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The super white Pilates industry needs a makeover

The same issue applies to other fitness regimes such as yoga, barre, or ballet - which are also drowning in a milky scene.

If you think a reformer is one who advocates, a cadillac is your grandfather’s dream car, and a gyro-tower is a pita-bread piled with masses of sliced lamb, you’ll be surprised to learn that these phrases are actually devices commonly used in the fitness world. However, if you are a person of color, you have probably never heard of these apparatuses since they belong to the pearly-white industry of Pilates.

These phrases are actually devices commonly used in the fitness world. Click To Tweet

I’m Hispanic. I’ve been a fitness enthusiast for several years, and I’ve been familiar with these phrases for only three months thanks to my Class Pass membership, which allows me to attend a number of Pilates studios throughout NYC. So far I’ve attended 14 different pilates studios throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan, and what I’ve uncovered is that Pilates boutique studios are predominantly all white. Occasionally I’ve had black or Asian instructors and students, but it’s rare. I’d estimate that only one out of every 10 classes that I attend is a class I am able I share with another person of color.

1 out of every 10 classes is a class I am able I share with another person of color. Click To Tweet

Why does this matter? Does it make a difference? Well, if you’ve been paying attention, race relations have been a major topic of discussion these days where closet-bigots are now discovering that racism does exist within themselves. Call me a dreamer, but I long for a day when we all get to benefit from exercises that are low-impact and effective, can balance your body, and make you stronger and lean without risking a major injury – a’la fitness socialism. It’s my hope that a workout routine that can benefit our health and well-being can be accessible to all, regardless of race or socio-economic status. Why should a fitness routine be only for the privileged? Statistically, adults in minority populations are less likely to be involved in physical activities and have higher rates of preventable deaths according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Since this is the case it’s evident as to why many have not sprung upon the world of Pilates. It is concerning to me that women would pass-up or overlook on the opportunity to benefit from Pilates.

It is concerning to me that women would pass-up the opportunity to benefit from Pilates. Click To Tweet

The same issues apply to other fitness regimes such as yoga, barre, or ballet – which are also drowning in a milky scene.  It is without a doubt that these routines are out of reach for people in minority communities. Instead, they have been known for attracting the white, high-society expats who have access to foreign lands where they have acquired the foundation of vinyasa, hatha, and ishta.  Over the years, we have seen a move forward in making yoga accessible to more people. Many schools offer yoga as a gym class and yoga studios generously offer community classes where they accept a donation to attend the class.

Pilates, on the other-hand, has not been that forward-thinking.

It is without a doubt that these routines are out of reach for people in minority communities. Click To Tweet

At it’s foundation, the Pilates workout is very dancer-oriented, meaning it involves a technique that complements a dancer’s fitness goals – leaning, strengthening, core-work, balancing, and rigorous stretching are all involved in the Pilates practice. This is the reason as to why many of the first Pilates enthusiasts were ballerinas. The founder of Pilates, Joseph Pilates, opened his first studio at the same address as the New York City Ballet on 8th Avenue after his arrival in the U.S. in 1926 from Germany. After it’s inception there, the Pilates movement expanded across the country and sprung in another elite part of the nation: Beverly Hills. Since then, it’s been known to be a white woman’s workout and has consistently stayed that way since Ron Fletcher opened that studio in the 1970’s.

If we look at the relationship ballet and Pilates has and how it’s inception relied heavily upon it’s popularity among ballerinas, then it’s evident as to why it has succumbed into a white-washed workout routine. The practice of ballet is not one that is known for diversity, for the dancers are known for being white. There have been dancers who have been effective in making strides towards changing the face of ballet such as African American ballerinas Michaela DePrince and Misty Copeland. There is also a Muslim woman, Stephanie Kurlow, who was recently featured in the Daily News as an aspiring hijabi ballerina. How can we foster the same change in the Pilates culture? 

