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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rushing into action, you fail.

Trying to grasp things, you lose them.

Forcing a project to completion, 

you ruin what was almost ripe.

Therefore the Master takes action

by letting things take their course.

He remains as calm

at the end as at the beginning.

He has nothing

thus has nothing to lose.

What he desires is non-desire;

what he learns is to unlearn.

He simply reminds people

of who they have always been.

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

 

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It’s not normal!

February 10, 2018 — Leave a comment

From Cirque de Soleil’s ‘Ovo’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Help everyone else to be better than you.

This is why I write about teaching Pilates.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Image from seniroplanet.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fighting Monkey is about being a better person.

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

Paying my respects

August 12, 2017 — 1 Comment

More happy coincidences – a day after I watched part of the video of the Q&A session following the “Ido Portal: Just Move” film, Facebook reminded me that 3 years ago I posted this picture, taken in a CrossFit box in Turku, Finland at the end of 4 days (2 back to back seminars) training with Ido.

A great deal has happened in my life since then, not least 3 more visits to Turku to participate in 4 more of Ido’s seminars. (If you’d like to learn specifics I’ve written about each these visits here, here, here and here). Over that time I’ve been exposed to a lot more ideas around the subject of movement, and a variety of practices. Perhaps it’s always the case that, in seeing something shiny and new, one forgets, or feels less enamoured with what has come before but the photographic reminder of an earth-shattering first exposure to Ido’s work, personality and philosophy, coupled with the many insights to be found in the two films reminded me of how much I owe to this man.

The last seminar of Ido’s that my wife and I attended was ‘Locomotion’, and it left a mark different from the 5 I’d attended prior to it. The truth is that I wasn’t ready for it – the content of all the others had been scaleable, to accommodate a broad range of capability/capacity in the participants, but in Locomotion I felt that in missing some of the basics I was stuck. (Nowadays I think that a full depth pistol squat is basic capacity, but at the time I had let this slip, and was missing a few other basic positions). We were very used to travelling to Ido’s seminars and working very hard, but this was brutal and my reaction to the suffering, and perhaps the feeling of frustration/inadequacy encouraged some cynicism with regard to the content. It was easy for me to see a foundational structure as being too prescriptive – discouraging self-expression in favour of collecting component movements. (Perhaps it was no accident that the next movement workshop we attended after Locomotion was Tom Weksler’s much looser ‘Movement Archery’).

Ido’s seminars were more expensive than others we’ve attended and I was uncomfortable with signing non-disclosure agreements. It’s not something that I’ve had to do at any other movement workshop, and it seems to imply ownership of material which Ido himself was quick to acknowledge had been gathered from all sorts of sources. If nothing else I felt that some other presenters were less protectionist.

As Ido says in the Q&A referenced above, true intelligence is characterised by the ability to hold contradictory views in one’s mind, and as I said above, my first exposure to Ido’s work was earth-shattering. It burst, and shot me out of my bubble so far and fast that for the first 24 hours afterwards I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to go back to my ‘day job’ of teaching Pilates. Not because he had disparaged Pilates (though he had shared a dim view of Pilates teachers’ enthusiasm for certain abdominal cueing/emphasis), or any other practice, but because the breadth of his approach made me realise how little I knew, and how little I’d explored what’s possible.

Discovering, or rather being shown what I had overlooked was a powerful catalyst. And to say I had ‘overlooked’ aspects of movement possibilities is not really accurate – it suggests that they may have been in my peripheral vision but I’d chosen not to look more closely. The things that Ido (and team) showed me over that first 4 days, and subsequent encounters, were nowhere close to being on my radar before then. We also achieved feats of strength and endurance during those days that showed me something more about myself, and that I’ll feel proud of for a long time to come. If I had the will (I want to write “and the time” but I know that making the time is merely a product of will), I have learned the tools, protocols, drills and methods to keep achieving, and surpassing those feats. I think that those first 4 days were the beginning of me recognising the difference between doing and being – between going through the motions and embodying motion. If any of that last sentence resonates with you then you will know that this is a ‘game-changer’. For me it has been both personally and professionally.

This is the motivation for writing this post – watching Ido speak reminds me of what a huge impact his thoughts and methods have had on how I think, move and teach. Embodying movement (forgive me if this seems vague, I do not have another way of expressing this sense at the moment) is a product of, and/or makes for a more intuitive (less paralysis by analysis) approach to moving, and I can’t overstate its value.

Having done workshops with others who have a more freestyle, expressive approach to movement than my experience of Ido’s seminars, it was tempting for me to feel that I had ‘moved on’, that he has nothing more to offer to me. Ridiculous! This was ego creeping in, or self-defense – pretending to myself that the punishment of ‘Locomotion’ was a failing of the material, rather than my own shortcomings. Could one find fault with what Ido delivers? Of course (and I suspect he would be quick to agree), but I think it’s hard to find fault with the quality of the delivery, or to question the sincerity and commitment of his team.

The short version: if you’re AT ALL curious about a brand spectrum approach to movement (especially if, like I was, you’re a single discipline practitioner,) you will have so much to gain from learning from Ido and/or his team. Like me, you may find that the exposure leads you to people/places that you didn’t know existed, and teach you things about yourself that will serve you for a lifetime.

 

 

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.

*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….)