If you are in the business of teaching Pilates, you’ll likely spend enormous amounts of time trying to define what Pilates is, so that you can effortlessly communicate it to family and friends, current and prospective students, other fitness and health professionals, and if you are anything like me — yourself. You likely noticed that it is not easy to pin down just how exactly to describe the method.
Finding my own definition of Pilates has been a journey of 15 years and counting. What started as a weekly class on my dance training schedule quickly became my passion, career, and life. For the longest time, my understanding of Pilates was defined by how well I knew the exercises, and how well I could perform them. Later, the repertoire took a backseat to my growing knowledge of the moving body and its minutiae. And eventually, understanding Pilates meant establishing and practicing successful communication and effective teaching skills. Even now, as a teacher and educator of the work, Pilates remains a path of perpetual study, and with every new piece of information, everything I thought I knew about the method has to be reconsidered.
About five years ago, I realized that there was still a missing link in my understanding of the work I taught every day. While I read both of Joseph Pilates’ books and knew the facts and anecdotal stories that were commonly told, I finally questioned how much I really knew about the original definition and purpose of the work. Given that I was born and raised not too far from where Joseph grew up, I also had a natural curiosity about his personal journey.
And so, with many unanswered questions about Joseph and his method, a knack for research, luck on ebay, and the help of patient historians, librarians, and newspaper archivists, I started collecting the pieces to the Contrology puzzle. I browsed many newspaper archives, spent many long days at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival and the New York Library of Performing Arts, followed up on any lead of Pilates’ friends and students whose personal collections were archived, and listened to countless stories of those who experienced Joseph’s work in person.
The heart of my research is an extensive collection of nearly 200 pages of archival writings. It includes original copies of his books, newspaper articles and interviews, personal letters, business correspondence, studio brochures, and equipment pamphlets. While many of the materials served a marketing purpose and may not always paint a historically accurate picture, they clearly outline the way Joseph wanted himself and his method to be perceived. The writings highlight the original intent, thought process, and refinement of the method we now call Pilates.
Making sense of these materials is much like detective work. When it comes to his personal timeline, there are conflicts in both dates (he changed his year of birth by 3 years later in life) and statements (it’s still not clear whether he was a “frail child” or “never sick a day”), but as far as the guiding principles behind his work, the writings are consistent.
To understand Joseph’s work, one has to understand the problem he was trying to solve. It was not a problem of saggy bellies, arms, and behinds alone. Rather, it was a problem of decreasing health due to increasingly sedentary lifestyles all around him. He knew that if he couldn’t fix everyone’s lifestyle, he could at least bring people back into their bodies. His mission was to show the world a way to physical health through better exercise, sleep, and hygiene practices.
It is noteworthy that much of what we consider to be “Pilates” was in fact around well before Joe. In the context of physical culture of his time, most of the exercises, the use of springs in training equipment, and his philosophies and theories around physical health were very common. But what truly set Joseph apart — even compared to today’s standards of movement education — was his talent in engineering unique apparatus and furniture, and his holistic understanding of human movement.
Joseph documented an incredible awareness of all of the body’s systems and their role in movement. According to him, the main reason to condition our muscles and connective tissues is to create space and support for our organs and joints to function better. He believed that as our modern lifestyles mess with our innate movement potential, cultivating improved physical function had to precede the acquisition of specialized strength and motor skills. Modern exercise science shows he was right, which is why training methods based on “natural”, bodyweight movement, and barebones gyms are back on the rise in today’s fitness landscape.
Of course we know that a movement practice benefits the entire body beyond the muscular system. But it’s important to know just how much Joseph Pilates emphasized this all throughout his career. For example, in an extensive essay from 1957 Joseph defines the essence of his work like this:
“Contrology is the science and art of body-mind-spirit development through mild but rigorously disciplined physical movement. It is specifically designed and conducted to arouse sluggish blood, d-i-s-t-e-n-d every capillary, force lymph through every interstice: by s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g every muscle and sinew and wringing-out the body. All under the strict control of the awakened brain in each of its ten billions of nerve cells.”
This demonstrates that in many cases, the movements he sequenced together for his method work like a marble maze, sending fluids and nutrients through the body, and massaging it internally to flush out its fatigue-inducing toxins — the garbage — as Joseph called it. In other excerpts of the same essay he talks about how Contrology stimulates and affects the endocrine, and the neuromuscular system. It’s fascinating to note that he talks a lot about strength in the abdomen — but never about strength in the abdominal muscles!
Looking at the work’s past I keep wondering whether Pilates has become too specialized. Whether we have taken it too far towards either end of the spectrum between fitness and corrective exercise.
Because what Joseph knew, and what modern science confirms, too, is that our bodies once knew how to take care of themselves through movement, and that it’s mostly the lack of constantly indulging in that ability that makes us forget how. To solve a movement problem, we need to take the whole body into account: the anatomy, physiology, and psychology come into play with equal importance. Movement problems are mostly just habits, and can only be corrected by replacing them with other, better, sustainable habits.
And Pilates, by design, is a collection of good movement habits.
Joseph Pilates’ work is functional not only to our muscles and bones, but to our nerves and organs, fluids and tissues, and the working relationship between all of them. As his method evolved based on his own research, he stayed on a clear trajectory, with solid guiding principles at its core. My work continues to revolve around extracting those principles, examining them with movement experts both within and outside the Pilates community, and sharing them through presentations, workshops, and this blog. As exercise science is catching up with what Joseph knew decades ago, it’s a great opportunity to realign with his original intent, philosophy, and repertoire, and find a place where this work fits into the context of the fitness and wellness landscape today.
15 years into my journey, I am okay with the fact that my definition of Pilates will constantly evolve. For right now, it is this:
Pilates, just like our bodies, is a living thing. Our definition of the work needs to be adaptable to meet our current expertise, and the realities of the bodies we are working with, in line with Joseph’s guiding principles. The ultimate goal is to make bodies become adaptable and resilient enough to withstand whatever we decide to do with them — for life.