Learning Underwater: learning to scuba dive and how it applies to Pilates

My husband and I have just successfully completed our Open Water Scuba Diving Certification with a wonderful, talented instructor from Blue Dive PADI Scuba Certification named Adriana. We finished the 2 day open water portion of our certification on the Agincourt Reefs in the Great Barrier Reef, North Queensland, Australia.  While the intensity of scuba diving far surpasses any type of Pilates workout, there are a few things that I picked up as a student learning something new and exciting.  I think these aptly apply to what we learn and how we teach a Pilates workout.

1) Keep Breathing –

Forever emphasized by our instructor, it amazes me how much we can do with our breath and how quickly things can go wrong when we hold, stifle or restrict it. Remembering to breathe, albeit in very different circumstances, is not only key in calming yourself in various situations, but is the most effective tool that you have to link your mind with what your body is doing.

In Pilates, remembering to breathe throughout your workout, regardless of level, is such a primary way to connect into the work. It demands that you pay attention to what your body is doing and ultimately, how you want it to move. Remembering that we want the ribcage to expand and contract with each complete breathing pattern involved in every exercise is a good workout reminder. Try to imagine the ribcage expansion like opening an umbrella – we want to feel it move to the sides and back of the ribcage (posteo-laterally). Likewise, the inhale is like gently closing the umbrella; not quickly, forcefully or tightly..just in a manner that allows it to continue in a fluid, constant way throughout your workout.

2) Know that your body knows –

Without a doubt, I am not a natural scuba diver…BUT! Once I got comfortable in  my surroundings and with, of course, my breath, I quickly realized that my body seemed to know what it was doing and I didn’t always have to think about it. A lot of times with physical activity of any type, we tend to over think how we’re about to move. This ‘over-anticipation’ can make the movement restricted, forced and depending on your desired outcome, frustrating. As many of our intermediate/advanced clients know, there are some pretty fantastic exercises in the Pilates method (let’s think of; Semi-Circle, Front Splits, Magician Series, Tendon Stretch on the Chair, to name a few) that often require a fine balance between knowing the movement and then letting your body go so that it can move in a way that is stable yet as natural as possible. As your workouts get more complex and more advance in movement patterns and endurance remember to trust your body’ strength and know that it knows how to move.

3) Trust your instructor –

For me, the experience of learning how to scuba dive would not have been as rewarding if it had not been for the patience and guidance of Adriana, our instructor. Again, we’re talking about 2 very different things. But as someone who teaches others this was probably the most valuable lesson I take away from this experience.

For clients, trusting that your Pilates instructor knows what is best for you at any given stage of your workout progression, is just one step in having a rewarding relationship with him or her. You must also trust that how the exercises are modified, introduced and integrated into your workouts are all with the primary focus of building up your strength, skills, stamina and coordination in such a way that isn’t frustrating, defeating or overwhelming.

For instructors, learning how to adapt the work so that it is customized for any client ought to be one of your first and primary goals in becoming a really amazing instructor. It goes without saying that in order to do this you must practice what you preach, love what you do and have a lot of patience to work with those who may be a little slower at grasping what seems to be what is so natural to you. But, most importantly is that you genuinely demonstrate why you love what you’re teaching and do your very best to share the fun and benefits that come with doing it – something that I, a long time Pilates enthusiast, picked up from the amazing scuba instructors out here on the Great Barrier Reef these last 2 days…

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Arches and Pendulums: Imagining the hip joint in basic movement

The hip joint is designed to provide stability while allowing for the mobility of our legs. Understanding its design and movement can provide us with everyday tools that can teach us how to properly access the joint and its powerful muscles. This can lead to functional movement, such as walking and going up stairs, that is efficient and confident.

In her book, “Taking Root to Fly”, Irene Dowd (1995) describes the structure of the femoral heads, or tops of the thigh bones, as pillars of the arch that is the pelvis (Dowd, p. 21). When we stand, the femoral heads rest deeply into the top of each hip joint (acetabulum) providing us with strength, balance and endurance.

