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Posted by on Jan 11, 2014 in Body & Mind, Pilates, Stress | 0 comments

Losing My Voice

Losing My Voice

Thank you Marcia for sharing this very personal story with us – Monika x

Writer’s block. If you’ve ever sat down to a blank page, intent on expressing the thoughts running through your brain and not been able to complete a first sentence, you have likely experienced some version of your own writer’s block.

My block began in late April/early May. I was in the midst of great transition that included a temporary move that would six weeks later lead to a permanent move, the loss of a dear friend of our family, and the end of a major group client contract. I was also waiting to learn if I would spend part of the summer working with acting apprentices in upstate New York, and to top it off, I wasn’t yet ready to write about the work I had spent the 18 months prior developing. I didn’t see not writing as a block, I just had too much going on to find my voice.

The next six weeks flew by with packing my place and the move (part one), a longer commute to classes, a vocal/physical experiment at NYU, the move (part two), unpacking, and two weeks later, off to that adventure with acting apprentices at Vassar College in NY. I would begin to write when I got back to Denver. On July 21 I had plenty to write about. My work was proven and had advanced, I was inspired and so excited to share it all.

With flight delays, I arrived in Denver early the morning of Monday, July 22, unpacked, taught my first class, and booked a flight for Thursday morning. My Dad had begun Hospice Care. I was going to Ohio to spend some time with him and say goodbye before things got worse. I would return home Sunday and I would write.

There is No Preparing for Grief
We lost my Dad at 12:30 am on July 28. My Dad was 91 and had end stage Parkinson’s Disease. I thought I was prepared. He was not the first person I loved to die and he certainly lived an amazing and long life. I was not prepared.

I returned to Denver that Thursday. An example of the first week would be it taking three tries before I could navigate my Whole Foods and actually leave with groceries. I never knew when I would start sobbing, I just began to understand that it would happen at some point each day. My brother or one of my sisters checked in via phone and text regularly. They understood and to them I could simply say, “I just want Dad.” The only time I was okay was when I taught.

So I taught and cried and cried and taught and I kept up with my own practice (as I had every day of the 20 at Vassar and the eight in Ohio). And every week or so, I sat at my laptop to try to write about what I was experiencing, but no words would come. I was furious that I couldn’t do something to move myself forward.

Sundays were the worst to tolerate. On Sundays I felt that marking of time. My Dad had been gone a week, then two, three, and finally four. The Saturday leading into the fourth Sunday I had a really good day. I even went out for the first time since leaving Vassar. I sat and had dinner and drinks with a friend. We talked and laughed until after 1 am. I opened my phone when I got home and learned Julian Littleford had died earlier in the day.

The Other Shoe Drops
That fourth Sunday, the day after we lost Julian, I sobbed via Skype over his loss to my mother, who of course had four weeks prior lost her husband of 53 years and 10 months. She spent hours listening to me cry and tell stories of Julian. Once spent, I sat down to try to write something, some tribute to these two men who on the surface had very little in common – a 91 year old retired accountant from Ohio who was a WWII veteran and raised seven children, and a 53 year old professional dancer, and a teacher from the UK who was still raising his two children. They actually had a great deal in common, they were each crazy in love with their wives, great dads, and had a kindness and generosity that can’t be taught.  And I could not write a word. After two weeks, I stopped trying.

I kept teaching of course, and I believe I was teaching well, maybe better than ever, and I focused even harder on my own practice. As I did each, it was becoming clear that Pilates was teaching me about grief and my body how to process it.

[I know, 700+ words to get to Pilates and I’m not even close to the writer’s block part yet, but we’re still uncertain I’ll ever share this with anyone.]

My grief got slipperier. I was actually having strings of good days. I was surprised when I ran into a friend and when he innocently asked how my Dad was doing, I was able to share the news without emotion. But just as I was surprised by a good day, I was equally caught off guard by bursts of emotion. And I was noticing some less than rational reactions to things. Things that weren’t normally a big deal made me furious or felt unmanageable. If I think about it now, I realise I felt betrayed by the world. Frankly, I just wanted my Dad.

