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I’m Not Good at Pilates

September 12, 2018 — 3 Comments

I heard a new (to our studio) client say this yesterday, but this is by no means the first time I’ve heard something like “I’ve done it for two years but I’m not very good.”

I then tie myself up in knots trying to explain to them – without indicating that, in addition to being bad at Pilates they’ve also fundamentally missed the point – that there’s no such thing as ‘good at Pilates’.

I’m particularly interested in this because it seems to involve merging some different ideas. I’d like to try to unpick them, and to propose a test for teachers (not ‘are you good at Pilates?’ but, ‘has Pilates done you any good?’)

As we know, Joseph Pilates was promoting HEALTH, with exercise as a small part of the equation. In pursuit of health we need to consider our nervous system responses (does our sympathetic system switch on appropriately), which is related to our sleep quality, our stress levels; also, do we spend time outside in sunshine and fresh air, with nature in view? And, of course, there’s food – macro and micronutrients.

Can we be ‘good’ at health? How often do you hear people described as ‘fit’ (not the easy-on-the-eye slang), or healthy? And in those cases how likely is it that their lifestyle is actually addressing all aspects of health? (I guarantee that a Tour de France cyclist, who might be well adapted to endurance cycling, is not fit or healthy).

I don’t think it’s possible to be good at Pilates, certainly not by any measure that I can recognise, but I definitely think it’s worthwhile. One of my challenges is to help those people who don’t feel that they’re good at Pilates to find some measure of their sessions’ value, which is external to how competent or not they feel during the session.

I suspect most of these people are at a Pilates class because they feel that they ‘should’ be: perhaps their health professional has advised it, or perhaps something in their sense of self tells them that they will be better (with, I imagine, a large dose of media influence) if they do Pilates. You know – they’ll have less pain, they’ll look better, they’ll align themselves more closely with the apparent lifestyle of celebrity X, or they’ll have a piece of the puzzle of the impossible-to-define-or achieve nebulous ‘how we should live’ that the media presents hourly.

So helping someone to find value from their Pilates well often involve finding out about things that they like to do, and look for ways to enhance that activity; or to learn something that they cannot yet but would like to do, and to map a route to achieving it.

Honestly, I find it a bit strange that anyone loves Pilates for itself. That may well be heresy, so let me try to explain. I don’t love the act of spending 45 minutes on the Reformer. It’s quite fun to do it with someone else, to spur on and be spurred on, and I REALLY value how it can make me feel. I was going to compare it to drinking wine, and I find that in unpicking the comparison maybe I do love the Reformer – I realise that there are moments (Rowing springs to mind) when there is almost a taste to the specific position or movement that I do love. That aside, I drink wine not because I know that I should, that it will do me good. No, I drink wine because I like the taste and, you know, sometimes that combination of a robust Argentinian Malbec with some good rib-eye transcends food and drink in the way that sex with the person you love transcends the other kind of sex.

Woah! Get back on track! I get on the Reformer because I should, and because I know it’s good for me – not because I love it, and another 5 reps of horseback (done strictly in the original order) will get it nearly perfect (“where’s my phone? I feel an Instagram post coming on”).

A great example of a goal that I came across recently was the man who wanted to put his socks on without sitting down. I LOVE this. Sure, it’s a beginner’s goal, and I’d be hoping for more soon, but as a start it’s great – single leg balance, deep hip flexion, spine mobility, ankle flexibility? Yes, Pilates can do that! If you saw this particular gentleman in a class today I doubt you would say “He’s really good at Pilates” but he achieved that goal in ten week, and how good a springboard is that?

As a teacher of this method, you might be looking for a little bit more – especially if you’re focus is on exercises rather than health. I know that a foundation of years of Pilates was invaluable to me when playing with common CrossFit movements (once I’d got past the ignominy of not being able to hip hinge – forever curling my spine instead…) My background was carpentry and construction, not dance, and I’m sure Pilates made it easier for me to pick up the techniques of Olympic weightlifting. If I can do a ring muscle-up (on a good day) it’s because of Pilates – it’s because Pilates taught me really important things about how to move.

So how about some simple tests, to see if your Pilates has served you well? The kind of tests that don’t rely on subjective or aesthetic judgements. There’s no “I’m not very good at it” (as we might say about Balance Control, or The Snake, perhaps), there is only “Yes, I can do that” or “No, not yet”.

So, if your Pilates has been working for you, you should be able to pass these tests:

Hollow Rock

Pistol Squat

Pull Up

Brett feels that they are a bit arbitrary, and that’s true in a way. I learned them in the context of CrossFit, where they might be considered intermediate level skills – probably many thousands of people are doing them every day. I think they’re useful tests because they cover strength and control of upper and lower extremity, and stabilisation of your spine under load – all of which seem like attributes one might expect of a Pilates practitioner. They’re also all scaleable, it’s easy to figure out (especially with the help of YouTube) ways to progress with each of them.

The Hollow Rock is a gymnastic skill that is really just a progression of the Hundred, or Double Leg Stretch. From your Hundred shape, reach your arms overhead and rock, as you would in Open Leg Rocker – it’s really a super long lever OLR. Can you maintain the shape – yes, or no?

A Pistol is a one legged squat (hey, it’s a super advanced Reformer exercise!) without any external support, which may call for the greatest explanation/justification of the 3. My CrossFit coaching friend (CrossFit Brit, Irvine, CA – pay him a visit, he’ll help you be more awesome, for sure) describes the Pistol as a combination of strength, flexibility and balance – Pilates gives us all of those, right? Carl Paoli*, who wrote a book about 4 basic movements, one of them being a pistol, suggests that the major challenge of this movement is resisting internal rotation. Pilates is full of resisting internal rotation, so we’ve totally got this. So, can you sit down to full knee and hip flexion, and stand back up – yes, or no?

And here we go again, my Pull Up soap box. If you’ve only been practicing on a mat you may have a let-off, but if you have a Reformer and/or a Cadillac available to you, you know about pulling, you know about gripping, and integrating your arms into your shoulders and your shoulders into your trunk/spine. And you’re a teacher, so your arms are not weak, so overall, you SHOULD be at least on the way to a Pull Up.

The great thing about these three movements is that they not only provide feedback about the value of your Pilates practice, they also have fantastic carry forward to your Pilates practice. If you have these three skills I guarantee that you will find the more Pilates repertoire more readily available.

Win win.

*Carl also has a lot of instructional videos to help with all of these skills here.

 

An abridged version of this was first published by Pilates Intel.

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The longer I teach, the more interested I become in the use of, and the meaning or implication of specific words or phrases (I was called out, quite rightly, last week for saying, in response to my client’s effort to achieve the position I was asking for “We’ll settle for that” which, of course, sounds a lot like “that’s shit but probably the bets we can hope for just now”. Yes, I was ashamed).

