Archives For Tomislav English

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.

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Annus Novus/Terra Nova

January 17, 2017 — 1 Comment
Or, a middle-aged person’s guide to Tomislav English’s ‘Ferus Animi’
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Anoushka (my wife, business partner and favourite person to practice movement with) and I first encountered Tomislav during Rafe Kelly’s Evolve Move Play workshop on Hampstead Heath last Summer. We were both very attracted to the way he moved – the easy grace that speaks of tons of strength and control – and to his quiet humility.

I had vowed that after a year of lots of workshops, 2017 would be about consolidating what I had learned, and laying off the workshops. However, Anoushka saw a date announced for Tomislav’s ‘Ferus Animi/Terra Nova’ 4 day intensive and immediately asked him if we could sign up. My mild anxiety began as soon as he agreed – the text in red in the picture reads: “Experienced Movers: The workshop will be highly physical and often highly complex.”

Never mind, after Christmas in Thailand, spending the first week doing a highly physical and complex workshop has to be a great way to get the new year going. I don’t know if it was the ‘intensive’ bit, or the knowledge that most participants would be dancers and more capable than I, but I’ve never approached any workshop with as much trepidation.

Before we began Tom mentioned that he had not refused anyone who was interested in the workshop, so we were a diverse group. I particularly appreciated his point that we might all learn from each other, whatever our skill level might be. We were also encouraged to think of the 4 days as our own research into our own physicality and, if we were carrying injuries, to take the opportunity to better understand the cause and explore ways of working with it, rather than relying on external help.

I’m sure that he only spoke for a few minutes but so much of what he said resonated with the way that I’ve been thinking about movement, anatomy, injury etc over the last 12-18 months, so most of my trepidation was forgotten.

The 4 days followed the same structure: a morning class, of about 3 hours, and partner work in the afternoon for 2 and a half hours or so. The 3 hour class was great, full of interesting ideas, challenges that I’d never considered before, and extraordinary demands (several times I found myself thinking “CrossFit is nothing” as I wilted into the floor after trying another new crawling pattern).

Why did I call this ‘a middle-aged person’s guide’? I’m generally highly resistant to the idea of age putting limits on any activity, or being an excuse/explanation for incapacity and/but being in my 50th year, I’m increasingly aware of some naivety in pretending that age means nothing. I am gradually drying out, and my tissues change as a result. When lunchtime arrived the typical scene (in my memory, at least) was of Anoushka and I barely able to get off the floor but needing food, and everyone else grabbing the opportunity to practice handstands, or far more elaborate acrobatics. It seemed that, for many, a cigarette was sufficient for lunch, and that’s when it’s hard not to rationalise with “Well, we are at least twice as old as most of them..”

In spite of this it was remarkable to both of us that everyone there seemed very happy to be paired up with anyone else – I don’t think I’ve ever been to a workshop before this where I haven’t felt that there were one or two people that I didn’t want to work with. This was the nicest group of people I’ve shared a workshop with, ever (and if you happen to be reading this, Thank You). Another notable thing was that everyone got on with what Tom asked us to do – no antagonism, no ‘I was taught this another way’ or ‘I’ve been told I/we shouldn’t do that movement’ that I’m used to from the Pilates world.

The class looked very similar from one day to the next, but with added elements each day, or twists on things we’d done previously. Much of what we did in the morning on our own was relevant to the partner work in the afternoon. It’s easiest for me to describe those sessions as ‘playing games’. Some of them were familiar from other workshops, but always with a new twist. What might take 10 minutes to play can be developed into something that we could play for the whole day, if we keep subtly refining things, or asking each other slightly different questions (What happens if you have one hand behind your back? What happens if my eyes are closed but yours are open? Can your body be even softer? etc).

To be honest, after the class on day 3 we were both so tired that we were ready to skip day 4, but we had so much fun in the afternoon that we had both decided we weren’t missing the last day.

I’ve been fortunate to do a lot of great movement workshops in the last few years, and learned a lot – drills, skills, progressions, theories etc. but I don’t think any have felt as much of a personal exploration of my own physicality as Ferus Animi. It may be that I’ve become a more embodied or inquisitive inhabitant but I think a lot had to do with Tom’s emphasis on the journey of a movement, rather than the destination. We weren’t learning patterns, or exercises (tricks, stunts, moves…), rather we were researching how our bodies responded to these challenges, and recognising where we needed to spend more time to refine things. I’ve also immediately applied one of Tom’s teaching principles to all my Pilates teaching, which is an exciting and unexpected bonus.

Before the workshop I had wondered if calling Ferus Animi/Terra Nova a ‘research vehicle’ wasn’t a little bit pretentious, or self-aggrandising. I’m sorry that I ever entertained that thought – as Tom acknowledged, we were really being invited into his own practice, working on the things that he is interested in working on himself, so we were all doing our own research. I was studying my own body and also researching/learning, through working with others, more possibilities for myself. I think this is why, of all the workshops and seminars that I’ve done, and loved, this is the one that I’d be quickest to sign up for again.

 

You can find more info (and video) about Ferus Animi/Terra Nova here