Diving Deeper into the Pilates Matwork to Keep It Fresh. Written by Amy Taylor Alpers

Pilates teachers often ask me, “How can I keep my Mat classes interesting for my clients, and even, myself? It’s so repetitive.” It’s basically the same set of exercises done in the same order over and over again, right? I mean, how many ways can there possibly be to speak it so that you don’t sound like a tape recording? Especially right now during this crazy period of lockdown and online teaching of clients who may have no equipment available to them.

Surprisingly, having been teaching Mat regularly for over 30 years, I can truly say, I have never felt that way. In my mind, there is so much depth to be mined from the material that it’s endlessly interesting, creative, empowering and healing. And you don’t even need to break exercises down, or make up new ones, or add props and gimmicks just to mix it up and stretch it out, although those are options too. So let’s open up a discussion on the many ways you can potentially re-frame, re-vive, re-fresh your Pilates Mat classes. Let’s look at the Mat series through an ever changing kaleidoscopic lens of possibilities so it’s all new again each time you teach it. 

As an always learning and evolving teacher myself, I’m often currently curious about a certain issue, and that can be my theme for quite a while as I explore all its potential for helping my clients. Perhaps the way the pelvis moves on the femur differently in each exercise, or vice versa, the way the femur moves in the pelvis, for instance. Or sometimes I’ve just recently studied a particular part of the body, because I was interested to learn something new, or was even asked a question about it that I couldn’t answer. And those things can become new themes.

In other words, inspiration can come from anywhere at anytime if you keep your mind open to it. Maybe the way you saw a bird suspend itself from its wings as it flew, or perch on a branch with its amazing feet. As Mr. Pilates himself suggested, watch babies, and animals, particularly cats, a lot. There is much to learn from them about how a body moves naturally.

Often facts really help. The human skeleton is made up of 206 bones – 26 in the spine and both feet, and 27 in each hand. In other words, half of all your bones are in your hands, feet and spine. Isn’t that interesting? That means hundreds of muscles, joints, blood vessels and nerves as well. Three quarters of the motor cortex of your brain is for controlling your hands and feet alone! Exploring all the movement possibilities in just those 4 parts could take years.

And of course, the spine, in particular, is prominently featured in every Pilates exercise. How many ways could you speak to it to spark new interest in it? For instance, each vertebra’s nerves go to and from different and specific organs. You can teach a separate Mat class for each one, exploring how every time you bend that particular vertebra, you are stimulating the connected organ. Imagine how empowering that can be to clients as they explore their bodies.

A single class can be spent just focusing on feeling a specific joint move at the boney (versus muscle) level or vice versa. For instance, as you move, imagine your hips, ankles, or shoulder joints are gliding and rotating easily in their sockets as if they were floating or coated in a soft, warm, slippery liquid. This can help to free movement up in amazing ways. And it’s actually the truth as well, and when your image is very close to the actual way things work, it’s even more effective. This way of thinking as you move is also extremely therapeutic as it actually helps keep the joints healthy, lubricated, hydrated and oxygenated at the same time. You can even add that thought – imagine that liquid is filled with healing oxygen!

You can teach a whole Mat just focusing on a certain muscle or set of muscles. There are 600 plus in the human body. For instance, what do the gluts do in each exercise? You can treat them as a single group of muscles, or work with each separately. What is their job? How do they help you move? How do they help or hinder pelvic and hip joint balance, symmetry and stability. How do they support and move your legs, your sacrum, your spine? How do they interact with other muscles in a full-body way? I find many clients can’t access them easily and yet, they are so important to our structure. Focusing every exercise on how to use them correctly is very helpful for all sorts of hip, knee, spine and neck issues.

Certainly the abdominal muscles are essential in Pilates. Study them a bit first. Then you can focus an entire class – or even a month of classes! – on them. Or even just on the deepest layer – the transversus – and how it helps in every exercise with spinal strength, flexibility and stability, and especially breathing. The transversus is the primary exhale muscle, and as we know, Joseph Pilates said that to breathe correctly, you must “exhale every atom of air from your lungs until they are as empty as a vacuum.” How does one really do that? And what does it do for your whole body health? What other muscles are involved? The diaphragm, intercostals, etc. More class themes. It’s amazing to watch clients truly connect to their breath.

How does something as seemingly simple as flexing an ankle correctly actually change everything? For instance, the way your lower back opens in flexion as in Spine Stretch? Or the way your pelvis and legs are stabilized in Saw to facilitate better rotation. Ankle flexion even affects the way your eyes sit in their sockets? It’s all connected. Lots to explore.

How do you even straighten a knee healthfully and wisely? It’s actually quite a complicated movement for our overly sedentary bodies. Straightening a knee when getting out of chair is a completely different movement sequence from how it works when standing up from a squat, which is actually the way it’s designed to move naturally and safely. You can help your clients explore their current pattern, and learn a more valuable one in nearly every exercise? And possibly save their knees in the process?

Choosing very intentional and specific words can really re-frame everything too. For instance, what’s the difference between contracting a muscle, which is an active movement, versus gripping, hardening, or tightening it, which can feel like actually stopping movement? Certainly it stops movement at a circulatory level at the very least. Exactly the opposite of the intention to stimulate that “internal shower.”

How does it feel differently to release and allow muscles to lengthen versus stretch? For instance, how does Spine Stretch change when you say flex your spine with your abdominal contraction, allowing your back to release, instead of stretching your back (despite its name)?

How many words are there to describe a quality, a texture, a movement, a feeling? Moving as if you’re in water will create very different sensations than moving in air, or moving in peanut butter. All of these ideas can reinvigorate your class.

Creatively re-framing the exercises not only keeps them fresh and new each time, but infinitely stretches your understanding of the movements and their effect on the body. Another amazing side effect of this practice, is that your clients go deeply inside their own bodies and learn to explore them and become more responsible and empowered. When you spend less time creating new exercises or adding props and toys, and more time discovering all the possibilities available in the classic Mat, suddenly the world of Pilates opens up in ways you never expected.