Archives For whole body health

Eve Gentry asked the question “Do you teach concepts, or do you teach exercises? Are you a teacher, or are you a conveyor belt?” She went on to say “If you’re a conveyor belt then, sooner or later the mechanism will get stuck.”

You are probably familiar with the expression “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; show him how to catch a fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Eve Gentry was saying essentially the same thing, and this reflects how we want to teach people at our studio – the exercises are expressions of concepts, or principles. Our goal for our clients, our ‘offering’ if you like, is ‘whole body health’, in keeping with Joseph’s intentions. We are not interested in making people better at Pilates, but rather in improving all aspects of their health that movement can influence (and being ‘better’ at the exercises will be one manifestation of this). We will help people to move better (and, by extension do the exercises better) if we have explained the principles behind the exercise, and how to apply them.

If we fall into the trap of teaching people choreography – something which stands alone – then we teach them to be better at that specific movement. We miss the opportunity to make connection between exercises that reinforce movement principles, and therefore the carry-over into other activities.

For example, Clams might be considered an exercise done side-lying with your hips at 45 degrees, and your knees at 90 degrees, in which you target your gluteus medius by reaching your knee toward the ceiling. Or we could consider it as a movement of contrasting stability and mobility, similar to the way we lift our legs for the Hundred, in which the stability of your trunk enhances the mobility of your hip. Instead of being The Clam, part of the side-lying repertoire, it is another movement (one of many in Pilates) of stabilising your trunk against the load of your limb/s.

You may be lucky, and find that something that you say is a lightbulb moment for someone that you’re teaching for the first time. On the whole, if we are to be successful, we have to build relationships with the people that we teach, so that we can understand each other better. Naturally, we have to maintain clear boundaries, and you must set those according to what feels right for you. At the same time, to learn more about the people we teach we have to give something of ourselves how can you learn what their interests are? What makes them tick, what do they care about? Small snippets of information may provide valuable clues as to how best to communicate a specific idea to them.

Part of maintaining healthy functioning relationships is the ability to let go of your plan, to be able to react to the other person/people in the relationship. I’m sure that you know this from your own life, and it’s true for teaching, too.

To approach your class with a plan is useful, but if your plan is a sequence of exercises, with specific repetitions, and customary verbal cues, do you leave yourself the space to respond to your students? Does teaching your class according to your plan actually get in the way of you being present, and seeing what is happening? Can you let go of the plan if it’s the thing which determines the structure and flow of your class?

If you are teaching principles, or concepts, then letting go of the plan becomes relatively easy. Instead of a set sequence of exercises we can teach to a theme; or have a single exercise as a goal – ‘I’m going to teach the Push Up today, so I’m going to build up to it with all the different components that I think are crucial to the movement, informed by how everyone is moving today.’

If we recognise exercises for the concepts that they teach, then choosing them ‘on the fly’ becomes easy. If the group needs reminding of efficient weight-bearing through their hands then we can do something specific to that, if shoulder stability needs addressing there are plenty of tools for that, if it’s midline stability that needs the focus…well, Pilates has lots for that. All of

these will be great preparations for the Push Up, but they’re tools in the box, instead of being a plan I’ve committed to. Then, we can teach people what they need, instead of what we decided the day before that we wanted to teach.

Eisen and Friedman, in their book published in 1984, gave us the 6 principles that most will recognise as the principles of Pilates. However, the concepts that we are talking about teaching are the ‘how’ of position and movement that will help to achieve some of those 6 principles.

For instance, how does someone achieve ‘Control’ in their movement? Controlled movement is a product of joints fitting together well, and efficient transfer of weight/load through our structure. This is what we need to teach: how to achieve joint congruency and efficient transfer of load – this is the ’how’ of moving well, and therefore the how of executing Pilates exercises efficiently.

If we talk about ‘centre’, ‘cylinder’ or ‘core’, what do we mean? We may have a very clear physical sensation that fits with one, or all, of these abstract terms, which might be a product of lots of practice, anatomical understanding and kinaesthetic awareness. If our clients lack these, how can we explain it to them? And how can we explain it to them in a way that becomes repeatable for them, and useful in their everyday activities? Will it be sufficient to tell them to ‘engage’ something or other? How will they know, and you know, if they are really doing the right thing? What measure do they have for ‘am I using my centre or not’?

