Archives For whole body health

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….

 

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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.

 

Recently I had to explain why I write this blog, and this has caused me to reflect on why I choose to write about Pilates, and particularly teaching Pilates.

My standard answer is that it’s a way for me to think ‘out loud’ – to help myself to organise the thoughts that swirl around in my mind. However, I realised, if this were really true, or the whole truth, there would be no need to press the ‘publish’ button on WordPress. There certainly wouldn’t be any need to post the things that I write in Pilates teacher Facebook forums. So it’s clearly somewhat disingenuous to say that I do it solely to ‘organise my thoughts’.

There are a number of people, more famous than I, who write about Pilates and teaching Pilates and, on the whole, it appears that their aim is to share information with their colleagues – here is a fine example. Others, to my eye, may be written with a little more ego – but perhaps I share my motives with those same writers that I accuse of egocentricity.

As a fine art student (many years ago) I had one of my formative learning experiences, which was also one of the most intimidating. In my memory, the tutor had me up against the wall, demanding to know why I hadn’t read what she’d recommended, and why I was not taking things more seriously, and when I was planning to stop dicking around (this was in England, in the late 1980s – we didn’t say ‘dicking around’, but it’s what she meant, for sure). I’m not sure if this is truth, or my way of rationalising my own behaviour, but I think this experience has coloured my own teaching, to a degree. I was very comfortable at college, doing what I liked, not really getting my hands dirty – I needed someone to shake me out of my status quo. I don’t think you would ever see this if you watched me teaching ‘civilians’, unless I know them very well, but this reflex (see, I’m pretending it’s in my dna, rather than a behavioural flaw) to light a fire, to stimulate some passion, is turned on when I’m interacting with other teachers or, heaven help them, trainee teachers I’ve been allowed out to play with.

I would refer to this now as ‘rattling someone’s cage’ or, in certain circumstances, ‘kicking the hornets nest’. I’ve resisted the latter more and more in recent times – even though I enjoy it initially, provoking people who have strongly held (erroneous, or conflicting with my own) opinions is fun at first but can quickly become an unwanted stress.

I’ve had other powerful learning experiences since which have been equally challenging, though less confrontational. Challenging not just to my status quo but to my core beliefs, with results that make me now relish those moments. When my wife and I first attended Ido Portal’s seminars, after 4 days I felt like everything I knew about movement had been destroyed. For a few hours at the end of the fourth day I was doubtful that I would be able to teach Pilates any more, such was the power of that particular bombshell. This is what I mean by ‘rattling the cage’. In a variety of non-Pilates workshops since I’ve had multiple bombs dropped on my beliefs and methods, and all of them have been amazing growing experiences – I’ve written ad nauseam about how I believe my Pilates teaching has been enhanced by the insights of teachers from the wider universe of movement (outside the small solar system of Pilates).

This is where I begin to have problems with analysing, or defining my blogging motivation – am I, like other blog writing Pilates teachers, trying to share information? The word “should” pops into my head too frequently. How many times have I said to my wife, after another workshop, “Every Pilates teacher should do this”? Who am I to tell you what you should do? Just because it was valuable to me, and contained insights that will change/enhance/enrich the way that I think about and teach Pilates, why should you have the same experience.

I realise that a lot of the posts I write about Pilates are, in effect, suggesting that some teachers are doing things wrongly – saying the wrong things, for example. Aside from the teachers at our studio, why should I be concerned about Pilates teachers using the word ‘core’? I can’t help it! It’s much like passing the local 24 hour gym and seeing dozens of people on the rows of treadmills. I want to go in and plead with them to stop wasting electricity and go outside to actually run (instead of that weird ‘the ground is running toward me’ activity that the treadmill induces. I really don’t think that I’m driven to be a dick and show them how much more insightful I am. I want them to not be deceived by gym/fitness/workout mythology, to not mess with their wonderful biology that never wanted them to do 30 minutes of cardio, to not spend their money on something (physical activity) which is free, and best enjoyed outside.

