An Exercise in Balance: The Pilates Phenomenon
“I must be right. Never an aspirin. Never injured a day in my life. The whole country, the whole world, should be doing my exercises. They’d be happier.”
– Joseph Hubertus Pilates, in 1965, age 86
Over the past 15 years, much of the developed world has experienced the explosion in demand for Pilates. Pilates is a method of exercise and physical movement designed to stretch, strengthen, and balance the body. With systematic practice of specific exercises coupled with focused breathing patterns, Pilates has proven itself invaluable not only as a fitness endeavor, but also as an important adjunct to professional sports training and physical rehabilitation of all kinds.
Widely embraced by the professional dance community during much of the 20th century, the exercises — “elephant,” “swan”, the language — “pull navel to spine, and breeaaaathe,” and the look — bright-eyed, refreshed, buoyant-without-necessarily-sweating, are now commonly found in fitness classes, physical therapy offices, corporate retreats, luxury spas and wellness centers in the 21st century. With the aging of our population and the increasing trend toward mindful, moderate health practices, Pilates is increasingly found with a wait list at the YMCA, and in your local public schools–shaping the fitness ideals of our next generation.
Practiced faithfully, Pilates yields numerous benefits. Increased lung capacity and circulation through deep, healthy breathing is a primary focus. Strength and flexibility, particularly of the abdomen and back muscles, coordination – both muscular and mental, are key components in an effective Pilates program. Posture, balance, and core strength are all heartily increased. Bone density and joint health improve, and many experience positive body awareness for the first time. Pilates teaches balance and control of the body, and that capacity spills over into other areas of one’s life.
Joseph Pilates, demonstrating the importance of his unique exercise equipment
Around 1914, Joseph Pilates was a performer and a boxer living in England, and at the outbreak of WWI, was placed under forced internment along with other German nationals in Lancaster, England. There he taught fellow camp members the concepts and exercises developed over 20 years of self-study and apprenticeship in yoga, Zen, and ancient Greek and Roman physical regimens. It was at this time that he began devising the system of original exercises known today as “matwork”, or exercises done on the floor. He called this regimen “Contrology”, meaning ‘the science of control’. A few years later, he was transferred to another camp on the Isle of Man, where he became a nurse/caretaker to the many internees struck with wartime disease and physical injury. Here, he began devising equipment to rehabilitate his “patients,” taking springs from the beds and rigging them to create spring resistance and “movement” for the bedridden. In a way, Pilates equipment today is not much different than that of yesteryear. Spring tension, straps to hold feet or hands, supports for back, neck and shoulder are as important now as they were then. Because of the remarkable nature of the equipment to both challenge and support the body as it learns to move more efficiently, the inimitably designed pieces truly act as a complement to the challenging “matwork” exercises.
While Joe was the outspoken force behind his method, his wife Clara quietly incorporated his concepts and exercises in ways that benefited more seriously ill or injured clients. Her approachable style and special techniques spawned a dedicated lineage of teachers whose work flows through and uniquely colors the landscape of the Pilates method today. It is perhaps because of Clara that Pilates is clearly recognized as a positive form of movement-based exercise that truly can be tailored to any level of not just fitness, but also of health.
Joseph Pilates, on natural movement and the period of time taken to study the human body.
First generation Pilates teachers, who knew Joe, maintain that he and Clara would be very happy and proud of the popularity and growth of Pilates. However, it is less clear how he might feel about the influx of “quickie trainings” available for would-be instructors wanting to be trained in a weekend or two. Joe worked at length with his own teachers, allowing them to assist and then finally teach after sometimes as long as 2 or 3 years of training and apprenticeship. He was quoted as saying, “Remember Rome was not built in a day.”, and “Patience and persistence are vital qualities in the ultimate successful accomplishment of any worthwhile endeavor.”
While excellent training programs exist in the marketplace today, some are clearly condensed and homogenized, producing less-than-adequately qualified teachers. Prices for classes range from $10-$20 for group mat sessions, to upwards of $50-$100 for one hour of one-on-one instruction utilizing the full repertoire of Pilates equipment. Comprehensively, competently trained and knowledgeable teachers are the essential element in realizing one’s potential as a client, and enjoying the process of learning Pilates.