Lifelong Pilates is the name of Mary Bowen’s studio and as a title it couldn’t be more apt. It is 55 years since Mary started to study with Joe Pilates and she still carries on learning and teaching. Now in her 80s, the Pilates Elder is more active than many people half her age, combining her Pilates activities and practice as a Jungian psychoanalyst with travelling all over the world talking about working with Joe and about her philosophy of Pilates. We are delighted that Mary will be our special guest at our AGM weekend, and she is happy to be coming to see us for the second time:
“When I was asked to present for the Pilates Foundation of the UK for two days quite a few years ago, I remember meeting a very congenial and professional group of teachers who were serious minded about their work with the body and maintaining the standards set by Joe and Clara’s life work,2 she says. “Joe died 47 years ago, but he lives in each one of us who continues his mission and his method towards finding and maintaining a healthier and happier life for ourselves and all those with whom we work.”
“I found in the Pilates Foundation that there was room for one’s originality which I believe is a great asset in keeping Pilates alive. After 56 years of practicing Pilates and 39 of those years teaching it, I find there is a dual evolving going on - becoming one’s own person at the same time as discovering better and deeper ways to teach Pilates. They evolve together. I look forward to returning to the Pilates Foundation this May 9 and 10 - meeting some old friends and making many new friends. Pilates can feel like a family. It reaches all over the world now as Joe was sure it should and would.”
The story of how Mary started working with Joe is well known: she was in her 20s and working in New York City as an actress and comedienne when she developed a back problem. She saw an article about Joe in a newspaper along with a photo of him, bare-chested, wearing swimming trunks and with flowing hair, and she was intrigued. “I had a bad back. I was like a rocket, not tethered to the earth. I was in theatre, based on making seem real what really isn’t real. Pilates gave me grounding. It helped me enter, learn about, and grow more and more into the animal side of myself, my body.” After just two sessions with Joe her back improved and she has continued to take lessons every week ever since, changing teachers every seven years or so.
At the same time as she started Pilates, Mary began Jungian psychoanalysis and eventually she adopted both as professions. She was, and still is, a pioneer of recognising the relationship of the mind-body connection to health, and she has a practice as a psychoanalyst in New York and runs Pilates studios in Connecticut and Massachusetts. “In the world of Pilates I am known especially for my integration of Jungian analytical psychology with the Pilates Method,” she explains. “With some clients I stay only with Pilates, but for many others the work has expanded beyond conscious ego understanding to working with what is in the unconscious – the whole psyche – the whole person.”
“I would like to present my combination of the two professions some year. Their compatibility. It is a whole human that we are and that we teach in our client. That whole human comes into the room with you. It’s not just a body. It is very practical to know about typology, about the whole psyche in the teaching of Pilates, and in a fair assessment of yourself. Most people are far too hard on themselves.”
Mary’s experience is a testament to how a longstanding commitment to Pilates can transform one’s health and even one’s life. “I believe we should never stop being a student,” she says, “and we need to get out of our own studios to take care of ourselves. I recommend that all Pilates teachers should find someone excellent to watch over and guide their own Pilates practice. This can be pivotal to the development of oneself and one’s teaching.”
Mary has mentored many other teachers, maintaining a direct line through to Joe Pilates. She never established a training programme under her own name, though, preferring to work in a more flexible way. “I prefer to put the emphasis on the creative process, on whatever ‘new’ can manifest through myself and others, rather than on a repetitive programme. I chose to follow the inner journey rather than the outer way of learning and becoming. I make no judgment that one is better than the other. Each is as valuable as the other. What is important, however, is to find and follow one’s own way. Joe and Clara Pilates gave us a firm, safe, fundamental edifice and foundation for our bodies and our imaginations to work from. Their work and the variations that spring from it are non-ending.”
“It is my aim to help each teacher to find more freedom and imagination in the exploring and discovering of his or her own uniqueness. There is nothing airy-fairy in this. Quite the opposite: I call each individual to find the deepest grounding. Many will find it in the body, some in being able to access ideas, others in knowing and feeling the value of what they are doing, finding a passion for it, and still others in the daring and wonder of following intuitions which seem to come from nowhere.”
Mary began teaching Pilates in 1975 by accident. She had a studio for herself behind her analytic office in Northampton, MA. But the clients were curious about the strange machines and wanted her to show them how they worked. After working with Joe, Clara and Hanna, then Bob Seed, Mary was now studying with Romana Krysanowska. She consulted Romana, who gave Mary her blessing to teach as long as she said that what she taught was “based on the Pilates Method”. That was the beginning of what became Mary’s non-profit Your Own Gym, which lasted for 32 years and was the longest standing Pilates studio in New England.
When she opened Your Own Gym, Mary was given some reels of film by Evelyn de la Tour, a friend of Joe and Clara Pilates. Joe and Clara had bequeathed the film to Evelyn. The material was from their private collection and had been taken between 1932 and 1945. ‘I let them sit for more than 10 years before I even looked at them and found shots of family picnics, etc., plus a very good 70 minutes which makes up the Historical DVD which I formulated. I will bring about 50 of those when I come to London. Everyone should have that video, should see Joe and Clara in action.’
One of only five working Pilates teachers to have studied with Joe himself, Mary is herself the subject of a documentary, The Myriad Movements of Mary Bowen, bringing together her original work as a Pilates Elder and a Jungian psychoanalyst. We are very lucky to be giving the UK premiere of this film on 9 May at our AGM. The showing will be followed by a Q&A session with Mary, and we have a double treat because on the 10th we will present An Evening with Mary. As a former actress and comedienne, Mary is a great storyteller. Both events are sure to be very popular with non-PF members so be sure to use this priority booking period to make sure you get tickets.
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