What are the Pilates ‘levels?
Joseph Pilates didn’t teach levels, he taught people. The division of the method into basic, intermediate and advanced is more recent and slightly artificial, but that’s not to say it’s not useful.
The levels are a template or guide, not a competition. They are made up of developmental goals and a way of moving rather than exactly what exercises you do.
The levels are most obvious in a mat class as in private sessions the work is customised for you.
Beginners, no matter how fit, need to attend Basic Mat classes. These classes teach you the basics of the method through a series of simple, challenging exercises. The goal for this level is to find your ‘powerhouse’, to begin to find ‘lift’ in the body and to even out the alignment of the torso. You will start to feel the benefits of Pilates.
When your body has absorbed the basics of Pilates you are ready to take intermediate level sessions. The aim of this level is to strengthen and deepen the powerhouse. Some new movement patterns are introduced for the first time (e.g. back bends), and other patterns already present in the basic level are deepened
What makes you intermediate is not how long you have studied, but how much your body has absorbed.
At the advanced level the focus is on increasing the stamina of the powerhouse. More upper body exercises are introduced with the aim of working the upper back and connecting it more deeply with the rest of the powerhouse. The advanced level is where complete flow and synchronisation with the breath take place.
There is nothing to be gained by trying to rush ahead in your progress. Impatience means that you will simply not get as much from your classes as you could. If you have an injury or illness it is advisable to have private sessions first before you join a mat class to ensure your needs are properly addressed.
If all of this has peaked your interest, why not find out more about how you can become a Romana’s Pilates instructor with us?
Pilates works with bodies that are injured
Many people seek out Pilates as it has been recommended as a good exercise for people in rehab from injury or recovering after pregnancy and labour. This connection is made especially plausible as some physios have absorbed Pilates exercises into their own work.
Pilates has a long record of working with injured bodies, but it does not treat injuries and it is not physiotherapy. Pilates is a way of training the body and mind and its goals are not dictated by physiotherapy. Pilates is corrective exercise, not therapy.
Pilates is not therapy
Therapy concentrates on the injury, Pilates on training the uninjured rest of the body. Therapy can work with people who are in a pain and unable to function normally, but if you can’t walk into the Pilates studio, then in most cases you shouldn’t be doing Pilates right now. Therapy stops when you get better, Pilates is the ongoing work of decades. Therapy is something done to a patient, Pilates is something the student does for themselves.
It’s fair to day that a Pilates teacher is no more qualified to do physiotherapy than a physiotherapist is qualified to teach Pilates (find out what it takes to be Classical Pilates instructor here). They are really not the same thing.
Pilates keeps your body fit
Many of our ongoing clients at Kinetic started Pilates because of rehabilitation, whether from pregnancy or serious physical injury. They keep doing it because they have found that it keeps their body working better, reducing their pain and improving their fitness.
To start with, it is better to work on the equipment as it gives you an extra set of muscles to support you and help you get stronger before you move to the mat. The mat gives you no support or help – an excellent challenge, but one that shouldn't be jumped into straight away by everyone.
Working with Pilates apparatus
One of the marks of the classical Pilates method is the use of the equipment (traditionally called ‘apparatus’) that Joseph Pilates designed. He first developed mat work and then later apparatus to supplement it. Mat work can be difficult to do correctly and so you use apparatus to increase the strength, flexibility and control of your body.
If you need additional help, the springs act as extra 'muscles' enabling your body to absorb the Pilates way of using the body (‘the method’) more quickly. Then you can return to the mat and are able to do it more deeply.
Why work with Pilates equipment?
The apparatus gives shape to the body, as well as supporting and strengthening the work of the power house, which helps you progress faster. Only apparatus built according to the original designs of Joseph Pilates will do exactly what he intended, because he designed both the exercises and the apparatus to work together.
Modified machines may still be used for physiotherapy, but whenever a major change is made to the apparatus some element of the original system is lost. Bear in mind that many alterations to equipment make it impossible to properly do the exercises Joseph Pilates invented.
How to work with Pilates equipment
Of course, the apparatus does not increase the strength, flexibility and control of the body for you. It helps you by encouraging correct body position and use of the power house through the resistance of the springs.
