NATHANIEL LEE TALKS ABOUT GETTING STUDENTS TO A PLACE OF POWER
(Sort of a disclaimer...)
Generally, when I do pilates, I want to have fun, feel better and and get something positive out of the experience. I think I share those simple goals with my students. For some reason I'm remembering a 1980's bumper sticker that said, "Shut Up and Dance!" Oh, well...I trust you will all be kind when you let me know what you think of my first ever interview!
Kiera Coffee is a Nathaniel Lee Pilates student, friend and, now, editor of nathanielleepilates.com and the Brooklyn Pilates Journal. We spoke at the studio awhile back before her session.
KC: As a Pilates teacher what would you say you do for people in a broad sense?
NL: I think that a Pilates student comes to me at the point where they are starting to take responsibility for their bodies. My job comes in getting them relaxed about the commitment and realizing their power.
KC: That’s interesting so maybe you are getting them to a place where they see what their goal is?
NL: The goal often changes. For instance I had a student come in for a few months because their teacher was away. And this person had had a number of strokes, they were noticeably handicapped, you would see them walking down the street and they looked pretty challenged. But they would get on the Pilates machine and do an exercise and their handicap was seemingly gone. They could barely get on the machine but they would get on and move smoothly. The Pilates machines are very supportive and the movements reveal quite a bit. This work can be very internal and not apparent. We have to work together to find their power and self-awareness. The goals can change frequently and we can work toward different goals, once we have that.
KC: So you don’t set out a plan of attack too rigidly, a big part of your practice with students is about discovery?
NL: Everyone has patterns, and we share a lot of them. I call them stress patterns and strength patterns. I’m talking about patterns in the body, in movement, in alignment; almost all of us tend to hunch our shoulders for instance (we’re sort of designed for this, because we are designed to do all of our work in front of us). So one of the things I try and introduce right away is not the idea that you have to get rid of a pattern but that there are other, positive patterns; ones that make it so that you can open your shoulders, you can have less tension by your neck, you do have some strong support in your mid-back. We have to discover those. It’s about adding helpful patterns rather than removing them. Because I’ve learned it’s really hard to stop them. I like to engage people’s imagination and their body so that the feelings are positive.
KC: It’s a way of re-programming.
NL: There are some really nice things Joe Pilates said about the quality of movement that I return to often. He didn’t invent them entirely, but he talks about having a suppleness in your body. Whether it’s in your spine or in your foot—it is a both a goal and a technique to achieving that goal. I find that very powerful. I’m always asking students how a movement feels.
NL: How it feels is short hand for the amazingly complicated neuro/muscular/skeletal action they just performed. You know, if it feels right, it’s easier to repeat, than to follow all of the technical steps. I do break down the technical steps, but I really want people to move. I give specific instructions and sometimes over months—or sometimes years—students catch up to the feeling, the feeling that organizes their body (finding good alignment, moving smoothly and easily). For how hard Pilates can be, we are almost always aiming for easy movements.
KC: By easy you mean…
NL: I mean smooth. Even when there is great effort. There is a lot of thought in Pilates about organizing the body, alignment, knowing the form, having control, but the goal is also being very easy.
KC: So there is effort but not stress. Which is like dance.
NL: And like sports.
KC: And like yoga in its truest sense.
NL: When people ask me what Pilates is, I tell them we are trying to find efficient ways to move, whether it’s an easy movement or a challenging one. Efficiency and coordination are the most important things.
KC: Do all of your students know this?
NL: If we quizzed them yes I think so!
KC: In your practice is there a place you want to focus next?
NL: I have been teaching for a long time and I’ve learned that if I have a brief question about what to do with a student, the student will know. There is incredible physical intelligence in all of our bodies. I love that. The old it’s like riding a bike analogy is good one because even when you take a break from bicycle riding, you know how to do it years later. That body intelligence is inspiring.
KC: Is that unusual thinking for Pilates?
NL: I don’t know, but a good teacher is going to bring themselves to their practice as much as the technique they have learned.