Last month, I was asked to be a guest on a fellow programmer’s show at the KPCA radio station. After she introduced me and mentioned my show, All Things Pilates, the next words out of her mouth were, “What is Pilates?” I wish I could say that I had the perfect answer, but I didn’t, perhaps because her question was asked in the morning and my brain wasn’t fully switched on. But even if it weren’t in the morning, how could I explain Pilates and its power to transform those who practice it and how this work has shaped my life, all in a brief response? It wasn’t as if we had the entire show to talk about the numerous benefits and life changing exercises the Pilates method offers its followers. And even though it’s been my most enduring relationship, I found myself struggling to find the simplest explanation because there is just so much to the Pilates method and one short interview wouldn’t do it justice. However, now that I’ve had time to think about it, I have a lot to say.
The Pilates method is a body conditioning system built on strength, stretch and control. With each of the hundreds of exercises practiced both on the mat and the equipment, the goal is the same; to develop stability, elongation and control throughout the entire body. Every Pilates exercise is designed to activate the deep abdominal, back and core skeletal muscles and time is spent not only on each individual exercise but the transitions from exercise to exercise which establishes a flow so necessary to master the full routines. Each student learns the mat and reformer repertoire and then is introduced to all of the other apparatus and accessory props that make up this unique system.
Joseph Pilates, the creator and inventor, gave us a brilliant gift, or should I say, gifts. Those “gifts” were originally built by Joseph and his brother, Fred. Joseph constantly tweaked the apparatus designs to accommodate his students. Mr. Pilates’ invention list is awe-inspiring beginning with the High mat, then the most recognizable apparatus, the Reformer, and the list continues: the Cadillac, Wunda chair, Electric chair, Baby arm chair, Guillotine, Ladder barrel, Baby barrel, Pedipole, Spine corrector, Magic circle, Foot corrector, Toe exerciser, Hands Tens-o-meter, Breath-o-sizer, Bean bag roll up device, Push-up device, Airplane board and the recent discovery and reproduction of the Resister. How cool and amazing is that line-up?
Each apparatus has its own set of exercises that complement the mat work and because the mat work is the foundation of the Pilates method, all of the other equipment assist and amplify the mat repertoire. In addition, the breath plays a role and is integral to the method, so much so that many of the exercises are defined by the breath. One of Mr. Pilates’ more familiar quotes was that if there was only one thing he wanted a student to learn from him, it was to breathe properly.
For me, learning Pilates was a very natural transition from my days as a competitive gymnast and later as a professional dancer. Pilates teaches concentration and coordination, resulting in a greater sense of the mind/body connection. Imagine combining the techniques of gymnastics, dance, yoga and boxing into one method, then adding spring loaded apparatus – well, you get yourself quite a powerful and strength building method. Unlike weight machines or free weights that focus on particular body parts, each Pilates move requires the full body to be activated.
I knew from my first lesson, the familiar feeling of working deep in the body. And because of the rehabilitative benefits of Pilates, it has attracted scores of athletes and dancers. Mr. Pilates was a visionary. He believed that his method would and could help anyone with daily activities and life itself. Mr. Pilates used to say, “Physical fitness is the first requisite to happiness.” And actually, that says it all. A strong and supple body prepares one to handle life’s challenges and is a powerful motivator to living a happy life. And though the method is simple to understand in its geometrical design, mastering the actual exercises just might take a lifetime.