“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.

stock-photo-8692744-apple-coreUnless you’re referring to apples, or microchips.

I was listening to Eyal Lederman discussing his article “The Myth of Core Stability” yesterday. I have taken issue with his article before now, for various reasons, not least because the article is essentially rubbishing something which Dr Lederman fails to define – without a clear definition, rubbishing the concept becomes rather easy. Now, however, it occurs to me that the underlying trouble is that no-one can define ‘core’, as it relates to human anatomy, in a way that will receive broad agreement.

Try an internet search for a definition. The core is the trunk. The core is the transverse abdominis, deep multifidi, pelvic floor and diaphragm. There is an upper core and a lower core. The core is the trans abs, obliques and lower paraspinals. There’s a front core and a back core. The core is from the neck to the knees. (For extra fun, try a search for ‘weak core’ – eye-opening stuff, to be sure).

Core is something that goes to work before we move, right? The nervous system sends a message to the core to tell it to stiffen prior to moving our limbs, and that way we don’t destabilise our lower backs – isn’t that how we work? And this happens in fractions of milliseconds. Maybe we ‘know’ this because EMG studies have been done that show the order of firing of muscles yet, as Dr Lederman points out, to get an accurate picture of what happens you would need to have an EMG for every muscle, for every movement, to really see what happens (and then you’d only be seeing what happens in that single subject). This would also assume that what we learn from anatomy books about the location and role of muscles is not only universal but also exactly accurate, and not simply a means of dis-integrating an integrated system.

Pilates, as I understand it, is about whole body movement. And with good reason – there are very few movements that are not whole body. You can lift you arm without moving anything else, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of your body doesn’t respond. Pilates is a holistic practice because movement is a holistic practice, even when you attempt to isolate joints or muscles. To paraphrase Ido Portal, when you tug on a shirt, you tug on the whole shirt. Our whole body responds to movement, as an integrated organism.

The idea of core relies on the belief that muscles are laid down in layers, from the skeleton outward to the skin. ‘Like the layers of an onion’, as one explanation of ‘core’ offered. This sounds like a mechanism, not the model of an integrated biological system. We are animals (however much we may desire to elevate ourselves above such lowly status) and we don’t move in the way that a mechanism that we could build would move.

What if (and I strongly believe this to be the case) your brain knows how to move your body far better than any externally derived input, and your belief in core activation actually inhibits your natural functioning? Did you manage without a core before you knew you might have one? If you have been injured, did you know about your core before or after the injury? Did your discovery of a core influence your injury recovery? Has anyone recovered from injury without discovering they may have a core?

To use the word ‘core’ in relation to movement, exercise, or health feeds a picture of a hierarchy and/or layering of muscles which, if out of order, will lead to almost certain dysfunction. We are animals. All things being well we move as animals do, as whole beings. What is the level of movement dysfunction amongst other mammals? Do they show signs of missing core exercises, of having poor core control? (What would you suggest if they did?)

Core is anti-Pilates. It is a term that I hear most from people who are describing their own inadequacies or failings, as told to them by either media or medical professional. The prescription, I would respectfully suggest, is more likely to be ‘more varied movement’, or ‘move with an awareness of the ground and your environment’ as it is ‘practice engaging your core’. Just as walking down the street ‘engaging your core’ will create constipated movement and breathing patterns, so will practicing Pilates as if it requires ‘core activation’.

What to say if you’re banned from saying ‘core’? Could this be a good moment to focus on the outcome (the movement, that is) that we want for our students/clients? Instead of an internal cue, what would be an externally oriented cue?

Thank you, as ever, for reading.

I wonder if anyone would argue that there is a better way to train to be a Pilates teacher than to serve an apprenticeship under an experienced teacher within a Pilates studio. I imagine that modular training courses exist not because they have the best outcomes but rather because they make economic sense. I’m sure that many people who are interested in becoming teachers are not able to commit the time to an apprenticeship so it is simply pragmatic to design modular courses, particularly if you are in the business of commercialising Pilates education. I’m also fairly sure that most studios offering apprenticeships would agree that it’s not something you do for the money.

I’m inclined to call this phenomenon of highly commercialised teacher training the industrialisation of Pilates. It’s a conundrum because, just like the outcome of the in/famous lawsuit, it helps to bring Pilates to a wider audience (which all teachers can profit from) and, I believe, it corrupts the original work.

