“Pilates is an application of the body, whereas MBS to me is how to be as a body in the broadest sense, in the way that we come into the world with all these capabilities.”
Bringing an MBS Perspective to Pilates: An Interview with MBS Practitioner Jane Meek
by Danielle Hill
Jane Meek is a graduate of the MBS Foundation training (2011) and a Body Control Pilates Instructor and Remedial Massage and Advanced Myofascial Therapist based in Glasgow, Scotland. In her work with clients and students in these two distinct contexts, Jane has described MBS as “running through everything and underpinning everything rather than the other way around.”
Prior to her entrance into the world of bodywork and movement education, Jane worked in translation and in the wine industry.
In this series of two interviews, Jane chats with Danielle Hill about how her continuing studies with MBS inform her work and affect her personally. In Part I, we discuss the intersections and contrasts between Pilates and Mind Body Studies.
Plus – Stay tuned for Part II, where we’ll touch on the relationships between myofascial release and Mind Body Studies, injury recovery, and the surprisingly vital connections between Jane’s background in translation and the importance of precise language – verbal and nonverbal – to an MBS lesson.
DH: You began the MBS Foundation Training in 2011 while working as a Pilates teacher and a Myofascial Therapist. What first attracted you to MBS and to enrolling in a Foundation Training?
JM: What alerted me to the existence of Moshe Feldenkrais in the first place was attending development weekends run by the Body Control Pilates organization, where you would get to attend a lot of short workshops. The workshops I was most drawn to concentrated on things like the importance of breath, connection with the floor, and how you interact with the floor. That seemed really fundamental to learning and getting better at Pilates.
I used to get the feeling in Pilates classes that you’d get the same cues over and over again, but those cues seemed to assume you had already grasped the absolute fundamentals. For example, how do I teach part of myself to stay on the floor? Nobody had really gone into that. It was kind of assumed that while on your hands and knees, you could lift an arm and a leg and somehow keep all of these other bits in place. But I would think, “Wait a minute. There’s something they’re not covering here. Something that predates how you can lift the arm and the leg.” As a Pilates teacher, I’d think, “How do I achieve that?” I don’t think you just need to be intellectual or intelligent to get that missing step. But there needs to be some learning that my classes hadn’t had. Getting to the foundation of things.
DH: And that’s where Dr. Feldenkrais’ work and MBS came in for you?
JM: Well yes, some of those fundamentals were things like how you’ve got to get feedback from the floor. I thought, ‘That’s really interesting. That would make a difference to people.” I came across a book called something like, A Manual Therapist’s Guide to Movement. It written by an American physical therapist, Gordon Browne, who happened to be a Feldenkrais teacher. I didn’t know that when I bought the book, but there was a lot of stuff that I later recognized as being taken from ATMs. I thought, ‘That’s the kind of information I want. I want to be able to teach Pilates on the back of knowing this kind of thing and being able to use it.’
At that time, I was still thinking in terms of being a Pilates teacher and wanting my students to improve. I wanted to get to the real nitty-gritty, and I thought, ‘This is how you get there.’ So, that was my bedside reading for probably over a year. Then I began to think, “I could do a training course.” I suppose the thing that caught my attention was that Mia and Leora were running a three-year course, which sounded just about within the bounds of possibility. Interestingly, by the time I started the training, my business had matured enough that I began to relax a little bit and I thought, “I’ll do this course for me. I’m going to assimilate the knowledge, but I’m doing the course for me.” That was how it started.
DH: As you began doing this training, specifically for yourself, were still approaching the method in terms of your Pilates background?
JM: The first few seminars were all about unlearning how to be a Pilates teacher. In Pilates, so much of what we do is about learning stability, learning to hold these bits still. I had completely forgotten how to be a body that goes along the line of least resistance. Pilates is an application of the body, whereas MBS to me is how to be as a body in the broadest sense, in the way that we come into the world with all these capabilities.
Pilates is something you might choose to do with those capabilities. I don’t see that MBS would make your abdominals stronger, but it would put you in a position to use your body is such a way that – should that be your goal – you can certainly do it more effectively. It was the cart before the horse for me. I should have done MBS first!
DH: Was there a turning point in the training for you, when you felt you had “unlearned” the particular perspective of a Pilates teacher or started learning differently?
JM: I would say it took me the first year before I could really lie down on the floor and not think about contracting this and holding that still. That was quite an eye-opener, and now I don’t have any problem with it. In fact, it’s nice. That’s probably because my Pilates practice has gotten so much closer to being an application of what you can learn with MBS. I’m much more inclined to teach from the fundamentals and then see what happens.
DH: I’m curious about how that plays out in your own classes now. Is this how you’re teaching your students, first this simply “being a body”, before being a body that can do Pilates?
