What should a Pilates teacher look like?

May 23, 2012 — 7 Comments

(Subtitle: “Is it okay for a Pilates teacher to be fat?)

This is a question that I have been musing about for a long time, and wondering if it’s even appropriate to be asking it. Certainly it feels decidedly taboo, perhaps because as a society (combatting the tyranny of generally unattainable/false body images that are routinely shown in the media), in the guise of compassion, we seem to be finding ways of saying “It’s okay to be overweight.” The question might equally be “Can one have poor posture, and be a Pilates teacher?”, or “Can one be weak, and a Pilates teacher?” We could go on, with reference to endurance, agility, mobility and so on.

I’m going to stick with the weight question because the topic of overweight/obesity has such profound implications for our society, not least in terms of the likely costs to the NHS as the percentage of the population who are overweight steadily rises. The Centre for Disease Control (US) lists an array of potential health problems from cardio vascular disease, to orthopaedic and respiratory problems; and economic consequences, from direct medical costs, to loss of productivity and absenteeism. I understand that there are a variety of different mechanisms at work to cause people to store excess fat, and I am not at all interested in stigmatising overweight people (who are very often given very poor advice when it comes to weight loss – see previous post), but I am interested in challenging the notion that we should find excuses for people to remain overweight, rather than trying to address the problem.

So is it okay for a Pilates teacher to be fat?

Answering a question with another, what is the job of a Pilates teacher? I’m sure that there are many answers. My own choices in describing my work would be: To teach people good (efficient, controlled) movement, and to help them to be as healthy as possible. In the spirit of pursuing Pilates’ own aim of “whole body health”, I think we have to aim higher than addressing movement alone, and I have previously suggested that Pilates teachers might address nutrition. (As an aside, Kelly Starrett suggests that the human body, with the right movement, and the right lifestyle, is a “perfect healing machine” – an idea that I like a lot).

Paul Chek writes, in the introduction to his Ebook ‘The Last 4 Doctors You’ll Ever Need’: “Over and over again, I am astounded to find that the wellbeing of exercise and health professionals of all types show little if any improvement over the health of their own patients and clients.” At a recent gathering of Pilates teachers, I was struck by the number of people present with distinctly less than optimal postures. If I am really honest, I found myself thinking “Who would want to go to a teacher that looks like that?” I also know very well that economics often mean that time earning money is easily favoured over time working on one’s own body, just like the cobbler’s children having worn out shoes.

So, is it okay for Pilates teachers to be fat?

Here is where things get a little tricky. If I am to use my work to try to help people achieve optimal health, then I believe part of that is to try to embody optimal health to the best of my ability. And this point is important – I am not advocating legions of sylphlike ‘perfect’ Pilates teachers, and there are many different bodies that can be inspirational/aspirational for the spectrum of the population. I have a friend and colleague who is also a karate teacher, and I learned from her that one of the rules of the dojo is that you give as much of yourself as possible to the practice at any given time. So, there are many terrific Pilates teachers with a variety of physical limitations, spinal fusion, for example, and are able to fully embody the concept of whole body health, by giving of their best.

I had a debate with another teacher some time ago over whether or not it would be appropriate for teacher trainees to be examined in their proficiency at Pilates, along with their proficiency at teaching it. My position was/is that it may well be appropriate and, again, this has little to do with perfection. I fully accept the notion that you don’t have to be able to ‘perform’ a specific exercise in order to be able to teach it well. At the same time, if you’re in the business of teaching exercise, you ought to have a compelling reason not to be able to do something that you are expecting someone else to do. In other words, if you can’t demonstrate ‘The Snake’ on the reformer, because it’s quite difficult, what business do you have asking someone else to do it? If it’s good for your client, surely it’s good for you? (I can’t manage ‘The Squirrel’ on the cadillac, but I’m still working on it….)

And still there is no answer to the pressing question: is it okay for Pilates teachers to be fat?

The practice of Pilates doesn’t pretend to lead to weight loss, in itself (it may come peripherally, facilitated, for example, by increased mobility).  So one might argue that, since it’s not an expected outcome of the practice, that there should be no expectation of the teacher having a particular bodyweight, or body fat percentage. But we want to be models of whole body health, don’t we? (Yes, the mechanisms of fat storage and release are complicated, and/but you also know that the client with the dodgy knee would really help themselves if they lost some weight….). So the fat question is not a straightforward one. I would say “ideally not”, and quickly revert to: ‘Can you have poor posture and be a Pilates teacher?’ Here the answer is unequivocal – No! If you’ve been teaching Pilates for years, as an enhancement to life and all it throws at us, and your head position is inches forwards of your shoulders, you are proof that Pilates doesn’t work. In our studio we are constantly telling clients that Pilates isn’t an end in itself, but a means of making everything else that one has to do easier. In other words, you can apply Pilates to everything you do. If you’re spending your day bent over people that you’re teaching, and you’re not applying Pilates principles to maintain a decent posture, is it remotely reasonable to hope for that from your clients?

