Helping and Healing Through Pilates

Deborah Marcus entered the Pilates world in the 1980’s in New York City via teachers including Andre Bernard and Jean Claude West while pursuing a career as a dancer and choreographer.  She found her way to the Polestar Teacher Training in 2008 studying with Sherri Betz in Santa Cruz, CA., “It was an eye opening and transformative experience for which I am forever grateful!”.  Deborah is Currently a Polestar Educator and the owner of Movement Refinery Pilates Studio in San Mateo, CA. 

 An Offer Of Pilates to Help Heal The Trauma of Relationship Abuse by: Deborah Marcus, MFA, PMA®CPT, Polestar Educator

What follows is a summary of my experience after teaching a one and a half hour workshop to two groups of CORA, (Community Overcoming Relationship Abuse), staff members in San Mateo, CA in October of 2018.  There was no charge for these workshops as my services are offered to this organization on a volunteer basis. The impetus to reach out to CORA emerged from a conversation with a friend who had recently retired as a police sergeant in a neighboring town.  Since retirement she had been working as a volunteer with CORA.  She spoke about the disconnect between the goals of the police and those of the CORA representative who invariably would show up at the scene of a domestic abuse crime.  The first was to arrest the abuser, the latter was to empower the victim to leave the abusive situation.  Often, the charges would be dropped by the victim against the abuser.  Until her own work with CORA, my friend did not understand the nature of CORA’s mission which is to provide safety, support and healing for those affected by intimate partner abuse.  The seed was sewn in my mind that perhaps there was a way for Pilates to be included in this healing.  It also was a way to bring this powerful work to individuals who may never otherwise walk into a Pilates studio. Workshop Objectives:
  • To introduce Staff participants to a brief history of Joseph Pilates with mention of his work during World War 1 with soldiers and prisoners of war who survived trauma on the front.
  • To give Staff participants an hour long movement experience where the Pilates Principles are introduced through Pilates Mat Exercises modified for clients who are seeking help to overcome recent or current relationship abuse trauma.
  • To give Staff participants a movement experience that they can envision as part of the CORA program curriculum development and implementation.Over the course of two late afternoon sessions in my studio, two groups of four female CORA staff members participated in the hour long Pilates class followed by a sharing session about their experiences during the class.  For all but one of the participants, this was the first Pilates class they had ever taken.
During the planning stage of these classes, the CORA administrator who scheduled the interested employees asked that I teach the classes in my studio and not in their office community room.  Although the class I taught did not use any Pilates apparatus, this opportunity allowed me to give a very brief demonstration during the sharing session of how the apparatus is used as an assistive and resistive support for the acquisition of movement patterns.  It is a long term dream of mine to create a small roster of Pilates teachers in my area who are committed to donating one hour each week to a CORA client or clients who are far enough along in their recovery to not be triggered by the body positions on the apparatus.  These clients would be  referred out for a private or small group studio Pilates class.  CORA requires all of their volunteers to take a 40 hour training in how to work with victims of trauma, which is offered twice each year.  I plan to take this training in 2019. The process of planning this mat class involved adopting a filter of empathy and sensitivity towards domestic trauma abuse victims.  As one of my clients who is an MD said, “We all have suffered our own trauma at some point in our lives.”  Although this is true, I have never personally experienced the level of trauma as that of a CORA client.  I reached out to a few friends and colleagues who have, as well as to Pilates teachers on “The Contemporary Pilates Haven” Facebook group who have had experience working with victims of domestic abuse.  Excellent advice came from all of these sources. One member of this Facebook group recommended the book, The Body Keeps The Score, by Bessel Van der Kolk M.D. This excellent read was particularly helpful in understanding the current neuroscience research involving trauma and pointed towards the successful use of Yoga and Pilates as tools whereby the individual can experience the self as finally being seen and heard, a state of being that often disappears from the psyche of the abused. In other words, just to be, as opposed to not be, (think Shakespeare), is an essential step for the individual to experience as she/he negotiates a path towards freedom. I had to design a Pilates Mat class that delayed supine, prone and quadruped positions on the mat as these positions would likely be triggers that could land the participant in a real moment of re-lived trauma crisis.  These positions would need to be introduced in a manner where the participant felt an organic sequencing that got them there with a sense of self efficacy and power. As opposed to a list of exercises to teach, here is where the six Polestar Pilates Principles of Movement helped me to design an appropriate class.  Breath, Axial Elongation and Core Control, Spine Articulation and Mobility, Head Neck and Shoulder Organization, Alignment and Weight Bearing of the Extremities, and Movement Integration. The class started sitting on stools where we mobilized the feet using blue mini balls, and breath and spine movement exploration using Therabands.  We progressed to standing for mobility and balance exercises in the spine and extremities using the wall and the floor for support, followed by supine, prone and quadruped exercises with feet against the wall.  We returned to standing in a circle with some group movement, folk dance style.  In one of the groups we also did an improvisation using the mirror exercise where, working in partners with palms held up and facing each other but without touching palms, the duo moves together as if looking in a mirror.  Many of us movement teachers may have done this sometime in our past, but none of the CORA staff members had ever done this exercise before.  They loved it! Aside from the stools, blue mini balls and Therabands, the only other small props I used were partially inflated squishy balls for proprioceptive feedback through the hands, and upper and lower back while doing exercises standing at the wall and in supine.  The use of balls for the wall exercises was important because it brought an element of play to the experience and would hopefully avoid a trigger experience of abuse. We addressed all of the Polestar Principles during this class, and as is so often the case, each exercise hit on many Principles simultaneously. During the discussion afterwards, I asked the staff members for feedback as to how, or even if, they thought what they had just experienced might be beneficial for their clients.  They all commented on the awareness of breath as a huge benefit for bringing the self into the present.  I had introduced the statement, “breath is a tool, not a rule” to the group as we explored mobility through all the movement planes, changing where to inhale and exhale.  They found this particularly on point as it facilitated each of them to feel positive change in their movement where there had initially been some discomfort.  They commented that this might be a first concrete step for many of their clients to feel less invisible.  After all, the successful change was generated by the self and not an outside force.  Not surprisingly, they also saw the value for their clients in the group and partner generated movement at the end of class as it provided community support. As of this writing, the CORA Safe House Curriculum Director has indicated that she would like to find a way to incorporate Pilates into the early evening programming.  Some of the therapists are considering ways to bring Pilates into their group sessions.  These are a group of dedicated, underpaid non-profit organization employees working to improve the lives of their clients.  Although no ongoing relationship between myself and CORA has been established, and it may take awhile to solidify some plans, I believe that we will find a way to make something work.  Stay tuned!
Polestar Educator Deborah Marcus is owner of Movement Refinery Pilates Studio in San Mateo CA.   
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Reader Interactions


  1. Fantastic work. It’s inspiring and I’m grateful that you shared this experience with us.

    Thank you

    • Thank you Sara! We love to highlight our Educators, Practitioners and Students. We are in love with Deborah and her work, the pursuit of this meaningful work incorporating the Pilates background is fantastic. Happy to Share!

  2. Thankyou! Very helpful sequencing of the exercises, and Polestars Principles of Movement are so helpfulWe never know the stories of the people walking in to the studio for the first time; so good to approach with awareness, thinking of the whole person. Wonderful work. Hope to see more with CORA

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