Chair Pilates: Why? How? Is it really Pilates?

Chair Pilates is a Rarity in the Pilates World.  It should be more common

This is the Why

There is a schism in the Pilates world.   Some Tutors are believers in Classical Pilates:  those who believe that Pilates is to be taught exactly as JP stated, in their pure form.  Other Tutors are the devotees of Contemporary Pilates who believe that it can and should be modernised to reflect the 21st century lifestyles and  also the latest developments in sports science, exercise science etc

Although this is a somewhat American concern, it matters for this story.  Should Pilates just be what it was , or should it develop and modify?

It is a massive challenge for the industry: to stay true to the genius of Joseph Pilates whilst facing up to the reality of teaching bodies that are different to the ones he saw.  We are bigger, more sedentary, living longer.  We have a lots of chronic health problems.

How do you use Pilates to help people?

In my view you have to modify and reflect their bodies’ needs, using the essence, the ideas of Pilates but not necessarily the original Pilates exercises.      Although Joseph Pilates’ 1945 book “A Return to Life through Contrology” details 34 challenging and intense exercises,  in his  New York studio  he rehabbed many injured people using a client centred approach.  That is, he chose a regime based upon whatever he deemed each person needed.

Why should Pilates evolve ?  Chairs not mats? Whatever next?

Naked Pilates? Pilates on the beach? Aqualates? Hot Pilates?

I bet these things exist!

Sarcasm aside, I’m talking about a change of emphasis so that more people can enjoy the benefits Pilates

However amazing Pilates is ,  it is definitely ableist.  Ableism is discrimination in favour of non-disabled people.

The Cambridge dictionary defines Ableism as “treating people unfairly because they have a disability.  That is, an illness, injury or condition that makes it difficult for them to do things that most other people do“.

Nobody has set out to be discriminatory or to deliberately exclude people who are disabled but the blunt truth of the matter is, that Pilates does discriminate in favour of able bodied people and the typical exercises also favour non-fat people as well as those who are a conventional shape

The Pilates world is evolving however.  Evolving to reflect the needs of people who are confined to chairs or who struggle to stand or struggle to lie down, is one strand of that evolution.

Why Chairs then?

Chair based work is really aimed at reaching people who cannot get onto the floor for what ever reason.  Chair Pilates is really for them.    Chair Pilates is also for people who work at a desk and want a few things to do, either sneakily or not (!) during their shift at work.

Some people can work chair assisted. They can stand with support and the chair is ideal for that purpose.

By the way, I’m referring to a normal chair.  If you google Chair Pilates, most of the hits are related to a piece of Pilates studio equipment known as a Wunda Chair.  I have one in my studio, but that is a whole different ball game.   There aren’t a lot of hits for real Chair Pilates which is a sure sign that it is in its infancy. Gratifyingly, one of the top hits is from the NHS https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/nhs-fitness-studio/chair-based-pilates-exercise-video/

How does Chair Pilates work

Does Chair Pilates even exist at present?

Not really, but it is only a matter of time.  Pilates is an immensely young discipline.  Joseph Pilates died in 1967 and Pilates nearly died with him.  It was saved from extinction during the ’70s and ’80s and eventually reached the UK in the 1990s.

Pilates has changed a lot in the 18 years that I have been teaching.  It is taught differently, the training is different and the way in which you can “do” Pilates has changed.  We now have equipment based Pilates, 1:1 Pilates and the mat based classes.  The first generation of teachers have little more than 25 years experience, .  Most instructors have in the UK have less than 10 years experience.  This is not a criticism, simply a way to illustrate how young the industry and it explains the lag in evolution.  Pilates needs to reach maturity in order to be able to turn its attention, appropriately and sensitively to groups of people who are less readily able to do it..

How do I teach Chair Based Pilates?

Firstly  I start with the chair and not with the exercises and ask myself: what I can I do from here?

Next I look at what I want to achieve as major goals

  • spine articulation
  • shoulder mobility and strength
  • foot/ankle mobility
  • hand/finger / wrist mobility and strength
  • breathing/ relaxation
  • posture/alignment
  • knee strength
  • Leg and bottom strength
  • trunk (core) stability

Here are some clips of a chair based Pilates routine

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ARVE Error: Mode: lazyload not available (ARVE Pro not active?), switching to normal mode




Chair Assisted work

Ideally it is present in a class, if a group of people have the ability to stand .  If a group can stand up,  I’d aim to do exercises that do the following:

  • balance work
  • sit to stand work
  • standing leg strength
  • exercise using a wall for support

Group Class vs 1:1 Tuition

Pilates studio equipment can often accommodate people with mobility problems, but studios are relatively rare and relatively expensive.  I teach 1:1 Pilates and know first-hand how amazing it can be for people. It is immensely helpful and successful.  However, group exercise classes remain the most egalitarian way of getting Pilates to the most people, most easily in the most affordable way

Is Chair Pilates really Pilates?

By extension, then, am I really a Pilates teacher? More on that story here! I have talked about it in another blog post: https://www.pilates-leeds.com/am-i-really-a-pilates-instructor/

The answer boils down to a question of your Pilates philosophical leanings and your beliefs about pulling about and modifying Joseph Pilates’ teaching.

It is definitely valid, and potentially, immensely valuable for people who cannot lie down on a mat and in my view, yes, it really is Pilates

Here is me teaching Chair Pilates to a community group based in Leeds

author demonstrating a chair Pilates exercise

Author teaching chair pilates to a group of individuals in a community centre


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