by Beth Sandlin
Pilates Instructors work with a wide range of clients with diverse personal experiences and reasons why they come to a Pilates Studio. Some of these experiences and reasons we know, yet there are many more that we are unaware of. Trauma Informed Pilates takes into account the whole person who enters our space and realizes that how people move, think and interact may be greatly influenced by trauma they may have experienced throughout their lives. This article provides a brief insight into trauma, trauma informed care and trauma informed Pilates.
What is Trauma?
As Peter Levine wrote, “ Trauma is perhaps the most avoided, ignored, belittled, denied, misunderstood, and untreated cause of human suffering.” This is not a subject that we typically learn about and even those who experience trauma may not identify with having a traumatic childhood or experience because it was their “normal”. In the United States, 61% of men and 51% of women report exposure to at least one lifetime traumatic event.
Trauma constituents a wide range of experiences and is not isolated to interpersonal (domestic) violence or war. Trauma can be any experience outside the everyday life experience of people. Examples include a serious illness, a major car accident, cancer, life threatening event, childhood neglect, witnessing a death, physical pain or injury, and yes, interpersonal (domestic) violence or war. In addition, chronic stress can have the same effects on a person as a traumatic event. People can even experience vicarious or secondary trauma. Taking this into account, you can most likely identify clients who have experienced traumatic events.
When someone has experienced a traumatic event(s), there may be short and long term impacts on the brain, mind and body. The fight, flight, freeze (or even fawn) response that occurs in the short term to help someone survive the traumatic episode can get “stuck” in their nervous system and this can manifest in their daily life and responses, including a Pilates session.
What is Trauma Informed Care?
Trauma Informed Care uses the premise that everyone has had the potential of experiencing a trauma. This understanding shapes the client experience and is the ultimate client centered approach. At the foundation of all trauma informed systems is understanding the prevalence of trauma, the effects of trauma and action is taken to inform best practices within the organization and client interactions.
Virtually any profession can use a trauma informed care approach, including but not limited to the social services system, counselors, doctors, school teachers and movement professionals (Yoga, Pilates and Personal Trainers). For professionals who have completed continuing education in trauma informed practices, they work towards establishing safety and trust within each interaction and have the awareness that trust and safety continue to develop overtime.
What is the Trauma Informed Pilates Approach
Pilates is a mind body movement experience. Joseph Pilates wrote about this in his book Return to Life and there is a growing body of scientific evidence pertaining to the benefits of focusing on breathing exercises that can help to regulate the nervous system and strengthen the prefrontal cortex. In addition, when people feel in control of their body and experiences this can positively influence their movement patterns and their sense of agency.
Trauma Informed Pilates is an approach in which Instructors and studios have an understanding of trauma and how this impacts the brain, body and mind. This shapes not only how an instructor may teach a client but can also inform studio policies and overall communication strategies.
Below outlines some overarching principles of being a trauma informed Pilates teacher:
Choices: Give clients options with the exercises, variations and if they want you to use words or touch during a session. Threading choices into a session can help clients to feel safer, build trust and help to foster a greater sense of agency for the client over the workout.
An example is to use an invitational approach rather than a directive approach: “If you would like to, close your eyes as you continue to focus on your breathing.”
Boundaries: Each studio, instructor and client may have different boundaries. These need to be well understood by the Pilates teachers and clients, including studio policies, when to refer a client for either medical or behavioral health specialist, and boundaries pertaining to exercises taught and use of touch. The boundaries of not only the instructor but also the client needs to be respected.
An example is: “Would you prefer if I use my voice for instructions and guidance or use my voice and hands on assist?” Please note, the way in which many people ask to get consent to touch clients, does not give equal weight to opt-out of touch. The words we use and the setting in which they are used matter. Many people may not feel they can opt-out of of touch in a group setting or if you give a yes or no option.
Provide Context: For new clients in particular, simply informing them of the reason for an exercise, your position, and if you use touch, the use of touch, can continue to establish safety and trust.
An example is: “While you continue with footwork, I’m going to get a cushion for the next exercise.”
All of the approaches highlighted above work to establish and maintain safety and trust. In addition, they are used for all clients regardless of whether a teacher knows that someone has experienced a trauma or not.
Using a trauma informed approach extends beyond these three examples. It filters into exercises taught, sequence of the exercises, the words used and can extend into the entire client experience even before someone enters the physical space.
For more information about Trauma and the Trauma Informed Pilates Approach, you can download Understanding Trauma Informed Care for the Pilates Professional
Beth Sandlin holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Health Education from California State University of Long Beach where she started her journey with the Pilates Method under the guidance of Karen Clippenger. She credits Pilates with her full recovery from Acute Myeloid Leukemia and this is what inspired her to teach Pilates. She trained with Rael Iscowitz is a graduate of BASI Pilates. She has worked in private Pilates studios, gyms, rec centers and on a college campus. She enjoys bringing people the Pilates Method no matter where they are.
Beth believes all people should have access to Pilates and staying true to this, she founded Trifecta Pilates in 2016, where she brings Pilates out of the studio and into peoples homes through YouTube.
She serves as the Assistant Director of Educational Services at the Health Center at Auraria serving 3 college campuses. As part of this function she coordinates the Mind Body Fitness program and continues to teach Pilates classes. She works in collaboration with the LGBTQ Student Resource Center and the Phoenix Center at Auraria, an office dedicated to assisting people who experience Interpersonal Violence. Beth also teaches University level academic Pilates Mat classes and Health Education classes.
Because of the unique nature of the environment she teaches in, Beth has evolved her approach to teaching Pilates to be both inclusive and trauma informed. In 2019 she launched a Trauma Informed Care continuing education course for Pilates Instructors.
Whether she is teaching Pilates, health or living life, her true purpose is to empower all people she comes into contact with so they can lead their best, most well connected life in body, mind and spirit, as fusing the body, mind and spirit creates the perfect trifecta to elevate our experience on and off the mat.