A Beginners Pilates Class: What to Expect

Beginners Pilates: brimming with assumptions, expectations, and perceptions

Just before I outline what a class might contain, I want to briefly get the misconceptions out of the way

The Pilates Body; A Pilates Body

Google “Pilates” and you will see what I mean

Overwhelmingly (but no longer 100% I am pleased to say): young, white, female, slim

Inexplicably, it would seem, the Pilates body is always wearing a crop top, flat stomach on show, pearly whites gleaming away through a very demanding looking Pilates exercise

Let’s just get rid of this perception once and for all.  The  Google images tell us something I suppose ,but nothing  much about the reality of what Pilates is or who Pilates is for (which is for everyone by the way).   The images feed a false narrative that Pilates is for thin people to tone their already flat stomachs

The internationally renowned Pilates instructor Anula Mailberg was so incensed by the Pilates Body phrase and imagery that she has started her own hashtag, and clothing range: #PilatesHuman.  She has been very vocal in her criticism of the industry for its image obsessed fakery.  You can find her in various places including Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/anulamaiberg/?hl=en

Here at Pilates Leeds we are definitely not about the image, the look, the clothes, the fashionable poses, or the latest exercise.

Pilates is for everybody. Pilates is for all bodies

Beginners Pilates.  What is it?

Initially I’m going to answer a different question: What I am trying to achieve as a Pilates instructor?

In essence: to get  us all moving more and  moving more easily.   What does that really mean though?  What does moving more easily look and feel like?

  • increased muscle flexibility and  joint mobility
  • development of  strength: in the trunk (front and back : core stability), arms, legs and bottom.  Yes, lots and lots of bottom.
  • improved posture
  • improved bone density and stem bone density loss  in older adults especially post menopausal women.  Mind you, you wouldn’t actually feel this would you!
  • increased resilience of the body so that it can manage more physical work, changes in lifestyle and ironically, better manage being sedentary part of the time

In addition I want to use the class format to do the following:

  •  to enable improvements in  the way we breathe
  • to use breathing as a tool to calm the body, calm the nervous system
  • Pilates as mindful movement, as an opportunity for mindfulness
  • to provide a space to rehab from a particular injury or learn to move with a new limitation

Some  benefits of the class are changes in your own body, fewer aches and pains; some things are more subtle, like feeling calmer or more relaxed

How do I use Beginners Pilates to do this then?

What did Joseph Pilates do?

If you take a look at the original Pilates mat exercises as invented by Joseph Pilates, you will  observe  extremely demanding exercises. He said himself, it takes a huge amount of effort and work to do them properly.   It is 55 years since he died and our society has  become even less likely to be able to do the exercises, or have the time to spend practicing.  Each exercise has a array of benefits but they are just too hard.   In the UK most instructors including me have modified the exercises.   Some instructors, including me have , have extended the repertoire of Plates exercises.

Particularly in the US, the home of Pilates, there is a school of thought , known as Classical Pilates, where you teach the original repertoire  in a particular order, no matter what .  I simply do not subscribe to the Philosophy that this is the way we do it, no matter what although I get that it is a different philosophy and approach: Make the body change to fit the exercise, thereby helping the body.  I have done classes like that and just found them too hard because of the permanent injuries that I have.   The classes didn’t allow for that and with the serious abdominal injuries I have, that’s a massive chunk of repertoire that I cannot safely attempt.  I could write an entirely different blog post on the emotional difficulties I have experienced as a Pilates instructor who cannot do a lot of Pilates exercises.  The bitter irony of not being able to do Classical Pilates has been an enormous influence on my work

My philosophy is more about :  chose the exercise that suit the body, in order to help the body meaningfully change

A modern approach

In his New York studio, Joseph Pilates picked and chose exercises according the needs of his clients. It wasn’t a particular set of exercises, set in tablets of stone.

In that regard I’m true to the spirit of the eponymous inventor of Pilates. I’m picking the exercises that suit the group and are best suited to achieving the goals as stated above.  To do that I’ve had to omit most of the original repertoire.  However I do a great deal of simplified versions of the exercises .  A vast amount of what I do is not Pilates as “given” by JP.     Often that means that people pitch up expecting the Plank, the Hundred, the Single Leg Stretch and wonder where they are.  The reason they are not in my Beginners Pilates class is because they are too hard for the group as a whole, to achieve anything significant

The exercises have got to be attemptable by the majority, if not all of the group.  Also they have to be modifiable.  Finally,  they have to achieve something other than simply “its Pilates, that’s what we do”.  What they achieve is as per the list above.

