A student came to me the other day with an Instagram video of a beautiful, young, fit body doing Snake and Twist on the Reformer.
As she showed me her phone, she said, “I want to do this today.” The first thought in my head was, “Perhaps you should master a simple plank first.”
Luckily, I refrained from saying that out loud and replied, “That exercise is an advanced exercise and is the result of a long progression of exercises that build up to that. Today let’s work on preparing you to do that exercise.” As her lesson continued with that goal in mind, I began to think about how a Pilates teacher progresses an introductory student through the beginner series, then slowly and methodically leads that student to their individualized “mastery” of Pilates. I started to think about how different progression looks for different people.
What exactly is progression? Most people think of progression as getting better at something or doing something more challenging than previously attempted.
dictionary.com gives these definitions:
the act of progressing; forward or onward movement.
A passing successively from one member of a series to the next; succession; sequence.
In his book “Return to Life through Contrology,” Mr. Pilates writes, “Contrology is complete coordination of body, mind, and spirit. Through Contrology, you first purposefully acquire complete control of your own body and then through proper repetition of its exercises you gradually and progressively acquire that natural rhythm and coordination associated with all your subconscious activities.” He believed that “physical fitness is the first requisite of happiness.” and goes so far as to write, “With body, mind, and spirit functioning perfectly as a coordinated whole, what else could reasonably be expected other than an active, alert, disciplined person?”
Just as Mr. Pilates writes, Pilates teachers should take into account not only the body but the mind and spirit of their students as well when considering progressing through the Pilates Method. It is what is called the “whole-person” approach to progression. Joseph Pilates firmly believed in a whole-person approach to physical fitness and wanted students to gradually, through repetition of precise and controlled movements, progress their practice of Pilates. He wanted the mind to control the body, and he wanted the method of Contrology to give his students “suppleness, natural grace, and skill that will be unmistakably reflected in the way you walk, in the way you play, and in the way you work.” In other words, he wanted Contrology to be applied to all facets of life — not just the physical.
In the whole-person approach to progression, the body, mind, and spirit are all taken into account and considered when working with students. Let’s take the body segment first, and sort out just what we need to consider.
- How strong is the student overall? How flexible is the student overall? Are there areas that need to develop more strength or more flexibility to be a balanced whole?
- How much stamina does the student have? Can the student work at a steady pace for the whole 55 minutes or so of a workout, or do they need breaks? Stamina needs to be built just like any other component of fitness. Beginners have a much lower level of endurance than a student who has been doing Pilates regularly and has built their stamina up accordingly. This is an area that a lot of teachers overlook.
- Does the person have excellent stability? Can they maintain a strong core when performing distally with the limbs? Or do they have trouble keeping the integrity of the Powerhouse while doing more significant movements with the arms and legs?
- Are they “connected” to the movement through critical alignment points, and do they consistently stay connected to perform the movements with “grace and ease”?
- When thinking about introducing more advanced movements, has the student been performing, and is proficient at a more simplified version of the exercise? For example, before a teacher introduces Snake and Twist on the Reformer, their student should be performing the mat-based Side Bend and Twist, Long Stretch and Control Front Facing the Carriage on the Reformer with strength and stamina, have the hamstring flexibility for Up Stretch, with connections like Centerline, Scapular Stability, and a strong scoop. All of these skills are necessary to perform Snake and Twist safely.
- How appropriate is a specific exercise for that person? Teaching Snake and Twist to an 84-year-old doesn’t necessarily make sense. Advancing an elderly person doesn’t look like advancing a 30-year-old. Advancing a person who is injured doesn’t look like advancing a healthy person. But advancement intelligently and appropriately introduced can happen for any student.
In my next installment of this article, I will discuss the Spirit segment of the mind/body/spirit Whole Person approach to progress. Until then, scoop and progress wisely!