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Is Pilates Really Enough?

February 5, 2016 — 9 Comments

This is a question that seems to crop up amongst teachers from time to time, with supporters on either side of the argument. Benjamin Degenhardt reminded me last year that what Joseph Pilates was interested in, was promoting, was overall health. He was concerned with a bigger picture than ‘core stability’, or ‘fitness’ in the gym-focused/endurance event sense (“She’s really fit, she’s run a marathon.”) that tends to be the dominant interpretation these days.

So does the regular practice of Pilates provide everything necessary to be considered fit, in a holistic sense? Perhaps the truth is that it depends. We might run into problems with definitions of the word ‘fit’. I’ve written about this before but, to save you reading more, I like: “greater tolerance to shifts in environmental parameters and biologically mediated challenges” (words by Suzanne Scott). I also like to think of fitness in terms of a capacity to express one’s full homo sapien potential – “are you human?”, if you like. Where being human means, to borrow from Kelly Starrett, that you can squat to take a pooh in the woods; and, to borrow from Katy Bowman, you can pull your own weight with your arms, which is to say you can do a pull-up. While they may not be very common, these are normal things for a human to be doing. (Please check in with yourself here – have you started making a list of reasons for not being able to squat/pull-up? or a list of people whom you know who have good reason to not be able to do one or both of these things? If so, why did you do that?)

Some other expressions of being human: walking, running, crawling, climbing, swimming, playing, dancing (the last two perhaps equalling physically engaging with other humans). And, beyond the realm of movement, to do what’s required in order to eat nutrient-dense foods from a variety of sources; to tolerate a range of temperatures (as in the definition of fitness above).

I got started in writing this because I sometimes feel, when working with teachers in training, and running a studio where a number of people teach, that I want those teachers to believe in more than teaching Pilates, or to see that their mission could/should encompass more than knowing the Pilates repertoire inside out, and being able to teach it to others (though this would be a good start).

In an interview last year Kelly Starrett said:

“Squat down, feet together, knees together, heels down. Can you do that? Yes? No? If you can’t do that you’re missing full hip and or ankle range of movement. That’s the mechanism for your hip impingement, for your plantar fasciitis, for your bunions, for your pulled calf. That is the £*@<ing problem, and you should be obsessing about it.”

You. Should. Be. Obsessing. About. It. You should be obsessing about it. Let’s hope you don’t have bunions or any of those others, nevertheless, if you’re not able to express your full range of movement, you should be be obsessing about it. Can’t squat to the floor? Obsessing. Can’t do one pull-up? Obsessing. If anything is less than optimal you should be doing something about it.

I’m sure it’s not to everyone’s taste, but I always enjoy the way Kelly expresses himself. If you have a look at what he’s involved with you will see that Kelly is clearly trying to reach a lot of people, and a ‘black and white’ delivery probably works best for that. I suspect that a lot of Pilates professionals are anxious not to judge, or be judged, which is nice but I don’t believe I’m alone in sometimes needing to be told “what you’re doing is not good enough”. Self-acceptance, as in not hating yourself, is surely to be encouraged; self-acceptance, as in ‘this is as good as it’s going to get’ should surely be discouraged.

I don’t believe that Joseph thought it was enough to do his exercises. After all, he left us with instructions for how to shower properly (I’m not sure that it’s on YouTube but if you look hard enough I’m sure you can find the film). Never mind the biologically mediated challenges – do you have optimal tolerance to shifts in environmental parameters? No? Then Pilates will be a good start, but you’ll need more.

 

PS. Comments are very welcome, but will not be seen by the author on Facebook. If you would like to start a conversation with me please use the blog comments section.

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I do Movement, Part 3

September 13, 2015 — Leave a comment

Or, if you haven’t already, you really should attend an Ido Portal workshop.

I’ve already written (here and here) in the immediate aftermath of attending Movement X and The Corset, and then Movement X and Handbalancing and have been thinking for a while of trying to express my lasting appreciation for those experiences. I was galvanised into action by Ido’s ‘Day of the Teacher’ post on Facebook.

I wish this could be one of those “6 months of online coaching” posts, but I’m afraid that I have not felt able to make that commitment. So, if you’re like me and thinking “I can’t make that commitment quite yet” then I’m writing this to let you know that what you learn by attending Ido’s workshops will last you a long time, making them very easily the best value for money of any personal/professional development courses that I’ve done. Affordability is certainly relative, and if cost is an issue I won’t tell you that you can afford it, just that you really should. Not only is the content ‘gold’, it is delivered with a level of skill and professionalism that is, I believe, unusual in the sphere of movement workshops. I’m in the midst of a course in teaching adults and know that your own skill and knowledge counts for only a small percentage of your ability to teach. I’m almost more impressed by the quality of the delivery than the quality of the content.

