Last month, I was asked to be a guest on a fellow programmer’s show at the KPCA radio station. After she introduced me and mentioned my show, All Things Pilates, the next words out of her mouth were, “What is Pilates?” I wish I could say that I had the perfect answer, but I didn’t, perhaps because her question was asked in the morning and my brain wasn’t fully switched on. But even if it weren’t in the morning, how could I explain Pilates and its power to transform those who practice it and how this work has shaped my life, all in a brief response? It wasn’t as if we had the entire show to talk about the numerous benefits and life changing exercises the Pilates method offers its followers. And even though it’s been my most enduring relationship, I found myself struggling to find the simplest explanation because there is just so much to the Pilates method and one short interview wouldn’t do it justice. However, now that I’ve had time to think about it, I have a lot to say.
The Pilates method is a body conditioning system built on strength, stretch and control. With each of the hundreds of exercises practiced both on the mat and the equipment, the goal is the same; to develop stability, elongation and control throughout the entire body. Every Pilates exercise is designed to activate the deep abdominal, back and core skeletal muscles and time is spent not only on each individual exercise but the transitions from exercise to exercise which establishes a flow so necessary to master the full routines. Each student learns the mat and reformer repertoire and then is introduced to all of the other apparatus and accessory props that make up this unique system.
Joseph Pilates, the creator and inventor, gave us a brilliant gift, or should I say, gifts. Those “gifts” were originally built by Joseph and his brother, Fred. Joseph constantly tweaked the apparatus designs to accommodate his students. Mr. Pilates’ invention list is awe-inspiring beginning with the High mat, then the most recognizable apparatus, the Reformer, and the list continues: the Cadillac, Wunda chair, Electric chair, Baby arm chair, Guillotine, Ladder barrel, Baby barrel, Pedipole, Spine corrector, Magic circle, Foot corrector, Toe exerciser, Hands Tens-o-meter, Breath-o-sizer, Bean bag roll up device, Push-up device, Airplane board and the recent discovery and reproduction of the Resister. How cool and amazing is that line-up?
Each apparatus has its own set of exercises that complement the mat work and because the mat work is the foundation of the Pilates method, all of the other equipment assist and amplify the mat repertoire. In addition, the breath plays a role and is integral to the method, so much so that many of the exercises are defined by the breath. One of Mr. Pilates’ more familiar quotes was that if there was only one thing he wanted a student to learn from him, it was to breathe properly.
For me, learning Pilates was a very natural transition from my days as a competitive gymnast and later as a professional dancer. Pilates teaches concentration and coordination, resulting in a greater sense of the mind/body connection. Imagine combining the techniques of gymnastics, dance, yoga and boxing into one method, then adding spring loaded apparatus – well, you get yourself quite a powerful and strength building method. Unlike weight machines or free weights that focus on particular body parts, each Pilates move requires the full body to be activated.
I knew from my first lesson, the familiar feeling of working deep in the body. And because of the rehabilitative benefits of Pilates, it has attracted scores of athletes and dancers. Mr. Pilates was a visionary. He believed that his method would and could help anyone with daily activities and life itself. Mr. Pilates used to say, “Physical fitness is the first requisite to happiness.” And actually, that says it all. A strong and supple body prepares one to handle life’s challenges and is a powerful motivator to living a happy life. And though the method is simple to understand in its geometrical design, mastering the actual exercises just might take a lifetime.
On my radio show, “All Things Pilates,” I recently had Dan Cutherbertson, a local Martial Arts expert, who has been teaching and training children and adults for the past 40 years. Dan explained about the different types of Marital Arts he taught at his Martial Arts school, and as the interview unfolded, he shared one of his experiences as a young Martial Arts student, training and preparing to fight an opponent in the boxing ring. Though used to losing his matches, he still gave his all, and was as amazed himself as he realized he was winning the match. Then he heard his coach shout, “Finish him off, finish him off!” and at that very moment he realized this type of training was too violent for him, and he lost interest in winning, vowing he wouldn’t fight in the ring or street ever again. Dan began re-evaluating the various self-defense techniques he’d learned and thought it was time to redirect his attention to a more peaceful practice. Tai Chi and with its meditation component, seemed like a natural next step to help calm the mind and develop a new inner strength in which the goal is not to physically take down an opponent, but to dissipate and diffuse a potentially tense situation with humility instead of with aggression. As he was sharing this epiphany with my listeners and me, I had a quick, vivid memory of my own.
