Archives For fitness

I’m Not Good at Pilates

September 12, 2018 — 2 Comments

I heard a new (to our studio) client say this yesterday, but this is by no means the first time I’ve heard something like “I’ve done it for two years but I’m not very good.”

I then tie myself up in knots trying to explain to them – without indicating that, in addition to being bad at Pilates they’ve also fundamentally missed the point – that there’s no such thing as ‘good at Pilates’.

I’m particularly interested in this because it seems to involve merging some different ideas. I’d like to try to unpick them, and to propose a test for teachers (not ‘are you good at Pilates?’ but, ‘has Pilates done you any good?’)

As we know, Joseph Pilates was promoting HEALTH, with exercise as a small part of the equation. In pursuit of health we need to consider our nervous system responses (does our sympathetic system switch on appropriately), which is related to our sleep quality, our stress levels; also, do we spend time outside in sunshine and fresh air, with nature in view? And, of course, there’s food – macro and micronutrients.

Can we be ‘good’ at health? How often do you hear people described as ‘fit’ (not the easy-on-the-eye slang), or healthy? And in those cases how likely is it that their lifestyle is actually addressing all aspects of health? (I guarantee that a Tour de France cyclist, who might be well adapted to endurance cycling, is not fit or healthy).

I don’t think it’s possible to be good at Pilates, certainly not by any measure that I can recognise, but I definitely think it’s worthwhile. One of my challenges is to help those people who don’t feel that they’re good at Pilates to find some measure of their sessions’ value, which is external to how competent or not they feel during the session.

I suspect most of these people are at a Pilates class because they feel that they ‘should’ be: perhaps their health professional has advised it, or perhaps something in their sense of self tells them that they will be better (with, I imagine, a large dose of media influence) if they do Pilates. You know – they’ll have less pain, they’ll look better, they’ll align themselves more closely with the apparent lifestyle of celebrity X, or they’ll have a piece of the puzzle of the impossible-to-define-or achieve nebulous ‘how we should live’ that the media presents hourly.

So helping someone to find value from their Pilates well often involve finding out about things that they like to do, and look for ways to enhance that activity; or to learn something that they cannot yet but would like to do, and to map a route to achieving it.

Honestly, I find it a bit strange that anyone loves Pilates for itself. That may well be heresy, so let me try to explain. I don’t love the act of spending 45 minutes on the Reformer. It’s quite fun to do it with someone else, to spur on and be spurred on, and I REALLY value how it can make me feel. I was going to compare it to drinking wine, and I find that in unpicking the comparison maybe I do love the Reformer – I realise that there are moments (Rowing springs to mind) when there is almost a taste to the specific position or movement that I do love. That aside, I drink wine not because I know that I should, that it will do me good. No, I drink wine because I like the taste and, you know, sometimes that combination of a robust Argentinian Malbec with some good rib-eye transcends food and drink in the way that sex with the person you love transcends the other kind of sex.

Woah! Get back on track! I get on the Reformer because I should, and because I know it’s good for me – not because I love it, and another 5 reps of horseback (done strictly in the original order) will get it nearly perfect (“where’s my phone? I feel an Instagram post coming on”).

A great example of a goal that I came across recently was the man who wanted to put his socks on without sitting down. I LOVE this. Sure, it’s a beginner’s goal, and I’d be hoping for more soon, but as a start it’s great – single leg balance, deep hip flexion, spine mobility, ankle flexibility? Yes, Pilates can do that! If you saw this particular gentleman in a class today I doubt you would say “He’s really good at Pilates” but he achieved that goal in ten week, and how good a springboard is that?

As a teacher of this method, you might be looking for a little bit more – especially if you’re focus is on exercises rather than health. I know that a foundation of years of Pilates was invaluable to me when playing with common CrossFit movements (once I’d got past the ignominy of not being able to hip hinge – forever curling my spine instead…) My background was carpentry and construction, not dance, and I’m sure Pilates made it easier for me to pick up the techniques of Olympic weightlifting. If I can do a ring muscle-up (on a good day) it’s because of Pilates – it’s because Pilates taught me really important things about how to move.

So how about some simple tests, to see if your Pilates has served you well? The kind of tests that don’t rely on subjective or aesthetic judgements. There’s no “I’m not very good at it” (as we might say about Balance Control, or The Snake, perhaps), there is only “Yes, I can do that” or “No, not yet”.

