Archives For Fighting Monkey

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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Like moths to a flame, we were drawn back to Turku to attend another movement workshop. All our previous trips have been for Ido Portal workshops but this time it was for Fighting Monkey. FM has been on our radar for a few years, though I can’t remember how we first heard of it. The first video I saw was shot outdoors and my memory is that it looked like a roadside, rough ground and people looking like they were, near enough, fighting. The rumours were that, if you were in to movement, this was the real shit.

Fast forward a few years and FM have some really high quality, seductive video. It’s hard to explain why (this will be a theme), but after 30 seconds of someone manipulating a wooden sphere I knew for certain that I wanted to sign up for their week long intensive in Slovakia (in addition to the upcoming weekend in November we were already booked on). Would Anoushka and I be suitable ‘material’ for such an event? I emailed Fighting Monkey and had a reply from Jozef (he and his wife, Linda, are Fighting Monkey), to say something like “If you’re ready for hard work you are welcome”. That first interaction was a pleasant surprise (email IP Method and it will not be Ido who replies), it felt like ‘ hey, if you’re interested in what we do them we’re friends already’.

But, dammit, there was a spanner in the works – an unmissable family event right in the middle of the intensive week. So, much as we love our routine visit to Turku, it was a can’t-go-to-the-intensive consolation, more than the irresistibility of Finland’s former capital.

So, there we were, usual hotel next to the Baltic (a very refreshing 18 degrees after a day’s play), usual morning drive through the woods into the city but, instead of the usual CrossFit box venues of Ido workshops, this time we were heading for (I think) a folk dance pavilion.
A couple of FM followers greet us warmly, and Jozef tells us that we’re lucky, that a group of only 20 is very unusual, so we will get a lot of attention. I don’t remember much more preamble before we were in pairs playing games on the floor (and getting filthy – don’t those folk dancers ever sweep the floor?) One of the focuses of FM training is ‘body-body’ work, on the basis that interacting with another human creates endless variables (especially if you keep changing partners) that you have to react to. So simple tasks like ‘I’m going to stay sitting on my butt while s/he tries to manoeuvre me onto my back’ have extraordinary complexity, and have the potential to teach you a lot more than repeating specific drills.

The parameters, or rules of the games kept changing, along with the partners, and I was amazed to find that 2 hours had passed when we paused to sit in a circle, to share observations and learn FM principles from Jozef. This was the pattern for the weekend: movement punctuated with feedback and theory/philosophy. While Jozef spoke often about athletic performance he also related a lot of the physical practice to rehabilitation scenarios. This workshop was “Anatomy of Injury” (not my favourite title, I must admit) – Jozef made it clear that the different FM workshops have a lot of overlap – and one of the themes was becoming less prone to injury. Ido’s ‘The Corset’, with its ‘armour for your whole body’ subtitle, represented a more positive heading, or description, for me. And this makes for a useful comparison, I realise, because FM’s work and message is almost the exact opposite of The Corset, and Ido. Whereas, I learned an amazing range of drills and exercises (that will carry on serving me for years) on The Corset, FM is very much about learning principles that you can apply broadly – like learning a language as opposed to learning a lot of vocabulary. Crucially, Jozef makes it clear that the learning comes from you, answers are rarely given or imposed upon you. You learn by solving the problem yourself, instead of being given solutions. So you try one thing and if it doesn’t work you try another. You persist, you repeat, you allow your brain the time to decode what it’s seeing.

