How to become a great Pilates instructor
As students enter the space we will share for the next hour, I carefully watch the newcomers. They look around nervously, trying to figure out where to set their mat to get the best view of the instructor and wondering if they will survive the class. I hear their whispers of apprehension — after all, they hear that Pilates is all about the core and that women like Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow use it to keep their beautiful long, lean bodies in shape year after year.
Usually their gaze passes right over me, landing on one of the taller (at least 5’6”) students with long, slender limbs. It takes them a minute or two to realize that their Pilates instructor, whom they imagined to look a certain tall, lean way… is me!
Why does that discovery surprise them?
I stand five foot two, and currently weigh in at approximately 170 pounds. According to the medical profession and overall societal measures, I am considered overweight, nearing on obese. According to them, my ideal weight should somewhere in the 115–130pounds range.
What keeps me teaching, when I clearly don’t fit what society expects from a Pilates (or yoga) instructor? Why do I continue? Because I am great teacher!
Now before you think I’m full of myself, it is my clients who tell me how much they love my classes and they keep coming back for more!
In my years of teaching and studying with various mentors such as Margot McKinnon, Michelle Cormack, Rod Stryker and Maria Garre, I have learned a few things that I try to give my class and students every time. It’s a short but important list of five points that I consider “must-do’s” in order to be a great Pilates Instructor.
Connect: Don’t be afraid to share part of your struggles or journey with your students. Let them know you can relate. When it comes to struggling with weight, body image and the challenge of being healthy and fitting into society’s standard of beauty, who better to have as your instructor than someone who has been through battles of their own and found some success?
Encourage: I will not ask my students to do anything I personally cannot do. This means I work out with them as I cue, watch, and take little pauses to help adjust and correct them as we go along. By the time our hour is up I am just as sweaty and dishevelled as they are. I show them the attainable goals, with a continued focus on progression and growth that is right for them. Remember, someone who hasn’t been able to touch their toes in years might feel exhilarated the first time they do that in your class. Don’t discount what look like smaller moments to you, because they might be big moments for your students.
Laugh: I have been so lucky to have mentors with a fantastic sense of humour, and I know it has helped me stick with the courses and training. Margot never discouraged me from becoming a teacher in a world where I did not look like one, and she instead focusing on the joy of learning and experiences! If your students never smile once during a class, you may be missing out on some wonderful experiences. If you accidentally cue the right instead of the left, or accidentally call the wrist the ankle, it doesn’t actually matter. Make fun of yourself on occasions and show them you are human too. Let them know that Pilates is not just about torture time.
Remember: With every training that I have taken with those same mentors, I had those initial daunting feelings. Was I getting in way over my head in studying with these experts? In the end, you know what amazed me more than their knowledge of the topic? It was their ability to remember my name in groups of any size! Acknowledging every student as they come into a room by using their name, or even just attempting it will make your whole class more personal and engaging. Even when I have failed to remember the right name, my efforts have never gone unnoticed. Students will seek out your class every time because you make them feel important.
Flexibility: How many times did you have a great idea of building a class around one peak exercise, only to find that the students showing up were over 50 and completely unsuited to your prepared session? Or my favourite scenario, where students range from age 20–65! Don’t lock yourself into an idea or scenario that simply won’t work for your students. Remember, you are there for THEM, not the other way around. Your knowledge and training related to Pilates ensure you have the information you need to guide your students safely through the class. Any additional courses, certifications or workshops will never be a waste of your time! Your students rely on you to continue to challenge them with new exercises and to keep things fresh.
Sometimes being “book-smart” is not enough, we have to use our innate intelligence to make connections with our students. If you try to include these 5 points in your teaching methods, I promise you won’t be disappointed!
So, what does a really great Pilates Instructor look like?
They come in all shapes, sizes and ages! None of those factors alone determine if you are a great instructor. It is determined by your willingness to be great and bring students back for more, week after week!
Question for you
When have you felt like you could never be a great instructor due to how you look, how old you are, how strong your accent is, or other ways that you didn’t fit ‘the stereotype’? What has helped you realize that these negative voices don’t actually speak the truth?
Share your stories in the comments below!