Recently I picked up a book recommended by Pat Flynn, my favorite internet business and marketing aficionado.
Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment by George Leonard is a wonderful read.
Leonard, a longtime practitioner and teacher of aikido, examines the various paths to mastery via the study of a martial art. He defines mastery as “the mysterious process during which what is at first difficult becomes progressively easier and more pleasurable through practice.”
It brings rich rewards, yet is not really a goal or a destination but rather a process, a journey. We call this journey mastery.
The path to mastery, Leonard asserts, “is available to anyone who is willing to get on the path and stay on it,” though they must battle against our quick-fix, instant gratification society for survival.
And in true nerd fashion, my fancy turned to thoughts of…wait for it…
the Pilates Method!
The words ‘mastery' and ‘master teacher' continue to dot the Pilates landscape.
But what defines a master?
Proximity to the source? Decades of study and experience? Increased market share?
What does it mean to aspire to mastery of the Pilates Method?
It is my belief as well that the true essence of mastery is in the doing rather than the arriving.
Any art form, martial art or physical practice develops over time. Skills are acquired, practiced and perfected. Layers of nuance and expression are slowly uncovered.
Veteran teachers continue to learn the work and perfect their craft over decades. They admittedly learn something new every day. There is no end point.
Jay Grimes describes the pursuit of Pilates:
Pilates is an endless journey. It can be a wonderful journey but it never ends.
It was Junghee Won who first described the Pilates Method as more akin to a martial art than to traditional exercise. In both disciplines one cultivates the skills of the exercises as a foundation perfected year after year in countless – nearly endless – variation. Mental and physical discipline are a requirement. Focus is imperative.
Jay also counsels the Pilates neophyte:
Forget everything you know about exercise. Pilates is different.
The Love of the Eternal Now
The path to mastery demands you make your peace with being on a plateau. If your practice is diligent, you will spend a good deal of your time there. There will of course be thrilling, heady moments in between when you have a surge of learning, followed again by a new, albeit different looking plateau.
Goals are important. But they exist in the future and the past…Practice, the path of mastery, exists only in the present.
Take comfort in your continued practice as another level of understanding, another spike in your proficiency may be right around the corner.
In Pilates, we routinely practice our series of exercises, plus additional exercises we add to address specific needs. Often we finish our workout with invigorating exercises that challenge and inspire us on our journey. These are the mainstays of our Pilates practice.
And then one day The Flying Squirrel appears. You do your best, learn a little bit more each time you visit…and then back to your practice vowing one day to return to our Flying Friend.
On the path to mastery every day may not be the Flying Squirrel. It may very well be about doing the Footwork on the Reformer as perfectly as you can today. I suspect there will be lots of Footwork on the plateau. Probably the Rowing Series too.
Getting on the Path
In his book, Leonard outlines 5 Key points to “open the door to mastery.” They correspond quite nicely to our particular Pilates path.
“The search for good instruction starts with a look at credentials and lineage. Who was your teacher's teacher? Who was that teacher's teacher?”
Uh-oh. That's a big word. More on this delicate subject in a future post.
“At the heart of it, mastery is practice. Mastery is staying on the path.”
Of course, right? Your Pilates practice will be by your side always, a trusted friend. You own your workout and your own well being.
“The courage of a master is measured by his or her willingness to surrender…surrendering to your teacher and to the demands of your discipline. It also means surrendering your own hard-won proficiency from time to time in order to reach a higher or different level of proficiency.”
This one is tricky. True learners are not content with yesterday's experience of an exercise. The body is ever changing and the work changes as well. Let's nickname this one:
“Character, willpower, attitude, imaging, the mental game, intentionality…however you look at it…is an essential to take along on the master's journey.”
The Pilates word for this is willpower. You must set yourself to the task at hand. New habits are not easy to implement. That's how they came to be called habits in the first place. You must envision the change and will yourself to execute it. Those super challenging exercises are not simply going to happen to you…you've got to want to do them.
5. The Edge
The fine art of playing the edge…involves a willingness to take one step back for every two forward, sometimes vice versa. It also demands a determination to keep pushing, but not without awareness.
Let's call this the Pilates version of ‘pushing the envelope'. Using your will, your practice, your surrender to work safely to the very edges of your proficiency. You've got the tools to challenge yourself to do an exercise that takes all you've got and that previously you found unattainable.
It is your hard-won skills, the fruits of your labors that will navigate you through the Flying Squirrel.
To be a learner you've got to be willing to be a fool.
Ultimately to be on the path to mastery you must continually be an 'empty vessel' in search of new valuable skills, ideas and experiences to feast upon.
In this way we become a perennial beginner and look on the familiar with an eye toward greater depth and clarity.
You may find yourself learning an exercise all over again in a wonderful new way. Recently, the Tower on the Cadillac and Semi-Circle on the Reformer reinvented themselves. I love what they've turned into.