Sarah Wilcoxon Of Missouri State University On How Pilates Can Improve Your Health and Wellbeing
Mar 09, 2023
An Interview With Maria Angelova
Community. The folks working out at the Pilates studio get to know one another and the instructors. Even my students at the university who take a group Pilates class together, they bond. There’s something about working toward a common goal with other people that makes you feel connected and tethered in a way that is comforting.
Pilates was invented around 100 years ago, and it is becoming an increasingly popular form of exercise. What exactly is Pilates? How is it different from other modalities like Yoga or Tai Chi? What are the benefits of Pilates? Who can most benefit from it? In this interview series, we are talking to Pilates professionals & practitioners who can talk about how Pilates can improve your health and wellbeing. As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Sarah Wilcoxon.
Sarah Wilcoxon is an associate professor of dance and comprehensive Pilates certified instructor at Missouri State University. She researches injury risk management and conditioning for performers. She’s a nominee for the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science’s Teacher of the Year, and she’s currently in training to become a Pilates teacher trainer.
Thank you so much for joining us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’?
I have danced my whole life, beginning at a pre-professional ballet school when I was just 6. Through the intensive dance training, and honestly probably also my personality, I came to accept chronic pain as a normal part of my life. I started having debilitating back and hip pain as a teenager and it increased to the point that I stepped away from dancing and transitioned to teaching in my 20s. I’d regularly experience what I called, “throwing my back out.” Now I realize that I probably had herniated discs. After one particularly difficult episode of this, as I was in a new town with no primary care practitioner yet and a waitlist almost a year-long to see anyone, I turned to a local Pilates studio (Bodysmith Pilates in Springfield, Missouri) for help with my rehabilitation. I had done Pilates for several years prior, but this was the point when Pilates became integral to my life. The practice totally changed my outlook and experience of my own body. I went on to get a Pilates certification and I’m now training to certify other teachers. I feel stronger and healthier now than I ever did while I was dancing.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
I think just the fact that my career turned out completely different than what I was expecting, but it is also exactly right. If you’d asked me for a 5 or 10-year plan when I was in high school or in my early 20s, I would have said unequivocally that I will be a professional performer. I really didn’t imagine any other possibility for myself, though I loved to choreograph (make dances), so I suppose I thought of that as my “retirement” gig. But chronic pain and injury had other plans. Letting go of my performing career was difficult at the time, especially because I was so young. I hadn’t done even half the things I had planned for myself. But it led me to teaching and choreography sooner, and I honestly think that’s my true calling. I also found a real passion for researching dance and finding new ways to teach dance that will be less painful for upcoming generations (that’s where the Pilates training comes into play in my dance teaching/choreography career now). I know I’m happier now than I ever could have been performing. I guess the lesson is that it’s great to plan and have goals, but you should also leave some space for life to happen. I’m living a life I never could have imagined for myself and thank goodness for that.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
First, I think every leader owes it to themselves and everyone they work with to be doing constant self-work and constantly evolving. Whether that’s therapy, meditation, journaling, books, support groups, etc; whatever works for you, and the answer to what works for you will change over time. But if you don’t learn to manage your own stuff, you will dump it on the people you are leading. I can think of plenty of times early in my teaching career when I was unnecessarily hard on students or had unrealistic expectations. I know looking back it was my own insecurities causing that behavior. I felt bad after every time that happened, so I eventually figured out that if I want to feel better then I need to learn to experience and manage my own emotions in a better way, so I cause less hurt to other people. That’s not to say I’m perfect at this now. It’s a constantly evolving process, but that’s the point. When we know better, we do better and as leaders, we owe it to everyone around us to try to learn and do better.
Second, I value clear communication. I really try to make my expectations clear and to get clear on the expectations of all my collaborators/students. This helps everyone continually get onto the same page and prevents unproductive conflict. It also helps me be honest and clear about what I am and am not able to do. My job can sometimes feel like I’m being pulled in a thousand directions. I want to say yes to everyone and everything that comes my way, but I couldn’t do good work if I said yes to everything. I have learned that lesson the hard way when my body physically burns out and I suffer lots of injuries or when I’m having trouble choreographing a dance because I’ve done too many big creative projects back-to-back with no recharging time in between. An honest and direct “no” is kinder than saying “yes” and resenting it later. And “no” is kinder than saying “yes” and then doing poor work because you can’t devote the necessary time.
Third, I live for feedback. I don’t assume my impression of any situation or experience is fact. I bring people into my creative processes regularly to provide feedback. I’ve been known to scrap an entire dance and start over if I felt like the feedback was valuable and incorporating it required starting over. This point probably has to do with the first point in this answer — a commitment to constant evolution. But I’m not talking about random evolution. I like to make changes to how I work when the data shows there’s a better, more efficient, or less harmful way. And I like to make changes based on multiple types of input — not just what I think or what I want. As an example, I had been a choreographer for years, but I only recently transitioned into directing starting in 2019. I knew the person in charge of the room can have a massive effect on everyone’s experience in the room, so I really tried to do my best, but I knew I was new to the task. So, I also solicited an organizational communication scholar friend to collect data that would help me learn how to be a leader who could more effectively create psychological safety in creative spaces. She’s collected that data on two directing projects of mine now, and if you watched my rehearsals now versus when I first started directing, it’s a wildly different experience.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that might help people?
