Neuroplasticity and Pilates: Creativity With Brain Games

Have you ever struggled with giving a client what they need and what they want? Sometimes those are contradictory things. Pilates can be tedious at times, but I can see the potential for growth through the endeavor.

Finding the thing that helps them to make the connection, or finding the thing that motivates them to go deeper, does not always happen right away. When I teach Pilates, I strive to find the balance of what they want and what they need. They might want to lose weight but we need to work on the basics, before getting into serious flow.

Sometimes this means stepping out of the box and getting creative about how to help the student find the movement within their own vocabulary. I have a client that has trouble with focus and sometimes processing my words into movement. I want to help her find connections to the movement, that last past her session and into the next. I am always trying to find new tactics to help Cynthia feel successful with Pilates. We have had a lot of success in improving her posture. She has Kyphosis and our work together has helped her develop strength to stand taller and remember her posture throughout the day. I felt like it was time to take her Pilates practice to the next level. In order to do that, we needed to improve her focus and brain function within the movement. She was craving this elevated practice and I was seeking way to help her achieve it.

I came across Erika Quest’s Instagram series on Active Aging. Her post about using neuroplasticity with her clients was intriguing to me. Erika described neuroplasticity, as movement with a brain game attached. I thought this might be a helpful tactic for Cynthia and I to try together.

Erika used numbers, specifically her phone number, while her students were doing an exercise and had them repeat it back to her. Cynthia and I are not motivated by numbers. The less I have to deal with numbers in life, the better. I asked myself, what does Cynthia enjoy? Singing was the first thing that came to mind; it’s something we bonded over. One day, it was just the two of us in the studio and another teacher was walking out the door. I sang part of “So Long, Farewell” from The Sound of Music as she left, as a joke. Cynthia was so excited about this and started singing with me. We spent time singing what we could remember of songs from The Sound of Music, while she did Pilates. I decided that we could try neuroplasticity and use singing as the brain game to go along with her Pilates exercises.

The lyrics in the song “Do-Re-Mi,” say, ‘Let’s start at the beginning, a very good place to start… When you sing you begin with Do, Re, Mi.’  I decided this was a good place to start and named this experiment, Project Do-Re-Mi. I told Cynthia what I had in mind for our new project and she loved the idea. Similar to Erika’s process, I gave her a movement pattern, then a line from the song and had her repeat it back to me as she moved. We started with ‘Do, a deer and female deer.’ By the end of the session she remembered the lyrics to the song, that were a challenge for both of us to remember at the beginning. We ended her session singing together, with a little help from me if she couldn’t connect one lyric to the next. Throughout the session, her focus on her movement improved. Giving her something to focus on in addition to the exercises, helped her to focus on the movement. She needed something specific and familiar to think about, while she was doing the exercises. There is a lot to think about while doing Pilates. Giving Cynthia something to focus on that was still related to her body but was not about the movement, made her approach more relaxed. This helped her to turn her focus away from executing the movement to the point of strain and holding her breath.

During her next session, we continued the singing. I did some exercises without singing and noticed she had more trouble focusing, when she was not singing. She remembered the lyrics from the week before with less help from me. So we took the brain game to the next level and tried to sing do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti forwards and backwards as she rolled up and down her spine in a Shoulder Bridge. By the end of this session, she was standing tall and confident on her own without much encouragement from me.

The following session we were not able to sing, as the studio was busy. Even without the singing, Cynthia had better focus and better memory of what we had worked on previously. She needed less instruction from me to get moving. Her demeanor was different than a usual session with a lot of activity around us. She had more focus on her own workout and was less distracted by the other students and teachers. She had more confidence in her movement and was less anxious. Cynthia likes singing during her sessions because it makes her happy. She says that singing, “reminds me of being young and running outside and singing.” I see more freedom in her movement and her mindset. By giving her a different emotional connection to her movement practice, she approaches it from a place of happiness and less restraint. She walks out the door with a smile on her face and less stress than when she arrived.

If you would like to try neuroplasticity with your students, find a brain game that speaks (or sings) their language. Maybe your client enjoys poetry and you could have them recite some lines of verse. Then pick a movement pattern that is not too complicated and is repetitive. The whole session doesn’t need to be focused on neuroplasticity. For clients that need help focusing this could be a good way to start the session, to get them out of their day and into the movement and their body. I am excited to continue Project Do-Re-Mi with Cynthia and see how it improves her memory of the words and the exercises. I hope it helps her to create new neuropathways and improve the fitness of her brain, as well as her body. Her focus is already better. We can do more during her session because she remembers the exercises faster. There is less confusion and more achievement. The smile on her face and look of accomplishment, at the end of her session, makes it all worth it.

Heather McCash

About Heather McCash

Heather is a Certified Pilates Instructor, Writing Coach for Pilates Instructors and Author of But First... A Memoir of a Backwards Life. Heather started taking Pilates at her professional ballet school during high school. She returned to the method during recovery from a 15 year battle with Lyme Disease. Heather has been teaching Pilates and Barre in Nashville, TN for 8 years. Taking and teaching Pilates has been a crucial part of her recovery from Lyme. She has expanded her teaching to include a program, Writing for Pilates Instructors, to help teachers find their writing voice for promotion or self-care. Heather has been a featured writer on CNBC.com, creativesoulstribe.com and made the Best of Craigslist New York. You can follow Heather on Instagram @healthyheatherpilates or visit her website for more information. Her book is available on Amazon.