Lately, something has caused me to ponder the noun ‘workout’. Dictionary.com indicates that, while the phrase ‘work out’ (meaning to solve a problem) has been in use since 1600, ‘workout’ as a noun has only been in use for the last 100 years or so. I believe that, in the UK, we use the phrase ‘work out’ in the same way that ‘figure out’ might be more commonly used in the US. I don’t remember ‘to workout’ being a description of exercising 20 or 30 years ago – it feels like a relatively recent import to the UK.

My understanding of the noun ‘workout’ is that it refers to a combination of exercises, or perhaps the same activity with some variation thrown in – I don’t think you can go for a run at the same steady tempo and call it a ‘workout’, but I may be misguided. I believe that this sort of approach puts us in the territory of exercising to burn calories, or in pursuit of ‘being fit’, as if regularly running 5K, or doing 40 pushups, or 50 crunches etc. etc. is truly making you more adaptable. (Fitness is, after all, a measure of your ability to adapt to changes to your internal and external environment).

I think a ‘workout’ is something that you can do once or twice a week to tick the box of pursuing a healthy lifestyle – you put your symbolic “I’m exercising” clothes on, and do whatever’s planned for that day. The success of the workout might be measured by how much weight was managed, or how fast you did it, or perhaps how tired you felt afterwards, how sore you were the following day; or maybe even how many calories the machine you ‘worked out’ on says you burned. This kind of ‘workout’ can definitely be done with headphones on, or in front of a TV screen.

For sure this is better than doing nothing – if we’re lucky there may be some social interaction involved (which might have even more health benefits than the workout); and movement of some kind is probably always better than none.

In the Pilates context I have heard it said that ‘the Reformer is the workout’ (the Cadillac and Wundachair being the apparatus you use to facilitate the Reformer work, as appropriate). The same might be said for the mat, as both the Reformer and the mat share a specific order of exercises. So, accepting that Pilates contains ‘workouts’, can we make these into opportunities to ‘work out’, too? That’s to say, can we make them learning experiences that help us to understand ourselves better? I think this might be just another way to talk about ‘mind-body’ exercise though I think there might be room to go beyond “This exercise has my complete, undivided attention” and to solve problems for ourselves – “I’ve worked out why I couldn’t control the carriage when attempting a Teaser on the Reformer”, for example.

I recently heard Benjamin Degenhardt talking about the value of standing work at the start of a mat class, as a way to self-assess – How do I feel today? What do I need? How stiff/loose am I? We aim to incorporate the same few movements in every mat class at our studio, for the purpose of this kind of ‘working out’ – so that the warm-up is a self-assessment, as well as a chance to create heat and increase circulation.

Maybe this is everyone’s experience of Pilates and I’m wasting our time in writing this. Then again, I think that this kind of learning may require the teacher to ‘get out of the way’ to some degree, or at least to recognise when and how to show the way to a discovery instead of spoon-feeding, and that’s not always easy. Recently I’ve found myself saying “Find a way to…” quite often when I’m teaching, and this doesn’t always go down well. I can see or feel that this is met with “it’s your job to tell me how”. I believe that, if they can find a way, this learning will stay with them much longer than my cues might. I also think that Joseph designed the apparatus to help us ‘find a way’.

Some of my favourite learning experiences of the last year have been in Fighting Monkey workshops (you can read about them here, and here, if you fancy), in interactions with other participants. A lot of Fighting Monkey practice involves a ‘movement situation’ with a partner. As the situation changes, and you change partners, there’s a lot of working out to do. Every new partner represents a new environment, and a rich opportunity for learning about yourself. This kind of learning can be wild, stressful, breathtaking, magical and exhilarating, and it may be too much for some people.

In Pilates the environment might not change very often – the apparatus is the apparatus; the spring resistance is the same from one day to the next. However, the exercises can also represent a changing environment, albeit one that is inherently more controlled than Fighting Monkey practice. (It’s also worth remembering that Pilates himself was given to devising quirky wrestling games that he played with friends or students – I’ve seen film footage of wrestling with a pole, and head wrestling.)

So Pilates can offer us a relatively safe space to problem-solve, and to learn about ourselves: how we move; how we think; how our mood or personality influences our movement.

Can you get more ‘work out’ out of your ‘workout’ (whether it’s on a mat or reformer, or with kettlebells, a barbell or ballet barre…) ? I’d love to hear….

 

I’ve made attempts in the past to write about what it means to be a Pilates teacher and, happily, my understanding has grown in the last few years such that it seems worth revisiting.

If one’s view of Pilates is that it’s a series of exercises (possibly with some variations, contemporary ‘improvements’ etc), then I think being a teacher is probably pretty straightforward. However, as Eve Gentry said, “you can know every exercise, on every piece of equipment, but that does not mean that you know Pilates.” Because Pilates is a concept and if you’re teaching exercises then you’re not really teaching Pilates – you have to teach concepts to be a Pilates teacher.

So what are the concepts? I find it simplest to express them as questions, such as:

Do you know where you body is in space?

Are you able to organise your body in space? (Meaning you have to organise parts of your body relative to each other, as well as to your environment)

And, as expressions of the above:

Can you stabilise your spine while you move your extremities?

Can you sequentially articulate your spine?

However, these are not unique to Pilates – I know of CrossFit coaches and martial artists who do the same thing, and I’m sure there are yoga teachers and others from all sorts of disciplines (dance, gymnastics etc) with similar intentions.

So what separates Pilates from other disciplines? The core concept that we try to adhere to in our studio is that the practice of Pilates is for Your Health – it was not an accident that this was the title of Joseph Pilates’ first book, and the text makes it clear that his interests were a lot broader than ‘can you stabilise your spine while blah blah blah’.

I cannot speak for the other disciplines mentioned but I believe that this is what CrossFit is about, too. It’s hard to be involved with CrossFit and not hear discussions of nutrition, sleep quality, sun exposure and circadian rhythms (not to mention that their crusade against the sugar industry is truly laudable). The only time that I’ve heard sleep, sun exposure and circadian rhythms mentioned in a Pilates training context is when a visiting lecturer on my wife’s teacher training course is at our studio (she’s a big fan of cold exposure, too, and she truly glows with health).

I don’t believe that being able to differentiate oneself from teachers of other disciplines is a necessary part of being a Pilates teacher, but I do think it probably helps to have some clarity about what we can offer, and where we might fit in the grand scheme of exercise practices/movement disciplines. Perhaps something that separates me as a Pilates teacher from my friends who are CrossFit coaches is that I’m more likely to be approached by people who feel or are ‘broken’ in some way. And, I suspect, that many people who take up CrossFit have a clearer idea of what they’re getting into than a lot of people who may have been advised by their doctor/osteopath/physio etc. that they would benefit from Pilates.

