I recently received this question from one of my Pilates trainees:
When I begin a class with breathing it sometimes feels more like a yoga or meditation session than preparing for movement. How do I get clients to leave the world outside behind and start to focus on the class? How can I help them stop the mind from wandering without sounding like a hippie guru?
I understand your concern. Some people choose Pilates specifically because they do not want to practice yoga. Even though yoga is not a religion some teachers include names of Hindu goddesses or quote Indian spiritual teachers in their classes, which can be confusing for somebody with a strong faith in a different religious and spiritual path.
Meditation has become such a widespread phenomenon nowadays that there are many many books, videos and recordings you could listen to to help you find the words that sound nonreligious and maybe even non-spiritual.
Mindfulness is simply the focused attention on what you are doing now, in the present moment.
A great way to direct your student’s focus to their bodies, is by teaching three-dimensional breathing. Tell your students specifically which body part to focus on during their inhalation and doing their exhalation.
For example: “On the inhalation, allow your rib cage to expand out to the sides of the room. On the exhalation, notice how your rib cage contracts and becomes narrower again”. In this example I used anatomical cues (rib cage) and directional cues (out to the sides and narrowing) to focus their minds. There is no mention of anything spiritual.
You can also use imagery such as “Imagine your lungs like a balloon. With the inhalation, you are inflating the balloon, with the exhalation the balloon is deflating.”
Finally, if you notice lots of scatter-brained mental energy in your class, it might be too big of a step to take to turn down the chatter completely. Try combining breathing with movement right away, instead of focusing on the breath by itself.
Good exercises to do that would be Pelvic Rocking, Bridging, Leg Slides, or Dead Bugs. Any of the Pre-Pilates exercises that don’t require high levels of strength but have a clear breathing pattern associated with them.
Lastly, if you think you might sound too esoteric – your perception of how you sound might be different from what it actually feels like to follow your words – record yourself and then while listening to yourself follow along to your own instruction. This way you will be able to tell which words didn't resonate with you and exchange them with more neutral or suitable words.
One more thing: it might just be the tone or melody of your voice, not the words themselves. That's where recording will come in handy. Let your voice go up on the inhalation and down on the exhalation.
Hope that was helpful.
Pilates is the answer. (What was the question?)