Being a little more brave

This week has been a very sad one. On Monday 16th October, Daphne Caruana Galizia, a Maltese journalist, was assassinated by a car bomb. Whilst I bare the same surname, she was only a distant relative. I think I only ever met her once. However her work was followed by everyone on the island. Her horrific murder sent shudders through us all.

It’s been hard to know what might be the right thing to do. On Wednesday I made my way to Malta House on Piccadilly to add my note to the small pile of flowers and candles on the door step. On my journey back home I was thinking about Daphne and her work, trying to work out how I could honour her in some way. I remember finding her quite shy in person. But she was extremely bold and brave in her writing. She criticised complacency and exposed corruption. She was persistent, even in the face of unbelievable adversity.

I used to have that fire. I used to have that kind of conviction. But I seem to have lost it somewhere along the way. Recently,  I’ve hidden behind procrastination. It took me months to decide to start publishing videos on my Pilates blog, because I was afraid of being criticised. I’ve written things on this blog too and then deleted them, afraid I would ruffle too many feathers in the dance world. I was even afraid of advertising my workshop to my own friends, fearing someone might find it presumptuous. Well all these things are true. If I put myself out there then someone is likely to take offence, criticise me, even if only in their head, and yes my group message to absolutely everyone on my dance list probably pissed at least 3/4’s of the group off. So what? I think I’ve finally made peace with the idea that whilst stepping up and standing up for what I have to offer I am likely to annoy more than a few people. I’m sorry in advance.

What began as shock on Monday, has now rippled out into sadness. Sadness for Daphne, for her sons, her husband and anyone else who held her dear to them. Sadness for the entire island. But whilst I am horrified by her murder, I feel emboldened by the example she set in her life. It’s time to be a little more brave.

RIP Daphne, our thoughts are with your family. 

 

On Solo Practice

What are your thoughts, issues, frustrations, ideas around developing your work on your own? When you book yourself into a studio to finally get your ideas out of your head and into your body, or you’re super chuffed about getting a residency, you walk into the studio on your first day, all alone with your music and that bit of text you really liked…. then what? Does this way of working, work for you?

A few weeks ago I decided to take a week off from teaching so that I could get back into the studio and move again, bringing my focus back into my dance work. I’m starting a new piece as well as rehearsing an old one. It’s all solo material, plus quite a lot of tech, literally just me and the machine. Working in a studio is an investment. It costs time and money. Even when it’s free, it comes with some kind of a cost. So one does kind of feel obliged to ‘achieve’ something. Compound that pressure with all the problems that arise from working alone (distraction, boredom, self-doubt) and you have a recipe for the ultimate frustration. Working solo has to be one of the most difficult aspects of a dance maker’s practice. By the end of that week of rolling around on the floor, I put the above question to my fellow dance makers. Here are some of the responses I received:

 “I almost never go into a studio on my own. I always feel lost whenever I try to do that. I’m usually either making group work or if I’m practicing solo improv then I always share the practice with someone so I have an audience.” – Seke Chimutengwende.

“I never go into the studio alone either. No one should. All solos need a director 😉 as not to be left at some point – lying in a shaft of sunlight falling asleep in desperate lonely inadequacy – before then bursting into tears, getting inspired, coming up with something small; it’s hell.” – Sally Marie 

“It’s usually great for the first hour…and then I’m bored, not sure what to do next, messing with documentation and note taking instead of developing material… I’m not good in the studio alone but I also feel like it’s what I’m supposed to do to be a good dance maker, so I tend to make myself do it for a day or two at the beginning of a project.” – Kate Sicchio 

“For me, working on a solo is like learning a foreign language; you need to pass through the point where everything seems impossible, really push yourself and “learn the grammar” to finally let the body speak. And I go to the studio on my own because it is the only moment I feel my body is a subject and not an object. It is honest and a process that lets me connect with myself first.” – Danai Pappa

The bottom line is that working alone in a studio is tough. I’m curious about the combination of reasons that people chose to work in this way: sometimes it’s out of necessity, sometimes it’s just a starting point, sometimes it’s because of a feeling of obligation. I’m grateful to those who expressed that this way of working simply isn’t necessary in their practice at all. Working solo is hard work, so if you can avoid it then by all means do. I think it’s fair to ask ourselves, in the first instance: Why choose to work alone? Is it really necessary?

I started working alone partly for practical reasons: I got tired of asking people to work for free for me, it never felt good. But once I started working alone, I realized that actually working with others was even harder. The reason for this is that developing an idea from scratch puts you in a very vulnerable place to begin with. It’s all very raw and unimpressive and more importantly, it’s easily trampled on. Having another collaborator in the studio with me made me feel like the idea was threatened, partly by the presence of another person’s ego, partly by the fact that another person will bring their own baggage to the room. I’ve also become hyper sensitive to the way that someone else’s movement can take over the aesthetic of the work, and this probably has something to do with the subtle nature of identity in my practice.

After the first two rehearsals, working alone in a studio space, I found myself wondering whether I was really getting anything out of it. I came away and showed some images to my collaborator, who instantly saw the progress and encouraged me to keep working. If I hadn’t had that feedback I think I might have despaired.

