Introduction to Pilates

Mind-Body Fitness Meets Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation

In the Bionic Woman episode called “Paradise Lost” (s.1, e.2), a suicidal woman asks Jamie Summers“How did you do that?” after she saved her life. The most believable fib the bionic woman could supply was “Pilates?”

for the proper name of Pilates to be available for use in studios across the United States both hint at the enormous popularity of the fitness phenomenon known only by its founder’s surname. Celebrity endorsements for the fitness program range from Oprah, Jennifer Aniston, Carrie-Ann Moss, and Jamie Lee Curtis to Hugh Grant and Danny Glover.

Joseph Pilates

Born in Germany in 1880, Joseph Pilates was the son of a gymnast and naturopathic healer. After overcoming his own poor health in childhood, Pilates began creating a system of movement and fitness that focused on posture, core strength and right-breathing as a way of counteracting the ill health effects of the Western post-industrial ways of life.

He studied and incorporated martial arts, strength training, yogic breathing and inward focus, physical therapy and rehabilitation techniques employed by hospitals, and the precision and fluidity of dance.

By the time Pilates immigrated to the US in 1926, his system of strengthening, increasing flexibility, and improving posture was fully developed, if not completely refined. It had already gained popularity with the dance communities led by Rudolf van Laban and Hanya Holm in Germany.

Once in New York, “Joe’s place” became the studio of choice for members of the New York City Ballet. Many of what we would call “dance” fitness movements or even “Ballet” fitness movements are, in fact, exercises developed by Pilates or incorporated into his regimen.

More Physical “Mind-Body”

Of the five characteristics of mind-body fitness defined by the International Dance and Exercise Association (IDEA), the fitness practice of Pilates incorporates four: internal focus, concentration on muscular movements and alignment, and the synchronization of the movement and breath.

Regardless of the equipment employed, the six major Principles of a Pilates practice support the mind-body connection and hint at Pilates’ popularity among the dance community: concentration, control, centering, fluidity of movement, precision, and breath.

Differentiating Pilates from Yoga and other kinds of Mind-Body fitness routines are two points: the difference in breathing techniques – they don’t always follow the usual exhale-on-exertion pattern of traditional exercises; and the collection of springs, pulleys and cables that comprise the equipment behind a true Pilates workout.

In spite of the torture-device appearance of the equipment, Pilates is low- to no-impact, and the equipment is designed to use the student’s own body weight for resistance (as opposed to the weights used in familiar Nautilus machines). However, lower-cost equipment, such as balls and resistance bands, are more readily available to the public, and many studios offer mat-based floor routines that don’t require the springs and devices.

All of the movements are individualized and honed to be suitable for any level of student, from an injured athlete to the refinement and fitness of a prima ballerina.

Cross-Training Recommended

In the 2006 study on Pilates sponsored by the American Council on Exercise researchers determined that Pilates is best pursued in conjunction with some sort of aerobic or cardiovascular workout.

While the strengthening, increased flexibility and other benefits of the Pilates system are undeniable, even advanced Pilates routines were not challenging enough cardio for it to be considered a “complete” fitness regimen.

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