“Pilates teachers are control freaks who can’t let go.”

This was said to me by someone who has been teaching for decades, whom I know not mean or judgemental. It was said with a degree of affection, a wry acknowledgement of a general truth – after all, the creator called it ‘CONTROLOGY’, right? It’s not an accident that control freaks are drawn to it, and I hold my hand up as one of them. I like certainty. A lot. And I’ve taken up fixed positions that I’ve argued for vociferously, then later rather more quietly let those convictions go. In other words, I understand the desire for certainty (which is a kind of comfort, of course) but I’m now trying to keep in mind that certainty does not serve my own growth, and lack of growth on my part is against the interests of the people that I’m lucky enough to teach. A more academic teacher friend of mine tends to say “current best guess”, in relation to almost everything to do with anatomy, biology, exercise, etc. and I do my best now to remember and to live by this wisdom.

The approach that we take to running our studio has been shaken up and transformed by exposure to the ideas of Logan Gelbrich, owner of Deuce gym in Venice, CA. Much of this revolves around personal growth, leadership and cultivating a culture of excellence and begins with what he calls “disconfirming information”. What this boils down to is, if you’re interested in pursuing your own highest expression, you need to actively seek feedback that identifies what you could do better, not more feedback about what you’re doing well. He urges us to ask the question: “How might I be wrong about this?”

It takes a certain vulnerability to ask this question and, just as many of the people we teach will be expressing vulnerability in the act of coming to class, to be a teacher surely requires a willingness to be vulnerable. Certainty, or a show of it, is a kind of safety but the trouble with comfort is it’s very comfortable – why would we leave it? Adaptation is driven by stress of some sort, if we remain comfortable there is no driver of adaptation, of growth. If you know everything and your teaching is perfect, with no room for improvement anywhere, you have no need to grow – in fact, you shouldn’t waste your time reading on.

There are a number of dogmas that seem to be so entrenched in Pilates that it’s considered bizarre, or an affront to common decency to call them into question. This can lead to confirmation bias and blind spots in our teaching. As Jozef Frucek of Fighting Monkey says “Any great system has great deficiencies.” I’m sure that this is as true of Pilates as it is of Tai Chi, Yoga etc etc. Everything that we do deserves to be up for examination and, as I can’t remember who said, “Real intelligence is to be able to hold opposing views in your mind simultaneously.”

Writing a blog is an indulgence and it’s also a way for me to test ideas and lay them open to disconfirming information. I like being in control but liking it doesn’t mean that it serves me well. I recently shared a post in a Pilates teachers’ forum about my dislike, or rather my unease around the use of the word ‘core’. The title: “Pilates teacher? Please don’t say ‘core’. Ever again.” was intentionally provocative, and probably foolish (though I did ask nicely…) so it may have deserved this response:

‘I am not a minion…and will queue the way I see fit. This is like FB saying ” you have been shampooing your hair wrong all these years”. Back off- I shampoo the way I want😂😂’ 

Maybe what I write did it’s job and even now the writer of this comment may be reflecting on her shampooing technique, or better yet, her teaching cues. And maybe I’m wrong, and none of the arguments that I presented made sense.

I used to teach an ‘abdominal scoop’ with great conviction, and I read studies to support conscious activation of TVA in anticipation of movement and applied tat to my teaching. I was sure I was right in this, not least because it was what all the teachers I knew also taught. I didn’t know then that I would have disdained an abdominal scoop within the first decade of teaching (I might say “scoop” still from time to time, with a client who I think might appreciate a food related image, and describe the action of a Roll Up as being like the curl of ice cream as it’s scooped out of a tub…), nor did I know that the researchers would have called their own work on the TVA and interpretations of it within a few years. Current. Best. Guess.

If we hold fast to “truths’ around how we work it becomes very tempting to chalk our successes up to the efficacy of our teaching, and to assume that the clients whom we fail to help, or don’t return were at fault. If we want to take some credit for any positive results then we must also take credit for lack of results. The avoidance of our own culpability is such a powerful impulse that books (“Mistakes Are Made, But Not By Me’) have been written about it, and there is this list of cognitive biases on Wikipedia (‘Bandwagon Effect’ and ‘Groupthink’ may be a couple of the issues that inhibit our growth as Pilates teachers).

If you know that teaching ‘core activation’ works because you see it being effective and don’t notice the times that it doesn’t work, or you cue ‘navel to spine’ or some variation of that concept because it makes sense to you and you believe that it helped you, will you be open to the possibility of something better?

