We caught up with the pioneering and inspirational Pilates teacher Shari Berkowitz whilst she was here in London. We were keen to discover what made The Vertical Workshop programme unique and so successful, and how Shari’s approach to teaching differed from more conventional approaches.
We began by asking Shari how she decided on the unusual name ‘The Vertical Workshop’. The reason, Shari explained, came from a practical source in that she was originally based in a medically zoned building in Beverly Hills which, for multiple reasons, precluded her from using the word ‘Pilates’ in her workshop title. At this stage Shari had to think out of the box to come up with an original title. Shari has never been the sort of person to experiment with lots of different Pilates techniques and approaches which she had always termed a ‘horizontal approach’ to teaching, instead preferring to ‘dig deeper and deeper’ into particular techniques. This approach she had always labelled ‘vertical’ which then got her thinking perhaps the term ‘vertical’ could also be seen as a metaphor for life, as in ‘staying upright or vertical in one’s life’. Thus the name ‘The Vertical Workshop’ was born.
So what exactly does The Vertical Workshop do? Shari is quick to point out that The Vertical Workshop is not longer a static brick and mortar studio, but the studio is now in effect the whole world. She travels extensively around the globe offering regular workshops, but also something considerably different. She offers one and a half year continuing education programmes in Pilates. These are punctuated with intensive three day seminars every four months, each one based in a different global location. The workshop then continues for another four months via intensive instruction online with students using a radical, new app. Shari also punctuates this with a monthly video conference for students to benefit from her knowledge and wisdom.
One of the things that makes Shari’s approach so different from other approaches to Pilates is that she refuses to see herself as the ‘font of all knowledge’. She explains that everyone can learn from other people and their experiences and knowledge is there to be shared. She goes on to say that she feels that continuing education in Pilates has become extremely disparate these days and this has made the whole area very confusing for many people. As a consequence a lot of people find it difficult to know how to apply the knowledge that they may have learned. This has become Shari’s rallying cry – how to apply and use the knowledge gained from studies in productive and constructive ways.
Given what she had told us, we were intrigued to find out how Shari first became interested in Pilates and continuing education. We discovered her route was an extremely unusual one. As a child and a teenager Shari had a deep passion for Physics and how the mechanical world functioned. At the same time she had a parallel passion for musical theatre, something she had an extremely successful career in. Sadly, however, Shari suffered a devastating accident whilst on stage which left her paralysed for some considerable time. It was at this stage, as she was slowly recovering through physical therapy, that Shari began to notice that bio physics and mechanical physics were two entirely separate things. Shari’s accident, however, had left her with a lot of questions which no one seemed able to answer and thus from here Shari became absolutely fascinated with how the human body functions and how we can better understand this process.
Does Shari have any tips for teachers based in continuing education? It turns out that she has many. Firstly, she says, ‘actually practice Pilates’ – it is amazing, she continues, how many teachers don’t actually practice themselves. Secondly, experience as many different styles as you can and don’t become restricted to one or two styles, in other words keep your mind open. By the same token you should also take workshops with as many different people as you can thereby further expanding your own knowledge. Perhaps most importantly, however, the goal of The Vertical Workshops is to develop critical thinking rather than adopting a blind acceptance approach to what you have been told – step outside of Pilates sometimes and read other materials. This way you will develop a much more rounded sense of self and this will feed back productively and constructively into your Pilates. Finally, Shari stresses once again the need to share your knowledge with others, especially those who are also learning to think critically.
What about the Shari Berkowitz outside of the classroom? Shari explains she is deeply in love with her boyfriend Joe who is a self-taught musician who has inspired her for many years. They live together in an idyllic spot just outside of Manhattan with Joe’s daughter from a previous marriage.
Shari’s approach to continuing education in Pilates may be very different to many other, more conventional, approaches, but as we found from the passion with which Shari speaks about her work and the techniques that she uses, it is safe to say that it stands at forefront of the field today and represents the future for education into Pilates.