I was in 5th grade, and there was a boy in class that bothered and teased me, and one day I’d had enough. As the fourth and youngest daughter from a boisterous and expressive family, I was used to being teased. It didn’t help matters that I was a very small and skinny child and was called, “Skinny Malink” and “Vuncela,” a Yiddish term for a bed bug. But by the time I was in 5th grade, I had gained strength and confidence in my athletic abilities and played sports only with the boys. I passed a note to one of my friends in class and told her that I was going to beat up the bully. She must have passed around the note because when school was out, a crowd had already formed at the bike pen where I planned to kick this boy’s butt. And just like in professional fighting matches where the reigning champion struts in from the back of the gymnasium, fans parting the way for him, the school kids cleared a path for me. I was on fire. This boy was going to learn that teasing me wasn’t going to happen again, especially, when he felt the lump I was going to leave him with. But as I approached him and walked into his personal space, I saw the fear in his eyes and felt a moment of compassion for him.
Two voices in my head were battling for my attention, and seeing the boy’s fear would have been enough for me to change my mind, perhaps. I’ll never know for at that moment, the vice principle showed up and everyone fled, except the bully and me. He took us to the principle’s office, and we reluctantly sat down and waited for our parents.
It was an odd sensation, that day, feeling both compassion and anger at the same time. These strong emotions both hold energy but at different vibrations. I’d like to think, like Dan, I would have chosen the higher vibrational path, though not sure what would have happened had the vice principle not appeared. I am sure, though, that my initial attraction to Pilates was because of how powerful it made me feel. The Pilates method is an athletic blend of science and art, combining gymnastics, dance, boxing, swimming and yoga, and as it turned out, the perfect remedy for my fighting impulses.
When I first learned the Pilates method from Romana, she referred to the method as the “Pilates system,” as there were eight major pieces of equipment that Joseph Pilates invented* and each had its own specific exercises. As one of the eight, the Ladder Barrel at first sight is just a large round hump with a small ladder attached to it, but for those who practice the Pilates system, it has become a favorite for stretching the legs and spine.
A part of the Pilates method called the “Short Box Series” is often taught on the Ladder Barrel, and the last exercise of this series is called, “Climb a Tree.” While most of us in Romana’s certification program were dancers and former dancers and quite capable of extreme stretches, she didn’t want us to teach Climb a Tree as there was (and still is) an element of fear in leaning backwards for the non-dancer type clientele. Romana’s belief in safety in teaching the Pilates method never wavered, and neither has mine. Yet, as my teaching abilities matured, I was able to clearly explain and demonstrate for my students the benefits of the full exercise.
You can view the Short Box Series, on an iPad/iPhone app, DVD or on my YouTube channel. I demonstrate it on the safest of all the apparatus – the Mat. The mat provides support for the spine and legs which makes it an easy place to practice, and if you’re a teacher, to teach it. In addition, the fear factor for “Climb a tree’” is non-existent as there isn’t an opportunity for full back extension. However, for my students who learn the Pilates exercises including the Tree, on the apparatus, they learn the true meaning of “You are as young as your spinal column,” which is part of the Pilates philosophy.
* Joseph Pilates’ creative genius was always at work, even on a ship sailing to America. The ship also carried a cargo of wine barrels – and that led to his experiments of leaning backwards over a wine barrel and feeling the immediate stretch and release in the spine. This resulted in his invention of the Ladder Barrel as well as the Magic circle, inspired by the steel bands that encircled the barrels.