What I realized is that some of what we think of as frustrations, may actually be a consequence of the continuous expectation of being productive. But the productivity scale does not reflect the value of what we are doing. Richard Newton puts this so well in “The Little Book of Thinking Big”:

“The cult of busyness requires a certain type of thinking. You could call it instrumental thinking. The consequences of the thinking must be instrumental in achieving value: sales, innovation, cost savings…wealth and power. This is valuable but it is narrow, focused and constrained.” – Richards Newton

In some senses, remaining in the undefined, non-linear space of creative practice is a quiet protest against the dominance of ‘getting somewhere’ in our goal oriented culture. There is something pre-verbal about solo practice (I read that somewhere) and I wonder about allowing it to remain in this space. How can I allow myself to roam in that initial idea without getting trapped in self-absorbed, self-conscious fantasy?

So the question isn’t “How can I get more out of this time?” but “How do we get better at being in this space?” by which I mean both the physical space of the studio and the psychological space of solo creative practice.

And another thing: shouldn’t it be fun? Why does it always feel like such hard work?

I recalled the writing of Mihaly Csikszentmihaly who talks about the state of Flow. Here’s what he says:

 “These are the eight main components people mention when what they do is fun and enjoyable: they have a clear sense of goals, they know how they are doing, their skills are matched to their challenges, their attention is concentrated on what they are doing, they operate in the moment, they are not worried about being out of control, or about how they look in the eyes of other people, time then passes fast and one is glad to be doing whatever it is that provides such an experience.”

The reason that I like this idea is that is suggests that if the first three principles are met (clear aim, feedback and skills matched to the challenge) then all the other frustrations disappear.

So how does all this fit together? I’m just at the very start of my research, but this is what I think we might need, to develop a better solo practice.

a.) The right approach.

I think we need to remember that working solo is a practice that takes time to develop. We need to approach each session with curiosity and kindness. We need to enter into the mental attitude of practice rather than achieving outcomes. We need to be ready to suspend judgment.

b.) Resources

In preparation for my workshop on Sunday, I’ve been spending time walking around hardware stores and stationers. I’ve bought ‘toilet reading books’ and searched through online resources for anything that resonates. Having a box of physical tools (I don’t mean hammers and nails), is a great oblique way of getting the mind focused on making. Resources don’t have to be physical. They can be simple constraints or tasks you give yourself, like using less space or trying to make 10 versions of something. You can tailor them to the ideas you’re exploring. Having small task based goals gives us something smaller than the bigger picture to get our teeth into. I think a lot of the time we’re so devoured by the bigger picture of what we’re trying to do, that we feel paralyzed by it. Finding a way to focus on something small, either related, or unrelated, is a good way to keep the analytical side of the brain engaged, so that the more elusive original ideas can surface.

c.) Preparation

I have this idea that if I’m about to spend 4 hours alone in the studio then I should spend at least 4 hours preparing in some way. Creative practice should be an ongoing process. Admittedly this takes a lot of discipline, but setting time aside in the week to go and look at something, or research ideas that you can take into the studio with you, will massively enhance the quality of that time alone in the space.

d.) RSPV

If you’re not familiar with Anna Halprin’s RSPV cycle, then I’ve written about this here. RSPV stands for Resources, Score, Performance, Value-action. We all know how to structure rehearsals, but what about structuring the process? I like to think of the preparation time before the session as a time to collect resources and set a score for how I want to work in the studio. The time in the studio then becomes the performance, which I film to watch later. I then evaluate what I’ve done by reflecting on my process and the documentation after the rehearsal. This allows me to refine my score and resources so that I can repeat the cycle in the next rehearsal.

e.) An observer

The most effective solo practice sessions I ever had involved working with the dramaturg, Chris Higgins. You can read about my experience here. What I realized from this way of working, was that having an external eye, not directing, but supporting me staying in the space, was the most conducive set up for my own physical practice. On Sunday 18th June I will lead my very first lab on the observed / observing practice. This presents a score for supporting each other’s solo practice by simply being present. I’ll also be exploring some of the resources I’ve been gathering to facilitate solo making. You can find more details on the workshop here.

I’m so grateful to all of my fellow makers who contributed their thoughts and allowed me to share them here. This is just the beginning of these ramblings. In the meantime let me know what you think. Do any of these ideas resonate with you?

Where Pilates Goes Wrong…

I know that I spend a lot of time reminding people not just to obsess about the area that is injured, painful or out of alignment. The general thrust of my writing and talking about the body is to always look at the system as a whole. A key model for understanding this holistic approach is through the Anatomy Trains identified by Thomas Myers. Fascia, the connective tissue that wraps around each cell, each bundle of cells, each muscle, the tissue that interconnects muscle, to tendon, to bone, to viscera. Fascia, I have thought, is the reason the whole body is a whole system. But what if I’m slightly wrong?

As so many of my clients and classes wind down for the end of term, I have more time to think of my own body and training. I went for a run on Monday which absolutely shattered my lower calf muscles (the soleus area). No matter how much I stretched them out, they still felt tight. Walking down stairs was actually painful. Thursday comes and I was determined to get myself out for another run. I hoped that the movement would help to release them. It didn’t and I had to give up after 10 minutes just because the tension was getting silly.

