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Pilates is a Many Splendored Thing: A Conversation with Karan Lee

For each trainer, practitioner or body worker, the journey to the practice is unique. Like many disciplines, Pilates can arrive at a point of necessity, of novelty, or of pure functionality. For Karan Lee, Pilates wasn’t chosen from a survey of exercise idioms, but discovered out of curiosity, and continually investigated and explored through a combination of tremendous perseverance, and a desire to know more about the mysteries of the body. The conclusions she has drawn from a more-than-thorough sampling of New York City’s Pilates offerings are unique, and her experience speaks volumes not only to the impact Pilates can have, but the strength required to benefit from it. How did Pilates first pique your interest? Was it something that you had always wanted to try, something completely new, or something that made sense for your body?

I have always wanted to be a runner, but each time I tried, I’ve injured myself. The last time was in the spring of 2010. Within a couple months of beginning a running program, I started to ramp up the miles too quickly. In my mind, if I was committed, I could accomplish anything. However, I could not escape the issues that would arise from extremely flat feet, knee misalignment, and tight shin and calf muscles. After awhile, each mile became more and more painful, until a stress fracture soon developed in my left tibia, ending my short stint as a runner. But why should I give up? And more importantly, why did I keep getting injured every time I started a running program? My questions and frustrations propelled me to read anything I could find about barefoot running, running technique, and foot mechanics. If I could find any possibility of healing my body and becoming an athlete, I wanted to do it. At the age of 31, I did not want to spend the rest of my life – like many years before it – sitting around while other people passed me by on the road, enjoying themselves in the motion of effortless strides.

Although I stopped running soon after, I continued to exercise several times a week, while making frequent trips to the physical therapist. In my journey to discover some type of exercise I could do while recovering from the injury, I took a Pilates class at the local YMCA. I had experienced yoga before, but what was Pilates? I remember sitting on a stability ball, with my feet planted on the ground. The instructor asked us to gradually put weight on our legs to stand up. The idea that a person’s bones align to do such an ordinary action made a lot of sense to me. I knew right then that Pilates was right for me, and that through the discipline I could learn to understand my body and how to move more efficiently.

What was it about Pilates training that made you want to keep investigating the practice?

I had suffered from many other conditions that prevented me from doing athletic activities over the years, including Morton’s neuroma, neuropathy, cervical radiculopathy, repetitive stress syndrome in the hands and wrists, cubital tunnel syndrome in the elbows, low back pain, and fallen arches, all of which were diagnosed during college. Doctors only treated my symptoms with cortisone shots, ultrasound, and heavy-duty orthotics. They never gave an accurate diagnosis of why I was having these problems as a young woman in the first place. But more importantly, they never gave me any prescription for exercise. I would ask, will I ever be able to run again or do other types of physical activities? The best answer I would ever get was a maybe, but that I would have to wear orthotics in supportive sneakers for the rest of my life. When I look back, I think I didn’t get many answers because the medical professionals I encountered didn’t really know how to help me.

So, as I started doing Pilates, I found I could do many exercises without getting injured, and that I truly enjoyed it. I found myself to be far more capable physically and kinesthetically than I could have ever imagined. Through Pilates, I began to find answers to the pieces of the puzzle. The whole-body exercises not only exposed various problems, including tightness, weakness, and overcompensations in different muscle groups that potentially inhibited full range of movement, but at the same time, promoted healthier patterns and expanded physical limits. I began to feel that a gradual mastering of the discipline would become a greater part of the solution than any drug, orthotic, or prescribed therapy I had ever experienced in the past.

I understand you came to Studio 26 through a KGB deal. What was it about the work you did here that made you (if it did) more interested in continuing your study of Pilates? Was there something specific about the space (literal or metaphorical) that helped inspire your interest?

