Archives For movement

Annus Novus/Terra Nova

January 17, 2017 — 1 Comment
Or, a middle-aged person’s guide to Tomislav English’s ‘Ferus Animi’
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Anoushka (my wife, business partner and favourite person to practice movement with) and I first encountered Tomislav during Rafe Kelly’s Evolve Move Play workshop on Hampstead Heath last Summer. We were both very attracted to the way he moved – the easy grace that speaks of tons of strength and control – and to his quiet humility.

I had vowed that after a year of lots of workshops, 2017 would be about consolidating what I had learned, and laying off the workshops. However, Anoushka saw a date announced for Tomislav’s ‘Ferus Animi/Terra Nova’ 4 day intensive and immediately asked him if we could sign up. My mild anxiety began as soon as he agreed – the text in red in the picture reads: “Experienced Movers: The workshop will be highly physical and often highly complex.”

Never mind, after Christmas in Thailand, spending the first week doing a highly physical and complex workshop has to be a great way to get the new year going. I don’t know if it was the ‘intensive’ bit, or the knowledge that most participants would be dancers and more capable than I, but I’ve never approached any workshop with as much trepidation.

Before we began Tom mentioned that he had not refused anyone who was interested in the workshop, so we were a diverse group. I particularly appreciated his point that we might all learn from each other, whatever our skill level might be. We were also encouraged to think of the 4 days as our own research into our own physicality and, if we were carrying injuries, to take the opportunity to better understand the cause and explore ways of working with it, rather than relying on external help.

I’m sure that he only spoke for a few minutes but so much of what he said resonated with the way that I’ve been thinking about movement, anatomy, injury etc over the last 12-18 months, so most of my trepidation was forgotten.

The 4 days followed the same structure: a morning class, of about 3 hours, and partner work in the afternoon for 2 and a half hours or so. The 3 hour class was great, full of interesting ideas, challenges that I’d never considered before, and extraordinary demands (several times I found myself thinking “CrossFit is nothing” as I wilted into the floor after trying another new crawling pattern).

Why did I call this ‘a middle-aged person’s guide’? I’m generally highly resistant to the idea of age putting limits on any activity, or being an excuse/explanation for incapacity and/but being in my 50th year, I’m increasingly aware of some naivety in pretending that age means nothing. I am gradually drying out, and my tissues change as a result. When lunchtime arrived the typical scene (in my memory, at least) was of Anoushka and I barely able to get off the floor but needing food, and everyone else grabbing the opportunity to practice handstands, or far more elaborate acrobatics. It seemed that, for many, a cigarette was sufficient for lunch, and that’s when it’s hard not to rationalise with “Well, we are at least twice as old as most of them..”

In spite of this it was remarkable to both of us that everyone there seemed very happy to be paired up with anyone else – I don’t think I’ve ever been to a workshop before this where I haven’t felt that there were one or two people that I didn’t want to work with. This was the nicest group of people I’ve shared a workshop with, ever (and if you happen to be reading this, Thank You). Another notable thing was that everyone got on with what Tom asked us to do – no antagonism, no ‘I was taught this another way’ or ‘I’ve been told I/we shouldn’t do that movement’ that I’m used to from the Pilates world.

The class looked very similar from one day to the next, but with added elements each day, or twists on things we’d done previously. Much of what we did in the morning on our own was relevant to the partner work in the afternoon. It’s easiest for me to describe those sessions as ‘playing games’. Some of them were familiar from other workshops, but always with a new twist. What might take 10 minutes to play can be developed into something that we could play for the whole day, if we keep subtly refining things, or asking each other slightly different questions (What happens if you have one hand behind your back? What happens if my eyes are closed but yours are open? Can your body be even softer? etc).

To be honest, after the class on day 3 we were both so tired that we were ready to skip day 4, but we had so much fun in the afternoon that we had both decided we weren’t missing the last day.

I’ve been fortunate to do a lot of great movement workshops in the last few years, and learned a lot – drills, skills, progressions, theories etc. but I don’t think any have felt as much of a personal exploration of my own physicality as Ferus Animi. It may be that I’ve become a more embodied or inquisitive inhabitant but I think a lot had to do with Tom’s emphasis on the journey of a movement, rather than the destination. We weren’t learning patterns, or exercises (tricks, stunts, moves…), rather we were researching how our bodies responded to these challenges, and recognising where we needed to spend more time to refine things. I’ve also immediately applied one of Tom’s teaching principles to all my Pilates teaching, which is an exciting and unexpected bonus.

Before the workshop I had wondered if calling Ferus Animi/Terra Nova a ‘research vehicle’ wasn’t a little bit pretentious, or self-aggrandising. I’m sorry that I ever entertained that thought – as Tom acknowledged, we were really being invited into his own practice, working on the things that he is interested in working on himself, so we were all doing our own research. I was studying my own body and also researching/learning, through working with others, more possibilities for myself. I think this is why, of all the workshops and seminars that I’ve done, and loved, this is the one that I’d be quickest to sign up for again.

