UK Pilates. What have we done?

September 29, 2014 — 16 Comments

IMG_2043Spoiler alert! What follows necessarily involves generalisations, and is in no way intended to disparage any individual(s).

I’m a little surprised to find myself writing this, and perhaps it’s in part a reflection of conservatism increasing along with age. Within the Pilates world it seems that the arguments over the merits, and legitimacy of “classical” and “contemporary” Pilates go on and on. Not long ago I may have found the dogma of the classical followers a bit hard to take. I may even have referred to some of the die-hard adherents to the classical form as ‘fundamentalists’, which I admit has some unpleasant connotations these days.

More recently, and as a result of various experiences, I’m starting to think that teachers (here’s generalisation No.1) in the UK have done Pilates a terrible disservice. Actually, not just the UK (a video from a well-known Australian teacher contributing to my dismay) but this is the region that I’m best placed to observe. One of the mantras that gets repeated in the argument in favour of a more contemporary approach to Pilates is that, because of advances in science, biomechanics, kinesiology etc, we understand movement better than Joseph Pilates did. If we believe that then it’s logical to apply the fruits of this deeper understanding to Pilates’ system.

Inevitably, as my understanding has shifted (up, down, sideways – who’s to say?) my teaching has changed. I’ve been seduced in the past by ideas and information that have complicated my thinking when teaching, and encouraged me to try to teach something in a more complicated way. I hope I can truthfully say that it’s been a long time, but I suspect that I’ve uttered the words “neutral spine” in the past. I’ve come to realise, too, that in trying to be inclusive of everyone in the class, I’d habitually compromised a movement to the point that I’d forgotten what the movement was supposed to be in the first place. I’ve worked to try to make people comfortable in an exercise at the expense of actually doing the exercise. I believe that we have done this sort of thing over and over, until the intention of the original exercise has been lost completely. There are apparently many people in the UK that believe Pilates is boring, and I’m inclined to believe that it’s because many of them have been taught some pale (wan, iron-deficient, malnourished) imitation of the real thing.

Part of the responsibility for this may be the prevalence of Pilates mat classes taught in health clubs, where the teacher has very little control over who attends the class. The lowest common denominator will often set the tone. Interestingly, the government approved qualification for Pilates teachers, that many health clubs require, is more geared toward the teachers ability to include everyone than in the teachers understanding of Pilates’ system. This is a relatively recent phenomenon, but the ‘dumbing down’ of Pilates has been going on for a lot longer.

It’s still shocking to meet teachers, who have been plying their trade for perhaps 10 years, that were not taught the original mat exercises during their training. It’s almost laughable. Imagine: “I’m a maths teacher, but I don’t teach multiplication or division because my trainer didn’t believe that it was suitable for the general public.” There’s a whole strain of ‘creativity’ – teachers finding new things to do with or without equipment, that may have roots in another discipline, or not (“Can I do that exercise with the foam roller and the rotating disc when you’r holding the push-through bar?”) that may deserve a separate post. More disconcerting is the idea, it appears many teachers have, that Pilates is full of relaxation. I think this comes in part from the world of somatics, and disciplines like Feldenkrais, which are great in themselves but maybe not applicable to the practice of Pilates (unless perhaps none has a particularly vivid understanding of how to move well). The other part of the relaxation dogma, I suspect, comes from trying to help people who are challenged in some of the original work by, for example, poor hip dissociation (see, I can’t stop the modern science creeping in). This seems to me to be one of the fundamental skills of good movement, and therefore Pilates too. Here’s an example: someone can’t Roll Up, or back again, without their legs leaving the floor. Could it be that we have encouraged the notion of relaxing the inhibited muscles, instead of actually teaching those people where to work from so as to overcome the inhibition – working toward correcting a faulty pattern? (Work the right muscles, so that the ‘wrong’ muscles get the chance to return to natural function).