The apparatus gives shape and structure to the body as it moves, supporting correct alignment and helping develop particular muscle groups and patterns of movement. Unless these things are taught with precision, nothing is gained from using apparatus, so always choose a studio with highly trained instructors (and genuine equipment of course!).
So you are doing lots of Pilates and it feels like it’s getting easier. You must be getting better, right? Sadly not! As you improve, you learn more exercises and aspects of the training will become more familiar. But if you do it properly, classical Pilates will never be easy.
How you measure whether you are becoming more advanced depends where you start from. The training of an inflexible man in his sixties will develop differently from an injured female ballet dancer. Nevertheless, there are certain things that everyone has in common.
Pilates improves your relationship with your body
When you begin training you probably won’t have much powerhouse strength or alignment. We start by working on this and by re-establishing correct movement in the back. For some people the back needs strengthening to stop slumping, for others it requires loosening up so it can move naturally.
This initial stage of training will quickly change your body, and alter your perception of it as well. You may notice a difference in your body shape, become aware of your everyday posture and even get comments from people who know you well.
When you start to apply Pilates outside the studio it is a sign that you’re advancing. This may be that you no longer slump when watching TV, that you have more strength for golf or carrying the baby or that you just feel better and less achy.
Pilates improves the relationship between your mind and body
At the basic level you find your powerhouse, at the intermediate level you deepen it and at the advanced level you increase its stamina. However, being advanced is not simply about being physically strong enough to sustain your powerhouse for 55 minutes without interruption. It is as much about progress in the principles of Pilates, so that you can keep your mind concentrated in your body for that long.
Concentration is one of the ‘Pilates principles’, which involves maintaining precision and control from the centre with increased flow and focus on the breath. This concentration is how the Pilates method achieves the mind-body connection.
With increased concentration you become wholly focused on and committed to the present moment, moving without rushing or resting and with no thoughts beyond what you are doing. This ‘meditation in movement’, as our students will testify, does not have much of the airy float that the word ‘meditation’ often suggests.
This complete coordination of body, mind and spirit is the sign of advanced Pilates; when it becomes subconscious and its rhythm carries through to all your movements then you know that your Pilates practice is really improving.
Pilates mat work is designed to be practiced at home; that was Joseph Pilates' intention. However, what makes Pilates special is its precision, so some people worry about practicing on their own in case they somehow get it wrong.
When shouldn't you do Pilates at home?
If you only ever learn from a book or DVD then there is a real danger that you simply go through the motions, perhaps not even correctly. We hate to say it, but this isn’t particularly useful. The movements are the shell that you put the Pilates inside; just done on their own they won´t change your body.
The other risk is that you won´t work as hard as you will in class, although putting 75 per cent effort into an exercise is better than none at all.
When should you do Pilates at home?
One of the benefits of doing Pilates at home is that you will progress faster and get stronger.
More importantly, your own practice gives you a degree of independence, providing a regime you can use long term to keep your body in shape. Of course continuing to go to a teacher is important in order to progress and avoid developing bad habits, but you may not always have access to one. By practicing at home, even if only for 15 minutes twice a week, you will absorb the exercises more deeply.
Basic Pilates mat for beginners
Here is Jean Claude Nelson doing the basic mat exercises. He shows different versions of the exercise: chose the one that you normally do.
If you do our basic mat classes the exercises will be familiar and the video should remind you of the order. There a few minor differences to how we do this at Kinetic, but nothing important.
Try to remember the corrections you normally get (do you need to drop your shoulders down from next to your ears or keep the weight even in your hips?)
Make mistakes, forget things, but have a go and next time you come to class you will have specific gaps you want to fill. You´ll find you learn faster, which can only be a positive thing.
Starting a new activity is always a little confusing. With Pilates, there are so many options it’s hard to choose the best method (and avoid the ones that aren’t so good). We’ve put together some simple pointers to help you identify authentic classical Pilates.
As close to Joseph Pilates’ original method as possible
Unlike one of the modern fusions created in recent years, true classical Pilates is built on the original teachings of Joseph Pilates. Joe died in 1967, and his great work has been continued to this day by a number of people who trained under him.
