Archives For classical pilates

ef968f90d366b4532cfa664a2f58a743Related to, and along with “we now know more than Pilates did“, ‘too much flexion’ seems to be another observation/statement about the original Pilates repertoire that frequently goes unchallenged. To be clear, this seems to invariably mean ‘too much spinal flexion’. This may well be coupled with a faith in the research of Stuart McGill (yes, this is a favourite topic of mine), which may be taken to mean “never flex your lumbar spine under load of any kind”, or worse, “never flex your lumbar spine, ever”.

Brief digression – if you apply load (compression, for instance) to a cell, it will react, perhaps by adapting to that load. The cell is alive, it breathes, it responds to stimulus. If you kill a pig, remove its spine, put that spine in a vice and repeatedly apply load to it in one direction it will only reliably teach you about what happens when you do EXACTLY that. It will not tell you much at all about what happens to a living spine, made of living, breathing, adaptive cells, human or porcine. So we do know one thing about ‘Safe spines’ for sure: don’t allow anyone to remove your spine from your body, put it in a vice and apply repeated uni-directional load to it. Excellent.

So, there’s lots of flexion in Pilates, right? Everyone says so, not least The Pilates Nun: “It’s true that in the repertoire there are way more spinal and hip flexion exercises than extension, side bending or rotation, inward or outward rotation. By “way more,” I mean a ton more, tens of percentage points more, or, put another way (and to properly use a double negative) almost none are not flexion based.” I have only singled out The Pilates Nun because her website was one of the first hits in my Google search and because she states it so vehemently. She’s by no means alone in making this assertion, as you can see here, and (oh dear) here.

(Disconcertingly, The Pilates Nun explains this flexion dominance by stating that we are ‘flexion biased’ creatures, and goes on to claim that: “humans move forward through hip flexion and our bones are set up to facilitate that. If our legs moved as easily backward or to the side as they do forward, we’d be far less stable, less powerful and nowhere near as fast.” Is it wrong to be profoundly alarmed that someone who may be regarded as an expert in our field believes that it is flexion that propels us forward? Pilates teachers often seem to regard themselves as having greater understanding of movement than other fitness professionals but I imagine that the most novice strength and conditioning coach will tell you that hip EXTENSION propels us forward, and more powerful hip extension makes you faster).

My purpose here is not to write about how safe it can be to do lots of flexion, when done properly – you can read about that on The Vertical Workshop blog (though I still take issue with the writer’s willingness to go along with the ‘Pilates is lots of flexion’ dogma). Instead my intention is to suggest that when we look at exercises and classify them as ‘flexion’ we are only seeing half the story, and sometimes even less.

Do we see the shape at the mid-point in the exercise, and then categorise it based on that shape? If so, we forget about the process of arriving in that shape, and then returning to the start position. There are only a few isometric holds in Pilates. I habitually tell clients who are new to Pilates (in slightly different language) that we are as, if not more, interested in the eccentric movement of an exercise than we are in the concentric movement. Are we seeing concentric flexion and forgetting about eccentric extension? Or just as likely, seeing eccentric flexion and forgetting about the concentric flexion? The whole movement counts, and the exercise isn’t finished until you’ve returned to your start position.

In the simplest instance, if you do The Spine Stretch you return to upright to finish the movement (ideally a little longer than when you started, of course), so is it really an exercise of flexion?

Could it be that a position that appears to be one thing is actually about another? How often is a position that looks like flexed spine and flexed hips actually about an action of hip extension to maintain a robust connection of the legs to the spine, and at the same time organisation of the spine itself?

To avoid writing an epic, I plan to write Part 2 of this by looking at each of the classical mat exercises in terms of their movement patterns and objectives, to try to reinforce this point. In the meantime, I’ll be glad to hear what you think. If you usually think of an exercise as ‘flexion’, try thinking of it differently when you next do it, and see what happens.

Thanks for reading.

 

Part 2 is now available here.

 

The Pilates System (?)

February 11, 2015 — 4 Comments

imagesAs seems so often to be the case, the convergence of two sources at a similar time has got me writing. Soon after I saw this from Andrea Maida’s blog, I also saw this piece, written by Joanne Elphiston. Wildly different, you might say – one is an attempt to define the original order of Reformer exercises, as determined by Pilates himself (no doubt a demanding piece of research in itself), and the other is a critique of (what may be) the prevailing thinking around stability training and injury management.