Training manuals seem to me to be emblematic of this industrialisation, not least because they’re an inevitable consequence of highly commercialised training. If you’re not going to spend many months in a studio, learning how the repertoire feels in your own body, and shadowing an experienced teacher to learn how they teach that innate understanding to others then you will probably need to have a manual to remind you what the exercises are and how to teach them.

I’m not going to pretend that my training was the best but I was lucky that I was given a manual that consisted of exercise names, perhaps a picture or two, and a lot of blank paper. I had to write my own manual based on my experience and understanding of the work.

Modular means breaking up the Pilates system into blocks that can be conveniently delivered. Joseph was clear in ‘Return to Life’ that Contrology is a system and it would seem glaringly obvious that you can’t teach a system in distinct segments. No surprise that exercises get added (‘Supine Arm Work’ on the Reformer, 12 pages for variations of Teaser on the Reformer), or that exercises get divided into blocks (‘Abdominal Work’, ‘Hip Work’ etc.)

Looking at the manuals from 3 major training corporations (all of whom manufacture apparatus, which is a whole other can of worms – how much are the exercises tweaked to fit the apparatus?) it is clear that they are meant to teach the reader how to teach the exercises and, perhaps inevitably, the result is that the exercises are reduced to a mechanical explanation. (I’m sure that the publishers have to be careful about the language they use, to serve the broadest range of learning styles possible, and to adhere to evidence based descriptions/assertions.) It’s also clear from his writing that Joseph Pilates didn’t have a mechanistic approach, so to have a manual that presents a mechanistic approach to his exercises seems to me antithetical to the practice and teaching of Pilates.

I am fond of quoting anatomist Jaap van der Wal: “Brains know nothing about the muscles”. In the exercise instructions in ‘Return to Life’ Joseph Pilates barely refers to muscles at all – why would he need to? If the environment is right for you, the exercise will teach itself, just as a traditional reformer will teach you the exercise. Pilates is a movement discipline, not a muscle activation technique – and our students’ brains and bodies are smarter than we are. If we create the right environment, if the inputs that our students’ systems are receiving are appropriate, then their bodies will do the right thing. And to recognise how to do this fora variety of students is the stuff of apprentice learning, not the kind of understanding that you might gain from a manual.

If you can do the exercise correctly, you don’t need to be concerned AT ALL with which muscles are working. However, if you teach an exercise from the perspective of muscle activation, or as if its purpose is to address specific muscles (as these manuals state) you’re treating your student’s body as a machine rather than an organism, and more than likely a two-dimensional machine – if it’s an exercise that involves hip flexion then it must be for strengthening hip flexors – right? NO! Pilates is about health, about moving well, but to keep repeating the same purpose for each exercise (We know from Romana that Joseph would have said “It’s for the body!”) might not seem like good value for the money you’ve paid for your manual.

On the whole it’s a good thing that Pilates reaches a wide audience, so industrialisation does have some positives. I’m sure there are many excellent teachers who have come through modular training, and I suspect that, if they are excellent Pilates teachers, they will have taken their learning well beyond the modules. I hope that any teachers reading this would agree that being certified or accredited as a Pilates teacher is a bit like learning to drive – it is the very beginning of a process of learning that will very likely go on for a long as you teach – so let’s not abolish modular training. But let’s recognise that modules and manuals will probably not “help make you one of the best educated Pilates instructors on the planet.” (http://www.merrithew.com/shop/education-materials).

 

This article first appeared (with some edits) in PilatesIntel (http://www.pilatesintel.com), and I’m grateful to Brett Miller for suggesting a far superior title to the one I had first.

I’ve hardly slept at all and my alarm goes off. It’s 3.45am. Bleary eyed I pull back the curtains and the Baltic Sea looks glassily calm and beautiful in the dawn light. I make my way into the bathroom and have a fraction of a second of feeling superheroic when I appear unusually ‘chiseled’ in my reflection. Bleary eyed, like I said. Quick shower and I find blood on the towel. Not superheroic after all – the skin on my wrists has been flayed.
I’m in Turku, Finland and it’s the morning after 2 days of “Upper Body Strength” (Level 1), according to the Ido Portal method. I feel elated, and all of my senses seem heightened, despite the sleep deprivation. I don’t know how much this is influenced by the stunning, sunrise scenery as I drive to Helsinki but for sure a lot of the emotion is a result of the intensity of the seminar, and while I’m driving I know that later I will need to write about the experience, for my own sake but also to attempt to help others understand why they should stop finding excuses, or putting it off, and sign up for one of Ido’s seminars.

