Moving Beyond Classical and Contemporary Pilates

Want to “return to life”? To make movement nourishing and enlivening, we need to relearn to embody our true selves.

By Wendy LeBlanc-Arbuckle • Modeled with Iris Cheung • Edited by Amanda Altman

Although we are intelligent, sensitive beings, we often think of ourselves as objects that need to be fixed. We “control” our bodies when we “train” them, or in the case of a client, when we train “the body in front of us.”

This way of thinking can occur in both classical and contemporary Pilates. It’s all in your approach to movement: What “conversation” are you having with your body? Are you “partnering with” or “fighting” gravity? Are you treating yourself as a biointelligent organism who knows how to self-regulate, adapt and self-heal, or a biomechanical machine that needs to be repaired and serviced?

Much like Joseph Pilates, Leonardo da Vinci was a sickly child who developed his masterful whole-body awareness through his life experiences. Joseph Pilates’ treatise, Return to Life, is more than an exercise manual—it is an unfolding holistic vision!
My experience of being taught the classical Pilates approach with Romana Kryzanowska revealed that movement, for Joseph Pilates, was a metaphor for life. He wanted people to live fully in their bodies, and he approached teaching as a way to return us to self-healing and restoring our contact with the life force that constitutes our true nature.

Joe didn’t call his approach “classical Pilates”—he called it “Contrology.” We all know that he was a genius who was way ahead of his time, but as Kathy Grant pointed out to me, “Remember that Mr. Pilates trained the German military youth, and he was used to too much muscle.” It’s also interesting to note that, when Kathy was on a panel in the early years of the Pilates Method Alliance (PMA), she was asked, “Which do you teach: classical or contemporary Pilates?” She looked at the questioner inquisitively and said, “Classical or contemporary…what’s that? I just do what I do!”

Over the past 25-plus years, I have had the privilege of studying with five of the Pilates Elders—beginning with Romana Kryzanowska, and then with Ron Fletcher, Kathy Grant, Mary Bowen and Lolita San Miguel—and was inspired by how each of them expressed what Joseph Pilates taught them. It quickly became apparent that there is not just one way to practice and teach Pilates.

So how do we move beyond wearing a “mask” of classical or contemporary? First, we need to remove the mask of the “ideal” body to reveal our “real” body. To do so requires that we see the value of what each school of thought stands for, without being caught in a belief system.

With “classical” Pilates, while there is a valuable understanding of the original exercises on the mat, Reformer, Cadillac, Chair, Barrel and other apparatus, this approach can breed the following notions:

• “I’m right/you’re wrong.”
• Doing it the exact way Joe shows in Return to Life—without asking if that was the best way for his body.
• The “form” of the exercise can sometimes become more valued than the experience of being in that form.
• A deep-rooted fear in being accused of “not being a Pilates teacher” if you explore movement.

With “contemporary” Pilates, while this avenue is often thought of as an updated approach to the Pilates method, it’s easy to fall prey to:

• A lack of grounding in the scope of the original work.
• Thinking that “being creative” means just doing “more variations” of exercises, without understanding what the body wants or needs.
• Using the Pilates apparatus and props as crutches, rather than tools for change to help “reshape ourselves” via connecting to our body’s innate wisdom.
• Becoming a workshop junkie to fill the bottomless pit of “never knowing enough.”

As I touched upon earlier, a question that has revolutionized the way I approach movement is, where are we coming from as we move in our personal practice, teaching and in life? What “conversation about my body” is informing my approach to movement? Am I partnering with gravity (releasing tension), or fighting gravity (creating tension)? This is huge!

How can movement be nourishing and enlivening, rather than “I should do it this way” (body schema) or “how I should look” (body image)? This calls for real body awareness, for discovering our true self. To explore this further, see sidebar on page 64.
What I find most fascinating—and what I’ve discovered in 40 years of studies with pioneers of somatic arts and sciences, breath, bodywork, embryology and energy medicine—is that when we learn to listen to and be guided by our body wisdom, in relationship with gravity and spatial orientation, body schema begins to support our body image. We learn to embody our true selves.

When we discover the inherent wisdom and intelligence within every cell of our body by allowing ourselves to rediscover how to “rest down” and “find our backing,” we connect with the natural healing energy of the earth, and realign with our primal nature and relationship with the natural world. A vital question: Are we coming from the “tension” of “doing it right” (biomechanics)/“teacher as expert,” or the “yield” of partnering with gravity and spatial orientation” (biointelligence/biotensegrity) with a lifelong approach to “student-centered teaching”?

When we allow ourselves to sense gravity’s support through the “roots” of our “core coordination” of feet and hands to our “breathing spine,” we awaken gravity’s natural partner—our “ground reaction force,” or our natural uplift that is oriented to engaging with life. It’s just like how a baby is moved to look, hear, sound, breathe and move in ways that create social engagement without having to “know which muscles to use.”

What can begin to inform our movement awareness is knowing that we are constantly in a state of flux throughout life, “shaping ourselves,” physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. From this potent place, we have an opportunity to embody “core” as a coordinated relationship with gravity, ourselves, one another and our environment. We develop a way of being in life that is grounded, curious and empathetic—way beyond movement as a “thing to do.” The Hundred becomes “Your Hundred.” We become a being who is growing through the stages of life, rather than just a body being trained.