 

You can find more info (and video) about Ferus Animi/Terra Nova here

 

 

 

 

Neutral?

October 18, 2014 — 13 Comments

This subject may have been done to death, but the last post that I wrote garnered reaction from a number of people, specifically in relation to my writing that “I may have uttered the phrase ‘neutral spine’ at some point in my life” (as if that were a bad thing). So, it seems like something worth addressing, and having done some hunting in books and via the internet, there is plenty of (at least) potentially conflicting information available.

Neutral posture is defined as one “where the joints and surrounding soft tissues are in elastic equilibrium and thus at an angle of minimal joint load”.

(sorry, I’ve seen this quoted repeatedly but cannot find the original source).

If you’re going to be lifting weights, whether a barbell or bags loaded with a weekly shop, neutral is a fantastic place for your spine to be. There will be load on your spine, because it is the transmission from your arms (carrying the weight) to your hip joints, which should be moving the weight, but the load will be distributed evenly through the joints. If you are a Pilates teacher, or enthusiast, you probably know what Joseph Pilates believed about spinal flexibility – he wrote, in ‘Return to Life’ “If your spine is inflexibly stiff at 30, you are old. If it is completely flexible at 60, you are young.” In the lifting example though, the facility to maintain stiffness in your spine is very valuable.

One of the foremost proponents of spine stiffness is Prof. Stuart McGill (the link is to an article that he wrote) who has spent years researching spines, and apparently gathered lots of evidence that supports his theories.

I can’t disagree with a lot of what Prof. Mc Gill says in the video (and what right, as a layperson, would I have anyway?), especially in relation to the importance of lifting with the hips and not simply bending your knees. I heard recently of research on dancers showing a strong correlation between poor hip hinging (the ability to hinge the trunk around the hip joints without spinal articulation) and both back and knee pain – back pain especially. There would seem to be a strong case for making sure that the people we teach understand how to hip hinge (to powerfully extend their hips, you might say.)

Are there exercises in Pilates that involve the spine acting as a static transmission of load from one extremity to another? Absolutely. And there are also, of course, plenty that require us to sequentially articulate our spines, or to maintain spinal flexion. I suspect that the work of Prof. McGill has caused some teachers to believe that we should be avoiding lumbar flexion (it seems to be regarded as more sinister than thoracic or cervical flexion, presumably because the majority of disc injuries occur there). If you look you can find video online (try “the Pilates Nun”) of the Rollup being taught with a neutral lumbar spine, so as to keep it safe. If you peruse Professor McGill’s ‘Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance’ book you will see that he particularly advocates exercising with lumbar in neutral for people who have had back injuries or back pain: “Generally, for the injured back, spine flexibility should not be emphasised until the spine has stabilised and has undergone strength and endurance conditioning – and some may never reach this stage!” (page 47). This is not at all the same as never, ever flex your lumbar spine, yet this is what some people have taken from his work.

As a concept, neutral spine seems to be predominantly taught lying supine, which is curious to me because it seems to be the one position where neutral has least value or application. Under what circumstances, when lying down, do you need to maintain a neutral spine? If the only answer is ‘during exercise’, then we have to wonder what the purpose of the exercise is. I’m referring to mat based exercise, Footwork on the Reformer, and similar exercises with straps/springs being an exception, because you are applying force from your hip joint against mechanical resistance – they are mimicking deadlifting and squatting while supine. There is not a single exercise in ‘Return to Life’, beginning from a supine position, that calls for neutral spine, so it would seem reasonable to say that any pre-Pilates exercise (that is truly progressing toward an actual Pilates exercise) would not call for it either.

You might want to encourage a neutral spine in standing, in which case this is entirely dependent on the leg/pelvis relationship. If that is well organised – pelvis neutral – then cues related to axial elongation will surely help to achieve an appropriate spine position. After all, as Shari Berkowitz writes in her blog post ‘Neutral Pelvis and Neutral Spine: What are they and why do we care?‘, neutral spine is not a specific shape but unique to each individual. And, with that reference, ‘neutral pelvis’ rears its head.

