I often think that becoming a Pilates teacher is like learning to drive (though it’s a different driving test now than the one I experienced in the 1990s) – you learn the manual, practice the tricky stuff, hopefully pass the test and then, once you’re on your own, you actually learn how to drive.

Many things helped me to develop as a teacher in the first few years: classes with teachers I admired, teaching within the same space as more experienced teachers, workshops and, of course, teaching classes myself. I belonged to an organisation that ran workshops. Many of the workshops followed the theme of ‘enhancing your mat classes with (insert name of small prop of your choice)’, and these were useful at first. When teaching a lot of mat classes more repertoire seemed like a good way to keep people interested. Teachers from the US were often invited to give workshops at the AGM, and a number of these were very influential for me. I think they helped me to be a better teacher, by enhancing my understanding of Pilates.

I know that I’m not alone in finding that, with accumulated experience, workshops offering new repertoire are of no interest. Similarly, another Pilates teachers take on specific elements of Pilates, or the special tool they’ve developed for teaching a shape or movement are much less interesting than they were. I certainly appreciate reminders of, or insight into, for example why the original order of the network is the way it is but, beyond that, I don’t find that doing Pilates teaches me more about doing Pilates. Most importantly, it doesn’t necessarily help me to be a better teacher.

What to do? For the last 3 or 4 years, most of the professional development that my wife and I have done has been outside the Pilates world but within the broader sphere of ‘movement culture’. I’ve written about this a fair amount already so suffice it to say that we’ve both learned a lot about movement and, therefore, teaching Pilates from people who typically have little understanding of what Pilates is (we’ve encountered the misconception that we’re all about pulling stomachs in a few times…).

I’ve learned about teaching Pilates (being the kind of Pilates teacher that I want to be) from all sorts of teachers: Ido Portal, Rafe Kelly and Andreo Spina to name a few.

We’ve been very lucky to work with some of the people that we have and, for me, none more so than Tomislav English, whom we did a workshop with at the beginning of this year. Based on a brief conversation, I think his concept of Pilates is a bit ‘off’, yet I keep thinking to myself that he’s the best Pilates teacher (with the exception of my wife) that I’ve met in a long time. Weird, eh? He doesn’t really understand Pilates (as far as I could tell) but he teaches it really well!

How could this be? The way that Tomislav teaches seems to me to embody Pilates’ intentions. He began the four days by making it clear that, although it was advertised for ‘advanced movers’, no-one had been turned down from attending, on the basis that full commitment was expected. There’s a lot of movement, and not a lot of talking – demonstration with instructions, a check that it’s clear and then practice – clarification following if necessary – overall his teaching is uncomplicated. There’s a lot of control required, but it’s not control of stillness (which seems to often be the desirable thing in Pilates classes, and seems to have little ‘real-world’ transfer) but control of EVERY aspect and moment of the movement – range of motion under conscious control. Smooth movement at an even tempo, that can be paused or reversed at any point.

The language that he used has influenced my teaching, too. Again, he was quite spare with his words, and would often categorise someone’s demonstration as either ‘clear’ or ‘unclear’, which translates to me into how I’m watching when I’m teaching. Can I see clearly how someone is moving? If the movement stems from the hip, do I see their hip joint moving, or is it a bit blurred? When joints are maintained in good positions (congruent, if you like) movement has greater clarity. Greater precision, we might say, as Pilates teachers.

It’s worth mentioning too that we paid only £15 more for 4 full days with Tomislav than the price of four hours with a teacher from the US that I’ve just seen advertised.

I don’t want to suggest that I have nothing to learn from other Pilates teachers, far from it (Benjamin Degenhardt deserves an honourable mention here), but my teaching – eye, understanding, vocabulary etc. – has been hugely enriched by fishing in a much larger learning pond.

I want to share some of these experiences with my peers, so I’m working on holding a weekend of workshops and classes with some of my favourite non-Pilates teachers, for (particularly, but not exclusively) Pilates teachers (in London, UK). If you’re interested in learning from a broader movement base please get in touch – it would be good to know if this is appealing to many other teachers. Please comment or email mike@pilatesinmotion.org

 

*Perhaps ‘better Pilates teacher’ needs defining. I’m not interested in teaching people to become proficient at performing repertoire, or even excellent at performing it, unless this is an expression of enhanced awareness, range of movement, and understanding of how to organise their joints well. So being a better Pilates teacher, to me, means having the insight and tools to help people achieve those things. Not having a greater variety of exercises in my toolbox.

My only qualification for writing this is my Y chromosome, there may well be influence of my own neurotransmitter preferences on my views, so while this is written as if I’m speaking for my gender as a whole, please note that different viewpoints may be available.

DON’T

Infantilise me. Babies and toddlers might have ‘tummies’ (perhaps some postpartum women might), but I do NOT have a tummy, or tummy muscles, and I won’t feel that I’m in the right place if you imply that I do.

Teach me to engage my pelvic floor. (Unless I’ve specifically told you that’s what I’m looking for) It works fine, thank you. And if you ask me to think about walking into the sea, or another body of cold water, I’m likely to think of shrinkage – not what I’m looking for in my exercise class (especially if I’m already wondering how manly the class is).

Use my bra strap as a reference point. I’m not wearing one. Yes, I do know roughly where you mean, but you’re reminding me that I’m doing women’s exercise, thanks.

Make me feel ‘special’ by relentlessly focusing on what I’m struggling with. Ok, I’m not great at some of this, but I don’t enjoy feeling incompetent. My ego is fragile. Maybe, if I need it, take me aside after class and show me one thing that might help.

