(The first thing I feel I should point out is that I’m writing this as a Pilates teacher trained, and practicing, in the UK. Other Pilates teachers may not recognise some of the scenarios I’m describing.)
Pilates called his system Contrology and in Return to Life he wrote:
“Contrology is designed to give you suppleness, natural grace and skill that will be unmistakably reflected in the way you walk, in the way you play, and in the way you work. You will develop muscular power with corresponding endurance, ability to perform arduous duties to play strenuous games, to walk, to run or travel long distances without undue body fatigue or mental strain.”*
It is clear that he intended his method to be a preparation for other ‘stuff’ – for life, in fact. Herein lies my frustration with a lot of what I see in Pilates studios and mat classes. Not to mention the kind of comments I hear, and see in social media from my peers.
I have heard American teachers insisting that, although injured people went to Pilates’ studio, and clearly got help with their injuries form the man himself, Pilates as an exercise method is intended for fit people. In the UK it seems that we have been somewhat hamstrung by the general impression that Pilates is for people who are injured, or in pain. This has been propagated by the media, and doubtless encouraged by teachers who want to boost their business by appealing to those people who may not feel that they can manage ‘normal’ exercise. Not to mention that many of us, myself included, took up Pilates to try to deal with chronic pain of some sort, and became evangelists for the method because it is has the capacity to change lives.
What’s the problem with that? On the face of it, it’s a brilliant thing, and I have been nearly moved to tears on a number of occasions when I’ve seen people discover that they’re able to do more than they believed possible. Unfortunately, what I seem to see all to often, is people doing Pilates weekly (or even more frequently) who have plateaued at a reduction in their pain, and failed to move forward from there. The promises contained in the quote above have little or no relevance to them, and this is a tragedy. Instead of feeling empowered to do more, it seems as though they and/or their teacher/s have created an invisible ceiling for them, that they are terrified to try to break through. What seems to be left then is an emotional attachment to Pilates, a belief that they cannot function without it, yet no desire for, or belief in the possibility of achieving more (playing strenuous games, for example).
As teachers we often have a difficult job encouraging clients to expect more, and I fear that sometimes we, knowingly or not, succeed in holding them back, or at least allow them to ‘aim low’. I would suggest that the first lesson of Pilates ought to be “You are responsible for your own health” – a notion that seems to be systematically undermined in our society. I have seen advertisements for Pilates workshops that describe “using Pilates on our clients”, and I have heard clients saying “[insert teacher's name] has been working a lot on my shoulders”. As soon as we allow ourselves to take the client’s personal responsibility from them, we have disempowered them, and greatly reduced their chances of enjoying the kind of results that Pilates wrote about.
It seems blindingly obvious that the underlying message of the passage quoted above is that Pilates is not an end in itself. I absolutely endorse the idea of Pilates as a lifelong practice, but not for its own sake. We often teach people to move slowly, in order to help them move with control. This is just a part of the journey, and not a rounded preparation for life outside the studio/class. We may well give people exercises with relatively low loads, in order for them to sense how they can transfer load from their limbs to their centre – fantastic! But not enough if we really want to make people fit and strong – and if Pilates isn’t about trying to help people to be fit and strong then we’ve seriously lost the plot.
If I try to answer my own question (Pilates for what?) I have to say (however corny it sounds) “Pilates for life” – not for ‘relaxation’, ‘feeling good’, ‘Pippa’s bum’, ‘weight-loss’, ‘core stability’ etc. I want to stand for Pilates as a means to deal with all the stuff that life puts in our path, good and bad, as well as we possibly can.
*I have the impression that a lot of teachers these days have a rather dismissive attitude to Pilates theories, preferring to believe that we have a much better understanding of things with the advances of science since he was writing. Every time I look through Pilates’ writing, I am delighted to discover how often he was spot on. I think this may relate to my previous post – a lot of his ideas still make perfect sense because they fit within the framework of evolutionary biology.