Here’s the crux, alluded to above, do we believe that we can be better? 

I imagine that the answer must be “YES” and, in that case, we have to look for ways in which we may be wrong, and seek the input of peers, colleagues, family, friends etc who we can trust to tell us the truth – much better to have someone who cares about us giving this information than someone who does not. I know from first hand experience that this is hugely challenging for many teachers, and an environment and culture of trust has to be cultivated and nurtured.

While it is challenging it shouldn’t be out of reach. After all, this is exactly what we do for a living, especially teaching one to one – we provide a safe, supportive environment in which to offer advice or instructions in how someone can be better.

Oh, and please let me know – How might I be wrong about this?

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Freestyle Insider

December 24, 2018 — Leave a comment

It all began with a list of dates and venues. I was scrolling through Facebook back on August 7th and saw this:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I emailed as soon as I saw the notification of the Freestyle Insider course and the description above – I wanted to be involved, no question – mostly because I’ve watched the evolution of Carl’s work over the last few years with great interest and admiration. My wife and I first attended one of Carl’s Freestyle Connection seminars back in 2012, when his work seemed entirely grounded in the practicalities of skill development. That seminar remains one of the most memorable I’ve attended, largely because of Carl’s charisma and generous, humble approach to coaching. Subsequently anyone following Carl on social media has seen into Carl’s personal life as he’s shared significant moments and struggles with a degree of honesty that can be shocking (to a somewhat reserved middle-aged Englishman, at least). It was clear that his work was developing beyond coaching skill development, into an approach to lifestyle. Even this sounds too trite – I just knew that Carl was into some interesting stuff, and I wanted to know more.

I was lucky enough to be accepted, at the time unaware of how much the course – I probably wouldn’t have applied if I’d known how much it was (it has been a tough year on a few fronts) – so I’m really glad that I didn’t know (I mention this only in the hope that no-one else will fall into that trap).

Step 2 was a video call with Carl, to lear more about the course content, for him to learn about my hopes for the course, and to establish a common understanding – essentially a commitment to come ready to participate fully and to be totally open.

I started the journey to the venue with very little overall sense of what was ahead – we’d been introduced via Facebook to the different presenters, but I didn’t feel equipped to explain to anyone else what  this course was that I was attending, but I had a clear sense of what was required of me – disguises off, defences down. From the beginning of the day it was apparent that we all understood that we were in the process together – there was a shared sense of commitment and readiness to do some deep work, or to face up to some tough questions. I felt entirely safe, even with the people that I didn’t chat to or ‘hit it off’ with straight away. Why? I believe that this sense was a result of Carl as the unifying agent – he was the reason that we were all there, and his ability, and willingness to be an example, to model radical honesty, to admit failure, frailty, vulnerability all served to bind the group together.

The running order of the various presenters and the specifics of their delivery don’t seem to be relevant now (and I imagine they may well be different in future iterations of Freestyle Insider). That’s not to disparage or diminish the impact of any of them but rather it’s indicative of the course being greater than the sum of its parts. I’m writing this nearly 2 months after the course, and it’s taken this long for me to begin to distill the impact into words.

Day one gave some valuable insights and lightbulb moments in identifying our purpose; communication (making me reflect on how I interact with a few of the people in my life); mindset; and personal branding. Our homework for that evening was to write a personal mission statement, based upon the groundwork of the day and a template of 5 questions (I think you can find these on Carl’s social media feed and I recommend trying this exercise regularly).

Day two started with each of us declaring our mission statement, which I’d also recommend trying regularly – there’s a test of authenticity in saying your mission in life aloud and in front of people that you’re not intimate with that helps to hone one’s thinking. Helping and sharing were common themes, which should also give an indication of the kind of people that Carl brings together, and the kind of environment that he is able to foster. I didn’t feel under pressure to be up to my ears in the process of personal development, just in a space where personal development was encouraged, supported and celebrated.

The rest of day two focused on business and money, with more presenters and more lightbulb moments. Again, it doesn’t feel relevant to go into the details of any of the individual presentations. Let’s just say that I would happily spend more time listening to, or just hanging out with each one of them. I wrote above that the course was greater than the sum of its parts but I realise that’s not an accurate statement, because the course was Carl, the other presenters, and all of us in attendance and it’s the collective energy, inspiration and encouragement that’s influenced me most. I feel a connection to friends I made there that may only ever carry on through social media but still makes me happy, and also helps me to stay focused. To discover what Tom, Melanie, Tim & Jocko have already achieved, and to see what Heath, Kimmy and Lala are doing (to name a few, as you can see), and the work that everyone is sharing means that the small investment of time and vulnerability I made keeps paying me back.

