Too much ‘creativity’.
As ever, the following is a reflection on the practice of Pilates that I am familiar with in the UK, and may not have any relevance/resonance for some, especially sticklers for classical Pilates.
I’ve attended workshops with Romana trained teachers (one in particular) and found that their vigorous adherence to ‘what Mr Pilates taught’ was rigid to the point of dogma, and not appropriate for the broad range of clients that I encounter. At the same time, it seems that we can sometimes forget/overlook the amazing range of repertoire that Pilates himself devised, and how effective so much of that repertoire is.
One of the consequences of living with (and being married to) another Pilates teacher is that many dinner time conversations revolve around shared experiences from our work. A frequent cause of frustration and, thus, topic for conversation, is a group teaching scenario whose dialogue goes something like: (client) “Can I do that exercise standing at the end of the Cadillac?” (teacher) “Sure, which one?” “It’s the one where you stand on the rotating disc and you hold the bar….and I think you bend forward, or something…” “Sorry, I don’t know that one.” “Yes you do. (Teacher X) showed it to me. It was really good.” “I’m pretty sure I don’t know which exercise you mean. What was it for?” “(Puzzled expression) For…? I don’t know – It felt really good.” “If you know why X gave it to you I might be able to figure out what it is – do you remember?”
This could go on for a while, but hopefully you get the gist. Let’s be clear – of course it’s great for clients to enjoy themselves and, in general, I’ve got nothing against people doing exercises that make them ‘feel good’. Then again, too many times I’ve seen people assuming horrible positions that apparently feel really good, teachers included (“Oh no, I would never let a client do this, it just feels really good.”).
There’s a couple of reasons, at least, for the above dialogue to be the cause of frustration. In the first place, while I wouldn’t advocate chapter & verse on whys and wherefores with every exercise, if we know the purpose or objective of an exercise, we have a much better chance of understanding and executing it well. On a couple of occasions when the client may have been able to recreate the feelgood exercise/movement, (typically involving a number of auxiliary props*) I’ve found myself wondering why a particular classical Pilates exercise wouldn’t have done just as well, if not better.
There may be many instances when it’s appropriate to adapt exercises, and also some occasions when it seems necessary to ‘invent’ something to meet the needs of a specific individual (just as Pilates himself did). Is that always the reasoning behind teachers ‘creating’ new exercises? I would guess that the answer is, quite often, no. Gray Cook addresses this in his article ‘Function?’:
“We cannot prove this exercise will improve the way you move. It has not been shown to make you more functional. It has not been proven to create better performance or metabolism. It is simply the result of your trainer’s creativity and a surplus of time and equipment. It is an unscientific attempt to reduce your boredom with your current training program. This combination of equipment and movement is a way to entertain you and will distract from the objective tangible results you may not be getting.” (Gray Cook | Function? © 2011 Gray Cook, http://www.graycook.com)
Cook is writing about strength and conditioning coaches but his words seem to apply very well to Pilates (as do a lot of his writings, I can’t recommend him enough). To compound what he says, quite often it seems that there is no identification of, or desire for, specific and measurable results. In other words, aren’t we (no, our clients!) better off with a situation in which someone can say “I can see and feel that I’m able to move further and more easily in this range”, rather than “That stretch feels really nice for my back”?
The other side to this is that mystery exercises help to fuel people’s dependence on a teacher. Any time someone has no clear idea of the purpose, or desired outcome of an exercise the further along the road they are away from empowerment. Perhaps empowerment is not a goal that everyone has for their clients…. certainly it is at the heart of the philosophy at our studio. I’ve referred previously on this blog to conversations I’ve had with clients who’ve said something like “Teacher X has been working a lot on my neck”, when the client seems to think that Pilates is something that is done to them, and it feels like the same territory, to me, as teaching exercises that don’t have a clear intent. Never mind an identifiable name to make it readily repeatable.
One of the fringe benefits for me of having a teacher training program based in our studio is the presence of students working through manuals, practicing repertoire and reminding me of things that I’ve forgotten, because I don’t teach them regularly. The classical repertoire covers so much territory, and is so adaptable (especially in the studio) that I believe there are very few situations that truly require ‘new’ exercises. The classical repertoire, being recognisable and repeatable, also allows us to have some measures of our capability.
In other words, there’s nothing really wrong with Pilates, so we don’t need to be ‘fixing’ it with our creativity.
*There’s a side issue here of adding auxiliary equipment to exercises, to increase the ‘challenge’. Is there ever a good reason to put a foam roll on a reformer?