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The independent website for the UK Pilates community
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the pilates story

History

Created by Joseph Pilates in the 1920’s, Pilates is a full-body exercise method that emphasizes proper alignment, good technique and correct breathing. It aims to increase flexibility and strength as well as integrate body and mind and induce a sense of relaxation and well being. Poor posture, weak muscles and habitual patterns of misuse due to injury or poor posture make the body inefficient and out of balance creating problems with alignment and good movement patterns. Pilates helps to restore the body’s natural alignment, helping to bring it into balance so that it can move more efficiently with grace and ease and with minimal effort. The method may be taught without equipment on a mat or may employ the use of the Pilates machines developed by Joseph Pilates himself such as the Reformer, Cadillac and Ladder Barrel.

There are up to eight basic principles within the method. It is often described as a mixture of Alexander Technique – to help improve posture: Body Conditioning – to strengthen and tone the body and Yoga – to help increase flexibility. It builds strength without excess bulk, creating a slender but toned body. It is now recognized by many leading physiotherapists, osteopaths and other health professionals to help in the role of injury prevention and rehabilitation. Aside from the aesthetic benefits, Pilates is now widely used by major sports stars from varying different areas who are attracted to the benefits gained from increasing core their strength. It teaches body awareness resulting in controlled, graceful but precise movements. Anybody can do Pilates regardless of age, fitness level or gender. It is suitable for a variety of health problems and medical conditions since many of the exercises can be adapted, modified or changed to cater for individual needs.

BENEFITS OF PILATES

  • Improves posture
  • Improves mobility and flexibility of the spine
  • Increases muscle strength, endurance and tone
  • Promotes healthy joints
  • Promotes a more efficient and supportive core
  • Increases stability for the pelvis and shoulders
  • Facilitates injury prevention and physical rehabilitation
  • Improves motor skills such as balance and co-ordination
  • Builds stamina and increases circulation
  • Encourages deep and efficient breathing
  • Improves well being
  • Alleviates aches and pains, particularly back problems
  • Through weight bearing exercises, it helps to improve bone density
  • Relieves stress and tension
  • Heightens body awareness
  • Improves quality of life

WHO WAS JOSEPH H. PILATES?

Joseph Hubertus Pilates was born near Düsseldorf in Germany in 1880. As a child, he suffered from many illnesses such as asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. In order to build up his own body, he dedicated his life to becoming physically fit. He decided to study yoga and Zen meditation. Around the age of 14, he became proficient in gymnastics, diving and skiing.

In 1912, he came to England and became a boxer and he also worked as a circus performer. Later he trained detectives at Scotland Yard in the art of self-defence.

During World War One, he was interned in a war camp. It was here that he taught fellow internees his exercises, which combined flexibility and strength that he had used to build up his own body.

It was whilst working as a hospital orderly on the Isle of Man that the idea for the original Cadillac machine was born. By attaching ropes and springs to the beds of soldiers who could not walk, he helped in their rehabilitation process.

He returned to Germany after the war where he continued to develop and teach his method. Pilates popularity spread to the dance community thanks to gaining favour via Rudolf Von Laban, creator of the famous dance notation. It was when the German government requested that he train the German army that Joe decided to emigrate.In 1926, he moved to the States where he met his wife, Clara, whom he eventually married. Together they established a studio in New York City where they shared premises with the New York City Ballet. It was here that he taught his method of exercise, which he named, Controlology.

The studio became very popular with dancers since it helped them recover from injury and strengthened their technique. Because of their shared address with the NYC ballet, many dancers trained with Joe. George Balanchine, who studied with Joe, invited him to train his young ballerinas. Other dance legends such as Martha Graham, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, Jerome Robbins also trained with Joe. Two of Joe’s students, Carola Trier and Bob Seed, are known to have opened their own studios whilst Joe was still alive. Bob Seed was a former hockey player whilst Trier, had a background in dance. Joe and Clara remained close friends with Trier until their deaths but fell out with Seed when he opened a studio across town from Joe and tried poach some of his clients.

In 1967, at the age of 87, Joseph Pilates died without leaving a will. It was only after his death that Contrology became known as the Pilates method.

His legacy lives on through the masses of instructors teaching his method and via the two books he wrote in his lifetime.

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PILATES PRINCIPLES & TERMINOLOGY

According to which text you read, there are up to nine Pilates principles. Since Joseph Pilates did not directly write down these principles, there is no concrete agreement within the Pilates industry as to the order or particular terminology used to describe each principle. We therefore rely on the work of his successors to describe the concepts taken from his work. The principles can seem vague initially but it is the application of these concepts within each exercises that make Pilates unique.

Centering

Focus is brought to the centre of the body where all Pilates movements originate. The energy for the exercises are sourced from the centre or what we now refer to as the core. Joseph Pilates coined the term “powerhouse” to refer to this area of the body. This area extends from the rib cage down to the pelvic basin and incorporates the abdominals, back, pelvic floor, inner thighs and buttocks. All action and energy for Pilates exercises initiates from the powerhouse and flows outwards to the extremities. It therefore builds great abdominal strength, allowing the rest of the body to move much more effectively and efficiently. Regardless of which area of the body being worked, the emphasis is on every action being initiated from the core. Once the core muscles are engaged, this assists in stability of the pelvis and spine and reduces risk of injury whilst exercising. Pilates therefore strengthens the interior (or architectural muscles) of the body before attempting to strengthen the exterior.