 

DO

Give me some purpose. Don’t assume that I know why I’m doing this movement. How will it benefit me? Maybe not with every exercise, but a few times each class.

Give me some rules. I like rules – they give me clarity. When I’m doing exercise X I know that the rule is my arms should always be in position Y…. It’s like having a manual in my head.

Give me measurements. How will I recognise if I’m doing it right, or not? Like a checklist, perhaps: Are my shoulders off the floor? √ Is the bottom of my ribcage down on the floor? √ Are my legs in the air? √ Are my elbows straight? √ Etc.

Give me something to aim for. Maybe show me something that’s beyond me at the moment, and then give me an idea of what I need to do to achieve it.

Drop some science on me. I’m not the biggest fan of science as the answer to everything, but if you let me know that the ability to perform an isolated hip hinge is well correlated with reduced risk of back and knee injuries, for example, I might feel more like I’ve come to the right place.

Relate the exercises to stuff that I like. Let me know how it’s going to apply to my martial art/tennis/deadlifting/football…. (this may mean doing some research into the requirements of these activities)

Allow me the opportunity to do something well. Maybe I don’t cope very well with fluid choreography, for example. (As I mentioned above, my ego is fragile). Throw in something which plays to my strength/s, so I have something to feel good about.

 

THANK YOU.

8219041This is part review (I hope it’s helpful), and partly and attempt for me to analyse why I felt so frustrated and, ultimately, irritated by watching “A Movement of Movement’.

It’s a long film, 73 minutes to be precise. I note that, via Facebook, Siri Dharma Galliano (never short of a pithy remark), who participates in the film, suggests that it could be edited to a “tight thirty minutes”. I found myself wondering why we were seeing footage of the nice lady getting her child and buggy into a taxi, for example. Maybe this is showing ‘real’, or ordinary people who do/teach Pilates.

Everyone involved plays nicely – there’s a little bit of ‘why can’t we all just get along?’ but there’s no name-calling (or foul language)

It’s a great marketing opportunity for Balanced Body, and the Pilates Method Alliance. (And the claim that whether you use traditional or modern apparatus makes no difference goes unchallenged.)

It’s quite a lot longer than it needs to be. I think I may have already touched on that. Apologies.

It is nice to see lots of footage of JP, especially the multi-screen bits of him strutting his stuff in the Catskills.

There are some confusing messages:

It seems to be broadly agreed that there are a number of ways of doing the exercises (so there’s no single correct way) but there’s also a warning that, without a teacher to show you how to do the exercises “correctly”, you could hurt yourself.

Shortly after one of the interviewees declares that Joseph was so sickly as a child that he nearly died, there’s reference to him spending a lot of time as a child lying in the woods watching animals. I know that ‘he was a very ill child but knuckled down and healed himself and became a paragon of health and fitness’ is a good story, but my understanding is that there’s no evidence to support the sickly-child mythology. (And this was the man who wrote “I must be right. Never an aspirin. Never injured a day in my life.”)

There are some inspiring stories. Sadly, they get swamped by lots of footage of interviewees practicing Pilates (and some other movements that look a bit like Pilates).

The film seems to be supportive of the 1990s lawsuit outcome – it is a good thing that ‘Pilates’ is now a generic term. There is no dissenting voice.

From watching the film I couldn’t work out what the filmmakers intentions were – what the purpose of the film was. It doesn’t seem to be intended as a pure celebration of the work of Joseph Pilates, nor is it a biographical work. I did some research and read that the directors intention was to create a film that does for Pilates what ‘The Endless Summer’ did for surfing, or ‘Dogtown and the Z-Boys’ did for skating. To quote the website:

The one thing that all of these films have in common is a compelling story about something that came along and changed the world forever.  Pilates has changed the world.  We are living in a historical movement, a phenomenon of human experience.  The movement is about us, it’s about today, and it’s about exploring our full potential, but what does that mean? That is what A Movement of Movement is.”

Unfortunately I don’t think that their own question (“..but what does this mean?”) is answered by the film. Perhaps part of the problem is that surfing, skating and other sports are quite different from Pilates. My understanding is that Joseph meant Pilates to be the practice that helped you be better at the things you love to do – surfing, skating, skiing, you name it. It’s not meant to be your favourite pastime or activity – if it is, maybe you missed the point. And I think that’s where the film falls down – it’s misunderstood its subject matter.

If you believe that:

the outcome of that (in)famous lawsuit was 100% positive;

that Pilates apparatus evolves and new apparatus should be added;

that there are many different versions of a given exercise, all equally valid;

there are no dissenting voices to these views;

And you enjoy watching people practicing Pilates on a terrace while the sun goes down and the sea softly laps on the shore – this is the film for you. I hope you enjoy it.

(As I said above, frustrated and irritated….)

Annus Novus/Terra Nova

January 17, 2017 — Leave a comment
Or, a middle-aged person’s guide to Tomislav English’s ‘Ferus Animi’
15871730_1477136095632623_4468031762444292902_n

Anoushka (my wife, business partner and favourite person to practice movement with) and I first encountered Tomislav during Rafe Kelly’s Evolve Move Play workshop on Hampstead Heath last Summer. We were both very attracted to the way he moved – the easy grace that speaks of tons of strength and control – and to his quiet humility.

