Having a Practice

By Wade Edwell, Director at Proper Pilates

This is a two part piece for teachers that will later consider coaching Practice in others, but firstly I would like to mull over what Practice should mean to us.  I've been pondering over how best to write this for some time, while also considering the concept and how my own understanding and commitment to Practice has manifested and mutated over time.

I must first ask of you that you approach these writings with an open mind, and see them through to their end.  Of course the ideas in these paragraphs are personal, and so may come across as offensive.  Please know my intent is to inspire conversation and perhaps self-evaluation, not to upset.  Pilates has come to mean many different things to all who engage with it, and so of course at times we approach from seemingly conflicting sides of the table, but the very notion of Practice requires that we constantly take a step away from ourselves to consider our current context and perhaps move forward to shape ourselves in alternate ways.

Question: do you ever think about how you drive a car?  Seriously, since you got your license and moved past those fretful first few months where you were extra careful of running red lights, do you ever stop to think about how you could still improve?  Do you shift gears quickly enough?  Are you always late-breaking, or constantly getting speeding tickets?  What about parking- over time have you actually gotten better at reversing into tight spaces or do you still avoid them?  Ultimately, could you pull the same moves and speeds as a race car driver around a professional track?

If you think about it, the notion of Practice means that we should be progressing over time as we continually engage.  If you're 40 and you've clocked up potentially tens of thousands of hours on the road, and you still drive without thinking and in the same ol' manner you did when you were 17, what's changed?  Are you just doing, or is it a Practice?

It's been assessed that to master something on average takes 10,000 hours.  My point is that there's plenty of things we've done for more than this requirement and we're still doing it just as we always did, maybe even worse.  True mastery requires incredible dedication not just to showing up, but to really being IN the moment with training, constant self-evaluation, and consistent check in with constructive external assessment.

The biggest fundamental to mastery however is the desire to constantly want to change for the better.  For example, I've been in cars with plenty of drivers who still, after years of driving, avoid parking in difficult spaces close to shops because they don't feel confident and would rather park further away where it's easy to find space.  They never change, never stop to consider if maybe they are capable of more, and in doing so making their life better.  Similarly until recently when I really stopped to think about it, I used to get consistently frustrated and at times aggressive when peak traffic didn't go my way...never stopping to consider that I always hit it because I never manage my time well enough in the morning to get out the door and leave a reasonable period in which to get to work.

Many people make these choices to dig in to habit, both consciously and not, all the time.  In fact in many cases we prefer to make jokes about these things with our friends and family- "Oh, I'm ALWAYS late, I just can't get out the door on time for anything..."  Practice requires you to look at yourself, and want to be something more.  It doesn't require you to want a body like Channing Tatum or to run the 100m like the Bolt, but it does require will power and honest reflection.

My big point.  This is missing in the way many of us engage with Pilates, and as I'll discuss in the follow up to this post, it's also missing in the way we deliver the method.  

Personally as a third generation teacher I try to stay away from the debate about who remembered what exercise right, and so on...in my mind that's for the generation above me to get caught up in.  What I will gladly enter into with tenacity however is the debate about what Pilates is fundamentally, and what it should mean to each of us.

I'm absolutely certain that there was hardly a thing in Joseph Pilates' life that he hadn't really considered deeply- from trying to do something more effectively and efficiently, to researched ideas and opinions, to habits and behaviours.  Now the way he lived and the ideas he had on specific things might not be for all of us, but what we should stop to really think about is that the man lived for the idea of being present, and of trying to be something more than what we are.  This, in my opinion, is what truly defines Pilates.  Deeper than the exercises, orders, equipment choices, and lineages, Pilates at its core is a Practice that through consistent and attentive engagement should be helping us to realise ourselves as something more, something better, someone more considerate of our actions, choices and footprint.  If you read his books and only see the exercises, you've missed the whole point.

Case in point: as I sit writing this I'm lounging on my couch in a way I know historically to make me slump and tighten up my shoulders...I know I could sit better, write in a different place...so my choice is not very 'Pilates.'

