Pilates is a Method or How My Ugly Duckling Became a Beautiful Swan

I have been a fan of the US Pilates instructor Kathi Ross-Nash for quite some time and last Sunday attended some of her London workshops. One of the many things that Kathi does so well is to illustrate her expansive knowledge of the Pilates method by seeing the connections between the different exercises on different apparatus. If someone struggles with an exercise rather than making adjustments to that movement to try to improve it Kathi will take you to another exercise, perhaps on a different piece of equipment in order to build the skills you need to go back to the original exercise with success.

I was the lucky recipient of all this attention. Well, I say lucky. I had missed out on the opportunity to have a private session with Kathi as she was already fully booked. Those of you who have been to a workshop know that pregnant pause when the course leader asks for a volunteer. People either hold back out of politeness or because they genuinely don’t want to be the one up there. I decided to let go of all my British reserve and when the call to action came was like Usain Bolt out of the starting blocks. So I get to feel the principles of the workshop in my body and I get a very public private session too. Win, win.

Swan on the Pilates Ladder BarrelWe started with foot work on the reformer. The exercise that gets the body moving and tells an experienced teacher a lot about you. After a few reps Kathi shared her observation that on the return of the reformer carriage I was tucking my pelvis as my spine was not able to lengthen into this movement. It’s amazing how someone can zero in on all your problem areas, her next question was “How is your swan?” This is an exercise done on various pieces of apparatus that involve extension or back ward bending of the spine. The only answer in this kind of situation was a truthful one. “It’s terrible!” Part of my thoracic spine feels very flexed forwards and this blocks my extension moves. It was also clearly blocking my efficient return of the reformer carriage in the footwork.

photo 1Kathi then took me through about four exercises on various pieces of equipment in the studio. I had to dig deep to perform these movements how she wanted them as opposed to how I might usually do them. A really good example of how our bodies might circumvent movements and take the path of least resistance, fortifying inefficient patterns of movement. Just a few repetitions of each, hard work that was both physically and mentally demanding. One of the ways that Kathi links various exercises is a comparison of the position you are in and except for the arm position in the picture below this is pretty much what we were aiming for for my swan on the ladder barrel. Back extension on Pilates CadillacThis was all building the skills to go back to that problem exercise and I have to admit it was with some trepidation that I approached the ladder barrel again. To my amazement and joy I not only did the most magnificent swan I have ever achieved but it felt light and floaty with very little effort. It was one of those moments when you felt the whole room go “Whoo!” Now sadly a photo of my amazing swan has yet to emerge. This was no time for a selfie and I will update this post when I get hold of a picture.

When I initially learned Pilates I was told that the classical system is a very dogmatic fixed set of exercises. This might be true to a certain extent for group classes. Though now I do appreciate that the order of the exercises is very much skill building and have seen the results when that skill base is not present and the later exercises in the order are attempted. However, in teaching a private session you should always teach to the body in front of you and then you pick and choose from the vast selection of exercises Joseph Pilates left us on all his various pieces of equipment. So now if you tell me that the more classical approach to Pilates is boring and repetitive I will leap to its defence with a very Amy Winehouse-esque “No, no, no.”

I also had the pleasure of seeing another clients movement completely change in a later workshop that day. Taking a lady who had bow legs and working again with various other pieces of equipment to see her in much better alignment less than an hour later. This included using a toe corrector, literally a spring with loops on the end to work from her feet all the way up into her powerhouse muscles. It was amazing to see how the whole body was responding to this work and shaking with the effort of a small, precise but very well connected movement.

These workshops were both inspiring, humbling and exciting. Inspiring as you could really see how Pilates is an intelligent exercise system that really changes how we feel and function in our bodies. Humbling because I realise just how much I still have to learn and exciting because there are amazing people out there who have that knowledge and are generous enough to share it. My ugly ducking became a beautiful swan and I am forever grateful for the experience.

4 thoughts on “Pilates is a Method or How My Ugly Duckling Became a Beautiful Swan

  1. Jon,
    Welcome to the pack!!
    Love that you were able to experience Kathi in London. And love that you put yourself up as a volunteer for the workshops. We learn by doing and feeling the movements so that we can transfer that to our clients! I am sure all of your clients have experienced a little bit of KRN through your teaching now!
    Congrats and i look forward to seeing how you continue your journey!

  2. What a wonderful post – I was so excited by your journey with Swan on the Ladder Barrel – I too struggle to do this exercise well. Kathi’s workshops are really inspiring and thorough – you feel exhilarated afterwards. Good job!

    1. Thanks Andrea. The first time I ever went on a ladder barrel in my Polestar training I thought extension over the support of the barrel would be easy, as I did it all the time on a swiss ball in the gym. I thought my spine was going to snap in half and we quickly decided on this piece of apparatus this was not the best movement for me to be exploring yet!

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