You have a great class plan, you know your Pilates exercises, you know your cueing formula that will make the movements safe and effective for your clients. You start to teach. The room full of people before you do the exercise as you planned but there is one person. She doesn’t get it. She doesn’t follow the cues. Maybe you try a different cue, or demonstrate, or use your hands to guide her. It’s still not working. You can tell she is getting frustrated and annoyed with you. What are you going to do?

Is this your Pilates teaching nightmare? Well, it’s a scenario that can happen whether you’re a new instructor or someone with many years of experience. It can happen in classes and private sessions. Especially if you teach beginners, those new to exercise and mindful movement or those who suffer from chronic pain or have a neurological disorder that limits their movement. Now is the time to try Imagery.

What is imagery?

Imagery is another tool in your cueing formula. Imagery is visually descriptive language. You attach an image to the movement you are trying to teach. You are probably already using images in your teaching. A good example is Cat-Cow or Quadruped Spine Flexion and Extension. The name Cat/Cow is an image in itself – “Round your spine to the ceiling like a cat stretching”. Most people know what that looks like and can try to approximate the movement to have their spine move like that too.

Use your cueing formula for Pilates Exercises first.

Set up in neutral, anchor and get moving, add breath cues, add core cues and fine tune. With beginners or when I see the client is not able to do the Pilates exercise I’m trying to teach, I try imagery in place of the breath cues. When using imagery make sure you cue first, try the image combined with the cues, then use the same cue again on it’s own so that the pieces can be put together. If you return to that exercise later in the class, use the image again.

An example from the Postural Control Series – Supine Pelvic Tilting: Cue “Tip your hip bones (ASIS) towards your waist, tip your hip bones towards your thighs, your pelvis is neutral when your hip bones and pubic bones are level”. Imagery “Imagine your pelvis is a bowl filled with water, as you tip your hip bones towards your waist the water will pour onto your belly, as you tip your hip bones towards your thighs the water will pour between your legs. Your pelvis is ‘neutral’ when the water in your bowl is level.” And then use your cue again on it’s own.

Imagery can be used to make sure people are supported before they move, or to represent the movement you are trying to teach. I’ve included at the bottom some of my favourite images for both stability and mobility.

When shouldn’t you use imagery?

When using an image you’ll see quickly whether or not it has worked. It’s worked if you see ease of movement or better support. Sometimes you’ll see an ‘ah-ha’ expression on someone’s face. If they don’t get the image don’t try to force it, move on to something else.

Also, don’t use too many images in a class or a session. I try to limit to only one or two images per session. Just getting moving is what is most important. All of our clients learn in different ways and have different cultural backgrounds which dictate whether your image works for them or not. A great analogy is that teaching Pilates Exercises is like teaching clients a new ‘Movement Language’. We need to use different teaching tools to have our listeners understand this new language. For some, anatomical cues work best, others seeing you demonstrate or you can try to use an image that reminds them of something that is familiar to them and it makes it easier for them to learn.

Where can you learn movement imagery?

The best place is from other teachers. Take classes, write down cues and images that make sense to you. Many of the Body Harmonics teacher training courses include imagery in the course material. Eric Franklin of “The International Franklin Method” has a great blog and many books on the topic of imagery and movement.

What are your favourite images? Here are some of mine:

Supine Pelvic Rotation “Imagine you have a marble at your left hip bone, lift your left hip bone to roll the marble to your right hip bone’, now lift your right hip bone to roll the marble back to the left. Add in. Try to keep your buttocks relaxed and keep your legs relatively still as you rotate the pelvis from left to right. Level the hips to finish and your marble will be in the centre below your navel.

Supine Hip Circles (or Single Leg Circles) – First cue stable pelvis, then as the client’s hand guides the knee in a circle “Imagine the head of your femur is a spatula and your hip joint is a bowl with icing on the sides, scrape all the icing off the sides of the bowl in a circular motion”

Kneeling Side Bend – when you see rotation or tipping instead of lateral spine flexion use “ Imagine your torso is between two panes of glass”

Kneeling Spine Rotation. When your client has a hard time keeping pelvis still, or getting motion in their thoracic spine. ”. Imagine your “body is a lighthouse, pelvis and thighs are the brick building, ribs and head the rotating light.” Or “Imagine your Torso as a jam jar, your head and ribs are the lid, your pelvis and thighs the jar, keep the jar still as you twist the lid

Moving from the organs.  If you are not seeing fluid movement in a client try cueing movement from the internal organs from Eric Franklin.  eg.  Supine Spine Flexion/Extension over a Pilates Ball – “Hands behind your head, as you curl forward imagine your heart sinking back into the ball, as you extend back over the ball, your heart reaches to the sky.” Be careful using this image if your client has experienced heart problems or surgery.

Prone Spine Extension – I use two images here to help articulate the spine. 1st to help extend the cervical spine “Imagine you have a marble in front of your nose, roll the marble forward to the edge of your mat” 2nd to help extend the upper thoracic “Imagine you have a light on your sternum, the light is facing down, as you lift your sternum the light arcs across the mat and up the opposite wall”.

One leg stance on floor or yoga block – if you see the pelvis shift laterally out the to the side of the standing leg you can get better muscular support from this image (women) “Imagine you have a stay up stocking on, pull up on the stocking from the inside and outer hip.” ** the outer hip muscle gluteus medius actually has a downward pull on the pelvis but this image magically can get the pelvis to align better over the femur.

Footwork on the reformer – when you see a person is not ‘connecting’ well to the legs or not feeling work. “ Imagine you have some mud on the ball of your foot, put pressure onto the foot as if your were trying to scrape the mud off, now extend the legs”.

For those who posteriorly tuck their pelvis in standing – “Imagine you have a dinosaur tail, it is long and thick and extends gently behind you, feel it supporting you”.

To add some resistance or a stable stance in standing exercises or squats. “Imagine you can push your feet through to the basement”.


Penny Kennedy Headshot-sPenny Kennedy is a Pilates Instructor who teaches at Therapeutic Pilates in Collingwood, ON. Her first introduction to Pilates was as a client at Body Harmonics 10 years ago. Within months she found relief from the chronic hip and neck pain that had plagued her for years. An active person who enjoyed hiking and swimming, Penny hated ‘exercise’ because she was uncoordinated and injured easily.  Through the mindful movement training at Body Harmonics she discovered a way to become strong safely, her coordination, posture and confidence improved.  She left a career in Television Production to become an instructor, Body Harmonics certified, and then became a member of the teaching staff. While at Body Harmonics, she taught in the Neurological program where she witnessed how cueing with imagery can help clients move with ease.  Now residing near Collingwood, Penny specializes in teaching people with chronic pain, new to exercise, pre and post rehab for hip, knee and spine surgeries, and those with joint hypermobility.