Lost in Translation: How the Pilates Method Has Changed Over the Years

Part II

by Amy Alpers

In my last article on this subject, I discussed several key differences between the way Romana taught certain Pilates exercises in the 1980s/90s, versus the way they are shown on archival film footage from the 1940s. Specifically, we looked at how the idea of always having to have the hands in your periphery may “protect the shoulder from injury,” but does not lead to the necessary upper back and shoulder strength and range that many Pilates exercises actually require – for both safety and effectiveness.

Sadly, as we well know, many of the issues Mr. Pilates predicted about what would happen to the human body if we didn’t do his work his way, have come true ten-fold, not the least of which is tight chests and shoulders. Our rounded upper backs and forward heads from sitting in chairs too much, (and especially, looking at computer screens and, even worse, phones) have led to the shoulders, upper back and chest being tight, weak and under-developed – exactly the opposite of what Mr. Pilates intended his method to create. He wanted expansive, robust, capacious chests and strong, muscular upper bodies.

Instead, and completely counter to his intention, the rule of “hands in your periphery” was born. While it may “protect the shoulder joint,” such guarded, small, careful movement will never heal the actual issue, let alone effect valuable change to the whole body. To open and lift chests and heads, and build upper back, neck and shoulder strength and range, we must take the arms farther back behind us. And such a powerfully open chest and strong upper body and arms is actually required to make the Pilates exercises truly effective and safe.

And this is not just true for the upper body exercises! All Pilates exercises are whole body exercises. Let’s look at how another forgotten Archival skill completely depends upon this chest and back strength to even make it possible.

In all of the Pilates exercises where the hips lift off the ground (Jackknife, Roll-Over, Short Spine, Overhead, Long Spine, Corkscrew, etc.), the Archival version includes a suspended pause with the pelvis. We came to refer to this as the “3 inch rule”. In other words, instead of flexing deeply at the hip and then “rolling” the spine over with leg momentum – which often causes a collapsing chest and rolled-in shoulders – you must actually lift the pelvis sooner by flexing at the abdominal/lumbar area right away instead of at the hip joint so much. Then you pause with the pelvis suspended about 3 inches off the mat for a moment before continuing to flex over. This lift and pause disables any use of momentum and instead forces you to hold the entire lower body up with powerful abdominal, chest and upper back muscles. This is a paradigm shift like no other and proves just how “male” the system really is.

Let’s look at a couple examples. Roll Over on the Mat: To begin, you lie flat on the mat, arms by your side. First movement – flex body at waist to lift legs up toward ceiling – pelvis will be about 3 inches off the mat. (In other words, you don’t just flex the hips.) This is what requires an extremely powerful upper body.

Pause briefly with pelvis lifted, then continue flexing abdominals to curl pelvis over chest (versus using weight or momentum of legs, pelvis and spine to roll you over) to bring legs overhead, then tap floor with toes. Then lift toes about 3 inches off the mat, open wide (wider than periphery here too!), slowly roll down to pause with hips suspended and legs wide, hold briefly there again,

then extend whole body at once (not just hips!) until legs are lowered to about 3 inches off the mat, pause again, close legs together still off mat, then begin again.

Overhead on the Reformer: Start lying flat on the back on the Reformer, legs straight down over lowered Foot Bar, arms straight up at about 90 degrees, holding straps. Pull straps down to carriage simultaneously as you flex your body at waist to lift legs up toward ceiling – pelvis will arrive about 3 inches off the mat. [Note: There is often confusion about the timing of the hands landing on the mat while the hips lift. The archival version clears this up because you aren’t just flexing your hips to 90 degrees while you pull the strap. You are lifting your pelvis and pausing as hands land.]

Pause briefly with pelvis lifted, then continue flexing abdominals to curl pelvis over chest to bring legs overhead…

..then tap back of frame with toes. (This is not always possible because many Reformer frames have gotten much longer, so imagine a piece of wood where your feet would touch. This is another rule that is broken with the Archival version, as Romana always said to never let the legs drop below 90 degrees at the hip so they would never go this low.)

Powerfully lift your legs and back up to a candle stand,

then abruptly drop (jackknife!) hips about halfway down, legs somewhat parallel to floor, and pause.

Then lower hips to 3 inches off the carriage (legs will rise toward ceiling) and pause. Then extend whole body at once (not just hips!) until legs are lowered to about 3 inches off mat as arms raise straps back up ceiling. Begin again.

Want to learn more about the archival work? Visit the Pilates Center workshops page!

For questions please contact kelli@thepilatescenter.com.


Amy Taylor Alpers co-founded The Pilates Center (TPC) and The Pilates Center Teacher Training Program (TPCTTP) over 20 years ago in Boulder, Colorado. When not traveling the world to teach both foundational and graduate level Pilates teacher education she remains part of the core faculty for TPCTTP, mentors advanced teachers, teaches classes and sees clients. In addition to teaching TPC sponsored workshops, Amy has presented numerous times at the Pilates Method Alliance Annual Meeting, Balanced Body’s Pilates on Tour and Passing the Torch. In 2013, Amy presented at the Shared Traditions Conference for Fletcher Pilates and will present at The Pilates Roundtable.

Amy was born in Youngstown, Ohio where she began classical ballet at age two. She attended The Juilliard School for Dance, danced with the Garden State Ballet in New Jersey, and received a B.A. in Dance and a M.A. in Dance History from New York University. In addition, Amy taught ballet at various dance schools in New York City for ten years before launching her Pilates career.

Both Amy and her sister Rachel studied Pilates under the direct tutelage of Romana Kryzanowska at the original Pilates Studio in New York City. They received their Pilates teaching certificate from there in July of 1989. In 1990, after moving to Boulder, Colorado, Amy and Rachel founded The Pilates Center. The sisters then created and established The Pilates Center Teacher Training Program in 1991. The school has since expanded to include an Intermediate Program, Advanced Program, Bridge Program, Master’s Program, and a Mentorship Program. In addition, TPC now has “Licensed” and “Host” studios established all around the world.

Amy and her sister wrote The Everything Pilates Book, published in 2002. She was a founding board member of the PMA and sat on the board that created the PMA Certification Exam. Recently she has also had the honor of filming classes and workshops for online organizations such as Pilates Anytime and Pilates On Demand.

In 2011, Amy, her sister Rachel, and Ken Endelman of Balanced Body, developed CenterLine – a line of equipment designed for classical Pilates and based upon the specifications pioneered by Joseph Pilates.