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Classical Confusion: Clarifying the Definition of Classical Pilates

by: Shari Berkowitz

What is Classical Pilates? While it can be clearly defined in 3 sentences, there are a couple of variations within this strict definition. It’s worth taking the time to understand what Classical Pilates is and a little bit about the differences in teaching it…even if you are a Classical Pilates teacher, I urge you to read. You might have questions, comments, disagreements or clarifications with what I say. I welcome it all!

I teach many teachers in sessions and workshops and realize that while I was trained by Romana Kryzanowska, I teach in a different way than some of my fellow Romana-trained teachers. There are a growing number of us who have evolved differently creating at least 2 sects of Classical Pilates teachers. I’m glad we have this forum to discuss it!

Classical Pilates (defined):

Joseph Pilates actual exercises executed in the order he created with his intentions.

Let’s delve into these 3 parts of Classical Pilates.

Joseph Pilates Exercises:

Classical Pilates covers only the actual exercises that Mr. Pilates created. These exercises are verified through The Elders (who are wonderfully clear on what are Mr. Pilates’ exercises and what are their own creations), photographs (which there are many. They are beautifully clear with shots from one action to the next within each exercise) and film (converted to video. While the conversion makes everything appear faster than in real-time, these are valuable, easily accessible on DVD and YouTube and vital to watch).

A Classical Pilates teacher teaches only these exercises. When s/he does an exercise that is not Pilates, s/he clearly states, “This is not a Pilates exercise…” and briefly explains where it does come from (her own creation, physical therapy, yoga, etc.).

A Classical Pilates teacher might create a modification that will assist/train a client to be able to do the ideal version of the exercise, but never claims that that is an exercise created by Mr. Pilates. Instead, it is a preparatory exercise intended to develop into Mr. Pilates’ creation.

When it comes to variations (advanced versions of an exercise), a Classical Pilates teacher stays within the variations Mr. Pilates’ created.

Why do we stick to what Mr. Pilates created and not venture into our own or others’ work? Because we find that doing it all Mr. Pilates way truly crafts the body and mind into balance. Mr. Pilates’ exercises are simple enough, challenging enough and “deep” enough to delve into for a lifetime. So, we stick to this.

The Order of Exercises:

Mr. Pilates created a set order of exercises on the mat and reformer. A Classical Pilates teacher follows this order every time s/he works on the reformer and mat. S/He may omit exercises to make it suitable for the level of the client (over the past 20 years, training programs have created systems to determine what are beginner exercises [foundational actions], intermediate exercises [physically accessible and appropriately challenging to a majority of clientele], advanced exercises [truly challenging for even the strongest, normal healthy client] and super-advanced exercises [the extra challenge for elite athletes and Pilates professionals. Some regular clients will do these, but they are the utterly devoted who are true Pilates-philes]. These systems were developed to help apprentices and new teachers know what to do and what not to do with a client.).

Classical Pilates teachers teach within the order of exercises Mr. Pilates created for the reformer and mat.

Why? Because Mr. Pilates’ order appropriately warms up the body, challenges and cools it down. His order strengthens and stretches the torso, arms and legs in all planes of movement. His order challenges clients in the appropriate progression with and then against gravity: lying down, sitting up, kneeling, standing.

What about on other apparatus? Classical Pilates teachers use the previously mentioned progression as well as all of the information s/he gathered during the reformer and mat portion of the session to pick which exercises to do on other apparatus and which order to do them in. If the session is primarily on an additional piece of apparatus like the wunda chair or cadillac/trapeze table, then a Classical Pilates teacher works to create a session with that gravitational progression and the theory behind the reformer and mat exercise orders to create a well-balanced and challenging session for her client.

Now, I must note that the current order of exercises on both mat and reformer are different than what Mr. Pilates did. There are benefits and drawbacks to this. Most teachers don’t actually even know that they are different. And most don’t know that there are a lot of exercises left out of training programs that are vital to the balance of the body. There are plenty of exercises for extension, lateral flexion and rotation of the spine that are no part of the common vocabulary. Personally, it has been my quest to learn as many as I can and share them across the world of Pilates teachers.


