Updated: Jun 21, 2020
To be honest, it is wonderful that so many people in the world know about the exercise method known as Pilates. Over the past 20 years it has become a global phenomenon. With that, however, there are many things people do not know about the method itself and its creator. In this post I would like to highlight a few basic facts that might not be known about Pilates. The goal of the post is purely educational and is intended to broaden the understanding of the simple history and practice of the method and hopefully encourage readers to further explore Pilates.
1. Pilates was created by a man named Joseph Hubertus Pilates.
Joseph Pilates was born in Germany in the late 1880s and came to the U.S. in the early 1920s. He developed his system of exercises over decades building both repertoires for mat based exercises and apparatus based exercises. The mat series is a dedicated series of 34 exercises in a specified order. The order was created with a purpose to achieve a specific effect in the body. The apparatus he designed and developed exercises on were unique and many. They include the Universal Reformer, Cadillac (Trapeze Table), Electric Chair (High Chair), Wunda Chair (Low Chair), Ladder Barrel, Small Barrel, Spine Corrector (Step Barrel), Bench Mat, Ped-O-Pul, Magic Squares (toe square, finger square, head square), Magic Circle, and Sand Bag (though there are likely many more). Each of the apparatus had their own series of exercises and are part of a whole system that integrates respectively. The overall system was created and designed to look at the whole body from the feet to the head and everything in-between.
2. Pilates was originally called "Contrology".
During the living time of Joseph Pilates he himself called his method the Pilates Method of Body Contrology. Contrology being the complete control of the body with the use of the mind. He laid out his philosophies and theories in his two publications called "Your Health" published in 1934 and then "Return to Life Through Contrology" in 1945. "Return to Life" is the treatise that includes his original 34 mat exercises that can be followed with his written instruction. The basic premises of "Return to Life" are based on Mr. Pilates belief that 'civilization impairs physical fitness' and 'physical fitness is the first requisite of happiness'. He believed that we are naturally entitled to pleasurable living which is impaired by our overtaxed nervous systems, unnatural physical fatigue and mental strain due to the conditions of modern living. What he believed in 1945 still holds true today with the state of living in our modern world of 2020. Mr. Pilates defined contrology as "the complete coordination of body, mind, and spirit......contrology develops the body uniformly, corrects wrong postures, restores physical vitality, invigorates the mind, and elevates the spirit". The method revolves around improving breathing function, blood circulation, and posture. If you are interested in listening to my audio recording of each chapter of "Return to Life" please visit www.pilatesstatenisland.com and click the Free tab and then Audio Recordings.
3. Pilates was designed for everyone, not a select or varied few.
Joseph Pilates designed his method for everyone. The common misconception that it is for dancers or women, is just that, a misconception. He happened to have his studio in the same building as George Balanchine and his dancers. Because Pilates had developed a reputation for "fixing" injuries he became a go to source for the shared occupants of the building and as many famous and well-known dancers had great success with contrology they later carried on the work. The clientele that Pilates worked with ranged from homemakers to boxers, medical doctors to actors, lawyers and business men to dancers and athletes, and everyone in between. His clientele was a strong mix of both men and women of all abilities and professions. For any guy reading this blog, it matters that Pilates was created by a man and you can definitely benefit from practicing the method of contrology. I personally have a very large male clientele at my studio and in private practice because I speak about Joseph Pilates and his philosophies and method in detail. This is so often not known by instructors of the method that they are missing out on developing their client bases and understanding the roots of the method. It is also not generally known by clients whom once they begin to know some details about Mr. Pilates begin to have a context to make sense of what they are doing and why.
4. Pilates is about the whole body and not simply the "core".
Most common literature about the Pilates method all refer to the exercise system as a system to develop the "core" muscles. You see over and over again the "Pilates series of 5" abdominal exercises. The "series of 5" was not even developed by Mr. Pilates. The first 2 exercises of that said series are in his "Return to Life Through Contrology", while the next 3 were developed by one of his protege teachers as their own further interpretation of his work. While the development of the core muscles is inherent in the practice of the method, it was not the spoken focus of Pilates. He designed his exercises specifically for the uniform development of the whole body. When reading any material by Mr. Pilates or hearing stories from the elder teachers who worked directly with him, they often quote that Pilates is for the whole body. The method takes the whole body through a process of tension and relaxation of the muscles with specific breathing to achieve the best results. He states in his writing that it is a process to achieve total coordination of the body and mind but to continue to practice each respective exercise and to give it time because "Rome was not built in a day and that patience and persistence are vital qualities in the ultimate successful accomplishment of any worthwhile endeavor". In order to "Return to Life" we must awaken every dormant cell in our bodies through our breathe and contrology exercises. And, according to Pilates we are only as old as our spines. "If your spine is inflexibly stiff at 30, your are old; if it is completely flexible at 60, you are young".
5. Not all Pilates is Pilates.
Ok, so all Pilates is created equal, right? Wrong. Then, any kind of Pilates is better than no Pilates, right? Maybe. Here is the thing. There is the method of Pilates body Contrology created by the man Joseph Pilates, then there is what most people teach as Pilates in today's day and age often influenced by individual adaptations of the method, based on personal experiences and/or other knowledge and education infused into the so called "Pilates" work. There are silly mini wars within the community about who is right and who is wrong and who knows the method and who doesn't and who teaches the method and who doesn't. I defer to elder Kathy Grant here when she told me upon the publication of a book about Pilates many years ago, "There is the work of Joseph Pilates and then there is everything else, and people need to say "this is my interpretation and this is Joe's exercise". It was a pet peeve of hers. The problem is, she was able to clearly make the distinction between her work and the work of Mr. Pilates because she worked directly with him. We are so far removed from his his work today and there are so many adaptations and interpretations that many don't know what is 'authentic' and what isn't in the teachers world, let alone in the public. This is not to discredit effective and creative adapted "Pilates based" exercise, but it is to highlight that there is a clear and real difference between the archival work of Joseph Pilates and much of what is called Pilates today. Everyone who is interested in the Pilates method of exercise should first read "Return to Life Through Contrology". This is the basis of the method and shows the original 34 exercises of the mat work designed by Joseph Pilates himself. I have personally been teaching mat work based on his direct writing for the past 20 years (despite what I learned in my original training program). My personal interest has been in archival Pilates material for my entire career. For those interested there are now resources available for people to try to learn more about the source and original exercises and apparatus as designed by Mr. Pilates himself. I am not a paid affiliate of the group, but rather an archival junkie of sorts and as such I highly recommend looking into "The Pilates Source", for those interested in archival apparatus material and history once you have read or re-read "Return to Life Through Contrology" and "Your Health".
If you are interested in beginning a home Pilates mat practice you can visit www.pilatesstatenisland.com and become a virtual subscriber. The "Contrology" monthly subscription offers unlimited pre-recorded mat classes and the "Return to Life" monthly subscription offers unlimited pre-recorded classes plus all in access to the virtual Live classes that are offered each week. FREE classes are offered under the "free" tab 😀.
The author's personal areas of expertise in promoting personal health and wellness are as a proponent and teacher of the works of Joseph Pilates, as a Reiki master healer, and as a natural gourmet chef. (www.pilatesstatenisland.com)