If I Say “I’m a Pilates teacher”, What Does It Mean?

January 15, 2014 — 35 Comments

strongfortbellI’ve used this blog previously to write about what I think Pilates is, or is not, so perhaps I shouldn’t need to ask this question. Then again, what I think Pilates is may not sit so well with some of my colleagues. Some of those teachers may have less experience than me, some that disagree (or would if they read this blog) might be ‘master’ teachers – who knows. There are so many of us in the world that it will always be difficult to find a simple, singular explanation of the job/work – if that’s even an appropriate goal.

I love a bit of simplicity, and often feel that we are inclined to complicate things – to hunt for the trees, or even the moss on the trees, and miss the wood that is trying to slap us in the face. I am increasingly embracing the idea of repetition – of exercises, and fundamentals. A few years back I had a conversation with a martial artist, and traditional Chinese medicine practitioner, who struck a chord with me when he opined that yoga is a martial art, and that Pilates is much the same – a bit like a martial art for Westerners. I firmly believe that teachers of Pilates, yoga, and martial arts (spiritual/meditative elements aside) are doing the same thing – teaching ‘good’ (efficient) movement. His argument was that, traditionally, in the East, children would start to learn these movement practices before they were old enough to question the why’s and how’s, and that by the time they were old enough to question, they knew the answers in their bodies – understanding through repetition. Pilates is a little different because it is designed for adults who may want/need to know why they are doing a particular movement. (How many times have you heard: “What’s this (good) for?”)

Whilst I love to talk to the people that I’m teaching about the why’s and how’s, I think that I need to become more at ease with shutting up and allowing people to just ‘do the reps’. I have succumbed, and am certain I’m not alone, to listening to clients niggling complaints, and trying to engineer a variation of an exercise especially for them. I’m sure that Pilates intended his method to be systematic, and sticking to a system is more likely to produce favourable results than regularly deviating from it. Thus, I’m increasingly inclined to side (are there sides?) with the classicists who devote themselves to ‘the work’, and refuse to deviate from the original Pilates repertoire.

The trouble with this is that, however much I’d like to keep thing simple, the ‘original repertoire’ can be hard to pin down. I remember one workshop presenter who would only teach exercises that he had seen archival footage of Pilates teaching, or that he had himself been taught by a first generation teacher (one who had been taught by Joseph). If you’re going to be strict that seems a pretty good start, but what about the repertoire that Pilates taught to a first generation teacher, who did not pass that particular exercise on to the presenter in question? Is it less ‘original’ because one person didn’t think of it, or didn’t feel it was appropriate for this person? So the mat work exercises are the only really reliable record of ‘proper’ Pilates repertoire, because he wrote them down.

And what IS Pilates? There is a growing movement in the UK to create a hierarchy amongst teachers – to set studio trained teachers above mat work teachers. Only last night I read an article suggesting this, because the studio is true Pilates, is ‘the work’ (matwork, as taken from ‘Return to Life’ was, after all, just homework). I suspect, when I hear or read someone talking about ‘the work’ that they’re talking about repertoire – following a system, perhaps. To know Pilates you have to do the work, to become a good teacher you have to do the work. To stay fresh as a teacher you have to do the work.

The repertoire is what separates Pilates from other movement disciplines, yet I don’t know how many times I’ve told potential clients that Pilates is not just a set of exercises – that the exercises are a vehicle for learning principles and fundamentals. In other words Pilates is not Teasers, Hundreds, Footwork, Long Spinals etc. – Pilates is how to move, how to hold/carry yourself. The repertoire is a well thought system for learning those fundamental skills (with a bit of exotica thrown in for those that like/need a challenge). I think the classical repertoire (what I understand it to be, anyway) represents a wonderful mountain to climb. If you reach the peak of executing all the exercises with grace then it’s highly unlikely that you will not be expressing the fundamentals of good movement. I would love to think that everyone who comes through the door of our studio will develop the goal of accomplishing all of those exercises (but I know it won’t happen).

Instead, I will try to teach everyone I work with to move to the best of their capability, and to overcome any challenges they may have in achieving easy, efficient, graceful, powerful motion. Very often the traditional studio equipment will be the ideal vehicle for delivering this, but sometimes I’ll stray. Just yesterday I was teaching a lady for the first time, who has had a history of back problems and is fearful of common daily tasks, not to mention essentials like picking her child up. This wasn’t the first time that I’ve taught a mother who feels scared or unable to pick up their child, and in this circumstance I feel like all other goals take second place. I will try to explain the fundamentals of midline stabilisation, and transmission of load from extremities to centre (I hope we can agree that these are Pilates fundamentals), and I will more than likely use a kettle bell, or weight of some sort to try to teach her how to (in fact, that she can) safely pick her child up. I cannot think of a ‘proper’ Pilates exercise that teaches this fundamental movement as quickly and simply as I can with a weight but that does’t change my belief that I’m teaching Pilates. Am I wrong?

