Archives For Romana Kryzanowska

I wonder if anyone would argue that there is a better way to train to be a Pilates teacher than to serve an apprenticeship under an experienced teacher within a Pilates studio. I imagine that modular training courses exist not because they have the best outcomes but rather because they make economic sense. I’m sure that many people who are interested in becoming teachers are not able to commit the time to an apprenticeship so it is simply pragmatic to design modular courses, particularly if you are in the business of commercialising Pilates education. I’m also fairly sure that most studios offering apprenticeships would agree that it’s not something you do for the money.

I’m inclined to call this phenomenon of highly commercialised teacher training the industrialisation of Pilates. It’s a conundrum because, just like the outcome of the in/famous lawsuit, it helps to bring Pilates to a wider audience (which all teachers can profit from) and, I believe, it corrupts the original work.

Training manuals seem to me to be emblematic of this industrialisation, not least because they’re an inevitable consequence of highly commercialised training. If you’re not going to spend many months in a studio, learning how the repertoire feels in your own body, and shadowing an experienced teacher to learn how they teach that innate understanding to others then you will probably need to have a manual to remind you what the exercises are and how to teach them.

I’m not going to pretend that my training was the best but I was lucky that I was given a manual that consisted of exercise names, perhaps a picture or two, and a lot of blank paper. I had to write my own manual based on my experience and understanding of the work.

Modular means breaking up the Pilates system into blocks that can be conveniently delivered. Joseph was clear in ‘Return to Life’ that Contrology is a system and it would seem glaringly obvious that you can’t teach a system in distinct segments. No surprise that exercises get added (‘Supine Arm Work’ on the Reformer, 12 pages for variations of Teaser on the Reformer), or that exercises get divided into blocks (‘Abdominal Work’, ‘Hip Work’ etc.)

Looking at the manuals from 3 major training corporations (all of whom manufacture apparatus, which is a whole other can of worms – how much are the exercises tweaked to fit the apparatus?) it is clear that they are meant to teach the reader how to teach the exercises and, perhaps inevitably, the result is that the exercises are reduced to a mechanical explanation. (I’m sure that the publishers have to be careful about the language they use, to serve the broadest range of learning styles possible, and to adhere to evidence based descriptions/assertions.) It’s also clear from his writing that Joseph Pilates didn’t have a mechanistic approach, so to have a manual that presents a mechanistic approach to his exercises seems to me antithetical to the practice and teaching of Pilates.

I am fond of quoting anatomist Jaap van der Wal: “Brains know nothing about the muscles”. In the exercise instructions in ‘Return to Life’ Joseph Pilates barely refers to muscles at all – why would he need to? If the environment is right for you, the exercise will teach itself, just as a traditional reformer will teach you the exercise. Pilates is a movement discipline, not a muscle activation technique – and our students’ brains and bodies are smarter than we are. If we create the right environment, if the inputs that our students’ systems are receiving are appropriate, then their bodies will do the right thing. And to recognise how to do this fora variety of students is the stuff of apprentice learning, not the kind of understanding that you might gain from a manual.

If you can do the exercise correctly, you don’t need to be concerned AT ALL with which muscles are working. However, if you teach an exercise from the perspective of muscle activation, or as if its purpose is to address specific muscles (as these manuals state) you’re treating your student’s body as a machine rather than an organism, and more than likely a two-dimensional machine – if it’s an exercise that involves hip flexion then it must be for strengthening hip flexors – right? NO! Pilates is about health, about moving well, but to keep repeating the same purpose for each exercise (We know from Romana that Joseph would have said “It’s for the body!”) might not seem like good value for the money you’ve paid for your manual.

On the whole it’s a good thing that Pilates reaches a wide audience, so industrialisation does have some positives. I’m sure there are many excellent teachers who have come through modular training, and I suspect that, if they are excellent Pilates teachers, they will have taken their learning well beyond the modules. I hope that any teachers reading this would agree that being certified or accredited as a Pilates teacher is a bit like learning to drive – it is the very beginning of a process of learning that will very likely go on for a long as you teach – so let’s not abolish modular training. But let’s recognise that modules and manuals will probably not “help make you one of the best educated Pilates instructors on the planet.” (http://www.merrithew.com/shop/education-materials).

 

This article first appeared (with some edits) in PilatesIntel (http://www.pilatesintel.com), and I’m grateful to Brett Miller for suggesting a far superior title to the one I had first.

