Archives For Jaap van Der Wal

What moves you?

July 3, 2018 — Leave a comment
When you’re teaching, do you see muscles, or bones?

Is it normal for Pilates teachers to be fixated on muscles? Joseph Pilates, on the basis of reading his books and speaking to someone* who has done extensive research, does not appear to have been particularly interested in muscles. Where has this enthusiasm come from?

I’ve been prompted to write this in part by recent Instagram posts that I’ve seen, one by a “classical” studio in London, declaring:

“All of the muscles in our bodies have an action and a purpose.”

The other by a teacher, who has in excess of 100000 followers on Instagram, so you might say a significant ‘influencer’ in the Pilates sphere, and says:

“Pilates works the body as an ‘integrated whole’, but prioritizes the deeper intrinsic muscles, the stabilisers which in my opinion are the intelligent muscles which require the mind to activate and strengthen them – they are our ‘smart muscles’ our endurance muscles…..allowing our larger mobilising muscles to do the job they are intended for…” (I enjoy the inverted commas around ‘integrated whole’ particularly – as if acknowledging that integrated whole is not really real, or only as real as ‘smart muscles’).

So why should I, or any of us, care what anyone posts about Pilates on Instagram? I care because I assume that this is a reflection of how Pilates is taught, and I believe that this thinking helps to make Pilates more mysterious, and less accessible. I believe that there are many people, who could benefit from Pilates, and who might be deceived by this approach to teaching Pilates into thinking that movement is more complicated than it should be, and are therefore disempowered.

Perhaps I wouldn’t feel moved to take issue with this if it weren’t for the certainty of the person writing, particularly in the first example. I suspect that part of the problem stems from the way in which we learn muscle-skeletal anatomy, and how it is represented in books. I’ve seen many books of muscles (and studied them to try to memorise origin, insertion, action etc.) and, back when I was studying, had no reason to think they were anything other than gospel truth. There may have been some discrepancy in terms of all the actions – one book might ascribe more actions to a particular muscle than another book, but most of the information was represented as hard facts.

Why should I doubt this now? For one thing, in a podcast interview with clinical anatomist John Sharkey, he says that none of the (more than one thousand) bodies that he has dissected has been the same on the inside. We know that we all look different on the outside, why should we be exactly the same on the inside?

I like spending time in butcher’s shops. Aside from enjoying shopping for and eating meat, it’s a great place to get an insight into mammalian anatomy. Many of our joints are remarkably similar, and you can see the way evolving into bipeds has transformed the shapes of our bones and joints, relative to our quadruped cousins. Much of the meat looks very similar, too – certainly in terms of gross shapes. Fillet steak is psoas, of course; and rib-eye, one of my favourite cuts, is multifiidus and spinalis (or maybe longisimus). In the butcher’s, muscles are just meat, and if you look closely you can see that there are always subtle differences. Rib-eye is never exactly the same overall shape, nor is the fat running through it the same. Onglet (‘Hanger steak’ in the US) is from the diaphragm – the crura, I believe – and again, no two pieces are ever the same.

Enough about meat. The point is that muscles that have different shapes will surely behave in different ways – not radically different, perhaps, but enough that we should be very cautious about definitive declarations about their actions. In addition, as ‘Gray’s Anatomy’ states, in relation to Transversus Abdominis (yes, I AM very fond of this fact), this muscle (which many believe to be critical to Pilates, lumbar stability etc.) may be absent, or indistinguishable from the internal obliques in 30% of people. Consider all the hip and knee flexors, or all the hip external rotators. How many of us might be missing some of those muscles pictured in the books? And is what’s represented in books simply a representation of a convention of anatomy established hundreds of years ago? As Jaap van der Wal says, what we see in anatomy books are images, not factual structures.

“Anatomy is made, made by the mind of the anatomist. What you want to see, that’s what you dissect, and not the other way around.”

As an embryologist, van der Wal also makes the point that motion precedes the development of muscles – we can have movement without muscles. The view that “Joints act, muscles react”, as championed by Gary Ward, amongst others, explains how our bodies stabilise and move in relation to our environment. The idea presented in the text books of ‘muscle actions’ is surely based more on cadavers than the living body.

The thing is that we love classification – listing, quantifying, categorising. Perhaps this can, superficially at least, help with our understanding. So we have the model of muscles being either local or global stabilisers, or global mobilisers (which the Instagram post quoted above is presumably referencing). I suspect that the adoption of this model into Pilates is a result of physiotherapists’ influence, which I’ve attempted to address before. My wife was recently teaching someone, visiting from Australia, who told her that her Pilates teacher back home (who is also a physiotherapist) “knows exactly which muscle I’m using all the time”. Who wouldn’t want to be in such capable hands?

The trouble, as I see it, with teaching Pilates from this ‘muscle bound’ perspective is, again, that it risks mystifying Pilates. The teacher, with their apparently superior knowledge of the student’s own body, is elevated at the same time that the student may be made to feel ignorant or incompetent – “I don’t even know how to engage my glutes!” If we can use the exercises and the apparatus as an environment in which our students develop their awareness and learn to move more efficiently, then they have the chance to take what they’ve learned home with them. If we encourage the sense, in any way, that they are reliant on the teacher to tell them what muscles they should use in order to move ‘properly’, then we do them a disservice.

I’m sure that all the presenters of the various anatomy in clay workshops deliver them with the very best intentions, and the teachers who attend those workshops are sincere in their belief that the workshop is helping their own understanding of the work, and therefore will help them to teach their students with greater clarity BUT this is still presenting a fraudulent picture of what our bodies look like under the skin – muscle tissue is differentiated from other connective tissue only by the relative amount of ground substance in the cells (according to Dr Andreo Spina, of FRC fame). In other words, muscles aren’t that special, and they certainly never act in isolation, unless under the most bizarre and unnatural circumstances. Muscles are no more special or important than bones and our other connective tissues.

As we know, Joseph was an enthusiastic observer of animals. If we can leave aside the conceptualisation of our movement being determined by correct muscle activation, and help our students to be more animal in their movement – to simply be more animal in their bodies – we might all find more satisfaction in the practice and teaching of Pilates. Movement precedes the development of muscles, our fascial architecture precedes the development of muscles. “Our brain does not know muscles, it knows movement.” (Jaap van der Wal, again). By not having looked in anatomy books, maybe animals ‘know’ this.

Fortuitously, I’ve just been listening to this interview with Brent Anderson (on the Pilates Unflitered podcast), in which he lends a bit more authority to what I’ve been trying to argue:

“This idea of thinking that we’re going to teach somebody to move by contracting muscles is ludicrous. There’s no way that we can work as fast as the nervous system does with an image of movement, by telling them “Oh, pull your TA in”, or “Lift your pelvic floor”.

I think most teachers with a few years experience start to develop a kind of X-ray vision. If this sounds like you, do you see below the skin to muscle charts, or do you look deeper to the bones and joints?

 

*Yep, that’ll be Benjamin Degenhardt, of course.

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Or: ‘Should your Pilates teacher be able to do a pull up?’

(If you’re time-poor, or just don’t have the patience to read all that follows, the answer is: Yes, they should.)

Hopefully we can all agree that Pilates, the movement practice, as conceived by the man himself, is about health. The integration of mind, body and spirit (if our thinking is reductionist enough to conceive of them as separate in the first place). What does a healthy body look/feel like? Depending upon our starting point with Pilates, it might be a pain-free body. That’s a great beginning for a lot of us, but is it healthy?

If a body isn’t able to express the full available range of movement in all its joints, is it healthy? Not yet. Is a body that’s able to express the full range of movement without strength (control, you might say) through that range, is it healthy? Not really. Perhaps this scenario is even more problematic than the first one.

What is Pilates good for if it is not carrying you along the arc toward expressing your joints’ full range of movement, with control? If it is not helping you to become stronger, why are you bothering? Real suppleness and agility is a product of strength – the flexible spine that Joseph Pilates held up as a marker of ‘real’ age (I’d prefer to classify as mobile) is a product of motion at each of the joints coupled with strength.

As Jaap van der Wal says “You do not have a body, you are a body.” Isn’t it a basic human capacity to be able to move your mass through space? A pull up, or chin up (pronated or supinated grip) is an expression of the ability to manipulate your mass in space. And in certain circumstances that capacity could be a huge factor in survival. The capacity to pull up will make you more human.

Perhaps my arguments haven’t been sufficiently persuasive, and it still seems unreasonable to expect your Pilates teacher (or yourself) to be able to do a pull up. In that case, how about a push-up? Should you/your Pilates teacher be able to do a push-up? Without equivocation the answer is “Yes, absolutely.” How about 5 push-ups? Maybe check how many repetitions Joseph prescribes in Return to Life. If you’ve ticked that box then maybe we can debate the pull-ups.

 

Afterword

What are your goals, or your clients’ goals, when practicing Pilates?
‘Pain free’ almost certainly incorporates ‘stronger’. ‘More toned’ definitely means ‘stronger’. ‘More supple’ had better mean ‘stronger’. You get the picture.

“Motion is Primary”

June 16, 2016 — 1 Comment

More thoughts on Evolve Move Play,

inspired by an interview with Jaap Van der Wal.

I love it when two apparently distinct activities or experiences in my life seem to converge into a coherent whole. It seems to happen so frequently that, even though it’s all under the umbrella of Movement, it might be evidence of a subconscious communication (‘morphic resonance’, anyone?) Very often it reinforces or I learn something new about teaching Pilates, or movement generally.

Five years ago I was lucky enough to attend a lecture by Dr Van der Wal (“Not by muscles and ligaments alone: The importance of fascial architecture for understanding the locomotion system”). My interpretation of the content was much simpler than the title, and it transformed my view of anatomy completely – from the mechanistic view that I’d first been taught, to what I now recognise as a “process” view of anatomy.

This morning, the day after writing about Rafe Kelly’s ‘Evolve Move Play Movement Experience’, I was listening to an interview with Jaap, and everything started to feel connected.

Based on his study of human embryos, Jaap says “Motion is primary, form is secondary.” We move before we have a brain, apparently. Much as I enjoyed the Daniel Wolpert’s TED talk, I’m drawn to Jaap’s assertion that the brain is our organ of awareness, not of control. How else do you explain the reality of movement before we have a brain?

As I was listening to the interview I was reminded of Rafe talking about excessive verbal coaching lighting up our cognitive brain and thereby drawing focus away from the sub-cognitive part of our brain, which controls movement. We probably all know this already – thinking too much constipates movement. Rafe also talked about crawling, and the common phenomenon of adults adopting an ipsilateral pattern when trying to crawl (I’ve seen this many times in gyms and studios). His experience is that if you ask someone to crawl along the branch of a tree they never adopt an ipsilateral pattern – the conclusion being that a natural environment stimulates natural movement patterns. Motion is primary. Our bodies understand how to move if we provide the right environment.

How does this inform my Pilates teaching? While I won’t be teaching Pilates in trees, it reinforces my belief that the apparatus teaches, by providing an environment (much less daunting for some than the great outdoors) in which our bodies know how to move. It’s not about muscles, it’s about movement.

There’s more of a theme, too, when I think of the play-fighting we did with Rafe, and the film of Pilates (outdoors) wrestling with his friends. I think we can better understand Pilates, and teaching Pilates, by learning from a wide variety of sources.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

The line above is paraphrasing Jaap van der Wal, who is an embryologist, and anatomist. (If you want to go deep into his theory, you can watch “The Architecture of Connective Tissue as a Functional Substrate for Proprioception in the Locomotor System“, or you can go on a slightly easier ride here.) I like this line a lot, perhaps because it resonates with my somewhat contrarian nature, and because the lecture by Dr van der Wal that I attended was both exciting and compelling.