I had vowed that after a year of lots of workshops, 2017 would be about consolidating what I had learned, and laying off the workshops. However, Anoushka saw a date announced for Tomislav’s ‘Ferus Animi/Terra Nova’ 4 day intensive and immediately asked him if we could sign up. My mild anxiety began as soon as he agreed – the text in red in the picture reads: “Experienced Movers: The workshop will be highly physical and often highly complex.”

Never mind, after Christmas in Thailand, spending the first week doing a highly physical and complex workshop has to be a great way to get the new year going. I don’t know if it was the ‘intensive’ bit, or the knowledge that most participants would be dancers and more capable than I, but I’ve never approached any workshop with as much trepidation.

Before we began Tom mentioned that he had not refused anyone who was interested in the workshop, so we were a diverse group. I particularly appreciated his point that we might all learn from each other, whatever our skill level might be. We were also encouraged to think of the 4 days as our own research into our own physicality and, if we were carrying injuries, to take the opportunity to better understand the cause and explore ways of working with it, rather than relying on external help.

I’m sure that he only spoke for a few minutes but so much of what he said resonated with the way that I’ve been thinking about movement, anatomy, injury etc over the last 12-18 months, so most of my trepidation was forgotten.

The 4 days followed the same structure: a morning class, of about 3 hours, and partner work in the afternoon for 2 and a half hours or so. The 3 hour class was great, full of interesting ideas, challenges that I’d never considered before, and extraordinary demands (several times I found myself thinking “CrossFit is nothing” as I wilted into the floor after trying another new crawling pattern).

Why did I call this ‘a middle-aged person’s guide’? I’m generally highly resistant to the idea of age putting limits on any activity, or being an excuse/explanation for incapacity and/but being in my 50th year, I’m increasingly aware of some naivety in pretending that age means nothing. I am gradually drying out, and my tissues change as a result. When lunchtime arrived the typical scene (in my memory, at least) was of Anoushka and I barely able to get off the floor but needing food, and everyone else grabbing the opportunity to practice handstands, or far more elaborate acrobatics. It seemed that, for many, a cigarette was sufficient for lunch, and that’s when it’s hard not to rationalise with “Well, we are at least twice as old as most of them..”

In spite of this it was remarkable to both of us that everyone there seemed very happy to be paired up with anyone else – I don’t think I’ve ever been to a workshop before this where I haven’t felt that there were one or two people that I didn’t want to work with. This was the nicest group of people I’ve shared a workshop with, ever (and if you happen to be reading this, Thank You). Another notable thing was that everyone got on with what Tom asked us to do – no antagonism, no ‘I was taught this another way’ or ‘I’ve been told I/we shouldn’t do that movement’ that I’m used to from the Pilates world.

The class looked very similar from one day to the next, but with added elements each day, or twists on things we’d done previously. Much of what we did in the morning on our own was relevant to the partner work in the afternoon. It’s easiest for me to describe those sessions as ‘playing games’. Some of them were familiar from other workshops, but always with a new twist. What might take 10 minutes to play can be developed into something that we could play for the whole day, if we keep subtly refining things, or asking each other slightly different questions (What happens if you have one hand behind your back? What happens if my eyes are closed but yours are open? Can your body be even softer? etc).

To be honest, after the class on day 3 we were both so tired that we were ready to skip day 4, but we had so much fun in the afternoon that we had both decided we weren’t missing the last day.

I’ve been fortunate to do a lot of great movement workshops in the last few years, and learned a lot – drills, skills, progressions, theories etc. but I don’t think any have felt as much of a personal exploration of my own physicality as Ferus Animi. It may be that I’ve become a more embodied or inquisitive inhabitant but I think a lot had to do with Tom’s emphasis on the journey of a movement, rather than the destination. We weren’t learning patterns, or exercises (tricks, stunts, moves…), rather we were researching how our bodies responded to these challenges, and recognising where we needed to spend more time to refine things. I’ve also immediately applied one of Tom’s teaching principles to all my Pilates teaching, which is an exciting and unexpected bonus.

Before the workshop I had wondered if calling Ferus Animi/Terra Nova a ‘research vehicle’ wasn’t a little bit pretentious, or self-aggrandising. I’m sorry that I ever entertained that thought – as Tom acknowledged, we were really being invited into his own practice, working on the things that he is interested in working on himself, so we were all doing our own research. I was studying my own body and also researching/learning, through working with others, more possibilities for myself. I think this is why, of all the workshops and seminars that I’ve done, and loved, this is the one that I’d be quickest to sign up for again.

 

You can find more info (and video) about Ferus Animi/Terra Nova here

 

 

 

 

14881175_10154502459551832_1155177442_oOr, a weekend with Robert Downey Jr Tom Weksler

I wasn’t sure if it was so glaringly obvious that it would be crass to mention it (except to my wife, who knows not to expect any better), or if I was the only one seeing it but, particularly when he grins, Tom Weksler seems like the spitting image of RDJr.

And Tom grins a lot when he’s teaching – his glee at what’s taking place is obvious and highly infectious – occasionally manifesting as him joining in with the task (not like a chore, more like an assignment) he’s given us, or yelling at someone’s who’s not getting it quite right. A teacher yelling sounds bad, but in reality it’s not – it’s more like “oh no, you’re missing the fun”, than “No! You’re doing it wrong!” Maybe you had to be there.

