Archives For pilates teacher

This is, sort of, “How might I be wrong about this?” Part II.

I have to confess that I don’t care for the word ‘vulnerable’ as it often appears in the media these days – “in need of special care, support, or protection because of age, disability, or risk of abuse or neglect”. It strikes me as an overly general label to apply to a section or sections of the population, and distinctly disempowering – If I am vulnerable, according to this definition, is there much scope for me to excel, to be my best self?

All of that said, I’m increasingly aware of the value of vulnerability – as in this definition: “exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally” – for my growth as a husband, father, friend and teacher/coach. Happily the pursuit of the kind of vulnerability that I’m referring to is unlikely to involve physical harm but absolutely carries the risk of failing; of looking and feeling foolish; and seeing a reflection in the mirror that I may not care for. I’ve referred to being ‘outside your comfort zone’ often and almost glibly as ‘the place where the magic happens’ without really acknowledging that this is entirely about risking failure. I’ll be less quick to talk about my comfort zone in future because I want to be more comfortable with failing – comfortable with being uncomfortable, you might say.

Because that’s where I learn, and where I can grow.

I don’t want this to read as though I’ve mastered the art of vulnerability – that it’s somehow easy for me now. That’s absolutely not the case and I have to override my own instincts and, perhaps, to re-shape an identity that I have assumed as ‘boss’, or ‘expert’. I’m also fortunate enough to spend a lot of time with someone who is similarly driven and will hold me to account.

Why is this so important to me now? Historically I’ve been really good at making excuses. When I was going up I can remember frustrating my parents because “Nothing’s ever your fault, is it?” I didn’t know it then but I suspect I always felt safer finding external forces or circumstances to explain why I’d failed. I know now that this is symptomatic of a fixed mindset and not in keeping with a mission of growth toward self-actualisation.

I believe the fact that there are many interpretations of the Pilates method is a blessing and a curse. It means that being a Pilates teacher almost inevitably means subscribing to a dogma (or several). I believe this lends itself to adopting fixed opinions that may cloud our view of the truth. At the very least, being governed by dogma does not invite questioning of our own methods. If you are a Pilates teacher reading this I invite you to consider your core beliefs about Pilates (Do you believe it’s a complete system? Do you believe it’s a holistic practice? Does it do what yoga does but without all the chanting? Is it the perfect marriage of stretch and strength? ……), and then to search for any reason why you might be wrong.

Logan Gelbrich (referred to in the earlier article), at his recent ‘Hold the Standard Summit‘, told us about an exercise conducted at his gym in which coaches were divided into two teams for a debate – one team had to argue in favour of CrossFit and the other against it. Could you formulate an argument against a regular Pilates practice? What might you learn if you try? If we actively search for information about how we’re wrong, we may discover that we are indeed wrong, or we may learn more, or have greater clarity about why we are right to be doing or believing what we do currently.

Another compelling idea that Logan introduced us to is the two types of challenge, as identified by Ronald Heifetz: technical and adaptive.

Technical challenges can be looked up, or answered by an expert – as a Pilates teacher, if you’re uncertain about the proper choreography of an exercise, or how many springs to use, you can find the answer on YouTube, or consult another teacher.

Adaptive challenges are those that will likely require us to be vulnerable, because they require growth – evolution. Let’s say that one of my challenges as a teacher is expressing my true self in a way that doesn’t alienate the people I want to reach (no, really!) This is not a technical challenge – I can’t look up the answer, and no expert can tell me how to do this. If I want to successfully address this I’m going to have to fearlessly examine my behaviour and motivation, and scrutinise past reactions through the lens of ‘how might I be wrong about this?’

It means taking responsibility for everything that happens in scenarios both of teaching and social media interactions, for example.  If the person that I’m teaching doesn’t appear to be following instructions, or isn’t doing as well as I believe they can I have to take responsibility and ask myself how I might express myself differently (this could be a highly complex question and might be worth a thousand words on its own), or change my coaching to help them be more successful. If it’s wrong, it’s my fault. If a post or comment of mine on social media elicits a reaction that I don’t appreciate I have to take responsibility and ask myself what it was about my contribution that triggered such a response. You might recognise this as being inspired by Carol Dweck‘s work. If I look for failings in other people that explain unsatisfactory outcomes I limit my own chances to evolve. If I can allow myself to risk being wrong (and, again, it’s not necessarily my first instinct yet – it’s a work in progress) I may discover that I can change – behave differently and make for a more satisfactory outcome next time.

As before, how might I be wrong about this?

