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How Do You Maintain Mind-Body Awareness in Group Classes?

Pilates instructors share their experiences with a diverse clientele.

Can students fully understand and experience the mind-body nature of Pilates amid the distractions and diversity of a group class setting? We asked instructors to tell us what they think and to describe how they strive to create and maintain mind-body awareness during group classes.

Meeting Students Halfway

“I think students can get a good sense of the mind-body connection in a group setting, but both the instructor and the student have to put in effort to make that happen—they have to meet halfway. The instructor has to create strategies that communicate effectively at the group level, and the student has to be willing to pay attention.

“It also depends on how you interpret what the mind-body connection means. I think that’s different for all of us. I try to do it more implicitly than explicitly throughout the hour, but I usually take some time at the beginning to talk about being connected to the body and how to maintain that connection. Halfway or three-quarters of the way through class, I remind everyone of that connection and focus.

“I try to organize students’ awareness of each element separately and then [explain] how to make it work together, particularly for the ‘holy trinity’ of spine, abdominals and breath. I cue child’s pose and ask, ‘What sensations are you feeling now? Where do you need more or less sensation? Are you distracted by the muscular sensation, and have you forgotten the breath?’ The breath is the bridge to the mind-body connection.

“One of the biggest challenges is finding that fine line between moving too quickly [and moving] too slowly, because it’s different for every person or group. You can’t rush quality, but you also can’t go too slowly or you start to belabor things and people tune you out.”

—Ellen Shadle, instructor, Pilates on Fifth, New York City

The Empowerment of Pilates

“I definitely think that a student in a group class can get a good sense of the mind-body-spirit connection. Well-taught and well-led group classes develop their own energy, which transfers from student to student, helping to connect the group as a combined whole as well as individually. There is nothing like the afterglow of a class that has worked hard as a class!

“For group mat and group equipment classes, we include a centering segment at the very beginning that shuts off the outside world and ‘turns on’ the inside world. This segment includes getting in touch with the breath and allowing the spine to release prior to the workout. I usually build the workout around a specific thought or connection, and then I reference it throughout the workout. I am also strict about not having personal belongings or clutter around mats or reformers, which minimizes the fidgeting and fussing that these distractions often cause.

“My cuing is rich in imagery, which Pilates work is so famous for. Instead of ‘Lift and lower,’ it becomes ‘Float like a feather; reach longer like steel to come down.’ I also talk about the empowerment of Pilates and how it makes you stronger mentally as well as physically, and the importance of applying the concepts and strengths gained in class throughout the day in every activity.”

—Connie Borho, director, Balance Pilates and Yoga Centers, Bradenton, Florida

Success, Balance and Renewal

“The greatest challenge when teaching a group Pilates class is bringing participants into the moment and and keeping them present with their bodies. We take time to understand each participant’s specific needs and issues so that we can cue the class appropriately.

“We begin our classes with the Pilates breath and encourage everyone to begin ‘internal organization’ of body and mind. We use imagery throughout class to create awareness and keep participants present. Some examples are ‘Imagine space between the pelvis and rib cage,’ ‘Create length between the vertebrae as if the spine were a string of pearls’ and ‘Your pelvis is a bowl of sand—do not allow the sand to spill.’ We explain the anatomy of the movement, and we work slowly to promote correct alignment, greater anatomical awareness and flow. We use the body as a whole rather than just as parts.

“We end classes with a quiet period of slow, rhythmic stretching. This allows time for great conversation and questions. We want our participants to leave feeling successful, balanced and renewed.”

—Carol Pehle, Pilates director, The Marsh: A Center for Balance and Fitness, Minneapolis

How do you overcome the challenges of maintaining Pilates mind-body aspects in group fitness classes? What works, and what doesn’t? We look forward to hearing from you! E-mail Senior Editor Joy Keller, [email protected].

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