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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.

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:


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?


October 18, 2014 — 13 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”, 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’?







I do Movement

August 9, 2014 — 10 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

people-spring-lift-ecard-someecardsI’ve been involved in a discussion lately on 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.

Unprincipled Pilates

March 23, 2014 — 3 Comments

previewI’m afraid that I can’t find the original comment, so am unable to quote precisely (even if I had permission) something that I read in the thread of a Pilates related Facebook forum. The comment was written by a teacher, who appears to be considered something of an expert on all things Pilates related (in the particular forum, at least) and was along the lines of ‘Joseph Pilates did not teach principles, he taught exercises, in a specific sequence.’

This is a fascinating idea for me, not because I have a special allegiance to the ‘Whole body health; Whole body commitment; Breathing’ that I believe the PMA refer to as Joseph Pilates’ own guiding principles for Contrology, nor to the 6 principles that Friedman and Eisen presented in their ‘The Pilates Method of Physical and Mental Conditioning’, published in 1980. I think all 8 of these ideas have a valid place in the practice and teaching of Pilates. It is a fascinating idea for me more because the act of teaching almost seems dependent on principles, or is doomed to be rather dull, if not pointless, without them.

Ironically, I attended a class a couple of days ago that reminds me of this. It wasn’t a Pilates class (a more recently developed movement practice) that was distinctly unsatisfying because, it now occurs to me, it appeared to be devoid of principles. It seemed more like nice, but aimless choreographed movement (the teacher led the entire class with her back to the participants – viewing the room in the mirrored wall), and I’d rather save that for when I’m drunk on music and good company, perhaps with a little less choreography.

I’m not suggesting that principles of any sort need to be explicit in anyone’s teaching, but rather that there need to be some fundamentals, something that underpins the exercises/movements being taught. I think of all Pilates exercises fitting into (or straddling a couple of) three basic categories – Stabilising the trunk while moving the extremities; Sequential spinal articulation; Transferring load from the extremities to the centre (which, to me, is part of a circuit with the idea of working from the inside out). These, for me, (because they are invaluable movement skills) form the basis for teaching people to move (or position themselves) well.  And that is what Pilates is, to me, in a nutshell. Of course, this is personal, and I know that the practice of Pilates adds up to more than that for many people. For me, moving well and eating well are the ‘secrets’ to excellent health.

I’m very willing to believe that Pilates did not speak of principles when he was teaching (and perhaps this is what the post on Facebook I referred to was indicating), but I do not accept that they weren’t there. Perhaps that was part of Joseph’s genius – that he didn’t need to be explicit, because the work made it obvious. Whether you’re explicit about some underlying principles of your work or not, I would suggest that they need to be there, if what you teach is to have any meaning for your clients beyond the time they spend in class, or in the studio.

150px-PET-imageA recent, soon to be published study by the prestigious Centre for the Understanding of Nutritional Technology and Science has found that consumption of more than two servings of tofu (a soybean derived food product) per week may lead to a loss of IQ.

The study, conducted over a number of years, looked at the effect of varying degrees of tofu consumption on subjects’ scores in standardised IQ tests. Even when allowing for other factors that have been previously indicated to negatively effect intelligence, the results were “damning”, according to the study’s conclusion. In an interview, a representative of the Centre declared that he and his team are satisfied that they have achieved a significant breakthrough in our understanding of tofu, and have proven beyond doubt that, when consumed in greater than normal amounts, it does make humans more stupid. He added: “We have yet to prove a link between tofu and obesity, but our research continues.”

I’m sure that you will be aware of a number of stories that have made the news in recent years, linking consumption of certain foods, particularly red meat, to various diseases. If you want to read rebuttals of news stories like Red Meat Causes Cancer, or the more recent High Protein Diet as bad as 20 Cigarettes per Day, or simply to read about the problems inherent in these kinds of studies, you can do so here, here and here. This is the territory of people with degrees in medicine or biochemistry, neither of which I have. Instead here are a couple of questions that we should all be asking ourselves when faced with news stories that make these kind of alarming food related claims.

The first is, what’s the agenda? As the articles I linked to above point out, epidemiological studies (that look for patterns, or associations) almost inevitably start out looking for specific patterns – in other words, researchers don’t set out to see if they can spot any patterns at all, they go looking for a specific one. If you go looking for a specific pattern the chances are that you will lean towards finding evidence to support it. Epidemiology might support a hypothesis, but never proves it. T. Colin Campbell, one of the authors of the “China Study”, is well known as an advocate for a vegan diet, and (to quote Wikipedia): “The authors conclude that people who eat a whole-food, plant-based/vegan diet—avoiding all animal products, including beef, pork, poultry, fish, eggs, cheese and milk, and reducing their intake of processed foods and refined carbohydrates—will escape, reduce or reverse the development of numerous diseases.” 

So, if I write a story about the link between tofu consumption and reduced IQ (let’s be totally honest, and in case you didn’t guess, I made that up), you would need to ask yourself why I went looking for such an association in the first place. Perhaps I’m some kind of omnivorous fundamentalist who thinks that soy products are rooted in evil….

The second, and perhaps more significant question is, (to quote Robb Wolf) “What is the mechanism?” Unless there is a viable explanation for why heavy tofu consumption causes a loss of IQ (I just had a thought – imagine if my made up story turns out to be true!), then it’s simply an association that may be a complete coincidence. A favourite analogy is ‘Fire engines cause fires’ – because studies show that there is a strong association between buildings on fire, and the presence of fire engines. Or even better, if you didn’t follow the link to Dr Briffa’s article above: ‘ice cream causes shark attacks’.

