Archives For September 2012


If you can maintain a ‘whole body’ approach, and avoid getting bogged down in complexities, but just get on and do it, Pilates really works!
An osteopath that used to work closely with a studio that I teach in would frequently refer his patients to the studio. Rather than giving them instructions for specific things to work on, he would advise them to “just do Pilates”. Presumably he knew that nothing extra was required.
I know, as a teacher, it’s easy to get caught up in the minutiae, or to become engrossed in trying to ‘fix’ a particular issue in a client. Of course, Pilates is a holistic practice. And the ‘edge’ that we may have over some medically trained practitioners is exactly that.

We could probably debate for ever how much Joseph really understood, on an anatomical or bio-mechanical level, about what he was doing. As I’ve asserted previously on this blog, whatever progress we think we’ve made since the 1940s, Pilates understood movement. This allowed him to devise a whole array of effective exercises, along with some foundation principles, that helped people to pattern good movement in their bodies. I think I tend to take this for granted, since my ‘Pilates miracle’ happened a good few years ago now. This miracle was going to a studio, at first once, and then twice a week, and working through a routine – not strictly the same exercises every time, but a consistent warm-up, and then trying to address my whole body whilst applying the fundamental principles (even before I knew that this was what I was doing).

Since then I’ve had plenty of opportunities to witness clients experiencing revelations about their own bodies, discovering that they can manage pain much more easily, increasing their range of movement and all the other things that we might expect from Pilates. More recently I’ve had a stronger reminder of Pilates’ elegant simplicity, in the transformation of one of my wife’s students. Perhaps one of the reasons that I noticed something particular in her case is that, while she has a history of various injuries, they were never the ‘object’ of her classes. When she started taking studio classes there was definitely room for improvement in how she stood, and the front of her body showed more muscle development than the back (We have shared a few laughs since at my early attempt to express, delicately, “your buttock should be more distinct from your thigh”).

Six months or so on, her transformation has been remarkable – the change in her posture is easy to see. Has she been following a particular program to address this; or having ‘new’ exercises invented for her? Not at all. What she has done is attend classes two or three times a week, been diligent about working on doing some mobility work on the joints that needed it, learning the exercises/movements that are especially appropriate or valuable for her, and getting on with doing Pilates.

And it’s been successful.  

If you can maintain a ‘whole body’ approach, and avoid getting bogged down in complexities, but just get on and do it, Pilates really works!

How did cheap and dirty become delicious?

(This post owes a huge debt to “It Starts With Food” by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig – buy it for yourself, and for everyone else that you care about…)

Millions of years before food scientists existed, our ancestors developed ways of helping them distinguish, and then remember, between good sources of nutrition, and bad. Sources of quick energy tasted sweet; sources of dense calories tasted fatty; and salty tastes were a sign of foods to help hydration, or maintaining hydration.

The net result: we are ‘hard-wired’ to seek out sweet, fatty and salty foods. It’s worth mentioning that the fruit our early ancestors ate was probably a fraction as sweet as the fruit we enjoy – we’ve had hundreds of thousands of years to select the sweeter mutations and make them dominant in their species. Fat sources would have been unprocessed, and salt simply found in more sodium-rich foods.

Everything our ancestors needed to nourish themselves was available in nature.
We all know that food can elicit an emotional response, and if our brain is receiving the signals that we’re being nourished it will release dopamine and endorphins. Thus, our ancestors would not only be nourished, but would feel good too.

Fast-forward to around ten thousand years ago, and our less-distant ancestors developed agriculture – allowing for production of food by a few for many to consume, and the potential to store food for long periods (never mind, for now, that this food was less nutritionally dense than more traditional hunted/gathered food).

I only mention agriculture because it allowed for all sorts of development, not least the study of sciences. Not needing to hunt or gather, some of those ancestors of ours had the time to indulge in more lofty pursuits. So, in more than one sense, agriculture gave us food scientists.

Fast-forward again, this time to the middle of the twentieth century, and manufacturers of food products had the knowledge and facility to exploit our hard-wiring to generate masses of profit. All that was necessary was to make food products that were sweet, fatty, or salty, or (ideally) a combination – doughnuts, potato crisps…..

These food products tasted amazing, and ticked the boxes that our DNA was programmed to recognise as nutritious input.

Here’s the best part, and the answer to the opening question. Real food (animals, fish, vegetables, fruit) can be costly to come by, might require a lot of looking after, careful handling and so forth. Those crops that lend themselves to an industrial scale of production (grains, corn, rape, soy, sugar beet etc) do so because they’re much less complicated they can be mechanically harvested and require minimal care in their handling en route to processing. Therefore they’re relatively cheap, and never mind that they’re a poor source of nutrition, the food scientists have an array of additives, or means of manipulating them so that they can be turned into ‘super-normal’ (super = beyond) tasting sweet, salty or fatty foods – way beyond what nature could conceive.
What effect does that have on our emotional response to food, mentioned above? Natural/real food, with its modest level of sweetness, fattiness, or saltiness, rapidly loses the ability to get our brains excited enough to release those feel good chemicals. How could it compete with ‘super’ ‘Frankenfoods’?