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The Dirty Secret

April 4, 2015 — 12 Comments

Or, ‘Clinicians, what have you done to Pilates?’100910doctor

“We only hire experienced Physiotherapists trained in Pilates to teach in our Pilates studios: we dig the bloke that started it, but can’t understand how you’d let anyone who can’t relate your pain and pathology to your problem come anywhere near you!” 

(‘Clinical Pilates’, http://www.sixphysio.com)

There seem to be frequent scuffles in the Pilates teaching world (at least in the forums that I see) between ‘classical’ and ‘contemporary’ Pilates teachers. I’ve no interest in pursuing that particular debate here, not least because I think it may not be the right on to be having. Rather, I’m interested in the influence of physiotherapy and ‘clinicians’ on Pilates, and the profession of teaching Pilates.

It seems appropriate that, over the years, different teachers developed what may be termed ‘pre-Pilates’ exercises, to provide a kind of ‘on-ramp’ to the original work for those who may need it, for whatever reason. I guess that this is how some ‘contemporary’ Pilates developed. However, I suspect that ‘contemporary’ Pilates is routinely intermingled with ‘clinical’ Pilates, and the ideas that underpin the various ‘clinical’ Pilates brands (yes, there are lots of them) are increasingly exerting a pernicious influence on much of Pilates teaching.

Why the ‘Dirty Secret’ title? I was recently listening to an interview with Kelly Starrett, a physiotherapist particularly well know in the CrossFit community. In the interview he refers to what he calls the “dirty secret” of physiotherapy – the phrase “within normal limits”. He describes the tenets of physiotherapy training as getting the patient functional -‘can you do your daily activities’, and resolving pain. Clearly these aren’t bad things but, as Kelly says, “within normal limits” does not mean “full function”. So, allowing for the fact that this is a generalisation, and that there are many excellent physios in the world who are committed to their clients high achievement, the fundamental measure of a successful outcome for a physiotherapist might well be ‘can you walk to the shops without pain?’

Joseph Pilates wrote of his method: “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. And this is by no means the end.” His ambitions were a little higher than ‘can you walk to the shops without pain?’

The term ‘evidence based exercise’ seems to be increasingly popular, and probably underpins a lot of the colonisation of Pilates by clinicians. Clinical Pilates™ have a video on YouTube called “What is Clinical Pilates™” which makes reference to “recent research into spinal stability“. The APPI (The Australian Physiotherapy and Pilates Institute) website tells us that “Pilates focuses on building an efficient ‘central core’. In Pilates, ‘central core’ refers to the TrA, multifidus, pelvic floor and diaphragm. In Pilates, abdominal hollowing techniques are utilized to activate this central core.” (About Pilates, http://www.ausphysio.com) The Clinical Pilates™ video goes on to explain that “Some of the original exercises have been cut from the regime, as research cannot support their efficacy. What’s left over is a set of proven, effective exercises, now known as ‘Clinical Pilates’“. (What is Clinical Pilates™, dmaclinical pilates, YouTube). So, research tells us that we can prove the efficacy of certain exercises, but not others. Best practice is therefore to exclude anything that we cannot prove is efficacious. This may be a line of reasoning that appeals, but does it have anything to do with Pilates, or real life, for that matter? I’m in no position to question the merits of research, like Hodges’ & Richardson’s ‘A motor control evaluation of transverses abdominis’ (published in 1996), that concluded “The delayed onset of contraction of transversus abdominis indicates a deficit of motor control and is hypothesized to result in inefficient muscular stabilization of the spine.” In case you are unfamiliar with this, their research found that in healthy subjects – those without back pain – EMG readings showed that their TVA fired in anticipation of movement, whereas the back pain suffering subjects showed delayed TVA firing. I do wonder, though, about it’s application to Pilates.

This happened before my introduction to Pilates, but I imagine that, because Pilates was recognised to help people with back pain, it was then deemed necessary (by whom – who knows?) to incorporate conscious, isolated TVA contraction into Pilates. As APPI told us above, Pilates uses ‘abdominal hollowing techniques’, though I can’t find any reference to it in Pilates’ own writing. I recently had an online conversation of sorts with a former Pilates teacher and studio owner who described herself as a ‘master trainer’. The conversation started because she had blamed Pilates for her ‘weak’ rectus abdominis, and she explained to me that: “The pilates priciple of navel to the spine creates an imbalance in the abdominal muscles.” I have no wish to impugn the integrity or sincerity of this lady, presumably her view is a reflection of what she was taught herself. But where did it come from? I’d be very interested to hear if anyone who was trained by Romana, Kathy, Eve, Ron, Carola or any of the other first generation teachers ever heard a ‘navel to spine’ or abdominal hollowing cue. Again, Pilates himself never mentioned any such thing in ‘Return to Life’. I know from other exchanges that I’ve had on Facebook forums that, amongst plenty of teachers, the importance of cueing transversus, and the correct usage of transversus are, beyond question, fundamental to Pilates.