So I guess I’m aligning myself with a notion of a Pilates teacher as a health coach with a strong movement bias. To be effective, I need to be clear (both in my mind and in speaking) about what I believe I can offer; I need to know my shit, that is, the repertoire, safe use of the apparatus, first aid, basic musculoskeletal anatomy, common conditions affecting that anatomy, implications of various mental health conditions, the biology of chronic pain, the physical effects of pregnancy/post-natal, and a basic grasp of the demands of a wide variety of sports and other activities.

I’m sure that I’ve forgotten something/s on the list of ‘stuff I need to know’ but it doesn’t much matter because, when it comes to teaching, what I need to know pales in comparison to my ability to communicate. To communicate with anyone who might walk through the door. Going back to Eve Gentry, you might know all the exercises and, yes, you might understand Pilates inside out, but if you’re not able to communicate with the person in front of you, none of that matters.

I’ve been lucky enough to attend a few Fighting Monkey workshops, and to discover that much of their movement practice is aimed at being a better communicator – I certainly have a lot more to learn, but I know that I had to look beyond the narrow confines of the Pilates world to confront this idea (more of this to follow).

Before I can communicate well I have to be able to reflect – I have to get to know myself better (and how fantastic that a movement practice can facilitate that!), and I have to have a growth mindset. I have to be willing to embrace my failures and find the seed of discovery within each one. I have to acknowledge my own fallibility. I have to ask myself tricky questions like: “What did I do that provoked that reaction?”.

To communicate well I have to be fully present – I have to feel grounded (and more on this to follow, too!). I have to understand the way that I move, my own compensations and limitations. I have to have a degree of confidence that includes being comfortable with what I know and what I don’t know. And I think I have to love what I’m doing. These are the selfish elements of communicating, or just half of the conversation, because I haven’t taken the other person into account yet.

For this I need to be curious, and I have to watch and LISTEN. What are the people I’m going to be teaching telling me (with words, tone, posture, facial expression and movement) before they’ve set foot in the studio? I may have goals and objectives for their session and I’d better be ready to let them go, based upon what I see and hear. After all, it’s not as though I’m an actor or musician whom they’ve come to see perform. So it doesn’t matter how great a session plan I have, how ‘good’ my verbal cueing, imagery and tactile cueing is (The answer to ‘what’s the best cue?’ is always ‘it depends’) – all of those things have to be right for the person in front of me, on that day, at that time. so I need to do my very best to recognise the signs that I’m given to help me decide how to proceed. Listening also means being alert to the things that don’t get said, reading between the lines – clearly this has to be done with caution, and sensitivity – this is perhaps a mixture of intuition and speculation, and both of these things should be treated with a degree of caution (and cultivated over hours and years of working with people).

I was about to write: ‘If you’re a Pilates teacher reading this, and all of your clients/students are coming to your classes to work on their beach body, you may not recognise this.’ But I realised that the job is no different, even if the responsibilities may be less than I’m thinking. There have been a number of times that I’ve been truly humbled by the trust that a new client has put in me – I’m not medically trained (I just teach movement, for God’s sake!…and I’m male), yet the willingness that many people, women in particular, (when explaining why they’re taking up Pilates) have had to declare a variety of personal/intimate problems or challenges made me very aware of  how vulnerable some people may be making themselves in taking up Pilates. (For example, particularly if you’re a male teacher, you’d do well to know what the terminology around vaginal prolapse treatment/surgery is…..)

So if I have a new client who has been diagnosed with a “slipped disc”, and who has made it clear that they’re nervous about exercising, it doesn’t matter how many workshops I’ve taken, how many books I’ve read, or how many wonderful exercises I have up my sleeve, if they don’t feel safe. Which brings us back to my communication – everything that I’ve learned from the person I’m teaching – body language, what they say, how they say it, diagnoses etc. all has to inform my body language, what I say, and how I say it. Do they need more felt experience, or more explanation? Do they need some science? Or do they need humour? Can I relate what I need to say to what they’ve told me about their interests, or their job? How do I meet their needs and still stay on track with what I believe they need?

I believe that Pilates should empower people. I don’t believe that teachers ‘fix’ anything, nor do I believe that Pilates ‘fixes’ anything. The ‘fix’, whether it’s movement, mindset or something else, comes from the individual. Our job as teachers is to facilitate that self-healing, or self-discovery. If I am to be empowering, my communication also needs to encourage the idea that the client/student has the answers within them, rather than that I will give them the answers. If you believe that you have the answers, that you are the magician doing the magic to them, you may have clients for life, but I don’t think you’re teaching them Pilates.

If you’re anything like me, this is already a lot to take on board. Not daunting – it’s wonderful, but definitely something to be taken very seriously. I never understood the Pilates teacher who applied for a physiotherapy degree because she didn’t want to be “just a Pilates teacher” – like it was a bit of a Mickey Mouse profession. I may not have the knowledge of anatomy and physiology that a physiotherapist has (nor should I) but I do have a professional responsibility to be able to communicate clearly with a referring medical professional. Which leads me neatly to one more part of my responsibility – I have to be able to say “I don’t know”. It’ll definitely promote me to do some research, but it may be the greatest responsibility of all to be clear about my scope of practice AND to acknowledge what I don’t know.

 

Since we first took part in a Fighting Monkey workshop I’ve been trying to find ways to explain both what Fighting Monkey is, and why I’m so drawn to their (Jozef & Linda’s) work.

Having recently returned from 4 days of their ‘Anatomy of Injury’ workshop, I’m wrestling with these challenges again. (Maybe I should stop trying to explain or understand, but that’s not my nature.) If I understood Jozef correctly, they don’t feel that ‘Anatomy of Injury”, along with ‘Earthquake Architecture’ & ‘Anatomy of Events’ are the appropriate descriptors of their workshops – instead he offered 3 stories/allegories to explain what the workshops are about. So, movement workshops that are best described not by “you will learn how to….”, “you will acquire the tools to…” etc. but instead described by, for example, the story of the wolf and the tiger (in the abridged form: what is the wolf, and can you metamorphose into a tiger?). Yes, you will have to attend yourself to have an inkling of how the story informs the work.

In fact, I think that my need to articulate the what and why of FM is a selfish endeavour – the effort of putting the experience into words may enhance my own understanding and therefore fuel my future practice. The trouble is, to quote FM: “We can never know. Our knowledge is unreliable.” (Actually, a more accurate quote is “We can never know our knowledge is unreliable” – a subtle difference that I take great glee in – but the full stop in the first version is what was intended, I believe). However, rather than interpreting this as “I will never know the what or why of Fighting Monkey”, this is more an invitation to embrace uncertainty, and to be open to new, fresh, conflicting information, or possibilities. Again, “We can never know” – certainty makes us vulnerable, in the same way that “Any great system creates great deficiencies” (another Jozef F quote).

So, in Fighting Monkey’s ‘movement situations’, we face uncertainty with every change of partner. More than the ‘rules’ of the game, the environment is created by the interaction, so the environment might change dramatically simply by changing your partner. We may be encouraged to be more soft in our movement, but everyone’s soft is different – and there’s no obvious gender divide in interpretations of ‘soft’.

