The Path to Mastery

The Path to MasteryRecently 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.

The Path to Mastery

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.

1. Instruction

“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?”

Lineage.

Uh-oh. That's a big word. More on this delicate subject in a future post.

2. Practice

“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.

3. Surrender

(My favorite)

“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:

The Path to Mastery

Perfect.

4. Intentionality

“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 willpowerYou 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.

Hello, Snake/Twist…:)

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.

Share a moment on your own path to mastery when you had to tackle an old exercise in a radical new way.

C'mon, you know I love this stuff. 

Pilates Projects: 10 Smart Tools to Master the Snake

Welcome to the first post of my new blog series: Pilates Projects.

In the Pilates method, the mastery of a complex exercise can require strategy. What luck!

We've got a whole system of perfect tools for the job.

February 10, 2013 began the Chinese New Year. The Year of the Snake. Yes, I am late, but I've still got half of 2013 left to strengthen my Snake. I had best get busy.

Holy frijoles if we ever have a Year of the Twist. Yeesh.

Build your Snake well and the fireworks will come.

The Snake (also referred to as Snake/Twist to include the next exercise in the series) is a complex exercise originally done on the Reformer. It requires skill, great control and coordination of the body and mind. And by mind I mean the desire and will to do this exercise. One must want to do the Snake, it's not really gonna show up on its own…

10 exercises + 5 apparatus = 1 Awesome Snake on Reformer.

Often one or more components of an intricate exercise may create a roadblock to the exercise. For this reason I have chosen 10 exercises with which to closely examine, refine and breakdown this exercise into more manageable parts. The better you become at these 10 exercises the better and stronger your Snake will be. When one exercise gets better, everything gets better.

The Warmup

I suggest doing at least a 30 minute warm up if you plan to work just these exercises before applying them to the Snake. Another plan would be to complete a Reformer workout of a similar duration which may or may not include the Snake, then work the 10 exercises, perhaps comparing your first Snake to the one afterward. See how you do.

10 Smart Tools to Master the Snake on the Reformer1. Reformer: Up Stretch

Up Stretch is an exercise you most likely have been working for some time. It is straightforward in its symmetry and provides the same lower body action as the Snake. The stomach must reach all the way to the feet on the initiation of the Up Stretch and the lift at the end is exactly what you need to bring the in the carriage at the end of the Snake. The legs are on the moving part of the apparatus which feels more helpful to push into than the position of the feet on the stationary footbar in the Snake. This is a lower body exercise – and it can help you to find the lower body initiation in the Snake as well.

10 Smart Tools to Master the Snake on the Reformer2. Reformer: Up Stretch Combo

This challenging variation is exactly what you will be doing in your Snake with the exception of the one-sided-ness. You are getting the lift of the Arched Back shape in this combo and the scoop of the return. You also get some “help” here as you push into the moving part of the carriage to train the lower body for the Snake. In the Snake you must push into the stationary footbar and not be seduced into using your arms to push out the carriage. Best to work this one well first before even attempting the Snake.

 

10 Smart Tools to Master the Snake on the Reformer3. Reformer: Elephant

Oh Elephant, is there anything you can’t do? One of the first Reformer exercises you learn, the Elephant never ceases to be at once helpful and challenging. The Round shape of the Elephant is essential to perfect your control and return the carriage all the way home in the Snake.

 

10 Smart Tools to Master the Snake on the Reformer4. Cadillac: Arm Springs

The Snake requires back strength to control the upper body on a moving carriage. The shoulders can otherwise be in a precarious position as the body opens up in space above the carriage. Both Arm Springs (lying down on the Cadillac) and the next exercise can help to connect the arms and shoulders into the back.

 

10 Smart Tools to Master the Snake on the Reformer5. Cadillac: Back Connection with the Roll Back Bar

This exercise is essentially the first part of the Chest Expansion exercise. The roll back bar is attached to the standing arm spring hooks at the end of the Cadillac. With straight arms press the bar down and toward you. HOLD. Using just this first maneuver you have a terrific vantage point of the fingers, hands, wrists and elbows as you work the bar to connect the arms into the back. Place your hands just as you would place them on the footbar on the reformer: long wrists, all the fingers squeezing the bar evenly and thumbs on the same side as the fingers. Make sure the heels of the hands have contact with the bar. Let the squeezing of the fingers help you anchor your shoulders into the sides of your back. Reach the bar down toward the floor as much as you can – and remember it’s not how far you stand away from the bar that matters. Stand as close as you need to get the connection. As you push down on the bar use the feeling of the extended spring and your force pushing down to lift your stomach in and up in opposition. Take that help from the spring while you can get it.

Now for the part that’s like the Snake: as you return the bar stay connected to your back – the arms reach out to return the bar just as they reach when you start to move the carriage in the Snake. Here you can practice keeping the shoulders less active and get the reach and lift from your back. True this is not in extension like the snake, but well, enjoy it while you can.

10 Smart Tools to Master the Snake on the Reformer6. Spine Corrector: Swimming

Now you’re going to take the connection you found in the previous exercise and add the element of back extension. Use your oppositional reach of arm and leg to create a strong diagonal of strength through the front of the body. Reach your right arm away from your reaching left leg and vice versa. Lengthen your whole body along the back and stomach.

10 Smart Tools to Master the Snake on the Reformer7. Wunda Chair: Pull Up

Similar to the Elephant on the Reformer, the Pull Up will give you the necessary lift to return the carriage when performing the Snake. You can even use your bottom to push into the pedal as it comes up. In fact I highly recommend it.

 

 

10 Smart Tools to Master the Snake on the Reformer8. Wunda Chair: Pull Up with 1 Leg

Here you can make your Pull Up skills more closely resemble those you’ll need for the one-sided Snake. Even with one foot hugging close behind the other one and off the pedal, squeeze the legs together and again find the bottom.

 

 10 Smart Tools to Master the Snake on the Reformer9. Wunda Chair: Side Pull Up

Building on the previous 2 Pull Up exercises you can now get more of the feeling of the Snake with your whole foot (Yay, the heel!) now able to push into the pedal. Try not to let the pedal push you up, control the pedal by pushing into it with the stomach, the bottom, the heel. Keep the free leg in the crossed-in-front-of-the-ankle position, again to approximate the position of the legs in the Snake. Each of these 3 Pull Up exercises illuminates the Snake in a slightly different way, so I like to use them all.

10 Smart Tools to Master the Snake on the Reformer10. Mat: Double Leg Pull

What more can I say? We only have one exercise. Can’t be Snake-worthy without a strong center, the two-way stretch out of it and the breath. Arm yourself with the Double Leg Pull as your mantra and move, move, move!

And now…To the Snake I Say!

 

Now you have practiced your scales and you are prepared and nimble for the Beethoven Sonata that is the Snake on the Reformer. The skills have been built into your body to be at the ready for this tricky maneuver. Now I have to quote Jay Grimes: “Take your time. Enjoy it up there!”

10 Smart Tools to Master the Snake on the Reformer

Stay tuned!

Upcoming Pilates Projects include: Control Push Up Reverse, the Star and the Elephant. Plus accompanying videos via Pilatesology.

Leave a comment below to suggest your favorite fancy exercise to be featured in this series. 

Isn't every day a Pilates day?

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