More inspiration for me in the last week or so. This time, from this video by the always-thoughtful and provocative Joseph Bartz, and this blog by Oliver Goetgeluck (himself inspired by Joseph), pondering the meaning of ‘movement’ (though that’s a gross oversimplification. Also in the mix, and mingling nicely with these two are an excerpt of a Ted Dialogue with Yuval Harari, who has, for me, more profound ideas and insights than anyone else alive.

Whilst Joseph’s video seems to be more around semantics and the problems of ‘foreign’ words becoming part of one’s language, Oliver writes about the difference between movement, and Movement:

“I feel, today, that Movement is the contact we so desperately want to return to – and we want to return to it because we sense it is in some way inhibited, disturbed: we feel we are living way below our potential.” In this context, movement, with a small m, may or may not lead toward the big M movement that we crave.”

Having been easily seduced in the past by video clips of amazingly skilled movers performing beautiful, flowing sequences, more recently I’ve started to question the point of this kind of practice. I’m pretty sure that Ido would say “The point is that there is no point”, or something along those lines, which is fine, but perhaps not for me any more. (Of course, it may be that my exceptionally slow development of the kind of skill base required to ‘flow’ has prejudiced me against it….) I still love watching tricking videos, but, while I can enjoy the grace and control of someone doing what we might call ‘floor flow’ doesn’t move/engage me like it did once. I don’t know where it’s going, what it’s in service of. I can’t speak for Oliver, but maybe I’m talking about the big M that he refers to – does the ‘floor flow’ take us closer to the big M?

Ido’s 3 ‘I’s: isolate, integrate, improvise sounded fantastic to me when I first heard him talk about this concept, and I’m sure that it still has great value. However, I think that there’s a also the possibility that this approach may become about acquiring specific skills (perhaps a LOT of specific skills) and then finding ways to put them together. So the improvisation is no more than joining those skills together imaginatively. Dare I say that ‘movement practice’ could accidentally become exercise, using the distinction that Katy Bowman makes? As in, exercise is a patch, a pill – something that we’ve invented to try to compensate for the systematic sedentarisation of our culture, instead of reintroducing truly natural movement to our lives.

I think it’s safe to say that when animals play they are usually learning about interacting with others, either fighting or mating, on the whole. The concept of ‘animal flow’ as a human movement practice seems poorly named – some mating displays may be highly ‘ritualistic’ or follow a specific formula but I don’t believe that there are many examples of animals putting on movement displays in the way that humans are inclined to do. And I assume that this is because it hasn’t proven to give any kind of advantage, biologically/evolutionarily. In short, animals move in the ways that they do to survive and thrive, to be successful at life as whatever animal they are – to be the most wolf/chimp/rat that they can be. And I think that we have lost this drive, in many ways, including some of our movement practice. To borrow from Ido, again, we might be trying to be ‘homo motus’, rather than trying to be better homo sapiens.

So, if not to be more skilled, and more able to sequence multiple movements together in a graceful way, what do I train movement for? Over to Yuval Harari:

The feelings that people today have, of alienation and loneliness, and not finding their place in the world….the chief problem is not global capitalism, the chief problem is that, over the last 100 years people have been becoming disembodied, have been distancing themselves from their body. As a hunter-gatherer, or even as a peasant, to survive you need to be constantly in touch with your body and with your senses, every moment. If you go to the forest to look for mushrooms, and you don’t pay attention to what you hear, what you smell, to what you taste, you’re dead.

So you must be very connected. In the last 100 years people are losing their ability to be in touch with their body and their senses. To hear, to smell, to feel. More and more attention goes to screens, to what is happening elsewhere, some other time. […] if you’re back in touch with your body you’ll feel much more at home in the world.”

I suspect that this is the big M that Oliver refers to (I apologise if I’ve missed the point) – being more connected to the world, by being more embodied. Being more embodied may make it easier to perform a flowing sequence of acrobatic/gymnastic/animalistic movements, but I don’t think this works in reverse – I don’t think that learning to ‘flow’ means that you necessarily become more embodied. The goal of my training is to be more embodied, to know myself better, and it’s also why encountering Fighting Monkey last year was almost too good to be true, for me. Jozef talks about the point of FM being to become a better communicator, so that you can be a better friend, partner, parent – to become a better person. I think that this happens because the practice helps us to become more embodied. It may well be that many people following all kinds of other means and methods (including the Ido Portal Method) are achieving the same thing, perhaps by accident, perhaps by design – in which case there IS a point, acknowledged or not (and, according to Yuval Harari, that point might be as huge as saving humanity from itself!).