So, if your Pilates has been working for you, you should be able to pass these tests:

Hollow Rock

Pistol Squat

Pull Up

Brett feels that they are a bit arbitrary, and that’s true in a way. I learned them in the context of CrossFit, where they might be considered intermediate level skills – probably many thousands of people are doing them every day. I think they’re useful tests because they cover strength and control of upper and lower extremity, and stabilisation of your spine under load – all of which seem like attributes one might expect of a Pilates practitioner. They’re also all scaleable, it’s easy to figure out (especially with the help of YouTube) ways to progress with each of them.

The Hollow Rock is a gymnastic skill that is really just a progression of the Hundred, or Double Leg Stretch. From your Hundred shape, reach your arms overhead and rock, as you would in Open Leg Rocker – it’s really a super long lever OLR. Can you maintain the shape – yes, or no?

A Pistol is a one legged squat (hey, it’s a super advanced Reformer exercise!) without any external support, which may call for the greatest explanation/justification of the 3. My CrossFit coaching friend (CrossFit Brit, Irvine, CA – pay him a visit, he’ll help you be more awesome, for sure) describes the Pistol as a combination of strength, flexibility and balance – Pilates gives us all of those, right? Carl Paoli*, who wrote a book about 4 basic movements, one of them being a pistol, suggests that the major challenge of this movement is resisting internal rotation. Pilates is full of resisting internal rotation, so we’ve totally got this. So, can you sit down to full knee and hip flexion, and stand back up – yes, or no?

And here we go again, my Pull Up soap box. If you’ve only been practicing on a mat you may have a let-off, but if you have a Reformer and/or a Cadillac available to you, you know about pulling, you know about gripping, and integrating your arms into your shoulders and your shoulders into your trunk/spine. And you’re a teacher, so your arms are not weak, so overall, you SHOULD be at least on the way to a Pull Up.

The great thing about these three movements is that they not only provide feedback about the value of your Pilates practice, they also have fantastic carry forward to your Pilates practice. If you have these three skills I guarantee that you will find the more Pilates repertoire more readily available.

Win win.

*Carl also has a lot of instructional videos to help with all of these skills here.

 

An abridged version of this was first published by Pilates Intel.

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stock-photo-8692744-apple-coreUnless you’re referring to apples, or microchips.

I was listening to Eyal Lederman discussing his article “The Myth of Core Stability” yesterday. I have taken issue with his article before now, for various reasons, not least because the article is essentially rubbishing something which Dr Lederman fails to define – without a clear definition, rubbishing the concept becomes rather easy. Now, however, it occurs to me that the underlying trouble is that no-one can define ‘core’, as it relates to human anatomy, in a way that will receive broad agreement.

Try an internet search for a definition. The core is the trunk. The core is the transverse abdominis, deep multifidi, pelvic floor and diaphragm. There is an upper core and a lower core. The core is the trans abs, obliques and lower paraspinals. There’s a front core and a back core. The core is from the neck to the knees. (For extra fun, try a search for ‘weak core’ – eye-opening stuff, to be sure).

Core is something that goes to work before we move, right? The nervous system sends a message to the core to tell it to stiffen prior to moving our limbs, and that way we don’t destabilise our lower backs – isn’t that how we work? And this happens in fractions of milliseconds. Maybe we ‘know’ this because EMG studies have been done that show the order of firing of muscles yet, as Dr Lederman points out, to get an accurate picture of what happens you would need to have an EMG for every muscle, for every movement, to really see what happens (and then you’d only be seeing what happens in that single subject). This would also assume that what we learn from anatomy books about the location and role of muscles is not only universal but also exactly accurate, and not simply a means of dis-integrating an integrated system.

Pilates, as I understand it, is about whole body movement. And with good reason – there are very few movements that are not whole body. You can lift you arm without moving anything else, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of your body doesn’t respond. Pilates is a holistic practice because movement is a holistic practice, even when you attempt to isolate joints or muscles. To paraphrase Ido Portal, when you tug on a shirt, you tug on the whole shirt. Our whole body responds to movement, as an integrated organism.

The idea of core relies on the belief that muscles are laid down in layers, from the skeleton outward to the skin. ‘Like the layers of an onion’, as one explanation of ‘core’ offered. This sounds like a mechanism, not the model of an integrated biological system. We are animals (however much we may desire to elevate ourselves above such lowly status) and we don’t move in the way that a mechanism that we could build would move.