Now, I’ve always struggled with super tight calve muscles. I tell everyone that I inherited them from my Dad, which is true! I swear I have my Dad’s legs! (How many times have I heard that from a client…?) But I also know, because I am a Pilates teacher, that this kind of overuse is a signal that the mechanics of my running are slightly dysfunctional. Something I am doing is leading to this over use. It’s probably wrapped up with my knees being hyper-extended and the position of my weight over my legs when I’m running. It’s symmetrical (both sides are equally tight), which is some good news. It’s probably something to do with the switchover between the soleus and gastrocnemius muscles during the take off and landing phases, (as my teacher Dominique Jansen has said in the past). Or maybe it’s just the shoes, or the fact that I haven’t run for some time.

My brain went into over-drive trying to work it out.

Later in the day I hobbled down to Triyoga to do a Feldenkrais class. We spent the whole lesson working on the shoulder girdle. The whole 1.5hours lying on our backs just doing movements around the shoulders and integrating this into spiralling the back.

I walked out of the class with no calve pain…

[Pause for effect]

This is why I keep on going on about Feldenkrais. But what I realised is that what happened yesterday was not just related to fascia. Feldenkrais talks to the nervous system and invites an overall more functional organisation of the whole body. So yes, we worked on the shoulders, but the whole body was adjusting in the meantime, and something else let go. Not only is the calve pain gone, but my scoliosis is less significant today.

The discovery has been both exciting and worrying. I realised that even though I actively attempt to address the body and person as a whole, Pilates does, unfortunately, still have a tendency to reduce pain to a specific area and to try to treat it. We look for logical connections: the neck and lower back, the neck and gluts, the hip and knee, the foot and lower back, the wrist and the shoulder etc. What we sometimes get wrong is that the system’s natural ability to self organise is so finely tuned to the balance of every part, that even our extensive body knowledge and eye for detail cannot always see the whole. Pilates goes wrong when teachers assume they know better.

Now excuse me whilst I go and have an existential crises.

 

DR 2

So in my last post I talked about the cause of a DR as the increased pressure against the abdominal wall from the inside out. Pregnancy is one example of why this might happen, however I am seeing, with considerable frequency, the same pattern happening in men. It seems clear that the main cause of the DR is posture. There are contributing genetic factors too, like hyper-mobility, which will make someone more prone to it. There are also occasions where a single event, like a sudden sneeze, coughing or lifting something heavy can bring about a hernia. However the chances are in both cases that the occurrence can be greatly reduced by maintaining appropriate tone in the abdominal wall and ensuring that you do not place too much pressure on it during habitual movement.

In my last post I identified four key areas that need to be addressed:

  1. Centering – asymmetry (unilateral imbalances) reduces the functionality of the Rectus Abdominis muscle. Before loading the abdominal wall you need to find centre.
  2. Releasing the shoulders – restrictions in shoulder movement leads to rib cage displacement. It may seem strange, but ensuring you have full ROM in the shoulder will reduce pressure on the abdominal wall.
  3. Release the rib cage – The ribs need to soften down. I drew a nice picture of this in my last post.
  4. Release the Hip Flexors – When the ribs are displaced, it makes it very hard to connect through the centre of the body, so when these clients do things like abdominal crunches with their legs in the air, they often tighten up in the Hip Flexors. This brings the pelvis into a forward tilt, also in my picture.

The following sequence is not a complete fix. It’s a starting point to address the main points mentioned above:

  1. Centering: start off by doing a low level centering exercise. My favorite is to lie down with pelvis raised onto one of those disc shaped wobble cushions, but a simple cushion does the trick too. You need to make sure that your ribs are not poking up to the ceiling so soften the rib cage and raise your head onto another cushion if needed. Start with pelvic rocks, then small clocks, rolling an imaginary marble around the pelvis. You can then draw one knee in and hold it with your hand and do a few knee stirs. Repeat on the other side. Then hold one knee in towards you to allow the other hip to open up. Change sides.
  2. Lateral Breathing: staying on the cushion but with both feet on the floor begin to breath into the sides of the ribs. As you exhale, allow the arms to lift up infront of you whilst you soften your ribs down. Then try to take one arm overhead, without displacing the rib cage. Keep softening the ribs down as the arm goes overhead. Repeat a few times to each side and then try this with both arms. Drop the ribs! Drop the ribs! Drop the ribs!
  3. You can now begin doing some low level abdominal work. Place your hands onto your belly, so that with each out breath you sink your belly away from your hands. Try drawing one knee in towards you at a time without swinging around on the cushion or collapsing your lower back into the floor. Then try to do the step up where you lift one leg, hold for an in breath and lift the second leg up to join it on the next out breath. Then reverse. Always breathing out when you either lift or lower the leg.
  4. Leg slides: With the pelvis still on the cushion and feet on the ground, you slide one leg down along the floor. As you do this try sinking the belly back towards the spine, breathing out all the way, and watch that the lower back doesn’t arch especially towards the end range of the knee extension. Hold the leg out there for an in-breath, and then press the heel into the floor, engage the muscles around the sits bones and drag the leg back in to the starting position. Repeat 3-4 times to each side, alternating legs.
  5. Bridge: press your heels into the floor as you raise the pelvis off the cushion. You want to think of lifting the pelvis from the muscles around the sits bones, keeping the ribs soft and opening the front of the hips. Remove the cushion from under the pelvis, and then roll the spine down to the floor bone by bone, focusing on releasing through the mid back. You can then repeat the bridge without the cushion a few times.
  6. Lunging HF stretch. Ok this one is just obvious, but don’t forget to avoid hanging into your lower back. As you lunge forwards you think of lifting out of the pelvis, keeping the ribs soft.

