SPACE PILATES? NOPE

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As a Pilates teacher I say a lot of odd things in an attempt to reach my students. For the arm position in Swan Dive on the Reformer: “hold a laundry basket full of fluffy, warm clothes!” In Long Stretch: “You’re a battering ram, knocking down the castle doors.” For Double Leg Stretch: “Banana! Now meatball!” [1] Words are metaphors and have different impacts upon different communities, so it takes searching to reach the right words for the right people. After all, as Pilates Elder Kathy Grant once opined,”why would I use downtown words to reach an uptown person?”

So it was in this spirit that I opined a few years ago that there was such a thing as yoga in outer space, but no Pilates. And in the intervening years I’ve realized this to be not only true (okay not literally true… unless without my knowledge they’re rocking Adho Mukha Svānāsana on the International Space Station which would be crazy cool), but also pointing directly at the heart of what Pilates is and does best.

Perhaps Contrology is simply the practice of learning how to move in harmony with gravity.

(DON’T) STOP PULLING ME DOWN

We’re going to live our whole lives on a planet defined by a gravitational pull towards the earth’s core. That’s a massive, constant force acting on our bodies, our joints, ligaments, organs, muscles, and bones from the time we’re little babies figuring out how to interact with the world to the days our deteriorating bodies strive to stick around for a few days longer. As much as breath is our first and last action on earth, gravity is our constant grounding and context. The good news is that this gravitational compression is one of the major ways our bodies learn and develop: compression creates a response to lengthen and decompress from the muscles, while the weight builds bone density and neuromuscular equilibrium. And that’s not all! Thanks to evolution, we’re pre-programmed with amazing reflex actions that give us a leg up on this gravitational battle. Reflexes such as the Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex bring our heads up above our spines to lessen the load below and begin to buff up bone density and muscle tone. Reaching and pulling reflexes like the Protective Extension Equilibrium Response and Flexor Withdrawl Reflex help us not to crash and burn while we figure out how to crawl and eventually walk with the powerful force of gravity acting upon us. [2] We’re inherently stocked with a formidable quarrel of these reflexes, and they’re all in relationship to gravity.

Yet even we’ve this cheat sheet of reflexes and positive benefits from gravity, few humans benefit from an early, practical education in how to move on this gravitational planet. We get by through trial and error, questionable advice from our elders, and by accomplishing tasks through the shortest and easiest paths possible. This means that by the time we’ve reached adulthood we’ve accumulated a bizarre patchwork toolkit for functioning in gravity. It also means that we’re ill-equipped to handle many situations we haven’t previously experienced – accruing damage, uncertainty, and injury when we can’t handle the new task. Without education in how to build a productive relationship with gravity we just get pulled down.

JUST BECAUSE THEY LOOK ALIKE…

I flirt with danger when talking contrarily about yoga in this space (pun totally intended); as someone who has had an off-again, on-again relationship with Hatha, Ashtanga, and Kundalini yoga over the past twenty years I don’t have an expert’s perspective on this magnificently holistic practice. I certainly mean no disrespect. But I feel safe in opining that Asana practice is not defined by gravity: it’s much more defined by relationships within the body and the bodymind.

Take one of many possible examples, Navasana, or “boat pose.” [3] It’s a deep, V-shaped position somewhat resembling an upside-down downward facing dog. It requires balance, abdominal strength, and an open back and hamstrings. But – theoretically – it could be executed fully without the forces of gravity acting upon it. It would surely feel different, and the challenge of holding the torso and legs up would be lessened, but that’s about it. In contrast consider the Pilates Teaser – which on the outside looks quite similar to Navasana. Yet it moves dynamically, never stopping. It requires a forceful counterweighting when rolling up from the mat against gravity, keeping the toes at the level of the eyes throughout. Every moment of a teaser implicitly asks and re-asks the question: “how do I deal with this my relationship to gravity? How do my legs? My head? How does all of me figure out how to rise instead of fall?”

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Navasana v. Teaser – fight to the death

In this light there’s no Rolling Back, Short Spine Massage, Pull-Up, Push Up, mat work, Chair work, or much of anything else left in Pilates without the forces of gravity. Even when – like Navasana vs. Teaser – the outer shape of an exercise could be mimicked without gravity, the inner “two-way stretch” – the tensegrity of the exercise – would be lost, turning it into a false semblance of Contrology. [4]

Obviously yoga is practiced in gravity so relationships to it are certainly present – but the practice isn’t focused or defined by these mechanics. Instead yoga applies consciousness, breath, and flow to move between precisely engineered poses meant to reflect the entire range of muscular stretch while aligning safely through the joints, bringing the mind and the holistic  lifestyle along for the ride. [5] In essence, a solid Urdhvamukha Shvanasana (“Up-Dog” Asana) could be done lying supine, standing against a wall, leaning back over the edge of a table, or even as a chin-stand; the stretch and asana don’t inherently change with the relationship to gravity.

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WHAT DID PILATES HAVE AGAINST ASTRONAUTS?

