Joseph H. Pilates drew on the best of both Eastern and Western philosophies of exercise. From the East he borrowed mind-body connection, contemplation, relaxation. From the West he borrowed body conditioning, athleticism and intensity of movement. It is the blending of these two approaches that makes his method one of the most popular in the world today. Pilates is the perfect antidote to the times we find ourselves in.
Born in 1880 near Dusseldorf, Germany, Joseph Pilates had been a sickly boy. He suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever and his keen interest in body conditioning were part of his personal quest to solve his own health problems. When World War I broke out he had been living in England, and because of his nationality he was interned on the Isle of Man. Today the folklore on ‘Uncle Joe’ has created its own momentum and anecdotes; how he became a nurse in the camp and treated inmates, some recovering from war injuries, using ropes, pulleys and bedsprings – anything he could get his hands on. Apparently, everyone in the camp, guards and prisoners, was doing his exercises.
He was ahead of his time when he brought his ideas on body conditioning and rehabilitation to America. Joseph Pilates immigrated to New York in the late 1920s and with his wife, Clara, a nurse he met on the boat to America, opened a studio on Eighth Avenue in New York. Their first clients were from the boxing and dance community. Today, Pilates classes are offered everywhere, from the local Y to online forums.
The Basic Principles of Pilates
I outlined a list of Pilates principles in my first book, Pilates on the Ball. These fundamental ideas mean as much to me today as they did when I first learned about Pilates in the late 1990s. Probably more, as I have since seen how this work can play out in people’s bodies and in their lives.
Some teachers list postural alignment as the number one Pilates principle. Faulty alignment affects breath, posture and movement. If the muscles and bones of the body are out of alignment then the whole structure is affected. This is why the start position is as important as the exercises. Regular workouts help. If you practise Pilates often, you’ll learn to identity where your body is at all times: if your pelvis is in neutral or not, if your spine is maintaining its natural curves. Bad posture and slouching, in life as in exercise, cause extra wear and tear and stress to the discs and ligaments.
Another key principle of Pilates is concentration, the awareness that allows you to focus the mind on what the body is doing. Carve out time for yourself: a quiet decluttered space helps create the level of concentration needed. This is why I don’t work with music or encourage students to do Pilates outdoors, where there are more distractions. Remember, you are using the mind to re-educate the muscles, and you should be totally present with the body at all times during this work.
When Joseph Pilates and his wife Clara set up the first studio in New York City, he called his work Contrology, an indication of how important the principle of control was to him. The mind/body connection is very powerful. Even small conscious moves can be significant and lead to inner shifts. Pilates is mental as well as physical work. The aim is to link the mind with the body and ensure that the movements are precise – exact and economic, and not careless or sloppy.
Joseph Pilates saw the abdominal area and the core as a physical, gravitational center as well as a spiritual or mental one. He believed that all movement should be initiated from the powerhouse, or center. The stronger the powerhouse, the more effective and efficient the movement. Moreover, when the abdominal muscles are strong, they keep the spine properly aligned and support and distribute the stresses placed on it. The process is called centering. Centering or ‘to work from a strong core’ means not only strengthening the abdominals, but finding your own spiritual or emotional center. Many students who come to mind-body exercise classes like Pilates seek physical conditioning, but what they can also gain is a way to find inner calm.
Breathing/ Flow/ Stamina
Proper breathing is fundamental to this work (for more on breathing, see my September 9th blog). It replenishes the body, and helps to organize the posture of the skeleton. It also allows for a flow of movement that is as beautiful to watch as to perform. Eventually, as we master the exercises, one movement flows smoothly into the next. Finally, and only when we are ready, do we add in more resistance so that stamina can be built in the body. We create more challenge, but never by sacrificing form or technique. Watching a Pilates class, it’s easy to see why the workout is described as a dance on mats.
Relaxation is built into a Pilates workout by use of ‘breathers’. A breather is a mini-break, a brief release from effort and exertion. In Pilates we use breathers as transitions—a mindful pause– between one movement and the next. For example, we have just finished a series of spinal extensions– lying on the belly and lifting the upper body a few inches up from the mat—when we sit back on our heels in the Shell stretch. The Shell is one of many breathers, a moment to focus on the breath and the body. For five or six seconds, we regroup and recharge, to get ready for the next exercise.
Many teachers start and end each workout with a relaxation position that can be held for at least five minutes, (longer is better). This is a time to tune into the body and the breath, allow the mind to calm down, and focus on the different areas of body weight: head, ribcage and pelvis. Encourage the body to sink into the mat. Allow time for the spine to release. Needless to say, the relaxation at the end of a workout will feel different from the one at the beginning.
One more thing. Since we’re talking about how to relax the body and not to overwork it, let’s highlight a key difference between Pilates and other workouts: the number of repetitions. Joseph Pilates did not believe in overworking the body and neither should we. A Pilates class is the opposite to a boot camp workout or even an ordinary gym class in this way: we often do far fewer repetitions. This is an intelligent workout. Often only six to eight repetitions are recommended. The minute we feel we’re losing form, we close down the exercise.
In a nutshell, these principles are the bedrock of Pilates. Hopefully these goals will stimulate and challenge us all to keep physically active as we age. The last words go to Joseph Pilates: ‘Physical fitness is the first requisite of happiness. Our interpretation of physical fitness is the attainment and maintenance of a uniformly developed body with a sound mind fully capable of naturally, easily and satisfactorily performing our many and varied daily tasks with spontaneous zest and pleasure.’ (Return to Life Through Contrology).
Joseph Pilates released two books— Your Health (1934) and Return to Life Through Contrology (1945), which was reprinted in the late 1990’s. In this book, Pilates described his system as a ‘complete coordination of body, mind and spirit.’ In both books, he expressed his distress about the health of most Americans. He urged people to take responsibility for their health and ‘return to life’ through exercise.