I’ve been busy writing this whilst suffering from a nasty cold, which means that I’ve had time to create a quick video of all of this (minus the lunge). It’s just a quick picture so that you know what to do when you’re on your own. Please excuse the red eyes and sore nose 🙂

Diastasis Recti

As some of you know, I’ve recently become intrigued by the number of men I come across with some degree of Diastasis Recti. A DR is a split in the abdominal wall, which we commonly come across amongst pregnant and post-natal women.

DR is accepted/ expected as a normal result of pregnancy. As the baby grows, the abdominal wall splits to make room for the growing bump. Post-natal Pilates focuses on re-knitting the abdominal wall by gradually increasing loads to tone the abdominals whilst encouraging the abdominal wall to sink downwards and inwards. It’s a tricky balance. If you load too much, the abdominal wall is pushed outwards, further exacerbating the problem. If you load too little the client finds it very hard to ‘feel’ anything in the abdominals and other muscle groups like the Hip Flexors begin to take over.

The good thing is that when you work with a post-natal woman, they know that their abdominal wall is vulnerable. So they don’t go for broke on big abdominal exercises. They (often) listen to my instruction to reduce loading if they’re in a big class, or engage with the issue rather than trying to ignore it. Men with a DR, on the other hand, have not just given birth. They don’t feel vulnerable, in fact many of them appear to be quite strong. They often show up in my classes because their physio recommended Pilates for their lower back pain…small wonder. Many of them simply don’t accept that the abnormal bulge in their abdominal wall is a problem at all. The literature out there backs this up, calling it harmless. But a split in the fascial sheets of the abdominal wall is not functional. Try telling a buff looking man that he needs to do post-natal Pilates….

Enter Katy Bowman.

Katy Bowman is a bio-mechanist. She looks at movement in terms of forces placed on the bones, joints, soft-tissue and even the cells. Her philosophy is to develop nutritious movement habits, varying the loads and directions of pull on the body so that we develop a varied movement diet, leading to all-round wellbeing. She’s a massive fan of the squat and hanging from trees, for example, movements that our sedentary culture has made very easy to forgo.

In her most recent publication Diastasis Recti, Bowman insists that DR is a whole body problem. She identifies that all occurrences of DR result from too much pressure on the abdominal wall. Whether this is because of a growing baby in your belly, or if, like a friend of mine, you just picked up something too heavy and literally ‘bust your guts’. From a bio-mechanical point of view, the cause is the same: too much pressure on the abdominal wall from the inside outwards, and though the onset may be sudden, the fault lines have slowly been creeping up:

 Slow sustained loads in a certain direction can deform tissues in a manner from which they cannot recover. Mechanical creep is the tendency of a material to deform slowly under a constant stress. The failure of a tissue in this case is called a creep failure. A diastasis recti or hernia is the result of creep failures.” Katy Bowman.

So Diastasis Recti is NOT just a natural result of pregnancy. It is the result of abnormal amounts of force on the abdominal wall, of which pregnancy may be one cause.

The abdominal muscles support the lower back. Poor tone or weakness in the abdominal wall results in a gradual wear and tear on the discs and intervertebral joints in the lower back. It’s obvious that a tear in the abdominal structures makes them a lot less functional (read: weak), which is why they really need to be addressed. I think that when medical professionals say that DR’s are ‘harmless’ what they mean is that they are not cancerous growths. But a DR is not something to ignore.

It follows that if the cause is the pressure on the abdominal wall, then just fixating on the location of the DR itself, as we tend to do with post-natal women, is a very limited way of looking at it. That doesn’t mean that specific, targeted abdominal work is not necessary. On the contrary, we do need to work to restore correct functioning of the abdominal muscles, but it needs to done within a program that considers the pressures on the abdominal wall brought about by the organization of the body as a whole.

If I hold a picture Doc - 28 Mar 2017 - 21-56in my mind of clients who have a DR, the picture is roughly this. The rib cage is flailed, compressing the mid-back area and the pelvis is in a forward tilt. This appears to create more space out the front, making it the favoured posture for a pregnant woman. I think that men who adopt this posture (if they are not obese) do so because they may be trying to sit upright, but don’t have the mobility in their upper thoracic area or shoulders, and therefor hinge on the mid-back section. Once you displace the ribs in this way, it makes it very hard to feel a connection through the centre, so any abdominal work is likely to go into the Hip Flexors or lower back.