Many of the movement situations that FM offer are exhilarating, there’s smiles and breathless laughs as we switch partners, but the deep learning, or deep enquiry often comes later, for me. Whereas, at first, I might come away from one partner feeling frustrated or bemused because they ‘haven’t understood the game’ – I’m as inclined to question my own approach to the situation as I am theirs. So instead of, or perhaps soon after thinking “what an idiot!” I’m wondering what it was/is about me/my approach that elicited their response. And this was not my own discovery, this is what Jozef taught me in our first FM encounter – “What does this situation teach you about you, about the way your respond to challenges, obstacles and the unexpected?” There might be benefits to my co-ordiantion, control, range of movement etc. but these are secondary to me understanding myself better. And understanding myself better is part of the journey to peeling off the layers of stuff acquired over a lifetime that get in the way of being my self. (Somehow ‘my self’ feels different from ‘myself’ – ‘myself’ might be me as I normally am, or normally present ‘me’ to the world, and ‘my self’ might be the real me that I don’t readily confront).

FM offers opportunities to ‘know thyself’ both emotionally/psychologically and physically. Their standing practice (‘Zero forms’) can be understood as an invitation to sense your own inner workings – to feel how you feel: the beat of your heart, the blood pulsing through vessels; the communication of your joints; the quality of your breath; the weight of your parts. While I suspect that they (Jozef & Linda) don’t share my enthusiasm for evolutionary biology as the lens to best view human biology with, I like the notion that this was once an innate human skill, in a time when we had to hunt, and survive without doctors and hospitals. At the very least I think this is a skill that I would do well to devote some time to cultivating.

While there may well be some less physical/visceral self-discovery within the standing practice, the movement situations and, particularly, the co-ordinations are places in which I feel that I learn the most about myself from a personality/emotional aspect. I love the challenge of FM Co-ordinations almost as much as I hate them. Of course I don’t really hate them, but they make me frustrated, and sometimes angry. And THERE is the learning: how do I handle myself when things are going badly, when I’m feeling incompetent? A year ago I would have been inclined to give up – ‘this is for the dancers’, ‘they’re going so fast I can’t even see the basic steps, so it’s pointless to try’ etc. While I still get very frustrated, I now recognise Co-ordinations as a river that I have to jump in (if I’m going to get anywhere). For the most part I’ll be looking like a man on the verge of drowning, arms flailing and legs thrashing helplessly. But there may be fleeting moments when it feels as though I can swim, more like a dog than a fish, but even dogs can look efficient in the water, if not graceful. The river does not stop flowing, but it’s a river of opportunities (I apologise if this is becoming too corny an analogy) and if you stay standing on the side they will all pass you by. Unlike a real river, nothing bad will happen when I’m flailing – this is a safe space for failing/falling/flailing. Instead, if I’m smart and patient enough I might learn something about confronting challenges in my personal or professional life. This is not about strength, or range of movement, or agility but rather it is about humility and a willingness to expose yourself in front of others – to be yourself (though, to be honest, they’re probably not watching because they’re too busy with similar struggles).

All of my musing was given a fresh perspective when I started reading ‘Tao Te Ching’ (at the first FM workshop we attended I was surprised to hear this was the only book recommendation Jozef gave when asked for further reading suggestions, but back then I obviously didn’t have a good grasp on the path that we’d started down).

Rushing into action, you fail.

Trying to grasp things, you lose them.

Forcing a project to completion, 

you ruin what was almost ripe.

Therefore the Master takes action

by letting things take their course.

He remains as calm

at the end as at the beginning.

He has nothing

thus has nothing to lose.

What he desires is non-desire;

what he learns is to unlearn.

He simply reminds people

of who they have always been.

Things are starting to make much more sense – if the ‘Tao Te Ching’ is The Book of the Way then a Fighting Monkey workshop might be the Collaborative Movement Practice of the Way. It might be, because I think it’s perfectly possible to participate in an FM workshop and miss or ignore the philosophical, esoteric elements, and just have a really good time exploring movement with a diverse mix of people. However, it occurs to me that, if you are interested and able to look below the surface, a Fighting Monkey workshop is like the door at the back of the wardrobe into Narnia (Jozef as Aslan, and Linda as the White Witch has its appeal as an image but isn’t accurate or just), entering a parallel world of light and dark, where all is not as it seems and, having been there, you will be changed forever.

 

It’s not normal!

February 10, 2018 — Leave a comment

From Cirque de Soleil’s ‘Ovo’

One of my favourite Katy Bowman-isms is that ‘No-one is out of shape.’ All of us are in exactly the shape that our environment and our behaviour has led our system to create. Another idea that I find very useful is championed by Robb Wolf, author of ‘The Paleo Solution’ and ‘Wired to Eat’, namely that if you want to understand anything relating to the human body, you need to view it through the lens of evolutionary biology. An idea that I heard Dr Andreo Spina expand upon: homo sapiens evolved as hunter-gatherers. Our ancestors spent hundreds of thousands of years evolving according to the demands of hunter-gatherer existence. Our bodies are essentially the same as those of our h-g ancestors and, therefore, are wired to expect the same kind of activities/inputs. So, if you want to understand dysfunction, or function as well as possible, identify the things that you do that are NOT h-g activities, and find ways to mitigate the impact that those activities have on your function.

I have to admit to taking perverse delight, from time to time, in being told by someone I’m teaching that the movement I’m showing them is ‘not normal’, or even better, ‘not natural’. Mostly I enjoy this because it gives me an opportunity to explore, with the person I’m teaching, what they mean by normal, or natural.

It appears that we are very good at normalising dysfunction. For example, it’s normal that my back aches in the morning; or it’s normal that I always get indigestion, and have to take pills to control it; it’s normal that I can’t look over my shoulder when parking my car; it’s normal that I wear orthotics in my shoes to stop my ankle hurting etc. etc. In other words, ‘normal’ is used as a synonym for ‘usual’, or ‘habitual’ – much in the same way that ‘not natural’ is used instead of ‘not normal’ or ‘unusual’. I’m very used to hearing, when demonstrating scapular circling on all fours, for example, that it looks weird, it doesn’t look natural.

I was fortunate to see a Cirque de Soleil show recently, which included many moments of disbelief at what we were witnessing – definitely a lot of ‘not normal’ physical feats on display. This got me thinking about what the capacity of homo sapiens truly is, what are our natural attributes without the interference of industrialised/post-technological revolution culture, and the language and mindsets of limitation and fear. Perhaps the Cirque de Soleil artists ARE the ‘normal’ humans, doing things that we absolutely evolved to do, and I think it looks extraordinary because their skills are way beyond mine, just as me circling my scapulae around my ribcage seems to be beyond some of the people that I try to teach it to.

