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people-spring-lift-ecard-someecardsI’ve been involved in a discussion lately on 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



Unprincipled Pilates

March 23, 2014 — 3 Comments

previewI’m afraid that I can’t find the original comment, so am unable to quote precisely (even if I had permission) something that I read in the thread of a Pilates related Facebook forum. The comment was written by a teacher, who appears to be considered something of an expert on all things Pilates related (in the particular forum, at least) and was along the lines of ‘Joseph Pilates did not teach principles, he taught exercises, in a specific sequence.’

This is a fascinating idea for me, not because I have a special allegiance to the ‘Whole body health; Whole body commitment; Breathing’ that I believe the PMA refer to as Joseph Pilates’ own guiding principles for Contrology, nor to the 6 principles that Friedman and Eisen presented in their ‘The Pilates Method of Physical and Mental Conditioning’, published in 1980. I think all 8 of these ideas have a valid place in the practice and teaching of Pilates. It is a fascinating idea for me more because the act of teaching almost seems dependent on principles, or is doomed to be rather dull, if not pointless, without them.

Ironically, I attended a class a couple of days ago that reminds me of this. It wasn’t a Pilates class (a more recently developed movement practice) that was distinctly unsatisfying because, it now occurs to me, it appeared to be devoid of principles. It seemed more like nice, but aimless choreographed movement (the teacher led the entire class with her back to the participants – viewing the room in the mirrored wall), and I’d rather save that for when I’m drunk on music and good company, perhaps with a little less choreography.

I’m not suggesting that principles of any sort need to be explicit in anyone’s teaching, but rather that there need to be some fundamentals, something that underpins the exercises/movements being taught. I think of all Pilates exercises fitting into (or straddling a couple of) three basic categories – Stabilising the trunk while moving the extremities; Sequential spinal articulation; Transferring load from the extremities to the centre (which, to me, is part of a circuit with the idea of working from the inside out). These, for me, (because they are invaluable movement skills) form the basis for teaching people to move (or position themselves) well.  And that is what Pilates is, to me, in a nutshell. Of course, this is personal, and I know that the practice of Pilates adds up to more than that for many people. For me, moving well and eating well are the ‘secrets’ to excellent health.

I’m very willing to believe that Pilates did not speak of principles when he was teaching (and perhaps this is what the post on Facebook I referred to was indicating), but I do not accept that they weren’t there. Perhaps that was part of Joseph’s genius – that he didn’t need to be explicit, because the work made it obvious. Whether you’re explicit about some underlying principles of your work or not, I would suggest that they need to be there, if what you teach is to have any meaning for your clients beyond the time they spend in class, or in the studio.

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?


Or, don’t have your feet on the ground

I admit to owning some MBTs once, so I understand the seductive power of shoes that are said to improve your posture (there’s a number of things about my past that I’m not especially proud of…). More recently I’ve used this blog to question the use of technology to ‘fake’ a natural situation in pursuit of a solution, rather than accepting the naturally available solution. Of course, there’s often money to be earned from this kind of virtual reality. In the case of shoes, the rationale seems to be: “There’s a problem with your body – your muscles don’t work like they should, because (unlike a Masai warrior) you’ve been disconnected from the ground. Don’t worry, we’ve come up with a way to make your body work better – by tricking it into action.” (For only X amount of £s/$s)

I think I was more eloquent last time I touched on this, so apologies. I was motivated to revisit the subject by someone that came to one of my classes today. She was wearing some brightly coloured Reebok shoes, that served to highlight the degree to which her feet pointed outwards (“Walking like a duck” in Kelly Starrett-speak). When I spoke to her, as a new participant in the class, she told me that she has knee pain. Unfortunately for her, not surprising at all – we’ve probably all seen similar: thighs rotated in, shins rotated out, and arches collapsed. Easy to imagine that she has lower back pain too. Perhaps that’s why she bought the Reeboks, that I discovered were ‘EasyTone’ (“our EasyTone Essential walking shoe features built-in balance pods that transfer air in response to your stride and create micro-instability with every step.”) There’s a great scenario – someone who is putting excessive rotational force through the soft tissue of her knee joint with every step, because of her leg alignment, wears shoes to increase the instability for her already collapsed feet.

Clearly there are many people wearing MBTs, Fitflops, Shape-Ups and Easytones (there are probably other brands too) who do not have the same structural/alignment challenges, yet the logic still escapes me. Why did I ever think that interfering with the interface between my body and the ground was a good idea? Why did I think that elevating my feet further from the ground would be better for my proprioception and muscle activation?