I believe that there are too many Pilates teachers who teach exercises, instead of teaching movement. Part of the reason for this, I suspect, is that they lack the awareness necessary to embody movement principles. If you don’t understand (feel) the fundamentals in yourself and your own movement then teaching them is a nearly impossible task. I’m by no means ‘the finished article’, but having spent years teaching exercises instead of (at least attempting to) teach movement, I think I’m able to recognise the difference.

I remember now that I told a teacher friend of mine a while back that I’d like to start a revolution. I think that’s still true. I’d like to start, or at least facilitate a revolution within the community of Pilates teachers, whose manifesto might read something like “Teaching Pilates is good, teaching movement is better”. Maybe I’m giving in to my own vanity, but I believe that a large part of the reason that I write about teaching Pilates is because I believe the Pilates industry and the wider world will benefit from more teachers who have a broader perspective – who teach movement with Pilates as their primary tool kit.

A few months ago I wrote about becoming a better Pilates teacher by learning from teachers like Ido Portal, from outside the Pilates orbit,  and one of the comments that I received declared that Ido could not teach me as much about Contrology as a seasoned Contrology teacher. Intuitively that would seem to be obvious, and yet I disagree, because Ido and numerous others, have taught me a lot about the components of efficient movement, the value of variety and unpredictability and, most importantly, how I move – how my body responds to stimulus and stress, how I solve problems. I’m better at feeling, I’m more self aware, and that means I have more tools for communicating with others. That’s what makes me a better teacher, as well as a more sensitive Pilates practitioner. I don’t agree, or believe that only someone who resides within the sphere of Pilates would have that insight.

My wife and I spent the last weekend in a Fighting Monkey workshop (if you teach Pilates, or any other movement practice, you should, too!). As Jozef, co-creator of Fighting Monkey said: “Any great system creates great deficiencies.” I believe that Pilates is a great system, and that Jozef is right – if we believe that Pilates exercises are the answer to everything, and that they make for a complete practice, then we develop gaps (huge holes, perhaps) in our understanding and awareness, that inevitably will get passed on to our students. I write about Pilates to try to illuminate this, and to propose ways that my wife and I have found and sought out, as a means to avoiding the pitfalls of a ‘Pilates is everything’ mentality.

Years back I was in a CrossFit gym that had this sign on the wall:

Help everyone else to be better than you.

This is why I write about teaching Pilates.

 

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.

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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.

Your words DO matter!

August 4, 2016 — 1 Comment

A while ago I posted an article whose title asked Pilates teachers not to use the word “core”. Setting aside the appropriateness or otherwise of someone with no status in the Pilates world making such requests, I found some of the responses very interesting.

“Meh…core, powerhouse, whatever. They are just words, some work better with some clients than others.”

“Semantics are over-rated. As long as you can get your client to understand & move from the right places, you can use any words in existence. (or make up your own, who cares!)”

“I’m sick of semantics.”

More significant events in the wider world have also caused me to reflect on the significance of the vocabulary we choose to adopt. The news in the UK this morning was dominated by a knife attack in which one person was killed, and four other seriously injured. Reports focused on motivation – mental illness was referred to, but police weren’t ruling out the possibility of terrorism. I’m sure it was terrifying for the people caught up in it but, to me, labelling an attack like this as terrorism is redundant, except to make the population at large more fearful. You can easily find the statistics of how many people are killed in car-crashes, compared to the number killed in ‘terror’ attacks. Car crashes are significantly far more significant but our choice of words, or the media’s choice of words has a powerful impact on how we think and feel. I bet that the average Londoner feels more at risk of a terror attack than a car-crash – and that is a product of language creating fear.

In the same way that we may be manipulated, if not controlled, as a society, we might also manipulate the people that we teach by our use of words. The outcome won’t be a life or death situation but I believe I’ve met people who’s self-belief has been affected for years by the way that Pilates teachers and/or physical therapists have spoken to them.

Some people may be motivated by the thought that their “core is weak”, or their “glutes are weak”, or that their posture “is terrible”. Fine. But what of the people for whom this sort of language reinforces their sense that they have failed, or that (worse, perhaps) these are things that are beyond their control? For example, if I’m told that my glutes are weak, and them becoming weak has been beyond my control, might I not feel that I am not in control of how my body behaves? And thus powerless to help myself?

