Archives For May 2013

Older is not better

May 31, 2013 — 2 Comments

There was a report in the news last week relating to research into the safest place for a baby to sleep. According to the researcher I heard interviewed, the conclusion of the study was that the safest place for a baby to sleep is ‘in it’s own environment’. This struck me as rather curious, since I’d also read recently about the almost constant contact that babies in indigenous cultures enjoy with one or other of their parents.

A couple of days later I was talking to a pregnant woman, and mentioned this, at which point she said “Older is not necessarily better”, and went on to point out that in the past many more babies died than currently do. (This is a favourite theme for anyone rejecting an ancestral model for lifestyle choices. That or, ‘no-one lived past 40’…) It wasn’t the time to be pursuing that debate, but I cycled home musing on it that night.

It’s certainly true that because humans have done something for a long time it does not follow that it’s true. There are many examples of horrific practices that, happily, we have left behind us. I’m also aware that it’s rather easy to romanticise a, perhaps, simpler time, or a simpler life. (Years ago I was on holiday with friends, one of whom was from a farming background, and with far more working class sensibilities than I can pretend to have. We were on the island of Tobago, and I was very taken with the lifestyle of the fishermen in the village that we were staying in. They positively glowed with health, and whilst they obviously had to work hard, they seemed to be quite well rewarded. I was attracted to what seemed to be a very ‘natural’ and healthy life, with a straightforward effort/reward equation, and incurred the disgust of my friend for my privileged ignorance of the realities of hard work/hand-to-mouth existence.)

So, acknowledging that I may be wearing my rose tinted specs, I’m still fascinated by the idea that populations with less of the trappings of western civilization might enjoy a closer connection to their environment than we generally do. And this connection imparts a kind of wisdom that we turned our backs on many decades ago. This is a subject that many writers seem to be delving into at the moment – Mark Sisson’s “Primal Connection” is directly related to this, and it’s a theme that Frank Forencich regularly writes about. Doubtless there are many more. Perhaps people that live in closer contact with their environment make choices for the health of their environment, rather than ease of living, as ‘civilisation’ and the industrial revolution have allowed us to do for the last century and a bit. If you know that your food and shelter is dependent on maintaining something of a symbiotic relationship between yourself and your surroundings then you are highly likely to behave in a way that preserves that relationship. The chances are that this way of living has been ingrained for centuries, so that it is interwoven with your learning, play and life in general as you grow. In other words, perhaps it’s unconscious – you know what’s important without knowing that you know. Again, this is my rose-tinted perception, reinforced by wonderful books like ‘Wild‘ by Jay Griffiths.

In contrast, industrialisation and technology have allowed us to disconnect from the natural world more and more. (Aside from the practical implications, there is a rich vein of research into how this impacts our mental/emotional state). I’m certainly not about to give up a home with central heating, but I can believe that some time amongst trees and plants nourishes me in ways that food cannot.

Perhaps as the basis of postmodern theory (which I understand, highly simplistically, to be something like; ‘reality has been replaced by symbols and simulations of reality’ – apologies to Baudrillard if I’m way off the mark) we seem to have become very good at identifying problems that we have created for ourselves through technological advances, and remedied them with more ‘technology’. MBT shoes seem to be the perfect illustration of this idea – We recognise that there’s a problem with shoes, and pavements, flat ground etc. So instead of removing our shoes, and trying to spend more time with our feet on a more natural surface, we develop shoes that move us further away from true connection to the ground, whilst trying to represent that connection. Duh.

How about ‘ergonomic’ chairs? We recognise that sitting at a desk in front of a computer screen, controlling a mouse, and typing isn’t working out to well for us. No surprises there – we’re not ‘built’ for sitting for long periods, the load on our spines increases two-fold when we go from standing to sitting. The solution is, of course, to design a chair that makes us ‘better’ at sitting. One that actually requires less muscular connection in order to remain in the same dysfuntional position.

We no longer have the innate sense that should tell us that sitting for hours at a time is a bad idea. It reminds me of a conversation I had years ago with a martial arts enthusiast (and osteopath). His theory was that Pilates is essentially the same practice as yoga, tai chi, karate, kung-fu, kendo etc., but modified for a Western sensibility. One of the crucial differences is that, in the countries from which those other movement practices originate, children would be practicing them form a young age – repeating movements over and over again. By the time that they were old enough to question why they were going through these movement patterns, they had no need to ask the question because their body had learned the answer through the action. His argument went on that people doing Pilates often need to ask, or understand intellectually why they are doing particular exercises because they have not had the opportunity to develop that innate ‘body intelligence’.

