Archives For January 2014

imagesFollowing on from a mention in part 1 of this post, I think that a lot of interesting things happen on the boundaries between disciplines. Kelly Starrett, who has influenced my thinking about Pilates a lot in the last few years, talks about the benefits of sports people from different disciplines talking to, and learning from each other (power lifters talking to gymnasts talking to rowers talking to olympic lifters talking to swimmers/runners etc).

The subject of the first post, and the comments that followed (thank you all for your interest and contribution) made me start to think that there is a problem inherent in classification – in trying to define or draw lines between things. Once again, I find myself a little conflicted – I love simplicity, but…

I’ve found the Classical Pilates Inc DVDs to be an invaluable resource, from the point of view of learning to put the correct name to an exercise, or checking choreography. I’ve learned to assume (who knows how/why) that what is usually referred to as ‘classical’ Pilates, is that which was taught by Romana Kryzanowska and her followers. The “Romana’s Pilates” DVD I have in front of me has the tagline “….the true pilates method as taught by Joseph Pilates”. As an enthusiast of simplicity I am drawn to the ‘this is the way it is supposed to be’ kind of presentation. From watching the DVDs, and taking class with Romana trained teachers, I know that Footwork on the Reformer should be done with all the springs attached, as should the Hundred.

And then again, I was watching part of another DVD the other evening (that is still available from Michelle Larson) of Eve Gentry giving a workshop in 1991. My understanding is that Eve worked alongside Joseph Pilates in New York for close to 30 years – longer than anyone of the other first generation teachers. At the beginning of the workshop she talks about what she learned from Pilates: “I learned about not using too many springs….” This is just one example and I’m sure there are plenty of other instances when the Eve Gentry approach to Pilates differs from the Romana Kryzanowska approach. Ironically, courtesy of this blog I now realise that it’s even more complicated than I thought – the classification ‘Classical Pilates’ requires sub-classification!

I’m not at all interested in entering a discussion about which one is better, or closer to Pilates’ original intentions.  I’m curious as to whether being more definitive about classification does more good than not. This gets back to the original question of what it means to call myself a Pilates teacher. I understand the value of being systematic, and holding true to the principles of rhythm and flow, and, ultimately, I believe (as Eve Gentry says) that I’m trying to teach a concept, not a set of exercises. The exercises are a vehicle for delivering/understanding those principles, and can represent a fantastic challenge for someone who is interested in exploring the limits of their physicality (I can see no need for inventing advanced repertoire). I also believe that Pilates himself would adapt/create exercises for individuals, based on his understanding of their specific needs. Whilst I wouldn’t try to compare myself to Pilates (though I not-so-secretly like to think it may be significant that I was born in the year that he died….), I often use other exercises to teach the principles to certain clients – because I think they will be more effective, or represent a more accessible route to understanding the concepts than a ‘classical’ exercise might. I’m back at the ‘Can I teach Pilates with a kettle bell? question from my previous post – can you teach Pilates with exercises that are not Pilates? According to the blog post that I linked to above, I should be acknowledging to whoever I’m teaching a non-Pilates exercise that I’m not actually teaching them Pilates at that moment. But I think Pilates is a concept, not a set of exercises! Isn’t it perplexing?

Here’s another way that I like to think about this – Can you be good at Pilates? If your answer is ‘Yes’, what does that mean? What does it look like to be good at Pilates? I routinely tell people coming to our studio that there’s no value or point to being ‘good at Pilates’. Who cares if you can perform Pilates repertoire beautifully (or however else we might define ‘good at’)? The point, for me, is to use Pilates to help people be good at, or find easy, everything else that they want or need to do. I think that my job is to teach people to move and position themselves as well as possible, and Pilates is the vehicle that helped me on this journey, and what I feel competent to teach to others.

