for the fact that this is a generalisation, and that there are many excellent physios in the world who are committed to their clients high achievement, the fundamental measure of a successful outcome for a physiotherapist might well be ‘can you walk to the shops without pain?’

Joseph Pilates wrote of his method: “You will develop muscular power with corresponding endurance, ability to perform arduous duties, to play strenuous games, to walk, to run or travel long distances without undue body fatigue or mental strain. And this is by no means the end.” His ambitions were a little higher than ‘can you walk to the shops without pain?’

The term ‘evidence based exercise’ seems to be increasingly popular, and probably underpins a lot of the colonisation of Pilates by clinicians. Clinical Pilates™ have a video on YouTube called “What is Clinical Pilates™” which makes reference to “recent research into spinal stability“. The APPI (The Australian Physiotherapy and Pilates Institute) website tells us that “Pilates focuses on building an efficient ‘central core’. In Pilates, ‘central core’ refers to the TrA, multifidus, pelvic floor and diaphragm. In Pilates, abdominal hollowing techniques are utilized to activate this central core.” (About Pilates, http://www.ausphysio.com) The Clinical Pilates™ video goes on to explain that “Some of the original exercises have been cut from the regime, as research cannot support their efficacy. What’s left over is a set of proven, effective exercises, now known as ‘Clinical Pilates’“. (What is Clinical Pilates™, dmaclinical pilates, YouTube). So, research tells us that we can prove the efficacy of certain exercises, but not others. Best practice is therefore to exclude anything that we cannot prove is efficacious. This may be a line of reasoning that appeals, but does it have anything to do with Pilates, or real life, for that matter? I’m in no position to question the merits of research, like Hodges’ & Richardson’s ‘A motor control evaluation of transverses abdominis’ (published in 1996), that concluded “The delayed onset of contraction of transversus abdominis indicates a deficit of motor control and is hypothesized to result in inefficient muscular stabilization of the spine.” In case you are unfamiliar with this, their research found that in healthy subjects – those without back pain – EMG readings showed that their TVA fired in anticipation of movement, whereas the back pain suffering subjects showed delayed TVA firing. I do wonder, though, about it’s application to Pilates.

This happened before my introduction to Pilates, but I imagine that, because Pilates was recognised to help people with back pain, it was then deemed necessary (by whom – who knows?) to incorporate conscious, isolated TVA contraction into Pilates. As APPI told us above, Pilates uses ‘abdominal hollowing techniques’, though I can’t find any reference to it in Pilates’ own writing. I recently had an online conversation of sorts with a former Pilates teacher and studio owner who described herself as a ‘master trainer’. The conversation started because she had blamed Pilates for her ‘weak’ rectus abdominis, and she explained to me that: “The pilates priciple of navel to the spine creates an imbalance in the abdominal muscles.” I have no wish to impugn the integrity or sincerity of this lady, presumably her view is a reflection of what she was taught herself. But where did it come from? I’d be very interested to hear if anyone who was trained by Romana, Kathy, Eve, Ron, Carola or any of the other first generation teachers ever heard a ‘navel to spine’ or abdominal hollowing cue. Again, Pilates himself never mentioned any such thing in ‘Return to Life’. I know from other exchanges that I’ve had on Facebook forums that, amongst plenty of teachers, the importance of cueing transversus, and the correct usage of transversus are, beyond question, fundamental to Pilates.

So, research appearing to indicate that transverses contraction is normally reflexive, we find that it is being cued nearly constantly in Pilates. The truth is that, having had a lumbar disc injury, I probably benefited greatly from some simple spinal stabilisation/hip dissociation exercises when I first started Pilates, but these were in preparation for doing Pilates, not central to it. In other words, these were pre-Pilates exercises that seem to have somehow morphed into what Pilates is perceived to be. Indeed, organisations like APPI and Clinical Pilates™ will teach their students that this is how Pilates should be – “The APPI Pilates Method provides Physiotherapists and equivalent degree therapists with a clinical and user friendly tool for retraining correct activation of the Multifidus, TrA muscles and pelvic floor muscles.“(The APPI Pilates Method, http://www.ausphysio.com) I should say here that, of course, physiotherapists do a very important job of helping people to be pain-free, and I am sure too that there are many great and dedicated teachers trained under these and similar methods. My concern is, to revert to the analogy above, that the on-ramp becomes the freeway, first in the perception of teachers trained in this thinking, and then in the public perception.