To me, Fighting Monkey is continuous awareness developing, and problem solving. Not ‘how can I transition from butterfly kick to cartwheel’, or ‘how can I open my shoulders more for my handstand’ but rather solving problems that I didn’t know were coming, problems that shift, like sand, as they are encountered in a different environment, with a different sparring partner. This is the kind of practice/learning that makes me feel that I understand myself, both ‘my structure’ and my psyche (as in recognising patterns in my reactions to situations/people/obstacles) a little bit better.

I’m not writing this with the intention of denigrating anyone’s practice, not least because, in the grand scheme of things, undoubtedly more movement>less movement. Instead, I think the colliding inspirations listed above helped me to understand (and maybe even articulate) something which I’ve been struggling to clarify for myself: why I am driven to attend workshops with Ido, Tom, Rafe, Tomislav, et al, and why Fighting Monkey feels, so strongly, like the logical next step in this pursuit.

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Recently I had to explain why I write this blog, and this has caused me to reflect on why I choose to write about Pilates, and particularly teaching Pilates.

My standard answer is that it’s a way for me to think ‘out loud’ – to help myself to organise the thoughts that swirl around in my mind. However, I realised, if this were really true, or the whole truth, there would be no need to press the ‘publish’ button on WordPress. There certainly wouldn’t be any need to post the things that I write in Pilates teacher Facebook forums. So it’s clearly somewhat disingenuous to say that I do it solely to ‘organise my thoughts’.

There are a number of people, more famous than I, who write about Pilates and teaching Pilates and, on the whole, it appears that their aim is to share information with their colleagues – here is a fine example. Others, to my eye, may be written with a little more ego – but perhaps I share my motives with those same writers that I accuse of egocentricity.

As a fine art student (many years ago) I had one of my formative learning experiences, which was also one of the most intimidating. In my memory, the tutor had me up against the wall, demanding to know why I hadn’t read what she’d recommended, and why I was not taking things more seriously, and when I was planning to stop dicking around (this was in England, in the late 1980s – we didn’t say ‘dicking around’, but it’s what she meant, for sure). I’m not sure if this is truth, or my way of rationalising my own behaviour, but I think this experience has coloured my own teaching, to a degree. I was very comfortable at college, doing what I liked, not really getting my hands dirty – I needed someone to shake me out of my status quo. I don’t think you would ever see this if you watched me teaching ‘civilians’, unless I know them very well, but this reflex (see, I’m pretending it’s in my dna, rather than a behavioural flaw) to light a fire, to stimulate some passion, is turned on when I’m interacting with other teachers or, heaven help them, trainee teachers I’ve been allowed out to play with.

I would refer to this now as ‘rattling someone’s cage’ or, in certain circumstances, ‘kicking the hornets nest’. I’ve resisted the latter more and more in recent times – even though I enjoy it initially, provoking people who have strongly held (erroneous, or conflicting with my own) opinions is fun at first but can quickly become an unwanted stress.

I’ve had other powerful learning experiences since which have been equally challenging, though less confrontational. Challenging not just to my status quo but to my core beliefs, with results that make me now relish those moments. When my wife and I first attended Ido Portal’s seminars, after 4 days I felt like everything I knew about movement had been destroyed. For a few hours at the end of the fourth day I was doubtful that I would be able to teach Pilates any more, such was the power of that particular bombshell. This is what I mean by ‘rattling the cage’. In a variety of non-Pilates workshops since I’ve had multiple bombs dropped on my beliefs and methods, and all of them have been amazing growing experiences – I’ve written ad nauseam about how I believe my Pilates teaching has been enhanced by the insights of teachers from the wider universe of movement (outside the small solar system of Pilates).

This is where I begin to have problems with analysing, or defining my blogging motivation – am I, like other blog writing Pilates teachers, trying to share information? The word “should” pops into my head too frequently. How many times have I said to my wife, after another workshop, “Every Pilates teacher should do this”? Who am I to tell you what you should do? Just because it was valuable to me, and contained insights that will change/enhance/enrich the way that I think about and teach Pilates, why should you have the same experience.