What if (and I strongly believe this to be the case) your brain knows how to move your body far better than any externally derived input, and your belief in core activation actually inhibits your natural functioning? Did you manage without a core before you knew you might have one? If you have been injured, did you know about your core before or after the injury? Did your discovery of a core influence your injury recovery? Has anyone recovered from injury without discovering they may have a core?

To use the word ‘core’ in relation to movement, exercise, or health feeds a picture of a hierarchy and/or layering of muscles which, if out of order, will lead to almost certain dysfunction. We are animals. All things being well we move as animals do, as whole beings. What is the level of movement dysfunction amongst other mammals? Do they show signs of missing core exercises, of having poor core control? (What would you suggest if they did?)

Core is anti-Pilates. It is a term that I hear most from people who are describing their own inadequacies or failings, as told to them by either media or medical professional. The prescription, I would respectfully suggest, is more likely to be ‘more varied movement’, or ‘move with an awareness of the ground and your environment’ than it is ‘practice engaging your core’. Just as walking down the street ‘engaging your core’ will create constipated movement and breathing patterns, so will practicing Pilates as if it requires ‘core activation’.

What to say if you’re banned from saying ‘core’? Could this be a good moment to focus on the outcome (the movement, that is) that we want for our students/clients? Instead of an internal cue, what would be an externally oriented cue?

Thank you, as ever, for reading.

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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Does Posture Really Matter?

October 11, 2015 — 1 Comment

Perhaps this is a heretical question…. the importance of ‘good posture’ to health and well-being is so widely recognised that it is beyond question. Certainly, in the world of Pilates, it would seem to be doctrine. Jillian Hessel tells us that good posture is “essential to a healthy, well functioning body.” The good news is that Pilates apparently has a solution – Pilates For Posture’s website declares: “Evidence has shown Pilates to….improve posture…” (These are two examples out of many, and just happen to be near the top of my search results. See here, and here, for a couple more).

I accepted the importance of posture for years, as well as ‘postural optimisation’ being a reasonable goal for someone’s Pilates practice, and I was a little irritated by, for example, Todd Hargrove questioning links between posture and pain – why ask the question at all when we know that bad posture is bad for you? I started to be curious and question my own orthodoxy on this subject first when I noticed that people I was taking workshops with, in particular with MovNat and with Ido Portal, who were effortlessly wonderful movers, had (to my Pilates teacher, good posture obsessed eye) crappy resting positions. In other words, when they were relaxed, they were really relaxed, and clearly not trying to hold themselves well. To reiterate, when they wanted or needed to move they were graceful, supple and strong. When they didn’t need to move they did not seem to be controlling the form their body took.

thumb3_leopard_relaxing_in_a_tree_after_lunch

Needs some postural training?

More recently someone I was training with said “posture is reflexive”, which really got me thinking. It ties in with ideas of energy efficiency that I gleaned from basic evolutionary biology – as a species we are ‘programmed’ to use as little energy as possible; and with an idea I got from Katy Bowman: no one is ‘out of shape’, we are all in the shape that our brain/body thinks is best for us, based on the environment and inputs (nutrition, movement etc etc) we receive. So ‘posture is reflexive’ means that at any given moment your brain will organise your body according to the best (most energy efficient) strategy that it has available, based on the information it has received. You can consciously organise your posture, until your brain is occupied with something else – if your job is to sit or stand up straight that’s great, but if your life requires you to do anything else then postural organisation will quickly take a back seat. To say that your posture is a determinant of your health is putting the cart before the horse – your posture is a manifestation of your health, and ‘fixing’ your posture, however fleeting that might be, will not fix your health.

Problematic postures are only problematic when they indicate poor movement strategies. If someone’s default standing position is a swayback, and they have glute amnesia, the solution will be to teach them to move, not to teach them to stand. If someone’s sitting position appears to be causing them problems with their neck, shoulders, back, digestion, breathing etc. the solution won’t lie in teaching them to be better at sitting (just as a more ‘ergonomic’ chair won’t help), but might lie in helping them to sit less and move more. I understand, too, that someone’s posture can be a product of their emotional state. In this situation teaching posture doesn’t present a solution, and teaching movement actually might.

Assessing someone’s standing posture may be useful in terms of having quick/simple clues as to what kind of movement they have the most urgent need for, and perhaps there’s a movement assessment that will serve the same purpose, or do better. Beyond that, is there any point in teaching someone how to stand, or sit?

 

 

 

 

ivory towerYes, I’m afraid I’ve been browsing Facebook forums again – and becoming struck by the tone of some teachers’ comments with reference to other movement disciplines, and other exercise professionals. Warning, generalisations follow.

