I’m Not Good at Pilates

September 12, 2018 — 2 Comments

I heard a new (to our studio) client say this yesterday, but this is by no means the first time I’ve heard something like “I’ve done it for two years but I’m not very good.”

I then tie myself up in knots trying to explain to them – without indicating that, in addition to being bad at Pilates they’ve also fundamentally missed the point – that there’s no such thing as ‘good at Pilates’.

I’m particularly interested in this because it seems to involve merging some different ideas. I’d like to try to unpick them, and to propose a test for teachers (not ‘are you good at Pilates?’ but, ‘has Pilates done you any good?’)

As we know, Joseph Pilates was promoting HEALTH, with exercise as a small part of the equation. In pursuit of health we need to consider our nervous system responses (does our sympathetic system switch on appropriately), which is related to our sleep quality, our stress levels; also, do we spend time outside in sunshine and fresh air, with nature in view? And, of course, there’s food – macro and micronutrients.

Can we be ‘good’ at health? How often do you hear people described as ‘fit’ (not the easy-on-the-eye slang), or healthy? And in those cases how likely is it that their lifestyle is actually addressing all aspects of health? (I guarantee that a Tour de France cyclist, who might be well adapted to endurance cycling, is not fit or healthy).

I don’t think it’s possible to be good at Pilates, certainly not by any measure that I can recognise, but I definitely think it’s worthwhile. One of my challenges is to help those people who don’t feel that they’re good at Pilates to find some measure of their sessions’ value, which is external to how competent or not they feel during the session.

I suspect most of these people are at a Pilates class because they feel that they ‘should’ be: perhaps their health professional has advised it, or perhaps something in their sense of self tells them that they will be better (with, I imagine, a large dose of media influence) if they do Pilates. You know – they’ll have less pain, they’ll look better, they’ll align themselves more closely with the apparent lifestyle of celebrity X, or they’ll have a piece of the puzzle of the impossible-to-define-or achieve nebulous ‘how we should live’ that the media presents hourly.

So helping someone to find value from their Pilates well often involve finding out about things that they like to do, and look for ways to enhance that activity; or to learn something that they cannot yet but would like to do, and to map a route to achieving it.

Honestly, I find it a bit strange that anyone loves Pilates for itself. That may well be heresy, so let me try to explain. I don’t love the act of spending 45 minutes on the Reformer. It’s quite fun to do it with someone else, to spur on and be spurred on, and I REALLY value how it can make me feel. I was going to compare it to drinking wine, and I find that in unpicking the comparison maybe I do love the Reformer – I realise that there are moments (Rowing springs to mind) when there is almost a taste to the specific position or movement that I do love. That aside, I drink wine not because I know that I should, that it will do me good. No, I drink wine because I like the taste and, you know, sometimes that combination of a robust Argentinian Malbec with some good rib-eye transcends food and drink in the way that sex with the person you love transcends the other kind of sex.

Woah! Get back on track! I get on the Reformer because I should, and because I know it’s good for me – not because I love it, and another 5 reps of horseback (done strictly in the original order) will get it nearly perfect (“where’s my phone? I feel an Instagram post coming on”).

A great example of a goal that I came across recently was the man who wanted to put his socks on without sitting down. I LOVE this. Sure, it’s a beginner’s goal, and I’d be hoping for more soon, but as a start it’s great – single leg balance, deep hip flexion, spine mobility, ankle flexibility? Yes, Pilates can do that! If you saw this particular gentleman in a class today I doubt you would say “He’s really good at Pilates” but he achieved that goal in ten week, and how good a springboard is that?

As a teacher of this method, you might be looking for a little bit more – especially if you’re focus is on exercises rather than health. I know that a foundation of years of Pilates was invaluable to me when playing with common CrossFit movements (once I’d got past the ignominy of not being able to hip hinge – forever curling my spine instead…) My background was carpentry and construction, not dance, and I’m sure Pilates made it easier for me to pick up the techniques of Olympic weightlifting. If I can do a ring muscle-up (on a good day) it’s because of Pilates – it’s because Pilates taught me really important things about how to move.

So how about some simple tests, to see if your Pilates has served you well? The kind of tests that don’t rely on subjective or aesthetic judgements. There’s no “I’m not very good at it” (as we might say about Balance Control, or The Snake, perhaps), there is only “Yes, I can do that” or “No, not yet”.

So, if your Pilates has been working for you, you should be able to pass these tests:

Hollow Rock

Pistol Squat

Pull Up

Brett feels that they are a bit arbitrary, and that’s true in a way. I learned them in the context of CrossFit, where they might be considered intermediate level skills – probably many thousands of people are doing them every day. I think they’re useful tests because they cover strength and control of upper and lower extremity, and stabilisation of your spine under load – all of which seem like attributes one might expect of a Pilates practitioner. They’re also all scaleable, it’s easy to figure out (especially with the help of YouTube) ways to progress with each of them.

The Hollow Rock is a gymnastic skill that is really just a progression of the Hundred, or Double Leg Stretch. From your Hundred shape, reach your arms overhead and rock, as you would in Open Leg Rocker – it’s really a super long lever OLR. Can you maintain the shape – yes, or no?

A Pistol is a one legged squat (hey, it’s a super advanced Reformer exercise!) without any external support, which may call for the greatest explanation/justification of the 3. My CrossFit coaching friend (CrossFit Brit, Irvine, CA – pay him a visit, he’ll help you be more awesome, for sure) describes the Pistol as a combination of strength, flexibility and balance – Pilates gives us all of those, right? Carl Paoli*, who wrote a book about 4 basic movements, one of them being a pistol, suggests that the major challenge of this movement is resisting internal rotation. Pilates is full of resisting internal rotation, so we’ve totally got this. So, can you sit down to full knee and hip flexion, and stand back up – yes, or no?

And here we go again, my Pull Up soap box. If you’ve only been practicing on a mat you may have a let-off, but if you have a Reformer and/or a Cadillac available to you, you know about pulling, you know about gripping, and integrating your arms into your shoulders and your shoulders into your trunk/spine. And you’re a teacher, so your arms are not weak, so overall, you SHOULD be at least on the way to a Pull Up.

The great thing about these three movements is that they not only provide feedback about the value of your Pilates practice, they also have fantastic carry forward to your Pilates practice. If you have these three skills I guarantee that you will find the more Pilates repertoire more readily available.

Win win.

*Carl also has a lot of instructional videos to help with all of these skills here.

 

An abridged version of this was first published by Pilates Intel.

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What moves you?

July 3, 2018 — Leave a comment
When you’re teaching, do you see muscles, or bones?

Is it normal for Pilates teachers to be fixated on muscles? Joseph Pilates, on the basis of reading his books and speaking to someone* who has done extensive research, does not appear to have been particularly interested in muscles. Where has this enthusiasm come from?

I’ve been prompted to write this in part by recent Instagram posts that I’ve seen, one by a “classical” studio in London, declaring:

“All of the muscles in our bodies have an action and a purpose.”

The other by a teacher, who has in excess of 100000 followers on Instagram, so you might say a significant ‘influencer’ in the Pilates sphere, and says:

“Pilates works the body as an ‘integrated whole’, but prioritizes the deeper intrinsic muscles, the stabilisers which in my opinion are the intelligent muscles which require the mind to activate and strengthen them – they are our ‘smart muscles’ our endurance muscles…..allowing our larger mobilising muscles to do the job they are intended for…” (I enjoy the inverted commas around ‘integrated whole’ particularly – as if acknowledging that integrated whole is not really real, or only as real as ‘smart muscles’).

