Talks about movement, with Laia

Concepts and ideas of movement come in a wide variety, have evolved over time and can differ depending on influences such as our environment or the culture we grow up with. How we move reflects all these facets and is constantly developing. About these and other related topics I have been talking with Laia, a Pilates teacher who has been exploring the world of movement for many years.

When I think of movement, I always connect it to the dynamics of the sea. It can be calm, like the Mediterranean usually seems to be, right?When it starts moving, it generates energy that shapes a liquid like water, which is normally formless. Or the wind, you can't see it, but it suddenly moves a "dead" object and transfers energy to it, making it seem alive. I feel like the same happens with our body when we get moving, it works like an engine to generate an energy that awakens us in many ways. That may sound very spiritual now, but I don't mean it that way.

Sure. Well, I understand that each culture links the energy to a certain aspect. Water, for example, is more related to this organic thing. I am much closer to the scientific explanation, and there are people who perhaps link it more to a concept of spiritual energy. But yes, I understand you. In the end, movement has a lot to do with nature. Well, I think we are very far away from that nowadays. I mean, when you start to reflect on movement and practice or even just observe, you start to create links with that, with nature, with things that you see in life, in movement, and I think there's a part of it that we forget. It's like we consider that our being, for instance you Giulia or me Laia, is different from our bodies. So we perceive it as Giulia and the body, and then Giulia and the movement. But there is no difference. We are the brain and the nervous system that goes down our spine and radiates throughout our body. So we are exactly that and nothing different, nor is there body and mind as two different concepts. So, when we begin to observe what movement is, we can extrapolate it to much larger elements.

Talking about observing movement, as Pilates teacher that's exactly what you do, and, both on a personal and professional level, you've been dedicated to movement for a long time, too. What is your concept of movement, and what does it mean to you?

I think it has been changing over time, but I guess it’s basically what I have just told you. I mean, movement is just as profound as you are. For example, you were saying that the Mediterranean is very calm, but I'm sure that many fishermen out there are capable of perceiving super-subtle movements that are not visible to my eyes. It's the same with movement. Sometimes we think that movement is a person who dances, who has a super large range of motion and does incredible things, when movement is really your cells. Anything really that makes us alive and how you connect with that. It's the internal quest to improve that relationship with your cells, with your body, and how you can explore new ways of moving. I think we are very far from our original way of how we move. I do a lot of that, well I'm a Pilates teacher, but usually people say, "I do Pilates because I want a tight bum," or "I do CrossFit because I want to get stronger," so it's like you do movement, or anything really, for a specific purpose. Which is not bad, it's perfect, but I think if we were to make a pyramid of movement, these kinds of goals would be at the very bottom. And when you start to explore a bit more and peel back the layers, you understand that movement goes much further. I mean, it's more daily practice, and there are a lot of people in the movement world, who I like to follow, who have a very deep practice in this aspect and have a very deep search for what movement is. So I think it has to do with that: A personal quest to improve the quality of life.

Movement is also a way of expressing oneself, sometimes even involuntarily or subconsciously, through body language and the ways one moves. In different types of sports you can observe that for example, on the one hand yes, everyone does the same activity, but there are striking differences in the ways in which every single person moves within that activity. Tiny details that can even tell you a lot about what a person is like. Do you also observe that in directed activities such as Pilates, or is it different when people focus on following instructions?

Yes, indeed, we move the way we are. There are people who are specialists in reading expressions, like the typical, very basic example, when you ask someone something and if they look to the left it means such and such a thing. Then there is another aspect and that is, when you analyse movement, which is something that Pilates teachers do or what we should be able to do. You start to read the expression of the body and understand the person. It's something we do like riding a bike; the longer you do it, the more you understand the body. Let's put another basic example: a very stressed person, who maybe also spends many hours in front of the computer, tends to hunch the upper back and have little mobility in the sternum, right? People, as we were saying before, who follow a more spiritual practice, talk about the chakra and say that the chakra closes in these cases. That explanation for me is quite based on nothing, but it's proven that really, when we move, our body protects itself. When you are afraid, your chest closes, because you are protecting your rib cage, which is where you have your emotions, where you have your vital organs. So you tend to close when you're scared, which leads to a lot of tension in the sternum, sometimes even pain, and makes breathing difficult. That, in the end, is a transfer of your emotions to the body. And there are thousands of other examples like that, like the body, us human beings basically we adapt and that is what makes us survive, both on an emotional level and on a practical level. Just as a person who is very expressive, very solar, may have a more open chest, and so on. In other words, we are not indifferent to our body, it moves the way we are and the way we feel, of course.

