What is Pilates?

When you hear the word “Pilates”, what comes to mind? Beautiful graceful ballet dancers?

What Is So Great About Pilates?
Sue Teaching Pilates

Fit and toned dancers working out on machines with names like “Reformer” or “Cadillac”? What about “core strength” or long, lean muscles? When I think of Pilates, my mind conjures up an image of Joseph Pilates, the founder, a very muscular and fit man, who was years ahead of his time in the early 1900’s with his understanding of the connection between the body’s movement and core strength. I also picture a beautiful flowing movement from one exercise to another.

Pilates is a method of exercise that focuses on the entire body through coordinated movements that involve six principles: breathing, control, flow, concentration, centering, and precision. A direct result of following these principles is efficient coordinated movement emanating from your body’s center, or core (or “powerhouse” as Joseph Pilates called it), that supports proper alignment and good posture.

Pilates is often done on specialized equipment such as the Pilates Reformer, Cadillac, Ladder Barrel, or Chair. Many of the exercises that involve the specialized equipment can be adapted to floor exercises, known as mat work. Mat exercises can be done by anyone, and there are plenty of Pilates mat classes and exercises to choose from if you don’t have access to a Pilates studio.

A Brief History of Pilates and its Founder

The story of Pilates dates back to the birth of Joseph Pilates in Germany in 1880. As a sickly child, who suffered from asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever, he was raised by parents who were very much in tune with the body. They had a strong influence on Joe. His father was an accomplished gymnast and his mother was a naturopathic doctor.

Joe was small in stature growing up until his teens when he started applying what he had been studying about the body, including both Eastern and Western forms of exercise and anatomy as well as observations of animals in the forest and how they moved.

He developed such a muscular physique that he actually was modeling for anatomy charts! Not one to sit around, Joe went on to become a proficient boxer, gymnast, skier, diver, and even a circus performer. A famous quote by Joe tells it all:

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. Joe Pilates

The Pilates story really has its roots in an internment camp in Lancaster, England, where Joe was interned with other German nationals during WWl. While interned, Joe taught wrestling and self-defense to other internees and really set the stage for his system of exercise, which at the time, he called “Contrology”. This was essentially, the foundation of Pilates mat work.

Joe went on to rehabilitate sick and injured internees by using the bed springs in exercises to help them get stronger. One of his big claims to fame is that in 1918, when influenza was rampant, none of Joe’s “patients” became ill, even though the epidemic hit the internment camps hard. Through the development of specialized exercise machines, emerged the Pilates equipment that we use today.

Unhappy with the political situation in Germany, Joe left in 1925 for America. He met his future wife, Clara, on that trip across the Atlantic. While en-route, he helped her exercise to ease her painful arthritis, and that was the beginning of a long life together.

In 1926, they opened their first studio (called “Studio for Body Contrology”) in New York in close proximity to several ballet dance studios, establishing a long-lasting connection between Pilates and dancers and working with the “greats” such as George Balanchine and Martha Graham.

Pilates has a reputation of being for dancers, but Joe and Clara also trained a wide variety of both men and women.

Joseph Pilates was a bit of an eccentric, and photos will often show him in a little white shorts and a very strong physique. He is said to have had a bit of a wild side with women and partying as well.

Joe lived until October 1967. At age 87, he left a legacy that is flourishing today. His wife, Clara continued to teach Pilates until her death for another 10 years. The instructors that they trained, including Romana Kryzanowska, have kept the methods of Joseph Pilates alive in their purest form.

Who is Pilates good for?

Pilates is good for anyone, from children to older adults! Men and women alike both benefit from Pilates, so there is absolutely no reason to think that it is a “women’s” form of exercise.

Pilates Ball Exercise
Pilates Ball Exercise

Who doesn’t want better posture and flexibility, a strong and lean appearance, and a strong core? I have taught men, women (including prenatal and post-partum), kids as young as elementary school age, teens, and older adults and they all benefit in different ways.

Many men are drawn to Pilates because of the increased flexibility and core strengthening. Post-partum Moms benefit immensely by getting back in touch with their bodies after having a baby and strengthening their pelvic floors, which is an integral part of the core. Kids love the Pilates exercises, like “rolling like a ball” and learn about good posture. Older adults need to move and strengthen their bodies in a safe and controlled way that Pilates offers.

Athletes have always been drawn to Pilates and the list, which includes Vanessa Williams, keeps on growing. Quoting Ruben Brown, of the Chicago Bears, “Pilates has made me quicker, more explosive.” Jason Kidd, of the NBA started doing Pilates and never looked back, crediting Pilates for increasing his flexibility and helping him to avoid injuries. “The more I got into it and the more I understood it, the better off I felt,” And then the thing was, I just wanted to keep doing it.”

