Tune in for the second half of my conversation with Sonja R. Price Herbert about all things Pilates. She shares her perspective on classical Pilates, Joe's legacy, what makes a good Pilates teacher, and what she wishes she knew when she started her Pilates journey more than 13 years ago. Be sure to listen to the first part of our conversation over on Pilates Teachers' Manual here: *http://bit.ly/PTMs4e1*
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For nearly a decade, after shifting from a solid career in social work to a deep professional commitment to fitness training, Sonja has devoted herself to teaching classical Pilates and integrating it with her clients' fitness and athletic goals. Holding a variety of Pilates certifications, including the comprehensive classical intensive training completed in 2008, Sonja also is certified in TRX and Kettlebell instruction.
She is also the founder/creator of Black Girl Pilates which is a platform highlighting/supporting Black/Afro Latina Pilates instructors and Black Girl Fit & Well - a platform designed to curate health/wellness events, workshops, conferences representative of Black women and in 2020 co-founded Melanin Brothers of Pilates with seven Black male identifying Pilates instructors to highlight Black men who teach or take Pilates.
Sonja is committed to Black Female representation within fitness and improving the health/wellness in the Black community through writing, speaking and curating health/wellness events for Black women. She is also a very proud mom two adult children who are both competing athletes.
Find her on Instagram, sign up for her anti-racism newsletter, and check out her webinars and other offerings.
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Olivia: [00:00:00] Hello and welcome to Pilates Students' Manual, a podcast helping you get the most out of your Pilates classes. I'm Olivia and I'll be your host. Join the conversation and share your thoughts on Instagram at @pilatesstudentsmanual. You can support the podcast by visiting buymeacoffee.com/OliviaPodcasts. Let's learn something new.
Hello, hello everybody. Welcome back to the podcast. I am joined by Sonja R. Price Herbert, who is beyond amazing in every quantifiable and unquantifiable way. She is a Pilates [00:01:00] teacher, a writer, a classical rebel, an anti-racism educator, a community leader, a t-shirt creator and more.
And if you didn't catch the first part of our conversation, it's over on Pilates Teachers' Manual. But I'm so excited to continue talking to Sonja and hear about her experiences as a student of Pilates, as a Black woman taking Pilates classes, and now also teaching those classes. So Sonja, thank you for being on again. Once more with feeling.
Sonja: [00:01:31] Yes, this is, this is great. We were going pretty strong there and I was like, wow, you know, is it ending now? And I forgot. Oh, there's another piece of this. I get to keep talking.
Olivia: [00:01:39] Yes. You are such a pleasure to speak with, Sonja. Your stories are incredible and you're hilarious. I mute myself so I'm not like making noise, but I'm laughing constantly.
Sonja: [00:01:51] I am. I am pretty funny. You know, I am the middle of two boys and that means I'm the queen bee, which is wonderful. And both of my brothers are [00:02:00] absolutely hilarious and together we are our own comedians. Yeah. It's a lot of fun with those guys.
Olivia: [00:02:08] As a student of Pilates, you've studied and you primarily practice classical Pilates. And for people who may not know what classical entails, can you tell me a little bit about that?
Sonja: [00:02:20] Well, you know, what you're supposed to be saying is- that's why I'm such a rebel, I guess. What I'm supposed to be saying is that I teach Pilates the way that Joe taught it. That's what I'm supposed to say. That's the bullshit I'm supposed to tell you, but really, and truly, I just teach Pilates and it looks sort of like what you've seen in his pictures. That's basically that's all it is.
So I don't know where this contemporary classical bullshit came from. Regardless of whatever camp you're in, listen: [00:03:00] we all teach the roll-up. We teach leg circles, we teach rolling like a ball. We teach some sort of like ab series. We teach the teaser. There may be stuff in between that maybe I don't know, or maybe somebody else doesn't know because they learned from a different person, but we all teach that. So does that make us all Pilates teachers? Hell yeah.
It's just, it's amazing to me, you know, again, it's, like I said, you know, on your previous podcast, is just, things are so dogmatic, you know, let me not lie. I mean, I was also there too. Like I was just like, well, it's supposed to be this way. And I'm still, you know, deconditioning myself from that. You know, it's supposed to be this way and all these rules, blah, blah, blah, whatever, and all this kind of stuff like that. But the Sagittarius in me was like, no, this can't be it.