What will always be in the Beginners Pilates class

It will be fairly gentle.  It won’t raise your heart beat or make you sweat.  I’ve been asked in the past if Pilates will help with weight loss.  Basically, no it won’t and I’ve talked about this in another post: https://www.pilates-leeds.com/doing-pilates-will-it-help-me-lose-weight/

Pretty much always: Lying on your back, your sides, being in all fours, standing up

The four main “types” of spine articulation: rotation, side bending (lateral flexion) , forward bending (flexion) , back bending (extension)

Time to simply breathe and possibly a breathing relaxation at the end of class

Strength work for the legs and bottom.

A constant focus on correct form and body alignment, working safely

What will never be in the class

Me constantly going on about “the core”  I will however, definitely enable you to develop true core stability.     The word and indeed the concept of core stability have lost any real meaning and I have written about this in another blog post: https://www.pilates-leeds.com/core-strength/

Abdominal work as the primary focus.  I have written about this before: https://www.pilates-leeds.com/ab-dominance-why-are-we-so-ab-sessed-with-the-abdominals/.   The body is integrated, marvellous, wondrous machine:   Mind/Body, limbs/trunk etc etc.  No bit is more important than any other and the raison d’etre of Pilates should never be an abdominal workout.

Nothing is really off limits if it is attemptable, has a definite purpose   and is modifiable .   That last point is important but tricky.  There is only so much modification you can do as a teacher. Somethings aren’t suitable due to limitations of body size, injury: things that can’t necessarily change.    Where someone cannot do an exercise at all, or they can’t adopt a position, for example all fours, due to wrist or knee limitation I will give an completely different exercise , or the same exercise adapted into a different position.  For example Cat Stretch, that quintessentially all fours exercise, can be done using a desk or chair

I want everyone to feel included and not excluded and for everyone to be able to achieve something but there is only so much I can do and I don’t always get the balance right.

What is the correct limit for exercise difficulty?

Struggling is a tricky issue.    There is fine line between struggling and feeling some kind of satisfaction at doing something, and feeling deflated and like you will never improve.  You might struggle because an exercise is awkward due to your lack of strength, mobility and flexibility and that is the point: you are trying to improve those things.   I sometimes feel like avoiding my Iyengar Yoga class because my lack of flexibility makes the poses really hard for me, but I know it is doing me good and I am improving, so I keep at it .  However  I quit belly dancing class because I just felt useless and like everyone else “got it” except me

You might struggle with one thing, but not the rest of the session and for that reason I tend to vary the intensity within each class: some hard stuff, some not so hard stuff.

Enough of me.  What do you want to achieve?

I rarely ever know the answer to that question and simply have to hope that perhaps it is one of those things I’m trying to achieve too.

Sometimes I know that people have been told to do Pilates by their GP, Physiotherapist or other manual therapist, and this is often in relation to a musculoskeletal problem

If you tell me what you want to achieve then I will be very pleased.  It might even influence my lesson planning so I’d get talking if I were you!

Other anxieties you might have

  • Will I cope with the intensity of the class?  Almost certainly. My beginners Pilates classes are on the gentle side and within that there is an arc of intensity to each sessions.  Some things harder than others
  • How will I fit into a room full of strangers?
  • Have the others got weeks of experience on me?  Possibly. the classes are on going but everyone started as a rookie

Talking of a room full of strangers…

Community Classes

I started my first ever community class nearly 18 years ago.  It was the first class I ever taught.  In all of that time, consistently I have noticed that community classes have their own gentle energy.

I have pondered this and concluded that it may be because  if you are easy going enough to come to a class in a community centre which lacks of the pizzazz of a formal studio space then you are probably going to be easy going in your approach to the class.  No one is too bothered about what they wear, or overly competitive or obsessive about “their” space

In short, it is in the DNA of community classes to be nice and easy going.  You might end up with casual Pilates friends. Not bosom buddies but still people you know to say hello to in Tesco

Endnote on Ableism

However amazing Pilates is,  it is definitely ableist.  Ableism is discrimination in favour of non-disabled people.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines Ableism as: treating people unfairly because they have a disability (= an illness, injury, or condition that makes it difficult for them to do things that most other people can do)

Here is a link to wiki article on this:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ableism

Nobody has set out to be discriminatory or mean.  Not Joseph Pilates, not the Pilates community and not me, but the blunt truth of the matter is that Pilates does discriminate in favour of able bodied people and the typical exercises also favour non-fat people as well.   The standard teaching styles favour people who can hear and see with no impairments.   I have done my best try try and make my classes open to all but I really do struggle to accommodate some peoples needs.  The most common difficulty (aside from finances)  has been people who have been unable, or almost unable,  to get down on the floor.

Another Endnote on the subject of clothes

Pilates Leeds is not about the clothes.    I lied about that one

I do like a nice fitness outfit.  Anything goes.  Why leave the sequins in the wardrobe?

The author doing Pilates on a Reformersome people doing Beginners pilates

picture of some men doing Pilates


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