The best way that I can describe the feeling is of being ‘charged’.

Physically charged because I’ve put my body through about 16 hours of training in two days and feel strong, as well as sore. That sort of training load is a daily occurrence for the teachers leading and assisting on the seminar, but I haven’t worked that hard since, er, June last year, when I was last in Turku attending the Movement X and Handbalancing seminars.

Mentally charged because I have had so much stimulus in terms of thinking about how I move, and how I teach, and what’s possible with the right application and mindset.

Emotionally charged because of the above, and because the camaraderie of working as part of the group, and with other individuals in the group is a powerful thing. We won’t all be friends for ever, of course. Being me, I’m bound to feel slightly impatient with the attitude or questions of some of the group, but in general it’s impossible not to admire many of my fellow participants. There were a lot of strong people there, and plenty of people who are not yet so strong but embrace and fully immerse themselves in the work. I wish I was surrounded by people like this all the time. Special mention goes to my workout partner for the weekend, helping me maintain a tradition of always being partnered with a Belgian, in spite of my wife’s absence – you were an inspiration, dank u wel.

I’ve talked to a lot of people I’ve met about Ido’s seminars, and a number of them have said “I’d love to do that but I’m not ready”, or “I’ll never reach that level”. I guess that this is an impression that is created by YouTube videos of very strong people doing astonishing things, yet at the seminars I’ve attended every movement or exercise has been scaled so that everyone can participate fully, whatever level they’re at. In fact, having watched some of the videos since the seminar I’m not just thinking “Wow, that’s incredible.”, I’m also thinking “I know the steps to take to achieve that.” I may never achieve a full planche, or a full front lever but that will only be through lack of training time on my part, and with some training, following the steps that I’ve learned, I’ll get to where I deserve to be.

I’ve written before now about the quality of the seminars’ structure so won’t say more about that here. Suffice it to say that I’ve now experienced 3 different teachers, and 3 different assistants, and they have all bought something special to the experience. I’m happy I met Ido at my first seminar and, with all respect, at subsequent seminars I haven’t had a moment of feeling that his presence was missing.

I would recommend starting with Movement X (my new Belgian friend described discovering that it’s possible to cry with happiness at Movement X, and if you’ve been I bet you know when that was…). I’d also say that the Corset is a MUST, and highly recommend
Handbalancing, and Upper Body Strength. I’ll let you know about Locomotion after September – but let’s just say that we’ve been looking forward to it for the last 2 years.

And hey, if you get up early enough the next day, the lighting’s right (and maybe you’re a bit dehydrated) you might look like a superhero, too.

IMG_5635

Or, (very long subtitle) the niggle in your back/shoulder/hip/neck/ankle etc. wasn’t caused by something you did – it was caused by everything that you do.

Or, no-one can fix you, except you.

humancar

It might be tempting to think that my body is a lot like my car – I put fuel in my car and use it to get from A to B, and I put fuel in my body and use it to move from A to B, amongst other things, as well. When a warning light came on in my car recently, I took it to the garage for diagnostics and repair. It turned out that the catalytic converter had reached the end of its life and needed replacing.

Last year a warning light came on in my body, that’s to say, my knee started to hurt and wouldn’t straighten fully. I took it for diagnostics and it turned out that it needed (surgical) repair. Here’s the crucial difference – my knee joint hadn’t reached the end of its life, I’d simply not been using it as well as I might have done. And I don’t know when that happened. I may have been using it poorly for 2 years, or 20 years. I’ve done more sitting in the last few years that we’ve had a studio and I’ve been a manager as well as a teacher, and I used to run relatively high mileage with no understanding of good running technique around 17/18 years ago. Either or both of these things could have contributed but really my knee problem was probably a result of everything I have (and haven’t) done for decades.

I can drive too fast, take speed-bumps too hard, ride the brakes or the clutch and cause components of my car to wear out faster than they should. Then, if I’ve got the money, I can get those parts replaced and carry on as before. There’s no harm done, except to my wallet. I won’t have changed the structure of the chassis, nor altered the way that it processes fuel and oil, there won’t be scars left where parts have been replaced.

