PILATES: Who and What Is It?

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(This is the first in our new blog series on Pilates that we’re going to call Pilate-ease. Pilates teacher Heather Neff will offer her simple training and tips so that you can do the moves wherever you are — at work, at home, in the park or while visiting your mother-in-law.)

Pilates is a system of exercise that focuses on strength coming from the core. The system was created by Joseph Pilates and his wife Clara and began as “contrology.” Since his death it has come to be known as Pilates.

In recent years Pilates has become incredibly popular among women. It is a low impact way to strengthen muscles and it has been suggested to many of my clients by their doctors as safe way to potentially increase bone density.

Many people don’t realize that Pilates was created by a man. Joseph Pilates suffered from asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever as a child and he believed that a healthy body was integral to good overall health. He was the child of an award winning gymnast and a naturopath who believed in the principle of stimulating the body to heal itself without artificial drugs. Joseph studied and practiced many forms of fitness himself, including yoga and martial arts.

Pilates was German national who was living in England and working as a self-defense instructor for detectives at Scotland Yard (according to pilates.com). When World War I began, Pilates was interned as an “enemy alien,” and during his internment he trained bedridden patients using pulleys and springs attached to hospital beds and bunk beds to allow bedridden patients to exercise using resistance (It is believed that he developed the “Cadillac” and “Reformer” from this experience).  In 1918 there was an influenza epidemic in England and thousands of people died, but none of the patients Joseph Pilates worked with did.

For the rest of his life, he continued to develop his exercise system and to create new pieces of equipment for it. In this task he was evidently not only inventive, but also resourceful. It is said that his first “barrel” was constructed from a beer keg, and he used the metal hoops from the keg to make his first “magic circle.”

After his release, Pilates returned to Germany and was asked by German officials to teach his system to the army. He chose not to and left Germany for good, instead emigrating to the U.S.  On his way he met Clara, a nurse who would soon be his wife. In 1926 he and Clara opened their studio in New York City.

Joseph and Clara initially focused much of their work on dancers and actors in NYC. They worked both to strengthen and sometimes rehabilitate their clients. They both trained other teachers some of whom are still alive today and who continue to pass down their teachings to future generations of teachers.

Joseph Pilates remained strong until his death at some point in his 80’s. The exact year and cause of death are questioned and it is thought that he either died from smoke inhalation from a fire in a restaurant below his studio on 8th Avenue in New York City or that he died two years later, in 1967, from advanced emphysema from smoking cigars for too many years.

About Heather Neff

About Heather Neff
Heather received her Pilates certification from Body Arts and Science International in March of 2006. When she was first introduced to Pilates she was so inspired by its restorative and transformational powers that she decided to devote her career to teaching it. All it took was a mat class for her to see the changes in her own body in a matter of weeks. She began teaching in 2003 and received a Personal Training Certification from the National Academy of Sports Medicine in 2004. In her classes, Heather incorporates exercises from various teaching styles to create a program tailored to her individual clients needs. Her experience ranges from rehabilitation to athletic workouts for clients of all ages. She sees her clients as unique individuals and her focus is giving each client the well rounded workout they need and deserve.