The truth is that it’s hard for me to pin down what we were doing, what Tom teaches. In one break I left the studio and bumped into two ladies (definitely not women, but ladies) who asked me what we were doing. I hesitated and one of them declared “It’s yoga, and tai chi”. “No!” said I, “It’s not yoga, or tai chi. It’s….Movement Archery, that’s all I can say.” (They thought this sounded very exciting.) It’s a dance workshop, but I’m no dancer; and it’s an acrobatics workshop, and I’m hardly an acrobat, but apart from a few wobbles, I didn’t feel like I didn’t belong there.

I’d been feeling a bit uneasy for a couple of weeks before the workshop. This year has been a year of lots of workshops/seminars for Anoushka (movement companion, business partner, wife) and I: Prague School, Ido Portal, AMN, Rafe Kelly, Ido again, and Movement Archery was the culmination of the year of education overload. All the seminars that had gone before had tested me, but this was the one that I expected to push me off the Comfort cliff. Was this a step too far? In signing up had I perhaps pretended to be someone that I’m not? And I had it all wrong, I think. We were certainly a group of varied abilities (there were some really wonderful movers there) and, while I think you might have a hard time with the acrobatics element if cartwheels and handstands aren’t available to you, I don’t think we were doing anything that you could fail at (except by not trying).

14633131_1092018374247588_7374837752143945739_o

Tom leading the way out of my comfort zone…

I definitely had my moments of feeling awkward and lost, and I learned that those moments were probably compounded by my brain taking over and trying to control what was going on. When I was attempting to articulate my experience Tom said something along the lines of: “Sometimes we think we are smarter than the movement” and I realised that he was right – I had been imagining that if I analysed the movements well enough I’d be able to follow them. The result of my struggle was that I got progressively further away from the destination, not nearer. Coming from a highly structured practice like Pilates, which is intended to be mind and body integration, I may inadvertently create a separation between the two, or lead my body with my brain. As Jaap van der Wal says “You do not have a body, you are a body” – and Movement Archery showed me that I could embody that idea more. Hard to express without sounding dualistic again, but maybe my body needs to lead my brain, instead of the other way around. Or I just need to BE, with the music. And I need to practice.

So Friday’s content succeeded in pushing me off the cliff, but I was less downhearted than I’d feared, and we’d also done some really fascinating partner work that was like sculpting each other – an amazing exercise in developing sensitivity to your partner’s intention, limitations, restrictions etc. And we still hadn’t touched on the acrobatics yet.

Saturday began with the same silent warm-up as Friday – what a revelation! It’s not always necessary to speak when you’re teaching movement. As my more insightful wife observed, it’s a brilliant way of ensuring that we’re all present – even if you find yourself turning away from Tom, you know when to move again because you can hear the swish of fabric, or squeak of a foot on the floor as people move. It also felt at some points that we were breathing together, simply because we could hear the rhythm of Tom’s breath, and instinctively followed. I understood his explanation of how he warms up as creating contrast with the dance/movement that’s to follow. Apologies all round if I misconstrued, but it was an idea that appealed a lot to me.

We continued to explore similar themes from Friday, moving from the ground to sitting, to standing, and the reverse. It sounds mundane when written down (and perhaps this is the problem of trying to describe an experience like Movement Archery – what notes I made a very hard to decipher). I will just say that we did a lot of rolling on the floor (lots of massage like bone/joint compression, and some friction burns too) as well as moving through different levels toward or away form the floor. If you’ve played Zen Archer before you would recognise some of what we were doing, though this was like Zen Archer with the gloves off, and performance enhancing drugs, and maybe rose tinted spectacles as well. Lots of grinning and laughing.

The second half of Saturday saw us in a gymnastics facility, sprung floor and all. A different, more vigorous (in some ways) warm-up, then forward rolls, handstands and cartwheels for starters. Followed by using a partner as gymnastic apparatus, and a few things that I can neither spell nor pronounce (though I’m sure if I Googled I’d find them). ‘Hard to pin down’ is a bit of a theme -Tom’s teaching of acrobatics is exactly what I should have expected after the Movement Archery experience: it’s relaxed but not casual. He spoke at one stage about the necessity to practice, and to repeat basic elements, to be happy with less complex movements. My overall sense is that most of all I should be having fun. There’s something about freedom, too – structure is there to serve you, not the other way round, which is in contrast to some of the other workshops we’ve done this year. Again, a description of what we were doing is elusive – a bit like drawing a poem.

Sunday’s work built on Saturday’s, and Friday’s work, more rolling, more games, more breathing hard and more grinning. I won’t try to make a list, but it is worth mentioning the last hour. Usually, when attending a two day seminar, I’m used to the last hour being a write-off, for me. My brain is usually overloaded, and my body too tired to expect to take anything useful from it (and this was two and half days). This was apparently a shared experience, along with the feeling of “I’m so tired I might hurt myself if I keep pushing”. Tom declared at 5 minute break, promising that the finale to follow would be good. We worked in pairs, with some simple ‘rules’, improvising, performing, refining and developing until the floor was a controlled, as in sensitive, as in not colliding, maelstrom of people – scampering, chasing, dancing, rolling, tumbling, flipping (depending on skill level) to the music. Undoubtedly the most fun I’ve had at any workshop I’ve ever attended.

I rarely leave a workshop feeling good about everyone who was participating but I have to sincerely thank everyone who was there – I don’t believe that anyone held themselves back, and everyone played a part in making it what it was.