My body, however, is an organic, dynamic (on a good day) system. It’s continually responding and adapting to its environment.

en+vi+ron+ment: Ecology. the external surroundings in which a plant or animal lives, which tend to influence its development and behaviour. (We might simplify this to place and time).

Somehow environment isn’t a broad enough term – I like to think of inputs instead/as well.

in+put: Computer technol. a. the data fed into a computer from a peripheral device. b. the devices and operations involved in transferring the data.

In human terms there are some very obvious inputs, like oxygen, water and food. There are visual, auditory, olfactory and thermal inputs. There is the, largely, unfelt input of gravity. There are inputs of light, in addition to visual inputs – daylight, dusk etc. There are the inputs from my emotional response to place or time. And, with a significant nod to Katy Bowman, there are inputs of forces, or loads constantly being applied to our body, whether we are in motion or static. Even asleep, the surface you are sleeping on is a load on your body, and we are constantly adapting to our environment/inputs.

Current pain research also tells us that our memories of past experiences and stories we have heard also act, if not as an input, then as a filter through which certain inputs are passed. So they will influence the way we respond to those inputs. (Am I making the case for our bodies being quite different from cars yet?)

To paraphrase Katy Bowman, “No-one is ‘out of shape’. Everyone is exactly the shape that their inputs have caused their body to adapt to.” We are the product of everything that we do. And to paraphrase Kelly Starrett, “We do not randomly break”. If my knee cartilage wears out, it’s not because I carry the weak knee cartilage gene, its because of how I’ve used (misused) my knee. We could argue that there’s some luck involved, inasmuch as I may not have known I was abusing my knee, but I’m still responsible.

When the catalytic converter was replaced in my car, my car was fixed. End of story. On the other hand, the excellent surgeon, who trimmed my torn meniscus, did not fix my knee. He did the work necessary to allow me to fix my knee (if we can truly say ‘fixed’ in relation to bodies/body parts). Unfortunately, the Western model of health supports the idea that your doctor fixes you, strongly reinforced by the pharmaceutical industry. The chiropractor/osteopath/physiotherapist/Pilates teacher that helps you with your problem does not fix you – they help you to fix yourself. The magic comes from your own body, and your own nervous system. There is no external magic, however good your favourite therapist/teacher may be. THERE IS NO EXTERNAL MAGIC, THE MAGIC HAPPENS INSIDE YOU (perhaps with the guidance of your therapist or teacher).

You cannot take your body to someone else to get it fixed, you have to fix it yourself.

 

 

Pilates Is So Limiting

March 11, 2016 — 1 Comment

AND THAT’S WHAT SETS US FREE!

My degree is in fine art, and all the work I produced as a student was three dimensional. I was never great at drawing, and rubbish at painting. Perhaps that was behind my open disdain for painting, on the basis that (usually) before you’ve put brush to canvas you’ve already determined the size of the painting. Not only that, you’ve decided to make a two-dimensional piece of work. I found this to be very restrictive, or self-limiting.

My exposure in the last couple of years to other movement disciplines, especially some of the MovNat/Ido Portal locomotion work, and learning basic breakdancing moves, started to make me think that a mat to exercise on is a rather self-limiting device – ‘I want to be free to express my physicality wherever it may take me’ – that sort of thing.

A couple of changes at our studio made me reflect upon this a little bit more. Firstly, we changed all our reformers to ones built to the traditional size, shape, springs etc. and started to understand the traditional repertoire a little better. it dawned on me that the frame of the reformer is like the mat, it is the frame for the work, and you don’t move beyond it (unless you’re doing a step-off into arabesque – you know, the everyday beginner stuff….). And it really makes sense. Secondly, we replaced the floor of our mat space with dojo type wall-to-wall flooring, meaning that the whole floor is a mat, and an actual mat became optional. Given that we like rolling around on the floor it’s a great improvement on the thin nylon carpet we used to have. But I’m beginning to see that, for Pilates, it may not be so great not to have a mat.

Just like the reformer, I think mat Pilates needs a frame. It’s a way of imposing discipline. I was listening to an episode of the Tim Ferriss show a while back with a guest called Jocko Willink (subtitle ‘the Scariest Navy Seal Imaginable’) in which he talks about discipline:

Although discipline demands control and asceticism, it actually results in freedom. When you have the discipline to get up early, you are rewarded with more free time. When you have the discipline to keep your helmet and body armor on in the field, you become accustomed to it and can move freely in it. The more discipline you have to work out, train your body physically and become stronger, the lighter your gear feels and the easier you can move around in it.”

