Archives For Pilates

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.

 

Eve Gentry asked the question “Do you teach concepts, or do you teach exercises? Are you a teacher, or are you a conveyor belt?” She went on to say “If you’re a conveyor belt then, sooner or later the mechanism will get stuck.”

You are probably familiar with the expression “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; show him how to catch a fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Eve Gentry was saying essentially the same thing, and this reflects how we want to teach people at our studio – the exercises are expressions of concepts, or principles. Our goal for our clients, our ‘offering’ if you like, is ‘whole body health’, in keeping with Joseph’s intentions. We are not interested in making people better at Pilates, but rather in improving all aspects of their health that movement can influence (and being ‘better’ at the exercises will be one manifestation of this). We will help people to move better (and, by extension do the exercises better) if we have explained the principles behind the exercise, and how to apply them.

If we fall into the trap of teaching people choreography – something which stands alone – then we teach them to be better at that specific movement. We miss the opportunity to make connection between exercises that reinforce movement principles, and therefore the carry-over into other activities.

For example, Clams might be considered an exercise done side-lying with your hips at 45 degrees, and your knees at 90 degrees, in which you target your gluteus medius by reaching your knee toward the ceiling. Or we could consider it as a movement of contrasting stability and mobility, similar to the way we lift our legs for the Hundred, in which the stability of your trunk enhances the mobility of your hip. Instead of being The Clam, part of the side-lying repertoire, it is another movement (one of many in Pilates) of stabilising your trunk against the load of your limb/s.

You may be lucky, and find that something that you say is a lightbulb moment for someone that you’re teaching for the first time. On the whole, if we are to be successful, we have to build relationships with the people that we teach, so that we can understand each other better. Naturally, we have to maintain clear boundaries, and you must set those according to what feels right for you. At the same time, to learn more about the people we teach we have to give something of ourselves how can you learn what their interests are? What makes them tick, what do they care about? Small snippets of information may provide valuable clues as to how best to communicate a specific idea to them.

Part of maintaining healthy functioning relationships is the ability to let go of your plan, to be able to react to the other person/people in the relationship. I’m sure that you know this from your own life, and it’s true for teaching, too.

To approach your class with a plan is useful, but if your plan is a sequence of exercises, with specific repetitions, and customary verbal cues, do you leave yourself the space to respond to your students? Does teaching your class according to your plan actually get in the way of you being present, and seeing what is happening? Can you let go of the plan if it’s the thing which determines the structure and flow of your class?

If you are teaching principles, or concepts, then letting go of the plan becomes relatively easy. Instead of a set sequence of exercises we can teach to a theme; or have a single exercise as a goal – ‘I’m going to teach the Push Up today, so I’m going to build up to it with all the different components that I think are crucial to the movement, informed by how everyone is moving today.’

If we recognise exercises for the concepts that they teach, then choosing them ‘on the fly’ becomes easy. If the group needs reminding of efficient weight-bearing through their hands then we can do something specific to that, if shoulder stability needs addressing there are plenty of tools for that, if it’s midline stability that needs the focus…well, Pilates has lots for that. All of

these will be great preparations for the Push Up, but they’re tools in the box, instead of being a plan I’ve committed to. Then, we can teach people what they need, instead of what we decided the day before that we wanted to teach.

Eisen and Friedman, in their book published in 1984, gave us the 6 principles that most will recognise as the principles of Pilates. However, the concepts that we are talking about teaching are the ‘how’ of position and movement that will help to achieve some of those 6 principles.

For instance, how does someone achieve ‘Control’ in their movement? Controlled movement is a product of joints fitting together well, and efficient transfer of weight/load through our structure. This is what we need to teach: how to achieve joint congruency and efficient transfer of load – this is the ’how’ of moving well, and therefore the how of executing Pilates exercises efficiently.

If we talk about ‘centre’, ‘cylinder’ or ‘core’, what do we mean? We may have a very clear physical sensation that fits with one, or all, of these abstract terms, which might be a product of lots of practice, anatomical understanding and kinaesthetic awareness. If our clients lack these, how can we explain it to them? And how can we explain it to them in a way that becomes repeatable for them, and useful in their everyday activities? Will it be sufficient to tell them to ‘engage’ something or other? How will they know, and you know, if they are really doing the right thing? What measure do they have for ‘am I using my centre or not’?

We want to teach people in a way that gives them skills they can reproduce outside the class, and to encourage their reflexive responses – so they don’t need to be told to ‘switch on’ or ‘engage’, their actions and environment trigger the appropriate support automatically.

