Progressive Bodyworks | Pilates Mastery with Clare Dunphy


Secrets To Growing In Your Teaching

May 2, 2011

It is easy to get stuck.  Stuck teaching in a similar fashion, seldom varying lessons, and working on the usual apparatus day after day.  In recent conversations with several teachers, I was curious to hear how they keep workouts fresh for their clients, how they planned and built progression into their sessions and if they truly worked with Pilates as a full “system”.  Remarkably, each person shared the tendency to shy away from equipment they didn’t understand well or didn’t personally practice on, or found they regularly got in a rut teaching the same way with the same tempo using the same cues and the same exercises with their clients.  Without a plan or a map, how can you get where you want to go?  It is no surprise they periodically felt “flat” and uninspired in their teaching.  I personally related to their stories as I been there before myself.  While workshops were inspiring and I got plenty of information and new ideas, it wasn’t until I did my own homework and applied what I learned that transformation ensued.  Here is what I did to develop a strategy for each client. 

First came an inventory of current Pilates goals along with a review and prioritization of current body issues, exercises or movement patterns currently challenging them, and what exercises I had given them on each piece of equipment.  Then I asked myself if they were progressing and if so, in what way and how that looked.  I wrote this for each person, using it as an opportunity to check in and reset goals as necessary.

I was amazed at the insight this process brought seeing everything written down in black and white.  It enabled me to create a plan and purposefully construct a workout strategy that targeted their needs.  I decided to zero in on one or two priority issues at a time.  I pulled out my exercise lists on all the apparatus and created a complete list of all the exercises that could help each issue, fully realizing that I would tackle each issue in stages.  At the top of the list were mat and reformer exercises.  Then I listed the remaining exercises on the cadillac, chairs, barrels, and accessories that could help my client.  Now I was ready to get creative.

My goal was to plan five different workouts that specifically addressed the areas I identified.  I developed a template with 7 columns and enough rows to list each exercise I planned to cover over the course of six sessions.  The first column listed the exercises either beginning with mat or reformer then 2-5 exercises on 2-3 other apparatus, and an ending.  The remaining six columns represented 6 sessions where I could take notes after the session.  I took care not to introduce more then 1-2 new exercises or variations per apparatus in a given session, indicating which exercises I would introduce each session.  This allowed me and my client to grow into the full program over six sessions.  I discovered it was much easier, with the full lists in front of me, to come up with five different workouts and created a theme for each session. 

By spending the time to invest in my client’s progress and success, I found I had invested in myself as well.  This process pushed me out of my comfort zone and re-opened my eyes to the beauty and vastness of the Pilates System.  I also realized how important it was for me to actively continue exploring the possibilities available within the Pilates system and keep on seeking greater depths of what it has to offer, remaining wide open to the unfolding its mysteries.  Romana was right when she said, “stay true to the system and the system will stay true to you.”

Filed under: Business Matters

Pilates Can Heal

April 21, 2011

My appreciation of the profound holistic healing benefits of the classical Pilates system in working with special populations has once again been renewed.

Whether the primary issue is:

  • a foot,
  • knee,
  • hip,
  • back,
  • shoulder,
  • ankle
  • or wrist,

…it is the consistent application of the classical format and exercise orders that positively address faulty movement patterns and compensatory patterns reverberating through the kinetic chain. After a simple assessment using the fundamentals (for new clients), and by addressing alignment issues throughout the session, the exercise order is maintained with exercises either modified or eliminated only as needed.

In the Individual needs section of the class format, numerous choices exist with the other apparatus allowing strong areas to work in conjunction with weaker areas, thereby impacting the entire body. Often the painful body part reflects an underlying issue somewhere else, usually closer in the core and responds well to a whole body approach.

The beauty of the Pilates system is that it recognizes that the whole body is greater then the sum of the individual parts. Pilates knew!

Filed under: Lifestyle Matters

Go For the Zone!