In transmission of the art, Romana Kryzanowska was the most important of these individuals. She took over running the original studio in New York and committed to training teachers to continue Joe’s work. It is almost true to say that Pilates which hasn’t been influenced by Romana, isn’t really Pilates at all.
Experienced teachers who enjoy teaching
A rigorous method is not enough, an experienced instructor is also essential. Don’t underestimate the difference a good teacher, trained in the full Pilates tradition, can make to your training. Unfortunately not all teachers are equal: some qualified a long time ago and have stopped training, some only learnt part of the system (e.g. just mat), and some aren’t able to communicate the method into practical action.
Small classes with individual attention
A good teacher from a renowned tradition still cannot be wholly effective if they are teaching a huge class with different people each week.
If you don’t have a teacher who knows your body, gives you individual corrections and pushes you to progress, you may just as well buy a DVD and practice at home. When it comes to group classes, a level of stability and continuity is essential for you to benefit.
Pilates classes tailored to your needs
Even a small, stable group class with a well trained, dedicated teacher may not be appropriate if you have particular physical needs. People who are delicate due to injury or accident should check with their doctor or physiotherapist before they exercise. Once you have their approval, it is often sensible to start with private sessions so the Pilates instructor can carefully tailor the system for your body.
So there you have it, some key pointers for picking an authentic Pilates class that will really benefit your body.
Put simply, Joseph Pilates taught people how to use their bodies better. His students included professional dancers, officer workers and injured people. But now there is a huge range of different approaches, all promising different things and aimed at different markets. It can be very confusing to know which type of class to choose, so we thought we’d put together a guide to help you choose.
Clinical or rehab Pilates
Some kinds of Pilates are aimed at people looking for exercise to do after an injury. Clinical or rehab Pilates often consist of mat classes that include gentle stretching and core work. Sometimes these are run by physios for their patients, and are a great way for people to learn their physical therapy exercises. In fact, very often the exercises in these classes owe more to physiotherapy than Joe Pilates.
Although some physiotherapists use Pilates or Pilates-influenced techniques, Joe’s techniques are not the product of modern clinical physiotherapy. If you are injured and you need physical therapy, then it is important that you seek advice from a qualified therapist.
This type of exercise class is very useful, but sometimes people stay in rehab classes when there is nothing wrong with them. Being unfit and experiencing some back pain (along with 80 per cent of the population) does not mean you need rehab.
If you attend classes designed for people with more serious injury, you may never leave your comfort zone, which means your body won’t change. A clinical group may be a good place to start, but if you remain in that setting when you’re not genuinely injured, there is no opportunity for progress.
Cardio or bootcamp Pilates
At the other extreme, some classes are marketed as cardio or bootcamp Pilates, promising clients a mix of aerobic and strengthening exercises. The main goal is to make people sweat and feel they’ve had a good workout, and it is often found in gyms. There are also some studios which use this model, normally featuring group reformer classes, as these are more sought after, and therefore more lucrative.
Doing vigorous exercise is a good thing for many people, our sedentary lifestyles these days are bad for our bodies. However, when groups are large and the main goal is for people to ‘feel the burn’ what often suffers is the precision and focus that makes Pilates so special. People have different bodies; if weaknesses, old injuries or poor technique are not taken into account the result can often be more harm than good.
Classical or authentic Pilates
Both clinical and cardio Pilates are distant relations of the technique that Joe Pilates taught. Only classical or authentic Pilates (also known as Romana’s Pilates) is true to the techniques that he pioneered in his studio in New York.
The Classical approach encompasses rehab work with very injured people to the most demanding athletic forms of exercise that most people will ever experience. Like Joe Pilates himself, classical instructors teach people to use their bodies better, wherever they start from.
Despite bizarre claims to the contrary, classical Pilates is not stuck in the 1950s. The method continued developing during Joe’s lifetime well into the 1960s. His wife Clara continued teaching after his death alongside Romana Kryzanowska, his chosen successor.
Some of the exercises he taught have been retired or deemed highly advanced in the decades since his death, but traditional Pilates continues to function on the basis that if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. Pilates is not physiotherapy, but this unique method of conditioning the body remains popular because it has an undeniable record of making people’s bodies move, feel and look better.