The first step: We need to communicate with our bodies. Where are we coming from in our practice and teaching? These awareness “practices” may seem complicated at first, but they will become simple and natural over time, because you are getting in touch with “who you are” as an authentic, conscious being, and “how your body functions” as part of our natural, relational world.
Let’s explore and play together!


Learning the Language of Your Body’s Wisdom

Throughout these exercises, we will use the following terms (and refer to them by their abbreviations). Here’s how to better understand them.

Breathing Spine (BS): Sense how (without any extra effort) your spine is supported by your fascial web’s elastic recoil, allowing your body to “receive” your natural inhale into your back, and then relax on your exhale to sense the “centering sensation” of your fascial breath toward your primordial midline without losing length from head to tail.

Waterfall/Down the Back (DTB): Sensing weight in your feet (standing) or sit bones (sitting), can your eyes and chest soften and widen, allowing a natural  “waterfalling” of your shoulder blades gliding DTB toward your sit bones/tail and feet?

Internal Lift/Up the Front (UTF): In response to the gliding “waterfall” of your shoulder blades, and sit bones/tailbone to feet DTB, there is a natural uplifting response evoked UTF: for the inner ankles, inner thighs, front of pelvic floor and along the front of your spine to your inner ears.

Natural Powerhouse (NP): Without doing anything, can you sense how your shoulder blades glide synergistically with your ribs toward your navel center (DTB) on your exhale, encouraging your low belly suspenders to follow your diaphragm up under your ribs (UTF) to complete your exhale? On your inhale, just “receive” breath without any effort; we call this natural metabolic action on your exhale “shoulder blades to internal belly suspenders” (SBIB).


Partnering with Gravity and Spacial Orientation

Purpose: to get in touch with your NP—how your arms and legs are naturally rooted to your BS through a sensation in your body of DTB on the exhale, and UTF on the inhale
Setup: Gently hold a resistance band at your occiput, allowing your eyes to soften so you can see the sides of the room and sense your “peripheral vision” (which softens and widens your body’s spatial orientation).




1. Gently inhale as you soften your knees.
2. Can you sense contact through your feet, allowing your exhale to straighten your legs—without tightening your knees or pushing your ribs, back or chest forward? (You may notice your spine orient by lengthening naturally from tail to inner ear as you stood taller.)
3. Place one hand on your occiput, and the other on your low belly suspenders, as you repeat the action in step 2.

Teacher To-Do: Place one hand on your student’s low ribs at the “crura” (the roots of the diaphragm’s central tendon rooted to and gliding along the front of the spine), and have the other hand gently pulling the back of the student’s shirt down, so he/she can sense the DTB on the exhale and UTF on the inhale.

Tip: Make sure to hold the band gently, so your hands fluidly connect with the movement of your shoulder blades, and your ribs glide DTB to support your diaphragm’s elastic recoil UTF.


Breath Squat on Reformer

Purpose: a pre-Footwork movement that explores “sensing” the ground throughout your whole body to deepen flow. It also:
• Resets your nervous system’s regulation of tissue tone through an updated awareness of your vagus nerve’s regulation of your brain, heart and gut health via sounding/humming.
• Creates sound vibration that stimulates a relaxed diaphragm as you exhale, and allows your inhale to become a reflex, resetting your natural breathing coordination for your
whole body.
• Rehydrates your breath’s “fascial elastic recoil” relationship with your BS.
• Softens and widens your jaw, chest, back and hips with the breath through releasing your Achilles tendon and soft ankle dorsiflexion, which wakes up the fascial spiralic coiling of your leg’s musculature between ankle, knee, hip and spine and cultivates a grounding “doming” activation within the tripods of your feet (DTB).
• Awakens and evokes the UTF from your fascial body’s “spring-like nature” from your inner ankles to inner ears.
Setup: Lie on the carriage with your parallel feet comfortably resting on the footbar. Can you “sense” your whole foot? (Note: Notice that Iris is holding a “breathing ball” that deepens her “sensory” imagery of her back widening on her inhale and her fascial breath connecting her SBIB on her exhale.)



1. Can you sense weight into your feet, as you soften your knees, allowing breath into your back as you inhale through your nose?
2. Can you “sense” your feet, as you begin your humming/exhale, straightening your legs, without gripping your knees?
3. Stay “standing” until you complete your humming/exhale, sensing “what is just enough effort” to feel connected from DTB to UTF.
4. Can you inhale through your nose as you allow your knees to soften, staying in your feet as you “sit down” just as far as your body guides you? Repeat this flow at least 5 times, standing on your humming/exhale, and sitting as you inhale into your back.

Teacher To-Do: Notice that Wendy is gently leaning back, with her hands sliding down Iris’ calves as she “stands up,” to support her own body sensing a balanced relationship between “grounding and uplift” with less knee tension.

Tip: Placing a rolled-up mat under the student’s thighs allows him/her to sense the primal relationship between the back of the legs (hamstrings) to the front of the pelvic floor and the spine to the inner ear (UTF).


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