If I were to sit down for coffee with my friends from high school, we would all agree that I had a strict upbringing. In fact, before they would complain about curfews or lack of privileges in their teen years, they would start by saying “It wasn’t as bad as it was for Sandy, but…”. Rules, restrictions and discipline were built into the fabric of my family life, and at that time, it was hard to see the advantages of growing in that environment.
RULES AS A FRAMEWORK
Now, many years later, I can say that it prepared me to accept rules as a framework for learning. It taught me to find the reasons for rules, and it built a natural discipline into everything that I do. So when it came to learning Pilates, I welcomed the rules as guidelines that I could immediately apply to my teaching. I’m speaking of rules dictating the number of springs to use, the number of repetitions for each exercise, the order of the exercises, and the difficulty level of a series of exercises. I memorized the rules, but even after 700 hours of apprenticeship and 1½ years of training, I was not able to find all the reasons for them. Nonetheless I accepted my certificate, dove in to teaching, and trusted that I would understand as I gained experience.
FINDING THE REASONS FOR THE RULES
Now let’s go back to that bit about finding the reasons for the rules. As it turns out, that bit is a life long practice. The more I worked out, the more I found that some of the rules confused me, such as why some of the spring settings hindered me from working from my center. Other rules began to conflict with my teaching decisions. For example, I noticed that students couldn’t achieve the guidelines for each exercise right away and this was resulting in tension and insecurity in their movement. And often times I felt hesitant to give a beginning student an exercise they needed because it was considered an intermediate exercise. The rules began to restrict me and make me question my intuition, a tool I had always relied upon in my 20 plus years as a teacher. I realized I needed more information and I was lucky to have Jay Grimes’ guidance in finding the reasons for the rules.
SHADES OF GRAY
Long before E.L. James wrote a book about it, Jay taught me that Pilates is full of shades of gray. He explained that our bodies would challenge us to know when to stray from black and white. For instance, although I can do footwork on four springs, Jay noticed that I am better able to connect to my center when I use three springs. Being small in stature, I tend to tense and overwork on four springs, and I can better control my imbalances due to scoliosis when the resistance is lower.
Gray rule #1– The spring settings can be different on different bodies in order to most effectively activate the center. However, all bodies should be working toward building the strength to progress to the original spring settings.
In my weekly lessons with Jay, he would sometimes share his observations about teachers with me. One day he told me that he couldn’t understand why teachers “pick-pick-picked on clients”. At first I didn’t have an answer because I didn’t know what he meant. After much contemplation I realized that he was addressing the conflict I was having about expecting my students to achieve all the guidelines of an exercise right away. If I was teaching the hundred and I asked my student to reach into the handles, pull their stomach in, curl the upper body off the mat from their upper abs, keep their shoulders down, find the proper position of the legs, pump 8-12 inches and breathe in and out to a count of five – they were tense and their focus was on obeying all the rules rather than understanding the movement. Now I realize that if I get them moving from their center I can easily adjust positioning with my hands. And I can use my voice to focus them on one or two goals that intensify the exercise or keep them safe without causing tension or interrupting their movement.
Gray rule #2 – Know the purposes of the exercises so that you teach without overwhelming or picking on your student. Use simple, clear instructions that provide a framework for the exercise and add information as the client progresses. Don’t expect your clients to be perfect. Give them time to build strength, flexibility and coordination while working them toward the ultimate guidelines of each exercise.
When I talked to Jay about my internal conflict in progressing clients to a higher level, he informed me that Joe didn’t teach levels. That piece of information nearly caused me to fall apart at the seams. The rules that separated basic from intermediate and advanced not only provided guidelines for me, but also security. Without levels, I am now expected to pay close attention to what my students’ bodies tell me throughout their lesson. I generally follow the original level guidelines, but if a body is capable of an exercise that it needs, I teach it to them.
Gray rule #3 – Look at the student and choose the exercises from the full repertoire that would best strengthen their center. Build their weaker muscles, increase flexibility where they are tight, and bring symmetry to their body. Don’t progress them before they are ready and always keep them safe.
Thinking this way changed my entire perspective on teaching. I was both elated and petrified. On the one hand, my work made much more sense. On the other hand, I was scared that I didn’t have the skills to teach in that way. So to build my skills, I looked deeper into my work and made “finding the reasons” one of my personal rules. Now I get to think, be creative, explore, and put energy into different areas of my teaching.
BREAKING THE RULES
At Vintage Pilates we work with teachers from many different certification programs that have a variety of rules built into their training. They range from specific breathing patterns, to positions of the pelvis, to exercise modifications. For some teachers, exploring the gray area feels like breaking the rules, and breaking rules can be scary. I understand that because I have spent most of my life sorting through the rules that followed me from home to dance and eventually Pilates. Now I know that there are rules that are essential to who I am and what I do. Those are the rules I live by. There are other rules for safety and protection. Those rules I respect and do my best to adhere to. Then there are rules that are born from personal preferences, and interpretation. Those rules I may or may not agree with. But I have discovered that every kind of rule bends under life’s circumstances. Joe’s work is deeply profound and we have built rules around it in order to make sense of it. I think our job as instructors is to continue learning and questioning these rules because somewhere within the gray, lies the truth.
Co-owner of Vintage Pilates
1950 Sawtelle Blvd. #185
Los Angeles, Ca 90024