In similar territory, have we pursued that things that feel ‘nice’ in our own practice, and for our clients? The practice of starting a class with side-flexion seems strangely prevalent, and mostly because it “feels nice” – or stretches muscles that the teacher perceives to be tight. The logic of working on central support to give some relief to overworked superficial muscles, instead of just trying to stretch those muscles, seems to have escaped us. Pilates didn’t need to spell this out, he just put centring exercises at the beginning of the sequence (and now modern science has taught us better, perhaps?) How have we got to a situation where what feels nice is the key determinant for exercise choice? It’s true that Pilates often makes me feel good, but that’s typically a response to my body working hard, rather than doing things that feel relaxing, or nice. The lasting benefits always seem to come from working hard, and it still amazes me when clients have that ‘Oh, this is hard!’ reaction to Pilates. Was it ever intended to be anything else? The idea of working just as hard as you need to is very appealing, and one of the seductive things about Pilates is that it probably takes decades of practice to reach the point at which the really difficult things begin to feel like they don’t require maximum effort.

I am not advocating a ‘one size fits all’ approach, as seems to be the view of some teachers – that if you want to hold true to the intent of the original exercise you are trying to force square pegs into round holes. My wife attended a workshop with Kathryn Ross-Nash a while back, and one of the nuggets that she passed on to me was the idea that every Pilates exercise has a single purpose. Several objectives, perhaps, but a single purpose. Adding to that the idea that exercises should not be adapted or modified, but rather broken down into their constituent parts, in order to work towards the whole. I suspect that I will do Ms Ross-Nash a disservice if I try to paraphrase any further, and the best advice may be to seek her out in person, or here, for example. To me, her thoughts seem to tie into what I wrote earlier, about adapting an exercise to accommodate everyone, to the point that the original exercise, along with its purpose, is a distant memory. Teach people what they need to know/do, in order to do the exercise, instead of reinventing it.

I know that there are many teachers in the UK to whom what I have written does not apply and, as I tip my hat to all of them, I’m trying hard to be one. I’m not sure that the system that Joseph Pilates devised is perfect, but I think it’s almost certainly a good deal better than has often been allowed for by teachers (and teacher trainers) in the UK.

If it’s not too late, what is to be done about this sorry state of affairs? Here are a few ideas:

Sweat more (and don’t tell others that Pilates doesn’t make you sweat). There’s a reason that Pilates believed it wasn’t necessary to do a lot of repetitions, and quite often that’s because, if you’ve put your whole body and mind into the exercise, 5 or 6 is all that you can manage.

Relax less – that’s what sofas and television were invented for, not Pilates. (Oh, and don’t get too comfortable either – very few useful adaptations are derived from comfort).

If you’re a teacher – take more classes. Unless you think that you’ve learned everything by the end of your teacher training.

And please accept my apologies if the tone of this is especially hectoring. Conversations, social media postings and the stars have aligned in such a way that writing this felt imperative.




16 responses to UK Pilates. What have we done?


    Nice article,perhaps i am on the right direction with teaching, and as you correctly suggest i try to go to many different classes for myself to make sure i keep on learning as much as i can,sadly when comes to take part to further courses find myself with not enough money.But i am sure it will come with time.


    Excellent, well-written article. It echoes my thoughts exactly. My background has been contemporary Pilates. But now I’m exploring Classical and loving the profound intelligence of the work so much more.


    ‘scuse my french but,,,, F*** man, you sure can write! 🙂
    Simon – Adelaide – Oz


    Thank you for the feedback.
    Simon, that’s about the best compliment I’ve ever received!


    “I’ve been seduced in the past by ideas and information that have complicated my thinking when teaching, and encouraged me to try to teach something in a more complicated way.” This is something I have experienced so often in the past 12 years, I couldn’t have said it better. I would really appreciate it though if you could clarify what you meant by the next sentence: “I hope I can truthfully say that it’s been a long time, but I suspect that I’ve uttered the words “neutral spine” in the past”, it’d be really helpful for me cause I too find that all the new information I come across everyday makes my work so much more complicated as a classically trained instructor. Maybe I’m misunderstanding something in the wording.

    Related to this post, I’m curious on what your thoughts are on studios who do not teach ANY mat exercises to clients who only attend “equipment” classes (which means they can afford more for Pilates) since these are part of a mat class, which is less pricey! Did you know there are studios working this way? I certainly didn’t! Can you imagine dong Pilates for years and never having done any mat exercise!?

    Thanks for a great read, and I’d really love any feedback on my question about the neutral spine.