Just as Michael Jordan asserts in the video clip above, it’s not the shoes! The ‘secret’ is to get your feet on the ground – your hip muscles will work better (and give support to your spine) if your feet work better – It’s not the shoes!

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?

When I was very young there was a radio programme called “Listen with Mother”. We didn’t have a television, and I listened to this nearly every day (with my Mum, of course). Without fail, the show began with “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.” (I’m not sure whether it’s a positive or a negative that this is etched in some recess of my brain).

These days, with the increasing number of studies suggesting that sitting is bad for us, it seems to be a particularly interesting question. The answer may well be “Hell, yes!” (“I’ve got this fantastic well stuffed, reclining, cocooning, i-pod docking super-sofa and I’m as comfortable as anyone ever has been.”) Of course sitting is comfortable, or certainly can be. And, it turns out, it shortens your life, makes you fat, possibly metabolically deranged, possibly pre-diabetic – never mind the possible reduction in range of hip movement.

However, I’d like to leave the bulk of the anti-sitting stuff aside, valid as it is. It seems to be getting a reasonable amount of attention. Instead, I’d like to concentrate on the “comfort” part of the equation. A little while ago I saw a Tweet from @NocturnalOutpos: “Our lust for comfort is the biggest thief in our lives…”, which resonated for me. I think there can be no doubt that the technological advances that have given us easier access to greater comfort have also weakened us as a species, or at the very least made us less resilient (Nassem Nicholas Taleb would say ‘more fragile’).  (Back to) sitting =  more hip dysfunction & back/knee problems, for example. Controlling every aspect of our living environment makes us less well able to cope with the unpredictable. Can we survive without electricity and telecommunications. Most end-of-the-world disaster movies that I’ve seen assume that we can’t (at the same population level).

Evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa writes: “All living organisms in nature, including humans, are evolutionarily designed to reproduce. Reproductive success is the ultimate end [goal] of all biological existence.” So, yes, having children is pretty much our reason for existing as a species. The hunter-gatherer existence of our pre-agricultural ancestors would have had its own pragmatic population controls. It is simply not practical to live that semi-nomadic life with lots of children tagging along, and the food supply would have been a limiting factor.

When the agricultural revolution came along things became more comfortable, in that it was possible to stay in the same place, procuring food was no longer everyone’s task, and food became more abundant (though less nutritious). Consequently it was possible for the human population to explode – all the natural population constraints of the HG existence were lifted. Terrific. As a result we now enjoy all the fruits of civilisation, both positive and negative. Negative in that our numbers, ingenuity and technology have allowed us to overcome or resist many of (what I perceive to be) Nature’s attempts to maintain some balance by keeping our numbers in check.

I’m writing this sitting in a cafe on a Saturday morning, as it fills up with people, especially families. It’s noticeable how many couples have several children, clearly born in relatively quick succession, and the part of me that is certain that there are already far too many of us on the planet can’t help inwardly asking ‘Why?’ Why are you having all these children? (In this instance ‘all these’ denoting more than two). And the answer that I come back to is, we are too comfortable. It’s too easy to procure food, shelter, water and energy, so we trick ourselves into thinking that what may be sustainable in at a local, insular level is equally sustainable for humanity as a whole.

where-the-magic-happensOn a less ‘end-of-the-world’ note, it’s common to talk of one’s ‘comfort zone’ these days. It’s not an unusual idea that we need to leave our comfort zone to make changes, or to achieve more. Being uncomfortable thus is the route to progress, perhaps success, or becoming stronger. And the inverse is true. Comfort makes us weaker. Comfort encourages stasis. Comfort anaesthetises.

I’ll still be sitting comfortably on the sofa for a while this evening, but more fool me if I do so for long.

courtesy of

courtesy of

I recently wrote a post which was in response to a review of “Becoming A Supple Leopard” by Kelly Starrett. The reviewer took issue with both the lack of reference to scientific studies within the book, and Starrett’s failure to refer to current pain science (by looking only at postural/structural/biomechanical causes of pain). The same theme cropped up in an article called “Back Pain Myths: Posture, Core Strength, Bulging Discs” from the website ‘Better Movement‘.

“Back Pain Myths” states that the majority of physical therapy and corrective exercise done in the USA is based on incorrect assumptions, and concludes a consideration of the evidence for each ‘myth’ as follows: “..there is little evidence to support the idea that we can explain pain in reference to posture or that we can cure pain by trying to change posture..”; “…if a large percentage of pain free people have bulging discs, then how likely is it that a bulging disc is the cause of your back pain?”; and “..the current evidence states that there is nothing magic about core strength as means to prevent or reduce back pain…”. It is not surprising that some might take this as an attack on their practice.

