By Aspasia P. Simeone
I have studied and taught Pilates for over 20 years. I began as a certified fitness instructor when ‘strength training’ and ‘high impact aerobics’ cornered the market in the fitness arenas. Pilates did occupy a small corner so to speak in some of the popular fitness centers, but only on Mat and with a small variety of props made available, nothing more. Quite often Pilates appeared in the Yoga section of the schedule.
We know from history that the young Joseph Pilates was a fitness enthusiast of all sorts. He studied and incorporated many East and West practices into his doctrine and from that combined these concepts into his union for health and fitness. Some people would categorize him as a visionary. I am one of them. He developed the early makeshift Pilates apparatus at the time of his internment in England during WWI. Although intentionally for the sole purpose of providing injured interns a means to exercise and rehabilitate from their hospital beds, this truly was an extraordinary concept for that time period, especially with such limited provisions. Applying the principles of tension springs (simulating the compression forces of gravity), patients unable to stand upright and work freely with weights, now had the opportunity to work horizontally and do so in bed. Since his exercise regimens encompassed a diverse range of abilities from the non-bed confined participants, the limited availability of any exercise gear likely inspired much of the Mat work we know today. The years Joseph Pilates spent in confinement certainly were busy and productive.
For those people that shy away from Mat work, this article is for you. Please know Mat work will only enhance your experiences on the classic Reformer and any Pilates apparatus including but not limited to the Chair, Barrel, or Tower. If given the chance, Mat work can satisfy a wide range of demands from portability to personal challenge, so keep an open mind, and all you need is a quality Pilates Mat!
The Pilates 6 principles: Breath-Concentration-Centering-Control-Precision-Flow are the basis of the Pilates method and the same whether applied on Mat or Apparatus. The strict adherence to these criteria is what sets Pilates apart from other disciplines. A personal connection with these principles is essential. My personal creed has always been ‘The more I understand, the better I teach…the better I teach, the more my clients understand’.
Let’s take a quick look at the Reformer mechanism and compare it to Mat:
The modern basic Reformer, regardless of the manufacturing brand, is just that, basic in design. Designed along similar lines to Joseph Pilates’s original device, it consists of a moveable carriage attached to a fixed frame via expandable tension springs. The carriage slides along tracks, driven by a set of adjustable straps fixed at one end that glides over an anchored pulley system. The straps (foot, thigh, or hand placement) control the spring resistance through expansion and compression, dependent on the action applied. Mostly one size fits all, but adjustable in the Foot-bar to Shoulder-block length and the Foot-bar to Carriage height. With the addition of a few props like Box and Jump-Board, you can complete exercises in all the planes of movement and your feet never touch the ground. On the Reformer the physical boundaries, connection, and spatial awareness is more defined. Symmetry is easier addressed. The participant is the focal point, coupled with their relation to a moveable platform. Centering and balance is accentuated through the effort of the tension springs.
A good quality Pilates Mat is crucial to support the body weight and any bony skeletal structures making direct contact with the Mat. Unless props are involved there is nothing between the participant and the Mat so to ensure a smooth comfortable experience the Mat should be adequate. The Mat requires more proprioception. Spatial perception is highlighted. The focal point is the participant and their movement relative to the fixed Mat and the direction of their gaze. An innate awareness of centering and balance is heightened thereby counterbalancing the natural effects of gravity.
Reasons to consider Mat in the 6 Pilates principles:
- Breath: We know that gravity is a force in nature that our bodies must constantly oppose and overcome so that we can physically function. We find that balance through our skeletal and muscular anatomy. This allows us to breathe, stand upright and perform all that is needed throughout our life. As Mat work utilizes this natural force in its entity, it makes perfect sense that this routine would integrate the breath easiest with the movement, and develop a natural connection.
- Concentration: People tend to gravitate, no pun intended, toward the Reformer before Mat work because they are of the mindset that believes machines enhance exercise routines and offer more in the way of strength gains and variety. These practices sometimes become rote and therefore require little effort in recruiting muscle activation over time. Variation from equipment to Mat is recommended to keep the routines fresh and experience a deeper mind-body association, through concentration.
- Center: It is often suggested when a new student is beginning Pilates to seek out Mat classes first. The execution from Mat is apparent whereas from the Reformer more instruction and direction are required. As there is no equipment between the participant and the exercise, Mat work commands an immediate response and connection to one’s center: the Core.
- Control: Although the external forces applied by the participant are what drives the Pilates Reformer, opposing gravity and one’s own body weight is what propels the exerciser on the Mat. Spontaneous and voluntary muscle recruitment counterbalance and control the Mat exercise. The muscles work against gravity to either balance the body position or depending on direction, control the motion. The strength gains from Mat work are parallel to any Pilates apparatus.
- Precision: People are efficient at repeating physical tasks over a long interval of time. As the brain becomes familiar with the practice it will create a pathway to a memory that can be easily retrieved. This is great for some daily activities that need practice to improve and can certainly be applied to retaining the classical Mat arrangement. This recall ability then becomes invaluable so that progression, development, and precision are the primary objectives.
- Flow: The classical order that defines Mat work can be a challenge to appreciate at the onset of a new Mat curriculum. To the unexpected, this predetermined exercise order may appear without an agenda. However, I assure anyone that is exploring this matter, to take the time to perform each exercise, practice often and most of all have patience. Eventually, the flow will feel natural. and “ in 10 sessions you will feel the difference, in 20 sessions you will see the difference, in 30 sessions you will have a whole new body”…Joseph Pilates
About the Author
Aspasia P. Simeone is a certified Pilates instructor through the Pilates Institute of America (PIA) as well as a Personal Trainer & Weight Management Consultant through the American Council on Exercise (ACE.) She has an engineering background spanning almost twenty years in the aerospace and telecommunications industry. Her degree in applied physics lends itself to her highly technical and analytical approach to composing kinesiology, exercise, and nutrition documents. Aspasia has maintained an active Pilates and /or fitness business for over 20 years, and designed, created, and copyrighted a comprehensive weight management program called Absolute Fitness & Weight Management which is registered with the Department of State to create caloric deficits through exercise and diet. She currently teaches Pilates at Pilates by the Sea and blogs about Pilates and Fitness on Absolute Fitness Blog.