How can we foster the same change in the Pilates culture? Click To Tweet

Sure it’s expanded today, and even grubby gyms like NYSC and Lucille Roberts offer some type of variation of Pilates. But if you’re not in a Pilates studio, I’m sorry, but you’re not getting authentic Pilates. Pilates is  highly technical and requires a lot of instructor revision in your performance. It’s doubtful that in a class with about 30+ students that an instructor will have the ability to accurately correct everyone’s form. Adding to this, when you practice Pilates with an apparatus or props, these tools are guiding you towards efficiency – for we all know 2 good squats are better than 10 sloppy ones. Think of it like using a smith machine for squats or a chest-press machine for chest exercises. The device almost promises close to perfect form – this is drastically different than using your own body to drive the mechanism as it is seen within mat-Pilates, which is what is primarily offered in these chain gyms.

How can we foster the same change in the Pilates culture? Click To Tweet

A serious drawback that may prevent many of us from attending a boutique Pilates studio is the green’s. The average Pilates studio in NYC charges anywhere from $25-$35 a class, and if you acquire a membership, you will pay double what the average NYSC membership costs. That alone can drive anyone to reconsider and stick with their community yoga class or a yoga YouTube video for some alignment help.

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Furthermore, the effects of having an all-white crowd in any environment may make a person of color feel less inclined to set-forth in this world for fear of isolation. That may be the case to some, but it certainly isn’t for me, and I’m sure it may not be for many others. I don a hijab, I’m a size 14  (not your typical pilates size), I’m Hispanic, and I’m certainly not wealthy. But I have fitness goals that make me prefer this style of exercise as opposed to others. I enjoy the technical aspect, the mind-body connection, and the resistance training along with the small, low-impact, knee friendly exercises that this form of exercising provides. In pilates, there is a form of resistance that involves pulling springs, which feels like your muscles are being stretched-out and lengthened as they’re being resisted. This feeling of length leaves you feeling longer and stronger after every workout. Also, your core is active through every motion, and, contrary to what they say about crunches not flattening your tummy, I have felt like my stomach has significantly gotten flatter since I started pilates.

The effects of having an all-white crowd in any environment may make a person of color feel less inclined to set-forth in this world for fear of isolation Click To Tweet

The fitness world, as I see it, is one that has been swallowed by the mass-marketing of mainstream workout methods that aren’t necessarily for everyone (think Cross-Fit, P90x or Insanity). Sure, they may make you break out a sweat, but the average workout enthusiast isn’t training for the Marines. As a woman, I would like to be lean, feel graceful, and have a strong spine which in turn will give me proper alignment. Yoga is beneficial, but some of the poses can be so intimidating and scary (handstand/inversions). Therefore, if you are like me, then I think you would enjoy a good Pilates session.

If accessibility is holding you back then what I’d suggest is to study the method and master it’s form through training-videos. Videos are available on youtube and there are even a number of sites that offer online workout videos. You don’t even need sneakers, just a sturdy mat and your motivation to work hard. What I’d love to see eventually is more studios that expand outside of your high-income neighborhoods. I find that these studios are generally located in the central part of town. For me personally, I have to travel around 30 minutes to get to a studio, whereas people who can afford to live in more expensive areas just have to walk up a few blocks to attend their class. We need studios to create a business model that will provide more affordable classes to the wider population and move away from this exclusive world of Pilates. Lastly, women of color should start learning to teach this workout method. Many studies I’ve worked out in provide training programs for students interested in learning to teach the Pilates method.

We need studios to provide more affordable classes to the wider population. Click To Tweet

Surprisingly there are a few studios that offer less expensive classes – they may not be the swanky Pilates studios where you will be stretching next to a Vogue editor, but hopefully you will learn to benefit from a simple and effective form of exercising – a form of exercising that shouldn’t be available to very specific people while deterring others away.

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Nivia Martinez

Nivia Martinez

Nivia Martinez proudly hails from Brooklyn, NY and works as an IT Engineer. Nivia uses blogging as a creative outlet to express her passion on culture, politics and fashion. Pilates and yoga fill up her weekends as well as community volunteering. Her volunteer work involves engaging the public in meaningful conversations about religion in order to help dispel myths and misconceptions about Islam.

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