Versatility of the mind and spine, as well as muscle preservation, are tantamount for optimum existence, but only if underpinned by humility.
In the far corner of a business hotel in Istanbul’s commercial Gayrettepe district, epiphanies abound. Tight-clad explorers take to their mats in pairs, moving in sync with their partners, at times leaning on them, at others supporting them, but mostly using the closure provided by their bodies to reconcile fluidity with balance.
While some sit back-to-back as they twist their torsos (some interlock wrists to help their partner go the extra mile, so to speak), others join feet to mutualise force. For most attending the international workshop on optimum movement and musculature, the exercise to induce dual precision seemed pleasant enough, at times funny, at others faintly awkward, though not nearly as off-catching as the events of the subsequent mornings.
Walking around sporadically and bumping into each other seemed easy enough, but the experience became visibly unsettling at the sight of bear crawls and crab walks (semi-crawling on all fours, either face down or facing upwards, at times backwards). The exercise demanded a level of proximity that caught some off-guard. At this point, a fair few have taken to the sidelines, camouflaging their unease by making calls or 'capturing' the moment on their smartphones.
Indeed, it is in such moments of unorthodox, out-of-the-ordinary behaviour that ingrained narrative kicks in.
And yet, while many at that point may not have fathomed what embracing vulnerability and abandoning the ego had to do with creating space in the joints and tissue, the synergy had become irresistible. It was a decisive moment of learn or lose.
By the time most had broken out into a sweat, we were all in a circle, back on the terrain of familiarity, hopping up and down, trying to keep up with the ad hoc constant change in tempo being beckoned by Akin Saatci, a former rowing champion on the mend and owner of Polestar Pilates Turkiye.
In essence, we were being immersed in everything that was counterintuitive, uncomfortable, new, at times seemingly random, all for the sake of inducing neurological versatility ahead of the serious stuff. Taking the plunge, so to speak (the French for immersion, by the way, is plonger).
In an age in which almost everything, from air to food and from silence to the mercies of incremental wisdom, has been tampered with to the point of no return, here, the art of fruitful ploughing was being cultivated.
Spring-cleaning the mind, as it were, is tantamount to lighting up the rest of the body’s electrical signalling, which flows on the thin sheath (or fascia) that covers all muscle and contains the human structure, quite literally.
Organic, sporadic, non-patterned forms of movement awaken the body's entire fascial network, keeping the elastic structure that binds us together hydrated and agile (the Arabic for agility, لياقة, has etymological variants ‘befitting’ to human form).
Given the ease with which the essential became clear, it was all the more wonder, then, that the current world order of monitors and MRI machines still obscured the obvious. Turns out the dull aches at the back of the arms or the lower back (or anywhere really) may well just be ropy tissue that has shrivelled up in defence through overuse and oblivion, like a snag in a blouse that pulls the entire garment out of alignment.
There was nothing mystical about what we were being taught. There was no conjecture. It simply was what it was.
The importance of maintaining end range
Pumped up and pushed outside the box, notebooks and pens at hand as we sat on our mats, we looked up at a screen filled with grim statistics.
That we are at the helm of a global wellness crisis, yet another ‘crise de conscience’, as it were, must not have been news to most.
The most pressing issue of them all, perhaps, is the fact that chronic pain, which takes its toll on those who have inadvertently attracted it, every minute of every day, has doubled in the past 15 years, according to Dr Brent Anderson, an orthopaedic specialist, physiotherapist and head of the Polestar Pilates school.
The sad silver lining: 80 percent of cases become chronic if symptoms are not mitigated within four weeks, while 80 percent heal if addressed in that time.
Unlike most therapists, Anderson, who broke his neck pole-vaulting seven years ago and recently underwent knee surgery, constantly connects the dots with context.
Human rights to movement, he says, encompass standing, walking, squatting, jumping, running, planking, pushing and climbing.
“Here is the thing about human effort,” he says. “You need to do as much as necessary, as little as possible.”
Thankfully for most who are daunted by the odds of being healthy in a fundamentally unhealthy era, less turned out to be more.
As Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, wrote, production requires less effort when production capability is maintained. Otherwise said, keeping our machines well-oiled ensure they will operate at optimum range.
In that light, the Pilates machines before us, which would daunt anyone at first glance (not least thanks to their lack of familiarity and accessibility, which Anderson says must be mitigated globally) are nothing more than a maintenance workshop for rusty cars.
The resistance provided through the springs facilitates muscular rehabilitation and optimum movement by activating the small, inner muscles that envelop the spinal column.
It comes as no surprise that in the sedentary era of both mind and body, all nuance has been lost, and the intricate muscle fibres inside of us are no exception. Instead, we now move in emergency mode, using the big, outer muscles that were designed by nature as a last resort to do the simplest things.
Gradual resistance, otherwise known as graded load, helps in the fight against compression of the joints and discs through ensuring optimum spinal and functional mobility in all directions.
In the first world, ballet dancers, gymnasts, golfers and other athletes are routinely fixed on the equipment.
Once our own machines have been reset, any form of movement, from getting up to bending over and from running, climbing or virtually any movement that requires the remotest battle with gravity, becomes a walk in the park.