Pilates’ unique genius allowed us to hack the habitual relationship we have to gravity by creating a large repertoire of exercises done lying down, and then adding or subtracting spring tension to dial the forces up or down. Can’t stand up under the full load of gravity? Well then feel the soft mat under the spine and figure out proper alignment. Can’t handle a squat? Aha! Here’s some leg springs that give you a lesser challenge to practice those body-weight squats. Compressive forces creating dangerous spinal situations? Here’s a Roll-Back Bar to articulate and decompress the spine without the responsibility of holding it up on your own. The thing about gravity – and the Pilates springs – is: they inherently do not change; you do. In that relationship gravity/springs will always have the same tension and power – but you can grow, change, lengthen, and learn by interacting with them.

Many Contrology neophytes think – logically but incorrectly – that adding spring tension adds difficulty. But springs simply add or subtract from the forces of gravity on the body. Four heavy springs while performing Footwork on the Reformer isn’t terribly different from doing a squat, but try doing it on a single spring (or no springs, if you’re particularly masochistic): it’s both difficult in an entirely new constellation of muscles, but also shifts the forces to recruit new skills and perceptions. By adeptly acting with and against our various spring tensions in Pilates we learn new conscious and unconscious skills that help us fully engage with the rest of our lives lived in gravity.

A good Contrology practice makes us masters of gravity.

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1. Thanks for Karina Sahlin – a fabulous teacher I used to work alongside – for inspiring that one.

2. I was fortunate to learn a lot about the reflex actions back in Graduate School studying Body Mind Centering under Erika Berland. It predated my exposure to Pilates but affects my perspective on the Method daily. For more info about BMC and the reflexes, check out: http://www.bodymindcentering.com

3. Sometimes spelled Naukasasa; Sanskrit and English aren’t always friends. Honestly, I don’t see how it resembles a boat.

4. “Tensegrity, tensional integrity or floating compression, is a structural principle based on the use of isolated components in compression inside a net of continuous tension, in such a way that the compressed members… do not touch each other and the prestressed tensioned members… delineate the system spatially.” (Wikipedia)

5. And if yoga is practiced as it was initially intended before hitting the West, it’s so much more than Asana practice. Pranayama, Mantra, Santosha, Dharma, and other aspects are intended to interrelate in a full yoga practice. Somewhere in its journey to the West many of these practices were occluded, if not abandoned altogether.

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HEADS UP!

Next month – 2-5pm on Saturday, April 8 – I’ll be rolling out a new workshop, “Heads Up!: Joseph Pilates’ Head and Neck Repertoire!”

As a former boxer, self-defense teacher, and all-around tough-guy, Joseph Pilates knew the importance of a strong and supple neck; without it, a punch to the jaw would result in a broken neck! Over the long years of his amazing innovations he developed and honed a great number of head, neck and shoulder protocols meant to provide his students with both the strength and the flexibility to be free of neck pain and dysfunction. Yet sadly many of these exercises have faded from modern Pilates as our culture has become less mobile and more afraid to move. This workshop – based in current movement science with attention to individual neck and shoulder pathologies – will share the full repertoire of Mr. Pilates neck exercises and bring a new understanding of how we can keep our heads up, moving, and free of pain.

In this three-hour workshop participants will warm up with a brief, full-body mat class, learn the fundamental movement and anatomy of the neck and shoulder complex, observe and practice exercises on the Reformer, Cadillac, Wunda Chair, Tower, and with props such as the Magic Circle, towel, and Neck Stretcher designed to build resilience, ease, and confidence in the head, neck and shoulders. Time will also be provided to workshop specific questions and problems.

The workshop is geared both for teachers and practitioners of any movement practice: yogis, personal trainers, bodyworkers, or just those who have a curiosity to learn more about their heads and necks in the context of the Pilates Method.

If you’re interested in joining us more information can be found at BodyTonic Pilates Gymnasium.

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PMA 2015 – THE LOWS

What follows is my second collection of ruminations on the 2015 Pilates Method Alliance conference in Denver. I apologize for the delay: I was cast in a play last minute that has taken up most of my time since then. There were many great things about the conference and I’m truly grateful for the opportunity to have participated. But as someone who cares deeply about my industry, my students, and the Pilates method I find it necessary to take a few shots across the proverbial bow of Contrology’s greatest offenders.

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COMMUNITY

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Mean Girls, 2004. Close enough.

A teacher of mine once said, “people define themselves both by the groups they join and by the groups they refuse to join.” As a performer, an artist, an aerialist, and a teacher I’ve never had a community of peers, partly because of my choice to distance myself. I’m always a bit too ambivalent to drink the proverbial Cool-Aid and get in on the group hugs. I say this not to dwell in self-pity or disrespect toward community; it’s just how I roll. Although my separation sits me on the sidelines it also provides me with interesting perspective from which to observe the actions of the groups I skirt. At the PMA I was disturbed by how social and professional interactions resembled those of bickering teenagers: cliques, internecine backstabbing remarks, brown-nosing, nepotism, and plain old rudeness were as present as in any high school. In saying this I do not intend to police the personal relationships between those with intimate history; we all have enemies and friends and it would be foolish and dishonest to pretend otherwise. But I experienced levels of facetiousness, discourtesy, and ego I’ve rarely seen in my three decades and change on this planet.

Pilates is an industry in which instructors purport to teach self-knowledge, self-discipline, internal balance, poise, fortitude, and holistic health, yet many teachers – in the most professional of settings, no less – seem unable or unwilling to practice what they preach. Beneath all the tucking, scooping, and cueing these are the “meta-lessons” of Pilates: how to be good to your own body, mind, and heart so you can go out into the world and be a better person to others. Although I fail as much as the next person I at least attempt to act on what I teach every day: compassion, listening, curiosity, respect for myself and others, and belief in each person’s potential to succeed. If the Pilates industry does not feel that it’s members should share in such embodiments perhaps it’s best that I remain standing on the outside.

