With Gratitude, For Lighting Our Fire.
Pardon me for taking so long to write this response to the recent New York Magazine article entitled, “The Pilatespocalypse: How the Method That Started the Boutique-Fitness Trend Is Going Bust”, by Ms. Annie Lowry, but you see I have just been so tied up running my busy Pilates studio since the article was published that I didn’t have time to write. Note the word busy. Since 1999 when I first opened and very few people even knew what Pilates was, our clientele has been on a steady incline. In 2008 I had two teachers on Sundays, now I have five. This year we are averaging three more appointments per day compared to last year. In addition to our devoted, (mostly female 30-60 something) clientele we are receiving requests from special populations. Clients with herniated discs, new moms, men, retirees, and even middle school aged kids, are all flocking to the studio and making requests, because Pilates is so efficient for so many people. We even get requests from Crossfit participants to help them with their back, knee or hip injuries. Hmmm…I wonder if that’s happening down the block at Pure Barre or Soul Cycle? Which are in fact, brands with the goal of opening more locations, not a workout system focused on your best health. Pilates focuses on things like posture, alignment, mind/body connection as well as strength training to keep you healthy through all the decades of your long life. And contrary to the loose research cited by Ms. Lowry, it would be hard for me to be in any social situation and not be stopped by at least one person who says, “Pilates! I love Pilates. Where is your studio? Do you have the machines?”
As a Pilates teacher and a business owner, I can agree that I have seen this field fluctuate in its popularity and I can reveal a few factors easily observed from the trenches.
First, there was no mention here of the US economic downturn in 2007-8. I don’t think Soul Cycle existed back then or if it did it was just starting out. Pilates survived that; my Pilates studio was one of the only businesses in my neighborhood to make it. And you know what Paychex, the popular payroll service, as well as friends and family said to me? They always thought of Pilates as a luxury, but the fact that our clients were still coming during the recession meant that this was a necessity to them. We might have lost 1 in every 20 clients during that time, when many other businesses just closed. And as the country bounced back, (thanks, Obama!) our client numbers and revenue rose up too.
The second problem I witnessed in the past and still see is the studio owner who is motivated by fear and greed and therefore turns his/her attention to competing with fads. Early on, I offered all kinds of training as my business model, but I quickly realized I needed to trust the Pilates method and specialize. Pilates is incredible—and I mean exactly that—it is almost unbelievable to see what it can do to a person’s physique, breathing and state of mind. While studying Pilates, people’s bodies change and their lives can change. When a person inhabits their physical self with the control and understanding that Pilates can offer, it changes the way they exist in their world. They relate to the world with confidence, clarity and calm and the world responds to them in that way. Comments like Ms. Breibart’s, “You need to include some music! It’s a motivator!” come from a place of fear, a fear that someone else is doing something better. I know Joan, and there was a day in the past when I received a hand-written note from her congratulating me on my work in the field and I am sad to see she has lost her way. As aptly stated in the article, there are a lot of choices out there and you can keep running after them to compete, or you can delve deeper into the craft you are working with and unearth all of its potential. By staying with it and working with it, over 10,000 hours of teaching Pilates, I can tell you with confidence and plenty of anecdotal evidence that Pilates has everything you need and more to keep your body healthy. You just have to know how to work it. And if you keep chasing other things, you never will.
Which brings me to my third point. Pilates was at one time a trademarked brand, like Soul Cycle and Pure Barre but in 2000 the Pilates trademark was challenged and it was ruled a “generic term” like ballet. As a result of the trademark decision, anyone could call anything Pilates. So what was once a finely crafted, sweaty, posturally-sound, organized, body-sculpting, muscular, challenging, system of movement became diluted, over-intellectualized and often unrecognizable. What Joseph Pilates designed in the early 20th Century as his method of Contrology (Mr. Pilates original method name), got lost in a mix of modalities and personal taste. In an attempt to promote clarity of movement and proper alignment, teachers started to add more anatomical language and information. The legacy of his work wound up as a very wide spectrum of users trying to cash in on the term “pilates” which was now considered a lucrative fitness trend. Many self-promoting teachers didn’t know what Mr. Pilates’ work even looked like and some aggressively avoided using his work while using the name. To this day there are Pilates Teacher Training Programs that do not even include his reading material or video footage. What Ms. Lowry refers to as “too quiet, too antisocial, too critical, and too sweat-free” is evidence of a direction the method took. There is plenty of footage of Mr. Pilates out there to support the work the way he intended it to be. And in the current climate, I am happy to see the Pilates community hungry to get back to its roots.