In the days since MA&ZA while letting it sink in, and thinking of how to explain it, the stars aligned and I heard Frank Forencich (via a podcast) saying “We’re drowning in knowledge and what we need are experiences.” I enjoyed all the seminars and workshops that I did this year, and in hearing Frank’s words it dawned on me that they were mostly about acquiring knowledge. They all involved moving, and some were physically hugely demanding, but I treated them as information gathering exercises – drills, concepts, exercises to be used later. This is where Movement Archery was different – I certainly learned things that I will use again (mostly in my own practice, though some ideas are dynamite for Anoushka’s teacher training, for example) but mostly it was an experience. A thing existing for its own sake, a thing to participate in for the sake of the experience. This was a valuable lesson for me, being inclined to analyse (to try to be smarter than the movement), that I might get the most from movement when I can just be in the experience. I’m grateful to Tom for that lesson, and like some of the others that were there for a second or third time, I’ll be going back for more whenever I can.

 

Photos courtesy of Cellar Door

 

Further Movement Archery reading, that may well tell you more than the above:

http://republicofmovement.com/movementarchery/

 http://www.benmedder.com/blog/2014/8/29/a-sincere-practice.

 

 

images

Or: ‘Should your Pilates teacher be able to do a pull up?’

(If you’re time-poor, or just don’t have the patience to read all that follows, the answer is: Yes, they should.)

Hopefully we can all agree that Pilates, the movement practice, as conceived by the man himself, is about health. The integration of mind, body and spirit (if our thinking is reductionist enough to conceive of them as separate in the first place). What does a healthy body look/feel like? Depending upon our starting point with Pilates, it might be a pain-free body. That’s a great beginning for a lot of us, but is it healthy?

If a body isn’t able to express the full available range of movement in all its joints, is it healthy? Not yet. Is a body that’s able to express the full range of movement without strength (control, you might say) through that range, is it healthy? Not really. Perhaps this scenario is even more problematic than the first one.

What is Pilates good for if it is not carrying you along the arc toward expressing your joints’ full range of movement, with control? If it is not helping you to become stronger, why are you bothering? Real suppleness and agility is a product of strength – the flexible spine that Joseph Pilates held up as a marker of ‘real’ age (I’d prefer to classify as mobile) is a product of motion at each of the joints coupled with strength.

As Jaap van der Wal says “You do not have a body, you are a body.” Isn’t it a basic human capacity to be able to move your mass through space? A pull up, or chin up (pronated or supinated grip) is an expression of the ability to manipulate your mass in space. And in certain circumstances that capacity could be a huge factor in survival. The capacity to pull up will make you more human.

Perhaps my arguments haven’t been sufficiently persuasive, and it still seems unreasonable to expect your Pilates teacher (or yourself) to be able to do a pull up. In that case, how about a push-up? Should you/your Pilates teacher be able to do a push-up? Without equivocation the answer is “Yes, absolutely.” How about 5 push-ups? Maybe check how many repetitions Joseph prescribes in Return to Life. If you’ve ticked that box then maybe we can debate the pull-ups.

 

Afterword

What are your goals, or your clients’ goals, when practicing Pilates?
‘Pain free’ almost certainly incorporates ‘stronger’. ‘More toned’ definitely means ‘stronger’. ‘More supple’ had better mean ‘stronger’. You get the picture.

Loco.motion

September 7, 2016 — Leave a comment

My wife, and partner in movement adventures, Anoushka, and I were on our way to Turku, again. It’s become a ritual in the last few years – we go to Turku for Ido Portal’s seminars. This was trip number 3 for her (seminar no. 5), and number 4 for me (seminar no. 6). The same flight to Helsinki, drive to Turku, the same hotel next to the Baltic (great for end of the day cooling off and/or nervous system reset), the same restaurants in the evening. Maybe it’s an age thing but I like this routine, especially when punctuated with moving and learning.

This trip was tinged with a bit of sadness – maybe this would be the last. We were on our way to attend ‘Locomotion’, the Ido seminar that we had both wanted to attend the most after our initial exposure to the work in ‘Movement X’ two years before. After this we might not have a reason to return to Turku, and the ritual would come to an end.

Never mind, focus on the present: who will it be presenting this time? Ido? Probably not. Odelia? Maybe. Or John, or Joseph, or… Honestly it’s just idle speculation, everyone that we’ve met presenting Ido’s work has been exceptional, and we’ll be happy to see any of them.

Driving to the venue on Saturday morning I was surprised to be feeling a bit anxious. Trepidation is the right word. Usually I’d just be feeling like a child on the way to the sweet shop on this journey but my lizard brain somehow knew this was different – maybe the sweets will be on really high shelves, or something.

We arrived at the venue and….Great, it’s John! And a (for me) new Jonathan assisting him – from Israel, not Dubai. Also great to see some familiar faces – the graceful Italian beast (‘Upper Body Strength’ seminar), and the senior (her word) Norwegian yoga teacher (‘Hand Balancing’), amongst others. Maybe my trepidation was explained when, while talking about all the seminars we’ve done, John let slip that Locomotion is “the most physically demanding”. Actually, he didn’t ‘let it slip’ – he said it plainly, with a big grin that you’ll be able to picture if you’ve met John.

After some quick intros, and joint prep, we get moving, traversing the room in a many, many different ways. Funny how, in spite of reinforcement of the standard of “start touching the wall, finish once you’ve passed the pull-up rig” quite quickly became practiced as ‘touch the wall, step one or two meters into the room and then begin’. Does the desire to be first impede hearing, perhaps? Piece by piece we were building patterns (“atoms” of the Locomotion practice), with a resting squat as the endlessly recurring linking piece. I can’t speak for every single person, but everyone I could see, me included, was dripping with sweat before long. Everyone, apart from John and Jonathan, of course. I have been ruminating for ages on the weirdness of dressing ‘properly’ for exercise – as if your outfit is a symbol to say ‘see, I work out’. So I loved that Jonathan was dressed in a turquoise wool jumper while demonstrating handstands, cartwheels etc. – dressed to meet friends for coffee, not to exercise! (I think this may mark the difference between a mover and someone who works out).