So why should I, or any of us, care what anyone posts about Pilates on Instagram? I care because I assume that this is a reflection of how Pilates is taught, and I believe that this thinking helps to make Pilates more mysterious, and less accessible. I believe that there are many people, who could benefit from Pilates, and who might be deceived by this approach to teaching Pilates into thinking that movement is more complicated than it should be, and are therefore disempowered.

Perhaps I wouldn’t feel moved to take issue with this if it weren’t for the certainty of the person writing, particularly in the first example. I suspect that part of the problem stems from the way in which we learn muscle-skeletal anatomy, and how it is represented in books. I’ve seen many books of muscles (and studied them to try to memorise origin, insertion, action etc.) and, back when I was studying, had no reason to think they were anything other than gospel truth. There may have been some discrepancy in terms of all the actions – one book might ascribe more actions to a particular muscle than another book, but most of the information was represented as hard facts.

Why should I doubt this now? For one thing, in a podcast interview with clinical anatomist John Sharkey, he says that none of the (more than one thousand) bodies that he has dissected has been the same on the inside. We know that we all look different on the outside, why should we be exactly the same on the inside?

I like spending time in butcher’s shops. Aside from enjoying shopping for and eating meat, it’s a great place to get an insight into mammalian anatomy. Many of our joints are remarkably similar, and you can see the way evolving into bipeds has transformed the shapes of our bones and joints, relative to our quadruped cousins. Much of the meat looks very similar, too – certainly in terms of gross shapes. Fillet steak is psoas, of course; and rib-eye, one of my favourite cuts, is multifiidus and spinalis (or maybe longisimus). In the butcher’s, muscles are just meat, and if you look closely you can see that there are always subtle differences. Rib-eye is never exactly the same overall shape, nor is the fat running through it the same. Onglet (‘Hanger steak’ in the US) is from the diaphragm – the crura, I believe – and again, no two pieces are ever the same.

Enough about meat. The point is that muscles that have different shapes will surely behave in different ways – not radically different, perhaps, but enough that we should be very cautious about definitive declarations about their actions. In addition, as ‘Gray’s Anatomy’ states, in relation to Transversus Abdominis (yes, I AM very fond of this fact), this muscle (which many believe to be critical to Pilates, lumbar stability etc.) may be absent, or indistinguishable from the internal obliques in 30% of people. Consider all the hip and knee flexors, or all the hip external rotators. How many of us might be missing some of those muscles pictured in the books? And is what’s represented in books simply a representation of a convention of anatomy established hundreds of years ago? As Jaap van der Wal says, what we see in anatomy books are images, not factual structures.

“Anatomy is made, made by the mind of the anatomist. What you want to see, that’s what you dissect, and not the other way around.”

As an embryologist, van der Wal also makes the point that motion precedes the development of muscles – we can have movement without muscles. The view that “Joints act, muscles react”, as championed by Gary Ward, amongst others, explains how our bodies stabilise and move in relation to our environment. The idea presented in the text books of ‘muscle actions’ is surely based more on cadavers than the living body.

The thing is that we love classification – listing, quantifying, categorising. Perhaps this can, superficially at least, help with our understanding. So we have the model of muscles being either local or global stabilisers, or global mobilisers (which the Instagram post quoted above is presumably referencing). I suspect that the adoption of this model into Pilates is a result of physiotherapists’ influence, which I’ve attempted to address before. My wife was recently teaching someone, visiting from Australia, who told her that her Pilates teacher back home (who is also a physiotherapist) “knows exactly which muscle I’m using all the time”. Who wouldn’t want to be in such capable hands?

The trouble, as I see it, with teaching Pilates from this ‘muscle bound’ perspective is, again, that it risks mystifying Pilates. The teacher, with their apparently superior knowledge of the student’s own body, is elevated at the same time that the student may be made to feel ignorant or incompetent – “I don’t even know how to engage my glutes!” If we can use the exercises and the apparatus as an environment in which our students develop their awareness and learn to move more efficiently, then they have the chance to take what they’ve learned home with them. If we encourage the sense, in any way, that they are reliant on the teacher to tell them what muscles they should use in order to move ‘properly’, then we do them a disservice.

I’m sure that all the presenters of the various anatomy in clay workshops deliver them with the very best intentions, and the teachers who attend those workshops are sincere in their belief that the workshop is helping their own understanding of the work, and therefore will help them to teach their students with greater clarity BUT this is still presenting a fraudulent picture of what our bodies look like under the skin – muscle tissue is differentiated from other connective tissue only by the relative amount of ground substance in the cells (according to Dr Andreo Spina, of FRC fame). In other words, muscles aren’t that special, and they certainly never act in isolation, unless under the most bizarre and unnatural circumstances. Muscles are no more special or important than bones and our other connective tissues.

As we know, Joseph was an enthusiastic observer of animals. If we can leave aside the conceptualisation of our movement being determined by correct muscle activation, and help our students to be more animal in their movement – to simply be more animal in their bodies – we might all find more satisfaction in the practice and teaching of Pilates. Movement precedes the development of muscles, our fascial architecture precedes the development of muscles. “Our brain does not know muscles, it knows movement.” (Jaap van der Wal, again). By not having looked in anatomy books, maybe animals ‘know’ this.

Fortuitously, I’ve just been listening to this interview with Brent Anderson (on the Pilates Unflitered podcast), in which he lends a bit more authority to what I’ve been trying to argue:

“This idea of thinking that we’re going to teach somebody to move by contracting muscles is ludicrous. There’s no way that we can work as fast as the nervous system does with an image of movement, by telling them “Oh, pull your TA in”, or “Lift your pelvic floor”.

I think most teachers with a few years experience start to develop a kind of X-ray vision. If this sounds like you, do you see below the skin to muscle charts, or do you look deeper to the bones and joints?

 

*Yep, that’ll be Benjamin Degenhardt, of course.

The longer I teach, the more interested I become in the use of, and the meaning or implication of specific words or phrases (I was called out, quite rightly, last week for saying, in response to my client’s effort to achieve the position I was asking for “We’ll settle for that” which, of course, sounds a lot like “that’s shit but probably the bets we can hope for just now”. Yes, I was ashamed).

Lately, something has caused me to ponder the noun ‘workout’. Dictionary.com indicates that, while the phrase ‘work out’ (meaning to solve a problem) has been in use since 1600, ‘workout’ as a noun has only been in use for the last 100 years or so. I believe that, in the UK, we use the phrase ‘work out’ in the same way that ‘figure out’ might be more commonly used in the US. I don’t remember ‘to workout’ being a description of exercising 20 or 30 years ago – it feels like a relatively recent import to the UK.

My understanding of the noun ‘workout’ is that it refers to a combination of exercises, or perhaps the same activity with some variation thrown in – I don’t think you can go for a run at the same steady tempo and call it a ‘workout’, but I may be misguided. I believe that this sort of approach puts us in the territory of exercising to burn calories, or in pursuit of ‘being fit’, as if regularly running 5K, or doing 40 pushups, or 50 crunches etc. etc. is truly making you more adaptable. (Fitness is, after all, a measure of your ability to adapt to changes to your internal and external environment).

I think a ‘workout’ is something that you can do once or twice a week to tick the box of pursuing a healthy lifestyle – you put your symbolic “I’m exercising” clothes on, and do whatever’s planned for that day. The success of the workout might be measured by how much weight was managed, or how fast you did it, or perhaps how tired you felt afterwards, how sore you were the following day; or maybe even how many calories the machine you ‘worked out’ on says you burned. This kind of ‘workout’ can definitely be done with headphones on, or in front of a TV screen.

For sure this is better than doing nothing – if we’re lucky there may be some social interaction involved (which might have even more health benefits than the workout); and movement of some kind is probably always better than none.

