Archives For April 2014

How will you age?

April 21, 2014 — 4 Comments
Joseph Pilates, aged 82

Joseph Pilates, aged 82

I’m currently reading the intriguing “The World Until Yesterday” by Jared Diamond, some of which compares the attitudes toward, and treatment of older people in Western societies to that of ‘traditional’ (think tribal) societies. Diamond makes reference to the role that older people play in advertising in western, or westernised societies – their appearance in advertising typically reserved for medicine and supplements, ‘mobility aides’ (Stannah chairlifts, perhaps), or maybe to fulfill the role of Grandparent to a cute child. They are rarely seen promoting products that we might all consume – off the top of my head – pizza, mobile phones, chocolate, toilet paper, rum, coffee, cars….

What does this tell us about our attitudes toward people over, let’s say, 65? Another fascinating insight into this subject came when watching a clip from Britain’s Got Talent.

I’m including the clip, in case you haven’t seen it, because it seems to have the effect of filling people with a sense of joy. Now, I’m as cynical as the next hardened cynic when it comes to these shows – I think it’s pretty obvious that the ‘judges’ have been primed for what’s coming, and things are choreographed, down to Simon Cowell looking bored and buzzing early. So what is there to enjoy? Again, it seems to me that most of, if not the entire audience have an extraordinary emotional response that looks to me like unbridled joy. Then there’s Paddy herself, who is evidently not only a powerful personality but also physically remarkable – strong, agile, mobile, quick, and with impressive coordination.

And yet, I’m left with a question – a niggling thought. Why is she exceptional? Why does the sight of this elderly woman demonstrating strength, skill, agility, and coordination get us so excited. Obviously the answer is that she IS very unusual (but as the videos below illustrate, she is far from alone). So the question should really be, why SHOULD she be exceptional? How is it that we have been conditioned to believe – to know, even – that old people are inherently decrepit? And when does that built-in physical obsolescence start to take effect – sixty? Or seventy? I have clients in their early sixties who are convinced, indeed resigned to the notion that they are now too old to do certain things; and that their age means that they have to accept that their body necessarily fails them.

In ‘The World Until Yesterday’ the author makes reference to tribes that traditionally killed old people, or left them to fend for themselves (amounting to the same thing). Until the 1950s the Kaulong people of New Guinea practiced the ritualised strangling of widows – when her husband died the widow would call upon family members to strangle her! (While there’s obviously one to be had, I’m not going to get into a discussion of misogyny here). Other tribal societies have traditionally revered their older members for their wisdom; for having the most refined skills; or as care-givers for the youngest in the tribe. Western society’s attitude toward its older population falls somewhere between the extremes. Happily, there’s no ritualised killing, but there’s not necessarily much reverence either. How much of that is because, as younger people we have been conditioned to expect little from old age (the very phrase ‘old age’ appears to be inappropriate in this context – a symptom of the problem). When we reach 60, or 70, or whatever it might be, we know what to expect. And yet, Paddy apparently didn’t receive that kind of conditioning, or was able to shrug it off.

As a Pilates teacher, I have one of the best role models to follow in terms of expectations for older age. It would seem that Joseph Pilates did his best work form the age of 50 onwards, and remained strong and vigorous until his death. I cannot find a clip to include here but the “Romana’s Pilates Ultimate Mat Challenge” DVD includes footage of Romana Kryzanowska, aged 82 (I think) doing the hanging on the Cadillac and describing it as her “daily loosener up-er”. We know what’s possible – as a profession we have excellent examples – and yet, how many of us (Pilates teachers) have been trained to think that the Roll Up, or the Roll Over are contraindicated for ‘the elderly’? I’m not advocating a lack of care or caution, but wondering if we have an instinct to set the bar too low (Yes, I’ve been here before). I know that for someone with osteoporosis, to collapse in their spine as they go into the Roll Up, or Roll Over, could be dangerous, but we wouldn’t teach anyone to collapse in their spine in a Roll Up, would we? Because that’s not what Pilates is about. So whilst it may not be the best idea to introduce that exercise to an older person in their first session, or even in their tenth session, isn’t their the possibility that, in time, the eccentric control that this exercise requires could be just the kind of stress on their bones that will make them stronger.

Here are some more links/video clips of people ‘who should know better’ being physical. If we share enough of these perhaps we can begin to reshape prevailing notions of what growing old means….

 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-27117769

‘The Hip-Operation Crew’ from New Zealand – the oldest hip hop dance crew in the world.

The amazing Olga, she’s just moved up into the 95-99 age group for Masters track & field

 

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Pilates vs. Evolution

April 16, 2014 — 3 Comments

What should I call it?

What should I call it?

I imagine that the great majority of teachers and/or practitioners of Pilates would agree, that it is alive – that Pilates is a living thing. All living organisms must be able to adapt to changes to their environment (or move to a different environment) to avoid extinction. Thus, I would contend that, Pilates has to be capable of adapting to environmental shifts in order to avoid eventual extinction.
Yes, here we are once again, musing on what Pilates really is/should be etc. It’s a subject that seems ‘to have legs’, very long legs perhaps (and how appropriate).

