Pilates was not my first passion. I only discovered it after a lengthy battle with a recurring shoulder injury that resulted from the combination of a desk job, using the mousepad regularly and a stressful time in my life. I was willing to try anything that could rehabilitate my shoulder and relieve some of the physical pain and discomfort I was experiencing on a daily basis. I had tried different modalities to help me deal with the discomfort: I went to a neurologist who prescribed medication, Physiotherapy was good but it only lasted 3-4 days and then the pain would return. Movement helped, as did release techniques but it never lasted. Eventually, I tried a few private Pilates sessions, then I joined group Mat classes. I was taken by how quickly Pilates helped identify and address muscle imbalances and helped to restore my posture. Unlike other approaches, I noticed how much it helped increase my awareness and the pain started to subside. Unlike most of my students, my Pilates journey started with Matwork. Quickly, I was hooked and I immediately signed up for teacher training.
As a teacher I found the direct contact with the Mat provided neurological feedback that helped correct students without excessive cueing or fiddling with springs, straps or the distraction of the apparatus. I noticed significant results in students who participated in the Matwork due to the focus on breathing, concentration and strength building. With beginner groups, I have had to adapt the repertoire by breaking down the exercises into simpler movements which build the foundational strength and endurance that leads to doing the full exercises. We even use props to support and provide more neural feedback until students are ready to move on. Most students need adapted exercises when they start with Matwork due to tight hips, a limited range of motion or restricted ROM, poor shoulder mechanics or lack of connection or strength, tight necks, weak abdominals and glutes. The Mat gave me (and my students) everything we needed. It helped me to balance my muscle development, taught me correct muscle recruitment patterns, reminded me to breathe and greatly improved my overall strength, resulting in better alignment.
Along with the Mat came props: The Magic Circle, Overball, handweights, Foam Roller, Theraband. Each prop had a way of contributing to the neurological feedback as well as adding variety to the repertoire. Props have a way of aiding with proprioception and providing the feedback to help “switch on” muscles you would otherwise struggle to use.
After my immersion in Matwork teacher training I discovered the Apparatus work. There was the Reformer, Wunda Chair, Cadillac and Barrels. The seductive straps, springs, handles and bars! The apparatus offered the possibility of supported tension, traction and different surfaces to move on. There were more ways to mobilize and build strength, a massive playground to explore that any body and fitness level could benefit from. The Apparatus helped me find ways to work deeper, while supported, and my Mat quietly gathered dust in the corner…
This year we are experiencing the Covid-19 pandemic and with it many personal losses, including social activities disrupted or cancelled, the closure of community centres, Pilates studios and gyms. Many of us without access to “equipment” or apparatus found ourselves coming back to the mat, the humble rectangle with no assist, no support, just the ground. My return to the mat recently was, expectedly, intimidating. It brought back memories of my early days, the injuries and lack of confidence. I especially remembered those exercises I found so challenging-I really mean impossible! There were many: Roll Over, Open Leg Rocker, Swan Dive, Teaser, Scissors and Kneeling Side Kicks. Revisiting those exercises, I realized how much more accessible they were for me. I had improved strength and flexibility in my flexion, stronger glutes to lift my legs up, and better range for extension and rotation. I could not believe how much stronger and more mobile my whole body-especially my hips, had become! It seemed the apparatus had made me more capable on the Mat. As a Pilates teacher, I recognize movement opportunity with various modalities but certainly something had shifted.
Matwork offers students a convenient and affordable way to access functional fitness, to move with more ease and efficiency and reduce the risk of injury or rehabilitate. With all the video teleconferencing platforms out there, now all of this can be experienced without ever leaving your home! Simple apps like Zoom or Google Meet have not only made it possible to stay in touch with family and friends but we can now also have access to better health! Log on to any computer or device and you can instanty have access to lowered stress levels, increased energy, increased proprioceptive awareness, a more flexible spine, improved hip and shoulder mechanics, uniform strength, increased mobility and balance, the list goes on! In fact, most common physical issues such as back pain, neck pain and headaches, hip pain, knee pain can be addressed addressed in a Beginner or Fundamentals Mat class. Once a good foundation is established, Pilates Matwork is one of the most invigorating and challenging workouts out there.
We are currently bracing for what may be a long winter in the face of more public health orders. Most students who did practice Matwork during the first lockdown returned with new found strength. Mat had made us stronger! The Mat is a great place to start the basics, too. Learning how to stabilize your body, connect your shoulders, correctly extend your hips and thoracic and articulate your spine is invaluable for the demands life places on us as well as for continued longevity and strength which significantly declines as we age leading to loss of balance and fractures, to name just two. The Mat is also an excellent place to check your movement practice and track your fitness level. You can be sure to always learn something new about your body in a Pilates Mat class. Through any moment in life, we can be certain of the Classical Matwork’s accessibility. It is affordable and simple to follow, all you need is a mat. I am incredibly grateful for rediscovering this easily neglected modality. It is arguably the most overlooked gem in the Pilates studio.
Elsa van Der Merwe is a Certified Pilates Teacher living in Vancouver, B.C.. She is currently a teacher at Reform Pilates and available for Privates and Duets. Sign up now for her Virtual Mat Classes or you can reach her at [email protected] to book your Consultation or next session.