I realise that a lot of the posts I write about Pilates are, in effect, suggesting that some teachers are doing things wrongly – saying the wrong things, for example. Aside from the teachers at our studio, why should I be concerned about Pilates teachers using the word ‘core’? I can’t help it! It’s much like passing the local 24 hour gym and seeing dozens of people on the rows of treadmills. I want to go in and plead with them to stop wasting electricity and go outside to actually run (instead of that weird ‘the ground is running toward me’ activity that the treadmill induces. I really don’t think that I’m driven to be a dick and show them how much more insightful I am. I want them to not be deceived by gym/fitness/workout mythology, to not mess with their wonderful biology that never wanted them to do 30 minutes of cardio, to not spend their money on something (physical activity) which is free, and best enjoyed outside.

I believe that there are too many Pilates teachers who teach exercises, instead of teaching movement. Part of the reason for this, I suspect, is that they lack the awareness necessary to embody movement principles. If you don’t understand (feel) the fundamentals in yourself and your own movement then teaching them is a nearly impossible task. I’m by no means ‘the finished article’, but having spent years teaching exercises instead of (at least attempting to) teach movement, I think I’m able to recognise the difference.

I remember now that I told a teacher friend of mine a while back that I’d like to start a revolution. I think that’s still true. I’d like to start, or at least facilitate a revolution within the community of Pilates teachers, whose manifesto might read something like “Teaching Pilates is good, teaching movement is better”. Maybe I’m giving in to my own vanity, but I believe that a large part of the reason that I write about teaching Pilates is because I believe the Pilates industry and the wider world will benefit from more teachers who have a broader perspective – who teach movement with Pilates as their primary tool kit.

A few months ago I wrote about becoming a better Pilates teacher by learning from teachers like Ido Portal, from outside the Pilates orbit,  and one of the comments that I received declared that Ido could not teach me as much about Contrology as a seasoned Contrology teacher. Intuitively that would seem to be obvious, and yet I disagree, because Ido and numerous others, have taught me a lot about the components of efficient movement, the value of variety and unpredictability and, most importantly, how I move – how my body responds to stimulus and stress, how I solve problems. I’m better at feeling, I’m more self aware, and that means I have more tools for communicating with others. That’s what makes me a better teacher, as well as a more sensitive Pilates practitioner. I don’t agree, or believe that only someone who resides within the sphere of Pilates would have that insight.

My wife and I spent the last weekend in a Fighting Monkey workshop (if you teach Pilates, or any other movement practice, you should, too!). As Jozef, co-creator of Fighting Monkey said: “Any great system creates great deficiencies.” I believe that Pilates is a great system, and that Jozef is right – if we believe that Pilates exercises are the answer to everything, and that they make for a complete practice, then we develop gaps (huge holes, perhaps) in our understanding and awareness, that inevitably will get passed on to our students. I write about Pilates to try to illuminate this, and to propose ways that my wife and I have found and sought out, as a means to avoiding the pitfalls of a ‘Pilates is everything’ mentality.

Years back I was in a CrossFit gym that had this sign on the wall:

Help everyone else to be better than you.

This is why I write about teaching Pilates.

 

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.

 

 

I often think that becoming a Pilates teacher is like learning to drive (though it’s a different driving test now than the one I experienced in the 1990s) – you learn the manual, practice the tricky stuff, hopefully pass the test and then, once you’re on your own, you actually learn how to drive.

Many things helped me to develop as a teacher in the first few years: classes with teachers I admired, teaching within the same space as more experienced teachers, workshops and, of course, teaching classes myself. I belonged to an organisation that ran workshops. Many of the workshops followed the theme of ‘enhancing your mat classes with (insert name of small prop of your choice)’, and these were useful at first. When teaching a lot of mat classes more repertoire seemed like a good way to keep people interested. Teachers from the US were often invited to give workshops at the AGM, and a number of these were very influential for me. I think they helped me to be a better teacher, by enhancing my understanding of Pilates.

I know that I’m not alone in finding that, with accumulated experience, workshops offering new repertoire are of no interest. Similarly, another Pilates teachers take on specific elements of Pilates, or the special tool they’ve developed for teaching a shape or movement are much less interesting than they were. I certainly appreciate reminders of, or insight into, for example why the original order of the network is the way it is but, beyond that, I don’t find that doing Pilates teaches me more about doing Pilates. Most importantly, it doesn’t necessarily help me to be a better teacher.