What was Mr. Pilates’ intentions?  That the session is a strong full body and mind workout, appropriate for the client that centers around abdominal strength.  Note that I said “workout”.  Indeed.  Clients are meant to exercise to their fullest potential.  We must take into account the person in front of us adapting the workout for each client’s individual needs.  A relatively normal, healthy person ought to be challenged in stamina, strength, stretch and stability.  Those who are ill or special cases in any way still get challenges, but we take their condition into account when challenging stamina.  We have choices.

Classical Pilates teaching style may vary in many ways:

Now, within this Classical Pilates definition, there are multiple camps.  The most clearly defined are Romana-trained and non-Romana-trained.  Why?  Because Romana Kyrzanowska always taught Mr. Pilates’ exercises, order and intention.  Only.  She did not develop her own method based on his work as the majority of other elders have.  However…

However…there are strong Romana-isms (as I call them) that are truly creations of Romana and not from Mr. Pilates.  In addition, with so many teachers coming out of Romana’s school, there are miscommunications and mistakes that have been translated from teacher to teacher and teacher to client.  This is nearly impossible to avoid.  It happens in every teacher training program.

The most notable Romana-isms are as follows:

  • Flattening the lower back in supine exercises.
  • Initially, I learned to teach this, too, but I have been told by many people that Romana never taught this.  So, I believe this was a misunderstanding that apprentices and teachers adopted, even in their training that has continued on.
  • Squeezing the buttocks/sit bones all of the time.
  • Pulling the shoulder blades down the back all of the time and when in a shoulder supporting position pushing the shoulder blades off the back to get them to appear flat on the back.
  • External rotation of the leg in the hip (with the ballet term “turnout”) in nearly every exercise.
  • When I studied with Romana, I remember her using this external rotation a lot as a modification.  She would always say, “Eventually this exercise becomes parallel.”  However, probably because she was busy and perhaps tired, she eventually dropped the “Eventually” statement and everything remained in external rotation.
  • Dance-like style of movement.

While my training was initially with Romana, when I left her studio, I then studied with other great Classical Pilates teachers, studied anatomy and kinesiology,  as well as talked with and learned from our Elders and students of Mr. Pilates.  From my additional work, I learned that much of these Romana-isms are just that:  Things that Romana did or errors that became common practice.  It’s interesting because Romana, herself, would call many things ”viruses” and always wanted to clear out viruses in the work, but I believe that it all got a bit away from her as the world of Pilates grew and I also think that she tired of clarifying, correcting, policing, etc.  Some of it, too, could be from Romana’s disdain for anatomical study and because she didn’t have Mr. Pilates to go to when questions came up during her certification program.  Hence, when there were questions, she went to what she knew outside of Pilates…ballet…to answer her questions.

So, those of us who took our Romana training and weeded out what were Romana-isms in the search for what Mr. Pilates’ intentions were practice the following:

  • Neutral Pelvis in supine exercises.  We honor the natural curves of the spine when the spine is elongated (“straight”) in an exercise.  The spine is never actually straight.  We work to lengthen the spine by opening up all sides of between each vertebra in every position.  We learned that when the lumbar spine is flattened, only the posterior portion of the spine is elongated while the anterior is compressed.
  • We keep the buttocks/glutes/sit bones “un-squeezed” to keep the lower back of the pelvis open and balanced.  We know that there is plenty of work in Pilates to create and maintain toned glutes and creating a connection in the back of the leg comes from working the hamstrings in resistance exercises as well as maintaining a strong mid-line connection.
  • We open the collarbones and draw the shoulder blades on the back more than draw the shoulder blades down.  Most of the time, people shrug their shoulders when they don’t have an abdominal connection.  We work on creating an abdominal connection first and find that the shoulders find their way to a restful position on their own.  Later on, we focus on their placement.
  • We work most exercises with the legs in a parallel and together or parallel and apart position.  Except for 2 cases:  1) When needed as a modification to aid in creating a heel connection when we’ll rotate the legs outward only enough to make this heel connection to strengthen the midline/adductors.  2) When an exercise calls for the knees to bed outward, like The Frog”, we work in external rotation.  Otherwise, our focus is on creating a balanced leg.  For that, we must reduce the overuse of the larger, more superficial external rotators and focus on the strengthening of the adductors and deep external rotators.
  • We work with flowing movement, but less like dance and more like exercise.  Mr. Pilates didn’t like dancers.  He said, “Dancers ruined my method”.  No joke.  And, yes, I am a dancer.  However, I don’t do Pilates like dance and I don’t teach it as such.  We have to remember that this is not choreography, but strengthening exercises.  Fluid movement is part of it, but the style of movement is more like a long, lean muscle man, rather than a ballet dancer.

While the actual movements are the same, these nuances make remarkable differences.  They are actually differences in philosophy.

What I am about to say, I say this with great respect as I learned a tremendous amount from Romana and honor her completely:  From my point of view, it was never OK to ask Romana a question.  When I did (and I have been told that many others share the same experience) I was dismissed.  She never wanted to talk anatomy to her apprentices and when questioned “why” about any part of an exercise, the common answer was something the the extent of:  ”because that’s how we do it”.  I was frustrated and wanted answers.  As a teacher, I am a student and wanted to learn more.  I wanted to understand why things worked or didn’t work.

It was years after my training with Romana that I met up with other people like myself who honored Pilates and Romana, but wanted to understand more.  We especially wanted to understand why certain issues weren’t getting better with Pilates.  Why did so many great Pilates teachers and “performers” have such bad S.I. trouble, lower back trouble and neck trouble?  I wondered why my own issues weren’t resolving.  I also wondered why I couldn’t really connect to me inner thighs and lower abdominals the way I ought to have.  When I started studying more about alignment, anatomy, etc (and now as a biomechanics scientist) and what I listed above, my entire body changed even more for the better than before…and so did my clients’ bodies!  Less pain, more strength, longer, leaner, better!

So…there is the definition of Classical Pilates and a little bit on some of the differences within Classical Pilates.  Do you have any questions?  Comments?  Challenges?  Concerns?

Are you a therapeutic or contemporary Pilates teacher who would like to take Classical Pilates and study the foundation of the method?  Come take a session!  Contact me at info@TheVerticalWorkshop.com I would love to introduce you to what Mr. Pilates created.  It will enrich your teaching experience!

Are you a Classical Pilates teacher and want to take a session with these differences?  Contact me.  At first, the differences will feel unusual.  It’s the seeming opposite of everything you’ve learned.  I know…I was there, too!  But once I tried and trusted it…the entire world of Pilates opened up for me!  I wish that for you, too!  Contact me at info@TheVerticalWorkshop.com.



Shari Berkowitz – A biomechanics scientist and Pilates Teacher of Teachers, Shari works to move theories forward into practical application.  Through her company, The Vertical Workshop, Shari researches, writes The Pilates Teacher Blog, creates Pilates continuing education products/tools and teaches workshops and sessions. While Shari’s exercise vocabulary is Classical Pilates, her tools, workshops and sessions are for everyone of every style of Pilates and modality of exercise.  Though originally Pilates certified by Romana Kryzanowska and formerly Power Pilates’ Lead Teacher Trainer and Director of West Coast Education, Shari’s teaching crosses all boundaries.  Her varied background from a foundation of physics to her successful career as a professional dancer/singer/actress and extensive work with scientists, doctors and physical therapists gives her a rich base from which to teach.  Visit Shari at her website and blog.

Posted on Friday, December 6, 2013 at 03:54PM by Registered CommenterPilates-Pro | CommentsPost a Comment

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