An Interview with Pilates Instructor Rachel Segel

Segel Co-Founded The Pilates Center in 1990

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The Pilates Center in Boulder, Colorado is home to one of the most renowned Pilates studios and Pilates instructor training programs in the world. On a perfect fall afternoon, at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, I sat down for an in-depth interview with Rachel Segel who, along with her sister, Amy Alpers, co-founded The Pilates Center in 1990.

We talked about everything from the meaning of Pilates to instructor training, teaching Pilates, certification, and running a successful studio.

As you will see, Rachel answered each of my queries with a level of insight that only someone who has thought deeply about their work could share.

You studied with Romana Kryzanowska and your programs at the Pilates Center are based on the classical Pilates tradition. What defines classical Pilates for you?

We learned from Romana and Romana embodied Joe's work. She actively stated that she had no desire to change it. I'm sure we have changed our teaching from the beginning, but we are committed to staying as true as a human can to Joseph Pilates vision in Return to Life - which Romana didn't speak of, but she embodied. The longer I teach the more clearly I see that.

So, classical Pilates is first: the repertoire and the tempo, the rhythm, the transitions, and the order of the exercises. All of those things are serving Joe's vision of health. He was one of the first people who spoke of aerobic health, detoxification, better breathing, and using the exercises to balance the body so that oxygen gets into the blood and gets pushed into the muscles.

Joseph Pilates' vision really was beyond even health, it was world peace. Amy and I are both committed to that, and to the health aspect that underlies everything we teach. We're going to change the world; that's our mission.

You've been practicing and teaching Pilates over 20 years. What does your practice mean to you, personally?

I think of myself mostly as a teacher. It really is one of the main sources of inspiration. I've had migraine headaches for 15 years so my Pilates practice has been very limited by that. But if you ask my sister, who is a consistent and advanced Pilates practitioner, she would say to be the example of how, as teachers, our bodies are our laboratory.

How has teaching changed for You and The Pilates Center over the years?

As teachers we have grown so sophisticated in our understanding, it always comes as a surprise to me. I am more and more reminded of Romana's phrase, "trust the method". I understand, in a richer way, what that trust really can give.

For example, for years, it was so important to teach teachers about modifications of exercises in case their clients were injured, in pain, or so weak they couldn't do them. Looking back now (not that we don't still modify), it has become clear how much of Joe's vision gets lost - how much you have to pay to modify. Especially if you keep your clients in the modifications longer than they truly serve them.

Joe's work was proactive. It's meant to take you forward into health. Modifications are a route for some clients, but often teachers stay there longer than they should - whether it's because they are afraid, they don't know any better, or they don't know what the real products of the work are, and therefore aren't invited further forward into achieving things in their clients bodies that are very possible.

We are coming full circle back to the simplicity of the work. Which refers back what I said earlier about transitions, speed, breath, and full-bodiedness. Joe said that contrology was full body exercise. And modifications are not, really, are they? The more we hold that it is full body, the more the product is awakened and developed in the client's body.

Romana had that. Everything was full-bodied. Don't think so much. Trust. Move at the tempo the exercises are supposed to be at and don't stop between them. Keep moving and your body intelligence will take over. If it's a little sloppy, OK. As long as it's safe, that's the bottom line.

If you're a little sloppy that's better than not doing it. We often say in our teaching, "Pilates is about heat. It's not intelligence only."

For years, the Pilates Center training program has been one of the few where you had to be a certain level to enter and you have to be a certain level to pass, and that's a very high level. We've been committed to that from the beginning because we believe there is value in the most advanced work.

Whether you continue to do advanced work doesn't matter, but holding the vision that it's possible lets you experience something, even in the lesser exercises, that you wouldn't have experienced otherwise. Knowing how to do them [advanced exercises], what they give, and that they are built out of the lesser exercises will help teach clients better, deeper, and have changes happen faster.

I think we've hit on a lot of what's keeping you interested. Is there anything you want to add?

It was our vision to have a studio full of excellent teachers. That we are fulfilling that vision is amazing because we were not business women. Part of the reason the teachers are excellent is that every one of them has to teach teachers, too. We are so lucky we have each other in the studio. We hear things that inspire us, and we say things that inspire other teachers. Our trainees come to us with a question and we can run with it. We've created a studio where everyone is so passionate and so generous that we learn faster, and we learn more. We're more open-minded because we are challenged every hour to be so.

We are always so honored and proud that adults will commit themselves to our program. It is extremely rigorous, and life changing. You don't have to do it. You can go elsewhere where it is easier, faster, cheaper, and more convenient. Yet the people who come to us blossom into teachers that they wouldn't be otherwise. It reinforces our commitment.

Two years ago we started a program for licensed studios. Our mission is to literally heal the world. Everything we do we ask ourselves: Is this going to move us in that direction? The licensed studios will be affecting more and more prospective teachers, and therefore taking our commitment and vision, based on Mr. Joseph Pilates, into more lives. It's very thrilling to us.

What is your favorite cue and why?

Well, Joe's favorite cue was, "Out de air!" I have to say that exhaling every atom of air is a superb cue.

Personally, I'm really interested in Joe's statement about the equipment being extra muscles. He stated in many interviews that he made the equipment as extra muscles for himself, so he didn't have to do so much work, and for the client so they could get things that they couldn't otherwise receive. That's a huge resource for me as a teacher - to think, "What is this equipment doing for this person right now? What should they be receiving? What can they not do on route to uniform development that they can only get with the assistance of extra muscles?" I don't know if it's a cue, but it's an approach.

One of the terms I like, and it's "old-fashioned," is powerhouse. Romana talked about the powerhouse, the girdle of strength. Joe talked about it all the time. Corset was the term he used. And it was more than the abdominal muscles. The powerhouse was your pelvis in addition to your abdominal muscles, and all the muscles that arrive up and down into the pelvis and connect the pieces together.

