jo pilates

Joe Pilates: core values

It all began with a young man wanting to improve his own body. When he started seeing and feeling the benefits, he wanted everyone else to feel those benefits, too. Growing up in the late 19th century, Joseph Pilates was very much a product, and a chief proponent, of the philosophies and practices of the physical culturists of the time.

New technologies in travel and industrial production in late 19th and early 20th century Europe and America suddenly found large populations displaced from their rural background into a new environment — one not necessarily offering the physical, mental or spiritual benefits people’s former habitats had provided. The advent of the railroad and new media dissolved pre-industrial notions of time and space, uniting otherwise isolated communities. New industrial modes of production were defined as “scientific”, “progressive” and “universal” and new urbanisation required different skills than on the farm.

This new population of city dwellers replaced farming and fishing with labouring in a factory or slaving in an office job. The labourer was overworked by repetitive and arduous duties while the office stiff was chained to his desk and so lacked movement and physical stimulation. The benefits of mechanisation brought about a surplus of spare time spent in trains and automobiles. To fill all this spare time travelling, people needed something to do. Reading filled the void, so there was a corresponding surge in magazine and book production. Printed material, theatre, sports and photography allowed unprecedented voyeurism, speed and technological production. Yet it was also a time that saw its populace increasingly suffering from the effects of this new lifestyle.

Physical culturists strove to abate or eliminate these “diseases of affluence” and developed systems of exercise most commonly based on Greco-Roman ideals and aspects of physical training. Gymnasiums and military academies wholeheartedly took on these fitness programs, which consisted of various forms of gymnastics, weight-lifting, stretching, military training and calisthenics. Various systems became popular locally and internationally and also very profitable.


New York, New York

Joe Pilates immigrated to America from Germany after the World War I. He decided on New York as it was the place to go when you had an idea and the ambition to match. He took with him a profound knowledge of the body and its mechanics, gained through a voracious appetite for reading (his personal library contained numerous volumes on mental and physical health, anatomy, exercise and human sexuality) and study, but also through his personal experience.

His initial idea was to set up a studio near Madison Square Garden and involve himself professionally with boxers and wrestlers. He soon discovered that, while most people could benefit from sport, they could benefit more from corrective exercise.

“Sports are wonderful for the constitution generally but they are of little value for correcting what’s wrong with you. Corrective exercise is the only way to build a beautiful, strong, youthful body. The doctors back us up in this.” — Joseph Pilates, Reader’s Digest, 1934.

This philosophy had been hard won in the rigours of a POW camp.


Lessons of war

As far as we can tell, Joe Pilates had an active childhood but one that was plagued by rickets and asthma and he began his journey towards becoming a physical culturist spurred on by these limitations. By his own admission, he had plenty of time to observe animals and his fellow children at play. It was this daily observation that sparked his keen interest in bodily mechanics. Years later, travelling as a circus performer, he devised a set of exercises that would help relax him after an arduous day. These exercises, based on his knowledge of natural movement, formed the basis of his body of work.

Pilates’ circus troupe was travelling through England when WWI broke out and he and his fellow band of entertainers were imprisoned in a POW camp on the Isle of Man. In the camp, the principles of Contrology were made known to him. He and the other inmates became slowly demoralised and dejected by the monotony of rationed meals, stark surroundings and nothing to look forward to each day except an occasional walk around a bare courtyard.

During some of these walks Pilates noticed the prison’s other inmates of the four-legged, feline kind. Although skinny and poorly fed — just as the human inmates were — the cats remained ever alert, bright-eyed and in top shape despite the terrible living conditions. How could this be? At once curious and inspired, Pilates devoted his time to studying and analysing their movements with a view to emulating their natural and instinctive motion.

What he discovered was life-changing. When not hunting or sleeping, with nothing else to distract them, they would stretch. Stretch twist and turn; and stretch again — up, down, undulating and rippling their muscles, balancing and sharpening their claws, constantly keeping their bodies at the ready. Inspired, Joe began devising an orderly set of exercises that would stretch human muscles in a similar manner but with the unique aspects of the human physique in mind.

He taught these stretches to anyone who was willing to try them and, apparently, those inmates who did left the POW camp in better shape then when they entered. Pilates also claimed those same inmates were left unaffected by the great influenza epidemic that engulfed Europe after the war.

These stretches, balances and “controls” on a mat formed the basis of his work. Until his death in 1967, he continually refined his method and preached the benefits of Contrology, a decidedly Germanic nomenclature coined in the early 1900s. Joe claimed Contrology was a comprehensive system of physical culture presented as a new form.

His emphasis on good circulation, nerve force, balance with nature, high abdominal strength, digestion, form and function and health was in line with the principles of other forms of physical culture expounded by Sandow, Ling, Macfadden and Hackenschmidt — but with some important differences. Pilates’ over-arching focus was to develop not only strong but flexible muscles, and in particular the health and suppleness of the spine.

