Pilates is a method of exercise that has been used by elite athletes and dancers for decades.
But its popularity has exploded in recent years, and celebrities like Kate Hudson and Jennifer Anniston now swear by the method for keeping them fit and flexible.
For those of you who haven’t heard of Pilates – hello, where have you been? – this article will answer that all important question: “what is Pilates?”, give you a brief breakdown of its history, and let you in on the main benefits of the method.
Intrigued? Then read on and discover why Pilates has become such a hit.
Pilates: A Brief History
The method we now know as Pilates was originally called “Contrology” and was invented by bodybuilder and gymnast Joseph Pilates.
German-born Joseph was a sickly child. So, to try and combat his ill health, he studied and practised lots of different forms of exercise. It was through this that he began to devise his own unique style of movement.
After coming to England in 1912 for work, Joseph was held prisoner in an internment camp on the Isle of Wight with other Germans at the beginning of World War 1.
But this didn’t stop his developing – and refining – what was to become “Pilates.” In fact, he even tried it out his new exercise system on the other male prisoners. In an early version of the Pilates equipment, Joseph attached springs to hospital beds so that sick inmates could keep fit.
However, the Pilates system as we now know it didn’t really take form until Joseph emigrated to New York in 1926. It was here that Joseph and his wife Clara set up their first studio. This is where they attracted the first group of Pilates students.
From that point on, Joseph’s exercise programme gradually gained in popularity:
During the 60s, Joseph and his method became an established favourite with ballet dancers in New York.
By the 1970s, Hollywood’s elite started to pay attention to the body benefits Joseph’s system offered.
And, by the 80s, the media started to pay attention and Pilates moved into mainstream fitness.
Today there exist a number of different Pilates schools and each teach a variation of the method. But all remain true to the original guiding principles of Pilates – a testament to Joseph’s brilliance.
So, what is Pilates?
1) Pilates stabilises the body
Pilates is famous for toning abs and strengthening the “core” – or the “powerhouse”— as Joseph Pilates called it.
But the Pilates method is so much more than this.
Pilates uses slow, controlled and precise movements to strengthen the deep stabilising muscles found in the neck and shoulder, the spine and the pelvis. This is important because these deep muscles stabilise and support your spine. When they switch off, pain in the lower back or around the pelvis is often the result.
Of course, Pilates does tone the body and can help you get that sought-after flat stomach. But it also – and much more importantly – strengthens the body and makes it more efficient, leaving you less prone to injury.
2) Pilates builds a balanced body
Joseph Pilates was inspired by the classical Greek ideal of the man balance in body, mind and in spirit when creating his method.
The theme of “balance” appears both in the Pilates exercise repertoire itself and in the ideology surrounding it. But one of the most significant ways it shows itself is in the emphasis on balanced muscles development.
Imbalances in the body occur as a result of genetics, the work that you do, or the sport that you play.
Pilates is a great tool for correcting these because the repertoire incorporates unilateral exercises (meaning you train one side at a time). These type of movements highlight – and help to even-up – any asymmetries in the body.
There are also many other amazing benefits to Pilates, and therefore reasons to give a Pilates class a go. These include: increased control, greater flexibility and mobility, and improved coordination.
3) Pilates is a mind-body activity
Pilates is more than merely an exercise programme designed to sculpt muscles. Like Tai Chi and Yoga, Pilates is a type of mindful movement.
Mindfulness expert Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn describes the concept of mindfulness as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.”
Given what Kabat-Zinn says, anyone who has ever taken a Pilates class will understand why it is referred to as “mindful exercise” – to get through one successfully requires a lot of focus!
This is because Pilates exercises are all about precision (which is unsurprising given “precision” it is one of the 6 guiding principles of Pilates). To try and perform them correctly you need to concentrate intensely on your body and what it is experiencing in the moment. This intense concentration on physical experience creates harmony between mind and body and a “present” mental state.
What are the benefits of creating this “mindful” experience? Well, mindfulness as a technique is now celebrated for the way it reduces stress, anxiety, depression. It can even help manage chronic pain.
So, those who practise Pilates with this intention can reap the benefits of mindfulness at the same time as improving their physical health.
4) Pilates creates good breathing habits
For Joseph Pilates, breathing well was an integral part of good health. He used the Pilates repertoire – particularly abdominal exercises like the “hundreds” – to teach people how to fully inhale and fully exhale.
He saw breathing as a cleansing mechanism for the body and referred to it as the “internal shower.”
And Joseph was on to something.
Optimal breathing helps to stimulate certain muscle groups. It also helps to carry oxygen-rich blood to nourish all tissues, while removing impurities and metabolic waste.
Learning to breathe well through Pilates is also important because shallow breathing has become a chronic problem in our society. This is largely a result of environmental stressors such as pollution. It is also a response to the requirements of our hectic lives.
Shallow breathing is a major issue, and when it becomes habitual it can create chronic stress problems. Which is why, when applied in the right way, Pilates can be a brilliant for re-educating the body and undoing these bad habits. Helping us learn to breathe properly again.
5) Pilates teaches us skills for life
Joseph Pilates saw his method as a way of life, rather than merely a fitness regime.
As its creator, it is perhaps unsurprising that he touted Pilates as an essential tool for health. However, he also recognised that diet, recreation and mind-set were vital for wellbeing and wrote about these in his book Return to Life.
Aside from “breathing”, the other two principles he believed that were vital for good health were “whole body commitment” and “whole body health”.
For Joseph, “whole body commitment” meant applying your full attention whilst performing the Pilates exercises. He claimed you would reap the most physical reward for your hard work by doing so. Discipline, demonstrated through a regular Pilates practice, also played an important part in his recipe for physical and mental health.
At the same time, Joseph also believed a balanced combination of restorative sleep, work, exercise and play was vital to achieve real and long-term “whole body health.”
Despite having been written all the way back in 1945, Joseph’s advice is even more relevant today given the stresses and strains modern life puts on bodily health and mental wellbeing.
Why do Pilates?
Achieving the balance in life Joseph talked about is difficult. And finding equilibrium – and keeping active – can feel especially difficult if you are pregnant, injured or haven’t exercised for a while.
Whilst we’re not promising that Pilates is the answer to every problem. Pilates does have some amazing benefits and can be made to work for everyone. Taking a regular Pilates session can also be an easy and enjoyable way to make a commitment to your mental and physical wellbeing.
So why not give a Pilates class a try? It might just be that first step on a journey to “whole body health.”
Want to try Pilates with Complete Pilates? We are running an open day with free Pilates and Physio sessions on Tuesday 26 June in Chelsea. Click here to register!