There's more to keeping a healthy back and painfree back than simply core strength. For sure, core strength is one element but there is SO much more that's important for us to understand. There's Alignment, Posture, and Decompression of the spine, all of which are included in the Pilates Method of body conditioning. The spine also needs a balance of flexibiity, stability, and movement in all planes. Joseph Pilates was well ahead of his time when he designed his method!
A few months ago, I have the pleasure to finally meet Brett Miller, founder of Pilates Intel - in person - all the way from Stockholm to Newburyport. We had a great visit and even had a chance to get a couple workouts in. Here is a fun video capturing workout moments. Enjoy this article - hot off the press this morning. You can subscribe for free and get this newsletter delivered in your mailbox every Wednesday.
In every profession, Pilates included, the most effective teachers are the ones who can communicate in simple terms, so the subject matter easy to understand, appropriate to the level of the learner. Elegant simplicity is an art, ideally considering the whole person – their goals, mindset, physical and emotional state. It sounds like it should be easy, but for many of us, it really isn’t. Like developing any skill to a higher level, teaching with elegant simplicity requires self-awareness, focused practice, feedback, and refinement.
Let’s back up for a moment and look at possible reasons a teacher might feel obliged to provide more information than necessary during a Pilates session. First of all, it seems that the more we know, the more we usually feel compelled to share. Without being aware of it, we can get drawn into habits of over-cueing, over-teaching, and over-stimulating our students. Here are some questions I ask myself to keep my intentions on track:
• How much information is enough for my client today to get them moving and in their body?
• Did I insert myself to the right degree to let the work do its work?
• Am I cultivating awareness of my teaching and creating a learning environment where the door is open for growth?
• When can I tell if my teaching style isn’t working and might need adjusting for an individual or situation?
If we start by understanding why most people come to Pilates in the first place, in most cases, it’s to get in shape and feel better for their daily life, sports or recreational activities. People want real results, and they want to see and feel progress. They want to gain strength, flexibility, and endurance; reduce back pain, neck pain, knee pain, and hip pain – in general, they want to feel better. They need to move! By the end of an hour, we should be able to simply ask, “Did you get a good workout?” And the answer should be “YES”, regardless of their fitness level, issue or age.
Sure, we can help pinpoint movement problems. For example, squaring the shoulders and hips, noticing asymmetries in the body, and the other corrections we give. These things may be important to improving performance and yet, how often do we find ourselves going down the rabbit hole of over-explaining, analyzing, and focusing too much on what’s wrong with a movement? Let’s turn the perspective and focus on what’s right with the movement, build on that, and create a positive atmosphere where students can grasp and learn the work. Let’s remember that Pilates is a practice, not a perfect. Teachers that are continuing to grow can always improve how we craft our sessions, through our word choice, exercise choice and our own personal attitude, so people feel good about themselves while they move.
I know I am probably preaching to the choir here. However, I am amazed at how many articles, blog posts, workshops, etc. continue to feed us information in a manner that pulls us away from our ultimate goal of keeping to the philosophy of the work, just giving a good solid workout and a positive experience. The media bombardment of what “healthy” and “fit” means is nothing less than astonishing. The Pilates philosophy to “Return to Life” is built on a strong foundation of excellent alignment, fewer reps, and a whole lot of variety. Nothing is overdone, the whole body and mind are engaged. Contrast that to Barre, Boot Camp, Crossfit, P90X, and all the latest HITT trends where harder is better, reps are king, and burn baby burn! Oh, that’s so 80’s! Didn’t we learn our lesson? So friends, ask the questions and align them with your principles.
Thank you for taking the time to let me share my thoughts with all you amazing teachers!