I’m working on becoming a Pilates teacher trainer. So many of my students at Missouri State have found value in the work and want to become teachers themselves. If I’m able to train them, I can help provide access for that. I’ll be performing for the first time in a decade or so this November, dancing with a friend in a “Dancing with the Stars” style fundraiser for kids in the foster system in Central Illinois. I’m excited to dip my toes back into performing and have a great time dancing with a close friend, especially for such a worthy cause. And I have a very exciting choreography collaboration coming up with the Springfield Symphony. I’m hoping we can bring some lighthearted joy to our community with that.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of our interview about Pilates. To begin, can you tell our readers a bit about why you are an authority on the topic of Pilates?
I’ve been practicing Pilates for about 15 years, and I’ve been an instructor for almost 7. I’ve collected data to learn more about the specific ways Pilates can help people and presented it at the Pilates Method Alliance Conference and I’ve begun training to be a Pilates teacher trainer. But even though all of that is true, if we were working together, I’d say you are the only true authority on your own body and I’m just here to show you some options.
Let’s start with a basic definition so that we are all on the same page. What exactly is Pilates?
Pilates is a movement system — so it’s a series of exercises that have progressions to make them either easier or more difficult, or to challenge you in different ways. It can be performed with only your body weight, or it can be performed on various pieces of equipment that provide either resistance or support in the movement.
How is Pilates different from other movement modalities that you have practiced?
I think it’s all similar. To me, a Pilates class doesn’t feel that different from the experience inside a dance class. Take a ballet class as an example: there’s a series of exercises that are a little different when taught from one teacher’s perspective to the next, but overall, it’s the same basic idea. And you do them in a similar order every time, increasing the challenge as you increase your capacity. I think I like things we’d call “movement systems” like Pilates, yoga or dance class for the same reason — the predictability is comforting and allows your mind to relax and focus on being in the moment in the movement rather than worrying about what’s next.
On a personal level, what are the biggest benefits that you have gained from regular Pilates practice?
First and foremost, I love the community I’ve gained from Pilates. Between the students at the university and the clients at the Pilates studio — everyone who comes to Pilates is someone who wants to know themselves better, wants to challenge themselves and wants to work on themselves. Those are cool people to be around, and I’m most grateful for the community.
Second, I think I have a better mind-body connection since starting Pilates. I really would have thought when I was dancing that I could do anything with my body that you asked me. But I realized I could do anything that was within the habits developed by dance practice. Now, I know for sure I can see or learn a new movement, break it down to smaller parts and really understand it, and then execute it. I recently started taking ballroom dance lessons. You’d think as a dancer it would be easy to pick up a new style, but it’s challenging to do something similar but different. It’s hard not to rely on muscle memory or habits developed in the past, but to pay attention to what we’re really doing and not what you think we’re doing. I’m handling that challenge much better than I expected, and I know it’s the Pilates training and regular Pilates practice that’s taught me this skill. It’s empowering.
Who do you think can most benefit from Pilates?
Everyone. But especially people who are intimidated by exercise or who suffer from chronic pain or have previous injuries. Those folks would really benefit from Pilates … and I mean Pilates at a Pilates studio in a private lesson or a very small group, not gym Pilates class with a whole bunch of people. When you go to a Pilates studio with a trained instructor, you’re working with someone who adapts the method to your specific needs. It’s an amazing experience that’s accessible to every person at all levels of fitness/wellness.
Pilates can sometimes be expensive. Can you share with our readers your perspectives on why Pilates is worth its costs?
The cost is my singular complaint about the method, but I do think it’s worth noting that a good comprehensive Pilates certification is 500+ hours of work. It’s comparable to a master’s degree. So, if you’re working with a fully certified instructor, you’re working with a true expert. That expert is adapting the programming to your specific needs and limitations. You get more out of an hour of focused, guided Pilates work than you would (for most people at least) from an hour at the gym.
But even if you buy into the idea that the cost is worth it, that doesn’t make the money magically appear. If you want to try Pilates but it’s not accessible to you, see if your local studio holds a community class. You can also ask if they have any instructors in training who are looking to get practice teaching hours at a discounted rate.
Based on your research or experience, can you please share your “5 Ways That Pilates Can Improve Your Health and Wellbeing”?
- Awareness. Pilates can make you aware of your body and your experience inside your body. This is excellent news for folks (like me) who know that mindfulness and meditation are good for mental health but have trouble sitting still. You can have the experience of “dropping in” to your body with your mind and have a meditative physical practice. I feel refreshed and energized after an hour of Pilates because it also serves as a mental practice.