Have a look at the ingredients of, say, a packet (tube?) of Kellog’s sour cream and onion Pringles:

Dehydrated potatoes, vegetable oil, vegetable fat, rice flour, wheat starch, sour cream & onion flavour(hardened vegetable fat, onion powder, sour cream powder, dextrose, flavourings, sugar, sweet whey powder, lactose, milk protein, potato starch, food acids:citric acid, lactic acid and malic acid), emulsifier:E471, maltodextrin, salt, modified rice starch

Might any of those ingredients look like food? Sugar and salt, probably; dehydrated potatoes, maybe; modified rice starch….?

Where does this stuff come from…..

“Disc centrifuge for vegetable oil refining are widely used in continuous degumming, neutralizing, dewaxing, and washing of vegetable oils, such as peanut oils, colza oil,palm oil,oliver oil,sunflower oil,cottonseed oil,corn oil etc.”

Makes for an interesting contrast with ‘first cold pressing’, no?

                                                                                                               Modified starch making machine                            For more on rice starch click here

Mmmmm, ‘spray process’.

(It was an eye-opener having a brief search for suitable pictures, especially if one is viewing them from the ‘food’ & ‘industrial’ are two words that don’t go together perspective)

Perhaps this was my subconscious at work – I thought of Pringles as an example before I remembered their advertising strap line: “once you pop, you can’t stop”. They make a virtue of the fact that their food product is addictive…. Plus, it’s cheap to produce, dirty (in that, if shown them all individually, you probably couldn’t identify any of the ingredients, apart from sugar and salt), and (doubtless, to many) delicious.

Why would you want to eat real food ever again?

If that’s what we’re offering then we’re setting the bar too low.

Many people take up Pilates and find that it opens up new vistas of possibility that they never imagined. I’m very lucky in that, having started Pilates to address a lingering back problem, I discovered that I’m capable of physical accomplishments that I’d never imagined before I injured my back. Pilates meant that I stopped identifying myself as someone with a back problem; never have problems putting on my socks; never worry that an uneven pavement will send me into spasm; and don’t make stupid mistakes because I’m distracted by endless nagging pain (stupid mistakes, sure, just not ones I can blame on pain…) It also provided the doorway to me taking up yoga, having classes in circus skills, and weightlifting.

This good fortune informs my entire approach to Pilates, based around the idea (possibly expounded upon previously) that it is a means to doing other activities with greater ease. If I’m feeling glib I’m inclined to say that Pilates is for being better at living.

Pilates is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

One of the pleasures of my job is hearing clients report that, for instance, their golf swing has improved, or that running feels less of an effort, or that they can pick up their grandchildren without fear of injuring themselves. Hopefully they are opening their eyes to more and more possibilities.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of people who take up Pilates for one of the usual reasons – chronic back/neck/shoulder/hip/knee pain – and, finding that it helps, decide that Pilates is a miracle that they must keep in their lives forever, and do no other form of exercise. Anything other than Pilates (not being a miracle) might cause a relapse into the world of chronic pain. Being pain-free is clearly great, but is it enough? Is pain-free the same thing as thriving? Surely not. Pilates for taking control of one’s life – YES. Pilates for feeling indestructible – YES. Pilates for freedom – YES. Pilates for fear – NO. Pilates for dependency – NO.

I love the idea of an ‘ancestral’, or evolutionary template for living – are we made to be pain-free, or are we made to be amazing?

It’s impossible to force people to have aspirations, and I can’t pretend that I would ‘sack’ any client who’s not embracing all the possibilities that greater strength, control, body awareness, and so forth, may offer. If a client believes that they have hurt themselves doing a particular activity – running, tennis perhaps – I hope that they will be motivated to resume that same activity, and this is what I believe Pilates has to offer. I suspect that running relatively high mileage (combined with poor technique, awareness etc.) contributed to my back injury, but I still loved running. It was a liberating discovery that I could apply what I learned from Pilates to running, and not worry about my back at all. Fear, and the experience of chronic pain, can be hard things to overcome, and I would hope that Pilates could be integral to anyone returning to all/any activities feeling better and stronger than they had before injury. Again, we cannot force aspirations onto our clients, but perhaps we can play a part, by example ourselves, or with the example of others. Do we encourage anxiety by prohibiting particular movements, or activities? Or do we open the door (with appropriate scaling of exercises) to the possibility of more? A physiotherapist friend, Warrick McNeil, says: “There are no contraindications, there are just movements that you’re not ready for yet.” I love this attitude because it can be so liberating, and that’s one of the beauties of Pilates. One might argue that someone with a spondylolisthesis should never be doing high load back extensions – I’ve seen experienced Pilates practitioners with spondylolisthesis doing a full Swandive over the ladder barrel – because Pilates has given the strength, control, and confidence to manage such movements. (Experience says it’s necessary to spell things out: this was after years of Pilates, not weeks or months).

If you’re a teacher, will you encourage your clients to be satisfied with walking, instead of crawling; or will you show them that flying is possible?

The abridged version: Okay, Pilates has helped you to feel mastery of your body – now go out and do fun, energetic, perhaps even amazing, things.