The first thing that I should declare is that the forced closure of our studio, along with the all the other elements of the ‘lockdown’ proved to be an extraordinary gift to both of us. It was a gift because it made time for us to reflect on what’s truly important to us. And I am blessed to have a number of loyal and generous clients so that, while our studio business was/is in a grave situation, my private work increased.

I am also very fortunate to be married to my business partner, and to have spent so many hours walking and talking about our vision and our dreams, as well as hours in nature just being and feeling rather than doing. I imagine that there are many Pilates teachers and business owners who have been less fortunate and what follows is in no way intended to judge anyone – I’m simply interested in sharing some thoughts as well as some questions that this extraordinary time has asked me.

Why re-open?

For a while now the forums seem to be full of questions and requests for advice around how to ‘safely’ re-open studios or resume teaching, and how best to conform to the various rules that may be in place. Should I wear a mask? Should they wear a mask? What about visors? And socks? And ventilation? And spacing between apparatus? Etc.

I’m curious as to whether there is a question about how what we teach under new restrictions relates to why we started teaching Pilates. Is it possible to teach Pilates in a “Covid-secure”* manner and in the spirit of the man who wrote ‘Your Health’ and ‘Return to Life’?

*(I put “Covid-secure” in inverted commas to reflect my belief that the very idea is probably nonsense – to imagine that by means of sanitisers and masks and visors etc we can stop certain viruses from interacting with us seems the height of hubris to me. Just so you know where I’m coming from…)

What do you imagine Joseph would make of this situation? The man who advocated as much fresh air as possible, and made so many films of himself working outdoors. Would he have been happy to wear a mask? Or to work in a room that was closed off to the outside world with air circulating through UV filters? Maybe this is entirely unimportant when the imperative of earning and paying the rent trumps all other considerations. If this is the case, I wonder how far we have to be pushed away from the holistic health origins of the work before it starts to feel odd. 

Is there a point at which the rigmarole of meeting all the regulations, in order to pay the rent, actually become of greater importance than the outcome for our clients? And I wonder how many clients may be returning in order to support the business, rather than supporting their own health. We have certainly benefitted from this kind of moral and financial support over the lockdown and I bring this up only because I imagine that we have to be watchful – at some point that kind of motivation will surely wear thin.

I guess the short version of the above is “Are we re-opening because our clients need us, or because we need them?”

This was not clear to me when I first started teaching but I now recognise that my goal in teaching movement is to be in service to other people. If, by helping someone else to feel more joy, to live a more beautiful life because of a change in their relationship with their physical self, then perhaps I can do my small part to help the world be a better place. Having had this realisation about my job, which is also my mission, I cannot easily contemplate working for any other reason. This means that if, by opening up our studio with the imposition of a lot of rules (ours or the government’s), someone might feel more anxious about a virus, or their well-being then I would prefer that they don’t come. Ideally I’ll be able to teach them online and we will still be able to achieve great things without any Pilates apparatus. In many cases people would prefer to stay away, and I support that wholeheartedly. Perhaps it will turn out that many people who have previously been Pilates regulars discover that, actually, they don’t need us. That seems like a really good discovery to make and if our business has to change as a result then that is simply the way it is.

And what about health?

One of the strangest things about the past few months for me is the apparent absence of advice on how to be more healthy. This is particularly odd when it seems to be abundantly clear that the more healthy you are the less significant this corona virus is. The dominant advice in the UK appears to have been “Stay Home” – with the promised result of either ‘staying safe’ or ‘saving lives’. As I alluded to above, the idea that staying in your home offers any kind of protection from interacting with a virus is utterly bizarre.

Yes, podcasts and people  that I follow have had episodes on how to boost your immune system but they feel quite niche in terms of their reach. The best I’ve seen is a supplement company advert on the back of a bus. The people most susceptible to an adverse interaction with the virus are clearly those with metabolic syndrome and, as I saw pointed about by a doctor recently, neither wearing a mask nor having a vaccine will address diabetes, heart disease or obesity.

Are we re-opening to enhance people’s health? If we support a culture of fear (of both the natural world and our fellow humans) by embracing the notion that the studio is currently an inherently dangerous place to be and requires multiple special measures to be rendered ‘safe’, are we supporting health? What is the impact of fear on our health? If love is the absence of fear, what does that suggest? I imagine love is good for our health…

If any of this resonates, are there other ways that we can be of service to and support our clients? Can we adapt, and be proponents of holistic health (I know you may not feel qualified to give health advice, but I would respectfully suggest that if you’re teaching movement you are already doing so)?

I would suggest that this starts with something like “How are you?” and “Is there any way that I can help you right now?”There is so much information available for free online and researching sound sources of advice will only help us. I don’t know how it would be in the USA but I doubt that sharing an article about, say, Vitamin D with a “I saw this and thought you might be interested” could be construed as criminally outside of a movement teacher’s scope of practice.

The condensed version of all of this:

Why are you  pilates teacher?

Why do you have a Pilates studio?

