Mind Over Muscle

18th October 2008

Mary Linehan goes with the flow…

When Joseph Pilates founded his now eponymous exercise regime, he called it ‘Contrology’ – a clue as to how it actually works. Based on the body’s muscular and skeletal systems, it elongates, strengthens and balances, via a series of focused, controlled exercises that target specific areas of the body individually in order to build core strength, gently and safely. The results are profound. Suitable for all ages and levels of fitness, it is highly regarded not only among osteopaths and physiotherapists, but also by sports stars, dancers and celebrities, all of whom rely on their bodies in some form or other to further their careers.

The stuff of legend, Joseph Pilates is said to have suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. Drive and determination forced him on to become an accomplished gymnast, diver and skier and he worked as a circus performer, boxer and self-defence instructor.

Born in Düsseldorf in 1880, he was interred during World War I as a German national, and taught PE to fellow internees. By the latter part of the war he was employed as a hospital orderly. Working with patients who were unable to walk, he customised hospital beds to help support and help rehabilitate invalided limbs. This led to the development of The Cadillac, one of Pilates’s most effective pieces of equipment. It is still in use today.

After WWI, Joseph Pilates emigrated to the US, where he opened a body conditioning studio from where he continued to develop techniques and apparatus to help rehabilitate, condition and improve fitness.

“If at the age of 30 you are stiff and out of shape, you are old.
If at 60 you are supple and strong then you are young."
Joseph Pilates

The man himself died in 1967 – aged 87. Good recommendation. Since then Pilates has become a recognised method practised by millions the world over. While retaining the essence of his exercise principles, it has been developed further to incorporate modern techniques and advances in our understanding of the body. In 1970, Alan Herdman introduced the regime to the UK.

Pilates is just what the doctor ordered for fitness, treatment for specific conditions and general well-being. It improves posture, gives greater mobility and flexibility of the skeleton, builds bone density, develops muscle tone, improves core support, increases stability of the shoulders and pelvis and promotes healthier joints. You also become more aware of how to use your body correctly.

It is said to prevent injury, and also to encourage post-injury rehabilitation. It is low impact and improves lung capacity, which is why it is such a hit with sportsmen and dancers.
Experienced instructor, Janice Silver explains that breathing is one of the most important parts of the regime. “If you don’t get the breathing right you don’t get the full benefit. But you need to give yourself a chance to master this. When you start it’s often difficult. It should be slow controlled movements and slow controlled breathing.”

Pilates is a safe form of exercise for pre- and post-natal women, and for the elderly – it helps with balance and co-ordination, and can even help alleviate medical conditions such as scoliosis, MS, arthritis and osteoporosis. Janice has suffered with chronic back problems in the past and credits Pilates with changing her life.

Pilates is taught in either matwork classes, often in groups of ideally not more than 12, or instudio sessions that incorporate apparatus and can be one-to-one. In general, both classes involve the same exercises. Teaching style varies from class to class.

Janice adds that students should be watched carefully. “I check that they have the correct posture, are breathing correctly, and that they are performing each exercise in a controlled manner to reap

To find out more, check out organisations such as The Pilates Foundation UK (www.pilatesfoundation.com). If you have any health concerns, or are pregnant, check first with your GP or health practitioner. Prices vary according to class, teacher and where you live.

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