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CONSUMERISM

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So.

Much.

Crap.

It’s challenging to make a decent living as a Pilates teacher and the desire to reach new markets, wider demographics, and to attain supplementary income from selling products is understandable. Joseph Pilates was an innovator not only of the body, but of objects: beds, chairs, props, and the gigantic apparatuses for which he is most famous claimed a good deal of his lifelong attention. His designs, while brilliant, were neither entirely original nor finalized – many limitations exist in his initial schematics that have been improved upon since his passing by popular brands such as Gratz, Balanced Body, Peak, etc. But wandering the massive PMA Plaza, a labyrinth of gadgets, doo-dads, regurgitations of extant apparatuses, unnecessary fluff, truly idiotic inventions that look like sex toys, and more types of socks than there are stars in the sky was a truly unsettling experience.[1] Ours is a consumerist culture and the Pilates industry cannot hope to insulate itself from the excesses of our time, but there’s a danger of losing the genius of the Pilates Method in a death of a thousand cuts: small mechanical changes to the apparatuses exponentially add up, as do erosive shifts in the intentions behind them.[2] Furthermore, fitness clothing – a whole other can of worms – adds complication, expense, and ego without adding anything to the successful experience of learning how to move one’s body. Worst of all, Pilates is increasingly seen as a luxury expenditure instead of a necessity for one’s health. Students pay huge sums to attend regular Pilates classes and when studio owners are hoodwinked into buying all the latest fad errata the cost is passed on to the consumer. While there are many roads to a successful studio, practice, toolbox in the world of Pilates it’s worth asking whether a given machine, prop, purchase, or toy is truly adding value to the practice or taking it away.

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WHY PILATES?

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Why is Pilates important? Why should people practice it? Why should it be taught and carried into the future?

Without venturing into the territory of tedium or ignorance, I offer a general overview of the present conundrum. The Pilates Method Alliance incorporated as a 501(c) several years ago, a decision that has aimed the industry down a troublesome path. Individual PMA members can involve themselves in PMA-sponsored projects and accordingly reap the tax incentives. To continue to qualify the PMA jumps through various hoops including putting on an annual song-and-dance at the conference: last year a large group of children performed a choreographed, Pilates-inspired pageant, and this year attendees suffered through an interminably self-congratulatory presentation (with beads!) about how a few hundred children in Florida public schools were taught a version of Pilates so watered down and meaningless as to be incomprehensible. Let me be clear: Pilates should not be considered a non-profit industry within the milieu of American capitalist economics; no more than modalities such as weight training, yoga, chiropractics, physical therapy, or other bodymind practices should be. Pilates serves the public good, but it is structured as premier training for those who can afford it, not at a charity for the masses. Joseph Pilates clearly did not want his method to be as expensive and elitist as it has turned out to be, but the solution to making Contrology accessible is not to plug it in with social welfare programs requiring government subsidies to survive.[3] The poor need help with food, jobs, education, taxes, and other necessities, but if the importance of living a healthy lifestyle is not first explicated and understood before being enforced no good will come of it. We still live in a world that does not even understand what Pilates is, let alone why they should incorporate it into their lives. Everyone who cares about Contrology desires to share it with those who need it but the non-profit path is not the way.

Instead, the Pilates industry needs to become relevant. Pilates is more that just fitness, stretching, mindfulness, rehabilitation, or exercise: it is a way of learning how to live in one’s body and overcome the challenges of life. Mr. Pilates made that abundantly clear in his teachings and yet many leaders in the Pilates industry are hell-bent on ignoring what he had to say. When Pilates professionals sell their own method short and cash in on misconceptions they further complicate the problem: people hear don’t understand why they should care about Pilates. I’ve encountered many, many students who come in for ill-conceived reasons such as weight loss, working superficial muscles, or other ego-based needs. I don’t deny them these desires but I have the perspective to see that they need Pilates for other, deeper reasons such as correcting injurious misalignments, practicing healthy movement patterns, getting comprehensively stronger, and learning how to love learning and moving. Some I can reach, some I can’t. But as a Pilates teacher I own my students the truth, and it saddens me that many in my industry do not share the same professional goals.

The Pilates industry needs to focus on what it does well and sell only that to the public. It cannot attempt to shrink into (laudible) social welfare programs or it will become an archaic and impotent dinosaur kept alive not by its utility but by the generosity of the state. We must reverse the decline and irrelevance of this amazing method Mr. Pilates gave to the world.

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ONWARDS AND UPWARDS

I do not intend to offend. These impressions are merely those of a relatively inexperienced teacher who has much still to learn. I realize, however, that my path as a teacher will never be conventional – after all no path in my life up to this point has been, so why would this? Finding celebrity clients, pursuing fame, opening my own studio, selling expensive products, and glad-handing with the popular kids at the lunch table will not work for me. Overall I was glad to attend my first PMA Conference and perhaps I’ll go again in a future year. But my bittersweet experience has sharpened and refocused my goals as a teacher of Contrology: to raise public awareness of the benefits of Contrology, to help my students learn to love moving their bodies in healthy ways, and to live up to the high standards Mr. Pilates taught and embodied.

