Prenatal Pilates is a topic that consistently stays popular. Pregnancy is a wonderful time in the life of a woman but it often raises a lot of questions and red flags for movement specialists.
- What exercises are safe?
- When should we stop doing Pilates?
- How late in the pregnancy can a woman start a new movement modality?
- How can we deal with pregnancy discomforts?
- And when can a woman safely return to her Pilates practice?
Today Leah Stewart is back to talk about Pilates programming for pre/postnatal clients. Leah first started teaching prenatal teacher training courses as a faculty member of BASI. In 2015 she made a decision to take her teaching courses online and she launched her first interactive online course Prenatal Pilates Doula Program.
In this interview we will talk about the building blocks of creating a well-balanced prenatal Pilates program and will address most common teacher concerns about teaching prenatal clients.
You will also notice an appearance of a special guest during the video. One of my younger girls decided to join us for the recording.
Questions covered in the interview:
- Advice for the expecting mothers on how to stay calm.
- How Pilates teachers can provide support for their clients during pregnancy.
- Beneficial breathing patterns during different stages of pregnancy.
- How to create a well-balanced prenatal Pilates program for a client.
- When is it too late during pregnancy to start a Pilates program?
- What are the benefits of taking a prenatal teacher training course online?
Interview with Leah Stewart
PB: Leah, how did you get started with Pilates?
Leah Stewart: I started Pilates when I was a young dancer which is a common story for many of us teachers. Shortly after college I went to the BASI program with Rael Isakowitz, and I was able to work in his studio for several years. I trained with Rael to become a BASI faculty member and that was such a fantastic experience.
Then I had the honor and privilege of teaching the BASI courses for years all over the world in many different cultures and that was invaluable to me, not only as a Pilates professional, as a teacher, but also as an individual.
After I worked at the BASI headquarter studio I opened my own home studio, and then I eventually opened a small Pilates studio here in Southern California – LiveLife Pilates. I started teaching Pilates focusing on pre- and postnatal, but also able to do a lot of other classes for just the general population, not a specificity of pregnant women and new moms.
I was developing pre and postnatal courses and teaching them under BASI at first. Since then I went through two of my own pregnancies and was able to learn so much about the labor experiences. I was exploring the Pilates repertoire during my two pregnancies in really different ways and was able to bring this information into my courses.
In 2015 I made a very tough decision to close my studio and focus primarily on my education and workshop programs for pregnant women and new mothers. Even more, I have decided to take my whole business online by teaching online courses.
I have taught two courses so far, a Mommy and Me Pilates course and my Prenatal Pilates course online and both of them worked so well. I couldn’t be happier about this decision and the great experience of doing an online course. I was so happy to have a lot of support from my clients and family members during this year of transformation for me.
PB: Do you have any advice for the expecting mothers on how to stay calm and for their Pilates teachers on how to “guide” them during the pregnancy?
Leah Stewart: As Pilates teachers we have the opportunity to guide a woman through her pregnancy. First we need to look at what is already built into the Pilates practice that is designed to help keep that confidence, keep that empowerment, keep that calm, keep that joy, keep that zest and just the love of movement.
- Breath is such a powerful tool, not only physiologically to keep our muscles and joints healthy, keep the circulation, but also a powerful tool mentally and emotionally to calm us, to physiologically bring our heart beat down or to bring it up, or just get into a certain state of mind. The important of breath and then carrying on from that breath is going to be a major tool, that’s going to be used during labor and during birth.
- Flow/fluidity is the other tool. Being able to enjoy the feeling of movement and how we can really experience each exercise or each session in our body on that particular day. All of this becomes very important.
- Acceptance even though it’s not necessarily one of the tenets of Pilates, we can really integrate it into the practice. Each day a pregnant woman feels a little bit different. How she feels at six weeks is going to be obviously very different from how she may feel at 36 weeks or 16 weeks or 26 weeks.
Knowing that that body is going to adapt and being accepting of that is really powerful. Some days you feel more energetic, you can do a little bit more, have a little bit more challenge. On the days that you feel quite fatigued or nauseous, you can bring it down a notch, and you can just enjoy some deep breathing, you can enjoy some different type of exercising, a different vibe with your program.
That’s a really powerful thing for us as teachers to know and for us as pregnant women to know that the work will adapt to us, it will meet us at where we are.
- Focus and concentration together with body awareness. I was just in a workshop yesterday at Pilates Anytime with Brent Anderson, and he was speaking about the pelvic floor. We were talking about how for so many women pregnancy is really the first time that they develop an awareness in their pelvis, the pelvic floor because obviously that’s where things happen. It’s such a unique opportunity for women to learn about their bodies and sometimes for the first time, or sometimes in a whole different way and to become really acquainted or acquainted intimately with the majesty, the power of their body.