These words are obviously heavily slanted toward combat troops, but the underlying observation is the key – discipline = freedom. And Pilates needs/is a discipline.

When you do Pilates you are required to display some discipline, ‘contrology’, one might say. And that’s what can set you free. Proper execution of the exercises and the self-control of working within the defined space creates the power and control that liberates us when we get off the mat/reformer and engage in real life, whether that’s breakdancing, gardening, marathon running, or just going to the shops.

Are You Human?

March 4, 2016 — Leave a comment
Still from 'The Brain That Wouldn't Die', 1962.

Still from ‘The Brain That Wouldn’t Die’, 1962.

I’ve had conflicted feelings about civilisation for a few years – I enjoy the products of both agricultural and industrial civilisation as much as anyone AND I recognise that human civilisation has exacted a terrible price both on us and all the other species of flora and fauna on the planet. (It’s hard to read ‘Endgame’ by Derrick Jensen and stay blind to the negatives.)

There are a few fundamental factors that have driven our evolution as humans, including avoiding predators (see ‘Sculpted by Cats‘ by Frank Forencich – and buy the whole book, it’s great), finding food, managing environmental conditions, and gravity. Basically, moving about, and managing external loads and forces (thank you Katy Bowman).

I mention gravity in particular because it would appear, based on listening to an episode of the Tim Ferriss show recently, it appears that some smart people, from Stephen Hawking to Jeff Bezos, believe that the future of humanity will not be on the Earth alone. Not only will it not be on the Earth but that it would be most sensible to get away from gravity all together, so that human life would continue on space stations rather than on planets. Perhaps, like me, you find your internal alarm bells sounding at this – “What about bone density?”, “What about muscle mass?”. Further listening/research suggests that this might be a narrow view of the future of humans. Maybe the future doesn’t involve physical bodies at all. I love how science-fiction this becomes, because I like how sci-fi’s so often questions the nature of existence. Could it be that the future of humanity is as the gravity manipulating “intelligence” in ‘Interstellar’, who don’t appear to have a physical presence. It must be amazing to work in fields where this kind of thing is being contemplated.

Fascinating as this is, we remain physical beings for the moment, and at least for our lifetimes, shaped by our evolution and the factors mentioned before. Our physicality is central to our existence, and to our health. If you’re not utilising and enjoying your physicality it’s as if you’re preparing for this non-physical future that, if it comes, may be centuries or millennia away.

 

Is Pilates Really Enough?

February 5, 2016 — 9 Comments

This is a question that seems to crop up amongst teachers from time to time, with supporters on either side of the argument. Benjamin Degenhardt reminded me last year that what Joseph Pilates was interested in, was promoting, was overall health. He was concerned with a bigger picture than ‘core stability’, or ‘fitness’ in the gym-focused/endurance event sense (“She’s really fit, she’s run a marathon.”) that tends to be the dominant interpretation these days.

So does the regular practice of Pilates provide everything necessary to be considered fit, in a holistic sense? Perhaps the truth is that it depends. We might run into problems with definitions of the word ‘fit’. I’ve written about this before but, to save you reading more, I like: “greater tolerance to shifts in environmental parameters and biologically mediated challenges” (words by Suzanne Scott). I also like to think of fitness in terms of a capacity to express one’s full homo sapien potential – “are you human?”, if you like. Where being human means, to borrow from Kelly Starrett, that you can squat to take a pooh in the woods; and, to borrow from Katy Bowman, you can pull your own weight with your arms, which is to say you can do a pull-up. While they may not be very common, these are normal things for a human to be doing. (Please check in with yourself here – have you started making a list of reasons for not being able to squat/pull-up? or a list of people whom you know who have good reason to not be able to do one or both of these things? If so, why did you do that?)

Some other expressions of being human: walking, running, crawling, climbing, swimming, playing, dancing (the last two perhaps equalling physically engaging with other humans). And, beyond the realm of movement, to do what’s required in order to eat nutrient-dense foods from a variety of sources; to tolerate a range of temperatures (as in the definition of fitness above).

I got started in writing this because I sometimes feel, when working with teachers in training, and running a studio where a number of people teach, that I want those teachers to believe in more than teaching Pilates, or to see that their mission could/should encompass more than knowing the Pilates repertoire inside out, and being able to teach it to others (though this would be a good start).