A recent post on a Pilates related forum invited discussion on “innovation in Pilates”, with fairly predictable results. Some comments endorse the idea of everything that one does informing everything else that one does, others decry the lack of respect shown to the originator, or worry that the public may be confused. The latter idea is particularly fascinating for me, in part because I think that ‘the public’ may not be that interested anyway. If I think of my job as teaching people to position and move themselves as well as possible (on another forum thread Sean Gallagher recently wrote: “…Pilates is a way of living in your body” which feels similar, if not better), then I do not see it as my job to teach people about Joseph Pilates, to make sure that ‘they’ know exactly what was devised by him, and what was not. The subject may well come up, but I’m more interested in honouring the marvellous tool that nature has given us (our moving body) than I am in honouring the man, much as I believe he was a genius.

Back to evolution (apologies to anyone who is troubled by this concept – I believe that its acceptance in the US is particularly limited). There’s no doubt that the environment in which Pilates resides, that’s to say our understanding of biomechanics, neuroscience and so on, has changed substantially in the last 46 years. It may be that you believe that Joseph was indeed 50 years ahead of his time, so still ahead of the evolutionary curve. In which case there may be no reason to look elsewhere for inspiration or more thorough understanding. For some of us, exposure to other modalities, or information that helps to refine our understanding of what’s important, may mean that we begin to incorporate into our teaching things that do not look exactly Pilates, as taught by Joseph. As an example, there have been a couple of instances recently when, within the first few classes, I have taught a deadlift pattern to clients (both of whom had young children, and back problems). This is because I believe that understanding this movement pattern is essential to their well-being, so that they do not have to choose between back pain or picking up their children. I may have mentioned that the deadlift is not strictly a Pilates exercise, I don’t remember. I don’t think it really matters, again, because of how I see my professional responsibility, and because I don’t think my clients are helped by making those differentiations.

I can see that this point of view may not sit well with some teachers, those that we might consider to be devoted to authenticity. They may feel that different disciplines should not be mixed together. As I may have mentioned in an earlier post, I have always been most interested in that area in-between. As an art student I was excited by the blurring of boundaries, between sculpture and furniture, say, or sculpture and architecture. At the moment I believe that it’s appropriate to refer to what I teach as Pilates, because the great majority of it is recognisably Pilates, and because I use the equipment a lot. It’s possible that at some point in the future less of what I’m teaching will be recognisably Pilates, and that may lead me to eventually try to find a different name for what I do. When I was training as a Pilates teacher one of my teachers was known for having his own versions of exercises, and we were encouraged to pin him down about which was original, and which was not of what he was teaching us. His mat classes were called Pilates classes, and whilst the original repertoire was in there, there were flavours of yoga, contemporary dance, and other systems too (and, importantly, in relation to the ‘confusing the public’ issue – they were busy classes, people came and moved, breathed, were challenged, and had fun). That was 12 years ago, and at some point it clearly made sense to give his teaching a new name, so that we now have Garuda. If James were still calling his work Pilates it would probably be totally inappropriate, and the creation of Garuda seems like a natural evolution of his teaching.

The person who posted about ‘innovation in Pilates’ is at the point of making his own equipment, that looks significantly different from Pilates equipment. I would agree that you can apply the principles of Pilates to other modalities, but would suggest that once you need to manufacture your own equipment to best express your work, it may be time to practice under a different banner. The question for me is where one draws the line, between teaching something that looks substantially like Pilates (as I write this I can picture the Pilates fundamentalists gnashing their teeth – sorry), and something which has strayed far enough from the original material that it no longer qualifies. I suspect that the answer may be (aside from needing to create your own equipment) that if you need to ask if you should still call what you teach Pilates, then you’ve probably strayed over that line.

(Image courtesy of http://www.dailymail.co.uk)

 

 

Ok, this is not really Pilates, or it didn’t start out that way. This idea started out because I was given a modified Thomas test to do as homework (to improve my shoddy hip flexor/knee extensor flexibility). I’ve done this in the past with an ankle weight on the suspended leg, but these days I cannot bring myself to believe in the efficacy of static/passive stretching. What better way to engineer the possibility of some contract/relax PNF-type stretching into the equation than my trusty jump stretch band? Putting out round the legs of the Cadillac seems to give the magic amount of resistance to both flex my hip and extend my knee against, and also gives me some proprioceptive feedback to help avoid too much abduction.

Then my lovely wife had the idea to add the bar and springs into the mix, making it look a bit more like Pilates. When did adding movement not help? If you’ve got the hamstring length this seems like a great idea to me (Ugg boots optional)…

Jump stretch band 3

The jump stretch band used not for joint distraction this time, but simply added resistance when trying to find ways to emphasise lengthening into a Rollover. This is perhaps similar to the Tower on the Cadillac, but with truly progressive resistance it presents a bit more of a challenge, both concentrically and eccentrically.

Thanks are due (again) to Patrice, for being the model/crash test dummy. Instead of getting her to try it twice, I should have got her to try again with a lighter band. We live and learn….