I am very proud to feature Kirk James Smith, owner of the studio The Classical Pilates Centre, which is located in Bollington, a village 15 miles southwest of Manchester, England. Kirk is 55 years old.
Can you describe your studio.
My studio is in a former mill building on a canal. We have very high ceilings, three huge west facing windows. We have two Reformers, two Cadillacs, two Wunda Chairs, a High Chair, an Arm Chair, a Ped-o-Pole, a Ladder Barrel, Spine Correctors, Arc Barrel, Neck Stretcher, Bean Bag, Foot and Toe Corrector and Magic Circles, and a Breath-a-Ciser.
When and why did you start practicing Pilates?
I began practicing Pilates in 1998. I had been working as a trainer in the gym, and I felt like my clients really needed to get to know their own bodies rather than focus on moving weights. When I discovered Pilates, it felt so right to have found an entire method, wide and deep, full of focus and fun to explore the relationships in the body. The process of looking for those relationships is what continues to intrigue me. Pilates is about relationships and transformation.
Where did your receive your Pilates education(s) and who was/were your teachers?
I started my Pilates experience in 1998 under Martha Mason, who was trained by Romana Kryzanowska. So when I decided to pursue teacher training, it was with Pilates Inc., under Romana. That experience determined to a great extent my feeling for Pilates and my sense of what it is. But at the time one of the big questions circulating in the Pilates world was about neutral spine versus “original” method, which supposedly taught a flat back. A colleague of mine, who taught for the organization then known as “Stott Pilates” said to me “you’re going to cause disc injuries teaching the original method.” What she and her colleagues at Stott said made sense to me then. At the same time it was made clear to us apprentices in New York was that we were not to ask many questions in general and especially not that question. Not having had enough experience under my belt to arrive my own conclusions about this topic, I made the decision on the basis of the information that was presented from the contemporary side, and the fact that no information was forthcoming from the classical side, to study with Stott. I pursued and achieved certification with Stott Pilates, and then certified to be a teacher trainer for Stott Pilates. Over time I increasingly revisited the original method. In 2003 and 2004, I became a certifed Muscle Activation Techniques® (M.A.T.) Specialist. Learning to test and palpate a few hundred muscles let me see the great value — as well as the limits — of that kind of analytic work. I still practice M.A.T. and I think it is brilliant.
By 2006, I was living in the Midwest of the US and had the great fortune of discovering Janice Dulak, a dedicated teacher for Romana’s Pilates. Janice’s commitment to Romana and the original method was profound, and her focus unparalleled. More than any one person, Janice directed me back to the original method. Later on, in 2009, my partner and I moved again and I went through a Power Pilates training, about which I have little to say, except you always learn something.
Another teacher who in very little contact time had a great impact on me was Jay Grimes, whom I met in 2008. At this point, my body and mind were in exactly the right place to receive the message. If I could only thank Jay for one thing, it is for this: how to use the foot strap on the short box and on the mat more effectively. While the use of the strap may sound like a small thing, it is not. How you use the strap reverberates throughout the method, and not just when you are using a strap. I am sure other teachers had taught me similarly, but I heard it and took ownership of it when Jay taught it to me.
What made you decide to make Pilates your profession and open your own studio?
I was and I continue to be fascinated by the process. I am a born teacher. So I do what I do because I love it.
What is your opinion about Traditional, Classical, and Contemporary Pilates?
I call my studio the “Classical Pilates Centre,” because I think the work that Joseph Pilates created and the way I learned it and for the most part do it, in the lineage of Romana Kryzanowska, is wonderful and answers so many questions. I also love the feeling of working my body vigorously using the classical work. I try to foster that addiction to working the method in my clients and in the teachers whom I mentor. In addition to the traditional work, I also use more specific isometric exercises for trouble shooting. I have studied isometrics for many years and in great detail. All good movement, including fluid movement, has isometric contractions and at its foundation. Pilates is no exception.
Nowadays people call themselves a Pilates trainer after one weekend course or a Pilates workshop. What is your opinion about that?