 

Bowman goes through a very comprehensive program of exercises to address every detail around this posture type, (and I highly recommend her book to clients, especially men, who have a DR). However, one of the key factors that makes DR quite difficult for a post-natal woman is: asymmetry, which I don’t think Bowman has addressed sufficiently in her book. Having one leg longer than the other, or some rotation in the pelvis, or a scoliosis all lead to a weakening of the abdominal wall. Lack of alignment causes weakness in the surrounding muscles. So addressing this is just as important. Once the body is aligned, the hip flexors are released and the ribs are dropped, we can then progress to more targeted abdominal work focusing on sinking the abdominal wall. The trajectory is therefor: align the pelvis, release the rib cage, open up the hip flexors and then integrate low level abdominal loads.

My next post will go into more detail on each of these. 🙂

 

The Downward Spiral – Practical Tasks

In my last post I talked about the Spiral Line and the danger of collapsing down into it. Here are some very practical things you can do to get out of your downward spiral.

  1. Stand on one Leg. That’s it. you’ll find that it’s impossible to balance unless you bring your weight into the outside of your feet and get the outside of your hip to fire up.
  2. Send your knees over your toes and engage your buttocks when walking up and down stairs. Don’t let your knees roll inwards or outwards. Yes it is that simple.
  3. Do clams, ok but this one comes with a massive warning sign: you need to ensure you are doing them properly so speak to your Pilates teacher if you’re not sure.
  4. Do some Lazy Angels, also known as ‘around the worlds’ where you lie on your side and circle an arm around. This really helps to bring some movement into the shoulder blade area which is often quite sticky in downward spiral clients.
  5. Releasing the ITB and the calve muscles with a foam roller.
  6. Do some basic core stability, keep it really simple. If you’re lying on a foam roller and keep falling off you’re just going to be gripping to stay on it. Don’t be ambitious about it! The important thing is to do something that will require you to engage your inner line, do some knee floats or arms on a roller. Something to get your centre to wake up.

And finally: stop blaming your grandmother! Yes genetics do play a part, but we all know these days that nature is only half the story. The other half is in your hands. 🙂

Habit

I have a lovely aunt who was known for playing tricks on her teachers and siblings as a young girl. When my grandmother was out shopping or running errands, the children would take the opportunity to run amuck, until they heard their mother’s familiar footsteps. The particular rhythmic clicking of her heeled shoes against the paving stones, the lifting of the front gate lock, the slight tread of the shoe as she approached the front door, all these signalled time to quickly organise and pretend to be doing homework by the time their mother walked through the door. On one occasion, my grandmother left the house wearing a new pair of shoes, leaving her old shoes in the hallway. My aunt spotted an opportunity. She quietly took the shoes and creeped out of the door. Putting on the shoes, she then replicated her mother’s walk up to the front door. Her brothers and sisters inside were shocked by the sudden return and scrambled to get to their homeworks. The door opened, and there was Evelyn.

The little idiosyncrasies of our movements both define and are defined by our character, how we feel, our social and geographical environment. Like the clothes we wear, the body is firstly informed by its own material make up, the intrinsic qualities of the fabric. It is molded not only by the intended mechanism of our early development, the general pattern of conception, foetal growth and birth that you read about in medical books, but also by the unexpected idiosyncrasies that are inevitable in any live process. Even from the womb our bodies are receiving information to which we adapt in some way.

Have you ever tried to iron a top and realised that no matter what you do, the seams just don’t meet easily? The fabric molds to the shape and movement of its wearer. As we grow into who we become we make constant adjustments according to our internal and external environments. The fabric becomes stretched in some places, twisted in others. Our bodies develop patterns of movement in response to our need to negotiate all the ingredients that make us functioning human beings.The intrinsic qualities of the fabric and cut are only half the story. The other half is movement.

You are how you move.

The one rule that we all follow unconsciously is to make things easier for ourselves. The particular drag and click of my grandmother’s tread was not a deliberate choreographic sequence. It was a habit. Habits accumulate to reduce cognitive and muscular output. They become ingrained to the point that they are no longer questioned. They just become the norm. Now, this is not all bad. If a habitual pattern is a good adaptation for someone’s particular situation, if it is effective and not causing excess strain or injury, then it may be a beneficial habit. It only becomes a problem when it stops us from accessing our full movement potential. Remember, if a habit is developed out of need for efficiency then you are using less muscular effort, read: lowering your basic metabolic rate during that activity. This is very helpful if you have a marathon to run to save your life, but less helpful if you only tend to get around the block once in a working week. What we need to do is trick the body out of that tendency to economise and we do this by consciously (mindfully) moving ourselves out of habitual patterns.

So, how can we move more consciously?

