I have written this essay to share some of the fun I’ve had teaching, and how Pilates can be effectively taught under less than ideal conditions, when neccessary.
For many years, during the spring and fall training seasons, I taught Pilates classes to several large groups of teenage rowers at a local River Rowing Assoc. Besides the usual challenges of teaching large groups containing participants of varying levels of fitness, there was the unique challenge of having no building to train in. The Club had managed to purchase land, build a beautiful floating dock and a storage lot, but had not yet built indoor space, so we did our Pilates workouts outdoors on the asphalt parking lots, in almost any weather!
Another unique variable was that the parking lots were not perfectly flat, like a floor would be, but were on a grade. Therefore, in order to teach the classes, we had to line our mats up on the incline, facing the River, to do our exercises. Turning your body to face downhill or uphill always changed the exercises. As you will see, practicing Pilates outdoors in a parking lot brought new sets of challenges and new benefits as well!
Because we were large groups, the mats had to be lined up making most use of the space, so I took the opportunity to point out how the students were going to need to be aware of the entire space and how to move within in it sensing how much distance was between them and the next person, and how to coordinate their combined movements. Mats were set up as evenly and precisely as possible.
This worked well for rowers who are often sharing a tight space in the boat with several others, and need to be moving in perfect synchrony with their boat mates. To be unaware of the tempo and stroke lengths of the other rowers is disastrous for racing. Since following the pace set by the lead rowers in a boat and finding a smooth, controlled coordination of strokes between rowers is key to the success of any rowing team – and especially for racing – this application of Pilates principles applied perfectly to them.
I began many classes with jumping rope. Sets of 100 or 200 were completed. When jumpers missed, I pointed out that fatigue affected coordination; it threw the breathing off tempo from the jumping. Coordinating the breath with the jumping to find their rhythm, they began to learn how directly breathing and movement were connected, and how stamina was important to control as well. Rowers especially coordinate their breathing with each other and the movements of the boat.
Often we would start classes standing, bending one leg into the chest, balancing on the other, lifting tall and pressing the entire foot into the ground, focusing on drawing in the belly and lifting tall. Knees-up running in place, and kicking their hands onto their seats was another warmup.
To lower onto the mats, the cross-legged lowering into a seated position is perfect for rowers. The rowing shells are incredibly narrow and light – very easy to tip over! Lowering your seat into your very tiny space in the boat, without loosing your balance, bumping your neightbor, or rocking the boat is crucial, so this exercise was appreciated by them and many practiced it to perfection!
We would often warm up with therabands. Teenaged boys and girls are often very tight in the legs, back, and shoulders, so this was a great benefit. They would also learn about their fast-growing bodies, what felt right, how to move carefully and observe physical sensations. Pilates breathing direction was also introduced during the band work.
The 100 was almost always taught with the students facing the river, their upper bodies at a slightly higher elevation than their legs. Some stronger participants liked the challenge of facing the other way – uphill. Imagine the head or foot of your raised mat with a 1 or 2-inch board under the end of it. This worked the abs differently!
Footwork on the Mat, with or without the bands, mimicked ‘coming to the catch’ and then the strong extension as they pulled their oars; a perfect deep abdominal control exercise for rowers. Standing squats helped them focus on the eccentric control needed.
Single Leg Circles introduced torso stabilization. Those with tight hamstrings and weaker abs benefitted from facing uphill, which partially unloaded the ‘away’ part of the circles and made bringing the circling leg up toward the head easier!
Rollups /Rollbacks also challenged stronger students when they faced uphill, while those with tighter backs and hamstrings, and weaker bellies, benefitted from facing the river, their feet being slightly lower than their seats, and were aided by gravity in the reaching forward. Awareness and articulation of the spine remained a focus.
Rolling Like a Ball started as a challenge to stay balanced. Rolling back uphill made rolling forward again easier, and reduced the risk of rolling onto their necks, while seriously challenging stopping at the top of the movement without feet touching the ground! Some wise guys tried to roll forward uphill, and some succeeded! In this position, greater control was needed not to roll too far back.
Similarly, the Series of Five and Footwork exercises were assisted or made more challenging along these same lines. Generally, the incline took some pressure off of raised necks and shoulders, but created a greater opposition for abdominal muscles. Spine Stretch Forward was facilitated somewhat by gravity, as were Open Leg Rocker, Teaser, Saw, and Neck Pull. Facing uphill reversed the difficulties.
We didn’t have many traditional props, but had plenty of sneakers. Students could hold these between legs or feet to activate adduction and abdominals. It was especially challenging to hold a sneaker lengthwise between your feet!
For most of the prone work, the students would turn over and be facing uphill, which gently facilitated greater spinal extension during Swan Dive prep, and Single Leg and Double Leg Kicks. Swan Dive and Rocking were actually assisted by facing in either direction, with care. Mermaid was also done with feet towards the river (torso perpendicular to the river).
Sliding Pilates in the Rain!
– Another fun variable was the weather! When it rained, the mats became slippery and we were able to imitate some reformer exercises using this element of ‘slide’. Long Stretch on a mat required exceptional abdominal control, as did sliding Elephant, though the angle and grade could make it easier (facing downhill). Some stronger students attempted sliding Side Splits in the rain, which was appreciated by the others watching.
These students had also been introduced to the yogic practice of savasana, a 5-minute restorative meditation at the end of their workout, and would always ask for it. During these we would visualize our spines, bones, blood and organs working well. We would also watch the breath, practice tense-and-release exercises, and meditate on the miraculous physiology of the cells’ activities in our bodies, the roles of oxygen, food, water, and rest, as well as the principles applied during Pilates. And sometimes we would visualize our new clubhouse, complete with a dry, warm space for indoors Pilates!