“Pilates has changed,” says Nora St. John, MS, education program director for Balanced Body®.
Today, she explains, many Pilates teachers are well educated in biomechanics. “An understanding of both anatomy and the mind-body connection makes you a better teacher and certainly a better problem solver.
“In the best situation, Pilates is taught with the idea of, ‘Who is the client in front of me? What are his or her goals? How can I use this environment to help the client achieve those goals?’ I think this is a good contemporary view of Pilates.”
How are top Pilates educators respecting Pilates principles while allowing the repertoire to evolve in response to scientific findings and new equipment? Learn how present-day Pilates is blending successfully with other modalities, and discover the latest programs that are making that possible.
Support for Change
Sharing St. John’s sentiments about the importance of exercise science and conscious mind-body movement in an evolving Pilates world are Tom McCook, co-owner and director of Center of Balance in Mountain View, California, and a master instructor of Pilates and CoreAlign® for Balanced Body®, and PJ O’Clair, owner of clubXcel and Northeast Pilates, a STOTT PILATES® Licensed Training Center in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts.
“Understanding how the body and the nervous system are designed to move gives us the ability to teach our clients how to move better and with less strain and less wear and tear,” says McCook.
“The body is not designed for performance; it’s designed for survival. The joints need to be mobilized before doing anything muscularly difficult. This allows a person to feel safe before performing a movement. We need to show our clients how to let go of excess tension and how to improve their posture and their body mechanics.”
O’Clair, who clearly sees science informaing the consciousness of the contemporary Pilates community, says “STOTT PILATES changed the order [of the Pilates repertoire] quite a few years ago because we felt that it was imbalanced,” says O’Clair, who clearly sees science informing the consciousness of the contemporary Pilates community. “Joseph Pilates was a brilliant man, but [based on] current exercise science, we believe [his original sequence included] too much flexion. People are already spending a great deal of time in flexion in their daily lives,” she says.
McCook agrees, pointing to the many hours clients spend sitting, driving a car or working on computers every day. “This makes you question whether or not it would be a good idea to start your workout with a flexion exercise. You are just doing more of the same thing. [We need] to look at the body and find the most functional movement for the person.”
Innovative Programs and Equipment
Over the years, creative instructors have found novel ways to combine Pilates with other exercise modalities. Pilates and yoga have blended well, for example, and less obvious hybrids—like Pilates and indoor cycling—have also enjoyed success. But new programs and equipment are enabling Pilates educators to refine their approach, expand their reach and fill in arguable gaps in the classical repertoire. Among today’s available resources are CoreAlign, ZENGA™ and barre workouts.
The CoreAlign method, according to McCook, is designed to improve functional movement patterns, posture and balance and provide a full-body workout. The equipment consists of two tracks and carts that move independently with smooth resistance (assistance) created by six elastic resistance tube assemblies on each cart. Movement is possible in one or both directions. A ladder (wall-mounted or free-standing) is used in most of the exercises.
The method was developed by a physical therapist from Israel, Jonathan Hoffman, whose holistic approach to training talks about the three F’s: fix, fun and foundation. “The fix category is when you have a problem and you go to a skilled practitioner such as a physical therapist to help you heal the problem,” explains McCook. “Fun is when you’re doing recreational exercises like playing with a Frisbee or simple daily activities but not being particularly mindful about how you are doing them. Foundation is when you’re doing mindful movement in order to correct imbalances and learn how to move better.”
McCook says most people tend to go from fun to fix and fix to fun with no foundation. “Foundation should be your primary form of exercise, because then you can have fun but with greater, safer movement potential and can keep your body balanced for a lifetime.”
CoreAlign uses mindful movements that relate to everyday life. The work facilitates musculoskeletal rehabilitation and performance enhancement by stimulating core stability muscles to fire during challenging exercises, deep stretches and core-controlled aerobic training. “Many of the exercises are performed standing, and there is a great deal of work on hip extension and thoracic extension, which many people don’t get because they’re sitting much of the time,” notes McCook.
St. John says CoreAlign has changed the way she teaches clients and instructors. “In current biomechanics, there’s a huge emphasis on integration of the legs, the pelvis and the spine; even walking involves spinal rotation. Many ordinary activities involve multiplanar movements of the spine. But most traditional Pilates work is done supine, prone, side-lying or seated; very little of the regular repertoire is done standing up.” Hoffman’s method is the “missing link,” says St. John, and a useful addition to a Pilates practice.
The ZENGA program, according to O’Clair, who helped develop it, blends the foundational principles of Pilates, yoga, dance and exercise science. Drawing on various mindful-exercise modalities, the program moves and trains the entire body’s neuromyofascial system. (Fascia is the connective tissue covering or binding together the body’s structures.)
“We use movement to stimulate and hydrate the fascia, which can then function in an elastic, springlike manner as it should when it is rejuvenated and rehydrated by the work,” says O’Clair. Another component of the program is using breath to activate movement from the inside out; this enhances integration of the musculoskeletal and fascial systems.
Some of the best ways to train the fascia in ZENGA, O’Clair says, are with spring-loaded activities or by doing counterstretches and recoil movements with or without specialized Pilates equipment or small props like the mini stability ball. For example, in the middle of a yoga pose the instructor may add an undulation, a small wavelike pattern of the torso and arms, to stimulate the corresponding fascial lines. “Joseph Pilates said he developed the machines so that people could feel their bodies when they weren’t on the machine. That’s how ZENGA uses [equipment]—to create proprioceptive feedback that heightens body awareness and increases the mind-body connection.”
Barre work has for many years been used during ballet warm-up exercises and has recently become popular as a high-intensity workout. A number of today’s barre workouts incorporate Pilates movement principles. St. John says Balanced Body’s regime is a “physically active workout incorporating music and is attractive to a young female clientele, a population that many Pilates studios don’t reach regularly.” In designing the program, St. John says, her goal was “to take the beauty and the strength of the Pilates movement principles and the refined understanding of the body that any good Pilates teacher has and apply that to a faster-paced more dynamic environment.” Students, she notes, “are in an upright posture but are still working on alignment, core activation, stability and mobility in appropriate ranges.”
Building on Science
O’Clair, McCook and St. John believe that this is an exciting time for fitness professionals because new modalities and systems based on scientific knowledge and proper biomechanics are available to help people become fitter and stay healthier for a lifetime. All three agree that functional mind-body modalities such as Pilates are an integral part of the fitness continuum, promoting efficient movement patterns and providing clients with a stronger foundation. As St. John says, “A great deal of training now is really looking at the mind and the body together as the most effective means of teaching someone, whether it’s running jumping, dancing or walking. The mind does tell the body what to do.”