What is Pilates?

Monday 24 October 2022

In a nutshell, Pilates is a system of exercises performed on a variety of pieces of equipment,
focusing on controlled (but not necessarily slow!) actions of the spine.

Joseph Pilates created hundreds of exercises using the resistance of gravity, springs or a body’s own weight. But every exercise focuses on the actions of the spine and the spine’s relationship to the limbs. (These exercises are nothing like yoga exercises, no matter what you’ve heard.)

The foundation of Pilates is not “the core”, it is the spine! Muscles in the body’s midsection (front, side and back!) do the majority of the spinal actions. This is where “the core” muscles get a workout. But focusing on the muscles of the core, rather than the actions of the spine is not what Pilates is about.

There are also dozens of pieces of equipment (apparatuses, machines, whatever you want to call them). These include the Mat, the Reformer, the Cadillac/Tower, the Wunda Chair, Electric Chair, Baby/Arm Chair, Pedipole, Spine Corrector, Ladder Barrel and Guillotine, just to name a FEW!

These are an important part of The Pilates Method as a whole. All pieces of apparatus are related to each other, and all exercises can be performed (in some form or another) on all pieces.

This is important because each apparatus will offer something different: less stability, more support, a new relationship to gravity, a contoured shape, and so on. Performing the same exercise on different pieces of equipment will feel different and work the muscles of the body differently. The ability to shift from piece to piece is what makes Pilates a complex system.

But all of that is just the surface. Pilates is like an endless onion: there is always another layer.
The magic of Pilates lies in the details. The exercises and where you perform them are just the first layer. The way you perform them matters — a lot. That’s much harder to explain on paper (or on a blog, but stay tuned and little by little I’ll do my best!).

Pilates was created by Joseph H. Pilates and he named his work “The Pilates Method of
Contrology”. There’s an extensive and half-true mythology around Mr Pilates and the gradual
development of his method. It’s a fascinating mini-culture.

Born in 1883 and raised in Germany, Joe grew up with a few common childhood ailments. It is
speculated that he was picked on as a child and that fuelled a desire to better his level of fitness. He enjoyed the outdoors and spoke often of the benefits of fresh air and the countryside.
There is evidence he worked as a gymnast, a boxer and an anatomy model. He gradually
developed his method, first from his own experiences, then by working with athletes, soldiers and others.

As a German national living in England at the start of WWI, he was interned on the Isle of Man. He taught his exercises to his fellow inmates and especially enjoyed working with patients in need of physical rehabilitation. He is often credited with the low incidence and death rates on the island during the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918. (But it is more likely that the island was kept safe due to its isolation from the mainland of Great Britain. 😉)

Following his release from internment, he eventually made his way to America. It was there, in New York City, that he was able to fully develop his method. Joseph H. Pilates was an avid inventor. On the Isle of Man, he had little access to materials. But in New York, he was able to bring many of his inventions to life.

He was known to say that he invented his equipment to spare the strain on his own body when he taught his students. This speaks heavily to what I mentioned before — the magic of Pilates’s method goes so much deeper than simply the choreography of the exercises. How you do them is important. And THAT’S why the Reformer exists.

The Pilates equipment, Reformer, Cadillac, Wunda Chair, etc., aren’t designed to make things
harder. They were intended to give feedback, support and help to make the exercises more
achievable. The easier it is to do the exercises properly, the harder the exercises will be. The more you do Pilates, the harder it gets! (But in a good way!)

So that, in a nutshell, is Pilates. But I’ll never be able to explain the brilliance of it in the written word. To really get the full picture, come visit me!

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