There is no doubt that pain is a very complex subject, and that, especially in the case of chronic pain, the sensation of pain may not be caused by an injury, postural fault, or structural defect. It seems to be clear too that there are many people who have a disc bulge (or several disc bulges), without any symptoms at all. If nothing else this would seem to be good grounds not to rush into a surgical procedure if you are diagnosed with a disc problem. I can’t argue that Todd Hargrove (the author at Better Movement) doesn’t make some legitimate points – it is always good to have our beliefs and assumptions challenged – and we shouldn’t fall into the trap of letting popular wisdom become dogma.

A typical example of the ‘Back Pain Myths’ content is reference to various studies that fail to show any link between poor posture and pain (and it is interesting to read that other studies show a stronger correlation between back pain and stress levels, job satisfaction, exercise etc). Hargrove does refer to a study that seems to suggest a link between poor posture and pain, but hastens to remind us that: “it is important to remember the rule that correlation does not equal causation“. I like this mantra and am inclined to repeat it quite often myself. However, it is perhaps also worth mentioning that non-correlation does not equal non-causation – if a study fails to find a link between one thing and another it does not mean that there is none (I think that this idea is more normally expressed as: absence of evidence does not equal evidence of absence).

Again, we’d be foolish to pretend that someone’s pain isn’t an intricate tapestry, but I’m not inclined to feel that the foundation of the way that I work is being critically undermined by articles such as this. Dysfunction, poor movement patterns and stabilising strategies may not cause someone pain now, but they may cause tissue damage that could result in pain at a later date, or have a knock-on effect on a nearby structure that may become the cause of pain. I know, there’s a lot of ‘may’s in that last sentence, and I believe that’s partly because it’s very difficult to conduct meaningful studies on humans. That is to say, it is probably impossible to account for every variable between study subjects (even if we were to be able to treat humans as we treat beagles, chimps etc.), so we cannot expect any studies of pain triggers, or potential treatments to do better than show some correlation – and we know the rule about that.

I believe that the majority of studies that have been conducted would seem to indicate that exercise of nearly any kind (shall we just say ‘movement’?) is helpful for back pain sufferers, and one kind of movement doesn’t seem to be better than another. I don’t think it matters that we cannot prove the efficacy of a movement discipline, if the result is that people increase their awareness of their own bodies and thereby move and position themselves in a ‘better’ way than they were previously able to. Another thing that would be very hard to study is how the sense of empowerment from a movement practice might impact someone emotionally or psychologically, and thereby have an effect on pain sensation. Failure to prove these things does not make us charlatans.

To return to ‘Back Pain Myths’, I have to acknowledge that Hargrove’s article finishes with questions: “why do these approaches seem to work; how can so many people be wrong; and if these aren’t the true sources of pain, then what is?” So, despite the lack of science, he acknowledges that ‘these approaches’ (from the article we must assume that he refers to making postural improvements, surgery, and core stability training) seem to work. Interesting… Reading further, Hargrove turns out to be a fan of Eyal Lederman, who wrote a famous/infamous article entitled “The Myth of Core Stability” which, for me, speaks volumes about his outlook. You can easily find “The Myth of Core Stability” with a search of the internet if you wish (I tried to include a link but each time I tried to open a page I got an automatic download and, trust me, I’ve more copies of this article than I need). Lederman does an, apparently, able job of rubbishing the notion that there is such a thing as core stability, provided you accept that he fails to actually define what ‘core stability’ is, and doesn’t include an explanatory quote from any of the practitioners whose work/theories he questions. (I’m no lover of the term ‘core stability’, and I suspect this is true of most Pilates teachers. At the same time, I can’t fault anyone for trying to understand and explain how our brain controls our muscles and movement. I’m inclined to think that they are engaged in trying to find explanations for things that Joseph Pilates, for example, recognised as being true without the need or equipment to figure out why.) Lederman’s article is full of scholarly references, and he undermines the theories of those he calls ‘CS practitioners’ by means of those references to conflicting evidence. That SCIENCE trump card again. (One of those studies, at least, involved methods of testing trunk stability hilariously far removed from a ‘real-life’ situation).

