04 Oct Taking Control
How a sickly child, bullied by his peers, created a respected exercise method hugely popular the world over
Everyone seems to know about yoga. But what about Pilates? It’s fast becoming the ultimate health tool. So what is it? Who created it? And how can it help you?
Joseph Pilates was the founder of this strikingly sensible method. He had a vision that has taken decades to become rightly respected. Today, what Joseph Pilates knew in mid-20th Century has finally emerged as somewhat of a lifesaver for millions (In the US alone, recent research shows more than 11 million people are now practicing this method).
He simply knew that learning a few basic movements and training people’s brain alongside this was, actually, exercise; that this would change the way people walked, stood, breathed, sat and, of course, it would reduce the chances of them living with pain or illness.
Once they mastered these simple movements and/or techniques, staying stronger for life no longer became a distant dream. Many would also then go on to becoming fit, strong and toned.
This is the basis of what he termed Contrology, a word that may sound fantastical but is, in fact, simple mechanics that more and more of us desperately need to learn if we want to stay healthier for longer.
In fact, it starts with the basic act of breathing. Joseph Pilates was often amazed at how little people could actually breathe properly. That is, to the point where it benefited their health.
He once said: “Breathing is the first act of life, and the last. Our very life depends on it. Since we cannot live without breathing, it is tragically deplorable to contemplate the millions and millions who have never learned to master the art of correct breathing.”
Then, of course, there’s sitting. We are desk-bound, slouched over computers for much of our daily lives. What does this do to our backs and necks? It constricts our muscles and makes them weak and stiff. Pain ensues. Exercise becomes a feared concept.
Contrology aims to make us aware of the small things we do everyday and to shift the way we approach them. It uses the mind to conquer our bodies. Over time, we walk taller, stand stronger, move more efficiently.
“One of the major results of Contrology is gaining the mastery of your mind over the complete awareness of your body,” says the Contrology Pilates Method (CPM), a US-based group. “How many beginners are amazed and chagrined (even trained athletes in the public eye) to discover how few (if any) Contrology exercises they are able to execute properly!
“Their previous failure to exercise regularly and properly, or their method of training, has not helped them. There is unmistakable evidence that the functioning of the brain has correspondingly deteriorated.”
So who was Joseph Pilates?
Here, US-based instructor Jillian Hessel explains:
Pilates was born in 1880 near Düsseldorf, Germany. His Greek father had been a prize-winning gymnast, while his German-born mother was a naturopath who believed in the principle of stimulating the body to heal itself without artificial drugs. No doubt his mother’s healing philosophy and father’s physical achievements greatly influenced Pilates’ later ideas on therapeutic exercise.
Small and sickly as a child, he was afflicted with asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever, and was continually taunted by the bigger children. He quickly became determined to overcome his physical disadvantages.
Thereupon young Joseph began to self-educate himself in anatomy, bodybuilding, wrestling, yoga, gymnastics, and martial arts. He soon achieved an almost Adonis-like “anatomical ideal,” to the extent that at the age of 14 he was posing as a model for anatomy charts.
He was also an accomplished boxer, skier, and diver, enamored by the classical Greek ideal of a man who is balanced equally in body, mind, and spirit. He came to believe that our modern lifestyle, bad posture, and inefficient breathing were the roots of poor health.
His answer to these problems was to design a unique series of vigorous physical exercises that helped to correct muscular imbalances and improve posture, coordination, balance, strength, and flexibility, as well as to increase breathing capacity and organ function. He also invented a variety of machines, based on spring-resistance that could be used to perform these exercises.
There is a famous story about Pilates’ inspiration for his unique apparatus. Before World War I he was touring England as a circus performer and professional boxer, and even teaching self-defense to the Scotland Yard police force. But when war broke out, he found himself interned in England as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man.
The health conditions in the internment camps were not great, but Pilates insisted that everyone in his cell block participate in daily exercise routines to help maintain both their physical and mental well-being.
However, some of the injured German soldiers were too weak to get out of bed. Not content to leave his comrades lying idle, Pilates took springs from the beds and attached them to the headboards and footboards of the iron bed frames, turning them into equipment that provided a type of resistance exercise for his bedridden “patients.”
These mechanized beds were the forerunners of the spring-based exercise machines, such as the Cadillac and the Reformer, used in studios around the world today.
Pilates legend has it that during the great flu epidemic of 1918, not a single one of the soldiers under his care died. He credited his Contrology technique for the prisoners’ strength and fitness — remarkable under the less than optimum living conditions of internment camps, which were hit especially hard by this deadly flu.
After the war, Pilates decided to emigrate to the United States. He met his future wife and dedicated teaching partner, Clara, on the boat to New York City. Together they opened the first Body Contrology Studio on Eighth Avenue at 56th Street in Manhattan, in the same building as a number of dance studios.
“At some time or other, virtually every dancer in New York, and certainly everyone who has studied at Jacob’s Pillow between 1939 and 1951, has meekly submitted to the spirited instruction of Joe Pilates.” Dance magazine, February 1956 issue.
For the rest of his life, Pilates continued to develop his exercise system and to create new pieces of equipment for it.
He died in New York aged 83, described in his eulogy as being ‘as limber as a teenager’.
Want to know more about the method behind Pilates, the man who created it and how it can help you look and feel better? Try this out: