What actually IS Pilates ?
Joseph H. Pilates started to develop an exercise regime in the 1920’s to help him recover from childhood illnesses. He became fascinated by the power of the body to heal itself believing that bad posture, a modern lifestyle and in-efficient breathing led to poor health – OMG how he would freak out if he were alive today! It turned into an obsession (as it can!) and became his life’s work, working mainly with choreographers and dancers. His approach is now what we know as ‘classical’ Pilates.
Joseph died in 1967 but his original students respectfully known as the ‘elders’, took the approach into the wider world developing it based on their own experiences as to what constitutes good movement and how their ‘everyday’ clients move. With the use of imagery such as MRI and X-rays and research we now understand a bit more about the impact of movement, alignment, the ageing process and the effects of injury. As a result there are many forms of this approach all broadly revolving around the original theory and principles, now more commonly known as ‘contemporary’ or ‘modern’ Pilates. These, quite rightly, will continue to evolve as we learn more.
But what exactly IS this exercise technique ? – oh it’s a bit like yoga!!! Well yes and no at the same time.
Fundamentally the technique focuses on developing strength, flexibility, co-ordination, balance, focus and body awareness by moving your body (skeleton and muscles) with good alignment, using a deep ‘core’ connection and breathing efficiently to support this process. As exercises become more familiar and body awareness/competency increases, movements become more complex and flowing, improving stamina. The mind-body connection needed to keep still and aligned whilst you just move the bit you’re supposed to gives a phenomenal level of focus and as a result enables the approach to be truly holistic.
J. Pilates drew on lots of different movement styles to build his programme; martial arts, skiing, boxing, gymnastics to name a few, and yes – yoga is definitely in there – BUT taught with a different emphasis. Let’s take the well known yoga exercise, the CAT.
In yoga the Cat exercise flexes the spine giving us a lovely brilliant stretch. However the body can be lazy and will stretch through the path of least resistance. In Pilates if we ask the spine to move each vertebrae bone by bone the whole ‘core’ back muscle, multifidus, has to move. Doing the Cat this way can help you identify the areas of the spine which may be stiffer or weak preventing us from moving well. When we have these imbalances the body will continue working into the area that moves easiest, potentially increasing the wear and tear and reducing the general flexibility. For a healthy spine, impact and force needs to be easily transferred along it to reduce risk of injury.
“If your spine is stiff at 30 you are old. If it is flexible at 60, you are young.” – J. Pilates
It’s quite normal to be asked to complete an enrolment form by your prospective teacher detailing your health and fitness history and also your goals. This will help him/her lesson plan for you. If you haven’t done their particular approach before they may ask you to have a 1-1 so they can see how you move, get an idea about the types of adaptations needed for you in class and give you the basics so you can get the most out of your sessions immediately. It will also give you the opportunity to see if you like their teaching style before the bigger financial commitment of paying for a block of classes.
Why is it more expensive than my other activities ?
Pilates generally tends to be a bit more expensive than your gym session or Zumba class, and the reason for this is because many Pilates teachers only teach small groups giving you more attention and making sure your session is adapted appropriately for you. They will also have invested a lot financially, in training, ongoing learning and provision of equipment. AND most importantly, you’re learning a life skill which you can use 24/7.
Some teachers will let you drop-in and Pay As You Go which is convenient. However ‘practice makes perfect’, you’re learning a skill which requires repetition. Signing up for a block means your space is guaranteed, you’ll be building on ability so you’ll feel improvements quicker, usually it works out cheaper per session and let’s face it, you’re more likely to go if you’ve paid for it!
So how do I know which teacher and approach is best for me ?
The simple answer is that you don’t and it can be daunting knowing that there are so many types available, sometimes too much choice isn’t good – is it?
We all learn differently, so to help you achieve good movement teachers will use a combination of demonstration, imagery, cues, hands on correction and adaptation of the exercises. It’s essential that this works for you so don’t be afraid to speak up if you need more or a different explanation, and forget about loyalty – when you ‘get it’, and your teacher gets you, it can be life changing, so shop around.
Just as a rough guide, although there are always exceptions:
- Pilates teachers – are trained in classical or contemporary/modern pilates. There is a lot of variability as to the depth of training each individual school provides. The more thorough courses teach their teachers to level 3 and will have focused just on Pilates. Training can take up to 2 years and will have involved exams, essays, many hours of supervised teaching and a final practical exam.
- Clinical Pilates – is taught by physiotherapists.
- Fitness pilates – is taught by fitness teachers and personal trainers who have done a short course enabling them to teach pilates inspired movement.
Mat vs studio equipment ?
You will probably find it easier to locate a matwork teacher, rather than a studio close to where you live. Once you’re learning Pilates you can practice at home, at work, on the beach, endless options because it’s so portable. It’s also very versatile so can be done standing or on a chair. Mat based classes are often made more challenging with small equipment like foam rollers and weights and are cheaper than studio sessions.
Studio sessions with equipment such as the Reformer can assist the move or make it more challenging so can be particularly good for rehab or training for a sport – it was designed to help people achieve the ‘classical mat’ routine which is incredibly challenging. You get a more personalised approach because tuition is either in very small groups or on a 1-1 basis as result improvements can often be seen more quickly. Sessions tend to be more expensive due to the small group numbers and the cost to the teacher of buying and maintaining the equipment. It’s also harder to take your practice home although some teachers will show how you can adapt it, so ask. Ideally a bit of both covers all bases
In addition there are lots of specialised training courses now that teachers can attend, broadening their knowledge enabling them to meet your ‘special’ needs more effectively, so look out for that too. Examples of these are bone health and pregnancy qualifications aimed at keeping you safe whilst getting maximum beneficial movement. There are also courses which enable your teacher to support your chosen sport focusing on developing your technique whilst reducing your risk of injury eg Pilates for runners, golfers, cyclists, horse riders and more.
My top tips:
- Find a teacher whose personality, techniques and approach helps you ‘get it’ and enjoy it.
- Whether you’ve got injuries, special requirements or are an athlete in the making, your teacher should be suitably qualified to keep you safe and bring you on – don’t be afraid to ask what additional qualifications they have!
- Don’t worry about loyalty – try different teachers from different schools of teaching until you find the one that works best for you.
- You shouldn’t be afraid to move, but remember movement shouldn’t cause new sharp pain so listen to your body. ‘No pain no gain’ may mean you’re out of alignment and you may gain more than you bargained for! If something doesn’t feel right it probably isn’t, flag it up so your teacher can really check that you’re moving well and adapt if necessary.
- AND remember, years of patterning poor movement and posture is going to take a while to rectify – “Physical fitness can neither be achieved by wishful thinking nor outright purchase” – J Pilates ….. AKA time and commitment people!
If however, after all of this you just want to move, have a laugh and go to your local class with your mate – go for it because moving is great, but at least you can tell someone what Pilates is if they want to know!