It’s a Practice, not a Performance

As I sit writing this piece, I’m in mourning.

One of the greats in the Classical Pilates world, Bob Liekens, passed away this week and many of us who knew him are rolled back on our heels. I just didn’t see it coming. He was such a rock that it felt like he’d be here with us indefinitely. I’m trying to be grateful for all the time we had with him, yet I can’t help but yearn for more. I wish I’d made the time to learn more from him while he was here. Hindsight is 20/20, eh?

bob lWhat I loved about him: Bob made everyone feel capable and in love with Pilates the way he was in love with Pilates. He could draw out your strengths without making a big a deal about your weaker points. Yet, there was also that little comment “maybe next time,” as if he could SEE how you’d get there. It made you want to be better, to continue growing. I can only hope to make people feel as capable and encouraged as he did.

We teachers have been talking online about our favorite phrases from Bob, and one stands out:

It’s a Practice, not a Performance

Sometimes, people ask me, “don’t you get bored teaching Classical style? Isn’t the Classical order just too much repetition?” Au contraire, mon ami. The depth of the details in Classical style Pilates is actually what I love. I’m ok with some of my friends teaching the oodles of variations and shiney new things in Contemporary style. To me, that’s a fancy Performance, which is lovely to watch some days. What I crave for myself on a daily basis is The Practice of Classical style Pilates.

The Practice builds your mettle, the strength that carries you through the tough times.

One my favorite articles on building mettle is actually a blog post My 11-year-old son auditioned at Juilliard, and we both learned a lot about how top performers practice Please DO go read it, it’s fabulous. Alas, I don’t know if he ever got in. Somehow, I know he’s fine either way.

When I first read it, all I could think was YES! Then, I thought, “gosh, I wish I’d wrote that.”

Instead, I’m going to riff on it a bit. Here are some of my Pilates thoughts triggered by that post and by Bob’s passing: 

  • The art of practicing is finding a process for repetition without boredom. To actually transform the way my body moved over the last 20 years, I had to get to the place where I could do each Pilates movement so that it looked visually perfect, without thinking. And then, I needed to listen for what was happening in the background.

Repetition no longer bores me — it’s a call to listen deeper. In my classes, I’ll often say to my students, “You look good. Now, tell me what you feel.” I want to know where they’re going down the path and where I should be guiding them next.

  • Boredom in practice comes from a lack of engagement. Take Frog or even Footwork for example — I’m never surprised when I see students spacing out on these movements.

For me, I’m thinking: when my two legs can extend forward like one beam of steal, what else is happening? What are my spine and powerhouse doing? What else could happen, if I shifted my focus? What else could happen if I shifted my tempo? The “boring” order of the Classical work is now your friend who lets you see behind the curtain, who lets you see the real work that creates what we visually see.

When you’ve committed to the framework that is the heart of Classical, these details become part of the fun. “What, what — my foot is doing what in Elephant? And if I change that, everything changes? Why have I never noticed this in the last 2 years?!”

  • The best processes speed up the cycle of frustration and recovery. Oh, yes. This reminds me of Bob again. Yes, try the next challenging exercise. Don’t just fling yourself into it though; you’ll hurt yourself! Try it in a safe manner and deconstruct it.

In class, I’m often adding moves that seem safe or basic, but really, they’re a means to addressing frustration and common pitfalls. Remember that Bridge position that cramped the back of your legs? That was on purpose. There was a process happening to make the back of your legs WAKE UP and do their job. And you needed to systematically work through the frustration and past it week after week so that eventually, you could move to the next big thing.

I didn’t let you give up because I knew you could do it — I knew you could work through frustration and come out stronger on the other side. That’s a bigger deal than what you can Perform.

  • Resilience is about being able to get back up on your feet on your own. I love it that I have students who work with me three times a week. It’s great to build a long-term relationship and really get to know each other. More than half of my students can’t make it in that often.

That’s why I often teach like Dr Suess, in rhymes and repetition, with the Same Dang Words over and over again. It’s so that you can hear me in your head. Hips Level and Square. Where are your toes pointed? Scoop up the Kittens!

It’s not really me in your head — it’s you, taking care of yourself with your new Pilates brain. It’s you, upgrading the way that you move.

  • When someone is unable to relish the small steps, they just stop, because process starts to seem hopeless if you constantly focus on the end. Yep, I’ve seen this happen. You want what you want, and you want that 6-pack yesterday.

The kind of change that I try to teach my students is bigger than can be built in 10 classes or a semester of work with me. It’s a limitless number of small steps, of nuances really, that create a resilient body and a resilient mind. When we find the juice in those small steps, it’s a beautiful thing.

The Practice becomes joyful.

As online posts keep popping up about Bob, most of the time, I’m just dropping a heart icon. What else is there to say? Every once in awhile though, I think:

He lives on in our words. Every time we use his words, it’s him in the studio.

God speed, my friend.

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