Misty Copeland's promotion to Principle Dancer for the ABT - against all odds, starting late in the game, and with a fierce determination that all athletes have tasted - has inspired me today to hit my Pilates workout with a deeper sense of purpose. I think of all her plies, passe's, and turns, practiced over and over again. I think we Pilates lovers can relate. I think of all the times we practice the Hundred, Teaser and the rest of the Pilates repertoire. All that practice so almost like magic, without thinking about it, we move with economy, grace, and balance. We start to hold ourselves noticably more regally. We use our body to the greatest advantage, making the most of our strengths, counteracting its weaknesses, and correcting its imbalances. This is Pilates: Fusion of mind and body. The paradox is that in order to produce an attention-free union of mind and body, we must constantly pay attention to our body while we are doing the movement. And then we practice, practice, practice. The magic doesn't just happen though, it's our "attention-paying" which is so vital that it is more important than any other single aspect of a movement. Enter our Guiding Principles:
Concentrate on what you are doing with the entire body
Control every aspect of every movement – large motions & joint positions
Centering is the starting place and focal point
Flowing Movement outward from a strong center (Romana) not too fast or slow, not stiff or jerky
Precision of movement and precision of placement creates bodily fine tuning that carries over into everyday life as grace and economy of movement
Breathing full and deep in every exercise, properly coordinated with movement. Breathe in on the point of effort, and out on return or relaxation. Squeeze the breath out of your lungs during motions that squeeze everything tight, and inhale when you straighten up (ie. Spine Stretch)
BUT it doesn't stop there! The key is how we work inside the movement that matters. It's like learning a new language of movement. Enter the Game-Changers:
We find our center and our powerhouse in motion by drawing the abdominals in and up to make the distance between the lower abs and spine as small as possible. No problem when we are lying down, but add it into each movement and it's a brand new world.
We find the posture of our head and neck in multiple postions without tensing our chest and shoulders. Lying down the point of contact to the mat should be somewhere near the base of the skull, producing length in the back of the neck (and strength in the front of the neck). Now take it upright to sitting, standing and moving!
We strengthen our necks by properly lifting our head off the mat in a way that stretches the back of the neck which helps anchor the spine into the mat (think Hundred and Ab Series) which translates into being able to hold out head higher all day long.
We distinguish the difference between relaxing and collapsing; the difference between relaxing and over-controlling or over tensing. This stress-free movement is found by relaxing the muscles while maintaining enough tone to hold the position we want. Think quads overtaking the job of other muscles.
We stretch our arms and legs without locking the elbows and knees. We figure out how to reach the arms long from our shoulders and to stretch the feet long from the hips.
We learn to sit up out of our hips. Our chest is pulled up and our head is sliding up an imaginary pole so that our back is not arched, we can find an extra bit of straightness and uprightness that comes from lifting the lowest part of your abdomen, as if we are stretching our naval away from our hips.
We discover the cure for flaccid gluteal muscles, a chief culprit for poor posture and an ungraceful stride. It is as simple as pressing the buttocks together as if squeezing a dime between them. When standing up our thighs should turn slightly outward and the front of the pelvis is flat and open. It works like a charm and beats incessant reps of large strenuous leg exercises which miss point.
We find a two-way stretch in all movements, reaching the arms from the lower back in one direction while reaching the legs from the lower back in the opposite direction.
We roll and unroll the spine without jerking the body, one vertebrae at a time. And if we are stiff, instead of cheating, we use our arms to help.
A famous composer once wrote: Repetition is a form of change. So we practice the same exercises day after day and discover that we are always finding our body - on new levels, with new depth and insight.
If you are looking for a way to supplement your lessons, try my new program Pilates Avatar . If you are a studio owner or manager, learn how you can bring this program to your studio!
It doesn't surprise me, but somehow it still takes me by surprise, how much there is to learn about the work of Pilates.
Romana frequently told us to "learn something new each day" and "if you stay true to the method it will reveal itself to you", and it certainly has.
But there's nothing like a good old fashioned chat with a colleague, sharing experiences and perspectives, solutions and strategies, to bring me back to who I am as a teacher and practitioner.
Kathy Ross-Nash and I had a great chat a couple nights ago and our conversation led us to how we foster independence in our students. We've heard the many stories of how Joe ran his studio, requiring students to learn how to work the system for their bodies. Romana carried that idea asking the student "what's next" instead of spoon feeding information so we could develop our mind as well as our body.
We were expected to know our exercises and orders. And that was that.
In the spirit of sharing with our community, take a quick listen to Kathy Ross-Nash saying what she does in her studio to challenge the minds of her students and then giving a final reward to sweeten it up. Thank-you Kathy!
I hope you enjoy it and share it! I look forward to having more chats with friends and sharing the collective wisdom.