Despite having had over 15 years worth of experience as a fitness instructor, initially, Classical Pilates completely stumped me! I was absolutely shocked at how difficult it is as a discipline and how inflexible my body was!
My first recollection was the Hundred. In the true Classical Programme the warm up is the Hundred (I’m nice to you, I believe you need to mobilise before jumping head first into the Hundred). My neck was aching, and I couldn’t breathe very easily. Then came the Roll Up! I seemed to get worse week by week, with my legs kicking up. The directions given by my instructor stumped me too, what does she mean in the Swan, ”lift the breast bone forward and up”?? I didn’t get it and it clearly showed as every time I did the Swan I saw the doubtful look in her eye!
I had always considered myself to be reasonably fit and flexible but slowly it dawned on me that while I might be fit to jump around in the studio for an hour, actually there were a lot of weaknesses and muscle in balances going on in my body, I wasn’t as “fit for life” as I thought. Although I hadn’t suffered yet from back pain I’m not sure how!
For the next year I had a bit of a love hate relationship with Pilates. Why? Because to be honest I just wasn’t very good! I quickly realised that the things I found easy I wasn’t actually doing right; it took me a long time to figure things out in my body, and my head too! Classical Pilates contradicted a lot of the principles of fitness as I understood them and I was struggling to understand it.
I am now 4 years down the line from my first Classical Pilates lesson, and have had a complete U turn. I have a much deeper understanding of the body from my Pilates practice and training and now it is this knowledge and experience, which completely underpins all my fitness teaching.
My body has changed, I am stronger, leaner with better defined abs than I had before children. My back has changed and is more flexible which means I can articulate my spine better and “lift my breastbone forward and up” (although I think my instructor would tell you there is still a lot of room for improvement).
So for the beginner my message is don’t rush things. In my case it took over 40 years for my body to become what it was before I started Pilates, something which can’t be undone overnight.
Moreover, you can’t force ‘getting’ Pilates. Initially you will go through the motions of the exercises, not really sure if you are doing them right. Then suddenly one day something clicks and you understand why your instructor talks about “finding connections”. You can consciously activate certain muscle groups, do things your weren’t able to do before with your body and visibly see it changing shape; it feels amazing!
In considering my top tips for beginners I have gone right back to the 6 principles of Pilates and how these best apply to beginners:-
1. Centering: Pilates is about finding the strength from within, from the powerhouse of core muscles, which form a foundation of strength within the body. Every exercise starts from the centre and is controlled by the centre. Focus on the centre of the body and learn to activate you deep abdominal and core muscles.
2. Concentration: In many forms of exercise you can switch of the mind but not so in Pilates, which very much relies on the mind-body connection. Key to co-ordinating the mind and body is concentration. The moving part of the body is often less important than what is happening elsewhere to stabilise and for a beginner your focus should very much be on your core.
3. Control: To benefit from the exercise they need to be controlled, maintaining proper form and technique. For the beginner the focus will be on controlling the movement from the centre, but gradually you will progress and be able to find and control other stabilizing muscles.
4. Breathing: Breathing is an interesting concept in Pilates but put most simply the body needs to take in oxygen to recharge the body and prevent fatigue. For the beginner the most important thing is to learn to continue to breathe while contracting the deep abdominal muscles, not hold your breath.
5. Precision: Every body part has a function in Pilates and to get the most from the exercise you need to adopt precision. This is something that comes with time and practice. For the beginner start by learning the movement and then gradually build precision by concentrating on more of the instructions given to you.
6. Flow: Pilates should be performed with flowing movements both within each exercise and between each exercise to enhance the benefits and create a challenging dynamic workout. As you understand the programme so the flow will start to develop. For the last session each half term all my classes including beginners do a session focused on flow. It doesn’t matter what your level, you will have learned enough during the past 6 weeks to put it into practice will go home feeling you have really made progress after an energizing, dynamic and fluid session!
Don’t rush it, your journey with Pilates is just beginning and there will always be something new to find and achieve. Enjoy it!