The next question has to do with that topic: You used to teach in Barcelona and now here on the island, which is a place where people are more surrounded by nature. Do you notice any differences in the way someone moves, depending on the environment they live in?

Yes, I've noticed two things, I'm sure there are more, but I've noticed two things: the feet and the gaze. The feet are much more adapted. All the toe exercises and so on that I do, people follow them much more easily, because here they go barefoot and that's marvellous. And then the positioning of the gaze. The gaze is much more open to look outwards. In Barcelona, it's not that they look towards the ground, but they tend to close their gaze or to not look. I don't know if I'm expressing myself, but this island is completely horizontal. It is a massage from the eye, because the eye relaxes, when it looks towards the horizon, and when the eye relaxes, the brain relaxes and the nervous system is much more adaptive. In the end, the eye is the first vertebra, and when you have your eye open towards the horizon, your spine is much healthier. On the other hand, in the city, it's like when people close the angle of vision of donkeys, you know? That has to do with what we said before, it's the body's adaptation, isn't it? People in the city don't need to look at the horizon, because there isn't any. What they need to see is immediate, not to bump into someone, to stop at the traffic lights, the zebra crossing, not to step on, the metro... everything happens in very close metres, so the gaze closes and the body also closes. It’s different, but yes, I observed these two things, the feet and the gaze.

And if we add a third world, to categorize it somehow, because nowadays, people use online classes more and more, right? Do you notice differences about that, too?

Well, the only difference I see is that giving classes, the external factors and communication change. The way of correcting, the feedback, is also different and well, it's not what I like the most, but in the end the experience of movement doesn't always have to be the same, does it? One might think that there is only that kind of practice with a physical teacher who is able to touch you, to correct you doing an exercise, but no. There are practices where the experience of movement is not always the same and the experience of movement itself can be enriching enough. It's ok to be able to do a bit of everything. I mean, like with online classes there's not as much ability to give feedback, it's more like a movement experience. Giving the person on the other side of the screen the opportunity to move a little more without rigidity. But I don't see any change there. It's probably what's coming anyway, I mean, I work a lot more.

Maybe in that respect there would be a more striking change, if one day, hopefully far in the future, everything would be online, right? As it was during lockdown, but in the even longer term.

Yes, for sure, being aware of where you have to look to be attentive or put the cameras. All those kinds of things change the practice. The stage, the place where you move, that changes the experience of movement. Imagine you’re a student in a place with a mirror compared to one without, it changes the practice. You abandon the inner experience to focus on seeing yourself, so you spend your practice in an image instead of an internal experience. I'm not a big fan of mirrors, but for certain things... It's never a no-go in itself but important to understand when it's good to have a mirror and when you have to really concentrate on the experience of movement, on the nervous system, on feeling a work of proprioception, right? But it's interesting, I think that artificial intelligence or these practices should bring us good things. I mean, I’d say we have to be positive, because if not... our grandparents probably turn around in their grave, because they also faced that, right? A cultural leap. There has always been, since the industrial revolution, there has been an exponential change in this type of thing, and we always took something good from it, and bad too, but I don't know. I'm positive about this, otherwise, Giulia, I think we would commit suicide, eh. If I start thinking that there won't be any more teachers, like, you insert the Pilates manual, the contraindications of movement, the pathologies and I don't know what, and you get a teacher, and I'm sure she's younger and prettier than me, and nicer, I mean, that's it, that's it. It’s better to stay positive about it.