  1. The ABC of good movement habits is awareness. We need to start by listening to our bodies. Switch the music off when you do that run. Tune in instead of tuning out whilst you swim. Do Feldenkrais…. that one’s worth repeating: do Feldenkrais.
  2. Throw a spanner in the works: you realise your weaknesses when you do something that you are not used to doing. Try a new class, change the cross of your legs, change your workstation around, listen to something you would not normally listen to. Don’t just go towards the familiar, nudge yourself out of your mindless habits even if it feels a little superficial.
  3. Your movement classes should be a conversation. No I don’t mean that you should spend the whole session discussing your mother in law and the state of the country. The art of effective teaching is to facilitate learning. I don’t have all the answers. I have a set of tools, a paradigm for approaching movement. How this interacts with your own knowledge and movement capacity is highly individual. For me to be able to help you, you have to help me. It’s a collaboration that we both learn from.
  4. Reflect. I know, like we have time to sit down and endlessly journal about things! But having some kind of written statement can help you catch your own habits. It doesn’t need to be a long thing. Write a line each day about what you did differently and how you felt. Reflection is an important feedback tool, there’s nothing like your own words to tell you how it is!
  5. Find a compass. If our roads were not straight, we’d all go around in circles. We all need some kind of compass, an external marker to tell us where we are. Ideally something quantifiable. Weight and BMI don’t give you the whole story, but as a rough guideline they provide some kind of compass to keep us on track. Don’t be obsessed. Just weigh in once a month or so.
  6. Injuries are the best wake up call. Most injuries, unless related to a specific accident like a sudden fall or a road traffic accident, are micro-traumatic. They are the cumulative effect of constant over use and micro-tears. That really long post-Christmas lunch walk may have triggered a new surge of pain, but the pattern that caused it was long ingrained. Don’t just treat the pain. Find the pattern that caused it.

 

Where to start…?

I have literally been staring at that question on my screen for 30 minutes. That ‘rest’ that I “really needed” has come, and gone. There are so many loose ends sitting in my inbox that it feels like I’m facing a pile of spaghetti as a to do list. My body has turned to mush thanks to successive colds and too much food and, helpfully, the entire world has shifted into hyper New Years Resolutions selling mode. Great. Welcome to January.

Still, pauses are useful, beginnings are hopeful and there is something to be said for taking stock and thinking before you leap back into the same old thing. Here’s my bit of New Year’s wisdom:

  1. It is always useful to make use of the ‘space’ that a holiday brings to create some perspective. When you’re outside of your regular doing mode, you realise that perhaps the things that you are doing are not making you happy. Or maybe you realise that something just has to change. I think it’s always good to notice how you feel about going back into working mode and think about how you can adjust things to make your working experience a little better. Or if you realise you are deeply unhappy about yourself or life in general, find a professional to talk to.
  2. I always find that the best time to get rid of a bad habit is after a holiday, because the change of routine has created an interruption in your habitual behaviours. This is another reason why holidays are not only nice, but also extremely important. They lift us out of the rut of bad habits that we accumulate just to get by. The key is to be aware of the tendency to slip back into them once you return to working mode. There’s no need to be cynical about a New Year’s Resolutions. Now is the time to make the shift. Is the habit just covering up a deeper rooted fear, unhappiness or boredom? If so, refer to no.1.
  3. If you really want to get back into exercise then the best option is to join a class. If possible try to pay upfront for a course of classes. That way you’ll show up every week. Doing it alone takes a lot more discipline and ultimately other work commitments will take over and seem more important. Busting your guts in the gym for one week is the best way to secure an injury that will just hinder you for the next 6 months. The little and often approach is more sustainable and ultimately more effective.
  4. Try something new. Everyone needs an outlet for creative play. This is something I’ve really struggled with, mainly because the activities that many people associate with recreation, (dancing, music, yoga, etc) are all kind of work related for me. So last term I decided to join a choir. I went along to the first session and paid my subs for the term. I felt completely lost. I almost didn’t return to the second session. But by the third and fourth session I was totally hooked. It’s been quite a challenge for me to just do something for fun. I had to let go of a lot and just get on with it. I still cannot read music to save my life, but who cares. There are so many things to do in London and they don’t need to cost an arm and a leg. I love initiatives like Write&Shine, which is a pre-work creative writing class plus breakfast. Book clubs are quite fun too, but then try to do something that involves meeting new people if you can. The social aspect is part of the benefit.

Finally, and I say this more to myself then to anyone else, the key is to just start somewhere. Don’t be a perfectionist about it, it doesn’t have to be your best yet. It’s just a start.

Happy New Year!

 

On Presence

Sometimes I think that the word ‘mindfulness’ is a little unhelpful. It conjures up an image of sitting quietly for hours everyday, silencing your thoughts and listening to your breath. Apart from the fact that this is not a realistic target for most people, I think it can give a very ‘brain centred’ image of the practice.

When I first came across the word in yoga 15 or so years ago, it seemed to me to be the opposite of mindlessness. Rather than moving without attention and awareness, moving mindfully is about consciously engaging in the movement, being present in the movement, ie: not switching off and thinking about your Tesco’s shop whilst doing a downward dog. The practice of mindfulness has been abstracted from this into a practice on its own. The goal is to be fully present as opposed to absently allowing the mind to drift into the past or future. It suggests a way of achieving the ‘Zen’ without the acrobatics, making it more accessible. But in a way this approach just propagates the dualistic mind-body split that we seem to be addicted to in our culture.

To be fair on the mindfulness practice, they do often use the body and breathing as an anchor to meditative practice. But I just find the static nature of the task to be quite painful. Don’t we spend enough time sitting?!