In the Pilates context I have heard it said that ‘the Reformer is the workout’ (the Cadillac and Wundachair being the apparatus you use to facilitate the Reformer work, as appropriate). The same might be said for the mat, as both the Reformer and the mat share a specific order of exercises. So, accepting that Pilates contains ‘workouts’, can we make these into opportunities to ‘work out’, too? That’s to say, can we make them learning experiences that help us to understand ourselves better? I think this might be just another way to talk about ‘mind-body’ exercise though I think there might be room to go beyond “This exercise has my complete, undivided attention” and to solve problems for ourselves – “I’ve worked out why I couldn’t control the carriage when attempting a Teaser on the Reformer”, for example.

I recently heard Benjamin Degenhardt talking about the value of standing work at the start of a mat class, as a way to self-assess – How do I feel today? What do I need? How stiff/loose am I? We aim to incorporate the same few movements in every mat class at our studio, for the purpose of this kind of ‘working out’ – so that the warm-up is a self-assessment, as well as a chance to create heat and increase circulation.

Maybe this is everyone’s experience of Pilates and I’m wasting our time in writing this. Then again, I think that this kind of learning may require the teacher to ‘get out of the way’ to some degree, or at least to recognise when and how to show the way to a discovery instead of spoon-feeding, and that’s not always easy. Recently I’ve found myself saying “Find a way to…” quite often when I’m teaching, and this doesn’t always go down well. I can see or feel that this is met with “it’s your job to tell me how”. I believe that, if they can find a way, this learning will stay with them much longer than my cues might. I also think that Joseph designed the apparatus to help us ‘find a way’.

Some of my favourite learning experiences of the last year have been in Fighting Monkey workshops (you can read about them here, and here, if you fancy), in interactions with other participants. A lot of Fighting Monkey practice involves a ‘movement situation’ with a partner. As the situation changes, and you change partners, there’s a lot of working out to do. Every new partner represents a new environment, and a rich opportunity for learning about yourself. This kind of learning can be wild, stressful, breathtaking, magical and exhilarating, and it may be too much for some people.

In Pilates the environment might not change very often – the apparatus is the apparatus; the spring resistance is the same from one day to the next. However, the exercises can also represent a changing environment, albeit one that is inherently more controlled than Fighting Monkey practice. (It’s also worth remembering that Pilates himself was given to devising quirky wrestling games that he played with friends or students – I’ve seen film footage of wrestling with a pole, and head wrestling.)

So Pilates can offer us a relatively safe space to problem-solve, and to learn about ourselves: how we move; how we think; how our mood or personality influences our movement.

Can you get more ‘work out’ out of your ‘workout’ (whether it’s on a mat or reformer, or with kettlebells, a barbell or ballet barre…) ? I’d love to hear….

 

I’ve made attempts in the past to write about what it means to be a Pilates teacher and, happily, my understanding has grown in the last few years such that it seems worth revisiting.

If one’s view of Pilates is that it’s a series of exercises (possibly with some variations, contemporary ‘improvements’ etc), then I think being a teacher is probably pretty straightforward. However, as Eve Gentry said, “you can know every exercise, on every piece of equipment, but that does not mean that you know Pilates.” Because Pilates is a concept and if you’re teaching exercises then you’re not really teaching Pilates – you have to teach concepts to be a Pilates teacher.

So what are the concepts? I find it simplest to express them as questions, such as:

Do you know where you body is in space?

Are you able to organise your body in space? (Meaning you have to organise parts of your body relative to each other, as well as to your environment)

And, as expressions of the above:

Can you stabilise your spine while you move your extremities?

Can you sequentially articulate your spine?

However, these are not unique to Pilates – I know of CrossFit coaches and martial artists who do the same thing, and I’m sure there are yoga teachers and others from all sorts of disciplines (dance, gymnastics etc) with similar intentions.

So what separates Pilates from other disciplines? The core concept that we try to adhere to in our studio is that the practice of Pilates is for Your Health – it was not an accident that this was the title of Joseph Pilates’ first book, and the text makes it clear that his interests were a lot broader than ‘can you stabilise your spine while blah blah blah’.

I cannot speak for the other disciplines mentioned but I believe that this is what CrossFit is about, too. It’s hard to be involved with CrossFit and not hear discussions of nutrition, sleep quality, sun exposure and circadian rhythms (not to mention that their crusade against the sugar industry is truly laudable). The only time that I’ve heard sleep, sun exposure and circadian rhythms mentioned in a Pilates training context is when a visiting lecturer on my wife’s teacher training course is at our studio (she’s a big fan of cold exposure, too, and she truly glows with health).

I don’t believe that being able to differentiate oneself from teachers of other disciplines is a necessary part of being a Pilates teacher, but I do think it probably helps to have some clarity about what we can offer, and where we might fit in the grand scheme of exercise practices/movement disciplines. Perhaps something that separates me as a Pilates teacher from my friends who are CrossFit coaches is that I’m more likely to be approached by people who feel or are ‘broken’ in some way. And, I suspect, that many people who take up CrossFit have a clearer idea of what they’re getting into than a lot of people who may have been advised by their doctor/osteopath/physio etc. that they would benefit from Pilates.

So I guess I’m aligning myself with a notion of a Pilates teacher as a health coach with a strong movement bias. To be effective, I need to be clear (both in my mind and in speaking) about what I believe I can offer; I need to know my shit, that is, the repertoire, safe use of the apparatus, first aid, basic musculoskeletal anatomy, common conditions affecting that anatomy, implications of various mental health conditions, the biology of chronic pain, the physical effects of pregnancy/post-natal, and a basic grasp of the demands of a wide variety of sports and other activities.

I’m sure that I’ve forgotten something/s on the list of ‘stuff I need to know’ but it doesn’t much matter because, when it comes to teaching, what I need to know pales in comparison to my ability to communicate. To communicate with anyone who might walk through the door. Going back to Eve Gentry, you might know all the exercises and, yes, you might understand Pilates inside out, but if you’re not able to communicate with the person in front of you, none of that matters.

I’ve been lucky enough to attend a few Fighting Monkey workshops, and to discover that much of their movement practice is aimed at being a better communicator – I certainly have a lot more to learn, but I know that I had to look beyond the narrow confines of the Pilates world to confront this idea (more of this to follow).

Before I can communicate well I have to be able to reflect – I have to get to know myself better (and how fantastic that a movement practice can facilitate that!), and I have to have a growth mindset. I have to be willing to embrace my failures and find the seed of discovery within each one. I have to acknowledge my own fallibility. I have to ask myself tricky questions like: “What did I do that provoked that reaction?”.

To communicate well I have to be fully present – I have to feel grounded (and more on this to follow, too!). I have to understand the way that I move, my own compensations and limitations. I have to have a degree of confidence that includes being comfortable with what I know and what I don’t know. And I think I have to love what I’m doing. These are the selfish elements of communicating, or just half of the conversation, because I haven’t taken the other person into account yet.

For this I need to be curious, and I have to watch and LISTEN. What are the people I’m going to be teaching telling me (with words, tone, posture, facial expression and movement) before they’ve set foot in the studio? I may have goals and objectives for their session and I’d better be ready to let them go, based upon what I see and hear. After all, it’s not as though I’m an actor or musician whom they’ve come to see perform. So it doesn’t matter how great a session plan I have, how ‘good’ my verbal cueing, imagery and tactile cueing is (The answer to ‘what’s the best cue?’ is always ‘it depends’) – all of those things have to be right for the person in front of me, on that day, at that time. so I need to do my very best to recognise the signs that I’m given to help me decide how to proceed. Listening also means being alert to the things that don’t get said, reading between the lines – clearly this has to be done with caution, and sensitivity – this is perhaps a mixture of intuition and speculation, and both of these things should be treated with a degree of caution (and cultivated over hours and years of working with people).