Anyone who teaches in the studio that my wife and I run is vigorously discouraged from using words like ‘hurt’, ‘painful’, ‘damage’, ‘dangerous’, ‘protect’. We now know that pain is a response to inputs to our nervous system, once our brain has filtered the inputs through its vast library of previous experiences – felt, seen, heard etc. If someone is told that, for example, they must “protect their spine” while doing an exercise, and they then feel an unfamiliar sensation in their back, how easy will it be for them to feel that they must have failed to protect their spine? And what might the consequences be for an unprotected spine? It sounds as though they might be rather fragile – is it safe for them to do normal activities outside their Pilates class if they’re so bad at protecting their spine?

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs provides a very useful model for teaching anything, not least Pilates. In our studio the goal for any student (I’m trying to break the habit of saying ‘client’) is self-actualisation – the fulfilment of potential – and I imagine and hope that this is true throughout the Pilates world.

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Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Esteem could be interchangeable with self-belief, which I would interpret as ’empowerment’. Our job is to empower our students in order that they can achieve their potential – we cannot achieve it for them. The words that we choose are critical for student empowerment.

When teaching, do you ever say “I want you to…”? I know how easy it is to do, but what has what I want got to do with it? It’s not about my experience – it’s about the student’s experience!

If you give instructions throughout the course of every repetition, does the student ever feel that they can do the movement alone? More importantly, does my choice of words make my student feel that they need me with them in order to do something well? If that’s the case, then self-actualisation will be very hard to achieve. If a student says that they don’t want to be taught by anyone else (rare, but it does happen), then I will have to reflect on what about my behaviour, and most likely the language that I’ve used, has led them to this disempowered conclusion. To me, creating this belief in a student might be a financial success, but is a teaching failure.

Another respondent to the ‘core’ article I wrote before said “Sometimes I think teachers over-think too much.” I agree, I’m sure that I might over-think but I would prefer to do that than to under-think. Especially as someone who is trying to be a teacher of movement. By being thoughtful about the words that I use (and intonation, rhythm etc), perhaps I can help my students to not over-think the movement.

To imagine that language is simple, or that words only ever mean what you intend them to is, at best, naive and, at worst, irresponsible.

 

“Motion is Primary”

June 16, 2016 — 1 Comment

More thoughts on Evolve Move Play,

inspired by an interview with Jaap Van der Wal.

I love it when two apparently distinct activities or experiences in my life seem to converge into a coherent whole. It seems to happen so frequently that, even though it’s all under the umbrella of Movement, it might be evidence of a subconscious communication (‘morphic resonance’, anyone?) Very often it reinforces or I learn something new about teaching Pilates, or movement generally.

Five years ago I was lucky enough to attend a lecture by Dr Van der Wal (“Not by muscles and ligaments alone: The importance of fascial architecture for understanding the locomotion system”). My interpretation of the content was much simpler than the title, and it transformed my view of anatomy completely – from the mechanistic view that I’d first been taught, to what I now recognise as a “process” view of anatomy.

This morning, the day after writing about Rafe Kelly’s ‘Evolve Move Play Movement Experience’, I was listening to an interview with Jaap, and everything started to feel connected.

Based on his study of human embryos, Jaap says “Motion is primary, form is secondary.” We move before we have a brain, apparently. Much as I enjoyed the Daniel Wolpert’s TED talk, I’m drawn to Jaap’s assertion that the brain is our organ of awareness, not of control. How else do you explain the reality of movement before we have a brain?

As I was listening to the interview I was reminded of Rafe talking about excessive verbal coaching lighting up our cognitive brain and thereby drawing focus away from the sub-cognitive part of our brain, which controls movement. We probably all know this already – thinking too much constipates movement. Rafe also talked about crawling, and the common phenomenon of adults adopting an ipsilateral pattern when trying to crawl (I’ve seen this many times in gyms and studios). His experience is that if you ask someone to crawl along the branch of a tree they never adopt an ipsilateral pattern – the conclusion being that a natural environment stimulates natural movement patterns. Motion is primary. Our bodies understand how to move if we provide the right environment.

