Pilates and the Beautiful Game.

Aaah, can you believe it's almost been a year since the last World Cup (a.k.a almost the greatest moment in English history since 1966/ the best chance we had of unifying the country since June 2016)? Have you packed away your tear-stained bunting, finally resigned to the fact that football won't be coming home just yet? Or maybe you never been able to comprehend what any of the fuss is about, railing to anyone who'll listen that it's just a bunch of overpaid be-tattooed wusses running around on a big rectangle of grass, chasing a bit of leather, not life and death.

Well, to misquote probably every pundit everywhere, football is all that and more. It truly is our national obsession.

For me it's a mildly annoying background hum. If it's not on telly (which it is, constantly), my boyfriend is “just checking the football” on his phone every five minutes (at least that's what he tells me...) or it's Robbie Savage and his, um, enthusiastic callers from the radio in the kitchen.

Detractors will also point out that the money that changes hands is insane and accusations of corruption are not without foundation. At the highest level, players can sell for millions but in the lower leagues, pitches aren't maintained and small clubs in desperate need of improved infrastructure see their funds siphoned off by corrupt owners. The game's macho, aggressive image also seems to be stubbornly hard to shift. Despite a huge effort to kick racism out of football it still exists (if anything, it's got worse in the last year), not one male player feels prepared to say he's gay and despite our national team's women's side's huge successes, there are still too many people who denigrate female players, fans and commentators.

However, like the game itself, this is a blog of two halves. The sheer joy it brings to millions of people has to be a wonderful thing. It brings a sense of belonging, whether you're playing or watching, it's easy enough to understand but not too easy. If it's just a kick-about you want, you just need a few people, a ball, a fairly flat space and probably some jumpers for goalposts.

Football's relationship with Pilates is also a healthy one. It's now well established that it can aid players' longevity in the game, helping with injury recovery as well as prevention. Steve Gerard, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo are probably the best known examples of footballers who have taken up The Pilates Method and there are loads of articles and videos about them on line. Instead, here's a video of Tino Asprilla instead as it's much more fun:

My local team is Leyton Orient. It's one of the oldest clubs in London and despite recent demotions, they can boast a very loyal following. They also have a Trust which does some really beneficial work in the wider community. A couple of years ago I was asked to teach mat Pilates to their BTEC students and later I was asked to participate in some of their outreach work, teaching chair-based exercise to older adults, some of whom were in recovery from stroke, as well as adults with higher support needs.

I felt extremely lucky to have been asked and also benefited a great deal, as everything I learned is useful in my current classes.

The mat classes for the boys (and one girl) on the BTEC course were a hoot. I'd like to say I teach a wide range of people. I have taught a lot of dancers and circus performers but I think I'm similar to most teachers in that our bread and butter work tends to be with older clients (around the 40+ age group). These people often lead a sedentary life and come with a range of joint problems. The work I do with them may be on the “easy”, more rehabilitative end of the scale. Pilates studios are generally very calm, quiet places, maybe with some classical music plinking away in the background. All the mat classes I've taught have been similarly peaceful affairs, with the occasional voice piping up with a question, even a little chat if everyone knows each other but usually the only voice is mine and I've never needed to shout.

I knew I needed to work really hard to engage the boys. I was initially concerned that they wouldn't listen, that they'd mess about and they were a little loud initially but I had one of their coaches in to help me and as soon as I “shusshed” them they concentrated for an entire hour. Once they had the basic principles, I pushed them with strength exercises at the more advanced and of the scale and I gave them football specific work (there was a lot of hamstring stretching), and I challenged their balance and speed for change of direction movement needed on the pitch. A lot of them will be going on to work in the fitness industry so I explained what we were doing and why.

Often in my quieter classes it's not always easy to know if people are enjoying or understanding what you give them because the sense of polite restraint. The boys gave me constant feedback and it was wonderful. Their high energy level was infectious, they threw themselves into everything I gave them and they really made me laugh. I hope they had as much fun as I did.

I din't get any photos but here's one of Laurie Cunningham's statue. He was the first black player to play professionally for England and he played for the O's. A statue was recently placed in nearby Coronation Gardens.

A few months later, I had three groups of chair-based exercise classes. The first one was targeted mainly at men who'd had strokes and had lost some motor control. There were also people with memory problems. They wanted to exercise to music so I made an eclectic mix based on their requests. It had been a long time since I'd used music but as I've taught dance it wasn't too much of a stretch. We mainly sat in the chairs, initially mobilising the joints and then doing some strength and flexibility work with some resistance bands and small balls I brought. It's important for us all to work on our balance, particularly to avoid falls and I got everyone standing behind the chair to balance on one leg or up on tip toes and later we cleared the chairs to work on walking (forwards, backwards, side to side, toe to toe etc). They were all wonderfully encouraging of each other. I used my basic Pilates training but also recalled some of the work we had done with adult community groups, some of whom had higher support needs, when I was a student at Laban.

I also used these methods with another chair- based exercise group at The Salvation Army centre in Hoxton and then with the residents at Woodberry Down home. A short film was made at Woodberry Down, which you can see here: ( for some reason I talk about “softening the muscles” (I think I panicked in front of the camera; what I was trying to say was that we wanted to avoid stiffness but it came out a bit mangled!)

I suppose football's not going to go away any time soon so I guess I'd better get used to it. In any case, the O's are going up! Also, if this amazing tiny young girl is the future, maybe things are heading in the right direction.

#Pilates #community #football #chairbasedexercise #Leyton #EastLondon

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