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  • Marcia

Back to basics

"In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few”

― Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice

The thing I love best about learning is that the more you know, the more there is to know. I love that Pilates has taught me the pleasure and wisdom of endless learning.

When I first began studying Pilates I didn’t think about it much at all. I should mention I was 12 years old and it was a required conditioning class for my ballet program. It wasn’t too long, however, before I began to notice the benefits of Pilates in my body and my dancing – effectively rehabilitating my ankle injury, improving my balance, stamina, and strength, just to name a few. By the time my dancing journey came to an end at age 18, I was appreciative enough of Pilates for it’s own sake and continued the practice. When, at age 23, I completed my first Pilates certification, I developed what has become a much beloved and extremely educational habit – every calendar year I start my personal practice over again from the basics.

I just love it! It reminds me what I hear people say about life: “If I could do it all again knowing what I know now …” And in this case you can! Every year I take all the learning and discoveries of the last year forward, and then and look with fresh eyes at the heart of the work, the fundamentals and basics. And it delights me that no matter how many times I do this, I always find something new, deeper, and valuable. And this new or deeper insight can move forward with me throughout the year as I methodically progress through the work, leading me to other incredible insights and connections I didn’t see before.

One of the greatest benefits of this practice is that it teaches me the true value of endless learning, and has followed me out of the Pilates studio and into the world. From this endless loop of learning I have developed my own personal mission statement: “To live in a state of perpetual exploration with wonder and curiosity.” I’ve learned to delight in being unsure, of not having the answers, because it points me toward what I need to explore. And it makes me suspicious of things I think I DO know, because this practice has shown me there is always value in looking again. Each new lesson opens new doors and expands my horizons to help me see all the other things I COULD know. It has created in me an insatiable appetite for learning, and that feels like its own reward.

The other valuable benefit of this yearly habit is the reminder – BASIC DOES NOT MEAN EASY. In fact, the more you know, the more you get. And the more you get, the harder it becomes! I so often see people who want to hurry through the basic work, or skip over it entirely. I suspect this comes from the false assumption that basic Pilates is easy and not a meaningful challenge to our fitness level. But in my experience I find that even seasoned athletes are challenged by the core concepts of Pilates. And there is also the problem of not learning the principles and building blocks on which the entire Method is based. It would be like knowing your numbers and then skipping over addition and subtraction to get to multiplication and division. Without the foundational work, everything else becomes a little mysterious and wobbly. If we want to experience all the wisdom and benefit of the work, we must be willing to set aside what we think we know and look with fresh eyes toward what we have yet to learn.

My favorite example is Mikhail Baryshnikov. He is undeniably one of the finest dancers ever, and is astonishing in his ability and artistry. And yet even he, super star that he is, woke every day and went to the ballet barre to practice his plies and tendus. These are basic skills! And yet he learned them again every day because he appreciated that the amazing feats he was capable of were born from these humble ingredients.

And that puts me mind of a personally beloved quote from the Tao Te Ching:

“In the universe the difficult things are done as if they are easy.

In the universe great acts are made up of small deeds.

The sage does not attempt anything very big,

And thus achieves greatness.”

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