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What is Pilates and Where Did it Come From ?

So you've heard the name, you've seen that Instagram post and maybe you've even tried out a class or two but do you really know what Pilates is or how it came to be?



Lisa doing Pilates



Pilates is a physical fitness system that has become increasingly popular in recent years. Developed by Joseph Pilates in the early 20th century, the Pilates method is a form of exercise that focuses on building strength, flexibility, and control in the body. Pilates is different from other forms of exercise in that it emphasises the connection between the mind and body, and encourages practitioners to move with awareness and intention- sometimes referred to as “The Thinking Man’s” exercise


Joseph Pilates believed that physical fitness and mental wellbeing were closely linked, and that his method of exercise could benefit both ( if not all ) aspects of a person's health. He created a system of exercises that were designed to work the entire body, with a particular emphasis on strengthening the core muscles of the body and were intended to be performed with precision, control, and concentration, with a focus on quality of movement rather than quantity of repetitions.


The History of Pilates


Joseph Pilates was born in Mönchengladbach, Germany, in 1883. As a child, he suffered from various health problems, including asthma and rickets, which led him to become interested in physical fitness and health. He began to study various forms of exercise, including yoga, martial arts, and gymnastics, and became an accomplished athlete.

In 1912, Joseph Pilates moved to England, where he worked as a professional boxer, circus performer, and self-defence instructor. During World War I, he was interned as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man, where he began to develop his unique method of physical exercise. Pilates created a system of exercises that focused on strengthening the core muscles of the body, including the abdominals, back, and hips, in order to improve overall physical fitness and mental wellbeing.


After the war, Joseph Pilates returned to Germany and opened his first studio in Berlin. He called his method "Contrology," because he believed that it required a high degree of mental and physical control. In 1926, Joe immigrated to the United States and opened a studio in New York City. His method quickly became popular among dancers and celebrities, and he worked with many famous clients, including George Balanchine, Martha Graham, and the actor Jose Ferrer. Pilates continued to develop and refine his method throughout his life, and he wrote several books on the subject, including "Return to Life through Contrology" and "Your Health."


At the time of his death, Pilates was still relatively unknown outside of a small community of dancers, athletes, and fitness enthusiasts in New York City, where he had established his studio. After his passing, his wife Clara continued to teach his method and train new instructors, but the Pilates method remained a niche practice for several decades.


It wasn't until the 1990s and early 2000s that Pilates began to gain mainstream popularity, as celebrities like Madonna and Jennifer Aniston publicly endorsed the method and Pilates studios began popping up in cities across the world. As Pilates grew in popularity, it also evolved, with new variations and adaptations of the method being developed by different instructors and schools of thought.


The legacy of Joseph Pilates lives on through the millions of people who practise his method and benefit from its many benefits. And there are just that - millions. In fact according to Globe News Wire “According to the latest report published by Research Dive, the global pilates and yoga studios market is predicted to rise at a tremendous CAGR of 10.0%, in the 2021-2028 timeframe.Namrata Purohit also shares in a recent article, “Mind-body exercises will continue to rule through 2023, just as it did in 2022. According to a popular fitness report and study of 2022, Pilates was one of the most popular forms of exercise in 2022 and there was an increase of 38 per cent from 2021 to 2022. We expect there to be an even higher rise in the following year.”


So what is Pilates ?


Pilates exercises are typically performed on a mat or using specialised equipment, such as the Pilates Reformer, Cadillac, or Wunda Chair. The exercises are designed to be low-impact and gentle on the joints, while still providing a challenging workout that can be tailored to a practitioner's individual needs and abilities.


The Pilates method emphasises the importance of proper alignment and posture, as well as the integration of breath with movement. Practitioners are encouraged to focus on their breath as they perform each exercise, using the inhalation and exhalation of air to facilitate movement and improve circulation. By focusing on the breath, practitioners are able to deepen their connection between the mind and body, and achieve optimised muscle function, body awareness and connection.


There are many benefits to practising Pilates, including improved core strength, flexibility, balance, and posture. Pilates is also an effective way to reduce stress and anxiety, as well as to improve overall mental wellbeing. The low-impact nature of Pilates makes it a safe and effective form of exercise for people of all ages and fitness levels, and it can be adapted to meet the specific needs of individual practitioners.


Pilates is an effective way to improve physical fitness, mental wellbeing, and overall quality of life, and its low-impact nature makes it accessible to people of all ages and fitness levels. By practising Pilates with intention and awareness, practitioners can develop a deeper connection between the mind and body, and achieve greater strength, flexibility, and control.


In addition to the physical benefits of Pilates, many practitioners also report improvements in their mental wellbeing as a result of the method. The focus on concentration, control, and mindfulness can help to reduce stress and improve overall mental clarity and focus.


There are many different Pilates exercises, each with its own specific focus and benefits. Some of the most common exercises include:

  1. The Hundred: This exercise is performed lying on the back, with the legs in a tabletop position and the arms extended at the sides. The practitioner then pumps the arms up and down while inhaling and exhaling, for a total of 100 beats. The Hundred is a challenging exercise that helps to improve the strength and endurance of the abdominals and arms.

  2. The Roll Up: This exercise is performed lying on the back, with the arms extended overhead and the legs straight out in front. The practitioner then rolls up into a sitting position, using the abdominals to lift the upper body. The Roll Up is a great exercise for improving the flexibility of the spine and strengthening the abdominals.

  3. The Swan: This exercise is performed lying on the stomach, with the arms extended at the sides and the legs straight out behind. The practitioner then lifts the upper body off the mat, using the muscles of the back and arms. The Swan is a great exercise for improving posture and strengthening the muscles of the upper back.

  4. The Single Leg Circles: This exercise is performed lying on the back, with one leg extended straight up towards the ceiling and the other leg straight out on the mat. The practitioner then circles the extended leg in one direction, and then in the other direction, using the muscles of the hip and thigh. The Single Leg Circles are a great exercise for improving flexibility and control in the hip joint.

  5. The Teaser: This advanced exercise is performed lying on the back, with the legs extended straight out in front and the arms extended overhead. The practitioner then lifts the legs and upper body up off the mat, reaching the arms towards the toes, creating a V shape with the body. The Teaser is a challenging exercise that requires strength and control in the abdominals, back, and hip muscles.

These are just a few examples of the many exercises that make up the Pilates method. Try one of our classes to find out about the rest of them and make Pilates your 2023 fitness goal. Or if you want to read more this is one of my favourite articles written about Pilates.

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