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The Alignment Problem

August 28, 2019 — 2 Comments

I imagine that there’s near universal agreement amongst Pilates teachers across the globe that alignment is important. Perhaps it is even the central tenet of the Pilates Method.

I’m increasingly of the view that the ability to clearly and succinctly define things is crucial to being able to implement, influence or otherwise effect those things. If you believe that ‘alignment’ is indeed central to Pilates, what do you mean by ‘alignment’? Can you define the concept in one sentence? The idea of defining what we do is a topic that features in the illuminating conversation between Anula Maiberg and Raphael Bender that helped spur me on to write this. I encourage you to listen to if you haven’t already.

I had an exchange via Facebook with a teacher recently, around a post about an online course that, as I remember, used the phrase “it’s all about alignment”. I asked for a definition of alignment (I know, I should learn to leave things well alone) and the answer was along the lines of ‘it’s too complicated to explain in brief but the answer would become apparent if you read all our blog posts’. This may have simply been the best way to deal with an antagonistic social media user but, to me, it hinted at something that is endemic in the Pilate teaching world and, again, referred to by Anula & Raphael – that even though we know what we do is important we aren’t always good at defining what that is, teachers and continuing education providers alike.

For what it’s worth, if I have to define alignment I would say something like “the organisation of the 3 main body weight centres (thank you Jozef Frucek) relative to each other, and the optimal centration of the bones at every joint”. This means, to me, that there is no single appearance of ideal alignment. I also believe that the route to optimal alignment lies in practicing varied movement and not in practicing being in ideal fixed positions – I don’t believe in teaching anyone to sit well, for example. I would rather teach them varied and efficient movement so that their system has more options to deploy when they are sitting.

All of that said, I believe that there’s a different kind of alignment that is more important to teaching Pilates than the alignment of bones and body parts. Last year I was fortunate to attend an evening with Dr John Demartini, and Carl Paoli‘s ‘Freestyle Insider’ seminar. Both of these events invited/encouraged me to examine my personal values and my goals and, particularly in the case of Freestyle Insider, to articulate my mission.

I learned from Dr Demartini that when my values and my goals are not aligned I can expect to be dissatisfied, unhappy and unsuccessful. It makes perfect sense, I believe – if my actions aren’t in line with those things that I hold dearest I am engaged in self-sabotage. I learned from Carl that I need to be able to clearly and concisely express my mission in order to have a clear path to follow. So my values help to define my mission and my mission helps to define my goals.

This is ‘the alignment problem’ that Anula and Raphael raise in their conversation and, I suspect, may be plaguing the Pilates teaching community. I have asked enough teachers to define what they do, for a lay audience, in one or two sentences enough times to believe that the inability to do so is a widespread problem. The answer to many questions is often ‘It depends’ but in this case I’m afraid that will not do.

If you are able to clearly define what you do then you will be very clear in what you are offering to the people who might pay you; you will recognise more readily those people whom you may not be able to help; and the choices as to what specifically to do in a session with a specific person will be easier to identify.

To be blunt, “I teach Pilates’ is not a clear definition of what you do. We all know that there are many definitions and interpretations of that statement so it doesn’t represent clarity of purpose, at least to a layperson. What does ‘I teach Pilates’ mean to you? How can you break that down into something more meaningful? As an aside, I’ve found the exercise of asking ‘Why?’ at least 5 times to get the root of things really useful (eg. ‘I teach Pilates.’ Why? ‘Because it’s a really good way to exercise.’ Why? Because it can be adapted to meet the needs of many different people.’ Why do you want to do that? ‘Because I like to be able to reach different types of people.’ Why? etc etc

If we have a less than clear answer to this question, and an indistinct definition of what we teach it is that much easier to fall into generalisations of the ‘That’s what we’re supposed to do’ kind. For example, cueing a breathing pattern for an exercise to a client who may already be overwhelmed with inputs because ‘we’re supposed to cue breathing’; or teaching someone correct TVA engagement (!!!!!!!) before the Hundred ‘because that’s how my teacher does it’. What we’re ‘supposed to do’ rarely has any connection to effective teaching.

Assuming that we all want to be effective teachers, before we concern ourselves with the alignment of the individual on the mat or the Reformer in front of us, we should first be concerned with our own alignment. Is what we teach truly in harmony with the outcomes that we’d like to offer?

 

(This is one of the central ideas of a workshop that I’m developing with my friend and movement coach. If you would like to participate in a pilot form of the workshop (in London) you can message me via the Paleolates Facebook page, or Instagram @pilatesbutnot).