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1. I’ve kept individual names and brands out of this post for obvious reasons. But I offer an illustrative exception to prove the rule: Rollology. I briefly met the “creator” of this method, Alyson Limehouse, a bellbottomed evangelizer who aggressively pushed her own spin on foam roller Pilates, and as far as I could tell from her spiel and online marketing it’s utterly indistinguishable from any other bland roller exercises on the market. It’s rebranded fluff. One could similarly riff on the Magic Circle, Neck Stretcher, or other original props and make a whole thing out of it that misses the mark and becomes preciously and useless. Props should be used to teach foundational principles, not to become expensive crutches or gimmicks.

2. There exists a popular redesign of Mr. Pilates’ Wunda Chair, for instance, that shifts the center of balance so far forward that it is literally impossible to perform one of the most crucial exercises, the Pull-Up, on it. If it ain’t broke…

3. Mr. Pilates made many of his devices such as the Bed-nasium and Wunda Chair to be used in the home at one’s leisure without paying for a studio visit, and the entirety of the mat repertoire was intended to allow students to practice on their own without the expensive oversight of teachers. Pilates clearly wanted his method to be affordable and accessible.

 

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PMA 2015 – THE HIGHS

It’s taken a week of reflection to share my thoughts on the 2015 Pilates Method Alliance conference in Denver. My experience was a mixed bag, and I wanted to remove hyperbole and discombobulation before sharing my take. I suppose any significant event includes both good and bad, so I’ve split this blog in two. This first post regards the high points of the conference – things that made the experience worthwhile. Next up will be the problems. Stay tuned.

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MARY BOWEN

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It was a surreal pleasure to finally connect the names and faces of teachers I’ve followed remotely for years. Mine is a remote industry of ships passing in the night, so it was great to move beyond Instagram handles and Twitter personas to meet superstars such as Kathy Corey, Karen Ellis, Kristen Matthews, Kristi Cooper, Lolita San Miguel, Kevin Bowen, Ken Endelman and Mary Bowen in the flesh. Mary Bowen is a legend in the community for her recollections of working under Mr. Pilates, her 56 years of Contrology experience, her infusion of Jungian Psychoanalysis into the Method, and her infectiously unedited personality. The two hour workshop consisted of Mary – spry, ceaselessly-moving, gleeful – extemporizing on how the journey from one’s innate personality type toward their shadow self defined not only the story of their life but also their physical experience of the world. Although she made some (hilariously) questionable generalizations about gender roles that may not apply to the world of 2015, she definitely raised fascinating questions about how we as teachers can nurture ourselves by uncovering the unconscious within our own psyches and those of others.[1] Even though the majority of her workshop was spent riffing on various subjects, she closed with a few fun tractioning movements on the Cadillac – sitting on an elongated Egg Ball while hanging off the Cage to provide some juicy-looking QL and extensor stretches. Watching an octogenarian experiment, move, and reminisce so playfully and dynamically is a rare sight, but one that makes perfect sense considering she has spent a live living Contrology.

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HERITAGE REUNION

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Outside the confines of the PMA I ventured over to Pilates Aligned to join a large assortment of graduates from The Kathy Grant Heritage Training for class and a party. The presence of so many Pilates people in Denver presented an opportunity for years worth of graduates of this continuing education program to meet and practice together. Around thirty wonderful teachers showed up and took a tough Kathy Grant-inspired class led by Cara Reeser and Laura Karpinski. Soaking up the positive energy and collected wisdom from so many seasoned bodies made for a class unlike any I’ve experienced. Feeling the excitement, the generosity, the curiosity, and the compassion from all present infused the class with a moving buoyancy and spirit. I’m eager to return to Pilates Aligned and study there again, but I’m grateful for the unique opportunity to share a space with my Kathy Grant family for one rare evening.

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BENJAMIN, MK 1

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It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Benjamin Degenhardt.[2] His teaching is crystal clear not only in its delivery, but in its far-sighted purpose. He cracks open the hard shell of blind dogma plaguing the Pilates community and offers a return to the deepest purposes of the Method: the whys and hows. I’ve taken a version of this workshop back in 2013, but the information and demonstration this time around felt fresh as new. Before leaping headlong into the Universal Reformer protocol Benjamin took the time to clear the path ahead by looking back at the original schematics and uncovering the purpose of the machine. In essence the Universal Reformer – “universal” in that it provides a constant against the student may measure herself – is a teacher. Every movement within and against its resistances creates physical feedback and immediate opportunities for neurological and motor reprogramming. When a Pilates teacher allows the Reformer to work in such a way it relieves him of the burden of heavy lifting, both literally and figuratively. The teacher is free to stand back and watch the student’s movement experience, providing gentle hints to ensure that the movements are both clear in intention and safe in execution. Benjamin’s perspective has indelibly changed my own teaching and I can say from experience that working with, instead of against, the Reformer makes teaching infinitely easier and more successful.

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I enjoyed many other small interactions, classes, and moments within the conference, making it altogether a positive adventure. There were, however, some unsettling issues raised over the weekend that might be worth addressing. My next post will discuss some of the larger problems haunting the Pilates industry and how we might begin to tackle them.

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1. Addressing men and pelvic health, Mary opined, “How can you not know what to do with your pelvis when you’re the fuckers?”

