Archives For responsibility

The longer I teach, the more bizarre the exhortation “listen to your body” seems to be, to me. Of course, I understand why teachers of movement might say this, or rather, (I think) I understand what they would like to convey. Autonomy and personal responsibility are terrific ideas to be reinforcing when teaching but there seem to be two significant problems with “listen to your body”.

The first is that it reinforces a Cartesian notion of mind and body as distinct entities. Perhaps this is a problem with Joseph Pilates’ philosophy – the very notion of integrating mind, body and spirit through movement relies on the possibility that they are separate to begin with. I first heard “I do not have a body, I am a body” spoken by Jaap van der Wal. I’m not sure if he’s quoting someone else – I’ve seen it attributed to Christopher Hitchens as well. Whoever said it first, this phrase jolted me into attention – the idea of humans having hardware and software is attractive in its simplicity but is false – your brain is not a computer, nor is it distinct from the other organs and tissues of your structure. I was reminded of this recently while watching the video of the Q&A session following the London premiere of ‘Ido Portal: Just Move‘, in which Ido says “I do not listen to my body, I am my body”.

I may well be labouring the point by now but this seems to be a crucial idea for a movement practice. An animal moving through the savanna is engaged in being, a system of systems, all inter-related. To reduce their movement to instructions from the brain is to grossly oversimplify the processes occurring, not least because all the other organs and tissues are integral to the brain’s activity. (For more on internal communication try this). While we may have made huge modifications to our environment (mostly for the sake of moving less, or in less complex ways) we are still animals: human beings.

The second problem is that the people that seem most in need of this sort of instruction – to listen to their body – may well be those who we might say are the least embodied, who have ‘weaker’ proprioception. I think, if we say “listen to your body” what we really mean is “accurately decipher the information your brain receives and respond appropriately”, which immediately sounds more complicated.

I imagine we might say “listen to your body” to someone we suspect might find some movements frightening, or painful. The trouble is that they are probably the ones who are least able to make good sense of their nervous system’s inputs. You probably already know this intuitively – that proprioception and nociception are inversely correlated – when one goes up the other goes down. If we have compromised proprioception we are more likely to interpret sensory information as pain, and vice versa.

“Listen to your body” might be easily said, but if you’re a teacher it might be the most difficult instruction that you give in an hour long class. So what to do? What outcome do you want from the “LTYB” instruction. As I alluded above, I think that it’s an invitation or encouragement to feel personally responsible in a class – to not act blindly and do whatever the teacher says, but to self-evaluate and participate in exercises to a level that fits with that evaluation. In other words, “Trust your instincts”, though we might also mean “Please don’t hurt yourself”, which we could reframe as “Please don’t do anything foolish.” I suspect that “trust your instincts” sounds more familiar than “listen to your body”.

If you’re asked to “listen to your body” and you have no sense of what that really means, wouldn’t you feel incompetent, or out of your depth? Would that make you more or less likely to voice any anxiety or uncertainty? “I don’t understand what you mean” might take a lot of courage – in my experience it takes a confident person to voice that in class.

I tend to think that, if a student doesn’t understand me, it’s invariably my fault. That’s to say, it’s my responsibility as the teacher to find an appropriate way of communicating for that student (and all the others). They are responsible for their own actions in the class, and I am responsible for facilitating their self-actualisation. Instead of telling them to listen to their body, I must try to teach them how. I think we (Pilates teachers) can too easily fall into the habit of giving instructions – engage your powerhouse/core/centre; stabilise your spine; engage your glutes etc. – without telling people how. I’m inclined to think that this is lazy teaching, gives people a distorted impression of how to move, and fails to give people tools for becoming independent (it’s probably worth a separate post). These kind of instructions seem to me to be trying to mould unconscious reflexes into conscious actions and I’m not at all sure that this is a good idea. Instead, we should be creating environments/situations which stimulate the reflexes to stabilise, and to move.

What are the tools we can use, and share with the people we teach, to help them know themselves better? To have greater awareness of their physicality? I’m sure there are many, and I’m sure you know plenty already. Could we more usefully use these and avoid the need to say “listen to your body”?

 

Image from seniroplanet.org

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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.

 

Or, (very long subtitle) the niggle in your back/shoulder/hip/neck/ankle etc. wasn’t caused by something you did – it was caused by everything that you do.