Just Focus on the Work
Pilates and my understanding of my body and the connection between mind and body were what I could count on and understand the first four months. Because I was able to let go and practice daily, I was checking in with my body and allowing myself to reconnect with something that has been part of my daily life for over a decade. I was spending at least an hour daily in a place that hadn’t changed and was safe and supportive to me. I was inside my own body, just finding work and exploring what it felt like on that particular day. And I was noticing during those hours that most of the rest of the time I didn’t feel like me. The mind body connection of Pilates was explaining what I couldn’t work out in other ways. And as those connections shed light on the pattern of grief, I was able to understand when something insignificant made me feel like a total lunatic that it was just grief. I could actually say to myself at various moments, “This isn’t real, it’s just the grief.” Somehow, my body understood the difference and each time I was hit with fear or anger or intense disappointment, it told me I was grieving, that I was allowed to grieve.

I was still angry I couldn’t write and downright furious I couldn’t seem to figure out some necessary business restructuring. Everything felt just out of reach, like a word you use daily and suddenly can’t remember how to spell or a name on the tip of your tongue. The harder I tried to figure things out, the more elusive the answers. My friends asked me to “be kind” to myself. They couldn’t understand that I desperately needed a beginning somewhere to take my focus from this enormous ending.

Exactly two months after my Dad died, I spent their anniversary weekend with my Mom. We brought flowers to plant at his grave. Mums. I got out of the car and held my Mother’s hand. I thought I was there to support her. Within seconds, I fell completely apart. She held me as I sobbed uncontrollably. It had been two months since someone who loved my Dad held me while I cried and for the first time since his funeral, I actually felt comforted.

Finding My Voice
In the middle of October I suddenly knew where I needed to shift my business focus and even came up with a plan to support the work I do with young artists. And my younger sister agreed to let me teach her virtually. Getting the chance to share Pilates with her is a tremendous gift. On her birthday in December, I sat down to begin writing the third Piper the Petite Pilates Princess story.  The words came.

During that entire period of feeling blocked, I was very afraid I would never be able to write another word, that I simply would not be able to find my (creative) voice again. But going through that process (and this continued process of grief), I now understand that while I was able to physically function at a high level, part of my brain was somewhat paralysed trying to adjust to it’s new reality. I’m certain that the physical connections I focus on when practicing Pilates helped me process what I couldn’t cognitively.

Pilates has taught me so many things. This time I think my lesson is in recognising that emotional trauma can be almost as debilitating as a physical injury and we have to allow ourselves to learn how to function in our new version of normal. And also that my method of being “kind” to myself requires the safety and exploration of this thing we practice and teach – Pilates.

Every Pilates teacher has watched at least one client heal from some sort of broken heart by way of just showing up and doing the work. We have all watched from the outside, just focusing on teaching the physical and keeping the client in the work, and allowed the work itself – the body, to work it’s magic. It seems I simply had to allow my body to work some magic to allow my heart to start to heal in order to feel safe enough to find my voice again.

It has been five months since my very old, very wonderful Dad left a body that had stopped being a nice place to live. If you have lost one (or perhaps both) of your parents, you likely are ahead of me in the grieving process. I’m guessing you would tell me that my brother and sisters and I are now part of a fraternity of sorts, that no matter what, nothing prepares us for loss, and that we will never stop missing him. If you aren’t part of our fraternity, I urge you take every chance to tell your parents how much you love them and ask them to tell you what you need to hear, but don’t waste any precious time trying to prepare, no matter what, you won’t be prepared.

In less than two weeks, I’ll celebrate my birthday. Still hard to imagine that my Dad won’t be on the extension singing with my Mom, as he has been every birthday since I left for college. I still miss him every single day, but (thank God) there is Pilates, and now, there are words again too.

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Posted by on May 8, 2013 in Business & Education, Freelance, Owning a Studio, Pilates | 0 comments

The Protocol Incident

The Protocol Incident

I have been thinking a great deal about protocol lately. It began with a conversation with Fletcher Pilates Program Director Kyria Sabin where I realized that what I call my “rules” are actually a well thought out set of protocol.

