She may be the queen of the American Pilates scene, but Brooke Siler still recalls how intimidated she felt when she first encountered the Pilates stretching and strengthening regimen as a 25-year-old fitness instructor.
“I had been in the fitness world — both as a teacher and a consumer — for about 10 years when someone brought Pilates equipment into the gym and started teaching,” says the New York City–based trainer and author of Your Ultimate Pilates Body Challenge (Broadway Books, 2006). “I began taking classes, but I quickly recognized that I couldn’t do the exercises! I was so strong as a trainer, but I was completely inflexible, and I didn’t have the core strength to perform the movements. When I realized I couldn’t do it — that was all I needed. I like challenges!”
Before long, Siler fell in love with the Pilates exercise methodology — developed at the turn of the century by Joseph Pilates — and began studying with Pilates’s own protégé, Romana Kryzanowska, who was teaching in Manhattan at that time. Today, Siler is widely credited with helping to bring Pilates to prominence in the United States. She opened her own Manhattan Pilates studio, re:AB, in 1997, where she has taught and trained some of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
Celebrities, in fact, were some of her first clients. “Growing up in New York, you just end up knowing people who are go-getters,” she says. “I was recently looking back at my day planner from my early years as a Pilates instructor, and it was really funny because I was training about nine people a day in my apartment, and every top model at the time was a client — Kate Moss, Amber Valletta. It made me laugh when I saw it. I was like, ‘Wow, those really were the days.’” Siler has since trained Kirstin Dunst, Madonna, Maura Tierney and Liv Tyler, to name just a few of her high-profile clients.
The Pilates approach, which trains the brain and body to work together, and which emphasizes quality of movement over quantity, resonated with Siler because it engaged her mind as well as her muscles. “Pilates allowed me to use my mind to help my body get stronger and longer, and leaner and more vital. It was just revelatory,” says the 41-year-old mother of two.
“Concentration is the first principle of Pilates. I often liken it to rubbing your head and patting your tummy, while hopping on one foot and reciting poetry at the same time.” (For more on Pilates technique, see “Pilates Power” in the January/February 2007 archives.)
Pilates also made the 6-foot-1-inch Siler feel graceful for the first time in her life. “In my early 20s, I was lifting heavy weights, and I felt strong, but bulky. So to find this technique that engages the body’s core — or the ‘powerhouse,’ as we call it in Pilates — was so helpful for me. My body became alive. This immediate sense of grace overtook my body, and people thought I was a dancer just because of the way I was holding myself.”
As Siler saw her body change, she began to feel more empowered in everything she did.
Now, with a thriving studio and several books and Pilates DVDs already under her belt, Siler has instituted her own teacher-education and certification program. “I’ve seen plenty of schools be willing to sign their name to just about anybody’s certificate, and I really feel that this art cannot continue with the integrity it deserves if people can graduate without having demonstrated a real mastery,” she says. “This is a profession, not a hobby.”
And not an easy one. Pilates is often perceived as just another way of stretching, an easy path to a better body. Not so, says Siler. “Pilates — if taught authentically — is stretch, strength and cardio,” she explains. “You are working hard. It is athletic. You are changing your body.”
And for all its benefits, she notes, Pilates classes remain a bargain. “I always say to people, ‘A class costs less than a pair of sneakers; if you hate it, you can walk away.’”
Siler herself has become a student again — this time of even more Zen-like pursuits. After having spent the last decade building her business, getting married and raising two young boys, ages 5 and 3, she realized it was time to focus on taking better care of herself from deep within — something that she hasn’t always kept sight of along the way.
She’s using kinaesthetic anatomy classes to relive the joy of being a student, learning to meditate to get in touch with her breathing, and working hard to take stock of her life daily. “I have to learn to balance because, as your body ages, even with all the working out, you do hit a turning point,” she admits. “And I’m really learning to breathe, to stop and really enjoy what I’ve created. I feel so blessed every day, and to allow myself to fully acknowledge and embrace that joy is ultimately my most important lesson.”
Go behind the scenes at our cover shoot with Brooke Siler.