 

 

 

 

An argument for using a wide-angle lens in a person-centred approach to teaching movement.

 

Anatomy is ‘the science that studies the structure of the human body’. If we’re teaching movement we probably had to learn anatomy at some point. Depending on our teaching style and priorities our anatomy knowledge may be at the forefront of our teaching. It may feel important to ensure that the person we’re teaching is using the ‘correct’ muscle/s; it may feel important to know that agonists and antagonists are co-firing appropriately; or that their stabilisers have fired prior to their mobilisers.

Ideas like these above are typically based upon a conceptualisation of the human body in isolation, constructed in layers:

Bones form the stiff structure, they meet at joints, held together by ligaments, crossed by muscles that are attached by tendons, wrapped up in skin (perhaps with some fat padding).

For classification and quantification-loving creatures like humans this can be a very satisfactory model. We can apply Newtonian mechanics to this structure, giving us ‘biomechanics’: “the study of the structure, function and motion of the mechanical aspects of biological systems” In other words, we have decided/accepted that biological systems can be analysed and understood according to what we view as their mechanical aspects. It’s worth mentioning that much of the information that this relies upon is gathered from studying dead bodies rather than living ones.

This approach to studying and understanding human bodies may be useful but, as Andreo Spina says “the complexity of what we’re dealing with exceeds our mathematical knowledge”. He uses the term ‘Bioflow’ in preference to biomechanics, to include the flow apparent in human movement (compared to, say, a robot controlled by mathematics) and also to “describe and conceptualise the extent of continuity found in human tissue at a microscopic level”. Specifically he refers to the impossibility of exactly defining where muscle becomes tendon, or where tendon attaches to bone.

Embryologist Jaap van der Wal takes a similar view and argues against viewing tendon as distinct from ligament. If you have heard or read much about fascia you will be familiar with these ideas. Anatomist John Sharkey, who has performed over 1000 dissections says that no two bodies have looked the same when he has ‘looked inside’.

Perhaps we do best to consider that the structures we see in handbooks of musculoskeletal anatomy or really rough guides, or represent loose similes for the living organism. I doubt that is a cognitive stretch to recognise that bones are not shaped the same from person to person (get into a debate about the best way to squat with anyone on the internet and differences in shapes and angles of femurs will quickly be deployed in evidence). Surely then it is reasonable to suppose that our muscles and connective tissues are not shaped the same. We might say that muscles respond to the thought of an action of a joint, or joints. The muscles will form according to the shape of the bones and joints, not according to the pictures in our text books.

I much prefer to view bones and muscles as variations on tissue types that give both stiffness and extensability/elasticity to the matrix of fascia that actually forms our structure but this model still fails, I believe, to allow me to fully understand myself or anyone else.

Tom Myers is renowned as the ‘cartographer’ of Anatomy Trains – mapping “the longitudinal myofascial connections – how the muscles are functionally linked in ‘myofascial meridians’ through the fascial webbing”. Clearly there are connections to the continuity of human tissue in the Bioflow model and the popularity of Myers’ work shows how appealing this integrated view of human movement is to many of us.

Yet this view of our bodies, that allows for the spirals that exist throughout nature and biomechanics seems to make less allowance for, still views the human body in isolation. It stops at the skin. While this may seem entirely reasonable to our ‘civilised’ minds, it is at odds with indigenous societies conceptualisation of ourselves, and perhaps at odds with almost every human spiritual tradition. We are very literally products of our environment and therefore we need a good understanding of the nature of our environment to understand ourselves.

We have probably all heard of the human microbiome. We can view our gastrointestinal tract as a tunnel through our body so that, in a way, it is actually outside us. At the very least it is a very direct connection to our external environment, and the variety and amount of bacteria, viruses, fungi etc that constitute our microbiome is determined by our environment. Is it a stretch then to say “We are our environment”? Indigenous people apparently recognise this without knowing the details of the microbiome that we can see thanks to our technology.

I was introduced to the Native American concept of the Long Body by Frank Forencich. In this view the self is not seen in isolation and only exists in the context of environment and tribe. As he puts it, when we zoom in on the body, as Western science is inclined to do (and develops increasingly sophisticated means of doing), it is useful but makes us short-sighted, particularly to the life-supporting relationships that exist outside of us.

If we are concerned with teaching anyone to move well/better, can we do this job well if we see only their ‘short body’, and fail to consider how their environment and their ‘tribe’ (family, friends, social network, society as a whole) are influencing them? If you are a Pilates teacher and embrace this practice as being for mind, body and spirit can you hope to address all three without seeing the people you teach in the context of their four or five dimensional selves?

We need to understand the inner workings of the body, certainly, and to recognise that the inner workings are manifestations of a much bigger picture.

On Becoming

April 29, 2020 — 2 Comments

(This is nothing like anything that I’ve written before – and nothing to do with Pilates).

