An inspired Pilates elder talks about her enduring and endearing inner and outer journey with Pilates.
First-generation master teacher Mary Bowen is a Pilates treasure. At 81, she still shares her distinctive blend of Pilates and Jungian psychoanalysis with students as a full-time practitioner, calling her combined approach Pilates Plus Psyche. With boundless energy, she travels regularly between her three offices in Killingworth, Connecticut (her home), New York City and Northampton, Massachusetts.
“I have lived with [the Pilates method] for 53 years now, 38 years teaching it,” says Bowen. “Pilates truly became one of my life roots. I remember reading Jung’s autobiography, in which he said, ‘My life is not about outer happenings; it is about inner happenings.’ That’s the way I really feel about Pilates. It never stops unfolding. The Jungian works with the whole psyche, and Pilates addresses the whole body. It is a fascinating tool for self-discovery, and I can use and integrate all parts of the psyche. Pilates keeps one feeling young, strong and flexible, and it builds endurance for a lifetime. It also allows for creativity and is a safe playground for the whole of one’s life.”
A Challenging Start
Bowen’s lifelong journey with Pilates began when she was 29. A vibrant character actress, comedienne and singer, she had developed back problems. “I often suffered from a slipped disk and had not yet connected to a Pilates body,” she says. “I used traction, which fortunately worked for my spine, but my prognosis wasn’t good for the long haul. I wondered what I would be like when I was 40. I was young, and your ego thinks it can handle anything when you’re in your 20s.”
That’s when Bowen read an article about Joseph Pilates and saw his photograph in the New York World-Telegram and Sun newspaper. “There was this picture of a man who was remarkable enough looking to make you stop and wonder. He stood with bare chest and legs and a mane of white hair. He talked about ‘contrology’ and said he based his method on the baby and the cat. I had never had a baby or a cat, but evidently my intuition said, ‘Go to Joe.’”
That same year Bowen bought her first cat. She has had more than 50 cats throughout her life, and all of them are buried on her Connecticut property. “Cats are another of my life roots. In regard to Pilates, they taught me about release, which is as important an action as effort,” she says.After reading the newspaper article, Bowen began working with Joe and Clara Pilates. She continued at their New York studio for 6.5 years and then spent the next 7 years studying concurrently—but separately—with Bob Seed, Romana Kryzanowska, Kathleen Stanford-Grant, Bruce King and Jean Claude West. To this day, she continues her Pilates lessons on a regular basis with New York instructor, body worker and dance teacher Christine Wright, with whom she has been practicing since 1995. “We’re just a divine pair,” says Bowen. “She thinks up new things, and I’m always doing them. During all of my 53 years of Pilates lessons, I’ve never gotten bored because it is fresh every time. It’s a large reason why I remain vigorous in the work and why I am still coming into my body in new ways at 81. My body is always with me, informing me of better ways to do everything. The awareness of the body and breath that Pilates has instilled in me never ceases, even in bed at night, even when turning over in sleep, no matter what activity I am engaged in.”
She says she has learned something from each one of her many teachers. “I don’t do it like any one of them, but I take parts of each. That’s what a student should be willing to do. It is always delightful to see the work in a whole new way. When you get into your late 50s and 60s, it’s all about you. Everything is distilled by then, and there is no appetite to learn anybody else’s method or approach anymore. That’s because your own [method] has happened and something unique [within] has come forth.”
Personal Reflections on Joseph Pilates
Bowen, who began studying at Joseph Pilates’s Eighth Avenue studio when he was 76, says, “Joe welcomed everybody equally. No one person was better than the other. They [Joe and his wife Clara] were very democratic, very professional in that way. As long as you were honest in your desire and worked to be better, you were fine with him.”
Bowen says she always thought of Joe and Clara as a team and says Joe would have been “lost” without Clara, as “she kept the business going and was a great teacher.” Bowen remembers that Clara looked at people more as individuals than her husband did. “To Joe, we were an extension of his life’s work. He never bothered to learn your name, but he was supportive and affirming. He didn’t give full lessons anymore, but he would give us cues and lay hands on us when he saw where we could use his help. He was proud of us, like a father who had 150 kids,” she remembers.
Always the creative, intuitive maverick, Bowen says that she would often change the order of the exercises or add something new. “Joe would watch me and then say, ‘That’s good. Just be sure you are in the whole body.’ I think that is the genius of his method. It’s like a searchlight in an airport. There is nothing you do that the whole body isn’t watching and aware of. That idea, that requirement of teaching us to be aware of the whole body in every move, is pure genius.”
Reflecting on what makes a great Pilates teacher, Bowen says, “I think it is someone who has done the work on themselves and is still open to evolving that work. It’s someone who loves people or is very interested in people. You’ve got to have a caring heart and an open mind to be a great teacher.”She believes the best teachers must know the fundamentals and can be creative later in their practice. “Pilates devised such a safe series of exercises for every posture. His method is fundamental for any kind of activity, but you learn it—as I learned it—from many people.” In the end, though, she says that being a good teacher “is mostly about caring and doing your own work. It should be your own self-discovery that never ends. Your Pilates will evolve as you evolve. ” Look for the second part of the interview with Mary Bowen in the June issue of IDEA Pilates Today. The next installment will discuss the merging of her Pilates practice with Jungian psychoanalysis and how at age 70 she began exploring a new approach to Pilates. Bowen says teachers and students are welcome to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.pilates-marybowen.com.