What to do? For the last 3 or 4 years, most of the professional development that my wife and I have done has been outside the Pilates world but within the broader sphere of ‘movement culture’. I’ve written about this a fair amount already so suffice it to say that we’ve both learned a lot about movement and, therefore, teaching Pilates from people who typically have little understanding of what Pilates is (we’ve encountered the misconception that we’re all about pulling stomachs in a few times…).

I’ve learned about teaching Pilates (being the kind of Pilates teacher that I want to be) from all sorts of teachers: Ido Portal, Rafe Kelly and Andreo Spina to name a few.

We’ve been very lucky to work with some of the people that we have and, for me, none more so than Tomislav English, whom we did a workshop with at the beginning of this year. Based on a brief conversation, I think his concept of Pilates is a bit ‘off’, yet I keep thinking to myself that he’s the best Pilates teacher (with the exception of my wife) that I’ve met in a long time. Weird, eh? He doesn’t really understand Pilates (as far as I could tell) but he teaches it really well!

How could this be? The way that Tomislav teaches seems to me to embody Pilates’ intentions. He began the four days by making it clear that, although it was advertised for ‘advanced movers’, no-one had been turned down from attending, on the basis that full commitment was expected. There’s a lot of movement, and not a lot of talking – demonstration with instructions, a check that it’s clear and then practice – clarification following if necessary – overall his teaching is uncomplicated. There’s a lot of control required, but it’s not control of stillness (which seems to often be the desirable thing in Pilates classes, and seems to have little ‘real-world’ transfer) but control of EVERY aspect and moment of the movement – range of motion under conscious control. Smooth movement at an even tempo, that can be paused or reversed at any point.

The language that he used has influenced my teaching, too. Again, he was quite spare with his words, and would often categorise someone’s demonstration as either ‘clear’ or ‘unclear’, which translates to me into how I’m watching when I’m teaching. Can I see clearly how someone is moving? If the movement stems from the hip, do I see their hip joint moving, or is it a bit blurred? When joints are maintained in good positions (congruent, if you like) movement has greater clarity. Greater precision, we might say, as Pilates teachers.

It’s worth mentioning too that we paid only £15 more for 4 full days with Tomislav than the price of four hours with a teacher from the US that I’ve just seen advertised.

I don’t want to suggest that I have nothing to learn from other Pilates teachers, far from it (Benjamin Degenhardt deserves an honourable mention here), but my teaching – eye, understanding, vocabulary etc. – has been hugely enriched by fishing in a much larger learning pond.

*Perhaps ‘better Pilates teacher’ needs defining. I’m not interested in teaching people to become proficient at performing repertoire, or even excellent at performing it, unless this is an expression of enhanced awareness, range of movement, and understanding of how to organise their joints well. So being a better Pilates teacher, to me, means having the insight and tools to help people achieve those things. Not having a greater variety of exercises in my toolbox.

My only qualification for writing this is my Y chromosome, there may well be influence of my own neurotransmitter preferences on my views, so while this is written as if I’m speaking for my gender as a whole, please note that different viewpoints may be available.

DON’T

Infantilise me. Babies and toddlers might have ‘tummies’ (perhaps some postpartum women might), but I do NOT have a tummy, or tummy muscles, and I won’t feel that I’m in the right place if you imply that I do.

Teach me to engage my pelvic floor. (Unless I’ve specifically told you that’s what I’m looking for) It works fine, thank you. And if you ask me to think about walking into the sea, or another body of cold water, I’m likely to think of shrinkage – not what I’m looking for in my exercise class (especially if I’m already wondering how manly the class is).

Use my bra strap as a reference point. I’m not wearing one. Yes, I do know roughly where you mean, but you’re reminding me that I’m doing women’s exercise, thanks.

Make me feel ‘special’ by relentlessly focusing on what I’m struggling with. Ok, I’m not great at some of this, but I don’t enjoy feeling incompetent. My ego is fragile. Maybe, if I need it, take me aside after class and show me one thing that might help.

 

DO

Give me some purpose. Don’t assume that I know why I’m doing this movement. How will it benefit me? Maybe not with every exercise, but a few times each class.