I was about to write: ‘If you’re a Pilates teacher reading this, and all of your clients/students are coming to your classes to work on their beach body, you may not recognise this.’ But I realised that the job is no different, even if the responsibilities may be less than I’m thinking. There have been a number of times that I’ve been truly humbled by the trust that a new client has put in me – I’m not medically trained (I just teach movement, for God’s sake!…and I’m male), yet the willingness that many people, women in particular, (when explaining why they’re taking up Pilates) have had to declare a variety of personal/intimate problems or challenges made me very aware of  how vulnerable some people may be making themselves in taking up Pilates. (For example, particularly if you’re a male teacher, you’d do well to know what the terminology around vaginal prolapse treatment/surgery is…..)

So if I have a new client who has been diagnosed with a “slipped disc”, and who has made it clear that they’re nervous about exercising, it doesn’t matter how many workshops I’ve taken, how many books I’ve read, or how many wonderful exercises I have up my sleeve, if they don’t feel safe. Which brings us back to my communication – everything that I’ve learned from the person I’m teaching – body language, what they say, how they say it, diagnoses etc. all has to inform my body language, what I say, and how I say it. Do they need more felt experience, or more explanation? Do they need some science? Or do they need humour? Can I relate what I need to say to what they’ve told me about their interests, or their job? How do I meet their needs and still stay on track with what I believe they need?

I believe that Pilates should empower people. I don’t believe that teachers ‘fix’ anything, nor do I believe that Pilates ‘fixes’ anything. The ‘fix’, whether it’s movement, mindset or something else, comes from the individual. Our job as teachers is to facilitate that self-healing, or self-discovery. If I am to be empowering, my communication also needs to encourage the idea that the client/student has the answers within them, rather than that I will give them the answers. If you believe that you have the answers, that you are the magician doing the magic to them, you may have clients for life, but I don’t think you’re teaching them Pilates.

If you’re anything like me, this is already a lot to take on board. Not daunting – it’s wonderful, but definitely something to be taken very seriously. I never understood the Pilates teacher who applied for a physiotherapy degree because she didn’t want to be “just a Pilates teacher” – like it was a bit of a Mickey Mouse profession. I may not have the knowledge of anatomy and physiology that a physiotherapist has (nor should I) but I do have a professional responsibility to be able to communicate clearly with a referring medical professional. Which leads me neatly to one more part of my responsibility – I have to be able to say “I don’t know”. It’ll definitely promote me to do some research, but it may be the greatest responsibility of all to be clear about my scope of practice AND to acknowledge what I don’t know.

 

Since we first took part in a Fighting Monkey workshop I’ve been trying to find ways to explain both what Fighting Monkey is, and why I’m so drawn to their (Jozef & Linda’s) work.

Having recently returned from 4 days of their ‘Anatomy of Injury’ workshop, I’m wrestling with these challenges again. (Maybe I should stop trying to explain or understand, but that’s not my nature.) If I understood Jozef correctly, they don’t feel that ‘Anatomy of Injury”, along with ‘Earthquake Architecture’ & ‘Anatomy of Events’ are the appropriate descriptors of their workshops – instead he offered 3 stories/allegories to explain what the workshops are about. So, movement workshops that are best described not by “you will learn how to….”, “you will acquire the tools to…” etc. but instead described by, for example, the story of the wolf and the tiger (in the abridged form: what is the wolf, and can you metamorphose into a tiger?). Yes, you will have to attend yourself to have an inkling of how the story informs the work.

In fact, I think that my need to articulate the what and why of FM is a selfish endeavour – the effort of putting the experience into words may enhance my own understanding and therefore fuel my future practice. The trouble is, to quote FM: “We can never know. Our knowledge is unreliable.” (Actually, a more accurate quote is “We can never know our knowledge is unreliable” – a subtle difference that I take great glee in – but the full stop in the first version is what was intended, I believe). However, rather than interpreting this as “I will never know the what or why of Fighting Monkey”, this is more an invitation to embrace uncertainty, and to be open to new, fresh, conflicting information, or possibilities. Again, “We can never know” – certainty makes us vulnerable, in the same way that “Any great system creates great deficiencies” (another Jozef F quote).

So, in Fighting Monkey’s ‘movement situations’, we face uncertainty with every change of partner. More than the ‘rules’ of the game, the environment is created by the interaction, so the environment might change dramatically simply by changing your partner. We may be encouraged to be more soft in our movement, but everyone’s soft is different – and there’s no obvious gender divide in interpretations of ‘soft’.

Many of the movement situations that FM offer are exhilarating, there’s smiles and breathless laughs as we switch partners, but the deep learning, or deep enquiry often comes later, for me. Whereas, at first, I might come away from one partner feeling frustrated or bemused because they ‘haven’t understood the game’ – I’m as inclined to question my own approach to the situation as I am theirs. So instead of, or perhaps soon after thinking “what an idiot!” I’m wondering what it was/is about me/my approach that elicited their response. And this was not my own discovery, this is what Jozef taught me in our first FM encounter – “What does this situation teach you about you, about the way your respond to challenges, obstacles and the unexpected?” There might be benefits to my co-ordiantion, control, range of movement etc. but these are secondary to me understanding myself better. And understanding myself better is part of the journey to peeling off the layers of stuff acquired over a lifetime that get in the way of being my self. (Somehow ‘my self’ feels different from ‘myself’ – ‘myself’ might be me as I normally am, or normally present ‘me’ to the world, and ‘my self’ might be the real me that I don’t readily confront).

FM offers opportunities to ‘know thyself’ both emotionally/psychologically and physically. Their standing practice (‘Zero forms’) can be understood as an invitation to sense your own inner workings – to feel how you feel: the beat of your heart, the blood pulsing through vessels; the communication of your joints; the quality of your breath; the weight of your parts. While I suspect that they (Jozef & Linda) don’t share my enthusiasm for evolutionary biology as the lens to best view human biology with, I like the notion that this was once an innate human skill, in a time when we had to hunt, and survive without doctors and hospitals. At the very least I think this is a skill that I would do well to devote some time to cultivating.

While there may well be some less physical/visceral self-discovery within the standing practice, the movement situations and, particularly, the co-ordinations are places in which I feel that I learn the most about myself from a personality/emotional aspect. I love the challenge of FM Co-ordinations almost as much as I hate them. Of course I don’t really hate them, but they make me frustrated, and sometimes angry. And THERE is the learning: how do I handle myself when things are going badly, when I’m feeling incompetent? A year ago I would have been inclined to give up – ‘this is for the dancers’, ‘they’re going so fast I can’t even see the basic steps, so it’s pointless to try’ etc. While I still get very frustrated, I now recognise Co-ordinations as a river that I have to jump in (if I’m going to get anywhere). For the most part I’ll be looking like a man on the verge of drowning, arms flailing and legs thrashing helplessly. But there may be fleeting moments when it feels as though I can swim, more like a dog than a fish, but even dogs can look efficient in the water, if not graceful. The river does not stop flowing, but it’s a river of opportunities (I apologise if this is becoming too corny an analogy) and if you stay standing on the side they will all pass you by. Unlike a real river, nothing bad will happen when I’m flailing – this is a safe space for failing/falling/flailing. Instead, if I’m smart and patient enough I might learn something about confronting challenges in my personal or professional life. This is not about strength, or range of movement, or agility but rather it is about humility and a willingness to expose yourself in front of others – to be yourself (though, to be honest, they’re probably not watching because they’re too busy with similar struggles).