March 23, 2011

How do you get into the zone during your workouts? How do keep yourself true to the discipline of clean transitions, advancing your own practice and challenging your own personal ideal? Where do you give yourself slack?  One of the things I have learned over and over again in the years of my teaching is that the commitment to my own practice is directly related to the quality of my teaching.  When I keep my practice strong I find myself so much more engaged, focused, excited and energized not only in my teaching, but also in my daily life.  I realized early on the more I personally do Pilates, the more I have to share about it.  Romana once told me that if I stay true to the method, the method would reveal itself and stay true to me.  What did she mean by that? 

For me, it is simply a matter of working with three important factors.  First, I intentionally work full out every time I practice.  This means to go for quality and not to skimp when I don’t feel like it.  I challenge my personal best by maintaining awareness of extraneous movements and by focusing on precision and movement quality, reaching for the goal of the exercise.  By working with a balance of tempo and control with squeaky-clean transitions, a new world of discovery opens up for the one-hour I give myself.  I know the places in the workout where I have choices to include a variation or perhaps omit something, making instantaneous decisions about how and why to do so; always mindful of where I am going next.  I notice the nuances occurring in the moment and work get the feeling or purpose of the exercise starting with the first repetition and then carry it through to resolution in as few repetitions as possible.  Sounds like a tall order, but that is what goes on in my head.  Experience has taught me that by going deeper in my personal practice, gems of insight are a joyful reward. 

The second factor, which reliably draws me into the zone, is to breathe as full and deep as I can right from the first exercise, whether it is on the mat or reformer.  This works like a charm to clear my mind and begin the flow of the session.  I get in tune with the reformer springs and listen to my breath in time with the sound of the springs working with the movement. I can hear the quality of movement by the sounds I hear.  Immediately aware of tension or sluggishness in my body through the breath, I can control the way I feel.  Bad mood, good mood it doesn’t matter; after a few good oxygenated breaths in timing with the movement I am on my way to the zone.  Early connection with full breathing also creates a deeper powerhouse connection and helps set the rhythm for the entire session.

The third factor that keeps me on point is to keep the workout fresh, fun and varied.  Some of this is a matter of session design.  Will today’s workout be on the reformer, reformer mat, reformer on the cadillac, or will it be on the chair and barrels?  What kind of fun can I create for myself in this one hour of playtime?  What discoveries can I make?  How can I make this hour really matter to add value to my day? What can I do in this workout to make it feel worthwhile?  So a combination of what I bring to the experience is as important as it is deciding what workout design I choose.

Challenging my ideal for that particular day continues to mean honoring my body and at the same time reaching for my edge.  When I expect the best from myself, I feel confident asking the same from my clients.  We are role models for our clients and when our energy is bright and clear, our clients pick up on that and are uplifted as a result.  Energy begets energy.  Pilates is a practice, not a performance and there are always places I can improve.  That for me is part of the ongoing discovery into self-mastery that captured my imagination when I first began Pilates and what keeps me coming back for more.

Filed under: Movement Matters

Secrets of the Short Box Series

February 16, 2011

This article is the first in a series aimed at deepening your understanding of the Short Box Series, this one will focus on the Short Box: Round.

“You are only as old as your spine is flexible” captures a key facet of the Pilates method, speaking to the importance of a mobile spine as we get older.  In our current computer age, with so a large percentage of the population spending several hours a day in a chair and working at a computer, it is no surprise that there has been such an increase in the number of complaints of lower back pain, neck pain and of headaches (to name only a few), even with ergonomically sound work stations.  The only antidote for these complaints is for the body to move in ways that counteract the effects of these unnatural postures being sustained for several hours a day.

A proper Pilates session encompasses all spinal movements and the Short Box series encapsulates all of them within one series.  The basic exercises; Round, Flat, Side to Side, Twist, Tree, and Side Sit Ups improve mobility, strength, stability and muscular endurance which all functionally impact good posture.  The Short Box Series is introduced early on as a basic series and, with variations added as the student advances, continues being a barometer of progress revealing a story about our client’s spinal health. 

