Archives For May 2012

(Subtitle: “Is it okay for a Pilates teacher to be fat?)

This is a question that I have been musing about for a long time, and wondering if it’s even appropriate to be asking it. Certainly it feels decidedly taboo, perhaps because as a society (combatting the tyranny of generally unattainable/false body images that are routinely shown in the media), in the guise of compassion, we seem to be finding ways of saying “It’s okay to be overweight.” The question might equally be “Can one have poor posture, and be a Pilates teacher?”, or “Can one be weak, and a Pilates teacher?” We could go on, with reference to endurance, agility, mobility and so on.

I’m going to stick with the weight question because the topic of overweight/obesity has such profound implications for our society, not least in terms of the likely costs to the NHS as the percentage of the population who are overweight steadily rises. The Centre for Disease Control (US) lists an array of potential health problems from cardio vascular disease, to orthopaedic and respiratory problems; and economic consequences, from direct medical costs, to loss of productivity and absenteeism. I understand that there are a variety of different mechanisms at work to cause people to store excess fat, and I am not at all interested in stigmatising overweight people (who are very often given very poor advice when it comes to weight loss – see previous post), but I am interested in challenging the notion that we should find excuses for people to remain overweight, rather than trying to address the problem.

So is it okay for a Pilates teacher to be fat?

Answering a question with another, what is the job of a Pilates teacher? I’m sure that there are many answers. My own choices in describing my work would be: To teach people good (efficient, controlled) movement, and to help them to be as healthy as possible. In the spirit of pursuing Pilates’ own aim of “whole body health”, I think we have to aim higher than addressing movement alone, and I have previously suggested that Pilates teachers might address nutrition. (As an aside, Kelly Starrett suggests that the human body, with the right movement, and the right lifestyle, is a “perfect healing machine” – an idea that I like a lot).

Paul Chek writes, in the introduction to his Ebook ‘The Last 4 Doctors You’ll Ever Need’: “Over and over again, I am astounded to find that the wellbeing of exercise and health professionals of all types show little if any improvement over the health of their own patients and clients.” At a recent gathering of Pilates teachers, I was struck by the number of people present with distinctly less than optimal postures. If I am really honest, I found myself thinking “Who would want to go to a teacher that looks like that?” I also know very well that economics often mean that time earning money is easily favoured over time working on one’s own body, just like the cobbler’s children having worn out shoes.

So, is it okay for Pilates teachers to be fat?

Here is where things get a little tricky. If I am to use my work to try to help people achieve optimal health, then I believe part of that is to try to embody optimal health to the best of my ability. And this point is important – I am not advocating legions of sylphlike ‘perfect’ Pilates teachers, and there are many different bodies that can be inspirational/aspirational for the spectrum of the population. I have a friend and colleague who is also a karate teacher, and I learned from her that one of the rules of the dojo is that you give as much of yourself as possible to the practice at any given time. So, there are many terrific Pilates teachers with a variety of physical limitations, spinal fusion, for example, and are able to fully embody the concept of whole body health, by giving of their best.

I had a debate with another teacher some time ago over whether or not it would be appropriate for teacher trainees to be examined in their proficiency at Pilates, along with their proficiency at teaching it. My position was/is that it may well be appropriate and, again, this has little to do with perfection. I fully accept the notion that you don’t have to be able to ‘perform’ a specific exercise in order to be able to teach it well. At the same time, if you’re in the business of teaching exercise, you ought to have a compelling reason not to be able to do something that you are expecting someone else to do. In other words, if you can’t demonstrate ‘The Snake’ on the reformer, because it’s quite difficult, what business do you have asking someone else to do it? If it’s good for your client, surely it’s good for you? (I can’t manage ‘The Squirrel’ on the cadillac, but I’m still working on it….)

And still there is no answer to the pressing question: is it okay for Pilates teachers to be fat?