Concentration

It is important to establish a connection between body and mind to gain optimal value from each exercise. By bringing our attention to each movement, we increase body awareness and conscious control. Each of the Pilates principles should be incorporated into every exercise and this demands intense focus. Without concentration, some or all of these principles may be lacking, making for sloppy, uncontrolled movements. There are many different instructions to focus on within each exercise, making it difficult for the brain to assimilate initially. This is why it takes a long time to perfect Pilates and can be frustrating for the beginner client. Those new to Pilates need to pay careful attention to their bodies, building upon small, basic movements and progressing to the next stage once a level of competency has been reached. Stress can interfere with having a good Pilates session, since the mind is elsewhere and cannot fully concentrate on the movements. A good tip is to close the eyes when performing the exercises. With the eyes shut, the visual stimulus from around the room is taken away. The brain is then free to home in on the internal environment and becomes more receptive to different sensations within the body and awareness and feeling are enhanced.

Control

Pilates exercises are performed with the utmost control, which minimises risk of injury and produces effective results. Unlike many exercise regimes, which advocate multiple repetitions, Pilates emphasises quality of movement over quantity. Every instruction to each individual body part is carefully controlled and collectively contributes to the overall success of the whole movement. Attention to detail is crucial in achieving perfect control.

precision

Similar to control but focusing on alignment and spatial awareness. There are precise instructions for correct placement and positioning of the body within each exercise to assist in proper alignment and good posture. Every exercise has definitive points where the body should be positioned at all times. Each exercise has an intention and once we know the purpose of an exercise, we can understand how to precisely move the body in such a way as to achieve the original goal. Lack of proper positioning and awareness results in postural misalignments and poor movement quality. With good training, precision can be increased resulting in improved posture and good overall movement. Control and precision eventually becomes ingrained, having the effect of good movement patterns in our everyday lives also.

Flow

Pilates exercises should be performed with grace and ease, which assists in flowing movements. A smooth, continuous rhythm with appropriate transitions makes for the harmonious flow of a Pilates workout. Movements are not held static; rather the repetitions aim to create continuous motion with an even flow. The intention is for the exercises to flow into each other thereby increasing stamina. A competent flowing class can look as elegant as a choreographed dance routine.

Breathing

Joseph Pilates stated, “Even if you follow no other instructions, learn to breathe correctly.” He likened the lungs to bellows, using them to pump air fully in and out of the body. Pilates believed in enriching the blood with oxygen so that it could awaken all the cells in the body and eliminate stale air and the wastes related to fatigue. He believed that forced exhalation was the key to a full inhalation.

Every movement in Pilates has a specific breath pattern. Together with the timing of the breath, it enhances effective muscle use. Generally speaking we tend to exhale on the exertion or effort exertion part of the movement and this also helps prevent the body from tensing. Effective breathing can help to lengthen the abdomen, broaden the upper back and helps train the correct muscle recruitment for everyday core strength.

The lungs need to open front, back and to the sides. If we can do this successfully then we increase our oxygen uptake and lung capacity. Unfortunately most of us only open the front lungs using the upper lobes since sedentary lives lead to shallow breathing. Many people often hold their breath as they exercise particularly if they are new to Pilates due to the concentrated effort of co-coordinating a difficult task. Muscles tense up when we hold our breath, which can exacerbate poor posture.

Proper breathing will assist in flowing movements and it is an integral part of the technique and one of the key principles. Pilates encourages deep breathing using the lower and upper lobes. Benefits of correct breathing allow the blood to be enriched with oxygen, which nourishes all the cells in our body whilst expelling stale air. Our circulation increases and we feel rejuvenated. More oxygen in the muscles helps them to relax and therefore reduces tension. It also assists in concentration and control whilst exercising. We use the breath to initiate and support movement.Thoracic or Lateral breathing allows us to keep the abdominal muscles pulled in whilst inhaling and exhaling. This protects the spine whilst we are exercising. The aim is to keep the abdominals contracted whilst we breathe laterally so that we have maximum support during movement. The focus is to breathe into the lower lobes of the lungs, all the way down the spine and into the pelvic basin trying to expand the breath into the sides and back of the ribs. We are not used to breathing into the lower lobes of the lungs where there is more efficient gaseous exchange. Exhaling deeply encourages the engagement of the deep core muscles. The combination of correct breathing and stabilization needs to occur before movement for safe and effective technique.To practice thoracic breathing you may use a scarf wrapped around the mid back. As you inhale allow the ribs to expand the band but avoid lifting the breastbone too high.

On the exhalation, the abdomen should hollow and the pelvic floor should be engaged, lending to lumbar and pelvic stability. The goal is to keep these muscles engaged on the inhalation and exhalation to around a maximum of 30% contraction. As you practice lateral breathing, you will find that you are able to perform Pilates exercises with greater ease. While lateral breathing is the technique to use when you want to keep your abs in during an inhale, we don't want to have our abs contracted all the time. Diaphragmatic breathing, with a natural extension of the belly on an inhalation, is still the healthiest way to breathe regularly.