This is part of why it feels difficult to describe what FM is, because it certainly does not seem to be a prescribed sequence of activities. I learned from one of the guys who’d been following FM that the content is different every time. Again, trying to illustrate by comparison, if you see their respective websites the names are ‘Ido Portal METHOD’, and ‘Fighting Monkey PRACTICE’.
One element that was very tangible, and novel for me, was the concept of a “zero form” as an awareness and feedback tool. A posture (standing, sitting) or activity, for a certain duration, that you use to develop your proprioception and sense of homeostasis. So part of the strategy of training intelligently is to have the ability to recognise what type or intensity of training will be appropriate for you on a given day. And how is your body responding to the training you did yesterday? In the age of highly sophisticated electronic devices and software that can gather endless metrics about us this is a beautifully primal, animal idea to me. Much more embodied than relying on a Fitbit to tell you your health status. I’m somewhat shocked at how novel this is to me: I’m all about primal lifestyle, nutritious movement, ancestral health and all that jazz. Apparently I’ve been seriously switched off, and this idea alone was worth the trip.

So what else did we do? ‘Coordinations’ that, thanks to some previous exposure, no longer throw me into a state of total panic, but still can cause my brain to feel like it’s jammed, and has to be reset – it’s almost like feeling synapses failing within my head. Jozef moves rhythmically across the room, demonstrating a pattern of steps while his arms whirl and trunk rotates, and we try to follow. I won’t deny that there’s still some profane verbalisation on my part but I now know that running from the room, roaring with rage will not serve me well. (What is Fighting Monkey? Downloading Jay-Z to help remember the two-step/swinging/throwing pattern you did earlier, in your hotel room at 10pm. That’s Fighting Monkey.)

We had a variety of encounters with the ’practice ball’, both standing and on the ground (It’s okay – it’s not that they don’t sweep the floor, all that dust is potato starch, for more glide in your folk-dance stride, apparently). Some of it looking like combat, some of it looking like contemporary dance. We also practiced a standing sequence of joint articulation (aha! Something specific!), and attempted to manipulate small wooden blocks with our feet. In both cases Jozef’s assertion that “Feet as strong as a worker’s hands” is essential for athletic legs was ringing in my ears. And we sat in the circle, listening and talking.

An interesting measure of this experience for me is that, unlike any other workshop I’ve attended before, there was nothing that we did that I will try to teach to anyone else straight away. That’s not the stuff that I was learning. I think that Fighting Monkey is the people behind it, and their cumulative practice and exploration. I’ve never worked with someone who seemed as steeped in the work as Jozef, and I have to assume that, since they’ve evolved FM together, the same will be true when I meet Linda. Jozef is an extraordinary teacher, with a great ability to read the group and manage the rhythm of the day – playfulness, focus, intensity. I’d be very surprised to hear that anyone there felt that we did too much of any one thing. I’ve met teachers who love their work so much that they lose themselves and forget to be the teacher, but Jozef, in spite of gleefully declaring that he loves a game we played so much that it makes him salivate, was always present, aware and ready to help anyone who was struggling (and also able to recognise when to give room for self-discovery). It’s too simplistic to say “he seems like a really nice guy” – he is very generous, with his time, energy, attention. I’ve rarely met anyone who seems as grounded as Jozef (grounded as in “I know exactly who I am, and I’m at peace with myself”) and I think this has huge significance in a teacher.

I’ve appreciated workshops that were scaled to accommodate different abilities – “if this is too much then stick with that” – but there was none here. It’s only dawned on me in writing this but I think this is a crucial part of FM – while we may have struggled with the Coordinations, for example, we were always in it together, as a group. No one was left behind, because it’s not that kind of practice/training. Everyone tries to find their way, and if you are struggling with something you’re encouraged to reflect on how it feels and how it relates to you response to other challenges in your life. Because, and here is the Big Thing:

Fighting Monkey is about being a better person.

It’s not about fitness, or being a better mover. It’s about being a better communicator. Jozef states that your health is measured by your ability to form relationships. To continue the comparison with Ido (which truly does neither party justice but is convenient – sorry) in the recent film Ido declares that it’s important to realise that there is no meaning (to all the movement), which is clearly in sharp contrast to ‘being a better person’. This made for a more profound, harder to define kind of experience than I’ve had in any movement workshop. And, while I’m going to need to practice, observe and reflect for a while before I can contemplate sharing anything that we did, it feels as though I’ll still be learning from it for years to come.