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Interview With the 'Pilates Elder' Mary Bowen: Part I


January 7, 2017

Bob has been honored to be a student of Mary and long time friend. This is the first of a many-part interview held at Mary's Northampton, MA residence in the fall of 2016. This interview first appeared on in early January of 2017.

Mary Bowen, one of only 2 active Pilates Elders, graciously carved some time out of her busy world-wide travels as a much sought-after Pilates teacher, and sat down with me for this lengthy interview. We divided it into several parts, this being the first. Though an 'elder' she is, as you'll see, by no means slowing down and is as provocative as ever with rich memories of Joe and Clara, and a fascinating description of her unique blend of Pilates and Jungian analysis!

Bob Hannum: Many people are fascinated by Pilates Elders, and especially by you because you are not well known. Why are you not as well known in the Pilates world?                      

Mary Bowen: There are only two of us now, Lolita San Miguel and myself who are actively teaching. We were both among the founders of PMA (Pilates Method Alliance). I have presented at PMA’s Annual Conference for sixteen years now, since its inception. I am the most senior Elder at 87 who studied with Joseph Pilates and Clara for six and a half years, twice a week. That was my beginning, at the age of 29, of living Pilates for 58 years now and teaching it for 42.

Lolita offers a training program which she calls ‘Lolita’s Legacy:’ what to do, how to do it, how to say it, how to dress the part, a whole package of her experience of Pilates for students to learn.

My way of working is one-to-one. Work of any real depth is one-to-one. I choose to work with people who need and want to go as deeply as they can into themselves in this lifetime. You can’t do that with a group and you can’t do that by teaching the same thing to everyone. Each of us is different.  My work is to honor that difference by supporting each client in his or her own particular journey, into the body with Pilates and also into one’s whole person, conscious and unconscious.

Besides being a Pilates teacher since 1975, I have practiced 47 years as a Jungian psychoanalyst since 1970. Until 1995 the two practices were entirely separate, one directive (as a Pilates teacher), the other non-directive (as the Jungian psychoanalyst). The two professions finally combined in my teaching to become my specialty in the Pilates community which I refer to as ‘Pilates Plus Psyche.’

I first combined the two in order to help a client understand the psychological reasons why she was having so much trouble with her body. Using both fields worked so well that everyone wanted it. As Pilates’ teachers we are presented with a whole person, not just the body of a person. It is very helpful in our teaching to learn more about our own and our client’s type, the ‘typological structure’ of our psyches.

In the world-wide established Pilates community my name is recognized, but I don’t self-market. Perhaps I should, i.e. join Facebook and things like that. I haven’t had time. I have two Pilates studios, one at my home in Killingworth, CT, another in Northampton, MA, the home of Smith College, as well as three offices for psychoanalytical work in NYC, CT and MA.

My primary work now is a one-to-one intensive for two full days (14 hours over a Saturday and a Sunday) using my ‘Pilates Plus Psyche.’ This deep mentoring is a giant dive into oneself, a reboot, a love-fest. It’s a wonderful gift to give to oneself. It’s my favorite way to teach, share and help. 14 hours is enough time to really make a difference.

Working one-to-one means you work with fewer people. Perhaps that is why I am less well known. I am not about big success in this world. I am about success in the inner world. I want to help people connect more with their inner selves and their whole selves. Pilates is just one part of that.

Bob:  What was it like working with Joe Pilates?

Mary: Joe Pilates was great! I was with him twice a week for six and a half years. An interesting thing about him was that he never learned our names. He had no interest in us as individuals or in what we did in our lives or who we lived with. We were like extensions of himself. He was interested in our being a part of his work. He had a very big ego. This didn’t bother us a bit, because he was helping us.

I studied and worked out in Joe’s studio from the age of 29-35. I was just coming out of theatre and I loved the attention being given to the body which I never had time for in theatre. But when you’ve done Pilates as long as I have now, it’s in you and you think with your body.