Who can blame researchers who want to catch some headlines? Both of the UK broadsheet newspapers that carried this story had some caveats, if you read to the end, but the headlines and the accompanying pictures are what stay with you (do you think tofu seems more sinister when I include a picture of a brain scan?) It’s too bad that the news media we appear to want is that which scares, rather than informs.

imagesFollowing on from a mention in part 1 of this post, I think that a lot of interesting things happen on the boundaries between disciplines. Kelly Starrett, who has influenced my thinking about Pilates a lot in the last few years, talks about the benefits of sports people from different disciplines talking to, and learning from each other (power lifters talking to gymnasts talking to rowers talking to olympic lifters talking to swimmers/runners etc).

The subject of the first post, and the comments that followed (thank you all for your interest and contribution) made me start to think that there is a problem inherent in classification – in trying to define or draw lines between things. Once again, I find myself a little conflicted – I love simplicity, but…

I’ve found the Classical Pilates Inc DVDs to be an invaluable resource, from the point of view of learning to put the correct name to an exercise, or checking choreography. I’ve learned to assume (who knows how/why) that what is usually referred to as ‘classical’ Pilates, is that which was taught by Romana Kryzanowska and her followers. The “Romana’s Pilates” DVD I have in front of me has the tagline “….the true pilates method as taught by Joseph Pilates”. As an enthusiast of simplicity I am drawn to the ‘this is the way it is supposed to be’ kind of presentation. From watching the DVDs, and taking class with Romana trained teachers, I know that Footwork on the Reformer should be done with all the springs attached, as should the Hundred.

And then again, I was watching part of another DVD the other evening (that is still available from Michelle Larson) of Eve Gentry giving a workshop in 1991. My understanding is that Eve worked alongside Joseph Pilates in New York for close to 30 years – longer than anyone of the other first generation teachers. At the beginning of the workshop she talks about what she learned from Pilates: “I learned about not using too many springs….” This is just one example and I’m sure there are plenty of other instances when the Eve Gentry approach to Pilates differs from the Romana Kryzanowska approach. Ironically, courtesy of this blog I now realise that it’s even more complicated than I thought – the classification ‘Classical Pilates’ requires sub-classification!

I’m not at all interested in entering a discussion about which one is better, or closer to Pilates’ original intentions.  I’m curious as to whether being more definitive about classification does more good than not. This gets back to the original question of what it means to call myself a Pilates teacher. I understand the value of being systematic, and holding true to the principles of rhythm and flow, and, ultimately, I believe (as Eve Gentry says) that I’m trying to teach a concept, not a set of exercises. The exercises are a vehicle for delivering/understanding those principles, and can represent a fantastic challenge for someone who is interested in exploring the limits of their physicality (I can see no need for inventing advanced repertoire). I also believe that Pilates himself would adapt/create exercises for individuals, based on his understanding of their specific needs. Whilst I wouldn’t try to compare myself to Pilates (though I not-so-secretly like to think it may be significant that I was born in the year that he died….), I often use other exercises to teach the principles to certain clients – because I think they will be more effective, or represent a more accessible route to understanding the concepts than a ‘classical’ exercise might. I’m back at the ‘Can I teach Pilates with a kettle bell? question from my previous post – can you teach Pilates with exercises that are not Pilates? According to the blog post that I linked to above, I should be acknowledging to whoever I’m teaching a non-Pilates exercise that I’m not actually teaching them Pilates at that moment. But I think Pilates is a concept, not a set of exercises! Isn’t it perplexing?

Here’s another way that I like to think about this – Can you be good at Pilates? If your answer is ‘Yes’, what does that mean? What does it look like to be good at Pilates? I routinely tell people coming to our studio that there’s no value or point to being ‘good at Pilates’. Who cares if you can perform Pilates repertoire beautifully (or however else we might define ‘good at’)? The point, for me, is to use Pilates to help people be good at, or find easy, everything else that they want or need to do. I think that my job is to teach people to move and position themselves as well as possible, and Pilates is the vehicle that helped me on this journey, and what I feel competent to teach to others.

I do understand the need to honour our heritage, and the original work of Joseph Pilates, and I’m grateful to those teachers and organisations who commit themselves to that. I also agree that a familiarity with the apparatus adds to one’s understanding of Pilates. Somewhat unconsciously, I provoked a bit of a comprehensive vs. mat teachers discussion, with the previous post that I wrote. I have no interest at all in supporting or defending diploma courses in Pilates that require very little actual practice of the method, or that offer certification in a short time. I remain uneasy about attempts to make a strong distinction between mat teachers and comprehensive teachers, because I think our job is to teach people to move well. We will, all of us, bring our unique life experiences to the teaching party and whilst many comprehensive teachers may enjoy an ‘edge’ from their experience of the Reformer’s resistance (and I think you’re a fool if you’re a teacher and you haven’t made an effort to experience the apparatus), I do not believe that we are all inherently better teachers of movement than teachers who are not certified in teaching on the equipment.

As an example, I learned more about working my upper back extensors when trying to squat while holding a weight overhead than I did in years of Pilates repertoire both in the studio and on a mat. That doesn’t mean that I give up on using Pilates to teach people back extension, it means that I’ve got something else up my sleeve AND that someone who has done overhead squats (my CrossFit coach, for example) may be at least as good as me at teaching someone to use their upper back extensors. That may be true of a Pilates teacher ‘only’ trained in the mat work.

So is my claim that my job, as a Pilates teacher, is to teach good movement legitimate?