Image from Disney's "Wall-E"

Image from Disney’s “Wall-E”

I’ll be the first to acknowledge, if I haven’t on this platform already, that I tend to like research that reinforces my beliefs, and to dismiss that which does not. I know that correlation does not equal causation, yet correlation can still be attractive if it seems to hint that a belief may really be the truth.

It’s always been easy to dismiss studies (I’m referring to studies on humans) whose results I might find inconvenient, because it’s so difficult to account for every variable in any human study, be it lifestyle, gender, size, weight, ethnicity etc. Then we have to consider the possible bias of the researchers, and possible massaging of the results to fit the desired outcome. So, ‘The China Study‘ may appear to show a correlation between plant based diets and reduced mortality rates, but it certainly does not provide proof of any such thing. It seems that, in general, interesting correlations are the best information that we can hope for from human studies.

I’ve recently had a debate, of sorts, via the comments section of a previous post, on ‘neutral spine’ in Pilates exercises, and the relevance, or not, of Stuart McGill’s research into low back disorders. Earlier this year I heard Ido Portal being summarily dismissive of this and other research, into diet for example, as having been conducted on ‘Homer Simpsons’. In other words, if the research subjects do not have a similar lifestyle or diet to his (and have not had for years), then what relevance would it have to him? Subsequently, I heard the excellent Katy Bowman articulating a similar position, in a little more detail.

Just as Erwan LeCorre refers to “zoo humans”, Katy describes us as humans “in captivity”. In effect, post-industrial lifestyles have made us captives of our own inventions. The comforts that have become so normal as to be invisible have robbed our bodies of the inputs that many thousands of years of evolution led them to expect. Many of us have feet that have not touched real ground in years, except through the (desensitising) cushioning of shoes. Frank Forencich wrote an essay that I particularly like, called “Sculpted by cats”. He writes of a time when big cats were far more widespread than they are now, and preying on our ancestors. Thus, those ancestors’ behaviour was in part dictated by sharing the land with their predators, and evolving particular traits or skills as a consequence. As Katy explains, we are now “sculpted by chairs” instead.

Nutrition inputs for most of us have changed almost beyond recognition from those that evolution led our bodies to expect. Simply, we don’t live, or eat in the way that humans have for millennia – we are almost a new species – homo sedentarien? Homo diseasus?. If you have seen ‘Wall-E’ you’ve seen this species depicted.
If you’re interested in being a Homo sapiens, and not being some sort of post-industrial, corrupted-by-comfort variant, then does research conducted on subjects that aren’t like you have much relevance to you? If you move and eat in a way that nourishes your whole body, if you avoid ‘foods’ that promote inflammation, will it fall apart on you? Do you need to be concerned that, like an IKEA kitchen drawer, your joints have a finite number of movements in them (dictated by your genetics, perhaps) before degeneration? Can science tell you much about how to live, eat, play or work if it’s looking in the wrong direction?

 

Epilogue

This post is really an acknowledgement of some of the ‘giants’ upon whose shoulders I endeavour to stand, to optimise my current world view:

Frank Forencich

Ido Portal

Katy Bowman

Neutral?

October 18, 2014 — 11 Comments

This subject may have been done to death, but the last post that I wrote garnered reaction from a number of people, specifically in relation to my writing that “I may have uttered the phrase ‘neutral spine’ at some point in my life” (as if that were a bad thing). So, it seems like something worth addressing, and having done some hunting in books and via the internet, there is plenty of (at least) potentially conflicting information available.

Neutral posture is defined as one “where the joints and surrounding soft tissues are in elastic equilibrium and thus at an angle of minimal joint load”.

(sorry, I’ve seen this quoted repeatedly but cannot find the original source).

If you’re going to be lifting weights, whether a barbell or bags loaded with a weekly shop, neutral is a fantastic place for your spine to be. There will be load on your spine, because it is the transmission from your arms (carrying the weight) to your hip joints, which should be moving the weight, but the load will be distributed evenly through the joints. If you are a Pilates teacher, or enthusiast, you probably know what Joseph Pilates believed about spinal flexibility – he wrote, in ‘Return to Life’ “If your spine is inflexibly stiff at 30, you are old. If it is completely flexible at 60, you are young.” In the lifting example though, the facility to maintain stiffness in your spine is very valuable.

One of the foremost proponents of spine stiffness is Prof. Stuart McGill (the link is to an article that he wrote) who has spent years researching spines, and apparently gathered lots of evidence that supports his theories.

I can’t disagree with a lot of what Prof. Mc Gill says in the video (and what right, as a layperson, would I have anyway?), especially in relation to the importance of lifting with the hips and not simply bending your knees. I heard recently of research on dancers showing a strong correlation between poor hip hinging (the ability to hinge the trunk around the hip joints without spinal articulation) and both back and knee pain – back pain especially. There would seem to be a strong case for making sure that the people we teach understand how to hip hinge (to powerfully extend their hips, you might say.)

Are there exercises in Pilates that involve the spine acting as a static transmission of load from one extremity to another? Absolutely. And there are also, of course, plenty that require us to sequentially articulate our spines, or to maintain spinal flexion. I suspect that the work of Prof. McGill has caused some teachers to believe that we should be avoiding lumbar flexion (it seems to be regarded as more sinister than thoracic or cervical flexion, presumably because the majority of disc injuries occur there). If you look you can find video online (try “the Pilates Nun”) of the Rollup being taught with a neutral lumbar spine, so as to keep it safe. If you peruse Professor McGill’s ‘Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance’ book you will see that he particularly advocates exercising with lumbar in neutral for people who have had back injuries or back pain: “Generally, for the injured back, spine flexibility should not be emphasised until the spine has stabilised and has undergone strength and endurance conditioning – and some may never reach this stage!” (page 47). This is not at all the same as never, ever flex your lumbar spine, yet this is what some people have taken from his work.