2. I don’t look much like Mr. Degenhardt, who is a famous presence in the world of Pilates, but that didn’t stop no less than half a dozen people from confusing us during the conference. One woman actually dubbed me “Little Benjamin.” He may be bigger… but at least I’m younger.

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A NEW CHAPTER

November greetings from The New Contrology!

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It’s been quite some time since last I wrote, and I’m very glad to be back into the swing of all things Pilates. As a teacher I find that my interests flow best in cycles of passion and retreat, occasionally putting Pilates on the back burner to focus on other, supplemental pursuits. Most recently I’ve been rehabilitating my herniated lumbar spine using a combination of weightlifting (gotta love squats and deadlifts), aerial arts (lyra and pole at Body and Pole, and a variety of PT-based exercises I’ve cobbled together. Early in the summer all the loaded flexion hard-wired into the Classical Pilates classes and privates I was taking created too much compression on my injury, so a break allowed me to recover and heal. I’ve also been building a 7’ tall puppet of Frankenstein’s creature for an upcoming stage play, but that’s a whole other story. Such cycles of commitment and leave-taking allow me to reengage with new aspects of Contrology each time I return. I’m glad to be back with fresh eyes, a curious heart, and a healthy spine.

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HERITAGE TRAINING – THE AFTERMATH

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Following my completion of the Kathy Grant Heritage Training this summer I’ve spent several months reintegrating what I learned into my daily teaching, an undertaking I’ve only just begun to tackle. The subtlety of Mrs. Grant’s image-based approach both removes the need for cueing (or much talking, really) while simultaneously cultivating in the student a deeper inhabitation of their own body. It makes Pilates easier and more fun to teach, and simpler and more successful to practice. The exercises – especially Ball Breathing, Number 14 Head-Only, Baby Bird Arms, and nearly every bit of the Wunda Straps repertoire – have changed for the better how several of my students approach their practice.

The underlying mentality of Mrs. Grant’s teaching, however – no nonsense, deeply internal, infinitely curious – has been quite challenging to cultivate in my students. In Manhattan I regularly encounter students too young or too A-type to see the need for slowing down, going back to the finest details, and focusing on moving well instead of moving fast. In Brooklyn many of my students have gotten rather complacent about their habits and are reluctant to try radically new approaches to exercises from which they think they’ve graduated. I look young for my age and I understand it can be difficult to trust a kid who calls an exercise “Baby Butt,” asks one to hum out loud, or blabbers on about imaginary vests; a strong, mature woman of Mrs. Grant’s gravitas inspired immediate obedience in all she met. I’m also new to this material and still rather inelegant in how I teach it. Historically I’ve found great success in either bowling reluctant students over with optimism or tricking untrusting students into compliance: distracting them with smiling comfort while sneaking them into the movements that they desperately need. I have yet to find how best to guide students into the deep and delicate world of Kathy Grant’s exercises with such trickery, or with forthright presentation of the material, for that matter. Like so many good things in life, however, patient practice will eventually reveal solutions to my current disintegration.

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PMA-BOUND

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As I write this I’m flying across the country to attend my first Pilates Method Alliance conference in Denver, CO. I’m terribly excited to meet the many luminaries in my field, absorb and confront various perspectives, and be among the largest gathering of Pilates teachers in the world. As much as I cherish and respect the teachers I work alongside in New York, teaching Pilates can be a very isolated lifestyle. I’ve never found much comraderie amidst all the strange hours, busy schedules, and intense focus on my students, so total immersion in a temporary world of fellow Pilates enthusiasts bent only on meeting, greeting, learning, and practicing together sounds absolutely luxurious. The next three days will be filled with workshops (Ruth Alpert, Mary Bowen, Cara Reeser, Benjamin Degenhardt, Claire Dunphy, Brett Howard), new friends and colleagues, a reunion of Kathy Grant Heritage graduates and Pilates Aligned, and no small amount of dancing after hours. I’ll be blogging impressions, anecdotes, pearls of wisdom, and funny stories each day of the conference, so stay tuned to The New Contrology for your PMA fix!

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GENDER IN PILATES 3 – THE PILATES BODY

Open any glossy magazine, flip to a random page and you’re likely to be bombarded by images of what a woman is supposed to look like, how she should get healthy, what she should feel about her physique, and instructions about how to nip, tuck, mold, embrace, shred, celebrate, burn, and transform her body into its perfect state. [1][2] The same can be found across movies, television, advertising, the internet, and in uncountable interactions with people who have internalized these values. This dizzying, kaleidoscopic whirlwind of beauty standards is terrifically contradictory, but the collective din of these judgments clog our culture and collude to hurt women. The second wave of feminists fought back against these voices, and in recent years we’ve seen new movements celebrate different body shapes, colors, sizes, and types in reaction against the mainstream norms. But the conversation underlying all these examples is still all over the map.

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This impressive woman has taken it one step beyond “Woman Laughing With Salad.”

Let’s survey the landscape. A few years ago “strong/fit was the new skinny,” and then there came along #fitspiration, it’s thin twin, #thinspiration, and its cousin in desperate need of medical help, #proana. We witnessed the obsession and backlash around Lululemon’s #thighgapgate, and the reactionaries who claimed that anyone who actually had a thigh gap must be sick or photoshopped out of existence. Olympic athletes are attacked and then defended in a split second for their physiques, moms are shamed and celebrated for their workout bodies, young girls are bullied for their appearance, and the armies of the #curvy and the #skinny wage war across the battlefields of rap music and Instagram. But when the smoke clears, what are we really talking about here? How can we define our terms and place ourselves in a better relationship to these issues?

