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Why We Need Pilates Mentors

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By Nicole Rogers

Mentorship is extremely important to the Pilates community, as Pilates elder Mary Bowen so eloquently demonstrated here. If Joseph Pilates hadn’t passed his knowledge on to the first generation of teachers, and if they, the Pilates elders, had not passed their knowledge on to the next generation, Pilates simply would not exist. The tradition of mentorship is part of our foundation and our history.

Over the years, Pilates mentor/mentee relationships were rarely formal, yet were profound and long-lasting. The glue of these relationships has always been passion: for the work, for movement, for health, and for improving the lives of others with Pilates. This passion doesn’t fade, rather it’s the fuel that drives Pilates masters to explore throughout their lifetimes and to build on each other’s work. We all learned from someone, and hopefully we all continue to learn every day. Mentorship is important all the way through our careers, not just at the beginning.

When I asked some prominent Pilates personalities about their own mentors, past and present, I was not surprised to hear that their answers were as diverse as the Pilates world itself. (From what they’ve said, it appears that everyone who was taught by Mr. Pilates received a different workout, so it makes sense that no two teachers are the same to this day.) Each mentor/mentee relationship is unique. Nonetheless, a few general themes about the value of mentorship emerged from these conversations.

The Teachings of Your Original Mentor Stay With You
No matter what their path with Pilates, or the nature of their mentor relationship, most people I spoke with say they go back to the teachings of their original mentor every day.  

The Taylor sisters, Rachel Taylor Segel and Amy Taylor Alpers, founders of Pilates training facility The Pilates Center, in Boulder, Colo., had much to say about their respect for their mentor, Romana Kryzanowska. “I credit her with infusing me with the joy of Pilates, beyond teaching me the method,” Rachel says. “She said that she had committed herself to teaching the way Mr. Pilates taught, that he was the genius and she did not believe in making up new exercises or theories…I originally learned the work infused with Mr. Pilates’ vision of health through moving, timing, tempo, transitions and breath.”

Romana KryzanowskaKryzanowska’s devotion to teaching as she was taught by Joseph Pilates himself is well-known, and her work remains a foundation for her many dedicated students.  Among Romana’s many prominent “mentees” were Michael Fritzke and Ton Voogt, founders of Zenirgy LLC. They spent more than 10 years working with Romana, calling her their “first and most prominent” Pilates mentor. Years later, they say they still use many of her images and cues. I attended a workshop of theirs this year that went exercise by exercise on the mat. They taught several different versions of each exercise and then explained how it could be traced back to one of the elders and therefore Joe Pilates himself.

Master teacher Julian Littleford, owner of JL Body Conditioning in Del Mar, Calif., began training with Alan Herdman (who opened the first Pilates studio in the U.K. in 1970) in London at the tender age of 17. He has since worked with countless teachers and most of the elders, but finds that he still ends up applying what he learned 33 years ago. “I didn’t know what I was doing at the time,” he says, laughing. “But I apply [Herdman’s lessons] every day.  I can pull in everything from those early days.”

Rebecca Leone, owner of Seattle’s Pilates Powerhouse NW and a PMA gold-certified teacher of teachers, cites Pilates elder Ron Fletcher as her primary mentor. “Ron’s influence in my daily teaching is profound,” she says. She uses his ‘pelvic bolt’ cue but says she has “detailed it out more fully from the way Ron teaches it. She also uses Ron’s emphasis on lengthening through space and using negative space to help perfect alignment. “Ron’s masterful use of imagery inspires me throughout every session I teach and perform,” Leone says. She points out that just as Ron added to Joe’s work, she is adding to Ron’s.  “This is how an industry progresses,” she says.   

Mentorship allows for this interplay of ideas. As much as one’s mentor must be clear, and maybe even strict when they are teaching, the well-taught student can then go on to improvise or even improve upon what they have been taught. Just as a violin virtuoso can teach her students scales and technique, at some point the student must be strong enough to improvise. And though it was not taught directly by the teacher, this improvisation is a testament to her teaching.

A Good Mentor Will Broaden Your Horizons
Blossom Crawford
, owner of Bridge Pilates in Brooklyn, has enjoyed a long relationship with Pilates elder Kathy Grant, and worked as her teaching assistant for 10 years. They still travel together to conferences. “What I love about Kathy is that she’s always curious, always looking for the new trend,” says Blossom. “She never thinks she’s found the end-all be-all. I love that.” Crawford still takes sessions from Kathy to this day, and says she always finds something new in them—probably because Grant is always finding new things to teach.  

Kathy GrantSecond-generation master teacher Jillian Hessel also considers Grant one of her mentors, in addition to Pilates elder Carola Trier. “Kathy got me in alignment and Carola got me strong,” Hessel likes to say.  Grant and Trier were, according to Hessel, as different as you could imagine in terms of style and speech. “I realized right away that Kathy and Carola were light years different, but teaching from the same root,” Hessel says. “That was a great lesson in how to teach.” 

