If you’ve been following along with some of my blog posts you may see some common things pop up from time to time. Moving your body is good. That it’s ok to fail. Critical thinking is a positive thing. Today, I want to touch on something that is also bouncing around in the background of some of those blog posts – fearlessness.
Fear has an important role to play in being human. It’s quite a primal force as it can drive behaviour away from a dangerous situation, helping with basic survival. The beauty of the human brain is that it can usually predict outcomes really well with the help of past experiences and observations. Sometimes these past experiences may include some amount of pain, which we will usually want to avoid. The mechanism to avoid this can be thought of as a fear – a fear of pain, which can be useful to keep us safe. However, when these fears become dominant they can lead to unhelpful behavioural responses.
Being worried or concerned about moving your arm because of a shoulder injury 2 years ago is not necessarily helpful. Being fearful of bending over to pick something off the floor because an MRI showed you had two disc bulges in your lower back is not helpful. Worrying about doing a movement the ‘right’ way because you’ve heard it might be dangerous is not helpful. Because these strategies will not build resilience, they won’t build strength and they do nothing to remove the fear. Doing nothing does not help.
The Pilates Method is something people commonly turn to, to try and ‘fix’ a problem or injury, and so many teachers in the industry have dealt with a large number of their students dealing with pain. Pain can lead to fear in both teacher and student. Fear of moving the part that hurts. Fear of re-injuring a body. Fear of making a situation worse. These seem like pretty logical and rational responses. I mean who would actually want to a have a torn calf muscle or need a shoulder reconstruction? Avoiding moving an injured part of the body to help it heal is a common strategy and for many types of injury, it is usually recommended.
But really this strategy should only be done for a relatively short period of time. The real problem, I think, is when the injury has healed and the fear is still there — when it manifests into an inner demon that seems too big to overcome. As the brilliant Andrew W.K. has said, these inner fears, doubts or demons are actually a part of life:
In your darkest moments never forget that you can and will make it through. Never forget the hard times that you already have made it through. …. they’re as necessary and natural as the night-time is to the day. The dark isn’t bad. It’s simply the light casting a shadow. Our ultimate quest is not to destroy the shadows or our demons but to learn to hold hands with that side of life. To party with our demons.
Fearlessness, to me, does not mean recklessness. Recklessness by definition cares little about the process or outcome of a situation. Fearlessness in the Pilates setting is present in all the little things we do. Simply rocking up to a studio, for some, can be a form of fearlessness, especially if that person is dealing with some big ‘life’ stuff. By taking that step, that very first timid step into a new world, the world of the Pilates Method, the world of Contrology, a new student has already displayed to me how fearless they are.
Being open and talking about what is bothering them or what they want to achieve in a lesson is fearless. Trying a new movement that looks crazy at first is fearless. Practising that movement, that skill, until you ‘get it’ is fearless. Moving a part of your body even if you know it might cause pain is definitely fearless.
But this fearlessness is a two-way street. The students in a Pilates studio are looking for guidance and re-assurance from Pilates teachers. They want to know that what they are doing is ‘right’ (Hot tip 1 – it totally is. Always). They want to know that they’re not going to re-injure a part of their body (Hot tip 2 – you won’t). They are looking at you for any sign, verbal cue, a little bit of body language that they are in danger. They want to know that they won’t experience more pain – this is where it gets a little tricky.
Because pain is so highly influenced by many different factors how a student responds to a movement can sometimes be out of a Pilates teachers’ hands. Does that mean I don’t care if a student is in pain? Far from it! And I don’t believe there is a Pilates teacher out there who doesn’t want to see their students experience less pain.
It’s not about moving in a ‘right’ or wrong way. It’s about getting movement into the body. It might be scary or uncomfortable for student or for the teacher but the strategy of not moving or avoiding movement isn’t working. The way I see it, my job is to listen to how students experience the movement, be able to break it down or present it in such a way that may lessen their fear or apprehension for doing that movement, so they can then achieve that movement in the future. I understand that movement is good and pain isn’t necessarily bad.
We don’t run away from teaching someone a Roll up or a Teaser or a Snake simply because of a concern or a fear of injury to our students. If need be, you break it down into digestible portions for the student to tackle until you get there. But the point is you get there. That’s clever teaching. And when the teacher and the student are getting to that point together, confident in each other’s ability to move and to tackle challenges, it is such a special, treasured thing.