And that's something that I've said, even in my life and specific points in my life, how I talked to God, who I feel is a Black woman, and say, girl, I just don't think that this is it. This [00:04:00] cannot be all to my life. Surely, this cannot be it. And I was right. It really wasn't it.
Just like with Pilates, you know, this can't be it, there should be so much more to this than what I'm being told. And even in my certifications. Afterwards, I felt the beginnings of that, where I was just like, this can't really be it. There has to be so much more to this than what I've been told.
So I just started to kind of search myself. I did my own sort of independent study and like, looked at other teachers and found teachers that I enjoy looking at and some that bored the shit out of me, but, you know, I was like, all right, well maybe they have something to say, but I kind of did my own sort of study to see, well, there's gotta be something else out there. There's gotta be more to this cause surely this can't be it.
Olivia: [00:04:49] What did you find in all of your soul searching, Pilates searching and how does that change, maybe the way that you practice Pilates when you get to do it for yourself?
[00:05:00] Sonja: [00:04:59] That everything I learned was bullshit. I mean, not really, but that Pilates is not a, I mean, I'm going to use this word. Usually you say Black people are not a monolith, but Pilates is not a monolith either. I don't see Pilates is just like this one specific thing done a specific way only on this type of equipment, you know, all that kind of stuff like that. I don't see it that way.
Now, you know, are there fusions and Pilates based exercise methods and modalities like SLT and there's other things and stuff like that. Lagree. Yes. Those are fusions. Those are not Pilates itself. Right. I feel like they make that plain. We don't, we call it Pilates on crack, and I was like, stop lying. And that's not what it is. It's some fusion of Pilates and a bunch of other things. So just say that, you know.
But you know, that Pilates is what we [00:06:00] make of it, you know? So it's just like when you're teaching your students, like you're going to have a student who has lots of injuries. I'll give you a for instance. So I used to work with this- who I still keep up with her today. I used to work with this former New York city ballet dancer, like for many, many, many years ago. She's a therapist now. And her spine is completely fused from top to bottom.
So what does that mean? That means that she can do any forward flexion. That means she can't roll up. Nothing like that. Okay. That tells me what I can and cannot do with her, but there's so many things that I can do with her right now.
We were working on the short box. And the very first exercise for, you know, let's just use these words that people like to use- classical. The very first exercise you do is the hug or roll back or whatever they call it. It's so many different names. I don't know. And so that requires like a forward flex, right. And sort of like an extension [00:07:00] back and maybe further extension back. Right. She's not able to do that.
So I said, listen, you know, you can't flex your spine that way, but your pelvis can still move. Right. And she was like, You know what? It can. And I said, well, let's work on that. Let's work on just moving the pelvis because you don't want your pelvis to get stuck. You're just going to walk around like this. So that's going to be your round back. Right?
So we work on moving the pelvis, so it still can move around because you need it to move around. Cause otherwise, you know, you're going to mess up your hips and that's what we did. Some classical people or whatever they're called, they'd be like, Oh my God, that's not what- Shut up.
You give the client what, what they need. And sometimes you have to change things a bit. And they're like, well, you can take it on a different piece of equipment. Well, you know what, you're not in this room.
Olivia: [00:07:50] And that's not going to make her spine move. Like, it doesn't move.
Sonja: [00:07:54] Yeah. But it worked for her. You know, we did lots of things, you know, [00:08:00] we changed lots of things. Every student is going to be different. You have to find those exercises or sometimes you'll damn near create them.
That's what Kathy Grant did. She created a lot of stuff. She said, this is my stuff. This is Joseph Pilates. This is Carola Trier. This is that person, but it all works. And it's going to get you to this particular Pilates exercise. So this is what we're doing, right.
You know, she was almost kind of like the queen of that, her and everybody else, you know, even, you know, down through Ron Fletcher and, you know, he came up with the towel work, which I think is brilliant. A lot of people use the towels and stuff like that.
You know, there's Eve Gentry. I mean, she had stuff. Carola Trier. There's a Lolita San Miguel, you know, so they all had like these things that are, you know, incredible for the work, but they still teach Pilates. They still teach some little portion of Pilates. You know, Pilates is not a toy soldier that just walks from one end to the other, [00:09:00] you know. We're not a cult.