When we can appreciate the changes that are going on, not only that our body is helping this beautiful little baby grow inside, but also the way that our body naturally adapts anatomically, physiologically to meet the needs of that baby, it is a miracle. It is absolutely astounding, and so when we have that knowledge and we accept and we can love that about our bodies, I always find that women stay more calm, they stay more confident in their body.
PB: What types of breathing patterns do you recommend during different trimesters?
PB: What are your steps for creating a well-balanced prenatal Pilates program for a client?
Leah Stewart: As you know, there is no “one size fits all” program that we can apply to every client. At the same time when I teach prenatal sessions I talk about seven pillars of a meaningful prenatal Pilates practice. During some of my free training videos I spoke of four of those pillars: maintain, open, relax, strength, lengthen. I go in depth discussing those pillars during the program and I want to make sure that we integrate these pillars into our sessions. Depending on the trimester, and just how our client is feeling on a particular day we will focus on different pillars. For example, during third trimester we can focus more on the opening aspect and we will bring in the relaxation pillar. During the second trimester when women are usually feeling really good we are able to hone in a little bit more on the maintenance and strengthening aspects of our pillars.
So if we can make sure in our overall program that we incorporate all of these pillars the we are going to keep a woman healthy and balanced and strong and empowered during her pregnancy. And when we do that we can really make sure that our classes, our sessions, our individual sessions, are very well rounded, and they are meeting the needs of our clients.
I always say we do women major disservice by treating them when they are pregnant like they are fragile, and you are going to hurt them.
Yes, obviously we want to proceed with caution, we want to proceed with safety. We want to proceed with creativity, and wisdom. We want to proceed with compassion and empathy and sensitivity to their needs, clearly. I think when the pendulum swings too far to “We can’t do this, we can’t do this, we can’t do this, we can’t do this,” like all of a sudden a woman is like, “Okay, here I am.” And she’s like, “What’s wrong with my body? Like what …
PB: Yeah, they feel almost handicapped by their pregnancy.
Leah Stewart: Absolutely. The women that I worked with or that took my classes on PilatesAnytime have reported to me how empowered they felt in their body. Because the reality is that labor, no matter what it looks like, labor is a very powerful experience, hands down, for any woman.
I like the analogy between a pregnant woman and a marathon runner. If we don’t prepare the runner for the marathon, they can maybe get through it, it’s not going to be fun. It’s going to be really hard, but they are not going to have that empowerment going into, they are not going to have that joy of going into. It might be, “Well I just hope I get through it. We’ll see what happens.” Labor is something that we have to prepare for in every facet of our being. And physically we can certainly do that. And the physical obviously will help and achieve that mental and that emotional preparation as well.
PB: Leah, your online training program is called “Prenatal Pilates Doula Program.” What does “doula” stand for, why did you bring it into your program?
Leah Stewart: The idea of calling it doula has been sitting on my mind and my heart for really a long time. And I was afraid. I’m just going to be very transparent. I was really afraid to use it because I didn’t want people to take it the wrong way.
So I really looked into the history of doulas and the meaning of the word. “Doula” is a Greek word, and there are a couple of different definitions of it. Essentially what it means is a woman assistant or a guide who is there. It’s kind of open ended like exactly what that means.
We know historically during labor obviously children were born via midwives. And often women accompanying labors to help the mother stay calm, to help her feel empowered, to assist the midwife. There was very normal to have women surrounded with other women during labor all through our history. So “doula” kind of comes from that historical aspect.
So now we have labor doulas, we have postpartum doulas. And these are women that are there during labor or postpartum to help a woman with her experience, to be that support, to be that guide, to be there. So in my opinion, we have an honor as prenatal or as Pilates teachers when we are working with pregnant women. That woman is probably seeing her doctor during her appointments, or she’s having a baby with a midwife which is a slightly different experience. But besides those appointments, the pregnant woman is probably not speaking to any other professional about her pregnancy.
So she’s coming into our Pilates studio and we are guiding them through their movement experience of pregnancy. We are movement doulas. We are not birth specialists, we are not labor specialists, we are not falling into those category.
W teach them a lot about their body and about their alignment, a lot about the way their body moves. We teach them a lot about their pregnancy because we know the stages of pregnancy, and we’ve been trained in this work and we’ve studied it. So that’s a responsibility that we have. She may or may not be getting that information from other professionals, she maybe reading it on her own, but then really tying it in to the way that everything works with movements. So for me that gives us this great honor of being that guide, movement guide and being that prenatal Pilates doula.