I honestly prefer not to think about it. I certainly do not approve of it, but at the same time, I have no interest in policing people and saying who may and who may not teach Pilates.
What Pilates apparatus is your favourite and which your least? What is your favourite brand of Pilates equipment?
I love the Reformer, of course, as it’s the best place for a consistently great workout. But when my partner and I moved to the UK, my Cadillac went into storage, while I kept out one Reformer. I felt the absence of the Cadillac profoundly, so getting it back out of storage was an important reunion. It was the work on the Cadillac that helped me rehabilitate my body, and it continues to be the Cadillac – not the Reformer — that keeps me out of trouble with an old hip injury. The Barrels have always been part of my program, and always help me reset and restore myself. The Breath-a-Ciser is the only piece of equipment I own but almost never use. I think Gratz equipment is great, but there are some great alternatives emerging in Europe, such as Prag equipment from Sweden, Tecno Pilates in Italy, and Purist Pilates in the UK.
What Pilates exercise is your favourite and what is your least favourite?
Recently I have been appreciating what I used to think of as “ladies’ exercises”, the Sidekicks and variations. This is really funny to me because I used to find them boring and, well, something for women, certainly not for men. I did them, but secretly I hated them. Now I love them. It just takes spending time with exercises you dislike to learn to appreciate them more fully. So I used to dislike that whole series, and now I enjoy it for what it can give me and my clients. Then there are the exercises I think of as my favourites: the Neck Pull stands out. I really love the most basic exercises, like the Hundred and the Roll Up, well, all of it really, but any kind of Pull Up or Side Bend is especially fun.
Do you solve any of your own body issues or do your keep them under control with Pilates?
In conjunction with corrective isometrics I have definitely solved some of my own body issues with Pilates.
Do you teach more male or female clients?
My practice is evolving a more balanced representation of males and females, but I still have more women.
How did Pilates change your life?
Pilates has given me significant form with which to teach myself to move better and a grid or network of positions and movements to help others with as well. It helps us to set concrete goals and reach them, and to teach others to do that, too.
Who is your Pilates example (besides Joe and Clara of course).
My father. My father knows almost nothing about Pilates. But in the late 1970’s, when I was a teenager, I discovered my father had been a cigarette smoker before I was born. (If you will recall, in the 1970’s in the US, there were massive public health campaigns around smoking cessation.) I asked my father three questions. Like Joseph Pilates, my father is a man of few words. Here is what I asked him:
- When did you stop smoking? In 1956 when I married your mother. She didn’t like smoking.
- How did you know it was bad for you? They did not know about the dangers of smoking then, did they? If you didn’t know it was bad for you, you weren’t paying attention.
- How did you quit? Wasn’t it hard? I quit because I made a decision to quit.
Now my father never set himself up as an expert on breathing or on the will, but he was doing pretty well on both accounts, now wasn’t he? My dad, who will turn 90 years old in June, is my Pilates inspiration both for paying attention and for exercising his will.
Do you think the perception of Pilates has changed in the last 10 years?
Yes. I think we have reached the point where the change in perception may actually be for the better. It may be getting more accurate. I think people are taking more responsibility for their own health. People are in general much more sophisticated consumers of fitness than they were a few years ago.
What would be your top 5 tips for Pilates students and/or newbies?
- Do Pilates every day. Even if it’s just the Hundred and the ab series, or if it’s just the wall, do it every day.
- “It is the mind that builds the body.” Focus on what you are creating. Do not say “I can’t do the Teaser” or any other exercise. Don’t repeat to yourself or others what you do not want to be true. Instead of saying, “That’s me, tight hip flexors and weak bottom,” say instead, “I can see how making my bottom stronger is helping my hip flexors not overwork.”
- Learn the system in a dedicated studio. If you cannot afford to learn the whole system, get the full matwork under your belt and save up for a studio lesson as frequently as possible. The mat will always be the heart and soul of the work, but you likely won’t understand it that well until you experience the whole method.