Should I be in existential crisis? I like simplicity, and I want to teach with integrity, AND I think that often the most interesting things occur when edges are blurred, on the boundaries between things/practices/methods. Can I have my cake and eat it? Can I teach Pilates with a kettle bell?

35 responses to If I Say “I’m a Pilates teacher”, What Does It Mean?

    Free Range Pilates January 15, 2014 at 11:37 am

    I’m also increasingly drawn towards the classical method and am looking to continue my education in that direction. I used to think that sticking with a set routine for the reformer would be very restrictive but now can see how the movement experiences are building the skills to the more intermediate and advanced routines. Some teachers are very good at drawing the line between what is classical and what is stuff they picked up along the way from other teachers, dance yoga etc. I worked with Cara Reeser last year and will be doing so this year and she told us how Kathy Grant was always very clear about whether something they were learning from was directly from Mr Pilates or elsewhere. I think a bit of flexibility (no pun intended) is essential as if you become too dogmatic you might only do things a certain way because Mr Pilates did. He was trying to get his clients to move well in their everyday life as well as in the studio. I really love it when clients tell me that they are taking the lessons learned from the exercises into their everyday movements or static postures. So the lines here can be blurred, you could argue they are doing Pilates just sitting at the desk with good awareness of upper body posture. I’m happy with you using kettle bells!


    Can you have your cake and eat it? Yes you can. Can you do Pilates with a Kettleball, I don’t see why not. As you say it ‘s about facilitating good movement, whatever you may choose to use. Good blog Mike.


    Hi Mike, nice article and the link to martial arts is interesting especially when you consider how many martial arts schools progress participants to teachers and then rank/ grade teachers according to “dan” . I am one of the founders of the Pilates Teacher Association which you may have eluded to in your article. http://www.pilatesteacherassociation.org/. The PTA is not creating a hierarchy as you describe but an awareness of continued professional development and the skills of teachers who have become comprehensively trained and those who are trained in matwork. All who meet the criteria for the register will have learned the method through schools which know the work, the repertoire and the need to instil good movement in daily life….just like Joe Pilates wrote in his books. This will give the public confidence that they are indeed learning Pilates.


      Thanks Lesley, and I’m sorry if ‘hierarchy’ seems inappropriate – I don’t think it’s inherently bad.
      I wasn’t only referring to the PTA, and I think this question/issue has been around for years. That said, given the different membership fees for the PTA, what word would be better?


    Yes you can as you can also teach Pilates with other added goodies; Dynaband and the rest…I often want to teach “The work” to most of my clients..Sadly and often I have to deviate…be more remedial and modify..But I stick to fundamentals and principles and I don’t think I am a less of a Pilates teacher..Clients are happy and we get results. For me that is all that matters…( Love the classical stuff though…LOL)


    Very interesting points. Great article!


    Mike, I agree it’s not inherently bad but can raise eyebrows as it implies degrees of superiority- which is definitely something PTA would not encourage! I go back to your relationship to martial Arts. People get to “black belt” a degree of proficiency which permits them to teach others and the Dans then show continued experience and skill and then there are coloured “apprentice” level grades. I have met many Martial Arts practitioners over the years and in my experience the really good ones are always the ones who simply say I teach Martial Arts.

    If you look also at other “Professions” there are grades in everything from Nurse to Consultant in medicine and teacher to Professor in education. All are still “medical professionals” represented by their respective professional body e.g. Nursing and Midwifery council, General Medical Council and all are “teacher professionals” and have General Teaching Council or their specialist representative body. The Pilates Teacher Association serves to be the professional body for Pilates from student teacher to Mentor.

    So to state you are a Pilates Teacher should encompass all that Joseph Pilates created including all the apparatus and the philosophies from his books. This was defined and written on a paper by many of our eminent Peers and industry leaders in the USA around 2006 and is pre-dated by many associations in the USA. There are then the various linages to honour.

    If you have chosen to specialise in Pilates matwork then be honest to the public state you are a Pilates Matwork Teacher. PTA have a register which covers Matwork teachers who can do an excellent job- that was where I started and then realised there was so much more to learn and over time built those skills and continue to do so.

    All should teach the student to move to the very best of their ability on that day and to take that movement into their daily life and recognise when their skills or scope of practice as a Teacher has ended, when they need to pass to another professional and when they need to take continuing education to develop both in skill and knowledge. The code of conduct, ethics and scope covers all of this and places the responsibility of learning and becoming a reflective practitioner to the teacher. The evidence that they have done this will be their entry on the Pilates Teacher Association Register. http://www.pilatesteacherassociation.org.. Thanks for raising such a great article.