As a concept, neutral spine seems to be predominantly taught lying supine, which is curious to me because it seems to be the one position where neutral has least value or application. Under what circumstances, when lying down, do you need to maintain a neutral spine? If the only answer is ‘during exercise’, then we have to wonder what the purpose of the exercise is. I’m referring to mat based exercise, Footwork on the Reformer, and similar exercises with straps/springs being an exception, because you are applying force from your hip joint against mechanical resistance – they are mimicking deadlifting and squatting while supine. There is not a single exercise in ‘Return to Life’, beginning from a supine position, that calls for neutral spine, so it would seem reasonable to say that any pre-Pilates exercise (that is truly progressing toward an actual Pilates exercise) would not call for it either.

You might want to encourage a neutral spine in standing, in which case this is entirely dependent on the leg/pelvis relationship. If that is well organised – pelvis neutral – then cues related to axial elongation will surely help to achieve an appropriate spine position. After all, as Shari Berkowitz writes in her blog post ‘Neutral Pelvis and Neutral Spine: What are they and why do we care?‘, neutral spine is not a specific shape but unique to each individual. And, with that reference, ‘neutral pelvis’ rears its head.

Neutral pelvis, defined by Ms Berkowitz in her article as: “ASIS and pubic bone in line with each other in the Coronal Plane” (which would presumably translate to Transverse Plane when supine), seems to me a more appropriate thing to be talking about than neutral spine, but do we really need to talk about it at all? Yes, it may well be a helpful cue to some, and my discomfort with the term may be a little irrational. (I’m much happier talking/thinking about organising one’s pelvis on the top/end of one’s legs..) Once again, I have to wonder if the term have a place in Pilates – particularly the matwork?

maxresdefaultMany gymnastic exercises involve the hollow body, or ‘dish’ position, and it seems to be central to gymnastics foundational strength programs (Gymnastic Bodies, for example). Having been introduced to the hollow body position it became apparent to me that this was the basis for a number of Pilates exercises – The Hundred; Single & Double Leg Stretches; and even The Push Up (ask any gymnast – push ups aren’t done in ‘neutral’). In fact, the second picture accompanying The Double Leg Stretch in ‘Return to Life’ is identical to the picture above. According to gymnastics coach, and author Carl Paoli, the hollow body is fundamental to learning to control your lumbar spine against the natural tendency to excessive flexion. It seems entirely natural to me that Joseph Pilates would have adopted this idea from gymnastics, which was particular popular in Germany.

One of the most valuable elements of the hollow body position for me was the understanding that my spine is organised by my glutes. My abdominals can then go to work to help to sustain that organised position but, under load, my glutes (the auto spell check is determined that I use my flutes to organise my spine…) are paramount. In a supine position this has the effect of lengthening my lower back into the ground, rather than jamming it down, and it becomes a much more sustainable position than it used to be for me. I would go as far as to say that my abdominals depend on the efficient functioning of my flutes (see?) to be able to function efficiently themselves. This does not equate to neutral pelvis.

Aside from it not seeming to be what Pilates himself was teaching, the problem with ‘neutral pelvis’ is that, once you take yourself away from either vertical or horizontal, the term has no meaning, except in relation to your spine. So, when a teacher calls for a variety of exercises from the original repertoire to be performed in ‘neutral pelvis’, I suspect that what they are really saying is ‘lumbar neutral’. If that is what’s intended, why stop there? If you flex your thoracic but not your lumbar then one would think that there would necessarily be significant intervertebral compression in the lower thoracic. If it is truly important to keep the lumbar in neutral, then why not the thoracic and the cervical? Where does that take us? Everything neutral in the sagittal plane only allows us to include The Twist, Side Kick Lying and Kneeling, and The Leg Pull (if you’re careful).

Under those circumstances, Pilates, as an exercise method, is dead – killed by the creeping influence of physiotherapy and disc injury and rehabilitation research. If you think that gymnastics may not hold all the answers to sound movement then I’d agree – practiced at an elite level it’s probably not fantastic for your health. That doesn’t mean that the basics haven’t been worked out over a long period of time – at least a century more than Pilates has been around. Gymnastics, like Pilates (I hope) is also very much concerned with having control over one’s body in movement. Can the same thing be said for the advocates of ‘neutral’?

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_2043Spoiler alert! What follows necessarily involves generalisations, and is in no way intended to disparage any individual(s).

I’m a little surprised to find myself writing this, and perhaps it’s in part a reflection of conservatism increasing along with age. Within the Pilates world it seems that the arguments over the merits, and legitimacy of “classical” and “contemporary” Pilates go on and on. Not long ago I may have found the dogma of the classical followers a bit hard to take. I may even have referred to some of the die-hard adherents to the classical form as ‘fundamentalists’, which I admit has some unpleasant connotations these days.

More recently, and as a result of various experiences, I’m starting to think that teachers (here’s generalisation No.1) in the UK have done Pilates a terrible disservice. Actually, not just the UK (a video from a well-known Australian teacher contributing to my dismay) but this is the region that I’m best placed to observe. One of the mantras that gets repeated in the argument in favour of a more contemporary approach to Pilates is that, because of advances in science, biomechanics, kinesiology etc, we understand movement better than Joseph Pilates did. If we believe that then it’s logical to apply the fruits of this deeper understanding to Pilates’ system.

Inevitably, as my understanding has shifted (up, down, sideways – who’s to say?) my teaching has changed. I’ve been seduced in the past by ideas and information that have complicated my thinking when teaching, and encouraged me to try to teach something in a more complicated way. I hope I can truthfully say that it’s been a long time, but I suspect that I’ve uttered the words “neutral spine” in the past. I’ve come to realise, too, that in trying to be inclusive of everyone in the class, I’d habitually compromised a movement to the point that I’d forgotten what the movement was supposed to be in the first place. I’ve worked to try to make people comfortable in an exercise at the expense of actually doing the exercise. I believe that we have done this sort of thing over and over, until the intention of the original exercise has been lost completely. There are apparently many people in the UK that believe Pilates is boring, and I’m inclined to believe that it’s because many of them have been taught some pale (wan, iron-deficient, malnourished) imitation of the real thing.

