What type of Pilates Teacher do you want to be?

by Dr. Brent Anderson
PT, PhD, OCS, NCPT

Pilates teacher laughing with students in class

You’re probably thinking about a career as a Pilates teacher and have come across many different Pilates programs and styles. With so many different options, how do you know what’s best for your career plans?  I’ll tell you a bit about me and my journey and shed light on what’s important to consider when making such an important decision.   

I was introduced to Pilates at Saint Francis Hospital while attending PT school at UCSF in San Francisco.  Saint Francis had opened a dance medicine center under the direction of Dr. James Garrick.  

It was there that I met Elizabeth Larkam who would soon become my business and education partner.  Elizabeth was my first teacher, and we had the opportunity to study with many of the first generation of Pilates teachers that were taught by Joe Pilates and his wife Clara. The first-generation teachers, or Pilates Elders, include Eve Gentry, Carola Trier, Romana Kryzanowska, Kathy Grant, Ron Fletcher, Mary Bowen and Lolita San Miguel.  These first-generation teachers were instrumental in introducing Pilates to people around the world.   

When I started to study Pilates in the late 80’s, there were not many Pilates trainings available. We had to learn through first-generation teachers who taught workshops and courses and through our own practice and study. It is through this experience that I was able to grow and choose my path to build Polestar Pilates to what it is today. 

A very brief history of Joseph Pilates, Contrology, and Pilates today

Joseph Pilates, creator of Contrology/Pilates

Joseph Pilates was born in Germany in 1883. He was a sick child who had various ailments such as asthma and rheumatic fever. Because of this, he was determined to find a way to overcome his physical limitations through the study of different movement forms and literature. Against the odds, he grew healthy and lived a productive life, impacting the lives of many people around him. 

The original name of his program was CONTROLOGY which would later be known as PILATES.   

“Contrology develops the body uniformly, corrects wrong postures, restores physical vitality, invigorates the mind, and elevates the spirit.” 

Joseph Pilates, Return to Life 

Joe emigrated from Germany to the United States in 1926. On his way there, he met Clara who would not only align with his goals of Whole Body Health but would later become his wife. They opened a “body-conditioning gym” in New York, and it was here where many would come to learn Pilates directly from them. 

What are the different forms of Pilates? What do people mean when they say Classical or Contemporary Pilates?

Within the Pilates industry, there are different interpretations of Joe and Clara’s work from the different lineages.  Each of the elders had a different interpretation based on their own experiences.  It can be a bit confusing for those new to the idea of different Pilates forms, but I will tell you that each of these styles of Pilates has a place.  

Classical Pilates 

Pilates Teacher with client doing Single Leg Stretch

Classical Pilates is a term most often associated with Romana Kryzanowska. This form follows Pilates as Joe originally performed and taught it, with the same focus, exercises and sequences. She worked the longest with Joseph and was very loyal to his work. Romana strongly believed that all Pilates teachers should learn his work in order to understand Joe and the essence of what was taught, especially in the last years of his life.    

Contemporary Pilates 

Pilates teacher working with a client on the Reformer.

Contemporary Pilates is a common name given to Pilates teachers that typically are not descendants of Romana’s lineage.  

Contemporary Pilates Schools have continued to learn and develop the work based on the philosophy of Joe and Clara Pilates.  Contemporary Pilates preserves and honors the classical work while evolving it as movement science and research evolves. We feel it important that all Pilates teachers understand the history and origin of the Pilates work.   

You may have seen different styles of Pilates and trainings that focus on different populations. For example, some schools are built more on dancer fundamentals, others on a physical education structure, and others on the latest fitness trends. Be sure that the teaching centers on Pilates first, and then on any specializations.

Pre-Pilates 

Another part of contemporary Pilates is the idea of Pre-Pilates. First-generation teacher Eve Gentry worked with a lot of injured clients which led her to create this form of Pilates teaching that she referred to as Gentry work.  Pre-Pilates uses basic movements from different somatic practices and modified versions of the Pilates exercises to introduce movement to individuals who might not be capable of performing the full movements. I was always fascinated with Eve’s pre-Pilates work as it was often what my patients needed.    

Different Types of Pilates Teacher Training

Most Pilates teacher trainings are comprised of Comprehensive or Studio training, standalone Mat training and standalone Reformer training.  Some schools offer stand alone or modular training on other pieces of Pilates equipment.  Most studios have the full array of studio equipment and are looking for teachers trained to use all of it. They often offer group Mat classes and expect teachers to be able to teach these as well.  Some studios also offer group Reformer classes.   

Many studios want graduates, and potential employees, to be nationally certified through the National Pilates Certification Program.  The National Pilates Certification Program is accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA); initially under the name “PMA Pilates Certification Program.” This credential sets standards for professional competency necessary to safely and effectively teach the Pilates method to everybody.  

