September 13, 2017

Help Your Clients To Help Themselves

Sharing Session Responsibility with Spinal Cord Injury Clients


This post is a collaboration by a trainer, Stephanie Behrendt, and a client, Theo St. Francis. In Pilates Intel style, we thought we’d shed some light on an aspect of training that we find comes up often in our remote corner of the Pilates world. In a format new to Pilates Intel, we thought we’d let you to hear from both of us!


The client owns the session. Successes, failures, good and bad days. And while the client alone may own it, both he and his trainer have responsibilities for program success.

On the surface, this makes perfect sense. But what does it actually look like in practice? Where can this dynamic break down?

On both sides, it seems.

I have become hyper-aware of this in reconnecting after spinal cord injury. In the May 17th Pilates Intel, I shared my journey of how Pilates and “Listening to the Wiggle” have given me a completely different outlook on my life. It would be hard to overstate the positive effect that movement has had.

One important element in my healing journey has been the deep investment in discovery I am lucky to share with my longtime trainer and collaborator, Stephanie.  We have been working closely on decoding neuromuscular disconnects for almost 4 years – and none of it would have been possible if two key responsibilities were not met.

The first is the client’s responsibility to help his trainer help him.

The second is the trainer’s responsibility to empower her client to help himself.

(Gendered pronouns are interchangeable, of course.)


This is the ongoing collaboration of paralysis recovery. There is a back-and-forth, a client-trainer interdependence, that, when it works, is a beautiful thing. I’m lucky to experience it.

For me, things were urgent. After damaging my spinal cord, I couldn’t move my body. I knew my trainers would be an important part of my healing – and I was going to do what I could to make sure we were effective.

While it’s impossible to truly know what a client is feeling, longtime movement teachers can have a pretty accurate understanding through close observation. However, when your client has a neurological deficit, as in spinal cord injury, this becomes much harder.

Movement is not generated in the same way, if at all. Sensations may or may not be registered by the brain. Communication in the body is interrupted, and so it’s hard to know what someone may be feeling.

As the client in this circumstance, it is my job to be proactive. I must help my trainers bridge this gap, to meet them halfway on communication. I need to be a full participant in creatively problem-solving my session. Only I have an awareness of how my body is working. The better I can communicate this, the better my trainer can help me connect.

Ways I must help my trainer, to help me, include:


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biopicStephanie and Theo have been partners in recovery since January 2014, together working to decode the complex process of neurological healing. Their project to connect paralysis recovery with mindful movement, Zebrafish Neuro, is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to develop and publish the second edition of their manual, Pilates for Spinal Cord Injuries. Help them reach their goal on Kickstarter here!


Stephanie Behrendt PMA-CPT has engaged in over 15,000 hours working directly with individuals with spinal cord injury and other neurological disorders. She was first introduced to Pilates in 2014, which forever changed her thinking about spinal cord injury rehabilitation. Stephanie graduated from University of California, Davis in 2011 in Exercise Biology. She later served as a Neuro Exercise Therapist and Manager at a spinal cord injury & neurological disorder specialty gym in Pleasanton, CA for almost 5 years before starting a Pilates-based SCI recovery program – AbsoluteENDEAVOR – at Absolute Center in Lafayette, CA in 2015. She blends her formal education, vast experience with SCI, and training in Pilates and mindful movement to provide a unique style of training that is focused on body re-connection. You may find her on Instagram (@slbehrendt) and at
Theo St. Francis has been exploring the vast landscape of body-reconnection since his 2013 injury at the start of his Mechanical Engineering and collegiate swimming careers at MIT. Having the trajectory of his healing completely redirected by his practice of Pilates, Theo is now working on ways for others to benefit from the same effective therapy. He returns to MIT in 2018! You may find him on his personal blog (, Instagram (@the.overcoming), and at