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.