Logan Gelbrich, whom we’ve paid a lot of attention to  over the past year, likes to ask “Who are you becoming?” The implication being that there’s always room for growth, or perhaps there isn’t room for the kind of stasis that “Who are you?” might imply.

Logan is also given to reminding us that growth involves “transcending and including” – as we develop we bring all of our past experiences with us. They do not have to be abandoned, disowned or regretted.

When it comes to personal growth I’ve definitely talked the talk. I’ve embraced the catch-phrases, spread the word and believed wholeheartedly that I was on the right path. Perhaps the path that anyone ‘serious’ should be on.

I’ve also been very interested in the ideas of both self-actualisation and embodiment. On Instagram I describe my mission as “self-actualisation, my own and in the people I coach.” As a movement teacher I believe that embodiment or having the capacity to physically manifest and experience principles, ideas and feelings is an important goal, or quality. The more embodied we are the more understanding we can have of our bodies and, by extension, ourselves. I would say that embodiment and actualisation go hand in hand.

I’ve even been collaborating with a friend in developing a course/workshop for practitioners and teachers of yoga and Pilates to encourage embodiment. So, as I mentioned, I’ve been talking the talk. I’ve listened to the podcasts, read the books, blogposts and downloadable PDFs and discussed these ideas at length. 

I’m learning that this was too much of what Jay Griffith calls ‘dry knowledge’, rather than embodied, felt, hands-dirty ‘wet knowledge’. Ironic, really.

This learning has come about through the very same friend introducing me to a profound process of self-discovery and healing. There are a few words that I’ve had a difficult relationship with and am now repairing. Healing is one of them. In the past I might have had a subtle inward cringe at somebody being described as a healer, or a process or intervention being described as healing. This may be due to the disconnect of not feeling that I had anything to heal. I’ve spent some time in therapy and felt that my issues were fairly well resolved. 

I might also call this healing ‘coming into the light’ because I felt as though things that I had hidden from myself were bought into the light for me to see clearly. (The process happened to begin outside under the blazing sun, which may have helped with the imagery. And, by the way, I now know that the sun is white-silver, not yellow as I’d previously believed…) In an interview I heard Dr John Demartini declare that “Our illnesses are feedback mechanisms to let us know that we’ve stored lies about the magnificence of the universe.” This phrase powerfully resonated with me at the time and begins to make even more sense to me. 

I wouldn’t say that I was ill, rather that some of my behaviours and habits were unhealthy and that I was blind to them. Or I was telling lies to myself about the magnificence of the universe, and the beauty to be found everywhere, in order to explain away or justify my behaviour. I am now recognising this as an immensely egotistical defence – “This is the way I am, and everyone will have to like it or lump it. I’m not going to sacrifice my identity to make others feel more comfortable. I was guilty of what could be called ‘self-image actualisation’ – quite different from what Maslow was referring to. I had self-inflicted wounds that needed healing and the part that has bought me sorrow, along with the bliss (there’s another word I may have struggled to use before now) of discovering some powerful truths, is that I’ve been inflicting wounds on my friends and family as well. I think this is almost inevitable – that we use those around us to bolster our ideas about ourselves, and if some of those are lies there will be consequences.

As I mentioned above, a lot of my ideas about personal growth were quite dry. I’ve loved the workshops I’ve done with Fighting Monkey where self-discovery comes through very physical practice and even described the experience for me being akin to what I believe is the experience of a shamanic ceremony for others. In spite of that felt experience I had processed the information through my head, or tied it to intellect and theories. Heart is another word that I’ve been uncomfortable using other than to describe an organ, even though throughout recorded history it appears to have been recognised as the vessel of love and/or energetic centre. Ironically I wrote a Facebook post last year encouraging Pilates teachers to try saying ‘heart’ instead of ‘core’ while teaching. This was much more to do with my pointless personal crusade against the word ‘core’ than any insight into the nature of the universe and humankind – but maybe it shows that I was ready for an awakening. To come into the light. 

Now it’s very clear to me that many of my ideas around teaching, running a business and trying to be a leader were very head-centred, leaving little space for heart. I’ve recognised that judging others is a spectacular waste of time. It has become remarkably easy for me to brush negative thoughts aside. I’m no saint, I still might think to myself “Oh dear” when, for example, seeing someone wearing unflattering clothes but it’s now almost instantaneous that my heart says “They’re okay” and the thought is gone. It’s strange to realise that feeling compassion is a different think from enacting compassion knowing it to be the appropriate and professional choice.

This may be a little hard on my pre-revelation self – I do believe that I was genuine in the majority of my interactions with other people who deserved some compassion, and I even felt it sometimes (looking back, there may have been a hand-on-heart gesture as well) but  it was  mostly reserved for professional interactions whereas now it feels nearly universal.

The process that I’ve referred to is still ongoing in that I had my eyes opened to many things in the moment – the few hours of ceremony – and as I process and reflect and remember more many connections are made for me and I seem to uncover more hidden truths about myself and my place in the world. Some of these discoveries have been painful – recognising, for instance, that I was not fully the considerate, gentle and loving husband that I believed myself to be. Part of what has helped me to see a new, heartfelt compassion in myself is that, while there is a lot of sorrow attached to the revelations of my selfish actions and other failings as a partner, I am able to feel that sorrow without beating myself up. With the recognition that I didn’t know better. 