Or, no-one can fix you, except you.

humancar

It might be tempting to think that my body is a lot like my car – I put fuel in my car and use it to get from A to B, and I put fuel in my body and use it to move from A to B, amongst other things, as well. When a warning light came on in my car recently, I took it to the garage for diagnostics and repair. It turned out that the catalytic converter had reached the end of its life and needed replacing.

Last year a warning light came on in my body, that’s to say, my knee started to hurt and wouldn’t straighten fully. I took it for diagnostics and it turned out that it needed (surgical) repair. Here’s the crucial difference – my knee joint hadn’t reached the end of its life, I’d simply not been using it as well as I might have done. And I don’t know when that happened. I may have been using it poorly for 2 years, or 20 years. I’ve done more sitting in the last few years that we’ve had a studio and I’ve been a manager as well as a teacher, and I used to run relatively high mileage with no understanding of good running technique around 17/18 years ago. Either or both of these things could have contributed but really my knee problem was probably a result of everything I have (and haven’t) done for decades.

I can drive too fast, take speed-bumps too hard, ride the brakes or the clutch and cause components of my car to wear out faster than they should. Then, if I’ve got the money, I can get those parts replaced and carry on as before. There’s no harm done, except to my wallet. I won’t have changed the structure of the chassis, nor altered the way that it processes fuel and oil, there won’t be scars left where parts have been replaced.

My body, however, is an organic, dynamic (on a good day) system. It’s continually responding and adapting to its environment.

en+vi+ron+ment: Ecology. the external surroundings in which a plant or animal lives, which tend to influence its development and behaviour. (We might simplify this to place and time).

Somehow environment isn’t a broad enough term – I like to think of inputs instead/as well.

in+put: Computer technol. a. the data fed into a computer from a peripheral device. b. the devices and operations involved in transferring the data.

In human terms there are some very obvious inputs, like oxygen, water and food. There are visual, auditory, olfactory and thermal inputs. There is the, largely, unfelt input of gravity. There are inputs of light, in addition to visual inputs – daylight, dusk etc. There are the inputs from my emotional response to place or time. And, with a significant nod to Katy Bowman, there are inputs of forces, or loads constantly being applied to our body, whether we are in motion or static. Even asleep, the surface you are sleeping on is a load on your body, and we are constantly adapting to our environment/inputs.

Current pain research also tells us that our memories of past experiences and stories we have heard also act, if not as an input, then as a filter through which certain inputs are passed. So they will influence the way we respond to those inputs. (Am I making the case for our bodies being quite different from cars yet?)

To paraphrase Katy Bowman, “No-one is ‘out of shape’. Everyone is exactly the shape that their inputs have caused their body to adapt to.” We are the product of everything that we do. And to paraphrase Kelly Starrett, “We do not randomly break”. If my knee cartilage wears out, it’s not because I carry the weak knee cartilage gene, its because of how I’ve used (misused) my knee. We could argue that there’s some luck involved, inasmuch as I may not have known I was abusing my knee, but I’m still responsible.

When the catalytic converter was replaced in my car, my car was fixed. End of story. On the other hand, the excellent surgeon, who trimmed my torn meniscus, did not fix my knee. He did the work necessary to allow me to fix my knee (if we can truly say ‘fixed’ in relation to bodies/body parts). Unfortunately, the Western model of health supports the idea that your doctor fixes you, strongly reinforced by the pharmaceutical industry. The chiropractor/osteopath/physiotherapist/Pilates teacher that helps you with your problem does not fix you – they help you to fix yourself. The magic comes from your own body, and your own nervous system. There is no external magic, however good your favourite therapist/teacher may be. THERE IS NO EXTERNAL MAGIC, THE MAGIC HAPPENS INSIDE YOU (perhaps with the guidance of your therapist or teacher).

You cannot take your body to someone else to get it fixed, you have to fix it yourself.

 

 

IMG_2043Spoiler alert! What follows necessarily involves generalisations, and is in no way intended to disparage any individual(s).

I’m a little surprised to find myself writing this, and perhaps it’s in part a reflection of conservatism increasing along with age. Within the Pilates world it seems that the arguments over the merits, and legitimacy of “classical” and “contemporary” Pilates go on and on. Not long ago I may have found the dogma of the classical followers a bit hard to take. I may even have referred to some of the die-hard adherents to the classical form as ‘fundamentalists’, which I admit has some unpleasant connotations these days.

