Like Douglas Adams, before you read this I would like to show you something:
I qualified as a Pilates Instructor in 2004 and have been studying, training, learning and developing ever since.
However, am I really teaching Pilates ? Does it matter?
Come to think of it:
What is Pilates and where did it come from ?
To answer the first two questions I’ll have to answer the last two
The eponymous exercise system Pilates was developed by the man, Joseph Pilates, although he named it Contrology.
This is the beginning of the introduction to his 1945 book: A Return to Life through Contrology
Physical fitness is the first requisite of happiness. Our interpretation of physical fitness is the attainment and maintenance of a uniformly developed body with a sound mind fully capable of naturally, easily, and satisfactorily performing our many and varied daily tasks with spontaneous zest and pleasure. To achieve highest accomplishments within the scope of our capabilities in all walks of life we must constantly strive to acquire strong, healthy bodies and develop our minds to the limit of our ability. This very rapidly progressing world with its ever-increasing faster tempo of living demands that we be physically fit and alert in order that we may succeed in the unceasing race with keen competition which rewards the “go-getter” but by-passes the “no-getter”
The quote above hints at how his philosophy captures the zeitgeist amazingly well. He believed that we should eat a good diet and have plenty of sleep. He was dead against chairs and prolonged sitting and promoted the benefits of walking and breathing fresh air. Joseph Pilates was well ahead of this time in terms of promoting wellness, and a holistic view of the body, promoting Contrology to be the “complete co-ordination of the mind, body and spirit.”
Joseph Pilates was not alone in developing a exercise format which involved the mind and body and sought to harness the power of the two working together.
Other Mind/Body Exercise Methods
The origin of mind-body exercise can trace its roots back to ancient Greek civilisation and in modern times, as early as the late 18th century the Swede Henrik Ling (1766-1839) developed an exercise regime, free of apparatus which was designed to improve movement and prevent and heal disease. In Prussia, Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (1778-1852) did much the same, although he advocated the use of apparatus and his inventions of the parallel bars, beam and rings form the basis of gymnastics to this day. Both men stressed the need to heal both the mind and the body. The 19th and and 20th century gave rise to other, now forgotten systems. I do just want to mention one though, because, in being specifically aimed at women, it was well ahead of its time:
The St Thomas Hospital Project
In 1912 a Consultant at this hospital started a programme aimed at better equipping women for Childbirth. The aim wss teaching exercises and attempting to move away from medicating women and using force to assist delivery He hired a Midwife and Physiotherapist called Minnie Randall to create a programme which was influenced by Ling and included education, stretching, breathing exercises, relaxation as well as exercises. Women were encouraged to include their spouses and even teach them how to do the exercises. The programme continued to develop and Minnie Randall published a book: “Training for Childbirth – From the Mother’s Point of View” in 1939. As with everything , the Second World War intervened and disrupted the programme and St Thomas was bombed with some physiotherapists losing their lives, although not Randall. The new system did not develop further and was superseded by other new developments in the Natural Childbirth movement.
Pilates not Alexander Technique?
Somehow Pilates has become world famous and the other systems are forgotten, or are niche by comparison, for example Alexander Technique.
Why has Joseph Pilates’ method become so well known? Was it because it was in the US or popularised by the rich and famous? Is it timing – the latter half of the 20th century and not earlier? The method, whilst not universally popular in his lifetime, (and he died in 1967), has now taken the world by storm
Joseph Pilates wrote two books and if you read them you realise that some of his views do not translate well to our modern times. He refers to people living in developing countries as savages and he was vehemently against masturbation. Strangely from our 2019 vantage point, he advocated brushing the skin with a stiff brush, cold showers and exercising semi nude. His notion of good posture was a chest forwards position with the shoulders back.
There is more information about Pilates’ life and work in this blog post: https://www.pilates-leeds.com/joseph-pilates-an-a-z-of-his-life-and-work/
We have chosen to retain some of this views, but quietly set some of them aside. A tutor can teach Pilates without having to subscribe to his view point on, for example, what you need to wear, or whether cold showers are helpful or not.
This is really crucial. He was a man of his time and some of his views are old fashioned, but this isn’t his entire legacy. We have all built on his legacy, in much the same way that Freud’s legacy of talking cures has developed beyond his original theories. Feminism has developed beyond the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft and the 19th Century Women’s Suffrage movement. We have known since 1916 and the publication of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity that Isaac Newton’s theory of Gravitation contains inaccuracies. Newton’s theories are considered to be a truly great milestone in science and we don’t think less of him, but Science has used them to develop further
What about the exercises that constitute Pilates, as advanced by the man himself?
Contrology or Pilates is 34 exercises. They are listed in his 1945 book. Joseph Pilates was very clear that the exercises were to be learned in a specific order and performed in that order, adding on as you learnt subsequent ones. They were to be done 4 times per week, exactly as documented.
The 34 exercises will work the full body, move the spine and limbs in different plans of movement, maintain and develop flexibility, spine mobility and strength. Nowhere at all does he mention the word Core, or refer to Core Stability. Somewhere along the line Pilates has become synonymous with this notion, possibly because the precision required gives you core stability: dissociation of the limbs, good alignment, a strong centre as well as strong extremities.