A human being can be healthy but not fit. They can be overweight and still healthy. A fit person can be beautiful but unhealthy. Or beautiful but still hate their body. Or disabled and strong. Or love themselves yet be unable to do the things they want to do. A person can have none, some, or all of these things.

In pursuit of clarity I’ve broken all these issues down into three categories: self-image, health, and ability.

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SELF-IMAGE

This one’s simple. All bodies are beautiful.

The human form is a masterpiece of form and function, with just enough weird mystery and unplanned oddity to lend it constant fascination. Every body is unique, and there are infinite reasons to find each wondrous – worthy of love, care, and respect. This is every human’s birthright. Look with enough curiosity and you can find beauty in anyone, and probably learn more about yourself while you’re at it.

To think otherwise is prejudice, bigotry, and hate.

We all have our hangups about other bodies, and just like “everybody’s a little racist,” we’re all on our individual paths toward dismantling the prejudices we’ve inherited and learned along the way. But no discussion of these issues should allow for any form of body-shaming. We should all be held accountable for the damage we do in this regard.

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HEALTH

One could say much on this vast issue; a cardiologist would have a legitimate perspective very different from a Structural Integrator or a Chiropractor. But as a Pilates instructor and movement educator I’ve got pretty strong views on what makes a person healthy.

All humans should have a positive relationship to movement. They should feel good about moving their bodies in various ways, build a kind and curious kinship with their own bodies and minds, master certain objective principles of coordination, initiation, comfort, and protection, and learn how to adapt to changing circumstances. These values can and should be applied to the entirety of each person’s life. There exist, of course, myriad schools of thought, specific concepts, and goals surrounding these core values – which is why there are so many wonderful types of fitness in the world today – but the underlying ideas listed above are true for every living human. We move to learn who we are, let go of who we’re not, and grow into the best versions of ourselves possible.

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ABILITY

Joseph Pilates created his method for “…normal, healthy bodies…” [3]. Coming from a straight, white, male, German immigrant in the early 20th century, this is a pretty loaded statement and has spawned a wide range of interpretations. Today the Pilates spectrum ranges from Physical Therapy-based Pilates derivatives on one end to fad-based exercise classes, with Classical Pilates sitting somewhere in the middle.

None of these camps talk in any meaningful way about ability or ableism, or how “normal” applies to a Pilates practitioner.

Years ago I was fortunate to work at a studio whose clientele included a very high proportion of geriatric students. Some of these men and women had worked with Mr. Pilates himself back in the day, and had accrued an unique wealth of experience. Yet many also suffered serious physical and mental incapacities in the course of their long lives. Advanced osteoporosis, severe joint degeneration, strokes, amputations, spinal herniations, fusions, bifidas, and nerve damage affected many of these men and women. I was grossly underprepared to help such students, yet through working with these wonderful people I learned a great deal about the capabilities of the human body.

At this studio I regularly taught a delightful lady whom I’ll call Jane. [4] Jane was in her late 80’s – osteoporotic, double labral tears, vertigo, multiple 30%+ scoliotic curves, and had woken up from a six month coma just before I started teaching her. Although she had been cleared by her doctor to attempt Pilates in certain limited capacities, I was way out of my depth working with her and initially I went into our sessions with an extremely conservative plan. But this woman was simply unstoppable. Every diagnosis she had received, every assumption those around her saddled her with, every voice in her life tried to tell her that she was crippled, disabled, old, irrelevant, and broken. But she simply refused to listen. Within circumscribed exercises (standing Chest Expansion, standing Single Leg Springs, Side Bend with the Push Through Bar) Jane worked with unlimited passion, courage, humor, and strength. She never learned how to do a full Walkover or Going Up and Down, but she lived up to the fullest range of her body’s potential. Jane loved what Pilates helped her body to do and I was honored to assist her in doing so.

Success should not measured by an objective standard of ability. No two people need an identical workout, the same skills, or a single approach because they do not share the same goals, challenges, or lifestyles. Ability should instead be measured by positive steps taken toward what a person wishes to accomplish. It is highly personal, and a helpful teacher should align their teaching tools to best serve these needs, not their own or the larger judgments of society.

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Mr. Pilates leading Romana Kryzanowska through Hanging on the Trapeze Bar.

Our culture will continue to force its unpacked, problematic values on us all, and women – who make up the vast majority of Pilates students – will continue to suffer the most. These problems will be brought into the Pilates studio by well-meaning teachers, ambitious students, and self-proclaimed experts. Ignorance will perpetuate myths, but Pilates won’t shred belly fat, rekindle a bad husband’s lust, or take back all the hurtful, body-shaming things people have said. Pilates can, however, be a bridge beyond these reductive notions of what makes a woman worthwhile, well, and wonderful. With careful support and constant reevaluation of its own expectations and judgments Pilates can cultivate within the individual a better relationship to self, health, and ability.

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1. I’m a privileged, cis, able white man and normally I would not have any business talking about this subject – my role would be to support the female-identified people around me by listening and helping as they wished. But I’m a Pilates instructor and movement educator, so I have to dig in and have an opinion in order to help my students. This post is an attempt to better articulate my feeling on the matter and open a dialogue with my readers so that I may learn from other voices.

