How Do You Describe Pilates?

We’ve all been there. Maybe it’s a dinner party, maybe it’s the PTA or a particularly long grocery store check-out lane. There’s time to kill and idle conversation to make. Eventually, some iteration of the following question is asked.

by Emma Kumley @eKumley

“What do you do?”

Knowing fully well where your answer will take you, you answer anyway.

“I teach Pilates.”

And then you are asked the question that we’ve all been asked more times than we can count, although most of us have never really mastered the answer.

“Pilates? I’ve heard of it. It’s mostly stretching, right? Or core work? Actually, I’m not really sure what it is. What is Pilates?”What is Pilates?

Such a simple question, but there’s no simple answer. As instructors, we study the method, the exercises, the principles, the modifications. But we rarely give much thought to how we can describe it all, especially to an audience that has no previous personal experience or Pilates knowledge.

But being able to quickly and effectively describe Pilates is important not only for the purpose of attracting potential new clients, but also because, for all of the Hollywood starlets touting the benefits of Pilates, and all of the Pilates studios that are opening, the general public doesn’t have any idea what Pilates is, which means that it also doesn’t have any idea why people should be doing it. More importantly, being able to easily communicate what it is that you do will solidify in your mind the value of doing it.

So, what’s your 10 second Pilates pitch? If you have one you love, leave it in the comments below to share with the rest of us! If you haven’t yet formulated one that works for you, let’s see if we can work through it together. Because we all need a 10 second pitch that peaks interest, and both informs and excites the audience. Your objective is to immediately ignite the desire to learn more about this fabulous method that you teach!

Let’s start by acknowledging what doesn’t work well.  I’ve heard too many instructors answer the question, “What is Pilates?” with, “It’s too difficult to explain. I’d rather give you a free session than even try.”

Yikes. The message being sent with this answer seems to be, “You wouldn’t understand it even if I tried, and I don’t feel like trying.” At best, this answer is completely uninformative. Even worse, it can sound elitist, unwelcoming, and borderline offensive.

Let’s do better!

One step in the right direction towards defining Pilates is the fastest, easiest answer, “Pilates is a system of exercises developed by Joseph Pilates.” While technically correct, is Pilates simply a set of exercises? We can all probably agree that to describe it as such misses the point. It is absolutely possible to move your body through the Pilates exercises without doing Pilates, which is why, if you’re instructing a sophisticated group, the cue, “do Pilates,” can have a significant impact on the quality of movement that you see.

So, yes, Pilates involves specific exercises, but there’s more to it than that. Let’s keep going.Mr. Pilates, himself, offered a definition of his work, Contrology, that explains how Pilates is so much more than physical movement. From Return to Life:

Contrology is complete coordination of body, mind, and spirit.Through Contrology you first purposefully acquire complete control of your own body and then through proper repetition of its exercises you gradually and progressively acquire that natural rhythm and coordination associated with all your subconscious activities.

Now we’re getting somewhere. All of the key components of Pilates are here. However, the problem with this definition, with all due respect, is two-fold. First, the omnipresent nature of “mind, body, spirit” in current marketing makes Pilates’s (very accurate) claim feel canned and pre-packaged in today’s world. Second, the definition lacks a appeal. By the time you get halfway through it, the listener’s eyes have glazed over and s/he is concentrating on perpetuating a polite smile for your benefit without connecting to the words coming out of your mouth. Maybe shorter is better.

Romana Kryzanowska famously said, “You can say what Pilates is in three words. Stretch with Strength and Control.” It’s a great definition. My favorite, actually, and I use it frequently when speaking with other movement professionals and enthusiasts who appreciate all three of those components and the challenge in harnessing them all together in the same exercise, the same moment, the same body. Unfortunately, if your listener is not a movement professional or enthusiast, it is unlikely that s/he understands the magic in the definition that Romana so clearly articulated.

Now seems like a good time to point out that there’s no correct answer. Trying to define Pilates in a sentence or two is impossible, and we understand that because we understand, as instructors, all of the nuance and complexity involved in practising the method the way that Joseph Pilates meant for it to be practised. Nevertheless, I’m here to urge you to come up with a 10 second Pilates pitch that makes sense to you and provokes the desired response in those you share it with. Instead of cringing when asked, “what is Pilates?”, light up with confidence and answer the question!

Here’s how it works for me:

Friend: “What is Pilates?”

Me: (Big smile.) “Pilates is a Matchmaker.”

Friend: (Laughter.) “What??”

Me: “Pilates essentially says, ‘Body, meet Mind. Mind, meet Body. You two should get to know eachother better. With a little hard work and a whole lotta love, you can have a beautiful future together.’”

Interest is peaked and some type of follow-up question is always asked!

Once the audience is engaged and truly wants more information, then I may launch into information about the exercises, or the equipment, or the benefits of Pilates, or the classes that my studio offers. By that time, the conversation is an active and informative dialogue with two equal participants.

For me, describing Pilates as a Matchmaker between Mind and Body hits on the key elements of the method and also explains the value I find in teaching it. Bringing a client’s mind into the body and providing a reprieve from the mental and psychological demands of daily life by exercising Mind and Body as one is my objective. My client’s ability to find and cultivate a mind-body relationship of deepening strength and joy in the practice of Pilates is my reward.

This is simply my way of answering that ubiquitous question, “What is Pilates?” It’s not the right way or the only way, but it is the way that works for me. I encourage you to develop your own 10 second Pilates pitch, one that puts a smile on your face, engages your listener, and reminds you of why you walk into that studio every morning.

Emma Kumley, JD, PMA-CPT, has been teaching movement for over 25 years. She is the owner of The Movement Studio in Oxford, Florida, and she is thankful every single day for the clients that trust her, teach her, and allow her to do what she loves! Find Emma on instagram @ekumley and @themovementstudiofl on Facebook at The Movement Studio, and on the web at