To pick out a single example, once or twice per week my wife and I follow the handstand training plan that we learned at the Handbalancing workshop, and every time I marvel at how effective it is. I’ve made a lot of progress in the 3 months since we attended the workshop and I’m in no doubt that I’d be far ahead if I managed to make it 3/4 times per week. And this is just a small portion of what we learned over two days. It is, if you’ll pardon the cliche, the gift that keeps on giving.

Movement X blew my mind, and changed my entire perspective on movement and what’s possible for me, and for the people that I teach. The Corset has given me tools for every conceivable joint prep/mobility challenge and I’ll be exploring that material for years to come. So much gratitude to my teachers Ido, John and Odelia, and Josef (he was teaching a different method when I met him, and I still have good memories). I hope to be your student again soon.

 

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Stott Reformers For Sale

September 13, 2015 — 1 Comment

IMG_2469 We are changing the reformers in our studio, in keeping with the way that our teaching is changing, so have 2 Stott ‘Studio’ reformers for sale. They were called Studio reformers when we bought them 7 years ago, though the same model is now called the V2 Max.

They have been very well maintained and are in excellent condition. One has 4 red springs and 1 blue spring, the other has 3 red springs, one blue and one white spring. We are including sitting boxes and jump boards. The sitting boxes have some minor nicks to the upholstery around the base.

The reformers will be available for collection from Ealing, London W5 (UK) at the end of October.

PRICE £2000 each

You can see the current UK price list for Stott apparatus here.

Please email mike@pilatesinmotion.org for more information.

 

 

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Easy answer….

I first heard the word carnism about a year ago, along with a brief definition: “a term used by psychologist Melanie Joy and others to describe the ideology that supports the use of animals for food, including meat. The argument holds that carnism is a dominant belief system supported by a variety of defence mechanisms and mostly unchallenged assumptions.
At the time it was easy for me to dismiss. As an enthusiastic omnivore I had little patience for what appeared to be an attempt by vegans to stigmatise something I consider to be entirely natural.

More recently I was reminded of the concept and something (probably that the reminder came via someone that I like and know to be both sincere and humble) made me reflect on the concept for a while.

Research suggests that beginning to eat meat 2 to 3 million years ago was what triggered an increase in the brain size of early hominids and made possible the evolutionary jump to homo-sapiens. The excellent “The Story of the Human Body” by Daniel E. Lieberman clearly describes this element of our evolutionary trajectory. Interestingly, other research also suggests that raw diets cannot grow or sustain big brains in a species, thus cooking also made us human.

The concept of meat eating as a belief system seems like quite a big idea. One that separates the behaviour from instinct or socialisation and proposes that viewing animals as food is akin to a religion. A religion that most of us have unconsciously subscribed to.

I’m assuming that the term carnist (a follower of the carnism belief system) is usually intended as a perjorative. Carnivore seems to be a perfectly adequate word to describe a meat eater. That said, if you describe yourself as a vegan it carries a meaning beyond ‘herbivore’ and suggests a belief system – if you base your diet and lifestyle choices on a belief system I guess it’s natural to frame other choices in the same way. So perhaps my knee jerk initial rejection was unreasonable.

Here’s what I’m left with: If the research can be trusted, our brains are as big as they are and thus able to wrestle with philosophical and ethical problems (that our primate cousins appear not to have time for) because our ancestors ate meat. So we owe our very existence, and our capacity (never mind the luxury of time spent doing things other than gathering and chewing) to think deeply about our behaviour, to the practice of eating meat.

Could anyone have coined the term ‘carnism’ without the hominid and human practice of eating meat? Framing language and philosophies to critique meat-eating our actually a luxury afforded to our species by meat-eating. Ironic, no?

Ten months on from my first ‘live’ exposure to Ido Portal and his work, I’m sitting in a plane on the way home from another four days of the Ido Portal method in Finland. I’m writing to help me make sense of my thoughts/feelings, and to perhaps offer some advice/suggestions to the uninitiated.

Last year my wife and I took both the ‘Movement X’ and ‘The Corset’ workshops, delivered by Ido and Odelia. Those four days were extraordinary, to the extent that, in the immediate aftermath, I wasn’t sure that I would be able to resume teaching Pilates. I had heard Ido on a podcast describe people crying, and saying Movement X was life changing. At the time I’d been sceptical but, depending on the degree to which you can surrender to and engage with what’s being taught, I’m certain that ‘life-changing’ is a possibility. (You can read about that first experience here).