In the words of Joseph Pilates, the man who invented the repertoire for organic, loaded ranges of movement for soldiers injured in World War I: “If your spine is inflexibly stiff at 30, you are old. If it is completely flexible at 60, you are young.”
Fluidity, Anderson tells the crowd, is underpinned by breathing into the lungs, ribcage and belly interchangeably, sleeping sufficiently and maintaining hygiene of the gut, blood and mind, among other decisive forces for wellness.
Transcending tradition, purging paradigm
Over in London, Liz Bussey, Polestar UK’s lead coach, gestures at a group of trainees for the last of the rehabilitative Pilates teacher training modules.
“Toxic pleasure is not sustainable,” she says pensively. “We are in a fantasy but with our eyes open. The ego loves to create a story, which it then lives as reality.”
Through years of training with various teachers from different schools, this may well be the only movement syllabus that has attempted to go full circle. No sustainable fitness without sound mind, no sound mind with ego.
It is in that light that Anderson asserts that the language with which clients are spoken to is more important than actual intervention.
In fact, behavioural measures are the most powerful predictors of functional outcome, says Anderson.
“I let them tell me what they need or feel,” he says. “You don’t have to agree, disagree or judge. You need to let them tell you their story, which oftentimes goes beyond the physical.”
“A more appropriate question to ask clients with ingrained beliefs about their physical limitations would be: what do you think is preventing you moving, say, your head? The shift in narrative usually comes after they verbalize their inner beliefs out loud.”
Anderson also quells the 21st century hype surrounding disc damage. The discs (or the cushions between the vertebrae) should be kept in check by the braid that is the muscular cobweb of the spine, but that doesn't mean the discs hold us hostage. Rather, they fall hostage to our rigidity.
“It’s like saying: my discs don’t like walking, my discs don’t like jumping,” he says. Their degeneration is part and parcel of ignorance of the bigger picture, not of their own malfunction.
“I love my discs,” chimed the crowd at his beckoning.
In the spirit of abandoning narrative, and in closing, we form two circles, hand in hand, one facing the other. Though this was a much more docile anti-climax than the ones that had us pushing each other, it would prove the most potent.
We are told to lock eyes with everyone we would come across, silently telling them: “I am who you are and I accept you for who you are.”
As the opposing circles moved a step to their right every few seconds, eyes interlocked and tears eventually flowed. It was like we were entering into a kaleidoscopic trance, like those emotive commercials that play images of one smiling face after another in the name of cancer, or poverty, or diversity. Turns out, we were mimicking the electromagnetic flow of the earth. We were harmonizing forces by harnessing multiple points of consciousness.
Negating the niche
That the Pilates repertoire has been hijacked by the ‘core strength’, branded lobby and made a niche of, so to speak, is all the more ironic given its essence of inducing fluidity.
“Contracting the stomach muscles actually increases compression on discs,” Anderson tells the crowd. “In fact, isolated muscular training quashes spontaneous organization of the neuromuscular system.”
Diane Nye, this year’s Polestar educator for modules two, three and four in London, ensured the perils of contraction would resonate with teacher trainees when she beckoned us to stand together in a circle and asked us to jump up and down the way we normally would. We jump, arms and legs flailing.
“Now jump while contracting your core,” she says. We stomp, weighed down by the gravity of our own rigidity.
After understanding that the biomechanics of the body, like life, aren't to be taken in isolation, I came to realize just how many movements I had entirely missed the point of thanks to earlier teachers failing to cue efficiently by virtue of their non-holistic education. Why not twist from the scapula, not the torso, for instance? Why has short spine (lifting the torso on the reformer with feet in straps) been about force, or "activating the core", all these years?
"Vertebra by vertebra says nothing, especially to people who have no range beyond, say, two vertebrae in thoracic flexion," says Anderson. Cueing must resonate with the person's specific issues, which the Polestar assessment tools and six principles cover comprehensively owing their detailed rehabilitative nature.
And that's not all.
“When gym-goers create load and bulk in the front body through sustained flexion, they are shortening the fibres of the front line, inducing kyphosis in the long run,” she says. “So-called core strength is proportionate to the rest of the body. The body only needs what it needs and was not made to carry around excess outer bulk.”
Alas, six-packs and pumped up pecs turned out to be a far cry from health.
“We need to let go of needing to contract,” says Bussey. “The machines are but a tool to help us get to where we can be, not where we think we should be.”
Otherwise said, overriding the body’s nervous system by transgressing the boundaries of end range (think Ashtanga yoga and other forms of dynamic movement that may be driven by the ego’s need to defy gravity) yields only more suffering.
Just as the machines are a means to an end, so, too, should the quest for optimum agility. Our forefathers preached far and wide that all pyscho-spiritual development goes to dust the minute power becomes an end, which in the Instagram virtual era, rings truer than at any other time.
It was in the spirit of the ‘end ranges’ of humility, then, that Saatci, who aesthetically more than fits the bill, offered to be the guinea pig for the Polestar fitness screenings, which give patients the lowdown on their physical limitations. Turns out, he had a fair few. That the studio owner, an otherwise accomplished athlete, offered to sit on the floor, shirt off, showing off his functional restrictions, was the most powerful lesson of all.
In the words of a famous 1990s UK hit: we’re not invincible, we’re only people.