More recently, and as a result of various experiences, I’m starting to think that teachers (here’s generalisation No.1) in the UK have done Pilates a terrible disservice. Actually, not just the UK (a video from a well-known Australian teacher contributing to my dismay) but this is the region that I’m best placed to observe. One of the mantras that gets repeated in the argument in favour of a more contemporary approach to Pilates is that, because of advances in science, biomechanics, kinesiology etc, we understand movement better than Joseph Pilates did. If we believe that then it’s logical to apply the fruits of this deeper understanding to Pilates’ system.

Inevitably, as my understanding has shifted (up, down, sideways – who’s to say?) my teaching has changed. I’ve been seduced in the past by ideas and information that have complicated my thinking when teaching, and encouraged me to try to teach something in a more complicated way. I hope I can truthfully say that it’s been a long time, but I suspect that I’ve uttered the words “neutral spine” in the past. I’ve come to realise, too, that in trying to be inclusive of everyone in the class, I’d habitually compromised a movement to the point that I’d forgotten what the movement was supposed to be in the first place. I’ve worked to try to make people comfortable in an exercise at the expense of actually doing the exercise. I believe that we have done this sort of thing over and over, until the intention of the original exercise has been lost completely. There are apparently many people in the UK that believe Pilates is boring, and I’m inclined to believe that it’s because many of them have been taught some pale (wan, iron-deficient, malnourished) imitation of the real thing.

Part of the responsibility for this may be the prevalence of Pilates mat classes taught in health clubs, where the teacher has very little control over who attends the class. The lowest common denominator will often set the tone. Interestingly, the government approved qualification for Pilates teachers, that many health clubs require, is more geared toward the teachers ability to include everyone than in the teachers understanding of Pilates’ system. This is a relatively recent phenomenon, but the ‘dumbing down’ of Pilates has been going on for a lot longer.

It’s still shocking to meet teachers, who have been plying their trade for perhaps 10 years, that were not taught the original mat exercises during their training. It’s almost laughable. Imagine: “I’m a maths teacher, but I don’t teach multiplication or division because my trainer didn’t believe that it was suitable for the general public.” There’s a whole strain of ‘creativity’ – teachers finding new things to do with or without equipment, that may have roots in another discipline, or not (“Can I do that exercise with the foam roller and the rotating disc when you’r holding the push-through bar?”) that may deserve a separate post. More disconcerting is the idea, it appears many teachers have, that Pilates is full of relaxation. I think this comes in part from the world of somatics, and disciplines like Feldenkrais, which are great in themselves but maybe not applicable to the practice of Pilates (unless perhaps none has a particularly vivid understanding of how to move well). The other part of the relaxation dogma, I suspect, comes from trying to help people who are challenged in some of the original work by, for example, poor hip dissociation (see, I can’t stop the modern science creeping in). This seems to me to be one of the fundamental skills of good movement, and therefore Pilates too. Here’s an example: someone can’t Roll Up, or back again, without their legs leaving the floor. Could it be that we have encouraged the notion of relaxing the inhibited muscles, instead of actually teaching those people where to work from so as to overcome the inhibition – working toward correcting a faulty pattern? (Work the right muscles, so that the ‘wrong’ muscles get the chance to return to natural function).

In similar territory, have we pursued that things that feel ‘nice’ in our own practice, and for our clients? The practice of starting a class with side-flexion seems strangely prevalent, and mostly because it “feels nice” – or stretches muscles that the teacher perceives to be tight. The logic of working on central support to give some relief to overworked superficial muscles, instead of just trying to stretch those muscles, seems to have escaped us. Pilates didn’t need to spell this out, he just put centring exercises at the beginning of the sequence (and now modern science has taught us better, perhaps?) How have we got to a situation where what feels nice is the key determinant for exercise choice? It’s true that Pilates often makes me feel good, but that’s typically a response to my body working hard, rather than doing things that feel relaxing, or nice. The lasting benefits always seem to come from working hard, and it still amazes me when clients have that ‘Oh, this is hard!’ reaction to Pilates. Was it ever intended to be anything else? The idea of working just as hard as you need to is very appealing, and one of the seductive things about Pilates is that it probably takes decades of practice to reach the point at which the really difficult things begin to feel like they don’t require maximum effort.