Olivia: [00:09:02] Yeah. I think it's super freeing as well to know that Pilates can meet you where you are in terms of like energy level. I know that COVID has, in like the loosest terms, thrown everyone for a loop, both, you know, studios and teaching virtually and, you know, teaching in person, but only one-on-one. And just knowing that, you know, if you're having a low energy day, you can do low energy Pilates. It doesn't need to be three roll-ups in three breaths, or it's not Pilates. It can support you. And the equipment is there to support you. And the mat is there to support you as well.
Sonja: [00:09:40] There's even like those things, like there's are schools of thought that say, you know, flow, flow, flow, flow flow, and you keep them moving and all this stuff. And then there's schools of thought where it's like Zen Pilates and you know, and all this stuff. And you know, you do all of this, like pelvic stability and that's all you do is stabilize somebody's pelvis every time [00:10:00] they come in.
And so I'm just like, no, it's all of that. That's the thing. It's all of that. Because you're going to have a client who you are going to have to do stabilization work with all the time. You also have to realize as a teacher, that they're not going to require that all the time and that you have to teach them how to stabilize themselves, because you're not with them 24 hours a day.
There's times when you know that student is going to come in and I will expect for them to be able to do it. You know, there's things that I've been working on with my classes, actually my classes and my privates, everybody kind of does a lot of the same things. You know, there's things we've been working on for months, cues I've been giving them for months. Sometimes I won't even give them the cue. And I was like, you know how I want you to find it. So find it, get there and, you know, and get going. Cause I can't find it for them. We can't find it for them.
[00:11:00] Our job is to, you know, give them a cue that will make something click. So there'll be like, yeah. Okay, I get that. You know? Okay. So if you get that, then remember that. And then when you're in somebody else's class that may not be as good as me, or maybe you are in somebody whose class, you know, but everybody teaches differently. So you know how to protect your body. That's my job as a teacher is to teach you how to protect your body for you. Not for anybody else.
So that's why I say, you know, Pilates is not in this bubble and you know, this is the only way you do it and there's no other way. And if you don't use this equipment, then, you know.
I mean, I have a student who is wonderful woman. She's one of them, probably one of my favorite students actually. I haven't seen her for months because, you know, COVID. She has 30 minute sessions. She's a very large woman. So I guess she would, you know, I don't know if she would describe herself as fat, but people would describe her as fat. So she can't fit on my Gratz reformer. [00:12:00] She can't. But I have her sit down on it though.
And I was like, we're going to use it. And we might use it completely different than what I've been told or expected to do. But, you know, I've had to use my imagination to give her the feeling of being on another piece of equipment. So it's not just Cadillac all the time. You know, I enlist her as, like I said, you're like my co-teacher. I'm learning things from you that I would never learn from myself or other teachers.
I learn a lot from my students. And so we've actually like we've made what I thought would be making up exercises and I name it after her, like, this is our exercise, you know. If we ever to start, you know, decided we want to trademark and we'll make money together, you know, and all this kind of stuff.
And, um, you know, they remember that, they appreciate that, you know, they like it. They're like, wow, I'm involved in my session and she truly cares. I don't think any of my [00:13:00] clients can never say that I never cared. All the way back to even my social work clients, even the most difficult, none of them can ever come back to me and say that I did not care for them at all. Genuinely that I didn't care. None of them. Yeah. If they ever do, then they're lying.
Olivia: [00:13:18] They're lying.
Sonja: [00:13:19] Yes.
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What do you wish that you knew about Pilates when you started doing Pilates that now you know, maybe as a teacher or just as a mover with Pilates for 13 years?
Sonja: [00:14:35] Oh, there's so many things. Um, The first thing that I'd say that I wish that I would have known initially was that there was a Black woman who actually was key and important in the Pilates industry.
And that I would have gotten to know her because she was still alive at that point. I would have gotten to experience her. And that someone would have sat down with me and told me like, Hey girl, let me tell you. You know, like, we have a [00:15:00] history and here it is. That's something I wish, I would've know, as a Black woman, that Kathy Grant was as brilliant and amazing as she was, and that she was around for me to meet her.
Other things I wish that I would have known: I don't know if this was something that was necessarily told to me, maybe it was expressed like an underlying kind of thing. That Pilates is not for dancers, strictly for dancers. There's no first position, second position. There's none of that stuff. There's no arabesque.