This year we signed up to repeat ‘Movement X’ and to do the ‘Hand Balancing’ workshops. It was great to be back in Turku, and we were curious to see how different ‘Movement X’ would feel second time around – would we hear the same jokes and stories? Would the material have changed? As they arrived I instantly recognised Odelia, and in the same instant that I registered that Ido was not there, recognised John from a YouTube clip I’d seen of a jaw-dropping one-arm ring routine. I have cherished the experience with Ido and surprised myself that I didn’t feel any disappointment that he wasn’t there. (The promotional material usually makes it clear that workshops will be presented by members of the team – there’s no guarantee that Ido will be there). I knew for sure that we were in for a new experience.

The chemistry between Odelia and Ido seemed like something very special last year, and I feel very lucky that we had the chance to see and feel it in action. Of course, the combination of Odelia and John was different, and I really enjoyed Odelia leading the sessions, which hadn’t happened before. Much has been said about Odelia and her teaching before, suffice it to say that she is an extraordinary woman and a wonderful teacher – her seriousness and expectation tempered by her warmth and kindness. John is not Ido, and I can imagine that puts pressure on him sometimes. If it does, he never shows it and he teaches with the same combination of assuredness and humility that Odelia has. And to see them move……I can’t help grinning with delight when I see anyone making the difficult look easy, and there was a lot of grinning over the four days. This time I began to understand the level of commitment and dedication that is required to do what Ido’s team do. I’ve never seen anything like it, to the point that it’s almost scary how far beyond my own capacity it appears. I doubt many Olympians train this hard, and they’ve both clearly done their research and have knowledge of a wide range of disciplines and human function, biomechanics etc.

To business. It took two goes for me to see that ‘Movement X’ represents a taste of the four main spokes of the Ido Portal Method: the Corset, hand balancing, locomotion, and upper body strength. I think I was too blown away the first time around by the variety, complexity (and simplicity) and playfulness to be able to see the wood for the trees. So this is probably the place to start (and I’d recommend repeating). Time-keeping for the start of the day is strict, and not at all strict at the end of the day. Day one finished sometime after 7, day two around 8.15. Aside from 90 minutes for lunch there are no breaks, so you do A LOT of moving. My current practice means that I may do 1 hour a day, so at the end of two days I’d probably packed in two weeks worth of movement. The exhilaration only slightly diminished by the feeling of having been beaten all over (like Angelica Houston and the oranges in ‘The Grifters’, perhaps) only without noticing that it’s happening. This is down to the workshop being so well structured, and the material being high quality. Many many squats and lunges are hidden in a game – hidden because you’re so busy trying to manage all the other demands on your nervous system (“Sound is the mark of an inefficient mover”) that the game imposes. And this wasn’t the best game that we played. If you’ve attended Movement X you’ll probably know the game I’m thinking of, and if you haven’t I don’t want to spoil the surprise.

The upper body strength segment makes the most strength demands (weird!) and is also the segment when there is most scaling. There’s a way for everyone to tackle the movement and, while you may be taken well outside your comfort zone, no one is pushed beyond their limits. It’s also when it was most clear to me how much thought, experimentation and perfecting has gone into Ido’s methods of teaching, for instance, chin-ups and muscle ups.

It must be very rare that anyone attends ‘Movement X’ and isn’t asked to do something that they’ve never done before, or doesn’t discover a gap in their skills, mobility or capacity. This too is why John and Odelia are so impressive – not only do they need to be able to deliver the material but they are most likely substantially better at all of the movements involved than everyone else in the room.

It seemed like chance at the time and now I’m grateful that ‘The Corset’ was the second workshop we did, not least because the content is so broadly applicable. It’s described as something like “how to make flexible armour for your whole body”. Some of the Corset protocols appear in Movement X, and there were a lot of them included in the Hand-balancing workshop. Having some prior exposure to them felt very helpful so, in an ideal world I’d suggest Movement X first, then The Corset, then whichever of the other workshops appeals to you the most.

The Hand-balancing workshop is mostly geared toward teaching you Ido’s progressive method for gaining a 60 second freestanding handstand. Odelia will tell you that this is the best method there is, with thousands of success stories and when you see the process you will most likely believe it. Again, it’s very well structured. There were more games to play, lots of joint preparation drills to strengthen and increase range of movement, as well as a lot of time on our hands. On the morning of day two my chest and shoulders were so sore I couldn’t imagine spending any more time on my hands, but the warmup easily took care of that and a lot more time was spent on our hands – and not just in handstands. We were left with a clear program to follow, scaled according to your starting point. It will take a lot of commitment and work, but if I do commit and put the work in I’m convinced that I’ve got the tools to make it happen.

I was impressed by how many people attending the 2015 Turku workshops seemed to have very little idea of what was coming and were just ‘dipping their toe in the water’, especially those that were there like us for all four days. They were, for me, very physically demanding. And yet just the day after I feel great. Perhaps it depends on individual preference, going in blind, or doing some research. Personally I’d recommend listening to Ido’s London Real interview prior to attending, just to get a sense of the man and the philosophy that underpins the work.