I am not advocating a ‘one size fits all’ approach, as seems to be the view of some teachers – that if you want to hold true to the intent of the original exercise you are trying to force square pegs into round holes. My wife attended a workshop with Kathryn Ross-Nash a while back, and one of the nuggets that she passed on to me was the idea that every Pilates exercise has a single purpose. Several objectives, perhaps, but a single purpose. Adding to that the idea that exercises should not be adapted or modified, but rather broken down into their constituent parts, in order to work towards the whole. I suspect that I will do Ms Ross-Nash a disservice if I try to paraphrase any further, and the best advice may be to seek her out in person, or here, for example. To me, her thoughts seem to tie into what I wrote earlier, about adapting an exercise to accommodate everyone, to the point that the original exercise, along with its purpose, is a distant memory. Teach people what they need to know/do, in order to do the exercise, instead of reinventing it.

I know that there are many teachers in the UK to whom what I have written does not apply and, as I tip my hat to all of them, I’m trying hard to be one. I’m not sure that the system that Joseph Pilates devised is perfect, but I think it’s almost certainly a good deal better than has often been allowed for by teachers (and teacher trainers) in the UK.

If it’s not too late, what is to be done about this sorry state of affairs? Here are a few ideas:

Sweat more (and don’t tell others that Pilates doesn’t make you sweat). There’s a reason that Pilates believed it wasn’t necessary to do a lot of repetitions, and quite often that’s because, if you’ve put your whole body and mind into the exercise, 5 or 6 is all that you can manage.

Relax less – that’s what sofas and television were invented for, not Pilates. (Oh, and don’t get too comfortable either – very few useful adaptations are derived from comfort).

If you’re a teacher – take more classes. Unless you think that you’ve learned everything by the end of your teacher training.

And please accept my apologies if the tone of this is especially hectoring. Conversations, social media postings and the stars have aligned in such a way that writing this felt imperative.

 

 

 

Who’s Health?

October 10, 2013 — Leave a comment
image courtesy of healthcare.com

image courtesy of healthcare.com

When Joseph Pilates wrote “Your Health” in 1934 the world was a different place from the one we know now (or, at least, the Western world was). The majority of people would have lived less sedentary lives. Whilst work for many was physically hard, it appears that lines between work and leisure were much less blurred than they are now (e-mail, anyone?) Industrial food giants were largely a twinkle in the eye of their founders and real food, as opposed to food products, would have been the standard. Wheat looked very little like the Frankenstein’s monster of a grain that it is now, and CAFOs (‘concentrated animal feeding operations’) were a couple of decades away. Ancel Keys wouldn’t succeed in demonising saturated fat for another 25-30 years (and, in the absence of CAFOs, animal fat would have been less potentially sinister anyway).

The list of health related differences could probably go on for a while. In short, I suspect that it was a little easier for people to be responsible for their health then than it is now.

What of it? Well, a couple of years ago I was at the house of a client who had a business associate visiting (both American). There was an American news channel on the television, with a discussion of Obama’s universal healthcare policy underway. My two companions were clearly of a Republican persuasion, and vigorously opposed to this socialist notion. As a European I found it utterly bizarre that anyone could be opposed to something that I have taken for granted for my whole life.

I’ve lived and worked in the US, and experienced the surprise of being asked for my credit card details, in the ER, whilst trying to staunch the bleeding from a sizeable wound. I’ve also seen people of apparently limited means handing over large sums of cash in the pharmacy for their monthly prescriptions. How could this be reasonable?

More recently I’ve started to question my knee-jerk position on universal healthcare. I suspect that the Republicans mentioned above are opposed to the idea for financial reasons – I don’t know the details (apparently the ‘Obamacare’ bill runs to more than a thousand pages, so perhaps no one does) but I can imagine that there are potentially lost profits somewhere in the system. There’s little prospect of me profiting from privatised health care, beyond teaching Pilates, so I’m not concerned by that. What I am uncertain about is the degree to which our system allows us to imagine that, collectively, GPs; surgeons; nurses; physiotherapists; pharmacists etc. are responsible for <strong>our</strong> health. We can afford to fail to take care of ourselves, and make poor choices, because there’s a broad safety net of health professionals that are obliged to try to fix us. Clearly not a good recipe for personal responsibility. If we all knew that there would be financial consequences for the poor lifestyle choices that we make wouldn’t we be much more likely to make better choices?

The problem is that the ship of personal responsibility, in this regard, sailed a long time ago. Even if this isn’t you, I bet you know plenty of people who will seek a pill for any ailment, take antibiotics for a cough/cold, or go to their osteopath/chiropractor/physio to get ‘fixed’ if something hurts. If you’re a Pilates teacher I’d be amazed if you have not been asked for a remedy to some physical ill.