Pilates believed there was no need to lift weights or perform haphazard calisthenics. He advocated performing most of the exercises in a reclined or seated position so as not to stress the organs or the joints of the body. Each movement was to be performed under total control of the mind for as few repetitions as necessary. The reasoning behind this was that this focus on the mind yielded superior, proportionate development alongside a keen awareness of the body’s limitations.

This focus on control and alignment soon caught the attention of injured dancers, who needed to maintain both of those aspects within their work. George Balanchine and Martha Graham often sent their dancers to Pilates for corrective exercise. It’s often this influence that accounts for its ongoing popularity today with dancers and, more recently, women in general.


Supreme mind, supreme body, supreme achievement

In its most basic form, Pilates is simply a method of exercise. What makes it stand out from most other modalities is it promises anatomically correct exercise. It seeks to develop controlled and thus safe movement from your “powerhouse”.

Your powerhouse is the centre or core of your body, the area between your bottom ribs and the top of your pubic bone. It includes the abdominals, the pelvic floor, the muscles around the hip joint and the muscles of the lower back.

Initially, Pilates outlined a series of 34 exercises to be taken as a whole or done at intervals throughout the day. Many people, strong and weak alike, struggled to perform these exercises on the mat, so Pilates built a range of apparatus to assist people in getting the full benefit of the exercise. These apparatus provided the necessary resistance via springs and pulleys to stretch and strengthen the body as a whole.

A prolific inventor, Joe Pilates had no fewer than 26 patents for exercise equipment. These various pieces of equipment were employed to correct particular ailments; some or all of them are usually found in a reputable Pilates studio. These included the Reformer, Cadillac, Wunda Chair, High Chair, Ladder Barrel, Spine Corrector, Small Chair, Pedi-Pole, Tower, Magic Circle, Breath-A-Ciser, Toe-Corrector, Foot-Corrector and Tens-O-Meter.

A good instructor will know how to use all these apparatus but it is by no means necessary for an individual to use all of them. Certain pieces were created for very specific needs and so are superfluous for all but a small minority. This is what inspired Joe to build so many different apparatus — he wanted to safely and progressively improve each individual’s specific condition.

Pilates published two books — Your Health: A Corrective System of Exercising That Revolutionizes the Entire Field of Physical Education (1934) and Return to Life through Contrology (1945) — that sum up his philosophy: civilisation impairs physical fitness while Contrology restores physical fitness.

Joe worked from the inside out and based his approach on building a strong centre and on correct alignment of the body. Because of this focus, a lot of common aches and pains disappear with the exercises because their root cause was misalignment.

This last point is where all the confusion begins: many people (a lot of so-called Pilates instructors included) think Pilates is another form of physical therapy. This idea, while on one hand may seem beneficial as it has contributed to awareness, in the long term gives people the wrong expectation of its benefits and takes away from the original goal of exercise.


What benefits can you expect from Pilates?

      • Flexibility


      • Strength


      • Improved muscle tone and body shape


      • Improved circulation and energy levels


      • Improved concentration


    • Safe injury management

Is Pilates for you?

Pilates exercise is suited to people of all types provided each has their specific goals or needs clearly in mind and, if necessary, modifies the exercises accordingly. It’s not about being the best or showing off; it’s about making your body and consequently your mind function better.

There is a saying I’ve heard on a couple of occasions: “Pilates is good for everybody but not everybody is good for Pilates.” This statement is not intended to alienate those who don’t do Pilates or imply elitism. It’s merely a caveat for those who want all the results now or, worse, yesterday! Patience, perseverance and concentration are key factors in getting the most from this work.

A beginner class should highlight the importance of the powerhouse. Your first 10 sessions, or more, should really focus on this aspect of the work. This will ensure your progress into the more advanced level is consistent and beneficial. As with all skills, making the fundamentals second nature is paramount. There may be compromises in joining a group class if you suffer from neck, back or knee problems. You may have to omit a fair bit of the work until you are ready for it.

It’s strongly advised that if you fall into this category you invest in a private lesson to ensure safety and that all your concerns are properly managed. This, in turn, avoids frustration and, worse, risk of further injury. Ensure your teacher comes from a reputable course and has had at least a few years of full-time experience under their belt. Remember, you’re putting your body in their hands, so make sure they know what they’re on about. Most importantly, you need to be inspired and interested in the work and enjoy the teaching.


Mat work necessities

The powerhouse
Whenever you are performing an exercise, be sure to stabilise your body using your abdominals, lower back, bottom and inner thighs. Visualise “lifting” internally up and away from your hips, as if you were being cinched in a corset. Admittedly, this takes plenty of practice in the beginning — perseverance is the key!

Pilates stance
This is an arbitrary position of the feet in relation to the hips when the legs are straight. Visualise squeezing the backs of your upper inner thighs. This allows a stronger contraction of your buttocks and hips, which further stabilises your torso. It’s achieved by turning the legs out from the hip joint, which relaxes the thigh muscles and lessens the strain on the back.

