Oldest Living Disciple Of Joseph Pilates Tells All

I confess. It does me no credit, but I looked to have sport with 79-year-old Romana Kryzanowska.

How could a woman billed as the oldest living disciple of Joseph Pilates, the maddeningly particular German developer of the eponymous core fitness discipline that has exploded in popularity, not be an easy target of ridicule? Be honest. Would you have expected the self-anointed empress of a strenuous exercise routine, who generally holds court at Drago’s Gymnasium in New York, to be anything but a stern, humorless dominatrix brimming with narcissism and defensive of her late mentor?

But by the time she finished answering my first question, she had me in her thrall.

Not only didn’t she take sufficient offense at my questions to bar me from attending the Pilates class she taught last month at Goucher College outside Baltimore. Kryzanowska (pronounced Crows-now-skah) anticipated every journalistic trap I tried to set and pirouetted through them with the grace of, well, a seasoned Pilates master. Sure, she bristled at the few questions that cast Joseph Pilates as a tyrannical, idiosyncratic bone crusher (more on this later), but her bristle was warm, her smile constant and her answers flowed into one another like a smooth exercise routine.

And then I took her class. For 45 minutes Kryzanowska, looking 20 years younger than her age, led a mat routine and kept 15 of us (a male Pilates instructor from Washington, a Brazilian Pilates teacher who regularly treks to the United States to refresh her skills, 12 other women and myself) focused. She glided about the room as if she were directing a musical, a short thin woman wearing loose black slacks, a sweater and beaded red wood-and-cloth pumps she’d bought in Turkey (“because they’re so comfortable”).

“Press those hands down to the sides, push the air out of your chest, shoulders down, stomach in and up, always in and up, keep it engaged, eyes straight ahead, lift your ears, lift them — this will give you a neck!” Painting the air with graceful arm movements, she led us through an advanced-beginner’s routine designed, like all Pilates, to strengthen the abs into weapons of mass construction.

Classic Pilates involves a mix of mat work similar to some forms of yoga along with routines on apparatus (including benches with pulleys, racks, trapezes and barrels) that, to even a modestly creative mind, conjure up nothing so much as exquisite torture devices. Pilates is designed to engage the abdominals for the entire routine, on the theory that almost all of our strength and physical control originates with solid stomach muscles. Whether the hybrid forms of Pilates that now seem to be offered by nearly every gym and shopfront Pilates center measure up to those original intentions is another question.

With the power of a 30-year-old, Kryzanowska pushed hard on my back as I sat on a mat, forcing my torso into my thighs to illustrate how far I should stretch. She mimicked a champagne toast to show the women the practical importance of firm triceps. She had us lock hands in sets of three and skip around the studio to work on something to do with posture. She alternated between sonorous, soothing instruction (“breathe, breathe, gently lower your neck”) and curt commands garnished with a German accent that she suddenly adopted (“dis vill make your stomach hart like shteel!”), a tribute to her teacher.

When it ended, I knew I’d learned something from someone who knows how to teach. I felt that if I practiced Pilates for 45 minutes thrice weekly, as Kryzanowska suggests, I, too, could waltz through life with perfect posture, unflappable self-confidence and a flock of devotees in my wake. But I also knew, deep down, that one could throw a lifetime into Pilates (Kryzanowska started studying in 1941 and began teaching in 1944) and never reach her plane. Herewith, notes from our interview.

Q: Why is Pilates better than yoga and other disciplines?

Everything is good if done well. Yoga, weightlifting, whatever you do. It is all good. But Pilates does everything for the body that you would want. If you just want to trim only your thighs, you can do that. If you want to tighten your tummy, you can do that only, without working other parts of the body.

Q: Are you calling me fat?

No. You look strong. Can you do a sit-up?

Q: So why is Pilates so special? It sounds like I could do any exercise routine and stay in shape.

Pilates is good for everyone — young, old, sick, healthy, crippled. Joseph Pilates was a champion skier, wrestler and boxer. He taught us to work within the line of the body. Stretch and strength, with control. He was a very simple man; he liked things in a straight line. Watch children. They do everything — that’s nature. Pilates is nature, too: You work within your joints, not outside.

Q: What drove Joseph Pilates to invent this discipline?

He had terrible asthma and rickets as a child, and he wanted to improve his health. He was interned in a World War I camp and began developing the exercises there. But he also borrowed a lot of the principles from the ancient Greeks and how they trained their Olympians. He had a great library and was always studying. He was a genius of the body.

Q: I heard he had some very eccentric habits, like teaching in his underwear while smoking cigars.

That’s slander. He was a kind and loving man. He did smoke cigars — good ones — but never in the studio. And he wore his little blue shorts, yes, but they weren’t underwear. He was very proud of them. We have a picture of him in a major snowstorm standing outside in those shorts. He loved the outdoors.

Q: He also reportedly stood on people’s stomachs — often very thin, female people — and some say he was hard to work with. Is this true?

He would stand on people’s stomachs, yes, as part of training to show just how powerful your “powerhouse” is. [She points to her own stomach.] But he never hurt anyone. He was very tender and loving, but he was also strict. If you left one article out of place, he would warn you once nicely. If you did it again, he would warn you again, not so nicely. The third time, you were out. He would say, “Leave and don’t come back!” Everything has its place. He liked order.

Q: Did he ever make a student cry?

No, no. He was a nice man.

Q: Do you stand on people’s stomachs?

No. I don’t want a lawsuit. We didn’t have lawsuits and all that nonsense back then. It is so much different today.

Q: You are the oldest living disciple of Joseph Pilates. Who will succeed you?

My daughter, Sari Santo, who also studied with Uncle Joe when she was just a girl. She teaches with me.

Q: Uncle Joe?

That’s what we called him.

Q: How important are the machines to Pilates?

They are not machines. They are apparatus. Do you know the difference? A machine does something to you. With the apparatus, you do the work. The apparatus are good, but the mat work is everything. If you can do the mat work perfectly, you don’t need the apparatus. But people love toys.

Q: It seems that there is a limited number of moves in Pilates. Do your students ever get bored?

We don’t give them time to get bored. There are endless exercises. But it all focuses on the box formed by the points of your shoulders and your hips. The area in that box is your powerhouse — that’s where all your power comes from.

Q: Before a court ruling in 2000 that the name Pilates could not be trademarked, you spent some time trying to stop imitators from using the name. What’s the big deal? What harm can come to people who study Pilates with an unqualified teacher?

If you want to improve your body and it doesn’t happen with your teacher, get a new teacher. A good teacher will tell you why you are doing the exercises, and will reiterate this and pound it in.

Q: How much Pilates do I need to stay in shape?

Joseph always said, “Take 30 lessons — three times per week for 10 weeks — and you will see you have a new body.” If you do this three times per week for 45 minutes, you will stay in shape.

Q: But couldn’t I just buy a video or book? Do I have to take a class?

You cannot learn any form of body movement from a book, because you have to be looking at the book! Think of a ballerina: What is she going to do? Dance around holding this book in front of her face? Same thing with a video. It’s ridiculous.

Q: Have you ever found anything that gave you as much joy as practicing Pilates?

Pilates has been my life. I will turn 80 on June 30. I am never sick and can do all of my exercises. When Pilates is done right — and it rarely is — every exercise melts into the next one. You never stop. It is like ballet.

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