Heritage of a Lifetime

by Jillian Hessel

If you’re a teacher or avid student of Pilates, you can trace your roots back to a mentor or formative teacher. Since Pilates is life-changing,many of us decide to become teachers ourselves. This is how the living chain of Pilates lineage works: Our mentors change our lives, and we teach the next genera-tion of students, inspiring them with the transformative magic of Pilates.

I initially studied with two Pilates elders simultaneously: Kathy Grant and Carola Trier. In 1981, I was dancing professionally in New York City, but years of ballet training had taken their toll on my body. A fellow dancer told me about her teacher, Kathy Grant, who had helped her with a chronically painful back condition, so I decided to give it a try.

My first impression of Kathy’s studio was intimidating. It was very small, and filled with all sorts of strange-looking apparatus. But oh, the beautiful movements her clients performed on that equipment! To my untrained eye, it looked like a combination of gymnastics, yoga and underwater ballet. I longed to do it immediately; after all, I was a professional dancer, so why not? All too soon, I learned why not.

Kathy took one look at my back (a double s-curve caused by scoliosis, made more lopsided by years of professional ballet dancing) and banned me from all the resistance equipment. She had me lie down on a mat and practice breathing evenly into both sides of my rib cage. This turned out to be quite a frustrating challenge, since the muscles in my back were so imbalanced. “You can’t even breathe correctly without throwing your spine out of align-ment,” she said accusingly. “What do you think is happening to you when you dance? We’ll have to rebalance your entire structure if you want to dance pain-free.”

Kathy’s training completely transformed my conception of alignment. She taught me to work “from the inside out,” as we say in Pilates. She was also the first to teach me that I could alter my body alignment by changing my breathing pattern. With Kathy’s guidance, I gradually developed a com-pletely new paradigm with which to observe, translate and process move-ment.

I spent the summer of 1981 studying intensely with Kathy three times a week, while collecting unemployment benefits from my previous dance gig. I realized I had stumbled on not only a unique method of exercise, but a rare and gifted teacher. Pilates was so restorative that I gained hope I could soon resume my dance career relatively pain-free. Alas, autumn arrived, and my unemployment benefits ended, with no new dance gig on the horizon.

I needed a job, and Kathy had a great idea: Carola Trier needed a new ap-prentice! So, I trotted four blocks crosstown to meetCarola, proud that Kathy thought enough of me after only a few months of training to recommend me.

Carola Trier’s Studio for Body Contrology stood in stark contrast to Kathy’s. It was in her spacious apartment, and an elevator operator shuttled you up and down; the brass fittings on the building doors and elevator but-tons were polished every day. Carola was the first person to open a studio with Joe Pilates’ blessing. He had even supervised the construction of her apparatus, a show of his complete confidence in her as a teacher of his work.

Carola greeted me graciously in her old-world style. She spoke fluent Eng-lish with a charming German accent that was still thick despite all her years living in America. I felt scared and shy, but after our initial interview, she gifted me 10 sessions to “try me out.” This was for me to see how clients were handled in her studio and for her to observe my facility with the method.

My introductory workout was taught by Carola herself, and she began with her signature posture analysis. Then, she checked my breathing, and began with Footwork on the Universal Reformer. We moved along at a brisk pace, and I was grateful for the careful foundation of warm-ups Kathy had given me. To this day, I like to say that Kathy got me into alignment and Carola got me strong.

My first tasks as her teaching apprentice included cleaning finger marks off the wall, fetching towels and holding clients feet while they performed footwork on the Reformer. I was encouraged to observe, ask intelligent questions and, most importantly, to ask for help during complex exercises such as Short Spinals or Backstroke Swimming, as I was not yet permitted to handle these on my own.

Carola ran her business and taught with the precision of a Swiss watch. Teachers and clients alike lived in absolute dread of her explosive temper, which added to our desire to please her as she barked out her commands. In another life, Carola could have had a career as a drill sergeant, but we were grateful that she chose to teach Body Contrology. And while she was never known to apologize after losing her temper, she would show contrition by serving us European coffee and muffins or inviting us for an after-hours glass of sweet sherry served with cheese and crackers.

She handled clients in an elegant manner, with the utmost respect. Using her “magic touch”—she was also a massage therapist—she employed far more hands-on guidance during exercises than is common today. She called the extras “candy,” and clients learned to earn these rewards by working extra hard during their session.

I remember Carola’s one-on-one specialized work with a polio victim who was paralyzed in one leg and exercised wearing a brace. She had an instinc-tive nurturing and gentle side that prompted her to dole out extra attention when someone was emotionally upset or injured.

And so began a very interesting and transformative time in my life: working at Carola’s studio four mornings a week, and studying with Kathy three days a week. The two were so different in their approach to Pilates, yet each taught me new ways to look at and transmit the body of exercises passed down to us from Joe. Both encouraged me to find my own interpretation of the work as I developed as a teacher.

I owe my exactitude, keen eye and precise teaching style to Kathy’s contin-ual quest to find perfect form for each individual. She always demanded pu-rity of form in the execution of the movement from all her clients, which made her a very tough taskmaster. My style of teaching in clear layman’s language comes from Carola. She didn’t like a lot of talk going on in her studio; longwinded explanations of how to execute an exercise were verbo-ten. I also learned from her the ABCs of running a studio. She was a very accomplished professional in a day when few women ran their own compa-nies.

I believe both women’s individual contribution—their example of how they filtered Joe’s work through their own sensibilities and life experience—had a bigger impact on me than any individual exercise or routine.
Every Pilates teacher needs to develop his or her own teaching style and voice, and Kathy and Carola held my hand along that path until I discovered mine.

A former professionalballerina,and avid yogini, Jillian Hessel has been teaching Pilates since 1981. She met and studied with many of the first generation teachers trained by Joseph Pilates himself. Due to her unique teaching lineage, Jillian is known to many Pilates Profes-sionals as a “Hybrid of the Masters.”

Respected for her concise verbal instruction and crystal clear imagery, Jillian is an International presenter at Pilates Conferences throughout the world. She is the author of “Pilates Basics,”available here

She loves to mentor Certified Pilates Teachers & you can take her online classes at https://www.pilatesanytime.com/ (Use the code: HESSEL for a 30 day free trial)

3 thoughts on “Heritage of a Lifetime

    1. Great article Jillian.
      Great that we can see how the method created by Joseph Pilates lives so deep in each of your Teachers. Indeed we all should be encouraged to develop our own teaching style while maintaining the system and length and depth of training

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