Give me some rules. I like rules – they give me clarity. When I’m doing exercise X I know that the rule is my arms should always be in position Y…. It’s like having a manual in my head.

Give me measurements. How will I recognise if I’m doing it right, or not? Like a checklist, perhaps: Are my shoulders off the floor? √ Is the bottom of my ribcage down on the floor? √ Are my legs in the air? √ Are my elbows straight? √ Etc.

Give me something to aim for. Maybe show me something that’s beyond me at the moment, and then give me an idea of what I need to do to achieve it.

Drop some science on me. I’m not the biggest fan of science as the answer to everything, but if you let me know that the ability to perform an isolated hip hinge is well correlated with reduced risk of back and knee injuries, for example, I might feel more like I’ve come to the right place.

Relate the exercises to stuff that I like. Let me know how it’s going to apply to my martial art/tennis/deadlifting/football…. (this may mean doing some research into the requirements of these activities)

Allow me the opportunity to do something well. Maybe I don’t cope very well with fluid choreography, for example. (As I mentioned above, my ego is fragile). Throw in something which plays to my strength/s, so I have something to feel good about.

 

THANK YOU.

8219041This is part review (I hope it’s helpful), and partly and attempt for me to analyse why I felt so frustrated and, ultimately, irritated by watching “A Movement of Movement’.

It’s a long film, 73 minutes to be precise. I note that, via Facebook, Siri Dharma Galliano (never short of a pithy remark), who participates in the film, suggests that it could be edited to a “tight thirty minutes”. I found myself wondering why we were seeing footage of the nice lady getting her child and buggy into a taxi, for example. Maybe this is showing ‘real’, or ordinary people who do/teach Pilates.

Everyone involved plays nicely – there’s a little bit of ‘why can’t we all just get along?’ but there’s no name-calling (or foul language)

It’s a great marketing opportunity for Balanced Body, and the Pilates Method Alliance. (And the claim that whether you use traditional or modern apparatus makes no difference goes unchallenged.)

It’s quite a lot longer than it needs to be. I think I may have already touched on that. Apologies.

It is nice to see lots of footage of JP, especially the multi-screen bits of him strutting his stuff in the Catskills.

There are some confusing messages:

It seems to be broadly agreed that there are a number of ways of doing the exercises (so there’s no single correct way) but there’s also a warning that, without a teacher to show you how to do the exercises “correctly”, you could hurt yourself.

Shortly after one of the interviewees declares that Joseph was so sickly as a child that he nearly died, there’s reference to him spending a lot of time as a child lying in the woods watching animals. I know that ‘he was a very ill child but knuckled down and healed himself and became a paragon of health and fitness’ is a good story, but my understanding is that there’s no evidence to support the sickly-child mythology. (And this was the man who wrote “I must be right. Never an aspirin. Never injured a day in my life.”)

There are some inspiring stories. Sadly, they get swamped by lots of footage of interviewees practicing Pilates (and some other movements that look a bit like Pilates).

The film seems to be supportive of the 1990s lawsuit outcome – it is a good thing that ‘Pilates’ is now a generic term. There is no dissenting voice.

From watching the film I couldn’t work out what the filmmakers intentions were – what the purpose of the film was. It doesn’t seem to be intended as a pure celebration of the work of Joseph Pilates, nor is it a biographical work. I did some research and read that the directors intention was to create a film that does for Pilates what ‘The Endless Summer’ did for surfing, or ‘Dogtown and the Z-Boys’ did for skating. To quote the website:

The one thing that all of these films have in common is a compelling story about something that came along and changed the world forever.  Pilates has changed the world.  We are living in a historical movement, a phenomenon of human experience.  The movement is about us, it’s about today, and it’s about exploring our full potential, but what does that mean? That is what A Movement of Movement is.”

Unfortunately I don’t think that their own question (“..but what does this mean?”) is answered by the film. Perhaps part of the problem is that surfing, skating and other sports are quite different from Pilates. My understanding is that Joseph meant Pilates to be the practice that helped you be better at the things you love to do – surfing, skating, skiing, you name it. It’s not meant to be your favourite pastime or activity – if it is, maybe you missed the point. And I think that’s where the film falls down – it’s misunderstood its subject matter.