When I worked in other studios I lost count of the amount of clients and teachers who were still training the same way they had for years, and would happily make excuses for it.  Clients were happy because they were ticking a box and didn't have to look at themselves too hard, and teachers were happy because they didn't have to think or work too hard, and the money kept coming in.  When I started my own studio this paradigm paralysis began to find its feet in my own cohort, and to an extent in myself.  I personally have my mentors at Vintage Pilates (in LA) and Tiziana Trovati (2nd Gen to Romana) to thank for helping me to realise a way out of this, and consequently my partner and I have reshaped our business models, our staff, and ourselves to arrive at what is now a setup that engages every client in truly progressive Practice.  But more on that in my next post...

The point is Joe Pilates sought to master, well, everything.  He looked at things, exercise, bodies...life...and thought about ways in which it could all be more effectively made, trained, executed.  He was a master of Mastery, in essence everything to him was Practice.  Ergo, to be 'in' Pilates, this is essentially how we must approach it.

"He was a master of Mastery, in essence everything to him was Practice"

Many Pilates teachers today don't have a Practice.  Caught up by life, time, aches and pain, they defer the very thing that they should actually be invested in, if not through a sense of responsibility to donning the Pilates name, at least for their own wellbeing.  Not to put words into his mouth, but my assumption would be Joe would be pretty furious about this.  I'm not saying this is how the reader should feel, but when I really stopped to think about it for myself, I did feel quite ashamed, both because I knew I could do better for me, and because I do want to honour the name Pilates and what I truly believe it stands for.

So pose yourself this question, do you really have a Practice.  Are most of your workouts, or all of them, just circuitous paths around the same cemented position?  Are you better than you were?  Are you seeking to master the system- at a pace in which works for you of course- but are you trying?  Are you holding onto the idea of an injury that really isn't there anymore, but is still holding you back from trying to do something harder?.  And, are you exercising, regularly...like, everyday, or at least Joe's recommended 4 times per week?

Deeper than all these questions, pose yourself this- Do you believe that you can do more, be more?  

Are you actually trying to get there, and making room for your efforts both in your schedule and in your mind?  If you know you still can't perform a Roll Up, are you saying the same affirmations to keep you in your place, or have you really looked at why you can't, and set in place the pathway that will get you there?

Do you truly, really, believe that you can do more, be more?

Change will only happen if you step outside yourself and make observations and then choices to shift.  Doing this in a constructively judgemental way is essential, but on a grand scale can be overwhelming emotionally.  The good news is it doesn't have to be- take a baby step first and plan to work on one thing this month and see where you get.

Likewise for those of us who think 'we have it,' good Practice should make us continually look back at ourselves and assess whether we're sitting too much into our own rhythm and have forgotten our basics (read this metaphorically also), or whether we're realising what each exercise seeks to achieve fundamentally.  It should also make us consider whether we're trying to shape ourselves into the best version of us, or looking to achieve the notoriety, physicality, or life of someone else.  Maybe we need some help with this and should engage a mentor so that we are more accountable to ourselves, by being accountable to the teachings of someone else?  All things to really consider.

The crux: real Practice keeps you honest with yourself, and ensures growth.  If your Pilates is stagnant, is it really still Pilates that you're doing?

It's all very confronting, but it is positive, it is growth...and it is Pilates.

"We'll get there..."- the Discipline that is Authentic Pilates

by Wade Edwell, Director at Proper Pilates

Trevor (my partner) and I constantly joke about how the most spoken phrase in our house isn't "I love you," but rather "we'll get there."  Jokes aside (we certainly say "I love you more!") it is a phrase that definitely defines our character- that is we are of that small subset of people that always feel there is something to work on, something to work towards, somewhere new to go.

I've read articles from different sources recently regarding the differences in Pilates styles/offerings, and while they are all fairly accurate I would venture that there is a big point being missed in the defining of Classical Pilates, or rather the client that is drawn to it and experiences successful outcomes.

