Sarita Allen began teaching Pilates more than three decades ago. But even experienced teachers have more to learn: Allen still takes classes regularly, aiming for one private and one group class per week.
“Studying with someone else is like heaven,” she says. “It’s nice not having to think about what’s next and being a student again. It really ignites my passion for technique,” adding that it helps her break out of her own habits and preferences and discover new practices, cues, and modifications to bring to her own classes at The Ailey Extension in New York City.
At this point, it’s fair to say that Allen is as expert at taking Pilates classes as he is at teaching them, and he’s discovered a thing or two about how to get the best workout. Here, Allen shares the “don’ts”—the mistakes Pilates learned not to make during her workouts—and why avoiding them can lead to a more fulfilling class.
1. Don’t come with preconceived notions
Allen finds that if he goes to class with an idea of what it will be like, or what it should be like, he will inevitably miss out on what the class has to offer him. “A lot of people in contemporary Pilates are adding their own philosophy,” she says. “And if I don’t openly try it, or if I go ‘this is weird,’ then I might miss something interesting.”
Even beginners can benefit from coming to class with a more open mind, she says, especially since they’re often confused when they don’t feel the burn right away. “A lot of people who are new say they don’t feel anything,” she says. “So I would tell them try not to expect everything to work out. Some exercises are subtle, and when you engage the deeper muscles, you won’t feel the burn like doing push-ups.”
2. “Don’t Squeeze”
It’s not uncommon to hear the muscles “chipping” during a workout class. But Allen says it’s something she avoids in both her teaching and her personal Pilates practice.
For example, in the classic Pilates position, or the “V” leg position with your heels and toes together, teachers sometimes ask students to squeeze their glutes. “You want to be involved, 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 likes to think about “engaging” his glutes.
3. Don’t take a position
Although there are moments in Pilates class where it feels like the body isn’t moving—for example, during the extension portion of a double leg stretch (aka a hollow hold)—Allen says she makes sure she’s never just holding. A position, and that he is always moving, even if it is subtle.
This, he says, is partly because the concept of “flow” is essential to Pilates’ design—one exercise is intended to flow into another. But finding the movement makes the exercise easier and more effective, she says: In that double leg stretch, for example, having a constant sense of stretch and length through both arms and legs helps her balance.
4. Don’t hold your breath
Likewise, Allen makes sure he’s never holding his breath. Different styles of Pilates incorporate breath and movement in different combinations; He finds that continuous inhalation and exhalation is most important, and encourages beginners not to worry about coordinating the movements if they feel disoriented. “Breath is one of the tenants of Pilates—it’s part of the technique,” she says “It helps your muscles become more flexible; It is the engine of movement.”
5. Do not move without the core
“I don’t move a muscle until my core is engaged,” Allen says, even with simple movements like raising his arms. “I never do anything but go in first and get out of there.” He says supporting the core gives the rest of his body a greater range of motion and eases or frees mobility in the joints.
Citing the example of repeated leg lifts using only the hip flexors, he says, it’s not only impossible to perform a Pilates exercise effectively without engaging the core, but it can also lead to overuse of other muscles.
6. Don’t push too hard
Allen’s years of experience have taught him the difference between challenging yourself and pushing yourself to the point of injury. He admits it’s not always clear, especially for beginners, but says signs of going too far are any sharp pains or tingling, or a gripping or grinding sensation in the joints. Simple changes often make the difference: He’s not shy about lifting his legs higher in the abdominal series, reducing his range of motion, or resting his head on the mat. “I’m not a kid myself, but I know my body well enough to feel when I cross a line,” she says.
7. Don’t compare yourself to others
Allen admits that as a head teacher, it can be a challenge not to 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 into trouble—they see someone next to them and try to imitate them and they can hurt themselves. Just be true to yourself, and listen to your body—don’t let your ego get in the way.”