Ido offers online coaching, and it’s made very clear that they only want to work with people who will make the time commitment they deem necessary. Similarly, if you turn up at one of his workshops I think he and his team have high expectations for you. If you look like you’re not giving your best you may get short shrift, but they recognise and appreciate your effort, regardless of your ability.

Of course, all the attendees influence the feel of the workshop and with all four that I’ve done I’ve been lucky to meet some wonderful people. If you’re one of them reading this, thank you, it was fun to be moving with you.

Other things I’ve learned

You can’t judge a fabulous mover by their resting posture. (Don’t believe me? Just look at cats.)

Learning, and quality teaching deserves optimum focus. Be quiet, look, and listen. (Yes, this IS hard on the afternoon of day four).

Don’t try to integrate if you can’t yet isolate.

Variables may vary but standards are non-negotiable.

Speed is something you have to earn.

Wipe; look; lift; reach; replace. (Sing it with me!)

Last words

Find a Movement X event that you can get to, and sign up. Do it!

IMG_2043Spoiler alert! What follows necessarily involves generalisations, and is in no way intended to disparage any individual(s).

I’m a little surprised to find myself writing this, and perhaps it’s in part a reflection of conservatism increasing along with age. Within the Pilates world it seems that the arguments over the merits, and legitimacy of “classical” and “contemporary” Pilates go on and on. Not long ago I may have found the dogma of the classical followers a bit hard to take. I may even have referred to some of the die-hard adherents to the classical form as ‘fundamentalists’, which I admit has some unpleasant connotations these days.

More recently, and as a result of various experiences, I’m starting to think that teachers (here’s generalisation No.1) in the UK have done Pilates a terrible disservice. Actually, not just the UK (a video from a well-known Australian teacher contributing to my dismay) but this is the region that I’m best placed to observe. One of the mantras that gets repeated in the argument in favour of a more contemporary approach to Pilates is that, because of advances in science, biomechanics, kinesiology etc, we understand movement better than Joseph Pilates did. If we believe that then it’s logical to apply the fruits of this deeper understanding to Pilates’ system.

Inevitably, as my understanding has shifted (up, down, sideways – who’s to say?) my teaching has changed. I’ve been seduced in the past by ideas and information that have complicated my thinking when teaching, and encouraged me to try to teach something in a more complicated way. I hope I can truthfully say that it’s been a long time, but I suspect that I’ve uttered the words “neutral spine” in the past. I’ve come to realise, too, that in trying to be inclusive of everyone in the class, I’d habitually compromised a movement to the point that I’d forgotten what the movement was supposed to be in the first place. I’ve worked to try to make people comfortable in an exercise at the expense of actually doing the exercise. I believe that we have done this sort of thing over and over, until the intention of the original exercise has been lost completely. There are apparently many people in the UK that believe Pilates is boring, and I’m inclined to believe that it’s because many of them have been taught some pale (wan, iron-deficient, malnourished) imitation of the real thing.

Part of the responsibility for this may be the prevalence of Pilates mat classes taught in health clubs, where the teacher has very little control over who attends the class. The lowest common denominator will often set the tone. Interestingly, the government approved qualification for Pilates teachers, that many health clubs require, is more geared toward the teachers ability to include everyone than in the teachers understanding of Pilates’ system. This is a relatively recent phenomenon, but the ‘dumbing down’ of Pilates has been going on for a lot longer.

It’s still shocking to meet teachers, who have been plying their trade for perhaps 10 years, that were not taught the original mat exercises during their training. It’s almost laughable. Imagine: “I’m a maths teacher, but I don’t teach multiplication or division because my trainer didn’t believe that it was suitable for the general public.” There’s a whole strain of ‘creativity’ – teachers finding new things to do with or without equipment, that may have roots in another discipline, or not (“Can I do that exercise with the foam roller and the rotating disc when you’r holding the push-through bar?”) that may deserve a separate post. More disconcerting is the idea, it appears many teachers have, that Pilates is full of relaxation. I think this comes in part from the world of somatics, and disciplines like Feldenkrais, which are great in themselves but maybe not applicable to the practice of Pilates (unless perhaps none has a particularly vivid understanding of how to move well). The other part of the relaxation dogma, I suspect, comes from trying to help people who are challenged in some of the original work by, for example, poor hip dissociation (see, I can’t stop the modern science creeping in). This seems to me to be one of the fundamental skills of good movement, and therefore Pilates too. Here’s an example: someone can’t Roll Up, or back again, without their legs leaving the floor. Could it be that we have encouraged the notion of relaxing the inhibited muscles, instead of actually teaching those people where to work from so as to overcome the inhibition – working toward correcting a faulty pattern? (Work the right muscles, so that the ‘wrong’ muscles get the chance to return to natural function).