The rules of engagement within my practice include how clients speak about themselves, no cell phones in class, and a set of safety rules.Some of these rules might seem obnoxious to my clients, but they come from a decade of teaching. They are, in fact, my protocol.

Last week I had the opportunity to experience a break in protocol and it scared the snot out of me! I was teaching a client I’ve been working with since January. Let’s call him Poppet. Now our little Poppet, a 6’ tall, 21-year-old college student, has been a great client thus far. He listens, he does his homework, he has gained strength, and his alignment is improving. Coming back from an injury, he is focused on changing patterns and gaining body awareness. I wouldn’t call Poppet the most patient human on the planet, but that has something to do with being young and driven. Still, he plays by the rules and accepts my “Rome wasn’t built in a day” philosophy. Poppet has been doing great work, holding alignment and making me proud. And then last week…

Poppet was on the reformer in a supine position, legs in tabletop (which he hates with a passion he voices easily), and arms in straps. He is one of those clients who has a penchant for the dramatic (don’t they all) and frequently tries to shake me off at some point during a set. I tend to ignore this because, as those of you who teach know, we learn client bodies pretty quickly. We can see when a body we know is reaching failure and when its owner just doesn’t want to work that hard. At this particular moment, our little Poppet decided he was done. I was standing next to him, but because I trusted him and his body was showing me it had more to give, I didn’t have a foot ready to catch the carriage should something go wrong. He has been instructed, per protocol, to hold the straps in tension, extend his legs until they touch the bar, and then bring the carriage to the bar carefully.

In a heartbeat, Poppet dropped his feet into the well at the same time he started to release his arms. But he wasn’t reaching his legs toward the bar, he was dipping bare feet into closing springs.

My ensuing hissy fit included taking a spring off and having him both pull on each end and then place his fingers inside the spring while I let it close a little. I then went over the rules again, finishing with stories of clients who I’ve fired for breaking protocol. Including the 6’1” 250 pound woman who had a habit of “letting go” with one leg in straps after handing me the opposite strap, causing all her weight to transfer to me as she flailed. I also mentioned Bob, the guy who used to kick me in the face when I changed springs (I fired him after my third black eye.).  Poppet, who was on vocal rest at the time, mouthed he understood. He now possesses the fear of God and a clear understanding of protocol.

It is my responsibility to be my absolute best teacher possible. I believe I know my strengths and my weaknesses, and have experience in what can go wrong in a class or a private session. One of my jobs is to make sure my clients are as safe as possible while doing Pilates and I am the only person who can decide what I’m comfortable with relative to that. Yes, some of my protocol might be fashioned out of respect for the commitment my clients make to the program, but in reality, even those “rules” lead back to my ability to teach safely and to move students forward. And protocol will always include methods to allow both the client (and me) to be focused during the work.

The bottom line is that in my room, I make the rules. I get to set the protocol because I am taking responsibility, and any liability associated with teaching.

A few months after a major car accident, I was driving to work on an icy morning. Sitting at a red light, the man in the car behind me used his horn to inform me that he would prefer I turn right on red. Now I could see the speed of oncoming traffic and was aware of how my car performed, but the genius behind me felt he knew best. I considered leaving my car, walking back to his and telling him that I hadn’t received the call that morning informing me he had been assigned to make all my decisions that day and take all associated responsibility.

I often hear of fellow teachers dealing with the struggle between good customer service and their own comfort level, resulting in them questioning what feels right in their guts versus losing a client. I believe that we should be doing our absolute best for our clients and remembering that they are our clients. But I also believe that the best customer service in a teaching situation requires we make good decisions for our clients and ourselves. In other words, we can’t let the guy behind us at the light make our decisions for us just because he lays on the horn. He does not have all the information we have. He is not taking responsibility should something go wrong.

Have clients challenged me on what I will or won’t allow in the room? You bet. Have I lost clients because I wouldn’t allow something I wasn’t comfortable with? Afraid so, but as long as those clients are my responsibility, well… my room, my rules. Protocol.

