Archives For responsibility

In many ways, as a society, we seem to be fixated on age. There is the menace of the ‘ageing population‘, and the pressures on the economy, pension funds, and social services that this implies. Then there is the spectre, for many people, of how their age manifests itself in their bodies. It appears that the greatest anxiety for many, or perhaps the one which can be best exploited for profit, is facial ‘signs of ageing’ (The Anti-Ageing Skin Care Conference offers some intriguing sounding lectures…).

A Google search for ‘anti ageing products’ nets around 18 million results. Women (the advertising tells us) aren’t supposed to wrinkle with age – or at least they should  spare the rest of us the horror by taking steps to reduce the wrinkles. Similarly, men and women alike should quite possibly mask any grey hairs that may grow. So far, so superficial. What seems to be less of a taboo are the signs of ageing visible in the way people move (or don’t move, perhaps), and the way that people hold themselves. It strikes me as ironic that the effects of ageing that are likely to put a significant burden on society are not the ones that we focus on the most.  Perhaps that’s in part because there isn’t a lot of money to be made from encouraging older people to maintain their strength and mobility, and perhaps it’s because we have come to accept that getting older necessarily means that our bodies increasingly fail us. I’ve never thought to count the number of times that I’ve heard clients blaming aches and pains on age – I’m sure that if I tried to keep a tally it would number in the hundreds, at least.

Why is it that we’re so ready to accept that becoming older means physical disintegration? (WOW, in typing that I’ve just realised that ‘disintegration’ is dis-integration. That’s a compelling argument for centering as a fundamental of Pilates, and many other movement/exercise disciplines). I’m not seeking to deny biological truths, whatever they may be, but rather to ask whether or not we are inclined to give in too easily? Another way of asking this might be: Are we living longer than our bodies are meant to last, or are we failing to maintain our bodies adequately for our natural lifespan?

Joseph Pilates is an interesting example – legendary for his enthusiasm for posing, shirt off, showing an admirable physique aged 82. At this point I find myself wrestling with the notion of “…looks great for their age…”, which in a subtle way seems almost as tyrannical as the advertising I referred to earlier. I think Pilates looks amazing in this picture because he looks so robust – he looks younger than I expect a man to look at that age but it’s not to do with his face, or his hair, but rather the impression of vitality (whether or not that would be so apparent if he was fully dressed is another question). So, I like the idea that the notion of how age ‘should’ look in someone is not to do with skin texture, but with signs of life. I’ve certainly seen people with obvious signs of plastic surgery, or botox injections, that robs them of the appearance of life…

Pilates himself had an interesting take on age, and physical ageing. I have seen “We retire too early and we die too young, our prime of life should be in the 70’s and old age should not come until we are almost 100” attributed to him, though I cannot find the source. What we know he said, taken directly from ‘Return to Life’ is: “If your spine is inflexibly stiff at 30, you are old. If it is completely flexible at 60, you are young.” Romana Kryzanowska is one of his proteges who certainly embodied this philosophy, performing gymnastic repertoire on the Pilates apparatus into her 80s. At the same time, there is a wealth of information on the internet related to what a “gentle”, and “safe” form of exercise Pilates is, and that it won’t leave you “puffed-out”. The DVD ‘Pilates for Over 50s’ is available from amazon.co.uk, and whilst many of the reviews are positive, the one titled ‘Over 50s?! Over 70s more like!!’ speaks for itself. What should older people be expecting when undertaking Pilates? Many websites declare, for example, the benefits for bone density, yet I wonder if (in the UK at least) we are typically encouraging older clients to load their bones and joints sufficiently to make any meaningful difference.

