One of my favorite questions I received when I first started my Pilates teacher-training program. An acquaintance asked "Pilates, eh? What are they?"
Pilates isn’t plural for a collection of things that models and people in physical therapy do. Pilates is named after the man that created the method. Joseph Pilates was a man with a brilliant mind, a strong and healthy body, a penchant for wearing tight fitting shorts and notorious longevity. Pilates tends to defy easy and brief explanations of what it is, but it’s helpful to investigate what Joe himself said about fitness and the body, and how he defined his own method.
Pilates a.k.a Contrology
Joseph Pilates called his method Contrology. "The study of control" so elegantly describes the heart of the method.
Joseph believed that our lifestyles wreak havoc on our nervous systems and bodies. In our present society, we have to give constant thought and energy to the pursuit of fitness because our environment is comprised of different "stresses," such as polluted air, crowded and noisy cities, and technology that requires us to perform tasks automatically and habitually, without conscious thought of the effects they may have on our health. All our energy for living gets expended during the day just to lead our hectic lives, and we have no reserve energy for play and recreation. When we occasionally choose to take a hike or spend the weekend doing something healthy, instead of being revitalized, we find ourselves fatigued and in recovery from the activity.
Believing that the effort it takes to live in the world shouldn’t be so hard, Joseph developed Contrology as a way to return our bodies to the natural, rhythmic movement that’s present in children and animals. Joe believed that our approach to fitness should be to see the body as whole, and to seek to develop it as such. This means not exercising one set of muscles at a time, or targeting certain areas. The goal should not be to develop "bulging" muscles, because over-developed muscles interfere with flexibility and the proper development of under-developed muscles. Exercising all of our muscles is a major emphasis in Pilates because developing the minor muscles naturally helps to strengthen the major ones.
Pilates exercises are intended to be full body, and to strengthen the weaker and under-utilized muscles. Uniformity also means keeping all systems, including our organs, as healthy as possible so they’ll support our current mode of living and so we have a reserve of vitality for play and recreation.
A unique feature of Pilates is the emphasis of complete control of the body through using the mind. The notion that our muscles should obey our will, and our will should not be dominated by the reflex actions of our muscles may be novel to those of us conditioned by the repetitive and thoughtless tasks that fill our daily lives. Doing Pilates enables us to control and manipulate every muscle in our body through the power and will of our minds.
The act of concentrating on the work is actually built into the intention behind the method. What other original exercise system can say that? Joseph promised that concentrating and focusing on the movements will reawaken thousands of dormant muscle cells, and in return reawaken dormant brain cells. Continued Pilates practice will steadily increase the normal and natural supply of blood flow to your brain, and correspondingly stimulate previously dormant areas of the brain. This is why Pilates practitioners report discovering the mind-body connection, and feeling a sense of renewed energy and uplift.
The Detox Effect
Joseph was very aware of the importance of healthy circulation and breathing. When doing Pilates it’s normal to feel a rush of energy; a flushing, cleansing feeling under your skin. Joseph dubbed this an "internal shower” – blood circulating in the body to places that don’t regularly receive it. It’s a fabulous feeling that becomes addictive – you want to seek it out again and again.
The infusion of blood to those areas results in clearing out debris and toxins in the body that accumulate as a result of fatigue and stagnation.
By doing Pilates you won’t be exercising in the traditionally exhausting way that strains and stresses your heart. Pilates exercises protect against strenuous heart pounding, since they’re done while sitting or reclining. They’re designed this way to prevent undue strain, and to also place the visceral organs in a more embedded position within the body.
Joseph Pilates connects proper heart health to proper breathing. Correct breath "reduces strain on the heart, purifies the blood, and develops the lungs," he said. Unlike in yoga, Pilates breathing involves squeezing the air out of your lungs completely, so they completely and effortlessly refill themselves. The fresh incoming air provides oxygen to the bloodstream, which stimulates your muscles into greater activity.
Joseph Pilates famously said "If your spine is inflexibly stiff at 30, you are old; if it is completely flexible at 60, you are young.” An unhealthy spine will affect the entire body adversely. Keeping your spine strong and flexible is at the heart of his method. Your spine is your center, and the origin of all alignment and flexibility issues. The muscles that control and manipulate the spine are the abdominals, which is why Pilates usually gets explained as a method to give you flat abs.
Practicing Contrology – a.k.a. Pilates – gives you the coordination of body, mind and spirit; flexible and strong muscles; and the ability to live a healthy, happy life.