All of my musing was given a fresh perspective when I started reading ‘Tao Te Ching’ (at the first FM workshop we attended I was surprised to hear this was the only book recommendation Jozef gave when asked for further reading suggestions, but back then I obviously didn’t have a good grasp on the path that we’d started down).

Rushing into action, you fail.

Trying to grasp things, you lose them.

Forcing a project to completion, 

you ruin what was almost ripe.

Therefore the Master takes action

by letting things take their course.

He remains as calm

at the end as at the beginning.

He has nothing

thus has nothing to lose.

What he desires is non-desire;

what he learns is to unlearn.

He simply reminds people

of who they have always been.

Things are starting to make much more sense – if the ‘Tao Te Ching’ is The Book of the Way then a Fighting Monkey workshop might be the Collaborative Movement Practice of the Way. It might be, because I think it’s perfectly possible to participate in an FM workshop and miss or ignore the philosophical, esoteric elements, and just have a really good time exploring movement with a diverse mix of people. However, it occurs to me that, if you are interested and able to look below the surface, a Fighting Monkey workshop is like the door at the back of the wardrobe into Narnia (Jozef as Aslan, and Linda as the White Witch has its appeal as an image but isn’t accurate or just), entering a parallel world of light and dark, where all is not as it seems and, having been there, you will be changed forever.

 

It’s not normal!

February 10, 2018 — Leave a comment

From Cirque de Soleil’s ‘Ovo’

One of my favourite Katy Bowman-isms is that ‘No-one is out of shape.’ All of us are in exactly the shape that our environment and our behaviour has led our system to create. Another idea that I find very useful is championed by Robb Wolf, author of ‘The Paleo Solution’ and ‘Wired to Eat’, namely that if you want to understand anything relating to the human body, you need to view it through the lens of evolutionary biology. An idea that I heard Dr Andreo Spina expand upon: homo sapiens evolved as hunter-gatherers. Our ancestors spent hundreds of thousands of years evolving according to the demands of hunter-gatherer existence. Our bodies are essentially the same as those of our h-g ancestors and, therefore, are wired to expect the same kind of activities/inputs. So, if you want to understand dysfunction, or function as well as possible, identify the things that you do that are NOT h-g activities, and find ways to mitigate the impact that those activities have on your function.

I have to admit to taking perverse delight, from time to time, in being told by someone I’m teaching that the movement I’m showing them is ‘not normal’, or even better, ‘not natural’. Mostly I enjoy this because it gives me an opportunity to explore, with the person I’m teaching, what they mean by normal, or natural.

It appears that we are very good at normalising dysfunction. For example, it’s normal that my back aches in the morning; or it’s normal that I always get indigestion, and have to take pills to control it; it’s normal that I can’t look over my shoulder when parking my car; it’s normal that I wear orthotics in my shoes to stop my ankle hurting etc. etc. In other words, ‘normal’ is used as a synonym for ‘usual’, or ‘habitual’ – much in the same way that ‘not natural’ is used instead of ‘not normal’ or ‘unusual’. I’m very used to hearing, when demonstrating scapular circling on all fours, for example, that it looks weird, it doesn’t look natural.

I was fortunate to see a Cirque de Soleil show recently, which included many moments of disbelief at what we were witnessing – definitely a lot of ‘not normal’ physical feats on display. This got me thinking about what the capacity of homo sapiens truly is, what are our natural attributes without the interference of industrialised/post-technological revolution culture, and the language and mindsets of limitation and fear. Perhaps the Cirque de Soleil artists ARE the ‘normal’ humans, doing things that we absolutely evolved to do, and I think it looks extraordinary because their skills are way beyond mine, just as me circling my scapulae around my ribcage seems to be beyond some of the people that I try to teach it to.

I know that if I don’t routinely express the full range of movement of a joint, the soft tissues and muscles around the joint will adapt to the reduced range that I am making use of. If I don’t fully lengthen and fully shorten a particular muscle, my nervous system will calibrate accordingly. My system’s perception of full range will now be less than my physiological full range (and, of course, my nervous system is in charge), so it will take considerable retraining to re-callibrate my system’s perception of full range to my actual full range.

A few years back, when I was regularly teaching an open level Pilates mat class, I began to realise that over months, and years, of accommodating what appeared to be the typical available ranges of movement of the group in the class, I was adapting exercises and movements to fit them. After perhaps two years of semi-consciously modifying movements it dawned on me that I was no longer teaching what I set out to teach but rather I was teaching, in some cases, a modification of a modification of a modification of the exercise. You might argue that, in adapting things to the ability of the attendees, I was being a responsible and inclusive teacher. However, I now look back and think that I was actually resetting ‘normal’ for most of those people. Instead of showing them the possibility of more, and helping them to achieve it, I was actually helping to reduce their options. I never stopped intending to teach people to the best of my ability, I wasn’t being lazy, or uncaring – instead I think I’d lost sight of the difference between natural and normal, or between natural and usual, or most common.

It’s a terrible (and terribly true) cliche that the magic happens outside one’s comfort zone. I think that ‘normal’ is a part of fortress comfort – the very high walls of fortress comfort, in fact – concealing from us the possibilities that, rather than being bizarre or outlandish (‘women doing push-ups! ludicrous!’) were our birthright, as in, we were born to do them. Heck, why not call them ‘gifts’ instead of ‘abilities’ – we are given the gift of life, and part of that gift is a physicality that has astounding potential. As Ido Portal has said, of all the animals, we will never be the fastest runners, the best climbers, fliers, diggers etc. but we can do a bigger combination of these, and so many more things, better than any other animals can.

Ido Portal famously proposed that we should train ourselves in improper alignment, and I believe that this is another way of saying ‘reset normal’ or, better yet, ‘expand normal’. Functional training sounds very sensible and rational (though good luck with finding a clear definition) but, to use the most basic explanation of the term, training to make the activities of daily life easier doesn’t sound like it’s going to be pushing many boundaries. As the Mayo clinic suggests in their description of functional training, squats are great preparation for sitting down and getting up again – and I don’t think that they were trying to be funny… It appears that functional can be code for ‘normal’ – and functional training is to make you better at doing the stuff that you normally do. It’s almost completely at odds with Ido’s argument because, by definition, it doesn’t aim to expand on what is normal, for you. I have heard Jozef Frucek, of Fighting Monkey fame, argue that rather than ‘functional training’, we are better off doing non-functional training if we want to be better able to handle what life throws at us. (Fascinatingly, to me, he also suggests not to ‘do your best’, because that will result in you doing what you usually (normally) do, so trying something other than ‘your best’ instead.

To carry on quoting Jozef (I’m writing this just days after spending 4 days listening to him), “diversity breeds immunity”. To suit the point that I’m trying to make, I might twist this into “normality breeds vulnerability”. So if we’re presented with an activity, or an idea, that provokes a “That’s not normal” response, maybe we’ll be best served by pausing long enough to suppress that response, and discovering what possibilities, and potential benefits ‘not normal’ has to offer us.

 

 

 

More inspiration for me in the last week or so. This time, from this video by the always-thoughtful and provocative Joseph Bartz, and this blog by Oliver Goetgeluck (himself inspired by Joseph), pondering the meaning of ‘movement’ (though that’s a gross oversimplification. Also in the mix, and mingling nicely with these two are an excerpt of a Ted Dialogue with Yuval Harari, who has, for me, more profound ideas and insights than anyone else alive.