I do understand the need to honour our heritage, and the original work of Joseph Pilates, and I’m grateful to those teachers and organisations who commit themselves to that. I also agree that a familiarity with the apparatus adds to one’s understanding of Pilates. Somewhat unconsciously, I provoked a bit of a comprehensive vs. mat teachers discussion, with the previous post that I wrote. I have no interest at all in supporting or defending diploma courses in Pilates that require very little actual practice of the method, or that offer certification in a short time. I remain uneasy about attempts to make a strong distinction between mat teachers and comprehensive teachers, because I think our job is to teach people to move well. We will, all of us, bring our unique life experiences to the teaching party and whilst many comprehensive teachers may enjoy an ‘edge’ from their experience of the Reformer’s resistance (and I think you’re a fool if you’re a teacher and you haven’t made an effort to experience the apparatus), I do not believe that we are all inherently better teachers of movement than teachers who are not certified in teaching on the equipment.

As an example, I learned more about working my upper back extensors when trying to squat while holding a weight overhead than I did in years of Pilates repertoire both in the studio and on a mat. That doesn’t mean that I give up on using Pilates to teach people back extension, it means that I’ve got something else up my sleeve AND that someone who has done overhead squats (my CrossFit coach, for example) may be at least as good as me at teaching someone to use their upper back extensors. That may be true of a Pilates teacher ‘only’ trained in the mat work.

So is my claim that my job, as a Pilates teacher, is to teach good movement legitimate?


Or, don’t have your feet on the ground

I admit to owning some MBTs once, so I understand the seductive power of shoes that are said to improve your posture (there’s a number of things about my past that I’m not especially proud of…). More recently I’ve used this blog to question the use of technology to ‘fake’ a natural situation in pursuit of a solution, rather than accepting the naturally available solution. Of course, there’s often money to be earned from this kind of virtual reality. In the case of shoes, the rationale seems to be: “There’s a problem with your body – your muscles don’t work like they should, because (unlike a Masai warrior) you’ve been disconnected from the ground. Don’t worry, we’ve come up with a way to make your body work better – by tricking it into action.” (For only X amount of £s/$s)

I think I was more eloquent last time I touched on this, so apologies. I was motivated to revisit the subject by someone that came to one of my classes today. She was wearing some brightly coloured Reebok shoes, that served to highlight the degree to which her feet pointed outwards (“Walking like a duck” in Kelly Starrett-speak). When I spoke to her, as a new participant in the class, she told me that she has knee pain. Unfortunately for her, not surprising at all – we’ve probably all seen similar: thighs rotated in, shins rotated out, and arches collapsed. Easy to imagine that she has lower back pain too. Perhaps that’s why she bought the Reeboks, that I discovered were ‘EasyTone’ (“our EasyTone Essential walking shoe features built-in balance pods that transfer air in response to your stride and create micro-instability with every step.”) There’s a great scenario – someone who is putting excessive rotational force through the soft tissue of her knee joint with every step, because of her leg alignment, wears shoes to increase the instability for her already collapsed feet.

Clearly there are many people wearing MBTs, Fitflops, Shape-Ups and Easytones (there are probably other brands too) who do not have the same structural/alignment challenges, yet the logic still escapes me. Why did I ever think that interfering with the interface between my body and the ground was a good idea? Why did I think that elevating my feet further from the ground would be better for my proprioception and muscle activation?

Just as Michael Jordan asserts in the video clip above, it’s not the shoes! The ‘secret’ is to get your feet on the ground – your hip muscles will work better (and give support to your spine) if your feet work better – It’s not the shoes!

strongfortbellI’ve used this blog previously to write about what I think Pilates is, or is not, so perhaps I shouldn’t need to ask this question. Then again, what I think Pilates is may not sit so well with some of my colleagues. Some of those teachers may have less experience than me, some that disagree (or would if they read this blog) might be ‘master’ teachers – who knows. There are so many of us in the world that it will always be difficult to find a simple, singular explanation of the job/work – if that’s even an appropriate goal.

