When is it No Longer Pilates?

Something caught my eye at the store recently– an aisle with exercise equipment – weights, a Pilates ball (which looks disarmingly like a Swiss ball), and a Pilates Circle.  In France, where exercise is still exotic, this is new and exciting.  Suddenly, Pilates is everywhere.  Skimming through a fitness equipment catalog, I find a Pilates foam roller (which, strangely, looks just like a normal foam roller).   The sporting goods store devotes an entire aisle to “Pilates clothes” (apparently the powers-that-be don’t think people sweat during Pilates because none of it looks sweat-proof).  At the bookstore, I count at least a dozen Pilates books.  On the Internet, I learn of Pop Pilates, Aerolates,  Piloxing,  Piyoga, Yogilates,  Zumbalates, Poolates (my guess is that this has something to do with water and not excrement) and Hot Pilates.  There is a site called pornolates.com and a trademark for sexilates (which lapsed, so it is up for grabs if you are interested).    All the local gyms, vacation resorts, physiotherapists and mid-wives also teach Pilates classes.  It’s raining Pilates!!  But is it really Pilates?  When is it not Pilates?  Enquiring minds want to know.  I want to know.

I don my Jimmy Olsen cap to investigate.  First, what is naked Pilates?  There are a surprising number of videos on the Net.  Please, you are totally going to check it out too.  I find a video with two women who appear to have some Pilates education.   One begins to speak authoritatively about the powerhouse, but then proceeds to say that the pelvic floor, (consisting of the sacrum and the tailbone) must touch the mat.  Um, what?!?  I think that would be cause for alarm as in – Houston, we have a problem!  My pelvic floor is on my Pilates mat, please call an ambulance!  I stopped watching when it became sadly evident that Harrison Ford was not going to make an appearance.  Also, my kids were becoming curious about what I was watching and I doubt they would be convinced that I was doing “research”.  Ten hours later (joke) I am no closer to knowing what is not Pilates and I also don’t know why one would need a knit cap for naked Pilates.  Conclusion – naked Pilates probably isn’t Pilates, but viewers are likely looking for a different sort of “Teaser”.   And “in and up” – well I won’t go there.

Perhaps it is easier to start with the question – what is Pilates?  As a friend put it – is it Pilates just because we say it is or because we want it to be?  Does anything go as it long as it respects the oft-cited “Pilates principles” – centering, control, concentration, breathing, precision and fluidity?  These principles were not defined by Joseph Pilates himself, but by the 1980 Friedman/Eisen book on Pilates and have since been widely adopted. Frequently teachers insist that Joe would be delighted by the changes to his method and would have encouraged teachers to give free rein to their creativity.  Easy to say, but problematic to prove since Joseph is deceased and there is no “Return to Life” after death, as far as we know.

Do teachers really believe that anything goes – “fusion” classes, gym classes, large group reformer classes?  What if the instructor doesn’t know the difference between Joseph Pilates and Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism (as one teacher recounted)? What if the teacher just barks instructions and provides no corrections? What if few or no exercises resemble those in Return to Life, if props like the Bosu, swiss ball or foam roller, which have origins in other methods, are used?  We all laugh when Pilatesology airs parodies with the baby chair on the reformer and the ladder barrel upside down, but that is not that farfetched given what we see on Instagram.  Blaring music?  Concentrating on Sir Mixalot’s fondness for big butts will take our attention away from our own derrière.

Social media is alive with Pilates images, many of them recognizably Pilates, others less so.  Some look useful, others, well…. less useful.  I find myself scratching my head (no, not lice) … is this still Pilates?  At times, the answer is a no-brainer.  Dangerous exercises are clearly not Pilates.  Ever.  End of story.  More often the answer is murky.  And there is a backlash against the so-called Pilates police – any comment that could be perceived as mildly critical is found offensive and its author all but tarred and feathered.  Perhaps we are taking an admirable idea – inclusiveness – too far.  We have no legal standards defining Pilates -should we have no standards at all?

I took the question to a non-classical facebook forum and was surprised to be met with strong opinions on the subject and a clear rejection of the “anything goes”assertion.  Many decried the proliferation of “crapilates”.  But the line between Pilates and Pile-of-shit-ates was unclear.  What makes something Pilates and something else, Poo-lates?  Is it only a question of being safe and functional and following the “principles”?  A good vinyasa or Iyengar yoga class could follow the “principles”.  Can yoga be Pilates?  It does sound silly, but if you consider that any safe movement class that follows the “Pilates principles” is Pilates, then yoga could be Pilates, and even cooking could be Pilates.  A friend of mine suggested that a Pilates class should have a significant number of original Joe exercises.  What is significant?  Ninety?  Fifty?  Twenty?