I was already physically smoked by lunchtime, but revived somewhat by the Pure Hero guys delivery, and a little more by the game we started the afternoon session with. Ido and his team have the best games – brilliant for warming up and mobilising without noticing that it’s what you’re doing. I’m easily tricked out of my belief that I can’t do more squatting, handstands or whatever else it might be by playing ‘the farthest limb’, for example.

The atoms are building, the patterns get a little more complicated, and this is more mentally taxing than the other seminars I’ve done. We start to join atoms together in sequences, and always trying to refine the details – foot/hand placement, weigh shift, timing. As John says: “We recognise efficiency as beautiful.” (Damn I’m IN-efficient!) It is so amazing to see John, and Jonathan move. Yes, I’m a little tired of hearing about how nice John’s feet are, and how amazing his skin looks, but only because I know Anoushka is right. While you can see the muscles at work, there is not tension when John moves, no strain visible – THIS is how I’d like to be able to move myself. And watching Jonathan at work when they show us how to play another game where the object is to find the line between the possible and impossible for our partner’s capacity I realise how hard they work. He’s set a target that to me is clearly impossible to meet and he does not give in, contorting this way and that to make it. Okay, there’s a bit of strain visible now, but the combination of agility, strength, mobility, imagination, and determination is profound.

When we finish on Saturday (I’m so thankful that, unusually, that’s only about half an hour past the advertised finish time) I’m truly, totally fatigued. Driving back through the woods to our hotel my body feels at least 80% jelly. I only look in the rearview mirror for a moment and, thanks to Anoushka’s very loud and sharp intake of breath, the deer somehow bounds from certain death into the ditch beside us. Body is now 96% jelly.

We follow instructions and get some good food (just as well this may be our last time – we learn that the always reliable steak house is closing in two weeks). I should sleep like a baby, tired as I am, but my body will not get comfortable and morning comes without feeling as rested as I’d like. Squatting feels like a very remote possibility.

I knew John would be a stickler for timing and, one minute past ten, we’ve missed the start. First activity of the day is…wait for it…..Squatting! Of course. Relief comes with some more wrist prep, and then we get back to building blocks for more atoms. Lots of building blocks, creating 10 or 12 atoms in total for the two days. Every so often I feel that I can do something relatively well, which is a welcome relief. We all meet the goal of improvising for two minutes, sequencing the atoms we’ve learned. I feel as lithe and fluid as Ido looks in the floreio videos on YouTube like, to an untrained eye, I may look competent for a few of those 120 seconds. We also all manage some semblance of the low lizard crawl, and while some of us really struggle, there are as many doing very nicely.

The truth is that I’m not having as much fun as I’d like to – and Locomotion was the seminar we’d been looking forward to the most. I guess I was feeling over-exposed. There’s a lot of material in the two days, and it comes at you pretty fast. Working in pairs, John often set us the task of “you do 10, I do 10, you do 8, I do 8, you do 6 and I do 6” of a new movement. Perhaps some of the young guns were getting through the reps, but Anoushka and I were usually managing “you do 6 and I do 6 and you do 2 and oh it’s time to move on to the next thing”. There are not many peaks and a few troughs when I feel pissed off: ‘I can’t do X yet and already you want me to do X + Y, and seamlessly progress into Z.’ I hate the idea that age limits anything but I have to  keep pushing the thought of being one of the ‘seniors’ out of my mind. One of the strong points of the seminars I’ve done previously is that everything you’re introduced to can be scaled, so there is always something to work on and everyone can participate all the time. Locomotion involves more complex movements, and more brain power. If you’re going to learn the atom you need to get all the pieces, and there were times when I needed more time. In adult education, at least in the UK, you are required to ‘differentiate’ – to accommodate different degrees of competency in your classroom. I wanted them to differentiate, but it’s not really possible. I also wondered if there shouldn’t be pre-requisite skill levels for signing up for Locomotion. Or maybe it could be three days, instead of two.

As I write this a few days have passed. Looking through my notes it seems as though we didn’t do quite as many different things as I remembered. Maybe what felt like flaws in the structure or delivery of the seminar were simply signs of my frustration, or disappointment in discovering that I’m far behind where I’d like to be (because I haven’t put the work in). I’m already looking back at the weekend with more fondness than I did two days ago, and picturing John going from Crow to Cossack Insertion, to Shinobe to the Low Lizard like there’s no gravity, no friction, no hard edges. I will definitely work at all of the atoms we practiced, and I will get better at their execution, but I won’t reach his level, because I know that John will always be working harder than I am.

So you should definitely sign up for Locomotion. And, just in case you don’t already, get a pistol on both legs, for reps. Do what you need to get very comfortable in a resting squat. And spend some time at the bottom of a push up, bit like yoga’s chaturanga. That won’t cover everything, but it’ll be a reasonable start.

And, in case you read it, John and Jonathan, you were great, and if I wasn’t always as appreciative as I might have been, that was just me being mad at not reaching the sweets on the high shelf.

PS. Our host, Marko says he’s thinking about hosting The Corset again next year, and it’s changed from two years ago. So maybe the ritual’s not over yet.

