Archives For Benjamin Degenhardt

I believe that, as a profession, Pilates teachers are generally eager to learn and driven to keep doing courses and workshops long after their initial training. I recently discovered the term “course whore”, applied (by herself) to a Pilates teacher and, while it may not be a phrase I’d use, it appears to be a ‘thing’. It’s all the more interesting because it was clearly used as a pseudo-derogatory term, feeding an idea that the more courses you’ve done the better you will be. Or the more knowledge you have the better you will be.

I’m certain that all of us who call ourselves Pilates teachers have a responsibility to continue to learn and grow. How we do that is what motivated me to write this.

Hopefully attending workshops/seminars/courses is never a box-ticking exercise (if you belong to an organisation that requires you to attend X hours of courses that they run this may well become a problem) so let’s assume that we have intrinsic motivation to look for whatever we sign up to. What is it that drives that motivation? I wonder if we can divide it into fear and love? We could also consider this as ‘outcome-driven’ (box-ticking, getting a certificate, adding to a CV) and ‘process-driven’ (exploring, challenging beliefs, learning about self as well as subject).

Fear as a motivator might sound like “My training didn’t cover working with people with …..(insert condition/disease etc here); or, “I’d like to work with X type of person but I’m not qualified. Questions on teachers’ forums looking for courses on working with specific populations seem very common (along with the advertising of such courses). Underlying this are the beliefs that “I can’t work with that person because I’m not qualified/certified in the condition that they have”; and “when I’ve done that course I’ll be able to sell myself as a specialist in…” It might also sound like “I need to find another workshop to do this year to get my hours up to the required amount.”

The courses that will fit the bill in a fear-driven search might well give you more understanding of generalities about say, neurological disorders, and maybe some exercise ideas but will they help you to be a better teacher? Perhaps you’ll feel more confident, and that’s important, but what happens when you come across another condition that you’re not certified to teach to? Do they educate you, or do they develop you as an individual and, therefore, as a teacher (or is there a bit of both happening)?

The love-driven search is probably more instinctual, more likely to be via recommendation, or as a result of research into a subject or field. For example, if Joseph Pilates’ writing (or some other source) encourages you to investigate children’s developmental movement patterns, you might discover The Prague School of Rehabilitation and discover their DNS course(s). This course could be transformative to your teaching but you probably wouldn’t find it if you were looking for something to help you feel better qualified to teach people with, for example, SIJ dysfunction. Betraying my own bias, the love-driven search may also take you into a different movement realm, to spend sometime being a beginner again, and to see with different eyes.

I think there’s a danger that one might get stuck in a loop that will be self-limiting – there will always be conditions for which no-one is going to develop a course, because they’re just not common enough for anyone to make money running a course about. I can think of at least a dozen examples of people with uncommon or complex conditions who’ve come to our studio in the last 10 years whom we would have had to turn away if we believed that we needed specialist training to teach them. And here’s the crux of the matter – YOU DON’T NEED THOSE COURSES!

Let me qualify that. If your training as a Pilates teacher prepared you to teach principles, rather than teaching you exercises, then you don’t need courses in working with ‘special populations’, or specific conditions. You’ve been trained in teaching Pilates to whomever turns up at your door, or in your class, and you have the skills and understanding to figure out what they need. And to be clear, I’m not talking about the 6 principles from the Eisen & Friedman book. Instead I’d suggest researching the principles as described by Benjamin Degenhardt, or have a look at this. (This doesn’t mean that you should agree to work outside your scope of practice – if you don’t know how to work with someone then it’s essential to acknowledge that. Though this would also be automatic if your training has been thorough.)

Why don’t you need specialist courses? In addition to teaching principles, hopefully you teach the person or people in front of you – you’re not teaching from a one-size-fits-all script, you are practicing person/client-centred teaching. They’ve chosen Pilates, or they’ve been recommended to take up Pilates because it’s magic recognised as helping people to be better. You may need to do some research, and you definitely need to find out from them what they want, what they think they need, and what they need it for, to help steer your choices. If a cyclist comes to your class, you don’t need to ask her to come back after you’ve done your “Pilates for Cyclists’ course – you can start building a relationship and demonstrating that she has some agency by finding out from her what the particular demands of cycling are, and if she has a problem you’ve got the principles in mind to figure out the movements or exercises she will benefit from.

We could switch ‘cyclist for ‘man with Parkinson’s’, ‘lady with MS’, ’65 year old golfer’, ‘young woman with scoliosis’ etc. etc. Your job is to teach them (the universal principles of better movement that are embedded in) Pilates. Not ‘Pilates for Golfers’, Pilates for Neurological Disorders’, or ….. You’re qualified to teach Pilates, to humans, individually, in their infinite variety. You don’t need the specialist course for each one, instead each individual represents an opportunity for your personal and professional growth, because they will each be able to teach YOU something.

This is the thing that concerns me the most – if you are attending specialist courses are you growing – expanding, we might say – or are you being channeled into ever narrower lanes that limit your scope and outlook (like the scientists in the quote above)? I suspect that the latter is more likely.

Especially if you want to specialise in working with a particular population, your insurance may require you to have specialist training and, in some cases, there may be nationally established guidelines that should be followed if you are choosing to advertise yourself as specialised in working with, for example, pregnant women. In such cases it probably makes sense to pay for that specialised course, though you will probably need to acknowledge that many people won’t fit the guidelines, and you’ll be reliant on teaching principles, listening etc etc. If you’ve developed your listening skills, and your looking skills; and acknowledged the extent of your knowledge to yourself and your clients; and experimented, failed, learned, tried, failed, learned, improvised etc then you will very likely have a far deeper well of knowledge and skills to draw from than if you’ve attended half a dozen courses where the lessons have been any more specific than ‘teach the individual in front of you’.

I’ll leave it to you to decide how relevant the Konrad Lorenz quote is to this. For me, I’d prefer to be in-between these two extremes, but definitely tilting toward the philosopher end of the spectrum.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

I 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.

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.

 

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