To stray from these for a moment, after spending 4 days last year learning from Ido Portal, I felt that my concept of movement, and teaching movement had been blown apart. For the first few hours it was mildly traumatic as I wondered how on earth I could go back to teaching what I then recognised, as a result of what I’d just seen, heard, tried etc.,  as the relatively narrow approach of Pilates. What saved me was recognising that, like most if not all movement disciplines, Pilates only makes sense as a system, and what I needed to do was to keep exploring the new material and ideas, integrate them into my teaching as appropriate, and teach in a systematic way. I hope that prior to this my teaching hadn’t been haphazard, but there was definitely room for more of a systematic approach. (It may be worth mentioning that I have become much better at the kind of record keeping that insurance companies recommend as a consequence).

Naturally then I’m drawn toward articles like Andrea’s, because it helps to reinforce a system. Not to mention that, as well as laying out a sequence, she does a great job of rationalising the order that she offers (and with humour – so much nicer than dogma…). There are other orders laid down for the Reformer – Whereas in Andrea’s list the Long Stretch Series comes after the Long Box, in the Romana Legacy Series DVDs the Short Box appears immediately after the Long Box – I don’t think these distinctions are important because there is an underlying system to both.

What of Ms Elphinston’s thoughts? In case you haven’t read it yet, she begins: “We see a lot of injured physiotherapists and Pilates teachers in our clinic. Many of them have turned to Pilates in order to address their own back pain, and it initially gave them a sense of control over their situation. However, they nevertheless still have back pain.” And she goes on to ask why this should be. Partly because I have seen this scenario many times (or at least it feels that way), I am willing to bet that the Pilates teachers whom she refers to have not pursued the system – have not treated it as something that you keep working to progress within. My guess is that they discovered, through Pilates, the exercises that they feel help them (which can feel like a miracle), and they get repeated over and over (“I know what I need.”), but the idea of Pilates as a system to progress in gets lost. Or maybe it was never there in the first place. I began Pilates at a studio where there was a clearly defined warm-up sequence that most clients learned sooner or later. There were ways to modify or layer things but the basic movement patterns were the same. Over the years things changed – my guess is that teachers got drawn into playing therapist, or got bored and added their own ‘creativity’, or simply lost faith/interest in the system. If you go there now you may be hard pressed to find a teacher who expects that the clients will adhere to a system.

There may always be debates around whether or not you can teach exercises that you cannot do yourself. Leaving that aside, I suspect that we tend not to teach the exercises that we don’t do ourselves. Or that we don’t effectively teach the exercises that we don’t do. I’ve been here before – if we entertain the idea that there’s Pilates repertoire that we needn’t aspire to, then why bother with any of it?

It seems that a lot of continuing education in the UK Pilates world relates to other disciplines, or to approaches to specific pathologies and, therefore, modifications. (Why should, for example, Pilates for Golfers, be substantially different from Pilates for non-golfers? Is there repertoire that’s contra-indicated for golfers, and other repertoire only suitable for golfers?) This, coupled with an absence of goal-setting and diminishing expectations, means that it’s easy to ‘do Pilates’ and actually only scratch the surface. The system itself can act as goal-setter, and inspiration (me, I’m working on nailing Balance Control/Step Off this year), and means that you don’t avoid the things that you don’t like. It’s now a running joke/accepted law in our studio that everyone hates the things that they need the most (and I do NOT love Breaststroke…)

Ms Elphinston’s writes “we remember that stability arises from systems, not muscles. This requires variety and variation in our programmes, working our way up to variability in order to foster robustness and a range of solutions to meet the challenges in our work, play and general environment.” Hah, Systems! I know that she is not referring to systems in the same way that I was above, yet it seems that these ideas dovetail nicely. The Pilates system is about developing stability not by focusing on muscle recruitment but by developing a range of movement patterns with ‘variety, variation and variability’. The mixture of midline stabilisation and hip/shoulder dissociation with spinal articulation fosters robustness – not, God help us, ‘Safe Spine Pilates’.