Hargrove is a Rolfer and Feldenkrais practitioner. Lederman is an Osteopath. I do not wish to disparage any of these practices, but/and I’ve found it very difficult to track down any proof for their efficacy, or superiority to other practices, on PubMed, or any other websites. Yes, pain is undoubtedly a complex subject, and it is a very good idea for anyone working with people in acute or chronic pain to be aware of current theory. We cannot overlook the psychological/emotional component to, particularly, chronic pain. A very recent experience of mine (anecdotal, sorry) seemed to show that helping someone to understand how to effectively stabilise their midline (core, if you wish) had a positive impact on their confidence, and sense of self-worth, which had been seriously undermined by back pain. Yes, it only ‘seemed’ to help – I cannot prove it, and I don’t suppose the person in question would feel the need to have proof.

If people may be being routinely harmed by a practice then there is clear reason to question it. Does this mean that an unproven movement practice should be avoided, or that it is invalid? Er, NO.

71064I have heard Kelly Starrett describing functional movement as ‘a wave of contraction from core to extremity’. This seems to fit very well with the theory of local and global muscles. The idea that we need to stabilise our spine prior to loading/moving is embedded in Pilates. It is easy, too, to find ‘scholarly articles’ on the internet (Paul Hodges, to name one author) exploring this idea, and correlating poor stabilisation in anticipation of movement with lumbar disfunction and injury.

It all seems very logical, but could it be flawed? Things seen in a lab may not have a strong relationship to ‘real life’. The fact that turmeric added to cancer cells in a Petri dish has a measurable negative effect on those cells, does not equate to consumption of turmeric ‘killing’ cancer cells in a living body. Similarly, the research that supports the concept of an anticipatory, local muscle stabilisation strategy may struggle to replicate real life situations, simply because it’s hard to measure a lot of human activity whilst accounting for variables. I imagine it’s really hard to wire someone up to any kind of measuring device and gain significant data if they’re engaged in anything other than fairly pedestrian activity. One of the challenges to the straightforward ‘centre-to-periphery’ concept that I’ve had is its failure to take into account the influence of part of our body coming into contact with the ground, or some other surface. That contact will send feedback to our brains, perhaps triggering further stabilisation strategies, for further anticipated movement or force through the joints. Therefore, the periphery is triggering the action at the centre. Where does that leave our ‘wave of contraction’? Is it blown out of the water, or can it be salvaged?

In the last couple of weeks I met two people who, separately, caused me to start to ruminate on this. One was explaining that her strategy for getting from sitting on the floor to standing was the way it was (alarming, I thought) because she had issues with both her foot and her knee. She was endeavouring to find stability in her foot, and then her knee – working from periphery to centre – on the basis that she needed to have a stable foundation of foot-to-ground before she could stabilise more proximally. It kind of makes sense – you can’t stand a vase on a wobble-board. The other instance was someone who, to my eyes, clearly had habitually internally rotated femurs and matching externally rotated tibias, and was talking about the orthotics that her podiatrist had recommended/prescribed. The podiatrist was apparently relatively disinterested in what was going on at this person’s pelvis (i.e. hip joints) because the thing that needed dealing with was her point of contact with the ground. It felt like a mini-epidemic of periphery to centre thinking. And again, there is a certain logic to this – the lady in question had knee pain. Every time she planted her foot on the ground her inability to stabilise her foot caused an inappropriate load at her knee joint, ergo: stabilise the foot with orthotics.

I should perhaps acknowledge at this point that I’m not at all a fan of orthotics. I can see that they may be a stepping stone toward getting someone’s joints into better positions, but they aren’t a substitute for actually sorting out alignment and strength issues that can have a lasting effect. I’ve worked with too many people who have orthotics for life (i.e.. someone in their 60s who’s had orthotics since their 40s). It seems akin, to me, to putting someone in a neck brace as a long term solution for poor control of their head position.

So, do we have compelling evidence to support an argument that stability actually works from the periphery to the centre (and then back out again)? I don’t think so. In both cases the idea is that a stable point of load, or contact with the ground, is more significant than a stable trunk. I can only assume that the idea is that in that case the trunk will take care of itself. I’ve used the workshop “Pilates Made Simple” to explore the idea that there are three basic demands of any Pilates exercise (that, of course, relate directly to real life) – these are: Stabilising your spine/trunk while moving your extremities; sequentially articulating your spine; and transferring load from your extremities to your centre. The latter is the one that I’m most interested in here – it seems to me to be fundamental to what we teach in Pilates, to functional movement, joint health, longevity etc.