And here’s the real problem – we’ve been encouraged to think like this, by both governments and the corporations that ‘help’ them to form policy. Who knows why the food pyramid looks the way it does? Was it the work of a well-meaning but scientifically illiterate committee of politicians, or was it hatched in the subterranean lair of an evil food corporation executive? Probably somewhere in between, but it doesn’t matter anymore. Their work is done and the great majority of us ‘know’, beyond doubt, what healthy eating looks like. We also know that several episodes per week of 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise are what we need to manage our weight and keep our cardiovascular system in top condition. (This probably requires a post of its own, but don’t we also know that it’s natural for a baby to vomit much of its food…?)

Governments try to protect us from the evils of tobacco, and, to a lesser degree, alcohol, and we justify huge rates of duty because these lifestyle choices place an extra burden on public healthcare. If you manufacture cigarettes you may not advertise your products, because we know all about the health risks associated with your product. However, we enjoy no such protection from the promotional efforts of the corporations, some of whose products purport to be healthy. Nestlé are free to advertise breakfast cereal made with ‘healthy whole grains’, Tropicana are equally free to advertise orange juice, which has the same sugar load as Coca Cola (who, of course, enjoy the same freedom to promote their wares). The list could go on and on – margarine proven to lower cholesterol, sweetened drinks to improve your gut health etc etc.

In these circumstances the odds seem so heavily stacked against us that personal responsibility is hardly an option. Informed choices are only as useful as the information they’re founded on. If governments and corporate giants collude to mislead us, a two-headed monster of misinformation, doing our best can easily become a recipe for ill-health. In these circumstances it seems more than ever that providing universal healthcare is an obligation. If your body were a high performance car, you’d be careful about the fuel you put in, you’d put air in tyres if they looked a little squishy. Perhaps you’d clean it often, and you probably wouldn’t park it where the risk of damage or vandalism was high. In short, you’d probably follow the manufacturers recommendations to keep it in good, if not great condition. This analogy stumbles a little in that our bodies don’t come with a manufacturers warranty, and companion handbook. However, the two-headed monster above has purported to provide one for us. ‘You break it, you pay for it’ seems like a generally appropriate maxim, and could be well applied to healthcare – you abuse and damage your body, you pay to sort it out. However, if you’ve followed the manufacturer’s instructions faithfully, surely it’s their problem?

Dear Pilates Teaching Colleagues

UnknownHaving browsed through Peter Fiasca’s book “Discovering Pure Classical Pilates” a couple of years back, I was slightly embarrassed for him. The excessive use of bold type to underline key points concerning heretical misinterpretations of Pilates, and the somewhat polemical subheadings (“The Great Decline: Derivative Styles of the Traditional Method”), smacked of someone losing their marbles.

I’m beginning to have sympathy with his position (perhaps I am losing my marbles), though our viewpoints differ a little. I’m not fanatical about teaching only ‘classical’ Pilates repertoire but I’m with him when he says “Pilates is not physical therapy”. If not losing my marbles then at least I’m becoming less temperate with regard to the realm of Pilates teaching. Sure, we all have different backgrounds, different influences, loves, hates etc. but I’m writing this to ask if we can agree on a few basics.

Such as:

Pilates is not magic, it’s a system that facilitates teaching good movement.

Pilates is therapy only in as much as movement is therapy.

We teach, clients do – in other words, we don’t do Pilates to our clients.

If our clients believe that they can only do Pilates in our presence we have failed.

We don’t work on our clients problems, they do that.

What clients do in their classes is based on what they need, and what they want. If they ask “What do you want me to do next?”, we’ve given them the wrong impression.

Unless we have medical qualifications, we do not diagnose, or treat.

It’s not our job to determine which specific muscles are culpable in, say, an asymmetry (so it’s not appropriate to be saying, for example “Your left obliques are weaker then your right”).

We have the chance to ‘set the bar’ of what’s possible for our clients, and we should set it high.

We have the tools to help people to be better – if there’s no sign of that happening over time then we should be directing them elsewhere.

We should be practicing what we teach – all the time.

We should be taught by another teacher, regularly.

Oh, and perhaps most importantly, strong is not a dirty word.

