Why do so many individuals have difficulties with much of the original Classical Pilates exercises? What would the world of Pilates look like if Joseph Pilates was influenced by today’s scientific information? Would he adapt new ways to teach movement? These are questions that often come to mind when speaking with classically trained Pilates teachers. Personally, I believe that if we could take out the “struggle” that so many have with Pilates, our industry would become the number one exercise choice. I strongly believe that if teachers understood the science of movement, they would be more adept at implementing modifications. Additionally, they would see the value introducing variations to help students feel more successful, and to prevent their bodies from getting stuck in poor movement patterns.
I like to think we can evolve as Pilates teachers and that we all have something to contribute. Our own personal story helps our students relate. Our struggles with learning healthy movement and figuring new ways to move provide steppingstones for our students to follow. The lessons we learn and incorporate into our personal practice help us teach better and provide our students better learning. Many of these self-discovery moments come in the form of variations and modifications.
As a Pilates teacher, you have the ability to change the way students perceive movement. You also have the power to make them want to learn and grow. One way we can get our students to flourish is to offer exercise variations. This helps keep students engaged, makes the class interesting, and improves overall experience. However, in addition to exercise variations, a great Pilates teacher incorporates exercise modifications to help each student reach their full potential.
Prior to taking my first Classical Pilates class, I approached the teacher and took time to introduce myself. I mentioned I had a previous spine injury and that many of the Classical spine flexion and extension exercises caused me pain. I expressed I’d be grateful for any modifications she might offer. Truth be told, I mistook her glazed-over look for complete boredom. Little did I know her look was due to the fact that she didn’t offer modifications. To be honest, after leaving class, I was beyond frustrated and in pain for days. This was a teaching moment for me. I came to the realization that I was not the only person having this experience. This was the catalyst that would bring me to understand the importance of incorporating modifications and variations into my practice.
If you are like me and have physical limitations due to past injuries—or find that some of the Classical Pilates exercises simply don’t work for your body—you’re not alone. Personally, for many years, I avoided Pilates spine extension exercises because they caused me terrible low back pain. It took me many years to understand that with proper modifications, I could learn to do the exercises pain-free. Experiencing modifications over the years, I also was able to incorporate variations into my practice. I now excel at modified spine extension exercises.
Another reason I floundered at learning movement was that a mentor had once told me that if I was unable to properly do spine extension, due to my injuries, then I should avoid it entirely. What a load of cow dung that was—and I believed it for years. Instead, I now know that what I needed to do, was to find a variation of spine extension that worked with my limitations. I share this with you because I want you to know it’s important to understand that your practice is unique to your movement abilities. Adapt your practice to fit your body, instead of the other way around.
In conclusion, I want to briefly describe the difference between an exercise variation and a modification. They are confusing to understand and often are used interchangeably. Both words have similar meanings. However, to delineate between the two, I offer you two brief examples:
Modification: The altering or adjusting of an exercise to meet a student’s limb length, physical limitations, or level of understanding.
Variation: The increasing or decreasing of an exercise’s level of intensity by adding a tool or prop, or by switching body orientation.
The difference between the two words is slight and has more to do with intention than with the exercise itself. If you are simply bored with an exercise, and you change it up to keep things fresh, this can be considered a variation. Again, it’s all about your intention. Exercise modifications can be viewed as a way to adjust the variables to better fit each student and their fitness level. Another way to look at it is that if you take an exercise—without changing the dynamics—and your intention is to make it more accessible to a student, then you’re creating a modification.
Take the time to learn! Work diligently on your personal practice and continue to evolve. I want you to succeed and, in turn, inspire your students. I hope you begin to see the limitless options you have in incorporating variations and modifications into your practice.