I’ve written recently about our willingness to believe that we understand bodies and movement better than Pilates did, and I assume this is the reason that Pilates teachers were apparently so willing to adopt clinical concepts in their teaching. The slightly bizarre thing to me is that at the same time some of those clinicians were busy declaring that physiotherapists are the natural bearers of the Pilates flame – that they are the people best qualified to teach Pilates. It’s an idea that is routinely promoted now -“Pilates instructors may be able to teach Pilates but are they qualified to give rehabilitation to someone who has an injury or medical diagnosis? We would suggest not. Physiotherapists can give full rehabilitation and can be taught to teach Pilates.” (The Benefits of Physiotherapist Led Pilates, http://www.pilatesandtherapy.co.uk) and, of course, in the quote at the top of the page.

Intertwined in this is the notion that actually Pilates is for people who are injured, or in pain. This brings us back to the ‘within normal limits’ outcome, and the idea that repertoire that hasn’t been validated by research should be discarded – “We don’t know for sure that this will help to resolve your pain, or increase the efficacy of your spinal stabilisation strategies, so you shouldn’t do it.” What was devised as a system is reworked (unsystematised, perhaps) and then, weirdly, appears often not to work. I have a strong suspicion that there are plenty of teachers who have arrived at Pilates after pain or injury, followed the unsystem approach and failed to enjoy the outcomes that Pilates intended. They’ve trusted the clinicians instead of the system, and thus find themselves ‘within normal limits’, when Joseph was trying to offer “godlike attributes” – what a compromise!


41HJGOjnmrL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Firstly, thank you to everyone who read Part 1 – something about this topic clearly resonated because more people have viewed that post than any other that I’ve written (no, it’s not saying much, but ‘from little acorns’ etc…)

Some of the comments that were made in response to Part 1 indicate that I didn’t do a very good job of arguing that there isn’t too much flexion, AND indicate to me that there are plenty of teachers who will happily declare that ‘there is too much flexion’, or ‘classical Pilates is mostly flexion’ as a gospel truth – as one of those things that’s so manifestly true that it needs no qualifying. When I asked for an example of a particular exercise that symbolised ‘too much flexion’ there were no examples forthcoming. The argument seems to go: “Just look at ‘Return to Life'”, and that’s exactly what I plan to do.

Before that I would like to quote Jean-Claude, from Bluebird Pilates in Munich, whose comment on the Facebook pilates-contrology-forum very neatly sums up what I believe:

“If you ask the question, if there is too much flexion in the Pilates Method and you generalise like followed: Roll Up = Flexion , Swan = Extension , I believe it is a black and white approach. 

Looking closely at the Roll Up for example, I can see an important part of extension, lying flat reaching you arms up and over you head without lifting your middle back, reaching into the two way stretch through your feet and finger tips. For me that is clearly an extension that most clients have to work on pretty hard.”

So, trying to see the original mat exercises in glorious technicolour, here we go. In case it’s not obvious, I’m assuming that the ‘too much flexion’ accusation refers to the spine, and not to other joints.

The Hundred

My understanding is that The Hundred is about breathing, and that it is about chest expansion (thank you Kathryn Ross-Nash, this was so helpful to me). I’ve argued elsewhere that the position of this exercise is essentially the gymnastic ‘hollow body’ or ‘dish’ position. A big part of which is hip extension – JP is pointing his toes in the pictures in RtL, which is (as Carl Paoli says) an expression of pushing. I would suggest that, if you are thinking of holding your legs up in The Hundred, then you are mistaken – you need to be pushing your legs down. The action of hip extension will help to centre your femurs well in your hip sockets, and assist a posterior pelvic tilt (which is different from tucking, of course) that will lengthen your lumbar and flatten it into the floor. Yes, there’s some lumbar flexion, but as always in Pilates, it’s coupled with elongation. For me, the component of hip extension is far more significant than lumbar flexion. It is my upper thoracic that really has to flex, meaning that I have to find some extension from my lower thoracic, which is where the chest expansion challenge comes in – can I flex my upper thoracic without closing the front of my shoulders? (Yes, if I really concentrate).

In short, not a flexion dominant exercise.

The Roll Up

The instructions begin “Lie flat with entire body resting on mat…” Yes there’s lumbar flexion to achieve that, but it’s about flexing to lengthen rather than flexing to curve, and the pelvis/leg relationship is the key, so the facility for hip extension is central again. I bet too that the thoracic extension challenge is significant for many to achieve the desired start position. I won’t pretend that the movement itself doesn’t in involve flexion, but the ability to move efficiently at your hip joints is the key. I saw it asserted on Facebook this morning that the 3 challenges to doing The Roll Up are: “the proportion of the body; the mobility of the spine; the strength of the abdominal muscles” No! If you can’t assume the start position – lumbar lengthened and hips extended (that slight posterior tilt will require you to be in hip extension). If you can’t dissociate at your hip joint your spine will have little chance of moving appropriately and this, I believe, is the usual reason for people to struggle with The Roll Up.