Pulling in your stomach
“Scoop” is the catchcry of many a Pilates teacher. It’s a more dynamic visualisation of pulling in your abdomen or pressing your navel to your spine and myriad variations thereof. This action is thought to bring the abdominals into play more deeply and help stretch and reinforce the para spinals (the muscles running along your vertebral column). Not to confuse it with “hollowing” or creating a “vacuum”, to get the most out of the movements you will need to master this feeling. Visualise a heavy weight pressing your belly down and then breathe in and out from your chest, not your stomach.

Tucking vs lengthening
It’s important to lengthen your muscles as you strengthen them, so any instruction that asks you to squeeze your bottom or press the whole length of your back into the mat shouldn’t cause your bottom to curl up. Your pelvis and the base of your spine should, ideally, stay pressed into the mat. Remember back to the first point — powerhouse — and always lift away from your hips rather than contract down into them.

Control vs straining
Simply stated, work at your level and don’t strain through the movements. Control means you have awareness of your body in space, where your limbs are positioned and are not grunting through the exercise. Breathing in and out through your nose smoothly will help you focus and gain control over your body.

Lengthening the neck
Lengthen the vertebrae just below the skull by gently pressing the back of your neck towards the floor when lying, or pressing the crown of your head up when sitting, standing or stretching forward.


Modifications for common aches and pains

These movements should never cause pain, period. If an exercise causes strain, stop, review the instructions and try again, concentrating on technique. If it still hurts, omit it. You can try it again when you have built up the strength and co-ordination or it may be simply the case that some exercises are just not meant for your body type. Romana Krysanowska often said, “Don’t do an exercise that doesn’t agree with you; wait until one does.”
Lower back pain: Initially, keep your knees bent at all times and secure the feet where necessary. Focus on pulling in your stomach and keeping the rest of the body “soft”.
Neck pain: Keep your head supported by a pillow large enough for you to keep your back flat on the mat.
Knee pain: Make sure your knees always “track” or line up with your toes. Keep your knees “soft” when extending the leg.
In the final analysis, you must use common sense and be prepared to concentrate on doing the exercises correctly. If you have had surgery, are pregnant or have had an injury, I would advise seeking out the help of a trained instructor.


Beginner exercises

Here are four exercises I like to call the “bread and butter” of Pilates. Each one prepares you for the following one. Try mastering them individually first. You’ll need only a minute or two a day and you’ll start to look and feel stronger and more flexible.

The Hundred

Goal: Maintain a steady, flat back holding your feet at eye level (no easy task — don’t push to the point of straining).
Lie on your back with your arms beside your body. Engage your powerhouse. Lift your head forward from the sternum and raise your legs to eye level. Pump your arms up and down vigorously, inhaling for five counts then exhaling for five counts. This constitutes one set. Aim to perform 10 sets without stopping. Once completed, lower your hands and feet to the mat ready for the Roll Up.
Note: Raise your feet higher or bend your knees if at first you struggle with this. Remember to work from your powerhouse.

The Roll Up

Goal: Remain perfectly still in your lower body as you articulate your spine.
After completing the Hundred, raise your arms overhead and reach away from your feet. Engage your powerhouse. Smoothly raise your arms straight to the ceiling, brushing past your ears. Bring your chin to your chest and continue to curl your spine off the mat, one vertebra at a time. Continue to curl forward and reach past your feet. Reverse the movement, smoothly curling down from your lower back to your shoulders, then your head and arms. Complete 3–5 repetitions.
Note: Support your feet and bend your knees if you first struggle with this. If your back is injured or weak, start sitting with your knees bent and initially attempt the rolling back portion keeping the range of motion small, holding the backs of your thighs for support.

The One Leg Circle

Goal: To keep your hips and torso still as you circle your leg. After the Roll Up, place your arms at your side. Engage your powerhouse. Smoothly lift your right leg as high and as straight as possible. Rotate it outwards slightly and circle the leg anti-clockwise from the hip joint, then circle the leg in a clockwise direction. Complete five circles in each direction. Then complete the same movement on the left leg, starting in a clockwise direction.
Note: Bend your support leg and use a pillow if you struggle to connect to your powerhouse.

The Double Leg Pull

Goal: To stay still in your torso while you perform the movement. Lie on your back, draw both knees to your chest and grasp your ankles. Engage your powerhouse, inhale as you extend your legs out and reach your arms straight back. Keep your head lifted from the sternum. Hold for a moment then exhale and pull your arms around in a circle as you tuck your knees back to your chest. Pull your knees in from your ankles. Perform 5–10 repetitions.
Note: Keep your tailbone pressed down and your neck long. Avoid lifting your back off the mat or pushing out your stomach. Raise your legs higher if this happens. Omit this exercise if you have a back injury. If you have a neck problem, keep your head down and use a pillow.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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