So what are the principles that we should be teaching?

Grounding

Unless we are relaxing, to create stability we need to have a firm base of support. If we’re standing, the action of pressing our feet into the floor will help to organise our joints in a stable position. The same when sitting. If I’m lying down, doing a Pelvic Lift/Bridge perhaps, my shoulder girdle and my feet need to press firmly into the floor to create stability; if we’re doing the Hundred, our mid-backs need to anchor to the floor, as well as the back of our pelvis, to create stability. We can teach these positions relatively easily, without having to resort either to naming muscles, or to abstract concepts (core, centre etc).

Centration

For efficient transfer of load through our bodies, and for the longevity of our joints, we need to maintain congruency, or centration of our joints while we move. Meaning that the articular surfaces of the joints maintain as much contact as possible as we move – they fit together well. The action of grounding may well stimulate centration, along with Kelly Starrett’s concept of torque farming, particularly in relation to the ball and socket joints. Keep in mind that the external rotation of ‘torque farming’ has to occur at the ball and socket joint. The distal part of the limb (forearm/shin) needs to be counter-spiralling in internal rotation to facilitate congruency of all the relevant joints.

A joint that is not congruent might still be stable, but not in a way that involves all the soft tissues around the joint working together. You can test this on all fours, feeling for yourself the difference between relaxing and pushing your hands and shins into the ground – notice how the rest of your body responds, not just your hands and shins.

Elongation

Of course, we always want to encourage length in every exercise that we teach – it’s almost synonymous with Pilates. Benjamin Degenhardt likes to ask this question, in every exercise: “Do you have space for your joints and organs?” If we answer “No”, then we’re not in a good position. Once again, the action of grounding may well assist in giving us more space (and putting our joints into better positions).

Compression/Decompression

We need compression (not to be confused with shortening, or crunching) of our joints, to lubricate and stimulate them, but this should be coupled with decompression, so that there is a pump-like action working on the joint. We need one to achieve the other,  the same way that we need to go further into extension to facilitate flexion, and vice versa. So, for example, if someone is habitually anteriorly tilting their pelvis, rather than trying to stretch them in hip extension, they need to be taken further into hip flexion in order to be able to then go into more extension/posterior tilt.

To help reinforce the teaching of these principles, the following ideas might be helpful: The developmental pathway of human babies includes these actions:

Push; Pull; Reach; Yield; Grasp; Release

These could form the basis of all movement teaching, since they are innate to our development – we are ‘wired’ to do these. Using these words when you teach may well take care of a lot of the reflexive responses that we want to encourage, without the need for ambiguous or opaque verbal cues. Students can use their environment (whether it’s the mat or the apparatus) to learn better movement patterns.

In athletic development the fundamental movements are considered to be:

Push; Pull; Rotate; Raise/lower centre of mass; Locomote

This is to say, for decades these movements have been recognised to be fundamental to human athletic endeavours and, particularly since they are not activity specific, we can assume that they will serve our students/clients well in their day to day activities.

(These and other ideas will form part of a forthcoming workshop that is focused on identifying the practices and habits of world class teachers. I’d love to hear from you if you would like to participate in a pilot of this workshop).

CrossFit > Pilates?

November 20, 2018 — Leave a comment

Though I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard Pilates teacher suggesting that CrossFit is good for business because “They’ll injure themselves and then come to us” (or words to that effect), too often lately I’ve had to ask myself “Is CrossFit doing a better job of carrying Joseph Pilates’ flame than we are as Pilates teachers?

Or, more simply put: Could CrossFit be the new Pilates?

Full disclosure: though I have been through the CrossFit Level One Trainer course I’ve never advertised myself as a CF coach, and my certificate lapsed about a year ago. Why then should I care about, or pay any attention to CrossFit? The simplest answer is that I’m reminded from time to time, that I feel I have more in common with CF coaches than I do with my Pilates teaching peers.

To be fair, it’s easier to define CF than Pilates – Greg Glassman, CrossFit’s founder, conveniently wrote “Fitness in 100 words”, which does a decent job of concisely describing the CF lifestyle. Us Pilates teachers do have “Your Health” & “Return to Life” to refer to but, as well as being much less concise, I suspect that many of us have lost sight of what he wrote about holistic health, not to mention ruling out some of his original exercises for one reason or another.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to draw some comparisons between his writing and Glassman’s 100 words: it’s clear that Joseph was interested in much more than exercise. It’s also clear, from archival footage, that his own movement practice strayed well off the mat, and the confines of Reformer or Cadillac. Joseph was ‘selling’ health and I believe that, as Pilates teachers, we should be ambassadors for health, with movement as our primary tool. I suspect that this is what many CrossFit coaches and gym owners would say that they do, too.

