When Teacher Training Became a Product…

Kevin Bowen has been in the Pilates industry, well, long before it was even an "industry." In his first post for his new blog series, he gets real about the history of teacher training, where it's headed—and what you can do to keep the method alive.

At one point in the history of the Pilates method, Pilates teacher training was something only a few had access to, that only the enlightened who had had a life-changing epiphany undertook and pursued with great passion and dedication. If you were lucky enough to be in the same geographic location of a Pilates studio where the proprietor chose to teach and share what they had learned from one of the handful of people who had actually worked directly with Joe and Clara, then you studied with them. If not, you traveled and stayed somewhere other than your home base for a while to realize your dream of learning how to teach the Pilates method.

During those quieter, slower times, only a couple of Joe’s rubbery apostles actually began organizing this information into a written format, some with photos, some without. Joe had never done this, except of course, in his books, Return to Life and Your Health. And there were those pictures, the black-and-white images of the exercises that Joe had on his wall. Copies of those photos were made and given by Joe and Clara to a small group of his devotees who worked with him in the original studio on Eighth Avenue and 55th Street in New York City. One of the things I discovered about those pictures was that the writing on them was not Joe’s writing, but someone else’s. Were those really the names of the exercises? Who wrote those names on the pictures? Was it Carola, Clara, Hannah, Romana, Ron, Kathy, Lolita, Bob or…?

During the evolution and new growth of the Pilates method, somewhere in the early ’80s, Romana [Kryzanowska] began to put together a manual of sorts to document all of the exercises. Later on, in 1991, Joan Breibart, Eve Gentry and Michele Larsson formed the Institute for the Pilates Method. They each took on different responsibilities. Eve’s was to bring together all of the first-generation teachers. Joan, being the brilliant marketer, set out to put Pilates on the map in the U.S., and Michele began putting together encyclopedias of the exercises on the different pieces of equipment.

In 1993, Michele Larsson was sent out to present a Pilates workshop at an IDEA Conference; it was not very well received. At that time the fitness industry was not “having” what the Pilates method had to offer. Many in the fitness industry had no idea what Pilates was, nor did they appreciate the fact that Pilates instructors needed to train for an extended period of time in order to become proficient as an entry-level teacher—not to mention the commitment to have “Pilates in their body” as a cornerstone of training in order to complete and pass a final written and practical exam.

Extended training time, dedication to the principles and applications, a thorough exam process: These ideas were foreign to the fitness industry. After all, you could get an aerobics certification over a weekend, and once you had that you could add on other specialties such as “kick boxing,” “step,” “low impact,” “no-impact aerobics”—these “certifications” were earned by simply taking a one- or two-day workshop and paying your fees. Why would anyone want to spend more time to master their skills when a beautiful, frameable piece of paper said one had already done so?

During this pivotal time, a few forward-thinking people in the Pilates profession figured out that if perhaps you made the Pilates method more digestible, and even broke it apart into smaller bite-size segments, that you could pique the fitness industry’s interest and get them to “buy into” the Pilates method. Levels of training in the Pilates method were created and many of them still exist to this day. Trainings such as Mat 1, Mat 2, Mat 3 and Mat with Props, Reformer I, II, III, and the list went on depending on the company and individuals producing such workshops.

Each workshop you took was designed to encourage you to claim your prowess and level of knowledge, and then you were urged to move on to the next level. The possibilities were endless, and the potential for income enormous. Then of course, in order to maintain this training, the Pilates method borrowed something from the professional fitness and certification community: Continuing-education credits—CECs—were created as a continual flow of buy-in and to raise students’ proficiency and level of knowledge.

It was during this rather fast-paced time that the PMA was formed and began its mission. I attended the 2001 IDEA Fitness Conference in San Francisco and represented the PMA for the first time in the greater fitness arena. I gathered information and reported back to the Board upon my return. The PMA Board and I grappled with how to handle the greater mission of the organization, and what had quickly become tiered levels of Pilates training instead of what everyone on the Board thought should be a comprehensive approach to teacher training. After my conversations with various Pilates companies, I discovered that Pilates teacher training had become a “product” in the eyes of these businesses. Relaying this fact to the Board was difficult and of course appalling to many involved in the organization. The Pilates ship had sailed, and we (the PMA) had some serious catching up to do.