I know that if I don’t routinely express the full range of movement of a joint, the soft tissues and muscles around the joint will adapt to the reduced range that I am making use of. If I don’t fully lengthen and fully shorten a particular muscle, my nervous system will calibrate accordingly. My system’s perception of full range will now be less than my physiological full range (and, of course, my nervous system is in charge), so it will take considerable retraining to re-callibrate my system’s perception of full range to my actual full range.

A few years back, when I was regularly teaching an open level Pilates mat class, I began to realise that over months, and years, of accommodating what appeared to be the typical available ranges of movement of the group in the class, I was adapting exercises and movements to fit them. After perhaps two years of semi-consciously modifying movements it dawned on me that I was no longer teaching what I set out to teach but rather I was teaching, in some cases, a modification of a modification of a modification of the exercise. You might argue that, in adapting things to the ability of the attendees, I was being a responsible and inclusive teacher. However, I now look back and think that I was actually resetting ‘normal’ for most of those people. Instead of showing them the possibility of more, and helping them to achieve it, I was actually helping to reduce their options. I never stopped intending to teach people to the best of my ability, I wasn’t being lazy, or uncaring – instead I think I’d lost sight of the difference between natural and normal, or between natural and usual, or most common.

It’s a terrible (and terribly true) cliche that the magic happens outside one’s comfort zone. I think that ‘normal’ is a part of fortress comfort – the very high walls of fortress comfort, in fact – concealing from us the possibilities that, rather than being bizarre or outlandish (‘women doing push-ups! ludicrous!’) were our birthright, as in, we were born to do them. Heck, why not call them ‘gifts’ instead of ‘abilities’ – we are given the gift of life, and part of that gift is a physicality that has astounding potential. As Ido Portal has said, of all the animals, we will never be the fastest runners, the best climbers, fliers, diggers etc. but we can do a bigger combination of these, and so many more things, better than any other animals can.

Ido Portal famously proposed that we should train ourselves in improper alignment, and I believe that this is another way of saying ‘reset normal’ or, better yet, ‘expand normal’. Functional training sounds very sensible and rational (though good luck with finding a clear definition) but, to use the most basic explanation of the term, training to make the activities of daily life easier doesn’t sound like it’s going to be pushing many boundaries. As the Mayo clinic suggests in their description of functional training, squats are great preparation for sitting down and getting up again – and I don’t think that they were trying to be funny… It appears that functional can be code for ‘normal’ – and functional training is to make you better at doing the stuff that you normally do. It’s almost completely at odds with Ido’s argument because, by definition, it doesn’t aim to expand on what is normal, for you. I have heard Jozef Frucek, of Fighting Monkey fame, argue that rather than ‘functional training’, we are better off doing non-functional training if we want to be better able to handle what life throws at us. (Fascinatingly, to me, he also suggests not to ‘do your best’, because that will result in you doing what you usually (normally) do, so trying something other than ‘your best’ instead.

To carry on quoting Jozef (I’m writing this just days after spending 4 days listening to him), “diversity breeds immunity”. To suit the point that I’m trying to make, I might twist this into “normality breeds vulnerability”. So if we’re presented with an activity, or an idea, that provokes a “That’s not normal” response, maybe we’ll be best served by pausing long enough to suppress that response, and discovering what possibilities, and potential benefits ‘not normal’ has to offer us.

 

 

 

The longer I teach, the more bizarre the exhortation “listen to your body” seems to be, to me. Of course, I understand why teachers of movement might say this, or rather, (I think) I understand what they would like to convey. Autonomy and personal responsibility are terrific ideas to be reinforcing when teaching but there seem to be two significant problems with “listen to your body”.

The first is that it reinforces a Cartesian notion of mind and body as distinct entities. Perhaps this is a problem with Joseph Pilates’ philosophy – the very notion of integrating mind, body and spirit through movement relies on the possibility that they are separate to begin with. I first heard “I do not have a body, I am a body” spoken by Jaap van der Wal. I’m not sure if he’s quoting someone else – I’ve seen it attributed to Christopher Hitchens as well. Whoever said it first, this phrase jolted me into attention – the idea of humans having hardware and software is attractive in its simplicity but is false – your brain is not a computer, nor is it distinct from the other organs and tissues of your structure. I was reminded of this recently while watching the video of the Q&A session following the London premiere of ‘Ido Portal: Just Move‘, in which Ido says “I do not listen to my body, I am my body”.

I may well be labouring the point by now but this seems to be a crucial idea for a movement practice. An animal moving through the savanna is engaged in being, a system of systems, all inter-related. To reduce their movement to instructions from the brain is to grossly oversimplify the processes occurring, not least because all the other organs and tissues are integral to the brain’s activity. (For more on internal communication try this). While we may have made huge modifications to our environment (mostly for the sake of moving less, or in less complex ways) we are still animals: human beings.

The second problem is that the people that seem most in need of this sort of instruction – to listen to their body – may well be those who we might say are the least embodied, who have ‘weaker’ proprioception. I think, if we say “listen to your body” what we really mean is “accurately decipher the information your brain receives and respond appropriately”, which immediately sounds more complicated.

I imagine we might say “listen to your body” to someone we suspect might find some movements frightening, or painful. The trouble is that they are probably the ones who are least able to make good sense of their nervous system’s inputs. You probably already know this intuitively – that proprioception and nociception are inversely correlated – when one goes up the other goes down. If we have compromised proprioception we are more likely to interpret sensory information as pain, and vice versa.

“Listen to your body” might be easily said, but if you’re a teacher it might be the most difficult instruction that you give in an hour long class. So what to do? What outcome do you want from the “LTYB” instruction. As I alluded above, I think that it’s an invitation or encouragement to feel personally responsible in a class – to not act blindly and do whatever the teacher says, but to self-evaluate and participate in exercises to a level that fits with that evaluation. In other words, “Trust your instincts”, though we might also mean “Please don’t hurt yourself”, which we could reframe as “Please don’t do anything foolish.” I suspect that “trust your instincts” sounds more familiar than “listen to your body”.

If you’re asked to “listen to your body” and you have no sense of what that really means, wouldn’t you feel incompetent, or out of your depth? Would that make you more or less likely to voice any anxiety or uncertainty? “I don’t understand what you mean” might take a lot of courage – in my experience it takes a confident person to voice that in class.

I tend to think that, if a student doesn’t understand me, it’s invariably my fault. That’s to say, it’s my responsibility as the teacher to find an appropriate way of communicating for that student (and all the others). They are responsible for their own actions in the class, and I am responsible for facilitating their self-actualisation. Instead of telling them to listen to their body, I must try to teach them how. I think we (Pilates teachers) can too easily fall into the habit of giving instructions – engage your powerhouse/core/centre; stabilise your spine; engage your glutes etc. – without telling people how. I’m inclined to think that this is lazy teaching, gives people a distorted impression of how to move, and fails to give people tools for becoming independent (it’s probably worth a separate post). These kind of instructions seem to me to be trying to mould unconscious reflexes into conscious actions and I’m not at all sure that this is a good idea. Instead, we should be creating environments/situations which stimulate the reflexes to stabilise, and to move.