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Could this be the perfect squat?
Sorry, can’t find who to credit for this image….

A brief search on YouTube will quickly elicit plenty of video clips of toddlers doing ‘perfect’ squats, deadlifts etc. – the evidence seems fairly clear that we ‘know’ how to move well at a very young age, or at least that moving well is woven into our early development. Things seem to go wrong around the time that we start to put children in shoes, and make them sit for prolonged periods of time. Shoes and chairs are simple examples of technological advances that are creating problems for us, far beyond what surely could have been imagined when they were first conceived. Just as ‘older isn’t better’, newer is not better either. More importantly, increasing the disconnect between ourselves and our environment is a recipe for newer, perhaps more complicated problems (I’m envisioning later scenes in the excellent Pixar animated film ‘Wall-E” – if you don’t know what I’m referring to, please put this blog post down immediately and remedy the situation – I guarantee it’s way more entertaining).

So older is not necessarily better, but wisdom might trump technology. Returning to the subject that I started with, of baby’s safest sleeping place, isn’t it strange to think that a baby should have its own environment, that is separate from that of its parents? Does that occur in any other species of mammal? Is this perhaps a sign of our fundamental loss of sensitivity to our surroundings, that an adult’s sleeping space is inherently dangerous to a baby? Or have we truly figured everything out better than any of our ancestors did?

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This workshop was first called “In Pursuit of Pilates Perfection”. It’s since been renamed “Pilates Made Simple”, but the content should encapsulate both ideas.

The aim of the workshop is to share the theories that a growing interest in strength & conditioning has exposed me to, and how they have influenced my Pilates teaching – and changed my life. (If you’ve seen any of my www.paleolates.com blog posts you may have already read references to this). I believe that it should be helpful to anyone teaching Pilates, either mat or studio, at any level, or to any particular population.

Meeting Kelly Starrett, taking his ‘Movement & Mobility’ seminar (and subsequently watching hours of his video blogs), helped me understand that I’d been over-complicating Pilates, and changed my teaching dramatically. Through him, and others in the strength & conditioning world, I learned that there are a set of simple principles and ‘rules’, fundamental to any human position or movement (that I now think Joseph Pilates understood), regardless of age or ability. Applying these ‘rules’ to Pilates allows me to see problems more clearly, and therefore to teach with more clarity, not to mention improving my own practice.

I’ve also gained a whole new set of tools to work on mobility, beyond what Pilates seemed to accomplish, and thereby changed my own body, also making Pilates repertoire feel easier. I hope to be able to pass on the sense of liberation, and satisfaction that it’s given me, with a mixture of theory and practical application that addresses both Pilates mat and equipment repertoire.

The workshop is 6 hours long, with approximately 4 hours spent on theory and relating theory to Pilates repertoire; and 2 hours for exploring the use of various mobility tools to facilitate the application of the theory to movement. There will be some notes provided – intended as a starting point/reminder for participants own thoughts and observations, and certificates of attendance will be issued.

Outcomes

After the workshop you will:

Be reminded of why good movement & positioning always matters 

Know a set of simple rules of movement and positioning, applicable to any activity

Be able to immediately apply those rules to teaching Pilates

Be able to impart those rules to your clients, to accelerate their progress

Have an additional paradigm for recognising movement faults and limitations

Have an array of mobilising tools to address movement limitations

Testimonials:

“A flexible and incredibly easy approach…”

“Fresh ideas – dynamic presentation. A retake on basics that is challenging in a positive way.”

“A brilliant way to improve your practice, and make it easier.”

“A very interesting workshop that has given me various ideas on teaching from cueing to exercise and equipment choice.”

“Rethink how you teach.”

The cost of the workshop is £90.

I seem to have frequent epiphanies these days – or rather the idea that things that I ‘knew’, perhaps in the darker recesses of my mind, suddenly crystallise into sharp and sometimes powerful ideas. Simple things, such as ‘Pilates doesn’t cure back pain, good movement cures back pain.’ Of course, Pilates is an excellent vehicle for teaching good movement, and it certainly ‘fixed’ my chronic low back pain years ago. Now I recognise that it wasn’t that my various Pilates teachers waved their wands and cured me with a dose of magic – they taught me better movement (and positioning) than I was accustomed to practice at that time (God love ’em).