Your words DO matter!

August 4, 2016 — 1 Comment

A while ago I posted an article whose title asked Pilates teachers not to use the word “core”. Setting aside the appropriateness or otherwise of someone with no status in the Pilates world making such requests, I found some of the responses very interesting.

“Meh…core, powerhouse, whatever. They are just words, some work better with some clients than others.”

“Semantics are over-rated. As long as you can get your client to understand & move from the right places, you can use any words in existence. (or make up your own, who cares!)”

“I’m sick of semantics.”

More significant events in the wider world have also caused me to reflect on the significance of the vocabulary we choose to adopt. The news in the UK this morning was dominated by a knife attack in which one person was killed, and four other seriously injured. Reports focused on motivation – mental illness was referred to, but police weren’t ruling out the possibility of terrorism. I’m sure it was terrifying for the people caught up in it but, to me, labelling an attack like this as terrorism is redundant, except to make the population at large more fearful. You can easily find the statistics of how many people are killed in car-crashes, compared to the number killed in ‘terror’ attacks. Car crashes are significantly far more significant but our choice of words, or the media’s choice of words has a powerful impact on how we think and feel. I bet that the average Londoner feels more at risk of a terror attack than a car-crash – and that is a product of language creating fear.

In the same way that we may be manipulated, if not controlled, as a society, we might also manipulate the people that we teach by our use of words. The outcome won’t be a life or death situation but I believe I’ve met people who’s self-belief has been affected for years by the way that Pilates teachers and/or physical therapists have spoken to them.

Some people may be motivated by the thought that their “core is weak”, or their “glutes are weak”, or that their posture “is terrible”. Fine. But what of the people for whom this sort of language reinforces their sense that they have failed, or that (worse, perhaps) these are things that are beyond their control? For example, if I’m told that my glutes are weak, and them becoming weak has been beyond my control, might I not feel that I am not in control of how my body behaves? And thus powerless to help myself?

Anyone who teaches in the studio that my wife and I run is vigorously discouraged from using words like ‘hurt’, ‘painful’, ‘damage’, ‘dangerous’, ‘protect’. We now know that pain is a response to inputs to our nervous system, once our brain has filtered the inputs through its vast library of previous experiences – felt, seen, heard etc. If someone is told that, for example, they must “protect their spine” while doing an exercise, and they then feel an unfamiliar sensation in their back, how easy will it be for them to feel that they must have failed to protect their spine? And what might the consequences be for an unprotected spine? It sounds as though they might be rather fragile – is it safe for them to do normal activities outside their Pilates class if they’re so bad at protecting their spine?

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs provides a very useful model for teaching anything, not least Pilates. In our studio the goal for any student (I’m trying to break the habit of saying ‘client’) is self-actualisation – the fulfilment of potential – and I imagine and hope that this is true throughout the Pilates world.

Unknown

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Esteem could be interchangeable with self-belief, which I would interpret as ’empowerment’. Our job is to empower our students in order that they can achieve their potential – we cannot achieve it for them. The words that we choose are critical for student empowerment.

When teaching, do you ever say “I want you to…”? I know how easy it is to do, but what has what I want got to do with it? It’s not about my experience – it’s about the student’s experience!

If you give instructions throughout the course of every repetition, does the student ever feel that they can do the movement alone? More importantly, does my choice of words make my student feel that they need me with them in order to do something well? If that’s the case, then self-actualisation will be very hard to achieve. If a student says that they don’t want to be taught by anyone else (rare, but it does happen), then I will have to reflect on what about my behaviour, and most likely the language that I’ve used, has led them to this disempowered conclusion. To me, creating this belief in a student might be a financial success, but is a teaching failure.

Another respondent to the ‘core’ article I wrote before said “Sometimes I think teachers over-think too much.” I agree, I’m sure that I might over-think but I would prefer to do that than to under-think. Especially as someone who is trying to be a teacher of movement. By being thoughtful about the words that I use (and intonation, rhythm etc), perhaps I can help my students to not over-think the movement.

To imagine that language is simple, or that words only ever mean what you intend them to is, at best, naive and, at worst, irresponsible.

 

“Motion is Primary”

June 16, 2016 — 1 Comment

More thoughts on Evolve Move Play,

inspired by an interview with Jaap Van der Wal.

I love it when two apparently distinct activities or experiences in my life seem to converge into a coherent whole. It seems to happen so frequently that, even though it’s all under the umbrella of Movement, it might be evidence of a subconscious communication (‘morphic resonance’, anyone?) Very often it reinforces or I learn something new about teaching Pilates, or movement generally.

Five years ago I was lucky enough to attend a lecture by Dr Van der Wal (“Not by muscles and ligaments alone: The importance of fascial architecture for understanding the locomotion system”). My interpretation of the content was much simpler than the title, and it transformed my view of anatomy completely – from the mechanistic view that I’d first been taught, to what I now recognise as a “process” view of anatomy.

This morning, the day after writing about Rafe Kelly’s ‘Evolve Move Play Movement Experience’, I was listening to an interview with Jaap, and everything started to feel connected.

Based on his study of human embryos, Jaap says “Motion is primary, form is secondary.” We move before we have a brain, apparently. Much as I enjoyed the Daniel Wolpert’s TED talk, I’m drawn to Jaap’s assertion that the brain is our organ of awareness, not of control. How else do you explain the reality of movement before we have a brain?