So, research appearing to indicate that transversus contraction is normally reflexive, we find that it is being cued nearly constantly in Pilates. The truth is that, having had a lumbar disc injury, I probably benefited greatly from some simple spinal stabilisation/hip dissociation exercises when I first started Pilates, but these were in preparation for doing Pilates, not central to it. In other words, these were pre-Pilates exercises that seem to have somehow morphed into what Pilates is perceived to be. Indeed, organisations like APPI and Clinical Pilates™ will teach their students that this is how Pilates should be – “The APPI Pilates Method provides Physiotherapists and equivalent degree therapists with a clinical and user friendly tool for retraining correct activation of the Multifidus, TrA muscles and pelvic floor muscles.“(The APPI Pilates Method, http://www.ausphysio.com) I should say here that, of course, physiotherapists do a very important job of helping people to be pain-free, and I am sure too that there are many great and dedicated teachers trained under these and similar methods. My concern is, to revert to the analogy above, that the on-ramp becomes the freeway, first in the perception of teachers trained in this thinking, and then in the public perception.

I’ve written recently about our willingness to believe that we understand bodies and movement better than Pilates did, and I assume this is the reason that Pilates teachers were apparently so willing to adopt clinical concepts in their teaching. The slightly bizarre thing to me is that at the same time some of those clinicians were busy declaring that physiotherapists are the natural bearers of the Pilates flame – that they are the people best qualified to teach Pilates. It’s an idea that is routinely promoted now -“Pilates instructors may be able to teach Pilates but are they qualified to give rehabilitation to someone who has an injury or medical diagnosis? We would suggest not. Physiotherapists can give full rehabilitation and can be taught to teach Pilates.” (The Benefits of Physiotherapist Led Pilates, http://www.pilatesandtherapy.co.uk) and, of course, in the quote at the top of the page.

Intertwined in this is the notion that actually Pilates is for people who are injured, or in pain. This brings us back to the ‘within normal limits’ outcome, and the idea that repertoire that hasn’t been validated by research should be discarded – “We don’t know for sure that this will help to resolve your pain, or increase the efficacy of your spinal stabilisation strategies, so you shouldn’t do it.” What was devised as a system is reworked (unsystematised, perhaps) and then, weirdly, appears often not to work. I have a strong suspicion that there are plenty of teachers who have arrived at Pilates after pain or injury, followed the unsystem approach and failed to enjoy the outcomes that Pilates intended. They’ve trusted the clinicians instead of the system, and thus find themselves ‘within normal limits’, when Joseph was trying to offer “godlike attributes” – what a compromise!

 

The Pilates System (?)

February 11, 2015 — 4 Comments

imagesAs seems so often to be the case, the convergence of two sources at a similar time has got me writing. Soon after I saw this from Andrea Maida’s blog, I also saw this piece, written by Joanne Elphiston. Wildly different, you might say – one is an attempt to define the original order of Reformer exercises, as determined by Pilates himself (no doubt a demanding piece of research in itself), and the other is a critique of (what may be) the prevailing thinking around stability training and injury management.

To stray from these for a moment, after spending 4 days last year learning from Ido Portal, I felt that my concept of movement, and teaching movement had been blown apart. For the first few hours it was mildly traumatic as I wondered how on earth I could go back to teaching what I then recognised, as a result of what I’d just seen, heard, tried etc.,  as the relatively narrow approach of Pilates. What saved me was recognising that, like most if not all movement disciplines, Pilates only makes sense as a system, and what I needed to do was to keep exploring the new material and ideas, integrate them into my teaching as appropriate, and teach in a systematic way. I hope that prior to this my teaching hadn’t been haphazard, but there was definitely room for more of a systematic approach. (It may be worth mentioning that I have become much better at the kind of record keeping that insurance companies recommend as a consequence).

