It’s one of those phrases which crops up again and again, but I think it bears repeating. Hana Jones, an inspiring woman and superb Pilates Teacher, was the first person to draw my attention to it, back on my matwork teacher training. “You teach best, what you most need to learn.” It was coined by the American author Richard Bach. It floats into my consciousness on a regular basis. One of the key reasons that I teach Pilates, is because my body needs it so. As I become more experienced as a teacher, I keep being made aware of how much more I have to learn – the human mind and body is a beautifully complicated thing which reveals itself only gradually – at least to me.
My background is not the conventional path to becoming a Pilates teacher. I studied English at university and then went into the world of commerce. All my life I have loved physical exercise but I’m not a natural mover – I have no inner left and right, my balance is not ‘naturally’ good, I’m not great at choreographed dancing. I do, however, love the way it feels in my body and mind. And if you explain to me how to make a movement happen using precise and imaginative language, I can and will do it, with relish. Add a dash of hands on (oh, how I do love the tactile) and a good demonstration and I am able to get inside it and experience it fully. I didn’t ‘get’ what you need to recruit in order to be able to be at all capable of competence at such athletic pursuits as sprinting and long jump until after I had trained as a Pilates teacher. At my daughter’s primary school sports’ day, she struggled with how to do a standing long jump. I thought about it and suggested that she spring, hug up her knees and think of sucking in her tummy muscles hard. She may not have won but she was certainly in the top three. This led me, after years of refusal (the years of humiliation because I was best friends with a stellar athlete and I don’t get how to move naturally, you see) to participate in and win the mum’s race. I thought – what do Olympic sprinters do? I thought of them pumping their arms and exploding from the fire of their abdominals and realised that I would give it a whirl. I pumped my arms and powered my legs via engaging the abs like crazy. I won. I am a highly competitive beast even if it’s as daft a thing as a mother’s race. I’d never been any kind of sprinter and I’m still not, but if I can work out with my mind what my body needs to do, then I can help make it happen.
Pilates is intelligent exercise. The best teachers use an array of techniques to convey the information to their client. If a client is not getting it then keep trying different ways – some people are very concrete and can’t bear too much frilly language, others love metaphor and move beautifully if cued thoughtfully and even poetically. My writer clients in particular respond to a well-chosen image or even a feeling. Of course, I can only choose appropriately if the technique is in my body – so thoughtful self-practice and regular class with a good teacher are both fundamental.
This new year brought a flurry of lovely new clients to Tufnell Park Pilates. I had been unwell over the festive period so had to hit the ground running. I went from being weak and housebound to teaching full-on with no real transition. My physical frame was unprepared as a result and, sure as day follows night, I got injured. This one was a beast – my physical wonkiness combined with a touch of hypermobility meant that I was over relying on my left hip and leg. My right stabilisers go AWOL sometimes and they had. I had not been strict enough with self-practice and had sacrificed my own class time to teach others. My left gluteus minimus was over-taxed and furious. It really, really hurt – in my bum, my hip, trailing dully and heavily down the outside of my leg and into the calf. I was struggling to put on socks and limping about in a very poor advertisement for the Pilates technique. So, with the help of my Pilates teacher, I went back to basics. Restoring balance and flow to my system with daily Pilates work. Getting both sides to stabilise, lifting out from my beleaguered centre, spreading and supporting my shoulder girdle.
And of course, it worked. Pilates, some cranio-sacral therapy and acupuncture, addressing the thorny issue of my horribly unsupportive car seat with a back-friend, reorganising things in my life to minimise unnecessary bending and twisting – the whole picture. I even got rid of a nasty old sofa which my back HATED and replaced it with a much more comfortable bit of mid-century seating, courtesy of ebay which looks BEAUTIFUL in my living room. But at the heart of it, the Pilates method. Rebalancing my body, looking at the patterning of the hamstrings, glutes and lower abdominals. Strengthening and mobilising gently and then gradually but (pleasantly surprisingly) swiftly upping the ante – challenging the newly reawakened muscles to work just a little harder, adding it all together.
And as with every little injury since I became a Pilates teacher, it enhanced my teaching. Experiencing imbalance and its consequences reinforces what I teach my clients. My own mild hypermobility means that I have some understanding of my clients with similarly unbounded bodies. It’s all good – even the pain, if we chose to understand its message and change things up. Then there is the added benefit of my rekindled enthusiasm for what I am teaching – this stuff really does make sense, it really does work.
Perhaps the key point is that the method works if you do use it as part of a holistic approach – a bit like cleaning your teeth it needs to be done regularly and often. And there is much more benefit if you look at your life as a whole – are my shoes supportive, could I make my car seat a good place to sit, how can I reorganise my workspace/kitchen/wherever I exert myself repetitively and regularly so that it works ergonomically…?
So yes – I do teach what I most need to learn and my education is a whole life, ongoing process. Long may it continue.
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