This month, we are going to have some fun. Coming from a pilates instructor, that statement might seem scary. Don't worry. The exercise of the month is Variations.
What is a Variation?
A variation of a pilates exercise is usually a version of the exercise that is not "classical"- in that its not exactly as Joe taught it originally. There is usually an additional coordination element or more complex movement to the exericse. Variations can also be the same exercise done on a different piece of equipment, such as Knee Stretches with the Trapeze bar, as shown in the photo above. Variations are just meant to keep things fun and interesting for both the student and the teacher!
Some examples of variations that we'll be playing with are: Bicycle Teaser (my fave!), Rolling Like a Ball "Hang 10" (Ellie Herman showed us this one when she came to Rhinebeck Pilates as a guest teacher), Variations on Push Ups (one armed push-ups, anyone?).... and more.
Variations can be done on every piece of equipment, and with every exercise. EVERY exercise has a variation!
Rules for Variations
-A variation of an exercise should never be given to a student before they learn and basically master the original exercise.
-Variations should not be given to beginner students, only those with pilates experience and who know how to properly engage their core for stability in exercises (see below).
-Before teaching a variation, the instructor should have practiced it him/herself to make sure that its doable and safe. Ideally, the variation was learned in a continuing education workshop, or taught to the instructor by a master trainer, and it has already been deamed safe. Simple variations (such as Open Leg Rocker without holding the ankles with the hands, but instead with the arms reaching up) are obviously safe.
-Students should be warey of more complicated "variations" that involve combining pieces of equipment. The idea behind a variation is to subtley challenge the student somewhat within their comfort zone, not to rearrange their world of pilates! I actually once had an instructor show me an exercise that combined the reformer WITH the tower at the same time. Needless to say, I was not excited or impressed, but actually wanted to leave!
Variations vs. Modifications
Variations are typically only given to intermediate to advanced students, for the obvious reason that pilates is complicated enough. When students are first learning pilates, there is enough going on that variations are totally unnecessary, and just become confusing. To these beginners, we are more likely to give a modification instead of a variation- modifications make an exercise easier to access for beginners and strengthen the body to learn how to do the full exercise. For example, variation on the Hundred might be to lower the legs on the inhale, and lift the legs on the exhale. A modification on the Hundred might be to keep the feet flat on the mat with the knees bent.
Are variations and modifications even necessary in the pilates method?
In my opinion, the answer is yes and no. Pilates never gets boring, and there are so many classical pilates exercises created by Joe that adding in variations sometimes seems excessive and distracting from true pilates. However, adding a variation in here and there keeps students on their toes, challenges the mind-body connection, and challenges the core by "surprising" the body with something it didn't expect to come next in the order of exercises.
Some teachers argue that modifications should not be given in pilates. If the student is not ready or strong enough for an exercise, then they are just not ready. In my teaching, I use modifications to a point- with a very beginner student, when introducing a new, complicated exercise to a more advanced student, or for someone who has an injury that really prevents them from doing a lot of different movements typically found in pilates.
History of Variations
When Joe Pilates was in the process of creating his method, he taught to each individual, unique person. Therefore, he would teach the same exercises to different people in slightly different ways, depending on their physical needs and strengths. This fact has caused some controversy over the years as to how an exericise was "really" taught by Joe. Many different people claim that they are the only ones who know how an exercise should be taught, because Joe showed it to them. In the end, a conversation like this is mostly about egos because we know that he taught differently from person to person. So in this sense, Joe did invent the idea of there being variations to his exercises.
Over time, some of Joe's dancer students changed or added exercises that had a more dancerly element than some of Joe's original exercises. As these students went out to teach on their own, they taught Joe's versions- and their own versions- of exercises. As this continued, and still continues today, a sense of what original pilates was like begins to become muddled by some.
This is why its so important to keep variations few and far between, and to be selective about what variations you give and why. Keeping with the integrity of classical pilates is most important, adding in variations is just the icing on the cake.