If you’ve spent any time in a health club then I’m sure you will have seen those people who dip in and out of things – a bit of treadmill, some shoulder presses, a bit of a stretch, the cross-trainer, maybe the leg press etc. Perhaps you’ve felt sorry for them and their lack of structure in their workout, and maybe thought that if only they had some more method to their session that they may see more progress. The Pilates studio (or mat class) is just the same – the magic’s in the system.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

courtesy of Pilates Style

courtesy of Pilates Style

2013-09-24-HeidiPowellOvrheadPressPrego

Courtesy of Huffpost

One doesn’t have to look far to find many testaments to the value of Pilates during pregnancy. Though it has not received a specific endorsement from any UK health authority (RCOG for example), I doubt that there are many Pilates teachers who would tell a mum-to-be that Pilates wasn’t a good idea. Searching for ‘risks of Pilates during pregnancy’ doesn’t yield many results.

Equally, though perhaps less numerous, there are a number of women who will attest to the value of (appropriately scaled) CrossFit during pregnancy. Indeed there is a website, and social media pages and websites for ‘CrossFit Moms’. In this instance the doubters are a bit more vocal. While they may be largely lay people, photos of a heavily pregnant CrossFitter doing weighted squats caused a storm of controversy, with commentators declaring that she was endangering her baby, and that this activity should be regarded as child abuse.

I am an enthusiast for both of these exercise modalities, but recently I’ve had cause to reconsider my beliefs around pregnancy and exercise.

I’ve also had cause to wonder, prompted by social media threads in particular, about the prevalence of pre- and post-natal sacroiliac joint problems and symphysis-pubis dysfunction. Of course, the release of relaxin, not to mention hyper mobility, will have an impact on joint stability. We know that relaxin is released for a reason, yet it seems a very inefficient (thus unlikely) natural response if it causes lasting problems. I don’t believe in the ‘we just spontaneously break’ model of health that we generally adopt in the developed world. Something about our inputs, or our environment causes ill health – whether it’s joint problems or heart problems, for example. If we are (symptomatically) hyper mobile I suspect it’s because something in our diets, or parents diets (inputs) led to changes in collagen structure leading to lax connective tissues. There appears to have been a variety of research around the subject of diet and collagen (a protein), particularly in relation to caloric, protein, or cholesterol restriction – here’s a study on rats, if you fancy it. Thus, pelvic instability is not a random luck of the draw occurrence, but has an underlying cause. This is not an attempt to lay blame on anyone who has suffered with this problem – rather, to suggest that they have been unfortunate in their genetic inheritance and expression; or have not received the best guidance.

To get back to comparing exercise, first off, what are the most important exercises, or important muscles to be worked during pregnancy? Pelvic floor, right? You’ve got to do your pelvic floor exercises, for heaven’s sake! I’ve certainly done my fair share of teaching PF contractions to pregnant clients.

And then, last year, I watched Jill Miller’s webinar on CreativeLive, which featured the excellent Katy Bowman, as she put it, ‘dropping the Kegel bomb’ (Kegels is the term used in the US). She asserts that the most effective, and balanced way of keeping one’s pelvic floor toned during pregnancy is to squat, and to walk. We might say ‘practice natural human movement patterns’….Her argument is that, while they may be appropriate for some women, isolated pelvic floor exercises may lead to excessive pull on the inside of the sacroiliac joint and consequent imbalance/instability. Squatting would give more balancing posterior support, and both walking and squatting would help to keep tone in pelvic floor muscles.

And what are the issues around Pilates and pregnancy? We encourage pregnant clients at our studio to work with the apparatus, rather than doing mat classes. We’ve had great results and have had plenty of women coming to class right up to the end of their pregnancy. That said, during their second, and especially in their third trimester, a lot of their class doesn’t look much like classical Pilates. We don’t encourage participation in mat classes largely because of the restrictions in lying down (though I’d be the first to agree that guidelines on this are heavy handed, and that a woman’s body will most likely have a way of telling her to stop if lying down is causing vena cava compression), and herein lies one of the fundamental drawbacks of Pilates, especially in the classical practice – there’s a lot of lying down. I know of Pilates teachers who have had terrible problems of pelvic instability during pregnancy. There was a heated debated on a Facebook forum recently about the rights and wrongs of allowing a pregnant woman to participate in a Pilates mat class. Another recent post on the same forum was from a Pilates teacher in her third trimester, unhappy that her workouts feel incomplete because she can no longer follow the sequence that she’s used to. Advice from her responding peers ranged from suggestions for standing (Pilates) work, to taking walks and enjoying nature. Great suggestions, yet I fear that they may fail to address the problem of the lady’s frustration – her workout has to change completely. Is there an issue with the scalability of Pilates? Or the scalability of a ‘classical’ approach to Pilates? Mari Winsor’s book, ‘The Pilates Pregnancy’ is a case in point, with a number of reviews on Amazon commenting that the sequence of exercises varies little from one trimester to the next, and that she doesn’t offer much in the way of modification. In the third trimester she suggests the Hundred with bent knees and feet on the floor, or kneeling up if lying down is too uncomfortable.

