Archives For Return to Life

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).

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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.

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.

 

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

I often think that becoming a Pilates teacher is like learning to drive (though it’s a different driving test now than the one I experienced in the 1990s) – you learn the manual, practice the tricky stuff, hopefully pass the test and then, once you’re on your own, you actually learn how to drive.

Many things helped me to develop as a teacher in the first few years: classes with teachers I admired, teaching within the same space as more experienced teachers, workshops and, of course, teaching classes myself. I belonged to an organisation that ran workshops. Many of the workshops followed the theme of ‘enhancing your mat classes with (insert name of small prop of your choice)’, and these were useful at first. When teaching a lot of mat classes more repertoire seemed like a good way to keep people interested. Teachers from the US were often invited to give workshops at the AGM, and a number of these were very influential for me. I think they helped me to be a better teacher, by enhancing my understanding of Pilates.

I know that I’m not alone in finding that, with accumulated experience, workshops offering new repertoire are of no interest. Similarly, another Pilates teachers take on specific elements of Pilates, or the special tool they’ve developed for teaching a shape or movement are much less interesting than they were. I certainly appreciate reminders of, or insight into, for example why the original order of the network is the way it is but, beyond that, I don’t find that doing Pilates teaches me more about doing Pilates. Most importantly, it doesn’t necessarily help me to be a better teacher.

What to do? For the last 3 or 4 years, most of the professional development that my wife and I have done has been outside the Pilates world but within the broader sphere of ‘movement culture’. I’ve written about this a fair amount already so suffice it to say that we’ve both learned a lot about movement and, therefore, teaching Pilates from people who typically have little understanding of what Pilates is (we’ve encountered the misconception that we’re all about pulling stomachs in a few times…).

I’ve learned about teaching Pilates (being the kind of Pilates teacher that I want to be) from all sorts of teachers: Ido Portal, Rafe Kelly and Andreo Spina to name a few.

We’ve been very lucky to work with some of the people that we have and, for me, none more so than Tomislav English, whom we did a workshop with at the beginning of this year. Based on a brief conversation, I think his concept of Pilates is a bit ‘off’, yet I keep thinking to myself that he’s the best Pilates teacher (with the exception of my wife) that I’ve met in a long time. Weird, eh? He doesn’t really understand Pilates (as far as I could tell) but he teaches it really well!

How could this be? The way that Tomislav teaches seems to me to embody Pilates’ intentions. He began the four days by making it clear that, although it was advertised for ‘advanced movers’, no-one had been turned down from attending, on the basis that full commitment was expected. There’s a lot of movement, and not a lot of talking – demonstration with instructions, a check that it’s clear and then practice – clarification following if necessary – overall his teaching is uncomplicated. There’s a lot of control required, but it’s not control of stillness (which seems to often be the desirable thing in Pilates classes, and seems to have little ‘real-world’ transfer) but control of EVERY aspect and moment of the movement – range of motion under conscious control. Smooth movement at an even tempo, that can be paused or reversed at any point.

The language that he used has influenced my teaching, too. Again, he was quite spare with his words, and would often categorise someone’s demonstration as either ‘clear’ or ‘unclear’, which translates to me into how I’m watching when I’m teaching. Can I see clearly how someone is moving? If the movement stems from the hip, do I see their hip joint moving, or is it a bit blurred? When joints are maintained in good positions (congruent, if you like) movement has greater clarity. Greater precision, we might say, as Pilates teachers.

It’s worth mentioning too that we paid only £15 more for 4 full days with Tomislav than the price of four hours with a teacher from the US that I’ve just seen advertised.

I don’t want to suggest that I have nothing to learn from other Pilates teachers, far from it (Benjamin Degenhardt deserves an honourable mention here), but my teaching – eye, understanding, vocabulary etc. – has been hugely enriched by fishing in a much larger learning pond.

*Perhaps ‘better Pilates teacher’ needs defining. I’m not interested in teaching people to become proficient at performing repertoire, or even excellent at performing it, unless this is an expression of enhanced awareness, range of movement, and understanding of how to organise their joints well. So being a better Pilates teacher, to me, means having the insight and tools to help people achieve those things. Not having a greater variety of exercises in my toolbox.