I believe that, as a profession, Pilates teachers are generally eager to learn and driven to keep doing courses and workshops long after their initial training. I recently discovered the term “course whore”, applied (by herself) to a Pilates teacher and, while it may not be a phrase I’d use, it appears to be a ‘thing’. It’s all the more interesting because it was clearly used as a pseudo-derogatory term, feeding an idea that the more courses you’ve done the better you will be. Or the more knowledge you have the better you will be.

I’m certain that all of us who call ourselves Pilates teachers have a responsibility to continue to learn and grow. How we do that is what motivated me to write this.

Hopefully attending workshops/seminars/courses is never a box-ticking exercise (if you belong to an organisation that requires you to attend X hours of courses that they run this may well become a problem) so let’s assume that we have intrinsic motivation to look for whatever we sign up to. What is it that drives that motivation? I wonder if we can divide it into fear and love? We could also consider this as ‘outcome-driven’ (box-ticking, getting a certificate, adding to a CV) and ‘process-driven’ (exploring, challenging beliefs, learning about self as well as subject).

Fear as a motivator might sound like “My training didn’t cover working with people with …..(insert condition/disease etc here); or, “I’d like to work with X type of person but I’m not qualified. Questions on teachers’ forums looking for courses on working with specific populations seem very common (along with the advertising of such courses). Underlying this are the beliefs that “I can’t work with that person because I’m not qualified/certified in the condition that they have”; and “when I’ve done that course I’ll be able to sell myself as a specialist in…” It might also sound like “I need to find another workshop to do this year to get my hours up to the required amount.”

The courses that will fit the bill in a fear-driven search might well give you more understanding of generalities about say, neurological disorders, and maybe some exercise ideas but will they help you to be a better teacher? Perhaps you’ll feel more confident, and that’s important, but what happens when you come across another condition that you’re not certified to teach to? Do they educate you, or do they develop you as an individual and, therefore, as a teacher (or is there a bit of both happening)?

The love-driven search is probably more instinctual, more likely to be via recommendation, or as a result of research into a subject or field. For example, if Joseph Pilates’ writing (or some other source) encourages you to investigate children’s developmental movement patterns, you might discover The Prague School of Rehabilitation and discover their DNS course(s). This course could be transformative to your teaching but you probably wouldn’t find it if you were looking for something to help you feel better qualified to teach people with, for example, SIJ dysfunction. Betraying my own bias, the love-driven search may also take you into a different movement realm, to spend sometime being a beginner again, and to see with different eyes.

I think there’s a danger that one might get stuck in a loop that will be self-limiting – there will always be conditions for which no-one is going to develop a course, because they’re just not common enough for anyone to make money running a course about. I can think of at least a dozen examples of people with uncommon or complex conditions who’ve come to our studio in the last 10 years whom we would have had to turn away if we believed that we needed specialist training to teach them. And here’s the crux of the matter – YOU DON’T NEED THOSE COURSES!

Let me qualify that. If your training as a Pilates teacher prepared you to teach principles, rather than teaching you exercises, then you don’t need courses in working with ‘special populations’, or specific conditions. You’ve been trained in teaching Pilates to whomever turns up at your door, or in your class, and you have the skills and understanding to figure out what they need. And to be clear, I’m not talking about the 6 principles from the Eisen & Friedman book. Instead I’d suggest researching the principles as described by Benjamin Degenhardt, or have a look at this. (This doesn’t mean that you should agree to work outside your scope of practice – if you don’t know how to work with someone then it’s essential to acknowledge that. Though this would also be automatic if your training has been thorough.)

Why don’t you need specialist courses? In addition to teaching principles, hopefully you teach the person or people in front of you – you’re not teaching from a one-size-fits-all script, you are practicing person/client-centred teaching. They’ve chosen Pilates, or they’ve been recommended to take up Pilates because it’s magic recognised as helping people to be better. You may need to do some research, and you definitely need to find out from them what they want, what they think they need, and what they need it for, to help steer your choices. If a cyclist comes to your class, you don’t need to ask her to come back after you’ve done your “Pilates for Cyclists’ course – you can start building a relationship and demonstrating that she has some agency by finding out from her what the particular demands of cycling are, and if she has a problem you’ve got the principles in mind to figure out the movements or exercises she will benefit from.

