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Stretched to the max

As millions throng to Pilates classes, questions emerge over certification for teachers

In the fitness world, trends change fast. Dance classes give way to aerobics, aerobics to spinning, spinning to kickboxing, and on it goes. Anna Eng has run the gamut: ballet, aerobics, weightlifting, and running. As coach for the nationally-ranked Wheaton College synchronized swimming team, naturally, she also swims. But to Eng, Pilates, an exercise system developed almost a century ago, tops them all. "I really feel Pilates is not in any way a fad," she says.

First developed by German migr Joseph Pilates to combat his asthma and rickets, the exercise system has attracted legions of devotees, from the young, like Eng, 25, to Americans in their 80s. According to the new magazine Pilate Style, 10 million people practice Pilates in the United States -- including celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Jennifer Aniston as well as many athletes and dancers. Kathy Van Patten, a Pilates teacher who has studios in Back Bay and Beacon Hill, says: "I'm still surprised (a) that so many people still don't know about it, and (b) how much it's still growing."

But as the popularity of Pilates has surged and nearly every gym and fitness club in the country offers classes, questions have arisen over how Pilates should be taught and who is qualified to teach it. A nonprofit group, the Pilates Method Alliance, is now working to establish a certification exam that would result in third-party accreditations. Currently, said Kevin Bowen, the group's president, the public is "in a buyer beware" position because the instruction for teachers can range from weekend courses to up to 900 hours of study. The future of Pilates could be jeopardized, he and others say, if the teaching is inexpert, possibly causing injuries, or the methods are watered down.

To the uninitiated, Pilates routines look like a cross between yoga, old-fashioned calisthenics, and ballet. Using breathing techniques, concentration, and controlled movements, the mat method strengthens what Joseph Pilates called the core or powerhouse -- the muscles around the waist, back, and buttocks. Ideally, this results in more flexibility, strength, and a longer, leaner look.

Students also take private classes using equipment similar to what Joseph Pilates first built with springs and straps so people who'd suffered injuries could exercise. Using equipment such as the Reformer, which resembles a flat bed with springs that can change resistance and a movable bar at one end, students follow exercises similar to those on the mat. A teacher might also use the Cadillac, with a similar bed under a frame with pulleys, or smaller barrel-shaped pieces. The equipment, says Jimmy Raye, a Pilates teacher in Salem, "allows you to do things you wouldn't normally be able to do," whether injured or able-bodied, to increase strength and flexibility.

Although the Pilates system started with one man, today there are several branches with different teaching methods. "It's unfortunate that Pilates didn't trademark his work," says Van Patten. Pilates, who had built up his physique so much through exercise and sports that he worked as a model and trained police, moved in the mid-1920s to New York, where he and his wife, Clara, opened a fitness studio and where his exercise routines became popular with dancers. When he died in 1967, he left behind protgs who had trained with him, but no patents on his exercises. Today there are several forms of Pilates, from classically trained teachers, some of whom trained with Joseph Pilates's protgs, to those who follow a modified method developed by Canadian Moira Stott, to those who swear by Mari Winsor, a Californian who has cornered the market on Pilates videotapes.

The methods may differ, but the interest is undeniable, say local teachers. Raye, who studied and apprenticed for 600 hours with Pilates protge Romana Kryzanowska, said the growth of Pilates connects with the aging of the baby boomers: "As baby boomers are maturing, they want to move, and they don't want to be bulky." Raye, who teaches both mat and private classes using equipment, has many clients who are referred by physical therapists and chiropractors. He's emphatic that Pilates is an exercise system, not a treatment. "Pilates believes in working every part of your body but the injured part," he says, to increase flexibility and motion in the joints despite age and injury. The various pieces of equipment "allow you to do things you wouldn't normally be able to do," he adds, noting that one of his clients has avoided knee replacement by Pilates work.

Van Patten, who opened her first small studio in 1995, has been astonished at the growth of Pilates. Her first studio mushroomed to two floors and then three, and now she has a two-floor studio in a Beacon Hill townhouse and another studio on Newbury Street. She trained with Kryzanowska and also has trained in the Stott method and three other Pilates programs, and she is now affiliated with PowerPilates, a classically based method that she says is "more contemporary and approachable." Clients at her studios include very young dancers, gymnasts, and ice skaters, as well as people from all age groups who come to sessions one to three times a week to work on the studios' equipment with her and her 10 instructors.

Pilates "is really about balance," says PJ O'Clair, the education director of Stott Pilates Boston, explaining that the Stott method emphasizes the curves in the spine. "Our lifestyle has changed with much more sitting," she says, and though the exercises are based on those designed by Joseph Pilates, certain adjustments are made to take that into account. "We don't just do Pilates the way it was done just because it was always done that way."

O'Clair, who trains and certifies Stott teachers for most of the Northeast, says a majority of her private-session clients are men, many of them competitive athletes who take Pilates classes to be strong enough for sports. "Weight training is generally about shortening the muscle" and isolating it, she says. "What Pilates does differently is move muscle through patterns" for a balance so that "there are no faulty mechanics on the joint." She cites golfers, who stand in one place but then do "a ton of rotation. The complexity of golf puts a lot of strain on your body." O'Clair says that Pilates can help create balance and symmetry that lessens stress in joints.

However, as Van Patten says, "a good teacher is a good teacher." Though teachers' styles may vary, they all worry about the level of training and certification. These teachers, who have studied hundreds of hours for certification, point to programs that promise beginner-level certification through weekend clinics along with videos and home study.

"It comes down to money," Raye says. The popularity of Pilates has led to more instructors getting into what can be a lucrative field. Students in mat classes can pay up to about $15 for a group session; a private session with equipment costs about $70 in the Boston area. O'Clair recalls that when she first started she took a 15-hour course and then a test "on the spot," but left feeling she was not at all ready to teach mat Pilates. The Stott certification involves taking classes, observing, teaching, and exams, and like other lengthy certification programs, it is expensive -- about $900 for the initial 40 hours of mat training. "You pay more, but you get more," O'Clair says. Beth Johnson, who teaches Pilates at Healthworks in Boston and Energy Works in Marblehead, trained in the Stott method. "Why should someone who took a weekend course," she asks, "be considered on the same level as me?"

The procedure to gain third-party accreditation is extensive, says Bowen of the Pilates Method Alliance, adding that the hope is to have testing in place by late next summer and the accreditation through the National Commission of Certifying Agencies some months after that. For now, checking on an instructor's training is essential, says Eng, who is also a physical therapist. "I always ask the instructor or club about training," she says. "You want to look for a branding."

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