Part of the learning has been recognising that, too often, I didn’t listen well. I am granted some fresh insight and then my memory dredges up a moment when I was told where I was straying from the path but my ego persuaded me otherwise. There’s that self-image actualisation again – I suspect that my listening was impaired by the efforts involved in sustaining my own wonky self-image.

On a less troubling note, the sense of connectedness is both inspiring and affirming. All the books, workshops, podcasts and discussions all seem to be woven into a fabric that makes perfect sense and forms a map of where we should be going and who we must become. There are too many coincidences for them actually to be coincidences and I am recognising that we have received so many extraordinary gifts – even those that we’ve paid 100s of £s, $s or €s for have a value far beyond the cost, and I feel an immense amount of gratitude to everyone who has crossed my path and shared with me.

To be with someone for many years, and to believe that you know them ‘inside out’, and then to have a few moments (I don’t know how long it was but the image now lives in me) when you are able to see their infinite magnificence is an experience that I wish for everyone. I doubt that it’s possible to remain cynical about humanity (as I was) once you’ve had this kind of illumination.

I am writing this 5 days into this journey of discovery and, while they have been some of the most momentous days of my life, every morning when I wake up with fresh realisations and connections I know that the process will continue for a while yet. At the very least I doubt that the fresh insights and revelations will suddenly cease tomorrow.

‘Moving into the light’ hasn’t been like having a light switched on, even though the first phase was searingly bright. Instead, imagine sitting on the shore and seeing the first rays of the rising sun sharply illuminating the sea and realising how deep and wide, beautiful and powerful, and how full of life it is. As the sun continues to rise you see the landscape anew, shaped by millennia into its perfect forms, and you see teeming life that you’ve not noticed before and recognise that you are connected to all of it – a part of the same cycle that is life. And the sun has only been up for an hour and there will be so much more to see and recognise and remember – illuminating and exposing the lies you’ve believed such that you can’t believe them again.

 

Teaching Experiments

November 28, 2019 — Leave a comment

Last year I attended a seminar during which we were asked what we could teach with our eyes closed. There are some foundation exercises that I believe I could teach with my eyes closed, so I volunteered. However, the parameters quickly changed and I was soon in a rather uncomfortable position – but one that stimulated a lot of reflection.

I find the idea of imposing limitations on the teaching strategies that I might use to be a challenging and richly rewarding exercise, and would like to share some of these here. Some of the experiments are more cerebral, or abstract and some are more straightforward.

It might help to think of some of these like drills that you might see runners doing – the drills don’t really look like running but they’re designed to make the act of running better, more efficient.

Dumbstruck

How is it to teach without using your voice, at all? You may need to keep this for a non-paying audience who are in on the  challenge. You can mime, demonstrate, gesticulate and use hands-on cues.

This may seem like a pointless exercise, until you have someone who is deaf in your class, or someone who does not understand the language that you teach in. Even if you never find yourself in that situation, perhaps this can sharpen your manual skills. And I suspect most of say too much anyway…

Sacrilege

Imagine that you are living, and teaching, within a culture that holds any reference to human anatomy to be an affront to their God. You may not refer to muscles, organs or bones and, as a result, abstractions such as ‘core’ make no sense in this culture.

The law permits the naming of body parts – hands, feet, head etc. However, if you want to really stretch yourself then imagine that any reference to our physical form is considered sacrilegious.

I am a big fan of avoiding mention of muscle names for all sorts of reasons (I stopped my regular yoga class because the teacher kept on referring to muscles all the time) though that’s not the sole point of this exercise. I find that it reinforces very direct movement language – action words such as ‘push’, ‘pull’, ‘reach’, ‘grasp’, ‘yield’ etc. are strongly encouraged.

Hands free

Could you still teach if you had no arms? Could someone who was born with no arms teach Pilates? This is not meant to be an argument against tactile cues, or having expressive hands – which are both huge assets in teaching – but what happens if you have to go without them?

You are ‘allowed’ to use your feet, so tactile cues aren’t necessarily eliminated entirely (I remember a Jillian Hessel workshop on the Cadillac in which she used her feet all the time, to great effect.

Heart-full

Another culture displacement idea – you are teaching in a culture that believes that the heart is the centre of everything: energy, power, control and strength. The word ‘core’ has no meaning whatsoever, nor does ‘powerhouse’. If you want to express an idea of centre you have to use the word ‘heart’.

This may well mean that you have to reframe what you might typically say in order to fit with your own understanding of ‘heart’. Does it make you think of Pilates as a more spiritual practice? Does it encourage you to focus more on the manner of effort that your students make, rather than where they feel the work? Does the idea lend itself to giving the effort of the class an ‘intention’, as many yoga teachers propose at the start of class? How does that feel for you?