      Hi Theodora
      Thank you for your interest. While I had done some mat exercises as a part of studio classes, I had not attended a mat class until I began training as a teacher. It does seem strange to never do any mat exercises as the apparatus and mat repertoire seem so interconnected.
      Re: “neutral spine”. I’m tempted to write another post about this. I suspect that this concept made it’s way into Pilates via physiotherapy, but I don’t really know as I think it was there already when I started training in 2001. I don’t think it’s appropriate to Pilates for lots of reasons – Firstly, it’s a very imprecise idea, in that ‘neutral is going to be different for different people – a swayback neutral is different form a flat back neutral is different from a kyphotic-lordotic neutral etc. Secondly, Pilates makes no reference to this, and I think very few Pilates exercises call for this position (unlike say, dead-lifting, which emphatically does). Also, ‘neutral spine’ is typically explained as a supine position, relative to the floor. How is this useful? Does learning this position on the floor teach us much about how to achieve spinal elongation in standing? If you can organise your pelvis relative to/on top of your legs the alignment of your spine will take care of itself. If you can’t organise your pelvis on your legs no amount of conceptualising ‘neutral spine’ will help.


    Thank you for your reply. I’d love to see a post on this. I have been going through a maze of internet posts trying to figure out when this concept started, since during my training in 2002 we were very much emphasizing the concept of the flat back instead during supine ab work. I also have come across an extreme opposition to the c-curve, which during my training was very much emphasized too, which is now being replaced it seems by an almost leaning back straight position during exercises such as the roll back or spine stretch forward (if you haven’t already, maybe google Rebecca Leone’s work on the roll up). Both these concepts seem interrelated to me and they seem to be what makes the difference between “classically” trained and “contemporary” Pilates teachers. On the other hand, maybe I’m just not understanding something, even though in my work for the past 12 years I have seen amazing things happen to both myself and my clients by working in the way I was trained back in the day when BASI didn’t even exist. Personally I’m with Jay Grimes on this, who said during an interview that we’re not doctors or physical therapists, we teach exercise, and as Pilates teachers the best we can do is “Keep your mouth shut, your eyes open, and know which exercises to choose for someone.”

    Sorry if I’m off topic, but I would love your insight on this.


    Mike, excellent job with this post. I agree wholeheartedly with everything you say. I wish I could write as eloquently as you. your tone was far from obnoxious (like mine can tend to be, LOL!) and I will definitely look for more of your posts. in the meantime you can check out my blog here:
    P.S. I am also British but have lived and worked in the US for 25 years and have been teaching Pilates for 23.


    Thanks so much for this great article, Mike. Loved. Shared. Smiled 🙂

    Dianne McDermott-Crampton October 7, 2014 at 4:35 pm

    An interesting debate on the two forms of Pilates. I trained last year in Modern Pilates, I felt like I understood Pilates having done it myself for 9 years but am more confused than anything else! I understand the logic that Pilates was an evolving discipline and adapted to individuals’ needs & that you want to make sure that your clients are safe & do not hurt themselves. However, I have been doing an online more classical Pilates programme for the past few months and have become so much stronger & toned & when I go back to contemporary it feels very slow. We were taught not to do the roll down as it people can hurt their back, yet it is one of my favourite exercises. I would love to discuss more with you if that’s possible!


    Thank you for this article, Mike! I can’t tell you how much it baffles me when I see comments about how PIlates is the exercise for people who hate to sweat (or something to that effect). When I do PIlates, I lose more weight in water than I care to mention. I think all of these deviations from the method are doing a disservice to the original intention of the method. But as Jay Grimes says, it’s not that these derivations are bad, just don’t call them Pilates!


    oh my gosh, this is the kind of Diva-ish, i know best, this pilates is better than that pilates B### S##t that causes me to totally disassociate myself with your pilates world. There’s always some Diva on their soap box slandering one person or the next! every pilates client is unique and individual, what works and what’s right for one is wrong for another. ALL physical forms of exercise need to be differentiated for each persons needs. Pilates teachers stop trying to dictate what’s right or slander what they deem is wrong, if it helps the client then who gives s##t if there is deviation. so sick of this


      Thanks for taking the time to comment louise, especially when you’re sick of it.
      If you accept that there is ‘differentiation’, then there has to be a basis from which to differentiate, no?
      If I sell you margarine, but call it butter, and you like it, does it follow that I can forever refer to margarine as butter?

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