You use terms that your client can relate to. So if your client is a construction worker and you know, you want to relate a specific exercise to something that they do that looks similar. Then you can say, Hey, you know how you, when you do this and they're like, yeah, I get that. You know, or even if it's a football player, same thing, you know, when you do this and this. Oh yeah. I kind of get that, you know. Same thing with dancers, you know. You [00:16:00] know, when you do da da da da and they're like, Oh yeah, I kind of get that.
Pilates is not a dance thing. And I always felt like you had to like present this sort of, you know, dancer like movement and whatever, and all this stuff. And so I kind of tried to put that into my Pilates when that's not what it was about.
It's exercise, folks. That is exactly what it is. It's completely exercise, has nothing to do with dancers, other than some of y'all teach it. And that's it. That's, that's all it is. Has nothing to do with y'all. Y'all want to take it over, but that has nothing to do with you. The man, probably he might've even danced at his wedding. I don't know. You know, that just wasn't his thing. He just happened to work with, uh, you know, a bunch of, you know, prominent dancers and that's great. And many of the elders were dancers of some sort, you know, but that doesn't mean that he developed it for them.
Olivia: [00:16:51] I wish like maybe in fan fiction or like spinoff TV series of this universe that it's like, what if like hockey players where [00:17:00] like the Pilates people. Like, Oh, it's just like, that's who, that's who Joseph was teaching. Or football players or that, like, what if, what if construction workers became like, you know, they've got construction worker injuries, they go see Joe, and how would we, you know, talk about exercises differently?
Sonja: [00:17:17] It would probably be completely different. It would definitely be completely different. And I can't tell you how many students have come to me and, you know, and say it's for dancers, right? And I was like, no, it's not. You're a dancer, right? Nope. Not, I mean, in the club, but I mean, no, you know, but no, it's not.
By promoting that kind of thing or that kind of language that excludes a lot of people. So you feel like, you know, if you never danced before in your life, does that mean like, Oh, well I would never, you know.
And I've even had dancers come in and say, you know, well, I'm a dancer, so. And I would be like, okay, and what do we- and what? And they're like, well, you know, I kind of know [00:18:00] some of the movements and I was like, No, what you do is dance. What I do is teach exercise. Those are two completely different things. This is, you're not coming- I'm not going to teach you choreography and you're gonna go out and perform it. That's not, we're not here for performance.
Now are we here for, for you to learn how to perform better? Yeah. But this is not a performance for which people pay to see you on stage. That's not what we're here to do. And so, yeah, that's, that's the thing I wish that I would have been told.
Also that you're damn near going to be broke trying to teach Pilates. That is not, not that it can't be lucrative. I think that it can, but you know, there's, it's almost, you know, Pilates has kind of become a little Hollywood to me.
You know, there's certain teachers who are just really out there and they're, you know, they got their books and their workshops, and everybody wants to bow down to them and put their face on a t-shirt and you know, all this stuff and, you know. Or they want to be the next, [00:19:00] the next elder or whatever.
And, you know, just like there's only going to be one Michael Jackson, one Prince, you know, one Michael Jordan, one Serena Williams.
There's only going to be one Joseph Pilates. There's only gonna be one Romana. There's only going to be one Ron Fletcher, one Jay Grimes, one Kathy Grant, one Eve Gentry, one Mary Bowen, one Lolita San Miguel, you know, one Carola Trier. There's only going to be one of them. And that's it folks. Sorry.
I mean, it's great, you know, and wonderful for what you're doing, you know, and stuff like that. But I didn't- I wish someone would have told me that I was walking into some Pilates Hollywood, that I would have to deal with, you know, and listen to the bullshit that I listened to, or that I see online. That people were going to criticize how I perform an [00:20:00] exercise. And that was going to be a regular thing, that people were just always going to be, have something to say about how I do it.
Yeah, the broke thing. I mean, you, you're actually not going to be broke. I mean, you're never, you're not broke until you just as like, it's just triple zeroes. Like you triple zeroes all the time. So you're not really broke, but you're not like you definitely not pulling in the dollars. Let's say that.
It takes a while to kind of build that. It takes a moment to build your clientele, to figure out who, who your clientele are going to be. And that's another thing that I, you know, the mentorship program that I talked about with the Black instructors, as you know, I, I said, not only should you figure out whether you want to teach it or just do it, but if you decide that you want to teach it, who do you want to teach it to?