Whilst Joseph’s video seems to be more around semantics and the problems of ‘foreign’ words becoming part of one’s language, Oliver writes about the difference between movement, and Movement:

“I feel, today, that Movement is the contact we so desperately want to return to – and we want to return to it because we sense it is in some way inhibited, disturbed: we feel we are living way below our potential.” In this context, movement, with a small m, may or may not lead toward the big M movement that we crave.”

Having been easily seduced in the past by video clips of amazingly skilled movers performing beautiful, flowing sequences, more recently I’ve started to question the point of this kind of practice. I’m pretty sure that Ido would say “The point is that there is no point”, or something along those lines, which is fine, but perhaps not for me any more. (Of course, it may be that my exceptionally slow development of the kind of skill base required to ‘flow’ has prejudiced me against it….) I still love watching tricking videos, but, while I can enjoy the grace and control of someone doing what we might call ‘floor flow’ doesn’t move/engage me like it did once. I don’t know where it’s going, what it’s in service of. I can’t speak for Oliver, but maybe I’m talking about the big M that he refers to – does the ‘floor flow’ take us closer to the big M?

Ido’s 3 ‘I’s: isolate, integrate, improvise sounded fantastic to me when I first heard him talk about this concept, and I’m sure that it still has great value. However, I think that there’s a also the possibility that this approach may become about acquiring specific skills (perhaps a LOT of specific skills) and then finding ways to put them together. So the improvisation is no more than joining those skills together imaginatively. Dare I say that ‘movement practice’ could accidentally become exercise, using the distinction that Katy Bowman makes? As in, exercise is a patch, a pill – something that we’ve invented to try to compensate for the systematic sedentarisation of our culture, instead of reintroducing truly natural movement to our lives.

I think it’s safe to say that when animals play they are usually learning about interacting with others, either fighting or mating, on the whole. The concept of ‘animal flow’ as a human movement practice seems poorly named – some mating displays may be highly ‘ritualistic’ or follow a specific formula but I don’t believe that there are many examples of animals putting on movement displays in the way that humans are inclined to do. And I assume that this is because it hasn’t proven to give any kind of advantage, biologically/evolutionarily. In short, animals move in the ways that they do to survive and thrive, to be successful at life as whatever animal they are – to be the most wolf/chimp/rat that they can be. And I think that we have lost this drive, in many ways, including some of our movement practice. To borrow from Ido, again, we might be trying to be ‘homo motus’, rather than trying to be better homo sapiens.

So, if not to be more skilled, and more able to sequence multiple movements together in a graceful way, what do I train movement for? Over to Yuval Harari:

The feelings that people today have, of alienation and loneliness, and not finding their place in the world….the chief problem is not global capitalism, the chief problem is that, over the last 100 years people have been becoming disembodied, have been distancing themselves from their body. As a hunter-gatherer, or even as a peasant, to survive you need to be constantly in touch with your body and with your senses, every moment. If you go to the forest to look for mushrooms, and you don’t pay attention to what you hear, what you smell, to what you taste, you’re dead.

So you must be very connected. In the last 100 years people are losing their ability to be in touch with their body and their senses. To hear, to smell, to feel. More and more attention goes to screens, to what is happening elsewhere, some other time. […] if you’re back in touch with your body you’ll feel much more at home in the world.”

I suspect that this is the big M that Oliver refers to (I apologise if I’ve missed the point) – being more connected to the world, by being more embodied. Being more embodied may make it easier to perform a flowing sequence of acrobatic/gymnastic/animalistic movements, but I don’t think this works in reverse – I don’t think that learning to ‘flow’ means that you necessarily become more embodied. The goal of my training is to be more embodied, to know myself better, and it’s also why encountering Fighting Monkey last year was almost too good to be true, for me. Jozef talks about the point of FM being to become a better communicator, so that you can be a better friend, partner, parent – to become a better person. I think that this happens because the practice helps us to become more embodied. It may well be that many people following all kinds of other means and methods (including the Ido Portal Method) are achieving the same thing, perhaps by accident, perhaps by design – in which case there IS a point, acknowledged or not (and, according to Yuval Harari, that point might be as huge as saving humanity from itself!).

To me, Fighting Monkey is continuous awareness developing, and problem solving. Not ‘how can I transition from butterfly kick to cartwheel’, or ‘how can I open my shoulders more for my handstand’ but rather solving problems that I didn’t know were coming, problems that shift, like sand, as they are encountered in a different environment, with a different sparring partner. This is the kind of practice/learning that makes me feel that I understand myself, both ‘my structure’ and my psyche (as in recognising patterns in my reactions to situations/people/obstacles) a little bit better.

I’m not writing this with the intention of denigrating anyone’s practice, not least because, in the grand scheme of things, undoubtedly more movement>less movement. Instead, I think the colliding inspirations listed above helped me to understand (and maybe even articulate) something which I’ve been struggling to clarify for myself: why I am driven to attend workshops with Ido, Tom, Rafe, Tomislav, et al, and why Fighting Monkey feels, so strongly, like the logical next step in this pursuit.

Recently I had to explain why I write this blog, and this has caused me to reflect on why I choose to write about Pilates, and particularly teaching Pilates.

My standard answer is that it’s a way for me to think ‘out loud’ – to help myself to organise the thoughts that swirl around in my mind. However, I realised, if this were really true, or the whole truth, there would be no need to press the ‘publish’ button on WordPress. There certainly wouldn’t be any need to post the things that I write in Pilates teacher Facebook forums. So it’s clearly somewhat disingenuous to say that I do it solely to ‘organise my thoughts’.

There are a number of people, more famous than I, who write about Pilates and teaching Pilates and, on the whole, it appears that their aim is to share information with their colleagues – here is a fine example. Others, to my eye, may be written with a little more ego – but perhaps I share my motives with those same writers that I accuse of egocentricity.

As a fine art student (many years ago) I had one of my formative learning experiences, which was also one of the most intimidating. In my memory, the tutor had me up against the wall, demanding to know why I hadn’t read what she’d recommended, and why I was not taking things more seriously, and when I was planning to stop dicking around (this was in England, in the late 1980s – we didn’t say ‘dicking around’, but it’s what she meant, for sure). I’m not sure if this is truth, or my way of rationalising my own behaviour, but I think this experience has coloured my own teaching, to a degree. I was very comfortable at college, doing what I liked, not really getting my hands dirty – I needed someone to shake me out of my status quo. I don’t think you would ever see this if you watched me teaching ‘civilians’, unless I know them very well, but this reflex (see, I’m pretending it’s in my dna, rather than a behavioural flaw) to light a fire, to stimulate some passion, is turned on when I’m interacting with other teachers or, heaven help them, trainee teachers I’ve been allowed out to play with.

I would refer to this now as ‘rattling someone’s cage’ or, in certain circumstances, ‘kicking the hornets nest’. I’ve resisted the latter more and more in recent times – even though I enjoy it initially, provoking people who have strongly held (erroneous, or conflicting with my own) opinions is fun at first but can quickly become an unwanted stress.

I’ve had other powerful learning experiences since which have been equally challenging, though less confrontational. Challenging not just to my status quo but to my core beliefs, with results that make me now relish those moments. When my wife and I first attended Ido Portal’s seminars, after 4 days I felt like everything I knew about movement had been destroyed. For a few hours at the end of the fourth day I was doubtful that I would be able to teach Pilates any more, such was the power of that particular bombshell. This is what I mean by ‘rattling the cage’. In a variety of non-Pilates workshops since I’ve had multiple bombs dropped on my beliefs and methods, and all of them have been amazing growing experiences – I’ve written ad nauseam about how I believe my Pilates teaching has been enhanced by the insights of teachers from the wider universe of movement (outside the small solar system of Pilates).

