The name Mari Winsor is a Pilates prayer chant. Whispered with reverence, her name suggests knowledge, legacy and craft. It’s no surprise then, that those who trained with her often go on to build loyal followings of their own.
Take Nicole Stuart: Originally from Las Vegas, Stuart was an actress and dancer who met Winsor in LA in the mid ‘90s right as the Pilates craze really bloomed. Though she had little idea what the technique was, once she started learning from the master, she was fascinated by the complicated and challenging modality. Starting at the bottom rung answering phones, soon enough she was being trained by Winsor herself.
Then, she earned her first client and another, until eventually she gained her first celebrity client, Courtney Love, in 1997. Kate Hudson and the likes eventually followed suit, and now Stuart’s calendar is booked by a gaggle of eager devotees. Her connection to Winsor still firmly at the crux of her approach, she talks to SBS about that unique relationship and how to use Pilates to its max effect.
SBS: What is your approach to fitness in general?
NS: For me, it’s always been a more mental approach. Growing up, my whole idea was using exercise for my mind, more so than for my body. I suffered from depression, and I had a very dysfunctional childhood, growing up in a storm of chaos. So for me, every time I exercised or used my body, I felt less depressed. That was my philosophy and go-to: I’d feel like crap then go work out. Eventually, I saw this is as a career for me.
SBS: What did you think when you first encountered Pilates?
NS: Because of my dance background, I understood the placement and form. Without that form you can’t really create the work, and that stuck with me because I’m a big stickler on form!
At the same time, the first time I did Hundreds, I cried! It was so emotional for me. I felt like I had been holding a lot of energy and emotion in, and that breathing of inhaling for five and exhaling for five was such a relief for me mentally and physically. The challenge excited me.
The challenges were that, like a dance, I needed to learn all the intricacies. It’s hard learning the changing of the springs, what weight is on what and so forth. It’s technical and complicated. As much as it excited me, it frustrated me too. It took me a good two years before I truly knew what I was doing on the deepest level.
SBS: What’s your personal approach to Pilates?
NS: With Pilates you can get a full body workout. Unfortunately today the market is saturated with people training in things that are called Pilates that actually aren’t. I could have created my own version, but I hold Joseph Pilates’ work very highly. So I stick to that, especially since I myself am still working on things like the tendon stretch. There’s always something to learn. That being said, once you have a deeper understanding of the work, you can be more creative and add a bit more yoga, dance, or other tweaks into the work.
SBS: What is the most important teacher wisdom you gleaned from Mari?
NS:Mari always said it’s essential to keep people moving and not overcorrect the student. Especially if someone is not a dancer, if you say tip the tailbone and don’t work from your hip flexors while squeezing your heels and lifting into a c-curve while broadening your collar bone… it’s too much for most people! I try to give small corrections, and then when they get that, then I can move on. If somebody is advanced, then it’s not a problem. You can go to town!
SBS: How is your style different from Mari’s?
NS: Our styles are similar because she trained me and corrected me along the way. But I add different things in that are not Pilates. She is stricter than I am on that point. I’ll accommodate more exercises for someone who is hoping to work on their butt, or I’ll add in some fun Jane Fonda-style stuff, yoga or exercise tweaks. But that’s only for advanced clients who understand the work already.
SBS: What are the best Pilates do-anywhere exercises?
NS: Joseph Pilates always said if you did the Series of Five every day you’d maintain your strength and flexibility. I agree.
I also offer an iPhone app that separates workouts into arms, butt, hips and abs routines. They’re 10 minutes and a mix of Pilates and other modalities.
SBS: What stretches do you recommend for your clients before and after a Pilates workout?
NS: Before Pilates, first off, it’s important to do a brief warm-up. I’d suggest running or sprints for about a mile to be adequately warm. Then, I love the figure 4 stretch on your back. I also love the hamstring stretch on your back: Lie on your back with one leg stretched straight. Keep both hips on the floor as you lift your right leg up, reach up as high as you can, and pull the leg toward you. Use a strap if you need help. I’d also include a twist while lying on the back, pulling the leg across the opposite side in rotation.
Then after Pilates, I’d do that whole series again, perhaps opening the leg out to the side and across the body during the hamstring stretch this time. I’d also include a quad stretch: Lay on one side, bend your top knee, moving your heel toward your glute, and gently pull in with your hand, keeping your knees together.
SBS: What are your top tips for Pilates newbies?
NS: Make sure you always breathe. There are a few exercises that include specific breathing. But most of the time, there isn’t a specific breath pattern. Romana, who taught Mari, always said, ‘You don’t have to teach a horse how to breathe.’ Just breathe throughout unless the instructor gives you a specific exercise like the rowing series.
Also, some people get really frustrated, and they want to learn it all in their first session. It doesn’t work that way. You’re learning something new. Have patience. It took me two years to learn this. Perfection doesn’t exist.
Nicole’s LA Favorites:
Healthy Restaurant: Real Food Daily and Café Gratitude
Splurge Restaurant: Marvin for steak frites
Calming Activity: Buddhist chanting
Fitness Class: Irene Rubinsky’s Latin jazz fusion class at The Edge
Fun Activity: Hiking in Runyon Canyon
Nicole’s SBS Mantras: Be Mindful and Be Strong. Mindfulness is important so that you don’t constantly jump in without thinking. For every action there is a reaction. If you’re not acting out of an emotional crazy place, it’s smarter and doesn’t create chaos. Life can be hard, so be strong!