In August 2010, I purchased the KGB deal for Studio 26 the day it went live. By that same afternoon I met with Whitney for my first-ever private Pilates session. It was a pivotal time in my discovery, because Whitney was so kind, non-judgmental, and at the same time, gave me the perfect exercise using a half foam roller to address my tight shins and calves. My first session at Studio 26 was so different than the Pilates that I had experienced at the YMCA, which was too advanced for me at the time and less supportive; I struggled through mat exercises such as roll ups and teaser, as I watched others in the class complete them easily. However, at Studio 26, I came to the conclusion that “This isn’t your regular pilates.” Whitney tailored the therapeutic session specifically to my physical issues, something I had never before experienced, and was always extremely encouraging. During that first hour, she focused more on what I could do more than what I couldn’t, and has continued along this vane while challenging me during all of our sessions in the past two years. She has a real gift for constructive encouragement, in seeing the moments when a person is moving in the right way, and using it as an opportunity to encourage functional movement, as well a very intuitive, sensate ability that helps her clients to develop their innate kinesthetic awareness. Not only that, but she helps people to feel good about themselves and what they have accomplished over time.

I think that many people have had issues concerning injuries and conditions that have not been addressed properly in the past by doctors and physical therapists, and it is hard to work with someone new, let alone to find someone who has an understanding of how the body and movement works. The spacious, beautiful, and well-lit Studio 26, with its state-of-the-art technology and Pilates equipment is the perfect place to find someone who can helpor give you a hard workout! And what about the simply stunning living wall?! Shameless plug … but Studio 26 is still, by far, my favorite studio to go to in the city. 

I hear that you have tried over 30 Pilates studios/gyms/programs in the NYC area. What were or are you looking for in sampling so many styles, and what makes you want to continue or come back to a certain form?

One way I could afford to do Pilates in NYC was to use the many deals that exploded on deal-a-day websites in recent times. Pilates is not the least expensive discipline, as many people know, but it certainly is worth what you get out of it once you find the right places to train. To me, each session, each new Pilates studio, would expose me to different styles. However, I kept going to different studios mostly to help me to obtain knowledge about the discipline, and to feel in my body what the Stott, Balanced Body, Kane School, classical, BASI, Romana’s Pilates, and West Coast approaches had to offer. I have and continue to consult many different instructors in my journey, looking for pieces of the puzzle to unlock the mystery of my biomechanical issues. I’m looking for flow!

What has made me want to continue or come back to certain forms? If my body feels good right after the class or session, and especially the next day; if the principles and/or methods of cuing help me to further understand how to move; if the instructor is encouraging rather than insulting—and believe me, that has happened more than once; if the methods are not automatic but based on science, experience, and creativity, I’m more likely to return as a student. Recently, an instructor asked me if it was really the style of Pilates or the instructor that keeps a client coming back. I think it’s a combination of both, and probably more on the side of an instructor’s personality. Ultimately, Pilates instruction that is based on solid anatomical knowledge and personalized translation of that information to each and every unique student, which helps someone to think about what they doing, as well as feel how they are doing something, trumps automatic teaching from individuals, schools and studios that overlook these aspects in favor of just doing the exercises. The Kane School approach is my favorite so far because it has allowed me to organize my body based on anatomical knowledge, and as I am a bit of a science geek, I love that. However, I think many different forms of Pilates are valid and I enjoy them for different reasons.

Whitney shared with me that you are a teacher in addition to your studies at the Kane School. Was there anything about your teaching experience as a schoolteacher that informed your choice to become a certified Pilates instructor? 

Currently, I teach English as a Second Language (ESL) in public high school and have taught in New York City and South Korea for the past five years. ESL teachers are mostly concerned about explicit teaching of English vocabulary, reading and writing strategies, and grammar, and the subject itself is very detail-oriented and tailored for students whose native language is not English. I think in this way it parallels Pilates instruction because ESL teachers often work on specific skills with small groups of students or one-on-one.

Early on in my Pilates journey I decided I wanted to get certified and teach Pilates. Whitney was very encouraging of that from the start. I am now four months into my certification at the Kane School.

What is it about Pilates that makes you want to teach it? 

Pilates can help people to have a focused movement experience that is both mental and physical. It can gradually help a person to become aware of how they do things so that they can correct certain imbalances or move in a healthier way. I also think that if I learn how to teach it, I will learn how to master it in my own body, and ultimately heal myself. I love to learn and I love to help others learn. I hope to teach Pilates to my students in high school because I feel it’s important in this day-and-age of processed food, inactivity, and budget cuts in physical education to get children moving more frequently and to develop better physical awareness at an earlier age. Maybe I’ll get my chance one day.