I had wanted to convert my storage shed into a working studio for my Pilates students and also envisioned passing on the Pilates lineage to another generation of teachers. However, without capital or skills I was unable to see how I was going to transform a Cinderella into a beautiful Princess. But when Sally C., my assistant and first official apprentice, suggested a crowdsource funding opportunity, I realized that my goal was indeed possible! Of course, I had no idea what to expect, never being part of an online campaign before, let alone my very own, and the Go Fund Me business model was a simple one. Enter the amount of money needed and why.
The explanation was just as simple. Last summer, a Pilates instructor from Switzerland came to study with me for two weeks. She told me that she learned more in our two weeks together than from the Pilates instructors who would eventually certify her. That experience increased my drive to impart the traditional work to the next generation. The Pilates method is so huge in scope, and though the studio would be small, I knew I’d be able to help many who were seeking to learn the original repertoire as taught to me by Romana Kryzanowska, one of Joseph H. Pilates’ main disciples. To my stunned delight I didn’t have to wait long before my first $100 donation came in; a day later another $100; and then the next day a $50 donation. Soon I was receiving donations from family, friends and even people who preferred anonymity – my email account was filled with not only donations but encouraging wishes as well.
Then the real work began. Each and every clumsy step I took emphasized my inexperience as a builder. But Sally kept me sane as we put on the various hats we needed since we found out early that contractors weren’t always reliable. We insulated, sheet rocked, taped, mudded, sanded, textured and finally primed and painted. Neither one of us will ever look at a wall or ceiling the same way. When the time comes to build my school, I’m confident that with my new skills I’ll be my own project manager!
My once shed is no longer a shed, and both Sally and I are very grateful for the generosity of our donors who helped to make this project a reality. All forty of their names adorn a wall of Le Petit Studio Darien as a constant reminder of how dreams can come true with a little or a lot of help from our family, friends, and even the anonymous.
“Connect your feet to your seat,” Romana Kryzanowska would often say. Not only was Romana one of Joseph Pilates’ most devoted pupils, she was also one of several ballet dancers who were introduced to him by the master choreographer, George Balanchine, whose own school was in the same building. Romana as well as many other dancers learned about the Pilates technique and how it helped and healed injuries, and as a result, Pilates quickly became accepted in the dance world. Countless hours are spent at the ballet barre, articulating and strengthening all parts of the body, especially the feet, and it was under the tutelage of Mr. Pilates that Romana deepened her knowledge about the feet’s relationship to the rest of the body.
I, too have a history with the feet, though not as dignified as ballet. Two weeks after my birth, my mother watched in disbelief as I dug my heels into the bassinet’s mattress and flipped myself over and landed on my back —I’ve always considered that my first athletic move. But when I six years old, my mother took me to the family doctor for a check-up, and he said my feet were flat, weak and that I needed corrective shoes. Destined to be physically fit, I dismissed his opinion, and followed my own athletic dreams — from high school all-around competitive gymnastics to a near twenty-year professional dance career. By the time I was introduced to the Pilates method, my feet had pushed, pressed, propelled, gripped, balanced, and articulated —quite an accomplishment for a pair of condemned feet.
Romana’s mastery of the Pilates method inspired me to emulate her, and though my feet still have their challenges, I use the knowledge and guidance she imparted, and infuse them into my own teaching. The concepts and principles of the Pilates method has a strong and balanced foundation, and it is the feet that begin the body’s journey.
I used to live in one of the most superficial cities in the nation, one that was only capable of seeing and celebrating youth. But I was inspired by someone who was neither young nor yet celebrated, and by then, already in her seventies.
Pilates protégé, Romana Kryzanowska, began visiting Los Angeles at a time when Pilates was an unknown conditioning method, and I was fortunate to be one of the teachers who would learn the undiluted Pilates system through her certification program. Romana’s desire was to pass on the traditional Pilates repertoire to those of us with what she considered special requirements — physical strength, endurance, and the intelligence to understand the technique. On one of her West Coast visits, I watched her fearlessly demonstrate various inversions on the Cadillac, as well as an advanced exercise named the Star, on the Reformer, a Romana signature exercise that Joe taught her. She must have excelled in his eyes, because thereafter Joe considered Romana, his star. Joseph Pilates’ statement, “We should be in our prime in our 70’s, and should not be considered old until we are 100,” was clearly echoed by Romana as she showed off her Pilates strength throughout our certification program.
