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The History of Pilates


The Pilates Method as it is practiced today is a complete and thorough program of mental and physical conditioning. Many of the small therapeutic movements can be modified for people recovering from injuries or intensified to enhance the skill base of elite athletes and dancers. Attracting people of all ages and levels of fitness, the Pilates Method of exercise has become extremely popular worldwide. Its benefits include correcting muscular imbalances, realigning the body, and building core strength from the inside out. Abdominal and low-back strength is essential for everyday life, sports, and recreational activities. Learning to stabilise the core properly in all daily activities will help to prevent injury and make for a stronger overall body.


German born Joseph H. Pilates (1880-1967) was an accomplished boxer, gymnast, and circus performer. He personally triumphed over a succession of physical ailments, including asthma and rheumatic fever, by devoting himself to the practice of athletics. Joseph Pilates believed in training the mind and body to work together toward the goal of overall fitness.

Joseph Pilates
Although born in a different era, Joseph Pilates understood the physical and mental pressures of a busy schedule. He sought to re-educate us to work our bodies with the efficiency of performing our daily tasks in mind. Pilates believed that his method would propel people to become more productive both mentally and physically. For this reason the Pilates mat work is designed to fit into the physical and time constraints of the individual without diminishing its comprehensive elements.


Joseph Pilates went to England in 1912, where he worked as a self-defence instructor for detectives at Scotland Yard. At the outbreak of World War I, Pilates was interned as an "enemy alien" with other German nationals. During his internment, Pilates refined his ideas and trained other internees in his system of exercise. Pilates saw amputees dying simply because they were not moving and their bodies wasted away. He rigged springs to hospital beds, enabling bedridden patients to exercise against resistance, an innovation that led to his later equipment designs. An influenza epidemic struck England in 1918, killing thousands of people, but not a single one of Joe's trainees died. This, he claimed, testified to the effectiveness of his system.


The exercises and equipment that he designed 80 years ago are now finding a large audience because conventional programs have failed. Pilates works the deeper muscles to achieve efficient and graceful movement, improve alignment and breathing, and increase body awareness. They deliver simultaneous stretching and strengthening in a non-impact balanced system of body/mind exercise.


The Pilates method of exercise has been very popular with dancers since the 1940's but it is now becoming much better known. Today his followers include dancers, athletes, physiotherapists, fitness trainers, health care providers and other professionals who appreciate the significant role exercise plays in restoring and maintaining good health


Joe continued to train clients at his studio until his death in 1967 at the age of 87. In the 1970's, Hollywood celebrities discovered Pilates via Ron Fletcher's studio in Beverly Hills . Where the stars go, the media follows. In the late 1990's, the media began to cover Pilates extensively. The public took note, and the Pilates business boomed. Today, millions of people practice Pilates, and the numbers continue to grow.


Two forms of Pilates


The two basic forms of Pilates include mat based and equipment based exercises.


  • Mat-based Pilates - the most popular form of Pilates. This is a series of exercises performed on the floor using gravity and your own body weight to provide the resistance. The central aim is to condition the deeper, supporting muscles of the body to improve posture, balance and coordination.



  • Equipment-based Pilates - for the serious practitioner, Pilates includes specific equipment including the 'Reformer', which looks like a moveable carriage that you push and pull along the floor. Some forms of Pilates include free weights (such as dumbbells) that offer resistance to the muscles.




Pilates consists of moving through a slow, sustained series of exercises using abdominal control and proper breathing. The quality of each posture is what's important, not the number of repetitions or how energetically you can move. There are books and videotapes available, but seek instruction from a qualified Pilates method teacher or Pilates-trained physiotherapist to get the best results.


Pilates challenges the body


Pilates is partly inspired by yoga, but is different in one key respect: yoga is made up of a series of static postures, while Pilates is based on putting yourself into unstable postures and challenging your body by moving the limbs. For example, imagine you are lying on your back, with bent knees and both feet on the floor. An exercise may involve straightening one leg so that your toes point to the ceiling, and using the other leg to slowly raise and lower your body. You need tight abdominal and buttock muscles to keep your hips square, and focused attention to stop yourself from tipping over. Once you've been doing Pilates for a while, you find yourself sitting, standing and walking (for example) more gracefully and economically.


Teaching Pilates is unique, and profound. It is a movement technique that requires learning fundamentals to build upon. It takes time to develop the skills; cognitive and associative domains of learning. It is essential to repeat, refine and understand the skill. Pilates improves alignment because it strengthens the torso’s support structure. Daily posture and movement habits, dance techniques and sports can stress and distort the body’s natural alignment. Pilates can help deepen your core contraction to use muscles in the pelvis and torso correctly. This helps prevent injury to the joints of the hips, lower spine and knees. Greater muscle balance and symmetry is achieved when you learn to use the body correctly. Because of the systematic approach to the exercises, Pilates teaches your body to work more balanced. The tendency to favor one leg or overdevelop certain muscle groups is diminished through the evenness of exercises. In dance, it is essential to develop the posterior side of the frontal plane. Pilates can help you learn to use the muscles in the back of your legs, lifting from underneath, instead of overworking the quadriceps. Precision in turns is based upon strength in the supporting leg; kicks and extensions are executed from flexibility in the working leg and strength in the supporting leg


Because of its emphasis on flexibility and strength, the Pilates exercises are popular not only among dancers, but also gymnasts, football players and other athletes who want to focus on these aspects of exercise. Pilates caters for everyone, from the beginner to the advanced. You can perform exercises using your own body weight, or with the aid of various pieces of equipment. A typical Pilates workout would include a number of exercises performed at low repetitions in sets of five to 10, with a session lasting around 60 minutes. Each exercise is performed with attention to proper breathing techniques and abdominal control. To gain the maximum benefit, you should do Pilates at least two or three times per week. You could notice postural improvements after 10 to 20 sessions.


General cautions


Although Pilates is a safe and low impact form of exercise, certain people should seek medical advice before embarking on a new program, including:


  • Pregnant women
  • People aged 40 years or more
  • People with a pre-existing medical condition such as heart disease
  • People with pre-existing musculoskeletal injuries or disorders
  • Anyone who has not exercised for a long time
  • Those who are very overweight or obese.

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