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What Exactly Is Pilates?

Updated: May 15, 2020

Did We Say Pie and Lattes? No, We Said PILATES.

So what exactly is Pilates? Pilates is a system of exercises that was developed by Joseph Pilates in the early 20th Century. Joseph originally named his system “Contrology”, because his main focus was that individuals should have complete control over their own bodies and movements. It wasn’t until after his death in 1967 that his students began referring to his system as Pilates.

Joseph was born in Germany to his Greek-born father and German-born mother. His father was a metal worker and gym enthusiast in the town of Monchengladbach and his mother was a naturopath. Joseph was born a fairly sickly child - he had rickets, asthma, and rheumatic fever - but he found that movement and exercise helped him to feel his best. While in Germany, he was a gymnast and a bodybuilder, but then moved to England in 1912 to become a professional boxer (he also worked as a circus performer and taught self-defense. When WWI broke out, he was put in an internment camp on The Isle of Mann, which is where he really focused on developing his system of Contrology and worked with wounded soldiers. It was also during this time that he developed the early designs of the Pilates apparatus we know today. In 1925, Joseph Pilates emigrated to New York with his wife Clara and they set up their studio and taught their exercises until well into the 1960s.

I attended a lecture by Lolita San Miguel - one of Joseph and Clara’s students - at a Pilates conference a few years ago. She mentioned that many days, Joseph would stand in the window of the NYC studio and look down at people walking with poor posture and alignment, and would get so depressed. He would state that he thought he was failing society if he could not help them all to have adequate control of their bodies. He initially had the intention of working with businessmen who developed horrible posture from sitting over desks all day, then ballet dancers got wind of his movement system and flocked to the studio.

Contrology, or Pilates, has up to 9 principles, depending on who you’re speaking with. These include: breathing, concentration, control, centering, flow, alignment, precision, relaxation and stamina. Every exercise incorporates these principles, which are truly the essence of Pilates. A favorite Pilates quote of mine is: “practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect”. Although this quote doesn’t mention the principles directly, to me, it does. If you’re not concentrating, breathing, centering yourself, flowing through your movement with perfect alignment, precision, and control, all while not overly tensing in unnecessary muscles, are you practicing perfectly?

Pilates exercises can be done on the mat, which you may have seen in our Zoom classes and videos, but as I briefly mentioned before, Pilates also has quite a few pieces of apparatus or equipment. Most notably of these is the reformer, followed by the trapeze table and the chair, all of which we have in our studio. Admittedly, a fully stocked studio can look a bit like a torture chamber, but I assure you that it isn’t!

Joseph’s original name for the Reformer was the Universal Reformer, because of its ability to “universally reform the body”, which it does a great job of doing! The reformer uses springs to either assist or resist movements, making it an amazing piece of equipment for helping to refine how you move. The reformer has a carriage that moves up and down along the tracks and has 5 springs that attach it to the frame, which provide the assistance or resistance. Other parts are the foot bar, shoulder blocks, and straps. Depending on the exercise, different parts will be used.

The Trapeze table has an interesting history - Joseph Pilates developed the first one over a hospital bed so that wounded and bed ridden soldiers could still exercise, using the springs as resistance. The equipment has certainly evolved and been refined over the years to what it is today. It does continue to look a little scary to first-timers, but frequently becomes many people’s favorite piece of equipment to work on. The trapeze’s ability to marry mat work with springs is what makes it so beautiful. Mat work can be so challenging to the core, particularly to people who might have forgotten that they have core muscles! But being able to use the springs to help you find those core muscles again is quite unique and very special.

The Wunda Chair was originally developed by Joseph Pilates to be an “at-home” apparatus.

He designed it so that it would have cushions and be a functional chair, then remove the cushions and have your own personal spring-loaded exercise equipment! While that idea never really took hold, a studio is hardly complete without at least Wunda Chair in it. To me, the chair makes upright/standing exercises very accessible, when they otherwise might not have been; on the contrary, it can make core exercises so much harder!

The most wonderful thing about all of these pieces of equipment is how beautifully they work with rehabilitation and physical therapy. I became a Pilates instructor very early on in my Physical Therapy career - only a year in - but I can honestly say that Pilates gave me the opportunity to completely transform how I work with my clients. Typical rehab facilities will have you do exercises on the mat, with ankle weights, or hand weights, which are all fine at the right time, but are they always accessible and or functional depending on the state of rehab? If a patient has a knee surgery and has post-operative precautions that limit the amount of weight bearing that the involved limb can handle, it’s not very easy to functionally strengthen the ankle or hip on that same leg. Sure, leg lifts and resistance band exercises for the ankle are great, but they’re not functional. Functional movements are movements that are based in real life. To functionally strengthen the ankle and hip, the person needs to be weight bearing through the limb. But how can a person stand on a limb that has weight bearing limitations in a normal PT clinic? It’s almost impossible at the average outpatient PT clinic. However, the Pilates Reformer and Trapeze Table give you the ability to perform functional movement by laying on your back and weight bearing through the involved side on a light spring that observes all post-operative precautions. Another amazing benefit that using springs for resistance provides is that they offer a terrific way to both challenge and improve balance and stability by challenging the nervous system in a way that traditional therapy and weight lifting can not. Exercise bands used in traditional practices can mimic the springs, but the ways to rig exercise bands are very limited. The Trapeze table, Reformer, and Chair are all designed for those nearly impossible band riggings and make it very easy to access nearly all joints of the body.

The benefits that Pilates equipment provides for rehabilitation and maintenance are truly innumerable. If you have any questions on how the Pilates equipment can be used for your particular body, please send us an email at and we would be happy to answer your specific questions.

We cannot wait for you to be able to experience our equipment firsthand!

With love and light,

Alix Terpos PT, DPT

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