How does this inform my Pilates teaching? While I won’t be teaching Pilates in trees, it reinforces my belief that the apparatus teaches, by providing an environment (much less daunting for some than the great outdoors) in which our bodies know how to move. It’s not about muscles, it’s about movement.

There’s more of a theme, too, when I think of the play-fighting we did with Rafe, and the film of Pilates (outdoors) wrestling with his friends. I think we can better understand Pilates, and teaching Pilates, by learning from a wide variety of sources.

 

stock-photo-8692744-apple-coreUnless you’re referring to apples, or microchips.

I was listening to Eyal Lederman discussing his article “The Myth of Core Stability” yesterday. I have taken issue with his article before now, for various reasons, not least because the article is essentially rubbishing something which Dr Lederman fails to define – without a clear definition, rubbishing the concept becomes rather easy. Now, however, it occurs to me that the underlying trouble is that no-one can define ‘core’, as it relates to human anatomy, in a way that will receive broad agreement.

Try an internet search for a definition. The core is the trunk. The core is the transverse abdominis, deep multifidi, pelvic floor and diaphragm. There is an upper core and a lower core. The core is the trans abs, obliques and lower paraspinals. There’s a front core and a back core. The core is from the neck to the knees. (For extra fun, try a search for ‘weak core’ – eye-opening stuff, to be sure).

Core is something that goes to work before we move, right? The nervous system sends a message to the core to tell it to stiffen prior to moving our limbs, and that way we don’t destabilise our lower backs – isn’t that how we work? And this happens in fractions of milliseconds. Maybe we ‘know’ this because EMG studies have been done that show the order of firing of muscles yet, as Dr Lederman points out, to get an accurate picture of what happens you would need to have an EMG for every muscle, for every movement, to really see what happens (and then you’d only be seeing what happens in that single subject). This would also assume that what we learn from anatomy books about the location and role of muscles is not only universal but also exactly accurate, and not simply a means of dis-integrating an integrated system.

Pilates, as I understand it, is about whole body movement. And with good reason – there are very few movements that are not whole body. You can lift you arm without moving anything else, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of your body doesn’t respond. Pilates is a holistic practice because movement is a holistic practice, even when you attempt to isolate joints or muscles. To paraphrase Ido Portal, when you tug on a shirt, you tug on the whole shirt. Our whole body responds to movement, as an integrated organism.

The idea of core relies on the belief that muscles are laid down in layers, from the skeleton outward to the skin. ‘Like the layers of an onion’, as one explanation of ‘core’ offered. This sounds like a mechanism, not the model of an integrated biological system. We are animals (however much we may desire to elevate ourselves above such lowly status) and we don’t move in the way that a mechanism that we could build would move.

What if (and I strongly believe this to be the case) your brain knows how to move your body far better than any externally derived input, and your belief in core activation actually inhibits your natural functioning? Did you manage without a core before you knew you might have one? If you have been injured, did you know about your core before or after the injury? Did your discovery of a core influence your injury recovery? Has anyone recovered from injury without discovering they may have a core?

To use the word ‘core’ in relation to movement, exercise, or health feeds a picture of a hierarchy and/or layering of muscles which, if out of order, will lead to almost certain dysfunction. We are animals. All things being well we move as animals do, as whole beings. What is the level of movement dysfunction amongst other mammals? Do they show signs of missing core exercises, of having poor core control? (What would you suggest if they did?)

Core is anti-Pilates. It is a term that I hear most from people who are describing their own inadequacies or failings, as told to them by either media or medical professional. The prescription, I would respectfully suggest, is more likely to be ‘more varied movement’, or ‘move with an awareness of the ground and your environment’ than it is ‘practice engaging your core’. Just as walking down the street ‘engaging your core’ will create constipated movement and breathing patterns, so will practicing Pilates as if it requires ‘core activation’.

What to say if you’re banned from saying ‘core’? Could this be a good moment to focus on the outcome (the movement, that is) that we want for our students/clients? Instead of an internal cue, what would be an externally oriented cue?