There’s another conversation that can be had later/elsewhere about various methods some Pilates teachers seem to have for appearing to do magic, to be filed under ‘Disempowerment’.

Another closely related epiphany that I had recently (thanks to the wisdom of Kelly Starrett finally sinking in) is that whether we are teachers of Pilates, or yoga, or salsa, or karate, or tai chi, or…almost any other movement discipline, the work is the same – teaching good movement. (Pilates called it ‘right movement’). Some of those disciplines may involve a broader scope than Pilates but, in as much as they are movement disciplines, they should be teaching good movement.

I was leaving a health club today, after teaching, when one of the PTs approached me and asked if I just teach Pilates, or if I teach yoga as well. To my surprise, when I answered “No, I don’t teach yoga.” her immediate reply was “Why?”. My internalised response was something along the lines of: “Because I’ve found a really efficacious method for teaching movement (and spent years trying to do it well), why would I want to train to teach a different method with the same purpose?” I understand that people are drawn to yoga and Pilates in ways that I am not, so no disrespect to the multi-disciplinarians out there. To me, she may as well have said “Why aren’t you a personal trainer?”, given that I think that job should be essentially the same – teaching good movement.

This is what gets me excited at the moment, the idea of helping people in my classes to move, or position themselves well. And Pilates is such a brilliant means to this end. I had another revelation today – that the Hundred is a fantastic assessment tool. It can tell you so much about someone’s awareness and competence – Is their thoracic sufficiently mobile for their head to be well positioned? Can they stabilise their scapula? Are they able to disassociate their arms from their trunk? Can they stabilise their midline under the load of their legs? Can they keep breathing while doing all of the above? And so on. All questions that relate to activities outside the class.

If I can see that someone is struggling with any of those requirements of the Hundred, what are the most effective ways that I have for helping them do better? Obviously there are many ways to skin this particular cat, and I have a question for any teachers that are reading this: Is cueing muscles the best way to help people to move well?

The organisation under which I trained is holding their AGM around the time of writing, and an internationally renowned teacher has been invited to present workshops over the weekend. One of them is apparently titled “Pilates in Clay”*, and offers the chance to sculpt muscles, in clay, onto a pvc skeleton. The description continues: “Once you have made a group of muscles, we will use the Pilates apparatus to understand how they are engaged and in what functional capacity on the reformer.”

Now, it’s probably just me, but isn’t there a significant disconnect between teaching ‘right’ movement and understanding how (which) muscles are engaged and in what functional capacity on the reformer? Perhaps I would discover that my clients left tibialis anterior is over-recruiting during the tendon stretch. Then what? Do I then devise a program of tib ant recruitment timing exercises, along with a stretching program? What would Joseph Pilates have made of this? We might be able to look wise to our clients if we can suggest to them that their serratus anterior is failing to do its job of scapula stabilising correctly, but does that help them to move better? If you know the muscle that’s working/not working, are you a better teacher?

I would argue that this is an illusion. Yes, certainly knowing muscles and their function can aid in understanding movement. And I need to be able to have a conversation with a physiotherapist, osteopath, or surgeon using anatomical language. But when it comes down to the nitty gritty of moving, my brain is simply giving instructions for one body part (or more) to move relative to another, and the muscles are just accessories. Your brain doesn’t actually know that you’ve got muscles. Poor muscle balance is a product of poor movement, not the other way around. Aside from this, focus on muscles when teaching (in addition to appearing clever) can easily disempower the client, and help to reinforce the notion that Pilates is in fact magic, to be performed on you by your teacher. Can’t differentiate between your gastroc and your soleus? Oh dear, this is worse than I thought.

After years of being excited by analysing anatomy, and trying to ‘see’ muscles working/not working in my clients, I’ve been very fortunate to stumble upon the understanding (again, hat off to Kelly Starrett – and Gray Cook, Mike Boyle, Carl Paoli etc.) that Pilates is simple. Brilliant, and simple. The fundamentals of joint positioning for transmission of force, or resistance of load, are the same for Pilates as for any other movement discipline. ‘Force’ and ‘load’ are perhaps not words commonly associated with Pilates, but this is just different written/spoken language to describe the common language of movement.

If this approach to Pilates strikes any type of a chord with you (or if you hate it and want to come and heckle), I’m running a seminar: ‘Pilates Made Simple’, in West London on June 15th. More details to follow on the blog.

*This may well be a brilliant and highly instructive workshop, it’s just that the description made me feel like chewing my fingers off.