Archives For August 2012

As may have been previously mentioned: It’s really safe.

I’m slightly disappointed to be revisiting this subject quite so soon, yet a couple of tales that I’ve heard recently of people ‘being injured’ in Pilates classes finds me dragged back to the subject. Paraphrasing a quote I’d noted down in relation to writing on another subject: “Pilates is not dangerous. Poor teaching is dangerous; poor movement is dangerous; ego is dangerous.” I can’t answer for how many people are out in the world calling themselves Pilates teachers and making poor/irresponsible decisions that may put their clients at risk – yet I suspect (and hope) that there aren’t very many. (Teaching that is less than entirely effective is, I suspect, very much more likely than teaching that is dangerous).

Injury: physical damage, or hurt (according to my dictionary). In what context might one be injured? I’d suggest a number of ways, such as: mishandling equipment, or being caught in the way of someone else mishandling equipment; collision with, or assault, or even ‘adjustment’ by someone else; continuing with an activity that your body/brain is signalling you should stop; failing to understand, or follow instructions that are given to you.

I like to attend a weekly intermediate/advanced level yoga class. When I started I had only limited experience but I’d heard good things about the class, and the timing suited me. So the first thing that I did was tell the teacher about my yoga experience, and ask his permission to attend the class. If I try to do a full backbend, and push through something that doesn’t feel right, it’s entirely my responsibility. If I attempt a handstand without properly watching the demonstration because I think I already know it all, and then strain my shoulder, it’s inaccurate to say that  I’ve been injured in a yoga class, it’s my ego and poor practice that has caused the injury.

By the same token, to say “I injured myself in a Pilates class” carries with it the implication that Pilates was somehow responsible for the injury. Were you assaulted by the teacher? Did a classmate drop some equipment on you? Could it be more likely that your ego persuaded you to take on a movement that you weren’t ready for? Or that you did something (through lack of concentration, or poor understanding, or misplaced zeal) other than that which you were advised to do?

I think I may have written this previously – I don’t believe it’s possible to hurt yourself doing Pilates. It’s the not-doing-Pilates that carries a risk, especially if you’re in a Pilates class.

There are probably as many explanations for what Pilates teaches as there are teachers, or practitioners. One of my favourites is personal responsibility. In affecting the way that our clients relate to their own physical selves, I hope that we can teach them that their health is something that they are in charge of. There may be an array of medical professionals and therapists who can help us to manage our health, but in the end, only we are responsible for our own bodies.

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It’s really safe.

No, honestly, it is really safe.

I’ve been regularly surprised by conversations with fellow Pilates teachers in which safety concerns over a variety of exercises have been raised. I made the “it’s really safe” assertion in a recent conversation with another teacher  who immediately baulked at the idea and suggested a number of exercises or positions that she felt might put a client in danger. Perhaps we need a caveat, or qualifying statement here –

If the client is taking responsibility for themselves, and if the teacher isn’t making reckless decisions, Pilates is really safe.

To paraphrase a recent Daily Mail article (‘Pilates can make your bad back worse’), Pilates may be bad for you if you have a poorly trained, or irresponsible teacher. No real surprises there – I can think of few physical endeavours in which that wouldn’t be the case.

In another Mail Online article (‘Beware the Pilates Pirates’) I read that: “Enthusiasts often injure their sacroiliac joint….The bottom lumbar vertebra is another common weak point.” Now, the main thrust of this article is, again, that anyone thinking of taking up Pilates would be smart to check on the teacher’s qualifications, which I’m all for. At the same time, there is a down-side that the seed of an idea may be planted that Pilates is something to be fearful of – never mind that I’ve been teaching for nearly a decade and am entirely unfamiliar with those supposedly frequent sacro-iliac injuries.

What can really restrict the potential benefits that practicing Pilates may bestow on people, is teachers reinforcing the idea that it’s a potentially dangerous activity. In much the same way that focusing on a client’s injury or weak point can serve to hold them back, giving clients the notion that they are unsafe seems highly likely to hold them back. I’ve lost count of the number of times someone has told me that teacher X has told them that they shouldn’t move in a particular way, or do a particular exercise, for fear of hurting themselves. To labour the point with specifics, I’ve heard truly bizarre stories such as a whole room full of clients being warned against holding a soft ball between their knees during a shoulder bridge, for fear of knee dislocation.

Is there something about thorough training in how to deal with, or contraindications for, a wide array of injuries, conditions and ‘special populations’, that can make us fearful of moving our clients? This feels like a tricky argument to make, since not taking care is clearly not an appropriate course of action, and ignorance is still less desirable. Yet how many of our clients will, in the course of their daily lives, perform movements that look more complex/unstable/loading than most ‘safe’ Pilates repertoire?  I suspect that too much emphasis can easily be placed on what could go wrong whilst exercising, and then we risk embedding fear in our clients, thus holding them back. The result is, perhaps, that people challenge themselves more in their ‘normal’ activities than they do in class – in which case, how are we helping them? It’s a bit like not encouraging people to do high load (‘threshold’, if you prefer) exercises because they haven’t fully mastered the low load exercises they’ve been taught – it doesn’t help them to be stronger in a particularly applicable way.

I have comprehensive insurance as a Pilates teacher, with a maximum payout of £5000000, and it costs significantly less than £100 per year. What does this tell us? Pilates is a safe activity. One of Kelly Starrett‘s definitions of functional movement is that “You come out unharmed”. As Pilates teachers, what are we doing if not trying to teach functional movement? I find it very hard to believe that anyone injures themselves doing Pilates – if such a claim is made then I suspect that it’s closer to the truth that an injury occurred during a Pilates class, while the person was not doing Pilates but instead, some wonky imitation of it. Is this their teachers fault? If they allow their clients to endlessly do wonky imitations of Pilates without verbal and /or tactile cues, and explanation, yes; if the client has ignored/failed to hear advice against such poor movement then the responsibility for their body and any injury lies squarely with them.

I started writing this some time ago and things (Olympics, for example) got in the way of writing for a while. During a conversation with my wife last night (after she’d spent the day teacher training), I had a moment of clarity – one of those ideas that was lurking in the back of my mind and suddenly became crystallised: Moving is not dangerous, not moving most definitely is.