Archives For Contrology

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.

 

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I wonder if anyone would argue that there is a better way to train to be a Pilates teacher than to serve an apprenticeship under an experienced teacher within a Pilates studio. I imagine that modular training courses exist not because they have the best outcomes but rather because they make economic sense. I’m sure that many people who are interested in becoming teachers are not able to commit the time to an apprenticeship so it is simply pragmatic to design modular courses, particularly if you are in the business of commercialising Pilates education. I’m also fairly sure that most studios offering apprenticeships would agree that it’s not something you do for the money.

I’m inclined to call this phenomenon of highly commercialised teacher training the industrialisation of Pilates. It’s a conundrum because, just like the outcome of the in/famous lawsuit, it helps to bring Pilates to a wider audience (which all teachers can profit from) and, I believe, it corrupts the original work.

Training manuals seem to me to be emblematic of this industrialisation, not least because they’re an inevitable consequence of highly commercialised training. If you’re not going to spend many months in a studio, learning how the repertoire feels in your own body, and shadowing an experienced teacher to learn how they teach that innate understanding to others then you will probably need to have a manual to remind you what the exercises are and how to teach them.

I’m not going to pretend that my training was the best but I was lucky that I was given a manual that consisted of exercise names, perhaps a picture or two, and a lot of blank paper. I had to write my own manual based on my experience and understanding of the work.

Modular means breaking up the Pilates system into blocks that can be conveniently delivered. Joseph was clear in ‘Return to Life’ that Contrology is a system and it would seem glaringly obvious that you can’t teach a system in distinct segments. No surprise that exercises get added (‘Supine Arm Work’ on the Reformer, 12 pages for variations of Teaser on the Reformer), or that exercises get divided into blocks (‘Abdominal Work’, ‘Hip Work’ etc.)

Looking at the manuals from 3 major training corporations (all of whom manufacture apparatus, which is a whole other can of worms – how much are the exercises tweaked to fit the apparatus?) it is clear that they are meant to teach the reader how to teach the exercises and, perhaps inevitably, the result is that the exercises are reduced to a mechanical explanation. (I’m sure that the publishers have to be careful about the language they use, to serve the broadest range of learning styles possible, and to adhere to evidence based descriptions/assertions.) It’s also clear from his writing that Joseph Pilates didn’t have a mechanistic approach, so to have a manual that presents a mechanistic approach to his exercises seems to me antithetical to the practice and teaching of Pilates.

I am fond of quoting anatomist Jaap van der Wal: “Brains know nothing about the muscles”. In the exercise instructions in ‘Return to Life’ Joseph Pilates barely refers to muscles at all – why would he need to? If the environment is right for you, the exercise will teach itself, just as a traditional reformer will teach you the exercise. Pilates is a movement discipline, not a muscle activation technique – and our students’ brains and bodies are smarter than we are. If we create the right environment, if the inputs that our students’ systems are receiving are appropriate, then their bodies will do the right thing. And to recognise how to do this fora variety of students is the stuff of apprentice learning, not the kind of understanding that you might gain from a manual.

If you can do the exercise correctly, you don’t need to be concerned AT ALL with which muscles are working. However, if you teach an exercise from the perspective of muscle activation, or as if its purpose is to address specific muscles (as these manuals state) you’re treating your student’s body as a machine rather than an organism, and more than likely a two-dimensional machine – if it’s an exercise that involves hip flexion then it must be for strengthening hip flexors – right? NO! Pilates is about health, about moving well, but to keep repeating the same purpose for each exercise (We know from Romana that Joseph would have said “It’s for the body!”) might not seem like good value for the money you’ve paid for your manual.

On the whole it’s a good thing that Pilates reaches a wide audience, so industrialisation does have some positives. I’m sure there are many excellent teachers who have come through modular training, and I suspect that, if they are excellent Pilates teachers, they will have taken their learning well beyond the modules. I hope that any teachers reading this would agree that being certified or accredited as a Pilates teacher is a bit like learning to drive – it is the very beginning of a process of learning that will very likely go on for a long as you teach – so let’s not abolish modular training. But let’s recognise that modules and manuals will probably not “help make you one of the best educated Pilates instructors on the planet.” (http://www.merrithew.com/shop/education-materials).

 

This article first appeared (with some edits) in PilatesIntel (http://www.pilatesintel.com), and I’m grateful to Brett Miller for suggesting a far superior title to the one I had first.