New Pilates – Calling For Another Way To Teach

KX Pilates Dee Why studios offering 50-minute workouts fusing elements of traditional reformer pilates with cardio and endurance training. Two issues have nagged me for nearly all my 35 years of teaching Pilates. It’s taken this long to mention them, because, well, I never like to hear complaints without solutions, and it’s taken this long to find these solutions!

First, Pilates is not brain surgery! I believe that we as teachers generally make Pilates complicated, time-consuming, and expensive. It is not only unnecessary but detrimental to beginners. It’s holding back Pilates from greater popularity. Let me give you an example.

Joseph Pilates emphasized breathing so much that it is arguably the primary principle. He stated “… above all, learn how to breathe correctly.” (Return to Life Through Contrology by Joseph Pilates, 1945, p.13). So we as teachers dutifully study the breath and strongly encourage it. We notice how a firm core restricts belly breathing and causes what is known as “lateral breathing”.

Trouble arises when we teach lateral breathing rather than allow it to be discovered by the student. A better time to mention this is after the form becomes familiar and core muscles and concentration are strong. The truth is that neither the student nor the teacher need know anything about lateral breathing to get the full benefits of Pilates.

This is just one example of how we as Pilates teachers make it much more difficult than it need be. We do the same thing with a host of issues from body alignment to muscle engagement.

Why all the complexity? I think it comes from our highest motives: our passion and concern! Pilates leads every teacher to depths of understanding about so much of our body and our mind, and like insight born of meditation, we feel compelled to share it.

There is nothing wrong with this, but in the process we seem to forget basic principles of good teaching: keep it simple, and make very few corrections in the beginning, or as a great teacher once advised me: “Notice everything but respond to very little!”

Let me go a bit deeper here, because this is not simply an issue of timing or how best to teach beginners. I wonder if some of our important insights should be shared at all. A discovery we make may be true and important, but someone else may experience it quite differently born of a different learning style or kinesthetic understanding. This is where teaching becomes an art. We can help a student see something by sharing our understanding. We can also deny a student their own discoveries by distracting or overwhelming them with ours.

Let’s simplify. Edit instruction to the essentials and let everything else be a sidebar. Sure, where special needs arise that’s another story. But I think we see more special needs than there really are. And just maybe the student doesn’t want or need much else.

Interestingly, rare film footage of Joseph Pilates teaching a beginner shows that he too taught in a simple and direct way with very spare instruction.

The second point I want to make is that Pilates is exercise! What I mean is that exercise is work which is often uncomfortable. We are too quick to stop and even remove Pilates exercises when they are uncomfortable. For example, in the classic Pilates exercise known as “The 100”, the neck usually feels strained in the beginning. This is not a problem. It’s natural for the neck to feel strain and discomfort whjen it is weak. There’s nothing wrong with this discomfort or the exercise. Rest the head if it’s unbearable, but continue the exercise. Lift the head back up and finish the exercise.

There’s nothing harmful about working at a level of discomfort unless an injury or disability is in play. After all, creating muscle requires an uncomfortable fatiguing and even tearing of muscle tissue at the cellular level. As much as we need to protect the student from injury, we must also educate about the difference between beneficial discomfort (stretching, strength training, and cardiovascular conditioning) and harmful discomfort (injury).

This is a complex issue – when to listen to pain and when to ignore it – because one of the amazing benefits of Pilates is that it leads us to a new relationship with the body. Increased awareness and mind/body connection calls us to stop fighting the body, invites us to be allies rather than adversaries, and rejects the disrespectful and ultimately unhealthy attitude of “No pain, no gain.” If something hurts stop it! On the other hand, weak neck muscles need work. And with the work comes strength and flexibility that relieves the pain.

It’s always been a balancing act – we have to push ourselves but not too much. And be careful about skipping a hard and unpleasant exercise – it’s often the one we need most!

In conclusion, I have 2 simple messages: keep it simple, and don’t forget the work in a workout!

An advanced certified teacher of Pilates for over 35 years, Bob specializes in Pilates mat exercises. He offers online lessons, daily Pilates tips and news at Facebook, a unique Cardio Pilates workout, and a wide variety of Pilates information and resources including a new understanding of Pilates breathing.

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