In similar territory, have we pursued that things that feel ‘nice’ in our own practice, and for our clients? The practice of starting a class with side-flexion seems strangely prevalent, and mostly because it “feels nice” – or stretches muscles that the teacher perceives to be tight. The logic of working on central support to give some relief to overworked superficial muscles, instead of just trying to stretch those muscles, seems to have escaped us. Pilates didn’t need to spell this out, he just put centring exercises at the beginning of the sequence (and now modern science has taught us better, perhaps?) How have we got to a situation where what feels nice is the key determinant for exercise choice? It’s true that Pilates often makes me feel good, but that’s typically a response to my body working hard, rather than doing things that feel relaxing, or nice. The lasting benefits always seem to come from working hard, and it still amazes me when clients have that ‘Oh, this is hard!’ reaction to Pilates. Was it ever intended to be anything else? The idea of working just as hard as you need to is very appealing, and one of the seductive things about Pilates is that it probably takes decades of practice to reach the point at which the really difficult things begin to feel like they don’t require maximum effort.

I am not advocating a ‘one size fits all’ approach, as seems to be the view of some teachers – that if you want to hold true to the intent of the original exercise you are trying to force square pegs into round holes. My wife attended a workshop with Kathryn Ross-Nash a while back, and one of the nuggets that she passed on to me was the idea that every Pilates exercise has a single purpose. Several objectives, perhaps, but a single purpose. Adding to that the idea that exercises should not be adapted or modified, but rather broken down into their constituent parts, in order to work towards the whole. I suspect that I will do Ms Ross-Nash a disservice if I try to paraphrase any further, and the best advice may be to seek her out in person, or here, for example. To me, her thoughts seem to tie into what I wrote earlier, about adapting an exercise to accommodate everyone, to the point that the original exercise, along with its purpose, is a distant memory. Teach people what they need to know/do, in order to do the exercise, instead of reinventing it.

I know that there are many teachers in the UK to whom what I have written does not apply and, as I tip my hat to all of them, I’m trying hard to be one. I’m not sure that the system that Joseph Pilates devised is perfect, but I think it’s almost certainly a good deal better than has often been allowed for by teachers (and teacher trainers) in the UK.

If it’s not too late, what is to be done about this sorry state of affairs? Here are a few ideas:

Sweat more (and don’t tell others that Pilates doesn’t make you sweat). There’s a reason that Pilates believed it wasn’t necessary to do a lot of repetitions, and quite often that’s because, if you’ve put your whole body and mind into the exercise, 5 or 6 is all that you can manage.

Relax less – that’s what sofas and television were invented for, not Pilates. (Oh, and don’t get too comfortable either – very few useful adaptations are derived from comfort).

If you’re a teacher – take more classes. Unless you think that you’ve learned everything by the end of your teacher training.

And please accept my apologies if the tone of this is especially hectoring. Conversations, social media postings and the stars have aligned in such a way that writing this felt imperative.

 

 

 

I’m always fascinated by what Pilates teachers, individually and collectively (if that’s possible) believe that Pilates is for. One idea that I always like is that Pilates can be a significant help toward achieving one’s full potential – optimal expression of our genetics, if you will.
Consequently it’s been interesting to see some recent forum threads touching upon exercises that one might not attempt, or teach. Questions arise about, for example, whether or not one needs to do advanced or super-advanced reformer exercises. This strikes me as a rather rocky path: does anyone need to do Pilates in any form? (Of course I know it’s fantastically helpful to many people, and loved by many more, but is that the same as needing it?)
A few years ago I was tasked with teaching the Return to Life exercises to a group of teachers in training, and was horrified when one of them asked why she needed to know them, since she “would never teach them”! So where does one draw the line?
I would agree that some of the advanced repertoire on both Reformer and Cadillac require great strength, mobility and control. Working toward those qualities is an excellent reason to be practicing Pilates, so why not aspire to the zenith of the work (and work towards it)?
Another thread around a discussion on what is the ideal size for a reformer (it feels ridiculous to even type this) included a reference to splits only being necessary for dancers. This would suggest that our joints have unnecessary capacity – that there is no need to be strong throughout our available range of movement. Never mind recovering lost range. To me this is a bizarre attitude for a Pilates teacher to have, and it seems to relate to the discussion about advanced repertoire, and giving people ‘what they need’, as if we can predict that an office worker will never slip and be forced into a split position in which they have neither strength nor control. What?!
Again, I wonder what we think Pilates is for. How about if we said Pilates is for being more awesome, and not installing any glass ceilings?