When I first started teaching I struggled with how much to expect clients to listen and follow my directions. I guess that, because Pilates involves lying on your back for a while (or at least to begin with), it can seem like an opportunity to switch off. Sometimes people show up for a class and spend most of it trying to sleep. (Of course I don’t mind that: if they are really that tired then they absolutely should sleep.) Then there are people who just want their bodies to be taught whilst their minds drift off. Funny ha? But surprisingly common too. They treat their bodies a bit like they treat their cars: they’ve no idea how they work, they just need them to function. When they don’t work, they rock up at the mechanic and ask for it to be fixed. This split of mind and body is a deeply ingrained attitude that the fitness industry has tended to reinforce. I’m sorry to break it to you, but there is no dream set of exercises that will fix your knee pain, give you back that flat stomach or make you lose that weight. The reason for this is that we are genetically pre-disposed to economise, to cut corners, to cheat. Mindless movement is just giving license to all your bad habits which are usually the reason for your pain in the first place. The only way to achieve pain free movement and a healthy weight is to wake up and be present in your movement, which is why concentration is one of the principles of Pilates.

Now I also know some people who use exercise as an opportunity to switch off and genuinely believe that this “dream time” does them good. Well, there is a reason that mindfulness has become so popular and that’s because the evidence suggests that being ‘present’ is key to our general sense of happiness. I recently came across this article by Maria Popova where she quotes Alan Watts writing in 1951! I don’t think I’ve heard the argument for presence articulated so well:

What keeps us from happiness… is our inability to fully inhabit the present… our primary mode of relinquishing presence is by leaving the body and retreating into the mind — that ever-calculating, self-evaluating, seething cauldron of thoughts, predictions, anxieties, judgments, and incessant meta-experiences about experience itself.

I speak here simply from the point of view of a movement teacher, from my own experience of different exercise forms, and from my own battles with silencing the endless chatter in my head. This is what I think: if you are mindfully engaged in your movement practice, not only do you move better and achieve more, but you will also be happier.

Here are a few suggestions for being more present in your movement:

  1. Join a class – Being in a class gives you some kind of anchor (the teacher’s instruction, verbal cues and hands on correction) that keeps you mindfully engaged in what you are doing. In this state you are more likely to work effectively because you cannot switch off and slip into the easier habits that you have unconsciously learned in order to minimise effort. The good news is that by listening in, staying in tune as it were, you are not only going to gain more physically, you will also be practicing mindfulness.
  2. Choose classes and teachers who will support your mindful practice – So this one is a bit of a tricky one because there are a few teachers who, to my mind, have forgotten the point of the practice. I’ve experienced and witnessed many teachers taking clients through a practice whilst chatting away nineteen to the dozen about their kids schools, what they did on the weekend and the state of their garden, intermingled with “now sink your belly and wrap the backs of the legs together…”. I know I sometimes joke about how I take my Pilates very seriously, but I’m sorry there is a balance and too often it’s being tipped away from mindfulness. By it’s very nature, the equipment studio and private sessions are a more relaxed, informal environment than the matwork class, so it’s natural (and right) that teachers develop a relationship with clients. My philosophy on this is to allow the client to lead this. It may be that they really need to get something off their chest, or they’re lonely and I’m the first person they’ve spoken to that day. But after giving some space for this, I try to gently encourage them back to the practice. Luckily for me, this is what I’m good at, teaching. I’m terrible at small talk. But if you have a teacher who keeps drifting into chatter, I suggest closing your eyes and focusing on your breathing. You could also ask a question about what you’re doing. It takes some discipline, but if you stop engaging with the conversation, they’ll soon get the message. It’s your class after all!
  3. Change something – If you always go to the same class, run the same route, do the same sequence of swimming strokes, then mix it up. Not only is this better for your body, but it requires a different attention.
  4. Practice Awareness through Movement – So you know how much I constantly go on about Feldenkrais? Trust me it is pure genius. The deepest way to learn about your own movement is by listening to your body. Yes Pilates is good for you, but Feldenkrais is like the abc of moving. You could join a class (check out the Feldenkrais Guild Website) or, for the time poor, you can access free classes online. The Feldenkrais Guild website has a number of short audio classes on their resource page. If you do a short session before you go off for your run or swim, you’ll tap into something different.

Let me know what you think and how you get on!

 

 

The Key to a Healthy Lower Back is in the Gluts

Lower back pain is one of the most common complaints that I deal with in my work as a Pilates teacher. In fact it is one of the main reasons most people take up Pilates in the first place (myself included!) And yet whilst the issue is so common, and can be extremely debilitating in the worst cases, it amazes me how little it is understood.

If you look at the spine in relation to the rest of the skeletal structure, you can see how the vertebrae of the lower back are relatively exposed. Whilst the sacrum is closed in by the pelvic bones and the thoracic vertebrae articulate with the rib cage, the lower back is not supported by any other structure. At the same time it bares the weight of the upper body and, being more mobile than the thoracic spine, tends to become the pivot point for a lot of spinal movement.

Excessive over-use of joints under load will bring about gradual wear and tear. In simple terms, this is what causes most back pain.

The traditional / standard prescription for lower back pain sufferers is: strengthen the ‘core’, by which most people mean ‘abdominals’. Of course there is some sense in this. If you strengthen the muscles in the lower abdominal area, then you create functional support for the joints of the lower back, reducing strain.

