What is Pilates?
Originally appeared in Holistic Resource, June 2009.
As a Pilates instructor, I am frequently asked, “Pi-lates…hmmm...was is that?” Many people have heard of Pilates (pronounced puh-la-teez)—some may have caught the Oprah show when she demonstrated exercises on a Reformer and a Cadillac—but few people know what it is and where it came from. What everyone can agree on is that the population of Pilates practitioners is growing fast. The Pilates Method Alliance, a not-for-profit professional organization dedicated to preserving the work of Joseph Pilates, estimated that in the year 2000 1.7 million people had at least taken one Pilates class. In 2001, this number grew to 2.4 million, in 2002, 4.7 million, and now, an estimated 11 million Americans have embraced the Pilates practice. There are 14,000 Pilates instructors in America alone. Pilates is here to stay for one simple reason: it works.
So, what is it, really? Pilates is a systematic approach to total mind-body fitness. Joseph Hubertus Pilates originally named his method Contrology (the science of mind control over muscles). The practitioner follows a prescribed system of exercises designed to progress in a seamless fashion advancing from one movement to another on the mat and on machines, which in the Pilates world are called apparatus. The main pieces of apparatus are the Reformer and Cadillac (also known as a Trapeze Table; a half-trapeze table is known as a half-trap, tower or wall unit). The equipment is designed to condition the entire body, using positions, movements, springs, and gravity to challenge the musculature in diverse ways, with particular emphasis on the deep layers of muscle such as the transverse abdominus and pelvic floor. The desired result is an energized, pain-free and strong body. Through correct repetition of exercises, one acquires coordination, natural rhythm, and complete control of one’s body.
The Pilates repertoire’s main focus is the core, also known as the “powerhouse” or abdominal muscles. Once the powerhouse is strong and stable, the practitioner can move on to peripheral parts of the body and more advanced exercises. Practitioners benefit from a new and refreshed core connection, which can correct bad postures, restore zest and vitality, and rid themselves of their chronic pain and weaknesses. Many people experience weight-loss, improvement in daily activities, agility, flexibility, balance, coordination, endurance, and athletic performance. Pilates can influence positive changes in self-image, maintain fitness throughout and following pregnancy, assist rehabilitation following surgery and in some cases, prevent surgery altogether. Pilates can serve a broad spectrum of the population since its benefits are not limited to the young, the super-fit, super-athletic, or super-coordinated. Joseph Pilates guaranteed the practitioner would have a different body after 30 sessions.
Born in Germany in 1880, Joseph was the son of a prize-winning gymnast. He rigorously studied yoga and anatomy as a child. By the time he reached adolescence, he had developed an immaculate physique and was posing for anatomy charts. As a German national living in England during WWI he was interned in an English war camp. It was here that Joe began devising his system of original exercises, boasting that his practitioners would emerge stronger from the camp than when they arrived. He became a quasi-nurse to his fellow internees suffering from diseases and incarceration. He began devising equipment to rehabilitate his peers, rigging apparatus from the bedsprings, inventing spring-loaded resistance training. In 1918, an influenza epidemic hit the camps, and the rest of the world, hard, yet none of Joseph’s followers perished.
After the war, he returned to Germany and began training the Hamburg Military Police in physical conditioning and self-defense as well as taking on personal clients. In 1925 he was asked to train the New German Army but declined, disagreeing with the direction Germany was headed politically, and came to America.
In 1926, Joe opened a gym at 929 Eight Avenue in New York City next to several dance studios and rehearsal spaces. George Balanchine and Martha Graham studied with Joe and sent many of their dancers to him for strengthening, balancing, and rehabilitation. From 1939 to 1951 Joseph and his wife Clara, a kindergarten teacher whom he met on the voyage to America, summered in the Berkshires at a well-known dance camp called Jacob’s Pillow. Here, he became more entwined in the dance community. Dancer/choreographers such as Jerome Robbins, Ruth St. Denis, and Ted Shawn required their dancers to study with Joe as well as incorporated exercises into their students’ lessons.
In January 1966 there was a fire in the building that housed Joseph’s studio. Joe forged into the blaze determined to save as much as he could. He fell through the floorboards and hung with his hands from a beam for some time before firefighters rescued him. Weakened after the fire, Joe passed away at the age of 87 in October 1967. Clara ran the studio for ten more years until her death in 1977.
Joseph wanted his method to be practiced all over the world and in every home. He believed children should be taught about the body and that information should be simple and accessible. Many of his early articles passionately describe animals and animal-like movement. He revered their simplicity and natural grace and believed humans could attain this refinement. He wrote in the opening paragraph of his book, Return to Life Through Contrology, “Physical fitness is the first pre-requisite to happiness. Our interpretation of physical fitness is the attainment and maintenance of a uniformly developed body with sound mind fully capable of naturally, easily, and satisfactorily performing our many and varied daily tasks with spontaneous zest and pleasure.” His method has been carried on by his first generation of teachers (all now in their 80s) Romana Kryzanowska, Ron Fletcher, and Kathy Grant. This first generation has trained a second generation and so on.
I first came to Pilates as a practitioner. A friend of a friend was getting her certification and needed bodies to practice on. I had been a gymnast in my youth, I figured, “How hard could it be?” I was impressed with how beautiful all the instructors’ bodies were. Without pause, I signed up. I discovered I loved the work and the results. Dramatic changes in my body took place after a mere seven sessions. My stomach was firmer and smaller, my arms and legs were thinner and more toned. In seven classes Pilates did what countless hours spent on elliptical machines, spin class, treadmills and sculpting classes could not. I was slim and toned. I didn’t put on bulk, like I had in my thighs from spinning and in my upper arms from lifting weights. The Pilates promise was true. I had a different body, a dancer’s body. Emotionally I was healthier, positive, and encouraged. I was finally happy with my body. I decided to become a Pilates instructor.