I love a bit of simplicity, and often feel that we are inclined to complicate things – to hunt for the trees, or even the moss on the trees, and miss the wood that is trying to slap us in the face. I am increasingly embracing the idea of repetition – of exercises, and fundamentals. A few years back I had a conversation with a martial artist, and traditional Chinese medicine practitioner, who struck a chord with me when he opined that yoga is a martial art, and that Pilates is much the same – a bit like a martial art for Westerners. I firmly believe that teachers of Pilates, yoga, and martial arts (spiritual/meditative elements aside) are doing the same thing – teaching ‘good’ (efficient) movement. His argument was that, traditionally, in the East, children would start to learn these movement practices before they were old enough to question the why’s and how’s, and that by the time they were old enough to question, they knew the answers in their bodies – understanding through repetition. Pilates is a little different because it is designed for adults who may want/need to know why they are doing a particular movement. (How many times have you heard: “What’s this (good) for?”)

Whilst I love to talk to the people that I’m teaching about the why’s and how’s, I think that I need to become more at ease with shutting up and allowing people to just ‘do the reps’. I have succumbed, and am certain I’m not alone, to listening to clients niggling complaints, and trying to engineer a variation of an exercise especially for them. I’m sure that Pilates intended his method to be systematic, and sticking to a system is more likely to produce favourable results than regularly deviating from it. Thus, I’m increasingly inclined to side (are there sides?) with the classicists who devote themselves to ‘the work’, and refuse to deviate from the original Pilates repertoire.

The trouble with this is that, however much I’d like to keep thing simple, the ‘original repertoire’ can be hard to pin down. I remember one workshop presenter who would only teach exercises that he had seen archival footage of Pilates teaching, or that he had himself been taught by a first generation teacher (one who had been taught by Joseph). If you’re going to be strict that seems a pretty good start, but what about the repertoire that Pilates taught to a first generation teacher, who did not pass that particular exercise on to the presenter in question? Is it less ‘original’ because one person didn’t think of it, or didn’t feel it was appropriate for this person? So the mat work exercises are the only really reliable record of ‘proper’ Pilates repertoire, because he wrote them down.

And what IS Pilates? There is a growing movement in the UK to create a hierarchy amongst teachers – to set studio trained teachers above mat work teachers. Only last night I read an article suggesting this, because the studio is true Pilates, is ‘the work’ (matwork, as taken from ‘Return to Life’ was, after all, just homework). I suspect, when I hear or read someone talking about ‘the work’ that they’re talking about repertoire – following a system, perhaps. To know Pilates you have to do the work, to become a good teacher you have to do the work. To stay fresh as a teacher you have to do the work.

The repertoire is what separates Pilates from other movement disciplines, yet I don’t know how many times I’ve told potential clients that Pilates is not just a set of exercises – that the exercises are a vehicle for learning principles and fundamentals. In other words Pilates is not Teasers, Hundreds, Footwork, Long Spinals etc. – Pilates is how to move, how to hold/carry yourself. The repertoire is a well thought system for learning those fundamental skills (with a bit of exotica thrown in for those that like/need a challenge). I think the classical repertoire (what I understand it to be, anyway) represents a wonderful mountain to climb. If you reach the peak of executing all the exercises with grace then it’s highly unlikely that you will not be expressing the fundamentals of good movement. I would love to think that everyone who comes through the door of our studio will develop the goal of accomplishing all of those exercises (but I know it won’t happen).

Instead, I will try to teach everyone I work with to move to the best of their capability, and to overcome any challenges they may have in achieving easy, efficient, graceful, powerful motion. Very often the traditional studio equipment will be the ideal vehicle for delivering this, but sometimes I’ll stray. Just yesterday I was teaching a lady for the first time, who has had a history of back problems and is fearful of common daily tasks, not to mention essentials like picking her child up. This wasn’t the first time that I’ve taught a mother who feels scared or unable to pick up their child, and in this circumstance I feel like all other goals take second place. I will try to explain the fundamentals of midline stabilisation, and transmission of load from extremities to centre (I hope we can agree that these are Pilates fundamentals), and I will more than likely use a kettle bell, or weight of some sort to try to teach her how to (in fact, that she can) safely pick her child up. I cannot think of a ‘proper’ Pilates exercise that teaches this fundamental movement as quickly and simply as I can with a weight but that does’t change my belief that I’m teaching Pilates. Am I wrong?