If you believe that:

the outcome of that (in)famous lawsuit was 100% positive;

that Pilates apparatus evolves and new apparatus should be added;

that there are many different versions of a given exercise, all equally valid;

there are no dissenting voices to these views;

And you enjoy watching people practicing Pilates on a terrace while the sun goes down and the sea softly laps on the shore – this is the film for you. I hope you enjoy it.

(As I said above, frustrated and irritated….)

Annus Novus/Terra Nova

January 17, 2017 — 2 Comments
Or, a middle-aged person’s guide to Tomislav English’s ‘Ferus Animi’
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Anoushka (my wife, business partner and favourite person to practice movement with) and I first encountered Tomislav during Rafe Kelly’s Evolve Move Play workshop on Hampstead Heath last Summer. We were both very attracted to the way he moved – the easy grace that speaks of tons of strength and control – and to his quiet humility.

I had vowed that after a year of lots of workshops, 2017 would be about consolidating what I had learned, and laying off the workshops. However, Anoushka saw a date announced for Tomislav’s ‘Ferus Animi/Terra Nova’ 4 day intensive and immediately asked him if we could sign up. My mild anxiety began as soon as he agreed – the text in red in the picture reads: “Experienced Movers: The workshop will be highly physical and often highly complex.”

Never mind, after Christmas in Thailand, spending the first week doing a highly physical and complex workshop has to be a great way to get the new year going. I don’t know if it was the ‘intensive’ bit, or the knowledge that most participants would be dancers and more capable than I, but I’ve never approached any workshop with as much trepidation.

Before we began Tom mentioned that he had not refused anyone who was interested in the workshop, so we were a diverse group. I particularly appreciated his point that we might all learn from each other, whatever our skill level might be. We were also encouraged to think of the 4 days as our own research into our own physicality and, if we were carrying injuries, to take the opportunity to better understand the cause and explore ways of working with it, rather than relying on external help.

I’m sure that he only spoke for a few minutes but so much of what he said resonated with the way that I’ve been thinking about movement, anatomy, injury etc over the last 12-18 months, so most of my trepidation was forgotten.

The 4 days followed the same structure: a morning class, of about 3 hours, and partner work in the afternoon for 2 and a half hours or so. The 3 hour class was great, full of interesting ideas, challenges that I’d never considered before, and extraordinary demands (several times I found myself thinking “CrossFit is nothing” as I wilted into the floor after trying another new crawling pattern).

Why did I call this ‘a middle-aged person’s guide’? I’m generally highly resistant to the idea of age putting limits on any activity, or being an excuse/explanation for incapacity and/but being in my 50th year, I’m increasingly aware of some naivety in pretending that age means nothing. I am gradually drying out, and my tissues change as a result. When lunchtime arrived the typical scene (in my memory, at least) was of Anoushka and I barely able to get off the floor but needing food, and everyone else grabbing the opportunity to practice handstands, or far more elaborate acrobatics. It seemed that, for many, a cigarette was sufficient for lunch, and that’s when it’s hard not to rationalise with “Well, we are at least twice as old as most of them..”

In spite of this it was remarkable to both of us that everyone there seemed very happy to be paired up with anyone else – I don’t think I’ve ever been to a workshop before this where I haven’t felt that there were one or two people that I didn’t want to work with. This was the nicest group of people I’ve shared a workshop with, ever (and if you happen to be reading this, Thank You). Another notable thing was that everyone got on with what Tom asked us to do – no antagonism, no ‘I was taught this another way’ or ‘I’ve been told I/we shouldn’t do that movement’ that I’m used to from the Pilates world.

The class looked very similar from one day to the next, but with added elements each day, or twists on things we’d done previously. Much of what we did in the morning on our own was relevant to the partner work in the afternoon. It’s easiest for me to describe those sessions as ‘playing games’. Some of them were familiar from other workshops, but always with a new twist. What might take 10 minutes to play can be developed into something that we could play for the whole day, if we keep subtly refining things, or asking each other slightly different questions (What happens if you have one hand behind your back? What happens if my eyes are closed but yours are open? Can your body be even softer? etc).

To be honest, after the class on day 3 we were both so tired that we were ready to skip day 4, but we had so much fun in the afternoon that we had both decided we weren’t missing the last day.

