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.