Assessing clients’ posture or alignment can sometimes be overwhelming for both novice and experienced Pilates instructors. Even with all our knowledge of anatomy, kinesiology, movement and injuries, it can be hard to know where to start. The best place to begin is from a global, rather than a local, perspective; alignment anomalies translate into a bigger picture of how people move and what they feel in their bodies.
Designed to provide spring-loaded tension, the reformer is similar to gravity in the way it affects our bodies. And since it’s a closed environment (distal segments have external resistance that restrains movement; the feet are not free to “move”), it can work to change posture, alignment and movement strategies.
From the Foot Up
A useful approach when assessing movement patterns is to focus on footwork on the reformer. It’s powerful to see the transformation that occurs in clients with each repetition. More important, clients walk away with a better sense of how their bodies move.
Peggy Wallin-Hart, owner and director of Finetune Pilates Studio in New York City, found Pilates after suffering injuries that put her dance career on hold. Passionate about getting her clients to feel a movement experience, she is often heard telling clients, “Stand on your feet.” It sounds basic, but the shifts this cue produces can be dramatic. Once clients put weight through their feet, alignment changes occur as muscles turn on along the kinematic chain (flow of body segments and systems that operate together). Changing alignment through the feet affects muscle function in the hips, core and/or spine and can even correct alignment and posture anomalies in one step, saving you from verbally directing each local alignment problem.
10 Tips for 10 Toes
Here are some steps to keep in mind when assessing a client’s movement during footwork on the reformer:
- Keep it simple. You have learned a lot of valuable information that is beneficial to you as a practitioner; use your teaching and cuing skills to share essential information without overwhelming clients.
- Notice the client’s posture on the reformer, and combine verbal and kinesthetic cues to help correct imbalances. For example, rather than saying, “Drop your right hip, keep the pelvis neutral, draw in your abdominals and put weight evenly through your feet,” it might make more sense to put your hands on the client’s body to guide it into proper alignment. Don’t force, as you might be unaware of injuries, muscle imbalances or tight muscles preventing proper alignment. By guiding gently, with patience, you will see changes from session to session.
- Get the client moving. Have him perform 10 repetitions of footwork: in parallel, on heels, arches, Pilates V and turnout.
- During footwork, look for movement patterns and the ripple effects throughout the body. Associate movement patterns. Pay attention to what’s occurring with the feet, knees, pelvis and back as the client pushes the carriage in and out. Think in terms of movement strategy (how a person chooses to move). For example, one common movement strategy is arching the back and hyperextending the knees (rather than using the core) to push off the reformer bar.
- Cue the client to think of the reformer springs as gravity, advises Wallin-Hart. By “standing on the feet,” the client must work to return the carriage, as opposed to letting the springs pull her back.
- Pay attention to movement pattern changes as the client becomes grounded in the feet. Do you see changes to the pelvis position or to foot-knee-hip alignment?
- Observe how breathing affects movement patterns. This Pilates principle is sometimes overlooked. Breathing can play an important role in how a client moves and feels.
- Go into a session with a theme, such as pelvic alignment or feeling the lower abs (or hamstrings, pelvic floor or adductors), then choose exercises that are specific to finding neutral spine. Avoid the urge to overcue. Engaging the right muscles will come more easily when the client can feel the difference in his own body rather than being dependent on cues.
- Ask the client what she feels. Having awareness of a feeling (i.e., hip movement or how muscles are turned on and off) can be more powerful than being provided with information.
- Share your careful observations when referrals are necessary. The detailed information you garner from working intensively with clients will help you communicate with other medical professionals should problems arise that are outside your scope of practice. If issues require medical or other healthcare attention, you’ll be able to confidently communicate using technical, anatomical terms. It’s also a great way to network with doctors, physical therapists, massage therapists and other bodywork professionals.
The most powerful thing you can offer as a teacher is your ability to help a person move efficiently through a movement experience. Footwork on the reformer is a valuable tool in assessing alignment and posture, as well as a powerful way to educate clients about body awareness.
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