In reality, it was an exciting time for the Pilates method and its growth. The crest of the Pilates wave was growing, and the potential seemed endless. Pilates teacher training had become a product, an SKU, and everyone wanted to have some. We know that Joe would have wanted the entire world to do his work, but many lamented that this was not the way to carry that out.

However, in my opinion, somewhere along the way something VERY important was left out. Pilates lost its heart, its soul, its center. As the pace of training and expansion grew faster and faster, it was necessary to add multiple locations to offer this hot commodity. The industry needed Pilates teachers, and they needed them now. So pathways were shortened to fill the need for educators to teach new students. Many of these new educators, although well intentioned, were not very well seasoned or educated themselves. They were busy with training, busy with their studios, busy with their lives, and many were still actually learning the nuances, knowledge, skill sets and professional expertise needed to be a Pilates teacher and professional movement educator themselves.

As life reminds us time and again, what goes up must come down, and usually not in an opportune way. The Pilates method’s wave crested and evened out, business adjusted, teacher training became less popular, Pilates became less popular. There were those in the fitness industry at large who had been watching this activity with great interest, waiting for this time to come, and they then smugly reported that Pilates was a fad, as they had suspected all along. It had dropped off the ACSM’s top 20 fitness trends.

We Pilates professionals became angry. How could anyone say this about the Pilates method? How could something that has been around for 90-plus years be merely a fad or flash in the pan?

This wakeup call quickly became a reason for reflection, introspection and soul searching. There were discussions, arguments, blogs, chat groups and social media interactions. What do we do to change this perception? Should we reflect upon what this news had done for and to us, and present a united front in the continuous effort of sharing the Pilates method that Joe and Clara had started more than 90 years ago?

Among our ranks there are varied opinions and thoughts about our profession, some honest, some unclear and unfocused, some out of touch, some nonplussed about not only what to do, but what the Pilates method actually is. Some of us were even downright mean and dismissive of those who did not see their point of view on the Pilates method, how it is taught, who’s right, who’s wrong. But don’t we all have one thing in common, no matter what level of training we attained—Pilates?

Could this be the reason? Could others have seen this other side of our community, could all of our communities’ back-biting insecurities really affect the Pilates method and its perception to the public, could our insecure humanity have brought us to this place? Could the market forces of the health and fitness business and their insanity have prevailed and led us to stray from our center caught up in our own egos, insecurities and mistruths?

Whatever the reason, we are all in a new place. We have no choice but to be, nothing is the same anymore—not in our country or world, on so many levels. Why not realize that in our Pilates world you don’t have to fight your way to the top? We all are already here. Why? Because we teach, we practice, and we dedicate ourselves to the Pilates method. Let’s truly support our community and each other. Let’s especially support those among us that may not truly understand or are confused about the gift that is the Pilates method. Our colleagues who went through their training perhaps a bit dazed and confused thinking they were more interested in the piece of paper they would procure that they were “official,” that they were teachers and able to teach something that they didn’t even understand themselves but were afraid to admit. We have all been there before, and no one among us is any better than the other.

Pilates is not something one can frame and hang on a wall. Pilates is something that touches one from deep inside and radiates outward. It persevered and lasted through many years, many changes and adjustments by those that offered to share its many blessings both living and deceased. Find a mentor, be a mentor, share, enrich and support each other. Energize and enliven your practice and your soul. It’s well worth your effort.

Kevin Bowen is regarded both in the United States and internationally as an advocate and authority for the Pilates industry. He was the co-founder of the Pilates Method Alliance (PMA), and owned and operated Pilates Miami for more than 13 years. He has also served as director of education for Peak Pilates and as director of development for Lolita’s Legacy. Currently Kevin is the owner and director of Core Dynamics Pilates, a Pilates teacher-training program, and works as a consultant and program developer for various companies in the health, fitness and Pilates industries. Kevin has been featured on numerous local television features around the U.S., including on CNN and the Discovery Channel. He’s also contributed to Pilates Style and Ocean Drive magazines.

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