Part of the responsibility for this may be the prevalence of Pilates mat classes taught in health clubs, where the teacher has very little control over who attends the class. The lowest common denominator will often set the tone. Interestingly, the government approved qualification for Pilates teachers, that many health clubs require, is more geared toward the teachers ability to include everyone than in the teachers understanding of Pilates’ system. This is a relatively recent phenomenon, but the ‘dumbing down’ of Pilates has been going on for a lot longer.

It’s still shocking to meet teachers, who have been plying their trade for perhaps 10 years, that were not taught the original mat exercises during their training. It’s almost laughable. Imagine: “I’m a maths teacher, but I don’t teach multiplication or division because my trainer didn’t believe that it was suitable for the general public.” There’s a whole strain of ‘creativity’ – teachers finding new things to do with or without equipment, that may have roots in another discipline, or not (“Can I do that exercise with the foam roller and the rotating disc when you’r holding the push-through bar?”) that may deserve a separate post. More disconcerting is the idea, it appears many teachers have, that Pilates is full of relaxation. I think this comes in part from the world of somatics, and disciplines like Feldenkrais, which are great in themselves but maybe not applicable to the practice of Pilates (unless perhaps none has a particularly vivid understanding of how to move well). The other part of the relaxation dogma, I suspect, comes from trying to help people who are challenged in some of the original work by, for example, poor hip dissociation (see, I can’t stop the modern science creeping in). This seems to me to be one of the fundamental skills of good movement, and therefore Pilates too. Here’s an example: someone can’t Roll Up, or back again, without their legs leaving the floor. Could it be that we have encouraged the notion of relaxing the inhibited muscles, instead of actually teaching those people where to work from so as to overcome the inhibition – working toward correcting a faulty pattern? (Work the right muscles, so that the ‘wrong’ muscles get the chance to return to natural function).

In similar territory, have we pursued that things that feel ‘nice’ in our own practice, and for our clients? The practice of starting a class with side-flexion seems strangely prevalent, and mostly because it “feels nice” – or stretches muscles that the teacher perceives to be tight. The logic of working on central support to give some relief to overworked superficial muscles, instead of just trying to stretch those muscles, seems to have escaped us. Pilates didn’t need to spell this out, he just put centring exercises at the beginning of the sequence (and now modern science has taught us better, perhaps?) How have we got to a situation where what feels nice is the key determinant for exercise choice? It’s true that Pilates often makes me feel good, but that’s typically a response to my body working hard, rather than doing things that feel relaxing, or nice. The lasting benefits always seem to come from working hard, and it still amazes me when clients have that ‘Oh, this is hard!’ reaction to Pilates. Was it ever intended to be anything else? The idea of working just as hard as you need to is very appealing, and one of the seductive things about Pilates is that it probably takes decades of practice to reach the point at which the really difficult things begin to feel like they don’t require maximum effort.

I am not advocating a ‘one size fits all’ approach, as seems to be the view of some teachers – that if you want to hold true to the intent of the original exercise you are trying to force square pegs into round holes. My wife attended a workshop with Kathryn Ross-Nash a while back, and one of the nuggets that she passed on to me was the idea that every Pilates exercise has a single purpose. Several objectives, perhaps, but a single purpose. Adding to that the idea that exercises should not be adapted or modified, but rather broken down into their constituent parts, in order to work towards the whole. I suspect that I will do Ms Ross-Nash a disservice if I try to paraphrase any further, and the best advice may be to seek her out in person, or here, for example. To me, her thoughts seem to tie into what I wrote earlier, about adapting an exercise to accommodate everyone, to the point that the original exercise, along with its purpose, is a distant memory. Teach people what they need to know/do, in order to do the exercise, instead of reinventing it.

I know that there are many teachers in the UK to whom what I have written does not apply and, as I tip my hat to all of them, I’m trying hard to be one. I’m not sure that the system that Joseph Pilates devised is perfect, but I think it’s almost certainly a good deal better than has often been allowed for by teachers (and teacher trainers) in the UK.

If it’s not too late, what is to be done about this sorry state of affairs? Here are a few ideas:

Sweat more (and don’t tell others that Pilates doesn’t make you sweat). There’s a reason that Pilates believed it wasn’t necessary to do a lot of repetitions, and quite often that’s because, if you’ve put your whole body and mind into the exercise, 5 or 6 is all that you can manage.

Relax less – that’s what sofas and television were invented for, not Pilates. (Oh, and don’t get too comfortable either – very few useful adaptations are derived from comfort).

If you’re a teacher – take more classes. Unless you think that you’ve learned everything by the end of your teacher training.

And please accept my apologies if the tone of this is especially hectoring. Conversations, social media postings and the stars have aligned in such a way that writing this felt imperative.

 

 

 

I’m always fascinated by what Pilates teachers, individually and collectively (if that’s possible) believe that Pilates is for. One idea that I always like is that Pilates can be a significant help toward achieving one’s full potential – optimal expression of our genetics, if you will.
Consequently it’s been interesting to see some recent forum threads touching upon exercises that one might not attempt, or teach. Questions arise about, for example, whether or not one needs to do advanced or super-advanced reformer exercises. This strikes me as a rather rocky path: does anyone need to do Pilates in any form? (Of course I know it’s fantastically helpful to many people, and loved by many more, but is that the same as needing it?)
A few years ago I was tasked with teaching the Return to Life exercises to a group of teachers in training, and was horrified when one of them asked why she needed to know them, since she “would never teach them”! So where does one draw the line?
I would agree that some of the advanced repertoire on both Reformer and Cadillac require great strength, mobility and control. Working toward those qualities is an excellent reason to be practicing Pilates, so why not aspire to the zenith of the work (and work towards it)?
Another thread around a discussion on what is the ideal size for a reformer (it feels ridiculous to even type this) included a reference to splits only being necessary for dancers. This would suggest that our joints have unnecessary capacity – that there is no need to be strong throughout our available range of movement. Never mind recovering lost range. To me this is a bizarre attitude for a Pilates teacher to have, and it seems to relate to the discussion about advanced repertoire, and giving people ‘what they need’, as if we can predict that an office worker will never slip and be forced into a split position in which they have neither strength nor control. What?!
Again, I wonder what we think Pilates is for. How about if we said Pilates is for being more awesome, and not installing any glass ceilings?