What are the tools we can use, and share with the people we teach, to help them know themselves better? To have greater awareness of their physicality? I’m sure there are many, and I’m sure you know plenty already. Could we more usefully use these and avoid the need to say “listen to your body”?

 

Image from seniroplanet.org

Like moths to a flame, we were drawn back to Turku to attend another movement workshop. All our previous trips have been for Ido Portal workshops but this time it was for Fighting Monkey. FM has been on our radar for a few years, though I can’t remember how we first heard of it. The first video I saw was shot outdoors and my memory is that it looked like a roadside, rough ground and people looking like they were, near enough, fighting. The rumours were that, if you were in to movement, this was the real shit.

Fast forward a few years and FM have some really high quality, seductive video. It’s hard to explain why (this will be a theme), but after 30 seconds of someone manipulating a wooden sphere I knew for certain that I wanted to sign up for their week long intensive in Slovakia (in addition to the upcoming weekend in November we were already booked on). Would Anoushka and I be suitable ‘material’ for such an event? I emailed Fighting Monkey and had a reply from Jozef (he and his wife, Linda, are Fighting Monkey), to say something like “If you’re ready for hard work you are welcome”. That first interaction was a pleasant surprise (email IP Method and it will not be Ido who replies), it felt like ‘ hey, if you’re interested in what we do them we’re friends already’.

But, dammit, there was a spanner in the works – an unmissable family event right in the middle of the intensive week. So, much as we love our routine visit to Turku, it was a can’t-go-to-the-intensive consolation, more than the irresistibility of Finland’s former capital.

So, there we were, usual hotel next to the Baltic (a very refreshing 18 degrees after a day’s play), usual morning drive through the woods into the city but, instead of the usual CrossFit box venues of Ido workshops, this time we were heading for (I think) a folk dance pavilion.
A couple of FM followers greet us warmly, and Jozef tells us that we’re lucky, that a group of only 20 is very unusual, so we will get a lot of attention. I don’t remember much more preamble before we were in pairs playing games on the floor (and getting filthy – don’t those folk dancers ever sweep the floor?) One of the focuses of FM training is ‘body-body’ work, on the basis that interacting with another human creates endless variables (especially if you keep changing partners) that you have to react to. So simple tasks like ‘I’m going to stay sitting on my butt while s/he tries to manoeuvre me onto my back’ have extraordinary complexity, and have the potential to teach you a lot more than repeating specific drills.

The parameters, or rules of the games kept changing, along with the partners, and I was amazed to find that 2 hours had passed when we paused to sit in a circle, to share observations and learn FM principles from Jozef. This was the pattern for the weekend: movement punctuated with feedback and theory/philosophy. While Jozef spoke often about athletic performance he also related a lot of the physical practice to rehabilitation scenarios. This workshop was “Anatomy of Injury” (not my favourite title, I must admit) – Jozef made it clear that the different FM workshops have a lot of overlap – and one of the themes was becoming less prone to injury. Ido’s ‘The Corset’, with its ‘armour for your whole body’ subtitle, represented a more positive heading, or description, for me. And this makes for a useful comparison, I realise, because FM’s work and message is almost the exact opposite of The Corset, and Ido. Whereas, I learned an amazing range of drills and exercises (that will carry on serving me for years) on The Corset, FM is very much about learning principles that you can apply broadly – like learning a language as opposed to learning a lot of vocabulary. Crucially, Jozef makes it clear that the learning comes from you, answers are rarely given or imposed upon you. You learn by solving the problem yourself, instead of being given solutions. So you try one thing and if it doesn’t work you try another. You persist, you repeat, you allow your brain the time to decode what it’s seeing.

This is part of why it feels difficult to describe what FM is, because it certainly does not seem to be a prescribed sequence of activities. I learned from one of the guys who’d been following FM that the content is different every time. Again, trying to illustrate by comparison, if you see their respective websites the names are ‘Ido Portal METHOD’, and ‘Fighting Monkey PRACTICE’.
One element that was very tangible, and novel for me, was the concept of a “zero form” as an awareness and feedback tool. A posture (standing, sitting) or activity, for a certain duration, that you use to develop your proprioception and sense of homeostasis. So part of the strategy of training intelligently is to have the ability to recognise what type or intensity of training will be appropriate for you on a given day. And how is your body responding to the training you did yesterday? In the age of highly sophisticated electronic devices and software that can gather endless metrics about us this is a beautifully primal, animal idea to me. Much more embodied than relying on a Fitbit to tell you your health status. I’m somewhat shocked at how novel this is to me: I’m all about primal lifestyle, nutritious movement, ancestral health and all that jazz. Apparently I’ve been seriously switched off, and this idea alone was worth the trip.

So what else did we do? ‘Coordinations’ that, thanks to some previous exposure, no longer throw me into a state of total panic, but still can cause my brain to feel like it’s jammed, and has to be reset – it’s almost like feeling synapses failing within my head. Jozef moves rhythmically across the room, demonstrating a pattern of steps while his arms whirl and trunk rotates, and we try to follow. I won’t deny that there’s still some profane verbalisation on my part but I now know that running from the room, roaring with rage will not serve me well. (What is Fighting Monkey? Downloading Jay-Z to help remember the two-step/swinging/throwing pattern you did earlier, in your hotel room at 10pm. That’s Fighting Monkey.)

We had a variety of encounters with the ’practice ball’, both standing and on the ground (It’s okay – it’s not that they don’t sweep the floor, all that dust is potato starch, for more glide in your folk-dance stride, apparently). Some of it looking like combat, some of it looking like contemporary dance. We also practiced a standing sequence of joint articulation (aha! Something specific!), and attempted to manipulate small wooden blocks with our feet. In both cases Jozef’s assertion that “Feet as strong as a worker’s hands” is essential for athletic legs was ringing in my ears. And we sat in the circle, listening and talking.

An interesting measure of this experience for me is that, unlike any other workshop I’ve attended before, there was nothing that we did that I will try to teach to anyone else straight away. That’s not the stuff that I was learning. I think that Fighting Monkey is the people behind it, and their cumulative practice and exploration. I’ve never worked with someone who seemed as steeped in the work as Jozef, and I have to assume that, since they’ve evolved FM together, the same will be true when I meet Linda. Jozef is an extraordinary teacher, with a great ability to read the group and manage the rhythm of the day – playfulness, focus, intensity. I’d be very surprised to hear that anyone there felt that we did too much of any one thing. I’ve met teachers who love their work so much that they lose themselves and forget to be the teacher, but Jozef, in spite of gleefully declaring that he loves a game we played so much that it makes him salivate, was always present, aware and ready to help anyone who was struggling (and also able to recognise when to give room for self-discovery). It’s too simplistic to say “he seems like a really nice guy” – he is very generous, with his time, energy, attention. I’ve rarely met anyone who seems as grounded as Jozef (grounded as in “I know exactly who I am, and I’m at peace with myself”) and I think this has huge significance in a teacher.