I have used this idea to argue, in a workshop entitled ‘Pilates Made Simple’, that Pilates teachers should be cueing movement rather than muscles. This seems to be a widely accepted idea in the world of strength and conditioning, but not so much in the world of Pilates teaching. I was presenting this workshop last weekend and, as expected (because of the company I was in), whilst the idea of cueing movement instead of muscles wasn’t contentious (I think), the ‘brain doesn’t know muscles’ line met with some reasoned resistance. Specifically, someone with a much deeper understanding of anatomy than mine pointed out that brain’s homunculus – its representation of our body – is partly formed by feedback that it receives from receptors within muscles. This caused me to revise my thought process – or perhaps I should say think a little more deeply/carefully about what I mean.

Here’s what I’ve come up with so far. ‘Our brain knows that you’ve got muscle, but it doesn’t know that you’ve got muscles…’ – that is to say, the ‘picture’ that our brain has of our body (which van der Wal says is based upon ‘fascial architecture’) is nothing like the pictures of muscles that we see in anatomy books. So, your brain knows that there is muscle tissue in the area of your arm that is responsible for moving your wrist closer to your shoulder because it knows the area to stimulate to produce wrist-toward-shoulder movements. Your brain does not ‘know’ that you’ve got a bicep brachii muscle, and a brachialis muscle etc. Again, our brain’s representation of our body is based around fascial architecture, and muscle fibres can be viewed as ‘just’ the elastic parts that move the parts of that architecture in relation to each other.

It follows, for me, that any notion that we can selectively fire muscles is largely an illusion. I know when I fire my bicep, because I’ve learned my musculosketal anatomy, and I can see the bit that’s called biceps changing shape. However, I don’t know what else is working, and I doubt that I’m able to isolate my bicep to make that movement. In other words, if I think ‘shorten my bicep’, my brain ‘knows’ what that looks like, translates it into a movement, and sends the message out ‘move wrist toward elbow’.

396px-Transversus_abdominisIt seems that one of our favourite muscles to work in Pilates is the transverse abdominis. It’s function is apparently so critical that you can find plenty of online instruction on how to isolate it. ‘HolisticSam’ of http://endyourbackpainnow.com  presents one such example on YouTube. And yet, according to Grays Anatomy “It may be more or less fused with the Obliquus internus or absent.” So it could be that HolisticSam is training  someone to isolate a muscle that they don’t possess. And if that person doesn’t have an identifiable transverse abdominis, does this mean that they cannot stabilise their lumbar spine? Of course not, because their brain doesn’t know how to ‘contract transverse abdominis’, but it does perhaps know how to ‘stiffen lumbar spine’, or maybe ‘ maintain relationship of ribs to pelvis’.

It also seems to me that if we had full conscious control of our individual muscles, then there ought to be far fewer problems with imbalances, asymmetries, and movement disfunction – and those problems should be easier to sort out. This may need further consideration, and it also seems to relate to another bald statement (this one I will claim as my own): ‘Poor muscle balance doesn’t cause poor movement, poor movement causes poor muscle balance’.

As ever, I’d be very happy for a debate to ensue…

I have had the good fortune, in the last 4 weeks, to take workshop/seminars with two fantastic presenters. They were both representing Crossfit (which might be the best and/or the worst thing to happen to fitness in the last ten years, depending on your world view) and, between them, they taught me more about Pilates than I’ve learned in years. Okay, some of it I already knew, but I needed reminding – or I needed to hear the ideas put together in a way that I hadn’t heard/been able to hear previously. The net result was a renewed enthusiasm for teaching, and a really strong urge to translate my fresh understanding into helping the people I teach become STRONGER. I remember hearing a yoga teacher – the lovely David Sye, in fact – a few years ago saying that flexibility is great, but it is strength that holds us up as we age.

I am tempted to write this post talking about ‘we’, referring to Pilates teachers in the UK. Whilst I am confident that the following view represents more than my own thoughts and, in fact, involves some paraphrasing of others I will try to keep to ‘I’. I have thought for some time that Pilates teachers understand movement better than a lot of other exercise practitioners. I have wondered what the point of lifting weights was, other than vanity. I have thought that my understanding of the human body and biomechanics was probably superior to Joseph Pilates’ because I have the benefit of scientific advances and so much more technology to explain anatomy and movement to me. I have believed that Pilates would have done some things differently, had he lived longer, and known what science has shown us since his death. I have revelled in theory and terminology that complicates anatomy, and movement. I have over-analysed movement, and tried to understand musculoskeletal anatomy in excessive detail. I have imagined that I can tell which specific muscles might be working or not working when looking at movement, both efficient and less so. I have taught “evolved” Pilates….