My Primal moment

August 21, 2013 — Leave a comment

The story that follows is nothing compared to the stories of hundreds of thousands of people who have experienced danger, disaster, war etc. That said, it felt like I learned something useful about myself, and it also felt as though it justified the changes I’ve made to my lifestyle in the last couple of years.

Here goes:

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The view, on a good day…

I was recently on holiday in Southern France with my wife’s family. We were staying in a house that is about 350m above sea level, on the side of a hill (mountain?) that is 1050m above sea level. There’s a rough but easy to follow path from the house to the peak, and 3 of us set off to the top one afternoon.

Clouds had been building up, and after only 5 minutes or so we could hear a sound like a strong wind through the trees, that turned out to be a wall of monsoon-like rain coming toward us. Prudently we turned back, but set off once again after the rain had passed, only 10 minutes or so later.

Around the point that we had previously turned back, all 3 of us wearing shoes, shorts and nothing else, passed a family coming down the path, wrapped up in waterproof jackets and looking miserable. I’d be lying if I said we didn’t feel amused by the contrast between our party and theirs, though that was tempered by discovering some of the hailstones that had fallen earlier, probably on that poor family.

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My brother-in-law has spent many summers exploring the area so, when he suggested deviating from the main path to make a more circular than out-and-back journey, we had no doubts about the idea. This is a beautiful part of the world, there are stunning views to admire, and on this morning there was the chance to see the impact of heavy rain on the landscape, some paths still being mini rivers.

Around the time that the sky was turning particularly blue-grey, it was acknowledged that we had missed our uphill path, though on the hillside what appears to be a path can quickly disappear into the undergrowth. The solution was to simply head upwards, negotiating the vegetation in the way. So far, so undramatic. When the rain started we experimented with sheltering under trees and scrutinising the pallor and movement of the clouds, confident of a break in the rain. It didn’t come, so we decided that being on the move was better, and carried on uphill. It had already crossed my mind that I wasn’t feeling the need to hold F (my brother-in-law) responsible for our predicament -weird.

It seems counterintuitive but the vegetation became denser the higher we got, and the way (not path – definitely no path) got steeper. Did I mention the rain was unrelenting? So the purchase on mud/stones/roots was increasingly tricky. I’d had my favourite eggs, bacon and avocado breakfast, and was feeling energetic and strong. P, the youngest of our party, is what I might (in a judgemental moment) call a ‘sugar-burner’ – bread and jam for breakfast. He’s young, and was raised that way, so the choices he makes are more habit than real choice. Anyway, P was beginning to shiver, and the novelty of our situation had evidently worn off. (I later discovered that, in the conditions, his shoes were disintegrating from the inside out, so his crappy breakfast may not have been entirely to blame for his mood).

F was regularly assuring us that we were nearing the top so, of course, it felt as though we weren’t. Amazingly, the rain became more intense and we decided to try to shelter again. This was when I had my ‘epiphany’. Squatting under a tree, with hail cutting through the leaves of our ‘shelter’, and with rain water running into parts of my body that even a shower won’t always get to, I was amazed at how I felt. Again, I wasn’t blaming anyone else, and in years gone by I know I would have been angry with F for leading us to this point. I was reminded of scenes from ‘Platoon’ when the grunts are sitting in the jungle drenched under the incessant rain (yes, I do know that we were in no danger of being shot at). I wasn’t cold (daily cold showers paying off?), instead feeling incredibly resilient. I was a bit concerned about P, whose shivering was intensifying, but at the same time I knew that I was strong enough to carry him to safety if I had to. Our situation was ludicrous and, again to my surprise, I wasn’t at all dispirited.

Deciding once more that we were better off on the move we set off for the ridge, where the vegetation disappears. There is a track running the length of the ridge which was a river a few inches deep at this point. Our way back meant following the track a little more up hill before meeting the path back down to the house. We jogged our way to the top of that path, and then sped up on the descent. Now the rain eased. The path is rough, alternating from stones to gravel, clay to chalk, and with roots here and there to add spice. Once running it was hard to stop, and I have rarely felt as invigorated as I did then – concentrating hard on each footing and feeling agile and powerful. Some 4 hours after we set off we arrived back at the house with, for me at least, a feeling of triumph.

Again, I’m well aware that this isn’t a tale that involves much peril, or endurance, and we all came out of the experience unscathed. Nonetheless, it felt to me that 2 years of ‘primal lifestyle’ had made me better able to cope with adversity. I’m better nourished; stronger; more resilient; my immune system is stronger; and, perhaps most importantly, I’m aware of how empowering it is to, instead of blaming someone else, own responsibility for my actions and any resulting predicament.