We want to teach people in a way that gives them skills they can reproduce outside the class, and to encourage their reflexive responses – so they don’t need to be told to ‘switch on’ or ‘engage’, their actions and environment trigger the appropriate support automatically.

So what are the principles that we should be teaching?

Grounding

Unless we are relaxing, to create stability we need to have a firm base of support. If we’re standing, the action of pressing our feet into the floor will help to organise our joints in a stable position. The same when sitting. If I’m lying down, doing a Pelvic Lift/Bridge perhaps, my shoulder girdle and my feet need to press firmly into the floor to create stability; if we’re doing the Hundred, our mid-backs need to anchor to the floor, as well as the back of our pelvis, to create stability. We can teach these positions relatively easily, without having to resort either to naming muscles, or to abstract concepts (core, centre etc).

Centration

For efficient transfer of load through our bodies, and for the longevity of our joints, we need to maintain congruency, or centration of our joints while we move. Meaning that the articular surfaces of the joints maintain as much contact as possible as we move – they fit together well. The action of grounding may well stimulate centration, along with Kelly Starrett’s concept of torque farming, particularly in relation to the ball and socket joints. Keep in mind that the external rotation of ‘torque farming’ has to occur at the ball and socket joint. The distal part of the limb (forearm/shin) needs to be counter-spiralling in internal rotation to facilitate congruency of all the relevant joints.

A joint that is not congruent might still be stable, but not in a way that involves all the soft tissues around the joint working together. You can test this on all fours, feeling for yourself the difference between relaxing and pushing your hands and shins into the ground – notice how the rest of your body responds, not just your hands and shins.

Elongation

Of course, we always want to encourage length in every exercise that we teach – it’s almost synonymous with Pilates. Benjamin Degenhardt likes to ask this question, in every exercise: “Do you have space for your joints and organs?” If we answer “No”, then we’re not in a good position. Once again, the action of grounding may well assist in giving us more space (and putting our joints into better positions).

Compression/Decompression

We need compression (not to be confused with shortening, or crunching) of our joints, to lubricate and stimulate them, but this should be coupled with decompression, so that there is a pump-like action working on the joint. We need one to achieve the other,  the same way that we need to go further into extension to facilitate flexion, and vice versa. So, for example, if someone is habitually anteriorly tilting their pelvis, rather than trying to stretch them in hip extension, they need to be taken further into hip flexion in order to be able to then go into more extension/posterior tilt.

To help reinforce the teaching of these principles, the following ideas might be helpful: The developmental pathway of human babies includes these actions:

Push; Pull; Reach; Yield; Grasp; Release

These could form the basis of all movement teaching, since they are innate to our development – we are ‘wired’ to do these. Using these words when you teach may well take care of a lot of the reflexive responses that we want to encourage, without the need for ambiguous or opaque verbal cues. Students can use their environment (whether it’s the mat or the apparatus) to learn better movement patterns.

In athletic development the fundamental movements are considered to be:

Push; Pull; Rotate; Raise/lower centre of mass; Locomote

This is to say, for decades these movements have been recognised to be fundamental to human athletic endeavours and, particularly since they are not activity specific, we can assume that they will serve our students/clients well in their day to day activities.

(These and other ideas will form part of a forthcoming workshop that is focused on identifying the practices and habits of world class teachers. I’d love to hear from you if you would like to participate in a pilot of this workshop).

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CrossFit > Pilates?

November 20, 2018 — Leave a comment

Though I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard Pilates teacher suggesting that CrossFit is good for business because “They’ll injure themselves and then come to us” (or words to that effect), too often lately I’ve had to ask myself “Is CrossFit doing a better job of carrying Joseph Pilates’ flame than we are as Pilates teachers?

Or, more simply put: Could CrossFit be the new Pilates?

