Pilates for What?

By Mike Perry

Pilates called his system Contrology and in Return to Life he wrote:
“Contrology is designed to give you suppleness, natural grace and skill that will be unmistakably reflected in the way you walk, in the way you play, and in the way you work. You will develop muscular power with corresponding endurance, ability to perform arduous duties to play strenuous games, to walk, to run or travel long distances without undue body fatigue or mental strain.”

It is clear that he intended his method to be a preparation for other ‘stuff’ - for life, in fact. This, I would suggest, should underpin every Pilates class - the idea that the class has a bigger purpose than ‘performance’ of the exercises, or working the specific muscle groups that might be involved. This is why Pilates can be such a wonderful tool for a wide variety of people and their diverse sports/activities/hobbies, from injury prevention in elite athletes, to helping grandparents feel strong and agile enough to pick up an play with their grandchildren.

I have heard American teachers insisting that, although injured people went to Pilates’ studio, and clearly got help with their injuries form the man himself, Pilates as an exercise method is intended for fit people. In the UK it seems that we have been somewhat hamstrung by the general impression that Pilates is for people who are injured, or in pain. This has been propagated by the media, and doubtless encouraged by teachers who want to boost their business by appealing to those people who may not feel that they can manage 'normal’ exercise. Not to mention that many of us, myself included, took up Pilates to try to deal with chronic pain of some sort, and became evangelists for the method because it is has the capacity to change lives.

So what is the problem with that? On the face of it, it’s a brilliant thing… but all too often we see people doing Pilates regularly who have plateaued at a reduction in their pain, and failed to move forward from there. The promises contained in the quote above have little or no relevance to them, which is a great shame. Instead of feeling empowered to do more, it seems as though they and/or their teacher have created an invisible ceiling they are terrified to try to break through. What seems to be left then is an emotional attachment to Pilates: a belief that they cannot function without it, yet no desire for, or belief in the possibility of achieving more (playing strenuous games, for example).

Pilates also wrote (in Return to Life): ”Everyone can and should have, to a certain and sufficient extent, control of their own physical system. The acknowledgement of this evidently throws the responsibility for health, efficiency, and happiness upon the shoulders of the individual where it should belong.” I would suggest that the first lesson of Pilates ought to be ‘You are responsible for your own health‘ - a notion that seems to be systematically undermined in our society. A challenge for any Pilates teacher is to encourage their clients to expect more, rather than holding them back, or teaching them to 'aim low’.  Anyone taking a Pilates class needs to remember that they are doing the work - that Pilates isn’t something that is ‘done’ to them by the teacher. If we give, or allow the teacher to take the responsibility for ourselves, we are disempowered, and greatly reduce our chances of enjoying the kind of results that Joseph Pilates wrote about.

It seems obvious that the underlying message of the passage quoted at the top of this piece is that Pilates is not an end in itself. I absolutely endorse the idea of Pilates as a lifelong practice, but not for its own sake. Pilates may involve being taught to move slowly, in order to develop awareness and control; it may involve exercises with low loads that teach us how to move from our centre - but this should be the beginning of the journey to becoming fitter and stronger! If Pilates isn’t about trying to help people to get fitter and stronger then we’ve somehow lost the plot.

If I try to answer my own question (Pilates for what?) I have to say (however corny it sounds) “Pilates for life” - not for 'relaxation’, 'feeling good’, 'Pippa’s bum’, 'weight-loss’, 'core stability’ etc.  I believe in Pilates as a means to deal with all the stuff that life puts in our path, good and bad, as well as we possibly can.

So, do your class consistently and conscientiously, and remember to take all the great things that you’ve learned with you to put to good use out in the world.

Mike writes about Pilates, nutrition, fitness and more. Read more of his article on his blog Paleolates