      Thanks Lesley,
      I appreciate your kind words. It’s interesting to me, not to get too sidetracked, that we appear to have a problem with acknowledging great knowledge and experience (unless it is that of American teachers). So I understand that ‘hierarchy’ and ‘superiority’ may have negative connotations for some, but to me it is just different language for grading. My wife has been teaching Pilates for close to 25 years and I have no problem with acknowledging that she knows more than me, sees movement better than me, is a better teacher than me – superior, in fact. I’m sure that’s true of many teachers in the UK with more experience than me. That gives me something to strive for, and if we try to pretend that we’re all equal (not that you’ve said that, but I’ve seen it before now) then we fail to honour the teachers that we should, and we have less to aspire to.

      PS my future rates for advertising the PTA will be very modest…!


    Hi Mike!

    We are a husband and wife partnership too…..my husband is technically much better than I and can perform some work that I look at with quizzical look. I like to think I have the intuition and many skills in development! Once a student of Pilates- always a student of Pilates . That is the foundation of PTA.

    Thanks for the offer of a discount! Sadly I can’t offer you or your wife a discount on your fees should you apply for membership! You will however get a discount for the first conference as a member and perhaps you might wish to apply to deliver a matclass or a workshop when we open for presenters!


    Hi Mike,
    Your use of “hierarchy” sounds right to me.
    You ask…Are there sides? Yes & No.
    Yes…for those who choose to compete in the marketplace.
    No…for those of us who choose to define “pilates” in relation to the emerging Movement Practice Profession, as a way to educate our clients and students towards a cooperative effort.
    Here’s how we define “pilates” at Bodies Mind®: http://www.bodiesmind.com/defining-pilates. For my students, I chose to move away from both the hierarchical and certification routes to recognition.
    And, similar to your views, I recently wrote about the Mat vs Studio instructor debate, as well, and more: http://aasicontributions.blogspot.com/2013/12/soyou-think-you-know-what-pilates-is.html
    As I always say…Live, Let live, and Do your pilates!
    P.S. Thanks to Lesley for mentioning your blog on the facebook forum. Good stuff!


      Thanks Carole.
      I like the idea of a Movement Practice Profession a lot. And, if it’s a profession, then I don’t think any of us can escape the marketplace – I know I certainly can’t afford to.
      Also, I may have expressed myself badly – I’m not sure that it’s wrong to suggest that mat teachers have inherently less understanding of Pilates, just as I’m not sure that it’s right. I’m not usually one for fence-sitting, but I’m kind of on both sides with this.


    Mike you are on the money so to speak with the marketplace.

    As the Pilates method has become more available in terms of non-Pilates specialists setting up matwork only training the 25 years or more taken by your wife to become as proficient as you state is immediately diluted and in some ways negated. To the public Pilates is all the same is it not?

    All comprehensive Teachers are now competing in the marketplace with “fully qualified Pilates teachers” who may have done an online matwork pilates based programme over 3 weekends or less. That to me is not a fence-sitting option.

    Matwork teachers from Comprehensive schools however who continue to take lessons on apparatus from comprehensive teachers and/or take further training from Mentors/training schools who know the full system are another matter entirely. Yes they will have continued development requirements, as do we all ,but they may chose to specialise in mat alone for financial or other reasons. This is why we have established a professional body for Pilates Teachers just as the Alexander technique did for their teachers.


      Lesley, I’m not sure that Pilates is all the same to the the public, or that we can consider ‘the public’ as a singular entity. I wrote this post in large part because I’m not sure what, if anything, serves us all best.
      I’m involved in a mat work teacher training course, which is over a year long. The understanding that students acquire in that time (as well as having the time to get Pilates ‘into their body’, bears no comparison to what one might get from a brief course with minimal contact time. I’m not going to consider any of the people who have taken that course (some of whom have experience that makes them excellent teachers, Pilates aside) as lesser than someone who has undergone comprehensive training. I also know of people who have undergone the kind of training that PTA specifies for its comprehensive members that I would not consider great teachers. That’s why I’m on the fence.
      I’ve come across many mat class clients who do recognise the difference between teachers with different degrees of training, and there are probably at least as many who will be happy with whatever is set before them. In a sense Pilates is a commodity like, say, chicken. Some people will be happy with industrially reared, cheap chicken. I will always pay more money for free range, naturally fed chicken, but if that’s the only kind that’s ‘allowed’, and awful lot of people will have no chicken at all. Once again, I’m not certain whether that’s good or bad.


