Why New York City’s Pilates gurus say the time-tested workout is here to stay

Pilates NYC_Real Pilates Alycea Ungaro is really excited for November, when she’ll open Real Pilates’ second New York City location, in Soho, after almost 20 years of operating her thriving studio in Tribeca.

“The biggest driving factor has been growth,” the now famed Pilates guru says. “We’ve outgrown our physical space.”

It’s one of many reasons she’s really jazzed up to talk about what New York Magazine recently dubbed the “Pilatespocalypse,” in a story suggesting that the more than century-old fitness system was becoming obsolete. It generated lots of buzz on New York’s Pilates and larger fitness scene, with tons of teachers and students of the method adding comments in protest.

While Pilates may not include the muscle-quivering immediate gratification of an SLT class or the sweat-drenched glory of a SoulCycle session, the community roared, its lack of sex appeal is no match for its time-tested body- and life-changing effects.

“Pilates is a mindful system, and we want you to be present in your body so you can become stronger and smarter simultaneously,” Ungaro says. “If that’s not hot anymore, we don’t care. The people who want to do Pilates are always going to find Pilates—and we’ll be around for them.”

Pilates and the fitness boom

Cited in the New York Magazine article was a survey that suggested fewer people have been doing Pilates over the past several years, but serious stats are hard to find, and in New York, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to the contrary (yes, it’s anecdotal).

In addition to Real Pilates’ expansion (which also includes the introduction of an in-demand teacher training program), over the past two years, Karen Lord opened her large, chic studio in Tribeca, Brooklyn Strength opened a second location, Physio Logic debuted an expansive new facility, two small studios opened uptown, Erika Bloom expanded her presence in the Hamptons, and Uptown Pilates opened a third Manhattan studio in the West Village.

“Our class numbers are certainly up,” says Uptown’s co-owner Adam Drushal. “We opened the Village studio on August 1, and basically by November 1 that studio was profitable.”

ClassPass provided numbers for its New York market that showed about 20 percent of its participating studios offer Pilates (a large percentage, given the diversity of workouts offered). Nationwide, Equinox says its gyms saw “about a five percent increase in Pilates usage from 2014 to 2015, in addition to a steady increase year over year for the past six years,” and 24-hour Fitness just signed on to launch a new “Pop Pilates” class with Youtube star Cassey Ho at its clubs across the country.

Ungaro says that instead of the boutique fitness boom stealing clients from Pilates,  she’s seen it as creating more interest.  “We’ve gotten busier and busier as all of the exercise regimens have grown and as fitness has grown in popularity overall.”

No, investment banks are not generally banging down the door at Pilates studios, but Ungaro also says that could be a benefit, since the word “boutique” is quickly losing meaning as studios like Pure Barre grow to hundreds of cookie-cutter locations. “It isn’t enough to not be a gym. The point of the boutique fitness experience is that you’re coming in for customized training, not one-size-fits-all formulaic training.”

Pilates NYC_Uptown Pilates

The future of fitness: Pilates myths and facts

And while many studios and gyms do offer group fitness classes, Drushal says comparing Pilates to something like a Tracy Anderson class is an apples and oranges situation. “Pilates is really, really about one-on-one private instruction,” he says. “It’s the majority of our business, and that really is the heart of the method.”

One-on-one instruction allows instructors to teach clients how to master the complex method in a way that makes it more challenging, and yes, even (gasp) a little sweaty. “If you want to do super advanced Pilates, if you know how to do it and you’ve got that experience, you’re going to sweat,” Drushal explains, “ but I don’t want to imply that it has to be a sweat-fest to do what it’s doing. Pilates in my mind is the foundation for all fitness. When you get injured, you go back and do Pilates.”

This, to me, is the most interesting aspect of the debate. While Pilates definitely doesn’t fit the image of the tank-drenching, music-blasting party that the new boutique fitness consumer craves, people have been getting smarter about fitness over the past few years as they’ve pedaled and planked, and many current locker room conversations are not about “I wish that was harder,” but are around questions like “why didn’t that instructor show us correct form?” and “was the pain I just experienced actually good for my body?”

Both Drushal and Ungaro cite lots of examples of fit enthusiasts turning to Pilates to correct the imbalances they’re picking up as they fling themselves from CrossFit to barre. You’ve heard the buzzy term “functional fitness,” I’m sure, and Pilates says it’s the original. “We train you to perform optimally during workouts and in life,” Ungaro says.

That may not be sexy, but we may all be underestimating its resonance. As I showered after a workout this week, two boutique fitness enthusiasts traded stories of trying the city’s toughest classes and the various injuries and body issues they had sustained. “Did you see that article about how no one wants to do Pilates anymore because all they want to do is push harder?” one of the women asked. “I don’t know what’s going to happen in 10 years. We’re all going to need Pilates.” —Lisa Elaine Held

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