I am a trained instructor of both methods of exercise, and therefore have a unique understanding of both. Both methods are valuable in bringing awareness to your body, and both have benefits for strengthening and aligning the body.
Histories Of Tthe Creators
Pilates was a sickly child, and determined to improve his health. He observed animals and studied anatomy to understand the rhythms and mechanics underlying natural movement. He practiced martial arts and gymnastics, and as his understanding of functional movement emerged, he healed his body as a natural result of healthy movement. His experience crystalized into a method once he was in an internment camp in England during World War I. He was determined not to become ill himself, and started instructing others how to stay fit while being held prisoner. Lore has it that he developed his Reformer apparatus from fashioning bed springs to create resistance for bed-ridden people in the camp. His creativity began to emerge more and more after he was released, because he developed more apparatus such as the Reformer, Wunda Chair and Trapeze table. These apparatus encourage the body to find the muscular connections that can be elusive to people just starting to get fit. The equipment supports building tone and uniform development through resistance. His method does not require the use of equipment, but the equipment complements the work, and understanding of the exercises are enhanced by it. His apparatus are arguably why Pilates became so well-known as a unique form of exercise, and continues to support a vibrant industry of teacher training and equipment manufacturing.
Besides being an inventor, Pilates was an author, and wrote his treatise, "Return to Life," to outline his beliefs and deliver his message and method to the world. He named his method Contrology, but it was called Pilates by his disciples after his death in 1968.
Callan was born with scoliosis and clubbed feet. Her health issues required that she wear leg braces as a child. She studied ballet for 10 years, which enabled her to gain enough strength to no longer need leg braces. Rather than going to college, she longed to explore the world, so she ran away from home to Germany with no plans and nothing more than a rucksack. She traveled and worked odd jobs in Europe, Africa and Asia, but the strains of travel and of carrying all her world possessions on her back took its toll on her body. She was so frail and bent by the time she returned to the U.S. that her mother fainted upon seeing her appearance when she got off the plane. Callan had studied yoga while in India, and trained with Lotte Berk (a contemporary of Joseph Pilates) while in London. She knew she needed to regain her health, and was determined to heal herself. Due to the needs in her body, she developed her exercise method based on what she had learned from various teachers around the world. She combined moves from ballet and yoga, and started teaching students in New York.
She was frustrated with the level of fitness being published in the ‘80s so she decided to write her own book. Once she realized that the recognition wasn’t coming to her, she went out and got it for herself. She began her own publicity campaign by calling television shows and finally got booked on Oprah and Sally Jesse Raphael. Her video remains the top selling fitness VHS in the UK and United States.
Callan didn’t have a name for her exercise method of deep muscle contractions and spine stretches, but her students began to combine her name with "athletics" and thus, the name Callanetics came to be.
Differences And Similarities In Methods
In my own practice of both, I have come to understand them in terms of yin and yang. The concept of yin and yang is that there is polarity of energy, and that both sides are necessary for that of wholeness. To me, Pilates is the yang; the method approaches the body through the lens of the whole body being in charge of its parts. Pilates is core-focused, with the periphery being managed by the core. Pilates is rooted in functional, full body movement, so each exercise requires fewer reps. It also emphasizes the flexibility and centrality of the spine.
That makes Callanetics the yin. Callanetics isolates specific muscle groups and small, controlled reps are performed. A Callanetics workout works every muscle group and several reps (usually 100) are performed. This building of tone in the parts of the body allows the spine to ease through the lengthening and toning of the peripheral muscles. The lens of Callanetics is that strengthening and bringing awareness to the parts of the body in isolation can better support the whole.
What I’ve noticed through teaching both is that Callanetics can be useful for people who have trouble gaining simultaneous control of all their parts. Especially if you lack tone in certain areas, being coached to "use" those muscles in Pilates can be difficult to do. Being allowed to focus on one area or part at a time, and then building tone and strength there can then allow you to find the muscular awareness so you can connect in the full body exercises of Pilates.
Pilates work should not be discarded because of the difficulty of using your body as a whole. Focusing exclusively on one part at a time can fool you into thinking that you are strong everywhere because you’re so good at isolating. You never isolate one body part in daily life, so challenging your nervous system to be strong and work as a unit from your center is necessary to be healthy. It should be practiced and continually sought after, even if it’s difficult.
So the Pilates approach is to view and use the body from the whole to the parts, and Callanetics through the parts to support the whole. Both require immense concentration, through which awareness of the mind-body connection emerges. Both emphasize breathing and proper alignment, and both were developed through the sincere desires of the creators to heal the body through movement. Both methods were developed by people who used their unique life experiences and understanding to help others become healthy and happy.
It is up to the practitioner to observe one’s self and see where they could perhaps use some balance. Perhaps some Pilates practitioners would find it beneficial to focus and tone certain areas, and see what emotional issues come up from focusing on one part at a time; and Callanetics practioners could challenge themselves to step back and find strength and organization as a whole unit, instead of being so narrowly focused.