Is it me, or is there something within our training that implants the idea that a knowledge of Pilates somehow gives us an understanding of all movement, or makes us a little more expert than other fitness professionals?
I come from a Pilates teacher training background where we were encouraged to believe in, and promote ourselves as having “the highest standard”. There was no-one in the country better qualified, more knowledgable than us. (Perhaps it is just me, or my egotistical interpretation of what I heard and saw…)
It was, and according to Facebook, still is fairly standard to look down on the methods and the level of knowledge of personal trainers, for example. I’m in no doubt that there are some shoddy PTs out there, just as I’m in no doubt that there are some sub-par Pilates teachers out there (let’s not forget that you don’t need to have ever attended a Pilates classes to gain a Level 3 Diploma in teaching Pilates in the UK).
Why do we appear to feel superior?

I have a certain affection for CrossFit so I may be particularly sensitive to Pilates teachers taking a swipe at it (though I’m sure that CrossFit HQ isn’t at all worried). It seems to be a widely held belief that CrossFit ignores bad form in its athletes, or maybe even teaches bad form. I’ve done the Level 1 CrossFit Trainer course and can attest that bad form is not encouraged, and that trying to coach someone who is moving at a speed not usually seen in a Pilates studio is a tricky skill. Never mind – looking in from the outside us Pilates teachers can see enough to ‘know’ that CrossFit is bad, the coaches aren’t bothered about technique, and the practitioners are sure to be injured soon. We may even crow that those poor mugs will be knocking on our door fro help once they have injured themselves – I’ve seen comments like this many, many times. In short, we (Pilates teachers) understand and can coach movement much better than a CrossFit coach can.

It may be true that more people injure themselves doing Crossfit than injure themselves doing Pilates, but just because you see something in a gym, or on YouTube that makes you wince, doesn’t mean that high numbers of CF athletes are hurting themselves. (On the other hand, figures suggest that in the USA, between 37 and 56% of people who run regularly are injured every year. Yes, up to half the Americans who run regularly are injured annually. That’s a dangerous activity, and one in which poor form and technique routinely goes unnoticed.)

Pilates is about whole body health so let us consider the health outcomes from CrossFit. I can’t speak for every facility, of course, but I believe it’s safe to say that the majority of regular CrossFitters will be encouraged not only to move a lot – to challenge their physicality – but also to think about health fundamentals like their food quality and their sleep quality. Not to mention that they are encouraged to “regularly learn and play new sports” (from founder Greg Glassman’s ‘World-Class Fitness in 100 Words’) Ido Portal, who does not suffer fools gladly, has said: “I think the CrossFit community is a very open community….they’re hard workers, they’re open-minded, mostly…..Most Crossfitters are not humble enough to see what is missing but, once you show it to them, they accept it.” Can Pilates teachers truly, routinely boast the same kind of outcomes, or the same kind of approach to overall health?

Getting back to movement, I will always agree with anyone who says that the pursuit of Pilates (in the original/traditional form) will provide an excellent foundation for understanding human movement but does this make us omniscient? Firstly, for Pilates to really teach you about movement I believe that it has to be treated as a system, without unpopular movements being left out, and to be seen as a series of patterns. It was very interesting for me to see recently that there was broad agreement among the Pilates teachers commenting on it that a particular picture of a press up represented ‘bad form’. However, when it came to solutions to fix this bad form the answers were quite varied, indicating a lack of (amongst that small sample) collective understanding. Most alarmingly, while none referred to the hip joint’s role in spinal stability under load, there were suggestions that abdominal muscles should be pulling into the spine. I suspect a great many CrossFIt coaches would know that you do not effectively create spinal stability, especially under high load, by drawing your stomach in.

Until, as a profession, we raise our game, do we have any business to be feeling superior to our movement teaching colleagues from other disciplines?

 

 

Ivory Tower image borrowed from: http://3menmakeatiger.blogspot.co.uk

d3effdb960d4bb717d1900b994336258

She is NOT pulling her stomach in!

Regular readers (if you exist, thank you) will know that I’m a fan of Katy Bowman’s work. I’m particularly intrigued by her thoughts on compression garments, and how they may impact someone’s body while doing Pilates. For example, if one were to wear abdomen compressing ‘shape wear’ what impact might that have on breathing -diaphragm-ribs-spine etc? As Katy says, compressed innards don’t just disappear. They have to go somewhere. If you’re underwear is effectively shoving your abdominal contents up into your diaphragm what will that do to not just your breathing and movement but your digestion too. What if your ‘slimmer shape’ is actually  interfering with your food’s passage through your tubes?