This is where I begin to have problems with analysing, or defining my blogging motivation – am I, like other blog writing Pilates teachers, trying to share information? The word “should” pops into my head too frequently. How many times have I said to my wife, after another workshop, “Every Pilates teacher should do this”? Who am I to tell you what you should do? Just because it was valuable to me, and contained insights that will change/enhance/enrich the way that I think about and teach Pilates, why should you have the same experience.

I realise that a lot of the posts I write about Pilates are, in effect, suggesting that some teachers are doing things wrongly – saying the wrong things, for example. Aside from the teachers at our studio, why should I be concerned about Pilates teachers using the word ‘core’? I can’t help it! It’s much like passing the local 24 hour gym and seeing dozens of people on the rows of treadmills. I want to go in and plead with them to stop wasting electricity and go outside to actually run (instead of that weird ‘the ground is running toward me’ activity that the treadmill induces. I really don’t think that I’m driven to be a dick and show them how much more insightful I am. I want them to not be deceived by gym/fitness/workout mythology, to not mess with their wonderful biology that never wanted them to do 30 minutes of cardio, to not spend their money on something (physical activity) which is free, and best enjoyed outside.

I believe that there are too many Pilates teachers who teach exercises, instead of teaching movement. Part of the reason for this, I suspect, is that they lack the awareness necessary to embody movement principles. If you don’t understand (feel) the fundamentals in yourself and your own movement then teaching them is a nearly impossible task. I’m by no means ‘the finished article’, but having spent years teaching exercises instead of (at least attempting to) teach movement, I think I’m able to recognise the difference.

I remember now that I told a teacher friend of mine a while back that I’d like to start a revolution. I think that’s still true. I’d like to start, or at least facilitate a revolution within the community of Pilates teachers, whose manifesto might read something like “Teaching Pilates is good, teaching movement is better”. Maybe I’m giving in to my own vanity, but I believe that a large part of the reason that I write about teaching Pilates is because I believe the Pilates industry and the wider world will benefit from more teachers who have a broader perspective – who teach movement with Pilates as their primary tool kit.

A few months ago I wrote about becoming a better Pilates teacher by learning from teachers like Ido Portal, from outside the Pilates orbit,  and one of the comments that I received declared that Ido could not teach me as much about Contrology as a seasoned Contrology teacher. Intuitively that would seem to be obvious, and yet I disagree, because Ido and numerous others, have taught me a lot about the components of efficient movement, the value of variety and unpredictability and, most importantly, how I move – how my body responds to stimulus and stress, how I solve problems. I’m better at feeling, I’m more self aware, and that means I have more tools for communicating with others. That’s what makes me a better teacher, as well as a more sensitive Pilates practitioner. I don’t agree, or believe that only someone who resides within the sphere of Pilates would have that insight.

My wife and I spent the last weekend in a Fighting Monkey workshop (if you teach Pilates, or any other movement practice, you should, too!). As Jozef, co-creator of Fighting Monkey said: “Any great system creates great deficiencies.” I believe that Pilates is a great system, and that Jozef is right – if we believe that Pilates exercises are the answer to everything, and that they make for a complete practice, then we develop gaps (huge holes, perhaps) in our understanding and awareness, that inevitably will get passed on to our students. I write about Pilates to try to illuminate this, and to propose ways that my wife and I have found and sought out, as a means to avoiding the pitfalls of a ‘Pilates is everything’ mentality.

Years back I was in a CrossFit gym that had this sign on the wall:

Help everyone else to be better than you.

This is why I write about teaching Pilates.

 

The longer I teach, the more bizarre the exhortation “listen to your body” seems to be, to me. Of course, I understand why teachers of movement might say this, or rather, (I think) I understand what they would like to convey. Autonomy and personal responsibility are terrific ideas to be reinforcing when teaching but there seem to be two significant problems with “listen to your body”.

The first is that it reinforces a Cartesian notion of mind and body as distinct entities. Perhaps this is a problem with Joseph Pilates’ philosophy – the very notion of integrating mind, body and spirit through movement relies on the possibility that they are separate to begin with. I first heard “I do not have a body, I am a body” spoken by Jaap van der Wal. I’m not sure if he’s quoting someone else – I’ve seen it attributed to Christopher Hitchens as well. Whoever said it first, this phrase jolted me into attention – the idea of humans having hardware and software is attractive in its simplicity but is false – your brain is not a computer, nor is it distinct from the other organs and tissues of your structure. I was reminded of this recently while watching the video of the Q&A session following the London premiere of ‘Ido Portal: Just Move‘, in which Ido says “I do not listen to my body, I am my body”.

I may well be labouring the point by now but this seems to be a crucial idea for a movement practice. An animal moving through the savanna is engaged in being, a system of systems, all inter-related. To reduce their movement to instructions from the brain is to grossly oversimplify the processes occurring, not least because all the other organs and tissues are integral to the brain’s activity. (For more on internal communication try this). While we may have made huge modifications to our environment (mostly for the sake of moving less, or in less complex ways) we are still animals: human beings.

The second problem is that the people that seem most in need of this sort of instruction – to listen to their body – may well be those who we might say are the least embodied, who have ‘weaker’ proprioception. I think, if we say “listen to your body” what we really mean is “accurately decipher the information your brain receives and respond appropriately”, which immediately sounds more complicated.

I imagine we might say “listen to your body” to someone we suspect might find some movements frightening, or painful. The trouble is that they are probably the ones who are least able to make good sense of their nervous system’s inputs. You probably already know this intuitively – that proprioception and nociception are inversely correlated – when one goes up the other goes down. If we have compromised proprioception we are more likely to interpret sensory information as pain, and vice versa.

“Listen to your body” might be easily said, but if you’re a teacher it might be the most difficult instruction that you give in an hour long class. So what to do? What outcome do you want from the “LTYB” instruction. As I alluded above, I think that it’s an invitation or encouragement to feel personally responsible in a class – to not act blindly and do whatever the teacher says, but to self-evaluate and participate in exercises to a level that fits with that evaluation. In other words, “Trust your instincts”, though we might also mean “Please don’t hurt yourself”, which we could reframe as “Please don’t do anything foolish.” I suspect that “trust your instincts” sounds more familiar than “listen to your body”.

If you’re asked to “listen to your body” and you have no sense of what that really means, wouldn’t you feel incompetent, or out of your depth? Would that make you more or less likely to voice any anxiety or uncertainty? “I don’t understand what you mean” might take a lot of courage – in my experience it takes a confident person to voice that in class.

I tend to think that, if a student doesn’t understand me, it’s invariably my fault. That’s to say, it’s my responsibility as the teacher to find an appropriate way of communicating for that student (and all the others). They are responsible for their own actions in the class, and I am responsible for facilitating their self-actualisation. Instead of telling them to listen to their body, I must try to teach them how. I think we (Pilates teachers) can too easily fall into the habit of giving instructions – engage your powerhouse/core/centre; stabilise your spine; engage your glutes etc. – without telling people how. I’m inclined to think that this is lazy teaching, gives people a distorted impression of how to move, and fails to give people tools for becoming independent (it’s probably worth a separate post). These kind of instructions seem to me to be trying to mould unconscious reflexes into conscious actions and I’m not at all sure that this is a good idea. Instead, we should be creating environments/situations which stimulate the reflexes to stabilise, and to move.

What are the tools we can use, and share with the people we teach, to help them know themselves better? To have greater awareness of their physicality? I’m sure there are many, and I’m sure you know plenty already. Could we more usefully use these and avoid the need to say “listen to your body”?

