The first-generation teacher shares her generous spirit and deep knowledge of the Pilates method, while colleagues and students reflect on how she has enriched their lives and their practice.
“Boundless energy,” “intense creativity” and “an enduring devotion to Pilates” are all phrases that Pilates professionals use in describing Lolita San Miguel. A first-generation master teacher, the 76-year-old San Miguel has taught and inspired Pilates teachers and students for more than 50 years.
“[I remember] when I opened the door to Carola Trier’s apartment in New York and was introduced to the Pilates Method. Carola was the first disciple of Joseph Pilates to open her own studio. Some of my colleagues were already working with her. It was like discovering a new world that I knew absolutely nothing about,” says San Miguel.
San Miguel, then a dancer with the Metropolitan Opera [ballet], had suffered a debilitating injury and was sent to Trier’s studio by Dr. Henry Jordan, a surgeon famous for treating dancers. “He said, ‘Lolita you don’t need surgery. But to maintain your strength and prolong your career after your leg trauma, I suggest you take Pilates,’” she recalls. This was in the late 1950s, and according to San Miguel, she trained as Trier’s client “on and off” for 7 years.
“Because I had been a client for so long, Carola said to me, ‘You are thinking of stopping dancing, and you love this work so much—why don’t you consider teaching Pilates?’ Through a New York career transition program for dancers, she was able to pay me as an apprentice and I became the only person Carola ever certified,” says San Miguel.
One of Trier’s assistants was Kathleen Stanford Grant, a first-generation teacher and a legend in her own right. San Miguel fondly recalls that during this period she and Grant became good friends. While finishing her Pilates apprenticeship with Trier, San Miguel told Grant that she did not know what to do with her training other than to incorporate it into her ballet teaching.
“I really didn’t want to open my own studio. And Kathy said, ‘Why don’t you go to Joe?’ And I said, Joe who? And Kathy said, ‘Joe Pilates.’”
San Miguel was shocked to learn that Joseph Pilates was alive and teaching in New York. “I thought he had been long dead in Germany. But Kathy said, ‘No, he’s three blocks away on 55th and Eighth Avenue.’” The same day, San Miguel and Grant visited the Eighth Avenue studio.
“The first person I met was Clara Pilates [Joseph Pilates’s wife] in her little white uniform and white lace-up shoes. She had a lovely sweet face with grey hair. Then Joe walked in, exuding the energy of a tsunami. He had never certified anyone. So when Kathy told him I had been certified by Carola, he seemed a little piqued at first, but we explained the process to him,” she remembers. San Miguel and Grant then applied to the State University of New York’s education department (division of vocational rehabilitation) to apprentice and certify at Joe and Clara’s studio.
San Miguel and Grant became the only two Pilates practitioners who were officially certified by Joseph Pilates. They received their certificates from the State University of New York on February 2, 1967. “I had had many years of experience with the Pilates method and was at the [Joseph Pilates] studio for certification, as was Kathy. We followed our own routine. I remember that Bob Seed and Hannah Sakmirda, [Joe and Clara] Pilates’s assistants, were always there. They answered whatever questions we asked, and gave us a little push and pull while Clara and Joe rotated in and out. They were all excellent teachers,” she said.
San Miguel has vivid memories of working with Joseph and Clara Pilates. “They lived very humbly, in an area adjoining the studio. While both of them were fabulous teachers in their own right, they had different styles, different ways of transmitting information. Joe always worked the whole body. He could look at a person and see exactly what [he or she] needed and adapt the exercises to get the results he wanted,” she explains.
Of Clara, San Miguel says, “She was probably a better teacher than Joe, basically because she had more patience. Joe was never big on patience. Clara understood the work and had a tender approach, less intimidating to most people. On his good days, Joe was delightful, and on days when he wasn’t feeling quite well—I call them his bad days—he suffered from periods of depression. He believed that his work had not accomplished all the things he dreamt of doing,” she recalls.
Joseph Pilates felt strongly that he was ahead of his time, says San Miguel. “Joe was a pacifist, a lover of nature. He truly believed that by [integrating] the body, the mind and the spirit, [human beings could make] the world a better place. He felt that a person’s posture, breathing, coordination, concentration, strength and flexibility, as well as the ability to relax, should all be part of a healthy lifestyle.”
Today, the Pilates world still faces many hurdles, according to San Miguel. Among the greatest challenges, she believes, are keeping Pilates growing as a method and ensuring that its teachers recognize new developments in science, especially those related to human physiology.
“Joe died in 1967, but life goes on—the work has to keep up with the latest developments. I think continuing education is an important key in order to train teachers who know what they are doing. Before you become creative, you must know your basic ABCs—you must know your Pilates before you start inventing or rehabilitating. We’re working with the human body, and therefore you have to know the human body. You need to learn and continue learning,” she says.
To that end, San Miguel, who has been certified by Polestar® Pilates Education and awarded a Gold certificate by the Pilates Method Alliance,® has developed the Lolita San Miguel Master Mentor Program in order to pass on her legacy. “First, you study Pilates and become certified—this is like attending elementary school. Then you work for a number of years with clients, implementing what you’ve learned.”
Meanwhile, she feels that good teachers should always be attending workshops, taking courses, reading books and advancing their Pilates study. “Once you have the proper knowledge and experience,” she says, “it is time to get a university education, which is the purpose of my mentor program. Pilates is a lifetime process of learning and growing. I feel that if you have somebody’s body in your hands, you have a great responsibility.”
Her dream of “passing on her knowledge to small groups of well-trained Pilates professionals” is being fulfilled through her mentor program. “There are about 80 of these wonderful teachers now, and in a year or so, there will be 100, which is my aim. They come from six continents and have bonded quickly. Pilates is the glue that brought them together. If you take my 200-hour program, it is because you’re extremely serious about the work,” she says. In addition, San Miguel is currently working on teacher-training manuals to preserve her knowledge in writing for “Lolita’s disciples,” as many of these practitioners call themselves.
San Miguel believes that the true Pilates spirit can best be described as one of well-being, of finding happiness in integrating one’s mind and body. “Let’s face it: no one who is sick is happy. Therefore, we have to find ways of keeping ourselves healthy and active.” She notes that the essence of the Pilates spirit is gained through persistence and discipline. San Miguel practices the method daily and has kept mentally and physically active all her life.
In addition to her significant work in Pilates, San Miguel is particularly proud of founding the Ballet Concierto de Puerto Rico and leading it as artistic and executive director for 28 years. “The key to my happiness is that I know I am performing a service that benefits others. Our greatest reward when we teach is when our clients look at us and say, ‘Oh, I feel so good. I no longer have pain,’ or ‘I feel taller’ or ‘I look much better and people notice.’ This is our reward,” she says.
San Miguel is a wonderful storyteller, and one of her favorites is about a woman who, during a workshop in Montreal, told her she was attempting to channel Joseph Pilates and had been unsuccessful. At first, San Miguel said, “I thought she meant swimming the English Channel. Then I realized she was referring to another type of channeling. What could I say? I told her to keep trying. On the last day of the workshop, I saw her in the corner of the room. She was waiting to speak to me while I was signing autographs. Tears were flowing down her face, and she told me, ‘You know, I was able to access Joe last night.’ I was a little taken aback. Then the woman said, ‘I told him I would be seeing you today, and I asked if there was anything he would like me to tell you? He said,’—the woman paused briefly and then continued—‘Just one word: unity.’ This impressed me, because we need more unity in our field today.”