I’ve been fortunate to do a lot of great movement workshops in the last few years, and learned a lot – drills, skills, progressions, theories etc. but I don’t think any have felt as much of a personal exploration of my own physicality as Ferus Animi. It may be that I’ve become a more embodied or inquisitive inhabitant but I think a lot had to do with Tom’s emphasis on the journey of a movement, rather than the destination. We weren’t learning patterns, or exercises (tricks, stunts, moves…), rather we were researching how our bodies responded to these challenges, and recognising where we needed to spend more time to refine things. I’ve also immediately applied one of Tom’s teaching principles to all my Pilates teaching, which is an exciting and unexpected bonus.

Before the workshop I had wondered if calling Ferus Animi/Terra Nova a ‘research vehicle’ wasn’t a little bit pretentious, or self-aggrandising. I’m sorry that I ever entertained that thought – as Tom acknowledged, we were really being invited into his own practice, working on the things that he is interested in working on himself, so we were all doing our own research. I was studying my own body and also researching/learning, through working with others, more possibilities for myself. I think this is why, of all the workshops and seminars that I’ve done, and loved, this is the one that I’d be quickest to sign up for again.

 

You can find more info (and video) about Ferus Animi/Terra Nova here

 

 

 

 

14881175_10154502459551832_1155177442_oOr, a weekend with Robert Downey Jr Tom Weksler

I wasn’t sure if it was so glaringly obvious that it would be crass to mention it (except to my wife, who knows not to expect any better), or if I was the only one seeing it but, particularly when he grins, Tom Weksler seems like the spitting image of RDJr.

And Tom grins a lot when he’s teaching – his glee at what’s taking place is obvious and highly infectious – occasionally manifesting as him joining in with the task (not like a chore, more like an assignment) he’s given us, or yelling at someone’s who’s not getting it quite right. A teacher yelling sounds bad, but in reality it’s not – it’s more like “oh no, you’re missing the fun”, than “No! You’re doing it wrong!” Maybe you had to be there.

The truth is that it’s hard for me to pin down what we were doing, what Tom teaches. In one break I left the studio and bumped into two ladies (definitely not women, but ladies) who asked me what we were doing. I hesitated and one of them declared “It’s yoga, and tai chi”. “No!” said I, “It’s not yoga, or tai chi. It’s….Movement Archery, that’s all I can say.” (They thought this sounded very exciting.) It’s a dance workshop, but I’m no dancer; and it’s an acrobatics workshop, and I’m hardly an acrobat, but apart from a few wobbles, I didn’t feel like I didn’t belong there.

I’d been feeling a bit uneasy for a couple of weeks before the workshop. This year has been a year of lots of workshops/seminars for Anoushka (movement companion, business partner, wife) and I: Prague School, Ido Portal, AMN, Rafe Kelly, Ido again, and Movement Archery was the culmination of the year of education overload. All the seminars that had gone before had tested me, but this was the one that I expected to push me off the Comfort cliff. Was this a step too far? In signing up had I perhaps pretended to be someone that I’m not? And I had it all wrong, I think. We were certainly a group of varied abilities (there were some really wonderful movers there) and, while I think you might have a hard time with the acrobatics element if cartwheels and handstands aren’t available to you, I don’t think we were doing anything that you could fail at (except by not trying).

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Tom leading the way out of my comfort zone…

I definitely had my moments of feeling awkward and lost, and I learned that those moments were probably compounded by my brain taking over and trying to control what was going on. When I was attempting to articulate my experience Tom said something along the lines of: “Sometimes we think we are smarter than the movement” and I realised that he was right – I had been imagining that if I analysed the movements well enough I’d be able to follow them. The result of my struggle was that I got progressively further away from the destination, not nearer. Coming from a highly structured practice like Pilates, which is intended to be mind and body integration, I may inadvertently create a separation between the two, or lead my body with my brain. As Jaap van der Wal says “You do not have a body, you are a body” – and Movement Archery showed me that I could embody that idea more. Hard to express without sounding dualistic again, but maybe my body needs to lead my brain, instead of the other way around. Or I just need to BE, with the music. And I need to practice.

So Friday’s content succeeded in pushing me off the cliff, but I was less downhearted than I’d feared, and we’d also done some really fascinating partner work that was like sculpting each other – an amazing exercise in developing sensitivity to your partner’s intention, limitations, restrictions etc. And we still hadn’t touched on the acrobatics yet.