My body tells me when I’m off or on. But there’s not a single Pilates teacher that I know, and I know hundreds and hundreds, who give enough time to their own bodies. I give a workshop which I named ‘Pilates Primary Problem,’ where I point out how Pilates teachers, especially women, take better care of everyone else than themselves. We have to change that. We need to learn to be more like our cats.

Do you have a cat, Bob?

Bob: Yes, I do.

Mary: One of Joe’s adages was, “The superior creation of the Almighty is the Cat. It does everything the best.”

Cats have been great teachers for me. I have had at least 60 or more by now and have loved and learned from each one of them. Cats don’t betray themselves. They never do something just to please you. They are always in themselves and they take exquisite care of themselves.

I found my first cat in a shelter at 29, the same year that I began with Joe. I needed to learn how to just sit. I did learn how to sit and even eventually how to “be” in large degree from my cats. Cats taught me about a kind of femininity from being passive while at the same time being more aware than when one is active. Every cat is different. Each one of us is different. We learn differently. We move differently. We need to celebrate that.

Bob: Mary, you’re 87 and you look fantastic. You look so energetic and joyful.

Mary: That doesn’t mean that the opposite doesn’t come in, like depression over Trump!

But thank you, Bob. I don’t feel age. I keep coming into myself! My Pilates is better. Age is not to be feared. We improve with age if we stay actively engaged.

Bob: Another question often asked by my readers is why, after all your years as a Pilates teacher, you still take Pilates lessons?

Mary: I’ve taken lessons for 56 years. A teacher should always stay a student. And Pilates evolves. We evolve. I need to ensure that I am growing better, more integrated, more one with my body.

I always made sure that I was seen. After Joe I was 7 years with Bob Seed, then 7 years with Romana, then 7 years with Kathy Grant, then 5 years until he died with Bruce King, and 7 years with Jean Claude West who had learned Pilates at my studio ‘Your Own Gym’ in Northampton, and then 20 years with Christine Wright, all in NYC.

By my 60’s my Pilates teaching was more and more original which should happen and will if one stays committed. Christine moved to Toronto in 2015 leaving me without an outer teacher but with an extraordinary inner teacher – me. I go to me. My body waits for me and then takes off and shows me. I don’t teach it any more, not since 70. It teaches me. I am more and more one with it.

I was born an ‘Extraverted Intuitive Feeling’ type. These types are not in their bodies. Intuition is in the air, flying, racing, going very fast. Intuitives are very smart. You don’t need to study much in school. You “get it” out of the thin air. It just comes. It’s just there.

For each one of us a main journey towards wholeness is to develop the opposite side of ourselves. We usually marry it and learn a lot about the opposite side that way. Sensation, which includes the body, is the opposite of Intuition. Sensation is groundedness - an opposite of Intuition. The Intuitive needs to grow into a Sensate, needs to grow into the body and be one with it. That takes a lifetime for each one of us to grow and integrate with our opposite side.

We’ll go into ‘typology’ later in this interview. I have grown into my body, not just working with or on it, but becoming one with it so that from the age of 70 my body became my greatest teacher. Finally I was not outside of it anymore.

It’s as hard for anyone born a Thinker to become their opposite – Feeling. And as hard for a person born a Feeler to believe and learn that they can ever become great thinkers, their opposite.
So too, a person born Sensate - comfortable in the body - must learn their Intuitive side. Intuition for the Sensate begins in a fog, in a negative fear place until years of work and patience develops intuitive optimism.

We are never free from the type that we were born as. That goal is wholeness. Pilates is a part of that for me. Pilates gave me a discipline for becoming one with my body, my necessary journey into the opposite of my Intuition.

Jungian typology is a fascinating and deeply personal subject. Understanding it can deeply enrich the work of a Pilates teacher.
Next let’s dive into breathing: how poorly and barely we breathe and how important a subject it is.

Bob: Stay tuned to our next installment.


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