But the positioning of our hip joint is not only reliant on how it is placed, but also on the muscles that support, move and balance it. At one time or another, most of us have experienced tight hip flexors; those muscles located at the front of the hip joints.Through overuse or perhaps less than ideal positioning, we have created an imbalance of the hip muscles and consequently find ourselves needing to stretch or release these muscles.

But beyond the stretches that temporarily hold those hip flexor muscles in a lengthened position, we can also access the images such as the one provided by Dowd (1995) and others. These images can help us mindfully position and move the hips so that awareness and eventually balance, are created during everyday activities.

Mindful Positioning

Standing on a stable surface, place both feet directly under your hips. Pay attention to the alignment of your feet and try to feel a gentle activeness in your quadriceps by gently engaging them to draw the knee caps up the front of the thighs. Place your index fingers on the bony protrusions at the front of each hip (on pelvis). Imagine these landmarks (known as the anterior superior iliac spine – or the front, upper part of your pelvis) as headlights – place them so they face directly forward.

Now, imagine the tops of your thighs (femoral heads) deep within your hip arches, as billiard balls (Franklin, 1996, p. 148). Allow their density and weight to support the arches of your hip sockets. Be aware of any muscles that you’re holding around the joint and try to release them by envisioning them melting down the front, sides and backs of your legs.

Mindful Movement of the Hip Joint

1)               Stand with the right foot on a ledge/platform/stair so that the left foot can dangle. For balance, place your right hand on a wall or other stable surface at shoulder height. Allow the left foot to hang loosely and without effort under the joint. Keep your neutral pelvic alignment (headlights forward) and maintain that sense of melting around the hip joints.

2)               Imagine your left leg like a pendulum – allow it to swing with minimal effort forward and back, out to the side and across the midline. Allow it to turn out, turn in, all the while keeping your headlights forward (neutral pelvis) and your muscles melting. Try to feel the length of the pendulum and move as though the leg is twice as long as it is.

3)               Take your focus to the top of your pendulum, within the socket arch where your billiard balls (femoral heads) are moving. Envision what is happening in your joint; as you swing your leg forward, the femoral head rolls along the top of its arch and to the back of it; as you swing your leg back, it moves along the top to the front of the arch. As the leg moves away from the body (abduction) the femoral head rolls to the inside of your hip arch and likewise, as it moves towards the midline (adduction) it rolls to the outside. Keep your headlights forward and consider which direction has the greatest range of motion without the need to change the pelvic alignment and how might that be applicable to our everyday movements. Repeat on the other side.

Effective imagery can  make greater sense of the anatomy of a joint providing us with the tools to focus our attention onto our movement patterns. By understanding how the joint is designed for movement, stability or both, we bring mindfulness and awareness into how we move our bodies…two invaluable tools in increasing strength, agility and overall physical well being.

Note to Pilates Instructors: Apply the above into a client’s workout to compliment/focus/emphasize the following exercises:

– Hip Release, Reformer Footwork, Side Splits, Single Leg Stretch, Squats on the Cadillac, Standing Leg Press on the Chair (Front & Side).


Dowd, I. (1995) “Taking Root to Fly”.

Franklin, E. (1996) “Dynamic Alignment Through Imagery”.



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Why We Love Pilates

Although Pilates is more recognized as part of mainstream fitness compared to 10 or more years ago, there are many who still are unclear about its benefits. While it can be debated that different Pilates approaches or perhaps more to the point, different Pilates exercises, are more beneficial than others, there are a few gems amongst the many that Pilates can offer. Below are some that show how its stood the test of time and why it is such a wonderful method of exercise.


Pilates is a concentration of precise movement patterns, that focus on correct positioning and alignment. At first, the movement tends to stay in one plane – we’re either moving the torso forward or back, to the side, or through a rotation. Additionally, the Essential exercises tend to focus on moving either the arms or the legs, while keeping the torso more or less in a stable position.

