What exactly, precisely is Pilates?

More and more steps to climb...
More and more steps to climb…

The many types of Pilates that are currently on offer (Classical Pilates, True Pilates, Traditional Pilates, Contemporary Pilates, Stott Pilates, Winsor Pilates, Romana’s Pilates, Fletcher Pilates, Authentic Pilates, Real Pilates, Power Pilates, Basi Pilates, to name but a few), beg the question that I’ve been seeing online lately about different types of Pilates.  I wanted to put down my thoughts on the topic in this space which is more permanent than forum threads.

I believe this is a reflection of the unfortunate reality that anybody can label themselves a Pilates expert and pass on what they know as Pilates from that assumed position of authoritative knowledge.  It follows from that reality that Pilates professionals would want to differentiate their offerings by putting a descriptive label in front of Pilates.  These labels are about marketing and risk drawing people into more confusion than anything else as indicated by the many questions of similar theme currently being raised.  Since the labels are used by anybody regardless of how much they know about the intention behind the name, they take on whatever meaning the general populous assigns to them which soon renders them no more clarifying than they were to begin with.  It is quite a feat to stay in control of your brand, if Pilates professionals know anything about marketing that should be it.  If the type of Pilates really is important to know, then it seems to me that getting to the intended meaning of the name would require asking whoever it was that trademarked it.  In some cases, the person behind the name is actually offering eduction about Pilates and they have merely chosen to play by the generally accepted rules of branding that currently dictate such things, in other cases what they are offering is not actually Pilates.  The substance is not in the name, it is in the people behind the name.  All that being said, my personal bias is that Pilates is Pilates and if you don’t know what Pilates is and you want to, all you can do is keep studying and investigating until you arrive at a complete sense of knowing.  And you are probably going to arrive at that place through working with somebody who has undergone a deep and longstanding study of the original work.

Clearly my bias comes from my personal experience which boils down to three phases of investigation.  Initially, I accepted Pilates as what my dance teacher in San Francisco called Pilates.  I grew interested in learning to teach because I thought that it would enhance my performance as a PE teacher in schools.  I entered a local program that was recommended to be by a man who I served breakfast to every weekend in my job as a waitress.  I did not have to prove what I knew in order to be accepted into the program, my minimal knowledge of what I was soon going to learn how to teach was not ever brought up as a cause for concern.  Interested in learning as much as I could, I read Joe Pilates original writings.  As I neared completion of my first certification, I realized that in spite of learning a lot of very interesting and seemingly beneficial exercises, I still hadn’t learned Pilates because what I had learned was not at all reflected in Joe’s writings.  Lucky for me, a dear friend had completed her training with Romana Kryzanowska and was teaching in Berkeley.  I began taking her class.  Eventually we traded a session on the apparatus and upon completion looked at each other in amazement:  we were teaching completely different things and calling them by the same name.  Within a month or so, I was taking regular lessons with her to prepare for my audition for Romana’s program.  My training with Romana’s Pilates was amazing and transformative, but it was not the end of my journey.  I still had questions.  Little pieces of the work seemed to be absent from what I’d learned and I really wanted a complete and thorough understanding.  (I wanted that Pilates magic at full strength.  I want to be able to transform a body in 30 sessions, heck I am still working on transforming my own body into a normal healthy one!)  I believe that this mostly had to do with the challenge of bundling the incredibly large and layered body of work in a certification program.  These days, I’m mostly alone in my studio but my investigations into the original Pilates system continue.  I thoroughly enjoyed The Biography because it confirmed many of my theories and gave me inspiration for my ongoing investigations.  I may be alone in my studio but thankfully I’ve got the internet and I know that there are others who are working on the same project and that gives me encouragement and a plan for the future.  When I’m more able to travel, I know where I’ll be going.  (In the meanwhile, I’ve got our conference to keep new information informing my practice, so things are looking pretty good these days!)

But that’s me and my personal relationship to Pilates.  While I do feel that it’s important to acknowledge ourselves in these questions because we all have a bias, I also think that it’s important for every Pilates instructor to arrive at her / his own professional code with respect to the work and business promotion.  That inevitably involves tackling the big questions surrounding Pilates and having an opinion that may very well set us apart from other professionals.  I do not mean to be divisive and I certainly do not have any interest in policing others – indeed I believe that we all are best served by minding our own business and leaving others to speak for themselves.  But I do believe that we have to “police” ourselves if we are to adhere to any particular form.  And part of that process means gaining a clear and definitive understanding of just what is and isn’t acceptable for ourselves.

