Pilates is an amazing, complete, and corrective system of exercise, created by a man that George Balanchine called a ‘genius of the body:’ Joseph Pilates. A German immigrant, Joe came to the US in 1926 and settled in New York City with his partner Clara. There they ran his “Studio for Body Contrology” for 50 years until his death in 1967 at age 83. Clara continued teaching the method herself until she passed the method on to their long time student and protégé, Romana Kryzanowska.
As a child, Joe turned to exercise and athletics to strengthen his body and overcome asthma and other ailments. Always seeking to widen his knowledge, he studied many forms of exercise, and was particularly influenced by the classical Greek ideal of a man who is balanced equally in body, mind, and spirit. Joe was an avid skier, diver, gymnast, and boxer. In his writings he notes observing the movements of animals to learn how to move properly.
Pilates was NOT created for dancers
Among many myths is the idea that Pilates was created for dancers. Rather, Joe created his method on his own body and for men during World War I while interned by the British as an “enemy alien” in a civilian camp due to his German citizenship.
In Joe & Clara’s New York City studio, you might find famous boxers working alongside businessmen, opera singers, injured war veterans and prima ballerinas. But Joe often disliked teaching dancers because they tend to distort his method by over-stretching their joints. Dancers flocked to his studio anyway when they discovered how effective it is at creating the balanced, powerful and lean physique that they need. Joe was a friend to many famous choreographers, including George Balanchine, who sent 14-year-old Romana Krzyanowska to him to heal an injured ankle.
Pilates is different for everyone
Joe taught his method very specifically according to the client and would change the way an exercise was taught depending on what that body needed. Therefore, there is no absolute right or wrong way to perform a Pilates exercise, it depends on what your body needs.
Pilates Mat is the Purest Form of Pilates
You can call the mat-work the purest form of Pilates, since Joe created it long before he began designing his apparatus. You can do the mat exercises anywhere and they should only take about 30 minutes per day. Every client who came to his studio learned the mat and was expected to practice it at home between sessions. Joe would have you show him your mat in the studio so he could correct you.
Gravity & Opposition
Most of a Pilates workout takes place with your spine laid flat, either on your back or stomach. Joseph Pilates purposely used gravity in this way to correct the imbalances that make us slouch and shrink from being upright. Once the body is stretched out on the floor, the method then challenges the muscles that support the spine by lifting the legs, pumping the arms, rolling up, rolling down, twisting, arching, bending, etc… As a student of Pilates, the key here is to anchor your body to the floor where it touches and to stretch away from it everywhere else. You’ll create opposition in your muscles to make them strong and lean.
Another thing you’ll notice right away during a Pilates workout is your core muscles; Mr. Pilates called this area your “Powerhouse” or “Girdle of Strength” to illustrate the idea of where your strength should come from. To be specific, the muscles of the Powerhouse are your abs, low back, inner thighs and buttocks—basically the muscles that support your spine. By creating a strong center in your body you will see loads of benefits, including:
Increased height – As we go through life, our upright posture and habits allow gravity to compress our spine, leading to a loss in height. When you practice Pilates, your muscles strengthen and lift you up again.
Better flexibility – Each and every exercise in Pilates creates length and tone in your muscles. However, you can’t just go through the motions. To get the best results from your workout, you really have to “squeeze the juice out” out of each exercise. Take Spine Stretch Forward for example. First you inhale and stretch up to your maximum height, spine lifted as if your back is against a wall. When you begin to reach forward, exhale fully, engage your legs, flex your feet and pull your belly back to make your spine stretch as much as possible. When every last drop of air has been expelled from your lungs, inhale to roll back up, articulating each vertebra to lift yourself even taller than before.
Increased brain function – Pilates is different than many other forms of exercise because it requires the mind to pay attention to what you are doing. So instead of zoning out to a TV show on the treadmill, you focus on your body. Research shows that when required to think about how you are moving, your brain cells grow at a faster rate and your nervous system creates better connections throughout your body. Your mind and body become one; which is what Joe intended.
Grace and control – Joseph Pilates based much of his method on the powerful grace and efficiency that animals exhibit. Pilates will improve your coordination, and your awareness of the way you move, until one day with regular practice, you’ll find yourself able to move with natural ease and control without thought. This is the ultimate goal of the Pilates method.
Reduced back pain – When the muscles of the spine strengthen up and lift the vertebra away from each other, many people find their aches and pains simply disappear. There are many reasons behind this—less pressure on nerves, better lubrication of the joints, and an increased awareness of the habits that lead to pain in the first place.
Less illness – Pilates improves circulation in the body tremendously, especially to the vital organs. The first exercise in the series, The Hundred, acts like a water pump flushing the blood through the body like an ‘internal shower.’ This flush cleans the toxins, bacteria and other bad stuff out of your body on a regular basis. Joe said it’s like your immune system is a team of Firemen in your body. If the Firemen are always busy putting out small fires all over the place, when a big fire starts they’ll either be too tired or too distracted to get it out. You want your Firemen to be rested and ready to put out the big fires.
Better sex – Since Pilates brings vital strength and circulation to the torso and pelvis, it preserves and even increases function to sex organs.
Confidence – Beyond the physical benefits, one of the most rewarding changes you gain with Pilates is confidence. You might begin taking Pilates with the wish to ‘fix’ something about your body that you don’t like. Along the way to the fix, you forget what it was you were unhappy about and begin to appreciate how good it feels to fully inhabit the body you were born with. It’s exciting to be able to use your body to it’s fullest potential and when you’ve got vibrant health, looking great is simply a bonus.