Levelling Up

“Show me your bookshelf, or the courses you take, or the questions you ask, and I’ll have a hint as to how much you care about levelling up.” (Seth Godin)

First of all, if you don’t already follow Seth Godin, go do it now. The man is brilliant, not just about business, and the business of business, but also many other important life issues. If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you’ll see plenty of his quotes, I’m an absolute fan.

So what does “Levelling Up” mean? In this context, exactly what he says. Look at the books on your bookshelf. Do they reflect your current interests? Topics that are near and dear to your heart? Do you actually pick them up, read them, refer back to them?

When I finished my comprehensive pilates teacher training, my teacher (a very wise woman) said to our group, “Don’t go home and put your manual on the shelf. You will need it now more than ever. Just because your training is ‘finished’, doesn’t mean that your learning is.” And in the months and years following, teaching real clients, and also on my journey as a teacher trainer, I have used that same quote over and over again. Because it really is true. Even now, for me 15 years later, I am constantly referring back to my manual, and using it as a guideline when questions arise.

To further that thought, what DOES happen after you finish your teacher training? What courses do you take? What conferences do you attend? This is the make-or-break point for most pilates teachers. You teach, day-in and day-out. You get into your little groove, your way of doing things that work for your studio or clientele. You forget things. You get stale, bored, wonder why your clients aren’t making any progress.

The good news is, there is an abundance of information out there to further your education (that’s also the bad news, so buyer beware!). There are online sites with videos from well-respected and creative teachers. There are conferences all over the country. And if you love to travel, there are conferences all over the world. Go to them. Enrich yourself, come back to your students with a refreshed, energized attitude and see what happens.

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Specifically “why?”. Not in a judgmental, or threatening way, but in a curious, I-want-to-know-more way. Go to those conferences, but don’t just sit there taking notes. Ask questions of the presenter. Volunteer to be a body on demonstrations. Engage with other participants. Sometimes I think this is where the real learning occurs, when you surround yourself with like-minded individuals, and can learn and share with one another.

This is what it means to level up. It’s really about staying current, staying fresh, continuing your education, and bringing your teaching to it’s best level. I have a good friend, who also happens to be a pilates teacher, and she told me that she tries to spend at least 15 minutes a day either reading a pilates book, watching a pilates video, or checking out what’s new on the pilates Facebook groups she follows. What a fabulous idea! Try it, and see what a powerful impact it can make, not just on your teaching, but on your entire outlook towards your clients and your studio.

Go ahead. Level Up.


Good vs. Perfect

As I watch the Summer Olympics in Rio, I am constantly amazed by the strength, focus and determination exhibited by the athletes – both young and old. They come from all over the world to compete against the best of the best, to earn the Gold. I’ve heard time and again that so-and-so “settled for” Silver or Bronze. And it made me wonder what message this sends to us everyday people, the run-of-the-mill joggers, swimmers, yoga and yes, even pilates practitioners. Are we letting “Perfect” get in the way of “Good”? And is there something wrong with just being “Good”?

In my pilates journeys – as a student, then a teacher, and now a teacher trainer – the one thing that has stuck with me is that pilates is a practice. No matter what path you’re on – it’s an ever-evolving discovery of what your body can (and sometimes can’t) do. I believe in focusing on the good, welcoming the good, encouraging the good. Perfection is over-rated, and often, not ever really “perfect”.

The majority of my clients are, for the most part, striving to be good. Sometimes they struggle. Life gets in the way. Sleep, diet, other exercise play a role in how we feel and what we bring to the pilates workout. Every day is different, and every day I strive to find that one good thing that can be celebrated, instead of all the other not-so-good things that can be picked apart. Yes, it’s important to know what you need to work on, what your homework is. But it shouldn’t overshadow that some (or more!) of what you do is always good.

In the very first pilates teacher training weekends that I teach, I always tell my new group of (very nervous) teachers-to-be, “I don’t expect you to be perfect. I expect you to listen to the feedback you’re given, be safe, and know the order. Make some progress from the first day to the last day.” In other words, just be good. Just do your best, because after all, isn’t that good? Some teachers get so caught up in doing everything down to the letter, and get so worked up into a frenzy over the smallest words/details/phrases, that it takes the enjoyment out of teaching (it also bores and sometimes discourages the students who work with them). We become teachers to share this fabulous method called pilates. The best teachers are good. They know their stuff, they might make a mis-step here or there, but they can recover. They are motivating, enthusiastic, and fun to be around. They’re good.

Allowing yourself to be good can take the pressure off. You know that you’ve given it your best shot. You celebrate the good that is happening today. Maybe tomorrow (who knows?), more good will happen. Maybe not. But who cares? As long as you strive to be good, what else is there? Let go of the idea of perfection and be your best self. Be good.

On Being an Advanced Student

Mention the word “advanced” to most pilates practitioners, and you’ll get two responses:

One: “Oh no, not for me, that stuff is crazy!”