Talking about changes and projections into the future, with all the inventions of human beings to make life more comfortable, doesn't it mark a tendency of regression for our own capacity for movement? For example, I thought about this in a paddle tennis class using the tube to pick up the balls instead of you bending hips and knees and extending my arm to reach the ball. You just stand up straight and pass the tube over each ball. I understand that if you're there all day and teach, you prevent injuries that come from too much of all the bending and so on. This is more of an example from the sports world itself, but that's what happens with a lot of things in everyday life as well, isn't it?

There really is a paradox. Let's see, when you have a person with a physical disability, the idea is to adapt the environment, so that the person has a much more functional life. For example, if the person is in a wheelchair, you're not going to build a house with steps, are you? But there are limits. I remember when I worked with physically disabled people, I had a colleague who was in a wheelchair, and he said to me: "If I adapt my house completely, I'm not going to be functional in real life". And I think we can take this kind of reflection to what you say. I mean, why do I need a tube to pick up the balls if your spine and hips are made to move and pick up the balls from the ground? Why is the practice of paddle tennis limited to the match and doesn’t include picking up the balls? It's different of course if you tell me ok today, I'm in a hurry and I want to practice my serve. Ok, so today I'll take the tube, right? And it's the same in Pilates, that's going to be throwing stones at myself, but Pilates machines are wonderful, they offer a lot of advantages and a very protected environment to move, but at the same time it's not the purpose in itself. In other words, I wouldn't ideally like to have only students who want to do Pilates with machines. I want my students to climb a mountain, to climb, to swim, I want them to have a much more adapted capacity for movement and not just the machine. In the end, you are very good at Pilates with a machine, great, so what? You are very good at doing the single leg stretch, but what for? Again, coming back to what we were saying at the beginning, if movement is you, it is knowing yourself, it is being more functional. I mean, what is it good for, if you are not able to transfer that vitality that Pilates gives you to your life? Why do you do Pilates? Why do you go to the gym? Why do you go to CrossFit? Why do you want to do a perfect snatch, or why do you really want to get stronger and everything that is involved in getting stronger? Well, I try to be very conscious of that. Why do I do this exercise? Why do I do that or the other thing? And sometimes it's just because I need to mentally unload, you know, and that's okay. But it's good to bring awareness to the practice, whatever it is. 

And also variety, right? Like what you're saying, not just one thing or the other...

Variability is what makes you much more functional. For example, in Pilates. I have a lot of people who say, "I come to Pilates because I want to improve my posture". And well, the typical videos: "If you spend a lot of hours sitting, you have to sit with your back straight as if a stick had been shoved up your ass". Well, my friend, no. Hello? It doesn't do any good, it just creates tension. We're made to move. I mean, the best position is the one you're never in, and if you think "The best position is the one I'm never in.", then you have to change your posture as often as possible. Variability. The body wants variability, it's what it likes, like in food, it's very basic. We don't just need to climb. We need to climb, to swim, so that's what we need, to be a skilled person in everything. We need to go to the supermarket and carry loads, because the spine is made to bend and take weight. But our tendency is to be comfortable, isn't it? That doesn't mean we have to live in penitence, of course. For example, I am now building my own house. My ideal will be, to have the sofas as low as possible, I will try to have a bar somewhere so that every time I pass by I can practice hanging for a bit. What does that mean, that I'm going to live like a chimpanzee? No, but you try to put a bit of chilli, a bit of spice into life, don't you? Sitting a little bit on the floor, that kind of thing that gives health to my hips, that gives health to my pelvic floor. Yes, I think that's the point.

Earlier you mentioned awareness during practice, is that something that's in opposition to "letting it flow"? I mean, as there is a lot of talking about "the flow", and for example I notice it in surfing, when I get into the water without thinking, which I guess would be the equivalent of flow, maybe I have a lot of fun, but I don't make any progress in terms of my technique, because at that moment I wasn't thinking about anything. So one thing excludes the other? Can't I flow and at the same time improve?

