I’ve made attempts in the past to write about what it means to be a Pilates teacher and, happily, my understanding has grown in the last few years such that it seems worth revisiting.
If one’s view of Pilates is that it’s a series of exercises (possibly with some variations, contemporary ‘improvements’ etc), then I think being a teacher is probably pretty straightforward. However, as Eve Gentry said, “you can know every exercise, on every piece of equipment, but that does not mean that you know Pilates.” Because Pilates is a concept and if you’re teaching exercises then you’re not really teaching Pilates – you have to teach concepts to be a Pilates teacher.
So what are the concepts? I find it simplest to express them as questions, such as:
Do you know where you body is in space?
Are you able to organise your body in space? (Meaning you have to organise parts of your body relative to each other, as well as to your environment)
And, as expressions of the above:
Can you stabilise your spine while you move your extremities?
Can you sequentially articulate your spine?
However, these are not unique to Pilates – I know of CrossFit coaches and martial artists who do the same thing, and I’m sure there are yoga teachers and others from all sorts of disciplines (dance, gymnastics etc) with similar intentions.
So what separates Pilates from other disciplines? The core concept that we try to adhere to in our studio is that the practice of Pilates is for Your Health – it was not an accident that this was the title of Joseph Pilates’ first book, and the text makes it clear that his interests were a lot broader than ‘can you stabilise your spine while blah blah blah’.
I cannot speak for the other disciplines mentioned but I believe that this is what CrossFit is about, too. It’s hard to be involved with CrossFit and not hear discussions of nutrition, sleep quality, sun exposure and circadian rhythms (not to mention that their crusade against the sugar industry is truly laudable). The only time that I’ve heard sleep, sun exposure and circadian rhythms mentioned in a Pilates training context is when a visiting lecturer on my wife’s teacher training course is at our studio (she’s a big fan of cold exposure, too, and she truly glows with health).
I don’t believe that being able to differentiate oneself from teachers of other disciplines is a necessary part of being a Pilates teacher, but I do think it probably helps to have some clarity about what we can offer, and where we might fit in the grand scheme of exercise practices/movement disciplines. Perhaps something that separates me as a Pilates teacher from my friends who are CrossFit coaches is that I’m more likely to be approached by people who feel or are ‘broken’ in some way. And, I suspect, that many people who take up CrossFit have a clearer idea of what they’re getting into than a lot of people who may have been advised by their doctor/osteopath/physio etc. that they would benefit from Pilates.
So I guess I’m aligning myself with a notion of a Pilates teacher as a health coach with a strong movement bias. To be effective, I need to be clear (both in my mind and in speaking) about what I believe I can offer; I need to know my shit, that is, the repertoire, safe use of the apparatus, first aid, basic musculoskeletal anatomy, common conditions affecting that anatomy, implications of various mental health conditions, the biology of chronic pain, the physical effects of pregnancy/post-natal, and a basic grasp of the demands of a wide variety of sports and other activities.
I’m sure that I’ve forgotten something/s on the list of ‘stuff I need to know’ but it doesn’t much matter because, when it comes to teaching, what I need to know pales in comparison to my ability to communicate. To communicate with anyone who might walk through the door. Going back to Eve Gentry, you might know all the exercises and, yes, you might understand Pilates inside out, but if you’re not able to communicate with the person in front of you, none of that matters.
I’ve been lucky enough to attend a few Fighting Monkey workshops, and to discover that much of their movement practice is aimed at being a better communicator – I certainly have a lot more to learn, but I know that I had to look beyond the narrow confines of the Pilates world to confront this idea (more of this to follow).
Before I can communicate well I have to be able to reflect – I have to get to know myself better (and how fantastic that a movement practice can facilitate that!), and I have to have a growth mindset. I have to be willing to embrace my failures and find the seed of discovery within each one. I have to acknowledge my own fallibility. I have to ask myself tricky questions like: “What did I do that provoked that reaction?”.
To communicate well I have to be fully present – I have to feel grounded (and more on this to follow, too!). I have to understand the way that I move, my own compensations and limitations. I have to have a degree of confidence that includes being comfortable with what I know and what I don’t know. And I think I have to love what I’m doing. These are the selfish elements of communicating, or just half of the conversation, because I haven’t taken the other person into account yet.
For this I need to be curious, and I have to watch and LISTEN. What are the people I’m going to be teaching telling me (with words, tone, posture, facial expression and movement) before they’ve set foot in the studio? I may have goals and objectives for their session and I’d better be ready to let them go, based upon what I see and hear. After all, it’s not as though I’m an actor or musician whom they’ve come to see perform. So it doesn’t matter how great a session plan I have, how ‘good’ my verbal cueing, imagery and tactile cueing is (The answer to ‘what’s the best cue?’ is always ‘it depends’) – all of those things have to be right for the person in front of me, on that day, at that time. so I need to do my very best to recognise the signs that I’m given to help me decide how to proceed. Listening also means being alert to the things that don’t get said, reading between the lines – clearly this has to be done with caution, and sensitivity – this is perhaps a mixture of intuition and speculation, and both of these things should be treated with a degree of caution (and cultivated over hours and years of working with people).
I was about to write: ‘If you’re a Pilates teacher reading this, and all of your clients/students are coming to your classes to work on their beach body, you may not recognise this.’ But I realised that the job is no different, even if the responsibilities may be less than I’m thinking. There have been a number of times that I’ve been truly humbled by the trust that a new client has put in me – I’m not medically trained (I just teach movement, for God’s sake!…and I’m male), yet the willingness that many people, women in particular, (when explaining why they’re taking up Pilates) have had to declare a variety of personal/intimate problems or challenges made me very aware of how vulnerable some people may be making themselves in taking up Pilates. (For example, particularly if you’re a male teacher, you’d do well to know what the terminology around vaginal prolapse treatment/surgery is…..)
So if I have a new client who has been diagnosed with a “slipped disc”, and who has made it clear that they’re nervous about exercising, it doesn’t matter how many workshops I’ve taken, how many books I’ve read, or how many wonderful exercises I have up my sleeve, if they don’t feel safe. Which brings us back to my communication – everything that I’ve learned from the person I’m teaching – body language, what they say, how they say it, diagnoses etc. all has to inform my body language, what I say, and how I say it. Do they need more felt experience, or more explanation? Do they need some science? Or do they need humour? Can I relate what I need to say to what they’ve told me about their interests, or their job? How do I meet their needs and still stay on track with what I believe they need?
I believe that Pilates should empower people. I don’t believe that teachers ‘fix’ anything, nor do I believe that Pilates ‘fixes’ anything. The ‘fix’, whether it’s movement, mindset or something else, comes from the individual. Our job as teachers is to facilitate that self-healing, or self-discovery. If I am to be empowering, my communication also needs to encourage the idea that the client/student has the answers within them, rather than that I will give them the answers. If you believe that you have the answers, that you are the magician doing the magic to them, you may have clients for life, but I don’t think you’re teaching them Pilates.
If you’re anything like me, this is already a lot to take on board. Not daunting – it’s wonderful, but definitely something to be taken very seriously. I never understood the Pilates teacher who applied for a physiotherapy degree because she didn’t want to be “just a Pilates teacher” – like it was a bit of a Mickey Mouse profession. I may not have the knowledge of anatomy and physiology that a physiotherapist has (nor should I) but I do have a professional responsibility to be able to communicate clearly with a referring medical professional. Which leads me neatly to one more part of my responsibility – I have to be able to say “I don’t know”. It’ll definitely promote me to do some research, but it may be the greatest responsibility of all to be clear about my scope of practice AND to acknowledge what I don’t know.