I have noticed a resurgence in news articles on Pilates lately. Unfortunately, not much has changed over the years. Well, there are fewer pronunciation brackets behind “Pilates” in the articles, which says the general public knows how to say the word, but the article authors still find it necessary to explain that Joseph Pilates was the creator and give some history on his life. As many of you know I am hardly opposed to history. But the fact that it is essentially the same information and that it is used to basically explain what Pilates is reveals that the public is still unclear on what Pilates is. Why after all the articles, DVDs, books, and news shows are people still uncertain of exactly what it is?
What is Pilates exactly?
Is Pilates exercise? Is it a form of physical therapy? Is Pilates like yoga? The verdict varies by region, as I have come to learn through my travels. In Los Angeles, the answer was most frequently exercise; in London more people approached it as a form of physical therapy. The confusion is not just among people who are new to Pilates. Those who tell me that they have done Pilates before can be just as misinformed as those who have no clue what the Hundreds are. So why is Pilates is still misunderstood?
It is partially a consequence of the way newspaper and magazine articles represent Pilates. A recent article in the Los Angeles Times was titled “Pilates evolves to work for every body.” Evolves? Pilates was designed from the beginning to work for every body! Although the body of the article makes gestures toward this point, the title definitely suggests otherwise. More to my point here, the heavy focus on Pilates for special populations portrays Pilates as more for those who need some form of modified exercise. In comparison, a recent article on the new book by the fabulous Pilates teacher Brooke Siler emphasizes the fitness side of Pilates. What is more, this article claims that Pilates is “thought of as yoga’s younger, cooler sibling.” These articles illustrate the many and varied pictures of Pilates that have been presented to the public for years, and the influence such media has in shaping how people think of Pilates is quite profound, as I recently experienced.
I (re)define Pilates for people on a weekly basis (and I will provide my definition shortly). But a recent conversation with an acquaintance demonstrates my point on how influential first definitions of Pilates can be. About eight months ago I met a woman who was suffering from some foot pain. Talking through some of her symptoms I had an idea that Pilates could help her but she had not yet seen a doctor, so I advised her to first find out what a doctor said and we could go from there. As the weeks passed, each time we crossed paths she would narrate a long list of doctors’ visits, exams, and the continued pain. Eventually she found out that it was plantar fasciitis. Great! I knew what we were dealing with and I explained to her how Pilates could keep her active while allowing the inflammation to go down and then we could work on strengthening her entire body so that she would not have the issue again, especially important because she stands a lot at her job. “The Foot Corrector would eventually be her best friend,” I thought to myself.
We booked a session, but she cancelled. Then each time I saw her she would spend a half-hour telling me about her many doctors’ appointments and the continued pain. I would explain in detail how Pilates could help her but she never rescheduled that first appointment. Eventually I just listened as she recounted the latest on her foot problems because I believed she simply did not wish to try Pilates. That is fine. Pilates is not for everyone. I get that (although I secretly think they just haven’t tried authentic Pilates).
Then, one day, I figured out why she turned to everything else but Pilates: she saw Pilates as just exercise. I don’t recall our exact conversation but I believe I was telling her about the work I was doing with a client, and she looked at me puzzled and asked “Pilates can do that? I just thought it was about toning the waist.” Ahhh ha! Even though I described Pilates exercises that would be ideal for her ailment, she was not hearing what I said because in her mind Pilates was only exercise. All that she had ever heard about Pilates was the fitness aspect.
Misconceptions such as hers cause a great deal of people to miss out on experiencing Pilates. While the representation of Pilates in the news contributes to it being misunderstood, how teachers present their services and how our clients talk about their experiences play a role as well. I will discuss both of these topics in future articles, for now I simply want to provide a definition of Pilates that will more accurately define what it is. Being a trained historian as well, I think the best definition is found in how Joseph Pilates defined his work: a “corrective system of exercise.” He designed and taught his method to restore each individual’s body to health. He described Contrology as facilitating “the attainment and maintenance of normal health” (Your Health, p. 20). Thus, since each body and the impact daily life has on the body are different, the journey toward health through Pilates is unique for everyone I teach. It is exercise as well as physical therapy. It is an education on alignment. It is stress management. It is cognitive coaching. It is, in my opinion, health insurance of the best kind. So, while Pilates can be many things the common thread is health, and therefore my definition is “Pilates is health movement.”