Its a common question, one people ask me a lot and honestly, one I struggle to answer with absolute conviction.
Pilates, with its obscure name, vague associations with celebrity fitness trends and 'is it a form of yoga?' queries, is often left begging for a clear and universal description... but what would that definition be?
This question is like a can of worms. 'Pilates', as a method of exercise is subjective in its meaning. It has grown, developed and evolved around modern science, personal perspective and interpretation and so to an extent, it is to each person what they seek to find in it. Perhaps before opening 'the can' it might help to get a little historical context..
The man behind the name we know today, Joseph Pilates, created a method of exercise that coordinated the mind body and spirit; he named it 'Contrology.'
Joe was a sickly child, gifting him insight and motivation to explore the restorative effects movement has on the body and its functionality. He learnt from experience that "Physical fitness is the first requisite of happiness" and was a true pioneer and visionary in forging the way toward changing the culture of physical wellbeing.
Joe created his legacy with 34 master mat exercises that strengthen and control the abdominals, restore posture and bring back natural coordination (HIs book, 'Return To Life Through Contrology' was first published in 1945)
As well as his matwork sequence, Joseph Pilates was the inventor of many exercise machines and exercise furniture (such as the Reformer, Cadillac, Wunda Chair, Barrels... and more) He used his spring based systems to rehabilitate and, in his own words, "develop the body uniformly, correct wrong postures, restore physical vitality, invigorate the mind and elevate the spirit."
Its clear that Joseph Pilates was inspired, beyond helping to mould longer leaner bodies. The purpose and intent behind his body of work was perhaps to offer a better way of living. He referred often to the holistic effects of his method and the harmony that was possible between the muscles, organs and systems of the body, to the spirit and mind, which "when housed in a healthful body, possesses a glorious sense of power."
Today, the name 'Pilates" belongs to many teachings, variations and schools of thought, stemming from Joe's original method. It is like an interconnected web; vast, unified, yet difficult to grasp in one go.
I for one am still working toward grasping the full meaning of Pilates. I do however, hold fast to the idea that it was born of the desire to find health and vitality through specific movement, to return to a natural state of being. It is a systematic program to relearn how to breathe correctly, stand correctly, move effortlessly and maintain deep strength, body and soul.
" I must be right. Never an aspirin. Never injured a day in my life. The whole country, the whole world, should be doing my exercises. They'd be happier"
~Joseph Pilates, in 1965, age 86.