COMPREHENSIVE The gold-standard in Pilates teacher training is Comprehensive education.  This training involves learning to perform and teach exercises on the main types of Pilates equipment in most Pilates studios which includes the Reformer, Trapeze Table, Chair, Ladder Barrel, Spine Corrector and Mat.  Research shows that when learning multiple topics it is best to interleave, or weave together the different topics so learning happens all together rather than learning and mastering one part at a time.  This type of learning helps you to understand the whole system of Pilates and how the different exercises and pieces of apparatus work together. The Pilates equipment can both assist clients and help challenge clients with changes in spring assistance, ranges of motion, and levels of independence.   

MAT The Pilates Mat work was the first work that Joe created.  In the introduction to Return to Life, Joe talks about his philosophy about movement and exercise.  The Mat exercises work all parts of the body and the body and mind as a whole.  He described Contrology as ‘complete coordination of body, mind and spirit’. The benefit of learning to teach the Pilates Mat work is that it is portable and as a teacher you can teach almost anywhere.  It’s a great addition to the apparatus work as it allows clients to practice at home.  

REFORMER In the late 90’s, with the evolution of more portable Pilates Reformers, Reformer group classes began to gain in popularity.  The Reformer is an ideal piece of apparatus for group classes as it assists clients to be able to accomplish movements that they may not be able to do on their own, and it challenges higher level clients with less support and more challenging choreography.  As with any training, its important to understand that in the beginning a smaller group class is needed as leading and working with a large group on equipment is a skill that is developed over time.   

PILATES FUSION There are some schools that mix Pilates with other movement forms which may seem confusing.  Often in these cases, Pilates is watered down and changed to meet current trends in fitness. There is nothing wrong with this, so long as the schools are willing to identify what is truly the original Pilates/first-generation work and what is not.   

The Polestar Pilates Way

Brent Anderson and a Student work with a Client

Polestar Pilates, founded in 1992, is known for its foundation in movement science and rehabilitation. When co-founder Elizabeth Larkam and I began working together in the late 1980’s, we studied with many of the first-generation teachers like Romana, Carola, Ron and Eve, and over the years expanded our knowledge with Kathy, Mary, Lolita as well as many of their proteges.  We use experiential learning, evidence-based science, and assessment tools to develop our students into high-quality Pilates teachers.  

Polestar offers its core curriculum – Comprehensive, Mat and Reformer training in a combination of online and onsite education.  Polestar Comprehensive graduates are eligible to sit for the National Pilates Certification exam. We know that a positive movement experience will bring clients back to the studio and encourage them to keep moving. We also know that not every exercise in its original form will work for everyone. For this reason, we don’t teach by memorization or recipes, rather we teach concepts that help teachers adapt the exercises to the client they are working with.  When we work with populations that have neurological impairments, orthopedic injuries or spinal conditions much of the Pilates programming requires special modifications.  The same is true for a high-level athlete or performer. In our courses we teach how to make smart modifications, within one’s scope of practice, to create an environment where each person can experience each exercise and the essence of Pilates in a way that works for their body.   

Our goal of facilitating successful movement experiences for everyone, no matter what their limitations are, is a fundamental difference between Polestar and other schools.  The depth of Polestar’s philosophical, practical, scientific, and evidence-based curriculum develops some of the most gifted and diverse teachers in the industry.  This, accompanied by our focus on empathy, communication skills, kindness, and humanistic qualities, makes for an ideal learning environment and sets Polestar practitioners apart from other Pilates teachers.  

USE OF PILATES EQUIPMENT As mentioned before, the Pilates equipment was designed to assist clients with the Pilates exercises and is much more than just resistance equipment.  It allows us to vary load necessary to match the right movements to the client’s needs and goals.  This unique skill set that is incorporated in Polestar training prepares future Pilates practitioners to create the most beneficial programming with progressions to continue to drive results and perceived benefits by the client.  

Though the equipment is very useful, in Polestar we also teach the concepts and philosophy behind the design of the equipment so that teachers can be creative in any kind of surrounding using water, bands, pulleys and many other household props.  This exercise-designing skill also allows for very early movement intervention, pre-Pilates, that can even be incorporated in an acute setting like a hospital or in rehabilitation for individuals that have recently had an injury or surgery. 

 What type of Pilates Teacher do you want to be? 

Now that you have read about and expanded your understanding of the different types of Pilates schools and trainings, you can decide if you want to be Comprehensively trained or start with Mat or Reformer; want to do more one-on-one training or group classes; want to be part of a certain lineage or a more contemporary school who brings in the teachings from different first-generation teachers; and appreciate and understand the richness of schools and organizations that have been involved in Pilates education for 20+ years.   

I hope you find this information useful, and it helps you in your Pilates education journey.

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