- Find a committed teacher. Find a teacher who is an example, by that I mean, a teacher must do the work him/herself.
- Listen to your body. If your intuition says it’s not a good day to do a certain exercise on a particular day, then don’t do it. At the same time be wary of just avoiding an exercises you cannot do well, or that you do not understand. Map out for yourself, or with your teacher, how you will approach the exercise.
What is your main advice to future trainers who want to be Pilates instructors?
My advice to future instructors is the same as to students and newbies above. Additionally, I would be more adamant with the teachers about their daily practice and their time commitment. I would also insist that aspiring teachers find a comprehensive training program, not just a Reformer course, or a mat course.
Pilates transforms bodies and minds. Can you explain how that works for you and your clients?
Yes, it’s all about focus. When people start doing Pilates, they want themselves and the teacher to know how hard they are trying. Their focus is outward. It’s about proving that they are struggling and are therefore good students. They huff and puff. They grimace. All of which is the opposite of what is needed. I am not saying we should tell students that Pilates is easy. Here are some tips that help me and my clients: 1.Do not confuse breathing more with breathing better. Very few exercises are as hard from an oxygen demand standpoint as walking up stairs. Many are no harder than walking down the street. Do not breathe as if you were running when you are just doing some leg springs. Do not tell your nervous system you are doing something more challenging than you are doing. It will make it all worse. Measure your breath. Stretch your breath. The discipline will shape your practice.
- Develop a daily practice. Take the Roll Up, as an example. If people practiced it every day, they would have the muscular wherewithal to do it well. If you do Pilates only once a week in class, the Roll Up will always be hard. You will never master it, and continuing to do it poorly is probably a bad idea.
- Compose your face. As with the breath, so with the face. Pretend it IS a performance. You Do want to make it look good. You want to convince yourself above all that you master this exercise. It has nothing to do with perfection and everything to do with mastery. Do this also when you are alone in the room. Close your mouth and control your breath and then you will control your nervous system.
What makes a Pilates teacher a better Pilates teacher?
I think we always need to ask “what does this person need today?” Another way of saying that is “what does this body need that it is also prepared to receive?” This is true throughout the fitness spectrum, from the basics to the super advanced repertoire class. The job is to prepare students before challenging them. I see too much challenging without the responsibility of having prepared them.
How many lessons do you teach each week?
What do you like the most about teaching Pilates?
I love it when people see that they have control or significant influence over their bodies, their movement, and their aging process. I love it when people have “aha” moments, discoveries.
What is your opinion about the future of Pilates and what is the biggest insight Pilates gave you?
I think Pilates has infiltrated the movement world more than anyone would have guessed. As a system that is all process oriented and based on fine increments of progress, we have sometimes gotten so process oriented ourselves that we look up and see people doing pistol squats and handstands seemingly out of the blue, but we rarely teach them ourselves. Pistol squats and handstands are in Pilates, and I would like to challenge myself to go there to the end product more often. Do the pistol squat, not just the Russian squats, do the pistol squat without the leg springs. Do the handstands across the room from the ladder barrel, not just in the ladder barrel. I think we are sometimes too afraid of losing our unique way of approaching an exercise through springs and ladder rungs, etc, and forget that the incremental approach should take you there, not just to the brink.
How many times do you work out yourself?
Every day. Some days twice. But for me a workout can be anywhere from 6 minutes to an hour.
What do you think of Pilatesglossy?
I think Pilatesglossy is great! It offers us all an opportunity to see how other teachers have evolved and what they are thinking about.
What is your favorite quote?
“It is the mind that builds the body.” Joe was quoting Friedrich Schiller, of course, in the context of the method.
Do you follow a certain diet, like plant-based diet or something else?
I eat a moderate carbohydrate, moderate protein, high fat diet. I do not eat barnyard animals, unless I am invited to dinner and someone has prepared a steak for me. Nowadays people usually ask ahead of time if one has dietary restrictions, so I rarely end up eating that steak. I do eat fish, butter, cheese, eggs, and game. I eat all vegetables, some of which we grow at home.