But as the workout progresses (and with the foundation of precision, position and alignment under their belts), clients workouts will start to involve more complex movement patterns, that include moving the spine while moving the arms and legs. Not an easy task, to say the least, but achievable. And for those who are not used to moving in such ways there is a sense of accomplishment in their workout as they realize their ability to focus their mind, create new movement with their body and do both with balance, fluidity, strength and endurance.


With coordination, comes awareness of one’s body and without a doubt, Pilates enhances our proprioception; that is, our ability to sense where we are in any given environment, how we control our bodies within that environment and the extent to which we can manipulate the environment for our needs.

For example, on the Pilates Reformer the Side Splits can be challenged with a forward bend that requires keeping the carriage still. Balance, coordination, strength in the hip abductors (outside of the hips) as well as the abdominal muscles are all needed. But so are strong proprioceptive skills; to safely move our bodies maintaining alignment and balance while simultaneously controlling the equipment (our environment).

Think about how this can apply to other physical tasks. The idea that we are better aware of how to move our body in various planes through different positions while on a variety of Pilates resistance equipment means that we’re more likely to have a stronger sense of our body in other environments  – stepping off sidewalk curbs, walking down stairs, riding a bike on a busy street. This makes the abstract movement patterns that can be found in Pilates applicable to everyday life.


In any given Pilates workout, the focus is never on the number of repetitions, but rather the quality of the movement that you do.  Learning to do the exercises correctly achieves several things; it focuses your mind on what your body is (or isn’t!) doing; it requires you to think about how to achieve a more efficient movement pattern (in a sense, learning how to problem solve with your body) and most importantly it helps you to feel what a correct alignment, movement pattern and ultimately, proper muscle firing pattern feels like


Probably the most beneficial thing that Pilates can bring is a sense of achievement. First off, its only natural that some of the exercises will appear daunting and untouchable (particularly given the look of some of the equipment!). But a committed client will get to them – and when you do, there is an immediate sense of knowing that the workout you did is the result of a balance between a focused mind and strong body.

But secondly, and maybe more importantly, are the results of doing Pilates that are noticed outside of the studio. It is not uncommon, in fact its more regular than not, for clients to share stories of being measured as taller at their annual checkup or having more endurance in their spin or weight lifting classes. Or they’re able to stand for a longer period or walk a further distance without pain and discomfort…those are the true gems. And as instructors, they are why we love Pilates.

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Knowing Your Client

With summer officially over, we’ve seen regular clients resume their workout routines while new clients resolve to commit to a weekly Pilates program. It is undoubtedly a busy time and often clients will switch to a different instructor’s schedule for whatever reason – a change, a scheduling conflict or a fresh perspective on a workout they’ve been doing for a while. Change is inevitable and very often a good thing. But a smart instructor will remember that each client has a different focus, a different idea in mind of what the hour should achieve and a different way of connecting into the exercises and their body.

Knowing your client beyond their physicality is as much a part of their workout as the exercise program you create for them.

Mastering an understanding of the exercises and modifications for common postural alignments or musculo-skeletal limitations is all good and well and absolutely key to what you offer. But, if you don’t have a sense of who you’re working with and the type of personality you’re engaging in the session, it might become a frustrating and short lived experience for all.

For many clients who workout on a consistent basis, the hour can often be about the experience of working with a familiar person as much as it is about the exercises they’ve done. Many clients can get attached to one instructor and when they do work with another one, the most common feedback I receive (both positive and otherwise) is always in regards to the instructors demeanor and personality. For many, that can be the deciding factor in carrying on with that instructor or moving on to someone else.

For instructors, this means that we need to know our clients’. And often, we may need to wear different hats throughout the day given who we’re working with.

This industry is just as much about people skills and how we interact with others as much as anything else. There takes a certain skill in being able to work thoroughly with those who want to focus purely on the task at hand and then switching up your approach 60 minutes later to gently focus those who might want to talk a little bit more about, well, everything, so that a well rounded workout is still achieved.