JM: Well, there’s only so much that you can do, before it stops being what Pilates students have come to learn. But, even before I began the MBS Foundation, I was finding that my teaching was becoming more and more directed towards these fundamentals I mentioned earlier. I realized the basis had to be your awareness of your body, where it is in space, and how it connects to the floor. Then we can take it to the next stage and say, “Right, for the movements we are going to make, even the most basic movements, you need to be able to internalize your imprint on the mat. That way, when I ask you to move a particular body part without changing your contact with the floor, you can track the imprint and sense whether it changes.”
“You understand what is actually meant by relaxing. It isn’t chilling out. It’s learning to let go of unnecessary tension.”
DH: So I take it, this focus on the contact with the floor isn’t necessarily part of the standard instruction in a Pilates class?
JM: When I was learning Pilates, people said things like, “Put your hands on the front of the pelvis, and all three bones should be in the same plane. That’s neutral.” Your attention was drawn to landmarks on your front. You didn’t really pay attention to what was happening on the back. So, you would end up creating parasitic muscle recruitment to try and keep yourself still. If instead, you learn to be aware of your contact with the floor, you learn to be more relaxed. You understand what is actually meant by relaxing. It isn’t chilling out. It’s learning to let go of unnecessary tension. So, that improved my practice and it certainly improved my students’ practice.
DH: I gather that the more challenging movements of the Pilates repertoire also require developing a certain proficiency in controlling one’s body. How do you relate that development of control to the relaxation that you describe?
JM: Well, for example, letting the jaw be free is so important to being in control of your body. Pilates is about being in control, but not in a rigid way, or at least it shouldn’t be. I think it’s about getting joy from your physical capabilities, going, “Wow, I can do that!” but getting there without needless tension. It’s not about straining. For years, I used to strain. It was such a relief to me when Mia would say, “You know, if you’re at your limit, you’re only learning how it is to be at your limit.”
“At MBS Seminars, I would try something from the classical pilates repertoire that I wasn’t usually able to do. Invariably, I could do it much more easily and much better. That was not because I had practice the exercise. That was because more of my body was available to do it.”
DH: You mentioned that you entered the MBS Foundation with some sense that you would be learning for yourself. How did it change your own Pilates practice?
JM: I haven’t added a whole lot to my Pilates repertoire, but I have changed how I approach the material. At MBS seminars, around day six or day seven I would try something from the classical Pilates repertoire that I wasn’t usually able to do. Invariably, I could do it much more easily and much better. That was not because I had practiced the exercise. That was because more of my body was available to do it, which was an important realization. There’s no point in making your Pilates students do the same thing week in and week out, by rote.
I also believe that I now present my classes in a way that is much more useful to the ordinary body. My students aren’t athletes and gymnasts and they’re not doing super advanced work. It’s people learning how not to carry tension. So, I’ve become less hung up on getting people perfectly aligned.
I do not mean to imply that I’ve become overly relaxed about my students’ alignment, because faulty alignment can lead to injury. What I have learned to do is differentiate between alignment that is likely to cause injury and alignment that is a little “out” because of the student’s inherent bracing/body use patterns. I always correct the former, but I am more flexible with the latter and instead of insisting on unattainable perfection, I try to find unusual imagery, or tactile cueing, or a way of working with props that will gradually tempt them away from ingrained bad habits into something better while working safely.
I suppose you could say, I am trying to teach Pilates as though Moshe Feldenkrais had devised it, as an adjunct to his method. It’s for people who want to develop stability or to tone their abdominals, but as an offshoot of Feldenkrais’ original work. When this approach works, it works incredibly well, and some of my classes have made really huge amounts of progress.
DH: So, although you decided to take the Foundation training for yourself, it ended up rather dramatically affecting your teaching and your students, too.
JM: It gave me the confidence to mix things much more than I had been doing. My Pilates class might do something for two weeks, but then I might take the principle that underlies it, and present it in a different position. I focus on the principles – not an exercise or a series of exercises, but what underlies all of this. That’s in MBS as well: What’s happening on the floor? Are you breathing? What’s your jaw doing? Where are you holding? What are you not using? Those questions come up in all of the ATMs that we’ve done. And yet, you give the students a different scenario and there we are, tensing the jaw and so on.
Really, although I came to MBS because I wanted to add a bit to Pilates, I feel as though Moshe Feldenkrais’ work has most definitely taken over for me. It just so happens that I’m a Pilates teacher. I haven’t walked away from it, but I had to turn it into something I believe in.
When people ask me, “What’s it all about?” Well, Feldenkrais did actually say, “It’s about learning how to learn.” How that can be manifest in your physical structure, but also the way you’re controlling your life or not controlling your life, and the direction that your life takes.
DH: It does seem related to control and free choice, but also about having curiosity instead of dread or anxiety over those things that we don’t have under control.
JM: Absolutely! I think I read in one of the interviews with Moshe that he said, “You have to be curious if you want to explore this.” I see in Pilates, too, that there is the idea of changing things just a little bit, using props to make something a little unstable. You stimulate people’s curiosity and pique their interest, so they can see if they really know something.