I am forced to reflect on how I’ve approached teaching older people over the years, and my assumptions about what they will be capable of. I’ve taught many people over 70 in my 9 years of being a Pilates teacher, with a variety of orthopaedic problems. As a general rule I think it’s honest to say that my goals with most of those people were to maintain what strength and mobility they had, rather than to expect that there might be more. I’m sure that some of them enjoyed an improvement in flexibility, and balance in particular, but I cannot honestly claim that any of them got significantly stronger. Then I started teaching Li, a 73 year old women with a wonderful outlook on life (despite various daunting challenges to her health), who approaches her Pilates classes with vigour and gusto. I’ve rarely had so much fun teaching someone, and she has become both an enthusiastic advocate for Pilates, and promoter of our studio. I’ve found myself teaching repertoire to Li that I never imagined I would be teaching to a septuagenarian (Hanging Down on the Cadillac? – absolutely), and revelling in her appreciation of her own achievement.

Overall I hope that, when I’ve taken a softer approach to teaching some older clients (with perhaps less flexibility, or more orthopaedic challenges), it’s been a responsible choice, and appropriate too the individual. At the same time, have I let myself carry on in the same vein for too long, without offering the client the possibility of greater challenges? To return to the question: Are we living longer than our bodies are meant to last, or are we failing to maintain our bodies adequately for our natural lifespan? I think the answer might be a bit of both, and relates to Pilates’ own statement about age in relation to spinal flexibility – if we’re going to live for many decades shouldn’t we hope for optimal health throughout, and feel a responsibility to maintain our physical function to the best of our ability? (And as Pilates teachers, do we not have the responsibility to encourage our clients in this endeavour?)

Regular readers (might there be any?) won’t be surprised that I believe there is a nutrition component to this – avoiding pro-inflammatory grains and legumes will make us less prone to degenerative conditions. Dense (animal) protein will help us to maintain muscle mass – essential in recovering from illness, when the body demands protein for repair. Not to mention sun exposure, or Vitamin D supplementation to facilitate mineral absorption…. 

I am going to take Li, and the 86 year old woman in the clip below as my inspiration, and err on the side of adventure with my older clients. If I can be more relaxed about what is ‘safe’, and make Pilates more fun, perhaps it can help to have more wide reaching benefits – much like Pilates himself mat have imagined. One of the wonderful things about Pilates is that, I would argue, you have to really try quite hard to hurt someone with the great majority of the repertoire (I’m thinking of studio repertoire here), and this gives us huge scope to challenge and empower clients of all ages. Watch Johanna (especially around 0:44), and ‘believe in better’.

Why go Primal?

March 15, 2012 — 2 Comments

Around June 2011 a friend of mine (let’s call him Glen, since that’s his name, and he may often make an appearance on this blog) told me about a book that he was reading, ‘The Diet Delusion‘. It sounded interesting, so I bought it, and was amazed by what I read in the first few chapters.  I won’t go into details here, suffice it say that the author dismantles, with the help of an astonishing array of references, many of the ‘sacred cows’ of healthy eating that I had believed in for years (the book is pretty dense, for a summary you can watch this video).

Talking to Glen about what I’d been reading, he suggested looking at the website Mark’s Daily Apple. Discovering this site was the watershed for me, and before long the shelf above my desk looked like this:

‘The Primal Blueprint’ is the manifesto of Mark (‘s Daily Apple) Sissons, and became my guide to applying the information of “The Diet Delusion’ to my life. The blurb on the cover offers “…effortless weight loss, vibrant health, and boundless energy”, and Sissons is very clear that the Primal Blueprint concept is not a diet, but a lifestyle. Nutrition is a significant slice of the Primal pie, but exercise, sleep and sun also play a part.

I didn’t start reading either of these books thinking that I needed to lose weight, but I certainly knew that I ate more sugar than was good for me, and had had a nutritionist point out to me that my diet was dominated by wheat. My daily food might look something like: toast and jam for breakfast; pain au chocolat and perhaps a croissant too during the morning; sandwich, with fruit, and probably chocolate for lunch; muffin/brownie/chocolate coated peanuts and maybe more fruit afternoon snack; and pasta or pizza for dinner. On the whole I considered myself to be reasonably fit and healthy (on reflection I may be very lucky with my genes…) and I knew that cutting back on sugar was very difficult for me. The transformation in my eating began, as I learned about the role of carbohydrate in fat storage, with trying to increase my protein intake – opting for sausage and egg croissant instead of the pain au chocolat, for example.