I’m not pretending to be perfect, but I am trying to be better (another Kelly Starrett-ism is that ‘we need to be better at everything’ – that’s my goal). So, if you see me in the street, and you think I’m not ‘walking my talk’ then please let me know.

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7 responses to What should a Pilates teacher look like?

  1. 

    Pilates teachers, in my opinion, as well as yoga teachers, ought to be healthy, fit and be able to inspire others by demonstrating all the movements on mat and on apparatus..
    If you are overweight, maybe you still can…hmmmm???… I do have some overweight clients and they certainly aren’t able to do some of the movements…

  2. 

    I like this article. I personally agree as long as they are able to do all the exercises and be motivating and encouraging. I f you know how to inspire people to loose weight regardless of your body fat as a teacher. kudos

  3. 

    Hi Mike, Interesting post, thank you. The idea of ‘walking your talk’ is quite unarguable and I was also thinking of two other issues around your topic.
    My first is that as a teacher of anything I don’t have to be expert in the performance of that task, my role is to understand its demands and, in the case of movement, I need to comprehend the best mechanics for your structure and ability to achieve it. I cannot expect anyone to follow my structural or habitual biases in what I do. Some top golf coaches rarely visit a course themselves, rumours exist of a few who can barely hit a ball, but yet they understand the mechanics and can create change for their clients. To me that is what a teacher of any discipline should be judged upon.
    You also use ‘optimal posture’ – how would you define this? As a Pilates instructor do you follow Joseph’s prescription? I hope not. Posture is something that is temporally, structurally and functionally dependent – what worked for Joseph back then isn’t really applicable now, ‘optimal’ posture for a ballerina is not that of sprinter, my posture on my happy days does not match the blue ones.
    Are we really to judge the instructor from extrinsic factors such as ‘posture’ and body fat, do we have the right to impose ‘optimal’ expectations on anyone. ‘Optimal’ as you use it is perhaps at threat of becoming a straight jacket inhibiting me from exploring the full range of my expression and potential (is that why Joseph called it ‘Contrology’?).
    Surely, if we are to judge an instructor it should be by their intrinsic values, their humanity and understanding rather than their superficial appearance – it is not where you are that is important but rather where you have come from that I would rather use to select my teacher and that is something I will never know. I cannot know their full history, understand the trials and tribulations they have encountered and therefore – who am I to judge??

    • 

      Thanks for your response James, you raise some interesting subjects (and possibly pre-empt some of my ideas for future posts).
      I think it’s true that you can teach well without being a master of performing the given task, and I think that the example of golf is a good one in that it pertains to very specific skills, rather than the slightly more nebulous ideas (whole body health) that I think I’m trying to teach in a Pilates class. I hope that most/many people are coming to my (or any) Pilates class with the idea that they might become better at living. As such, I feel the need to do my best to appear to be reaping the benefits of what I’m espousing. At the same time, I agree with you, if I’m to be judged I would rather that it be on outcomes for my clients, not my appearance.
      To answer your second point, I suspect that your work involves a much greater degree of subtlety than mine, so I may not be able to make the distinctions that you can. As I tried to indicate with the ‘giving your best at that moment’ dojo reference, that’s how I think we might be judged. We can haggle over optimal, I’m sure – again, as I touched on in a previous post, I think Pilates teachers sometimes go for subtlety too soon in clients’ journeys, and believe that a ballerina’s head will ideally be in the same position as a sprinter’s, relative to their spines. The details beyond that might be someone else’s territory other than mine…..

  4. 

    Wow. Just wow.

    So it is “ideally not” ok for a Pilates teacher to be overweight?

    I am a Pilates teacher in NYC with 25 years experience, a waiting list at well over $120/hour, and great posture. In the past year I went through a four month healing from a toe crush, and the deaths of both my parents within five weeks. I gained 40 pounds and only now do I feel close to having the strength to take it off. I still work out 3-6 times a week, and generally am very strong and able to do everything. But what my clients care about is my ability to train them and get them to their goals. And that ability is only getting better.

    This post horrifies me. I have struggled with weight, and have always had endocrine issues. Meanwhile, everyone I have taught says I am the best Pilates teacher they ever worked with. And there are at least 25 Pilates studios owned by teachers I trained, some of which now offer teacher training.

    Trust me, your client with the dodgy knee knows that weight loss will help. She is not an idiot. But she feels your judgment, even though it has been unspoken.

    And now I feel judged.

    • 

      Thanks for reading Lynda. That’s great that you’re having such a successful career, and a pity that you would somehow feel personally judged by this post.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. “No Days Off” « paleolates - February 15, 2013

    […] ideas around Pilates teachers’ responsibility to be aspirational figures (see ‘What should a Pilates teacher look like?‘) and, of course, what we do should be more important than how we look. If we finish teaching […]

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