Calling for a New Pilates

by Bob Hannum I’ve noticed over many years as a Pilates instructor, that we often make it hard to learn—harder than it has to be. No big deal, right? Builds character! Well, I’m about to argue that it is a big deal, and that many of our most hallowed Pilates cues are absolutely unnecessary. Sounds

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by Bob Hannum

I’ve noticed over many years as a Pilates instructor, that we often make it hard to learn—harder than it has to be. No big deal, right? Builds character!

Well, I’m about to argue that it is a big deal, and that many of our most hallowed Pilates cues are absolutely unnecessary. Sounds crazy, but by the time I’m done, you just might agree!

The complexity of our instruction doesn’t just take the fun out of it. It also makes learning Pilates more expensive and time-consuming, and prevents Pilates from becoming more popular. Here’s what I mean.

Let’s look at one of the cardinal principles: breathing. In Return to Life Through Contrology, Joe Pilates states, “…above all, learn how to breathe correctly” (p. 13). So, what do we do as good teachers? We study it, we call it “lateral breathing,” we teach it, write about it, make Youtube videos to demonstrate it—we’re good!

But here’s the problem. We teach lateral breathing instead of letting our students discover it. We’ve forgotten—or were never allowed to experience—that lateral breathing just naturally happens when our core muscles become strong. In other words, no knowledge of lateral breathing is necessary to breathe correctly.

Interestingly, Joe Pilates never taught lateral breathing according to the Pilates Elder Mary Bowen. Neither does he mention one in his books or films. His students created them, most famously Ron Fletcher with his “active breathing.” Not Joe or Clara. For a new take on where Ron came up with this, click here.

Now I’m not a Pilates purist who maintains that if Joe didn’t teach it, it’s not Pilates! I like all the creativity and fusion, and especially the evolution or our teaching as new knowledge emerges.

I would argue the same about “navel to spine” and so much of our traditional instruction! We can simply trust these brilliant exercises to engage the core naturally as core muscles strengthen.

I speak humbly as I, too, have taught these things. And I don’t criticize anyone for doing so. Pilates is such a deep and rich method full of discoveries for each of us. We want to share them. But here’s where I believe we as teachers and certifiers need to take another step. The best teachers—and therapists—guide us to our own discoveries.

Others in our field are sensing a need for something new in our teacher training—note the blog post here on February 20, where June Kahn suggests a period of apprenticeship. The best psychotherapists establish a relationship with a “supervisor” for the duration of their careers. My teacher who is a Pilates Elder in her mid ’80s still takes Pilates lessons!

Let me throw another suggestion into the mix: a module in our certification programs that simply distinguishes Pilates beginners from everyone else and seeks ways to simplify. In other words, let’s just teach the form of each exercise while being ever vigilant for encouraging breathing, alignment, core engagement and all the other rich depths and wonders of Pilates as they emerge naturally.

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