Neutral pelvis, defined by Ms Berkowitz in her article as: “ASIS and pubic bone in line with each other in the Coronal Plane”, seems to me a more appropriate thing to be talking about than neutral spine, but do we really need to talk about it at all? Yes, it may well be a helpful cue to some, and my discomfort with the term may be a little irrational. (I’m much happier talking/thinking about organising one’s pelvis on the top/end of one’s legs..) Once again, I have to wonder if the term have a place in Pilates – particularly the matwork?

maxresdefaultMany gymnastic exercises involve the hollow body, or ‘dish’ position, and it seems to be central to gymnastics foundational strength programs (Gymnastic Bodies, for example). Having been introduced to the hollow body position it became apparent to me that this was the basis for a number of Pilates exercises – The Hundred; Single & Double Leg Stretches; and even The Push Up (ask any gymnast – push ups aren’t done in ‘neutral’). In fact, the second picture accompanying The Double Leg Stretch in ‘Return to Life’ is identical to the picture above. According to gymnastics coach, and author Carl Paoli, the hollow body is fundamental to learning to control your lumbar spine against the natural tendency to excessive flexion. It seems entirely natural to me that Joseph Pilates would have adopted this idea from gymnastics, which was particular popular in Germany.

One of the most valuable elements of the hollow body position for me was the understanding that my spine is organised by my glutes. My abdominals can then go to work to help to sustain that organised position but, under load, my glutes (the auto spell check is determined that I use my flutes to organise my spine…) are paramount. In a supine position this has the effect of lengthening my lower back into the ground, rather than jamming it down, and it becomes a much more sustainable position than it used to be for me. I would go as far as to say that my abdominals depend on the efficient functioning of my flutes (see?) to be able to function efficiently themselves. This does not equate to neutral pelvis.

Aside from it not seeming to be what Pilates himself was teaching, the problem with ‘neutral pelvis’ is that, once you take yourself away from either vertical or horizontal, the term has no meaning, except in relation to your spine. So, when a teacher calls for a variety of exercises from the original repertoire to be performed in ‘neutral pelvis’, I suspect that what they are really saying is ‘lumbar neutral’. If that is what’s intended, why stop there? If you flex your thoracic but not your lumbar then one would think that there would necessarily be significant intervertebral compression in the lower thoracic. If it is truly important to keep the lumbar in neutral, then why not the thoracic and the cervical? Where does that take us? Everything neutral in the sagittal plane only allows us to include The Twist, Side Kick Lying and Kneeling, and The Leg Pull (if you’re careful).

Under those circumstances, Pilates, as an exercise method, is dead – killed by the creeping influence of physiotherapy and disc injury and rehabilitation research. If you think that gymnastics may not hold all the answers to sound movement then I’d agree – practiced at an elite level it’s probably not fantastic for your health. That doesn’t mean that the basics haven’t been worked out over a long period of time – at least a century more than Pilates has been around. Gymnastics, like Pilates (I hope) is also very much concerned with having control over one’s body in movement. Can the same thing be said for the advocates of ‘neutral’?

 

 

 

 

 

 

This workshop was first called “In Pursuit of Pilates Perfection”. It’s since been renamed “Pilates Made Simple”, but the content should encapsulate both ideas.

The aim of the workshop is to share the theories that a growing interest in strength & conditioning has exposed me to, and how they have influenced my Pilates teaching – and changed my life. (If you’ve seen any of my www.paleolates.com blog posts you may have already read references to this). I believe that it should be helpful to anyone teaching Pilates, either mat or studio, at any level, or to any particular population.

Meeting Kelly Starrett, taking his ‘Movement & Mobility’ seminar (and subsequently watching hours of his video blogs), helped me understand that I’d been over-complicating Pilates, and changed my teaching dramatically. Through him, and others in the strength & conditioning world, I learned that there are a set of simple principles and ‘rules’, fundamental to any human position or movement (that I now think Joseph Pilates understood), regardless of age or ability. Applying these ‘rules’ to Pilates allows me to see problems more clearly, and therefore to teach with more clarity, not to mention improving my own practice.

I’ve also gained a whole new set of tools to work on mobility, beyond what Pilates seemed to accomplish, and thereby changed my own body, also making Pilates repertoire feel easier. I hope to be able to pass on the sense of liberation, and satisfaction that it’s given me, with a mixture of theory and practical application that addresses both Pilates mat and equipment repertoire.

The workshop is 6 hours long, with approximately 4 hours spent on theory and relating theory to Pilates repertoire; and 2 hours for exploring the use of various mobility tools to facilitate the application of the theory to movement. There will be some notes provided – intended as a starting point/reminder for participants own thoughts and observations, and certificates of attendance will be issued.

Outcomes

After the workshop you will:

Be reminded of why good movement & positioning always matters 

Know a set of simple rules of movement and positioning, applicable to any activity

Be able to immediately apply those rules to teaching Pilates

Be able to impart those rules to your clients, to accelerate their progress

Have an additional paradigm for recognising movement faults and limitations

Have an array of mobilising tools to address movement limitations

Testimonials:

“A flexible and incredibly easy approach…”

“Fresh ideas – dynamic presentation. A retake on basics that is challenging in a positive way.”

“A brilliant way to improve your practice, and make it easier.”

“A very interesting workshop that has given me various ideas on teaching from cueing to exercise and equipment choice.”

“Rethink how you teach.”

The cost of the workshop is £90.