Read my lips

Imagine that everyone in your class is deaf – they know sign language and they can lip read.

Assuming that most of us don’t sign, if you’re speaking everyone in the class has to be able to see your mouth moving. Perhaps it means there’s less emphasis on verbal teaching, too.

In the dark

Carrying on the theme of limiting senses, you’re teaching a room full of blind people.

Demonstrations are useless, and there’s no point in staying at the front of the room. Obviously, verbal and tactile cues become paramount.

TASK

This is an idea that I learned at the seminar mentioned above, from Thomas Reid. In short, Treat everyone with dignity and respect; Assume positive intent; work to everyone’s Strengths; Keep everyone empowered.

Truly I believe that this is a philosophy that we would all be best practicing all the time, rather than an occasional experiment. It’s such a simple idea and I was surprised by how much it helped some of my relationships. I still fail regularly with some or all parts of the acronym – more with colleagues than students, and it remains a work in progress. 

 

I’m sure there are many more ways of challenging the parameters within which we teach, in order to learn and grow, and I’d love to hear more ideas for similar experiments if you have them.

 

Permission to move

November 10, 2019 — 3 Comments

Ironically, on the verge of writing this I saw some responses to James Crader’s blog about play, including one that concludes: “Haha, as if any of us need permission to move.” Exactly! I believe that many of us in the Pilates teaching community approach the work in a way that means precisely that – we need permission to move!

I don’t remember exactly when Anula Maiberg first appeared on my radar but I know it was in connection with a magazine article that, at the time, did not strike much of a chord with me. It’s an interesting thing for me to reflect on and doubtless reveals some of my biases and even prejudices. Though I may have felt differently in the past these days the most interesting characteristic of a movement teacher, for me, is how they move. I tell myself (and I believe I’m being honest) that size and shape are no more significant than coloured hair and tattoos – demeaning one seems as odd to me as celebrating the other. I recognise that I may be fortunate to have had no worse comments about my appearance than a student once telling me that I had lost “too much” weight, and to be blithely unaware of any trolling or obnoxious behaviour that some teachers may be subject to (white male privilege, anyone?)

Subsequently I watched with interest, and some puzzlement, as Anula appeared to rocket to fame within the Pilates world. And, yes, perhaps some envy – I would be very happy to have found a way to earn the kind of platform that she has earned in order to share my ideas. It seemed bizarre to me that someone who, from my perspective, was famous for how they looked could have such an incredible impact on the Pilates teaching community. What did this say about Pilates teachers?

While there may be an element of Anula carrying the flag for permission to be ‘not the right shape’ that attracts teachers to her, as the years have passed and I’ve seen more of her social media output, and the reactions to it, I’ve come to believe that Anula is offering something much more powerful, and necessary: Permission to move.

This, for me, is far more fascinating than body image. I’ve referred previously to the control freak-ery of Pilates teachers and I’m given to believe that the ‘control’ aspect of the method, oh, and the ‘precision’, and the love of ‘correction’, and ‘proper’ form (feel free to elaborate on this list at will) can create a certain movement constipation. As Anula asks: “Why aren’t we more concerned about how it feels instead of how it looks?”

It’s such a cruel irony, that a movement practice might have this kind of baggage. I appreciate that we need to have some guiding principles, rules if you will, to hang our teaching on, but can they be our undoing sometimes? “Shoulders down”, “feet hip distance apart”, “exhale on the effort”, “proper placement”, “out of alignment”, “she’s a bad breather”, “poor posture”, “uncoordinated”, “he’s a tucker” etc. etc. How much of the language that we use might reinforce the notion that the people we’re teaching aren’t ready to move? I suspect this spills over in to our own self-talk, too, and this is where I think Anula has triumphed – it appears to me that she has given hundreds, maybe thousands of teachers ‘permission’ to move. Weird.

I’m not sure where we derived it from but in the last few years I’ve noticed that my wife and I regularly classify people as a ‘mover’ or ‘not a mover’. It’s a tricky classification that I struggle to define but I’m pretty sure that someone who is bound up in rules about how things ‘should’ be probably isn’t a mover. Curiously there seems to be an association in my mind between movers and teachers who have explored other disciplines or modalities (and between non-movers and teachers for whom Pilates is everything).

Again, I may be wrong about all of this, and to write this feels like the most perilous thinking out loud that I’ve done in a long while.

If I am at all close to the mark then I think Anula deserves to be celebrated much more than she already is. I don’t love every video or picture that she posts, and sometimes I think I’ve got a better solution for a particular problem up my sleeve (and I value ongoing dialogue with her about teaching movement), but that is far from the point. If more of us feel that we have permission to move ourselves it seems likely that we will also feel liberated to pass that permission on to the people that we’re teaching. I don’t believe that constipation and joy go together and if taking the brakes off and letting go of some of the rules allows people to have a movement experience (as opposed to doing an exercise) then I believe more joy is let into the world.

