Art of Pilates



Fitness that stays with you

HomeStaff & StudentsPilates HistoryMore ExercisesOften Asked Questions

Pilates, The Who, The What, and The Why

Pilates, it seems that name is everywhere you look these days. It’s mentioned on television, health magazines, Women’s magazines, men’s magazine, and QVC. Madonna swears by it. Courteney Cox, Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston, Jody Foster, Harrison Ford, they all do it. What is it? What is it supposed to do? And most important, how in the blue blazes do you pronounce it? It seems the more you find out about Pilates the more questions you have. So, let’s explore these questions and any others that come up as we go along.
First off it is pronounce Pul-lah-teez. Some put a seemingly French accent to it and say, Puh-la-téz. It is not however, Pie-lotts, Pie-léts, or even Pie-late-ez.
Second, Pilates is a fitness technique that focuses on the “deep core” muscles of the body and not merely the superficial ones some of us see when we look in the mirror.
What the heck are the deep core muscles you may ask? Core muscles are the muscle we use to stay in balance. The ones we use to right ourselves when we take our center of gravity off center. The core muscles control our posture and body alignment. These are the deep muscles of the torso or trunk. The muscles close to the spine, pelvic area, and the deeper layers of the abdominal (or stomach) muscles. By focusing on core strength, the superficial muscles become long and lean, not bulky. The result is greater strength, increased flexibility and an enhanced sense of balance. These core muscles are what Joseph called the “Power House”.

Okay, who the heck is Joseph you may be asking? Well, let’s rewind here and talk about the “whom” of the subject, Joseph Pilates. Yes, the man behind the method.
Joseph Pilates was born near Düsseldorf, Germany in 1880 of Greek ancestry. He died at the age of eighty-seven in 1967 and his technique is over 80 years old not and some new fad. So why is it so popular now? Well, beside a legal battle over the right to use the word “Pilates”, it has moved out of the private studios and into the fitness clubs. Well, that is, the floor aspect or mat work of the technique is being offered in many health clubs these days. The machines . . . yes I said machines, are done on a one on one or even a one on three semi-private sessions. Joe (as he liked to be called) was also an inventor and still holds many patients on exercise machines, beds, and furniture. He even invented the first “Thigh Master” which he named “The Magic Circle”.
So what led him to come up with the exercise technique?



Joe was a sickly and wimpy child, suffering asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. Yet he longed to play sports and to be physically active. He read all the books he could on the subjects of body building, boxing including yoga and the marshal arts, the later two where not well known at that time. He, for the most part, taught himself physical conditioning and by the age of 14 he was modeling for anatomical drawings. He became accomplished in many sports, including skiing, diving and gymnastics.
By 1912, Joe was in his early thirties and working in England. One-account states that Joe was working as a self-defense instructor for the detectives at Scotland Yard while another claims that he was a member of a Germany circus touring England. In any event, when World War I broke out in 1914, Joe was declared an "enemy alien" along with other German nationals living in England. Interned as a prisoner of war, Joe taught the other internees wrestling; self defense and began to refine his exercise technique. Joe also rigged springs to hospital beds, enabling wounded and bedridden patients to exercise. This idea later led to later equipment designs.
At the end of the war, Joe returned to Germany. His exercise method became very popular within the dance community and with the legendary movement scientist Rudolf von Laban, who created a form of movement notation used today to record extremely detail dances and movement phrases.
In 1923, as Hitler was building up the strength of the Nazi Party, he was asked to teach his fitness system to the German army. By 1929 and perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, he decided to leave Germany for good and emigrated to the United States. During the voyage he met Clara, a nurse whom he later married. Joe, now 43, and Clara opened a fitness studio in New York City, sharing an address with the New York City Ballet.
Joe called his technique “Contrology”-- Coordination of mind, body, and spirit.
In his book Return to Life Through Contrology, written in 1945, his two opening paragraphs state his motivation and mission; “Physical fitness is the first requisite of happiness. It is the attainment and maintenance of a uniformly developed body as well as a sound mind, fully capable of natural, easily and satisfactorily performing our many and varied daily tasks with spontaneous zest and pleasure. To achieve the highest accomplishments within the scope of our capabilities in all walks of life we must constantly strive to acquire strong, health bodies and develop our minds to our natural limits.
This very rapid progressing world with its ever-increasing tempo of living demands that we be physically fit and alert so that we may succeed in this unceasing race. Physical fitness can neither be acquired by wishful thinking nor by outright purchase. However, it can be gained through Contrology and its exercises. Performing these exercises daily accomplishes this desirable result by successfully counteracting the harmful inherent conditions associated with modern civilization.”

The term Contrology never really caught on, most of his students simply called it Pilates. The famous ballet choreographer George Balanchine would say “I’m going over to Joe’s to work out or “I should send you over to Joe’s’ to fix that bum knee." Martha Graham sent her dancers to Joe’s, in fact Pilates was the only thing she would let her dancers do beside her own dance technique. It was one of her dancer who after retiring as a dancer and took Pilates to the West coast. Ron Fletcher, who had studied Pilates religiously since the late ‘40 opened his Pilates studio up in the early 1970’s with Clara’s blessings. Los Angeles, especially Hollywood picked up on the Pilates technique like no body's business. It soon became the workout of the Stars. Since that time New York and L. A. are the big Pilates stomping grounds. Yet, it is gradually spreading throughout the country and grows more and more popular every day.
Joseph Pilates' work and vision still inspire many of us today, dancers and non-dancers alike. More and more doctors and physical therapists recommend it and praise it. More classes are being taught and more people are learning the Pilates' principals for a healthy life. Joe claimed he was 50 years ahead of his time. He was right.

Art Leigh has been practicing Pilates for twenty years and teaching it for 14 years. He is a certified Pilates instructor with two different Pilates certifications, he is also a certified personal trainer and aerobics instructor, a former professional dance and soloist with a nationally recognized modern dance company, he holds a Bachelor of Fine arts and a Masters of Fine Arts in dance. Art currently owns and operates the Art of Pilates studio here in Las Vegas. If you have questions about Pilates you can call Art at (702) 436-9004.

For more history and Pilates information visit Balance Body

This Article was written for the Henderson Home News in October of 2002

Next page