[P.S. Poppet has had two great (rule following) sessions since “the incident” and encouraged I share this story.]

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Posted by on Apr 14, 2013 in Body & Mind, Pilates | 0 comments

Making Space

Making Space

A few weeks ago, I saw an interview with poet Richard Blanco. He was walking the interviewer through an outdoor space he had designed when he was a civil engineer. When speaking of his work now, as a poet, in comparison, he said, “I create a space for people to walk into mentally.”

I immediately wrote it down and I’ve been thinking about it, and considering it in relationship to my work as a Pilates teacher – to Pilates in general ever since. Some day, we will have an entire conversation about the art of Pilates and the artistry of bodies. But right now, I can’t help but think about space. The space we create in Pilates is something that awes me in many ways.

The obvious is the physical space within our bodies. But is it really obvious? I am fascinated by the way my body resets itself in so many tiny ways in the midst of my daily practice. There are minuscule connections and releases that a decade or so ago I would not have been body aware enough to notice. On any given day I can feel my spine lengthen and resettle. I feel my abdominal wall tighten, but not shorten, on the contrary, the experience is one of muscles reaching from origin to insertion. My legs extend out of my hips and offer space between. My arms reach from the socket, and wrists elongate into outstretched fingers. My neck becomes long, and as one of my clients puts it, I feel my pelvis stretch and widen. And there is space. But it is such a space that there is room for greater connectivity.

I watch this happen with clients. My group clients take class either on Mondays and Wednesdays or Tuesdays and Thursdays. On day one of their week, I try not to look to closely at them when they enter the room. I know it will make me a bit uncomfortable to see their bodies looking so different than they did when last we met. They generally begin in a semi-supine position and I have learned to just ignore, okay, not ignore (not something I’m capable of), but not become overly worked up by what I see. These are weekend bodies, and work stress bodies. They are bodies that aren’t connected as they had been on the Wednesday or Thursday previous and as I’ve been considering Richard Blanco’s words, I understand that they are bodies that need space. They’ve been used and possibly misused and they haven’t had the focus of an hour of Pilates in days.

pirate-teaching

About fifteen minutes into class, sternums have softened, then rib cages realign, abdominal muscles begin to show through t-shirts, necks lengthen, and they settle. Gravity and Pilates begin to create a magic like nothing I know. By thirty minutes into class and although they may have stopped speaking to me and/or begun cursing me, I see very different bodies than those that walked in the door. I see the bodies I know, intelligent and intuitive bodies. And at about that same time, Pilates has begun to create another type of space. They’ve begun to find the space in their brains and their hearts. There is suddenly room for something more, something they’ve perhaps ignored all weekend. There is room for them. I can see it in their faces. They are so focused on what is going on inside their bodies and to my cues that they are no longer in the middle of a workday or worrying about what must be accomplished when they get home. They are taking stock and one hundred percent aware of only what is going on at that precise moment (while potentially praying that moment will end soon!). And that creates a space that is precious and, if you will, almost sacred. Their faces literally change. They soften, but it is more than that. They each begin to show me their “look” – that very specific, very original expression that I imagine they wouldn’t even recognize. But I know those faces as well as I know their bodies and there is a studied presence I find when I look into them.

I have a difficult time explaining what Pilates is all about or it’s impact, even after a decade of teaching. Actually, I think I have a more difficult time communicating the impact each year I teach. But Richard Blanco’s words have given me a new way to see my profession and my practice. Yes, Pilates brings a body back into alignment. Yes, Pilates physically strengthens a body in a unique and intelligent fashion. Yes, Pilates increases our ability to focus through such a directed and quiet practice of concentration and intension. And yes, Pilates allows us to regain our natural flexibility and gain body awareness like nothing else. But Pilates also creates space, within our bodies, our minds, and our hearts. And where there is space, there is room for more.

With space there is the opportunity for greater wellness, increased cognitive function, more generous hearts, and intuitive souls.

So the next time someone asks me what I do for a living, maybe I’ll simply answer, I create space.

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