To hijack the great man’s words: Joy happens through movement, and joy heals. How about that?

This is, sort of, “How might I be wrong about this?” Part II.

I have to confess that I don’t care for the word ‘vulnerable’ as it often appears in the media these days – “in need of special care, support, or protection because of age, disability, or risk of abuse or neglect”. It strikes me as an overly general label to apply to a section or sections of the population, and distinctly disempowering – If I am vulnerable, according to this definition, is there much scope for me to excel, to be my best self?

All of that said, I’m increasingly aware of the value of vulnerability – as in this definition: “exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally” – for my growth as a husband, father, friend and teacher/coach. Happily the pursuit of the kind of vulnerability that I’m referring to is unlikely to involve physical harm but absolutely carries the risk of failing; of looking and feeling foolish; and seeing a reflection in the mirror that I may not care for. I’ve referred to being ‘outside your comfort zone’ often and almost glibly as ‘the place where the magic happens’ without really acknowledging that this is entirely about risking failure. I’ll be less quick to talk about my comfort zone in future because I want to be more comfortable with failing – comfortable with being uncomfortable, you might say.

Because that’s where I learn, and where I can grow.

I don’t want this to read as though I’ve mastered the art of vulnerability – that it’s somehow easy for me now. That’s absolutely not the case and I have to override my own instincts and, perhaps, to re-shape an identity that I have assumed as ‘boss’, or ‘expert’. I’m also fortunate enough to spend a lot of time with someone who is similarly driven and will hold me to account.

Why is this so important to me now? Historically I’ve been really good at making excuses. When I was going up I can remember frustrating my parents because “Nothing’s ever your fault, is it?” I didn’t know it then but I suspect I always felt safer finding external forces or circumstances to explain why I’d failed. I know now that this is symptomatic of a fixed mindset and not in keeping with a mission of growth toward self-actualisation.

I believe the fact that there are many interpretations of the Pilates method is a blessing and a curse. It means that being a Pilates teacher almost inevitably means subscribing to a dogma (or several). I believe this lends itself to adopting fixed opinions that may cloud our view of the truth. At the very least, being governed by dogma does not invite questioning of our own methods. If you are a Pilates teacher reading this I invite you to consider your core beliefs about Pilates (Do you believe it’s a complete system? Do you believe it’s a holistic practice? Does it do what yoga does but without all the chanting? Is it the perfect marriage of stretch and strength? ……), and then to search for any reason why you might be wrong.

Logan Gelbrich (referred to in the earlier article), at his recent ‘Hold the Standard Summit‘, told us about an exercise conducted at his gym in which coaches were divided into two teams for a debate – one team had to argue in favour of CrossFit and the other against it. Could you formulate an argument against a regular Pilates practice? What might you learn if you try? If we actively search for information about how we’re wrong, we may discover that we are indeed wrong, or we may learn more, or have greater clarity about why we are right to be doing or believing what we do currently.

Another compelling idea that Logan introduced us to is the two types of challenge, as identified by Ronald Heifetz: technical and adaptive.

Technical challenges can be looked up, or answered by an expert – as a Pilates teacher, if you’re uncertain about the proper choreography of an exercise, or how many springs to use, you can find the answer on YouTube, or consult another teacher.

Adaptive challenges are those that will likely require us to be vulnerable, because they require growth – evolution. Let’s say that one of my challenges as a teacher is expressing my true self in a way that doesn’t alienate the people I want to reach (no, really!) This is not a technical challenge – I can’t look up the answer, and no expert can tell me how to do this. If I want to successfully address this I’m going to have to fearlessly examine my behaviour and motivation, and scrutinise past reactions through the lens of ‘how might I be wrong about this?’

It means taking responsibility for everything that happens in scenarios both of teaching and social media interactions, for example.  If the person that I’m teaching doesn’t appear to be following instructions, or isn’t doing as well as I believe they can I have to take responsibility and ask myself how I might express myself differently (this could be a highly complex question and might be worth a thousand words on its own), or change my coaching to help them be more successful. If it’s wrong, it’s my fault. If a post or comment of mine on social media elicits a reaction that I don’t appreciate I have to take responsibility and ask myself what it was about my contribution that triggered such a response. You might recognise this as being inspired by Carol Dweck‘s work. If I look for failings in other people that explain unsatisfactory outcomes I limit my own chances to evolve. If I can allow myself to risk being wrong (and, again, it’s not necessarily my first instinct yet – it’s a work in progress) I may discover that I can change – behave differently and make for a more satisfactory outcome next time.

As before, how might I be wrong about this?

The Alignment Problem

August 28, 2019 — 2 Comments

I imagine that there’s near universal agreement amongst Pilates teachers across the globe that alignment is important. Perhaps it is even the central tenet of the Pilates Method.

