— by Kelly McGonigal, PhD

When Pilates and yoga first hit mainstream fitness over a decade ago, instructors enthusiastically fused these traditional methods with everything from kickboxing to weight lifting, disco and rollerblading. While many of these fads have fizzled, the fusion of Pilates and yoga remains a popular combination. IDEA spoke with several leaders in the field to find out how the yoga-Pilates format has matured since the hundred was first introduced to downward-facing dog.

Find Your Focus

Yoga-Pilates Fusion, Fitness Journal Feb 2010According to Valentin, a master faculty member for Balanced Body® University and owner of Pilates Body by Valentin in Dublin, California, “Many program managers welcome fusion classes to increase the numbers of attendees in class. It is a great way to introduce another discipline to new members.”

Casting a wide net means you attract participants who might otherwise be intimidated or uninterested in a traditional format—but it also means pulling in a wide range of expectations. Shirley Archer, JD, MA, author of Pilates Fusion: Well-Being for Body, Mind, and Spirit (Chronicle Books 2004), says that managing expectations is one of the biggest challenges of a fusion format. “People may be drawn to Pilates for its [reputed ability] to create a dancer’s body. Others may be drawn to yoga for its reputation for relaxation and think it’s a gentle workout.”

The reality of the class may surprise or disappoint participants with high expectations or a limited understanding of the two disciplines. This can lead to tension in the classroom and poor retention rates. Valentin admits, “I have had yoga students walk out of a class feeling that it was not what they wanted.”

Tom McCook, founder and director of Center of Balance in Mountain View, California, recommends explaining the benefits of each movement to help keep everyone from athletes to office workers interested and invested in the exercises. “Tell them how and why. Get their attention, and have them see the value of what you’re teaching at each stage of the class. Tell them how it will help them use their bodies in an efficient way, or how it will help lower-back and neck pain. Get them to buy into it.”

All of the instructors agreed that a successful program begins with a clear identification of the class’s target audience, focus and benefits. Linda (Freeman) Webster, wellness supervisor for Aurora BayCare Sports Medicine and owner and director of Guru Fitness®, both in Green Bay, Wisconsin, says, “The only way to sell a fusion class to a program director is to have a well-thought-out class design. Be able to define the intention of the class and the atmosphere you want to create; be able to demonstrate it to the director; be able to train other instructors on the format; and give a class description that truly tells the student what to expect and why the class is valuable.”

Go Deep

When a format first hits the fitness community, many instructors jump on the bandwagon without a lot of training. A weekend workshop here, a class or two there and careful viewing of a DVD may be enough at the start of a trend. But the instructors who last are the ones who take the time to train seriously in the method.

According to Webster, the best fusion classes reflect the depth of both systems. Unfortunately, many classes don’t. “It is difficult to find instructors who are well-versed in yoga and Pilates—who truly understand the essence of each. Most fusion formats are very yoga with some Pilates thrown in, or vice versa. Make sure you are well-versed in all formats you are going to teach. Don’t think you can wing it in Pilates just because you are great at yoga, for example. Consumers are pretty smart and will see right through you.”

McCook also advises instructors to fully integrate any new approach before fusing it with the familiar. “Don’t practice on your students. A lot of people will teach things they don’t know, that they learned at a workshop over the weekend. Instead of practicing several times, they teach it the next day. It’s a mistake. You need to have a little more depth in what you’re doing before you launch it on students.”

This goes not just for teaching a new exercise but also for trying to update a familiar one. Valentin advises caution and careful thought before changing a time-tested traditional movement. “Know the intent of the exercise and where the focus should be before you make a change. Be able to explain why the movement is being changed.”

Less Is More

Fusion formats typically promise to deliver more bang for the buck: making strength training aerobic, developing core stability while burning calories, bringing pizzazz to a normally peaceful practice. Many yoga-Pilates classes started this way. However, the field is finding that when it comes to mind-body fusion, less is often more.

This was a lesson Webster learned through experience. “[When I began teaching fusion formats,] my focus was on helping people get more into less time—for example, combining resistance training with yoga for those who didn’t have time for an hour class in each. It was successful, but a tough workout! Now I am more focused on having students feel a familiar movement in a new way, helping people experience ‘aha’ moments.”

McCook agrees that Pilates and yoga classes should emphasize quality over quantity. “In other classes, it’s easy to get caught up in how hard a movement is or how much weight you’re using. Pilates and yoga are more about where your attention is as you move, the quality of your form, and noticing whether you are being kind to yourself.”

McCook advises other instructors to reflect on whether or not the tone of their classes encourages students to push themselves or reinforces the idea that going further is always better and a sign that you are performing a more advanced practice. “People come to class thinking that how far you go in a pose or exercise is how well you are doing it. This is really not the intent of mind-body practices. This mindset is a driving force for why people get hurt.” To shift the tone, he reminds participants to focus on doing a pose or exercise with good mechanics, rather than pushing or comparing themselves with neighbors. “I also include more discussion of the experience itself. Are you enjoying the movement or just trying to get somewhere? This matters for life.”

To help students develop greater awareness of healthy mechanics, McCook spends far more time on movement fundamentals and preparatory exercises than he used to. “I build [more slowly] than I used to and give more time to cool down. I emphasize yoga breathing techniques more, and how to coordinate breathing with movement. People need to learn how to slow down, breathe deeply and bring that into every exercise.” According to McCook, one of the biggest mistakes instructors make is to pack a class with advanced exercises and postures because participants say they want to work hard. “Don’t let clients run the class. They don’t really understand that learning how to move their body better requires attention.”

Body and Mind, Meet Spirit

Some of the early mind-body fusion formats made Pilates and yoga more accessible by emphasizing the fitness benefits. With time, the fitness community came to value and promote the stress reduction and focus-training aspects of Pilates and yoga. Now, fusion formats have welcomed the final piece: spirit.

To Archer, the defining quality of an authentic and evolved fusion format is an emphasis on nonjudgmental awareness and mindfulness. “This self-awareness can release a spiritual awakening and a sense of unity with all living beings. When we tap into that center of mystery and power, we experience gratitude, harmony and tremendous well-being. It can be transcendent.”

Of course, spiritual transcendence may not be foremost in the minds of participants when they drop in on a fusion class. But McCook says, “It doesn’t matter what got someone through the door. Students may be attracted to the class because they want their bodies to look better. But you can’t do something physical mindfully and not have a spiritual component.”

To acknowledge the spiritual side of Pilates and yoga, McCook frames the class with short meditations. “It’s really important to ask people at the beginning of class to set a personal intention for themselves. Have them close their eyes and check in. Give them time to let go of what happened earlier today; drop into breathing, sensation, gravity; and ask themselves, ‘What do I want to experience?’” At the end of the session, McCook has students return to their intentions and give themselves credit for taking the time and effort to practice.

Lifelong Learning

For the instructors themselves, teaching fusion formats has become a way to nurture their own spirit and creativity. “Whenever I get creative on the mat and begin exploring new formats or fusions, I always learn so much about myself and my body,” says Webster. “I’ve also learned to be more patient and compassionate toward others when they are in that same learning phase. I have become a much better coach and mentor through the creative process.”

Valentin says that teaching the format has opened her eyes to the relationship between exercise and quality of life. “When I started learning Pilates, I thought that it was just another form of exercise. I was wrong. The more I learn, the more I find out how little I know. It has become a way of life and [teaching Pilates fusion classes has helped show] me how every step I take, how I sit, how I stand and what I eat make an impact on my energy and my future.”