Naturally then I’m drawn toward articles like Andrea’s, because it helps to reinforce a system. Not to mention that, as well as laying out a sequence, she does a great job of rationalising the order that she offers (and with humour – so much nicer than dogma…). There are other orders laid down for the Reformer – Whereas in Andrea’s list the Long Stretch Series comes after the Long Box, in the Romana Legacy Series DVDs the Short Box appears immediately after the Long Box – I don’t think these distinctions are important because there is an underlying system to both.

What of Ms Elphinston’s thoughts? In case you haven’t read it yet, she begins: “We see a lot of injured physiotherapists and Pilates teachers in our clinic. Many of them have turned to Pilates in order to address their own back pain, and it initially gave them a sense of control over their situation. However, they nevertheless still have back pain.” And she goes on to ask why this should be. Partly because I have seen this scenario many times (or at least it feels that way), I am willing to bet that the Pilates teachers whom she refers to have not pursued the system – have not treated it as something that you keep working to progress within. My guess is that they discovered, through Pilates, the exercises that they feel help them (which can feel like a miracle), and they get repeated over and over (“I know what I need.”), but the idea of Pilates as a system to progress in gets lost. Or maybe it was never there in the first place. I began Pilates at a studio where there was a clearly defined warm-up sequence that most clients learned sooner or later. There were ways to modify or layer things but the basic movement patterns were the same. Over the years things changed – my guess is that teachers got drawn into playing therapist, or got bored and added their own ‘creativity’, or simply lost faith/interest in the system. If you go there now you may be hard pressed to find a teacher who expects that the clients will adhere to a system.

There may always be debates around whether or not you can teach exercises that you cannot do yourself. Leaving that aside, I suspect that we tend not to teach the exercises that we don’t do ourselves. Or that we don’t effectively teach the exercises that we don’t do. I’ve been here before – if we entertain the idea that there’s Pilates repertoire that we needn’t aspire to, then why bother with any of it?

It seems that a lot of continuing education in the UK Pilates world relates to other disciplines, or to approaches to specific pathologies and, therefore, modifications. (Why should, for example, Pilates for Golfers, be substantially different from Pilates for non-golfers? Is there repertoire that’s contra-indicated for golfers, and other repertoire only suitable for golfers?) This, coupled with an absence of goal-setting and diminishing expectations, means that it’s easy to ‘do Pilates’ and actually only scratch the surface. The system itself can act as goal-setter, and inspiration (me, I’m working on nailing Balance Control/Step Off this year), and means that you don’t avoid the things that you don’t like. It’s now a running joke/accepted law in our studio that everyone hates the things that they need the most (and I do NOT love Breaststroke…)

Ms Elphinston’s writes “we remember that stability arises from systems, not muscles. This requires variety and variation in our programmes, working our way up to variability in order to foster robustness and a range of solutions to meet the challenges in our work, play and general environment.” Hah, Systems! I know that she is not referring to systems in the same way that I was above, yet it seems that these ideas dovetail nicely. The Pilates system is about developing stability not by focusing on muscle recruitment but by developing a range of movement patterns with ‘variety, variation and variability’. The mixture of midline stabilisation and hip/shoulder dissociation with spinal articulation fosters robustness – not, God help us, ‘Safe Spine Pilates’.

If you’ve spent any time in a health club then I’m sure you will have seen those people who dip in and out of things – a bit of treadmill, some shoulder presses, a bit of a stretch, the cross-trainer, maybe the leg press etc. Perhaps you’ve felt sorry for them and their lack of structure in their workout, and maybe thought that if only they had some more method to their session that they may see more progress. The Pilates studio (or mat class) is just the same – the magic’s in the system.

 

 

How will you age?

April 21, 2014 — 4 Comments
Joseph Pilates, aged 82

Joseph Pilates, aged 82

I’m currently reading the intriguing “The World Until Yesterday” by Jared Diamond, some of which compares the attitudes toward, and treatment of older people in Western societies to that of ‘traditional’ (think tribal) societies. Diamond makes reference to the role that older people play in advertising in western, or westernised societies – their appearance in advertising typically reserved for medicine and supplements, ‘mobility aides’ (Stannah chairlifts, perhaps), or maybe to fulfill the role of Grandparent to a cute child. They are rarely seen promoting products that we might all consume – off the top of my head – pizza, mobile phones, chocolate, toilet paper, rum, coffee, cars….

What does this tell us about our attitudes toward people over, let’s say, 65? Another fascinating insight into this subject came when watching a clip from Britain’s Got Talent.

