The Term "Pilates"

How Much Pilates Is In Your Pilates?

“So what is Pilates anyways?”

The question that makes me clam up. I dread it! I’ve been doing it for 15 years and teaching it for over 10, so what’s the problem? The problem is that the term itself has become broad and the industry is having a bit of an identity crisis. But no joke, I’ve literally lied to people at parties and told them that I teach yoga to avoid the conversation. So why is it so hard to define?

The short history of it: (Seriously, this is so brief it’s painful!)

Pilates has only been a household name for a short period of time - the last 15-20 years. Joe Pilates lived from 1883 - 1967 and developed his method (which he called Contrology at the time) at his small studio in NYC after coming to the US from Germany. He trained some people and once he passed, they trained more people. It’s what we call lineage training - the student would eventually become the master.

Over time the method Joe originally created began to evolve. Exactly what level of evolution is “acceptable” was and still is a topic of white-hot debate among Pilates instructors.

Joe’s books, still available today!

In the early 90’s one school tried to trademark the term, which left other teachers of the method  unable to use the term without fearing legal action. A lot of legal back and forth ensued and things got weird for a while. The motives of each party differed depending on who you ask - and I’m definitely not picking sides in this post.

In 2000, the United States District Court in Manhattan declared that “Pilates” could not be a trademark because it was the generic name for a method of exercise. The US Patent & Trademark Office ruled that “Pilates,” whether describing a method of exercise, a type of equipment or a kind of exercise studio, could not be trademarked, thus freeing it for use by all those who teach or offer Pilates programs and equipment. (quoted from the source)

What Does That Mean For Pilates Today?

The Good:

The case eliminated a potential monopoly in the industry which has in turn allowed a massive number of people to be exposed to the method.

I first tried Pilates in 2004 at Healthworks in Brookline when it was located on Commonwealth Ave. I was a student at BU studying exercise physiology. I loved it! I had stopped practicing gymnastics the year prior and it was the first thing that gave me the same feeling - practice, repetition, form, alignment. In 2006 I started working at Wellbridge (now Commonwealth Sports Club) in Packard’s Corner and my boss Laura (and now wonderful friend and owner of VOS Fitness) encouraged me to start the certification process.

Had that verdict not been reached, would I have ever stumbled upon Pilates at my local gym? Would I have come across it at all?

The Not-So-Great:

It leaves the method open to unlimited variation and a wide range of educational standards required for certification. There’s very little regulation across the industry. The closest thing we have is the PMA (Pilates Method Alliance). I am PMA certified, and I do think on the whole they are helping the cause. There are rumblings however that they are not entirely impartial.

For example, one of the corporate sponsors of the PMA is a Pilates franchise that does not adhere to the PMA’s recommended guidelines for teacher-student ratios. Like, not even close. Hmmm.

Some programs strictly adhere to Joe’s original teaching while some have created so much variation that there’s barely any of the original method left. Some require hundreds of hours, some don’t. Some schools integrate more science and research than others. Whether you’re a purist or embrace the evolution, we can hopefully all agree that the lack of regulation across the industry contributes to the difficulty in defining the method.

So What IS Pilates - Are You Doing It?

No more fibbing to strangers at cocktail parties. Here’s what I actually say these days:

Pilates is “stretch with strength and control,” a direct quote from Romana Kryzanowska, Joe’s protege. It’s simple, and covers all the bases.

If they haven’t walked away (no shade on Pilates talk, I’m just awkward), I also might explain that Pilates is a method of movement that requires strength, flexibility, coordination, balance, courage, and above all, control. The method is a specific order of exercises, done in a specific way with close attention to breath and form. It’s a comprehensive practice across a range of apparatus/equipment: the mat, reformer, chairs, barrels, cadillac, ped-o-pull and more. It’s meant to be practiced regularly and long term. Students are all ages, shapes, sizes and abilities. I have students from teenage girls to men in their 80’s and everyone in between.

One of the big standards we hold ourselves to at Oxygen is the “WHY”. Why are you deviating from the method?

If you have a good reason to deviate from the method, go for it. Maybe Joe’s way hurts someone’s hips, or bothers someone’s back. Maybe they are’t able to support their body weight on their wrists. Maybe you’re simplifying the movements for teaching purposes or to prep other exercises. But we try to stay away from varying so much that the original method can’t be seen - or varying out of boredom. I always say, if you’re bored with Pilates, you might not be focusing enough. You wouldn’t ask your karate teacher to throw in some barre moves to make it more interesting, right?

Let’s let other movements be other movements without calling them Pilates. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with them.

Amy CieslikComment