Or, two: “Bring it on!”

But what does it really mean to be an advanced student? Careful before you answer. Because if you said “someone who does the advanced work”, think again.

First, let’s look at what exactly comprises the advanced repertoire. For most classical pilates programs, it’s not exactly Joe’s full order, as he taught it. Along the way, some things got taken out. The headstands. The balance control step offs. The big backbends. Exercises deemed too dangerous.

Side Note: that stuff is either referred to as “super advanced” or “archival”. Either description definitely makes one pause. But I digress.

So… “Advanced”. On the mat, it would include all the overhead exercises – rollover, corkscrew, jackknife, boomerang, control balance. Ditto for the reformer, plus exercises that continue to challenge a person’s balance, strength, flexibility, and yes, stamina.

But does simply practicing these exercises make you “advanced”? Again, be careful before you answer.


Case in Point #1. A new client comes to me: woman, mid-50’s, very active, healthy, been doing pilates “forever!”, and (as she told me) her former teacher considered her “advanced”. Okay, I said, “let’s do a little intermediate-level work and see where we are.” The mat I chose was basic, but she needed the strap for rollup. Okay, I do too sometimes. No biggie. But when we got on the reformer, it was a disaster. She didn’t know any of the exercise names. She banged the carriage and rushed through the setup. She had NEVER been on the long box (pulling straps, backstroke, teaser – never done them). She had Never. Done. Elephant. She did not listen to me. Of course midway through this debacle (for me) I realized her former teacher’s description of “advanced” and mine were completely different. And this woman (while very nice), had been given this label without really understanding what it meant.

Of course the exercises are not the be-all, end-all, so here is my…

Second Case in Point: I observed a one-on-one session, taught by a very well renowned and respected teacher, instructing another teacher as the student. The student: extensive movement background, very healthy and fit, capable of performing anything the teacher would have chosen to give her. Not too widely different from the woman above. So what did he choose? Beginner System. The very basic exercises one learns first on the reformer. And the student? She worked like crazy as the teacher demanded she perfect every last detail and nuance of every simple exercise in the system. But more importantly, she did other things. She listened to instructions and followed them, to the best of her ability. She knew the names of the exercises. She did not whine about wanting to do this-that-or-the-other-more-exciting-thing. She got an amazing workout and had an enlightening experience. She learned something new about the most basic exercises of the work.

So then, what makes an “advanced” student? Attitude. Humility. Respect. Understanding. An Open Mind. A Desire to Learn. Knowing the Fundamentals.

The exercises are important, to an extent. Yes, some of the advanced/super-advanced/archival work is fun, exciting, amazing to watch. As Pilates Teachers, we should all know them, to keep the work alive.

But labeling students by exercises is misleading, and quite frankly, does the student a disservice. It is more important for you – as a Teacher – to teach the student the way they approach the repertoire is almost more important than the work itself. Teach the exercises (as appropriate), but also teach a respect for the exercises.

Some students will get this, and love it, and you will love them for it. Some will have no interest in the finer points and be happy just staying where they are. That’s okay, we’re just glad they’re still doing pilates.

So consider dropping your labels and start adding more quality to the content you teach. Recognize who is ready to “advance” and who needs a little more time. Tell them the exercises are nothing more than that. Yes, some are harder than others, but it’s not a contest. Be a true teacher, look past the labels, and you will make your job so much more than just throwing out a bunch of exercises to entertain or get through a session.

And maybe one day, regardless of what exercises your students are doing, they will all be “advanced”. And your Teaching will be, as well.

From Point A to Point B… Progressions

I’m filming a progressions workshop next week, and the subject got me to thinking.

There are progressions, and then there are progressions (try to keep up). First of all, there are progressions of an exercise from one place to another, not just on one apparatus, but also across many.

Then there are progressions that help your client improve in certain areas. Both of these are important to know, and to understand.

Let’s take an exercise like Pull-Ups on the Wunda Chair. A real doozy, on a good day, and one of the first places your clients get to experience going upside down, against gravity. So we do it first facing front, both hands on the chair, both feet on the pedal. But then this becomes “manageable”. So then we say, “okay, let’s try with just one foot on the pedal!”. Umm, what? Changing the center of balance, decreasing the point of contact from four to three. That becomes manageable, so then we decide to try it with one arm only. Whoa! Changing the center of balance yet again, and continuing to decrease the point of contact (really where we need it the most!) by removing one hand. Yikes. Gulp. So a few weeks/months/years go by and then we turn it to the side, adding a twist. Our beloved Front Pull-Up has just morphed into a monster to be tamed! Sideways, you say? One leg? One arm? Bring it on.

So there you have a lovely little progression of ONE exercise on ONE piece of apparatus into MANY ways to torture challenge your client.

Oh yes, speaking of our client. How do we pick and choose the right exercises to help them make a progression? From Point A to Point B. From Beginner to Intermediate. From Intermediate to Advanced. And in-between. And beyond.

