By Benjamin Degenhardt • Modeled with Shannon Bynum Adams • Edited by Amanda Altman
One of the many things that fascinate me about teaching movement is the ability to touch people’s lives, both literally and figuratively. Because no matter what, in any positive movement experience, something profound happens, be it discovering a new sensation, developing a new skill, finding proper alignment, or simply feeling better. Teaching Pilates facilitates that process by way of curating the experience with select cues and exercises—and with touch.
“I invented all these machines…I thought, why use my strength? So I made a machine to do it for me.” I often reference this quote by Joseph Pilates (circa 1945) as an important link in understanding the comprehensive nature of the Pilates method. Mr. Pilates was referring to the Universal Reformer here; the apparatus he designed was intended to serve as an extension of the teacher, perhaps even as a teacher in and of itself with its tactile feedback and dynamic means of resistance. The quote also implies that, in the absence of apparatus, a teacher’s physical support can be a powerful tool to promote a better embodiment of the work.
No matter how well we can communicate with words or demonstration, there is something that only the right touch can accomplish. It is a kinesthetic sensation that is impossible to “unfeel.” Our personal movement behavior develops long before we can put it into words, which is why any student will benefit from teaching strategies that involve high levels of tactile feedback. As an extension of the senses we usually rely on, hands can feel what eyes can’t see and express what words can’t say.
If you are an avid practitioner of the matwork, you are probably already familiar with the exercises I have chosen here. Instead of delving into the benefits, breath pattern and nuances of each movement, I’ve chosen to show how I physically spot my students here. If you don’t have a friend on hand to help spot you, you can simply visualize the traction provided by these techniques; if you are a teacher, practice them with your students to unleash new movement potential.
When applying touch, be mindful of the amount of pressure you apply—less can be more—and pay special attention to the instructions that follow. Instead of “forcing” the body into a position or exerting pressure, use your touch to meet the mover’s resistance, evoke a movement direction, and invite effort and opposition. Of course, always ask for permission first, and try not to be in the way of the moving body.
Side effects include being more present and engaged in your practice and teaching, and your students might create new movement behaviors more quickly. You’ve been warned.
The Roll Up
Setup: Lie on your back with your arms overhead, legs together and feet flexed against the spotter’s hands.
1. Lift your arms, head, neck and shoulders to sequentially roll up, maintaining the pull with your feet.
2. Stretch over your legs, actively keeping the round shape of your back.
3. Roll down with control, maintaining the pull on the spotter’s hands.
Spotter: Cup both of your hands around the mover’s feet. Rather than holding them down, merely offer your hands to the mover, and remind him/her to pull on you throughout the movement.
Setup: Lie on your back with your arms overhead and legs together on the floor. Pull on the spotter’s legs as you lift your legs toward the ceiling.
1. Actively push your lower body into the spotter’s hands to lift your hips.
2. Once in shoulder stand, reactivate the pull of your arms, and then slowly lower your hips back down.
3. Lower your legs to the starting position.
A. Find a grounded position about an arm’s length from the mover’s shoulders.
B. Hinge at the hips—move them back as you lean your upper body forward—to grab the mover’s feet.
C. Meet the mover’s resistance and straighten your legs as he/she lifts the spine, then reverse the movement pattern and let go of the feet as the mover returns to the starting position.
The Neck Pull (Seated)
Setup: Sit with your legs extended hip-width apart, feet flexed and hands cupped behind your head.
1. Lift through your waist, and actively push your head into your hands and into that of your spotter.
2. Round forward over your legs, still pushing your head up into your hands as well as the spotter’s hand while avoiding sinking into the spotter’s other hand on your front body.
3. Restack your spine to return to the starting position.
A. Place one hand behind the mover’s hands. Remind the mover to press the head up into your hands, and meet his/her resistance throughout the movement (don’t push down!). Use your other hand/arm to give the mover something to bend the spine over (rather than pushing into the ribs or stomach).
B. If you do the full Neck Pull, refer to the spotting technique from The Roll Up for the articulation up and down.
The Kneeling Sidekick
Setup: Get into a kneeling position, and extend one leg out to the side with one hand behind your head and your other hand on the floor.
1. Keeping an active side-bend in your body and your head pushing into your hand (like Neck Pull), kick your working leg forward as much as possible.
2. Swing your leg back as far as possible.
3. After this set, repeat on your other side.
Kneeling behind the mover, place one hand on the top elbow, and cup your other hand around the outside of the hip of the supporting leg. Gently traction your hands apart to evoke length in the upper body and stability in the hip.