The practice of Pilates doesn’t pretend to lead to weight loss, in itself (it may come peripherally, facilitated, for example, by increased mobility).  So one might argue that, since it’s not an expected outcome of the practice, that there should be no expectation of the teacher having a particular bodyweight, or body fat percentage. But we want to be models of whole body health, don’t we? (Yes, the mechanisms of fat storage and release are complicated, and/but you also know that the client with the dodgy knee would really help themselves if they lost some weight….). So the fat question is not a straightforward one. I would say “ideally not”, and quickly revert to: ‘Can you have poor posture and be a Pilates teacher?’ Here the answer is unequivocal – No! If you’ve been teaching Pilates for years, as an enhancement to life and all it throws at us, and your head position is inches forwards of your shoulders, you are proof that Pilates doesn’t work. In our studio we are constantly telling clients that Pilates isn’t an end in itself, but a means of making everything else that one has to do easier. In other words, you can apply Pilates to everything you do. If you’re spending your day bent over people that you’re teaching, and you’re not applying Pilates principles to maintain a decent posture, is it remotely reasonable to hope for that from your clients?

I’m not pretending to be perfect, but I am trying to be better (another Kelly Starrett-ism is that ‘we need to be better at everything’ – that’s my goal). So, if you see me in the street, and you think I’m not ‘walking my talk’ then please let me know.

Primal 101

May 11, 2012 — Leave a comment

It turns out that at least one reader wants me to explain the Primal lifestyle more than I’ve succeeded in doing previously (and doesn’t want to read ‘The Primal Blueprint‘). So, aiming for brevity, here goes:

Eat meat, fish, eggs, lots of vegetables, and some fruit, nuts and seeds.

(Red wine and 85% chocolate if you wish).

Fuel your system with fat, instead of sugar.

Avoid grains – they’re pro-inflammatory, calorically dense and nutritionally poor and, in the case of wheat particularly, associated with a broad array of ailments (from skin rashes to schizophrenia…)

Avoid legumes (beans, pulses etc.) – also potentailly pro-inflammatory, and the gas that they have a repuatation for causing is a product of your body trying to cope with things we’re not made to digest.

Move about frequently, at a slow pace.

Avoid ‘cardio’ exercise of the hamster-in-its-wheel variety (treadmill, crosstrainer etc. for half an hour plus). It doesn’t serve any useful purpose.

Lift heavy things regularly – squatting, deadlifting, pressing etc. (ideally have someone competent teach you how to do this)

Sprint occasionally. (High intensity interval training).

Get plenty of sun exposure (without getting fried) – it’s great for your vitamin D levels, and vitamin D has a role in a variety of crucial functions.

Get plenty of sleep, ideally in a totally darkened room. If possible, wake up naturally.

Stay alert – be as attuned as possible to your environment (maybe avoid walking around texting, shutting out sound with MP3 player etc.) This is about avoiding silly mishaps/accidents.

Don’t hold other people responsible for your own well-being.

Learn new skills.

Play (have fun) – there’s plenty of research to show that playing is both a fundamental part of learning, and a means to keep stimulating brain activity as we age.

That’s about it….Easy.

I have had the good fortune, in the last 4 weeks, to take workshop/seminars with two fantastic presenters. They were both representing Crossfit (which might be the best and/or the worst thing to happen to fitness in the last ten years, depending on your world view) and, between them, they taught me more about Pilates than I’ve learned in years. Okay, some of it I already knew, but I needed reminding – or I needed to hear the ideas put together in a way that I hadn’t heard/been able to hear previously. The net result was a renewed enthusiasm for teaching, and a really strong urge to translate my fresh understanding into helping the people I teach become STRONGER. I remember hearing a yoga teacher – the lovely David Sye, in fact – a few years ago saying that flexibility is great, but it is strength that holds us up as we age.

I am tempted to write this post talking about ‘we’, referring to Pilates teachers in the UK. Whilst I am confident that the following view represents more than my own thoughts and, in fact, involves some paraphrasing of others I will try to keep to ‘I’. I have thought for some time that Pilates teachers understand movement better than a lot of other exercise practitioners. I have wondered what the point of lifting weights was, other than vanity. I have thought that my understanding of the human body and biomechanics was probably superior to Joseph Pilates’ because I have the benefit of scientific advances and so much more technology to explain anatomy and movement to me. I have believed that Pilates would have done some things differently, had he lived longer, and known what science has shown us since his death. I have revelled in theory and terminology that complicates anatomy, and movement. I have over-analysed movement, and tried to understand musculoskeletal anatomy in excessive detail. I have imagined that I can tell which specific muscles might be working or not working when looking at movement, both efficient and less so. I have taught “evolved” Pilates….

