June of 2012 started an intense period of learning, of education and branching out of how, what and why I teach Pilates. I was a Kathy Grant Scholarship recipient for the Mentor Program at BASI- I felt so honored to work with and learn from Rael Isacowitz, especially as I was not from a BASI background. I was initially certified through Power Pilates, but have been pursuing a broad range of continuing education since my initial certification.
The weekend of the Mentor Program was so inspiring, as I was surrounded by some of the best instructors in the BASI family. One of my biggest take-aways from Rael was a sense of examining the ideal biomechanical form and position of an exercise and then working progressively and intentionally into that place, rather than teaching it as I had been taught, as my instructor had been taught, as her instructor etc, etc. Cues and modifications that might have been quite appropriate for the first person to hear them from Joe himself, have the potential to become ‘the way’, but are not right for everyone. Now for those of you reading this that think ‘duh- that’s how I already think about Pilates’ – love you, and I’d love a session with you- but I’ve taken lessons while traveling with those for whom there is one ‘way’ and come out of the session feeling less than inspired. I had written in my initial scholarship application to BASI about what I called ‘the Eye’- the attention of an instructor to the needs of the body being coached in the moment, and the ability to use the cues that can make a powerful workout. I still believe that ‘the Eye’ is a distinguishing factor between good and great instructors.
Since the Mentor weekend, I had decided that I wanted to be more hands on with many of my clients, so I have attended massage school, become full body certified in Active Release Techniques (ART) and am currently studying NeuroKinetic Therapy (NKT)- a method that uses muscle testing to identify inhibited or sleepy muscles and those that are facilitated and doing more than their share. The theory behind NKT looks at the motor control system and muscle firing patterns, identifying where the messaging system to fire can get diverted, creating or ingraining movement compensations.
As attentive Pilates instructors, we have all seen the hip flexor that just won’t stop working during abdominal exercises or that chronically tight upper trapezius. I do believe that most Pilates instructors are trying to help people get out of these habits, but with varied rates of success. There is a talent in observing movement and imbalances and then being able to effectively cue corrections. Many follow the six principles – Centering, Concentration, Control, Precision, Breath and Flow. However, too much control and not enough flow can inhibit ease of movement. (ease- not easy!) Excessive focus on precision and isolation of a muscle can impede the ability of the body to work muscle groups together (full body integration).
Throughout the course of these trainings I have been mentally overloaded, have questioned all that I believe that I know, exercises that I often teach, and started to wonder about cues that I commonly use, as have passed on through Pilates lineage. I have been studying biomechanics, functional movement, assessment, anatomy, somatics and more. And yet as I process the information it is clear that the Pilates method in its pure and simple form, when practiced with a present mind is ingenious!
I would like to share a personal experience that has shifted how I teach, and with this story hope to inspire you to keep observing, learning, simplifying, and being present with the body in front of you in that moment. I am almost ashamed to admit that during my first NKT course I ‘failed’ a basic abdominal test, as did several other Pilates instructors in my course. No wonder I was having intermittent back twinges despite my Pilates abs! I also have been struggling with some hip pain on the left side, and had been working with a physical therapist since I could rarely feel my glutes fire. It is both fascinating and frustrating to discover that the only time I could fire and ‘pass’ the test for my TFL and my Glute Max on the left was when I actively engaged my pelvic floor and pulled back my left big toe. NKT considers these muscles to be ‘facilitated’ in this situation, and my glute to be ‘inhibited’.
Now, somewhere I have been cued to dorsi-flex my foot while doing glute work, and if you look around the gym, you will see people everywhere lifting their toes up to weight the heels during squats. This position absolutely helps engage the glutes, but do we want to teach the body that the only time we can engage the posterior is with the toes pulled up? I have also been told to actively engage my pelvic floor during abdominal exercises. While these cues are appropriate at times, they should not be used universally. Inhibition in the pelvic floor can create a great deal of dysfunction in the body. There are many women, and men, who need to learn to activate and strengthen their pelvic floor, ie elderly, new mothers, and anyone else with medical conditions that can potentially causing incontinence. However, for those that have a ‘facilitated’ pelvic floor, a focus on activating the pelvic floor while doing exercises feels so strong and effective during a Pilates session, however it is a disservice in daily life, when we aren’t focusing on pulling up on the pelvic floor in order to engage our stabilizers in the hips and core.
I started spending more time trying to ‘correct’ my imbalances, then wondered ‘how can I be helping others when I can’t fix myself’? How many cues have I passed on that have been effective in the moment, but a disservice long-term, trying my best to ‘figure it out”? And then I took a very classical mat class- I felt amazing after. Note, there were few extra cues, he gave the exercises, and let us move (unless it was a safety issue). It was simple, flowing and challenging.
I have found myself guilty of overthinking. I still have to be aware of my compensation tendencies, but I have renewed my respect for the brilliance of the Pilates method. I will keep learning, expanding and observing, but will make an effort to keep my practice and teaching simple. The Pilates Method is genius- when taught with an ‘eye’ to the body in front of us. Let the body move, keep the cues simple, appropriate, and trust that the Pilates Method is effective. The best aspects of functional training, stability training, breathwork, and flexibility are already incorporated. Joe already did the hard work, our mentors, thank you Rael Isacowitz and Kathy Grant, have refined and passed it on to us, so that we may share with those that we teach.
Alena Derby de Paz is a Pilates instructor and massage therapist in Washington, DC and Nantucket, MA. Her next project is exploring common inhibition and facilitation patterns as seen through NKT, and how Pilates can help to rebalance. Here she goes overthinking things again… firstname.lastname@example.org