Friday, April 29, 2016

Pilates Teacher Training - The Art of Observing

I've never told a living soul this, but I often daydream about teaching Pilates to the New York Giants, my favorite NFL team. In my boundless imagination, I help Jason Pierre Paul improve his spinal flexibility and teach Eli Manning how to use a stability ball without fumbling it. Odell Beckham Jr. is already quite advanced. He doesn't really need to take my imaginary Pilates classes but shows up anyway just to show off. At the end of class, they all give me high-fives and vow to win the Super Bowl. "We'll win it for you," says my dedicated student, Victor Cruz.

In reality, I'm still far away from being qualified to teach anybody, and the Giants are unlikely to achieve another Super Bowl glory anytime soon. (I'm not a disloyal fan, just a realistic one.) However, I'm as much of a doer as I am a dreamer. I'm working toward becoming a certified Pilates teacher, and the other day, I got to shadow Maria, one of my most well-rounded instructors, in her class. I probably have taken at least 200 classes with Maria during this past year, but there's a big difference between being a student in her class and being an observer watching her teach. As a student, you simply focus on your body and internalize everything you hear. As an observer, it's much less about you and has more to do with scrutinizing, compartmentalizing and analyzing the instructor's teaching technique. 

I'm a pretty good observer. During my observation hour, I took notes and tried to watch people ever so discreetly to avoid coming across as a creepy gawker. I refrained from jocularly heckling a couple of students whom I knew quite well. When someone messed up their roll-down and flopped to the mat, I did not burst out laughing uproariously; in fact, I was quite sympathetic, thinking to myself, "Yeah, I've done that, too...even more gracelessly." My observation ethic was maintained through and through. 

And of course, I learned a lot from Maria. The following are some fundamental things I think aspiring Pilates teachers should pay attention to during their observation hours. But don't bite off more than you can chew. Concentrating on all of these aspects in one class can be overwhelming. It might be wiser to pick only one or two things to be your focus in each session rather than trying to absorb everything all at once. 

Program Sequencing

Program sequencing is a creative process rather than a formulaic strategy. By observing how an experienced Pilates teacher puts different exercises together from beginning to end, you're urged to dissect the program and question the reasons behind such sequencing. Sometimes it makes perfect sense. Sometimes you might be thinking, "Seriously, what the heck?" But that's the beauty of it. The goal is to glide into that mode of analyzing. And if your attempt to understand it turns out to be fruitless, be sure to get enlightened by your teacher after the class. 

Verbal Cueing 

Precision is one of the pillars of Pilates. Doing it right, you get healthier, stronger and nimbler. Doing it wrong, you could severely injure yourself. So all instructions given must be concise, clear and engaging. Maria is an expert at this, and I'm so grateful to be able to learn from her. Articulation has never been my forte. I might sound eloquent when I write, but you have no idea how long it usually takes me to organize my thoughts and finish one blog post! I'm not a natural talker. I'm horrible at explaining things. Ask me to teach someone how to fry an egg, and it might end up being an omelet. So yes, verbal cueing is a skill I really, really, really need to work on.  

Manual Cueing

Manual cueing is a tricky tactic. Sometimes it involves almost a full demonstration. Other times, a shoulder tap or a hand motion is all that's needed. When I first started learning Pilates, a teacher put her hands on the sides of my torso and asked me to push my rib cage into her hands every time I inhaled. That's how I came to understand lateral breathing. Little physical cueing like this can give a clueless student that eureka moment. But it must be done properly, or else it might not help the student at all. And that's why you must observe, observe and observe.  

Student-Teacher Interactions

A Pilates class is like a microcosm. Students have different learning styles, physical conditions and personalities. Some, who are very in tune with their own bodies, might be able to correct their positions according to simple verbal cues. Some need a little extra push with manual cueing. Some are quite inquisitive and ask multiple questions in one breath. And some just really can't perform any of the exercises at all. It was fascinating to watch how Maria accommodated different students' needs and succinctly answered any questions that arose without disrupting the flow of class. This skill, I'm sure, can't be learned from a textbook or mastered in one day. 

Being Awesome and Motivating 

Pilates isn't easy. Even athletes and professional dancers might find it daunting. In most Pilates group classes, however, you don't always see extremely athletic people with superhuman endurance, like LeBron James or Serena Williams. Rather, you might see Hermione, an uncoordinated accountant, or Baltazar, an overweight father of two, or Mildred, a sixty-year-old grandma who wants to stay fit. It's important for a teacher to be able to create a welcoming atmosphere, make a tough workout enjoyable for everyone, and motivate those who may not be so athletically inclined. 

Can I do this? I don't know. I'll try to learn the art of being awesome from Maria as best as I can. Those who are close to me will say I'm quirky and funny, but I wouldn't be surprised if some acquaintances think I'm standoffish and kind of grumpy-looking. I'm like Miranda in Sex and the City (I even married a guy named Steve, too!), not super outgoing like Carrie or so sweet like Charlotte. To be honest, I sometimes fearfully doubt whether I'm cut out for this job. But still, I have to take the plunge. Finding out that I suck at teaching Pilates might crush my soul into smithereens, but it will still be less awful than not trying at all and living with that what-if. 

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