I’m not warmed up yet

August 10, 2014 — 2 Comments

html5-canvas-thermometerWhen approaching a maximal effort (or close to max effort) challenge like a one rep max dead-lift, something imposing an endurance demand like running a 10K race, or maybe a CrossFit type ‘metcon’ it’s almost certainly a good idea to have some kind of warm-up. Something to literally warm you up – raise your body temperature, begin to elevate your heart rate, dilate your blood vessels etc. I doubt that there are many professional athletes of any stripe that don’t have some kind of warm-up prior to an event that will likely require their maximum effort.

We may disagree about this, but I don’t believe that Pilates is something that should or does impose this sort of physical demand. Rather, if we consider it only as exercise, I think it is a program for general physical preparedness. I’m not saying that I find the entire Pilates repertoire easy (some exercises remain beyond my reach), and much of the repertoire makes me work hard. Sweat, even. As a teacher I’ve always instinctively felt that I (and by extension Pilates teachers in general) should be able to demonstrate any exercise at any given moment that the job requires. (I accept that there are excellent Pilates teachers who may not be able to demonstrate certain things for good reason – spinal fusion, for example. I am not writing about them.) I don’t know exactly why I felt that way, I just know that it always seemed a bit daft to me on the many, many occasions that I’ve heard a Pilates teacher saying that he/she cannot demonstrate a particular exercise for their client/s because they were “not warmed up”.

This feeling, or instinct was brought into focus for me recently, when attending Ido Portal‘s ‘Movement X’ workshop. In the context of talking about mobility vs flexibility (An interesting discussion. I’d suggest researching his thoughts via his blog posts, or videos.) Ido asked us to imagine a Taekwondo practitioner being assaulted in a bar, and asking his assailant to wait for a few minutes while he warmed his hip joints up, in order that he could kick him back. In other words, what is the point of a physical practice if the fruits of that practice aren’t available to you all the time?

If a particular Pilates exercise is valuable, worthwhile, then it should be available to you at any time. If its not available to you, without a warm-up first, is there really any point to it?

I do Movement

August 9, 2014 — 14 Comments

If I’m truly honest, I like to think of myself as a reasonably competent mover. That’s to say, I think that I’m fairly co-ordinated and able to move with a bit of control and grace. This is important to me not least because I believe, as a Pilates teacher, that my job is to teach people to move well. I consider that I’m on a journey to a better understanding of human movement and I’ve developed some strong (I was going to write ‘fixed’ but that would be inaccurate) opinions along the way about what ‘good’ movement looks like. (It turns out that I’d barely scratched the surface…) Anyone who is on a similar journey will most likely, sooner or later, come across the name Ido Portal, or more likely a video of Ido Portal doing something(s) extraordinary.

I started to follow Ido on Facebook a couple of years ago, and while I was amazed by his physical prowess, I was also struck by what seems like an uncompromising attitude that bordered on the obnoxious. One post seemed to aggressively dismiss (i.e.. don’t waste my f***ing time) anyone who was interested in online coaching but couldn’t commit less than 24 hours per week to the process. Wow! As someone who believed that my life makes it hard for me to find one hour per day to commit to exercise for myself (even though it’s my job) this appeared to be both crazy and elitist.

Nonetheless, something had piqued the interest of both my wife and I, and  I began to look out for workshops that we could attend. Back in January this year I saw two workshops scheduled back to back, in Finland. ‘Movement X’, and ‘The Corset’. Places on Ido’s workshops fill up fast, and I hadn’t seen many instances of 2 back to back, so we booked. If I try to crystallise what my overarching goal is, from a lifestyle, nutrition and fitness perspective then you might say it is to become ‘bulletproof’, or as bulletproof as possible. From this perspective ‘The Corset’ sounded particularly interesting, and as August got closer my anticipation grew. Just a couple of weeks before Ido was a guest on the Londonreal video/podcast, describing his philosophy, and what attendees of bios workshops might expect.

This definitely heightened my anticipation, but still didn’t make me feel much clearer about exactly what the workshops would entail. The main thrust of Ido’s description seemed to be “not what people expect”… It was interesting then, when telling clients and friends that we would be away doing this, to try to describe what ‘this’ would be. “I’ll let you know when I get back” becoming the stock answer. One thing that the interview did suggest is that Ido is less brash than I might have imagined, and not particularly interested in being a leader, “Walk beside me, not behind me” being a motif of the interview. Additionally, he is very clear that he does not want anyone in his workshops to feel stupid, inadequate or humiliated – so I was less concerned about my lack of gymnastic prowess.

Finland proved to be a beautiful, warm and sunny destination, and Crossfit Box 100 was an ideal venue. There was a nice mix of diverse backgrounds in the group for the first two days (we didn’t do intros in the 2nd workshop) and it was great to find that the big strong guys weren’t too gung ho when it came to the practical work. I’ve not always found this to be the case, and maybe it’s a sign that you have to be a certain kind of individual, or to have resolved some issues before signing up for this.