I’m not warmed up yet

August 10, 2014 — 2 Comments

html5-canvas-thermometerWhen approaching a maximal effort (or close to max effort) challenge like a one rep max dead-lift, something imposing an endurance demand like running a 10K race, or maybe a CrossFit type ‘metcon’ it’s almost certainly a good idea to have some kind of warm-up. Something to literally warm you up – raise your body temperature, begin to elevate your heart rate, dilate your blood vessels etc. I doubt that there are many professional athletes of any stripe that don’t have some kind of warm-up prior to an event that will likely require their maximum effort.

We may disagree about this, but I don’t believe that Pilates is something that should or does impose this sort of physical demand. Rather, if we consider it only as exercise, I think it is a program for general physical preparedness. I’m not saying that I find the entire Pilates repertoire easy (some exercises remain beyond my reach), and much of the repertoire makes me work hard. Sweat, even. As a teacher I’ve always instinctively felt that I (and by extension Pilates teachers in general) should be able to demonstrate any exercise at any given moment that the job requires. (I accept that there are excellent Pilates teachers who may not be able to demonstrate certain things for good reason – spinal fusion, for example. I am not writing about them.) I don’t know exactly why I felt that way, I just know that it always seemed a bit daft to me on the many, many occasions that I’ve heard a Pilates teacher saying that he/she cannot demonstrate a particular exercise for their client/s because they were “not warmed up”.

This feeling, or instinct was brought into focus for me recently, when attending Ido Portal‘s ‘Movement X’ workshop. In the context of talking about mobility vs flexibility (An interesting discussion. I’d suggest researching his thoughts via his blog posts, or videos.) Ido asked us to imagine a Taekwondo practitioner being assaulted in a bar, and asking his assailant to wait for a few minutes while he warmed his hip joints up, in order that he could kick him back. In other words, what is the point of a physical practice if the fruits of that practice aren’t available to you all the time?

If a particular Pilates exercise is valuable, worthwhile, then it should be available to you at any time. If its not available to you, without a warm-up first, is there really any point to it?

I do Movement

August 9, 2014 — 5 Comments

If I’m truly honest, I like to think of myself as a reasonably competent mover. That’s to say, I think that I’m fairly co-ordinated and able to move with a bit of control and grace. This is important to me not least because I believe, as a Pilates teacher, that my job is to teach people to move well. I consider that I’m on a journey to a better understanding of human movement and I’ve developed some strong (I was going to write ‘fixed’ but that would be inaccurate) opinions along the way about what ‘good’ movement looks like. (It turns out that I’d barely scratched the surface…) Anyone who is on a similar journey will most likely, sooner or later, come across the name Ido Portal, or more likely a video of Ido Portal doing something(s) extraordinary.

I started to follow Ido on Facebook a couple of years ago, and while I was amazed by his physical prowess, I was also struck by what seems like an uncompromising attitude that bordered on the obnoxious. One post seemed to aggressively dismiss (i.e.. don’t waste my f***ing time) anyone who was interested in online coaching but couldn’t commit less than 24 hours per week to the process. Wow! As someone who believed that my life makes it hard for me to find one hour per day to commit to exercise for myself (even though it’s my job) this appeared to be both crazy and elitist.

Nonetheless, something had piqued the interest of both my wife and I, and  I began to look out for workshops that we could attend. Back in January this year I saw two workshops scheduled back to back, in Finland. ‘Movement X’, and ‘The Corset’. Places on Ido’s workshops fill up fast, and I hadn’t seen many instances of 2 back to back, so we booked. If I try to crystallise what my overarching goal is, from a lifestyle, nutrition and fitness perspective then you might say it is to become ‘bulletproof’, or as bulletproof as possible. From this perspective ‘The Corset’ sounded particularly interesting, and as August got closer my anticipation grew. Just a couple of weeks before Ido was a guest on the Londonreal video/podcast, describing his philosophy, and what attendees of bios workshops might expect.

This definitely heightened my anticipation, but still didn’t make me feel much clearer about exactly what the workshops would entail. The main thrust of Ido’s description seemed to be “not what people expect”… It was interesting then, when telling clients and friends that we would be away doing this, to try to describe what ‘this’ would be. “I’ll let you know when I get back” becoming the stock answer. One thing that the interview did suggest is that Ido is less brash than I might have imagined, and not particularly interested in being a leader, “Walk beside me, not behind me” being a motif of the interview. Additionally, he is very clear that he does not want anyone in his workshops to feel stupid, inadequate or humiliated – so I was less concerned about my lack of gymnastic prowess.

Finland proved to be a beautiful, warm and sunny destination, and Crossfit Box 100 was an ideal venue. There was a nice mix of diverse backgrounds in the group for the first two days (we didn’t do intros in the 2nd workshop) and it was great to find that the big strong guys weren’t too gung ho when it came to the practical work. I’ve not always found this to be the case, and maybe it’s a sign that you have to be a certain kind of individual, or to have resolved some issues before signing up for this.

Ido warned us out the outset that there would be a fair amount of talking, and though there was a lot of talking there was never a moment in 4 days when I wished that we were moving more and listening less – for me, at least, he’s got the balance just right. One of the first things he asked of us was to call him out on his ‘bullshit’, on the basis that we can all grow more from this. It became evident though that Ido has done a lot of homework, and I mean really a lot. Between my wife and I we have a lot of books related to anatomy, physiology, exercise, movement disciplines, injuries etc. but I suspect we’re just scratching the surface of what he has studied, from an academic perspective. He is, as he says ‘The Movement Guy’, so he’s practised a lot of different disciplines – martial arts, capoeira, yoga – as well as weight lifting and gymnastics, and he backs up his physical ability with theory. Aside from a comment about Pilates, in relation to advising against abdominal hollowing, which suggested that he has been exposed to Pilates as influenced by physiotherapy, rather than Pilates as Joseph taught it, Ido made sense relentlessly.

