Saying Pilates is for everybody is not the same as making Pilates for all bodies. The Pilates industry, much like the rest of the fitness industry, can often present a specific aesthetic. One that doesn't truly reflect the people I see in my classes. This often creates a barrier for many people trying out Pilates and even training to become teachers. One of the reasons I stick to short beginner classes on my YouTube channel is that I want to make this wonderful movement accessible to all. I don't claim to have all the answers, that's why I constantly have conversations with clients and teachers to continue to learn and share different insights.
In October, I sat with my Pilates mentor Joanne Cobbe to talk about ways Pilates instructors can help create spaces where everyone feels welcome.
Ahem, excuse my puffed allergy eyes! Get a cat they said. Bah!
The Beginning of Joanne's Pilates Career
I originally was a school teacher and moved to Ireland, but I couldn't teach because I don't speak Irish. So I went into fitness and then found Pilates, and I saw how amazing and beneficial it is. To me, it's just the best system for bringing out the best in us in every single way. It became a super passion, and so I specialized in it. And then, yeah, I've been doing it now for about 22–23 years. So quite a while!
Pilates has longevity
I think there's incredible longevity to Pilates, whether you are a student of or a teacher of it. I am constantly energized and reinvigorated through working with people and seeing what people's needs are as teachers and as practitioners of Pilates. And that's really where the workshops spring from. It's not that we do "Pilates for runners." It's looking at the whole of our environment and everything and then digging deeper. And that's what I love about it. I really, really love that.
I remember a couple of years ago, one of my family members said to me, "So what are you going to do in 10 years?" "Because you can't keep doing this because, you know, you'll be too old." And I was like, "Whoa!" I was like, "No, this is something that I think is inspirational to see." You only have to at Joseph Pilates. He taught until the end of his life; look at any of the elders. It’s not a"young thing." I mean, it's for everyone, it's inspirational, and yeah, it's just something that's part of us and will be there forever, really.
How do the Pilates Principles fit into Pilates?
It's interesting because the Pilates principles weren't actually written down by Joseph Pilates. They were done by two students of Romana’s who wrote a book, and the principles were first recorded there. But they are like the guiding principles for the Pilates movement. For me, I think the Pilates teachers themselves have to embody the principles as well. We can think of it in a slightly different way. So, for example, "centring" to me is about your powerhouse, about your centre, but it's also deeper as a Pilates teacher. So you have to know your foundations, your point of essence. And that, to me, is knowing Joseph Pilates' work. So say when I train people, I really can't tell them how important it is that they know the original work, but then we adapt, we modify, we make it potentially more accessible so that it is there for everyone.
But you have to know where you are coming from. Otherwise, I see teachers who often lack confidence because they do their training but don't actually know, "Okay, is this really Pilates?" Or "Is this right?" And so, you see that come through in their teaching. And often, when I'm chatting with a teacher who's feeling a little bit deflated, it's because they've lost confidence in themselves. And don't get me wrong, I am still constantly learning about Joseph Pilates' work. I think we never stop learning, but you have to have that, "Okay, I know this; I've looked it up, I've worked on it, I studied it." And so knowing his work, knowing that centre, that essence, and the other thing is, knowing your values, what do you want to bring? So to me, that's sort of like the centring bit.
Precision, not perfection
Often, people think things have to be perfect and precise in the way they do them. And again, to me, when I think of it for our teaching purposes, it's more about you doing the work yourself. So I have that hashtag: "Never trust a Pilates teacher who doesn't do Pilates," because, to me, precision is not perfection. But that you are trying constantly to move forward or go deeper into the work to have a more precise understanding of the work, rather than being at a perfect performance. So "precision" to me means that I do Pilates almost every day, and it might only be for five minutes. I never have an hour. The days of me doing an hour are long gone. Half an hour is perfect. 20 minutes would be even better, though. And in that, I'm thinking, "Okay, how am I feeling?" So for me, precision means doing the work yourself.
The Use of Mirrors in Pilates
I don't have mirrors at all in my studio. If I am in a studio of mirrors, I turn them away because it's not about the visual performance; it's about how it's feeling for you and the sensation, and just feeling amazing but connected to your body a lot. I think we're often disconnected. For example, somebody will say, "Oh, your head's not in the right place." You're like, "What?" "How can I not know where I am in space?" But we can become a bit disconnected. So I think giving yourself the space to reconnect is so important.
Pilates is about the movement, not aesthetics
If we look at Joe's work, we've got two exercises, The One-leg Stretch and The Double-leg Stretch. Ramona Kryzanowska, I’ve been told, then added in The Single Leg, Straight stretch, Double Leg, Straight stretch, and Crisscross and made it "The Stomach Series." And so suddenly, two exercises that Joe Pilates created that were originally about an internal digestive massage, became an abdominal series, taking it to the aesthetics of getting a six-pack, etc. So for me, I think it just drifted into this aesthetic. If you read Joseph Pilates' book, he's all about the internal work and the sensation of it. It's very different.
And I'm not blaming Ramona, please don’t think I am, but where did it go that we should be working from the toes to the top of your head? And that everything's alive in the work, inside and out? To suddenly have this focus on a six-pack and abdominals? I think it doesn't encourage the sort of diversity we want in our classes. Or it makes people feel they're not good enough, they don't look right, or they're too old. Or I can’t do this because I'm not strong enough in my abdominals or whatever, and you're just like, "No, it's not about that." It's about efficiency, joy, and movement.
And it's sometimes hard, for anybody looking to join teacher training with me. One of the first things they say is, "But what if I'm not good enough?" Or, "What if I can't do the advanced work?" Or, "I'm older?" That's another thing people ask: "Am I too old?" Or "I'm not the right shape." Or even things like clothing, where people think they have to be in a certain style of clothing. I just really want people to know that it's not about that. It's not about the aesthetics; it's not about worrying about what everybody else is doing. This is a moment for you.
