Archives For pilates teacher

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…