I've found that people who are very athletic are pretty educated about their core. But the rest of their powerhouse is usually very weak by comparison. They can use glute max, the belly of their hams, and their rectus femorus like crazy; but to find their psoas, their deep six, and their upper hamstrings is really elusive. The powerhouse is a wonderful term. But you have to educate people because it's a big cue.

You've trained over 400 Pilates instructors. What would you say is the most important quality for an instructor to have?

You have to want to serve people without emptying yourself. And you have to want to keep learning. I don't mean learning new exercises or learning more science. I mean watching the bodies in front of you and learning from them. Amy and I have always maintained that you can be phenomenally creative within the confines of the classical repertoire. If you know the work there is abundant room for creativity. I think mostly it's the people who haven't learned the classical work that feel thwarted. That's why they make things up.

Do you have advice for newly certified Pilates teachers?

Return to Life. Read Joe's vision in Return to Life about oxygen, circulation, detoxification, uniform development, and the trinity of body, mind, and spirit.

You've had a successful Pilates studio for 20 years. Any tips?

Integrity. And a mission statement so that you have something other than your own day-to-day desires and putting out of fires to gauge your decision-making, your progress, and the movement of your business.

One of the most important things Amy and I did was to decide, individually and together, what our values were. You are going to spend a lot of time in your business, so it better serve you. It better be where you want to go. The people around you have to be the people you want to be with.

A month ago, we looked at our mission statement and all the things we do underneath it to see if we are on the right track for ourselves. Luckily, we decided we were. But that's because we had the mission statement that framed every choice we made. We don't get pushed around by the market or fads. We only do what we want to do based on our mission.

There have been times when we've been "left behind" by the industry or been a lone voice in the industry. There have been hard times. But we look at each other, and at our mission statement, and say to each other, "Well we're just going to do it this way because we don't want to do it another way." So far we've weathered it.

Since you are so involved in the teacher training process, do you think it's important to have a national certification exam?

Absolutely. Years ago when Kevin Bowen was the head of the PMA, he told us certification is legally something different than what one studio does with their trainees to get them graduated out of their program. That's not certification. You can give them a certificate but that's not certifying. One of the main reasons it was so vital to get a PMA certification happening is because of insurance. If somebody sued you they could say, "You're not [legally] certified, how did you get insurance?"

We took the word [certification] out of all our material. Even though many of the teacher training programs still say that, and prospective trainees still come to us wanting to certify. But you cannot be certified in the United States unless you pass the PMA exam. That is true certification. It has to be a third-party exam by an independent, objective organization (more than your own studio, maybe even more than your own state).

Amy and I have been involved with the PMA from the beginning. We've been involved in writing the exam. The exam is still a work in progress and will only get better; nevertheless, it's our industry’s certifying exam and should be taken by every Pilates teacher.

When our trainees graduate - and it's very rigorous to go through our program with many hours of examination spread through the program - they get a diploma. We are registered with the State. It was a big process that took a lot of time and continues to be so. But it was the legal thing to do. So when our trainees graduate from us, they graduate from a recognized government agency. All of them have passed the PMA exam, to my knowledge, the first time.

Do you have any concerns about the Pilates industry today?

We felt from the beginning that to be a Pilates teacher, you need to know all the work and you need to know all the equipment - at least 99%. Even if you don't have a studio with all the equipment in it, knowing about all the exercises on the various equipment will inform your teaching phenomenally.

We don't teach a mat diploma. We don't pick out pieces. You learn everything at approximately the level that it might be given to the client. We have a wide platform to address the client's needs and get the product out of them that Joe wanted. We do not believe in mat by itself or reformer by itself. We think it's a disservice to Pilates, and to the clients, when teachers only know one aspect or a couple of aspects of the whole thing and start teaching.

The Everything Pilates Book is such a great reference. Are you ready for another book?

We finally wrote a book for our teacher training program. That was blood and sweat. Not quite as difficult as The Everything Pilates Book, but really hard.

Is the book for the teacher training program available to the public?

It is available. It's a weekend by weekend, exercise by exercise workbook. It has details that we consider vital, that could be lost. It has support for the full-out exercise as well as how to modify. You cannot learn how to teach Pilates from it. But it's a workbook that has a lot of great information if you know the work already. If it's been a while since you've had a lesson or a workshop, and you wonder if you remember that exercise correctly, then it can be good for that. We are going to do a workbook for every weekend.

The book we did [The Everything Pilates Book] was a fight to get anywhere close to what we wanted. We were probably the wrong people to do it because the Everything series is quite cute and trendy, and our book is not that at all. They gave us a copywriter, but we ended up rewriting entire chapters. We wanted there to be such richness to it so it could be as close as possible to a textbook for teachers.

We've had teachers come to us who have said:  The Everything Pilates Book has been so useful because I was taught so simply and broadly, and it opened my eyes to what's available and how things connect.

At the time [the book was released], nobody was talking about Joseph Pilates. They were talking about Pilates. We included a whole section about the elders. I like to think our book was part of honoring them all. Honoring who they were, what they studied with Joe, what they took with them, and what they moved into. Some went quite far-a-field, like Ron [Fletcher] and Eve Gentry. But nevertheless, they stayed in their deep learning from Joe and Clara. So that was in the book, which wasn't anywhere else.

Return to Life wasn't even in print when we wrote our book so nobody read it. It wasn't until the PMA reprinted it that it was easy to get. We were so lucky that we got that book early on. How can you teach Pilates and not know that book? It's Joe's work.

That was beautiful. Really amazing. Thank you so much.

Learn more in my interview with Amy Alpers and Rachel Segel: Reflections on a Pilates Instructor Training Program

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