 

Image from seniroplanet.org

Like moths to a flame, we were drawn back to Turku to attend another movement workshop. All our previous trips have been for Ido Portal workshops but this time it was for Fighting Monkey. FM has been on our radar for a few years, though I can’t remember how we first heard of it. The first video I saw was shot outdoors and my memory is that it looked like a roadside, rough ground and people looking like they were, near enough, fighting. The rumours were that, if you were in to movement, this was the real shit.

Fast forward a few years and FM have some really high quality, seductive video. It’s hard to explain why (this will be a theme), but after 30 seconds of someone manipulating a wooden sphere I knew for certain that I wanted to sign up for their week long intensive in Slovakia (in addition to the upcoming weekend in November we were already booked on). Would Anoushka and I be suitable ‘material’ for such an event? I emailed Fighting Monkey and had a reply from Jozef (he and his wife, Linda, are Fighting Monkey), to say something like “If you’re ready for hard work you are welcome”. That first interaction was a pleasant surprise (email IP Method and it will not be Ido who replies), it felt like ‘ hey, if you’re interested in what we do them we’re friends already’.

But, dammit, there was a spanner in the works – an unmissable family event right in the middle of the intensive week. So, much as we love our routine visit to Turku, it was a can’t-go-to-the-intensive consolation, more than the irresistibility of Finland’s former capital.

So, there we were, usual hotel next to the Baltic (a very refreshing 18 degrees after a day’s play), usual morning drive through the woods into the city but, instead of the usual CrossFit box venues of Ido workshops, this time we were heading for (I think) a folk dance pavilion.
A couple of FM followers greet us warmly, and Jozef tells us that we’re lucky, that a group of only 20 is very unusual, so we will get a lot of attention. I don’t remember much more preamble before we were in pairs playing games on the floor (and getting filthy – don’t those folk dancers ever sweep the floor?) One of the focuses of FM training is ‘body-body’ work, on the basis that interacting with another human creates endless variables (especially if you keep changing partners) that you have to react to. So simple tasks like ‘I’m going to stay sitting on my butt while s/he tries to manoeuvre me onto my back’ have extraordinary complexity, and have the potential to teach you a lot more than repeating specific drills.

The parameters, or rules of the games kept changing, along with the partners, and I was amazed to find that 2 hours had passed when we paused to sit in a circle, to share observations and learn FM principles from Jozef. This was the pattern for the weekend: movement punctuated with feedback and theory/philosophy. While Jozef spoke often about athletic performance he also related a lot of the physical practice to rehabilitation scenarios. This workshop was “Anatomy of Injury” (not my favourite title, I must admit) – Jozef made it clear that the different FM workshops have a lot of overlap – and one of the themes was becoming less prone to injury. Ido’s ‘The Corset’, with its ‘armour for your whole body’ subtitle, represented a more positive heading, or description, for me. And this makes for a useful comparison, I realise, because FM’s work and message is almost the exact opposite of The Corset, and Ido. Whereas, I learned an amazing range of drills and exercises (that will carry on serving me for years) on The Corset, FM is very much about learning principles that you can apply broadly – like learning a language as opposed to learning a lot of vocabulary. Crucially, Jozef makes it clear that the learning comes from you, answers are rarely given or imposed upon you. You learn by solving the problem yourself, instead of being given solutions. So you try one thing and if it doesn’t work you try another. You persist, you repeat, you allow your brain the time to decode what it’s seeing.

This is part of why it feels difficult to describe what FM is, because it certainly does not seem to be a prescribed sequence of activities. I learned from one of the guys who’d been following FM that the content is different every time. Again, trying to illustrate by comparison, if you see their respective websites the names are ‘Ido Portal METHOD’, and ‘Fighting Monkey PRACTICE’.
One element that was very tangible, and novel for me, was the concept of a “zero form” as an awareness and feedback tool. A posture (standing, sitting) or activity, for a certain duration, that you use to develop your proprioception and sense of homeostasis. So part of the strategy of training intelligently is to have the ability to recognise what type or intensity of training will be appropriate for you on a given day. And how is your body responding to the training you did yesterday? In the age of highly sophisticated electronic devices and software that can gather endless metrics about us this is a beautifully primal, animal idea to me. Much more embodied than relying on a Fitbit to tell you your health status. I’m somewhat shocked at how novel this is to me: I’m all about primal lifestyle, nutritious movement, ancestral health and all that jazz. Apparently I’ve been seriously switched off, and this idea alone was worth the trip.

So what else did we do? ‘Coordinations’ that, thanks to some previous exposure, no longer throw me into a state of total panic, but still can cause my brain to feel like it’s jammed, and has to be reset – it’s almost like feeling synapses failing within my head. Jozef moves rhythmically across the room, demonstrating a pattern of steps while his arms whirl and trunk rotates, and we try to follow. I won’t deny that there’s still some profane verbalisation on my part but I now know that running from the room, roaring with rage will not serve me well. (What is Fighting Monkey? Downloading Jay-Z to help remember the two-step/swinging/throwing pattern you did earlier, in your hotel room at 10pm. That’s Fighting Monkey.)

We had a variety of encounters with the ’practice ball’, both standing and on the ground (It’s okay – it’s not that they don’t sweep the floor, all that dust is potato starch, for more glide in your folk-dance stride, apparently). Some of it looking like combat, some of it looking like contemporary dance. We also practiced a standing sequence of joint articulation (aha! Something specific!), and attempted to manipulate small wooden blocks with our feet. In both cases Jozef’s assertion that “Feet as strong as a worker’s hands” is essential for athletic legs was ringing in my ears. And we sat in the circle, listening and talking.

An interesting measure of this experience for me is that, unlike any other workshop I’ve attended before, there was nothing that we did that I will try to teach to anyone else straight away. That’s not the stuff that I was learning. I think that Fighting Monkey is the people behind it, and their cumulative practice and exploration. I’ve never worked with someone who seemed as steeped in the work as Jozef, and I have to assume that, since they’ve evolved FM together, the same will be true when I meet Linda. Jozef is an extraordinary teacher, with a great ability to read the group and manage the rhythm of the day – playfulness, focus, intensity. I’d be very surprised to hear that anyone there felt that we did too much of any one thing. I’ve met teachers who love their work so much that they lose themselves and forget to be the teacher, but Jozef, in spite of gleefully declaring that he loves a game we played so much that it makes him salivate, was always present, aware and ready to help anyone who was struggling (and also able to recognise when to give room for self-discovery). It’s too simplistic to say “he seems like a really nice guy” – he is very generous, with his time, energy, attention. I’ve rarely met anyone who seems as grounded as Jozef (grounded as in “I know exactly who I am, and I’m at peace with myself”) and I think this has huge significance in a teacher.

I’ve appreciated workshops that were scaled to accommodate different abilities – “if this is too much then stick with that” – but there was none here. It’s only dawned on me in writing this but I think this is a crucial part of FM – while we may have struggled with the Coordinations, for example, we were always in it together, as a group. No one was left behind, because it’s not that kind of practice/training. Everyone tries to find their way, and if you are struggling with something you’re encouraged to reflect on how it feels and how it relates to you response to other challenges in your life. Because, and here is the Big Thing:

Fighting Monkey is about being a better person.

It’s not about fitness, or being a better mover. It’s about being a better communicator. Jozef states that your health is measured by your ability to form relationships. To continue the comparison with Ido (which truly does neither party justice but is convenient – sorry) in the recent film Ido declares that it’s important to realise that there is no meaning (to all the movement), which is clearly in sharp contrast to ‘being a better person’. This made for a more profound, harder to define kind of experience than I’ve had in any movement workshop. And, while I’m going to need to practice, observe and reflect for a while before I can contemplate sharing anything that we did, it feels as though I’ll still be learning from it for years to come.