Pilates for……Complexity?

May 7, 2012 — 1 Comment

I have had the good fortune, in the last 4 weeks, to take workshop/seminars with two fantastic presenters. They were both representing Crossfit (which might be the best and/or the worst thing to happen to fitness in the last ten years, depending on your world view) and, between them, they taught me more about Pilates than I’ve learned in years. Okay, some of it I already knew, but I needed reminding – or I needed to hear the ideas put together in a way that I hadn’t heard/been able to hear previously. The net result was a renewed enthusiasm for teaching, and a really strong urge to translate my fresh understanding into helping the people I teach become STRONGER. I remember hearing a yoga teacher – the lovely David Sye, in fact – a few years ago saying that flexibility is great, but it is strength that holds us up as we age.

I am tempted to write this post talking about ‘we’, referring to Pilates teachers in the UK. Whilst I am confident that the following view represents more than my own thoughts and, in fact, involves some paraphrasing of others I will try to keep to ‘I’. I have thought for some time that Pilates teachers understand movement better than a lot of other exercise practitioners. I have wondered what the point of lifting weights was, other than vanity. I have thought that my understanding of the human body and biomechanics was probably superior to Joseph Pilates’ because I have the benefit of scientific advances and so much more technology to explain anatomy and movement to me. I have believed that Pilates would have done some things differently, had he lived longer, and known what science has shown us since his death. I have revelled in theory and terminology that complicates anatomy, and movement. I have over-analysed movement, and tried to understand musculoskeletal anatomy in excessive detail. I have imagined that I can tell which specific muscles might be working or not working when looking at movement, both efficient and less so. I have taught “evolved” Pilates….

More fool me, more often than not. Let’s be clear: I don’t believe that the various things I’ve owned up to have made me a bad teacher, and it’s certainly fascinating to delve into the marvellous complexity of human anatomy, yet I may be guilty of seeing the trees in detail, and thereby missing out on the beauty of the whole wood. The journey toward what feels like my current enlightenment (next step on the path to better understanding, perhaps) began with a lecture by Jaap Van der Wal: ‘Not by muscles and ligaments alone: The importance of fascial architecture for understanding the locomotion system.’ He opened my eyes to an alternative way of considering anatomy, based around the idea that movement shapes our form, rather than our form shaping our movement. One of the most compelling things that Professor Van der Wal said was; “the brain doesn’t know muscles, it knows movement”. It represented a great argument against isolated exercises, and felt like a strong validation of Pilates.

And so to my more recent revelations. The first was Kelly Starrett presenting the ‘Crossfit Movement and Mobility Trainer Course’. The first significant point is that Kelly is a phenomenal presenter, (and I would love to get him talking in front of a room full of my Pilates teaching peers) who talks with knowledge, confidence, experience and great panache. Bearing in mind that he was addressing a room full, predominantly, of Crossfitters, remarkably, as he spoke I kept thinking “that’s Pilates!”, and “That’s what Pilates was saying in the 1930s”. It seemed that, the truth is, the language of movement is actually much less complicated than I had previously been willing it to be. Some of the basic principles he spoke about: importance of midline stabilisation; the hip joint as the major engine in the body; the first joint that is loaded in a movement is the joint that will bear the most load; with the right movement and the right lifestyle we are perfect healing machines. He also made the point that humans are highly adaptable, and the consequence of this is that we need to practice good positions all the time. I had previously heard it asserted that it’s okay to slouch if you know how to organise yourself – to sit or stand properly. The trouble is, our adaptability means that we’re very good at the things we practice most, and this is exactly why the posture of someone who spends hours stooped in front of a computer terminal is so easy to identify. I spent yesterday afternoon in a lecture hall full of Pilates teachers and some of the postures on view were shocking…

The second was a gymnastics seminar at Crossfit Thames, with Carl Paoli, another great presenter, and teacher who, addressed decidedly un-Pilates movements (handstand push-ups, pull-ups, muscle-ups) but brilliantly illustrated how so many apparently different movements are closely related to each other – just as in Pilates. He also showed us how to identify movement faults in very simple ways and, equally, how to fix them in simple ways. How’s this for a simple principle?: “The hips are the main engine, the spine is the transmission, and needs to be stable to translate power to the second engine – the shoulders.”

Interestingly, as I’ve been writing this, I’ve seen fellow teachers posting links to some quite brilliant anatomy animations, and the voice in my head has been saying: “It’s not about the muscles!” I know how easy it is to give in to the temptation to look at something that is going wrong with a client’s posture, or movement and to try to work out what particular muscle isn’t working/is weak/is tight/is inhibited etc. But the brain does’t know about muscles, and I’m not cleverer than Joseph Pilates was. One of the most striking things about Kelly and Carl was that they clearly understand movement very well, and there’s the link with Pilates – he clearly understood movement well. He probably hadn’t heard about local and global muscles, he didn’t talk about stabilisers and mobilises, low threshold exercise and so on, but I suspect he knew, for example, that external rotation of the hip gives more torsion and, therefore strength, to flexion movements (and that principle is applicable to so many movements).

I don’t think that I can empower people by trying to identify what muscles they do, or don’t have working well. I can empower them by helping them to understand movement in simple terms, and to become stronger (by working hard), before I try to introduce subtlety.

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  1. What’s great about Pilates? Part 3 « paleolates - September 25, 2012

    […] or bio-mechanical level, about what he was doing. As I’ve asserted previously on this blog, whatever progress we think we’ve made since the 1940s, Pilates understood movement. This […]

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