I don’t want to turn this into a catalogue of the movements or exercises that we did, but rather to try to explain the experience overall. As much as anything else, writing this is to help me make sense of what felt like a transformative experience. I was sceptical when, in the London Real interview, Ido talked about receiving emails from people who’s lives had been changed by attending his workshops but I have to admit that, in opening a doorway to a bigger universe than I had previously perceived, he has changed my life.

We were lucky to have Odelia (whom he describes as his ‘right hand’) working alongside Ido. Their interaction bought something very special to the experience, like the embodiment of yin and yang. There is a pent up energy about Ido and on the few occasions that he demonstrated a movement it was as if this was a release, whereas Odelia is the epitome of focused calm (though super strong and ready to demonstrate anything, anytime). Their mutual respect is obvious, and the way that they work together adds to what they’re teaching. It feels slightly invasive to dwell on their relationship (which is none of our business), but as someone who works with his wife it was both a lesson and lovely to see.

I’ve just deleted several sentences that I’d written to describe Ido’s manner and teaching style – they were too long/too much. His teaching style is simple and clear, warm and funny, and sharp when necessary – but that was not the key for me. The London Real interviewer makes reference to Ido having a cult-like following, that he is seen as a Guru. Ido to idol, it’s an easy step. Now this is an area in which I have to watch myself, as it’s easy for me to raise people that I admire onto a pedestal. I found that, somehow, Ido does not invite this. It’s not that he says that he doesn’t want to be seem as a guru, rather it’s that he succeeds in being a messenger, instead of being the message. Perhaps this is why Odelia was there to demonstrate the movements. He is ‘the handstand guy’, but we don’t get to see him doing many handstands. He might also be the one-arm pull-up guy, but equally we don’t see much of this. Instead, he is ‘the movement guy’, and movement is the guru, if indeed there is one. One of the phrases that he used repeatedly was “You have abandoned movement, my friend.” And it’s true, I discovered that I had abandoned movement. Many of us were struggling with some of the wrist work “because you don’t touch the ground enough”, and again, it’s true. I can’t deny it – I had abandoned movement. So instead of Ido becoming guru (he remains the teacher), movement becomes my guru – I now worship at the alter of movement. It’s in me, it’s my heritage, or birthright, and actually what I think Ido does most effectively is to point out, over the course of the workshop, that this is the case. That I have the potential to be more human than I have been, to be much more alive, and to feel the same.

This is the life-changing thing that I hadn’t anticipated. I’ve had a few days to process things, and the fact that I can write this many words means that it’s becoming clearer. What I felt immediately after our four days with Ido was something like Fight Club. I knew that friends and colleagues would be asking me about the workshops, but I felt that I couldn’t talk about them. You could make a list of the drills, protocols and movements that we learned, but those are simply the tools. It seemed to me in that immediate aftermath that you just had to be there to understand what I’d seen for myself. Again, with a few days to mull things over it’s a bit clearer to me – the universe of movement is vast, way bigger than I had allowed myself to imagine previously, and it’s mine! With patience and dedication I can go far beyond the narrow confines of my primary discipline (however GPP I thought it was), toward my real potential. I won’t worship Ido, but I will remain eternally grateful to him for opening that door, and encourage anyone who hasn’t yet to take the same journey.IMG_1976 IMG_1978

courtesy of Pilates Style

courtesy of Pilates Style

2013-09-24-HeidiPowellOvrheadPressPrego

Courtesy of Huffpost

One doesn’t have to look far to find many testaments to the value of Pilates during pregnancy. Though it has not received a specific endorsement from any UK health authority (RCOG for example), I doubt that there are many Pilates teachers who would tell a mum-to-be that Pilates wasn’t a good idea. Searching for ‘risks of Pilates during pregnancy’ doesn’t yield many results.

Equally, though perhaps less numerous, there are a number of women who will attest to the value of (appropriately scaled) CrossFit during pregnancy. Indeed there is a website, and social media pages and websites for ‘CrossFit Moms’. In this instance the doubters are a bit more vocal. While they may be largely lay people, photos of a heavily pregnant CrossFitter doing weighted squats caused a storm of controversy, with commentators declaring that she was endangering her baby, and that this activity should be regarded as child abuse.

I am an enthusiast for both of these exercise modalities, but recently I’ve had cause to reconsider my beliefs around pregnancy and exercise.

I’ve also had cause to wonder, prompted by social media threads in particular, about the prevalence of pre- and post-natal sacroiliac joint problems and symphysis-pubis dysfunction. Of course, the release of relaxin, not to mention hyper mobility, will have an impact on joint stability. We know that relaxin is released for a reason, yet it seems a very inefficient (thus unlikely) natural response if it causes lasting problems. I don’t believe in the ‘we just spontaneously break’ model of health that we generally adopt in the developed world. Something about our inputs, or our environment causes ill health – whether it’s joint problems or heart problems, for example. If we are (symptomatically) hyper mobile I suspect it’s because something in our diets, or parents diets (inputs) led to changes in collagen structure leading to lax connective tissues. There appears to have been a variety of research around the subject of diet and collagen (a protein), particularly in relation to caloric, protein, or cholesterol restriction – here’s a study on rats, if you fancy it. Thus, pelvic instability is not a random luck of the draw occurrence, but has an underlying cause. This is not an attempt to lay blame on anyone who has suffered with this problem – rather, to suggest that they have been unfortunate in their genetic inheritance and expression; or have not received the best guidance.

To get back to comparing exercise, first off, what are the most important exercises, or important muscles to be worked during pregnancy? Pelvic floor, right? You’ve got to do your pelvic floor exercises, for heaven’s sake! I’ve certainly done my fair share of teaching PF contractions to pregnant clients.