What does the Short Box Series reveal?  What are the things to look for when teaching and what are the small things to fuss about?  It is the little details that make this series a mainstay in the classical system and the importance of delivering this series well cannot be understated.  I have witnessed on countless occasions clients going through the motions and actually missing the point for what their body can gain and needs from these exercises.

Let’s take a closer look at each of the exercises in the Series to illuminate what to watch for, how to fix it and what it reveals.


Step 1:  Sit a hands distance from the back of the box.  The first thing to look for is how the client assumes the rounded position.  Observe from the side, if the whole body collapses into the position, be sure to correct it.  Things to watch for are the ribcage dropping toward the pelvis, a lack of lift off of the buttocks, hunched shoulders or a heavily drooped head.  Look for an even contour of the spine with a deep scoop supporting the C-curve.  Be sure the arms hug the waist tightly, between the pelvis and ribs, instead of being out away from the body. The head should be reaching forward over the chest with both eyes focused toward the naval instead of sinking the chin into the throat.  The feet are apart with the safety strap near the ankles, take note of where the feet are in space as this will be important as the movement occurs. The starting position is a tightly rounded one. 

Step 2:  The movement begins by going back; the pelvis rolls under, the sacrum contacts the box, the scoop deepens and the first stop is half way back with the shoulders level with the box. The upper back should not be lower than the level of the box at this horizontal point.  If needed, the knees may gently bend if the hip flexors are tight preventing the sacrum from making contact with the box.  If the knees can stay straight when going back, observe that the heels reach out and away from the hips.  If you observe from the rear of the reformer, watch that both sides of the back lower equally.  From the footbar, encourage the heels to remain still in space and reach; you can cue this or have both heels reach into your touch.

Step 3:  The spine lowers into the well until it is as low as possible before extending, with the head last to extend back.  Watch that the head remains actively forward until the torso is low.  Do not let the head open back prematurely!
Once upside down, try to maximally arch the entire spine, pulling the shoulders back toward the headrest, looking at the floor with the eyes and reaching the heels out away from the hips in opposition.  As one becomes stronger the arms may be able to reach overhead to the floor. 

Step 4:  To come up, first return the arms to position hugging the waist and then bring the chin to the chest.  Raise the head and have the eyes focus on the midline aligning the nose with the sternum, naval and pubic bone and curl up until the torso is level with the box. Encourage clients to look with their eyes into their body to steer alignment as this will be helpful when coming up from the Tree.  At this point the sacrum should still be on the box and the upper back level with the box just as it was in Step 2.

Exhale and curl the rest of the way up keeping the sacrum on the box for as long as possible and curling the upper body forward, until the shoulders are over the hips, be sure the powerhouse remains engaged. The rounded shape is now a counter stretch for the full extension that was just performed.  So the sequence is to deeply round in order to fully arch, and then the spine finishes by rounding again.

In the advanced variation of this exercise, the first time arching into the well, hold both elbows and reach the arms back in three gentle pulses; second time back place the hands on the floor and perform a back bend; third time back reach under the carriage rails and give a long pull while reaching out through the heels. 

To check for one sidedness, view this exercise from the rear as the torso rolls back and notice if one side hangs lower then the other side.  If there is one side hanging lower, a simple cue or touch in most cases will even it out.  Often the client can’t feel the imbalance so it is important to correct it, as it will inevitably show up in other exercises.

Since the Short Box Series is a seated series, help raise client’s awareness of active sitting. Encourage them to use it often during the day to offset the dangers of sloppy sitting.  If you have a side view mirror let them see what it looks like; illustrate what it looks like to sit tall with the shoulders over the hips, to lift out of the waist, hips, and lower back.  Show them how to wrap and perch up off of the buttocks and how to use their abdominals to sit forward and up; practice going back and forth from sloppy to active sitting so they can see and feel the difference. 

By understanding details and making small but profound adjustments during your session, your client will not only have something to think about and practice until they see you again but little by little you will positively impact their quality of life.

“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”

—William Arthur Ward


Filed under: Movement Matters

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