Full disclosure: though I have been through the CrossFit Level One Trainer course I’ve never advertised myself as a CF coach, and my certificate lapsed about a year ago. Why then should I care about, or pay any attention to CrossFit? The simplest answer is that I’m reminded from time to time, that I feel I have more in common with CF coaches than I do with my Pilates teaching peers.

To be fair, it’s easier to define CF than Pilates – Greg Glassman, CrossFit’s founder, conveniently wrote “Fitness in 100 words”, which does a decent job of concisely describing the CF lifestyle. Us Pilates teachers do have “Your Health” & “Return to Life” to refer to but, as well as being much less concise, I suspect that many of us have lost sight of what he wrote about holistic health, not to mention ruling out some of his original exercises for one reason or another.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to draw some comparisons between his writing and Glassman’s 100 words: it’s clear that Joseph was interested in much more than exercise. It’s also clear, from archival footage, that his own movement practice strayed well off the mat, and the confines of Reformer or Cadillac. Joseph was ‘selling’ health and I believe that, as Pilates teachers, we should be ambassadors for health, with movement as our primary tool. I suspect that this is what many CrossFit coaches and gym owners would say that they do, too.

So much for trying to lay out the similarities of the two practices. There are specific reasons for me to have had this heretical thought that CF may be doing our job better.

If you’ve been here (reading this blog) before, you may know that I believe pull-ups are a reasonable thing for Pilates teachers to have within their capacity. The broad scale rejection of this idea is as disappointing as it is perplexing and, most importantly, makes me suspect that, as a profession, we have low expectations or aspirations for the people we teach for the reason that we have low expectations for ourselves.

A couple of weeks back I had the good fortune to spend a couple of days at Carl Paoli’s ‘Freestyle Insider’ seminar that was attended by mostly CF coaches and other ‘functional fitness’ professionals. In a lunchtime conversation, with 2 men & 3 women, I mentioned this resistance to pull-ups amongst my peers to universal bafflement. For these movement teachers pull-ups are amongst the more basic skills that they would expect to be coaching. Furthermore, if you have a look at CF’s social media feeds, you will soon see amputees finding ways to do pull-ups (and more amazing feats), AND examples of imaginative scaling of the exercise for people who are not yet able to do a pull-up, so that they needn’t be excluded from their group class.

For sure CF does a better job than we do of promoting community, which is surely a key feature of health, particularly in these times of increased awareness of mental health. I’ve rarely been made to feel as welcome in the many Pilates studios that I’ve visited as I have in any of the CrossFit boxes I’ve been to. I’m sure there are notable exceptions but, if you’d like to feel universally supported in pursuing your best effort then CrossFit is probably a better bet than a Pilates class. (And please don’t think that it makes me happy to write that – it truly makes me rather sad.)

Another specific reason for my pro-CF assertion occurred when I was writing an article for a Pilates newsletter (also published here). I was using the opportunity to suggest that Pull-ups, Pistol squats and Hollow rocks ‘should’ be within a Pilates teacher’s capacity. Early feedback from the editor questioned the validity of Pistol squats as a test for all of us, in part because he has an arthritic hip. This prompted me to contact my CrossFit coach/box owner friend to ask his views on coaching pistols for someone with arthritis. His first observation was along the lines of “He needs to clean up his diet”. Not thoughts about scaling back, doing some sort of preparatory gentle mobility exercise, but an idea based around lifestyle. Even as I write it this doesn’t sound very momentous but it really struck me at the time as significant – I don’t think I’ve ever met a Pilates teacher who would be likely to have a similar response. Obviously I’ve not met them all, and it may well be that Sham (coach friend in question) is an exceptional CrossFit coach yet I still feel that it speaks volumes about how we approach HEALTH.

In short, I think that us Pilates teachers may have a more myopic view of health than Joseph had, and the average CrossFit coach has.

Please tell me I’m wrong. Thanks.

The longer I teach, the more interested I become in the use of, and the meaning or implication of specific words or phrases (I was called out, quite rightly, last week for saying, in response to my client’s effort to achieve the position I was asking for “We’ll settle for that” which, of course, sounds a lot like “that’s shit but probably the bets we can hope for just now”. Yes, I was ashamed).

