The Turned Off Beginner
Jul 28 2008
You know what to wear, you bought your mat, you went to your first few classes and you… are bored?
In my experience with the pilates method, both as a teacher and a student, I have seen and taught students who are so interested in pilates that they want to jump right into the intermediate or advanced level. They want to feel the burn, walk out of class exhausted, and sweat buckets! They want grunt-style pilates with a side order of long and lean muscles - to go. Are these folks wrong?
Well, why is it that pilates studios often request beginners to enroll in a beginner’s series before jumping into the open group mat, reformer, or springboard classes? Allow me to use an example: Driving. When you were 16 and so eager to jump behind the wheel and take off with Dad or Mom’s shiny car, you were sad to remember you had to endure the dreaded driver’s education classes first and pass a test. Otherwise that first drive would most likely have wrecked the car. Maybe your body awareness was a little more tuned than others and you could steer the car just fine. But, you might not have known that a double solid line meant no passing, and reported back to the folks with a ticket, or from the hospital.
With pilates, like any new task, there’s a learning process and there are rules. In pilates the same concept applies, like when to use an imprinted and neutral spine, to avoid injury and complement the exercise being worked on. Beginner’s classes do not serve to make a newcomer climb any strange hierarchy, but instead to educate them on the rules and principles of pilates. Not only at this level is a student learning how to avoid injury, but more importantly, a student is learning the principle building blocks which all of the exercises are based on.
If you don’t know that an inverted red triangle means “yield to other traffic”, you might wonder why cars keep honking and swerving every time you merge. With pilates, students who opt to dismiss basic level exercises or classes will often not feel what they are supposed to feel because they have not been educated on how to find the principles within their own body. And this is key. It is at this point that - because the student doesn’t “feel it” - he/she thinks pilates is boring/useless and never returns. A student can read about principles and know they are major assets to his/her practice, but the key is being able to find the principles and healthy alignment in his/her own body. This is what takes time and attention, and what some people don’t have patience for.
Pilates Principles Are The Key
So are impatient, gung-ho students wrong? Not entirely; they’ll still get a workout. But are they really doing pilates? My answer would be, not really.
Pilates is a unique system that involves exercises meant to be anatomically healthy for the body and be executed with flow and precision. To attain these types of movements you have to put your mind to the task, and do some learning along the way. Also, if the principles are skipped, then the student will not end up with exercises which facilitate aligned posture, stronger muscles, and a centered body. With pilates like any other complex skill, one reaps what one sows.
Really learning and applying pilates to your body is kind of like baking a cake - you have to follow a recipe. If you only put flour and baking soda into the oven you will end up with flour and baking soda. But if you put in the eggs and the rest of the recipe, you will end up with a cake. How good a cake depends on practice and correct repetition.
Rolling Like A Ball
Concrete example: When I teach a class there is one exercise with which I can quickly tell who in the group has taken time to study the principles within their own bodies, and who has not. Rolling Like A Ball looks easy and fun - and it can be. But if done correctly, it is a truly challenging exercise. Many students just throw their weight backwards to initiate the rolling in the exercise.
The correct way to initiate the exercise is to deepen the lumbar flexion while drawing the navel in towards the spine. The rolling, both going down and coming up, should be seamless, smooth, and controlled. Instead, it’s often a bumpy ride, and on the way up there is a visible/audible clunk which happens through the lumbar region, indicating the student has no control over the movement. Lastly, engagement between the shoulder blades should be maintained throughout the exercise - and it usually is not.
When a student does this exercise by throwing their weight back and haphazardly rolls back up, they miss the work in the deep abdominals, hip flexors, spine stabilizers, and shoulder blade stabilizers. These students tend to think this is a throw away exercise, but really it should be quite a challenge.
So… when I overhear that a beginner student wants a faster class or a more challenging video, they are often searching for a cake made out of flour and baking soda.
Boosting the Beginner’s Workout
Remember, slower paced in the beginning does not mean always-slow-paced. Concentrate on what the instructor is saying and focus on finding the principles within your own body. If you want extra work, ask the instructor if there is something you could work on throughout all of the exercises that you might be having a more difficult time finding in your body (e.g. shoulder blade engagement or neutral pelvis) so you have something extra to focus on in class.
Paying attention to precise detail in the essential exercises and principles, and putting them correctly into your own body will lead you quickly to the intermediate level of pilates, and beyond. Re-align your focus… and your spine will surely follow.