- Efficiency. Pilates can help improve your posture and alignment to be more efficient — so you waste less energy and can move through your life with more ease. I have photos of students standing in front of a grid at the start and end of a semester of Pilates and it’s absolutely wild to see the difference. Imagine ribs shifted over to one side at least 2 inches and the pelvis twisted another 2. At the end of the semester, everything is aligned and stacked like Jenga blocks. Imagine how much more easefully that student can move through life without muscles being pulled and stretched in directions they aren’t meant to stay in! Of course, in some cases these misalignments are structural (like if you have scoliosis). But even with structural misalignments, Pilates can help ease the impact of that structural issue by providing more balance in the areas where you do have control.
- Strength. Especially for folks who have a sedentary lifestyle — if you sit most of the day for your job — Pilates helps you move and strengthen your body in the way it was designed to work! It feels good (at least to me) to feel strong. It helps me feel more confident and surer of myself in all aspects of life. I have a Pilates client who loves to tell me every Monday all the physical chores he did around the house over the weekend and how physically challenging they were, but how good it felt to do them. He always wraps up by saying “I never could have done that before Pilates.” I love seeing the way that increased strength makes people shine.
- Community. The folks working out at the Pilates studio get to know one another and the instructors. Even my students at the university who take a group Pilates class together, they bond. There’s something about working toward a common goal with other people that makes you feel connected and tethered in a way that is comforting.
- Confidence. I believe points 1–4 added together lead to confidence. For me, after suffering from long-term chronic pain, I had zero confidence in my body. It was like I was walking on eggshells all the time just wondering when my back would “go out” next or when I’d hurt something else. Now, the experiences of pain are less intense and less frequent. But more importantly, I’m confident any pain I experience won’t last forever. I’m confident the experience will pass and I trust my body to find its way back to a better place. I used to feel at the mercy of external circumstances, but now I feel like I’m centered and in control of my own experience inside my own body.
In my own Pilates practice, I stress the importance of precision in Pilates. Based on your experiences and research, what are your thoughts about why precision is important in Pilates?
This word “precision” is difficult for me. I worry that “precision” will translate in most people’s minds to “correct.” On the one hand, yes there is a correct or precise way to do things in this movement modality. On the other, everyone’s body is put together at the factory differently, so everyone will accomplish the same movement differently. No two bodies are the same. Heck, your own body and its capacity can change dramatically from day to day based on your stress levels, sleep, hydration, nutrition, etc. So, I try to keep Pilates clients and students from becoming obsessive about doing things correctly all the time. I think the idea of “correct” is a moving target.
If we take “precision” to mean “focused and specific,” I’m all in. Pilates is an opportunity for us to be in the moment in the movement. We are paying attention to what’s happening, making adjustments as needed, responding to our own needs and experiences, and breathing through all of that. What a gift! How often in your day are you able to truly have uninterrupted, focused attention on yourself? How often do you check in and ask yourself how something feels? How often do you pay attention to your experience inside your own body? How often are you building that mind-body connection? When you are focusing deeply and moving with specificity, you get the most out of your Pilates practice.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I think the overarching thing I work on in all my teaching, whether it’s dance or Pilates, is encouraging people to speak up and advocate for themselves. I often ask people to describe what they are experiencing or to tell me if they feel either challenged or unsafe — we want a challenge, we don’t want to be unsafe. But lots of people can’t even tune into their own experience. Even if they can, they are often uncomfortable communicating it. When I think about my own career, I see the same patterns. It’s intense the number of times I’ve been expected to work on floors unsafe for dancing, work without breaks, work with tyrannical directors or choreographers, or trust my body to dance partners who had no idea what they were doing. And I know versions of this happen in every job, not just to performers. I think a lot of us are conditioned to be grateful we even have a job or we don’t want to make trouble. But safe working conditions and care for our bodies and minds should be a bare minimum expectation. Communicating our experiences and expectations should be normal. I’d want to work on that cultural shift in some way.
What is the best way for our readers to continue to follow your work online?
I’m probably most active on Instagram (sarah.wilcoxon), but you can also check out my recent choreography on Vimeo: vimeo.com/swilcoxon.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.
About The Interviewer: Maria Angelova, MBA is a disruptor, author, motivational speaker, body-mind expert, Pilates teacher and founder and CEO of Rebellious Intl. As a disruptor, Maria is on a mission to change the face of the wellness industry by shifting the self-care mindset for consumers and providers alike. As a mind-body coach, Maria’s superpower is alignment which helps clients create a strong body and a calm mind so they can live a life of freedom, happiness and fulfillment. Prior to founding Rebellious Intl, Maria was a Finance Director and a professional with 17+ years of progressive corporate experience in the Telecommunications, Finance, and Insurance industries. Born in Bulgaria, Maria moved to the United States in 1992. She graduated summa cum laude from both Georgia State University (MBA, Finance) and the University of Georgia (BBA, Finance). Maria’s favorite job is being a mom. Maria enjoys learning, coaching, creating authentic connections, working out, Latin dancing, traveling, and spending time with her tribe. To contact Maria, email her at [email protected]. To schedule a free consultation, click here.