Lying down isn’t just a problem from the point of view of possible restriction of blood flow, but also because it doesn’t train the muscles and soft tissues around the hip joints and pelvis to handle to take the increasing load of the growing baby. Indeed, would it not be better to be loading these joints (hip & SI) before conception, and in the early stages of pregnancy, in order to have a strong/stable foundation for the certainty of increasing load?

Here’s where the CrossFit mums-to-be that I know of step in. (Firstly, let’s be clear – I’m sure that many women have had happy and healthy pregnancies and deliveries with Pilates as their exercise companion). The wife of my first CrossFit coach is due in a matter of days, and still doing pull-ups. Another lady that my current coach is training, who is expecting twins in three months, is still deadlifting and squatting with weight – and maintaining that her back has never felt better. The beauty of the exercise methodology that they are following is that it can be scaled to fit their changing needs, without having to change the exercises themselves, and there are articles, in addition to the website mentioned above, to guide mums-to-be and coaches alike. In other words, they can squat throughout their pregnancy – the load and the range needs to change but the activity remains the same. High intensity workouts can be left ’til later, so there’s no need for any stopwatches, but there’s lots of scope for strength work (indeed, it doesn’t matter whether it’s called CrossFit or strength & conditioning). A lot has been written about the community aspect of CrossFit, and one of the benefits of this scaleability is that it means that pregnant women do not have to miss out on their fitness community, and the potential disempowerment of ‘I can’t do what I used to’.

I’m not really advocating that everyone pregnant gives up Pilates and signs up at their nearest CrossFit gym. I just wonder if there isn’t (sometimes) something missing from Pilates that needn’t be. Or maybe there’s a middle ground. I’ve never seen film or photographs of Joseph teaching a pregnant woman, and I don’t remember any reference to pregnancy in his writing. Perhaps he never intended pregnant women to use his method. If, like me, you believe that Pilates is about moving well then many activities can be approached with a Pilates sensibility, perhaps to the significant benefit of women both pre-conception and during their pregnancies.

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.

Pilates vs. Evolution

April 16, 2014 — 3 Comments

What should I call it?

What should I call it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

imagesFollowing on from a mention in part 1 of this post, I think that a lot of interesting things happen on the boundaries between disciplines. Kelly Starrett, who has influenced my thinking about Pilates a lot in the last few years, talks about the benefits of sports people from different disciplines talking to, and learning from each other (power lifters talking to gymnasts talking to rowers talking to olympic lifters talking to swimmers/runners etc).

The subject of the first post, and the comments that followed (thank you all for your interest and contribution) made me start to think that there is a problem inherent in classification – in trying to define or draw lines between things. Once again, I find myself a little conflicted – I love simplicity, but…

I’ve found the Classical Pilates Inc DVDs to be an invaluable resource, from the point of view of learning to put the correct name to an exercise, or checking choreography. I’ve learned to assume (who knows how/why) that what is usually referred to as ‘classical’ Pilates, is that which was taught by Romana Kryzanowska and her followers. The “Romana’s Pilates” DVD I have in front of me has the tagline “….the true pilates method as taught by Joseph Pilates”. As an enthusiast of simplicity I am drawn to the ‘this is the way it is supposed to be’ kind of presentation. From watching the DVDs, and taking class with Romana trained teachers, I know that Footwork on the Reformer should be done with all the springs attached, as should the Hundred.

And then again, I was watching part of another DVD the other evening (that is still available from Michelle Larson) of Eve Gentry giving a workshop in 1991. My understanding is that Eve worked alongside Joseph Pilates in New York for close to 30 years – longer than anyone of the other first generation teachers. At the beginning of the workshop she talks about what she learned from Pilates: “I learned about not using too many springs….” This is just one example and I’m sure there are plenty of other instances when the Eve Gentry approach to Pilates differs from the Romana Kryzanowska approach. Ironically, courtesy of this blog I now realise that it’s even more complicated than I thought – the classification ‘Classical Pilates’ requires sub-classification!

