by Holly Furgason
I’m always interested in understanding our field through other instructors, so I sat down with studio co-owner Anula Maiberg to discuss our field, her path and perspective on teaching. She has an alternative style with short bleach blond hair, tattoos, and distinctive oversized glasses with dark frames. As spoke, I was surprised how quiet the studio was when I expected the famous sounds of the New York City hustle and bustle. On the wall behind Maiberg was a chalk drawing of Wonder Woman that read, “We think it’s pretty obvious that Wonder Woman does Pilates”.
The studio is long and narrow with sunshine pouring in from the windows at both ends. Several teachers were working out and practicing their craft. A private session gives the room that low hum as if the city was letting out a sigh of relief. The City sighs, “Ahhh, thank you for this Pilates sanctuary.”
The studio was exactly what I think of as a Pilates studio. When I began my teaching career, studios displayed the equipment which are the tools of our craft and taught the work which is our method. Nowadays it feels rare to walk into a studio that hasn’t been swallowed up by the big box franchise model. This studio is the real deal. Three Reformers, a wall for Springboards, several Wunda/Stability Chairs and two Trapeze/Cadillac Tables stand in the room. This is the kind of studio I walked into many years ago and thought to myself, “I need to become a Pilates instructor.”
Many dancers become Pilates instructors. Of course that gives them a certain level of proficiency in performing the exercises with beauty and grace. But I’ve always felt my study of choreography and design helped me tremendously as a teacher. So I asked Maiberg about her background in art.
“I believe that teaching has an art to it. An artistry.” Maiberg said, smiling. “And I think all Pilates instructors end up being artists unbeknownst to them.” This artistry Maiberg speaks of is in the ability to see people where they are today; and then, to seamlessly move them through the necessary milestones to where they would like to be. To focus there attention on small incremental changes over time producing profound results.
Maiberg continued, “Just like an artist would ask themselves how much red? How much blue? How much negative space? How much do you want this person to feel? So does a Pilates instructor.” Just like paint on a canvas or light to a photographer, teaching Pilates is about being able to think on your feet in the moment and make the decision between the micro and the macro. Than, after the session, reflecting on the big picture. What should progress next? What change will be the perfect amount to continue moving forward?
When I first started teaching I really struggled with overcoming shyness, fear of public speaking, and self-doubt. Maiberg shared that some of her biggest challenges were developing patience and empathy for how things were difficult for people. This really struck me. I never really thought about the fact that we all hone our skills of empathy and understanding as teachers. We learn through experience that the very things that challenge our clients will be the places we as teachers will grow the most. To understand movement and physicality from someone else’s perspective takes patience, with both student and with teacher.
Looking back, in the beginning Maiberg felt as though she taught more of a bootcamp style of Pilates. Now through the years she’s developed a much broader approach. Maiberg reflected, “In general, new teachers can go in one of two directions - they teach so precisely and focus so heavily on the minutia that every exercise must be perfect, which results in a very internal practice; or, they go in the opposite direction, and allow everyone to do everything, regardless of the client’s current fitness level.” Through experience she’s found her style to be somewhere in the middle. “My teaching is internal and permissive to a point,” Maiberg states. This balance seems to be in allowing people to be pushed to appropriate limits and find ways to make the nuanced or fine details accessible. Finding this middle ground also means finding empathy.
We spoke about the history of Pilates being rooted in mentorship. I’ve been lucky to have several incredible mentors on my teaching path. Maiberg began under the guidance of Kathy Kane, and then has continued to find additional mentors. “I always have a handful of people I highly respect that help paint how I view the body,” Maiberg said.
We both deeply believe in the idea that it takes a village to raise a good Pilates teacher. I’ve never met anyone that became great in isolation. These mentors spend endless, mostly unpaid hours helping us to become the teachers we are today. I feel very strongly that all teachers should seek out opportunities to be mentored, regardless of their years in the field. There are many obvious benefits but one of the overlooked benefits is that it teaches instructors how to accept and learn through feedback.
Teaching Pilates is a very personal field. Let’s face it, we all have hang-ups about our bodies. Being a teacher of the body requires courage, and a thick skin, but not so thick that we don’t continue to learn from feedback. There are days I feel like I was ripped to shreds, and others where I feel so rewarded by one little sentence a client offered as positive feedback.
As Maiberg and I continued our conversation, I asked her about the rewards of teaching Pilates. Maiberg said with passion, “Teaching Pilates has given me a sense of community, a Crew. Without my Crew, I don’t think I could continue teaching.” The Crew Maiberg speaks of is made up of her fellow teachers and the incredible clients that attend regularly. People that look forward to seeing one another in classes; and the teachers’ who learn and grow alongside their clients. The Crew holds one another accountable for missing sessions, which supports their fitness goals. But more importantly they create a community that helps to carry one another along on life’s path.
The Pilates studio can become a place of mutual support. “At the end of the day, the work is the work. But the stuff that happens in between the work is most exciting for me.” The teachers know their clients and often develop relationships that last years. The few minutes in between each session are the moments that deepen the Crew, and are what make teaching incredibly profound.
When I entered Sixth Street Pilates I felt at home. It’s not simply a room with lots of shinny Pilates equipment. It’s the coming together of generous instructors with years of experience, knowledge, and passion driving their teaching. It isn’t about the decor or how fancy their brochures are or even about how cool the vibe is or if they’ve got the trendy workout gear. It’s about the community or Crew you become a part of by stepping in the door and using the Pilates Method to build connections, both inside and outside the body.
In visiting Maiberg’s studio I was looking to make a connection in both body and mind. My visit reminded me of the welcoming spirit of mutual support that thrives in the field of Pilates. Both Maiberg and myself spoke of mentors that generously gave us their time and knowledge and asked for nothing in return. Now, in visiting this New York City studio, I realize what they were asking from us was for use to pay it forward, and through mentorship continue on with the legacy of Joseph Pilates.
Holly Furgason is the founder and CEO of Blue Sparrow Pilates in San Francisco and Oakland, CA. She has taught more than 15,000 hours of Pilates. Holly partnered with Gain Fitness to produce a Prenatal Pilates mobile workout app with over 60,000 downloads. She publishes a blog geared toward helping Pilates instructors improve their teaching skills called Fit 4 Real.com, and also contributes to the Pilates Style Magazine’s blog. Holly was invited to co-author chapters in two books: The Survival Guide for Pilates Teachers (2004) and The Pilates Space (2005). Holly is a STOTT PILATES®, CORE, and Total Barre Instructor Trainer. The University of Michigan grad is passionate about teaching and is living her dream of using the Pilates method to help her community become healthier, happier and more fit.