And then, last year, I watched Jill Miller’s webinar on CreativeLive, which featured the excellent Katy Bowman, as she put it, ‘dropping the Kegel bomb’ (Kegels is the term used in the US). She asserts that the most effective, and balanced way of keeping one’s pelvic floor toned during pregnancy is to squat, and to walk. We might say ‘practice natural human movement patterns’….Her argument is that, while they may be appropriate for some women, isolated pelvic floor exercises may lead to excessive pull on the inside of the sacroiliac joint and consequent imbalance/instability. Squatting would give more balancing posterior support, and both walking and squatting would help to keep tone in pelvic floor muscles.

And what are the issues around Pilates and pregnancy? We encourage pregnant clients at our studio to work with the apparatus, rather than doing mat classes. We’ve had great results and have had plenty of women coming to class right up to the end of their pregnancy. That said, during their second, and especially in their third trimester, a lot of their class doesn’t look much like classical Pilates. We don’t encourage participation in mat classes largely because of the restrictions in lying down (though I’d be the first to agree that guidelines on this are heavy handed, and that a woman’s body will most likely have a way of telling her to stop if lying down is causing vena cava compression), and herein lies one of the fundamental drawbacks of Pilates, especially in the classical practice – there’s a lot of lying down. I know of Pilates teachers who have had terrible problems of pelvic instability during pregnancy. There was a heated debated on a Facebook forum recently about the rights and wrongs of allowing a pregnant woman to participate in a Pilates mat class. Another recent post on the same forum was from a Pilates teacher in her third trimester, unhappy that her workouts feel incomplete because she can no longer follow the sequence that she’s used to. Advice from her responding peers ranged from suggestions for standing (Pilates) work, to taking walks and enjoying nature. Great suggestions, yet I fear that they may fail to address the problem of the lady’s frustration – her workout has to change completely. Is there an issue with the scalability of Pilates? Or the scalability of a ‘classical’ approach to Pilates? Mari Winsor’s book, ‘The Pilates Pregnancy’ is a case in point, with a number of reviews on Amazon commenting that the sequence of exercises varies little from one trimester to the next, and that she doesn’t offer much in the way of modification. In the third trimester she suggests the Hundred with bent knees and feet on the floor, or kneeling up if lying down is too uncomfortable.

Lying down isn’t just a problem from the point of view of possible restriction of blood flow, but also because it doesn’t train the muscles and soft tissues around the hip joints and pelvis to handle to take the increasing load of the growing baby. Indeed, would it not be better to be loading these joints (hip & SI) before conception, and in the early stages of pregnancy, in order to have a strong/stable foundation for the certainty of increasing load?

Here’s where the CrossFit mums-to-be that I know of step in. (Firstly, let’s be clear – I’m sure that many women have had happy and healthy pregnancies and deliveries with Pilates as their exercise companion). The wife of my first CrossFit coach is due in a matter of days, and still doing pull-ups. Another lady that my current coach is training, who is expecting twins in three months, is still deadlifting and squatting with weight – and maintaining that her back has never felt better. The beauty of the exercise methodology that they are following is that it can be scaled to fit their changing needs, without having to change the exercises themselves, and there are articles, in addition to the website mentioned above, to guide mums-to-be and coaches alike. In other words, they can squat throughout their pregnancy – the load and the range needs to change but the activity remains the same. High intensity workouts can be left ’til later, so there’s no need for any stopwatches, but there’s lots of scope for strength work (indeed, it doesn’t matter whether it’s called CrossFit or strength & conditioning). A lot has been written about the community aspect of CrossFit, and one of the benefits of this scaleability is that it means that pregnant women do not have to miss out on their fitness community, and the potential disempowerment of ‘I can’t do what I used to’.

I’m not really advocating that everyone pregnant gives up Pilates and signs up at their nearest CrossFit gym. I just wonder if there isn’t (sometimes) something missing from Pilates that needn’t be. Or maybe there’s a middle ground. I’ve never seen film or photographs of Joseph teaching a pregnant woman, and I don’t remember any reference to pregnancy in his writing. Perhaps he never intended pregnant women to use his method. If, like me, you believe that Pilates is about moving well then many activities can be approached with a Pilates sensibility, perhaps to the significant benefit of women both pre-conception and during their pregnancies.

people-spring-lift-ecard-someecardsI’ve been involved in a discussion lately on https://www.facebook.com/groups/pilatescontrologyforum/ around the subject of why we teach spinal flexion in Pilates. As is often the case, this discussion began to deviate slightly from the starting question, leading into other (for me) interesting territory. Namely, it made me wonder if there is a consensus within the Pilates teaching community as to whether Pilates is itself a functional movement/exercise discipline.

It’s helpful, if not necessary, to define what one is discussing – and so I realise that I have accepted in my own mind a rough definition of functional movement, derived from who-knows-what varied sources, that seems to make sense. If I have to pin it down, my definition would go something like this:

Preacher-Curl1A functional exercise is one that teaches, or reinforces a movement pattern that is useful, and health enhancing, beyond the execution of that discrete exercise.

For example, I would consider the Hundred to be functional because (amongst other benefits) it requires the maintenance of spinal stability under load (from our legs), and also the ability to disassociate our shoulder joint – to move our arms in our shoulder joints without uncontrolled spine or scapular movement. Both of these being very useful in a variety of scenarios (dare I say “fundamental movement patterns”?) I wouldn’t consider a bicep curl as pictured above to be functional, because the machine removes any requirement to create stability, or to transfer load into the centre (free-standing curls would be a different story, of course).

The Facebook discussion reminded me that there are other definitions. For what it’s worth, CrossFit has this definition, and if we turn to Wikipedia they do not have a page for functional exercise but will direct you to ‘functional training‘, which ties in to occupational therapy. Within the discussion, the thing that was slightly jarring for me was the idea that Pilates might not fall into some people’s idea of ‘Functional’, since it seems (generally speaking – more on that later) to fit that description very well.