As I was listening to the interview I was reminded of Rafe talking about excessive verbal coaching lighting up our cognitive brain and thereby drawing focus away from the sub-cognitive part of our brain, which controls movement. We probably all know this already – thinking too much constipates movement. Rafe also talked about crawling, and the common phenomenon of adults adopting an ipsilateral pattern when trying to crawl (I’ve seen this many times in gyms and studios). His experience is that if you ask someone to crawl along the branch of a tree they never adopt an ipsilateral pattern – the conclusion being that a natural environment stimulates natural movement patterns. Motion is primary. Our bodies understand how to move if we provide the right environment.

How does this inform my Pilates teaching? While I won’t be teaching Pilates in trees, it reinforces my belief that the apparatus teaches, by providing an environment (much less daunting for some than the great outdoors) in which our bodies know how to move. It’s not about muscles, it’s about movement.

There’s more of a theme, too, when I think of the play-fighting we did with Rafe, and the film of Pilates (outdoors) wrestling with his friends. I think we can better understand Pilates, and teaching Pilates, by learning from a wide variety of sources.

 

Playing with Rafe

June 15, 2016 — Leave a comment

Reflections on The Evolve Move Play Movement Experience13417541_10154055668085041_3195942729181525650_n

I’d first enquired about this seminar in December 2015, so I’d been looking forward to it for a while. When the day came, and a group of us began to assemble on the edge of Hampstead Heath (like a minimalist footwear convention – Vivo Barefoot just edging Vibram Five Fingers in popularity) I realised that I had really no idea what we were in for. Rafe Kelly, the creator of Evolve Move Play, was quick to introduce himself but that was the only thing that set him apart from the rest of the group – no pedestal here.

We were a disparate group, from (I guess) mid-20s to mid-50s, and a mix of everything from complete novice to seasoned outdoor natural movers. The only parallel that I have for this seminar is Ido Portal’s ‘Movement X’ and already it was a very different experience. Part of that was the environment, for sure, but it was less businesslike – not chaotic at all, but less orderly. I love the structure of Ido’s seminars, and the authoritative delivery works well for me, so this is not a league table of seminars at all. Rafe (my computer is delightfully determined that his name should be corrected to ‘Safe’) certainly speaks and teaches with clarity and great conviction but there’s something else – I’m trying not to write “chilled”, or “laid-back” because they’re not the right words – perhaps it’s a lack of ego.

The weather determined the order of activities, so after a warm-up game of Zen Archer (my favourite, and especially fun on uneven terrain) we are quickly learning how to fall efficiently, and from there, how to roll. I should have been more sensible on my first real uneven ground outdoor training experience but exuberance got the better of me and I managed to mis-roll badly enough that my shoulder and arm were rendered fairly useless. Not good timing with the tree-climbing element about to begin. I do better than I used to, I think, but it’s still hard for me to hang on to a growth mindset and not feel that the world has effectively ended in these situations, so my thoughts on the remaining hours of our first day are a little clouded. I do know that Rafe and his team were great at enabling everyone there, from the high achievers to the injured novices, and great at reinforcing the underlying message that the activities we were engaged in were the things that we have evolved to do, thus our bodies instinctively respond to the environment. It’s easy to believe him when Rafe says that he’s seen people learn complex and challenging movements more readily in nature than in the gym. The philosophy of ‘moving like a human’ makes sense in my body, not just my head.

A sleepless night followed, unable to get comfortable for any length of time, and by the morning I’d decided that I couldn’t face being a wet and cold observer of everyone else’s fun. Happily for me my wife knows me very well, and forbids my self-pity. Our meeting point on day 2 is deeper into the Heath, and in a dark patch of woods. True to the forecast, it’s raining, and I understand why the higher tree climbing happened on day 1, it would be too risky in this wether. The tree branches are lower and we warm up moving through the trees at a low level, over and under branches (or just slowly along the low ones, in my case). I quickly realised that being barefoot was the best strategy and now wonder if that contact with the earth was a part of what lifted my mood.

We were split into groups to practice vaulting over branches, with Rafe, Ben and Rutger circulating and giving advice and encouragement. Lots of opportunities for practice and experimentation, and then the whole group being bought back together to add a new challenge, or to reinforce a coaching point or principle.

I’m loathe to get into describing everything that we did, so I’ll leave it at the rest of the day involved rough-housing (the British might call this ‘rough and tumble’) and edge of comfort zone testing play fighting; joint mobility; breath work; and meditation. Suffice it to say, if you’re contemplating joining an EMP seminar then go ahead and do it – I guarantee you’ll have fun. It was most fascinating for me to find how my mood changed, and the pain in my shoulder receded, as the day went on. I think was a product of the environment, the activity and also Rafe’s teaching style.

Rafe has clearly studied the art/skill of teaching in depth. He’s quick to acknowledge his own teachers, and especially quick to acknowledge his own flaws and vulnerabilities. I think this is the single thing that distinguished this from other workshops that I’ve attended – Rafe’s willingness to share his personal experience, and ability to acknowledge when his ego surfaced made for a liberated learning space. I’m used to discovering my lack of physical capacity, and having my (professional) world view challenged at Ido’s seminars, but this taught my something about myself at another level, and I’m very grateful for that.

At the end of day one, while feeling sorry for myself, I knew that I liked Rafe’s philosophy/idealogy, but didn’t think I wanted to embrace tree-climbing and outdoor training. At the end of day two both of us knew that we wanted to spend more time in nature, and to spend more time being playful. I’m sure now that we’ll be climbing trees in future.