Like many other Pilates teachers I was very excited to hear that Benjamin Degenhardt would be coming to the UK to teach some workshops and swiftly booked my place.
The workshops I would be attending were going to explore probably the most iconic of all Joseph Pilates’s inventions the Universal Reformer. In the morning we were going to look at foundation exercises whilst in the afternoon moving on to more complex ones.
I pick my words carefully here. Not only is Benjamin a gifted teacher he is also an avid Pilates historian and put much of what we learned and the way that we learned it into the context of how Joseph Pilates ran his studio.
There were none of the reformer classes that are the norm today and therefore none of the delineation of beginner, intermediate and advanced exercises/classes. In working through one of the (many) traditional orders of reformer exercises we looked at the purpose of the exercise, how the reformer is designed to make the body respond to it and how that builds skills for later challenges. Some exercises were broken down in order to match them to an individual’s current ability. In breaking down, rather than modifying, an exercise you take nothing away from that exercises, it retains it’s purpose as a skill builder for later challenges but you get the opportunity to introduce it much earlier.
Benjamin presented a very pared down and no nonsense way of teaching when you compare it to some of the micro managed Pilates that exists now. Pilates teachers can you hear the words of some of your newer clients struggling with even simple movements echoing in your ears? “But there’s SO much to think about!” When we over burden clients with instructions on when to breathe in or out, pulling the stomach in and all manner of other things it can be too much too soon. Benjamin showed us how to start to use the reformer as a teaching tool, coaxing reactions out of the body so that we don’t have to cue them at all.
We were reminded that the work was intended as a whole body experience and not just about isolating and fatiguing a few muscles to move a couple of bones through space. It also works on a much deeper level than that, the student’s body interacting with the reformer to stimulate the nervous system to make decisions about how to accommodate and distribute the load of the springs in the way it does in the movements of everyday life when the load is from gravity.
So much is going on inside your body as the exercises challenge you to find just a couple more millimetres of length in your body, which does not sound like much but can require what seem like herculean efforts! Sometimes you are making space for your internal organs and sometimes you are wringing them out, making Pilates a total body health regimen and not just about those showy muscles.
At one point during Down Stretch I was hardly moving the carriage through much of a range of motion but oh boy was I feeling it in lots of places. A friend pointed out that my ears were bright red and I’m sure if it had been a cold day in the studio they would have been steaming. The “internal shower” of increased circulation that Joseph Pilates wanted his work to stimulate was alive and well!
Only having a day there was a limited amount of exercises that we could cover. A testament to Benjamin’s skills as a teacher is that he does not teach you simply how to do the exercises but how to understand them and therefore get more out of them. You can then take this skill into your own practice and really squeeze the pips from all the exercises that we did not have time to cover. A great example of this is taking lessons I learned from the Reformer workshops to the Wunda Chair I was able to do my first Pull Up on one spring, whereas before I have needed that second spring.
At one point we discussed whether the Pilates equipment should be described as machines or apparatus. Some don’t like the idea of a machine as it does something to you and prefer apparatus as it is something you use and have input to. In order not to mix my metaphors I will leave you with this quote from Benjamin:
“I say that if body and apparatus work together in balance (body as the engine of the machine) then they do in fact to something to you – which is, to fine-tune your movement.”