As I mentioned in Part 1, my understanding is that the eccentric (resisting force) phase of any exercise is at least as important as the concentric (applying force) phase. So you are always resisting gravity or, in the studio, the springs. Therefore rolling up from the floor is not the big challenge, rolling back to the floor is where the control really occurs, and this is when you have to be able to extend your hips, and your thoracic (see Jean-Claude’s observation above). The alignment of your spine is (pathology aside) a product of the orientation of your pelvis on the top of your legs. If we disagree on this we will probably disagree on most things movement related.

So The Roll Up is an exercise of hip dissociation, spinal flexion and extension.

The Roll-Over

This exercise is almost a reverse Roll Up, so many of the same ideas apply. Spinal control becomes more significant than hip control, because part of your spine remains the anchor to the floor, whereas in the Roll Up your pelvis and legs are the anchor. The eccentric phase is, as far as I’ve seen, always harder than the concentric phase (again, it’s Pilates – that’s how it’s supposed to be).

Of course there’s flexion, with elongation, and it’s working your hip extensors that will help to maintain that length (ie. Resist gravity) but the hard work comes in maintaining shoulder placement (there’s that chest expansion idea from The Hundred) and extending your upper thoracic, so that you’re not over extending your neck, on the way down – and then maintaining that while you extend your lower thoracic too.

So the shape looks like flexion but The Roll-Over is an exercise in controlling spinal extension.

The One Leg Circle

It’s the Roll Up start position again – there’s as much thoracic extension as there is lumbar flexion..

Rolling Back (Rolling Like a Ball)

Yes, it’s in flexion – I would say a (-curve, not a c-curve. As with earlier examples, it is hip extension that will help to maintain lengthened lumbar flexion – you push out against you own pulling in – that’s the opposition that creates length in the shape and gives you dynamic control. If you’re rolling and only pulling in then balance is going to be more a matter of luck than control.

So it is flexion but you’d better not be just thinking about flexing.

The Leg Stretches

Just like The Hundred, the lumbar flexion is really about elongation, and once again hip extension, and the capacity for deep flexion at your hip joint. And there’s the chest expansion element again – can you keep that as your draw your knee(s) in?

They looks like flexion exercises, but maybe that shouldn’t be the focus if you’re doing them well.

The Spine Stretch

In truth, I’m not thrilled with JP’s start position in RtL – it looks like there’s a bit too much posterior tilt to be able to really maintain length while going into lumbar flexion….

Here the flexion happens on the eccentric phase, so you work hard to lift into flexion against gravity wanting you to collapse. The concentric phase is all extension and, for me at least, this is one accession when it’s just as demanding as the eccentric part – to really sit up without hinging at my lumbar-thoracic junction, to really extend my thoracic, takes a lot of concentration and control.

It’s another exercise in both flexion and extension – the middle position of any Pilates exercise rarely tells you what the exercise is all about.

With just a few exceptions, I’ve already written about the exercises that follow, or (hopefully) they obviously don’t involve spinal flexion to any significant degree.

Rocker with Open LegsThe Seal, The Crab = Rolling Back (and The Crab gives me the most fantastic upper thoracic stretch, in the area that so few exercises reach).

The Corkscrew, The Jack-Knife, The Control Balance = The Roll-Over, and you’d better be using your hip extensors to organise and lengthen your spine.

The Saw, and the spinal articulation component of The Push Up = The Spine Stretch.

The Teaser is The Roll Up but with less feedback, and a harder involvement of your hip extensors (yes, they have to work to help organise your spine and maintain the length in your lumbar).

It’s tempting to say that, if anything, there’s too much hip extension in Pilates, because your hip extensors need to be working in (borrowing a generalisation) ‘pretty much everything’. This is where the idea that when Joseph Pilates devised the system people had different lifestyles and needed different things (which is often the underpinning of the ‘too much flexion’ argument) seems to fall down. In my experience everyone could have more efficient hip extensors, and I guess that JP had this worked out.

To try to summarise, many exercises, seen in a snapshot, appear to be flexion biased but we do the whole exercise, not a snapshot. Inevitably, how we think of an exercise, our perception as we approach the movement, influences what we do and feel. If you believe that Pilates is flexion biased then that will probably be your experience. What happens if you allow your perception to change?