Looking at the body as a whole rather than a collection of parts is a fundamental aspect in Pilates. Yet, there are Pilates instructors out there who market or promote the idea of “Pilates for abs” or “Pilates for the butt.” This type of promotion is like nails on a chalkboard to me because it totally misses the essence of Pilates. Joseph Pilates took the whole body into consideration and he developed Contrology as “good for the body” not just for particular parts of the body. Even the emphasis we place on the strength, stability, and flexibility of the (broadly speaking) pelvic region, is not just about “core strength” because the integrity of the Powerhouse is connected to the structural soundness of the whole body.
“Pilates for ____” also misses the mark because it does not reflect Joe’s reasoning on why one would even need to do his method in the first place. He defined his exercises as “conceived and tested […] with the idea of properly and scientifically exercising every muscle in your body in order to improve the circulation of the blood so that the bloodstream can and will carry more and better blood to feed every fibre and tissue of your body.” As we can see, he was thinking of the dynamic interactions between muscle activation and the functionality of tissues (a point that I see only a handful of medical and scientific professionals making today). As many of you will already be aware of, Joe also believed strongly that there is a relationship between physical movement and mental health. He wrote: “Moreover, such a body freed from nervous tension and over-fatigue is the ideal shelter provided by nature for housing a well-balanced mind that is always fully capable of successfully meeting all the complex problems of modern living.” And he was conscious of neuromuscular improvement: “By reawakening thousands and thousands of otherwise ordinarily dormant muscle cells, Contrology correspondingly reawakens thousands and thousands of dormant brain cells” (which is why Pilates is so excellent for managing neurological health issues. He also looked at the bigger picture of health and talked about good nutrition and getting plenty of rest. He also understood that injuries were not localized at the site of pain and he looked at the whole body to uncover the root problem instead of simply addressing the symptom.
Clearly Joe conceived of his system as much more than toning a certain muscle group. Personally, and I have an inkling many of you will agree with me, I think Joe’s vision of health was way ahead of his time (and we know that he thought this himself). In fact, I see a lot of information emerging from current research that is in line with what Joe said. And I would argue that in many ways the research community is indebted to Joe’s work. Was he spot on about everything? No. I believe that there are some elements in his work that we now know to be imprecise. In my constant search to provide clients with the best movements for their bodies I have really challenged my understanding of the Pilates method and held it up against the latest research and what other health professionals are saying. To be very honest, it has not been easy for me to question some of the fundamentals of what I have believed and taught for more than a decade. Lately, I have had some amazing discussions with colleagues, and I will share any insights we have as we work them out. Regardless of our developing understandings of the body, what will not change is the Pilates approach of looking at the whole body and thinking of how movement (or exercise as we call it) benefits every body, every body part, from the superficial muscle groups to the cells throughout all our tissues. So in a call to arms, so to speak, please join me in talking about Pilates as it really is: good for the body in so many diverse ways. Let’s give the man more credit than Pilates is for abs because his work is truly brilliant!
Sean Gallagher commented on this post in Facebook and I thought it worth while to share the point he raised. He drew attention to a very excellent point that was indeed missing from this post, but not from my opinion nor my more academic writings on the subject. In striving to put a lot of what is being touted today within historical context, I did not signal the context in Joe’s time. I did not intend to suggest that all that Joe wrote about the body were original ideas. All knowledge rests upon the past, and Joe’s comprehensive system is a blend of synthesis and unique perspective just as much as the next person’s.
 Joseph H. Pilates, Return to Life Through Contrology ([n.p.]: J.J. Augustin, 1945), p. 14.
 Pilates, Return to Life, p. 23.
 Pilates, Return to Life, p. 10.