The most common mistake Pilates teachers make with progressions is just adding more exercises. And this is especially problematic when the client might not be ready for a new exercise. Maybe the client is still working on Exercise #1. Doesn’t really need to be confused by Exercise #2. Remember your job as a Pilates teacher is not to entertain your clients with bright, new shiny things every session (trust me on this one). Continuity and consistency are key. As a favorite teacher of mine says, “Do not go horizontal with your teaching. Go vertical.” Go deeper into the exercises and be sure that your client understands the basics of the movement. And not just the basics, but can perform and move in the exercise with control. The last thing this client needs is MORE EXERCISES.

They need time to fine-tune the ones they already know. The ones they’re currently working on. Some clients will need a LOT of time. Some will need less. That’s where your skillz (yes I just said that) as a Pilates teacher come into play. Talk with your client, and understand their fitness goals. Understand how they learn, how they move, how they process information. Remember, you are not there to entertain. You are there to teach. To have your client move safely, understand the work, and know why they’re doing what they’re doing, before you add new exercises.

In my training, we progress by looking at four components – stability, stretch, strength, and stamina. What does your client need to work on? What exercise can you give them that will help them work on that component? Keep your matwork and reformer work basic. Go to your other apparatus (Wunda Chair, High Chair, Cadillac, Barrels). From there, make a decision and stick with it. Stick with it. Stick with it. Be consistent in your sessions, from one day/week to the next. Continue to work on the ins and outs of that exercise. Trust me, your client will not get bored. With consistency, they will master that exercise, and then be ready to move on to another one.

And that my friends, is true progression. Try it, and let me know how it works for you.

Congrats, you’re a Pilates Teacher. Now what?

You put in all the apprentice hours at the studio. You studied, worked out every day, and taught friends, family, and complete strangers for next to nothing. You were tested, evaluated, questioned, and tested again. Now, finally, you have your teaching certificate and your long journey is over. Or is it?

To keep yourself sane during this exciting transition to full-fledged teacher, here are some things to remember as you venture into the pilates world:

  • Keep the Manual Handy! What? After lugging that huge manual around for months and perhaps years, you can’t put it down yet? No. Absolutely not. Your real learning begins NOW, and now is when you will need that manual the most. Okay, maybe you don’t have to carry it with you everywhere you go, but absolutely know where it is at all times, and more importantly – don’t be afraid to use it! After all, there are hundreds of exercises in there, some of which (okay probably a lot) you might not teach that often, and your manual is going to help you stay on top of things. And if it’s a really good manual, it also has anatomy charts, guidelines on teaching special populations, and breath, cueing, and touch recommendations for every client under the sun.
  • Find a Mentor. If your studio hasn’t already done so, look for a teacher with solid experience (5+ years). It could be the senior instructor you’re taking lessons from, or another teacher that you admire and want to emulate. When issues arise with a certain client or class, it’s helpful to have someone to check in with. Get a seasoned professional’s unique point of view and learn different techniques that come with real-time experience.
  • You CAN Say It… “I Don’t Know”. Often, new teachers are given a lot of different clients and classes, with a wide array of people and varying physical issues and conditions. After all, you’re trying to get as many teaching hours in as possible, right? You want to help them. You want to share this fabulous method with them. And like any good teacher, you want to be able to answer any and all questions thrown your way. But remember this: You don’t have all the answers. And you are not a medical professional. So when your favorite client starts complaining about this pain or that ache, be compassionate. Be sensitive. But never diagnose. Don’t be afraid to stay “I don’t know, but I will look into it and in the meantime, maybe you should check with your doctor.” The least helpful thing you can do is to tell a client they have XYZ condition when you may only be guessing or speculating.
  • Continue to Practice Pilates! A common pitfall for most new teachers is falling off the pilates wagon. Remember all those teaching hours you’re trying to accumulate? Next thing you know, you’re teaching 30 hours a week and doing pilates 0 hours a week! Be sure to save some time for yourself, for your own lessons or classes, to keep the work fresh in your own body. After all, you can only teach what you know, right? Self work-outs are fine if that’s all you can manage, but going to another teacher for true, objective instruction is the best.
  • Educate Yourself. I know, you’ve just spent the last year doing that very thing. But your learning should never end. Let me repeat: Your learning should never end! Maintain your current certification by taking continuing education credits with your certifying organization. But also venture outside of your group and take from other renowned teachers. Many popular and prominent teachers travel around the world looking to teach people just like you. Go to conferences and conventions and continue to broaden your pilates horizons!
  • Have Fun! Yes, fun. Because if you don’t enjoy what you do, why are you doing it? Remember to never take things too personally. Understand that your clients have bad days (just like you), get stuck in traffic (just like you), have a poor night’s sleep (just like you), and they can bring a lot of that into their sessions and classes. Stay focused, and try not to react. Be positive, encouraging, and uplifting. The place from which you come will be felt. Now go forth and share the pilates love!