Lately, something has caused me to ponder the noun ‘workout’. Dictionary.com indicates that, while the phrase ‘work out’ (meaning to solve a problem) has been in use since 1600, ‘workout’ as a noun has only been in use for the last 100 years or so. I believe that, in the UK, we use the phrase ‘work out’ in the same way that ‘figure out’ might be more commonly used in the US. I don’t remember ‘to workout’ being a description of exercising 20 or 30 years ago – it feels like a relatively recent import to the UK.

My understanding of the noun ‘workout’ is that it refers to a combination of exercises, or perhaps the same activity with some variation thrown in – I don’t think you can go for a run at the same steady tempo and call it a ‘workout’, but I may be misguided. I believe that this sort of approach puts us in the territory of exercising to burn calories, or in pursuit of ‘being fit’, as if regularly running 5K, or doing 40 pushups, or 50 crunches etc. etc. is truly making you more adaptable. (Fitness is, after all, a measure of your ability to adapt to changes to your internal and external environment).

I think a ‘workout’ is something that you can do once or twice a week to tick the box of pursuing a healthy lifestyle – you put your symbolic “I’m exercising” clothes on, and do whatever’s planned for that day. The success of the workout might be measured by how much weight was managed, or how fast you did it, or perhaps how tired you felt afterwards, how sore you were the following day; or maybe even how many calories the machine you ‘worked out’ on says you burned. This kind of ‘workout’ can definitely be done with headphones on, or in front of a TV screen.

For sure this is better than doing nothing – if we’re lucky there may be some social interaction involved (which might have even more health benefits than the workout); and movement of some kind is probably always better than none.

In the Pilates context I have heard it said that ‘the Reformer is the workout’ (the Cadillac and Wundachair being the apparatus you use to facilitate the Reformer work, as appropriate). The same might be said for the mat, as both the Reformer and the mat share a specific order of exercises. So, accepting that Pilates contains ‘workouts’, can we make these into opportunities to ‘work out’, too? That’s to say, can we make them learning experiences that help us to understand ourselves better? I think this might be just another way to talk about ‘mind-body’ exercise though I think there might be room to go beyond “This exercise has my complete, undivided attention” and to solve problems for ourselves – “I’ve worked out why I couldn’t control the carriage when attempting a Teaser on the Reformer”, for example.

I recently heard Benjamin Degenhardt talking about the value of standing work at the start of a mat class, as a way to self-assess – How do I feel today? What do I need? How stiff/loose am I? We aim to incorporate the same few movements in every mat class at our studio, for the purpose of this kind of ‘working out’ – so that the warm-up is a self-assessment, as well as a chance to create heat and increase circulation.

Maybe this is everyone’s experience of Pilates and I’m wasting our time in writing this. Then again, I think that this kind of learning may require the teacher to ‘get out of the way’ to some degree, or at least to recognise when and how to show the way to a discovery instead of spoon-feeding, and that’s not always easy. Recently I’ve found myself saying “Find a way to…” quite often when I’m teaching, and this doesn’t always go down well. I can see or feel that this is met with “it’s your job to tell me how”. I believe that, if they can find a way, this learning will stay with them much longer than my cues might. I also think that Joseph designed the apparatus to help us ‘find a way’.

Some of my favourite learning experiences of the last year have been in Fighting Monkey workshops (you can read about them here, and here, if you fancy), in interactions with other participants. A lot of Fighting Monkey practice involves a ‘movement situation’ with a partner. As the situation changes, and you change partners, there’s a lot of working out to do. Every new partner represents a new environment, and a rich opportunity for learning about yourself. This kind of learning can be wild, stressful, breathtaking, magical and exhilarating, and it may be too much for some people.

In Pilates the environment might not change very often – the apparatus is the apparatus; the spring resistance is the same from one day to the next. However, the exercises can also represent a changing environment, albeit one that is inherently more controlled than Fighting Monkey practice. (It’s also worth remembering that Pilates himself was given to devising quirky wrestling games that he played with friends or students – I’ve seen film footage of wrestling with a pole, and head wrestling.)