Should I be in existential crisis? I like simplicity, and I want to teach with integrity, AND I think that often the most interesting things occur when edges are blurred, on the boundaries between things/practices/methods. Can I have my cake and eat it? Can I teach Pilates with a kettle bell?

When I was very young there was a radio programme called “Listen with Mother”. We didn’t have a television, and I listened to this nearly every day (with my Mum, of course). Without fail, the show began with “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.” (I’m not sure whether it’s a positive or a negative that this is etched in some recess of my brain).

These days, with the increasing number of studies suggesting that sitting is bad for us, it seems to be a particularly interesting question. The answer may well be “Hell, yes!” (“I’ve got this fantastic well stuffed, reclining, cocooning, i-pod docking super-sofa and I’m as comfortable as anyone ever has been.”) Of course sitting is comfortable, or certainly can be. And, it turns out, it shortens your life, makes you fat, possibly metabolically deranged, possibly pre-diabetic – never mind the possible reduction in range of hip movement.

However, I’d like to leave the bulk of the anti-sitting stuff aside, valid as it is. It seems to be getting a reasonable amount of attention. Instead, I’d like to concentrate on the “comfort” part of the equation. A little while ago I saw a Tweet from @NocturnalOutpos: “Our lust for comfort is the biggest thief in our lives…”, which resonated for me. I think there can be no doubt that the technological advances that have given us easier access to greater comfort have also weakened us as a species, or at the very least made us less resilient (Nassem Nicholas Taleb would say ‘more fragile’).  (Back to) sitting =  more hip dysfunction & back/knee problems, for example. Controlling every aspect of our living environment makes us less well able to cope with the unpredictable. Can we survive without electricity and telecommunications. Most end-of-the-world disaster movies that I’ve seen assume that we can’t (at the same population level).

Evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa writes: “All living organisms in nature, including humans, are evolutionarily designed to reproduce. Reproductive success is the ultimate end [goal] of all biological existence.” So, yes, having children is pretty much our reason for existing as a species. The hunter-gatherer existence of our pre-agricultural ancestors would have had its own pragmatic population controls. It is simply not practical to live that semi-nomadic life with lots of children tagging along, and the food supply would have been a limiting factor.

When the agricultural revolution came along things became more comfortable, in that it was possible to stay in the same place, procuring food was no longer everyone’s task, and food became more abundant (though less nutritious). Consequently it was possible for the human population to explode – all the natural population constraints of the HG existence were lifted. Terrific. As a result we now enjoy all the fruits of civilisation, both positive and negative. Negative in that our numbers, ingenuity and technology have allowed us to overcome or resist many of (what I perceive to be) Nature’s attempts to maintain some balance by keeping our numbers in check.

I’m writing this sitting in a cafe on a Saturday morning, as it fills up with people, especially families. It’s noticeable how many couples have several children, clearly born in relatively quick succession, and the part of me that is certain that there are already far too many of us on the planet can’t help inwardly asking ‘Why?’ Why are you having all these children? (In this instance ‘all these’ denoting more than two). And the answer that I come back to is, we are too comfortable. It’s too easy to procure food, shelter, water and energy, so we trick ourselves into thinking that what may be sustainable in at a local, insular level is equally sustainable for humanity as a whole.

where-the-magic-happensOn a less ‘end-of-the-world’ note, it’s common to talk of one’s ‘comfort zone’ these days. It’s not an unusual idea that we need to leave our comfort zone to make changes, or to achieve more. Being uncomfortable thus is the route to progress, perhaps success, or becoming stronger. And the inverse is true. Comfort makes us weaker. Comfort encourages stasis. Comfort anaesthetises.

I’ll still be sitting comfortably on the sofa for a while this evening, but more fool me if I do so for long.