A Country Divided, A Community Divided
Although the reference is to the United States of America, it would not be a stretch to add to this title: A World Divided, A Country Divided, A Community Divided. I would categorize myself as an optimist by nature. I always try to see the glass half full, rather than half empty. In addition, I am an idealist. Both these traits were passed on to me directly from my mother and father, who believed strongly in the good of human nature. My father was far more political about his beliefs, he wanted to change the world on a large scale. My mother also did, but she was more focused on family and changing the world one life at a time. They both had a profound impact on me and the hundreds of people that they touched throughout their lives.
Whatever side of the political spectrum you sit, no one can deny the “tribalism” that exists in America today. We have been forced to take sides and have been driven to the extremes of those sides. Since my early teens, I was attracted to disciplines that transcended politics and saw life through a universal prism, like yoga, tai chi, dance, martial arts and…Pilates. I will add that even my athletic pursuits which include surfing, windsurfing, kiteboarding, mountain biking, snowboarding, all put me in touch with nature. Being immersed in nature forces one to see life in a different way and offers a unique perspective that makes many issues seem so trivial.
It is with sadness that I observe that the Pilates community is a microcosm of the tribalism we see in politics. This seems to pertain not only to the community at large, but also to the smaller communities within each country. One would think that devoting our lives to a discipline like Pilates, with the singular focus of wellbeing, we would not be contaminated by qualities such as judgement, closedmindedness, and elitism. Yet, lo and behold, we are. Over the years I have been part of countless online discussions and in-person discourse. I have had to bow out of many of them when I saw that it was not a discussion, it was mudslinging. I never feel it is my mission to change minds, I only feel compelled to present my point of view, so people can understand the rationale behind my thinking and my decisions. It is not important to me whether they agree with me or not, it is only important that they understand the genesis of my approach and the integrity of my vision.
Recently a clip of me teaching a version of the Up Stretch was posted on YouTube. Interestingly I have done this exercise with Romana Kryzanowska, Eve Gentry, Kathy Grant, and Ron Fletcher, all of whom offered different perspectives. This is exactly the reason why I teach several versions of the exercise. This, together with the needs of society today being so vastly different from 60, 70 or 80 years ago, has led to the modernization of the Up Stretch. The exercise has evolved, but the essence is always the same, the root being the classic Up Stretch created by Joseph Pilates. To be clear, I personally do not post online, I have a wonderful team which takes care of that. After a very negative comment was posted about the Up Stretch, one of my particularly positive team members responded in a polite way explaining that we are acutely aware and respectful of the fact that this exercise is taught differently in different schools, this being just one of the versions. The response to her comment, which was made with the utmost of good intent, was a barrage a hundred times worse than the first one. It was vitriolic, venomous and toxic. When it was brought to my attention, although my knee-jerk reaction was to respond, I took a moment, a deep breath, and explained to my team member that she must let it go and not respond. This person belongs to a different tribe. She will always believe she is right. She has a need to be right. She wants to show you that we are wrong. All this despite the fact that there is no right or wrong.
Years ago, I called my company Body Arts and Science International (BASI). I intentionally did not want my personal name to be a part of the company name, I wanted the focus to be on the art and science of human movement and innovation. This has remained the focus for 30 years. We must be able to explain every exercise in the context of art and science and always remain true and open to innovation.
How can we devote our lives to having a positive impact on our students, our clients and the world, when we are so unaccepting and intolerant of other points of view? Do we need to agree with every other point of view? Of course not! Should we be open to listening, trying to understand the rationale behind other professionals’ approaches and decisions? A resounding yes!
Does anyone, in all good conscience think that Joseph Pilates, if alive today, would be doing his work, teaching his work and designing equipment exactly as he did 80 years ago? Joseph Pilates of all people had an innovative mind and a creative spirit. Most of us, if we are honest with ourselves and those we teach, are constantly in a process of learning and therefore changing. We understand more, see more, witness more, science proves more, and this necessitates recalibrating what we do - constantly. I look at pictures of myself doing advanced Pilates work 30 years ago and although my athletic ability was that of a young man I can clearly see how I understand the work so much better today. I suspect the same would be true for Joseph Pilates.
Certainly, there is a place for a conservative viewpoint that advocates doing the work and teaching the work exactly as Joseph Pilates did it. Yet this in itself is something very difficult to ascertain. As I mentioned earlier, I had the pleasure and honor of spending time with 4 teachers that studied with Joseph Pilates and each of them could not have been more different, not only as human beings but as teachers. They interpreted his work differently and were (possibly) taught differently by Joseph Pilates himself. At the same time, just as conservatives in politics must be open to other points of view, so must conservatives in Pilates be open to other points of view.
The problem is drawing boundaries. Determining whether the work should deviate at all from the texts, pictures and film footage we have of Joseph Pilates. If we deviate, how much is acceptable and how much is too much? It is up to each person and school to draw their own lines in the sand and define boundaries. On this point, we can agree or disagree. Yet as a great philosopher once said: You may be right, I may be wrong. I may be right, and you may be wrong. Yet if it divides us, we are both wrong.
Imagine a community where we respect each other and respect differing points of view. Imagine dialogue that is passionate, yet at the same time openminded and positive. Imagine online posts that present countering points of view that are not steeped in emotion but based on scientific evidence. Imagine there not being the need to be right, but only the need to be heard.
I confessed from the outset to being an optimist by nature. I imagine the impossible all the time. Yet I find myself asking more and more, what has become of the community I so proudly and happily joined 40 years ago. As I look back over my career, I can assure everyone that it is not whether the feet are plantar flexed or dorsiflexed, or whether the breath pattern for an exercise is an inhale or exhale, or whether the back is round or flat, or whether the pelvis is neutral or (God forbid ) tucked – no, it is all the wonderful people I have had the pleasure of knowing, teaching with, being taught by. The life-long friendships I have enjoyed and continue to enjoy. I have had disagreements with many of these very same people, some heated, but it never divided us.
We need to grow up and realize that tribes can coexist, we are all doing our best to create a better world – the one Joseph Pilates envisioned. A world of well-being and positivity, not a world where people go to battle over a breath pattern or whether the back is in flexion, and if it is in flexion, from where the flexion emanates. In my humble opinion, there are more important things in life, like for so many - where their next meal is coming from.
As the great ballerina, Margot Fonteyn said: “The most important thing I have learned over the years is the difference between taking one’s work seriously and taking one’s self seriously. The first is imperative, and the second is disastrous.”