Thanks for reading.

“No Days Off”

February 15, 2013 — Leave a comment

A couple of weeks back PilatesTree.com asked via Facebook “how much self practice do you really put in?”. It’s a really interesting question to ask professional Pilates teachers, not least because we so often seem to prioritise teaching over working on ourselves. When I first started teaching I used to “do” the class that I was teaching, and it took me a while to realise that this was a really good way to develop some bad habits (never mind that my mat was not the optimum place to be teaching from all the time..).

I’ve struggled for some time with conflicting ideas around Pilates teachers’ responsibility to be aspirational figures (see ‘What should a Pilates teacher look like?‘) and, of course, what we do should be more important than how we look. If we finish teaching a class and then adopt a collapsed posture we’re doing a lousy job of reinforcing what we teach. “Do as I say, not as I do” is rarely a powerful teaching message.

One of the consistent messages of primal/paleo lifestyle authors, and indeed Kelly Starrett, my movement sensei, is that it is our responsibility as human beings to optimally express our genes – to be the best version of Homo sapiens that we possibly can be. This seems eminently reasonable to me, and also a great basis for a slightly different question from the one above: “How often should we be trying to be better?” or better yet – “How often should we be practicing being amazing?”

The answer, naturally, is ‘every day’. Hence, there are NO DAYS OFF. Practice making permanent = we become good at what we do often, which brings us back to the post-class slouching Pilates teacher. A state of fitness is not the result of a couple of hours per week of exercise. That may well form a part of fitness, but if we practice being great for 2 hours a week, and then the remaining 110 hours (assuming a generous 8 hours sleep per night) practicing being mediocre, or worse, we don’t need NASA to tell us what the outcome will be.

Typical view of living room floor (tissue paper is for the cats to play with).

Typical view of living room floor (tissue paper is for the cats to play with).

I was unusually reticent about answering the original question on PilatesTree….in part because I know that I can’t pretend to do anything resembling a Pilates class more than once a week. Preferring to answer my own question (“How often should we be practicing being amazing?”). As of this year, I do something in pursuit of being better as often as it crosses my mind, and this means at least every day. I don’t work out every day, but I try to practice something that I need to improve daily, whether that be a skill/movement, or mobility. I’m very lucky to be married to a woman who shares my passions/obsessions, and evenings in front of the TV usually involve one, or both of us rolling various body parts on sundry firm objects, or indulging in mutual ‘quad smashing’ (For a visual on how to do this to a massive weightlifter, or your loved one, click here, and remember: “Foam rolls are for children”).

Talk of my idiosyncratic home life may have me straying off the point. Here’s the thing: Yes, practice Pilates, yoga, boot camp, karate…whatever’s your poison (passion?), at least once per week AND practice being a better Homo sapiens every day. In the middle of a TV show I was watching the other night (I put my hand up here and acknowledge that I was making no effort to be better at the time), I heard the line “Clean water is a human right.” It sounded weird at the time – I think we’re often too quick to award ourselves rights (argh! Rabbit hole! Yes, ideally every living human should have access to clean water). Ethical quagmires aside, could we say that “an optimally functioning body is a basic human right”? I hope so, and if we’re agreed upon that, we have to remember that “with rights come responsibilities”.

We have the basic human responsibility to maintain our bodies in such a way that we are able to best express our genetic heritage.

In acknowledgement of the inspiration for this post, here’s Kelly Starrett. Not my favourite MobilityWOD video (and he no longer advocates icing) but maybe it can serve as a way in to the goldmine for you – he’s ALL about being better at EVERYTHING.

The answer is “Yes”.
The question is one of my unfavourites, in a Pilates context – “What’s the breathing for (insert exercise name here)?” The answer is most definitely, “yes (you do need to breathe)”.
Of course, Breathing was one of Joseph Pilates’ fundamentals for his method. Attention to one’s breath can foster greater mind-body connection, and sense of ‘centre’ (presentness, if you will). And it’s also true that there may be a specific breathing pattern that will facilitate some movements, especially during the warm-up phase of a class. Equally, teaching someone ‘posterolateral costal breathing’ may encourage more mobility in their thoracic spine, and allow for greater control of lumbar spine stability. Undoubtedly valuable assets in Pilates, and life generally.
Not to mention that breath focus can be a powerful tool for relaxation. I like it if I’m having trouble sleeping – hopefully it’s a given that sleeping and a Pilates class are not complementary activities.
So, to clarify, I’m not trying to suggest that breathing should never be mentioned in a Pilates class. There are plenty of arguments for referring to it, especially in the early stages of a class.

