Sarita Allen started teaching Pilates over three decades ago. But even veteran teachers have more to learn: Allen still takes class regularly, aiming for one private and one group class each week.
“It’s like heaven to study with someone else,” she says. “It’s wonderful to not have to think about what comes next, and to be a student again. It really ignites my passion about the technique,” adding that it also helps her break out of her own habits and preferences, and discover new exercises, cues and modifications to bring into her own classes at The Ailey Extension in New York City.
At this point, it’s fair to say that Allen is as much an expert in taking Pilates classes as she is in teaching them, and she’s discovered a thing or two along the way about how to have an optimal workout. Here, Allen shares the “don’t”s—the Pilates mistakes she’s learned not to make during her workouts—and why avoiding them can lead to a more fulfilling class.
1. Don’t come in with preconceived notions
Allen finds that if she goes into class with ideas about what it will be like, or what it should be like, she’ll inevitably miss out on what the class actually has to offer her. “A lot of people in contemporary Pilates are adding their own philosophy,” she says. “And if I don’t try it openly, or if I go ‘this is weird,’ then I might miss something interesting.”
Even beginners could benefit from coming into class with a more open mind, she says, especially since often they are confused when they don’t immediately feel the burn. “A lot of people who are new say they don’t feel anything,” she says. “So I would say to them to try not to have the expectation that everything has to burn to be effective. Some of the exercises are subtle, and when you engage the deep muscles, you’re not going to feel a burn like you’re doing push-ups.”
2. Don’t “squeeze”
It’s not uncommon to hear the cue to “squeeze” the muscles during a workout class. But Allen says that’s something that she avoids both in her teaching and in her personal Pilates practice.
For instance, in the classic Pilates stance, or “V” foot position with your heels together and toes slightly turned out, teachers sometimes tell students to squeeze their glutes. “You want to engage, but I never squeeze the life out of it,” she says. “You’re not going to be able to move—you’re going to lock everything up.” Instead, Allen prefers thinking about “connecting” her glutes.
3. Don’t hold a position
Though there are moments in Pilates classes where it feels like there’s no movement happening in the body—during the extension part of a double leg stretch (aka a hollow hold), for instance—Allen says she is careful to make sure she’s never just holding a position, and that she’s always moving, even if it’s subtle.
This, she says, is partially because the concept of “flow” is essential to the design of Pilates—one exercise is intended to flow into another. But finding movement also makes the exercises easier and more effective, she says: In that double leg stretch, for instance, having a continuous sense of stretch and length through both the arms and the legs helps her balance.
4. Don’t hold your breath
Similarly, Allen makes sure that she’s never holding her breath. Different styles of Pilates pair breath and movement in different combinations; she finds that having continuous inhales and exhales is what’s most important, and encourages beginners not to worry about coordinating with movement if they find it confusing. “The breath is one of the tenants of Pilates—it’s a part of the technique,” she says. “It helps your muscles be more pliable; it’s the engine of the movement.”
5. Don’t move without the core
“I don’t move a muscle until my core is engaged,” says Allen, even with movements as simple as lifting her arms up. “I never do anything without first going inward and moving from there.” The support of the core, she says, frees up the rest of her body to have more range of motion and ease in the joints, or mobility.
Not only is it impossible to execute Pilates exercises effecitvely without the core engaged, but it could also lead to the overuse of other muscles, she says, giving the example of lifting the leg over and over again using only the hip flexors.
6. Don’t push too hard
Allen’s many years of experience has taught her the difference between challenging herself and pushing herself in a way that could cause injury. She recognizes that this is not always clear-cut, especially for beginners, but says tell-tale signs of going too far are any sharp pain or twinges, or a sense of gripping or grinding in the joints. Simple modifications often make the difference: She isn’t shy about lifting her legs higher in the abdominals series, lessening her range of motion, or resting her head on the mat. “I don’t baby myself, but I know my body well enough that I can feel when I’ve crossed a line,” she says.
7. Don’t compare yourself to others
Allen admits that as a master teacher, it can be a challenge to not compare herself to those around her, or to her younger self. “I try not to look at the person next to me, because I don’t know their journey,” she says. “That’s when a lot of people get in trouble—they see someone next to them and they can injure themselves trying to imitate them. Just be true to yourself, and listen to your body—don’t let your ego get in the way.”