I’m including the clip, in case you haven’t seen it, because it seems to have the effect of filling people with a sense of joy. Now, I’m as cynical as the next hardened cynic when it comes to these shows – I think it’s pretty obvious that the ‘judges’ have been primed for what’s coming, and things are choreographed, down to Simon Cowell looking bored and buzzing early. So what is there to enjoy? Again, it seems to me that most of, if not the entire audience have an extraordinary emotional response that looks to me like unbridled joy. Then there’s Paddy herself, who is evidently not only a powerful personality but also physically remarkable – strong, agile, mobile, quick, and with impressive coordination.

And yet, I’m left with a question – a niggling thought. Why is she exceptional? Why does the sight of this elderly woman demonstrating strength, skill, agility, and coordination get us so excited. Obviously the answer is that she IS very unusual (but as the videos below illustrate, she is far from alone). So the question should really be, why SHOULD she be exceptional? How is it that we have been conditioned to believe – to know, even – that old people are inherently decrepit? And when does that built-in physical obsolescence start to take effect – sixty? Or seventy? I have clients in their early sixties who are convinced, indeed resigned to the notion that they are now too old to do certain things; and that their age means that they have to accept that their body necessarily fails them.

In ‘The World Until Yesterday’ the author makes reference to tribes that traditionally killed old people, or left them to fend for themselves (amounting to the same thing). Until the 1950s the Kaulong people of New Guinea practiced the ritualised strangling of widows – when her husband died the widow would call upon family members to strangle her! (While there’s obviously one to be had, I’m not going to get into a discussion of misogyny here). Other tribal societies have traditionally revered their older members for their wisdom; for having the most refined skills; or as care-givers for the youngest in the tribe. Western society’s attitude toward its older population falls somewhere between the extremes. Happily, there’s no ritualised killing, but there’s not necessarily much reverence either. How much of that is because, as younger people we have been conditioned to expect little from old age (the very phrase ‘old age’ appears to be inappropriate in this context – a symptom of the problem). When we reach 60, or 70, or whatever it might be, we know what to expect. And yet, Paddy apparently didn’t receive that kind of conditioning, or was able to shrug it off.

As a Pilates teacher, I have one of the best role models to follow in terms of expectations for older age. It would seem that Joseph Pilates did his best work form the age of 50 onwards, and remained strong and vigorous until his death. I cannot find a clip to include here but the “Romana’s Pilates Ultimate Mat Challenge” DVD includes footage of Romana Kryzanowska, aged 82 (I think) doing the hanging on the Cadillac and describing it as her “daily loosener up-er”. We know what’s possible – as a profession we have excellent examples – and yet, how many of us (Pilates teachers) have been trained to think that the Roll Up, or the Roll Over are contraindicated for ‘the elderly’? I’m not advocating a lack of care or caution, but wondering if we have an instinct to set the bar too low (Yes, I’ve been here before). I know that for someone with osteoporosis, to collapse in their spine as they go into the Roll Up, or Roll Over, could be dangerous, but we wouldn’t teach anyone to collapse in their spine in a Roll Up, would we? Because that’s not what Pilates is about. So whilst it may not be the best idea to introduce that exercise to an older person in their first session, or even in their tenth session, isn’t their the possibility that, in time, the eccentric control that this exercise requires could be just the kind of stress on their bones that will make them stronger.

Here are some more links/video clips of people ‘who should know better’ being physical. If we share enough of these perhaps we can begin to reshape prevailing notions of what growing old means….

 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-27117769

‘The Hip-Operation Crew’ from New Zealand – the oldest hip hop dance crew in the world.

The amazing Olga, she’s just moved up into the 95-99 age group for Masters track & field

 

imagesFollowing on from a mention in part 1 of this post, I think that a lot of interesting things happen on the boundaries between disciplines. Kelly Starrett, who has influenced my thinking about Pilates a lot in the last few years, talks about the benefits of sports people from different disciplines talking to, and learning from each other (power lifters talking to gymnasts talking to rowers talking to olympic lifters talking to swimmers/runners etc).