My busiest classes used to be at lunchtime in a huge corporate environment. I used to get about 50 people come in, and I'd say 80% were men. They didn't even bring a mat. They might have brought a towel if they wanted to. Regardless, we just laid down and did a 30-minute Pilates class. It ran for about four years, twice a week. It was the accessibility of it. It was the fact that nobody was a certain shape or size. They just came, we just moved, and then they went back to work. And that's what it should be. It should be part of everyday life.
You don’t have to be flexible to do Pilates
If you look at how Joseph Pilates tells us to do Pilates, flexibility hardly comes into it. It's about strength and power and using the correct place in the body to ground in order to get to the movement. Whereas I think, especially on social media, you see all these "beautiful" bodies doing these very deep flexion exercises, but actually, if you look closer, they're relying on their flexibility, not their power. You can shift things as well to just encourage people who want to build strength. I think, especially as teachers, we do have a responsibility with our advertising and marketing to be aware of the people we want to encourage to do Pilates. We want it to be a gift for everyone.
Kathy Grant was one of the Pilates elders who worked with Joseph Pilates. I've done some training with students of hers over the years. I remember Blossom, one of Kathy’s students, saying to me that Kathy was great at saying, "The movement is for you, so it's going to feel different." She cared very much about the individuality of your teaching, and you might do it this way, but you might do it this way. I think what needs to be brought through is that it's not a rule book. It could be like this. But you know what? It could also be like this.
Celebrating what your body can do
First of all, as a teacher, I think you've got to set people up to succeed. That feeling of "yes, I can do this"—that feeling of self-efficacy is so important. That belief that you can do something, you can add challenges—but you want to set people up to succeed.
Say, for example, an exercise like The Roll Up. A lot of people think that to succeed at it, I've got to get down to the mat and get back up. So you see people flinging themselves back up in any way they can. Whereas what if a teacher focuses on the shape they make or the sensation they have as they're going through the movement? I don't care if you get to the floor or not. What I love is the feeling of celebration of how easy it feels to get to that point. How fluid—that's what we want people to feel. Not to feel that they are forcing themselves back up and throwing themselves around just because the belief is that's where they should get to. So I think it's all about encouraging the sensation during the movement and forgetting the end result and end position.
Another example is The Hundred. The number of times I see people puffing and panting as the teachers say, "We're going to do 10 breaths." Just do three breaths, just do four breaths—do what feels best for you. As a teacher, I think you've got to give people space to make a decision and focus on that sensation.
No need to overcorrect
Allow the movement to happen. When I teach, I generally pick one or two battles. I'll pick two things, that's all, just to add in. I think as a teacher, you've got to be careful when you do "hands-on" as well. Some people call it "hands-on correction." Whenever you go close to somebody to change them, they think, "I've done it wrong again; she's on her way over to me; I've done it wrong again." Whereas if we think of it as hands-on teaching and encourage a slight shift, we can make it a more positive experience. Say "okay, push up into my hand" instead of saying "Oh, can you just do this more?" That shift from hands-on "correction" to hands-on "help" or "enhancement."
And I think that leads back to your connection with the class because a lot of teachers just have a script. They say, "We're going to do this exercise." And that's fine, but you are just talking at people. I always say I don't do Pilates at you. We do it. You do it with me, and it's got to be because I'm looking at you. I'm not just reading my script. I'm thinking, "Okay, what do I actually need to say?" Otherwise, I'm just being very boring.
I think that's leading us almost back to the beginning, where we were talking about what keeps us energized and loving our jobs. And that's because we're constantly upgrading, thinking, and refreshing. Because every time somebody walks in, even if it's the same person, they're different. Something's happened; you know, we're adjusting, and that keeps us, I think, really fresh.
What are the barriers that stop people from trying Pilates?
Not being the "right body shape," I can understand people feeling it, but I just want people to know that anybody can do Pilates. First of all, it's so accessible; there are adaptations and modifications. But as soon as you start, you will start building strength and building movement. Another thing is that people really worry about their abilities. But again, it's something we're always going forward, we're always moving, and we're always improving. There’s so much to enjoy and gain from Pilates. It's incredible. It's to do that and help people have a better sense of well-being. There are a lot of stressors, like people not sleeping, etc. Also, with all that outside influence, we can just give a little oasis to help decompress a little bit. Just let ourselves have a safe space that just helps people cope.
And I think that, especially in the UK, we have such an amazing mat style of Pilates. Mat is everywhere. It is so well-loved in the UK. But what people need to remember is that the equipment helps you do your mat. The mat is actually the hardest. So sometimes, if you can't do a teaser on your mat, you'll probably absolutely fly doing it on a Cadillac. But a lot of people don't have that opportunity.
Is reformer Pilates easier than mat Pilates?
A lot of people think reformer is harder than mat because you can feel the intensity of the work. But the intensity of the work is what helps you on the mat, where you've got nothing to push or pull against. You've just got gravity and your own body weight, and that's so hard. So the pieces of Pilates equipment facilitate your mat work.
Joanne Cobbe's Favourite Resources
I love following Elaine Ewing's Instagram account. Elaine shares so many different images of Joe and I love delving into them. I know they're just moments in time, but in the background, looking at the studio, what's out there.
I've really gone more historical recently and I’m really enjoying it. Pilates Anytime, for example, has their legacy project. This project looks at all the history and interviews with the elders. I love that hearing firsthand, all the different stories because it really brings to life what we do full time and it gives that centring that I also think is very important:
Where to find Joanne Cobbe's work
Facebook Community: https://www.facebook.com/groups/398088796908254
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