We could switch ‘cyclist for ‘man with Parkinson’s’, ‘lady with MS’, ’65 year old golfer’, ‘young woman with scoliosis’ etc. etc. Your job is to teach them (the universal principles of better movement that are embedded in) Pilates. Not ‘Pilates for Golfers’, Pilates for Neurological Disorders’, or ….. You’re qualified to teach Pilates, to humans, individually, in their infinite variety. You don’t need the specialist course for each one, instead each individual represents an opportunity for your personal and professional growth, because they will each be able to teach YOU something.

This is the thing that concerns me the most – if you are attending specialist courses are you growing – expanding, we might say – or are you being channeled into ever narrower lanes that limit your scope and outlook (like the scientists in the quote above)? I suspect that the latter is more likely.

Especially if you want to specialise in working with a particular population, your insurance may require you to have specialist training and, in some cases, there may be nationally established guidelines that should be followed if you are choosing to advertise yourself as specialised in working with, for example, pregnant women. In such cases it probably makes sense to pay for that specialised course, though you will probably need to acknowledge that many people won’t fit the guidelines, and you’ll be reliant on teaching principles, listening etc etc. If you’ve developed your listening skills, and your looking skills; and acknowledged the extent of your knowledge to yourself and your clients; and experimented, failed, learned, tried, failed, learned, improvised etc then you will very likely have a far deeper well of knowledge and skills to draw from than if you’ve attended half a dozen courses where the lessons have been any more specific than ‘teach the individual in front of you’.

I’ll leave it to you to decide how relevant the Konrad Lorenz quote is to this. For me, I’d prefer to be in-between these two extremes, but definitely tilting toward the philosopher end of the spectrum.

 

I’m Not Good at Pilates

September 12, 2018 — 3 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hollow Rock

Pistol Squat

Pull Up

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

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

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

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

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

Win win.

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

 

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

I’ve made attempts in the past to write about what it means to be a Pilates teacher and, happily, my understanding has grown in the last few years such that it seems worth revisiting.

If one’s view of Pilates is that it’s a series of exercises (possibly with some variations, contemporary ‘improvements’ etc), then I think being a teacher is probably pretty straightforward. However, as Eve Gentry said, “you can know every exercise, on every piece of equipment, but that does not mean that you know Pilates.” Because Pilates is a concept and if you’re teaching exercises then you’re not really teaching Pilates – you have to teach concepts to be a Pilates teacher.

So what are the concepts? I find it simplest to express them as questions, such as:

Do you know where you body is in space?

Are you able to organise your body in space? (Meaning you have to organise parts of your body relative to each other, as well as to your environment)

And, as expressions of the above:

Can you stabilise your spine while you move your extremities?

Can you sequentially articulate your spine?

However, these are not unique to Pilates – I know of CrossFit coaches and martial artists who do the same thing, and I’m sure there are yoga teachers and others from all sorts of disciplines (dance, gymnastics etc) with similar intentions.

So what separates Pilates from other disciplines? The core concept that we try to adhere to in our studio is that the practice of Pilates is for Your Health – it was not an accident that this was the title of Joseph Pilates’ first book, and the text makes it clear that his interests were a lot broader than ‘can you stabilise your spine while blah blah blah’.

I cannot speak for the other disciplines mentioned but I believe that this is what CrossFit is about, too. It’s hard to be involved with CrossFit and not hear discussions of nutrition, sleep quality, sun exposure and circadian rhythms (not to mention that their crusade against the sugar industry is truly laudable). The only time that I’ve heard sleep, sun exposure and circadian rhythms mentioned in a Pilates training context is when a visiting lecturer on my wife’s teacher training course is at our studio (she’s a big fan of cold exposure, too, and she truly glows with health).

I don’t believe that being able to differentiate oneself from teachers of other disciplines is a necessary part of being a Pilates teacher, but I do think it probably helps to have some clarity about what we can offer, and where we might fit in the grand scheme of exercise practices/movement disciplines. Perhaps something that separates me as a Pilates teacher from my friends who are CrossFit coaches is that I’m more likely to be approached by people who feel or are ‘broken’ in some way. And, I suspect, that many people who take up CrossFit have a clearer idea of what they’re getting into than a lot of people who may have been advised by their doctor/osteopath/physio etc. that they would benefit from Pilates.

So I guess I’m aligning myself with a notion of a Pilates teacher as a health coach with a strong movement bias. To be effective, I need to be clear (both in my mind and in speaking) about what I believe I can offer; I need to know my shit, that is, the repertoire, safe use of the apparatus, first aid, basic musculoskeletal anatomy, common conditions affecting that anatomy, implications of various mental health conditions, the biology of chronic pain, the physical effects of pregnancy/post-natal, and a basic grasp of the demands of a wide variety of sports and other activities.