2. I’m using “women” in this post to stand for all female-identified people, including Trans women. Men and male-identified people do indeed receive their share of body, health, and ability judgements in and out of the media, but the pressure is much more intense against women of all types.

3. Pilates, Joseph H. and Miller, William John. Return to Life Through Contrology. Miami: Pilates Method Alliance, Inc., 2010. Print.

4. Name changed to respect her privacy.

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THE KATHY GRANT HERITAGE TRAINING – PART 3

In late May I participated in the third and final installment of the Kathy Grant Heritage Training at Sixth Street Pilates, led by Cara Reeser and Laura Karpinski of Pilates Aligned. In four long days we learned the exercises Mrs. Grant created using her most famous contribution to the history of Contrology: the Wunda Straps. I’ve wanted to learn this material for several years, and finally receiving it from a master teacher like Cara in a singularly supportive community of top-notch teachers was a rare delight.

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Me attempting Rocker with Open Legs with the Kathy Grant Wunda Straps.

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THE WUNDA STRAPS

The Wunda Straps originated, like many good ideas, from a gift. First generation Pilates teacher Mary Bowen presented Grant with a pair of straps, and even though neither woman had any concrete idea of how they could be applied to Contrology, Bowen intuited that Grant would come up with something special. Years later while teaching a session, a student let go of a loaded Push Through Bar which sprang up without warning. Even though Grant quickly and barely caught the bar it seriously strained her left arm, leaving her unable to spot clients during inversions. Lacking another viable option, Grant remembered the straps and attached them to the horizontal bars of the Cadillac’s Cage. Holding the looped ends of these straps allowed students to spot themselves, navigating the core support necessary to invert. Even though in time Grant’s arm recovered she stuck with the straps and never had to spot inversions again. The “Wunda Straps” were born.

I had heard a bit about the Wunda Straps during my teaching career, but very few Pilates teachers know how to use them or even that they exist. Naïvely, I expected the Wunda Straps to provide a weight-bearing suspension system like TRX® or Bodhi™ – a series of ropes and loops to position the body in space and move against gravity. As an aerial artist, my expectations were further complicated since my usual relationship with straps (or silks, ropes, etc.) involves a great deal of upper body strength to haul oneself around in the air, and a great deal of complicated choreography to twine the straps in supportive binds around the body. So as excited as I was to learn the comprehensive Kathy Grant Wunda Strap repertoire, I was mystified as to how the straps would inform successful performance of Pilates exercises. Pilates, at its best, is very nuanced, even when it’s challenging. The Straps just seemed so blunt, unsubtle, and inaccessible to most populations.

How wrong I was!

Following my first day’s encounter with the Wunda Straps I was in awe. Not only did the Straps provide incredibly detailed proprioceptive feedback, but my arms and upper back felt more relaxed than when I began. My abdominals, hips, legs, and back, however, had gotten a surprisingly difficult workout; I was pleasantly sore the next day. The Straps provide points of reference, a closed circuit between one hand and the other making everything in between seek specificity and articulation. By locating pressure into the Straps during a Teaser, for instance, the hips and lower spine can more deeply curl under to lift the legs higher while maintaining space up the spinal column. They teach the practitioner how to “load the spring,” discovering optimal positioning and muscle firing to feel and control the work on a much more challenging level. And because they’re used with such a light touch, the can be utilized successfully by young and old, new and experienced, healthy and injured clients alike.

What a brilliant invention!

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Alayna Lee performing Shoulder Bridge Back Bend with the Kathy Grant Wunda Straps.

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TO THE APEX

One of Cara’s “meta-lessons” – unspoken repatterning underlying the overt lessons taught – is to cease clinging to the order in which Pilates is traditionally performed. This has been quite challenging for me to accept, not because I’ve been indoctrinated by the unquestioning biases of the Classical community (“it’s this way because Romana taught it this way”), but because I’ve spent a number of years discovering why Mr. Pilates taught his exercises this particular order.

There’s an undeniable logic to how the Reformer and Mat programmes progress, with one skill providing the necessary stepping stones to tackle the next challenge. 1 On the Reformer, for instance, Footwork creates hip stability and full-body length to apply to The Hundred, which teaches torso stability and flexion with breathing, leading into The Overhead, which takes the prior skills up into the air with a press of the arms, and so on and on. Conscious repetition of skills has been shown to best facilitate learning. The traditional order is thus not a hodgepodge; it’s a balanced equation. There are, however, an unnerving number of exercises so intimidating, complex, and mystifying that they demand preparation of basic skills before even attempting. Let’s face it, the traditional order has holes in it. What prepares the body for not falling off in Horseback? For getting onto the apparatus in Snake/Twist? For The Rocking? Why do so many clients’ necks continue to hurt no matter how strong their abdominals get, why does The Roll-Up frustrate so many people, and where exactly should the shoulder blades go? Must we bang our heads against these troublesome problems by failing over and over in the same exercises in the same order, or might there be other ways to address them?

Enter “Apex-Based” teaching. Using specific “Before the Hundred” and “Pre-Pilates” along with Mr. Pilates’ exercises, this approach builds a clear, skills-based path toward the successful execution of a solitary exercise. 2 The entire class is curated around this apex exercise. Not only does this allow the teacher and student to think outside the habitual box, but it outs the purpose of the class for all to pursue: the goal is to successfully rock one specific thing. Tossing aside the utopian ideal of perfect execution of exercise leading to perfect execution of the next, Apex-Based teaching is gradual, cumulative, and allows luxurious space in which to explore and learn for oneself.

