B Well, B Fit, B Happy

The 3 B's – by Sheri Myers

What is Pilates and Why Would We Do Such a Thing?

If I had a dollar for every person that has said to me: “So Pilates is pretty much the same thing as Yoga, right”? This statement/question has always given me a grin rather than a snarl. I respect Yoga as well as many other methods of movement and exercise, especially the ones that I find challenging. I grin because it is amazing at this point in time that so many people are still uninformed about the phenomenon that is called Pilates…

Let’s begin where I start with my certification students, at the history. Here, I will give the quick and dirty version. Joseph Pilates was a german man born in the late 1800‘s. As a child, he was very sick. He suffered from asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever, and in an effort to heal himself, he dedicated his entire life to improving his physical strength. As a young man, he had a very diverse athletic palate. According to his accounts, he was a skier, boxer, body-builder and a gymnast and through his research became a healer of sorts. While working in an internment camp in England during WWI, he created exercise routines for the bed-ridden patients using the bed springs as resistance devices. He found that the movements not only helped with the muscle atrophy but also enabled the patients to heal faster from the sicknesses and injuries that ailed them. He took that further and created a method of movements that he called “contrology” and began training fellow inmates. He claimed that the strength and mobility that he and the inmates gained from contrology helped them survive the fast spreading influenza epidemic that was running it’s course through the camp. Shortly after his release, he began training officers and the likes back in Germany and was pressured by the German army to train their troops. His disapproval of the political and social situations motivated him to migrate to the U.S. in the early 1920’s. On the ship that transported him to New York, he met his future wife, Clara. It has been suggested that she brought in the concept of breath, flow and body awareness to his method of contrology and together they created what is now known as Pilates. Once in New York city, they started a studio in a building that they shared with the New York Ballet Company and, as they say, the rest is history…

Like the reference to Pilates and Yoga, I also get a grin when I’m asked the question: “Pilates is just for dancers, right”? Actually, it was not created with dancers in mind and in fact, according to old videos of Joseph, he trained his initial clients far more in the manner of a drill sergeant than a ballet master. I’ve read that it was the influence of Clara as well as the dancers of the New York Ballet that helped Joseph’s method of contrology evolve into the beautiful and articulate method of movement that it is known for now but initially it looked like a rigorous method of athletic training.

OK, so the history lesson is complete. Now let’s talk about why today we would so vigorously do something that originated in the mind of a German man in the early 1900’s. Let’s start by talking about the “Power House”. In layman’s terms that’s your abdominal wrap. The muscles that work together to maintain your posture and execute basic postural movement. In order to maintain a strong, healthy spine, we must strengthen and utilize our core muscles, especially those that wrap around to the spine. Pilates teaches us to not only strengthen those muscles but also to utilize them in regular movement. You’ve heard “use your legs” when picking up a heavy box. Yes, strong quads and gluts will certainly assist you in a big pick up but you still need your core, and your back has enough to do as it is. Once the core muscles are strong, they bring strength to every move you make. Lifting that heavy box, reaching to a high shelf, swinging a golf club or tennis racquet. When you have the strength and focus to let those inherently superior muscles do their job, the rest of the network will fall into place.

Pilates also teaches you to breath into and through a movement. Much like lamaze or Yoga teaches the importance of breath, Pilates teaches you how to connect the oxygen input and release into every movement which makes an exercise more efficient and less taxing on the body. The breath that you are taught in Pilates can also double as method of micro-meditation and an entry into body awareness, pain management and stress relief.

Finally, let’s talk flexibility… When our bits are tight, we are less likely to move freely in space and more likely to cause ourselves physical injury. There are many methods of increasing range and flexibility. Some are safe and effective while others can actually cause more harm than good. One thing that sets Pilates apart from other methods of flexibility training is that it uses concentric, eccentric and isometric stretching together. In a nutshell, we are stretched through shortening a muscle, lengthening a muscle and by creating resistance for that muscle. In most cases, all 3 are accomplished in a single Pilates movement. Pilates enthusiasts claim to feel like their muscles are longer and stronger after consistently practicing. In the long run these physical changes cause overall improvement in the posture and core which leads to more efficient movements and less unnecessary injuries. Not to mention a beautifully toned body.

So while Pilates certainly can have a synergistic relationship with Yoga and various other methods of movement and exercise, it really does stand on it’s own and offers benefits that cannot be achieved elsewhere. Not to mention the endless modifications and variations that can be made to the movements to allow almost anyone to benefit from it. Pilates truly is for everyone… Thanks Joe…

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