I’ve appreciated workshops that were scaled to accommodate different abilities – “if this is too much then stick with that” – but there was none here. It’s only dawned on me in writing this but I think this is a crucial part of FM – while we may have struggled with the Coordinations, for example, we were always in it together, as a group. No one was left behind, because it’s not that kind of practice/training. Everyone tries to find their way, and if you are struggling with something you’re encouraged to reflect on how it feels and how it relates to you response to other challenges in your life. Because, and here is the Big Thing:

Fighting Monkey is about being a better person.

It’s not about fitness, or being a better mover. It’s about being a better communicator. Jozef states that your health is measured by your ability to form relationships. To continue the comparison with Ido (which truly does neither party justice but is convenient – sorry) in the recent film Ido declares that it’s important to realise that there is no meaning (to all the movement), which is clearly in sharp contrast to ‘being a better person’. This made for a more profound, harder to define kind of experience than I’ve had in any movement workshop. And, while I’m going to need to practice, observe and reflect for a while before I can contemplate sharing anything that we did, it feels as though I’ll still be learning from it for years to come.

Paying my respects

August 12, 2017 — 1 Comment

More happy coincidences – a day after I watched part of the video of the Q&A session following the “Ido Portal: Just Move” film, Facebook reminded me that 3 years ago I posted this picture, taken in a CrossFit box in Turku, Finland at the end of 4 days (2 back to back seminars) training with Ido.

A great deal has happened in my life since then, not least 3 more visits to Turku to participate in 4 more of Ido’s seminars. (If you’d like to learn specifics I’ve written about each these visits here, here, here and here). Over that time I’ve been exposed to a lot more ideas around the subject of movement, and a variety of practices. Perhaps it’s always the case that, in seeing something shiny and new, one forgets, or feels less enamoured with what has come before but the photographic reminder of an earth-shattering first exposure to Ido’s work, personality and philosophy, coupled with the many insights to be found in the two films reminded me of how much I owe to this man.

The last seminar of Ido’s that my wife and I attended was ‘Locomotion’, and it left a mark different from the 5 I’d attended prior to it. The truth is that I wasn’t ready for it – the content of all the others had been scaleable, to accommodate a broad range of capability/capacity in the participants, but in Locomotion I felt that in missing some of the basics I was stuck. (Nowadays I think that a full depth pistol squat is basic capacity, but at the time I had let this slip, and was missing a few other basic positions). We were very used to travelling to Ido’s seminars and working very hard, but this was brutal and my reaction to the suffering, and perhaps the feeling of frustration/inadequacy encouraged some cynicism with regard to the content. It was easy for me to see a foundational structure as being too prescriptive – discouraging self-expression in favour of collecting component movements. (Perhaps it was no accident that the next movement workshop we attended after Locomotion was Tom Weksler’s much looser ‘Movement Archery’).

Ido’s seminars were more expensive than others we’ve attended and I was uncomfortable with signing non-disclosure agreements. It’s not something that I’ve had to do at any other movement workshop, and it seems to imply ownership of material which Ido himself was quick to acknowledge had been gathered from all sorts of sources. If nothing else I felt that some other presenters were less protectionist.

As Ido says in the Q&A referenced above, true intelligence is characterised by the ability to hold contradictory views in one’s mind, and as I said above, my first exposure to Ido’s work was earth-shattering. It burst, and shot me out of my bubble so far and fast that for the first 24 hours afterwards I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to go back to my ‘day job’ of teaching Pilates. Not because he had disparaged Pilates (though he had shared a dim view of Pilates teachers’ enthusiasm for certain abdominal cueing/emphasis), or any other practice, but because the breadth of his approach made me realise how little I knew, and how little I’d explored what’s possible.

Discovering, or rather being shown what I had overlooked was a powerful catalyst. And to say I had ‘overlooked’ aspects of movement possibilities is not really accurate – it suggests that they may have been in my peripheral vision but I’d chosen not to look more closely. The things that Ido (and team) showed me over that first 4 days, and subsequent encounters, were nowhere close to being on my radar before then. We also achieved feats of strength and endurance during those days that showed me something more about myself, and that I’ll feel proud of for a long time to come. If I had the will (I want to write “and the time” but I know that making the time is merely a product of will), I have learned the tools, protocols, drills and methods to keep achieving, and surpassing those feats. I think that those first 4 days were the beginning of me recognising the difference between doing and being – between going through the motions and embodying motion. If any of that last sentence resonates with you then you will know that this is a ‘game-changer’. For me it has been both personally and professionally.

This is the motivation for writing this post – watching Ido speak reminds me of what a huge impact his thoughts and methods have had on how I think, move and teach. Embodying movement (forgive me if this seems vague, I do not have another way of expressing this sense at the moment) is a product of, and/or makes for a more intuitive (less paralysis by analysis) approach to moving, and I can’t overstate its value.

Having done workshops with others who have a more freestyle, expressive approach to movement than my experience of Ido’s seminars, it was tempting for me to feel that I had ‘moved on’, that he has nothing more to offer to me. Ridiculous! This was ego creeping in, or self-defense – pretending to myself that the punishment of ‘Locomotion’ was a failing of the material, rather than my own shortcomings. Could one find fault with what Ido delivers? Of course (and I suspect he would be quick to agree), but I think it’s hard to find fault with the quality of the delivery, or to question the sincerity and commitment of his team.

The short version: if you’re AT ALL curious about a brand spectrum approach to movement (especially if, like I was, you’re a single discipline practitioner,) you will have so much to gain from learning from Ido and/or his team. Like me, you may find that the exposure leads you to people/places that you didn’t know existed, and teach you things about yourself that will serve you for a lifetime.

 

 

Playing with Rafe

June 15, 2016 — 1 Comment

Reflections on The Evolve Move Play Movement Experience13417541_10154055668085041_3195942729181525650_n

I’d first enquired about this seminar in December 2015, so I’d been looking forward to it for a while. When the day came, and a group of us began to assemble on the edge of Hampstead Heath (like a minimalist footwear convention – Vivo Barefoot just edging Vibram Five Fingers in popularity) I realised that I had really no idea what we were in for. Rafe Kelly, the creator of Evolve Move Play, was quick to introduce himself but that was the only thing that set him apart from the rest of the group – no pedestal here.

We were a disparate group, from (I guess) mid-20s to mid-50s, and a mix of everything from complete novice to seasoned outdoor natural movers. The only parallel that I have for this seminar is Ido Portal’s ‘Movement X’ and already it was a very different experience. Part of that was the environment, for sure, but it was less businesslike – not chaotic at all, but less orderly. I love the structure of Ido’s seminars, and the authoritative delivery works well for me, so this is not a league table of seminars at all. Rafe (my computer is delightfully determined that his name should be corrected to ‘Safe’) certainly speaks and teaches with clarity and great conviction but there’s something else – I’m trying not to write “chilled”, or “laid-back” because they’re not the right words – perhaps it’s a lack of ego.

