Current Pilates trends can be thought of as a spectrum. At one end of the spectrum is a desire to follow Pilates’ original teachings. At the opposite end is an interest in incorporating new ideas. We will refer to the first extreme as more “classical” and the second as more “contemporary”, keeping in mind that these are just shorthand labels with many combinations of approaches in between. Each extreme has its own pros and cons depending on what you are looking for.
The classical approach aims to reproduce Joseph Pilates exercises and concepts as precisely as possible. In a classical studio, you learn the rigorous set of exercises that Pilates invented. This gives remarkable precision – there is a specific right and wrong way to do each exercise. You receive detailed and exacting corrections. You will be challenged to focus on ultimately controlling every detail of the exercise. The classical approach is not likely to produce sloppy students who might cheat here and there. Your body will develop in a specific “Pilates” way, with strength, precision, and control.
The contemporary approach allows much more improvisation and diversity of interpretations. Contemporary pilates studios will incorporate concepts from other modalities, including physical therapy and exercise science. They will provide more reasons for given approaches rather than resorting to the explanation that “this is the way that it is done”. They may emphasize specific approaches to rehabilitation and may even employ physical therapists and use physical therapy based exercises. In general they are more likely to be skeptical of aspects of the original exercises and may change the exercises to improve them. These studios may also employ a more diverse set of teachers and may give teachers freedom to improvise with both content and teaching style.
Thinking about this spectrum of approaches provides some insights into modern movement practices in general. On the one hand, our understanding of the body has evolved much since the time of Joseph Pilates or movement innovators of the past. We now know much more about the basic mechanics of muscles and bones, how and why muscles get stronger, different kinds of muscle fibers, the pros and cons of stretching etc. We also have thousands of clinical trials of various exercises and their effects on specific conditions. So in once sense, the contemporary approach could be favored because it incorporates so many new things. Why be limited by a specific set of exercises and concepts that were invented 90 years ago? Shouldn’t we be scraping off the cream and filling in the rest ourselves?
On the other hand, “filling in the rest ourselves” is a dangerous proposition. Despite the many developments in exercise science and all the new trends that have popped up through the years there are still huge gaps in what we know. For example the problem of chronic muscle pain such as back pain remains a mystery. And there is certainly no rigorous scientific model of how posture and coordination are “supposed” to work. So when a teacher modifies things as they see fit, there is no guarantee that the modifications will actually be improvements.
From this perspective, it is better perhaps not to mess too much with something that works. Joseph Pilates developed a complex and complete set of exercises and an approach to the body that develops the whole body together. He had a vision of how bodies should look, feel, and move and he developed that vision over a lifetime of working intensity with a diverse variety of students. This is what the great innovators of exercise practice have to offer – a holistic approach to whole body coordination that cannot be reduced to or described by simple therapeutic principles.
. . . it is better perhaps not to mess too much with something that works.
At our studio, we tend to lean pretty far towards the classical approach. We believe there is a right and wrong way to do the exercises and provide very specific corrections. We trust the original Pilates exercises as a complete system and have seen it create remarkable transformations in a wide diversity of clients.
However we do incorporate a contemporary style of working with students. We believe that each individual will confront their own barriers to learning based on their body type and history. Therefore we resist pedagogical formulas that dictate exactly what to say and do when. We rely on each individual teacher’s creativity and passion to find ways to communicate with the students and take them to the next level. We also add additional movements and exercises to the repertoire to gradually warm up the body and to add mobility. This we think is essential for the safety and pleasure of our clients. Finally we have incorporated a number of non traditional props – rollers, therabands, trigger point balls, spiky balls – to diversify the challenges and to encourage tissue release. So while the exercises remain essentially the same, the journey that you follow to learn them is very personal.
The best advice we have for a student looking for a studio is to try a few different ones. See what works for your body at this moment in time. Experience how different teachers affect you and can bring about change in your body. Look a the teachers in the studio – do they carry themselves in a way that you aspire to? Do they embody the kind of fitness you are looking for?
Good luck as you explore the possibilities!