3 Reasons Why I Said Goodbye to mat Pilates

I have been a bare foot teacher for almost fifteen years now and have taught this, that and the other thing in various shapes and forms. After taking my initial yoga teacher training in Rollingsville Colorado, I embarked down a road called Pilates. My first training was taught by a Starbucks sipping woman at the local YMCA that threw so many exercises at us at a warp speed I walked away wondering WTF just happened.

Needing to know more I took several other Pilates certifications and training’s from various organizations to better get a grip on this form of movement. I did in fact teach mat Pilates for quite some time, but as the years wore on and I got myself more educated (bad English intended) on the actual body and how it moves, rather than just taking training’s on how to move the body in such exercises (yoga and Pilates alike). I slowly drifted way from mat Pilates (and even yoga in a sense) to teach the core in a more modern body user friendly, biomechanics, kind of way.

Now hear me out, Joseph Pilates was a wise beyond his years kind of man, and he was even quoted saying that himself; his biography is quite amazing and clearly he found something that worked for him and his public in that time period. Although some of his life is a bit blurry (depending on what you read) it does make sense when you see where he spent his days and who with the parallel of his mat developed exercises.

In 1914 after WWI broke he spent his days in a “camp” for enemy aliens in Lancaster as a nurse, allowed the freedom to do what he would like with bed bound men. Here Pilates began refining and teaching his mat exercises and equipment based practices of what we know today as “Contrology”.

Now his life story goes on and there are many, many details to his life, as there are to anyone’s life, but once he arrived in America he opened up a studio in New York in the surrounded by several dance studios, and as most of us know it the dance communities took to Pilates methods, and I would agree he was the master of rehabilitation, considering where his methods were also practiced. Now this isn’t a Joseph Pilates history write-up and if you want to read more I would encourage you to invest in the book Pilates’ Return to Life Through Contrology. Order it here on amazon

So here’s the thing. I would agree Pilates was wise beyond his years, his developed principles ones of value and can be applied to other methods, a man that helped many. Except the obvious is that we know more now than in 1914 and even the 1960’s and 1970’s; his moves are deemed helpful, but combined with modern America’s postural issues, habits lifestyle we could in several instances be reconfirming the misalignment’s in our bodies by encouraging our students in a solely a Pilates mat style practice.

Here are a few things that brought me to the crossroads of leaving a Pilates mat style practice behind.

  1. The constant forward  of lifting your head and shoulders off the mat when performing such exercises is only re-encouraging kyphosis of the upper back, tight pectoral, neck strain, and simply put, to me it is not an effective way to assist a person in “accessing their core”. I watched for years students struggle tapping into their core and complain of neck pain and as I encouraged them to drop their head, and pull back I knew there had to be a better way. If you are going to “exercise” to help you live better and feel better, shouldn’t what you choose to engage in reflect just that?
  2. Unless you spend your day on your back your workouts should get up off the floor too. I educate my students on the mat with movements and practices that mimic and emulate their life off the mat, emphasizing the natural way their body was designed to move and building healthy flexibility, strength and core awareness in a way that gets them squatting reaching and bending. Unless they were in a horrific car crash (or something to that extent) the need to train flat on your back on the floor is simply unnecessary-and I have assisted someone in that way and we did use on the back core work and movement, but grew from there. Now she is a competitively ranked fencer. So if you are looking for deep core work, things done only flat on your back are limiting you in seeking your full potential and seeing your areas of issue. And if you are stumped were to go if you are not lying flat, no sweat encouraging a healthy relationship with your core and the entire body for that matter, rarely, if ever do I need to get my students down on the mat like that. Using things like a foam roller, mini ball, and engaging upright core work will get you where you want to go more effectively, feeling every little thing along the way.
  3. Stop with the external hip and foot rotation. Unless you are a dancer this is not a means of building healthy hips, stability, and strength. And even if you are a dancer counter balancing all the external rotation could definitely save you in the long run, especially when you no longer dance. Considering sitting is the new smoking, when we sit our bodies gravitate to this rotation, part of un-doing the sitting culture is to un-do this rotation too. I tell all my students “lets learn neutral first and then learn un-neutral, basically start to learn different foot patterns and leg patterns, because now your body has a foundation to base what it does off of. The Gray’s Institute teaches the 27 different foot patterns your body can do and does, but the first one they teach is neutral. The constant external rotation causes confusion in the glute, hip and groin muscles, encourages griping with the psoas and puts unnecessary stress on the knee and ankles as many then walk in this type of foot pattern (even without it taught in class).
  4. To much gripping with the hip flexors and psoas. Unless you can say without a doubt you can effectively activate your pelvic-core (pelvic floor + deep transversus + diaphragm) most default to grabbing and gripping with the hip flexors to do the job of the deep core (and all the external rotation doesn’t help this cause either). Simply put: stability before mobility, teaching stability first requires you to master these muscles, then like a baby, once you’ve established that stability comes mobility like crawling, walking, running, and in this case arms and legs moving around. It’s not just mat Pilates, but many practices including yoga that can re-enforce this gripping and grabbing leaving you with back pain and locked up hip flexors (which you do enough while you sit).

Since my mat Pilates days I have not lost sight of the necessity of understanding of the core, internal space, and introduction to locating the “Powerhouse”, but rather I have come to realize  that using your core effectively does not have to be kept on the floor. With the shared knowledge and teachings from people and organizations like the Gray’s Institute, Leslee Bender, Katy Bowman and Dr. Stewart McGill, I have learned that how you do something does matter and what you do on the mat should mimic a better version of yourself off it.

What my students do on the mat for one hour a few times a week cannot off set what they do in their lives every day 24/7. Coming to class is about teaching them the skills and techniques and cultivating the awareness and insight so when they leave they can apply it. Your everyday life is the real workout and where the real practice begins. My students see their areas of issue and areas of strength on the mat, in the incubator of class and then if they want to get better, change, heal, grow, move closer to wellness and further away from pain,they have to do the work, but it only makes sense that what I teach them mimics what they need to do in life.

I know for a fact that there are many good Pilates teachers out there, there is something for everyone, and mat Pilates is only one style of (Pilates) practice. Having had the grace of training to teach with the reformer and the chair, I have to say that there are good things about Pilates and not every mat exercise is flat on your back but, I believe with today’s lifestyle, alignment issues and body types-getting where were I want to go, and take my students, at this point, is just beyond  the Pilates mat.

When I reflect on the teacher I now am I often find myself trying not to call what I do anything other than teaching healthy, functional movement with a side dish of spirituality and mindfulness; because for me, I don’t teach yoga or Pilates, I teach people with bodies how to move, breathe and restore as they work to become the best version of themselves- possible.

Be well and be kind my friends.

A few good resources to buy (you can click the links below):

Alignment Matters: The First Five Years by Katy Bowman

Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance by Dr. Stewart McGill 

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