So who was this Joe guy?
Many do not know where Pilates came from and what it’s all about. I have been practicing Pilates for 16 years and have been a teacher for 12 of them. There are a lot of misconceptions about what it is. Over the years this is what I have heard.
It’s Yoga on Machines
It’s like Yoga - lots of stretching
It’s for dancers
It’s for women
It’s really hard but I don’t know anything about it
I hear it’s really good for your back
I hear it’s really good for your core (as they point to their tummies)
I have tried to come up with one line that describes Pilates, but I just can’t. Have you ever heard of the elevator speech? You should be able to sell your wares, your idea, or what ever it is you do within 30 seconds or less. I suck at this. I can’t do it. When I start talking about Pilates, I just keep going. I don’t think I can describe it all in 30 seconds.
What I would like to do with this post is talk about the man, Joseph Pilates, and who he was, what he started and my interpretation of his work and what it means to me.
Joseph Hubertus Pilates was born in 1883 inMönchengladbach Germany. He was a sickly child suffering from asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever.(For those of you who don’t know what rickets is, it’s a softening or weakening of the bones in children due to a Vitamin D deficiency.) Due to his illnesses as a child he became devoted to improving his physical strength and health. We are talking about late 19th century when there wasn’t a lot of exercise knowledge or even people engaging in regular physical activities for health reasons. He studied various forms of exercise from the Greek and Roman societies as well as the Eastern practices of martial arts and Zen. He became a boxer and gymnast, and by young adulthood he had sculpted his body so that he was posing for anatomical charts.
In 1912, Joseph moved to England and taught self-defense and continued boxing. When World War 1 broke out, as a German citizen he was interned among other “aliens.” In camp, he began to refine his exercises that we know today. He trained other internees in the camp. For those that were injured or bedridden, he took apart the beds and rigged the springs so that they were also able to move and exercise. This would mark the innovation of the Pilates equipment that we know today. When the 1918 outbreak of influenza hit England, killing thousands of people, not one of the internees in his camp got sick. Joseph claimed this as a testament to his exercises system.
Joseph returned to Germany after the war, training dancers as well as police officers but when pressured to train the new German army, he decided to leave Germany for good.
In 1926, on his journey to the US, he met a young nurse named Clara. She would become his wife and a large influence over his work. Clara is known amongst the Pilates community for adding the softer and more therapeutic touch to Pilates.
Joseph and Clara opened a fitness studio in New York to teach the method that he called “Contrology.” His fitness studio shared an address with the New York City Ballet, and his first and most devoted students were dancers. In 1945 he published a book of his exercises and philosophy called Return to Life Through Contrology. In this book are detailed instructions on how to perform his exercises and the guiding principals for them.
He was rarely sick and was said to be seen in the middle of winter jogging down the street in his exercise briefs. He liked to drink whiskey and smoke cigars. He was once said to never tell you what you did right or wrong in a session just “Yes” or “No”. These are all stories from his protege’s that help build a picture of his personality.
Joseph died in 1967 at the age of 83. He taught in his studio in New York until his death. It was his life goal to spread his work and make “Contrology” mainstream. As his original students started studios of their own teaching his method, the name Pilates stuck more than the name Contrology and now it has spread to all areas of the world. It is unfortunate he was not able to see the fruits of his life work.
I have heard many stories of Joseph Pilates from those that worked under his original students as many of them have now passed on as well. He seemed eccentric, visionary, and never ceased to learn. Many believe that Pilates must be done exactly as it was taught. These are the purists or as they are often called the “Traditional” or “Classical” methodologists.
I believe the method should be preserved as it was taught, it is our lineage and of great value. However, this is not the way in which I teach. Why? After I read Joseph’s book Return to Life, it was the guiding principals that resonated most with me. His principals of breath, control, core, alignment, flow, mind body connection speak to me because those principals can be applied to any exercise. He was basically saying to be present in your movement and to have intention, to work to the best of your ability and keep at it. Keep practicing.
I am a why person. I like to know why I am doing something, what is the benefit of this, how will this help me? When I teach, I like to give the reason why, even if it’s just for fun because joy in movement also means your more likely to do it again.
As you practice and gain knowledge you become more body aware and are able to feel and move more efficiently. What is the purpose of efficient movement or becoming more body aware? One of them is less wear and tear on your body. The other is that with body knowledge comes control over your neuromuscular patterning. Just read my blog on nudging…
One of things Joseph used to say that continues to run around in my head when I am doing Pilates is don’t do a 20 pound move for a 10 pound exercise. Know what is required of you and perform to that task. He said “A few well-designed movements, properly performed in a balanced sequence, are worth hours of doing sloppy calisthenics or forced contortion.” There are days when I can only do 20 or 30 minutes of Pilates, but I do them well. My clients all know the value of a good Pilates crunch.
But among all of his principals it was probably the Breath that was the biggest focus of his work. He called it the “internal shower”. It is the simplest thing, but yet the most difficult task for people as we tend to hold our breath when we are focusing and exerting ourselves. The respiratory system is our first line of defense for eliminating toxins from our body, more so over our largest organ, the skin. Maybe the reason why those people in the internment camp didn’t get sick was because they were doing deep diaphragmic breathing every day. A thought I contemplate when someone comes in with a respiratory infection.
When you can perform an exercise with all of his principals in concert that to me is Pilates. It is the ultimate goal and it is sometimes the hardest. Not every move needs to by physically exerting. Sometimes the move requires more mental focus on the mechanics of it or maybe you need to make it more fluid and not so jerky. Sometimes I tell my clients they need to concentrate less and just feel their bodies and again when in doubt just BREATH!
It is no wonder the dance community embraced him because if you see Pilates done well it is beautiful and graceful. It looks effortless. It takes a lot of work to make something look effortless.
After 16 years of being a faithful practitioner of Pilates I still have some “aha” moments even as a teacher when I think….”maybe that is what Joe meant” and I have a whole different understanding of his work. It never tires. It never dulls and I never cease to be amazed.
I guess that is why 30 seconds just isn’t enough for me.