The more I read (and one of the things I enjoy about the Primal/paleo community is how much information people offer for free), the more I started to believe that eating grains was a bad idea, and with that I found it surprisingly easy to cut back on my wheat consumption. The shift in my eating probably took four or five months, and was amazingly easy. At first it was very difficult to find ‘primal’ snacks when I was out of the house but as my eating changed more I discovered that I don’t need snacks – four to five hours without food is perfectly manageable if you’re not carbohydrate dependent. A year ago I could easily eat an entire bar of Green & Black’s creamy milk chocolate (36% fat, 50% carbohydrate) – I might have felt a bit sick afterwards, but that wouldn’t have stopped me. Now I find one square of milk chocolate a) doesn’t taste of chocolate at all and b) is so sweet I can hardly bear it. At the same time Lindt 90% cocoa dark chocolate (55% fat, 14% carbohydrate) tastes truly wonderful.

As I mentioned earlier, ‘The Primal Blueprint’ isn’t just a diet book, so what else is there?

These are the 10 Primal Blueprint Laws. Some may need a bit of elucidation: ‘avoid trauma’ in an earlier edition of the book was ‘avoid stupid mistakes’, and is essentially to do with being more conscious of one’s environment, so as not to get hurt; ‘avoid poisonous things’ largely refers to eating foods that contain anti-predation chemicals/elements that we’re not made to digest – these would include almost all grains and legumes (I’m not the ideal person to explain why – please click on the links for Sisson’s own explanation).

I’ve not done so well with the insect eating, lots of sleep is sometimes tricky (especially when living with an excitable kitten…), and I don’t play as much as I might, but on the whole it’s been a very positive experience trying to stick to them. In fact, the changes to the way I eat, and approach exercise have led to one of the biggest transformations of my life.

Pilates definitely had a hugely transformative effect on me – it freed me from 18 months or so of chronic pain, and opened the door to the first real career that I’d ever wanted (and I met my wife through Pilates). It’s inspired me to learn, and allowed me the chance to be a part of running a thriving business. Probably because of my nature, Pilates also allowed me to have a somewhat entrenched view of ‘proper’, or worthwhile exercise, and a limited perspective on physical health. (Let’s be clear, these are my shortcomings. Please see my earlier post for more thoughts about Pilates and health).

And how has the Primal lifestyle transformed me? I’ve lost body fat (I had no idea I stored so much fat in my legs…); I feel like I have more energy; I’m stronger; my eczema is a thing of the past; I don’t feel bloated after eating; I’m less gassy, and my digestion from (ahem) start to finish is generally better. The weightlifting appears to have made me more flexible, and has also made me work some muscles much more than I’d managed previously – I’d never felt my back extensors work like they have to when I squat properly. I’ve also learned that activities like weight lifting have more in common with Pilates than I might have imagined – the language and the application is different but you still have to work from your centre, and the load is supported from your centre.

Physical things aside, there are plenty of other benefits. I’ve discovered that I really enjoy cooking, and, better still, the pleasure of cooking for friends and family who appreciate the food. I’ve developed a relationship with some of the people that I buy food from, and get a surprising kick from the whole process of eating, from the buying of fresh ingredients to the preparation and cooking (no more ready meals in our house…). As well as taking up weight-lifting and other high intensity exercise, I’ve also been introduced to other approaches to exercise/movement like MovNat and Exuberant Animal (see ‘Useful Links’), that I’m really excited to be learning more about. My inspiration to learn is greater than it has been in a long time, and I’m optimistic that I will be able to offer more to my clients over the coming years as a result. I’ve been led toward quite diverse reading material that has helped me to reframe thoughts about a variety of subjects, and to be more considerate of how my actions effect my immediate environment, and the larger world.

In the same way that we try to encourage clients at our Pilates studio to feel responsible for their health and well-being, the primal lifestyle really  fosters personal responsibility  that, in turn, encourages a positive outlook. If I believe that I’m in charge of my health, and I’m making sensible choices to support it, then I can feel optimistic about remaining healthy, fit and strong as I get older.

