Pilates: A Primer on the Intelligent, Elegant Workout

An introduction to the Pilates history and workout
A brief background on the Pilates method plus tips from Pilates experts to help get you started.

The Man Behind the Method

Joseph Pilates grew up in Germany between the two world wars. A sickly, skinny child and very self-conscious about it, he became intrigued with the Greek ideal of balance in body and mind — that a beautiful body is flexible as well as strong. He taught himself physiology and anatomy. And eventually he became an acrobat.

Touring with the circus when World War I broke out, he was interned as a National Alien in England. Pilates kept everyone on his cellblock breathing and moving their limbs. For the bedridden, he created his first piece of equipment, the "bednasium," converting an iron hospital bed into something resembling a four-poster bed with a spring and a foot loop attached to the frame. Patients not only slept in them; they exercised in them.

While thousands of people were dying from the flu epidemic of 1918, legend has it that Pilates kept every person on his cellblock alive and well to the end of the war.

A Dancer's Dream

After the War, Pilates emigrated from Germany to escape the Kaiser. He set up his first studio in Hell's Kitchen, teaching what he called "Body Contrology." Dancers — many of them with injuries — were the first to discover his work.

Former New York City Ballet dancer turned Pilates trainer Toni Bentley says, "The center of all the work is your solar plexus, your belly, which is why it goes so well with ballet work. All of your body strength comes from that, and every exercise starts with the breath. There is a kind of beauty to it, a smooth aesthetic, and the movements are harmonious and graceful."

Pilates Fundamentals

The basic


method consists of:

  1. Mat Work. A series of exercises performed on a padded mat. Best for a general workout and, when done correctly, the most difficult.

  2. Reformer. A moving carriage on a horizontal frame with straps and springs, with a series of up to 100 exercises performed on it without stopping.

  3. Chairs, Barrels and other Equipment. Pilates was very much a creator, and built equipment to be an extension of the human body. Tension is created with springs, rather than weights, so the exercises lengthen, strengthen and tone muscles without adding bulk. With the support of the equipment, the body has the freedom to work deeper and more articulately instead of lifting and lowering all of its own weight by itself.

Pilates expert Jillian Hessel, creator of several Gaiam Pilates DVDs, teaches Pilates fundamentals using the acronym BEAM:

  • Breathe. Pilates incorporates a kind of breathing called "bellows action" expanding the ribs sideways like an accordion to fill the lungs.

  • Energize. Oxygenated blood is forced into the farthest reaches of the body, flushing out toxins in what Pilates called an "internal shower."

  • Align. Proper alignment is essential. Focus should be placed on neutralizing the spine and maintaining its natural curvature. Also, be sure to initiate each movement from the core by precisely engaging abdominals.

  • Move. Regular Pilates workouts produce a body awareness that becomes an integrated part of the everyday movements of a person's life. Hessel calls it "purity of form in motion."

Tips on Getting Started with Pilates

Pilates trainers strongly suggest working with a Pilates certified professional in the beginning to ensure proper alignment, and so you avoid bad habits and injuries, but also get the full benefit of the workout.

Still, working with a Pilates trainer can cost between $30 and $100 per hour. Hessel suggests some affordable options:

  • Start with mat work. It's not as easy to injure yourself on the mat. Take mat classes, buy a Pilates DVD or download a video class and practice at home.

  • Personalize your program with a trainer. Set goals for a combination of private sessions, mat classes and homework, based on your financial and time commitments.

  • Tape your sessions to take home with you.

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