Ido warned us out the outset that there would be a fair amount of talking, and though there was a lot of talking there was never a moment in 4 days when I wished that we were moving more and listening less – for me, at least, he’s got the balance just right. One of the first things he asked of us was to call him out on his ‘bullshit’, on the basis that we can all grow more from this. It became evident though that Ido has done a lot of homework, and I mean really a lot. Between my wife and I we have a lot of books related to anatomy, physiology, exercise, movement disciplines, injuries etc. but I suspect we’re just scratching the surface of what he has studied, from an academic perspective. He is, as he says ‘The Movement Guy’, so he’s practised a lot of different disciplines – martial arts, capoeira, yoga – as well as weight lifting and gymnastics, and he backs up his physical ability with theory. Aside from a comment about Pilates, in relation to advising against abdominal hollowing, which suggested that he has been exposed to Pilates as influenced by physiotherapy, rather than Pilates as Joseph taught it, Ido made sense relentlessly.

I don’t want to turn this into a catalogue of the movements or exercises that we did, but rather to try to explain the experience overall. As much as anything else, writing this is to help me make sense of what felt like a transformative experience. I was sceptical when, in the London Real interview, Ido talked about receiving emails from people who’s lives had been changed by attending his workshops but I have to admit that, in opening a doorway to a bigger universe than I had previously perceived, he has changed my life.

We were lucky to have Odelia (whom he describes as his ‘right hand’) working alongside Ido. Their interaction bought something very special to the experience, like the embodiment of yin and yang. There is a pent up energy about Ido and on the few occasions that he demonstrated a movement it was as if this was a release, whereas Odelia is the epitome of focused calm (though super strong and ready to demonstrate anything, anytime). Their mutual respect is obvious, and the way that they work together adds to what they’re teaching. It feels slightly invasive to dwell on their relationship (which is none of our business), but as someone who works with his wife it was both a lesson and lovely to see.

I’ve just deleted several sentences that I’d written to describe Ido’s manner and teaching style – they were too long/too much. His teaching style is simple and clear, warm and funny, and sharp when necessary – but that was not the key for me. The London Real interviewer makes reference to Ido having a cult-like following, that he is seen as a Guru. Ido to idol, it’s an easy step. Now this is an area in which I have to watch myself, as it’s easy for me to raise people that I admire onto a pedestal. I found that, somehow, Ido does not invite this. It’s not that he says that he doesn’t want to be seem as a guru, rather it’s that he succeeds in being a messenger, instead of being the message. Perhaps this is why Odelia was there to demonstrate the movements. He is ‘the handstand guy’, but we don’t get to see him doing many handstands. He might also be the one-arm pull-up guy, but equally we don’t see much of this. Instead, he is ‘the movement guy’, and movement is the guru, if indeed there is one. One of the phrases that he used repeatedly was “You have abandoned movement, my friend.” And it’s true, I discovered that I had abandoned movement. Many of us were struggling with some of the wrist work “because you don’t touch the ground enough”, and again, it’s true. I can’t deny it – I had abandoned movement. So instead of Ido becoming guru (he remains the teacher), movement becomes my guru – I now worship at the alter of movement. It’s in me, it’s my heritage, or birthright, and actually what I think Ido does most effectively is to point out, over the course of the workshop, that this is the case. That I have the potential to be more human than I have been, to be much more alive, and to feel the same.

This is the life-changing thing that I hadn’t anticipated. I’ve had a few days to process things, and the fact that I can write this many words means that it’s becoming clearer. What I felt immediately after our four days with Ido was something like Fight Club. I knew that friends and colleagues would be asking me about the workshops, but I felt that I couldn’t talk about them. You could make a list of the drills, protocols and movements that we learned, but those are simply the tools. It seemed to me in that immediate aftermath that you just had to be there to understand what I’d seen for myself. Again, with a few days to mull things over it’s a bit clearer to me – the universe of movement is vast, way bigger than I had allowed myself to imagine previously, and it’s mine! With patience and dedication I can go far beyond the narrow confines of my primary discipline (however GPP I thought it was), toward my real potential. I won’t worship Ido, but I will remain eternally grateful to him for opening that door, and encourage anyone who hasn’t yet to take the same journey.IMG_1976 IMG_1978

people-spring-lift-ecard-someecardsI’ve been involved in a discussion lately on https://www.facebook.com/groups/pilatescontrologyforum/ around the subject of why we teach spinal flexion in Pilates. As is often the case, this discussion began to deviate slightly from the starting question, leading into other (for me) interesting territory. Namely, it made me wonder if there is a consensus within the Pilates teaching community as to whether Pilates is itself a functional movement/exercise discipline.

