August 28, 2020
By Colleen Glenn-Wilson
This is a decades old question that just won't stop coming!
Many years ago when I was first began teaching, I was asked to describe what Pilates was. to explain it someone. I understand the question is still asked today even with the prevlance of Pilates in our culture and that's kind of weird to me. I mean don't people know?
Often, in those early years I described Pilates as a system of strength and stretch, similar to a combination of Nautilus and Yoga. A simple one liner. At one time people knew what the heck that meant because Nautilus was a household name. In the 70s’ Nautilus revolutionized exercise equipment with its unique cam design (joint friendly) across a myriad of circuit training equipment and was considered the gold standard. In addition, the successful Nautilus franchise at the time pushed the business of big fitness to the forefront of our culture. So, in the 80’s and 90’s people knew what I was talking about when I said Nautilus but not today. If I said Nautilus It would just leave me with more explaining to do. People also related yoga to stretching and mindful, spiritual movement so it made sense to explain the meaning of Pilates using a Yoga reference along with a commonly understood strength component.
Today Pilates is often compared to Yoga but that’s like comparing apple to oranges, both are a fruit but if you used the wrong one in a recipe it would mess things up. They are very different. Misinformation is widely spread and believed in the professional Pilates world. One misconception is that Mr. Pilates studied Yoga and took, in part, his system of movement from that form. There is simply no empirical evidence to date to verify this and it is incredibly improbable given the time frame in which Mr. Pilates lived in Germany and United States. Not withstanding his poor social economic status and education. It’s simply not true, however, it’s my belief this is fostered because it helps people make sense of Pilates' system in their minds.
After years of researching the Physical Culture Movement I discovered there were Gymnasiums in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s in Europe with equipment that was very Pilates style like. There were also facilities called Turnverines in Germany which were popular cultural centers where people congregated and men worked out. Demonstrations and displays of exercise were offered to the community for entertainment purposes. In Mr. Pilates’ youth and life these centers were quite popular with over 9,000 of them across Germany. They were also in the United States brought here by Germans who left their country in the mid 1800's. It’s easy to make sense of and follow the developmental trail of Josep Pilates methodology when looking back historically with this information along with his personal history.
So without going into more in-depth historical perspective stuff, which is kind of fun, I’ll keep with the question at hand. How would I describe Pilates?
For one, I would go back to the common thread of strength and stretch in describing Pilates which is how my mentor Romana explained Pilates. Today though, I let people know it was created by a person actually named Pilates, people still don’t realize that fact either! So in conclusion, my short definition without a lot of selling and passion overlay is easy off the tongue, “Pilates is exercise system that builds stretch, strength and stamina simultaneously, utilizing a comprehensive system of spring loaded exercise equipment and mat work (so they don’t think it’s just mat or Yoga)". It is the best cross training method for anything in life, sport or function and it makes everything you do better, period. The man who developed it IS Pilates, that was his name and he was a real genius.