More fool me, more often than not. Let’s be clear: I don’t believe that the various things I’ve owned up to have made me a bad teacher, and it’s certainly fascinating to delve into the marvellous complexity of human anatomy, yet I may be guilty of seeing the trees in detail, and thereby missing out on the beauty of the whole wood. The journey toward what feels like my current enlightenment (next step on the path to better understanding, perhaps) began with a lecture by Jaap Van der Wal: ‘Not by muscles and ligaments alone: The importance of fascial architecture for understanding the locomotion system.’ He opened my eyes to an alternative way of considering anatomy, based around the idea that movement shapes our form, rather than our form shaping our movement. One of the most compelling things that Professor Van der Wal said was; “the brain doesn’t know muscles, it knows movement”. It represented a great argument against isolated exercises, and felt like a strong validation of Pilates.

And so to my more recent revelations. The first was Kelly Starrett presenting the ‘Crossfit Movement and Mobility Trainer Course’. The first significant point is that Kelly is a phenomenal presenter, (and I would love to get him talking in front of a room full of my Pilates teaching peers) who talks with knowledge, confidence, experience and great panache. Bearing in mind that he was addressing a room full, predominantly, of Crossfitters, remarkably, as he spoke I kept thinking “that’s Pilates!”, and “That’s what Pilates was saying in the 1930s”. It seemed that, the truth is, the language of movement is actually much less complicated than I had previously been willing it to be. Some of the basic principles he spoke about: importance of midline stabilisation; the hip joint as the major engine in the body; the first joint that is loaded in a movement is the joint that will bear the most load; with the right movement and the right lifestyle we are perfect healing machines. He also made the point that humans are highly adaptable, and the consequence of this is that we need to practice good positions all the time. I had previously heard it asserted that it’s okay to slouch if you know how to organise yourself – to sit or stand properly. The trouble is, our adaptability means that we’re very good at the things we practice most, and this is exactly why the posture of someone who spends hours stooped in front of a computer terminal is so easy to identify. I spent yesterday afternoon in a lecture hall full of Pilates teachers and some of the postures on view were shocking…

The second was a gymnastics seminar at Crossfit Thames, with Carl Paoli, another great presenter, and teacher who, addressed decidedly un-Pilates movements (handstand push-ups, pull-ups, muscle-ups) but brilliantly illustrated how so many apparently different movements are closely related to each other – just as in Pilates. He also showed us how to identify movement faults in very simple ways and, equally, how to fix them in simple ways. How’s this for a simple principle?: “The hips are the main engine, the spine is the transmission, and needs to be stable to translate power to the second engine – the shoulders.”

Interestingly, as I’ve been writing this, I’ve seen fellow teachers posting links to some quite brilliant anatomy animations, and the voice in my head has been saying: “It’s not about the muscles!” I know how easy it is to give in to the temptation to look at something that is going wrong with a client’s posture, or movement and to try to work out what particular muscle isn’t working/is weak/is tight/is inhibited etc. But the brain does’t know about muscles, and I’m not cleverer than Joseph Pilates was. One of the most striking things about Kelly and Carl was that they clearly understand movement very well, and there’s the link with Pilates – he clearly understood movement well. He probably hadn’t heard about local and global muscles, he didn’t talk about stabilisers and mobilises, low threshold exercise and so on, but I suspect he knew, for example, that external rotation of the hip gives more torsion and, therefore strength, to flexion movements (and that principle is applicable to so many movements).

I don’t think that I can empower people by trying to identify what muscles they do, or don’t have working well. I can empower them by helping them to understand movement in simple terms, and to become stronger (by working hard), before I try to introduce subtlety.