My frustration arises when focus on breathing starts to hinder movement – because Pilates is fundamentally a movement discipline. I’ve seen many instances (back when I used to cue breathing patterns a lot) of people that were new to Pilates paralysed by confusion over when they’re ‘supposed’ to breathe. I’ve also seen teachers in training practicing what should be flowing movements, on the equipment, but stuck in space whilst they take the time to breathe in, so that they could then do the next part of the movement on an exhalation (because that’s how you’re ‘supposed’ to breathe…)

Again, I can think of good reasons for mentioning breathing during a Pilates class. When I first started teaching, cueing breathing was like a mantra that helped me remember the choreography of some exercises (Now I imagine that I can suggest a harmonious rhythm of movement and breath by the tone of my voice). Some people may need reminders to breathe in order not to grip and brace; other reasons I’ve mentioned above. All well and good in their place.

I’ve heard from teachers, who’ve trained with first generation teachers, that Pilates himself was only specific about breathing patterns with a couple of exercises, and otherwise simply wanted people to inhale and exhale fully. He surely wouldn’t have wanted anyone to focus on breathing to a particular prescription at the expense of enjoying the movement. If I try to rank the things that I believe are fundamental to Pilates, shortly after movement comes personal responsibility – and here’s my other beef with constant cueing of breathing: the more control the teacher assumes, the less their clients are likely to feel responsible for their own well-being. If the impression is created that particular movements have to be accompanied by particular breathing, will people be able to remain robust in situations that don’t allow time to consider when to breathe?

Photograph: Kerry Skarbakka/Barcroft Media

“Damn, should I land on an in-breath, or an out-breath?”

As may have been previously mentioned: It’s really safe.

I’m slightly disappointed to be revisiting this subject quite so soon, yet a couple of tales that I’ve heard recently of people ‘being injured’ in Pilates classes finds me dragged back to the subject. Paraphrasing a quote I’d noted down in relation to writing on another subject: “Pilates is not dangerous. Poor teaching is dangerous; poor movement is dangerous; ego is dangerous.” I can’t answer for how many people are out in the world calling themselves Pilates teachers and making poor/irresponsible decisions that may put their clients at risk – yet I suspect (and hope) that there aren’t very many. (Teaching that is less than entirely effective is, I suspect, very much more likely than teaching that is dangerous).

Injury: physical damage, or hurt (according to my dictionary). In what context might one be injured? I’d suggest a number of ways, such as: mishandling equipment, or being caught in the way of someone else mishandling equipment; collision with, or assault, or even ‘adjustment’ by someone else; continuing with an activity that your body/brain is signalling you should stop; failing to understand, or follow instructions that are given to you.

I like to attend a weekly intermediate/advanced level yoga class. When I started I had only limited experience but I’d heard good things about the class, and the timing suited me. So the first thing that I did was tell the teacher about my yoga experience, and ask his permission to attend the class. If I try to do a full backbend, and push through something that doesn’t feel right, it’s entirely my responsibility. If I attempt a handstand without properly watching the demonstration because I think I already know it all, and then strain my shoulder, it’s inaccurate to say that  I’ve been injured in a yoga class, it’s my ego and poor practice that has caused the injury.

By the same token, to say “I injured myself in a Pilates class” carries with it the implication that Pilates was somehow responsible for the injury. Were you assaulted by the teacher? Did a classmate drop some equipment on you? Could it be more likely that your ego persuaded you to take on a movement that you weren’t ready for? Or that you did something (through lack of concentration, or poor understanding, or misplaced zeal) other than that which you were advised to do?

I think I may have written this previously – I don’t believe it’s possible to hurt yourself doing Pilates. It’s the not-doing-Pilates that carries a risk, especially if you’re in a Pilates class.

There are probably as many explanations for what Pilates teaches as there are teachers, or practitioners. One of my favourites is personal responsibility. In affecting the way that our clients relate to their own physical selves, I hope that we can teach them that their health is something that they are in charge of. There may be an array of medical professionals and therapists who can help us to manage our health, but in the end, only we are responsible for our own bodies.