Many teachers assured me that they harbor the same concerns.  Yet each had a different view of what Pilates isn’t.  Classes that were too slow were not Pilates.  Classes that were too fast were not Pilates.  Adding props like Swiss balls, flexbands or Bosu were not Pilates.  Fusion classes – no.   Too much breath, not enough movement; too much movement, not enough breath.   Too much sweat, not enough correction; too much correction, not enough sweat.  Like Monica on Friends trying to duplicate the chocolate chip cookie recipe, no one could quite pin down the special ingredient that makes Pilates what it is.  Not just the exercises themselves because, as one person noted, a bicep curl could be a simple curl or it could be done in a way that would make it Pilates.  The intention behind the movement is equally important as the movement itself.  Not just the “principles” because other movement methods that are not Pilates may also respect the “principles”.  Not just the equipment because swinging like Tarzan from the trapeze bar does not a Pilates practitioner make.  Not the lack of equipment because Pilates can be done with only a mat.  Some asserted that a Pilates class needs to reference RTL in some way, that the exercises should be traceable back to the originals, that the teacher should, at the very least know who Joseph Pilates was.  Most agreed that a true Pilates teacher needed to undergo a comprehensive and not a weekend program.  And everyone concurred that teachers must respect the integrity of the method, and not merely exploit the name for marketing purposes. One person wrote, “I suspect that what is not Pilates is like porn.  I know it when I see it.”

Social media, however, reminds us daily that many believe that we should be creative with the method.  One teacher wrote that when an experienced teacher truly understands the method, he should feel free to create new exercises.  After all, Joseph both invented and borrowed from others.  True, but he made the method his own and gave it its own name and now it bears his name.  At what point does the creation deviate enough from the original that it should be its own creation?  When grandma no longer recognizes her chocolate cake recipe, it really isn’t still grandma’s chocolate cake.  And she wouldn’t want you to call it that, delectable though it may be.  If it really doesn’t look or act like a duck, maybe it just isn’t a damn duck.  And that’s fine.  It doesn’t need to be a duck.  When a teacher injects enough of his own inventions into the work so that Joe would no longer recognize it, or criticizes Joe’s work as unsafe or primitive, why even bother calling it Pilates? It isn’t Pilates anymore. It is something else.

Some people have argued that no one cares.  That assertion is patently untrue.  SOME people are simply looking for a safe, fun workout and don’t care what it is called.  But many do care and consider it important that the public learn what Pilates is.  They are concerned that non-Pilates classes using the Pilates name either give Pilates a bad reputation because they are, excuse my French, crap, unsafe or misleading.  Contrary to what many say, there is no Pilates police.  I am a not nor do I want to be, a Pilates policeman –this isn’t about me.  But it does matter what the Pilates teaching community promotes as Pilates because that is ultimately what the public will believe.  It is a fact that there is no Pilates trademark – anyway can say that they teach Pilates.  Anyone can also call yoga Pilates.  Legally.  But ethically?

This is a call for reflection –upon our responsibility as teachers to acknowledge and honor the work that went into creating the method, to uphold its integrity, and that of its creator.    Pilates should not be about egos or Instagram likes.  Would Joe have been delighted about the myriad changes to his method that bears his name ?  I am skeptical. Naked Pilates?  Although he DID suggest that one should wear as little as possible to work out, I doubt that he foresaw that naked Pilates would be a thing.

Do not go around policing others or trolling the Internet, but be your own police. Joseph entrusted his method to his teachers, who in turn gifted us with it.  With this gift comes responsibility.  Let us be responsible.  Let us be vigilant against denaturing the method into something that Joe would not recognize.

*special thanks to Patty Turner Mehl for the « porn quote » and the Joseph Smith anecdote.😂😂.

About the Author

laracroftRebekah is a supremely talented and accomplished human being.  In fact, she is so accomplished that to list her myriad accomplishments would take too much time.  Suffice it to say that she was voted best all-around in preschool and has saved a ladybug on more than one occasion. She is so nice to animals that she does not even have to be nice to other people.  She does not post many pictures on facebook because she does not want others to feel bad about themselves.  The word that people use most frequently to describe her is enchanting, although delightful is a close second.   She teaches Pilates in her home studio in France (over 200 hours a week), where she is not above making her students do extra teasers if they question her authority or mock her accent.  Yes, rumor has it that a few people have apparently dared mock her, but when we went to question them, we couldn’t find them anymore.