I’m not a fan of ‘evidence-based’ exercise, because I think it’s naive to imagine that we can ever prove (to meet standards of proof in controlled studies) the efficacy of any given exercise. There are too many variables that cannot be controlled for when comparing even a small number of people practicing the same movement. At the same time, I think applying what, if we were clinicians, we might call ‘clinical reasoning’ to exercise selection is essential. Let’s call it ‘reasoned Pilates’ for the moment (for the record, I am not trying to create a new sub-genre – there will not be a trademark application). Teaching reasoned Pilates means, with your observation and your client’s input, assessing what they need most, choosing how to implement your assessment, and then evaluating whether your choice was successful. So if someone is kyphotic, and is new to Pilates, giving them the Swan Dive on the High Barrel may not be the best choice. The short version of all this is that I want to be able to explain why I’m teaching anyone anything, beyond “that’s what’s next in the sequence”, or “that’s how I was taught it”. In other words, “What’s the point?”

All that said, I do agree with a contributor to the forum referred to above, who said something along the lines of “sometimes people ask too many questions, instead of just doing the work”. I do think it’s often possible that doing the work will lead you to the answer to your question (“Why is it done this way?”, for example). I have heard Romana, on the excellent images“Legacy Edition” DVDs, quoting Joseph answering “What is this good for?” With the wonderful response “It’s good for the body.”I’m not suggesting that clients should be constantly questioning why they are doing things, and their teachers constantly explaining everything. Rather, I hope that they find the answers for themselves whenever they can, and that I have the understanding to explain the ‘why?’ if I have to. I believe I have a better chance of being an effective teacher if I have that understanding.

As an aside, I’d much rather be described as a ‘teacher’ than as an ‘instructor’. The first definition that my dictionary gives for instruct is: “to direct to do something; order”. The first definition that it gives for teach is: “to help to learn; tell or show (how)”. I think that the element of reasoning may be the thing that distinguishes between an instructor and a teacher.

‘Reasoned Pilates’ fits with my perception of Pilates as something that makes you better at other things, rather than Pilates as a thing to be good at. I don’t believe that Joseph Pilates complied the exercises in ‘Return to Life’ for people to practice in order to become very good at doing those exercises. The point was to practice those exercises in order to enhance one’s health (No?). I know that there are people that consider Pilates to be an art form, but I can’t call myself one of them. Seeing someone display a high level of competence in anything is usually enjoyable, but I find the many videos, that do the rounds of social media, of people working on the Reformer (perhaps with dramatic lighting) to be somewhat tiresome. (Equally, photos of lithe bodies on exotic equipment adapted from Pilates apparatus, rather than “Looks beautiful”, make me think “But why? What’s the point?”. It’s as if Pilates is being practiced for someone else other than the practitioner.

Another element to the consideration of ‘functional’, that I was reminded of whilst trying to follow some of the Reformer work demonstrated on the aforementioned DVDs, and may have been missing from the definition I offered above, is fun, or feeling great. It’s sort of covered by the ‘health enhancing’ idea, I think, but deserves its own mention. Something that makes you appreciate, or helps you bask in the joy of whole body movement surely performs a valuable function? To return to the bicep curl analogy, I’m no body builder, but it’s hard for me to imagine that anyone ever had much fun doing sets of bicep curls. Yes, viewing the hypertrophic results in the mirror afterwards may result in a flush of pleasure, but actually doing the sets of curls? Surely not. I don’t know whether the response to doing the various rowing exercises on the reformer was musculo-skeletal, hormonal, emotional, or what. It felt marvellous.

If you think that Pilates doesn’t fit under the heading of functional movement, or functional exercise, I’m sorry, but I don’t understand.

How will you age?

April 21, 2014 — 4 Comments
Joseph Pilates, aged 82

Joseph Pilates, aged 82

I’m currently reading the intriguing “The World Until Yesterday” by Jared Diamond, some of which compares the attitudes toward, and treatment of older people in Western societies to that of ‘traditional’ (think tribal) societies. Diamond makes reference to the role that older people play in advertising in western, or westernised societies – their appearance in advertising typically reserved for medicine and supplements, ‘mobility aides’ (Stannah chairlifts, perhaps), or maybe to fulfill the role of Grandparent to a cute child. They are rarely seen promoting products that we might all consume – off the top of my head – pizza, mobile phones, chocolate, toilet paper, rum, coffee, cars….

What does this tell us about our attitudes toward people over, let’s say, 65? Another fascinating insight into this subject came when watching a clip from Britain’s Got Talent.

I’m including the clip, in case you haven’t seen it, because it seems to have the effect of filling people with a sense of joy. Now, I’m as cynical as the next hardened cynic when it comes to these shows – I think it’s pretty obvious that the ‘judges’ have been primed for what’s coming, and things are choreographed, down to Simon Cowell looking bored and buzzing early. So what is there to enjoy? Again, it seems to me that most of, if not the entire audience have an extraordinary emotional response that looks to me like unbridled joy. Then there’s Paddy herself, who is evidently not only a powerful personality but also physically remarkable – strong, agile, mobile, quick, and with impressive coordination.

And yet, I’m left with a question – a niggling thought. Why is she exceptional? Why does the sight of this elderly woman demonstrating strength, skill, agility, and coordination get us so excited. Obviously the answer is that she IS very unusual (but as the videos below illustrate, she is far from alone). So the question should really be, why SHOULD she be exceptional? How is it that we have been conditioned to believe – to know, even – that old people are inherently decrepit? And when does that built-in physical obsolescence start to take effect – sixty? Or seventy? I have clients in their early sixties who are convinced, indeed resigned to the notion that they are now too old to do certain things; and that their age means that they have to accept that their body necessarily fails them.

In ‘The World Until Yesterday’ the author makes reference to tribes that traditionally killed old people, or left them to fend for themselves (amounting to the same thing). Until the 1950s the Kaulong people of New Guinea practiced the ritualised strangling of widows – when her husband died the widow would call upon family members to strangle her! (While there’s obviously one to be had, I’m not going to get into a discussion of misogyny here). Other tribal societies have traditionally revered their older members for their wisdom; for having the most refined skills; or as care-givers for the youngest in the tribe. Western society’s attitude toward its older population falls somewhere between the extremes. Happily, there’s no ritualised killing, but there’s not necessarily much reverence either. How much of that is because, as younger people we have been conditioned to expect little from old age (the very phrase ‘old age’ appears to be inappropriate in this context – a symptom of the problem). When we reach 60, or 70, or whatever it might be, we know what to expect. And yet, Paddy apparently didn’t receive that kind of conditioning, or was able to shrug it off.