In order to transfer load from your foot to your centre (core, if you like) you need to have control over all the joints in between. If there is a ‘break’ in that chain of force transfer then the load gets absorbed by the more distal joints. This is easy to see in people doing all fours exercises who are not able to effectively stabilise their shoulder blades against their ribcage and consequently feel the load most in their wrists and elbows. (When training I learned that, if a client was injured, Pilates always worked away from the problem – Kelly Starrett talks about “upstream” and “downstream” implications of poor positioning/control. I think the ‘fix’ for an elbow problem will more often than not be found at the shoulder than the wrist – proximal, not distal.) In the medially rotated femur/laterally rotated tibia/orthotic scenario, the orthotics may wedge the foot into a better shape but this won’t transfer into improved hippo control. However, working on laterally rotating at the hip joint whilst maintaining a straight foot (please try this yourself) will have a significant effect on foot activity. This is (for me, at least) very challenging to achieve in open chain exercises, but working on closed chain exercises on Pilates apparatus and standing work in mat classes, seem to really help to manage knee/ankle/foot alignment in open chain exercises.

The short version of all of the above: Yes, feedback from our periphery is instrumental in establishing positions, but we cannot effectively create stability and control from the periphery to the centre, it HAS to work the other way.


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I would generally be the first to agree that the world looks in bad shape at the moment. In spite of this, and Matt Ridley’s ‘The Rational Optimist’ it seems evident (certainly from the perspective of non-human populations) that there are too many humans on the planet. Social injustice, the tsunami of obesity, environmental catastrophes…the list could go on for a while, and lead us to conclude that the outlook is very bleak.

And yet we are living in an era of unprecedented access to information – to the extent that I can hardly believe what’s available to me at little to no cost. Of course, we have to exercise some discretion, as some of the free information that’s available may be less than entirely reliable. Perhaps it’s safer/more accurate to say that we have unprecedented access to expert opinion, and the beauty is that it appears that applies to almost any subject one can imagine. For instance, my particular bent is for information in and around the spheres of primal lifestyle, ancestral health, functional medicine, paleo nutrition, optimising human performance, exercise physiology, weight-lifting etc. If, however, your interest is in antiquarian books, veganism, numismatism, natural history, chemical engineering…. I’m sure that your interests are being equally well served. 

The torrent of interesting material is sometimes overwhelming, and I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that downtime in front of the television will have to go in order for me to keep up with all the reading – not to mention all the ‘watch later’ YouTube videos. TED talks are one of the best examples of our easy access to expert opinion. Some of my favourites are: The real reason for brains; Why things hurt; Why bodybuilding aged 93 is a great idea; Minding your mitochondria (or, how I cured my MS). Most of these talks were not found through my own searching, but through social media which, despite all it’s flaws, I have to concede is a phenomenal tool. In the main, I use it to ‘follow’ various people whose work and opinions I’m interested in, many of whom will regularly post (aside from their own writing) links to videos, details of scientific papers, links to other interesting websites, and so on. (This is also how the volume of stuff to try to keep up with spirals beyond my reach).

The other aspect of social media that’s especially exciting is that we can get instant feedback on ideas. For example, for convoluted reasons, I was reading an issue of ‘Power‘ magazine recently (yes, there’s an article by Kelly Starrett in there) and one of the powerlifters being interviewed was talking about the value of Facebook in developing a new training system. He can post training ideas and get feedback quickly and directly from the people who are trying out his ideas – it’s like simultaneous market and scientific research, in a way that would have been impossible 10 years ago.

Podcasts are another source of joy for me, particularly on long car journeys. There are probably some that you have to pay for, but the ones I’ve wanted to hear have been free. I have learned about nutrition, biochemistry, business management, teaching/coaching, evolutionary biology, neurology, and on and on – all by listening to episodes of not more than 6 different podcasts. On top of this, listening to various people talking on these podcasts has led me to authors whose books would otherwise not popped up on my radar: John Yudkin, Atul Gawande, Nassim Taleb, Tim Ferris, Weston Price, Dan John. I’ve not included links to all of these because you can easily look these people up if you’re curious. The point is that there is quite possibly information about subjects that you’re excited by freely available if you go looking for it.

It’s also easier than ever to ‘self-quantify’, to measure significant markers of lifestyle – tracking exercise, food, sleep etc. It’s quite possible that some people use the gadgets, and do very little with the data that they’re collecting (which might be considered a waste of money) but you could certainly use the data to conduct your own experiments into what changes in your lifestyle have positive or negative effects on you sense of wellbeing. In the UK we are behind the US a little, but hopefully it won’t be too long before we will have access to something like WellnessFX, that allows you, at relatively low cost, to get very detailed information about your own health markers, well beyond the readings from a conventional health check.

The short message: access to information to help you become amazing, to fulfil your genetic potential has never been so accessible. Do the right thing.