I’m sure that I’ve forgotten something/s on the list of ‘stuff I need to know’ but it doesn’t much matter because, when it comes to teaching, what I need to know pales in comparison to my ability to communicate. To communicate with anyone who might walk through the door. Going back to Eve Gentry, you might know all the exercises and, yes, you might understand Pilates inside out, but if you’re not able to communicate with the person in front of you, none of that matters.

I’ve been lucky enough to attend a few Fighting Monkey workshops, and to discover that much of their movement practice is aimed at being a better communicator – I certainly have a lot more to learn, but I know that I had to look beyond the narrow confines of the Pilates world to confront this idea (more of this to follow).

Before I can communicate well I have to be able to reflect – I have to get to know myself better (and how fantastic that a movement practice can facilitate that!), and I have to have a growth mindset. I have to be willing to embrace my failures and find the seed of discovery within each one. I have to acknowledge my own fallibility. I have to ask myself tricky questions like: “What did I do that provoked that reaction?”.

To communicate well I have to be fully present – I have to feel grounded (and more on this to follow, too!). I have to understand the way that I move, my own compensations and limitations. I have to have a degree of confidence that includes being comfortable with what I know and what I don’t know. And I think I have to love what I’m doing. These are the selfish elements of communicating, or just half of the conversation, because I haven’t taken the other person into account yet.

For this I need to be curious, and I have to watch and LISTEN. What are the people I’m going to be teaching telling me (with words, tone, posture, facial expression and movement) before they’ve set foot in the studio? I may have goals and objectives for their session and I’d better be ready to let them go, based upon what I see and hear. After all, it’s not as though I’m an actor or musician whom they’ve come to see perform. So it doesn’t matter how great a session plan I have, how ‘good’ my verbal cueing, imagery and tactile cueing is (The answer to ‘what’s the best cue?’ is always ‘it depends’) – all of those things have to be right for the person in front of me, on that day, at that time. so I need to do my very best to recognise the signs that I’m given to help me decide how to proceed. Listening also means being alert to the things that don’t get said, reading between the lines – clearly this has to be done with caution, and sensitivity – this is perhaps a mixture of intuition and speculation, and both of these things should be treated with a degree of caution (and cultivated over hours and years of working with people).

I was about to write: ‘If you’re a Pilates teacher reading this, and all of your clients/students are coming to your classes to work on their beach body, you may not recognise this.’ But I realised that the job is no different, even if the responsibilities may be less than I’m thinking. There have been a number of times that I’ve been truly humbled by the trust that a new client has put in me – I’m not medically trained (I just teach movement, for God’s sake!…and I’m male), yet the willingness that many people, women in particular, (when explaining why they’re taking up Pilates) have had to declare a variety of personal/intimate problems or challenges made me very aware of  how vulnerable some people may be making themselves in taking up Pilates. (For example, particularly if you’re a male teacher, you’d do well to know what the terminology around vaginal prolapse treatment/surgery is…..)

So if I have a new client who has been diagnosed with a “slipped disc”, and who has made it clear that they’re nervous about exercising, it doesn’t matter how many workshops I’ve taken, how many books I’ve read, or how many wonderful exercises I have up my sleeve, if they don’t feel safe. Which brings us back to my communication – everything that I’ve learned from the person I’m teaching – body language, what they say, how they say it, diagnoses etc. all has to inform my body language, what I say, and how I say it. Do they need more felt experience, or more explanation? Do they need some science? Or do they need humour? Can I relate what I need to say to what they’ve told me about their interests, or their job? How do I meet their needs and still stay on track with what I believe they need?

I believe that Pilates should empower people. I don’t believe that teachers ‘fix’ anything, nor do I believe that Pilates ‘fixes’ anything. The ‘fix’, whether it’s movement, mindset or something else, comes from the individual. Our job as teachers is to facilitate that self-healing, or self-discovery. If I am to be empowering, my communication also needs to encourage the idea that the client/student has the answers within them, rather than that I will give them the answers. If you believe that you have the answers, that you are the magician doing the magic to them, you may have clients for life, but I don’t think you’re teaching them Pilates.