Saturday began with the same silent warm-up as Friday – what a revelation! It’s not always necessary to speak when you’re teaching movement. As my more insightful wife observed, it’s a brilliant way of ensuring that we’re all present – even if you find yourself turning away from Tom, you know when to move again because you can hear the swish of fabric, or squeak of a foot on the floor as people move. It also felt at some points that we were breathing together, simply because we could hear the rhythm of Tom’s breath, and instinctively followed. I understood his explanation of how he warms up as creating contrast with the dance/movement that’s to follow. Apologies all round if I misconstrued, but it was an idea that appealed a lot to me.

We continued to explore similar themes from Friday, moving from the ground to sitting, to standing, and the reverse. It sounds mundane when written down (and perhaps this is the problem of trying to describe an experience like Movement Archery – what notes I made a very hard to decipher). I will just say that we did a lot of rolling on the floor (lots of massage like bone/joint compression, and some friction burns too) as well as moving through different levels toward or away form the floor. If you’ve played Zen Archer before you would recognise some of what we were doing, though this was like Zen Archer with the gloves off, and performance enhancing drugs, and maybe rose tinted spectacles as well. Lots of grinning and laughing.

The second half of Saturday saw us in a gymnastics facility, sprung floor and all. A different, more vigorous (in some ways) warm-up, then forward rolls, handstands and cartwheels for starters. Followed by using a partner as gymnastic apparatus, and a few things that I can neither spell nor pronounce (though I’m sure if I Googled I’d find them). ‘Hard to pin down’ is a bit of a theme -Tom’s teaching of acrobatics is exactly what I should have expected after the Movement Archery experience: it’s relaxed but not casual. He spoke at one stage about the necessity to practice, and to repeat basic elements, to be happy with less complex movements. My overall sense is that most of all I should be having fun. There’s something about freedom, too – structure is there to serve you, not the other way round, which is in contrast to some of the other workshops we’ve done this year. Again, a description of what we were doing is elusive – a bit like drawing a poem.

Sunday’s work built on Saturday’s, and Friday’s work, more rolling, more games, more breathing hard and more grinning. I won’t try to make a list, but it is worth mentioning the last hour. Usually, when attending a two day seminar, I’m used to the last hour being a write-off, for me. My brain is usually overloaded, and my body too tired to expect to take anything useful from it (and this was two and half days). This was apparently a shared experience, along with the feeling of “I’m so tired I might hurt myself if I keep pushing”. Tom declared at 5 minute break, promising that the finale to follow would be good. We worked in pairs, with some simple ‘rules’, improvising, performing, refining and developing until the floor was a controlled, as in sensitive, as in not colliding, maelstrom of people – scampering, chasing, dancing, rolling, tumbling, flipping (depending on skill level) to the music. Undoubtedly the most fun I’ve had at any workshop I’ve ever attended.

I rarely leave a workshop feeling good about everyone who was participating but I have to sincerely thank everyone who was there – I don’t believe that anyone held themselves back, and everyone played a part in making it what it was.

In the days since MA&ZA while letting it sink in, and thinking of how to explain it, the stars aligned and I heard Frank Forencich (via a podcast) saying “We’re drowning in knowledge and what we need are experiences.” I enjoyed all the seminars and workshops that I did this year, and in hearing Frank’s words it dawned on me that they were mostly about acquiring knowledge. They all involved moving, and some were physically hugely demanding, but I treated them as information gathering exercises – drills, concepts, exercises to be used later. This is where Movement Archery was different – I certainly learned things that I will use again (mostly in my own practice, though some ideas are dynamite for Anoushka’s teacher training, for example) but mostly it was an experience. A thing existing for its own sake, a thing to participate in for the sake of the experience. This was a valuable lesson for me, being inclined to analyse (to try to be smarter than the movement), that I might get the most from movement when I can just be in the experience. I’m grateful to Tom for that lesson, and like some of the others that were there for a second or third time, I’ll be going back for more whenever I can.

 

Photos courtesy of Cellar Door

 

Further Movement Archery reading, that may well tell you more than the above:

http://republicofmovement.com/movementarchery/

 http://www.benmedder.com/blog/2014/8/29/a-sincere-practice.