The weather determined the order of activities, so after a warm-up game of Zen Archer (my favourite, and especially fun on uneven terrain) we are quickly learning how to fall efficiently, and from there, how to roll. I should have been more sensible on my first real uneven ground outdoor training experience but exuberance got the better of me and I managed to mis-roll badly enough that my shoulder and arm were rendered fairly useless. Not good timing with the tree-climbing element about to begin. I do better than I used to, I think, but it’s still hard for me to hang on to a growth mindset and not feel that the world has effectively ended in these situations, so my thoughts on the remaining hours of our first day are a little clouded. I do know that Rafe and his team were great at enabling everyone there, from the high achievers to the injured novices, and great at reinforcing the underlying message that the activities we were engaged in were the things that we have evolved to do, thus our bodies instinctively respond to the environment. It’s easy to believe him when Rafe says that he’s seen people learn complex and challenging movements more readily in nature than in the gym. The philosophy of ‘moving like a human’ makes sense in my body, not just my head.

A sleepless night followed, unable to get comfortable for any length of time, and by the morning I’d decided that I couldn’t face being a wet and cold observer of everyone else’s fun. Happily for me my wife knows me very well, and forbids my self-pity. Our meeting point on day 2 is deeper into the Heath, and in a dark patch of woods. True to the forecast, it’s raining, and I understand why the higher tree climbing happened on day 1, it would be too risky in this wether. The tree branches are lower and we warm up moving through the trees at a low level, over and under branches (or just slowly along the low ones, in my case). I quickly realised that being barefoot was the best strategy and now wonder if that contact with the earth was a part of what lifted my mood.

We were split into groups to practice vaulting over branches, with Rafe, Ben and Rutger circulating and giving advice and encouragement. Lots of opportunities for practice and experimentation, and then the whole group being bought back together to add a new challenge, or to reinforce a coaching point or principle.

I’m loathe to get into describing everything that we did, so I’ll leave it at the rest of the day involved rough-housing (the British might call this ‘rough and tumble’) and edge of comfort zone testing play fighting; joint mobility; breath work; and meditation. Suffice it to say, if you’re contemplating joining an EMP seminar then go ahead and do it – I guarantee you’ll have fun. It was most fascinating for me to find how my mood changed, and the pain in my shoulder receded, as the day went on. I think was a product of the environment, the activity and also Rafe’s teaching style.

Rafe has clearly studied the art/skill of teaching in depth. He’s quick to acknowledge his own teachers, and especially quick to acknowledge his own flaws and vulnerabilities. I think this is the single thing that distinguished this from other workshops that I’ve attended – Rafe’s willingness to share his personal experience, and ability to acknowledge when his ego surfaced made for a liberated learning space. I’m used to discovering my lack of physical capacity, and having my (professional) world view challenged at Ido’s seminars, but this taught my something about myself at another level, and I’m very grateful for that.

At the end of day one, while feeling sorry for myself, I knew that I liked Rafe’s philosophy/idealogy, but didn’t think I wanted to embrace tree-climbing and outdoor training. At the end of day two both of us knew that we wanted to spend more time in nature, and to spend more time being playful. I’m sure now that we’ll be climbing trees in future.

I’ve hardly slept at all and my alarm goes off. It’s 3.45am. Bleary eyed I pull back the curtains and the Baltic Sea looks glassily calm and beautiful in the dawn light. I make my way into the bathroom and have a fraction of a second of feeling superheroic when I appear unusually ‘chiseled’ in my reflection. Bleary eyed, like I said. Quick shower and I find blood on the towel. Not superheroic after all – the skin on my wrists has been flayed.
I’m in Turku, Finland and it’s the morning after 2 days of “Upper Body Strength” (Level 1), according to the Ido Portal method. I feel elated, and all of my senses seem heightened, despite the sleep deprivation. I don’t know how much this is influenced by the stunning, sunrise scenery as I drive to Helsinki but for sure a lot of the emotion is a result of the intensity of the seminar, and while I’m driving I know that later I will need to write about the experience, for my own sake but also to attempt to help others understand why they should stop finding excuses, or putting it off, and sign up for one of Ido’s seminars.

The best way that I can describe the feeling is of being ‘charged’.

Physically charged because I’ve put my body through about 16 hours of training in two days and feel strong, as well as sore. That sort of training load is a daily occurrence for the teachers leading and assisting on the seminar, but I haven’t worked that hard since, er, June last year, when I was last in Turku attending the Movement X and Handbalancing seminars.

Mentally charged because I have had so much stimulus in terms of thinking about how I move, and how I teach, and what’s possible with the right application and mindset.

Emotionally charged because of the above, and because the camaraderie of working as part of the group, and with other individuals in the group is a powerful thing. We won’t all be friends for ever, of course. Being me, I’m bound to feel slightly impatient with the attitude or questions of some of the group, but in general it’s impossible not to admire many of my fellow participants. There were a lot of strong people there, and plenty of people who are not yet so strong but embrace and fully immerse themselves in the work. I wish I was surrounded by people like this all the time. Special mention goes to my workout partner for the weekend, helping me maintain a tradition of always being partnered with a Belgian, in spite of my wife’s absence – you were an inspiration, dank u wel.

I’ve talked to a lot of people I’ve met about Ido’s seminars, and a number of them have said “I’d love to do that but I’m not ready”, or “I’ll never reach that level”. I guess that this is an impression that is created by YouTube videos of very strong people doing astonishing things, yet at the seminars I’ve attended every movement or exercise has been scaled so that everyone can participate fully, whatever level they’re at. In fact, having watched some of the videos since the seminar I’m not just thinking “Wow, that’s incredible.”, I’m also thinking “I know the steps to take to achieve that.” I may never achieve a full planche, or a full front lever but that will only be through lack of training time on my part, and with some training, following the steps that I’ve learned, I’ll get to where I deserve to be.

I’ve written before now about the quality of the seminars’ structure so won’t say more about that here. Suffice it to say that I’ve now experienced 3 different teachers, and 3 different assistants, and they have all bought something special to the experience. I’m happy I met Ido at my first seminar and, with all respect, at subsequent seminars I haven’t had a moment of feeling that his presence was missing.

I would recommend starting with Movement X (my new Belgian friend described discovering that it’s possible to cry with happiness at Movement X, and if you’ve been I bet you know when that was…). I’d also say that the Corset is a MUST, and highly recommend
Handbalancing, and Upper Body Strength. I’ll let you know about Locomotion after September – but let’s just say that we’ve been looking forward to it for the last 2 years.

And hey, if you get up early enough the next day, the lighting’s right (and maybe you’re a bit dehydrated) you might look like a superhero, too.

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