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Civilization impairs physical fitness.

Thus noted Joseph Hubertus Pilates (1883-1967) in his definitive text Return to Life Through Contrology. You might be thinking you agree, but note this was Joe’s observation in 1945, long before desktops, laptops, and gridlock. It’s no surprise Pilates aficionados (and the man himself) thought he was 50 years ahead of his time. So what exactly is Pilates?

Pilates (or “Contrology”, as he called it) is an exercise method Joe developed over a period of years, drawing on his boxing and gymnastics experience, and the study of ancient Greek and Roman fitness regimes, among others. It is likely much of the development of his work occurred during the four years he was interned during WW1. It’s not hard to imagine the mental and physical challenges created by years trapped behind barbed wire. Many men grew sick or succumbed to the mental stress of imprisonment. But there were exceptions. Several Nobel Prize winners made discoveries during such internments, and I think it fair to say that Joe’s accomplishments were of equal merit. He boasted that when the 1818 flu epidemic swept through England, killing thousands, none of the men practicing his methods in the camps got sick.

Initially Joe created a series of 34 exercises that could be performed, mostly prone, on a mat. These original mat exercises he designed to give the entire body a workout without undue stress on the heart. Two major points of the mat routine were:

            1. “Rolling” the spine in order to articulate vertebrae and increase spine flexibility.

            2. Connecting deep breathing to the movements being performed.

Later, he developed equipment including the Reformer, the Cadillac, and the Low Chair and evolved versions of many of these mat exercises. The equipment additional balance challenges and more advanced levels of working different muscle groups through springs and moving parts. He speaks at length in his books about the principals behind Pilates, but I think they can be summarized in three major (and often overlapping) points:

  1. Uniform Body Development
  2. Body Mind Connection
  3. Living a pleasurable, energetic life!

Uniform Body Development

Uniform body development means little muscles help the big muscles. Joe equated this to small bricks helping to create a strong building. Throughout our daily lives, we tend to fall into patterns of movement, patterns of positions, patterns of activity and rest; our body develops (or doesn’t develop, or certain areas overdevelop) as a result of those patterns. Joe often referred humorously to the bodybuilders who pumped up their upper arms so they were able to lift a car by it's bumper, but couldn't reach for a can of soup on the top shelf because this same overdevelopment limited range of motion. Both over and underdevelopment likely means limited range of mobility, and often leads to injury or chronic pain (just think about how sitting bent over a computer all day makes your back and neck feel). A metaphor I like to use with clients is to think about all the muscles of the body as relatives. Which ones do communicate most with? Which ones do you feel most aware of (often due to chronic pain or fatigue)? Which ones do you have trouble accessing? (Try flexing a hamstring while sitting in a chair without flexing your quads.) Pilates works to improve our relationship with our whole body, including muscles we may not be using enough. In this way, we can get more of the “family” involved in keeping everything going, rather than overtaxing one or two members.

Body Mind Connection

By reawakening thousands and thousands of otherwise ordinarily dormant muscle cells…[we awake] thousands and thousands of dormant brain cells, thus activating new areas and stimulating further the functioning of the mind.” When Joe wrote this in the 1940’s he was essentially describing what neuroscience calls “brain plasticity.” For years now, scientists and doctors have been extolling the virtues of practicing new and challenging skills with the mind to keep it sharp. A Pilates workout requires conscious attention to activate different muscle movements. Unlike the “zoning out” we can often do during some of our cardio routines (like running on the treadmill or riding a stationary bike), Pilates demands a certain amount of mental focus on what's happening in your body. And both your body and mind will reap the results. Often, after a Pilates workout, practitioners describe feeling physically stretched, relaxed and refreshed; many describe a “wrung out” feeling like they have squeezed all the staleness and germs out of them, followed by mental alertness and a uptake of energy. After regular practice, a Pilates practitioner can expect to feel a stronger awareness of their core muscles supporting them, less neck and back pain or tension, and they will notice better overall balance. If you practice another physical activity—running, biking, golfing, hockey, you name it—you’ll find your Pilates lessons informing how you practice your other sports, upping your game and making the activity even more pleasurable. Friends will comment that you look taller. You might find you can stand throughout a train or bus ride without feeling any need to hang on to something, or notice it’s easier to balance putting your pants on one leg at a time. There’s a joke between the instructors at my studio that Pilates teachers don’t slip and fall during Chicago winters—we may slip, but we usually have the mobility, balance, and strength needed to recover ourselves before we hit the ice!

Living the “Good Life”!

Living a pleasurable life, according to Joe, means having a reserve of energy to draw on for “play” after our workday is over. Not having this energy when we come home after a long workday is often due to not changing our physical routines from unconscious activity (commuting to work, sitting at our desks, doing usual work routines, etc.) to conscious activity. Without that reserve of energy which we get from regular and challenging physical activity, we spend our off time stressed and physically exhausted, often indulging in further lack of mental or physical stimulation by watching too much TV or surfing the web. Joe felt our body should obey our will, but not just reflexively. He believed in a healthy diet, getting plenty of fresh air, and most importantly taking full, deep and cleansing breaths with conscious attention to this during exercise routines. I think of this as learning to better communicate with (and listening to) ALL of our body, and not just the muscles that are constantly in use, and therefore overstressed. Buddhism might call this “Beginner’s Mind”—truly being in the moment with your mind and body as much as possible, so we don’t miss out on anything!

What’s taking a Pilates class like? Do I need a private lesson first?

If you’ve never done Pilates before, you can likely jump into any beginning mat class at a reputable studio (Come to Frog Temple! Your first mat class is on us!) and get a great workout. You’ll notice you spend most of the class on your back (which is why so many physical therapists now use Pilates to help with spine injuries—it’s a safe way to work), and yet you’ll break a sweat pretty quickly into your first 100’s warm-up. You may, at first, feel like you’re trying to just follow the directions of where to put your body, and find it challenging to also try to use the muscles you’re directed to use, but you will get many of the directions, and you’ll feel it the next day when you're sore in places you've never felt before.

Working one-on-one with an instructor in a Private session is a great way to get a stronger sense of the exercises with individual attention to your particular body, and most of my clients who also take classes (some prefer just to work one-on-one, although I recommend both) say that taking Privates help them work harder and smarter in classes. Most Private instruction involves working mainly on the equipment pieces, rather than mat work. If you’re just starting out, try taking three private sessions to get the basics, then figure out what’s right for you. In general, I feel a minimum of two Pilates workouts a week will show big results in a few months, although many clients report feeling changes sooner.

Pilates instructors generally use imagery and metaphors along with touch cues to help you with this mind/body connection, and after you’ve come to a few classes your body will start to recall the choreography of each exercise, and start to work on much deeper levels, engaging more of the right muscles needed to help with the exercise. Think of how you first learned to swing a baseball bat or tennis racket—just trying to make contact at first, then later, when you could almost take that for granted, you could start focusing on where to put the ball. Then the real game begins. Many who really fall for Pilates do so just because of the mind body challenge. I know I did. For how I came to Pilates, see my Pilates Story.