If you’re anything like me, this is already a lot to take on board. Not daunting – it’s wonderful, but definitely something to be taken very seriously. I never understood the Pilates teacher who applied for a physiotherapy degree because she didn’t want to be “just a Pilates teacher” – like it was a bit of a Mickey Mouse profession. I may not have the knowledge of anatomy and physiology that a physiotherapist has (nor should I) but I do have a professional responsibility to be able to communicate clearly with a referring medical professional. Which leads me neatly to one more part of my responsibility – I have to be able to say “I don’t know”. It’ll definitely promote me to do some research, but it may be the greatest responsibility of all to be clear about my scope of practice AND to acknowledge what I don’t know.

 

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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.

Your words DO matter!

August 4, 2016 — 1 Comment

A while ago I posted an article whose title asked Pilates teachers not to use the word “core”. Setting aside the appropriateness or otherwise of someone with no status in the Pilates world making such requests, I found some of the responses very interesting.

“Meh…core, powerhouse, whatever. They are just words, some work better with some clients than others.”

“Semantics are over-rated. As long as you can get your client to understand & move from the right places, you can use any words in existence. (or make up your own, who cares!)”

“I’m sick of semantics.”

More significant events in the wider world have also caused me to reflect on the significance of the vocabulary we choose to adopt. The news in the UK this morning was dominated by a knife attack in which one person was killed, and four other seriously injured. Reports focused on motivation – mental illness was referred to, but police weren’t ruling out the possibility of terrorism. I’m sure it was terrifying for the people caught up in it but, to me, labelling an attack like this as terrorism is redundant, except to make the population at large more fearful. You can easily find the statistics of how many people are killed in car-crashes, compared to the number killed in ‘terror’ attacks. Car crashes are significantly far more significant but our choice of words, or the media’s choice of words has a powerful impact on how we think and feel. I bet that the average Londoner feels more at risk of a terror attack than a car-crash – and that is a product of language creating fear.

In the same way that we may be manipulated, if not controlled, as a society, we might also manipulate the people that we teach by our use of words. The outcome won’t be a life or death situation but I believe I’ve met people who’s self-belief has been affected for years by the way that Pilates teachers and/or physical therapists have spoken to them.

Some people may be motivated by the thought that their “core is weak”, or their “glutes are weak”, or that their posture “is terrible”. Fine. But what of the people for whom this sort of language reinforces their sense that they have failed, or that (worse, perhaps) these are things that are beyond their control? For example, if I’m told that my glutes are weak, and them becoming weak has been beyond my control, might I not feel that I am not in control of how my body behaves? And thus powerless to help myself?

Anyone who teaches in the studio that my wife and I run is vigorously discouraged from using words like ‘hurt’, ‘painful’, ‘damage’, ‘dangerous’, ‘protect’. We now know that pain is a response to inputs to our nervous system, once our brain has filtered the inputs through its vast library of previous experiences – felt, seen, heard etc. If someone is told that, for example, they must “protect their spine” while doing an exercise, and they then feel an unfamiliar sensation in their back, how easy will it be for them to feel that they must have failed to protect their spine? And what might the consequences be for an unprotected spine? It sounds as though they might be rather fragile – is it safe for them to do normal activities outside their Pilates class if they’re so bad at protecting their spine?

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs provides a very useful model for teaching anything, not least Pilates. In our studio the goal for any student (I’m trying to break the habit of saying ‘client’) is self-actualisation – the fulfilment of potential – and I imagine and hope that this is true throughout the Pilates world.

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Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Esteem could be interchangeable with self-belief, which I would interpret as ’empowerment’. Our job is to empower our students in order that they can achieve their potential – we cannot achieve it for them. The words that we choose are critical for student empowerment.

When teaching, do you ever say “I want you to…”? I know how easy it is to do, but what has what I want got to do with it? It’s not about my experience – it’s about the student’s experience!

If you give instructions throughout the course of every repetition, does the student ever feel that they can do the movement alone? More importantly, does my choice of words make my student feel that they need me with them in order to do something well? If that’s the case, then self-actualisation will be very hard to achieve. If a student says that they don’t want to be taught by anyone else (rare, but it does happen), then I will have to reflect on what about my behaviour, and most likely the language that I’ve used, has led them to this disempowered conclusion. To me, creating this belief in a student might be a financial success, but is a teaching failure.

Another respondent to the ‘core’ article I wrote before said “Sometimes I think teachers over-think too much.” I agree, I’m sure that I might over-think but I would prefer to do that than to under-think. Especially as someone who is trying to be a teacher of movement. By being thoughtful about the words that I use (and intonation, rhythm etc), perhaps I can help my students to not over-think the movement.

To imagine that language is simple, or that words only ever mean what you intend them to is, at best, naive and, at worst, irresponsible.

 

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…