Hessel recently released an archival, digitally restored DVD, entitled “Carola Shares,” that gives us more historical information about Trier, and shows actual footage of Trier teaching a workshop in 1989. Hessel, who has worked with Ron Fletcher, Carola Trier, Kathy Grant and Eve Gentry to name a few, finds endless inspiration to this day from these masters—not to mention from Joe Pilates himself. She is currently going back to the masters to continue her education: through reading, DVDs, and her own memory.

Look for Mentors Outside of the Pilates World
Joe Pilates sought information from all sorts of different teachers and disciplines, and that evolved into what we know today as Pilates. In the same spirit, many of the experts I spoke with had reached beyond the traditional boundaries of Pilates to enhance their knowledge.

Madeline BlackMadeline Black, who founded the first studio in the San Francisco Bay area, had a virtual team of mentors when she began her studies (in New York City). She considers dance physical therapy guru Marika Molnar, and master manual therapist Jean Claude West and his wife Anna Schmitz, her original mentors. “All this background added up to a natural shift into deeper work,” says Black. “My path crossed with Marika, where I worked at Eastside Sports Medicine Center. She led me toward Jean Claude West and also [anatomist] Irene Dowd. I went to Jean Claude’s studio on Bleecker Street and worked with his wife, Anna, as well. To this day, I honor those years with all three teachers who helped me grow and develop into the kind of work I do today.” She also practiced body rolling in the early ‘80s with Elaine Summers, a pioneer of the discipline. “My mentors are special because I have seen them change and grow and really evolve. My contact with them is still enlightening to me because of that,” says Black.

Leone considers Kit Laughlin her most influential non-Pilates mentor. Laughlin is one of the world’s authorities on the subject of flexibility training. Leone uses Laughlin’s contract/release method of flexibility training in every session she teaches, and performs his stretch protocol at least two times a week, no matter what. 

For Hessel, the practice of Iyengar Yoga was also an important mentor; it helped her learn to deal with her scoliosis, with the use of props, and deepened her understanding of breath and alignment. “Remember, Joe Pilates used yoga to inform his teaching,” she says.

After Kryzanowska, Fritzke and Voogt mention healer John Relph as the other key mentor in their practice. “John taught us that it is important to understand not only the exercises, but also the effects the exercises have on the person as a whole: physically, mentally and emotionally,” they wrote in an e-mail. From Relph they learned how the Pilates method works on many different levels of the body, and affects a person on many different levels.

Learning Is a Lifelong Process
Each and every one of the people I interviewed mentors scores of burgeoning and established Pilates professionals. Yet, they all continue to train. Everyone mentioned in this article is still taking sessions in one form or another. Some are still learning from their original mentors, some, as they grow, are finding new depths in the fundamentals of Joe Pilates, and some are learning from the very people that they have taught. Our job as instructors is never finished: there is always plenty more to learn.

Julian LittlefordLittleford’s method of continuing his education is possibly the most entertaining. When he’s not traveling, he gives himself a session at his home, or takes a session at his studio. But on the road, he just finds a studio and takes a class. “I don’t care who they are,” he says. “It’s interesting to see where people are on their journey as a teacher. Martha Graham used to say, ‘It takes ten years to make a dancer.’” I asked what exactly he has learned from this potpourri of teachers, and he joked, “Mostly it makes me realize [the teachers at my studio] are really good! But really, I try not to go in with any attitude. I go in there as a student. You can learn something from anyone. As far as judging a teacher, it’s not necessarily the amount of exercises—it’s the amount of correction their eyes see. Any monkey can teach exercises.”

Leone, like every one of the people interviewed here, does mat work every day. “Would it sound silly for me to say that I take sessions from Joe?” she asks. “I hope not. I have an eight-page marketing brochure from his original studio…and if you read every single one of those bullet points, and take the seriousness of the commitment, the depth of meaning, the commitment to a result into your every session, you can take a session from Joe today, too.”   

Meanwhile, Black is using a personal battle with Lyme disease to expand her knowledge of the body.  She is receiving twice-weekly Integrated Manual Therapy sessions, in addition to her daily Pilates practice. “I am focusing on the spine and maintaining fluidity in my body, which is crucial for me right now,” she says. “I feel more articulation in the spine in many ways. Movement flow is deepening for me with Pilates.”

Rachel Taylor Segel & Amy Taylor AlpersThe Taylor sisters continue their education with people they have likely mentored themselves—teachers at their studio. “We have a studio filled with some of the finest teachers on earth, and I take lessons and classes with them every week,” Amy says. “I never fail to learn something amazing each and every time. Taking lessons will always remain the most powerful education you can have for your own teaching growth.”

Nicole Rogers is a Pilates instructor and writer. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.


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    Tureya Yoga Online ( ) is probably one of the most comprehensive free online video, audio, and article databases the reviewer has found. While there are other paid services like My Yoga Online which have a wide variety of teachers and lessons, Tureya Yoga Online is a 5 Star site simply ...

Reader Comments (1)

Really nice article. Thanks for sharing

September 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJames

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