That's something that I was never, I never thought about. I mean, well, you know, and no, that's not true. I did know that I wanted to specifically teach to the Black community. I knew [00:21:00] that. And I did, you know, I did in some capacity, I do so more than I ever have in my career now because of Black Girl Pilates and Melananin Brothers of Pilates.
You know, that Romana is not the queen of Pilates. Now, I don't think any, I don't think very many people are going to tell me that. But that she's not. And again, it's no shade, that she is not, she is not classical Pilates.
That all of the elders, they were are open door to Pilates. And although we have extensions of them- you know, there's three women in my group who worked with Kathy Grant for a very, very long time time. I mean, for a couple of decades, you know, and that's, that's our connection to her. You're going to have those connections to those people, but no, none of them are the end all and be [00:22:00] all. None of them are. They're all, they're all the answer that we're looking for in Pilates, all of them.
Olivia: [00:22:08] And one last question for you today. And that's what do you hope that your students take away from sessions with you or class with you? What do you hope that you can impart to them about Pilates or life, I'd say?
Sonja: [00:22:26] Hmm. I guess there's so, so many things. And I tell them, you know, I tell them all the time, you know, what kind of things I guess I would like to see, but it's more important to me, you know, what they see.
For instance, I will, you know, I have a client that I've been working with for a while and, and, not for a while, but a couple months. And you know, she's changed tremendously and, you know, I've, I've told her, I was like, you know, let me tell you things that I see. But, you know, I said, not that it's not important, I said, but it is more important what you see and how [00:23:00] you feel.
Because I mean, I could be telling you, you look great, but you know, maybe you don't really feel it and maybe you're still not feeling it. And so that's important to me that they're able to express that yes, I have seen a change. Yes, I feel better. Or I feel like, I feel like my confidence level has increased in Pilates.
Because that's what we're doing in Pilates, is we're building folks confidence level. So if you, when you think of it from a, from the perspective of posture, right? So your posture tells you about your confidence level.
So if you're just kind of like closed and all that kind of stuff like that. And I mean, you know, there could be other, you know, circumstances behind that, but, you know, for your fairly healthy person who doesn't have, you know, any major spinal stuff, You know, if they're, you know, very kyphotic and things like that, rounded shoulders and stuff like that, there is a drop in the level of confidence.
[00:24:00] And so when someone starts to build that strength, the strength of their foundation, right. Then the confidence level builds, right. And you stand up straighter, you know, because you feel better about yourself or, you know, you've accomplished something in Pilates. And I want them to walk out feeling like they've accomplished something.
So I always try to give them positive thing that they did, you know, or I thank them for, you know, helping me make up this one exercise that, you know, we thought, well, let's just make this up. I think let's try it. You know, I let them be a mad scientist with me. I want them to walk out feeling like they were, you know, they were just as much a part of the session as I was, and that they're not just lying there on, you know, or sitting or, or whatever. They're just that, and then that's it.
I want them to also remember me, you know, when they think about Pilates and they're, and you [00:25:00] know, how their bodies have changed and, and things like that.
Olivia: [00:25:04] I think they will, Sonja. You have that effect on people, I think.
Sonja: [00:25:09] Well, I try.
Olivia: [00:25:10] You're changing- no, you're changing lives and you're changing it through Pilates, through your anti-racism work, through your continued advocacy for the Black community, for the fitness community and for Pilates, the industry, to just do better and be better all the time.
I am so thankful that you were able to come on today. I know we went like way over. I apologize for taking all your time.
Sonja: [00:25:34] This was actually fun. I liked it.
Olivia: [00:25:36] Thank you. Thank you so much for all the work you're doing and for sharing all of your stuff with us. Thank you.
Sonja: [00:25:43] Thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure.
Olivia: [00:25:46] Thanks for tuning into this week's episode of Pilates [00:26:00] Students' Manual, a podcast helping you get the most out of your Pilates classes. Be sure to check out the podcast Instagram at @pilatesstudentsmanual and subscribe wherever you're listening. Interested in teaching Pilates too? Check out Pilates Teachers' Manual, available everywhere you listen to podcasts.
I hope to see you next episode. Until next time.