I’m increasingly of the view that the ability to clearly and succinctly define things is crucial to being able to implement, influence or otherwise effect those things. If you believe that ‘alignment’ is indeed central to Pilates, what do you mean by ‘alignment’? Can you define the concept in one sentence? The idea of defining what we do is a topic that features in the illuminating conversation between Anula Maiberg and Raphael Bender that helped spur me on to write this. I encourage you to listen to if you haven’t already.

I had an exchange via Facebook with a teacher recently, around a post about an online course that, as I remember, used the phrase “it’s all about alignment”. I asked for a definition of alignment (I know, I should learn to leave things well alone) and the answer was along the lines of ‘it’s too complicated to explain in brief but the answer would become apparent if you read all our blog posts’. This may have simply been the best way to deal with an antagonistic social media user but, to me, it hinted at something that is endemic in the Pilate teaching world and, again, referred to by Anula & Raphael – that even though we know what we do is important we aren’t always good at defining what that is, teachers and continuing education providers alike.

For what it’s worth, if I have to define alignment I would say something like “the organisation of the 3 main body weight centres (thank you Jozef Frucek) relative to each other, and the optimal centration of the bones at every joint”. This means, to me, that there is no single appearance of ideal alignment. I also believe that the route to optimal alignment lies in practicing varied movement and not in practicing being in ideal fixed positions – I don’t believe in teaching anyone to sit well, for example. I would rather teach them varied and efficient movement so that their system has more options to deploy when they are sitting.

All of that said, I believe that there’s a different kind of alignment that is more important to teaching Pilates than the alignment of bones and body parts. Last year I was fortunate to attend an evening with Dr John Demartini, and Carl Paoli‘s ‘Freestyle Insider’ seminar. Both of these events invited/encouraged me to examine my personal values and my goals and, particularly in the case of Freestyle Insider, to articulate my mission.

I learned from Dr Demartini that when my values and my goals are not aligned I can expect to be dissatisfied, unhappy and unsuccessful. It makes perfect sense, I believe – if my actions aren’t in line with those things that I hold dearest I am engaged in self-sabotage. I learned from Carl that I need to be able to clearly and concisely express my mission in order to have a clear path to follow. So my values help to define my mission and my mission helps to define my goals.

This is ‘the alignment problem’ that Anula and Raphael raise in their conversation and, I suspect, may be plaguing the Pilates teaching community. I have asked enough teachers to define what they do, for a lay audience, in one or two sentences enough times to believe that the inability to do so is a widespread problem. The answer to many questions is often ‘It depends’ but in this case I’m afraid that will not do.

If you are able to clearly define what you do then you will be very clear in what you are offering to the people who might pay you; you will recognise more readily those people whom you may not be able to help; and the choices as to what specifically to do in a session with a specific person will be easier to identify.

To be blunt, “I teach Pilates’ is not a clear definition of what you do. We all know that there are many definitions and interpretations of that statement so it doesn’t represent clarity of purpose, at least to a layperson. What does ‘I teach Pilates’ mean to you? How can you break that down into something more meaningful? As an aside, I’ve found the exercise of asking ‘Why?’ at least 5 times to get the root of things really useful (eg. ‘I teach Pilates.’ Why? ‘Because it’s a really good way to exercise.’ Why? Because it can be adapted to meet the needs of many different people.’ Why do you want to do that? ‘Because I like to be able to reach different types of people.’ Why? etc etc

If we have a less than clear answer to this question, and an indistinct definition of what we teach it is that much easier to fall into generalisations of the ‘That’s what we’re supposed to do’ kind. For example, cueing a breathing pattern for an exercise to a client who may already be overwhelmed with inputs because ‘we’re supposed to cue breathing’; or teaching someone correct TVA engagement (!!!!!!!) before the Hundred ‘because that’s how my teacher does it’. What we’re ‘supposed to do’ rarely has any connection to effective teaching.

Assuming that we all want to be effective teachers, before we concern ourselves with the alignment of the individual on the mat or the Reformer in front of us, we should first be concerned with our own alignment. Is what we teach truly in harmony with the outcomes that we’d like to offer?

 

 

I believe that, as a profession, Pilates teachers are generally eager to learn and driven to keep doing courses and workshops long after their initial training. I recently discovered the term “course whore”, applied (by herself) to a Pilates teacher and, while it may not be a phrase I’d use, it appears to be a ‘thing’. It’s all the more interesting because it was clearly used as a pseudo-derogatory term, feeding an idea that the more courses you’ve done the better you will be. Or the more knowledge you have the better you will be.

I’m certain that all of us who call ourselves Pilates teachers have a responsibility to continue to learn and grow. How we do that is what motivated me to write this.

Hopefully attending workshops/seminars/courses is never a box-ticking exercise (if you belong to an organisation that requires you to attend X hours of courses that they run this may well become a problem) so let’s assume that we have intrinsic motivation to look for whatever we sign up to. What is it that drives that motivation? I wonder if we can divide it into fear and love? We could also consider this as ‘outcome-driven’ (box-ticking, getting a certificate, adding to a CV) and ‘process-driven’ (exploring, challenging beliefs, learning about self as well as subject).