Consider this line from Joe’s Spine Corrector Poster, it’s one of my favorites:
“‘Just doing’ the exercises will prove of tremendous benefit….’Doing them with careful deliberation and thoroughness’ will gain for you that ‘extra something’ you are searching for” 

Much of my understanding of Pilates is based on those words.  I think of the work as layered.  There are the moves, the choreography; and there is the internal coordination of the body’s contents (muscles, bones, and fascia primarily) to perform those moves in the specific Pilates way.  To me, the complete and consistent integration of those two layers is what determines that one is doing Pilates.  I’ve seen impressive results from clients just doing the moves and clients have often reported great results from doing the internal work in the movements of their daily life.  But to really integrate it all takes dedication over a long period of time – ten years at minimum.

In real terms, it boils down to this, Pilates has a reputation for getting a certain set of results.  How can we guarantee those results?  Only by knowing Pilates.  And the only way to learn Pilates is from a teacher.  So you want to pick your teacher wisely.  To me that meant getting as close to Joe Pilates as possible.  But then we do also need to do our own due diligence, we need to be able to discern what is the teacher’s personality and life experience and what is Pilates.  Over time, this becomes easier.  With dedication, our sense of the work becomes clearer, until that is all there is to our understanding.

By design, life is full of distractions.  If we are to keep a body of work alive through generations, we must have a system of accountability in place to keep us from getting distracted and we must establish a trust in the people who do the work day in and day out through the years so that we have a blueprint for the maintenance of the work.  We the people, individually and collectively, hold the only way of sustaining a body of knowledge and / or work – dedication and accountability are how such a feat is achieved.  Because it is really a daily practice to keep the actual work of Pilates consistent to the original, I’ve come up with my own way of monitoring how well I’m keeping true to the original.  I keep tabs on what is happening in every move in my studio – either we are working on the choreography, the internal coordination, or we are clear that we are not doing Pilates but experimenting with something that we hope will enhance our Pilates practice.  As an aside, I’ve noticed that the sharper my understanding of Pilates gets, the less I’m inclined to dabble in other modalities.  Pilates is complete, but it takes years of dedicated study to understand that because it is such a deeply layered system.

On a personal policing note, I’d like to frame the choices that we all make around branding within the human aspect of Pilates that I think we often forget now that there is a broader business dimension to the work.  Pilates was invented and practiced over the the course of four decades by one person, Joe Pilates and his partner, Clara.  Over many years, they developed a close and strong bond with Romana Kryzanowska, who carried his work with clarity and devotion into the next century.  Rebranding the name or calling other things by the same name is highly personal to those people who have dedicated the most of their lives to developing and preserving the Pilates method.  What would possess someone to alter its name or worse, use it to describe something else that is quite different in practice?  I can imagine feeling a great sense of offense were I the person whose life’s work was pirated or renamed because the name I gave it wasn’t deemed suitable by someone in the next generation.   These branding choices are easy to make when time or circumstance have kept one from knowing Joe, Clara, and Romana personally, but such actions have impacted them during their living years and continue to influence the broad perception of their contribution to the whole humanity through Pilates.  Ultimately, on that point alone (I realize that there are many complicating factors in these scenarios don’t get me wrong) the case could easily be made that such choices are disrespectful.  If one choses to say that Joe Pilates’s system was flawed and they have made the necessary improvements, would it not be better to simply drop the name of the imperfect original and go with one’s own new and improved name to match the new and improved system?  It would seem not.  In truth, Pilates is a remarkably effective system and so it’s name actually does count for something.  At least for now, in some places.  The more that non-Pilates is associated with the name Pilates, the more it is in danger of losing its stellar reputation.  Despite the illusion of individuality, we are interdependent – any lack of respect for the humanity that we all have in common has a negative impact on all of us.  Pilates is brilliant, it would be a shame to lose it on account of our excessive and completely unreal notion of individuality.

I cannot help but think of Romana’s consistent and sensible request that summed this all up so neatly:  teach what you want, just please don’t call it Pilates.