Teaching Pilates Mat Work, Part 2

In the first installment, printed in August, we looked at how Pilates mat workout is practice for life movement and introduced a four-step system to follow when teaching an exercise. In this installment we explore sequencing guidelines and how to apply all four steps in a Pilates exercise.

You probably know that there was a recommended order for the original Pilates mat exercises. Passed down from teacher to teacher, this order has set the stage for many of today’s workouts. Usually, hundred comes first. However, if you watch old movies of Joe Pilates teaching mat classes, you will see that he actually started his clients with calisthenics in a standing position. The warm-up produced an overall rise in temperature, and hundred came after that. Maybe this order that was passed down was just a good way to make sure that all the mat exercises were remembered. Maybe, in that case it would be okay to stray from this order. However, with modern ideas about exercise, we should keep a few rules in place, whether we choose to follow the traditional order or not:

1. Warm Up the Low Back Very Early in the Workout. The perfect low-back warm-up in a mat class is articulating bridge. Incorporate it early to avoid straining this area. In the general population, the back is often the weakest link.

2. Avoid Maintaining One Body Position for an Extended Period of Time. The body can get very uncomfortable if left in one position too long. Keep the body positions flowing. You can always revisit supine later in the workout.

3. Interrupt Supine Spinal Flexion With Spine Extension. Spinal flexion, as in the stomach series, can be stressful—especially for beginners. Interrupt the curled position with a quick, articulating bridge and then go right back into flexion. This will allow stress relief but keep the abdomen working.

4. End the Class With Prone Extension. There is a lot of spinal flexion in Pilates mat work. Although good for strength and flexibility, it often places pressure on the disks in the spine. A spine extension exercise is a great way to relieve this stress.

The Four Steps: Rolling Like a Ball

This example shows you how the four teaching steps can apply to the Pilates mat exercise “rolling like a ball.” The steps are written as verbal cues:

Step 1: Lay the Foundation
“Sit toward the front of your mat with your heels in line with your sitting bones and your knees bent and in line with your second toes. Begin by sitting up tall on your sitting bones and opening your chest. Raise your elbows to assist in dropping your shoulders. Maintain your tall posture and open chest while your draw your sitting bones toward your heels and your navel to your spine. Imagine zipping up a zipper on the front of your pants. You will now have a scooped area at your bellybutton. Keep your neck long and your shoulders down. Gently lift one leg at a time into the table top position, and balance behind your sitting bones.”

Step 2: Find the Center
“Inhale deeply into your rib cage. Imagine the ribs expanding to the sides. As you exhale, draw your navel to your spine and reach your sitting bones more toward the backs of your knees. Visualize yourself like the leg of a rocking chair: stable from your middle and ready to rock.”

Step 3: Hold Still and Move
“Maintain this stable position, thinking of the distance between your knees and shoulders and your heels and your buttocks. Keep that distance consistent and avoid swinging your legs. Inhale as your roll back, but do not let your head touch the floor. Exhale as you roll back up to balance behind the sitting bones. Be sure to keep the scoop in your lower belly and the open chest. Avoid allowing the pelvis to move when you again reach the balance position at the top.”

Step 4: Flow
“Pause for a second at the top of the movement while you complete your full exhalation. As you inhale, roll back. Begin to form a rhythm between your breath and your roll. Your speed should be equal as you roll back and then roll up. Inhale and roll back; exhale and roll up. Open the ribs and roll back, draw the navel to the spine and pause at the top. Feel your spine roll as you go back. Maintain your position as you roll up. Okay, last one. Draw the air in as you roll back; exhale and roll up. Hold this last position, drawing the shoulders down and opening the chest.”

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