Ask Rael Q & A: 15th Issue

by Rael Isacowitz

How do you teach a group class that’s filled with mostly intermediate students but also with one or two students who have never done Pilates?

This is a problem that every Pilates teacher will encounter at one point or another. It is seldom that a class is completely homogenous, with all the students at the same level. Typically, even if everyone is intermediate, there will be levels within that one general category. But of course it becomes much more challenging when presented with one, or several, complete beginners in your class.

Firstly, I would be very cautious about allowing a complete beginner, who has never done Pilates before, to attend a group mat class that is not geared toward beginners. In fact, I would most likely not do it. She will probably feel overwhelmed, but more importantly, she could injure herself either due to doing the exercises incorrectly or due to pre-existing conditions which may be exacerbated by certain exercises.

However, if you decide to do it, please find out if the person has any restrictions, injuries, is pregnant, or has a condition that could make a precarious situation even more so. I would also suggest making it clear to the beginner that this is an intermediate class and therefore you need to teach at the level of the group. She should stop if she is feeling out of her depth.

Some teachers require that beginners attend several one-on-one sessions to learn the basic exercises and principles. It certainly does not harm but I do not feel it is essential, as long as there is a beginner mat class they can attend geared towards teaching the fundamental skills. Some facilities offer general mat classes. These classes may or may not be suitable for beginners. Although I do feel that if they are advertised as general level, they should accommodate all levels, which includes beginners.

Knowledge, practice and experience all come into play. This is one of the reasons I constantly reiterate that a teacher must have hundreds, in fact thousands, of hours of practice under his or her belt. Ideally, the teacher will be able to keep the pace of the class going while simultaneously giving the beginners easier variations of the same exercises, suited to their level. As an example, when everyone is doing the classic Hundred with the legs in the air, the beginners can be instructed to place their feet on the ground with knees bent. The upper body is doing the same as the rest of the group, and the abdominals are still being worked, but the potential load on the back is decreased significantly, and therefore the risk of injury diminished. In addition it is often necessary to give individual variations such as if the person is pregnant and lying supine is impossible; an exercise like Swimming can be performed in the quadruped position.

No doubt, it is challenging; to keep the flow, give cues, know what is coming next, give variations, keep everyone stimulated but not frustrated; finding the exact balance is like walking a tight rope. It comes down to practice, practice and more practice – self-practice and experience teaching classes.

I believe that all Pilates practitioners should do mat work as part of their practice. I have been inspired to see so many lives changed for the positive from the mat work. Therefore, take care not to turn students off the mat work by allowing them into a class to which they are not suited. If you do allow them in, make sure that their experience is an enjoyable and inspiring one and that they decide to come back for more – next time, in a beginners class.

 I’m frustrated with my progress on the Teaser exercise (my nemesis!). Any tips for working toward that perfect V?

Let me assure you that you are not alone. I am certain the Teaser would probably earn the dubious honor of being one of the most popular nemeses: beaten only by the Roll-Up, probably. Note that these two exercises have much in common.

Countless students have come to me and said, “my abs are super strong, I don’t understand why I cannot do the Teaser”. The Teaser is not only about abdominal strength or strength in general; it is about timing – the immaculate coordination of muscle recruitment in split second timing. This muscle recruitment must follow a distinct pattern, or sequence. It is like riding a bike; this skill cannot be broken down and described as strength of one muscle group or another, but rather it is the timing of many muscle groups working in a well-coordinated pattern. Of course balance is a huge component as well.

I recognize that today there are many versions of the Teaser, so I am going to address the Teaser as it appears in Joseph Pilates’ book, Return to Life, and as it is analyzed in Pilates Anatomy (Human Kinetics), authored by Karen Clippinger and myself. There are two primary muscle groups to be considered in the Teaser: spinal flexors (abdominals) and hip flexors. Back extensors should also be noted as primary when doing the popular version of the Teaser that you ask about above which ends in a V-position, with the back extended.

It is seldom lack of abdominal strength that causes the failure of this exercise. Failure to execute the Teaser emanates typically from one, or a combination, of the following factors: tight back, particularly in the lumbar region (inhibiting articulation through the spine), tight hamstrings (resulting in difficulty keeping the legs elevated off the ground) and weak hip flexors (amplifying the previous factor). You can add to this list weak upper back extensors, which are of particular importance in the extended back version, V-position.

In terms of the timing mentioned earlier the basic sequence of muscle recruitment in this Teaser will be as follows: the abdominals initiate the forward flexion of the trunk, contracting concentrically while the hip flexors contract isometrically holding the legs still in the air. Once the spine lifts off the ground the hip flexors will continue contracting isometrically as the back extensors now contract concentrically to extend the spine. In the final phase, with the abdominals supporting the spine and the back extensors extending the spine, the hip flexors will slightly contract concentrically to lift the legs a little higher, resulting in the beautiful V-position. The reverse applies as the trunk is lowered with a coordinated eccentric contraction of the abdominals and back extensors, and the hip flexors continuing to contract isometrically.

Achieving success in the Teaser will come down to good preparation. Do not try it before you are ready. At best, it will be frustrating; and it can possibly be dangerous and cause injury to your back. Some excellent preparatory exercises – I would go so far as to call them pre-requisites to the Teaser – are: Rolling Back (Rolling Like a Ball), Roll-Up, Rocker with Open Legs (Open-Leg Rocker) and Teaser Prep (bent legs or legs resting on a stability ball).

The Teaser is performed on all the Pilates apparatus, at times making it more challenging than the mat (such as performing it on the Reformer where you are rolling up and down against resistance, or on the Step Barrel where the balance factor is amplified exponentially) and at times less challenging (such as on the Cadillac where holding onto the push through bar assists in the lift) – but it’s always a joy. I love the Teaser; I hope you get to love it too!

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This article first appeared in the September 2011 issue of Pilates Style Magazine. For more great stories about Pilates, check out the latest issue of Pilates Style, on newsstands nationwide, in the app store or at www.pilatesstyle.com.

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