The Path to Mastery

The Path to MasteryRecently I picked up a book recommended by Pat Flynn, my favorite internet business and marketing aficionado.

Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment by George Leonard is a wonderful read.

Leonard, a longtime practitioner and teacher of aikido, examines the various paths to mastery via the study of a martial art. He defines mastery as “the mysterious process during which what is at first difficult becomes progressively easier and more pleasurable through practice.”

It brings rich rewards, yet is not really a goal or a destination but rather a process, a journey. We call this journey mastery.

The path to mastery, Leonard asserts, “is available to anyone who is willing to get on the path and stay on it,” though they must battle against our quick-fix, instant gratification society for survival.

And in true nerd fashion, my fancy turned to thoughts of…wait for it…

the Pilates Method!

The words ‘mastery' and ‘master teacher' continue to dot the Pilates landscape.

But what defines a master?

Proximity to the source? Decades of study and experience? Increased market share?

What does it mean to aspire to mastery of the Pilates Method?

It is my belief as well that the true essence of mastery is in the doing rather than the arriving.

Any art form, martial art or physical practice develops over time. Skills are acquired, practiced and perfected. Layers of nuance and expression are slowly uncovered.

Veteran teachers continue to learn the work and perfect their craft over decades. They admittedly learn something new every day. There is no end point.

Jay Grimes describes the pursuit of Pilates:

Pilates is an endless journey. It can be a wonderful journey but it never ends.

It was Junghee Won who first described the Pilates Method as more akin to a martial art than to traditional exercise. In both disciplines one cultivates the skills of the exercises as a foundation perfected year after year in countless – nearly endless – variation. Mental and physical discipline are a requirement. Focus is imperative.

Jay also counsels the Pilates neophyte:

Forget everything you know about exercise. Pilates is different.

The Love of the Eternal Now

The path to mastery demands you make your peace with being on a plateau. If your practice is diligent, you will spend a good deal of your time there. There will of course be thrilling, heady moments in between when you have a surge of learning, followed again by a new, albeit different looking plateau.

Goals are important. But they exist in the future and the past…Practice, the path of mastery, exists only in the present. 

Take comfort in your continued practice as another level of understanding, another spike in your proficiency may be right around the corner.

The Path to Mastery

In Pilates, we routinely practice our series of exercises, plus additional exercises we add to address specific needs. Often we finish our workout with invigorating exercises that challenge and inspire us on our journey. These are the mainstays of our Pilates practice.

And then one day The Flying Squirrel appears. You do your best, learn a little bit more each time you visit…and then back to your practice vowing one day to return to our Flying Friend.

On the path to mastery every day may not be the Flying Squirrel. It may very well be about doing the Footwork on the Reformer as perfectly as you can today. I suspect there will be lots of Footwork on the plateau. Probably the Rowing Series too.

Getting on the Path

In his book, Leonard outlines 5 Key points to “open the door to mastery.” They correspond quite nicely to our particular Pilates path.

1. Instruction

“The search for good instruction starts with a look at credentials and lineage. Who was your teacher's teacher? Who was that teacher's teacher?”


Uh-oh. That's a big word. More on this delicate subject in a future post.

2. Practice

“At the heart of it, mastery is practice. Mastery is staying on the path.”

Of course, right? Your Pilates practice will be by your side always, a trusted friend. You own your workout and your own well being.

3. Surrender

(My favorite)

“The courage of a master is measured by his or her willingness to surrender…surrendering to your teacher and to the demands of your discipline. It also means surrendering your own hard-won proficiency from time to time in order to reach a higher or different level of proficiency.”

This one is tricky. True learners are not content with yesterday's experience of an exercise. The body is ever changing and the work changes as well. Let's nickname this one:

The Path to Mastery


4. Intentionality

“Character, willpower, attitude, imaging, the mental game, intentionality…however you look at it…is an essential to take along on the master's journey.”

The Pilates word for this is willpowerYou must set yourself to the task at hand. New habits are not easy to implement. That's how they came to be called habits in the first place. You must envision the change and will yourself to execute it. Those super challenging exercises are not simply going to happen to you…you've got to want to do them.