My only qualification for writing this is my Y chromosome, there may well be influence of my own neurotransmitter preferences on my views, so while this is written as if I’m speaking for my gender as a whole, please note that different viewpoints may be available.

DON’T

Infantilise me. Babies and toddlers might have ‘tummies’ (perhaps some postpartum women might), but I do NOT have a tummy, or tummy muscles, and I won’t feel that I’m in the right place if you imply that I do.

Teach me to engage my pelvic floor. (Unless I’ve specifically told you that’s what I’m looking for) It works fine, thank you. And if you ask me to think about walking into the sea, or another body of cold water, I’m likely to think of shrinkage – not what I’m looking for in my exercise class (especially if I’m already wondering how manly the class is).

Use my bra strap as a reference point. I’m not wearing one. Yes, I do know roughly where you mean, but you’re reminding me that I’m doing women’s exercise, thanks.

Make me feel ‘special’ by relentlessly focusing on what I’m struggling with. Ok, I’m not great at some of this, but I don’t enjoy feeling incompetent. My ego is fragile. Maybe, if I need it, take me aside after class and show me one thing that might help.

 

DO

Give me some purpose. Don’t assume that I know why I’m doing this movement. How will it benefit me? Maybe not with every exercise, but a few times each class.

Give me some rules. I like rules – they give me clarity. When I’m doing exercise X I know that the rule is my arms should always be in position Y…. It’s like having a manual in my head.

Give me measurements. How will I recognise if I’m doing it right, or not? Like a checklist, perhaps: Are my shoulders off the floor? √ Is the bottom of my ribcage down on the floor? √ Are my legs in the air? √ Are my elbows straight? √ Etc.

Give me something to aim for. Maybe show me something that’s beyond me at the moment, and then give me an idea of what I need to do to achieve it.

Drop some science on me. I’m not the biggest fan of science as the answer to everything, but if you let me know that the ability to perform an isolated hip hinge is well correlated with reduced risk of back and knee injuries, for example, I might feel more like I’ve come to the right place.

Relate the exercises to stuff that I like. Let me know how it’s going to apply to my martial art/tennis/deadlifting/football…. (this may mean doing some research into the requirements of these activities)

Allow me the opportunity to do something well. Maybe I don’t cope very well with fluid choreography, for example. (As I mentioned above, my ego is fragile). Throw in something which plays to my strength/s, so I have something to feel good about.

 

THANK YOU.

8219041This is part review (I hope it’s helpful), and partly and attempt for me to analyse why I felt so frustrated and, ultimately, irritated by watching “A Movement of Movement’.

It’s a long film, 73 minutes to be precise. I note that, via Facebook, Siri Dharma Galliano (never short of a pithy remark), who participates in the film, suggests that it could be edited to a “tight thirty minutes”. I found myself wondering why we were seeing footage of the nice lady getting her child and buggy into a taxi, for example. Maybe this is showing ‘real’, or ordinary people who do/teach Pilates.

Everyone involved plays nicely – there’s a little bit of ‘why can’t we all just get along?’ but there’s no name-calling (or foul language)

It’s a great marketing opportunity for Balanced Body, and the Pilates Method Alliance. (And the claim that whether you use traditional or modern apparatus makes no difference goes unchallenged.)

It’s quite a lot longer than it needs to be. I think I may have already touched on that. Apologies.

It is nice to see lots of footage of JP, especially the multi-screen bits of him strutting his stuff in the Catskills.

There are some confusing messages:

It seems to be broadly agreed that there are a number of ways of doing the exercises (so there’s no single correct way) but there’s also a warning that, without a teacher to show you how to do the exercises “correctly”, you could hurt yourself.

Shortly after one of the interviewees declares that Joseph was so sickly as a child that he nearly died, there’s reference to him spending a lot of time as a child lying in the woods watching animals. I know that ‘he was a very ill child but knuckled down and healed himself and became a paragon of health and fitness’ is a good story, but my understanding is that there’s no evidence to support the sickly-child mythology. (And this was the man who wrote “I must be right. Never an aspirin. Never injured a day in my life.”)