So Pilates can offer us a relatively safe space to problem-solve, and to learn about ourselves: how we move; how we think; how our mood or personality influences our movement.

Can you get more ‘work out’ out of your ‘workout’ (whether it’s on a mat or reformer, or with kettlebells, a barbell or ballet barre…) ? I’d love to hear….

 

I’ve made attempts in the past to write about what it means to be a Pilates teacher and, happily, my understanding has grown in the last few years such that it seems worth revisiting.

If one’s view of Pilates is that it’s a series of exercises (possibly with some variations, contemporary ‘improvements’ etc), then I think being a teacher is probably pretty straightforward. However, as Eve Gentry said, “you can know every exercise, on every piece of equipment, but that does not mean that you know Pilates.” Because Pilates is a concept and if you’re teaching exercises then you’re not really teaching Pilates – you have to teach concepts to be a Pilates teacher.

So what are the concepts? I find it simplest to express them as questions, such as:

Do you know where you body is in space?

Are you able to organise your body in space? (Meaning you have to organise parts of your body relative to each other, as well as to your environment)

And, as expressions of the above:

Can you stabilise your spine while you move your extremities?

Can you sequentially articulate your spine?

However, these are not unique to Pilates – I know of CrossFit coaches and martial artists who do the same thing, and I’m sure there are yoga teachers and others from all sorts of disciplines (dance, gymnastics etc) with similar intentions.

So what separates Pilates from other disciplines? The core concept that we try to adhere to in our studio is that the practice of Pilates is for Your Health – it was not an accident that this was the title of Joseph Pilates’ first book, and the text makes it clear that his interests were a lot broader than ‘can you stabilise your spine while blah blah blah’.

I cannot speak for the other disciplines mentioned but I believe that this is what CrossFit is about, too. It’s hard to be involved with CrossFit and not hear discussions of nutrition, sleep quality, sun exposure and circadian rhythms (not to mention that their crusade against the sugar industry is truly laudable). The only time that I’ve heard sleep, sun exposure and circadian rhythms mentioned in a Pilates training context is when a visiting lecturer on my wife’s teacher training course is at our studio (she’s a big fan of cold exposure, too, and she truly glows with health).

I don’t believe that being able to differentiate oneself from teachers of other disciplines is a necessary part of being a Pilates teacher, but I do think it probably helps to have some clarity about what we can offer, and where we might fit in the grand scheme of exercise practices/movement disciplines. Perhaps something that separates me as a Pilates teacher from my friends who are CrossFit coaches is that I’m more likely to be approached by people who feel or are ‘broken’ in some way. And, I suspect, that many people who take up CrossFit have a clearer idea of what they’re getting into than a lot of people who may have been advised by their doctor/osteopath/physio etc. that they would benefit from Pilates.

So I guess I’m aligning myself with a notion of a Pilates teacher as a health coach with a strong movement bias. To be effective, I need to be clear (both in my mind and in speaking) about what I believe I can offer; I need to know my shit, that is, the repertoire, safe use of the apparatus, first aid, basic musculoskeletal anatomy, common conditions affecting that anatomy, implications of various mental health conditions, the biology of chronic pain, the physical effects of pregnancy/post-natal, and a basic grasp of the demands of a wide variety of sports and other activities.

I’m sure that I’ve forgotten something/s on the list of ‘stuff I need to know’ but it doesn’t much matter because, when it comes to teaching, what I need to know pales in comparison to my ability to communicate. To communicate with anyone who might walk through the door. Going back to Eve Gentry, you might know all the exercises and, yes, you might understand Pilates inside out, but if you’re not able to communicate with the person in front of you, none of that matters.

I’ve been lucky enough to attend a few Fighting Monkey workshops, and to discover that much of their movement practice is aimed at being a better communicator – I certainly have a lot more to learn, but I know that I had to look beyond the narrow confines of the Pilates world to confront this idea (more of this to follow).