I am compelled to add that since Pilates is not a trademarked brand, scripted and run by some corporate head office, many Pilates studios remain small independently-owned businesses. It will go down in history that the most financially successful Pilates business, successful worldwide in fact, was Power Pilates and in 2009 a large corporate entity saw their “potential” and purchased it. In the weeks, months and years following, they steadily tanked the brand by bringing in Zumba and yoga and anything else their number crunchers told them was “big.” In the process they decimated the studio, alienated their teachers and devotees, and left a gaping hole in the Pilates community at large. I saw and felt the reverberations of that failure not in my own studio, but at any Pilates event. Power was able to package Pilates and deliver it on a mass scale and as it climbed to bigger numbers it reached a critical mass it could not sustain. Why? Because Pilates at its best gets personal, gets specific and offers more to an individual’s body than most other exercise modalities. Thankfully, because Pilates studios tend to be small, independently-owned and operated businesses, they offer better care and quality of instruction, and produce more qualified teachers. Sadly, in New York in particular I find my greatest challenge is that politics and real estate make this city inhospitable to small businesses. If I want to build a megabrand, I would likely have to do that in a smaller city and then eventually bring it to New York. It has not been easy but I have maintained a successful small business for 16 years that has a strong client following and brings in new business every day and I still get to pick my kids up from school. Any Pilates studio out there that is failing, is likely failing because they are offering too many other things, are not doing actual Pilates, or has an owner who might be a great teacher but doesn’t understand how to, or doesn’t want to run a small business.
Lastly, I will just say that the article in and of itself is a sad example of our culture’s confusion when it comes to the word “success.” A successful exercise system should be the one that brings the most benefit to the most people. It should be the one that is easily understood and affordable, which I find Pilates to be. You can find it at the Y, or in a church basement or at the park or at a mall for free, because it is NOT CONCERNED WITH BEING A CHAIN! Fitness success should not be measured by how many people coughed up money. When 25 students show up to a yoga class with one teacher responsible for all of their bodies, and the studio makes a profit of 300 percent because the teacher made so little and gets paid as independent contractor with zero job security or benefits are we calling that success? If a gym charges a low, inconsequential monthly rate that encourages people to pay, but banks on the fact that they won’t come is that success? Was the goal of my career as the owner of a wellness space to cram in as many bodies as possible and create a megabrand heading for an IPO? Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t get the memo.
Instead I will take comfort in the fact that I have created and maintained a welcoming space where anyone at any age and fitness level can be comfortable walking in the door and improving their relationship to their own body. Our clients leave feeling stronger, healthier and happier, whether they are 20 and fit or 75 with a hip replacement. And I’m taking this opportunity to throw out a call to action for our Pilates community. Pilates is not elitist socio-economically, intellectually or physically, so please do not treat it that way. Mr. Pilates met his clients where they were at and when they needed help he got right in there with them, either moving their bodies with his hands or by demonstrating. He did not stand there with a monologue and wait for people to get what he was saying with his words. And here is the other thing he did. He gave the Pilates to them. He taught them so that they walked away knowing the work and he encouraged their fitness independence. He believed a healthy body was “your birthright!” The springs alone are genius and the results come from the work. I had a recent conversation with a student of mine who has herself now been teaching for about 9 years and she said it best and I repeat it with pride, “Pilates always works. It always works.” Now if you will please excuse me, I have a workout to do and several clients and teachers to attend to at my busy Pilates studio.