In my opinion devotees of the Authentic work are a breed apart from status quo Pilates exercisers.  They are people who are not threatened by being humbled by the learning process, and enjoy sinking long term into a Practice.  True Pilates is a fickle mistress, that becoming seemingly more simple as the layers come off is at the same time becoming incredibly more complex.

This is a characteristic of true disciplines, such as martial arts and dance, and to be successful you really must be a person who enjoys this never ending type of quest.  This is certainly a reason that many highly-trained ballet dancers are drawn to the work, because they are conditioned to sticking with something and working at it long term to draw out the juice.

Trevor working tirelessly for the 'perfect' teaser at Proper Pilates Melbourne.

I would venture that Authentic Pilates (taught in an individually applied form- not through classes) is a modern day martial art- in that it is a practice that helps us to defend ourselves from contemporary woes and threats.... eg bad posture due to lifestyle choices and work conditions, apathy brought about by entitlement and ease of access to everything, etc.  It is a thrilling form of physical, and through that mental, conditioning that requires consistency and commitment, not just new brand conscious tights, a green smoothie and a decent Instagram following.

The strength of the work when applied individually is that it requires the client to become more involved in their learning process.  This can be a detractor for many people who just want things to be more simple for them.  For many people classes deliver exercise, but not a lasting mental shift by which participants learn the deeper components of exercises, remember them, and leave with a lasting impression of how to better move their body in the real world.  Having to take responsibility for your own training requires fortitude- it's hard to turn up day in and out and work deeper into something, remember your corrections, and build your awareness of your body.  Therefore, it's just not a practice that everyone can sink into- it can be "too hard," or "too confronting."

To that end Pilates (as we engage with it at PP) is for everyone, but everyone is not necessarily for Pilates.  So training costs, lineages and stylistic approaches aside, for me hands down the biggest thing that sets aside individualized Authentic work (which is the delivery method most true to Joe's intended form) is that it is not your ability that draws you into it, but rather your tenacious character- that you are a person that enjoys the process and loves the work.

What's the point of the Hundred in Classical Pilates?

The Hundred, our great warming exercise.

So often though it looks like a fight for people.  Too often we forget that the Hundred is the beginning of a sequence, a sequence that should see our body open up more as we work through it, see us arrive more limber, longer, and stronger by the end (not necessarily the beginning!).

As teachers we need to be really sure that the version of the Hundred we are giving our client is one that supports them in not just warming up the body, but also in opening up the back chain.  We need to remember that following on in our Classical Pilates sequences, whether on the Reformer or the Mat, we are moving into rolling exercises, or those which require a supple spine for success.

Legs being too low, or above us with no real sense of a strong centre, is defeating us and making it less possible to feel how the back needs to open to allow us to roll.  Of course everything also comes down to the make up of the individual in front of us.

Trevor demonstrating The Hundred on the Universal Reformer at Proper Pilates Melbourne

Instead of just cuing a shape, what we should be working for in the client is a reach out of the centre of the back in two directions (aha!  Two way stretch!).

Try getting your clients to feel that instead of locking their legs for length, or clamping their spine to the Mat, that they reach from the centre of their back through the back of the hips and legs and away...while at the same time lengthening from the centre of the back out and away through the back of the neck and skull.  Often I tell people it's like lying in a hammock that's being pulled out from under you at either end.

If we can build a sense of this stretch in the Hundred, then inevitably the client will move into the Roll Up or Short Spine/Overhead with a spine that reaches into its 'C' curve rather than 'crashing' and 'crushing' into it.

Think of the ongoing benefits- arriving at Roll Over and not crushing the neck, but feeling the back open...and don't get me started on how it can help Rolling Like a Ball and Teaser.

Next time you teach it, think about how we should coach length and not just 'lock,' then step back and watch the amazing flow on effect.

Wade Edwell, Director, Proper Pilates