As a Pilates teacher, I have one of the best role models to follow in terms of expectations for older age. It would seem that Joseph Pilates did his best work form the age of 50 onwards, and remained strong and vigorous until his death. I cannot find a clip to include here but the “Romana’s Pilates Ultimate Mat Challenge” DVD includes footage of Romana Kryzanowska, aged 82 (I think) doing the hanging on the Cadillac and describing it as her “daily loosener up-er”. We know what’s possible – as a profession we have excellent examples – and yet, how many of us (Pilates teachers) have been trained to think that the Roll Up, or the Roll Over are contraindicated for ‘the elderly’? I’m not advocating a lack of care or caution, but wondering if we have an instinct to set the bar too low (Yes, I’ve been here before). I know that for someone with osteoporosis, to collapse in their spine as they go into the Roll Up, or Roll Over, could be dangerous, but we wouldn’t teach anyone to collapse in their spine in a Roll Up, would we? Because that’s not what Pilates is about. So whilst it may not be the best idea to introduce that exercise to an older person in their first session, or even in their tenth session, isn’t their the possibility that, in time, the eccentric control that this exercise requires could be just the kind of stress on their bones that will make them stronger.

Here are some more links/video clips of people ‘who should know better’ being physical. If we share enough of these perhaps we can begin to reshape prevailing notions of what growing old means….

 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-27117769

‘The Hip-Operation Crew’ from New Zealand – the oldest hip hop dance crew in the world.

The amazing Olga, she’s just moved up into the 95-99 age group for Masters track & field

 

Pilates vs. Evolution

April 16, 2014 — 3 Comments
What should I call it?

What should I call it?

I imagine that the great majority of teachers and/or practitioners of Pilates would agree, that it is alive – that Pilates is a living thing. All living organisms must be able to adapt to changes to their environment (or move to a different environment) to avoid extinction. Thus, I would contend that, Pilates has to be capable of adapting to environmental shifts in order to avoid eventual extinction.
Yes, he we are once again, musing on what Pilates really is/should be etc. It’s a subject that seems ‘to have legs’, very long legs perhaps (and how appropriate).

A recent post on a Pilates related forum invited discussion on “innovation in Pilates”, with fairly predictable results. Some comments endorse the idea of everything that one does informing everything else that one does, others decry the lack of respect shown to the originator, or worry that the public may be confused. The latter idea is particularly fascinating for me, in part because I think that ‘the public’ may not be that interested anyway. If I think of my job as teaching people to position and move themselves as well as possible (on another forum thread Sean Gallagher recently wrote: “…Pilates is a way of living in your body” which feels similar, if not better), then I do not see it as my job to teach people about Joseph Pilates, to make sure that ‘they’ know exactly what was devised by him, and what was not. The subject may well come up, but I’m more interested in honouring the marvellous tool that nature has given us (our moving body) than I am in honouring the man, much as I believe he was a genius.

Back to evolution (apologies to anyone who is troubled by this concept – I believe that its acceptance in the US is particularly limited). There’s no doubt that the environment in which Pilates resides, that’s to say our understanding of biomechanics, neuroscience and so on, has changed substantially in the last 46 years. It may be that you believe that Joseph was indeed 50 years ahead of his time, so still ahead of the evolutionary curve. In which case there may be no reason to look elsewhere for inspiration or more thorough understanding. For some of us, exposure to other modalities, or information that helps to refine our understanding of what’s important, may mean that we begin to incorporate into our teaching things that do not look exactly Pilates, as taught by Joseph. As an example, there have been a couple of instances recently when, within the first few classes, I have taught a deadlift pattern to clients (both of whom had young children, and back problems). This is because I believe that understanding this movement pattern is essential to their well-being, so that they do not have to choose between back pain or picking up their children. I may have mentioned that the deadlift is not strictly a Pilates exercise, I don’t remember. I don’t think it really matters, again, because of how I see my professional responsibility, and because I don’t think my clients are helped by making those differentiations.

I can see that this point of view may not sit well with some teachers, those that we might consider to be devoted to authenticity. They may feel that different disciplines should not be mixed together. As I may have mentioned in an earlier post, I have always been most interested in that area in-between. As an art student I was excited by the blurring of boundaries, between sculpture and furniture, say, or sculpture and architecture. At the moment I believe that it’s appropriate to refer to what I teach as Pilates, because the great majority of it is recognisably Pilates, and because I use the equipment a lot. It’s possible that at some point in the future less of what I’m teaching will be recognisably Pilates, and that may lead me to eventually try to find a different name for what I do. When I was training as a Pilates teacher one of my teachers was known for having his own versions of exercises, and we were encouraged to pin him down about which was original, and which was not of what he was teaching us. His mat classes were called Pilates classes, and whilst the original repertoire was in there, there were flavours of yoga, contemporary dance, and other systems too (and, importantly, in relation to the ‘confusing the public’ issue – they were busy classes, people came and moved, breathed, were challenged, and had fun). That was 12 years ago, and at some point it clearly made sense to give his teaching a new name, so that we now have Garuda. If James were still calling his work Pilates it would probably be totally inappropriate, and the creation of Garuda seems like a natural evolution of his teaching.

The person who posted about ‘innovation in Pilates’ is at the point of making his own equipment, that looks significantly different from Pilates equipment. I would agree that you can apply the principles of Pilates to other modalities, but would suggest that once you need to manufacture your own equipment to best express your work, it may be time to practice under a different banner. The question for me is where one draws the line, between teaching something that looks substantially like Pilates (as I write this I can picture the Pilates fundamentalists gnashing their teeth – sorry), and something which has strayed far enough from the original material that it no longer qualifies. I suspect that the answer may be (aside from needing to create your own equipment) that if you need to ask if you should still call what you teach Pilates, then you’ve probably strayed over that line.

(Image courtesy of http://www.dailymail.co.uk)