So much for trying to lay out the similarities of the two practices. There are specific reasons for me to have had this heretical thought that CF may be doing our job better.

If you’ve been here (reading this blog) before, you may know that I believe pull-ups are a reasonable thing for Pilates teachers to have within their capacity. The broad scale rejection of this idea is as disappointing as it is perplexing and, most importantly, makes me suspect that, as a profession, we have low expectations or aspirations for the people we teach for the reason that we have low expectations for ourselves.

A couple of weeks back I had the good fortune to spend a couple of days at Carl Paoli’s ‘Freestyle Insider’ seminar that was attended by mostly CF coaches and other ‘functional fitness’ professionals. In a lunchtime conversation, with 2 men & 3 women, I mentioned this resistance to pull-ups amongst my peers to universal bafflement. For these movement teachers pull-ups are amongst the more basic skills that they would expect to be coaching. Furthermore, if you have a look at CF’s social media feeds, you will soon see amputees finding ways to do pull-ups (and more amazing feats), AND examples of imaginative scaling of the exercise for people who are not yet able to do a pull-up, so that they needn’t be excluded from their group class.

For sure CF does a better job than we do of promoting community, which is surely a key feature of health, particularly in these times of increased awareness of mental health. I’ve rarely been made to feel as welcome in the many Pilates studios that I’ve visited as I have in any of the CrossFit boxes I’ve been to. I’m sure there are notable exceptions but, if you’d like to feel universally supported in pursuing your best effort then CrossFit is probably a better bet than a Pilates class. (And please don’t think that it makes me happy to write that – it truly makes me rather sad.)

Another specific reason for my pro-CF assertion occurred when I was writing an article for a Pilates newsletter (also published here). I was using the opportunity to suggest that Pull-ups, Pistol squats and Hollow rocks ‘should’ be within a Pilates teacher’s capacity. Early feedback from the editor questioned the validity of Pistol squats as a test for all of us, in part because he has an arthritic hip. This prompted me to contact my CrossFit coach/box owner friend to ask his views on coaching pistols for someone with arthritis. His first observation was along the lines of “He needs to clean up his diet”. Not thoughts about scaling back, doing some sort of preparatory gentle mobility exercise, but an idea based around lifestyle. Even as I write it this doesn’t sound very momentous but it really struck me at the time as significant – I don’t think I’ve ever met a Pilates teacher who would be likely to have a similar response. Obviously I’ve not met them all, and it may well be that Sham (coach friend in question) is an exceptional CrossFit coach yet I still feel that it speaks volumes about how we approach HEALTH.

In short, I think that us Pilates teachers may have a more myopic view of health than Joseph had, and the average CrossFit coach has.

Please tell me I’m wrong. Thanks.

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.

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.

The longer I teach, the more interested I become in the use of, and the meaning or implication of specific words or phrases (I was called out, quite rightly, last week for saying, in response to my client’s effort to achieve the position I was asking for “We’ll settle for that” which, of course, sounds a lot like “that’s shit but probably the bets we can hope for just now”. Yes, I was ashamed).

Lately, something has caused me to ponder the noun ‘workout’. Dictionary.com indicates that, while the phrase ‘work out’ (meaning to solve a problem) has been in use since 1600, ‘workout’ as a noun has only been in use for the last 100 years or so. I believe that, in the UK, we use the phrase ‘work out’ in the same way that ‘figure out’ might be more commonly used in the US. I don’t remember ‘to workout’ being a description of exercising 20 or 30 years ago – it feels like a relatively recent import to the UK.

My understanding of the noun ‘workout’ is that it refers to a combination of exercises, or perhaps the same activity with some variation thrown in – I don’t think you can go for a run at the same steady tempo and call it a ‘workout’, but I may be misguided. I believe that this sort of approach puts us in the territory of exercising to burn calories, or in pursuit of ‘being fit’, as if regularly running 5K, or doing 40 pushups, or 50 crunches etc. etc. is truly making you more adaptable. (Fitness is, after all, a measure of your ability to adapt to changes to your internal and external environment).