The list of movie stars is also a mile long, and includes Jennifer Anniston, Hugh Grant and Patrick Swayze. To quote Patrick Swayze, “I’ve been using Pilates for many years – it’s the best system I’ve found for isolating and strengthening individual muscles without stress to the joints.”

We know how important the way the body looks is for movie stars and the way the body functions is for athletes, but what about the rest of us? By practicing Pilates one or more times per week, you will definitely notice a difference. I feel so much more connected to my body when I regularly do Pilates than when I “fall off the wagon” and go even a week without it. I love the feeling of having a strong mid-section, better postural awareness, and better breath control.

How is Pilates different from Yoga?

Both Pilates and Yoga focus on the mind/body connection and the breath. In fact, breathing is one of the 6 Principles of Pilates. Pilates is about continual breath and breathing into different parts of the torso, depending on the exercise. For example, when doing the Pilates 100’s exercise, the breath is directed into the sides and back of the ribs versus deeply into the diaphragm.

Some methods of Pilates, such as the Stott Method, connect a part of the breath with every movement. Others are more relaxed about the breathing, as long as it is in through the nose and out through the mouth or nose.

Yoga has a greater variety of breathing techniques and really depends on the style of Yoga. For example, Kundalini Yoga teaches long, deep breathing, directed at relaxation, expanding the lungs, and “Breath of Fire” for cleansing, and energizing.

Both Yoga and Pilates create increased flexibility, but in different ways. Pilates exercises flow from one to the next while working with lengthening the muscles in alignment with the joints of the body.

Yoga typically holds “poses” longer than Pilates and tends to encourage people to “push” their limits regarding range of motion and alignment. Yoga and Pilates share some exercises, such as plank, side plank, bridges, and more, with subtle differences in breathing and focus, and different names for some.

Neither Pilates nor Yoga is a mega calorie burner, but both have practices that range from purely therapeutic to a moderate aerobic workout. If you take a Vinyasa flow type of yoga class, your heart rate might rise into the aerobic range. The same goes for a vigorous Pilates mat class.

Are either good for weight loss? Any activity is good for weight loss. Moving your body in any way helps. Since neither Pilates nor Yoga are super aerobic forms of exercise, both do build muscle. We know that muscle is more metabolically active than fat tissue.

If Pilates or Yoga are included as part of an overall weight loss plan, which involves other forms of muscle-building, calorie-burning exercise, then, yes, they are great for weight loss in our opinion.

Benefits of Pilates

Equipment or Mat?

Generally, whether you choose to take Pilates classes on the specialized equipment or take mat classes, depends on your budget. Pilates equipment is an investment, therefore, it is found mostly at health clubs and private Pilates studios.

Because of the specialized training that an instructor must go through, the cost of either private sessions or group classes on the equipment is more than for the mat classes, which require very little equipment. A reputable Pilates teaching certification includes both equipment and mat teaching techniques.

In order to bring Pilates to more people, group reformer classes have become popular at Pilates studios.

The Pilates reformer is a versatile piece of equipment that looks a bit intimidating at first glance.

It consists of a movable platform, called a “carriage” that slides back and forth on a frame.

The participant either lies down on the carriage, sits, or kneels on it. Springs, which create different levels of resistance, are attached to one end. The other end has straps that are either used for hands or feet, depending on the exercise.

Pilates Equipment
Pilates Equipment

Many of the exercises that are done on the reformer can be adapted to mat classes by

using balls, bands, or the “Magic Circle”. So, while the equipment is fun and effective, so are mat classes.

A typical Pilates class is 50 minutes and is totally adaptable to different levels of experience or injuries. If you feel that you need a bit more attention from the instructor, choose a smaller class size.

A huge part of the training that a certified Pilates instructor receives is to pay extremely close attention to detail in observing and guiding their students’ movement.

Classes or Videos?

With the accessibility of the internet, why would you pay money and take a class versus simply watch a Pilates video on YouTube or online classes, such as Pilates Anytime or buy a Pilates workout DVD?

My recommendation to you is to take some classes first so that you learn the proper breathing and movements with an instructor’s guidance and observant eye. Just like any form of exercise, there is a proper way to do Pilates and stay injury-free.

For those of you who want a good book to guide you in your home practice or simply to refer to, check out “The Pilates Body”, by Brooke Siler.

The Pilates Body

In Summary

Pilates is such a fantastic form of exercise, mind/body connection, stress release, and movement that you really ought to give it a try, if you haven’t already. A regular Pilates practice can easily fit into your weekly exercise routine.

If you are just getting started exercising in general, Pilates is a great way to go, or, if you are looking for that extra missing piece to your already established routine, then, consider Pilates.

If you decide to take a class or private lesson, do your homework and go to a professional who is certified. The type of certification varies, but the fact that they have gone through the extensive training says a lot.

If you have practice Pilates, which changes have you experienced in yourself?                    If  you like this post, please share it on FB, G+, Twitter, Pinterest, etc.

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