In an interview last year Kelly Starrett said:

“Squat down, feet together, knees together, heels down. Can you do that? Yes? No? If you can’t do that you’re missing full hip and or ankle range of movement. That’s the mechanism for your hip impingement, for your plantar fasciitis, for your bunions, for your pulled calf. That is the £*@<ing problem, and you should be obsessing about it.”

You. Should. Be. Obsessing. About. It. You should be obsessing about it. Let’s hope you don’t have bunions or any of those others, nevertheless, if you’re not able to express your full range of movement, you should be be obsessing about it. Can’t squat to the floor? Obsessing. Can’t do one pull-up? Obsessing. If anything is less than optimal you should be doing something about it.

I’m sure it’s not to everyone’s taste, but I always enjoy the way Kelly expresses himself. If you have a look at what he’s involved with you will see that Kelly is clearly trying to reach a lot of people, and a ‘black and white’ delivery probably works best for that. I suspect that a lot of Pilates professionals are anxious not to judge, or be judged, which is nice but I don’t believe I’m alone in sometimes needing to be told “what you’re doing is not good enough”. Self-acceptance, as in not hating yourself, is surely to be encouraged; self-acceptance, as in ‘this is as good as it’s going to get’ should surely be discouraged.

I don’t believe that Joseph thought it was enough to do his exercises. After all, he left us with instructions for how to shower properly (I’m not sure that it’s on YouTube but if you look hard enough I’m sure you can find the film). Never mind the biologically mediated challenges – do you have optimal tolerance to shifts in environmental parameters? No? Then Pilates will be a good start, but you’ll need more.

 

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Does Posture Really Matter?

October 11, 2015 — 1 Comment

Perhaps this is a heretical question…. the importance of ‘good posture’ to health and well-being is so widely recognised that it is beyond question. Certainly, in the world of Pilates, it would seem to be doctrine. Jillian Hessel tells us that good posture is “essential to a healthy, well functioning body.” The good news is that Pilates apparently has a solution – Pilates For Posture’s website declares: “Evidence has shown Pilates to….improve posture…” (These are two examples out of many, and just happen to be near the top of my search results. See here, and here, for a couple more).

I started to be curious about this subject firstly when I noticed that people I was taking workshops with, in particular with MovNat and with Ido Portal, who were effortlessly wonderful movers, had (to my Pilates teacher, good posture obsessed eye) crappy resting positions. In other words, when they were relaxed, they were really relaxed, and clearly not trying to hold themselves well. To reiterate, when they wanted or needed to move they were graceful, supple and strong. When they didn’t need to move they did not seem to be controlling the form their body took.

thumb3_leopard_relaxing_in_a_tree_after_lunch

Needs some postural training?

More recently someone I was training with said “posture is reflexive”, which really got me thinking. It ties in with ideas of energy efficiency that I gleaned from basic evolutionary biology – as a species we are ‘programmed’ to use as little energy as possible; and with an idea I got from Katy Bowman: no one is ‘out of shape’, we are all in the shape that our brain/body thinks is best for us, based on the environment and inputs (nutrition, movement etc etc) we receive. So ‘posture is reflexive’ means that at any given moment your brain will organise your body according to the best (most energy efficient) strategy that it has available. You can consciously organise your posture, until your brain is occupied with something else – if your job is to sit or stand up straight that’s great, but if your life requires you to do anything else then postural organisation will take a back seat. To say that your posture is a determinant of your health is putting the cart before the horse – your posture is a manifestation of your health, and ‘fixing’ your posture, however fleeting that might be, will not fix your health.

Problematic postures are only problematic when they indicate poor movement strategies. If someone’s default standing position is a swayback, and they have glute amnesia, the solution will be to teach them to move, not to teach them to stand. If someone’s sitting position appears to be causing them problems with their neck, shoulders, back, digestion, breathing etc. the solution won’t lie in teaching them to be better at sitting, but might lie in helping them to sit less and move more. I understand, too, that someone’s posture can be a product of their emotional state. In this situation teaching posture doesn’t present a solution, and teaching movement actually might.

Assessing someone’s standing posture may be useful in terms of having quick/simple clues as to what kind of movement they have the most urgent need for, and perhaps there’s a movement assessment that will serve the same purpose, or do better. Beyond that, is there any point in teaching someone how to stand, or sit?