I’m not at all interested in entering a discussion about which one is better, or closer to Pilates’ original intentions.  I’m curious as to whether being more definitive about classification does more good than not. This gets back to the original question of what it means to call myself a Pilates teacher. I understand the value of being systematic, and holding true to the principles of rhythm and flow, and, ultimately, I believe (as Eve Gentry says) that I’m trying to teach a concept, not a set of exercises. The exercises are a vehicle for delivering/understanding those principles, and can represent a fantastic challenge for someone who is interested in exploring the limits of their physicality (I can see no need for inventing advanced repertoire). I also believe that Pilates himself would adapt/create exercises for individuals, based on his understanding of their specific needs. Whilst I wouldn’t try to compare myself to Pilates (though I not-so-secretly like to think it may be significant that I was born in the year that he died….), I often use other exercises to teach the principles to certain clients – because I think they will be more effective, or represent a more accessible route to understanding the concepts than a ‘classical’ exercise might. I’m back at the ‘Can I teach Pilates with a kettle bell? question from my previous post – can you teach Pilates with exercises that are not Pilates? According to the blog post that I linked to above, I should be acknowledging to whoever I’m teaching a non-Pilates exercise that I’m not actually teaching them Pilates at that moment. But I think Pilates is a concept, not a set of exercises! Isn’t it perplexing?

Here’s another way that I like to think about this – Can you be good at Pilates? If your answer is ‘Yes’, what does that mean? What does it look like to be good at Pilates? I routinely tell people coming to our studio that there’s no value or point to being ‘good at Pilates’. Who cares if you can perform Pilates repertoire beautifully (or however else we might define ‘good at’)? The point, for me, is to use Pilates to help people be good at, or find easy, everything else that they want or need to do. I think that my job is to teach people to move and position themselves as well as possible, and Pilates is the vehicle that helped me on this journey, and what I feel competent to teach to others.

I do understand the need to honour our heritage, and the original work of Joseph Pilates, and I’m grateful to those teachers and organisations who commit themselves to that. I also agree that a familiarity with the apparatus adds to one’s understanding of Pilates. Somewhat unconsciously, I provoked a bit of a comprehensive vs. mat teachers discussion, with the previous post that I wrote. I have no interest at all in supporting or defending diploma courses in Pilates that require very little actual practice of the method, or that offer certification in a short time. I remain uneasy about attempts to make a strong distinction between mat teachers and comprehensive teachers, because I think our job is to teach people to move well. We will, all of us, bring our unique life experiences to the teaching party and whilst many comprehensive teachers may enjoy an ‘edge’ from their experience of the Reformer’s resistance (and I think you’re a fool if you’re a teacher and you haven’t made an effort to experience the apparatus), I do not believe that we are all inherently better teachers of movement than teachers who are not certified in teaching on the equipment.

As an example, I learned more about working my upper back extensors when trying to squat while holding a weight overhead than I did in years of Pilates repertoire both in the studio and on a mat. That doesn’t mean that I give up on using Pilates to teach people back extension, it means that I’ve got something else up my sleeve AND that someone who has done overhead squats (my CrossFit coach, for example) may be at least as good as me at teaching someone to use their upper back extensors. That may be true of a Pilates teacher ‘only’ trained in the mat work.

So is my claim that my job, as a Pilates teacher, is to teach good movement legitimate?

 

strongfortbellI’ve used this blog previously to write about what I think Pilates is, or is not, so perhaps I shouldn’t need to ask this question. Then again, what I think Pilates is may not sit so well with some of my colleagues. Some of those teachers may have less experience than me, some that disagree (or would if they read this blog) might be ‘master’ teachers – who knows. There are so many of us in the world that it will always be difficult to find a simple, singular explanation of the job/work – if that’s even an appropriate goal.

I love a bit of simplicity, and often feel that we are inclined to complicate things – to hunt for the trees, or even the moss on the trees, and miss the wood that is trying to slap us in the face. I am increasingly embracing the idea of repetition – of exercises, and fundamentals. A few years back I had a conversation with a martial artist, and traditional Chinese medicine practitioner, who struck a chord with me when he opined that yoga is a martial art, and that Pilates is much the same – a bit like a martial art for Westerners. I firmly believe that teachers of Pilates, yoga, and martial arts (spiritual/meditative elements aside) are doing the same thing – teaching ‘good’ (efficient) movement. His argument was that, traditionally, in the East, children would start to learn these movement practices before they were old enough to question the why’s and how’s, and that by the time they were old enough to question, they knew the answers in their bodies – understanding through repetition. Pilates is a little different because it is designed for adults who may want/need to know why they are doing a particular movement. (How many times have you heard: “What’s this (good) for?”)

