Improvisation in Pilates

October 29, 2009 at 9:40 pm 7 comments

Improvisation in Pilates

Whatever could a Classical Pilates fanatic mean by the title “Improvisation in Pilates”? Isn’t Classical Pilates by definition the strict adherence to the exercises and order of exercises created by Joseph Pilates? Isn’t Improvisation by definition unplanned and creative expression? How could these two words go together?

It is an absolute misnomer that Classical Pilates is not improvisational. Great Classical Pilates teaching and practice is completely improvisational. All art and life, not to mention artful life, relies on a framework and vocabulary by which it can be interpreted and understood. When we think of improvisation, we often think of music. The jazz musician creates music on his instrument or instruments of choice based on what he is feeling in the moment; what the space, audience (which can be many or none) and day means to him. But he is working in a tonal framework with instruments that make sound in a space that we recognize. He is still a human making sound with an instrument in a space. This improvisation works within a structure and has a vocabulary. A fine artist may have no preconceived notion of what she will put on the canvas before the brush hits it, but there she is with canvas, easel (or none) and tool to deliver medium (perhaps a brush and paint or maybe a leaf and berry juice)…she is still working in a visual medium not matter how spur of the moment. This improvisation works within a structure and has a vocabulary.

Here we are in the world of Pilates. Is it that different from the world of music or art? We have a structure and vocabulary within which we work. We go to a physical space, we have clients who want joyful exercise, a teacher prepared to train, apparatus as our tools or instruments and the method of Classical Pilates. The method of Classical Pilates has a set group of exercises on a set group of apparatus. Even the reformer and mat work have set orders of exercises, but we face the beautiful ability and opportunity for improvisation every second of the session (let alone our entire lives).

First, you…the teacher. You come to each day with new experiences and feelings. Your approach to each moment of each day is never the same as any other. It’s not possible to have same-ness. It doesn’t exist. If you remove the idea of “identical” from your lexicon, you’ll see quite clearly that “identical” days, exercises, experiences don’t exist. So, your approach to every moment of life is an improvisation. I should hope, too, that you are practicing Pilates on yourself, too. With that practice comes your personal growth within this method. Every bit of growth you experience you share with your clients. (There’s my ubiquitous plug for going and taking sessions, continuing education and doing a lot of self-practice!!!)

Then, your client. Your client comes to the session with any number of new variables each day. One day he is energized, the very next day he is sick. One day her back aches, the very next day her back is fine, but her elbow is sore. One day she is present and mindful, the very next day she is distracted and disconnected. Your approach to your client is based on who your client is that day. I mean the same exact person is very different from day to day.

With that, you teach many different clients each day. No two clients are the same. Even in a semi-private session or group class, while you are teaching the same exercise to multiple people, no two people do it exactly the same way. No two clients even interpret your words in the same way.

With both you and your clients, you have to improvise constantly. Based on what you and they bring to the day, you must adjust what you say and how you say it…even in the seeming confines of The Classical Method of Pilates. That means that while you might teach the same exercises, maybe you have to pick a different modification or variation based on your clients’ needs for the day. Maybe, today, you choose to quite your tone for the session because your client has been sick and has low energy. Maybe you give one verbal cue that doesn’t work. You’ve got to think on your feet and give a different verbal cue or an image or go hands-on instead. That’s improvisation! You’ll find that the wonderful image you gave to one client for Spine Stretch Forward absolutely does not work for another client! You improvise and pick another and another until you find that one that does work!

You don’t reinvent the method to find creativity! You work within the construct and create! You bring out your personality and work with yourself, the client, the way of the day…of the moment. That means, yes, yes, you start the mat work with The Hundred every single time! It’s up to you to find the beautiful newness in the moment! That means the technique of the exercise stays the same, but with who you are today and who the client is today, you create the cues and teach in the moment!

Life is improvisation! The Classical Method of Pilates gives us an ingenious framework within which to improvise. If you can see the art in life all around you, then you can be creative anywhere no matter what the structure!

Look at each session as an opportunity for free expression. Use the vocabulary of Classical Pilates to express the moment! Improvise!

****If you have any comments, please share them here! If you have a topic that you’d like me to blog about, I would be thrilled to do so! Again, comment here or write to me directly at and let me know what you’d like to discuss! Enjoy!!!!!!****

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Donna Luder  |  January 5, 2010 at 5:44 pm

    Shari, you’re doing a great job at explaining the classical Pilates perspective without the – dare I say it – hostility that is so prevalent elsewhere. The mood of most of the “classic” teachers I have met is frankly baffling to many of us who were not brought up in the classical studios. Over my thirteen year career as a Pilates instructor, every time I have attended workshops by classical teachers at conferences, I have cringed at the snarky comments about the non-classic teachers. I have often thought that the classical method can be promoted without making anyone else wrong or stupid or irreverent. And now, here’s your blog which is doing a nice job of expressing your love for the work and doing it from a position of security and commitment. Thank you.

    • 2. theverticalworkshop  |  January 19, 2010 at 9:15 pm

      Donna, Thank You for your considerate comment. I very much want to bridge the gap that exists between the many different schools of thought and action in Pilates. Thank you for joining me in that! I look forward to more conversations with you! If you have any topics that you’d like me to write about, please let me know! You can send word here or directly to me at and I’ll be glad to address them! – Shari

  • 3. Kate  |  March 15, 2010 at 3:05 am

    Thanks for sharing this view….I couldn’t agree more

  • […] Improvisation in Pilates2009/10/29 […]

  • […] Improvisation in Pilates2009/10/29 […]

  • 6. The Vertical Workshop's Pilates Teacher Blog  |  December 6, 2012 at 10:23 pm

    […] Improvisation in Pilates2009/10/29 […]

  • […] is a great article that I found that talks about ‘Improvisation in Pilates’ and how it’s strange that these two words are put together given that Classical Pilates by […]


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