Before I can communicate well I have to be able to reflect – I have to get to know myself better (and how fantastic that a movement practice can facilitate that!), and I have to have a growth mindset. I have to be willing to embrace my failures and find the seed of discovery within each one. I have to acknowledge my own fallibility. I have to ask myself tricky questions like: “What did I do that provoked that reaction?”.

To communicate well I have to be fully present – I have to feel grounded (and more on this to follow, too!). I have to understand the way that I move, my own compensations and limitations. I have to have a degree of confidence that includes being comfortable with what I know and what I don’t know. And I think I have to love what I’m doing. These are the selfish elements of communicating, or just half of the conversation, because I haven’t taken the other person into account yet.

For this I need to be curious, and I have to watch and LISTEN. What are the people I’m going to be teaching telling me (with words, tone, posture, facial expression and movement) before they’ve set foot in the studio? I may have goals and objectives for their session and I’d better be ready to let them go, based upon what I see and hear. After all, it’s not as though I’m an actor or musician whom they’ve come to see perform. So it doesn’t matter how great a session plan I have, how ‘good’ my verbal cueing, imagery and tactile cueing is (The answer to ‘what’s the best cue?’ is always ‘it depends’) – all of those things have to be right for the person in front of me, on that day, at that time. so I need to do my very best to recognise the signs that I’m given to help me decide how to proceed. Listening also means being alert to the things that don’t get said, reading between the lines – clearly this has to be done with caution, and sensitivity – this is perhaps a mixture of intuition and speculation, and both of these things should be treated with a degree of caution (and cultivated over hours and years of working with people).

I was about to write: ‘If you’re a Pilates teacher reading this, and all of your clients/students are coming to your classes to work on their beach body, you may not recognise this.’ But I realised that the job is no different, even if the responsibilities may be less than I’m thinking. There have been a number of times that I’ve been truly humbled by the trust that a new client has put in me – I’m not medically trained (I just teach movement, for God’s sake!…and I’m male), yet the willingness that many people, women in particular, (when explaining why they’re taking up Pilates) have had to declare a variety of personal/intimate problems or challenges made me very aware of  how vulnerable some people may be making themselves in taking up Pilates. (For example, particularly if you’re a male teacher, you’d do well to know what the terminology around vaginal prolapse treatment/surgery is…..)

So if I have a new client who has been diagnosed with a “slipped disc”, and who has made it clear that they’re nervous about exercising, it doesn’t matter how many workshops I’ve taken, how many books I’ve read, or how many wonderful exercises I have up my sleeve, if they don’t feel safe. Which brings us back to my communication – everything that I’ve learned from the person I’m teaching – body language, what they say, how they say it, diagnoses etc. all has to inform my body language, what I say, and how I say it. Do they need more felt experience, or more explanation? Do they need some science? Or do they need humour? Can I relate what I need to say to what they’ve told me about their interests, or their job? How do I meet their needs and still stay on track with what I believe they need?

I believe that Pilates should empower people. I don’t believe that teachers ‘fix’ anything, nor do I believe that Pilates ‘fixes’ anything. The ‘fix’, whether it’s movement, mindset or something else, comes from the individual. Our job as teachers is to facilitate that self-healing, or self-discovery. If I am to be empowering, my communication also needs to encourage the idea that the client/student has the answers within them, rather than that I will give them the answers. If you believe that you have the answers, that you are the magician doing the magic to them, you may have clients for life, but I don’t think you’re teaching them Pilates.

If you’re anything like me, this is already a lot to take on board. Not daunting – it’s wonderful, but definitely something to be taken very seriously. I never understood the Pilates teacher who applied for a physiotherapy degree because she didn’t want to be “just a Pilates teacher” – like it was a bit of a Mickey Mouse profession. I may not have the knowledge of anatomy and physiology that a physiotherapist has (nor should I) but I do have a professional responsibility to be able to communicate clearly with a referring medical professional. Which leads me neatly to one more part of my responsibility – I have to be able to say “I don’t know”. It’ll definitely promote me to do some research, but it may be the greatest responsibility of all to be clear about my scope of practice AND to acknowledge what I don’t know.

 

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.