Joseph H. Pilates was born in Germany in 1880 to a gymnast father and naturopath mother. Plagued throughout childhood with rickets, asthma and rheumatic fever, he plunged himself into sports such as gymnastics, wrestling, skiing, and diving, determined to overcome these illnesses.
While living in the United Kingdom in 1914, he was interned with other “enemy aliens” in a British internment camp. Along with teaching wrestling and self defense to healthy prisoners, he worked in the camp hospital with the infirm. Taking the springs from the patient’s beds, he developed a pully system, enabling the bedridden to stay as healthy as possible while hospitalized. During the great influenza Pandemic which killed millions of people the world over and hit the camp heavily, legend has it that all of Joe’s trainees survived.
After the war ended, Joseph H. Pilates returned to Germany, where he continued his interest in holistic medicine, homeopathy, meditation, breath work, yoga and Trigger Point therapy. He trained the Hamburg Military Police, as well as private clientele, until he was approached by the Brown Shirts to be their trainer. Not wanting to be involved with their politics, Joe left Germany by ship and immigrated to the United States. On this long trans-Atlantic journey, Joe met his future wife, a nurse named Clara. On arrival in New York City, they were married, opened a studio, and began to teach “Contrology”, Joseph and Clara Pilates’ body of work.
Word quickly spread through New York about the Pilates’ genius and strange machines. They worked for many .years with athletes, business people, trades people, actors and dancers. Among their famous clientele were actors Sir Lawrence Olivier and Katherine Hepburn. Among their famous dancers were George Balanchine and Martha Graham, who also sent them many of their company dancers for strength training and injury rehabilitation.
Over the past eighty years, thousands of dancers, the vast majority in or around New York, have known the power and injury prevention of the Pilates technique. Many dancers traditionally have been introduced to Pilates after injury or surgery. They have often discovered that with Pilates training, they have returned to rehearsals stronger then they were before their injury!
In the last ten years, modern day movie stars and professional athletes have re-“discovered” the incredible potential of their bodies with Pilates. Hence, Pilates has dramatically exploded almost overnight onto the mainstream stage. Joseph Pilates always knew that his and Clara’s work was fifty years ahead of its time. What a wonderful era that we live in that so many people now get to experience it!
Pilates can be practiced by everyone. You can reap its benefits whether you are a professional athlete or dancer trying to up the stakes, a homemaker juggling a heavy child on one hip while running a household, a professional that sits in front of a computer all day with less then desirable posture, someone finished with physical therapy but not quite feeling like your old self, or a senior with balance challenges. The Pilates system is excitingly diverse, and with hundreds of variations of exercises, there are many perfect for you!
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Pilates increases strength, flexibility , balance, coordination and focus. It is a whole-body system that profoundly affects our every day activities. After several sessions you may pleasantly discover that you can sit longer without pain, lift heavy objects with less effort, and have more energy to get you through your busy day.
Photo: Skyler S.
“Pre- Pilates” exercises lay a solid foundation of alignment, center/core strength and awareness. Building a solid foundation of good technique enables students to realize fast results while simultaneously preventing injury. Starting slow and steady enables your body to become strong, flexible and truly prepared to tackle traditional Pilates exercises. Once these basics are in place, the sky is the limit and a solid foundation for growth has been constructed.
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If done properly, Pilates is an amazingly safe body/mind practice accessible to all body types and fitness levels. Unfortunately, due to the almost overnight mainstream awareness of Pilates, the market has become flooded with under-qualified teachers. Well intentioned, under-trained teachers often do not have the training or experience required to assess body alignment, body mechanics, or special body circumstances and therefore are not able to effectively modify exercises to make them safe for all body types and fitness levels. Additionally, group exercise classes are also often too large for a teacher to monitor and correct students’ alignment. If you are new to Pilates make sure to start with either small group classes or private sessions with a qualified teacher.
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Breathing- Breathing helps with concentration, oxygenation of muscles, and energizes. Once you begin your Pilates journey you will quickly realize how often you go through your daily activities not breathing! Disciplined breathing sounds easy, but is usually the first hurdle for the new trainee to grasp. All movements are connected to the breath, versus holding the breath during movement.
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Center- Using your center stabilizes the spine before movement or physical stress, and adds incredible power to your movement. Students often claim after a few classes that their day to day activities get easier and that objects feel lighter. Every movement comes from the center/core: the lower abdominals, small stabilizing muscles of the back, diaphragm and pelvic floor.
Concentration- . With Pilates every movement has intention and focus, which makes the exercises extremely effective, engaging and anything but boring. Cooperation and connection between the mind and body are key. It’s definitely not reading a magazine while on a stationary bike!
Control- Using safe form and smooth, flowing movement (no momentum or jerky movement that often causes injury), the body codifies itself to explore endless possibilities.
Precision- With Pilates the emphasis is on quality, not quantity. Success is dependent on “how" you perform each exercise, not how many repetitions you can complete! You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how rapidly your strength will increase with a handful of immaculately performed repetitions. This “kinder, gentler” workout packs a huge punch!