I think a ‘workout’ is something that you can do once or twice a week to tick the box of pursuing a healthy lifestyle – you put your symbolic “I’m exercising” clothes on, and do whatever’s planned for that day. The success of the workout might be measured by how much weight was managed, or how fast you did it, or perhaps how tired you felt afterwards, how sore you were the following day; or maybe even how many calories the machine you ‘worked out’ on says you burned. This kind of ‘workout’ can definitely be done with headphones on, or in front of a TV screen.

For sure this is better than doing nothing – if we’re lucky there may be some social interaction involved (which might have even more health benefits than the workout); and movement of some kind is probably always better than none.

In the Pilates context I have heard it said that ‘the Reformer is the workout’ (the Cadillac and Wundachair being the apparatus you use to facilitate the Reformer work, as appropriate). The same might be said for the mat, as both the Reformer and the mat share a specific order of exercises. So, accepting that Pilates contains ‘workouts’, can we make these into opportunities to ‘work out’, too? That’s to say, can we make them learning experiences that help us to understand ourselves better? I think this might be just another way to talk about ‘mind-body’ exercise though I think there might be room to go beyond “This exercise has my complete, undivided attention” and to solve problems for ourselves – “I’ve worked out why I couldn’t control the carriage when attempting a Teaser on the Reformer”, for example.

I recently heard Benjamin Degenhardt talking about the value of standing work at the start of a mat class, as a way to self-assess – How do I feel today? What do I need? How stiff/loose am I? We aim to incorporate the same few movements in every mat class at our studio, for the purpose of this kind of ‘working out’ – so that the warm-up is a self-assessment, as well as a chance to create heat and increase circulation.

Maybe this is everyone’s experience of Pilates and I’m wasting our time in writing this. Then again, I think that this kind of learning may require the teacher to ‘get out of the way’ to some degree, or at least to recognise when and how to show the way to a discovery instead of spoon-feeding, and that’s not always easy. Recently I’ve found myself saying “Find a way to…” quite often when I’m teaching, and this doesn’t always go down well. I can see or feel that this is met with “it’s your job to tell me how”. I believe that, if they can find a way, this learning will stay with them much longer than my cues might. I also think that Joseph designed the apparatus to help us ‘find a way’.

Some of my favourite learning experiences of the last year have been in Fighting Monkey workshops (you can read about them here, and here, if you fancy), in interactions with other participants. A lot of Fighting Monkey practice involves a ‘movement situation’ with a partner. As the situation changes, and you change partners, there’s a lot of working out to do. Every new partner represents a new environment, and a rich opportunity for learning about yourself. This kind of learning can be wild, stressful, breathtaking, magical and exhilarating, and it may be too much for some people.

In Pilates the environment might not change very often – the apparatus is the apparatus; the spring resistance is the same from one day to the next. However, the exercises can also represent a changing environment, albeit one that is inherently more controlled than Fighting Monkey practice. (It’s also worth remembering that Pilates himself was given to devising quirky wrestling games that he played with friends or students – I’ve seen film footage of wrestling with a pole, and head wrestling.)

So Pilates can offer us a relatively safe space to problem-solve, and to learn about ourselves: how we move; how we think; how our mood or personality influences our movement.

Can you get more ‘work out’ out of your ‘workout’ (whether it’s on a mat or reformer, or with kettlebells, a barbell or ballet barre…) ? I’d love to hear….

 

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.

 

It’s not normal!

February 10, 2018 — Leave a comment

From Cirque de Soleil’s ‘Ovo’

One of my favourite Katy Bowman-isms is that ‘No-one is out of shape.’ All of us are in exactly the shape that our environment and our behaviour has led our system to create. Another idea that I find very useful is championed by Robb Wolf, author of ‘The Paleo Solution’ and ‘Wired to Eat’, namely that if you want to understand anything relating to the human body, you need to view it through the lens of evolutionary biology. An idea that I heard Dr Andreo Spina expand upon: homo sapiens evolved as hunter-gatherers. Our ancestors spent hundreds of thousands of years evolving according to the demands of hunter-gatherer existence. Our bodies are essentially the same as those of our h-g ancestors and, therefore, are wired to expect the same kind of activities/inputs. So, if you want to understand dysfunction, or function as well as possible, identify the things that you do that are NOT h-g activities, and find ways to mitigate the impact that those activities have on your function.

I have to admit to taking perverse delight, from time to time, in being told by someone I’m teaching that the movement I’m showing them is ‘not normal’, or even better, ‘not natural’. Mostly I enjoy this because it gives me an opportunity to explore, with the person I’m teaching, what they mean by normal, or natural.

