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How to Keep Learning: First, You Must Begin!

Updated: Mar 15, 2022

One of my clients confided recently that she doesn’t like to let people see her learning something new unless she can do it well.

“But you make it comfortable to learn,” said. “All the teachers in your studio do. I don’t have to worry about not being perfect here.”

Another client told me that she didn’t really understand Pilates or how the exercise system would benefit her during the first year that we worked together.

“But I trusted you,” she said, “and I knew that you would keep me safe until I eventually figured things out.”

One student told us she spent more than a year trying to build the courage to come to the studio. Negative experiences in big gyms had made her self-conscious. When she finally showed up at Holly’s Pilates Village, she said, “everyone was so welcoming, and I saw a lot of people who looked like me.” She has been taking two or three classes a week ever since.

Let’s face it: Learning how to exercise as adults is hard. Most of us do not like to be beginners, and we are not very forgiving of our faults.

When considering or starting an exercise program such as Pilates or yoga, we may listen to the negative messages in our heads:

• What if everyone notices or judges me?

• What if I’m not thin enough, young enough, fit enough, fast enough, flexible enough, or (fill in the blank with your own anxiety)?

• What if I fail?

Next, we may make excuses:

• I don’t have time.

• It’s too expensive.

• I’m too old.

Then, we may look at skilled movers and assume that they learned everything easily. We think:

• They didn’t struggle the same way I would.

• They look so graceful and fluid, not like me.

• They must have been athletes when they were young. I’m too de-conditioned to start now.

What if I told you that those beliefs were wrong?

Because they are.

Learning is awkward. It can be clumsy, erratic, and slow. But everyone can learn.

Remember when you were learning how to tie your shoelaces, or ride a two-wheeler, or drive a car? You probably had many frustrations until you figured out the intricacies of the moves. But because learning is ubiquitous in adolescence, you likely took the tasks in stride. You practiced, and you got better.

As adults, we often forget that learning is supposed to be uncomfortable at the start – and sometimes as we progress. We hold ourselves to unreasonable standards, and we aim for the quickest path to competency. Most of us keep doing the things we are good at and skip the things that make us struggle.

Tom Vanderbilt has written a fascinating book about this process. In Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning, he shares his middle-aged experience learning a range of hobbies, including playing chess, singing, surfing, and juggling. Along the way he researched the art and science of acquiring skills which, he explains, can be as complex as the human brain’s circuitry and as simple as the beginner’s creed: If you don’t learn to fail, you’ll fail to learn.

“It makes little sense to lay down strict goals ahead of time for advancing in some discipline when the novice barely understands what the discipline is, what will be required, and how they’ll actually progress,” Vanderbilt says. “Unmet goals can destroy motivation as much as they drive it. The objective should be learning itself.”

At Holly’s Pilates Village, we invite you to embrace learning throughout your life. Inspiration is all around you.

• Our oldest student will turn 90 this year. She regained ½ inch of height last year because Pilates helped decompress her spine.

• Our youngest student is 13. She used Pilates to recover from repetitive injuries from ballet and now takes a weekly CoreAlign class to improve her strength.

• All teachers at our studio engage in ongoing professional development to further our knowledge of healthy movement mechanics. We also practice Pilates and yoga ourselves. We take time to observe you and each other so that we understand how exercise feels in the body.

Tom Vanderbilt reminds us that, “As you try to learn something, you shouldn’t lose sight of all the interesting little detours along the way. Learning to walk may be less the goal than simply unlocking all the good things and places walking gets you to.”

Here are some other recommendations from his book and from our experience as teachers and practitioners.

• Everyone can learn. We all have brilliance waiting to emerge.

• Learning is good for the brain and can open new worlds. Be receptive to the joy in exploration.

• Keep practicing. You will improve, but it won’t always go smoothly. Sometimes you will be humbled by the challenges. Other times you will be exhilarated by your progress. Have fun anyway.

• Skill development takes time. There is a wide range of progress from the beginner stage to proficiency to mastery. Don’t get hung up on the labels. Enjoy the journey.

• Cross train. Research shows that variable learning makes you stronger and more mentally agile in the long run. Consider changing up your practice. Try out a new teacher. Explore yoga if you only do Pilates, and vice versa. Venture onto the CoreAlign or the Ladder Barrel or the Wunda chair instead of only taking Reformer classes.

• Learning gives you community. You will form bonds with others who are curious and committed to lifelong learning.

• Failure is an essential part of learning. Remember the milestones and forget the mistakes.

Take Tom Vanderbilt’s advice: “Beginners of the world, unite! You can only get better.”

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