Though they’re not at all, I’m aware that the social media aspect may not resonate with everyone (this was my bias before Freestyle Insider but I know better now…) and perhaps these rewards might seem superficial. So let me share something more substantial. For months I’d been working on the idea of writing a book. I had an idea of what I wanted to share, and the audience that I was writing for. I had flowcharts and mind maps of topics and content but I was struggling to organise the material and starting to think that I was deluded in imaging that I had something worth putting into a book. Within 2 weeks of Freestyle Insider, and after a few nights of my racing mind not allowing me to sleep (I suspect this was a common outcome of the course) I knew how to organise what I wanted to write, and how I would go about gathering the feedback to substantiate it. Yes, the timing could be a coincidence, but if you have the chance to enjoy the same experience of Freestyle Insider I believe that you’d know it’s not.

You can follow Carl and find out about upcoming seminars on Facebook and Instagram (@carlpaoli, @freestyleconnection).

Eve Gentry asked the question “Do you teach concepts, or do you teach exercises? Are you a teacher, or are you a conveyor belt?” She went on to say “If you’re a conveyor belt then, sooner or later the mechanism will get stuck.”

You are probably familiar with the expression “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; show him how to catch a fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Eve Gentry was saying essentially the same thing, and this reflects how we want to teach people at our studio – the exercises are expressions of concepts, or principles. Our goal for our clients, our ‘offering’ if you like, is ‘whole body health’, in keeping with Joseph’s intentions. We are not interested in making people better at Pilates, but rather in improving all aspects of their health that movement can influence (and being ‘better’ at the exercises will be one manifestation of this). We will help people to move better (and, by extension do the exercises better) if we have explained the principles behind the exercise, and how to apply them.

If we fall into the trap of teaching people choreography – something which stands alone – then we teach them to be better at that specific movement. We miss the opportunity to make connection between exercises that reinforce movement principles, and therefore the carry-over into other activities.

For example, Clams might be considered an exercise done side-lying with your hips at 45 degrees, and your knees at 90 degrees, in which you target your gluteus medius by reaching your knee toward the ceiling. Or we could consider it as a movement of contrasting stability and mobility, similar to the way we lift our legs for the Hundred, in which the stability of your trunk enhances the mobility of your hip. Instead of being The Clam, part of the side-lying repertoire, it is another movement (one of many in Pilates) of stabilising your trunk against the load of your limb/s.

You may be lucky, and find that something that you say is a lightbulb moment for someone that you’re teaching for the first time. On the whole, if we are to be successful, we have to build relationships with the people that we teach, so that we can understand each other better. Naturally, we have to maintain clear boundaries, and you must set those according to what feels right for you. At the same time, to learn more about the people we teach we have to give something of ourselves how can you learn what their interests are? What makes them tick, what do they care about? Small snippets of information may provide valuable clues as to how best to communicate a specific idea to them.

Part of maintaining healthy functioning relationships is the ability to let go of your plan, to be able to react to the other person/people in the relationship. I’m sure that you know this from your own life, and it’s true for teaching, too.

To approach your class with a plan is useful, but if your plan is a sequence of exercises, with specific repetitions, and customary verbal cues, do you leave yourself the space to respond to your students? Does teaching your class according to your plan actually get in the way of you being present, and seeing what is happening? Can you let go of the plan if it’s the thing which determines the structure and flow of your class?

If you are teaching principles, or concepts, then letting go of the plan becomes relatively easy. Instead of a set sequence of exercises we can teach to a theme; or have a single exercise as a goal – ‘I’m going to teach the Push Up today, so I’m going to build up to it with all the different components that I think are crucial to the movement, informed by how everyone is moving today.’

If we recognise exercises for the concepts that they teach, then choosing them ‘on the fly’ becomes easy. If the group needs reminding of efficient weight-bearing through their hands then we can do something specific to that, if shoulder stability needs addressing there are plenty of tools for that, if it’s midline stability that needs the focus…well, Pilates has lots for that. All of

these will be great preparations for the Push Up, but they’re tools in the box, instead of being a plan I’ve committed to. Then, we can teach people what they need, instead of what we decided the day before that we wanted to teach.

