Archives For freedom

Pilates Is So Limiting

March 11, 2016 — 1 Comment


My degree is in fine art, and all the work I produced as a student was three dimensional. I was never great at drawing, and rubbish at painting. Perhaps that was behind my open disdain for painting, on the basis that (usually) before you’ve put brush to canvas you’ve already determined the size of the painting. Not only that, you’ve decided to make a two-dimensional piece of work. I found this to be very restrictive, or self-limiting.

My exposure in the last couple of years to other movement disciplines, especially some of the MovNat/Ido Portal locomotion work, and learning basic breakdancing moves, started to make me think that a mat to exercise on is a rather self-limiting device – ‘I want to be free to express my physicality wherever it may take me’ – that sort of thing.

A couple of changes at our studio made me reflect upon this a little bit more. Firstly, we changed all our reformers to ones built to the traditional size, shape, springs etc. and started to understand the traditional repertoire a little better. it dawned on me that the frame of the reformer is like the mat, it is the frame for the work, and you don’t move beyond it (unless you’re doing a step-off into arabesque – you know, the everyday beginner stuff….). And it really makes sense. Secondly, we replaced the floor of our mat space with dojo type wall-to-wall flooring, meaning that the whole floor is a mat, and an actual mat became optional. Given that we like rolling around on the floor it’s a great improvement on the thin nylon carpet we used to have. But I’m beginning to see that, for Pilates, it may not be so great not to have a mat.

Just like the reformer, I think mat Pilates needs a frame. It’s a way of imposing discipline. I was listening to an episode of the Tim Ferriss show a while back with a guest called Jocko Willink (subtitle ‘the Scariest Navy Seal Imaginable’) in which he talks about discipline:

Although discipline demands control and asceticism, it actually results in freedom. When you have the discipline to get up early, you are rewarded with more free time. When you have the discipline to keep your helmet and body armor on in the field, you become accustomed to it and can move freely in it. The more discipline you have to work out, train your body physically and become stronger, the lighter your gear feels and the easier you can move around in it.”

These words are obviously heavily slanted toward combat troops, but the underlying observation is the key – discipline = freedom. And Pilates needs/is a discipline.

When you do Pilates you are required to display some discipline, ‘contrology’, one might say. And that’s what can set you free. Proper execution of the exercises and the self-control of working within the defined space creates the power and control that liberates us when we get off the mat/reformer and engage in real life, whether that’s breakdancing, gardening, marathon running, or just going to the shops.

If that’s what we’re offering then we’re setting the bar too low.

Many people take up Pilates and find that it opens up new vistas of possibility that they never imagined. I’m very lucky in that, having started Pilates to address a lingering back problem, I discovered that I’m capable of physical accomplishments that I’d never imagined before I injured my back. Pilates meant that I stopped identifying myself as someone with a back problem; never have problems putting on my socks; never worry that an uneven pavement will send me into spasm; and don’t make stupid mistakes because I’m distracted by endless nagging pain (stupid mistakes, sure, just not ones I can blame on pain…) It also provided the doorway to me taking up yoga, having classes in circus skills, and weightlifting.

This good fortune informs my entire approach to Pilates, based around the idea (possibly expounded upon previously) that it is a means to doing other activities with greater ease. If I’m feeling glib I’m inclined to say that Pilates is for being better at living.

Pilates is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

One of the pleasures of my job is hearing clients report that, for instance, their golf swing has improved, or that running feels less of an effort, or that they can pick up their grandchildren without fear of injuring themselves. Hopefully they are opening their eyes to more and more possibilities.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of people who take up Pilates for one of the usual reasons – chronic back/neck/shoulder/hip/knee pain – and, finding that it helps, decide that Pilates is a miracle that they must keep in their lives forever, and do no other form of exercise. Anything other than Pilates (not being a miracle) might cause a relapse into the world of chronic pain. Being pain-free is clearly great, but is it enough? Is pain-free the same thing as thriving? Surely not. Pilates for taking control of one’s life – YES. Pilates for feeling indestructible – YES. Pilates for freedom – YES. Pilates for fear – NO. Pilates for dependency – NO.

I love the idea of an ‘ancestral’, or evolutionary template for living – are we made to be pain-free, or are we made to be amazing?

It’s impossible to force people to have aspirations, and I can’t pretend that I would ‘sack’ any client who’s not embracing all the possibilities that greater strength, control, body awareness, and so forth, may offer. If a client believes that they have hurt themselves doing a particular activity – running, tennis perhaps – I hope that they will be motivated to resume that same activity, and this is what I believe Pilates has to offer. I suspect that running relatively high mileage (combined with poor technique, awareness etc.) contributed to my back injury, but I still loved running. It was a liberating discovery that I could apply what I learned from Pilates to running, and not worry about my back at all. Fear, and the experience of chronic pain, can be hard things to overcome, and I would hope that Pilates could be integral to anyone returning to all/any activities feeling better and stronger than they had before injury. Again, we cannot force aspirations onto our clients, but perhaps we can play a part, by example ourselves, or with the example of others. Do we encourage anxiety by prohibiting particular movements, or activities? Or do we open the door (with appropriate scaling of exercises) to the possibility of more? A physiotherapist friend, Warrick McNeil, says: “There are no contraindications, there are just movements that you’re not ready for yet.” I love this attitude because it can be so liberating, and that’s one of the beauties of Pilates. One might argue that someone with a spondylolisthesis should never be doing high load back extensions – I’ve seen experienced Pilates practitioners with spondylolisthesis doing a full Swandive over the ladder barrel – because Pilates has given the strength, control, and confidence to manage such movements. (Experience says it’s necessary to spell things out: this was after years of Pilates, not weeks or months).

If you’re a teacher, will you encourage your clients to be satisfied with walking, instead of crawling; or will you show them that flying is possible?

The abridged version: Okay, Pilates has helped you to feel mastery of your body – now go out and do fun, energetic, perhaps even amazing, things.