So that’s why I called it that. Nothing other than just to really stress the importance of teaching with knowledge, wisdom, sensitivity, love, compassion, and creativity. And that’s really such a wonderful gift that we are given when a woman trusts us with her movement, and her body during this really meaningful experience that she’s going through.
PB: Is there a point in pregnancy when it is too late to take a woman as a client?
PB: Pregnancy can bring a lot of discomforts (sciatica, lower back pain, round ligament discomfort etc.) Do you address those during your training?
Leah Stewart: I break down the program into trimester and in each trimester I speak about hormonal changes, physiological changes, anatomical changes and within that postural changes. And we speak about somewhat the specific things like changes in the abdominals or the pelvis and going into more details about the pelvis and the pelvic floor and the ligaments of the pelvis and so on. But within those sub-categories, within each module I talk about contraindications, I talk about conditions and symptoms, and I talk about how those can affect movement. So it’s very broken down, so it’s speaking about things around ligament pain.
We talk about why those symptoms/conditions occur and what are some of the general things that we can do to help alleviate those conditions before we go into specific examples of exercises.
One of the conditions that gets brought up in my course a lot is heart burn, how heart burn and indigestion is such a common experience for clients. A client doesn’t feel comfortable laying down even before 20 weeks, or doesn’t feel comfortable in a quadruped position during exercise. How do we explore that as far as our movement options. Those are certainly a condition and symptom that we want to be able to work with. So we can come up with some modifications and some variations, and then if a woman is still experiencing something that seems more severe than that, and then at that point it’s out of our scope, and we’ll need to refer her to a different specialist.
PB: You have new online teacher training programs coming up in 2016. How long is the course? How does the online learning happen?
Leah Stewart: Before I started promoting my online courses, I sent out surveys and asked what are some of your concerns with taking online courses? And I got some really great feedback, and things that I already anticipated as well and some things that I hadn’t anticipated. The length of the courses is different, depending on the material.
The prenatal course is quite long because it’s a big course.
The “Mommy and Me” course is a bit shorter, because it’s an addition to a postnatal education course. But we are more specifically talking about how mommy can do Pilates with baby in tow. And it’s really fun, and we speak about baby’s development for the first year and mom’s postpartum healing for the first year. And then we look at the exercise options according to that.
So the courses I set up are lectures, so you sit down and you watch a video of me lecturing. And then there are videos of exercise demonstration, and the next videos are sample classes. And there is also interviews with a physical therapist, with a doctor and with a midwife. So again bringing those other professionals that we tend to work alongside.
The course is very organized. But the most wonderful thing that I really enjoy about the course is every week depending on how long the course is, I send out a little questionnaire or survey. And the students will fill that out with specific questions that I ask for their own concerns or things that need more clarification, or they want to go in deeper discussion about. And then we have a Q&A call once a week.
And I go in and look at all those questions and I organize them into categories, and then I address each one, so that the Q&A call is very organized. Those calls are recorded so that you can listen—our students can listen to them after if they’ve missed that Q&A call for whatever specific reasons. That part really adds the connection, and of course we have Facebook groups, there is always email.
So I am with you at every step, these courses aren’t what we would call “evergreen.” You can’t always come in and say, “Oh I’m going to take the prenatal course now.” It happens at a specific time, and I am there with you for the duration whether it’s two weeks or six weeks. So I’m there with you and releasing modules, lessons in a very systematic order.
I love teaching in studios over two days or three days, but it’s always like go-go-go-go, it’s just like a lot of information. And yes they can write great notes, yes the handouts and the manuals are really great and helpful. But the online experience really slows down that learning process so that the brain can really absorb things slowly. And the very best part is you have access to the course forever.
So let’s say you teach and then let’s say in six months to a year later you want to review a certain element on it, you can go back and watch it. And every time I teach the course I may update things, or I may add things or whatever, you can have access to that material as well no matter when you took the course.
Probably the biggest concern has been how are you going to be able to watch us cue a client. And guess that part of it would be great, but we don’t really even get into that in a studio, face to face version in anyways. And to be quite frank with you at this point I am not here to assess your teaching skills, that’s what advanced educational courses, particularly this one, are for. You already are a teacher; you already know how to teach. I want to know more about how you are processing the material, how you’re incorporating the material, and how you’ll design a program for your clients.
You know how to teach, you know how to do exercises, you know how to perform exercises. So that element I feel is very good right now, and I designed the evaluation and final exam to this way. You have a client, you tell me what you are going to do with this client, I want to see your thought process. And from there I can kind of see how you refer the material and how you are going to use that material. Because when we teach it’s not an element of blurting out all the fancy information we know. It’s how we can actually apply that in simple effective ways for our clients to understand.