As part of my on-going learning, an exercise we had to do in my latest Yoga Teacher Training was around prioritisation; what do we prioritise when teaching? It's something it turns out I had done in my head anyway, but seeing it on paper really helped me notice that all of them were actually linked.
For students it's useful to see if what I prioritise sits with the things you would like to gain from your Yoga and/or Pilates practice. It may also make you think about what you are actually looking for in a class and teacher. Quite often we can enjoy things without much idea why, and this same exercise may help you find what you actually enjoy. My priorities are the same in my learning practice as my teaching practice and are as follows;
Rest and digest
In our body we have the Central Nervous System and the Peripheral Nervous Systems. The latter is subdivided further into somatic, enteric and autonomic systems. The autonomic system regulates functions in the body, largely unconsciously, using three different systems but here we'll look at the popularised two ; rest and digest, known as the parasympathetic nervous system; fight, flight or freeze, known as the sympathetic nervous system. They control our bodily functions in order to achieve those two very opposite states. For example the sympathetic nervous system raises heart rate to help pump blood around the body ready to fight or leg it, whereas the parasympathetic lowers the heart rate to aid rest.
Our modern lives mean that we are often in this fight or flight mode without even realising. Most of us have busy lives coupled with numerous demands upon us, as well as high sensory stimulation. This can go completely unnoticed until we enter our rest and digest state and usually go 'wow, I needed that'. And then we go back to our now normal state of fight or flight until the next time we go into rest and digest.
For me, the more I am in rest and digest state, the more I can observe the shift to fight or flight in daily life. The more I can observe I'm in fight or flight, the more I can try to move myself back to rest and digest, as well as notice the effects of the fight or flight to my body AND importantly to my reactions to my environment (people, society, media and so on). When you've had a stressful day (fight or flight mode ON!) you are much more likely to react angrily to environmental triggers as well as other negative responses.
So I gear my classes to be in this rest and digest state because I believe it to be the opposite of what most our daily lives are. It is also a better state for the body to respond to these movement practices. If we are in fight or flight are muscles are automatically tensed up, so are not going to be in a relaxed state to achieve the often desired 'stretching'. In rest and digest our mind is going to be calmer and not racing around, thinking of a million different things at one.
Now there is nothing wrong with being in fight or flight when necessary. It is important for when we do need to do those things. Some people may struggle to actually achieve that state and so a HITT class or similar would be a great thing for them to learn the necessary body responses. But those people are few and far between. What is also important is how we respond to being in fight or flight. Can we shift back to rest and digest quickly and easily? So in my classes I will sometimes also have a section which is designed to potentially trigger fight or flight and then allow a period to observe possible differences in the body such as breathing and heart rate, giving time after to reset back to rest and digest.
A buzzword at the moment that's for sure, but for good reason. It is defined as bringing your attention to experiences in the present moment. This helps us to get into our rest and digest state as the mind begins to calm down. Focusing on one thing only gives a meditative effect, and being in the present moment stops anxiety and worry.
Huge volumes have been written on the benefits of mindfulness, so it is massively important for me to bring it into class when practicing or teaching. The present moment is all there ever is. Mega cliche, but also incredibly true. The more classes you do practicing this, the more you can use this in everyday life. The more you can use this in everyday life, the more time you might be able to spend in your parasympathetic system. The more time you spend in your parasympathetic system the healthier you will be. There are so many ways mindfulness can help you, and if you are interested in fully developing this into your life I can recommend amazing books to give you greater details.
One of the benefits of mindful movement in classes is that the risk of injury is greatly reduced. If we are moving mindfully we have a greater awareness, so can sense if we are moving into something that might cause us damage. Think of all the times you've injured yourself. Usually it is when rushing something and not fully focussed/mindful, possibly pushing your body beyond its limits (not mindful of your present ability) or just generally not thinking. Mindfulness stops this.
Mindfulness in class also brings us into awareness of ourselves, which leads to my next priority.