You know what happens, I see a lot of flow in the networks and so on, but in the end it's a moment of disconnection, isn't it? Of letting go. And where does that come from? For me, it has to come from a previous practice. There's something, I don't know if you've seen it, Ecstatic dance. Basically, they play music and dance playing the bongos and I don't know what, and pay for it. It's like going to a disco but without alcohol. You go, and they tell you that you have to let yourself go and, I'm going to criticise that even though I don't know much about it, but from the outside, if you analyse it, it looks like they flow, but really, no matter how beautiful or ugly the movement is, they always do the same pattern of movement, because there is no previous register. The beauty of all this is when you are able to train one thing a lot, to have an extensive vocabulary and then when you are told to let go, your body is able to go and look for these movement references, which are different patterns that you have. And that only happens by practising.

If I get in the water, and I think surfing is one of the hardest things there is, although I can't tell you much about it, but, I guess learning to surf is about surfing your ass off, right? And the more you have internalised the ability to read the sea, to get on a board and I don't know what, the more you can pay attention to the other things, because you have already adapted all the previous steps. The same goes for any other movement. If I start to do a 5-minute improvisation flow, I assure you that I'll spend 30 seconds of the 5 minutes, not even 30, for 10 seconds I'll do different movements. From 10 seconds to 5 minutes, I'll be repeating patterns that are my own. Is that flowing? Well, it's repeating a pattern, going crazy and well, letting off steam. But it's not flowing, as I conceive it. Like when you see a surfer on an amazing wave, because it's not the first time he's taken the board, probably not.

Then there are movement practices that are based on that, on deciphering, decoding the movement and working with very small movements, because in the end, as you were saying, the expressions and all that, right? In the end, our body learns to move due to cultural aspects as well. I don't know, this is a very stereotypical example: try to visualise a Japanese and a Brazilian walking; there is a striking difference, and you can identify them based on the way they move. It's funny, but in general it's like that. We are our body, it is not different from us, from our being. Well, what was this all about? Ah, flow, yes, it's very trendy, but we shouldn’t confuse it.

In other words, it should be a combination. Neither one thing, nor the other, because if you only focus on learning new movements, but you never put them together to see what you can do with them, that’s not the idea either…

Yes, the practice has to be complete, as complete as one can. So, from practising a closed series to practising a series that is not closed, that is based on a specific objective, like improving hip mobility or whatever, to memorising exercises, looking for new patterns and then improvising. Improvisation also has to be there, but there has to be a previous work. You can't just isolate and say well, flow, and then you find yourself saying, well, you're doing the same thing all the time.

The last question is more personal. Of all the movement disciplines you practice or have practised, what era would you like to relive or live through, if it is an era before your time, and why?

Without a doubt, Capoeira. It's something that has changed my life. Capoeira is great, hey, don't put Capoeira, put Capoeira Angola. It's the one most closely linked to Afro-Brazilian culture. It has a very strong bond with Africa and with tradition, and that's what I started with. Adolescence was horrible for me, I had a lot of anxiety, a lot of fear, everything overwhelmed me, I didn't know what to do. And at this moment of confusion, of fear, of constant panic, the only thing that anchored me, the only thing that brought me down to earth, the only thing that saved me, that made me suddenly say, "Wow, I'm on earth, I'm alive, and stop with the stories," was Capoeira. After a trip to Brazil when I was 18 I started training, and suddenly I was going every day for 2 hours and I asked my Mestre if I could go to the next class too. So I was training for 4 hours every day. From the age of 18 until 2 years ago, which is when I stopped and my heart goes like, I mean, I talk, and I feel like crying. But yeah, I have been teaching Capoeira for many years in Barcelona, and I was a Contramaestre, almost a Mestre. Capoeira is very beautiful, it has some lines of movement, of tradition, it's beautiful, the music, it's something incredible. So if I could do something again, it's Capoeira, and since there isn't any on this island, I'm an orphan. 

Sure, it's like what you were saying at the beginning, how you move, how you develop, movement is part of your being. 

Thank you very much for the talk, Laia!



by Giulia Parise