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The Art of Teaching Pilates

An Interview with Rachel Segel of The Pilates Center of Boulder


Updated September 05, 2013

The Pilates Center in Boulder, Colorado is home to one of the most renowned Pilates studios and Pilates instructor training programs in the world. On a perfect fall afternoon, at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, I sat down for an in-depth interview with Rachel Segel who, along with her sister, Amy Alpers, co-founded The Pilates Center in 1990.

We talked about everything from the meaning of Pilates to instructor training, teaching Pilates, certification, and running successful studio. As you will see, Rachel answered each of my queries with a level of insight that only someone who has thought deeply about their work could share.

You studied with Romana Kryzanowska and your programs at the Pilates Center are based on the classical Pilates tradition. What defines classical Pilates for you?

We learned from Romana and Romana embodied Joe's work. She actively stated that she had no desire to change it. I'm sure we have changed our teaching from the beginning, but we are committed to staying as true as a human can to Joseph Pilates vision in Return to Life - which Romana didn't speak of, but she embodied. The longer I teach the more clearly I see that.

So, classical Pilates is first: the repertoire and the tempo, the rhythm, the transitions, and the order of the exercises. All of those things are serving Joe's vision of health. He was one of the first people who spoke of aerobic health, detoxification, better breathing, and using the exercises to balance the body so that oxygen gets into the blood and gets pushed into the muscles.

Joseph Pilates' vision really was beyond even health, it was world peace. Amy and I are both committed to that, and to the health aspect that underlies everything we teach. We're going to change the world; that's our mission.

You've been practicing and teaching Pilates over 20 years. What does your practice mean to you, personally?

I think of myself mostly as a teacher. It really is one of the main sources of inspiration. I've had migraine headaches for 15 years so my Pilates practice has been very limited by that. But if you ask my sister, who is a consistent and advanced Pilates practitioner, she would say to be the example of how, as teachers, our bodies are our laboratory.

How has teaching changed for You and The Pilates Center over the years?

As teachers we have grown so sophisticated in our understanding, it always comes as a surprise to me. I am more and more reminded of Romana's phrase, "trust the method". I understand, in a richer way, what that trust really can give.

For example, for years it was so important to teach teachers about modifications of exercises in case their clients were injured, in pain, or so weak they couldn't do them. Looking back now (not that we don't still modify), it has become clear how much of Joe's vision gets lost - how much you have to pay to modify. Especially if you keep your clients in the modifications longer than they truly serve them.

Joe's work was proactive. It's meant to take you forward into health. Modifications are a route for some clients, but often teachers stay there longer than they should - whether it's because they are afraid, they don't know any better, or they don't know what the real products of the work are, and therefore aren't invited further forward into achieving things in their clients bodies that are very possible.

We are coming full circle back to the simplicity of the work. Which refers back what I said earlier about transitions, speed, breath, and full-bodiedness. Joe said that contrology was full body exercise. And modifications are not, really, are they? The more we hold that it is full body, the more the product is awakened and developed in the client's body.

Romana had that. Everything was full bodied. Don't think so much. Trust. Move at the tempo the exercise are supposed to be at and don't stop between them. Keep moving and your body intelligence will take over. If it's a little sloppy, OK. As long as it's safe, that's the bottom line. If you're a little sloppy that's better than not doing it. We often say in our teaching, "Pilates is about heat. It's not intelligence only."

For years the Pilates Center training program has been one of the few where you had to be a certain level to enter and you have to be a certain level to pass, and that's a very high level. We've been committed to that from the beginning because we believe there is value in the most advanced work.

Whether you continue to do advanced work doesn't matter, but holding the vision that it's possible lets you experience something, even in the lesser exercises, that you wouldn't have experienced otherwise. Knowing how to do them [advanced exercises], what they give, and that they are built out of the lesser exercises will help teach clients better, deeper, and have changes happen faster.

Page 2: instructor training, the best cues, and running a successful studio
Page 3: Pilates certification, The PMA exam, concerns about the Pilates industry

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