Particularly in the US there is a school of thought that Pilates should be the actual teachings of Joseph Pilates. This is known as Classical Pilates and in the US there is fierce debate over whether you should teach and promote the 34 Exercises, or a modified form of the exercise system.
These exercises are extremely demanding – very hard indeed. To even begin at the beginning would be almost overwhelming for most people.
Herein lies the heart of my question: Am I a Pilates Instructor? I do not teach the 34 Classical Exercises. Or rather I do, but not in the strict order, I use a pick and mix approach and the bulk of my classes are not the 34 original exercises and almost always they are modified from the original
Why Do I Not These Exercises?
Well in many ways I don’t precisely because I want to help people achieve the same thing that Joseph Pilates did:
To function better in their daily life, to have enough energy to work, rest and play, to prevent illness, injury, and keep the spine healthy
I have thought about this a great deal over the years. Why do I teach so few Classical exercises?
With a class of people it is simply not possible. The original exercises are supposed to be done in a particular way in a particular order. They are not supposed to be modified.
In a real class of real people they are too hard. The way Pilates has developed, certainly in the UK, is that is an attractive option for people who are injured, or rehabilitating. It is considered gentle for people who are out of condition. This is the opposite of Contrology but that’s how the cookie has crumbled. Pilates has instead become a very broad church encompassing gentle rehab classes as well as fairly punishing advanced Pilates. However, Contrology demands that you have to step up to the metaphorical plate to achieve mastery of the exercises. At no point, does Contrology adapt itself to you.
What Would Joseph Pilates think about this?
Well I worry about that. Most people calling themselves Pilates Teachers don’t teach Contrology. Plain and simple. Would he mind? I really don’t know but quite possibly he would mind. He as very clear about what Contrology was and that was the best route to “a complete mastery of mind and body” , as he put it. On the other hand, he worked in his studio with many people who were injured or limited in certain ways and there is no doubt in my mind that he must have modified exercises all the time, on a case by case basis.
Back to this school of thought about Classical vs Contemporary. The advocates of Classical Pilates say that it confers unique benefits. I am completely prepared to believe that, but for me it is too elitist. You would need tiny classes or personal tuition 2 or 3 times per week. This can never benefit enough people
Like most, if not all Instructors I want to help as many people as I can move better, simple as that. To do that I believe that I need to modify the 34 exercises and add in other stuff. For example, there is no standing work in Contrology (apart from a standing start for just one exercise). It is however, very very helpful to the body to train in the position that you are going to be for most of the day.
The Starting Point
There is another way in which I have deviated from the classical Pilates method. I used to be quite uncomfortable about this because it is un-Pilates and erodes my (imagined) status as Pilates Instructor.
Rather than take the body and put/impose Pilates upon it, as per the prescribed order and method. I tend to assess the body and pick and chose which Pilates exercises, or the myriad others will best help achieve the client’s goals, help the spine or help rehab and build strength etc.
So, am I teaching Pilates?
As defined by Joseph Pilates, no. I’m not.
A classical Pilates Instructor would, at best, say that I teach in the contemporary style. What does that mean? Well, extensive modification of the original 34 exercises. Altering the order they are in which they are performed and taught.
I’m going further than that and have added loads of stuff that isn’t Pilates. I, along with most of my UK contemporaries, really believe this stuff is important. For example, being able to squat, being able to move the shoulders through a full range of movement, being about to support the upper body in an all fours position.
Classical Pilates is truly an amazing full body exercise system but since the death of Joseph Pilates we have learnt more about the body and it is only right to incorporate these new ideas, such as neuroplasticity, fascial linkages of the body. We are all living longer, and Pilates has to encompass older adults with less strength, or joint replacements. Our society is fatter and stiffer and we have less strength, especially in our legs. The outcome is that fewer people are potentially able to do Classical Pilates than Joseph Pilates’ contemporaries.
What has Joseph Pilates taught me? What has he given me ?
Fundamentally he has given me the exercise system that is Pilates. Whether I modify it or not, it is a means by which we can get fitter, stronger, leaner, more supple
A philosophy of movement encompassing the connection of mind and body
The invention of the studio equipment, some of which i use in my studio. This is a whole other world of Pilates’ development of his exercise system.
I could honour his legacy more though…… Do I owe him that? I have come to realise , in writing this piece, that yes, I do owe him this and out of respect to his invention and creativity I should revisit his original work more often. I have re-read his original books and it is incredible how he predicted the delirious effect of modern lifestyles on the human body
Would it benefit my body if I did? Yes and no. I carry a semi permanent injury to my stomach muscles (following pregnancy and childbirth) which prevents me doing all the advanced abdominal exercises, but on the other hand, it is regular Pilates that has prevented me from suffering any ill effects, apart from having a tight lower back.
I don’t have all the answers regarding how we all sort out our bodies and get them moving better. Some days I don’t have any answers at all, and some days, we do a class and leave feeling better: taller, stronger, or maybe just calmer and more relaxed. That is due to Joseph Pilates, his work, inventions, and his philosophy. It is due to how his legacy survived, morphed and was developed by surviving colleagues and pupils. The legacy then grew wings, went out into the world to seek its fortune and well, we are the better for it.