And that skill cannot be developed through the memorization of exercises, modifications and muscles. Rather, it is attained by having the patience to trust your intuitiveness, the curiosity to always want to know a little bit more about those you come into contact with and an absolute genuine interest of and respect for others

It is important to remember that you remain in charge of the workout, regardless of who you’re working with. But it’s also important to remember that your clients have committed to spending one or more hours of their precious time on a weekly basis with you. So beyond the workout, asking about their interests, hobbies or if appropriate, their concerns is a thoughtful gesture that can demonstrate your appreciation for their business and the privilege of having earned their confidence.

While it need not take over the workout, or be something you engage in constantly, it can be as simple as the occasional quick email, hand written card in the mail, a text or, a pertinent question that reflects concern and thoughtfulness at the beginning or end of the workout hour.

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Another Olympic season has ended and as I reflect upon the sporting fervor that swept across the world, that for once united instead of divided different nationalities, it seemed that all eyes were focused on the ‘competition’. The effects that these monumental two weeks of extraordinary feats have been, in my mind, all round positive.

I watched, intrigued, as my son took to the pool, his sister sitting dutifully alongside timing his laps, correcting his strokes, shouting encouragement. The trampoline was in nigh constant motion with somersaults and split legged leaps and shouting of scores. Tennis was played, the neighborhood jogged. It seemed that a mere two weeks did more to bring out their sporting urges than their entire school careers combined.

Of course, where there is sport so too is there conflict. Perhaps not in a negative way, but certainly in a competitive one. Comparison of strength, endurance, stamina and form is a natural consequence of any sporting event. How could it not be when gold dangles at the finish line?

At last, I am getting to my point, which is this: Yoga is not a competitive sport.

Yoga, in fact, is not a sport at all. It is a practice. A way of being. A series of poses, which are designed to bring one into closer understanding of one’s self.

What with all the preening and prowess of these magnificent athletes, it is tricky to keep ones perspective focused internally one one’s own practice, on one’s own mat. Yoga is a discipline if exactly that – discipline. It takes an extremely committed practitioner to be able to turn away from the surrounding distractions and turn inwards. Study one’s self. Better one’s self purely in relationship to one’s self. Not to a clock , or a companion, not the the teacher, nor to a book.

It goes without saying that one can learn from others naturally – where would we be without teachers, enlighteners, and examples? The key, however, is to take the knowledge and process it with respect to one’s self. Solely.

A teacher can direct to touch the toes, and almost certainly there will be a majority alongside who can do just that – with ease and minimal exertion. But if one cannot – then where the growth comes in is realizing that toe-touching is not right at that moment. It could well be in an hour, a week, a decade, but just for the moment – have the fortitude, the discipline to look inwards, realize where you are…and accept it. Fingers stretching downwards, follow the cues to work within the framework at hand (no pun intended) and go deeper using the tools given.

Work through a pose, not straight into it. Understanding how the pose relates to one’s own practice and making a success thereof no matter where the fingers lurk, is the essence of yoga. The reward will be greater in the long run.

A little word that I sneaked in a few paragraphs above might be quick to slip off the radar – ‘accept’. It sounds effortless, it should be elementary, but much of our lives are dictated to by prompts urging us to do just the opposite; don’t settle for mousy – be blonde. Don’t accept fat, be thin. Don’t settle for thin, be skinny – the illustrations can last a lifetime. Yoga is precisely the vehicle through which one can reach a place where it doesn’t matter what anyone else can do, of sole importance is what the practitioner can do within the framework of their extremely singular abilities.

A place of acceptance.

Acceptance that one’s hamstrings might be so tightly wound that no matter how long the nail extensions, fingers might never reach the floor. Acceptance that those same hamstrings will wince and protest in hanumanasa (the splits).

The lesson is to accept where one is, where one cannot be, where one might want to venture. But above all to work with the way things are in the present. The future will take care of itself, and very likely badly if rushed as there is no quicker route to injury than competing within someone who has a completely different physiology.

Step one to the gold medal – Acceptance. The rest will take care of itself.

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