“People’s shaping underwear choices have got nothing to do with Pilates!” I hear you say, and that’s true. But a recent podcast interview with Katy B got me thinking….. How many of us have taught people to pull their stomach in?

At the same time that I’m happy that ‘navel to spine’ seems to be gradually disappearing from the Pilates lexicon, I do think that some kind of ‘abdomen in’ cue may well be useful in certain circumstances. However, the trouble may arise when we, inadvertently or otherwise, help to create or reinforce the impression that good posture involves pulling your stomach in.  Let’s hope that we don’t, but if we do then we are in effect encouraging clients to be their own compression garments, and to use their muscles to squash their abdominal contents, thereby possibly interfering with digestion, breathing, continence, lymph circulation and so on. Spending your days trying to constantly compress your abdomen is not a good strategy.

‘Paleo Coach’ author Jason Seib introduced me to the idea that a fitness/exercise regime that is undertaken with aesthetic goals rarely works out. Instead, he advocates that the goal of any such programme should be health, and maintains that aesthetic goals will very likely be accomplished by achieving better health. That seems to be very much in keeping with Joseph Pilates’ philosophy, and the principle of Whole Body Health. ‘Flat Abs’ might be a short term selling point, but flat abs (or six pack abs, for that matter) don’t say anything at all about what’s going on ‘under the hood’ (your health, in other words), and they may well not be what a particular body needs.

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.

 

 

I do Movement

August 9, 2014 — 14 Comments

If I’m truly honest, I like to think of myself as a reasonably competent mover. That’s to say, I think that I’m fairly co-ordinated and able to move with a bit of control and grace. This is important to me not least because I believe, as a Pilates teacher, that my job is to teach people to move well. I consider that I’m on a journey to a better understanding of human movement and I’ve developed some strong (I was going to write ‘fixed’ but that would be inaccurate) opinions along the way about what ‘good’ movement looks like. (It turns out that I’d barely scratched the surface…) Anyone who is on a similar journey will most likely, sooner or later, come across the name Ido Portal, or more likely a video of Ido Portal doing something(s) extraordinary.

I started to follow Ido on Facebook a couple of years ago, and while I was amazed by his physical prowess, I was also struck by what seems like an uncompromising attitude that bordered on the obnoxious. One post seemed to aggressively dismiss (i.e.. don’t waste my f***ing time) anyone who was interested in online coaching but couldn’t commit less than 24 hours per week to the process. Wow! As someone who believed that my life makes it hard for me to find one hour per day to commit to exercise for myself (even though it’s my job) this appeared to be both crazy and elitist.

Nonetheless, something had piqued the interest of both my wife and I, and  I began to look out for workshops that we could attend. Back in January this year I saw two workshops scheduled back to back, in Finland. ‘Movement X’, and ‘The Corset’. Places on Ido’s workshops fill up fast, and I hadn’t seen many instances of 2 back to back, so we booked. If I try to crystallise what my overarching goal is, from a lifestyle, nutrition and fitness perspective then you might say it is to become ‘bulletproof’, or as bulletproof as possible. From this perspective ‘The Corset’ sounded particularly interesting, and as August got closer my anticipation grew. Just a couple of weeks before Ido was a guest on the Londonreal video/podcast, describing his philosophy, and what attendees of bios workshops might expect.

This definitely heightened my anticipation, but still didn’t make me feel much clearer about exactly what the workshops would entail. The main thrust of Ido’s description seemed to be “not what people expect”… It was interesting then, when telling clients and friends that we would be away doing this, to try to describe what ‘this’ would be. “I’ll let you know when I get back” becoming the stock answer. One thing that the interview did suggest is that Ido is less brash than I might have imagined, and not particularly interested in being a leader, “Walk beside me, not behind me” being a motif of the interview. Additionally, he is very clear that he does not want anyone in his workshops to feel stupid, inadequate or humiliated – so I was less concerned about my lack of gymnastic prowess.

Finland proved to be a beautiful, warm and sunny destination, and Crossfit Box 100 was an ideal venue. There was a nice mix of diverse backgrounds in the group for the first two days (we didn’t do intros in the 2nd workshop) and it was great to find that the big strong guys weren’t too gung ho when it came to the practical work. I’ve not always found this to be the case, and maybe it’s a sign that you have to be a certain kind of individual, or to have resolved some issues before signing up for this.