It appears that we are very good at normalising dysfunction. For example, it’s normal that my back aches in the morning; or it’s normal that I always get indigestion, and have to take pills to control it; it’s normal that I can’t look over my shoulder when parking my car; it’s normal that I wear orthotics in my shoes to stop my ankle hurting etc. etc. In other words, ‘normal’ is used as a synonym for ‘usual’, or ‘habitual’ – much in the same way that ‘not natural’ is used instead of ‘not normal’ or ‘unusual’. I’m very used to hearing, when demonstrating scapular circling on all fours, for example, that it looks weird, it doesn’t look natural.

I was fortunate to see a Cirque de Soleil show recently, which included many moments of disbelief at what we were witnessing – definitely a lot of ‘not normal’ physical feats on display. This got me thinking about what the capacity of homo sapiens truly is, what are our natural attributes without the interference of industrialised/post-technological revolution culture, and the language and mindsets of limitation and fear. Perhaps the Cirque de Soleil artists ARE the ‘normal’ humans, doing things that we absolutely evolved to do, and I think it looks extraordinary because their skills are way beyond mine, just as me circling my scapulae around my ribcage seems to be beyond some of the people that I try to teach it to.

I know that if I don’t routinely express the full range of movement of a joint, the soft tissues and muscles around the joint will adapt to the reduced range that I am making use of. If I don’t fully lengthen and fully shorten a particular muscle, my nervous system will calibrate accordingly. My system’s perception of full range will now be less than my physiological full range (and, of course, my nervous system is in charge), so it will take considerable retraining to re-callibrate my system’s perception of full range to my actual full range.

A few years back, when I was regularly teaching an open level Pilates mat class, I began to realise that over months, and years, of accommodating what appeared to be the typical available ranges of movement of the group in the class, I was adapting exercises and movements to fit them. After perhaps two years of semi-consciously modifying movements it dawned on me that I was no longer teaching what I set out to teach but rather I was teaching, in some cases, a modification of a modification of a modification of the exercise. You might argue that, in adapting things to the ability of the attendees, I was being a responsible and inclusive teacher. However, I now look back and think that I was actually resetting ‘normal’ for most of those people. Instead of showing them the possibility of more, and helping them to achieve it, I was actually helping to reduce their options. I never stopped intending to teach people to the best of my ability, I wasn’t being lazy, or uncaring – instead I think I’d lost sight of the difference between natural and normal, or between natural and usual, or most common.

It’s a terrible (and terribly true) cliche that the magic happens outside one’s comfort zone. I think that ‘normal’ is a part of fortress comfort – the very high walls of fortress comfort, in fact – concealing from us the possibilities that, rather than being bizarre or outlandish (‘women doing push-ups! ludicrous!’) were our birthright, as in, we were born to do them. Heck, why not call them ‘gifts’ instead of ‘abilities’ – we are given the gift of life, and part of that gift is a physicality that has astounding potential. As Ido Portal has said, of all the animals, we will never be the fastest runners, the best climbers, fliers, diggers etc. but we can do a bigger combination of these, and so many more things, better than any other animals can.

Ido Portal famously proposed that we should train ourselves in improper alignment, and I believe that this is another way of saying ‘reset normal’ or, better yet, ‘expand normal’. Functional training sounds very sensible and rational (though good luck with finding a clear definition) but, to use the most basic explanation of the term, training to make the activities of daily life easier doesn’t sound like it’s going to be pushing many boundaries. As the Mayo clinic suggests in their description of functional training, squats are great preparation for sitting down and getting up again – and I don’t think that they were trying to be funny… It appears that functional can be code for ‘normal’ – and functional training is to make you better at doing the stuff that you normally do. It’s almost completely at odds with Ido’s argument because, by definition, it doesn’t aim to expand on what is normal, for you. I have heard Jozef Frucek, of Fighting Monkey fame, argue that rather than ‘functional training’, we are better off doing non-functional training if we want to be better able to handle what life throws at us. (Fascinatingly, to me, he also suggests not to ‘do your best’, because that will result in you doing what you usually (normally) do, so trying something other than ‘your best’ instead.

To carry on quoting Jozef (I’m writing this just days after spending 4 days listening to him), “diversity breeds immunity”. To suit the point that I’m trying to make, I might twist this into “normality breeds vulnerability”. So if we’re presented with an activity, or an idea, that provokes a “That’s not normal” response, maybe we’ll be best served by pausing long enough to suppress that response, and discovering what possibilities, and potential benefits ‘not normal’ has to offer us.