    Hi again Mike,
    I’m a big fan of simplicity, too. Therefore, I’d say that sitting on the fence is a good idea.
    As you’ve demonstrated, from that vantage point, we are able to see that the “classical vs. contemporary” and the “mat vs. system” debates are not so black and white, as competitors from either “side” might desire us to believe. Thank you!
    I’m siting with you on the fence…because that’s where I came to understand and define “pilates” in a way that relates the work of Joseph H. Pilates to other disciplines in the Movement Practice Professions (…like swinging kettle bells, for instance!). In my experience, it’s this kind of integrative and cooperative thinking which keeps one focused on the leading educational edge.
    Also…I am aware that the regulation landscape is different in the UK than in the US. But, that said, I’ve witnessed time and again that those with inquiring minds (both clients and teachers-in-training alike) will seek out that edge…no matter what.
    So. yes…let’s eat cake…my favorite: German Chocolate, of course!


    Mike you have said ” I also know of people who have undergone the kind of training that PTA specifies for its comprehensive members that I would not consider great teachers. That’s why I’m on the fence”. I agree, not everyone comes out of a training a “great teacher” they come out with skills and knowledge which should prepare them to teach safely, effectively and with a degree of confidence to commence a career in Pilates.

    Comprehensive schools offering teacher training need to demonstrate the skills and knowledge of their course Directors and Tutors and be able to assess the exit knowledge of their trainees.That is from whom the Public should be buying Pilates lessons,

    The one year mat programme you teach should certainly give all of that but whether someone qualifies with an A* or a C is still a pass. Growth and development follow after you have passed the test and some people will think you are a “great” teacher some won’t. You can still call yourself a Teacher. The adjectives regarding skills are very subjective but content of trainings and the skills of those delivering the training make it Pilates.

    Other movement modalities have their own professional bodies like Alexander Technique in the UK are members of complementary healthcare council , and the somatic people have an association in the USA which they can join if they have the relevant qualifications. The PTA is for Pilates and developing that standards to which you and many others expect from Pilates Teachers.


    “Pilates is much the same – a bit like a martial art for Westerners.”
    I love this! I have been over a long time been a Weng Chun Kung Fu practioner and even opened an own Kung Fu school. I find this so true!


    For those interested, this blog entry was shared here:
    https://www.facebook.com/groups/pilatescontrologyforum/permalink/708218345877492/?stream_ref=2 You need to be a pilates instructor to join the group. In that forum, I have responded to to Lesley’s comment above about “somatic people” in the USA…and I’ll be happy to make further comment here as well, if anyone wishes.

    Thank you, Mike, for a wonderful discussion!


    Hi Mike,

    Nice article.

    It seems to me that these issues will continue to be controversial ones for the Pilates community for many years to come, if not forever. The Matwork – Studio controversy is very similar to the Classical – Evolved in the kind of divisions it can bring up. The world of Martial arts is, it seems, pretty much the same with divisions involving weapons or contact and so on. The Yoga world also comes to mind.
    Several of the worlds religions have different schools or sects based on the same sort of differences of opinions. Fundamentalists basing their beliefs on “the word” or teachings of a master/prophet/originator and others choosing to follow paths based upon the ideas.

    As for the certification debate I agree with Carole and possibly yourself, a hierarchy is almost impossible to quantify. I know people who have taught mostly Matwork daily for 20 years who have profound knowledge and insight and people who trained “comprehensively” who have barely taught a few hours a week since.

    I think that throughout all of these sort of practices intention is very much the important thing. Keep Teaching everyone to move to the best of their capability and you surely can’t go wrong. I also like to think that, like practitioners or believers in all of these disciplines, we are all trying to do the best we can and learn as much as we can along the way.

    To sum up: Yes you can have your cake and eat it ( just possibly not on a Paleo diet!).

    Thanks for all the great blogs. They always get me thinking.


    Really good read. I too find myself blurring the edges … Especially recently with an influx of new clients to the practice. We have to adapt where we need to as Joseph’s original student were not your everyday man or woman, they were dancers! I love being able to bring the principles and fundamentals of Pilates to a whole host of clients of varying ages, sizes and with different restrictions. At the end of the day we all want to move more freely, without pain and feel good within ourselves both physically and mentally.


    Erm…. you have a double… in Australia… me! 🙂

    Heck, we even write in a similar way

    Check this link out – resemblance is uncanny


    Cheers – Simon / Adelaide
    (emigrated from the New Forest 1990 / born Tonbridge Kent)


      Hi Simon
      Well, well. I was born in Kemsing, about 10 miles north of Tonbridge – was there something in the Wet Kent water?
      My wife is stronger than me, and you have a black cat too…..
      Thanks for getting in touch,


        Hi again Mike,

        Just to say I am absolutely stunned that you where born in Kemsing, Me too!

        Very odd




    Excellently written and correct Pilates thinking. Good for you Lindsey. I am very happy with you and all you are saying…

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