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Pilates the exercise of contrology

Updated on January 17, 2011

Joseph Pilates

Joseph Pilates originally called his art contrology because he believed that one of the core tenants of the system was to use the mind to control the body. The system of exercise that he developed is now more commonly known as Pilates, named, obviously for its founder.

Joseph Pilates was born in Germany of Greek ancestry. As a child, he suffered from poor health and contracted rheumatic fever, asthma and rickets. As so often the case with sickly children, he decided to dedicate himself to physical culture to make his body stronger and so, he began to study and practice yoga, gymnastics and body building. Some accounts say he also trained in Chinese Kung Fu. As he studied and learned, Pilates began to develop his own system of physical culture and beliefs, one of which was that bad posture and inneficient breathing caused many of the health problems that we see today. With his dedication and drive to develop a comprehensive system to train the body and mind, he devised exercises and equipment and training techniquest to pass on his system.

For a time, he earned his living as a boxer and circus performer in England before World War I, and even taught self-defence in Scotland Yard. However, when the war broke out, he was detained by the authorities and placed in a concentration camp. It was here, bizzarly that he really began to develop and integrate his body method which he called Contrology. He apparently taught the other inmates his system and folklore has it that their great physical shape is what kept them from dying in the great pandemic of 1918.

He went back home to Germany after the war ended to further his studies, but eventually moved to America in the mid 1920s. In New York, he and his wife set up a studio to teach his methods which through his extensive work, he had refined. Although many people simply use Pilates as a physical exercise, it is important to remember that Joseph Pilates originally taught that the mind should control the body. His extensive work on posture and breathing brought natural attention to the core muscles of the body which have passed into common use today, and many of the original Contrology exercises stress careful control over the spine and awareness of the breath.

Pilates found a good home in New York and gained a steady following among dancers and performing artists, both for rehabilitation from injury and simply as an adjunct to regular dance training. Legends of the silver screen such as Katherine Hepburn and Gregory Peck were keen Pilates practitioners. It took a while, but eventually Pilates started to become more popular and the number of people who now do Pilates is growing steadily each year.

Even though Pilates itself is a young discipline, it already has several branches or types that have sprung up. Like anything, some of these are refinements and attempts to distil the practices, and some are simply ways of differentiating a slightly different approach to the training by different teachers. Joseph Pilates himself did not set out and actual formal curriculum which basically allows Pilates to be a very flexible art, with each teacher bringing their own experience and unique approach to the system.

Broadly speaking, Pilates can be separated into Machine and Mat work.

Mat Work

In matwork based Pilates, no machines or equipment are used, instead the basic techniques of Pilates are practised and developed using the body alone. Matwork is great as an introduction to Pilates techniques and principles and has the great advantage that you can practice it almost anywhere without relying on expensive machines or apparatus. Even though Joseph Pilates originally used equipment to help people understand the method, many instructors gravitate towards matwork because it really represents the grass roots of a system of exercise. Matwork can be every bit as challenging as Pilates sessions that utilise the various machines, and some matwork classes will use some props such as small weighted balls or foam rollers. It is because of matwork classes that Pilates sometimes gets compared to yoga, and indeed there are many parallels between the two exercise systems.

Aparatus work

Pilates originally used various machines and apartus to help teach his method so in a sense, the equipment based Pilates studio could be considered more classical than a matwork based one. The machines themselves have names like The Reformer, The Cadilac, The Wunda Chair and the Ladder Barrel.

The Reformer
This is the most common and widely used piece of Pilates equipment when talking about classical pilates. It makes use of various springs to provide progressive resistance (in other words the exercise gets harder as the spring is stretched). The reformer itself is a rather brilliant machine, made of either wood or metal, it can look very elegant with various springs and pulleys and ropes to allow a full range of exercise that will transform your entire body under the guidance of an experienced Pilates instructor. Essentially, the reformer works by having you sit or lie on the carriage which glides back and forth based on pulling and pushing the static parts of it. Resistance is provided by various springs.

The Cadillac
This is larger than the reformer and doesn't include a gliding carriage. It looks somewhat like a four-poster bed. It is just as useful as the reformer in terms of the variety of exercises you can do on it and you might see a mini-trapeze on it as well. Legend has it that Joseph Pilates created the cadillac for his bed-ridden patients

The Wunda Chair
Another of the original set of Pilates designed equipment, the Wunda Chair is suitable for everyone involved in Pilates from beginner to advanced practitioner. The chair itself is a fairly simple device, and consists of a "pedal" attached to some springs, again utilising the concept oof progressive resistance. The pedal can sometimes be split into two which allows each side of the body to be worked independently at the same time. The pedal is depressed with various parts of the body - most obviously, the feet, but it can also be used by the arms in more advanced manoeuvres. The wunda chair is a great piece of equipment, obviously less expensive than a reformer and so it is more suitable for people who want a piece of equipment for their homes. It also has the advantage that, when not in use as a piece of exercise equipment it can also be used as a chair in your living room (albeit a rather strange looking one).

The importance of Spirals in Pilates

Spirals are all around us in nature and it is no wonder that they have found their way into many human endeavours from architecture to art to movement. The spiral is beautiful and magical. But it is more practical than that, water moves in spirals and we are, famously, 70% water. Our bone tissue often exhibits striations which spiral downward, enabling us to dynamically transfer weight into the earth. Our muscles wrap around our bones in spirals and even our hearth is a sort of spiral wrapping around and in and out of itself. The muscles of the core of our body wrap in spirals around us - we can trace them up from the pelvis around the body to the occiput - one on each side creating and interlacing connected spiral in our body. So of course in Pilates, with its emphasis on the core, we use spirals to both drive our motion and we allow the spirals of motion to take place.

Pilates places much emphasis on knowing the body. It is not an obscure form of exercise that uses esoteric concepts at all. Instead a sound anatomical knowledge and clear awareness bring us closer to our body and help to integrate us into a whole being.


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