Eisen and Friedman, in their book published in 1984, gave us the 6 principles that most will recognise as the principles of Pilates. However, the concepts that we are talking about teaching are the ‘how’ of position and movement that will help to achieve some of those 6 principles.

For instance, how does someone achieve ‘Control’ in their movement? Controlled movement is a product of joints fitting together well, and efficient transfer of weight/load through our structure. This is what we need to teach: how to achieve joint congruency and efficient transfer of load – this is the ’how’ of moving well, and therefore the how of executing Pilates exercises efficiently.

If we talk about ‘centre’, ‘cylinder’ or ‘core’, what do we mean? We may have a very clear physical sensation that fits with one, or all, of these abstract terms, which might be a product of lots of practice, anatomical understanding and kinaesthetic awareness. If our clients lack these, how can we explain it to them? And how can we explain it to them in a way that becomes repeatable for them, and useful in their everyday activities? Will it be sufficient to tell them to ‘engage’ something or other? How will they know, and you know, if they are really doing the right thing? What measure do they have for ‘am I using my centre or not’?

We want to teach people in a way that gives them skills they can reproduce outside the class, and to encourage their reflexive responses – so they don’t need to be told to ‘switch on’ or ‘engage’, their actions and environment trigger the appropriate support automatically.

So what are the principles that we should be teaching?

Grounding

Unless we are relaxing, to create stability we need to have a firm base of support. If we’re standing, the action of pressing our feet into the floor will help to organise our joints in a stable position. The same when sitting. If I’m lying down, doing a Pelvic Lift/Bridge perhaps, my shoulder girdle and my feet need to press firmly into the floor to create stability; if we’re doing the Hundred, our mid-backs need to anchor to the floor, as well as the back of our pelvis, to create stability. We can teach these positions relatively easily, without having to resort either to naming muscles, or to abstract concepts (core, centre etc).

Centration

For efficient transfer of load through our bodies, and for the longevity of our joints, we need to maintain congruency, or centration of our joints while we move. Meaning that the articular surfaces of the joints maintain as much contact as possible as we move – they fit together well. The action of grounding may well stimulate centration, along with Kelly Starrett’s concept of torque farming, particularly in relation to the ball and socket joints. Keep in mind that the external rotation of ‘torque farming’ has to occur at the ball and socket joint. The distal part of the limb (forearm/shin) needs to be counter-spiralling in internal rotation to facilitate congruency of all the relevant joints.

A joint that is not congruent might still be stable, but not in a way that involves all the soft tissues around the joint working together. You can test this on all fours, feeling for yourself the difference between relaxing and pushing your hands and shins into the ground – notice how the rest of your body responds, not just your hands and shins.

Elongation

Of course, we always want to encourage length in every exercise that we teach – it’s almost synonymous with Pilates. Benjamin Degenhardt likes to ask this question, in every exercise: “Do you have space for your joints and organs?” If we answer “No”, then we’re not in a good position. Once again, the action of grounding may well assist in giving us more space (and putting our joints into better positions).

Compression/Decompression

We need compression (not to be confused with shortening, or crunching) of our joints, to lubricate and stimulate them, but this should be coupled with decompression, so that there is a pump-like action working on the joint. We need one to achieve the other,  the same way that we need to go further into extension to facilitate flexion, and vice versa. So, for example, if someone is habitually anteriorly tilting their pelvis, rather than trying to stretch them in hip extension, they need to be taken further into hip flexion in order to be able to then go into more extension/posterior tilt.

To help reinforce the teaching of these principles, the following ideas might be helpful: The developmental pathway of human babies includes these actions:

Push; Pull; Reach; Yield; Grasp; Release

These could form the basis of all movement teaching, since they are innate to our development – we are ‘wired’ to do these. Using these words when you teach may well take care of a lot of the reflexive responses that we want to encourage, without the need for ambiguous or opaque verbal cues. Students can use their environment (whether it’s the mat or the apparatus) to learn better movement patterns.

In athletic development the fundamental movements are considered to be:

Push; Pull; Rotate; Raise/lower centre of mass; Locomote

This is to say, for decades these movements have been recognised to be fundamental to human athletic endeavours and, particularly since they are not activity specific, we can assume that they will serve our students/clients well in their day to day activities.

(These and other ideas will form part of a forthcoming workshop that is focused on identifying the practices and habits of world class teachers. I’d love to hear from you if you would like to participate in a pilot of this workshop).