The subject of the first post, and the comments that followed (thank you all for your interest and contribution) made me start to think that there is a problem inherent in classification – in trying to define or draw lines between things. Once again, I find myself a little conflicted – I love simplicity, but…

I’ve found the Classical Pilates Inc DVDs to be an invaluable resource, from the point of view of learning to put the correct name to an exercise, or checking choreography. I’ve learned to assume (who knows how/why) that what is usually referred to as ‘classical’ Pilates, is that which was taught by Romana Kryzanowska and her followers. The “Romana’s Pilates” DVD I have in front of me has the tagline “….the true pilates method as taught by Joseph Pilates”. As an enthusiast of simplicity I am drawn to the ‘this is the way it is supposed to be’ kind of presentation. From watching the DVDs, and taking class with Romana trained teachers, I know that Footwork on the Reformer should be done with all the springs attached, as should the Hundred.

And then again, I was watching part of another DVD the other evening (that is still available from Michelle Larson) of Eve Gentry giving a workshop in 1991. My understanding is that Eve worked alongside Joseph Pilates in New York for close to 30 years – longer than anyone of the other first generation teachers. At the beginning of the workshop she talks about what she learned from Pilates: “I learned about not using too many springs….” This is just one example and I’m sure there are plenty of other instances when the Eve Gentry approach to Pilates differs from the Romana Kryzanowska approach. Ironically, courtesy of this blog I now realise that it’s even more complicated than I thought – the classification ‘Classical Pilates’ requires sub-classification!

I’m not at all interested in entering a discussion about which one is better, or closer to Pilates’ original intentions.  I’m curious as to whether being more definitive about classification does more good than not. This gets back to the original question of what it means to call myself a Pilates teacher. I understand the value of being systematic, and holding true to the principles of rhythm and flow, and, ultimately, I believe (as Eve Gentry says) that I’m trying to teach a concept, not a set of exercises. The exercises are a vehicle for delivering/understanding those principles, and can represent a fantastic challenge for someone who is interested in exploring the limits of their physicality (I can see no need for inventing advanced repertoire). I also believe that Pilates himself would adapt/create exercises for individuals, based on his understanding of their specific needs. Whilst I wouldn’t try to compare myself to Pilates (though I not-so-secretly like to think it may be significant that I was born in the year that he died….), I often use other exercises to teach the principles to certain clients – because I think they will be more effective, or represent a more accessible route to understanding the concepts than a ‘classical’ exercise might. I’m back at the ‘Can I teach Pilates with a kettle bell? question from my previous post – can you teach Pilates with exercises that are not Pilates? According to the blog post that I linked to above, I should be acknowledging to whoever I’m teaching a non-Pilates exercise that I’m not actually teaching them Pilates at that moment. But I think Pilates is a concept, not a set of exercises! Isn’t it perplexing?

Here’s another way that I like to think about this – Can you be good at Pilates? If your answer is ‘Yes’, what does that mean? What does it look like to be good at Pilates? I routinely tell people coming to our studio that there’s no value or point to being ‘good at Pilates’. Who cares if you can perform Pilates repertoire beautifully (or however else we might define ‘good at’)? The point, for me, is to use Pilates to help people be good at, or find easy, everything else that they want or need to do. I think that my job is to teach people to move and position themselves as well as possible, and Pilates is the vehicle that helped me on this journey, and what I feel competent to teach to others.

I do understand the need to honour our heritage, and the original work of Joseph Pilates, and I’m grateful to those teachers and organisations who commit themselves to that. I also agree that a familiarity with the apparatus adds to one’s understanding of Pilates. Somewhat unconsciously, I provoked a bit of a comprehensive vs. mat teachers discussion, with the previous post that I wrote. I have no interest at all in supporting or defending diploma courses in Pilates that require very little actual practice of the method, or that offer certification in a short time. I remain uneasy about attempts to make a strong distinction between mat teachers and comprehensive teachers, because I think our job is to teach people to move well. We will, all of us, bring our unique life experiences to the teaching party and whilst many comprehensive teachers may enjoy an ‘edge’ from their experience of the Reformer’s resistance (and I think you’re a fool if you’re a teacher and you haven’t made an effort to experience the apparatus), I do not believe that we are all inherently better teachers of movement than teachers who are not certified in teaching on the equipment.

As an example, I learned more about working my upper back extensors when trying to squat while holding a weight overhead than I did in years of Pilates repertoire both in the studio and on a mat. That doesn’t mean that I give up on using Pilates to teach people back extension, it means that I’ve got something else up my sleeve AND that someone who has done overhead squats (my CrossFit coach, for example) may be at least as good as me at teaching someone to use their upper back extensors. That may be true of a Pilates teacher ‘only’ trained in the mat work.

So is my claim that my job, as a Pilates teacher, is to teach good movement legitimate?

 

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’.