Fear as a motivator might sound like “My training didn’t cover working with people with …..(insert condition/disease etc here); or, “I’d like to work with X type of person but I’m not qualified. Questions on teachers’ forums looking for courses on working with specific populations seem very common (along with the advertising of such courses). Underlying this are the beliefs that “I can’t work with that person because I’m not qualified/certified in the condition that they have”; and “when I’ve done that course I’ll be able to sell myself as a specialist in…” It might also sound like “I need to find another workshop to do this year to get my hours up to the required amount.”

The courses that will fit the bill in a fear-driven search might well give you more understanding of generalities about say, neurological disorders, and maybe some exercise ideas but will they help you to be a better teacher? Perhaps you’ll feel more confident, and that’s important, but what happens when you come across another condition that you’re not certified to teach to? Do they educate you, or do they develop you as an individual and, therefore, as a teacher (or is there a bit of both happening)?

The love-driven search is probably more instinctual, more likely to be via recommendation, or as a result of research into a subject or field. For example, if Joseph Pilates’ writing (or some other source) encourages you to investigate children’s developmental movement patterns, you might discover The Prague School of Rehabilitation and discover their DNS course(s). This course could be transformative to your teaching but you probably wouldn’t find it if you were looking for something to help you feel better qualified to teach people with, for example, SIJ dysfunction. Betraying my own bias, the love-driven search may also take you into a different movement realm, to spend sometime being a beginner again, and to see with different eyes.

I think there’s a danger that one might get stuck in a loop that will be self-limiting – there will always be conditions for which no-one is going to develop a course, because they’re just not common enough for anyone to make money running a course about. I can think of at least a dozen examples of people with uncommon or complex conditions who’ve come to our studio in the last 10 years whom we would have had to turn away if we believed that we needed specialist training to teach them. And here’s the crux of the matter – YOU DON’T NEED THOSE COURSES!

Let me qualify that. If your training as a Pilates teacher prepared you to teach principles, rather than teaching you exercises, then you don’t need courses in working with ‘special populations’, or specific conditions. You’ve been trained in teaching Pilates to whomever turns up at your door, or in your class, and you have the skills and understanding to figure out what they need. And to be clear, I’m not talking about the 6 principles from the Eisen & Friedman book. Instead I’d suggest researching the principles as described by Benjamin Degenhardt, or have a look at this. (This doesn’t mean that you should agree to work outside your scope of practice – if you don’t know how to work with someone then it’s essential to acknowledge that. Though this would also be automatic if your training has been thorough.)

Why don’t you need specialist courses? In addition to teaching principles, hopefully you teach the person or people in front of you – you’re not teaching from a one-size-fits-all script, you are practicing person/client-centred teaching. They’ve chosen Pilates, or they’ve been recommended to take up Pilates because it’s magic recognised as helping people to be better. You may need to do some research, and you definitely need to find out from them what they want, what they think they need, and what they need it for, to help steer your choices. If a cyclist comes to your class, you don’t need to ask her to come back after you’ve done your “Pilates for Cyclists’ course – you can start building a relationship and demonstrating that she has some agency by finding out from her what the particular demands of cycling are, and if she has a problem you’ve got the principles in mind to figure out the movements or exercises she will benefit from.

We could switch ‘cyclist for ‘man with Parkinson’s’, ‘lady with MS’, ’65 year old golfer’, ‘young woman with scoliosis’ etc. etc. Your job is to teach them (the universal principles of better movement that are embedded in) Pilates. Not ‘Pilates for Golfers’, Pilates for Neurological Disorders’, or ….. You’re qualified to teach Pilates, to humans, individually, in their infinite variety. You don’t need the specialist course for each one, instead each individual represents an opportunity for your personal and professional growth, because they will each be able to teach YOU something.

This is the thing that concerns me the most – if you are attending specialist courses are you growing – expanding, we might say – or are you being channeled into ever narrower lanes that limit your scope and outlook (like the scientists in the quote above)? I suspect that the latter is more likely.

Especially if you want to specialise in working with a particular population, your insurance may require you to have specialist training and, in some cases, there may be nationally established guidelines that should be followed if you are choosing to advertise yourself as specialised in working with, for example, pregnant women. In such cases it probably makes sense to pay for that specialised course, though you will probably need to acknowledge that many people won’t fit the guidelines, and you’ll be reliant on teaching principles, listening etc etc. If you’ve developed your listening skills, and your looking skills; and acknowledged the extent of your knowledge to yourself and your clients; and experimented, failed, learned, tried, failed, learned, improvised etc then you will very likely have a far deeper well of knowledge and skills to draw from than if you’ve attended half a dozen courses where the lessons have been any more specific than ‘teach the individual in front of you’.

I’ll leave it to you to decide how relevant the Konrad Lorenz quote is to this. For me, I’d prefer to be in-between these two extremes, but definitely tilting toward the philosopher end of the spectrum.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freestyle Insider

December 24, 2018 — Leave a comment

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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