Teaching Pilates for Every Body
by Zoey Trap
We say Pilates is for everybody, and in my experience that has been true. A few years ago a fellow Pilates instructor shared with me that she felt she was able to cue Pilates exercises and teach other teachers, but she struggled when working with ‘real’ bodies and was therefore re-thinking her decision to go forward with her teaching. I have since traveled and taught worldwide, and when I’ve asked teachers to share their stories about starting their Pilates journey, I have discovered this is a pretty common feeling. New teachers quickly discover the reality that each student is unique and no single teaching method works for everyone. Some students are good listeners, some have smart bodies, some are slower and less coordinated, some are focused and some are talkers. Every teacher, no matter how experienced, bumps into problems when faced with a new issue they haven’t ever dealt with before—so what’s a teacher to do? How do we make sure we make Pilates accessible for every body?
“Trust the system.” You have heard this over and over because it is great advice. Everything you need is in the Peak Pilates teaching methodology. You can think of the system as a framework; it is the clay with which you will sculpt. Next you have your skill as a teacher: how you approach each exercise, the building blocks, cues, and touches you use, the way you communicate and motivate, etc. These are the skills with which you will sculpt. And finally, you have the student’s body and its unique needs; this is the work in progress you are sculpting. The framework is the science, you are the artist.
Every week we have a mentoring meeting at my Pilates studio. During this meeting, my teachers have the opportunity to review their lesson plans, ask and answer questions, and talk about how to apply the Peak Pilates teaching methodology with their clients. My teachers learn from my experiences and I learn from their questions. Time after time, teachers ask how to make Pilates accessible to every body. What I tell my teachers is to take each student as an individual and teach them. Use Pilates as the tool. Consider the student’s stage of learning, style of learning, physical and emotional needs, and goals. Consider your own ability to teach, to touch, and to communicate. Be patient with them and yourself, and be compassionate. The basic teaching tools must also be honed:
Start with the building blocks. Building blocks are truly a creative form. How can you help the student to achieve the goal of the exercise, to gain strength, and to do more than they thought they could without overwhelming them? During your Peak Pilates courses, some of the key points you have learned are to shorten the lever, work proximal to distal, use helping hands, widen the base of support, and lower the center of gravity. Another really good way to think about building blocks is captured in the Colleen Glenn saying, “Break it down to the least common denominator.” If you can break an exercise all the way down, you can build it back up one step at a time.
Props are another way to create building blocks and to enhance proprioceptive feedback. For example: Balls can help students who are having trouble with articulation patterns; Power Circles can help deepen the connection to the Powerhouse, Dyna-Bands can provide the feeling of working with length and opposition and give a sense of the heel to seat connection; and Flexcushions™ can help students who are very tight, have trouble lifting their heads, have Osteoporosis, or are generally weak, to approach the work. Don’t save props for groups, use them to assist with the work during a private session, especially during mat work.
Cues speak volumes in Pilates, and they need to be concise. All teachers need to periodically check in on their cueing because it’s easy to get sloppy. So whether you are a new or a more experienced teacher reflect on this list:
• Exercise name: Put it out front for the students who don’t know what’s next.
• Apparatus setup: Are you systematically providing instructions from the footbar end upwards?
• Exercise setup: Are you talking endlessly while your client is waiting to move or are you ignoring improper set-ups for the sake of flow?
• Execution: Do you cue in the rhythm with beginners or during new exercises? Are you able to be conversational in cues or even silent with more advanced students?
• Powerhouse: We continually upgrade our ability to communicate about the Powerhouse in each exercise through our personal practice and teaching experience. Is your Powerhouse vocabulary growing more sophisticated, articulate and exercise-specific?
• Pilates Principles: Are they reflected in your posture, voice, teaching?
• Transitions: Are you teaching them and asking for precision during them?
Touch can communicate quickly what may take hours to say. Touches can save you energy, words, and frustration. For example, if you have a student who is a poor listener or is easily confused, use your hands to guide them and cue which leg to move, or where to go. Some students need to be instructed on how to receive touch, and you can do so by simply saying, “When I touch you, follow me and don’t work against me.” If your touch techniques are not strong, I recommend lessons or workshops. Nothing substitutes for having an experienced pair of hands. You will remember the touches and then can practice and incorporate them.
Communication and motivation are essential to attracting and retaining students. At our studio, we have over a 75% retention rate. I credit that to the extremely personable, professional, and kind teachers that we have. They truly care about each student, they listen, they ask questions, and they prepare. Teaching is about relationships, and there needs to be something that clicks in the mix. The student comes in and the teacher needs to adjust to their mood and their energy. It’s a dance, a give and take, and sometimes, even the best plan needs to be thrown out to honor where the student is on a given day.
Wherever you are on your teaching journey, be gentle with yourself. Keep the joy of teaching alive by recognizing your improvements and having fun by learning and going to classes and workshops. I have been lucky to be part of an incredible team and to learn from Colleen, Clare, and Sonia, and they have inspired me and continually refueled my passion. Go out and find people who fuel yours!