It’s helpful, if not necessary, to define what one is discussing – and so I realise that I have accepted in my own mind a rough definition of functional movement, derived from who-knows-what varied sources, that seems to make sense. If I have to pin it down, my definition would go something like this:

Preacher-Curl1A functional exercise is one that teaches, or reinforces a movement pattern that is useful, and health enhancing, beyond the execution of that discrete exercise.

For example, I would consider the Hundred to be functional because (amongst other benefits) it requires the maintenance of spinal stability under load (from our legs), and also the ability to disassociate our shoulder joint – to move our arms in our shoulder joints without uncontrolled spine or scapular movement. Both of these being very useful in a variety of scenarios (dare I say “fundamental movement patterns”?) I wouldn’t consider a bicep curl as pictured above to be functional, because the machine removes any requirement to create stability, or to transfer load into the centre (free-standing curls would be a different story, of course).

The Facebook discussion reminded me that there are other definitions. For what it’s worth, CrossFit has this definition, and if we turn to Wikipedia they do not have a page for functional exercise but will direct you to ‘functional training‘, which ties in to occupational therapy. Within the discussion, the thing that was slightly jarring for me was the idea that Pilates might not fall into some people’s idea of ‘Functional’, since it seems (generally speaking – more on that later) to fit that description very well.

I’m not a fan of ‘evidence-based’ exercise, because I think it’s naive to imagine that we can ever prove (to meet standards of proof in controlled studies) the efficacy of any given exercise. There are too many variables that cannot be controlled for when comparing even a small number of people practicing the same movement. At the same time, I think applying what, if we were clinicians, we might call ‘clinical reasoning’ to exercise selection is essential. Let’s call it ‘reasoned Pilates’ for the moment (for the record, I am not trying to create a new sub-genre – there will not be a trademark application). Teaching reasoned Pilates means, with your observation and your client’s input, assessing what they need most, choosing how to implement your assessment, and then evaluating whether your choice was successful. So if someone is kyphotic, and is new to Pilates, giving them the Swan Dive on the High Barrel may not be the best choice. The short version of all this is that I want to be able to explain why I’m teaching anyone anything, beyond “that’s what’s next in the sequence”, or “that’s how I was taught it”. In other words, “What’s the point?”

All that said, I do agree with a contributor to the forum referred to above, who said something along the lines of “sometimes people ask too many questions, instead of just doing the work”. I do think it’s often possible that doing the work will lead you to the answer to your question (“Why is it done this way?”, for example). I have heard Romana, on the excellent images“Legacy Edition” DVDs, quoting Joseph answering “What is this good for?” With the wonderful response “It’s good for the body.”I’m not suggesting that clients should be constantly questioning why they are doing things, and their teachers constantly explaining everything. Rather, I hope that they find the answers for themselves whenever they can, and that I have the understanding to explain the ‘why?’ if I have to. I believe I have a better chance of being an effective teacher if I have that understanding.

As an aside, I’d much rather be described as a ‘teacher’ than as an ‘instructor’. The first definition that my dictionary gives for instruct is: “to direct to do something; order”. The first definition that it gives for teach is: “to help to learn; tell or show (how)”. I think that the element of reasoning may be the thing that distinguishes between an instructor and a teacher.

‘Reasoned Pilates’ fits with my perception of Pilates as something that makes you better at other things, rather than Pilates as a thing to be good at. I don’t believe that Joseph Pilates complied the exercises in ‘Return to Life’ for people to practice in order to become very good at doing those exercises. The point was to practice those exercises in order to enhance one’s health (No?). I know that there are people that consider Pilates to be an art form, but I can’t call myself one of them. Seeing someone display a high level of competence in anything is usually enjoyable, but I find the many videos, that do the rounds of social media, of people working on the Reformer (perhaps with dramatic lighting) to be somewhat tiresome. (Equally, photos of lithe bodies on exotic equipment adapted from Pilates apparatus, rather than “Looks beautiful”, make me think “But why? What’s the point?”. It’s as if Pilates is being practiced for someone else other than the practitioner.

Another element to the consideration of ‘functional’, that I was reminded of whilst trying to follow some of the Reformer work demonstrated on the aforementioned DVDs, and may have been missing from the definition I offered above, is fun, or feeling great. It’s sort of covered by the ‘health enhancing’ idea, I think, but deserves its own mention. Something that makes you appreciate, or helps you bask in the joy of whole body movement surely performs a valuable function? To return to the bicep curl analogy, I’m no body builder, but it’s hard for me to imagine that anyone ever had much fun doing sets of bicep curls. Yes, viewing the hypertrophic results in the mirror afterwards may result in a flush of pleasure, but actually doing the sets of curls? Surely not. I don’t know whether the response to doing the various rowing exercises on the reformer was musculo-skeletal, hormonal, emotional, or what. It felt marvellous.

If you think that Pilates doesn’t fit under the heading of functional movement, or functional exercise, I’m sorry, but I don’t understand.