Pilates: The Man and the Method

Less than 20 years ago, Pilates was relatively unheard of. Today, the situation is completely different and millions of people undertake Pilates as an effective form of exercise. But how did this phenomenon start? As you will discover, the history of Joseph Pilates, the man who created Pilates, is as interesting as the exercise method itself.

Who was Joseph Pilates?

Joseph Pilates was born in Germany in 1880. As a child, he was often ill and suffered from ‘asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever.’ Determined to become healthier and stronger, he studied many forms of exercise from yoga and boxing to gymnastics and wrestling.

When Joseph Pilates was interned in England during World War 1, he modified hospital beds and used them to help other injured internees exercise while lying down. He called the exercise regime he created for these injured internees ‘Contrology’. These modified hospital beds were the prototype of the machines (called ‘Reformers’ and ‘Cadillac’) later used in exercise classes.

After World War 1, Joseph Pilates returned briefly to Germany before he migrated to America. The studio he set up in New York was located close to many dance studios. Some of the more famous people who embraced Pilates at the time were Martha Graham (reputed to be the ‘mother of modern dance’) and George Balanchine (the ‘artistic director for the New York City Ballet’). Many athletes also embraced Pilates because the exercises helped to heal their injuries.

Throughout his life, Joseph Pilates maintained a flamboyant lifestyle and remained in remarkable physical condition. He died at the age of 87, not from old age, but during a fire at his studio.

Pilates: The Method

Joseph Pilates created his exercises based on physiological principles and a mind-body philosophy. In his words: “Physical fitness is the first requisite of happiness. In order to achieve happiness, it is imperative to gain mastery of your body. If, at the age of 30 you are still out of shape, you are old. If, at 60 you are supple and strong, then you are young.” He also believed that, “a practitioner should be intelligent about how he exercises. Underlying such intelligence is a practitioner’s awareness of his being.”

To do the exercises, you need to focus your mind and control your movements so that you can enhance your flexibility and lengthen your muscles. Imagine this: when you bend your arm, your biceps contract and your triceps lengthen. When you straighten your arm, try to keep your biceps contracted and triceps lengthened.

The main group of muscles worked on in Pilates are the abdominal muscles (sometimes called ‘core muscles’). You ‘activate’ your core muscles by breathing deeply. Once activated, these core muscles will support your body’s frame and provide stability in order to allow other muscles to move with ease.

Primarily, these core muscles are:

  • ‘transverse abdominis’ – a deep muscle that runs horizontally around the abdomen.
  • ‘rectus abdominis’ – a muscle that runs vertically between the pubic bone and the sternum.
  • ‘obliques’ – these muscles run, in a criss-cross manner, from the hipbone and lower ribs to the navel.

Ultimately, if you practise Pilates regularly, your body will become toned and lean, but not bulky. In addition, you will have excellent posture and a strong, flat stomach. Aren’t these reasons enough to sign up for the next Pilates class?

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