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.



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.


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.


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.

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.” (


This article first appeared (with some edits) in PilatesIntel (, 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.


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.


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


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.