My Time With Deborah Lessen

Deborah Lessen has been teaching pilates for a very long time. My experience of her was only as an attendee of the Polestar Pilates Australasian Conference in 2010 but I was lucky enough to volunteer myself a couple of times in her workshops and felt completely at ease. I never forgot the speech she gave regarding the trademark case she was involved with and how inspired I felt by her fight for the broader pilates community. Deborah studied under the guidance of pilates elder Carola Trier and her beautiful studio space on Greene Street Soho has been operating since 1983. I wanted to spend some time with someone I considered to be of a traditional New York Pilates background but mentored by an elder other than Romana Kryzanowska.

It would be interesting for me to spend time with someone who has made pilates teaching their primary focus- both of regular clients and teachers. You see, a lot of the amazing teachers I look up to here in Sydney and more widely are also physiotherapists. I also wanted to spend time with someone happily operating out of a intimate setting rather than the operation of a massive studio requiring the management of many instructors.

When I arrived at Greene Street studio for my first private session, I was greeted with the warmest of smiles and a welcoming energy was obvious as I stepped into Deborah’s space. It was 8:30am and I had been off the plane less than 24 hours earlier- I didn’t want to be anywhere else! The pilates studio is on the far end of the amazing loft space with gorgeous full length windows across one wall allowing the light to stream in through the plants on the ledge. The rest of the loft is Deborah’s living space- admittedly an environment I find so romantic- Talk about a convenient commute!

My favourite apparatus is the trapeze table/ cadillac so I was very happy when we started there. Deborah’s table is quite different to any other that I had used in the past as she has them manufactured according to the table built for Carola Trier by Mr Pilates. The diameter of the push through bar was much larger changing the bio-mechanics of my hand grip. It didn’t leave me room to hide and really challenged the way I organised my shoulders through the movement (Check it out). I don’t know about you, but recently I’ve found the constant spring changing and bending over people has been quite taxing on my body and my shoulders have needed the attention to continue supporting me.

Not knowing too much about Carola Trier’s style of teaching I didn’t exactly know what to expect. The thing that I found different from the (limited) training I had experienced through New York style pilates in the past was that there was room for gentleness. I found that the time spent to really get the detail of the movement was greater and it made me feel that I was on the right track in my own teaching style.

The order of the repertoire chosen for me was the same for each of the three private sessions that I attended but the variations were added to as I progressed. While I don’t usually teach in this way, I enjoyed the opportunity to build a dynamic pace as I became more familiar with the routine. I anticipated aspects of the exercises I found challenging in the previous classes and found that I developed a strategy more quickly to overcome that challenge this time around.

Deborah’s choreography has you changing your position from supine to prone and back again a few times so that you never feel overly fatigued in any part of your body- as Joseph Pilates advocates inΒ Return To Life. It also challenges your mind as there is no time to get bored. We also used quite a heavy spring load compared to what I would normally choose for myself and I liked the feeling in my body. I felt strong and that I progressed quickly between the first and third sessions.

Footwork should make you feel whole.

The other thing that Deborah focused on during our session was the way I used my feet. I have always thought that the feet are pretty amazing but the way she activated my arches was fantastic- I don’t think I’ve ever felt my gluts so well during the footwork series prior to our classes! She challenged me with my understanding of the foot’s neutral position and the way I consider the foot during the weight bearing phase and when the foot is in the air.

I felt very lucky to observe Deborah teach. She gives her clients space to find the movement themselves and observes. She offers tweaks as necessary so that the clients really do drive their own session. The other benefit of a choreographed routine I hadn’t considered in the past was that challenging exercises are considered for every body. I was so happy to see some of Deborah’s older clients execute exercises like the long stretch quite well. Short repetitions, done often… Such a great way to boost strength and confidence.

So the three things I took away from my time at Greene Street Studios:

  1. Don’t be afraid to add load to my pilates regime and that of my clients. If we only bias our spring selection towards the lighter end of the spectrum we don’t get an opportunity to observe our compensatory patterns we would normally use in our day to day activities. When Deborah had me perform a side arm pull with the push through bar, my natural inclination to laterally flex my spine was almost instant and very obvious. This was then a major focus while I moved through the repetitions.
  2. Re-aquaint myself with the feet. Don’t forget the massive impact they have up the chain and USE THEM!!!
  3. Never underestimate the capabilities of your clients. Give them an opportunity to try some of the harder repertoire. While we all need to spend time on the basics and I will always love pre-pilates work as a warm up, sometimes the true work of Mr Pilates on the apparatus falls away. It is our responsibility as instructors to challenge ourselves and our clients not only physically but also mentally. Taking on something challenging and achieving it brings us a satisfaction that can only help us achieve the mind body connection Mr Pilates speaks of.


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