Pilates for….what, exactly?

February 10, 2012 — 1 Comment

(The first thing I feel I should point out is that I’m writing this as a Pilates teacher trained, and practicing, in the UK. Other Pilates teachers may not recognise some of the scenarios I’m describing.)

Pilates called his system Contrology and in Return to Life he wrote:

“Contrology is designed to give you suppleness, natural grace and skill that will be unmistakably reflected in the way you walk, in the way you play, and in the way you work. You will develop muscular power with corresponding endurance, ability to perform arduous duties to play strenuous games, to walk, to run or travel long distances without undue body fatigue or mental strain.”*

It is clear that he intended his method to be a preparation for other ‘stuff’ – for life, in fact. Herein lies my frustration with a lot of what I see in Pilates studios and mat classes. Not to mention the kind of comments I hear, and see in social media from my peers.

I have heard American teachers insisting that, although injured people went to Pilates’ studio, and clearly got help with their injuries form the man himself, Pilates as an exercise method is intended for fit people. In the UK it seems that we have been somewhat hamstrung by the general impression that Pilates is for people who are injured, or in pain. This has been propagated by the media, and doubtless encouraged by teachers who want to boost their business by appealing to those people who may not feel that they can manage ‘normal’ exercise. Not to mention that many of us, myself included, took up Pilates to try to deal with chronic pain of some sort, and became evangelists for the method because it is has the capacity to change lives.

What’s the problem with that? On the face of it, it’s a brilliant thing, and I have been nearly moved to tears on a number of occasions when I’ve seen people discover that they’re able to do more than they believed possible. Unfortunately, what I seem to see all to often, is people doing Pilates weekly (or even more frequently) who have plateaued at a reduction in their pain, and failed to move forward from there. The promises contained in the quote above have little or no relevance to them, and this is a tragedy. Instead of feeling empowered to do more, it seems as though they and/or their teacher/s have created an invisible ceiling for them, that they are terrified to try to break through. What seems to be left then is an emotional attachment to Pilates, a belief that they cannot function without it, yet no desire for, or belief in the possibility of achieving more (playing strenuous games, for example).

As teachers we often have a difficult job encouraging clients to expect more, and I fear that sometimes we, knowingly or not, succeed in holding them back, or at least allow them to ‘aim low’. I would suggest that the first lesson of Pilates ought to be “You are responsible for your own health” – a notion that seems to be systematically undermined in our society. I have seen advertisements for Pilates workshops that describe “using Pilates on our clients”, and I have heard clients saying “[insert teacher’s name] has been working a lot on my shoulders”. As soon as we allow ourselves to take the client’s personal responsibility from them, we have disempowered them, and greatly reduced their chances of enjoying the kind of results that Pilates wrote about.

It seems blindingly obvious that the underlying message of the passage quoted above is that Pilates is not an end in itself. I absolutely endorse the idea of Pilates as a lifelong practice, but not for its own sake. We often teach people to move slowly, in order to help them move with control. This is just a part of the journey, and not a rounded preparation for life outside the studio/class. We may well give people exercises with relatively low loads, in order for them to sense how they can transfer load from their limbs to their centre – fantastic! But not enough if we really want to make people fit and strong – and if Pilates isn’t about trying to help people to be fit and strong then we’ve seriously lost the plot.

If I try to answer my own question (Pilates for what?) I have to say (however corny it sounds) “Pilates for life” – not for ‘relaxation’, ‘feeling good’, ‘Pippa’s bum’, ‘weight-loss’, ‘core stability’ etc.  I want to stand for Pilates as a means to deal with all the stuff that life puts in our path, good and bad, as well as we possibly can.

*I have the impression that a lot of teachers these days have a rather dismissive attitude to Pilates theories, preferring to believe that we have a much better understanding of things with the advances of science since he was writing. Every time I look through Pilates’ writing, I am delighted to discover how often he was spot on. I think this may relate to my previous post – a lot of his ideas still make perfect sense because they fit within the framework of evolutionary biology.