It is an exercise system devised by a man called Joseph Pilates (1883-1967) who was a physical trainer. His father was a prize-winning gymnast and Joseph assisted him in running the family gym. Later, Joseph moved to America where he opened his own fitness gym, a small building in New York city, teaching professional dancers and choreographers, and people from all walks of life, male and female. Dancers benefitted from his expertise as he helped them overcome injuries sustained from the demands placed on their bodies that might otherwise have curtailed their careers.
After Joseph Pilates died, his exercise legacy only continued because those whom he had taught took up the mantle and started to teach it themselves. Over the years, they would pass on all they learnt from Joseph to their students, some of whom showed potential for carrying on the teaching, and so the movements were passed on from generation to generation with each teacher having their own interpretation of the movements.
Joseph taught exercise movements on a mat on the floor, and he also created movements for unique machines that he invented and built. Each movement has a specific name and Joseph insisted that each movement be performed in a particular way.
In the mat repertoire, he incorporated small equipment, such as resistance bands and wooden poles, and included items he made such as The Pilates Ring. In his book called Return to Life, Joseph suggests that anyone performing his mat exercises at home faithfully 4 times a week for a minimum of 10 minutes, and no more than 20 minutes, will see significant improvement in their posture, health, and well-being within 3 months. Nowadays, it is the mat repertoire that is taught in exercise centres and community halls.
The machines that Joseph built and used were unique and large and because of the size of them, they are not easily transported and therefore, you will only find them in specialist Pilates’ studios and more often than not used in a 1:1 setting. The machine that lends itself best to group exercise classes is the reformer, so named because Joseph firmly believed that this machine would reform the body. Sometimes, reformers may be removed from an exercise area to accommodate space for mat Pilates, but these machines tend to be smaller and less robust making them easier to move. However, conventional reformers are so heavy that removal is impossible and if this is the case and there isn’t another exercise area for mat Pilates, the reformers may double up as beds for mat exercise.
The principles are flowing movement, precision, control, concentration, routine, repetition, isolation, and breathing. Breathing underpins the technique and the other principles ensure that muscle balance is established; mindfulness is promoted; movement quality improves and becomes more graceful, not stiff and jerky; joints work through their full range of movement and become strong and stable. There are other aspects to learn such as lengthening the spine and limbs to open joints that have become compressed, often the cause of joint injury, and aspects of fitness that are often neglected such as balance and co-ordination are incorporated.
Joseph Pilates’ original exercise movements developed strength and flexibility. He believed that good posture was integral to better health and he maintained that his exercises would improve the many systems of the body including circulatory system, immune system, digestive system and respiration system but he also believed that his exercises would improve brain function as thousands of dormant brain cells are reawakened by improving awareness. Until the 1990s, any claims were only anecdotal but many who participated in Pilates’ exercise firmly believed that it improved their overall health and well-being.
In the 1990s, physiotherapists concluded that Pilates mat exercise could indeed provide medically proven benefits if modifications to the original mat repertoire were made.
A Pilates' training company called The Pilates Institute was influential in the creation of the new qualifications and incorporated Modified Mat Pilates into the syllabus so all new teachers would be trained to modify the original movements according to the need of individuals. The aim was to provide safe and effective exercise for all with everyone in a class participating at an appropriate intensity level according to their fitness and ability. This means that those who are fitter or those with better posture may perform original Pilates’ movements whilst others not as fit or with posture issues modify the movements.
The aim of Modified Mat Pilates is to establish muscle balance, improve joint stability, mobility, and strength and develop sufficient core strength so that anyone performing the original repertoire of movements that Joseph created does not cause strain or injure themselves. You learn about spine and joint alignment; how to mildly engage deep abdominal or pelvic floor muscles; how to develop a specific breathing technique called lateral thoracic breathing.
When modifying the movements such as The Hundred, you don’t lift your head as doing so can, for some, cause neck and shoulder strain and injury.
Further modifications include having only one leg lifted at a time during certain exercises, instead of both lifted, and in more severe cases when there is a disc issue, no legs are lifted at all.
Movements are small and you are encouraged to increase mobility gently until full range of movement can be attained whilst maintaining ideal spine and joint alignment.
Joseph Pilates said, 'To achieve the highest accomplishments within the scope of our capabilities in all walks of life we must constantly strive to acquire strong, healthy bodies and develop our minds to the limit of our ability.'
He also said, 'Physical fitness can neither be acquired by wishful thinking nor by outright purchase.'
His values included
After a road traffic accident in September 1999 the prognosis was that I would probably not be pain-free. I tried acupuncture, exercise, and pain machines and I had heard about Pilates and thought that it was worth a try. I can now say that this proved to be one of the best and most beneficial decisions I made. My mobility has improved, and I no longer live with constant pain
I have done Pilates before, but I like the alternating mat and reformer work and the smaller classes because we get more individual attention to correct our technique.
I feel that my successful improvement is mainly due to the guidance and expert teaching of Bev who adapts the exercises accordingly for those with various injuries and limitations.