There are some inspiring stories. Sadly, they get swamped by lots of footage of interviewees practicing Pilates (and some other movements that look a bit like Pilates).

The film seems to be supportive of the 1990s lawsuit outcome – it is a good thing that ‘Pilates’ is now a generic term. There is no dissenting voice.

From watching the film I couldn’t work out what the filmmakers intentions were – what the purpose of the film was. It doesn’t seem to be intended as a pure celebration of the work of Joseph Pilates, nor is it a biographical work. I did some research and read that the directors intention was to create a film that does for Pilates what ‘The Endless Summer’ did for surfing, or ‘Dogtown and the Z-Boys’ did for skating. To quote the website:

The one thing that all of these films have in common is a compelling story about something that came along and changed the world forever.  Pilates has changed the world.  We are living in a historical movement, a phenomenon of human experience.  The movement is about us, it’s about today, and it’s about exploring our full potential, but what does that mean? That is what A Movement of Movement is.”

Unfortunately I don’t think that their own question (“..but what does this mean?”) is answered by the film. Perhaps part of the problem is that surfing, skating and other sports are quite different from Pilates. My understanding is that Joseph meant Pilates to be the practice that helped you be better at the things you love to do – surfing, skating, skiing, you name it. It’s not meant to be your favourite pastime or activity – if it is, maybe you missed the point. And I think that’s where the film falls down – it’s misunderstood its subject matter.

If you believe that:

the outcome of that (in)famous lawsuit was 100% positive;

that Pilates apparatus evolves and new apparatus should be added;

that there are many different versions of a given exercise, all equally valid;

there are no dissenting voices to these views;

And you enjoy watching people practicing Pilates on a terrace while the sun goes down and the sea softly laps on the shore – this is the film for you. I hope you enjoy it.

(As I said above, frustrated and irritated….)

images

Or: ‘Should your Pilates teacher be able to do a pull up?’

(If you’re time-poor, or just don’t have the patience to read all that follows, the answer is: Yes, they should.)

Hopefully we can all agree that Pilates, the movement practice, as conceived by the man himself, is about health. The integration of mind, body and spirit (if our thinking is reductionist enough to conceive of them as separate in the first place). What does a healthy body look/feel like? Depending upon our starting point with Pilates, it might be a pain-free body. That’s a great beginning for a lot of us, but is it healthy?

If a body isn’t able to express the full available range of movement in all its joints, is it healthy? Not yet. Is a body that’s able to express the full range of movement without strength (control, you might say) through that range, is it healthy? Not really. Perhaps this scenario is even more problematic than the first one.

What is Pilates good for if it is not carrying you along the arc toward expressing your joints’ full range of movement, with control? If it is not helping you to become stronger, why are you bothering? Real suppleness and agility is a product of strength – the flexible spine that Joseph Pilates held up as a marker of ‘real’ age (I’d prefer to classify as mobile) is a product of motion at each of the joints coupled with strength.

As Jaap van der Wal says “You do not have a body, you are a body.” Isn’t it a basic human capacity to be able to move your mass through space? A pull up, or chin up (pronated or supinated grip) is an expression of the ability to manipulate your mass in space. And in certain circumstances that capacity could be a huge factor in survival. The capacity to pull up will make you more human.

Perhaps my arguments haven’t been sufficiently persuasive, and it still seems unreasonable to expect your Pilates teacher (or yourself) to be able to do a pull up. In that case, how about a push-up? Should you/your Pilates teacher be able to do a push-up? Without equivocation the answer is “Yes, absolutely.” How about 5 push-ups? Maybe check how many repetitions Joseph prescribes in Return to Life. If you’ve ticked that box then maybe we can debate the pull-ups.

 

Afterword

What are your goals, or your clients’ goals, when practicing Pilates?
‘Pain free’ almost certainly incorporates ‘stronger’. ‘More toned’ definitely means ‘stronger’. ‘More supple’ had better mean ‘stronger’. You get the picture.