The biggest factor that kept me coming back for more in my Pilates practice was learning about my body. At the start it was primarily (the frustration of) what it couldn't do, when I thought I was pretty damn good at life. This was not only an ego check (something I learnt about myself as well there), but also a driving force to become better and keep practicing. The more I practiced the more I was amazed at what the body could do and how my own body was developing. This in turn made me want to learn more and more about anatomy and physiology.
At the same time as learning about the body, it is also fascinating learning about yourself as a person. Once you start an introspective practice you gain awareness of yourself in all areas. Nine times out of ten it's an awareness of the ego! In Pilates, I used to love trying to learn the advanced repertoire, and in Yoga it was similar with arm balances. Basically pushing my body as far as possible, and somewhat showing off. Over time I have noticed a shift away from that and more into all the tiny things and amazement at that, which has matched a shift in myself.
This introspection whilst practicing is a self-inquiry, learning many different things about ourselves. The hardest part of this is not judging what we discover, but accepting these things instead. The more we are aware of ourselves, the more we can change for the better. If we are looking to push ourselves we can push ourselves from a place of knowing and accepting our limitations. This means we can push ourselves safely. That just so happens to be another priority!
This is a priority of mine for a number of reasons. Firstly, the amount of times I injured myself in Pilates and Yoga. I was pushing myself beyond my limits, hence causing injury. That could be said to be my own fault, due to not knowing those limits and my ego pushing me as far as possible. I agree with that, but I would argue it is the responsibility of the teacher first and foremost, and then the responsibility of the student.
Teaching with the above priorities really helps to empower the student to work safely. Equally pointing students towards factors which may suggest they are not ready for 'x' and offering safe alternatives is another measure. It is a case of providing as much information as possible so that safety is maintained. If the student still persists then that is fine. Some people (such as myself) learn more from their mistakes, but all the information should be provided before they do that.
I never ever want to injure someone. I don't think any teacher wants to. It was being injured in other classes that led to an awareness around that though. It was also drummed into us in Pilates Teacher Training- and something that can be lacking in other Teacher Training- particularly in regards to the back. It takes a tremendous effort to strike the balance between challenging and safe in a group class, but it's one I hope I achieve!
If you want to walk on your hands you're going to need to go to another class (as well as mine). There is nothing wrong with wanting to learn to do that, and it's something I myself would love to do, but there are ways to challenge yourself in more functional ways. Everything I teach has to have a benefit to your daily life in some way.
You can see that the priorities themselves serve to be functional and used in your daily life. But it may not be completely obvious where the functionality of moving individual toes is for example, but rest assured you'd notice if you lost their function in daily life. The body is all connected so in the example of toes, if they are not fully functioning it can have a knock on effect and cause back pain.
Sometimes it is more obvious how something is functional. Moving through the spine in a Roll Down (moving each vertebrae individually to forward fold and back to standing) is a functional way to pick something up safely. Simple twisting, you can see how you do this movement every day of your life.
Every movement is thought out in a way to have long-term benefit to the body. Equally, each movement has to fit in with my other priorities. So taking the handstand for example, it could actual be argued to have some functional benefits to the body, but in a class environment it is not necessarily safe, or in keeping with rest and digest.
I wanted to add fun to my priority list. Hopefully it's a bi-product of the way I teach and some of the more playful movements we make, but I don't prioritise it in every single thing that we do in a class. It's something that's important to me, so if the class has been quite a serious one, I will throw in a movement that is more 'silly' (but still in keeping with the priorities). So I'll call it a semi-priority!
Having fun is going to help us in our learning. Being playful in our approach means we can discover the unexpected. It's part of the reason children play, and learn so much, so quickly. As adults we can stick to what we know, out of safety and for convenience, so being playful and having fun is highly important...but not quite a priority.
So now it's your turn. What are your priorities when looking for a class? Have a think of what you really want from your classes, and if it matches then come along to one of mine!