Whilst I love to talk to the people that I’m teaching about the why’s and how’s, I think that I need to become more at ease with shutting up and allowing people to just ‘do the reps’. I have succumbed, and am certain I’m not alone, to listening to clients niggling complaints, and trying to engineer a variation of an exercise especially for them. I’m sure that Pilates intended his method to be systematic, and sticking to a system is more likely to produce favourable results than regularly deviating from it. Thus, I’m increasingly inclined to side (are there sides?) with the classicists who devote themselves to ‘the work’, and refuse to deviate from the original Pilates repertoire.

The trouble with this is that, however much I’d like to keep thing simple, the ‘original repertoire’ can be hard to pin down. I remember one workshop presenter who would only teach exercises that he had seen archival footage of Pilates teaching, or that he had himself been taught by a first generation teacher (one who had been taught by Joseph). If you’re going to be strict that seems a pretty good start, but what about the repertoire that Pilates taught to a first generation teacher, who did not pass that particular exercise on to the presenter in question? Is it less ‘original’ because one person didn’t think of it, or didn’t feel it was appropriate for this person? So the mat work exercises are the only really reliable record of ‘proper’ Pilates repertoire, because he wrote them down.

And what IS Pilates? There is a growing movement in the UK to create a hierarchy amongst teachers – to set studio trained teachers above mat work teachers. Only last night I read an article suggesting this, because the studio is true Pilates, is ‘the work’ (matwork, as taken from ‘Return to Life’ was, after all, just homework). I suspect, when I hear or read someone talking about ‘the work’ that they’re talking about repertoire – following a system, perhaps. To know Pilates you have to do the work, to become a good teacher you have to do the work. To stay fresh as a teacher you have to do the work.

The repertoire is what separates Pilates from other movement disciplines, yet I don’t know how many times I’ve told potential clients that Pilates is not just a set of exercises – that the exercises are a vehicle for learning principles and fundamentals. In other words Pilates is not Teasers, Hundreds, Footwork, Long Spinals etc. – Pilates is how to move, how to hold/carry yourself. The repertoire is a well thought system for learning those fundamental skills (with a bit of exotica thrown in for those that like/need a challenge). I think the classical repertoire (what I understand it to be, anyway) represents a wonderful mountain to climb. If you reach the peak of executing all the exercises with grace then it’s highly unlikely that you will not be expressing the fundamentals of good movement. I would love to think that everyone who comes through the door of our studio will develop the goal of accomplishing all of those exercises (but I know it won’t happen).

Instead, I will try to teach everyone I work with to move to the best of their capability, and to overcome any challenges they may have in achieving easy, efficient, graceful, powerful motion. Very often the traditional studio equipment will be the ideal vehicle for delivering this, but sometimes I’ll stray. Just yesterday I was teaching a lady for the first time, who has had a history of back problems and is fearful of common daily tasks, not to mention essentials like picking her child up. This wasn’t the first time that I’ve taught a mother who feels scared or unable to pick up their child, and in this circumstance I feel like all other goals take second place. I will try to explain the fundamentals of midline stabilisation, and transmission of load from extremities to centre (I hope we can agree that these are Pilates fundamentals), and I will more than likely use a kettle bell, or weight of some sort to try to teach her how to (in fact, that she can) safely pick her child up. I cannot think of a ‘proper’ Pilates exercise that teaches this fundamental movement as quickly and simply as I can with a weight but that does’t change my belief that I’m teaching Pilates. Am I wrong?

Should I be in existential crisis? I like simplicity, and I want to teach with integrity, AND I think that often the most interesting things occur when edges are blurred, on the boundaries between things/practices/methods. Can I have my cake and eat it? Can I teach Pilates with a kettle bell?

Too much ‘creativity’.

As ever, the following is a reflection on the practice of Pilates that I am familiar with in the UK, and may not have any relevance/resonance for some, especially sticklers for classical Pilates.