More fool me, more often than not. Let’s be clear: I don’t believe that the various things I’ve owned up to have made me a bad teacher, and it’s certainly fascinating to delve into the marvellous complexity of human anatomy, yet I may be guilty of seeing the trees in detail, and thereby missing out on the beauty of the whole wood. The journey toward what feels like my current enlightenment (next step on the path to better understanding, perhaps) began with a lecture by Jaap Van der Wal: ‘Not by muscles and ligaments alone: The importance of fascial architecture for understanding the locomotion system.’ He opened my eyes to an alternative way of considering anatomy, based around the idea that movement shapes our form, rather than our form shaping our movement. One of the most compelling things that Professor Van der Wal said was; “the brain doesn’t know muscles, it knows movement”. It represented a great argument against isolated exercises, and felt like a strong validation of Pilates.

And so to my more recent revelations. The first was Kelly Starrett presenting the ‘Crossfit Movement and Mobility Trainer Course’. The first significant point is that Kelly is a phenomenal presenter, (and I would love to get him talking in front of a room full of my Pilates teaching peers) who talks with knowledge, confidence, experience and great panache. Bearing in mind that he was addressing a room full, predominantly, of Crossfitters, remarkably, as he spoke I kept thinking “that’s Pilates!”, and “That’s what Pilates was saying in the 1930s”. It seemed that, the truth is, the language of movement is actually much less complicated than I had previously been willing it to be. Some of the basic principles he spoke about: importance of midline stabilisation; the hip joint as the major engine in the body; the first joint that is loaded in a movement is the joint that will bear the most load; with the right movement and the right lifestyle we are perfect healing machines. He also made the point that humans are highly adaptable, and the consequence of this is that we need to practice good positions all the time. I had previously heard it asserted that it’s okay to slouch if you know how to organise yourself – to sit or stand properly. The trouble is, our adaptability means that we’re very good at the things we practice most, and this is exactly why the posture of someone who spends hours stooped in front of a computer terminal is so easy to identify. I spent yesterday afternoon in a lecture hall full of Pilates teachers and some of the postures on view were shocking…

The second was a gymnastics seminar at Crossfit Thames, with Carl Paoli, another great presenter, and teacher who, addressed decidedly un-Pilates movements (handstand push-ups, pull-ups, muscle-ups) but brilliantly illustrated how so many apparently different movements are closely related to each other – just as in Pilates. He also showed us how to identify movement faults in very simple ways and, equally, how to fix them in simple ways. How’s this for a simple principle?: “The hips are the main engine, the spine is the transmission, and needs to be stable to translate power to the second engine – the shoulders.”

Interestingly, as I’ve been writing this, I’ve seen fellow teachers posting links to some quite brilliant anatomy animations, and the voice in my head has been saying: “It’s not about the muscles!” I know how easy it is to give in to the temptation to look at something that is going wrong with a client’s posture, or movement and to try to work out what particular muscle isn’t working/is weak/is tight/is inhibited etc. But the brain does’t know about muscles, and I’m not cleverer than Joseph Pilates was. One of the most striking things about Kelly and Carl was that they clearly understand movement very well, and there’s the link with Pilates – he clearly understood movement well. He probably hadn’t heard about local and global muscles, he didn’t talk about stabilisers and mobilises, low threshold exercise and so on, but I suspect he knew, for example, that external rotation of the hip gives more torsion and, therefore strength, to flexion movements (and that principle is applicable to so many movements).

I don’t think that I can empower people by trying to identify what muscles they do, or don’t have working well. I can empower them by helping them to understand movement in simple terms, and to become stronger (by working hard), before I try to introduce subtlety.