Thank you, as ever, for reading.

Or, (very long subtitle) the niggle in your back/shoulder/hip/neck/ankle etc. wasn’t caused by something you did – it was caused by everything that you do.

Or, no-one can fix you, except you.

humancar

It might be tempting to think that my body is a lot like my car – I put fuel in my car and use it to get from A to B, and I put fuel in my body and use it to move from A to B, amongst other things, as well. When a warning light came on in my car recently, I took it to the garage for diagnostics and repair. It turned out that the catalytic converter had reached the end of its life and needed replacing.

Last year a warning light came on in my body, that’s to say, my knee started to hurt and wouldn’t straighten fully. I took it for diagnostics and it turned out that it needed (surgical) repair. Here’s the crucial difference – my knee joint hadn’t reached the end of its life, I’d simply not been using it as well as I might have done. And I don’t know when that happened. I may have been using it poorly for 2 years, or 20 years. I’ve done more sitting in the last few years that we’ve had a studio and I’ve been a manager as well as a teacher, and I used to run relatively high mileage with no understanding of good running technique around 17/18 years ago. Either or both of these things could have contributed but really my knee problem was probably a result of everything I have (and haven’t) done for decades.

I can drive too fast, take speed-bumps too hard, ride the brakes or the clutch and cause components of my car to wear out faster than they should. Then, if I’ve got the money, I can get those parts replaced and carry on as before. There’s no harm done, except to my wallet. I won’t have changed the structure of the chassis, nor altered the way that it processes fuel and oil, there won’t be scars left where parts have been replaced.

My body, however, is an organic, dynamic (on a good day) system. It’s continually responding and adapting to its environment.

en+vi+ron+ment: Ecology. the external surroundings in which a plant or animal lives, which tend to influence its development and behaviour. (We might simplify this to place and time).

Somehow environment isn’t a broad enough term – I like to think of inputs instead/as well.

in+put: Computer technol. a. the data fed into a computer from a peripheral device. b. the devices and operations involved in transferring the data.

In human terms there are some very obvious inputs, like oxygen, water and food. There are visual, auditory, olfactory and thermal inputs. There is the, largely, unfelt input of gravity. There are inputs of light, in addition to visual inputs – daylight, dusk etc. There are the inputs from my emotional response to place or time. And, with a significant nod to Katy Bowman, there are inputs of forces, or loads constantly being applied to our body, whether we are in motion or static. Even asleep, the surface you are sleeping on is a load on your body, and we are constantly adapting to our environment/inputs.

Current pain research also tells us that our memories of past experiences and stories we have heard also act, if not as an input, then as a filter through which certain inputs are passed. So they will influence the way we respond to those inputs. (Am I making the case for our bodies being quite different from cars yet?)

To paraphrase Katy Bowman, “No-one is ‘out of shape’. Everyone is exactly the shape that their inputs have caused their body to adapt to.” We are the product of everything that we do. And to paraphrase Kelly Starrett, “We do not randomly break”. If my knee cartilage wears out, it’s not because I carry the weak knee cartilage gene, its because of how I’ve used (misused) my knee. We could argue that there’s some luck involved, inasmuch as I may not have known I was abusing my knee, but I’m still responsible.

When the catalytic converter was replaced in my car, my car was fixed. End of story. On the other hand, the excellent surgeon, who trimmed my torn meniscus, did not fix my knee. He did the work necessary to allow me to fix my knee (if we can truly say ‘fixed’ in relation to bodies/body parts). Unfortunately, the Western model of health supports the idea that your doctor fixes you, strongly reinforced by the pharmaceutical industry. The chiropractor/osteopath/physiotherapist/Pilates teacher that helps you with your problem does not fix you – they help you to fix yourself. The magic comes from your own body, and your own nervous system. There is no external magic, however good your favourite therapist/teacher may be. THERE IS NO EXTERNAL MAGIC, THE MAGIC HAPPENS INSIDE YOU (perhaps with the guidance of your therapist or teacher).

You cannot take your body to someone else to get it fixed, you have to fix it yourself.