But does it work?

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THE WATER WHEEL

Our final project for the module of the Legacy Training was an Apex-Based teaching assignment. I was given Water Wheel (I’ve also heard it called Cat and Rolling In and Out, usually seen with the Roll-Down Bar on the Cadillac), and asked to create a 20-30 minute class that honed the requisite skills to lead up to it. The main actions of the exercise are shoulder blade stability with external rotation of the humerus, hip extension, a supported backbend throughout the entire spine, free flexion and extension of the neck, head, and hips, and the ability to flow freely through a great range of movement. Here’s the routine I taught to build these skills: 3

  1. (K.S.G) Kathy’s Song (whole body alignment)
  2. (K.S.G) Accordion Breathing (lateral breath)
  3. (K.S.G) Subway Head (relaxed cervical flexion)
  4. (K.S.G) Keyhole Arms with Wunda Straps (external humeral rotation with scapular stability)
  5. (K.S.G) Preliminary Arms with Wunda Straps (Serratus Anterior)
  6. (K.S.G) Slant Board Bridge with Wunda Straps (hip extension)
  7. (K.S.G) Head Lift A (cervical flexion against gravity)
  8. (K.S.G) Head Lift B (cervical and thoracic flexion against gravity)
  9. (K.S.G) Baby Butt (lumbar decompression with hip extension)
  10. (K.S.G) Number 14 Head Only (cervical extension and rotation against gravity)
  11. (J.P.) The Double Kick (several of the above skills put together)
  12. Cat with Wunda Straps (spinal flexion and extension in kneeling)
  13. Mat Up-Stretch (spinal articulation in flexion…)
  14. Mat Down-Stretch (… and extension)
  15. (K.S.G) Shoulder Bridge with Wunda Straps (homolateral hip extension with posterior support)
  16. Thigh Stretch Prep (balance reaction, spinal stability in knee flexion)
  17. (K.S.G) Thigh Stretch Back Bend with Wunda Straps (supported backbend in knee flexion)
  18. Serpentine (large R.O.M. spinal articulation)
  19. And finally, Water Wheel with Wunda Straps

It was very liberating to create a short class in this manner, and judging from the positive feedback I received from the participants they liked it as well. Others taught their respective Apex-Based classes – a few of which I took – and everything was just so clear! The whys were abundantly obvious and accessible and I felt empowered to seek detailed connection between various movements and initiations. Nothing felt pointless, nothing meandered, and nothing shut my learning experience down. I’m eager to continue exploring the structural freedom of Apex-Based teaching and see how it can improve the bridge between Pilates, myself, and my students.

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Me performing Iron Cross on the Aerial Hammock

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PROSPECTUS: AERIAL WUNDA STRAPS

Module three marks the end of the dissemination of material in the Kathy Grant Heritage Training, but there’s one thing left to do before I graduate: a final project. I entered this program for several reasons, none more important than the desire to connect traditional Pilates, the Kathy Grant repertoire, and Aerial Silks. I’ve been a student of the Aerial Arts for several years now, and was introduced to a hybridized Aerial Pilates class in 2013 by a fantastic teacher named Dani King, who originally created and developed the class. I’ve attended class regularly ever since. Aerial Pilates uses an apparatus called the Aerial Silk Hammock – a 12’ length of wide fabric hung from the ceiling on two straps called “Daisy Chains” – to build both Contrology and Aerial Arts skills. For the past year I’ve also been fortunate enough to occasionally teach the class as a substitute. I love sharing the exhilaration of tumbling high up in the air with my students – I believe that dynamic flight is an important experience that many people desire and benefit from. It’s a quite challenging class and a lot of fun (you should join in sometime!).

My final project will attempt to create a bridge between these modalities. As there is no ceiling rigging to hang the silks at Sixth Street Pilates where the projects will be presented, I plan to film a short (20-30) minute, Pilates class using the Kathy Grant Wunda Straps and the Aerial Hammock. Moving from the grounding alignment of the Pilates Mat work into the proprioceptive negotiation of the Wunda Straps and up into the liberated range of expressive motion possible in the Aerial Hammock, this class will build necessary skills for healthy, controlled, and liberated movement.

I start filming this weekend – wish me luck!

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1. Mr. Pilates encoded the order his Mat and Universal Reformer exercises were to be performed on a series of photographic plates hung up around his studio for clients’ reference. Rumor has it that Mr. Pilates might have also created a regular exercise order for the Cadillac and Wunda Chair, but unfortunately this documentation has been kept from the public by certain avaricious individuals who desire to keep the Pilates community in the dark. Until these documents see the light of day there is no official order to any of the Pilates repertoire except for the Mat and Universal Reformer.

2. “Pre-Pilates” exercises are cobbled together from various sources to allow new clients an access point to the traditional order. Some, such as Romana’s “T.V. Exercises,” have been absorbed into the Classical tradition, but others originate from far outside the Pilates universe.

3. “K.S.G” denotes an exercise in the traditional Kathy Grant repertoire. “J.P.” is an exercise as taught in Mr. Pilates “Return to Life Through Contrology.”

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