Hello, Snake/Twist…:)

5. The Edge

The fine art of playing the edge…involves a willingness to take one step back for every two forward, sometimes vice versa. It also demands a determination to keep pushing, but not without awareness.

Let's call this the Pilates version of ‘pushing the envelope'. Using your will, your practice, your surrender to work safely to the very edges of your proficiency. You've got the tools to challenge yourself to do an exercise that takes all you've got and that previously you found unattainable.

It is your hard-won skills, the fruits of your labors that will navigate you through the Flying Squirrel.

To be a learner you've got to be willing to be a fool.

Ultimately to be on the path to mastery you must continually be an 'empty vessel' in search of new valuable skills, ideas and experiences to feast upon.

In this way we become a perennial beginner and look on the familiar with an eye toward greater depth and clarity.

You may find yourself learning an exercise all over again in a wonderful new way. Recently, the Tower on the Cadillac and Semi-Circle on the Reformer reinvented themselves. I love what they've turned into.

Share a moment on your own path to mastery when you had to tackle an old exercise in a radical new way.

C'mon, you know I love this stuff. 

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  1. Excellent! Made me laugh, nod in agreement, and gave me a boost of confidence to continue on my own personal path. To know oneself is a necessary ingredient! Last week in my practice, the theme that most links with what you write here is being comfortable playing the fool. I call it, suspending your disbelief in order to take in new information which may at first seem contradictory to everything that you’ve learned so far (see my post in comment love for where that led me). Here’s to the ongoing practice!

    • Exactly! The concept of surrender is a big one that confronts me again and again on the path. I have to be willing to just forget the old way of doing an exercise – really toss that all away and begin again at the new place where I am today on the path.

      Usually this is a case of moving forward, but occasionally (Hello, Tendon Stretch…) you must go back to the beginning…and be okay with that. Surrender and playing the fool mix together for me. Thanks so much for reading and sharing your always insightful comments about your personal path 🙂 I always look forward to them!

  2. Andrea, loved this post! I always love to be reminded that mastery of a craft, art form, or Pilates is a constant journey of practice, study, self- examination, and joy. We never arrive, but are always traveling! Thank you for that!

  3. I am totally obsessed with your blogging! LOVED this post… #TheLoveofTheEternalNow

    • Thank you so much Barbara! I really enjoyed the book and couldn’t help myself to get all nerdy with it 🙂 #youareherenow #pilatespath

  4. This post was so well written. I think it will really encourage people to continue practicing their exercises. We all have an evil exercise that seems to challenge us, but the progress of that exercise is always rewarding. For me, open leg rocker really gets me because my hamstring flexibility but each time I practice and get a little bit closer I feel like it is a step in the right direction.

  5. Thank you so much Rachel, for reading and for sharing your lovely comments. Open Leg Rocker is my husband’s “favorite” exercise – he is reasonably flexible but he also has very long legs 🙂 Yes, it is my hope that Pilates practitioners and students will persevere and continue the long and rewarding path of the Pilates Method.

    Have a wonderful Pilates week!

  6. Love this, Andrea! It applies to just about everything in life. I’ve bookmarked it so I can pull it up when I need inspiration. Thanks for sharing!

    • Sasha, Thank you so much for reading! You know a sure sign of Pilates devotion/nerdery is the reading of Pilates blogs – LOL! So nice to see you yesterday at Vintage. Have a great holiday weekend and see you in June 🙂

  7. Feeling, as you just described in your reply above, Pilates devotion/nerdery; I’m really enjoying reading your blogs. I’ve ordered your poster. I’m watching classical DVD’s in my spare time (the time I’m not teaching, taking, or just practicing Pilates. I’ve become a bit obsessed. Or have I? Is this the road to mastery? Lol. Or just a love of Pilates?

    • Shirley,

      Thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts on your personal road to mastery! I find that devotion, Pilates-on-the-brain nerdery is so necessary on the path. All these components lead to the growth-spurt phase and those aha! moments that propel us forward in our practice. Thanks so much for your poster purchase too – very appreciated! Sounds like you are doing some quality independent studying in your “spare time” as well.

      Cheers to you!

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