CrossFit > Pilates?

November 20, 2018 — Leave a comment

Though I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard Pilates teacher suggesting that CrossFit is good for business because “They’ll injure themselves and then come to us” (or words to that effect), too often lately I’ve had to ask myself “Is CrossFit doing a better job of carrying Joseph Pilates’ flame than we are as Pilates teachers?

Or, more simply put: Could CrossFit be the new Pilates?

Full disclosure: though I have been through the CrossFit Level One Trainer course I’ve never advertised myself as a CF coach, and my certificate lapsed about a year ago. Why then should I care about, or pay any attention to CrossFit? The simplest answer is that I’m reminded from time to time, that I feel I have more in common with CF coaches than I do with my Pilates teaching peers.

To be fair, it’s easier to define CF than Pilates – Greg Glassman, CrossFit’s founder, conveniently wrote “Fitness in 100 words”, which does a decent job of concisely describing the CF lifestyle. Us Pilates teachers do have “Your Health” & “Return to Life” to refer to but, as well as being much less concise, I suspect that many of us have lost sight of what he wrote about holistic health, not to mention ruling out some of his original exercises for one reason or another.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to draw some comparisons between his writing and Glassman’s 100 words: it’s clear that Joseph was interested in much more than exercise. It’s also clear, from archival footage, that his own movement practice strayed well off the mat, and the confines of Reformer or Cadillac. Joseph was ‘selling’ health and I believe that, as Pilates teachers, we should be ambassadors for health, with movement as our primary tool. I suspect that this is what many CrossFit coaches and gym owners would say that they do, too.

So much for trying to lay out the similarities of the two practices. There are specific reasons for me to have had this heretical thought that CF may be doing our job better.

If you’ve been here (reading this blog) before, you may know that I believe pull-ups are a reasonable thing for Pilates teachers to have within their capacity. The broad scale rejection of this idea is as disappointing as it is perplexing and, most importantly, makes me suspect that, as a profession, we have low expectations or aspirations for the people we teach for the reason that we have low expectations for ourselves.

A couple of weeks back I had the good fortune to spend a couple of days at Carl Paoli’s ‘Freestyle Insider’ seminar that was attended by mostly CF coaches and other ‘functional fitness’ professionals. In a lunchtime conversation, with 2 men & 3 women, I mentioned this resistance to pull-ups amongst my peers to universal bafflement. For these movement teachers pull-ups are amongst the more basic skills that they would expect to be coaching. Furthermore, if you have a look at CF’s social media feeds, you will soon see amputees finding ways to do pull-ups (and more amazing feats), AND examples of imaginative scaling of the exercise for people who are not yet able to do a pull-up, so that they needn’t be excluded from their group class.

For sure CF does a better job than we do of promoting community, which is surely a key feature of health, particularly in these times of increased awareness of mental health. I’ve rarely been made to feel as welcome in the many Pilates studios that I’ve visited as I have in any of the CrossFit boxes I’ve been to. I’m sure there are notable exceptions but, if you’d like to feel universally supported in pursuing your best effort then CrossFit is probably a better bet than a Pilates class. (And please don’t think that it makes me happy to write that – it truly makes me rather sad.)

Another specific reason for my pro-CF assertion occurred when I was writing an article for a Pilates newsletter (also published here). I was using the opportunity to suggest that Pull-ups, Pistol squats and Hollow rocks ‘should’ be within a Pilates teacher’s capacity. Early feedback from the editor questioned the validity of Pistol squats as a test for all of us, in part because he has an arthritic hip. This prompted me to contact my CrossFit coach/box owner friend to ask his views on coaching pistols for someone with arthritis. His first observation was along the lines of “He needs to clean up his diet”. Not thoughts about scaling back, doing some sort of preparatory gentle mobility exercise, but an idea based around lifestyle. Even as I write it this doesn’t sound very momentous but it really struck me at the time as significant – I don’t think I’ve ever met a Pilates teacher who would be likely to have a similar response. Obviously I’ve not met them all, and it may well be that Sham (coach friend in question) is an exceptional CrossFit coach yet I still feel that it speaks volumes about how we approach HEALTH.

In short, I think that us Pilates teachers may have a more myopic view of health than Joseph had, and the average CrossFit coach has.

Please tell me I’m wrong. Thanks.

I’m Not Good at Pilates

September 12, 2018 — 3 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.

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.