Ido warned us out the outset that there would be a fair amount of talking, and though there was a lot of talking there was never a moment in 4 days when I wished that we were moving more and listening less – for me, at least, he’s got the balance just right. One of the first things he asked of us was to call him out on his ‘bullshit’, on the basis that we can all grow more from this. It became evident though that Ido has done a lot of homework, and I mean really a lot. Between my wife and I we have a lot of books related to anatomy, physiology, exercise, movement disciplines, injuries etc. but I suspect we’re just scratching the surface of what he has studied, from an academic perspective. He is, as he says ‘The Movement Guy’, so he’s practised a lot of different disciplines – martial arts, capoeira, yoga – as well as weight lifting and gymnastics, and he backs up his physical ability with theory. Aside from a comment about Pilates, in relation to advising against abdominal hollowing, which suggested that he has been exposed to Pilates as influenced by physiotherapy, rather than Pilates as Joseph taught it, Ido made sense relentlessly.

I don’t want to turn this into a catalogue of the movements or exercises that we did, but rather to try to explain the experience overall. As much as anything else, writing this is to help me make sense of what felt like a transformative experience. I was sceptical when, in the London Real interview, Ido talked about receiving emails from people who’s lives had been changed by attending his workshops but I have to admit that, in opening a doorway to a bigger universe than I had previously perceived, he has changed my life.

We were lucky to have Odelia (whom he describes as his ‘right hand’) working alongside Ido. Their interaction bought something very special to the experience, like the embodiment of yin and yang. There is a pent up energy about Ido and on the few occasions that he demonstrated a movement it was as if this was a release, whereas Odelia is the epitome of focused calm (though super strong and ready to demonstrate anything, anytime). Their mutual respect is obvious, and the way that they work together adds to what they’re teaching. It feels slightly invasive to dwell on their relationship (which is none of our business), but as someone who works with his wife it was both a lesson and lovely to see.

I’ve just deleted several sentences that I’d written to describe Ido’s manner and teaching style – they were too long/too much. His teaching style is simple and clear, warm and funny, and sharp when necessary – but that was not the key for me. The London Real interviewer makes reference to Ido having a cult-like following, that he is seen as a Guru. Ido to idol, it’s an easy step. Now this is an area in which I have to watch myself, as it’s easy for me to raise people that I admire onto a pedestal. I found that, somehow, Ido does not invite this. It’s not that he says that he doesn’t want to be seem as a guru, rather it’s that he succeeds in being a messenger, instead of being the message. Perhaps this is why Odelia was there to demonstrate the movements. He is ‘the handstand guy’, but we don’t get to see him doing many handstands. He might also be the one-arm pull-up guy, but equally we don’t see much of this. Instead, he is ‘the movement guy’, and movement is the guru, if indeed there is one. One of the phrases that he used repeatedly was “You have abandoned movement, my friend.” And it’s true, I discovered that I had abandoned movement. Many of us were struggling with some of the wrist work “because you don’t touch the ground enough”, and again, it’s true. I can’t deny it – I had abandoned movement. So instead of Ido becoming guru (he remains the teacher), movement becomes my guru – I now worship at the alter of movement. It’s in me, it’s my heritage, or birthright, and actually what I think Ido does most effectively is to point out, over the course of the workshop, that this is the case. That I have the potential to be more human than I have been, to be much more alive, and to feel the same.

This is the life-changing thing that I hadn’t anticipated. I’ve had a few days to process things, and the fact that I can write this many words means that it’s becoming clearer. What I felt immediately after our four days with Ido was something like Fight Club. I knew that friends and colleagues would be asking me about the workshops, but I felt that I couldn’t talk about them. You could make a list of the drills, protocols and movements that we learned, but those are simply the tools. It seemed to me in that immediate aftermath that you just had to be there to understand what I’d seen for myself. Again, with a few days to mull things over it’s a bit clearer to me – the universe of movement is vast, way bigger than I had allowed myself to imagine previously, and it’s mine! With patience and dedication I can go far beyond the narrow confines of my primary discipline (however GPP I thought it was), toward my real potential. I won’t worship Ido, but I will remain eternally grateful to him for opening that door, and encourage anyone who hasn’t yet to take the same journey.IMG_1976 IMG_1978

courtesy of Pilates Style

courtesy of Pilates Style

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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.