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).