I’ve attended workshops with Romana trained teachers (one in particular) and found that their vigorous adherence to ‘what Mr Pilates taught’ was rigid to the point of dogma, and not appropriate for the broad range of clients that I encounter. At the same time, it seems that we can sometimes forget/overlook the amazing range of repertoire that Pilates himself devised, and how effective so much of that repertoire is.

One of the consequences of living with (and being married to) another Pilates teacher is that many dinner time conversations revolve around shared experiences from our work. A frequent cause of frustration and, thus, topic for conversation, is a group teaching scenario whose dialogue goes something like: (client) “Can I do that exercise standing at the end of the Cadillac?” (teacher) “Sure, which one?” “It’s the one where you stand on the rotating disc and you hold the bar….and I think you bend forward, or something…” “Sorry, I don’t know that one.” “Yes you do. (Teacher X) showed it to me. It was really good.” “I’m pretty sure I don’t know which exercise you mean. What was it for?” “(Puzzled expression) For…? I don’t know – It felt really good.” “If you know why X gave it to you I might be able to figure out what it is – do you remember?”

This could go on for a while, but hopefully you get the gist. Let’s be clear – of course it’s great for clients to enjoy themselves and, in general, I’ve got nothing against people doing exercises that make them ‘feel good’. Then again, too many times I’ve seen people assuming horrible positions that apparently feel really good, teachers included (“Oh no, I would never let a client do this, it just feels really good.”).

There’s a couple of reasons, at least, for the above dialogue to be the cause of frustration. In the first place, while I wouldn’t advocate chapter & verse on whys and wherefores with every exercise, if we know the purpose or objective of an exercise, we have a much better chance of understanding and executing it well. On a couple of occasions when the client may have been able to recreate the feelgood exercise/movement, (typically involving a number of auxiliary props*) I’ve found myself wondering why a particular classical Pilates exercise wouldn’t have done just as well, if not better.

There may be many instances when it’s appropriate to adapt exercises, and also some occasions when it seems necessary to ‘invent’ something to meet the needs of a specific individual (just as Pilates himself did). Is that always the reasoning behind teachers ‘creating’ new exercises? I would guess that the answer is, quite often, no. Gray Cook addresses this in his article ‘Function?’:

We cannot prove this exercise will improve the way you move. It has not been shown to make you more functional. It has not been proven to create better performance or metabolism. It is simply the result of your trainer’s creativity and a surplus of time and equipment. It is an unscientific attempt to reduce your boredom with your current training program. This combination of equipment and movement is a way to entertain you and will distract from the objective tangible results you may not be getting.” (Gray Cook | Function? © 2011 Gray Cook, http://www.graycook.com)

Cook is writing about strength and conditioning coaches but his words seem to apply very well to Pilates (as do a lot of his writings, I can’t recommend him enough). To compound what he says, quite often it seems that there is no identification of, or desire for, specific and measurable results. In other words, aren’t we (no, our clients!) better off with a situation in which someone can say “I can see and feel that I’m able to move further and more easily in this range”, rather than “That stretch feels really nice for my back”?

The other side to this is that mystery exercises help to fuel people’s dependence on a teacher. Any time someone has no clear idea of the purpose, or desired outcome of an exercise the further along the road they are away from empowerment. Perhaps empowerment is not a goal that everyone has for their clients…. certainly it is at the heart of the philosophy at our studio. I’ve referred previously on this blog to conversations I’ve had with clients who’ve said something like “Teacher X has been working a lot on my neck”, when the client seems to think that Pilates is something that is done to them, and it feels like the same territory, to me, as teaching exercises that don’t have a clear intent. Never mind an identifiable name to make it readily repeatable.

One of the fringe benefits for me of having a teacher training program based in our studio is the presence of students working through manuals, practicing repertoire and reminding me of things that I’ve forgotten, because I don’t teach them regularly. The classical repertoire covers so much territory, and is so adaptable (especially in the studio) that I believe there are very few situations that truly require ‘new’ exercises. The classical repertoire, being recognisable and repeatable, also allows us to have some measures of our capability.

In other words, there’s nothing really wrong with Pilates, so we don’t need to be ‘fixing’ it with our creativity.

*There’s a side issue here of adding auxiliary equipment to exercises, to increase the ‘challenge’. Is there ever a good reason to put a foam roll on a reformer?

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Image from pilates.wonderhowto.com