As some of our own youthfulness recedes, we can indeed keep strong by choosing body conditioning programs like the traditional Pilates method, or any of its variations, and by embracing activities that require us to push, pull, press, reach and resist. Like Romana, we too, can echo Joe’s philosophy and celebrate our aging with confidence.
Recently, I was interviewed for a local Petaluma radio show, and the first question was what initially drew me to Pilates. My answer came easily as I told the interviewer I was working as a professional dancer and a member of Jazzantiqua, a LA based dance company, when one of the dancers invited me to take a Pilates lesson with her. It was 1993 before the explosion of the internet, and Pilates information was word of mouth, and the word was, the Pilates method improves your dancing.
Our semi-private lesson took place in a Beverly Hills home and maybe because I had been a former gymnast and used large pieces of equipment, it didn’t seem odd to me that there was so much Pilates apparatus in the living and dining rooms. In fact, as my friend and I stood to the side of each of our reformers, originally named the Universal reformer, it all felt very familiar. I listened and watched my teacher intently as she had us lie down on the reformer, the “carriage,” as she called it, and gave us our first cue – Feet on the foot bar and push the carriage away. As we extended our bodies out straight, I was aware of a buzzing sound and a strange sensation in my head. In my mind’s eye, I saw a pure white light, though not bright, it muted out all other colors in the room. I wasn’t aware of any external sound, either, and though the sensation only lasted a moment, as quickly as the carriage came “home,” I knew that I, too, had come home.
And though it’s true as I shared with the interviewer’s audience, my dancing did improve incredibly, more astonishing for me was the sense of already knowing and understanding Mr. Pilates’ inspiring method.
The Side kick series hand placement is practiced in the Classical position. The bottom palm of hand is pressed into the mat and in line with the waist. The shoulder blades are actively drawn down the back helping to support the rib cage.
However, people are spending more time at their computers and wreaking havoc on the wrists with repetitive wrist movements. The Stability position may be a more effective position because the wrist joint is stablized and supported using the fist.
To advance this series with the Challenge position, the bottom hand is slightly wrapped around the waist and lower ribs, to maintain a square ribcage, opposed to the ribs usually sinking into the mat. The shoulder blade connection on both sides is imperative to keep the spine from dipping down.
In my presentation of the full Intermediate mat, the first 3 exercises I incorporate the wrapping of the waist to support the bottom ribs, and the fist is used for the Bicycle.
Try what works for you. Classical, if there are no wrist issues, Stability, if there are, and the Challenge position to strengthen the ribcage. The final and most challenging hand placement are the hands behind the base of the skull with the elbows wide.
Joseph Pilates was an athletic man, which makes his life’s work a natural for men – too bad the true power of his method is misunderstood by many men choosing the gym instead. By using free weights and gigantic machines to train mostly the larger muscles groups, they virtually ignore the smaller muscles. Mr. Pilates understood not only that smaller muscles groups need attention too, but the deeper muscles, especially the ones on each side of the spine, were the secret to spinal health and longevity. He recognized that a supple spine meant efficient movement overall, and he advanced this understanding by inventing various apparatus so he himself could master the technique. Each exercise focuses on the balance of spinal strength and flexibility, and those progressions promote the use of the entire body, not just one body part.
The men I’ve worked with in the past and the ones I presently teach know that a “just show up and work,” attitude is the entry into this life-long practice, and their competitive nature motivates them to improve, succeed and give one hundred percent, each and every time. I especially appreciate working with male athletes because they don’t spend a lot of time chatting, sharing or processing and it makes my job simpler and more enjoyable. And in my view, one main reason for the ignorance about who benefits from the Pilates method, is that advertising largely pushes products and services using mostly female models, thus giving the perception that Pilates is mainly for women.
With more opportunities to share my work and knowledge of the Pilates method with both amateur and professional athletes, and to a greater extent, athletic teams, I’m confident the perception of Pilates will change as coaches witness stronger, more effective performances from their athletes.