The key core muscle for lower back pain is the TVA. This wraps horizontally around the waist like a corset. Activating the TVA brings about a lengthening sensation through the whole spine. Up the back the spine is supported by a series of layers of muscles. These are relatively weak in the average person because so many of our daily activities tend to involve collapsing into a forward bending position.  A third component of the ‘core’ is the pelvic floor. Postural deviations tend to put more downward pressure on the floor of the pelvis which becomes weak and loses it’s buoyancy. So strengthening these three areas could go some way to reducing back pain.

However, the presence of pain in any joint is a signal that there are restrictions higher up or lower down the chain that are causing the over-use in the first place. What I’ve come to realise is that ineffective use of the musculature around the lower back is the result of poor integration with other parts of the body, and specifically, with the hip joints.

I’m going to give you two examples to illustrate this. These two postural tendencies are ones I know well. I have clients who present with both. I am simplifying by only considering forward / backward movement. Posture is three dimensional, so this clean side on view does not account for compensation patterns in other directions of movement. We’ll leave that out for the sake of this argument.

Doc - 17-03-2016, 10-37The first postural type that I come across in lower back pain is when the pelvis is in a slight backward tilt as illustrated in my sketch. We call this a ‘tucked under’ posture. This is an extremely common postural type and one that, funnily enough, Pilates can actually encourage! I have come across numerous lower back pain sufferers who actually adopt this position to relieve the pain. Actually they’re just de-stabilizing the lower back even more. When someone walks into a matwork class, one of the first preparatory exercises they are told to do is the pelvic tilt. I’ll hold my hand up here: this is exactly how I begin my classes! Someone with this tendency is likely to just press into their lower backs. The second preparatory movement is to take the spine into a bridge, where the cue ‘rolling the spine down bone by bone’ also encourages people to collapse into their lower backs further.

Doc - 17-03-2016

The second postural type is the anterior pelvic tilt. Here the hip flexors are tight, pulling the pelvis into a forward tilt. The lower back becomes shortened creating the exact opposite to the first postural type. Someone in this position may well benefit from the initial pelvic rocks, which will create some traction through the lower back area. However as soon as they begin moving into the bridge their lower backs begin to arch, amplifying the extension (shortening) of the lower back. Another very common problem in this postural type in particular is the loaded flexion exercises like the hundred, single leg stretch, double leg stretch. All of these will just go into the hip flexors making the situation a lot worse.

So whilst the long term effect of abdominal strengthening and traditional Pilates repertoire will be beneficial for the support of the lower back, in the short term they may simply play into the problem and make it a lot worse.  Rather than focusing solely on the ‘core’, both these postural types will benefit more from working on a common area of under-use: The Gluteals.

The buttocks are one of the most misunderstood areas of the body. Some people just think of the butt as something they wish was smaller (or bigger). Some people feel embarrassed about the thought that they have one and most people don’t realise that whilst it can be an area for fat storage, it is also the site of a major muscle group. Gluteus Maximus is the main hip extensor (ie: it opens the front of the hip) and Gluteus Medius and Minimus stabilise the hip (stopping us from falling over when we stand on one leg). When these muscles are under-used the deep hip rotators ( whose aim is primarily to rotate the thigh bone outwards) end up having to do a lot of the work. A lot of people have heard of a tight Piriformis, for example.

In the case of the first postural type described above, the hip remains in a chronically extended position where the deep hip rotators are literally tacking down the back of the pelvis towards the thighs. This tucked under position means that the gluts are unable to perform as an intermediary between the legs and the lower back, so people with this tendency are literally hanging their legs off their lower backs.

If the hip is not taken into extension enough, then it remains in a flexed position, (the second postural type described above). This leads to over-tight hip flexors and the increased lordosis (arch) of the lower back. As a result of the imbalance, the pelvis comes into a forward tilt making lower back articulation very difficult.

The key to a healthy lower back is to have tone and access to the gluts. This is not a question of mindlessly targeting the buttocks in repetitive exercises. It’s about ensuring that there is the right balance of movement around the hip to allow the gluts to fire up in the first place. Every body is different, and I don’t want to start suggesting exercises over blog posts. But perhaps the following points may help you make some adjustments that could help:

For people with a tendency to tuck under the key is: FOLD AT THE HIP! Stop sitting onto your lower back. When you sit down on a chair try to find your sits bones and sit right onto them. Almost imagine the tailbone pointing backwards which will bring the pelvis into a small forwDoc - 29-07-2016ard tilt, reducing the pull on the lower back. Often achieving this is difficult because the deep hip rotators are tight. So doing a seated glut stretch is a really useful way to create space in the hip joint which will allow the spine to lengthen upwards when sitting.

For people with a tendency to tilt the pelvis forward and arch the back, the key is to OPEN THE HIP. Most of us have tight hip flexors, so doing some Hip Flexor stretches like the kneeling lunge will help create some movement here. Once you’ve found a sense of opening the front of the hip, without letting the lower back, arch you can translate this into walking by leaving the back leg in contact with the floor for longer. This has the effect of lengthening your strides and though it may seem like it’s slowing you down initially, you’ll notice that you’re moving much faster in fact.

These are just a few points that you’ll already know if you’ve done any work with me. Next week I’ll talk a little more about how the tilt of the pelvis connects with and is affected by the feet.